Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Fruits of the Fuhrer

(Laura Perrotta is Fraulein Schneider and John Woodson is Herr Schultz in Great Lake Theater's production of "Cabaret" at the Hanna Theater in PlayhouseSquare. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater both commenced their season with whiffs of ol' Deutschland.They requisitioned works that owe their very existence to the machinations of the Fuhrer.

If Hitler hadn't wrought his havoc, many iconic masterpieces would never have come into existence. Humphrey Bogart would have had no excuse to woo Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca," and a young Englishman named Christopher Isherwood wouldn't have had the opportunity to dally with a manic young English eccentric who later would be turned into Sally Bowles as the Nazis were coming to power. Without these "Berlin Stories," there would have been no subsequent "Cabaret," no Oscar for Liza Minnelli and Great Lakes would have had to resort to - horror, horror - yet a third production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."

Similarly, if Bertolt Brecht, the subversive librettist of "The Threepenny Opera," hadn't enraged the Nazis, he would not have had the chance to flee the homeland for the wilds of Hollywood. Thus, he would never had been able to reshape his opus about Galileo for the magnificent girth of Charles Laughton. And 64 years later, Cleveland Play House would not be moving to its new digs, the renovated Allen Theatre, with its most fully realized production since "Of Thee I Sing" almost two decades ago.

(Adolf Hitler, without whom these works would never have been written.)
Both theaters have taken decidedly different approaches to their season openers. Kander and Ebb's musical, "Cabaret," like egg foo young, is constantly being reinvented, and no matter what recipe always remains wildly popular.

"The Life of Galileo" is one of those academically worshipped classics that rarely leaves the shelf. It is one of those massive work, if done successfully, guaranteed to enhance any ambitious theater company's reputation, though not fill the coffers.

Great Lakes' "Cabaret" has the disadvantage of being a bargain-basement knockoff of an haute-couture gown. The production is an admitted recreation of Sam Mendes' 1998 New York revival. Director Victoria Bussert is better known for effects than shaping felicitious performances, resulting in a smudged ghost of Mendes' original.

The evening is not without grace notes. One of the joys of a local company is watching a performer grow with the years. From the beginning, Laura Perrota has been a stunning stage presence, but as time has passed she has taken on the translucent quality of fine crystal. As the world-weary Fraulein Schneider, Perrotta radiates a lifetime of loneliness transformed into wondrous fulfillment when Herr Schultz (the Gepetto-like John Woodson) offers escape through marriage. Their tender rendition of Kander and Ebb's exquisite "Married" is the evening's oasis in a desert of dime-store decadence.

In a representation of the Third Reich as menacing as a junior-high Halloween party, only Sara M. Bruner's George Grosz-like Fraulein Kost evokes the moral rot taking root in Germany. Unfortunately, these three stellar performances illuminate only a fraction of the prolonged proceedings.

Painfully, we have to deal with Eduardo Placer's grotesque, baby-like attempts at squalor as the Master of Ceremonies. Even more vexing is Jodi Dominick's excruciating Sally Bowles. In the Mendes revival, Sally was turned into a charming but pitiful neurotic. Dominick, however, has come up with a performance so shrill that it brings to mind the screeching violins of Bernard Herrmann's classic score for "Psycho." Ultimately, her offense against the title tune brings to mind Norman Bates' slicing and dicing of Janet Leigh in the shower. This is one "Willkommen" that is hardly welcome.

(Paul Whitworth plays the title role in "The Life of Galileo" at the Cleveland Play House. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
There are many parallels between Brecht and his Galileo. Both were genius scoundrels who not only redefined the universe but were also magnificent escape artists. "Galileo" is one of those plays that demonstrates that great art has a grain of autobiographical truth. The title character was a 17th-century scientist who was able to survive the wrath of the Pope and the Inquisition. Twentieth-century playwright Brecht escaped the Nazis and the McCarthy era and took advantage of almost every opportunity and artist he ever met.

Play House artistic director Michael Bloom, utilizing Brechtian wisdom, handed this production to a director, Michael Donald Edwards, who not only understands the playwright's epic theater, but also how to make it fresh and new. Edwards, employing Brecht's idea of alienation, fills the stage with hip-hop clergy, slides of corrupt Cleveland politicians and Gershwin's "Fascinatin' Rhythm." These techniques, which have been overused in everything from Bayreuth to Shakespeare, here seems newly minted, keeping the work as current as a broadcast on CNN and as exciting as a carnival.

