Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations. 

Before It Hits Home -- In its effort to probe the impact of HIV on the black community, Karamu has produced a play that has its heart in the right place, but few other vital organs correctly positioned. Written by Cheryl L. West in the early '90s and expressing many of the reasonable fears and excessive phobias about AIDS that existed at that time, the play attempts to show how a man who's in a relationship with a woman, but having sex with a dude on the side, fractures his family once he is diagnosed. Unfortunately, West never allows us to learn about the man -- jazz musician Wendal Bailey (Tremayne Mitchell) -- apart from his disease, since he starts coughing from his first appearance onstage straight through to the end. Thus, we never appreciate why his wife was attracted to him and why another man agreed to shack up with him. Employing scenes that are often too short to allow any momentum to develop, West force-feeds the audience Wendal's plight. This is all to set up the second-act confrontation that takes place when he returns home to face his family. Through April 9 at the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077. -- Christine Howey

Blackbird -- Nothing can be more tedious than enduring a play about drug-addicted down-and-outers who apply whatever energy they have to the process of ruminating about their seedy existence. On the surface, that's what awaits in this two-person show. It's stuffed with the expected detritus of miserable lives, including a Desert Storm vet who bathes the pain from his chronic incontinence, bad back, and injured foot in Kentucky bourbon and free-floating rage. He shares his squalid floor space in New York City with a 19-year-old heroin addict suffering from a raging case of hepatitis. Thus, all the elements are in place for a predictable march through the outer reaches of self-pity. But thanks to two immensely intelligent performances and a script that insists on wrestling these two losers back from the brink of stereotype oblivion, Blackbird takes flight as a love story that feels fresh and curiously uplifting, even as tragedy descends. In its inaugural season, Bang and Clatter is a welcome addition to the theater scene. Presented by the Bang and Clatter Theatre Company through April 15 at the Summit Art Space, 140 E. Market St., Akron, 330-606-5317. -- Howey

Cabaret Sampler -- Anyone who has made the trek through college is aware of the phenomenon known as the "sophomore slump." Alas, this also seems to be the case for cabaret shows. The intrepid Lora Workman, producer and director of the second season of the Cabaret Sampler at Kennedy's Down Under, has once again gathered a collection of performers to share 15-minute tastings of their singing and patter. But the opening-night menu skewed heavily in favor of raunchy jokes and some painfully obvious shock yocks. Here's hoping that Workman and musical director Charles Eversole devote future Samplers to the real art of cabaret. These productions could spotlight accomplished singers who have the skills to take chances with phrasing and find the expressive soul of songs. And while we appreciate a good sex joke as much as the next person, cabaret is not a stand-up routine. Either keep the focus on the singing or re-label the whole thing Def Comedy Cabaret and be done with it. Through April 15 at Kennedy's Down Under, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-214-6000. -- Howey

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets -- It's exhilarating to find a short show that's entirely diverting and worthwhile -- not to mention free. The title of this George Bernard Shaw piece refers to the 24 sonnets by William Shakespeare purportedly addressed to a "dark lady," who served as the bard's muse for a spell. Although her identity was never revealed, speculation has it that she was Mary Fitton, the maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth. So Shaw has placed Will on the terrace of the palace at Whitehall, eager to meet his dark lady and feed his urges. Since Shaw was of the opinion that Shakespeare was just a "snapper-up" of overheard talk, he portrays him as a shallow writer, an insulting cad and sycophant -- and David Hansen delivers the part with irrepressible zest. The show's rich language, sly humor, and pitch-perfect performances (including Michael Regnier as a frank and funny palace guard) make this a half-hour that keeps you laughing and thinking. Presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival through May 7 at various locations; for more information, go to www.greatlakestheater.org. -- Howey

Dark Room -- The conventional image we have of playwrights and poets is of lonely souls slaving away in a poorly lit basement. Well, you've got the location and the illumination right, but everything else about the Dark Room project is much cheerier. Sponsored by the Cleveland Theater Collective, it's a once-a-month workshop/cabaret for writers who want to try out their new efforts on a small but extremely encouraging audience. On this night, in a basement room in the Parish Hall at Cleveland Public Theatre, the quality of the pieces varied widely, as is to be expected with scenes or verses that are still being developed (thus, the dark room). But one monologue by Tom Huggins, describing the burnout of nurses dealing with psycho patients in hospitals, was as irreverent and hilarious as a David Sedaris essay. Other offerings, each under 10 minutes, touched on the obnoxious questions asked of "little people," a musical take on holiday haters, and a little girl's imaginary friend, who is a middle-aged Dame Edna type. Reading from scripts (and dragooning anyone nearby to fill out a cast), the writers express, share, and support. And that's a terrific environment for any embryonic artistic endeavor. Takes place the second Thursday of every month at Cleveland Public Theatre's Parish Hall, 6205 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, www.clevelandtheater.com. -- Howey

The Full Monty -- Thanks to the popular movie that spawned a Broadway play, The Full Monty's plot is familiar to most: A group of unemployed blue-collar grunts, desperate for cash flow, decide to mimic the male strippers who are making their wives go all jelly-legged at the local nightclub. Our punch-clock heroes eventually decide to go the pros one better by getting butt-naked at the end of their dance. The title phase famously refers to that total nudity -- a state of undress that is never visible onstage, thanks to a blinding lighting effect at the crucial moment. But that's only the last in a series of disappointments in this Beck Center production. Though there are performances that gleam ever so brightly, they are quickly submerged in the muck of odd directorial decisions, a brutally inconsistent sound system, and the most brain-dead set design in recent memory. Through April 9 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey

Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction in Frank Sinatra's loosely organized Rat Pack and their infamous, loopily disorganized Las Vegas shows that ran for a few golden years back in the 1960s. Frank, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. mixed pop songs, corny jokes, and Johnnie Walker into an irreverent, hip evening that seemed so easy. What the Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic proves is that it ain't easy at all. This one-hour set attempts to capture the bored-with-it-all sophistication and the slightly inebriated intimacy that the Rat Packers achieved, but it fails on several counts, from the overly eager performers to the florid songs and lame drinking jokes. Which is not to say that this no-cover show doesn't provide a convenient glide path for those downtown on a Friday or Saturday night. Indeed, some of the American standards are sung well enough. Now the task is to find directors and performers who understand that being casually funny while delivering classic tunes takes a lot of work. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers -- According to Plutarch's telling of the mythological rape of the Sabine women, ancient Rome was losing population and females were in short supply, so some horny soldiers glanced over at the hotties down the road and figured, hey, let's go get us some of that. This mass felony is also the central theme of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the theatrical interpretation of the 1954 film. This iteration tries to capture some of the electric Michael Kidd choreography that made the movie so watchable. But despite consistently strong singing voices and a load of earnest effort, the production is sunk by leaden pacing and uninspired dancing, along with tunes and dialogue that rarely elevate above the mundane. There are so many dead ends in this work that it might more accurately be named Seven Weddings and a Funeral. Through April 29 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey


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