This time of year, you can wind your watch by Cleveland theater. First, there's the holiday blitzkrieg of Yuletide bombs dropped from snowy skies. Then comes the post-New Year's famine, during which our show people go into hibernation, dreaming of their next go-round with The Sound of Music. Fortunately, James Levin's Cleveland Public Theatre goes against the grain, reaching back to the ancient Greek idea of playwriting contests and lifting the first few weeks of the year out of its usual torpor.
In its long history, the New Plays Festival has consistently transmogrified under three directors, from deliciously absurd to hypnotically intense. Since 1983, 252 new works have alternately delighted, confused, or sickened Cleveland's theater devotees. The festival came to life as a nondiscriminating free-for-all, where legible typing apparently proved to be the main prerequisite to get a new work a reading. Playwright/critic Linda Eisenstein reigned over four- to six-hour marathons that involved everything from an enraged Mother Nature in a toga to feminist Martians desexing exploitative earth men.
Next came Terrence Cranendonk, a dashing performance artist who had the bravado and pluck to transform the festival into an affair with hungry international scribes (167 in all through the years), premiering works of 500-pound angst, Poe-like fiendishness, and Lucy Ricardo zaniness.
After a year's hiatus, the festival has reemerged in a streamlined form under Clyde Simon. Simon, who has the benevolent, wire-rimmed-glasses earnestness of a PBS science show host, has chosen 8 works from more than 400 new play submissions. Instead of bombarding audiences with two to three plays a night, Simon has wisely limited each evening to a single selection. Each play receives a raw initial reading in the icy tundra of the Gordon Square lobby; then, that weekend, the same work, polished and enhanced by audience suggestions, is semistaged next door at the main theater to gauge the reaction of the audience, all for the edification of the hopeful author.
Of all the playwriting festivals in the city, CPT's remains the edgiest. Its plays are the most controversial, and there's always the heady thrill of discovery. Sometimes, though, that discovery can be downright awful.
Part of the fun in any of these festivals is that audiences get a chance to play critic. The always-interesting postdiscussions range from helpful observations -- such as the incongruity of penthouse apartment dwellers referring to neighbors living overhead (no oblique God reference intended) -- to oddball compliments such as "This play is good for hyperactive folks, because it doesn't give their brains time to rest."
Anyone who has earned a gold star for attendance during the first week of this year's festival has been well rewarded by two powerful works.
Keith Josef Adkins's Wilberforce is a fierce epic of a pre-Civil War black family in the North, thrown into turmoil by the building of the eponymous first black college. It is a bit of a cheat to enter this play in a festival, for its rhapsodic language and Old Testament power make it seem like Botticelli's Venus -- something born perfectly formed. It would take audacious egotism to offer anything but ardent praise.
And the same goes for Ebani Edwards, who shines as Wilberforce's haunted child. A gifted actress, she has had the misfortune in the last year and a half to have been stuck in enough dogs to earn her a lifetime supply of Alpo. Here she is rewarded with a role worthy of her talent.
Those who love August Wilson, Toni Morrison, or William Faulkner owe it to themselves to see this work, which will be staged January 12 through 14. If this play doesn't have a glorious future, there's little hope for the American theater, other than staged retreads of Gilligan's Island.
The other play worthy of note so far is by local playwright Ernest Hemmings, who writes and performs for the unashamedly mean-spirited comedy group The Human Zoo. Hemmings has channeled his dark sensibilities into Apartment, a symphony of nihilistic apartment dwellers living doomed lives. In three vignettes of three sets of tenants, he chronicles the desperate doings that take place in the same apartment, escalating from slum to gentrification. The work has a morbid fascination, like watching a pond full of piranhas gnawing on your neighbor's pussycat.
An extra bonus is seeing old pros in unexpected roles and being introduced to appealing neophytes. Jeff Blanchard is here paroled from the frat-boy dynamics of Cabaret Dada to conquer two roles: a gentle retard and a con man in over his head. Blanchard's scenes with fellow actor Alan Baranstein have an impeccable comic-tragic tone worthy of Beckett. Adding heat to frozen January nights is Amy Brotherton's gilded take on Mrs. Robinson and Sandra Menefee's doomed prostitute.
The pugnacious Hemmings, whose appearance and manner bear an uncanny resemblance to Midnight Cowboy's Ratso Rizzo, offers his take on what the festival has meant to him personally: "It has inspired my thoughts in a theatrical manner, helping me create for a physical, 3D environment from two-dimensional ideas."
For bold Clevelanders, five more plays remain to be unearthed in the next three weeks -- adventures that could equal Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island or, in the Jules Verne vein, sink 20,000 leagues under the sea.
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