The Blacks: A Clown Show — Jean Genet's The Blacks: A Clown Show is a brutally confrontational tone poem that will leave an imprint on your mind. Genet — the white, French playwright who spent a good chunk of his youth as a thief and male prostitute — was a master at creating theatrical ceremony and ritual. And in director Terrence Spivey's perhaps finest work to date, Genet's lyrically cruel and teasingly absurd script is brought vibrantly to life. A troupe of black performers is called before a tribunal of five, who are played by black actors wearing white masks. The players, embodying various black stereotypes, then act out the murder of a white woman, which they have been accused of committing, to the titillation and astonishment of the white power elite. Although the subject matter is heavy, the Karamu production is thoroughly entertaining. Archibald, the leader of the acting troupe, is given a galvanizing portrayal by Jason Dixon. Taking the character profile of the emcee in Cabaret several steps further, Dixon prowls the stage like a decadent cougar, ready to pounce on other performers and even an audience member or two. He is supported in grand fashion by glowering Joseph Primes as Deodatus Village, the supposed murderer, Erin Neal's attitude-heavy Augustus Snow, and Saidah Mitchell as the tribally bedecked Felicity Trollop Pardon. As good as some individual performances are, the real triumph is the ensemble work, tied together by Spivey's energetic movement and hip-hop-tinged choreography. Through May 10 at the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077. — Christine 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
This Is How It Goes — The first play at this new venue embodies many of the strengths, and a couple of the weaknesses, of this company, which is committed to producing plays never before seen in Ohio. It's structured around a romantic triangle involving an interracial married couple and a male friend, referenced pretentiously as "Man." All three attended high school together 10 years earlier, and the play seeks to use their interrelations to address race, prejudice, and the scummy underside of the male psyche. This production wrings plenty of tension from the conversations among the three characters, as Belinda (a smart and compelling Leighann Niles DeLorenzo) confesses her shallow reasons for marrying and bearing children by African American athlete-turned-businessman Cody: "I got a thrill walking through Wal-Mart with my two brown children in tow." But Cody, portrayed by Michael May in a well-modulated performance, has become distant and perhaps abusive. Uncertainty arises from the playwright's device of establishing the Man as an admittedly undependable narrator and (could it be?) a closet racist. This "maybe-maybe not" conceit becomes tiresome — even in the capable hands of Doug Kusak, who gives Man a friendly, accessible demeanor. It all leads up to a slimy scheme, cooked up by the guys, that feels artificial and out of character. But there are enough sparks lit along the way to maintain interest, if not total credibility. Through May 10 at The Bang and the Clatter Theatre, 210 Euclid Ave., 330-606-5317. — Howey
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.