All's Well That Ends Well — One of Shakespeare's less-produced romantic comedies features two rather unappealing people as the major "love" interest. Helena, a ward of the Countess of Rossillion, spent her early life chilling with the royal family, as her dad was the court physician, and developed a monster crush on the Countess' son Bertram, a handsome fellow who's now grown up and on his way to serve the ailing King of France. Bert, who's about as warm and cuddly as a dead perch, is forced to marry Helena. But he opts to go to war instead of bedding the wife he despises. On his way out, he claims he will never accept Helena until she wears his ring (he never takes it off) and bears his child (fat chance). So Helena spends the rest of the play involved in sly subterfuges, as she maneuvers her way into Bert's stony heart. Caught somewhere between drama and comedy, this production, under the direction of Charles Fee, has moments of charm and wit separated by frequent stretches of enervating blather. Lending excellent comic relief are David Anthony Smith as the vocabulary-challenged and cowardly Parolles, and Jeffrey C. Hawkins, who plays the Countess' clown, Lavatch, with brio and a nicely modified Groucho Marx stride. Markus Potter is suitably chilly as Bertram, and Sara M. Bruner capably displays Helena's OCD impulses, although the rhythm of her speech tends to be mechanical at times. And since we never really cheer for either, the happy ending alluded to in the title is somewhat less than enchanting. Through April 25 at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square Center, 1511 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. — Christine Howey
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. — Howey
In the Continuum — In this play by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter, HIV/AIDS distorts the promising lives of Abigail, a TV newsperson in Zimbabwe, and Nia, a 19-year-old Los Angeles woman with a facility for poetry and tendencies toward kleptomania and self-delusion. The two one-woman shows, staged side by side in alternating scenes, contain weaknesses in both the writing and performances, but the production as a whole is still profoundly affecting. In Zimbabwe, Abigail talks about her career and family plans — she's pregnant and was infected by her husband — but her bright horizons are quickly darkened by the societal pressures applied to African women with AIDS. Nia acquired the HIV retrovirus from her boyfriend Darnell, a professional athlete whose basic attitude is represented by his absence. The script, believe it or not, contains touches of humor. Much of the lighter side is supplied by Kimberly Brown, who wonderfully crafts different and believable characters, including Nia. As Abigail, Bianca Sams has a lovely and lilting accent, but, with the exception of the witch doctor, her characters all speak with the same tempo and inflection. Director Tony Sias and his two actors fashion some memorable moments in this 85-minute performance, but ultimately, the playwrights' format of self-contained monologues starts to wear thin and loses theatrical momentum. Even so, the downbeat ending feels appropriate and leaves you wondering when we will ever stop punishing the victims. Through May 3 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. — 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
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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