Friday, April 17, 2015

Xavier University's "Spring Awakening"

Disheartening, shattering, sometimes agonizing to watch, provocative as hell – Xavier University’s “Spring Awakening” is all that and more. What’s most wonderful about it is the youthfulness of the cast.

More often than not, you’ll see this show with a cast of actors who are edging their way toward 30. That's not middle-aged, by any means. But remember, this is a show that is about teen-agers. Wendla, the leading female character, is supposed to be 14.

This cast is all older than that, of course. But they are young enough for their exuberance to be convincing. These are characters who are as filled with optimism and wonder for the world as they are with darkness and a sense of hopelessness. They're not certifiable, though. They’re just young. They haven’t learned how to navigate the complexities of the world yet.

In his curtain speech, it was obvious that director Stephen Skiles – also head of Xavier’s young theater program – is thrilled with his production. And rightly so, beginning with his casting of the three major roles; Maya Farhat as Wendla, Tyler Kuhlman as Melchior and Griff Bludworth as Moritz.

Farhat is the epitome of modesty and youthful passion, singing with extraordinary restraint and control rather than trying to overpower us with vocal pyrotechnics. It’s so, so much more compelling. Wendla is supremely na├»ve. But Farhat doesn’t play down to her character. There’s no question that we’re watching a twentysomething woman in the role. But Farhat does it with such reticence and humility that we never, ever doubt her.

Maya Farhat and Tyler Kuhlman.

Kuhlman, though a notch less effective as a singer, gives Melchior that wonderful mix of idealism and self-righteous that makes us adore him even as we occasionally smirk at his innocence. You love and admire how much he wants to change the world, even as you know he’s unlikely to achieve many of those dreams of his. If this character teeters too much in one direction or the other, Melchior can be insufferable. Kuhlman maintains the balance perfectly.

And Bludworth’s Moritz? You just want to reach out and hug the kid. There’s not a bad bone in Moritz. In fact, he’s quite sweet. But he's lost. He’s spent a lifetime being humiliated, first by his parents, then by his teachers and classmates. Small wonder that Moritz has come to believe them. Bludworth shows us how powerful those years of little murders can be.

There are other performances I found myself drawn to, as well; Ryan O’Toole’s Georg, who verges on a 19th century punk rocker and Molly Hiltz, convincingly playing every one of the characters demanded of the “adult female” role. There’s Megan Hostetler’s Ilse, too, whose vain attempt to save Moritz is crushing to watch. And Aaron Krick and Elizabeth Rancourt, who were alternatingly uplifting and tragic.

Griff Bludworth as Moritz.

There are a few bumps along the way. The balance of music and singing is sometimes off, though on the whole, you can hear these singers quite well. And there are a couple of roles that would be served well by more skillful actors.

But this is a handsome and affecting show, from Kathleen Hotmer’s simple period costumes to Alana Yurczyk’s spare set with just enough of a hint of the power of the past. And Dee Anne Bryll’s choreography is particularly successful. There’s lots and lots of movement in this show. But Bryll tightly reins it in so that it becomes a theatrical element, not a showstopper. Alice Trent’s lighting is quite effective, too, though it has a distracting way of spilling out onto the theater walls.

What is most impressive, though, is that Xavier did this at all. This is a show that unabashedly takes on the oppressiveness of 19th Century religion. Characters challenge parental and academic authority. They challenge God. The play charges headfirst into controversial and complicated issues and refuses to back away from them. And the result is a gripping piece of theater. And – sorry for stereotyping – it’s not what you expect to see on the stage at a Catholic university.

Good for Stephen Skiles for selecting it. And good for the Xavier University for supporting him, the staff and the students in that decision. It speaks well of XU and of the department itself. I'm looking forward to see more from them as this department grows.

You've got two more changes to see this show: 7:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday, April 18 19.

Tickets are $17, $12 for students and are available by calling 513-745-3939 or online at www.xavier.edu/theatre.





Monday, March 16, 2015

Serials 2: Thunderdome, Episode 4


OK, we're getting near the end of "Serials 2: Thunderdome," a theater journey that has been as entertaining as it has been frustrating. In case you haven't experienced Know Theatre's experiment in episodic theater, here's how it has worked.

