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by Rick Pender 10.29.2012
Posted In: Theater at 09:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
rj production 2_ sara clark and ian bond as juliet and rome_ photo rich sofranko

Stage Door: Some Bloody Good Theater at Cincy Shakes

My schedule prevented me from making it to Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s opening of Romeo & Juliet back on Oct. 11, and I hadn’t caught up yet with CSC’s annual Halloween-season tarting up of a Shakespearean tragedy to be offered within the run of the mainstage show. This year it’s the rarely produced revenge piece, Titus Andronicus, presented on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings as well as Saturday matinees through Nov. 11, the same day that Romeo & Juliet wraps up. Neither production could be termed “traditional,” although they are sharing the same set, designed by Andrew Hungerford, and both shows are effectively lit by Gregory Bredestege.

Although the two plays are located at the opposite poles of familiarity in the canon of Shakespeare — R&J has a plot that everyone knows, while Titus is almost never staged — they have some elements in common. Both tales are driven by thoughtless acts that fuel an unquenchable desire for revenge. The young lovers’ meet their ends in a tragedy of miscommunication and bad timing; the fictional Roman general, Titus, and those around him find themselves caught up in a horrifying series of events brought on by greed for power and a desire for one-upmanship.

In fact, both plays are the product of a young Shakespeare, not yet 30 years old. They were probably first performed just a year or so apart: Titus was his first tragedy, initially presented in January 1594; R&J made its debut sometime in 1595. Titus is a revenge tragedy, wildly popular plays that were all the rage in the early 1590s. (CSC’s director for Titus, Jeremy Dubin, aptly calls it “a snuff film in blank verse.”). R&J is a paean to impetuous adolescent love, and until things start to go wrong it’s as much a sweet comedy as it is a story barreling toward a tragic ending. The humor in Titus is dark and twisted; that in R&J intensifies the tragedy. In both cases, we see the work of a writer who knew how to manipulate the emotions of his audience.

Romeo & Juliet. Staged by Brian Isaac Phillips, CSC’s artistic director, this production has been modernized. The inhabitants of “fair Verona” wear contemporary clothes, and their entertainment and behavior has a 21st-century overlay. But rather than trying to twist it too far out of its original context in a Renaissance town in Italy, I’d say this feels more like an alternate reality. Billy Chace plays the brash Mercutio, Romeo’s kinsman, as a madcap clubber, always ready for a good time with his cronies Benvolio (Jessie Wray Goodman) and Balthasar (Maggie Lou Rader). The masked ball at the Capulets’ estate where Romeo (Ian Bond) first spies Juliet (Sara Clark) begins with delicate chamber music but quickly devolves to thumping club tunes.

But this filter does not diminish the nature of the central characters. Both Bond and Clark play their roles like the hormonal teens they are meant to be. Juliet is not quite 14, and Romeo is perhaps 16. When we first meet him, he is pining for Rosaline, a love we never meet — we only hear Romeo’s idealized whining that she’s spurned him. He wants to be in love, and she’s his most likely prospect. He quickly transfers his affections to the sweetly innocent Juliet, and the petite Clark gives her the kind of breathless silliness that is endearing if not enduring. Neither of the lovers is meant to experience love in any profound way: They are swept up in the passion of youth — they go from meeting to marriage in a blur of four or five scenes.

Bond’s Romeo spends a lot of time agonizing over his frustrations, and he doesn’t seem to mature much, despite the seriousness of the situation. Clark’s Juliet has more opportunity to show growth and personal recognition at the conundrum life has presented her. Her loving but thoughtless nurse (Sherman Fracher), her domineering, unthinking father (Jim Hopkins) and her vain, superficial mother (Jennifer Joplin) make matters worse by forcing her toward an arranged marriage. The well-intentioned Friar Lawrence (Jeff Groh, more like a hippie raising strange herbs than a devout priest) aids the young lovers, but like the nurse, exacerbates a tough situation with his meddling. Clark is stunningly honest in her role, and the heat between her and Bond is palpable, if uncomplicated — as it should be for a couple of teenagers in heat.

