by Rick Pender
Posted In: Theater
at 08:59 AM | Permalink
February is Black History Month, a period when the arts traditionally wake up and pay attention to African-American stories and artists.
I'm always a bit troubled by this segmenting, so I want to commend both
the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
for presenting two fine productions of shows featuring African Americans
in engaging stories — in the middle of March. They represent two of this weekend's best choices.
At ETC, Black Pearl Sings! features two outstanding local actresses. Annie Fitzpatrick plays Susannah Mullally, a folk music researcher in the 1930s; Torie Wiggins is Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, a prisoner (for a violent but probably justified
crime) who has a remarkable recollection of songs she learned as a
child from her family. They form an uneasy alliance that turns into a
guarded friendship, and Fitzpatrick and Wiggins have a delightful
interplay and chemistry. I heard that this might be the 40th production
Fitzpatrick has done at ETC; she's a versatile actress, and she convincingly creates the uptight but driven Susannah. Wiggins, who graduated from the drama program at CCM, earns her Equity card on this production: Chronologically, she's probably a tad young for the role, but she so wholly embodies Pearl's feisty character that it makes no difference. Hers is a tour-de-force rendition, musically and theatrically. This one is a definite must-see. Box office: 513-421-3555.
Let's give the Playhouse — and new artistic director Blake Robison — props for finally getting around to staging a show by Horton Foote, who died in 2009 at the age of 92. He was a prolific dramatist and screenwriter (he wrote screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies) for years, and his play A Trip to Bountiful is a lovely, emotional paean to the notion that "there's no place like home." Foote wrote the play about an
elderly Texas wido pining to return to her hometown in 1953 (as a play
for television, in fact) and it was an award-winning 1985 movie with a white cast. For the Playhouse, Timothy Douglas has changed up the story by overlaying an African-American filter over the story and casting veteran actress Lizann Mitchell as Carrie Watts. She's a dream of an actress,
portraying a tiny Texas cyclone of energy with a wry sense of humor.
The story is nothing too innovative — she runs away from a cramped apartment where she lives with her son and his demanding wife to return to her girlhood home, which has all but disappeared — but the truth and dignity of the tale (and Mitchell's performance) make this show worth seeing. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Finally, I need to mention Clifton Players production of A Behanding in Spokane by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. He's the writer of dark tales like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, as well as the even darker film In Bruges. Clifton Players perform at Clifton Performance Theatre, a tiny, intimate storefront space on Ludlow Avenue. I've heard lots of positive remarks about this production. Be prepared to be shocked and entertained by the show's comic violence. Tickets: 513-861-7469.
by Rick Pender
Posted In: Theater
at 10:19 AM | Permalink
Can you hear the clock ticking? That's not just because this weekend marks the "spring forward" to Daylight Savings Time early on Sunday. It's also because several theater productions are just about over: If you want to see them, you only have a few days left.
Leveling Up, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's show about video gamers,
is as contemporary as can be. One of its characters is recruited by the
NSA to fly drones into war zones — activity that totally blurs the
boundary between the real world and cyberspace, not to mention the moral boundaries between killing video villains and actual living people. (Review here.) The show is also about taking charge of your life in a world of maturity and responsibility, rather than retreating into simulated space. Deborah Zoe Laufer's script uses four characters,
all twentysomethings, who will seem like people you know — their
language, their actions, their concerns are the stuff of contemporary
life. Box office: 513-421-3888.
If you want something that's quite intentionally removed from everyday life, you need to check out the wry and ironic musical theater piece at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. (Review here.) It's an allegory and critique of corrupt capitalism, told with dark humor in a production by CCM Opera chair Robin Guarino (who has staged productions at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City). She knows how to present the stark humor and cynical attitudes in Brecht's script, and the talented CCM musical theater performers (accompanied by a small onstage orchestra dominated by woodwinds and brass) provide great renderings of Weill's score. This is a rarely produced work, definitely worth seeing. Box office: 513-556-4183.
