The Crucible — An allegory for the post-World War II "Red Scare," this play had a very personal genesis. Playwright Arthur Miller had been subjected to grilling by the vile House Un-American Activities Committee and cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to name fellow writers who had attended a communist meeting years before. The Crucible turns that political witch hunt into a literal one, as a number of girls in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, band together and start declaring that there are witches in their midst. This admirable production throws all the emphasis on the actors and Miller's words, since the set design by Narelle Sissons is almost painfully plain. The talented Great Lakes company, under the direction of Drew Barr, brings Miller's words to life with compelling power. Andrew May, raging and helpless as John Proctor, and a quiet Laura Perrotta, as his wife, make the confusion and desperation of this quite ordinary couple visceral and vivid. At over three hours with intermission, The Crucible is no lighthearted romp. But the second-act trial puts any TV courtroom drama to shame. Innocent people writhe on the spiny point of mass hysteria as a mindless spasm of fear swiftly devastates their lives. Through April 27, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at the Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square Center, 1511 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000. — Christine Howey
The King and I — Rodgers and Hammerstein's story of the Welsh widow contracted by the king of Siam to teach his gaggle of children — from a harem of obedient wives — is well known. And the songs, such as "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," and "I Have Dreamed," are dazzling creations that work in any time or place. Here, Jennifer Hughes brings a quiet resolve and occasionally fiery spirit to the role of schoolteacher Anna. Her singing voice, a soprano that is slightly more muscular than lyrical, delivers the goods as she slowly softens the king's sharp edges. As the ruler, Francis Jue is a slight fellow, and although he gets plenty steamed at times, some of the nuances of the king's character are not clearly drawn. Director Stephen Bourneuf maneuvers the large cast (approaching 50) with grace on the immense Carousel stage, and there are enough Asian actors to make the entire Siamese locale feel genuine. Also, costume designer Dale DiBernardo and scenic designer Robert A. Kovach spare no horsepower in making the show a treat to look at. But perhaps the most indelible sequence is the ballet done around the saga of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." This Siamese version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, featuring Asian blackface and choreographed in Eastern style by Vince Pesce (with a lot of help from Jerome Robbins' original blueprint), is totally enthralling. Through April 26 at the Carousel Dinner Theater, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. — Howey
Mr. Marmalade — This play by Noah Haidle centers on a four-year-old girl named Lucy who's armed with the vocabulary and wit of Paula Poundstone. Left alone by her working single mom, Sookie, Lucy conjures visits by imaginary Mr. Marmalade, a busy businessman, who squeezes in play sessions with Lucy when he can. Mr. M. has a lot of problems, including a sadistic streak and some serious substance-abuse and kinky-sex issues. On the surface, it's a funny premise. But in Haidle's writing, all the humor is predicated on the dissonance of having adult observations coming out of a child's mouth. As a result, Lucy's too-hip-for-the-playpen personality quickly becomes predictable. Wes Shofner, as Mr. Marmalade, is a capable performer, but he's old enough to be Lucy's grandfather, which adds an uncomfortable dynamic to Lucy's fantasy world. If the younger Stuart Hoffman, who plays Marmalade's personal assistant, Bradley, had switched roles with Shofner, it would have made more sense from Lucy's perspective. And some of the later events — when Lucy and Marmalade run off to Cabo San Lucas, get married, and have a child — might have resonated more strongly. Even so, the players, under the direction of Arthur Grothe, give this flawed material their all, including Lauren B. Smith as Lucy, who's energetic and extremely lithe. But she never finds a deeper truth in the little girl — if there is one somewhere in this script. Through May 28, produced by Convergence-Continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074. — Howey
Peripheral Visions — Let's be clear about one thing: It's great that young people such as Jeremy Paul and Faye Hargate are interested enough in theater to start a new company, Theater Ninjas. And their production of Mad World a few weeks back was a promising staging of three absurdist plays. But this one-hour piece, devised, written, and performed by Paul and Hargate (Ninjas' artistic directors), is pretty close to your classic example of self-indulgence. In the essentially shapeless script, each performer takes on a handful of different characters, who tend to exchange pointless questions as they seek, well, something — be it a lost sock or the meaning of life. Veering from multiple non sequiturs to a tired satire of consumerism (in the unending aisles of "Big Mart"), it all feels like bad improvisation — which is how the play began in rehearsals. Unfortunately, the acting isn't sharp, no characters are developed, and nothing of note happens. Doing weird plays is fine, but doing them without any structure, even an absurd one, is playing tennis with the net down and all the lines erased. In the future, let's hope the Ninjas apply their youthful vigor and talent to plays that merit such effort. Through April 27, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Centrum Theater, 2781 Euclid Hts. Blvd., Cleveland Hts., 440-773-4719. — Howey
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