The production as a lot of stage combat, and seeing it two weeks into its run let me see how capable Cincy Shakes can be. I had heard things were a little rough on the opening weekend, but there was no evidence of that at the performance I saw, which was thoroughly enjoyed by the full house.

Titus Andronicus. This show requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat and considerably more blood than Romeo & Juliet. It was all done with ghastly if over-the-top realism. The plot is both simple and ridiculous by contemporary standards: Titus (Nick Rose) is a successful general who turns down the chance to become emperor. Things go bad for him and his family when his prisoner Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Miranda McGee in a showy, sexy role), gets hitched to the emperor Saturninus (played as a foppish, preening fool by Justin McComb). She wreaks some vengeance on Titus’s offspring, masterminded by her scheming lover Aaron (Darnell Benjamin) who steers her fawning, selfish sons Chiron (Travis Emery) and Demetrius (Zach Schute) to some vile acts. After gruesome violence on Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Maggie Lou Rader), a grief-crazed Titus figures out some even more grotesque ways to fight back.

This is all spelled out in the script and played out on CSC’s stage with a lot of gore and stage blood — decapitated heads and severed hands — for instance, and extended to the brink of insanity lengths in the second half with Titus’s missing left hand replaced by a metal forearm that accommodates various implements from a fork to a corkscrew to a set of mechanical knife blades (like the electric knife I use to carve the Thanksgiving turkey). You can be assured these are used for violent purposes, and Nick Rose, a CSC veteran (in fact, one of its founders), revels in Titus’s madness — with some manic behavior, including bemoaning the “murder” of a fly in a blackly humorous moment. Rose is having a ball with this juicy role.

Director Jeremy Dubin has provided a different sort of filter for this interpretation of Titus Andronicus, that of the sci-fi genre of “Steampunk,” which presumes that the Victorian ingenuity of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the 19th century extended its steam-driven, mechanical technology prevailed in the 20th and 21st centuries. Accordingly, costumes are a curious, colorful mishmash of Victorian styles — cutaway coats, vests, goggles, belts and bustiers — and six video monitors around the theater display show cards offering the gist of scenes with quaint, tongue-in-cheek summaries. Each act began with n actor attaching a hand crank to a gear at stage right to wind up the mechanism of the show. Similarly, when certain offstage action needed to be represented, a servant bearing a kind of magic lantern projector came on to reveal a scene, which the audience saw on the monitors. (The device was clever; I wish it had been more fully and frequently integrated into the action.)

Titus Andronicus is not a great play, but Cincy Shakes — and especially actors Nick Rose, Miranda McGee, Darnell Benjamin and Maggie Lou Rader — make this production great fun to watch, providing you’re not too squeamish. It is, after all, a bloody mess, intentionally so and perfect for the thrill-seekers of late October.

by Rick Pender 07.15.2013
Posted In: Theater at 08:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
sound of music

Carnegie to Present 'Sound of Music' with KSO

Production to complete the Carnegie's 2013-2014 theater series lineup

Can't say whether the hills will be alive, but The Carnegie in Covington certainly will be in January when it presents a "lightly staged" production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music in partnership with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. Presented Jan. 17-26, 2014, under the direction of Brian Robertson and KSO conductor J. R. Cassidy, the production continues a popular series that has appealed to audiences at the Carnegie's Otto M. Budig Theatre.

The story of a free-spirited nanny who brings joy and love back to the family of the Von Trapp family will be presented with an emphasis on words and music in this "lightly staged" production. That means a minimum of costumes, scenic design and props. The small orchestra will be onstage, and the performers fully enact scenes and sing the score from memory as they would in a full production.

