Sunday, March 13, 2011

Of Plots Thick and Thin

(Scott Plate and Jeremy Kendall in "A Steady Rain.")

In Patrick Dennis' indispensable "Auntie Mame's Guide to World Cinema and Theater," we surmise from a survey of works ranging from "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" to "Zeus Surfeosis" that there are approximately eight plots to draw from in the universe. Currently in the hurly-burly of Cleveland theater, there are a total of eight exhausted performers spread throughout three economical productions, proving the validity of our madcap aunt's hypothesis.

At Dobama Theatre is Joel Hammer's peerlessly pressure-cooked production of Keith Huff's "A Steady Rain." Written and set in Chicago, it follows the violent downward spiral of two tough city cops. It reigns firmly in the category of Brotherly Betrayal 3B. This is where two emotionally ferocious men (think Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) are bonded literally or figuratively as brothers. Gay lovers don't count. That comes under the special category The Love That Dare Not Speak It's Name Won't Shut Up. In this play's template, two macho hunks invariably cling together trying to survive in their corrupt, film-noirish universe. Consequently, strong drugs, bad broads and general malaise destroy the angrier of the two, leaving the other to eternally brood in a scalding lake of self-recrimination and jazz.

(An even more illustrious portrayal of Brother Betrayal 3B: Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront.")

Being a sufficiently raw and poetic example of this category, we can heartily recommend the two-character play. Here, Scott Plate trades in his patented bitchy and neurotic bounce for a melancholic, macho Weltschmerz perfectly symbolized by his droopy mustache. As his partner in degeneration, Jeremy Kendall exudes angst as effortlessly as Chevalier oozes Gallic charm. Recommended for anyone who confuses the three "Godfather" movies with godliness.

(Noel Joseph Allain as Asher in "My Name is Asher Lev"at the Cleveland Play House. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Chaim Potak is the pious flip side of Philip Roth. He chronicles the torments of nice Jewish boys who play hooky from Hebrew school. "My Name is Asher Lev," at the Cleveland Play House, has been skillfully adapted (by Aaron Posner) in a well-built PBS manner. It comes from Plot 4J, or, to be more precise, think "The Jazz Singer," where a well-meaning but ambitious Jewish boy is so driven by his treif art that he dares to break away from his family's Talmudic tradition. This, of course, causes his Jewish mother to wail in her apron and his fierce father to tear at his beard. The main switcheroo here is that the little pischer is interested in being a painter, rather than a jazz singer in blackface. Instead of shocking his loved ones with a hammy Mammy, Asher humiliates his parents with a painting of his mother on the cross in a creation titled "The Brooklyn Crucifixion." Both works end in a form of emotional catharsis, with the two respective men taking their mother out for lox and bagel.

Director Laura Kepley elegantly fills the Bolton stage with Chagall-like imagery with a cast that evokes authentic Yiddishkeit. Ideal for people who still look forward to attending their cousin's Bar Mitzvah.

(Al Jolson in the original 1927 movie, "The Jazz Singer," as the archetypal breakaway Jewish boy.)

Proving that you can never have too much of a grotesque thing, Great Lakes Theater Festival gives us its second production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." This anemic attempt to resurrect vaudeville comes from Plot 7M, where talentless comedians, such as the Ritz Brothers, the Three Stooges and cast members of various "National Lampoon" movies, endeavor to score easy laughs by desecrating the glories of writers they can only begin to comprehend through "Cliff's Notes." To get an idea of the tone of this work, imagine three drunken frat boys who, in place of finishing their term papers, decide to write what they think is a madcap spoof of Shakespeare that will get them laid. Then, envision the mortification of the audiences who have to endure the fruits of their labor. Think of these hung-over frat boys later reading what they have written to their repulsed girlfriends.

(Paul Hurley, Jason O'Connell and M.A. Taylor in "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged]." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)

Artistic director Charles Fee thrives on 100-proof vulgarity. He directs with the delicacy of a Mixmaster set on puree. He manages to annihilate any merit that may be hiding. The script, by Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield, has been amended to include references to Tom Hanks' urinal, gay love that flourishes in Lakewood and the latest antics of Charlie Sheen, which make things only worse, if possible. The two merits that could be detected by this audience member were the Jerry Lewis-like physical grace of Paul Hurley and the visual wit of set designer Gage Williams. To quote a famous sports homily, if they do it again, "three strikes and you're out." Recommended for people who confuse the "Jackass" movies with the works of Moliere.

Dobama Theatre presents "A Steady Rain" through Sunday, March 20. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.

The Cleveland Playhouse presents "My Name is Asher Lev" through Sunday, April 3. For tickets, call 216-795-7000.

Great Lakes Theater Festival presents "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" through Sunday, March 27. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How Green Was My Ogre

(Dragon and Donkey [Alan Mingo, Jr.] in the touring production of "Shrek: The Musical." Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Sometimes dashed expectations can be a many-splendored thing. It was anticipated that the road company of "Shrek: The Musical" would be cast in the template of a made-in-Tijuana souvenir of the wildly successful animated mint-green ogre, who has starred in four films. But, no. The creators and the company have conspired to disappoint. Instead of a slavish recreation, they have opted for artful transformation. Whereas the movie deliriously quoted a litany of past Disney animations, the stage version chooses to goose a passel of musicals, ranging from "Gypsy" and "Beauty and the Beast" to "Wicked," with every spoof hitting its mark. Blissfully, at PlayhouseSquare there is no trace of a second-rate touring cast or a shoddy production. For indeed it is all rendered and colored with the zest of a Mardi Gras.

For those interested in such trivialities as the score, do not worry. There's not an  iota of Hasbro elevator music. Composer Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the wonderful "Caroline, or Change," has once again displayed her limitless imagination, giving us music full of unexpected tunefulness skillfully blended with lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire's PG wit and innuendo. They have given us a work as saucy as any British panto and as infectious as any musical of the Golden Age of television, i.e. Jule Styne's "The Dangerous Christmas of Red Riding Hood."

It's hard to conceive of any living human unable to experience joy from the evening's proceedings. However, it occurs to this scribe that there are a few fictitious and deceased curmudgeons who may raise objections. For instance...

(Senator Joseph McCarthy: "That dragon looked pretty RED to me.")

(Mary Martin: "Leading ladies may fly or do cartwheels, but they may not pass gas.")

(Popeye: "It may be green, but it ain't got any spinach.")  
(Walt Disney: "Don't fuck with fantasy.")

(Jack Benny: "Well!")

(Mao Zedong: "Imperalist stooge ogre!")
(Ethel Merman: "Honey, in my day, a real star would never wear a mask or paint her kisser green.")
But don't take the word of a bunch of jealous stiffs seriously. There have been multitudes of shows featuring stars who in reality were ogres. How many chances do you get to see a show about a genuine ogre who happens to be a sweetheart?

"Shrek: The Musical" runs at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, March 13. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.