Monday, April 18, 2011

Legacy of the Light-Fingered

(Michelle Duffy, right, as Olivia, confers with Lenny Van Dohlen, as Voltaire, in the Cleveland Play House production of Karen Zacarias' "Legacy of Light." Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
The Cleveland Play House is on the verge of painting its wagon and hitting the Euclid Avenue trail to its new Allen Theatre digs at PlayhouseSquare. Its final production finds the company in a self-congratulatory state of mind, paying tribute to its own Lady Bountiful - Roe Green. Following the advice of that great oracle, Dolly Levi, Green is "spreading money around like manure to help young things grow." In this case, her fertilizer is providing scholarships for fledgling playwrights. Judging by the Play House's current production, Karen Zacarias' "Legacy of Light," this fund is sorely needed to cultivate a better class of play.

God knows, as playwright-in-residence at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and instructor of playwriting at Georgetown University, Zacarias is no novice. Yet the work on stage at the Play House, a "metaphysical" farce spanning two centuries, depicting the plight of two female scientists and graced by the presence of the ghost of Voltaire, shows a penchant for cerebral whimsy and winking ethics lessons that would only be forgivable through your freshman year. Listing the play's grievous sins would consume more than its actual length. But most offensive of all to this audience member is a work that contains the ghost of Voltaire with constant, smug references to "the best of all possible worlds" and yet not a single mention of the greatest posthumous boon ever bestowed on a French philosopher's reputation, Leonard Bernstein's magnificent musicalization of "Candide."

We must admit that director Bart Delorenzo, set designer Takeshi Kata and costume designer David Kay Mickelsen imbue the production with the cheerful plushness of a Martha Stewart layout. The falling Newton apples and Little Bo Peep bodices offer lagniappes to atone for the script's falls from dramatic grace. As to the cast, all second Broadway leads, their Juilliard training is on evident display and they all bear finely tuned bodies and voices that make the peek-a-boo, Beaumarchais-like sex scenes a pleasure unto themselves.

(A scene from the current Broadway production of "Arcadia" by Tom Stoppard - Karen Zacarias' obvious muse.)
 However, the real ghost that haunts the play is not a dead French philosopher but a very-much-alive British playwright, Tom Stoppard. It's ironic that a writer who has made a career of playing with a variety of poets, including Shakespeare and Wilde, finds himself so blatantly imitated. On the Play House stage are constant references to Stoppard's gleeful use of the illustrious deceased, fixation on science and echoes of torrential wordplay. We feel he would not consider this play to be the sincerest form of flattery. If Zacarias can be so obvious in her adulation of Stoppard, this gives me the courage to go back to that epic I've been toiling on for decades - "Pussy on a Glass Streetcar."

"Legacy of Light" runs at the Cleveland Play House through Sunday, May 1. For tickets, call 216-795-7000.

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