Back on Feb. 2, we got to see five 15-minute plays. At the end of the evening, we - the audience - voted on which three we wanted to keep. The two shows with the fewest number of votes were booted out and replaced two weeks later by two new shows. It has continued that way ever since.

Episode 4 unfolded Monday night.

Once again, "Andy's House of [BLANK]," written (and composed) by Trey Tatum and Paul Strickland and directed by Bridget Leak has been my audience favorite. Obviously, others have liked it, too, as it has been in the running since the very first week.

It has been a standout from the beginning. It was polished, well-rehearsed and clearly conceived, qualities that most of the other shows lacked. In fact, it's safe to say that this show has single-handedly raised the bar for the entire series. (Photo of Trey Tatum by Christine Wands.)



"Andy's" is a wonderfully curious tale that toys around with time, love, longing and the emotional prisons we build for ourselves. Sounds grim, I know. But it's funny, in a wry and smart sort of way.

Tatum and Strickland provide the music, whaling away at an old upright piano like a pair of grizzled honky-tonk regulars who pay off their bar bills by knocking off a few songs every night. And when they stand up and actually talk to the crowd, it's more like they're storming the stage. Their performances are frenetic, fire-and-brimstone sort of things. Personally, I think they're fabulous.

There is a story, about a lonely guy - Andy, played by Chris Richardson - who runs an oddball curiosity shop and his relationship with Sadie (Erika Kate McDonald), the unrequited love of his life. Sadie wanders in at 3 p.m. every day, drops off an electronic contraption that belonged to her dad, then heads off to a party where everyone is killed by a fire.

Then she re-appears the next day at 3. And the next day. And the next.

It's bizarre, of course. But it's melancholy, too, and thoughtful and endlessly interesting.

It got my vote.

So did a new entry called "A Rolling Stone Gathers No Loss," written by Alexx Rouse and Robert Macke and directed by Nate Netzley.

Rarely has such an eccentric show looked so comfortable in its skin.

Andy Simpson plays Albert, an over-sized kid who, despite his naivete, seems wise beyond his years. Of course, there's the possibility that he's not a kid at all. Maybe he's just a slow-witted and childish adult. After a minute or two, I stopped concerning myself about what he is because I didn't really care. I just couldn't stop watching his performance. None of that appalling hey-look-at-me-I'm-a-kid stuff. Just a wonderful candor.

His mother Jocelyn is played by Nate Doninger. Jocelyn is nervous, controlling when she needs to be and almost certainly in an altered state of mind. The fact that there's a man wearing a lousy wig playing the role means . . . well, again, who knows? (Photo of Andy Simpson, L, and Nate Doninger by Christine Wands.)



Does Andy know his mom is a man? Or is Jocelyn a man? Maybe this is just a drag role? Or something else. I didn't spend too much time fretting about it, because I didn't really care. The script is engaging and - unlike a couple of others - only as long as it needs to be.

It got my vote, too.

My third vote went to "So In Tents," by John E. Bromels and directed by Rebecca Bromels. It was a new entry a couple of weeks back and was so well-received that it was the first show able to bump out one the series' original productions.

This week's episode is every bit as good.

Unlike the other shows, which exist in their own little worlds, "So In Tents" takes place in Cincinnati and is a thinly veiled depiction of the annual camp-outs in front of the Fairview German Language School in Clifton.

The play is deliciously absurd, as is the real-life camp-out it mocks. There's a constant barrage of class warfare, micro-aggressions and bureaucratic nonsense. In real life, all of this would be irritating as hell, but in the Bromels' theatrical version, the parody is nonstop and delightfully sharp-edged.

The folks in line include Miranda McGee as the pushy wife of a city council member, Mike Sherman as a nice guy who doesn't quite know how to deal with these lunatics, Tatiana Godfrey as a sharp-witted grandmother who refuses to be intimidated and Dave Powell as the self-appointed leader of the line.

Lauren Showen makes a brief appearance as a no-nonsense assistant principal, while WVXU-FM news director Maryanne Zeleznik makes a memorable guest appearance as - what else? - a radio news reporter.

The evening also included Ben Dudley's "Cinderblock" and a new entry by Kevin Crowley, titled "So This Couple . . . "

The Know will announce the three top vote-getters Tuesday at noon. We'll see the next - and final - chapters of those shows as part of the "Serials 2" finale on March 30. On Wednesday of this week, people who have attended "Serials 2" will have a chance to bring back two shows that have were bounced out earlier.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Theater, Not Dance

It’s miserable out there.

