Julius X — Superimposing one character upon another seems an unnecessary stunt, but when you combine Julius Caesar and Malcolm X, you come away marveling at how the two men — whose lust for power led to their assassinations — fit together. Following Shakespeare's Julius Caesar storyline, Playwright Al Letson situates the characters in racially charged 1965 Harlem. A large part of the unrest is ignited by Nation of Islam Leader Elijah Muhammad, who appoints Julius/Malcolm X as the organization's sharp-edged spokesman. Julius enthralls blacks and terrifies whites, but after traveling to Mecca, he returns with a belief that Islam can transcend racial animosities. This idea — combined with Julius' hunger for power — leads the Nation's leaders to put a contract on his life. The production has many compelling moments, blending spoken-word poetry, snatches of Shakespeare, and gospel-inspired singing. Unfortunately, the talented cast often loses its grip on the material, resorting to increased volume when increased attention to character would have served better. And Abdullah Bey can't fit his quirky style to the title role, which requires an actor who speaks with clarity and sense of purpose. Oddly, smoldering Saidah Mitchell as Julius' wife, Calpurnia X, is closer to the real Malcolm. Jonathan Wray is solid as conspirator Cassius, Jason Dixon's co-conspirator Brutus touches on the complexity of the man, and Jason Walker gnashes his teeth in despair as Julius' cheerleader, Marc Antony. But all three depend far too often on shouting. Director Justin Emeka brings out the bells and whistles — strobe lights, fog, and two singing soothsayers — and set designer John Konopka's brick walls and chain-link fences nicely evoke Harlem. But it's a shame more of Malcolm X's fire isn't captured onstage in this less-than-entirely-successful production. Through February 24 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077. — Christine Howey
The Odd Couple — This production of Neil Simon's jokefest, under the able direction of Michael Brindisi, feels mired in quicksand, despite the surefire punch lines. Ken Forman is quite good as Oscar, adopting the loosey-goosey gait of Walter Matthau's film portrayal and growling his lines with gruff good humor. As Felix, Todd Faulkner downplays his character's nervous mannerisms so much that Felix doesn't seem all that irritating. But Faulkner has Simon's timing down pat and generates giggles with his housekeeping obsessions. The cavernous Carousel stage is more suited to major musicals, but the famed poker scenes thankfully aren't lost, since the supporting actors each create crisp characters. Damian Buzzerio fashions a nicely boneheaded Vinnie, and Gary Littman breathes fire as the quick-to-anger Speed. Marc Moritz, as Murray the cop, is amusing as he frets about Felix's mental state ("A suicide telegram? Who sends a suicide telegram?"). Even the accountant Roy gets his chuckles, thanks to Richard Price's tightly wound presence. When Oscar and Felix embark on their double date with the Pigeon sisters, Katherine Puma and Nicole Greevy appear as Gwendolyn and Cecily, and twitter appealingly. While director Brindisi keeps the pacing lively, he rushes the pivotal moment when Oscar finally invites Felix to stay at his apartment. Without room to breathe, the import of Oscar's decision is lessened, and this undercuts some of the humor to come. Through February 23 at the Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 East Waterloo Road, Akron, 800-362-4100. — Howey
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