The Audience Pick, voted by theatergoers, went to Gravesongs (pictured), Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati’s intern showcase, a piece by local playwright Sarah Underwood written for the five actresses who spent this season at ETC (Rachel Christianson, Emily Eaton, Lauren Shiveley, Rebecca Whatley and Elizabeth L. Worley). It was directed by another ETC intern, Elizabeth Maxwell. The script is about death from the perspective of women in their early twenties.
You'll have to pick and choose this weekend because
there's so much theater onstage. In addition to our professional
theaters, it's worth checking out production at universities: Tonight
through Sunday, CCM's esteemed musical theater program is offering the
cult favorite Chess, with music by ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus
and Benny Andersson. The story is set in Bangkok and Budapest during a
mid-1970s world chess championship — and it's driven by gamesmanship
between nations, between lovers and, of course, between chess players. I
saw the opening on Thursday, and it's a BIG show with a gigantic cast.
Several leading roles are double cast (with more juniors than seniors,
in fact, which bodes well for CCM productions for this season and next).
In particular, Matthew Paul Hill, playing the Russian grand master
Anatoly, lifted the roof of Corbett Auditorium with his powerful
baritone voice singing the stirring "Anthem," the Act 1 finale. Tickets
($30) Box office: 513-556-4183. At Northern Kentucky University you'll a production of Royal Gambit
by German playwright Hermann Gressieker (translated into English in the
late 1950s). The subject is King Henry VIII and his six wives, and this
looks to be a beautifully costumed show, featuring senior Seth Wallen
in the leading role. Tickets ($14). Box office: 859-572-5464.
Neil Simon's funny and endearing Brighton Beach Memoirs is onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse. I gave it a Critic's Pick (review here), and I'm sure audiences will love this sweet portrait of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1930s, where a loving but fractious family copes with hard times. It's told from the perspective of Eugene, a precocious adolescent (he's really Simon as a 15-year-old), who takes notes on his family's behavior. Well acted and beautifully staged. Box office: 513-421-3888l.
My schedule hasn't permitted me to see several shows that are getting good notices, including recognition from the folks evaluating productions for the League of Cincinnati Theatres. I'm catching up this evening with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is offering two shows this month. Romeo & Juliet is its mainstage show, and Sara Clark is getting high marks for her portrait of romantic but tragic young love. Brian Phillips' staging picked up an LCT nod, and the show received an overall recommendation from LCT. On the evenings when R&J is not onstage, there's another Shakespeare work for thrill seekers, specially selected and staged for the Halloween season: the bloody, gory tale of revenge, Titus Andronicus. Veteran actor Nick Rose plays a crazed Roman general, and just about everyone I've heard from says his performance is memorable. (It earned him an LCT nomination, too.) Box office: 513-381-2273.
This weekend is the final one for Mrs. Mannerly at Ensemble Theatre. When Harper Lee reviewed this one for CityBeat (review here), she gave it a Critic's Pick, and I agree wholeheartedly. (LCT named it a recommended production, too.) CEA Hall of Fame actress Dale Hodges is great fun to watch as a strict etiquette teacher in 1967, and Raymond McAnally plays all the other characters — a bunch of kids who are learning how to behave in a "mannerly" way. It's funny from start to finish, but there's a heart-warming message within the story. Definitely worth seeing. Box office: 513-421-3555.
At Clifton Performance Theatre, Clifton Players are staging A Bright New Boise, which also picked up an LCT recommendation. I haven't seen it, but the show won an Obie Award (that's for outstanding off-Broadway plays) in 2011, and it has a strong cast. This is a newish venue that's specializing in "storefront theater." Should be worth supporting. Tickets ($20): 513-861-7469.
For the ninth time during Ed Stern’s tenure at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, a show by Stephen Sondheim will be presented. Stern, the Playhouse’ Producing Artistic Director, has a soft spot for the great American composer and lyricist who turned 80 a year ago. He will bring back Tony Award-winning director John Doyle (pictured) to stage Merrily We Roll Along in a production that uses actors who also provide the musical accompaniment. The show will be presented next year in March.
