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Ancestra

The battle for women's rights, on all fronts, is compelling subject matter for documentaries, speeches and any number of Rachel Maddow shows. It also can be fertile ground for theater, but only when the politics are woven into a story and not a screed. This is the juncture where the world premiere of Ancestra, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, becomes a bit problematic. On the plus side, the production directed by Holly Holisinger (who is also one of the four co-authors) is well performed by the ten-person all female cast, most of whom handle multiple roles. The show is further enhanced by Aaron Benson's handsome scenic design, original music and a lobby installation that seems like a 19th century version of Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" (minus the vulva-inspired dishes).

There is a strong local connection to this play written by current Clevelanders Holsinger, Chris Seibert (who plays the central role of Cora), Renee Schilling and Sally Groth (playing multiple roles). The history of women's struggle for autonomy is represented by several women who participate in the National Women's Rights Convention held in Cleveland eight years before the Civil War. The play certainly touches a lot of bases as it finds contemporary parallels to the repressive world of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the story of Cora and her disappointing journey through the wilds of corporate media feels remarkably naïve. As for the women who fought for rights more than 150 years ago, they appear mostly as ghostly apparitions murmuring about this and that. There's plenty of righteous anger in Ancestra, and that's a damn fine thing. However, the play often sounds like a compendium of Wikipedia entries, spewing a litany of anti-woman issues and only occasionally tethering them to personal stories and felt consequences.

Through June 7 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.

this is not the play

Racial stereotyping is front and center in This is Not the Play by Chisa Hutchinson, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. The format is quite inventive. It begins with a young woman, White Girl 1, on a cluttered stage talking to an unseen person, who we soon learn is the playwright. And the woman on stage is a character the playwright is developing amid the bits and pieces of memory and perception piled up in her own brain. At first, White Girl 1 seems to acquiesce to the writer's intentions. But she quickly evolves past the "cute and quirky" gal she's intended to be and develops a mind of her own. The first half hour of this 70-minute piece is fascinating, as it explores stereotypes with wry humor ("What is it about white girls and horses?"). But the streamlined script goes pear-shaped in the second half. This situation isn't helped when the playwright (in the play) lands on stage herself, an unnecessary move since she was already a controlling presence in her unseen state. Katrice Headd handles her role as the playwright well. But the unquestioned power and weird vulnerability of the playwright as a character is oddly undermined when she becomes just another person wandering around. Director Emily Ritger choreographs the characters well within the small playing space. This short play feels like a work in progress: It presents some compelling reflections about racial prejudices as well as the creative process, but doesn't fully explore either. This shortfall is evidenced with brutal clarity in the ending, which is abrupt and essentially a copout by playwright Hutchinson.

Through May 31 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.

left in ink

It is impossible to truly know the torment of those who choose to take their own lives. We're not talking here about romantic self-destruction (Romeo and Juliet) but the kind driven by severe mental illness, depression, or other dark factors. So it is a bold choice for director Caitlin Lewins and company to assemble Left in Ink, a devised semi-documentary attempt to capture the tragedy that suicide imparts on the survivors left behind. Based on interviews and online posts, the play presents brief flashes of various lives that have been touched, and forever changed, by the suicide of a loved one. And the five-person on-stage cast (Megan Brautigan, Jeanne Madison, Brett Radke, Amy Schwabauer and Jerry Tucker) works valiantly to bring these people to life. Unfortunately, the script as fashioned by Lewins and the ensemble is a mish-mash of banal declarations of grief and mealy-mouthed platitudes. This happens not because the declarations are untrue, but because the play makes the cardinal sin of not enabling the audience to really experience whom the suicide victims really were, or who the survivors are. Instead of creating flesh and blood characters in the moment, we are force-fed memory tidbits and fragmented character descriptions, such as, "He once said, 'I will never be happy again in my life!'" If a character we had grown to know uttered that sentence, it would be devastating. But having it thrust at us without context is simply careless theatrical manipulation. Without encountering real people to whom we can relate in more than one dimension, we're left with a flashing, strobe light collection of well-meaning, deeply felt bullet points.

Through May 31 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.

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