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.

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