Most importantly, the production's center is Paul Whitworth's luminous Galileo, who is indeed the heavenly body around which everything spins. It's rare when a theater is able to turn a masterpiece into a reflection of the heavens.

"Cabaret" runs at the Hanna Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 30. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"The Life of Galileo" runs at the Allen Theatre through Sunday, Oct. 9. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Jesus goes to Canada, Palin comes to Cleveland

(Heather Anderson Boll, left, is Deb and Caitlin Lewins is her daughter, Hannah, in Dobama Theatre's production of "Grizzly Mama." Photo by Steve Wagner.)
After feasting on the giddy cha-chas, ditzy drag and gorgeous goosing of Beck Center's "Hairspray," there was no way I could live through another Cleveland summer. The endless ethnic festivals, outdoor rock concerts and Porthouse Theatre's squalid tattering of "Hello, Dolly!" were sure to curdle any facsimile of a soul I might possess.

So I took flight, looking for salvation through theatrical splendor. Landing at Canada's Stratford Festival, I found, to my horror, that the poisonous brewings of the Tea Party had infected this sacred institution. In a fit of Republican greed, the festival decided to go for star lucre by featuring the well-known kisser of Brian Dennehy on all of its advertisements.

Director Des McAnuff used Dennehy to corrupt Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night." In the manner of a new-age Boss Tweed, Dennehy's Toby Belch, like a smiling demon, turned "The food of love" into "the ham of theatrical egotism." We still scream at the image of Dennehy as a road-company Jackie Gleason in golf togs, a mugging Big Daddy in a white suit or an Old-West claim jumper hogging center stage, as if it were his private gold mine. Making matters worse were the addition of a dozen songs, stretching the evening to over three hours and further burying the love story, which should be the play's beating heart.

Speaking of Republican takeovers, the festival gave us a "Camelot" with an Arthur and Guinevere with the hormonal appeal of Ike and Mamie. Even with a genuine hawk and a Lancelot with Canadian-Mountie dash, the whole affair played like an endless Medieval Rotary Club pageant.

However, we do offer hosannas for a production of "Jesus Star Superstar," also directed by McAnuff, every bit as divine and revelatory as the 2000-year-old best seller on which it is based. Yet we have to mention that it is a frightening indication of the apocalypse when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice out-trump Shakespeare and Lerner & Loewe.

Coming back to Cleveland, we find Dobama Theatre tenaciously sticking to its mandate to live in the present. So instead of a hoped-for Kaufman and Hart-type farce about Franklin and Eleanor, we have "Grizzly Mama," a political spoof commissioned by the theater to eviscerate liberals, conservatives and everything else mentioned on CNN. Playwright George Brant's dark farce has the punch of a savvy political cartoon. Among his delightfully exploded targets are Blackberry-addicted teenage girls who literally speak in Twitterese, feckless liberals who spoil their children and implacable conservatives who sacrifice their children on the altar of right-wing values.

In Brant's helium-filled, anything-goes universe, the daughter of a fictionalized Gloria-Steinem liberal rents a cabin in Alaska next to a suspiciously Palin-esque politician. To avenge her dead mother's feminist honor, the liberal must figure out a way to assassinate the Palin stand-in. The evening never offers substantial insights into anything that approaches the human condition, but those who thrive on the Comedy Central skits of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will be more than satiated by Brant's skewering of everything from hunting and psychiatry to mother-daughter rivalries.

Directed by Laura Kepley, the production moves with a sure-footed velocity that camouflages the ephemeral material, which is designed to implode a week from Tuesday. As the avenging liberal, Heather Anderson Boll has the Meryl-Streep aquiline grace to exude a wounded dignity and a Lucy Ricardo flair for pratfall-a-minute zaniness. Caitlin Lewins, as her daughter, Hannah, manages the picturesque balance of wide-eyed radiance and adolescent arrogance. As the unseen Palin daughter, Erin Scerbak humanizes the evening with ingratiating, gum-chewing pathos.

If the play were revived in 20 years, it would serve as a perfect time capsule for a world besotted by technology and momentary values. Perhaps this is why some of us choose to dwell in lost literary lands.

"Grizzly Mama" runs at Dobama Theatre through through Sunday, Oct. 2. For tickets, call 216-932-3396.