This production completes the Carnegie's 2013-2014 theater series lineup, taking advantage of the renovated 465-seat Budig Theatre. Single tickets for The Sound of Music are priced at $28 for adults, $19 for students. The full series — which also includes the musical Chicago (Aug. 10-25); the comedy Boeing Boeing (Nov. 8-24), in a collaboration with CCM Drama; and the comedy Harvey (April 11-27, 2014) — can be purchased as a subscription for $63 to $69. For details, call 859-957-1940 or go to thecarnegie.com.
by Rick Pender 03.16.2012
Posted In: Theater at 10:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
onstage 3-21 - time stands still - jen johansen as sarah goodwin - photo ryan kurtz.widea

Stage Door: ETC, Playhouse, Mariemont Players

Fewer productions onstage this week, but still some great choices. On Wednesday evening I attended the premiere of Donald Margulies’ very much in-the-moment drama Time Stands Still at Ensemble Theater. It’s the story of two journalists who have been addicted to the adrenalin rush of covering wars. He’s now running away and hiding in film reviews (there’s a touch of post-traumatic stress, it seems, because he’s watching classic horror films all the time), and she’s recovering from injuries that resulted from a roadside bomb blast in Iraq. What’s next for them? Well, that’s what the play is about — a return for more or settling for a calmer, safer life, represented by a happy if unlikely couple who visit them, the photographer’s editor and mentor and his naïve young girlfriend. Four intriguing character studies add up to an evening of thoughtful drama. I gave it a Critic’s Pick; here’s a link to my review. Through April 1. Tickets: 513-421-3555

I’ve been talking with lots of people about the Cincinnati Playhouse production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. It’s been directed by John Doyle, who inventively staged Sondheim’s Company in 2006, a production that moved to Broadway and earned a Tony Award. He uses the same approach this time: actors who provide their own musical accompaniment. I liked the results he got from his strong, talented cast. But I will say that this production evokes strong reactions: Some people love it, some are mystified and some hate the nontraditional approach. No one has said it’s not skillfully done, so I can safely tell you that you ought to go and see for yourself. Merrily has long been viewed as one of Sondheim’s few failures (its original run in 1981 lasted for only 16 performances on Broadway), but you wouldn’t know that from this staging: It’s a showbiz tale of chasing success that has not resulted in happiness. We start at the end of a friendship, with three people at one another’s throats, and then trace back to their earliest, optimistic moments together. With great music, a stylized set piled with pages of music (the central character is a Broadway composer) and some intriguing decisions by Doyle about elevating a realistic tale to something more deeply emotional, this version of Merrily is a fascinating production that musical theater lovers ought to see. In addition to my Critic’s Pick, this production has garnered five awards from the League of Cincinnati Theatres for Outstanding Ensemble, for performer Becky Ann Baker, for Scott Pask’s imaginative scenic design, Matt Castle’s music direction and Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s orchestrations. Can’t quite figure why director John Doyle wasn’t cited, since he’s the mastermind behind all this, but you can judge that one for yourself. Through March 31. Box office: 513-421-3888.

I don’t get to see too much community theater, but there are several companies that consistently present work worth watching: Mariemont Players is one of them. Through March 25 the company is presenting Cole, a musical tribute to the life of songwriter Cole Porter, from his days as a student at Yale, life in Paris then Manhattan then Hollywood. I haven’t seen it, but I suspect that it will be entertaining. At the Walton Creek Theater (4101 Walton Creek Road, just east of Mariemont). Tickets: 513-684-1236.

Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.

by Rick Pender 01.27.2012
Posted In: Theater at 11:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Stage Door: Weekend Theater Roundup

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.

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by Rick Pender 02.25.2011
Posted In: Theater at 10:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Stage Door: Pride and Prejudice

Lynn Meyers spends most of her time staging shows at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, where she’s the producing artistic director. However, she headed a few blocks south from her Over-the-Rhine venue this month to direct Pride and Prejudice for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company at its Race Street venue.