Perhaps you prefer your cynicism in an 18th century mode: That's what you'll get with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's production of Dangerous Liaisons, a story of the idle rich who entertain themselves by seducing and manipulating their naive colleagues — or their innocent offspring. (Review here.) It's not a pretty story, in that the central characters are scheming and out for their own entertainment and pleasure, often for revenge. But if you like nasty behavior, this production has it in spades. Two of CSC's best veterans, Corinne Mohlenhoff and Giles Davies, play the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, a pair of arch schemers who relish making a mess of others' lives. It's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's a literate, cleverly plotted piece of theater. Box office: 513-381-2273 x.1. The previous three shows finish their runs this weekend. When the Rain Stops Falling at Know Theatre has one more week (it closes on March 16), but you should order your tickets now: I expect the final performances will be hard to get into on short notice. (Review here.) This is one of the best shows that Know has staged in several seasons, a fine, complex script performed by a talented cast of nine, directed by Cincy Shakes Brian Isaac Phillips. (Four of the cast members are CSC regulars.) They play four generations
of two families, strangely and fatefully intertwined. The story weaves
back and forth between 1959 and 2039; at first it seems to be
disjointed, then things suddenly beging to fall into place. By the time it's over — with several shocking moments along the way — you'll see how it all fits together. If you haven't seen this one yet, this is the ticket you need to get. Box office: 513-300-5669.
0 Comments · Tuesday, February 26, 2013
This week marks the opening Actors
Theatre of Louisville’s 37th annual Humana Festival of New American
Plays. First up is Meredith McDonough’s The Delling Shore, about
two rival authors and their daughters, a work in which words become
by Rick Pender
Posted In: Theater
at 10:27 AM | Permalink
If you're waffling between whether to go to the theater or
do something else this weekend, let me help you decide: You should get a
ticket to see When the Rain Stops Falling at Know Theatre. It's running through March 16, but it's going to be an in-demand ticket soon: I gave it a Critic's Pick in CityBeat (review here),
the League of Cincinnati Theatres bestowed eight nominations on it (I
believe that's the most they've given to any production this season),
and everyone I've talked to has been breathless in their praise of the
script, the cast, the design — well, the entire production. Andrew
Bovell's play bounces around in time between 1959 and 2039 and between
the histories of four generations of two families. That might sound a
bit complicated or confusing, but it's not: There are parallels and
intersections that slowly make sense, and the play uses language and
imagery to bring the stories together into a coherent narrative by
play's end. Two characters are played by two different actresses,
representing younger and older incarnations of these unusual women: One
is an intellectual in her early years, but becomes emotionally distant
due to a personal trauma; the other is a free-spirited young woman whose
life turns dramatically and becomes an older woman with fragmented
memories and a tenuous grip on the present. The stories are about
fathers and sons, parents and children, and how actions by one
generation reverberate down the line. Bovell's script reinforces these
echoes with lines and artifacts that recur in different contexts. It's a
brilliant piece of writing, and director Brian Phillips (he's artistic
director at Cincinnati Shakespeare) uses movement and scene
intersections to tell the story with nine actors (four from his Cincy
Shakes company). The LCT recognition singled out three performers, but
I'd suggest that the show is powerful because the entire ensemble is
operating in a powerful, parallel manner. You don't want to miss this
one. Box office: 513-300-5669
On Thursday evening I attended Leveling Up at the Cincinnati Playhouse, a world premiere by Deborah Zoe Laufer. It's an insightful slice of contemporary life, three
young men and a girlfriend who are obsessed with video gaming, stalled
in their post-college lives. They spend 20 hours a day online, and their
social skills (if they had them previously) have deteriorated amid the
rubble of a basement game room in Las Vegas. Laufer's script will leave
you feeling like you've eavesdropped on real life (in fact, they're
already playing when you enter the Shelterhouse Theatre — although the
"screen" they watch is the theater's invisible fourth wall: They are
staring forward at the central audience section and their attention
never wavers, even when they're having distracted conversations about
life. The divide between their world and being "IRL" ("in real life" as
they shorthand it) increasingly and distressingly — and sometimes
comically — blurs. Laufer's metaphor about "leveling up" in games and
its parallel to stepping up to levels of maturity gives the show meaning
and depth. The young cast are entertaining and convincing. I know this
show will appeal to young audiences, but I heard many in the audience
after the 90-minute performance who were impressed with the story and
what it tells us about society today. It's worth noting that this
weekend the Cincinnati Playhouse has two world premieres on its stages,
which Abigail/1702 (review here) on its mainstage. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Opening tonight is a production of Dangerous Liaisons
at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. It's Christopher Hampton's stage
play that inspired the 1988 film many will recall featuring Glenn Close
and John Malkovich as manipulative French nobility who play games with
young innocents (including Michelle Pfeiffer). For CSC, the cast
includes two popular performers from the past: Giles Davies as the
Vicomte de Valmont and Corinne Mohlenhoff as the Marquise de Merteuil,
the scheming pair who put devious plots in motion. This promises to be a
delicious drama. Box office: 513-381-2273 x1.