Know Theatre has announced the 2012 Cincinnati Fringe Festival, kicking off May 29 and continuing through June 9. Festivities begin with the official CityBeat Fringe Kick-Off Party on May 29 at 6 p.m. (A suggested donation of $5 gets you in.) During the Festivals’ two-week run, 29 productions will receive multiple performances. Some shows are locally originated (14) and others are by touring artists (15) who travel to festivals around the United States. If everything selected actually happens (that’s seldom the case), there will be 10 plays, nine solo shows, four dance works and six multimedia/variety pieces.
Several award-winning groups popular with past Fringe audiences are set to return. One of the most popular performers from 2011, Kevin J. Thornton — his I Love You (We’re Fucked) had a sold-out run and returned for another stint last October — is back with Strange Dreamz. Thornton has appeared in the Capital Fringe, Indy Fringe, NYC Frigid Festival, Tucson Fringe Festival, Phoenix Fringe Festival, Orlando Fringe Festival, Kansas City Fringe Festival, and the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
Four Humors Theater from the Twin Cities is back for the fifth consecutive year, this time presenting Bombus and Berrylinne, or the Bumblebee and the Hummingbird. The group has previously produced Mortem Capiendum (Producer’s Pick of the Fringe, 2008), April Fools (2009), and Harold (Critic’s Pick of the Fringe, 2010) and the hilarious James Bond-inspired puppet show You Only Live Forever Once (2011).
The longevity honors will continue to be held by Cincinnati Fringe veteran group Performance Gallery, returning for their ninth year with Rodney Rumple's Random Reality. Past Cincinnati Fringe appearances include Images of a Beating Heart (2004), The Killer Whispers and Prays (2005), Godsplay (2006), Girlfight (2007), Fricative (2008), KAZ/m (2009), The Council (2010) and The Body Speaks (2011). Brad Cupples, the playwright for Performance Gallery’s 2010 entry, returns with Third Quarter Moon: A Complex Derivative Love Story.
We’ll see shows from established local companies, including Quake: A Love Story from New Edgecliff Theatre (they presented Darker in 2011) and Don't Cross The Streams: The Cease and Desist Musical, a stage musical from Covington’s Carnegie Visual & Performing Arts Center.
Two new local companies will present for the first time. Homegrown Theatre, led by local actress Leah Strasser will present an absurdist piece, The Doppelganger Cometh and Overtaketh, while Essex Theatre Arts Studio, founded by actors Bob Allen and Elizabeth Harris, will stage Love Knots, a series of shorts plays about love and romance by local playwright Phil Paradis.
There will be plenty of new acts, including Grim & Fisher (the award-winning A deathly comedy in full-face mask) from Portland, Ore., and Rebecca King (Storms Beneath Her Skin), a transgender artist from Chicago. New York artist Tanya O’Debra’s Radio Star has won awards in San Francisco, Montreal and New York City.
There will be dance performances by Houston-based dance company Psophonia (Delicious) and two local groups, MamLuft&Co.’s (Latitude) and Pones, Inc. (Project Activate). The latter is a collaborative and participatory performance that asks “How do you activate Cincinnati?” It’s the product of five local service organizations with 12 professional artists from a variety of disciplines.
Each evening after performances, artists, audience members, staff, and volunteers gather at Know Theatre’s Underground bar for the Fringe Bar Series featuring the “Channel Fringe Hard Hitting Action News Update.” Events there include Fringe previews, Fringe Olympics, Fringe-e-Oke, Fringe Prom, and the 22.5 hour play project.
This year marks the second year of FringeNext, offering three shows created and performed by high school students. Two are originating from the School for Creative and Performing Arts; the third is from Lakota West High School.
Individual tickets to shows are still $12. “Full Frontal” passes are $200, providing access to every event in the festival. “Flexible Voyeur” six-show passes are on sale for $60, the price equivalent of five tickets. “One Night Stand” passes are $35; that’s good for one weeknight (as many as three shows) and a drink at Know Theatre's Bar. Pre-sale single tickets will go on sale mid-May.