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by Rick Pender 03.30.2012
Posted In: Theater at 10:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
onstage 3-28 - tigers be still - cincy playhouse - (l-r) joanne tucker, eric nelsen & lindsey kyler - photo by sandy underwood..widea

Stage Door: Entertainments For All Ages

Traditional shows, Cirque du Soleil and openings at Know and Cincy Shakes

Thanks to spot-on casting of the four actors who bring Kim Rosenstock’s new play Tigers Be Still to life at the Cincinnati Playhouse, the show about people dealing with depression is charming, funny, optimistic and even heart-warming. It’s about a young woman with a recently earned degree in art therapy; she’s been down in the dumps about finding work, but not as much as her mom who’s gained weight and her sister who’s been dumped by her fiancé. She’s starting a new job thanks to her mom’s long-ago boyfriend, now a middle school principal. He has issues of his own — from a slacker son to anxiety about a tiger that’s escaped from the local zoo. Sound zany? Well, it is — as well as entertaining. The League of Cincinnati Theatres singled out this production’s sound design by Vincent Olivieri for an award. One panelist wrote, “On a very small stage, scenes took place in a school gym, drugstore, office, closet, outdoors and in the living spaces of two houses. Except for the main set, capturing the essence of these scenes was limited to a couple of props and pieces of furniture — and the sound!” Through April 15. Box office: 513-421-3888.

There’s a final performance on Saturday afternoon of Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale, presented by The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. The world premiere musical by composer Janet Vogt and writer Mark Friedman has received an award from the league of Cincinnati Theatres for its scenic design by David Centers. Tickets: 513-569-8080, x13. His design for the show was described by LCT judges as “simple and very well executed in a style that was great for the play.” In addition to the show’s signature tower, the set also boasts a forest that “wasn’t too dank, dark and dismal, but instead had personality.” (Centers, a veteran local designer and a graduate of the School for Creative and Performing Arts, received an LCT Award in the same category earlier this year for his work Disney’s My Son Pinocchio Jr.) Tickets: 513-569-8080, x13.

On Wednesday I attended the Cirque du Soleil production of Dralion at the Bank of Kentucky Arena, adjacent to Northern Kentucky University. It’s another extravaganza of strength and showmanship, athleticism and artistry. This struck me as a somewhat more compact show than I’ve seen in the past: The talent is just as great, but the concept — connections between East and West — is pretty vaporous. But there are three wonderful clowns, and several of the performances do things that make you say, “How can a human body do that?” Balancing on one hand, flying through the air on a hoop, skipping rope in a human pyramid — it’s amazing stuff. It’s being presented through Sunday: Lots of available seats on opening night, so I’m guessing you can still find tickets for all performances. Through Sunday. Tickets: 800-745-3000

Two excellent productions wrap up this weekend. The Cincinnati Playhouse’s unique staging of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Merrily We Roll Along, which uses actors who also play musical instruments has its final performances on Saturday. I gave the production a Critic's Pick; Merrily is only infrequently staged, so this is a chance not to be missed. Box office: 513-421-3888. Ensemble Theatre concludes the run of Time Stands Still, a fine drama with a great ensemble cast directed by Michael Evan Haney. Final performance is on Sunday. This tale of burned-out journalists and last gasps at relationships by Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, also earned a Critic's Pick. Box office: 513-421-3555.

Know Theatre’s production of the recent off-Broadway and Broadway Rock musical hit, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, opens on Saturday. (It’s onstage through May 12.) Word has it that tickets are already selling fast. Box office: 513-300-5669. This weekend is also the opening for Cincinnati Shakespeare’s production of The Grapes of Wrath, which runs through April 29. Box office: 513-381-2273, x1.

Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.

by Rick Pender 04.28.2013
Posted In: Theater at 10:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
lynn meyers

ETC Shares News About Four Shows for Next Season

Two additional shows will round out 2013-14 season

Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati today announced four of its six shows for the 2013-2014 season, which opens on Sept. 4. Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers says, "We are planning a truly original, fresh and exhilarating season of dynamic regional premieres, and I am absolutely thrilled to showcase some of the hottest titles and newest voices this coming year." 