When I returned from seeing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Aronoff, I logged onto the computer and saw a Facebook post by Michael Shooner. It’s about the Clifton Players/Untethered Theater  production of “August: Osage County.”

“Finest ensemble you will see this season,” he wrote. “Do whatever it takes to see this show. Wow!”

I completely agree.

I was there opening night, but for reasons too complicated to explain, I didn’t have occasion to review the show.

But it’s been two weeks since I saw the show and I can’t get it out of my mind. And now, thanks to an inadvertent nudge from Michael, I will write a little bit.

“August: Osage County” is a deadly serious play. And it’s long – well over three hours the night I saw it. And yes, the chairs in the Clifton Performance Theater are still not the most comfortable. (They’re not the worst, either.)

But none of that stuff makes a difference. This is a production, as Michael said, with a fabulous ensemble of actors. Seriously. If Cincinnati theater had an all-star team, you’d find a whole bunch of these people on the roster.

In alphabetical order, the cast includes Bob Allen, Carol Brammer, Carter Bratton, Kevin Crowley, Christine Dye, Mindy Heithaus, Buz Davis (who also directs), Dale Hodges, MaryKate Moran, Nathan Neorr, Leah Strasser, Sarah White and Reggie Willis.

A big, big cast and there’s not a weak link in it.

In case you don’t know the play, which won the 2008 Pulitzer, here’s a quick summary.

It takes place in a dismal little town located in the middle of an Osage Reservation on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma. It revolves around what is surely the most dysfunctional extended family you’ve ever seen on the stage.

A few decades back, Beverly Weston (Davis) was regarded as a poet with promise. But since then, his life has been one of teaching halfheartedly while drinking wholeheartedly. His wife Violet (Hodges) is dying of cancer. But it’s anyone’s guess whether the disease or her multiple drug addictions will kill her first.

When Beverly disappears, the entire family returns to the family homestead. And for the next three hours, they exact all manner of verbal cruelty on one another.

It is shocking and horrifying and fascinating and . . . well, you wish it didn’t seem so real. But it does, quite brilliantly. And since the Clifton Performance Theatre is soooooo tiny – 60 people is an overflow crowd – all of this harshness is right in your face.

It’s excruciating. And you can’t take your eyes off it. (Continued below.)



There’s much more I probably should say here. Like how intriguing it is to see Crowley and Strasser play characters that are so different from what we have seen them do recently. She’s quiet and subdued. He’s withdrawn and easily intimidated. Or how very creepy Neorr is in his scenes with White. You’re so horrified by him that you want to leap up and grab the guy and thrash him.

Or how Brammer and Allen both have scenes so shattering and emotionally overpowering that you will surely count them among the best things you see this year. Same with Hodges. She may seem a fragile presence, but she has no problem summoning up the vitriol to torture every character around her. And just when you think she can’t be any more heartless, she is.

Or how very heartbreaking Bratton and Moran are. And how precarious a character Heithaus can create. Or how comforting it is when Reggie Willis steps onto the stage. Or how unfeeling Dye’s character can be as she teeters on the edge.

They’re all so good. And much of that is thanks to Davis, who contains playwright Tracy Letts’ imploding world and then ever-so-carefully unleashes moments of its mayhem.

“August: Osage County” runs through March 14. At least a couple of those performances are already sold out. But since the weather is unspeakably crappy at the moment, there’s hope that there may be a few seats left.

So take Michael Shooner’s much more succinctly stated advice and go see this show. It really is something quite extraordinary.

For more info, call 513-861-7469; cliftonperformancetheatre.com.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Misty Copeland Meets APM's Marketplace

Misty Copeland is everywhere these days.

Seriously, it seems that every time you turn around, the American Ballet Theatre soloist is being interviewed on TV or in some magazine or newspaper. She has a hefty endorsement deal with Under Armour. She’s a spokesperson for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and has done ads and commercials for everyone from Diet Dr. Pepper to Blackberry.


Now she can carve a new notch into that belt of hers: panelist on Marketplace, American Public Media’s internationally syndicated radio show about all things business-related. (Here in Greater Cincinnati, the show is heard four times every weekday on WVXU, 91.7 FM.)