Deborah Laufer explores big questions with playwriting
0 Comments · Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Playwright Deborah Laufer loves to tell stories. “I think what theater does,” she told CityBeat
recently, “is bring people together to contemplate what it means to be
human at this point in time. It’s a place to ask all the big questions..."
0 Comments · Tuesday, December 18, 2012
All right, you’re going to have to
forgive me — I am a theater critic and a theater lover. Those terms are
not mutually exclusive.
0 Comments · Wednesday, December 5, 2012
It’s time for mistletoe and holly, when
theaters entice folks in search of holiday cheer (and occasional
parodies thereof) to celebrate the season. Many theaters need December
ticket revenues to present shows onstage for the rest of the year.
0 Comments · Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Collaboration is the byword for many
arts organizations today, especially theaters where financial support is
tough to obtain and ticket revenues are seldom enough to support the
cost of productions. By working together, economies can be achieved and,
in some cases, multiple constituencies can be activated.
by Rick Pender
Posted In: Theater
at 10:05 AM | Permalink
If you can tear yourself way from TV ads for the
presidential election this weekend, you'll find plenty of good theater
to distract you, starting with a production at Covington's Carnegie
Center opening Friday night. It's Under a Red Moon, a
world premiere co-production with Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company.
Michael Slade's taut psychological thriller just spent nearly a month
onstage at the Loft Theatre in Dayton, so it's already a seasoned
production. A dramatized psychological interview in the same vein as Silence of the Lambs,
it’s based on the chilling true story of England’s notorious “Acid Bath
Murderer” from a half-century ago. The play features Broadway actors
Bradford Cover as the criminal and Dee Pelletier as the psychologist
trying to get inside his head. Box office: 859-957-1940.
A different set of thrills are available from Cincinnati Shakespeare
Company, which is staging Shakespeare's bloody revenge tragedy,
Titus Andronicus. This
show requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat, blood and gore — presented
by CSC with ghastly zeal. Just as creepy tales like Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween
have chilled film audiences in recent years, this kind of play was all
the rage in the early 1590s. (CSC director Jeremy Dubin calls it “a
snuff film in blank verse.”) It's especially fun to watch veteran Nick
Rose as a Roman general who gets into a grotesque battle of wills with
the amoral Queen of the Goths, played by Miranda McGee. The awful things
they they do to one another's families make for some delicious,
hair-raising storytelling. Also onstage at Cincy Shakes is Romeo & Juliet,
with the central characters played as hormonal, irrational teens. Sara
Clark is especially good as Juliet. Both productions tell their tale
through more contemporary visual filters — R&J's characters wear contemporary clothing and are surrounded with music of the here and now, while Titus
gets a "Steampunk" treatment that presumes that the Victorian
ingenuity of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells extended its steam-driven,
mechanical technology to the present. Both approaches give new vitality
to the shows. (Review here.) Box office: 513-381-2273.
Also worth seeing is a funny, touching tale of growing up in Depression-era Brooklyn, Neil Simon's
Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Cincinnati Playhouse (513-381-3888)).
(Review here.) It's the first time that the Playhouse has staged a
work by Simon, one of America's most prolific playwrights of the 20th
century. Box office: 513-421-3888
by Rick Pender
Posted In: Theater
at 09:35 AM | Permalink
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
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.