I'll add my vote of confidence: Meyers' play selection has been unerring for several seasons: Even if the titles aren't immediately familiar, ETC's productions have been engaging and among the best work onstage locally. It's a bit of annual amusement for ETC subscribers that Meyers takes longer than most to pull together what she will present — but that's because she's bargaining, wheedling and pleading with agents, rights organizations and sometimes playwrights themselves right up until the last minute to land very recently produced works. In fact, for the coming season, rather than wait until everything is in place, Meyers has is announcing four shows for the company's 28th season, with slots still open for productions in February and May 2014.

Here's what we know, for now:

Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz (Sept. 4-22, 2013). The searing comedy by the creator of TV's hit drama Brothers & Sisters, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and The New York Times called it "the best new play on Broadway" a year ago. When a once-promising novelist returns home to Palm Springs to visit her parents, conflict ensues when she reveals she's been writing a juicy, tell-all memoir focusing on the tragic death of her antiwar-activist brother. 

Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo (Oct. 9-27, 2013). It's another Pulitzer Prize finalist, this one is by a writer whose credits include Law & Order and the recent Netflix series starting Kevin Spacey, House of Cards. It's a social comedy about a rising young academic who's not at all certain that she's leading the life she wants. An evening with a friend who's a stay-at-home mom leads to an interesting game of musical chairs.

Around the World in 80 Days by Joseph McDonough and David Kisor (Dec. 4, 2013-Jan. 4, 2014). ETC will revive one of the first of its holiday shows created back in 1999. Based on Jules Verne's classic novel, it's the story of a crazed circumnavigation of the globe in 1899 by the brilliant Englishman Phileas Fogg, who wages a fortune that he can do it in record time. Bandits, buffalo and winter storms are just a few of the obstacles he must overcome, but the story promises great fun for families.

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall (March 19-April 6, 2014). This show won London's Olivier Award for the season's best new play, and its Broadway production featured Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a feisty young hotel maid. The civil rights leader is cooling down in a lonely Memphis hotel room after delivering one of his greatest speeches. The next day, tragedy would strike. It's a powerful piece of theater by a rising young playwright, according to all who have seen it.

Subscriptions are already on sale for ETC's season. More information is available by calling 513-421-3555. Single tickets will go on sale to the general public on August 5, 2013.
by Rick Pender 08.26.2011
Posted In: Theater at 11:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Stage Door: Swing on Sunday at Know

The Manhattan Dolls will make a one-night tour stop at Know Theatre on Sunday evening at 7:30, performing their Swing-style revue of tunes from the 1930s and 1940s, "Sentimental Journey," in the Over-the-Rhine theatre’s Underground cabaret space. The trio of singers from New York City travel the world performing for military events, air shows, award ceremonies, parades, Jazz clubs and concert series.

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by Steven Rosen 03.24.2011
Posted In: Funding, Visual Art, Theater, Classical music, Dance at 12:58 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

ArtsWave Samplers Draw Strong Crowds

ArtsWave has put out a very positive press release about the attendance for its first three Sampler Weekends, as well as information for the next three — including one this Saturday.

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by Rick Pender 11.13.2011
Posted In: Theater at 02:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
humana 36 poster

Actors Theatre Is Ready for Humana Festival No. 36

Here comes the big annual dose of new American plays

The 36th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville is set for Feb. 26 through April 1, 2012. The theater today announced the line-up of full-length works. (A bill of three ten-minute plays will be announced at a later date.) Here’s what’s in store for the festival that the theater world looks to every year for the hottest new plays and playwrights. (Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison from the 2011 festival is getting rave reviews at Chicago’s Next Theatre Company and is about to open at Playwrights Horizons in New York City.)

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