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Exit Stage Right 

Magical moments and forgettable flubs from 2005.

An exceptional cast made Beauty and the Beast one of the year's best musicals.
  • An exceptional cast made Beauty and the Beast one of the year's best musicals.
The local theater scene in 2005 was like a giant tiramisu, dense with riches and goodies, but with the occasional gummy bits that necessitated careful excavation by toothpick. Herewith, a free-ranging summary of the year that just flashed by.

Today is the first day of the rest of your life, unless you're dead.
There's nothing to raise your spirits like a show about impending death. But in the Play House's adaptation of Tuesdays With Morrie, many of Morrie Schwartz's epigrammatic insights ("Try to be as human as you can be") felt shallower than they did in Mitch Albom's best-selling book -- or even when he read them on Nightline.

A more compelling portrait of the nearly dead was served up in Dobama's The Exonerated. Consisting of testimonies from death-row inmates who were convicted of crimes they didn't commit and dangled over the pit of eternity for up to 22 years, the show was stark and bracingly hypnotic, thanks in part to the direction of Joel Hammer.

Good news: The cast-party buffet's all yours.
Many actors dream of performing a one-person show, since there's no one else to share the spotlight or muck up the timing. There were some bravura solo productions in 2005, including Nina Domingue's Mo Pas Connin -- or Torment, which she also wrote. Performed as part of Cleveland Public Theatre's Black Box series, the show crafted an amazing collection of New Orleans characters beset by phantoms real and imaginary. Best of all, Mo Pas will be mounted as a full production at CPT in February.

At the Play House, Mark Nelson turned in a memorable rendition of the cross-dressing survivor of Nazi and Communist regimes in I Am My Own Wife. Portraying more than two dozen characters, Nelson made this intriguing play come alive, even if the central character remained frustratingly elusive. It left a better taste than the Play House's Bad Dates, in which Judith Hawking overemoted about relationship dystopia.

Most Compelling Composer: Amadeus at Great Lakes Theater Festival. Played by Ben Nordstrom, Wolfie was a symphony of juvenile excess and genius.

Most Compelling Conductor: Convergence-Continuum's Battery, set in a cheesy electrical-repair shop, where the men tried to jump-start the women.

When plays feel like work.
Often, the best plays are a challenge to grapple with, although some audiences would rather avoid the effort. But for those who enjoy some mental arm wrestling, there were productions last year that filled the bill. The Designated Mourner at Cleveland Public Theatre set up a struggle between intellectuals and lowbrows, after the "dirt eaters" had taken over the government. Playwright Wallace Shawn piled arguments about morality and self-awareness into a verbose yet stimulating evening of ideas.

Likewise, in Long Day's Journey Into Night, by Eugene O'Neill, Ensemble Theatre mounted an enthralling look into a family's codependent dysfunctions.

The goat's in his Winnebago, and he's not to be disturbed.
Word had it that the expired goat that appeared near the conclusion of the Dobama production The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? actually traveled around the country, following productions of this unique and involving play by Edward Albee. In any case, it made for the season's most startling entrance, as the carcass was carried, dripping fake blood, by Tracee Patterson. Good as the goat was, Patterson owned the stage in a performance that dazzled from start to finish.

Best Play Set in a Bar: Johnnie Taylor Is Gone at Karamu. Spot-on characters that were genuine and oh so funny.

Worst Bar Set in a Play: The Family Line at Karamu. The bartender poured a gin and tonic from a Jack Daniel's bottle.

Why don't little girls fart? Because they don't have assholes till they're married.
Yes, no matter how sophisticated we pretend to be, we're all suckers for potty humor. And the past months served up plenty of those pleasures -- all, curiously enough, at Beck Center. The Imaginary Invalid, an enema-centered comedy by Molière, was given a rousing interpretation, with Matthew Wright as the flagrantly dissipated aristocrat who never met a butt nozzle he didn't adore. Director Timothy Mooney whipped the pace to a sitcom frenzy and kept the laughter pooting right along.

There were also some ripe bathroom gibes in Polish Joke at Beck, in which an Irishwoman claimed, "I feel as fine as the first good fart after a plate of cooked cabbage!" This extended poke in the ribs at all Polacks by David Ives, under the deft direction of Jerrold Scott, benefited from a talented cast that knew how to deliver offbeat and borderline offensive material with guiltless glee.

Urinetown was also golden, as it explored the privatization of commodes with a capital Pee.

The family that's weird together stays together.
They don't come much stranger than the Sycamore clan in You Can't Take It With You, the classic comedy that was given a rib-tickling and warmly human presentation at the Great Lakes Theater Festival.

The Sycamores' worthy heir was the wacko brood in CPT's Stone Cold Dead Serious, with its constant QVC shopping, videogame obsessions, and a snake-draped stripper.

If you spontaneously break into song during conversations today, you'll be hooked up to a Thorazine drip by nightfall. Which explains why we love musicals.
Most of us with a gram of imagination are attracted to the completely daft idea of people singing their innermost thoughts. And last year was a treasure trove of noteworthy musicals.

Kalliope Stage: Baby traced the breeding rituals of various couples with a spectacularly talented cast, and, in an icily decadent production of Cabaret, this outstanding company proved that all musicals aren't just grinnin' and croonin'. Anyone who attended Cabaret probably still gets goose bumps recalling the last-scene stunner.

Playhouse Square: Cathy Rigby soared, with or without wires, as she gave a macho gloss to Peter Pan, overcoming an ordinary turn by Captain Hook and a ship set that looked to have been pirated from a high school production. On the other end of the musical spectrum, Love, Janis (which is still playing the Hanna) is like mainlining the 190-proof essence of Janis Joplin; you'll be on your feet screaming at the finale, just like Janis herself.

Jewish Community Center/Cuyahoga Community College: Fred Sternfeld's staging of South Pacific was studded with great voices (Tom Fulton and Joan Ellison), energetic dancing (choreographed by Martin Cespedes), and lively comic performances, especially by Cheryl E. Campo as an irrepressible Bloody Mary.

Beck Center: Beauty and the Beast, another great Sternfeld production, is maxing out the talents of an exceptional cast to wring laughs and tears from this durable Disney property (it's playing -- and sold out -- through December 31).

Worst Sports Play: Rounding Third at the Play House. The script, laden with unlikely character reversals, traded credibility for cheap laffs.

Most Sporting Players: The whole gang at Convergence-Continuum. They consistently put together interesting and edgy new works that you're not going to see anywhere else.

"In a world where so many people are breaking things, we're making things." -- Don Bianchi, co-founder of Dobama Theatre
Locals who do the heaviest lifting in the creative process are those who put their fragile ideas on paper and then on stage. Whether or not the shows are entirely successful, they deserve our thanks for their effort and guts. So a thousand huzzahs to Nina Domingue (Mo Pas Connin -- or Torment),
Eric Coble (Ten Minutes From Cleveland, T.I.D.Y. ), Sarah Morton (4 Minutes to Happy), Dianne McIntyre and Michael Medcalf (Daughter of a Buffalo Soldier, the Life and Legacy of Marjorie Witt Johnson), all the children who wrote plays in the Marilyn Bianchi Kids' Playwriting Festival, Last Call Cleveland (Last Call Cleveland Stole My Bike!), and Linda Eisenstein and Michael Sepesy (Holiday Hotline).

And to everyone in the theater community -- all the actors, directors, and backstage people who are constantly making things that blossom brilliantly for a couple weeks and then vanish into the maw of time -- a deep bow of respect and thanks. You make our lives far richer than you know.

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