Friday, May 13, 2011

The Little Theater That Could

(Kristi Little and Daniel Caraballo in the Ensemble Theatre production of Ravij Joseph's "Huck and Holden.")
Ever since Julius Caesar almost choked on a grape, guffawing at that now-lost farce about a messy Etruscan rooming with a compulsively neat, neurotic Spartan, it's been endlessly demonstrated that only a handful of plots exist. Judging by the two plays this writer has seen by Rajiv Joseph (no relation), the Cleveland-born playwright seems to have fixated on a "King and I"-"Teahouse of the August Moon" clash-of-cultures motif that he epitomizes as Western-people-funny.

On Broadway, in Joseph's Pulitzer-nominated "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," Robin Williams' star-studded bombast and director Moises Kaufman's thicker-than-molasses metaphysics smother the playwright's gentle humanity. Thankfully, in Ensemble Theatre's lean production of Joseph's first work, "Huck and Holden," his exuberant imagination and delicate scheming emerge unimpeded.

As in the aforementioned "King and I" and so many other works, the play tells of how an arrogant foreigner is defrosted by down-home (here American) virtues, which include liberated sexual mores and a lack of social distinctions. At the same time, the repressed foreigner teaches the American the glories of literature and that sex must be tempered by romance.

Joseph begins his play on a series of delightful ironies and cultural criss crosses: an American college student working in a library, fascinated by the Kama Sutra yet unaware of who Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield are, meets an Indian foreign exchange student who is terrified by sex and every aspect of American life. Utilizing a ghost, an Indian god and several flights of fantasy, Joseph chronicles two cultures liberating each other with all the charm one could hope for in a first play.

"Huck and Holden" is directed by Celeste Cosentino, daughter of Ensemble's late founder, Lucia Colombi. Cosentino began the theater season with an adept production of old-master Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate." Her season-ending production of Joseph's play is equally skilled, with a cast so good we can't resist calling them adorable - and proving that Ensemble remains the little theater that could.

"Huck and Holden" runs at Ensemble Theatre through Sunday, May 29 at the Cleveland Play House. For tickets, call 216-321-2930.

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