Arcadia — Playwright Tom Stoppard is smarter than you. A lot smarter. And he never lets you forget it in this play, now being presented by the Case/Cleveland Play House MFA Graduate Ensemble. Directed by Ron Wilson, set in one room, and split into two eras separated by almost 200 years, Arcadia raises many densely intellectual topics — such as theoretical mathematics, determinism, and romantic poetry — but also has some ribald fun along the way. The early 1800s segment is more amusing, as sharp Zac Hoogendyk portrays a lusty tutor of a gifted young girl (Lindsay Luen). But when the scene shifts forward in time and the contemporary residents of the Sidley Park estate try to sort out what happened so long ago, Stoppard continually gets in his own way, as he spins far too many webs of erudition and arch cerebral musings. Among the more contemporary characters, Tom White is continually interesting as scholar Bernard Nightengale. Ultimately the alternating scenes hop back and forth, more and more quickly, until a merging finally occurs and many issues are resolved. And if you're able to follow all of it, you should immediately qualify for an advanced degree from Case. And it should be awarded to you on the spot. Through March 22 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. — Christine Howey
Colder Than Here — Myra is a 60-ish wife and mother in England whose body is beset by bone cancer. Still ambulatory and in possession of all her wits, she is attempting to help her family cope with her imminent demise. This clan includes her two grown daughters, uninhibited Jenna and uptight Harriet, and Myra's husband, Alec, who uses pointed sarcasm to keep his kin and his emotions at bay. Played without intermission on Ben Needham's set, one almost feels the life being squeezed out of Myra as she pluckily tends her organized death spiral, visiting possible grave sites and, hilariously, making a PowerPoint presentation called "My Funeral," which outlines certain likes and dislikes, including bans on unctuous funeral directors or throwing flowers. As Myra, Anne McEvoy touches all the emotional bases without leaning too heavily on any particularly bleak notes. Robert Hawkes is perfect as Alec, his frustration with getting the boiler fixed representing his helplessness in the face of his wife's disease. Heather Lea Anderson Boll skates perilously close to scenery-chewing as Jenna, but manages to keep her character under control. And Liz Conway is marvelously evocative as constrained Harriet. Director Joel Hammer brings out everything Wade's script has to offer, giving the production a life-affirming power that feels warm and right. Through March 23, produced by Dobama Theatre at the Pilgrim Congregational Church, 2592 W. 14th St., 216-932-3396. — Howey
Doubt: A Parable — The feeling that nothing is a given is a prime element of the human condition, and it's explored in this play by John Patrick Shanley. The uncertainty here revolves around a possibly pedophiliac priest in a Catholic school in 1964. Sister Aloysius, the principal of St. Nicholas, is a starchy woman who has fixed ideas about everything from ballpoint pens (hates 'em) to art and dance (hates 'em). More easygoing is Father Flynn, a younger man whose charisma and belief in a more accessible church the principal finds abhorrent. When there are murmurs about what Father Flynn might be doing with an eighth-grade boy — the school's lone black student — Sister Aloysius seeks to uncover the truth, aided by rookie Sister James. In the role of Sister Aloysius, Barbara Andres has an unrelenting visage, but there's an edge missing from her delivery. Michael Frederic is pleasant enough as Father Flynn, but his charm isn't so convincing that you simply couldn't believe he could do such things to a boy in his charge. It also doesn't help that Jennifer Ruffner, as Sister James, overplays her innocence and at times lapses into almost silent-movie-style emoting. And a critical scene, in which Sister Aloysius consults with the boy's mother about the situation, loses its power when Cherene Snow, as the mother, plays righteous indignation rather than pained dignity. Due to a denouement that is a bit too obvious, little doubt remains at the curtain. Not an ideal conclusion for a play so titled. Through March 23 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. — Howey
The Fantasticks — Few shows have ever captured the dueling forces of innocent love and a hard-knock life as magically as The Fantasticks, the little musical that kicked box-office butt for 42 years off Broadway. The story of the two hardheaded but wily next-door-neighbor fathers, who, knowing their children will do anything they forbid, erect a wall between their properties to make sure their kids fall in love, is an evergreen delight. And the evocative songs by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, such as "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain," feel as if they're part of our collective DNA by now. Paul Rawlings and Emma Ruck, as The Boy and The Girl, have both the youth and the pipes to carry their roles. In the signature role of El Gallo, Joe Monaghan hits all the right notes, both singing and acting, but his unamplified voice is a bit soft, even for the cozy confines of this smallish arena space. Director Pierre-Jacques Brault wisely gives George Roth, in the luscious role of The Old Actor, plenty of elbow room, and Roth delivers a small comic gem. Brault gets so many things right — from the elegant use of The Mute (a smooth Jon Gellott) to the focus on the tender love story — one is tempted to overlook his tendency to overblock certain songs and indulge in a few too many pregnant pauses. But for the most part, it's just fantastick. Through March 23, produced by Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-321-2930. — Howey
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