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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Interesting, how time changes our perceptions. Back in the 1960s, when Ken Kesey wrote the book on which this play is based, mental institutions were an accepted fact of life. Sure, they were probably awful, but at least there were places to put people suffering from mental deficits of one sort or another. Now, in the enlightened 21st century, we let many people with severe mental disorders live amongst us, in communities that are rife with firearms. And we've wept through some of those consequences. Still, the denizens of this particular mental hospital, in Dale Wasserman's adaptation, seem remarkably passive and medicated. Until the outrageous and extroverted Randle P. McMurphy shows up and starts to roil the waters, angering the day room dominatrix, er, Nurse Ratched. Things don't start well in this production, as the first act is larded with so many long pauses, lingering beats and languorous low-volume line readings (other than McMurphy) that one begins to feel drugged. But the second act snaps into shape nicely under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco. As McMurphy, Daniel McElhaney opts for a lot of grinning and yelling early on. But he finds more variety as the show progresses, ultimately shaping a character to care about. Underplaying her role well (at times almost too well), Anne McEvoy gradually compiles a fearsome presence as Ratched. Among the strong supporting actors, Perren Hedderson is exquisitely frail and damaged as the stuttering Billy Bibbit and Aaron Patterson is solid as Chief Bromden (even if the staging of his pre-recorded interior monologues feel clumsy). Plus, Michael N. Herzog as Martini crafts a mostly silent portrait of hallucination that is at once amusing and deeply touching.

Through August 2 at the Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th St., 440-941-0458, 78thstreetstudio.com.

romeo and Juliet

If you've ever watched a production of Romeo and Juliet and thought that the lead actors really didn't look the age of their characters (13 for Juliet, maybe 16 or 17 for Romeo), then consider this staging by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival should be a treat. Chronological purists will appreciate that Miranda Coble, a soon-to-be high school senior, plays Juliet and the not-much-older Cody Kilpatrick Steele is her main squeeze Romeo. Their evident youth gives the play a raw, adolescent quality that brings a freshness to the familiar yarn of a terminal teenage crush, even if their line readings tend to be a tad abrupt and un-nuanced. Older actors handle most of the other parts, such as Robert Hawkes as the helpful yet conflicted Friar Lawrence and Carol Laursen as a fairly one-note, grumbling Nurse. But there are other problems afoot. Director Tyson Douglas Rand allows his actors to bulldoze many beats, squashing many familiar moments. Indeed, the beloved balcony scene virtually disappears in a rush of hurried emotional turns. And other scenes are read by the assembled actors more dutifully than meaningfully. Hillary Wheelock is a spitfire as Romeo's devoted pal Mercutio. But she seems to have visited this outdoor stage from another play entirely, sporting a hell-for-leather attitude that doesn't quite jibe with the rest of the production. One witty touch in this modern dress version is Ryan Edlinger's appearance as the Apothecary, er, drug dealer in a hoodie. On this night, there were also issues with the sound amplification that made some of the early scenes hard to hear. But regardless of quibbles, CleveShakes offers free outdoor theater, and that by itself should be enough to recommend a visit.

Through August 3, produced by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, cleveshakes.com.

sunset boulevard

The shallowness of Hollywood in its heyday is exposed in Sunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical now playing at Mercury Summer Stock. And thanks to ingenious and imaginative staging by director Pierre-Jacques Brault, this musical rendition of the famous 1950 movie starring Gloria Swanson is a feast for the eyes and ears. Even though there is one significant performance element missing, this is a show that compels attention at all times. Norma Desmond is a washed up silent movie star who now lives a secluded life in her Sunset Blvd. mansion, attended by her devoted servant (and former director) Max von Mayerling. When down-on-his-luck, cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis is trying to avoid car repossession thugs, he ducks into the garage of the Desmond estate, and both of their lives change in dramatic ways. The production is handsome and riveting in a number of ways. Brault keeps the large ensemble of actors on stage for most of the piece, using them as supporting characters as well as walls and stairways. To wit, since there is no staircase on this stage, Brault creates one by having Desmond enter for the first time (and again at the end) by walking on a line of wooden chairs with the other actors providing their arms as a continuous railing. As Gillis, Brian Marshall bites off his character's lines with appropriate bitterness, although he lacks the age and/or dissipation to really come off as cynical and downtrodden as he should be. And, as always, he handles his songs with professional aplomb. Of course, the major role in this show is Desmond, and Helen Todd contributes a well-trained, rich voice to her songs, particularly on "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye." But Todd doesn't convey the crumbling façade of this woman's psyche until very late in the second act. That said, this show features a wonderful score by Webber, with lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black. When you add that to the acrid whiff of unhinged ambition, and Brault's impressive staging, you've got one fine show.

Through July 26, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862.

Speaking of Cleveland Theater, Romeo And Juliet

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