Next Thursday – October 16 – host Kai Ryssdal and much of Marketplace’s Los Angeles-based on-air team will present a one-night-only stage production in New York City to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary.

As part of the show, they’ve convened a celebrity panel to discuss creativity and innovation. Front and center, of course, will be Copeland, along with actor Hank Azaria, author/screenwriter Delia Ephron and Kickstarter co-founder and CEO Yancey Strickler.

For those with even the slightest interest in dance history, the show’s venue – Kaufmann Concert Hall in the 92nd Street Y – is one of the most significant in the history of American dance. The Y's Harkness Dance Center opened in 1935 with a performance that featured Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm.

In the course of the next 40 years, Y concerts featured a who’s who of American dance; Pearl Primus, Ted Shawn, Jerome Robbins, Talley Beatty and dozens of others. It hosted the premieres of Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, Anna Sokolow’s Rooms, Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder and Jose Limon’s Moor’s Pavane, as well as a 1954 performance by Robert Joffrey’s then-new ballet company, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein's Dance Caravan, a rare east coast performance by Lester Horton’s California-based company and the 1952 debut of Pearl Lang’s dance group.

Misty Copeland will be in far better company than she may be aware of.

If you happen to be in New York next week, tickets are $30-$75 and available at 212-415-5500 or 92y.org.

Photo: Misty Copeland as Gamzatti in La Bayadere, by Rosalie O'Connor.


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sarah Hairston

It was just about a year ago when one of America’s greatest-ever ballerinas, Cynthia Gregory, came to coach Cincinnati Ballet’s leading dancers in preparation for the company's  co-production of Swan Lake with BalletMet Columbus.

Photographer Jennifer Denham, who regularly photographs studio rehearsals for the company, stopped by one day to catch the action.


This remarkable photo of principal dancer Sarah Hairston with senior soloist Romel Frometa was taken during that rehearsal. Clearly, the pair were already well on their way to the memorable performances they would give in the leading roles of Odette/Odile and Siegfried.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

ConverseNation - Pones. Inc.

For Pones Inc. it’s never enough to just make a dance.

They do dance, mind you. But these performers are as committed to probing social issues as they are demonstrating their virtuoso chops as dancers.

During last summer’s Cincinnati Fringe Festival, for instance, they created a dark and disturbing work called Traffick that focused on human trafficking.

Now, Pones is back with ConverseNation, which explores the “dynamics of wealth and poverty in Cincinnati,” according to Kim Popa, the group’s co-founder and executive director.

“This is actually a piece that we took to Italy in August,” says Popa. “It was performed as part of the CrisisART Festival in Arezzo. But we always knew that we want to remount the piece and perform it here.”


On the one hand, it’s a walking tour of Over the Rhine. But other than its starting and ending points – Washington Park and the Arts Academy – this is not a sightseer’s tour of OTR hot spots.

There are no hot dogs at Senate or doughnuts at Holtman’s. Rather, this is a trip to out-of-the-way  places – a tiny park at Race and 14th, “the big green building next to Kroger’s” on Vine Street, a nondescript spot on Republic Street, where the 14 dancers will perform a brief collaborative work with Queen City Flash, the theater group responsible for last summer’s The Complete Tom: 1 Adventures.



There are live musicians, too, and videos documenting the more than 30 interviews company members did with OTR residents.

While ConverseNation is all about wealth and poverty, though, Popa is determined not to politicize the material.

“The goal isn’t to ostracize people,” says Popa. “We don’t want to villainize the wealthy and glorify poverty. That happens a lot.”

But there is a measure of inequality and injustice that live side by side in OTR. And it is that that Popa wanted to explore.

“In one case, we interviewed a woman living in extreme poverty. And then the next person we spoke to was a woman living in a dream house – a beautiful, pristine townhouse next door. They’re right next to each other.”

Even so, Popa is adamant that Pones isn’t taking sides.

“There really isn’t a simple answer. If there were, someone would have come up with it long before now. We don’t have the answers. We just want to make sure that people have the conversation.”

Performances: 7-8:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday, Oct. 10-12.

Tickets: $12. Make reservations here, then pay at the show with cash, check or credit card.