For more information about the performances or to purchase passes, check out www.cincyfringe.com or call (513) 300-KNOW (5669).
I admit that I occasionally watch the popular TV series Glee with some mixed feelings: The musical theater side of me loves it, the serious theater nut thinks it's too shallow for words. But the world seems more in the former camp than the latter, and that's led to a new social phenomena — "Glee Parties," which are popping up around the country, including one right here in Cincinnati.
I wish I could point you to a good production of a Shakespearean play today, since it's the Bard's 446th birthday. But Cincy Shakes is presenting Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband in a delightfully enacted production that ranges from witty humor to heartfelt emotion. It's definitely worth seeing.
The clash of good and evil seems to be on the mind of most of our local theaters this week as numerous openings bring plenty of offerings for you to choose from.
Abigail/1702 at the Cincinnati Playhouse is a kind of sequel to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. This new play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (it's actually a world premiere) takes the character of Abigail Williams, the villainous and spiteful catalyst for the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and moves her 10 years beyond. She's living in Boston, an outcast caring for people afflicted with the "pox" — and haunted by her past. She knows her actions in Salem were evil, perhaps inspired by the Devil himself. How she copes with the current events of her life is very much dictated by her actions from the past. This is a fascinating variation on a familiar character, told with an air of supernatural events and eerie sights and sounds. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Freud's Last Session at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati puts a debate about the existence of God front and center, with the distance between good and evil or right and wrong as the battleground. Psychoanalyst and atheist Sigmund Freud is dying of oral cancer; he invites to his London flat a young academic and newly converted Christian, C. S. Lewis (who later wrote the Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia). On the September day in 1939 when England declares war on Germany — perhaps another clash of good and evil — they meet for a conversation. The play is almost all talking and very little action, but the clash of ideas is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. That's made especially true by two fine actors: Bruce Cromer (the Playhouse's longstanding Ebenezer Scrooge and Cincinnati Shakespeare's recent Atticus Finch) as the earnest Lewis, and Barry Mulholland (a local newcomer, but a veteran actor) as the skeptical Freud. This one will make you think. Box office: 513-421-3555.
Camelot at Covington's Carnegie Center offers a distilled version of the Broadway hit from 1960. It's presented as a concert, singers backed up by members of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, led by its maestro Mischa Santora. The story of King Arthur's court, a place of goodness and justice brought down by an illicit love affair, is another glimpse of the good and evil affect history — even if it's mythic history. Former NKU professor Mark Hardy is back in town to play Arthur. Through Feb. 3. Box office: 859-957-1940.
The evils of racial injustice are at the heart and soul of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Memphis, which has a touring production at the Aronoff through Feb. 3. Set in the 1950s, it's about a white radio DJ who digs black music long before it became mainstream. His love of the music leads him to a romance with a talented singer, and that causes complications in a town where black and white don't mingle without serious repercussions. Of course, it's a musical, so this doesn't dig too deeply into the issues, but it's definitely a reminder of a time and place that feels very foreign to us today — even if some attitudes persist. Ultimately, it's about the power of music to bridge difficult boundaries, and that's a good message. Box: 800-987-2787.
Each week in Stage Door I offer theater tips for the weekend, sometimes with a few pieces of theater news.
The Whipping Man opened on Wednesday at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. The show made a big splash at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York last spring with Andre Braugher in the central role of Simon, a dedicated former slave who remains in a ruined mansion in 1865 Richmond in the days just after the Civil War. Caleb, the wounded son of his former master stumbles in (desperately needing some horrendous surgery) and then John, another former slave, a young man raised side by side with Caleb. The slave-owning family was Jewish, and it’s almost time for Passover, which they decide to celebrate. It’s a powerful show about freedom and responsibility with some jaw-dropping plot twists. Director D. Lynn Meyers gets the most from her cast. This one is a must-see. Onstage through Feb. 12.