The Smokin' River Blues: The Cuyahoga Lights Up Again in the Dazzling Fire on the Water at Cleveland Public Theatre 

It's kind of a shame you can't buy a boxed set of plays, as you can with a TV series or a film star's oeuvre. Seeing all those shows back-to-back can lend a new and more revealing meaning to the work.

With the current production of Fire on the Water, Cleveland Public Theatre is completing their four-part environmental Elements Cycle. And it would be wonderful to see them (including Water Ways and Earth Plays from 2013 and last year's Air Waves) all bundled together. That is both the glory and the regret of live theater: It exists only in the moment.

Of course, this is the moment for Fire on the Water, a play that utilizes a unique scripting approach and innovative staging to explore the meaning of our infamous burning river. As with most of the plays in this Cycle, Fire lapses too easily into preaching and lecturing. But the flood of sensory overload in this juggernaut is excessive in all the right ways, sweeping the audience along like a surging river.

The organizer of this event is CPT artistic director Raymond Bobgan who, in the program, takes on the titles of both producer and "Master Conductor." In most situations, the latter title would seem a bit grandiose, but not in this case. First, he has brought together five local, professional theater companies to create the 14 distinct pieces in Fire. These include, in addition to CPT: Blank Canvas Theatre, Ohio City Theatre Project, Talespinner Children's Theatre and Theater Ninjas.

Then Bobgan and "Conducting Director" Jeremy Paul orchestrate a large cast, a band and a galaxy of special effects inside the large Gordon Square Theater space. In a neat twist, the audience is seated in smooth-rolling office chairs, so each person can easily slide this way and that for the best view. The entire floor space is open, except for three tubs of water where a trio of appropriately clothed "water spirits" cavort, pose or just hang out.

The audience enters the playing area together, at the same time, and the impact is startling. The set design by Bobgan and T. Paul Lowry (who doubles as video designer) features moving projections that flicker across the ceiling and all around the walls. At one end of the room, on a balcony, a four-piece band plays original music composed by sound designer Sam Fisher.

Many parts of this many-faceted play work extremely well. After an ethereal beginning made up of singing and chants, the proscenium end of the room is occupied with "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," written and directed by Blank Canvas founder Patrick Ciamacco. In it, the Nelsons are reimagined as Clevelanders, and when Ricky goes for a swim in the old, nasty Cuyahoga River set ablaze, he comes out looking like the son of the Crypt Keeper. Of course, oblivious Ozzie never notices.

Another intriguing piece is "Cuyahoga, Briefly," conceived and directed by Cathleen O'Malley, in which three actors convey the history of our crooked river from its inception as marshland up to and beyond the arrival of a preening Mayor Carl Stokes. The writing and performing here is tight and consistently amusing. In addition, Pandora Robertson's direction of "Incendiaries" is fiercely inventive, even though the subject matter — involving the Hough Riots and police brutality — seems to stretch the show's core premise a bit too far.

In between these produced pieces are interstitial ensemble scenes that provide historical context. One surprising factoid is that the infamous river fire in 1969 was actually the 13th such recorded fire on the Cuyahoga since 1868. However, that point is repeated so often during the proceedings it feels like the audience is being prepared for a crucial middle-school test on the data.

Indeed, there is a lot of repetition throughout, and it becomes clear that this material might work better if edited down from its current two-hours-plus and performed without an intermission. For instance, the first time an actor (Ryan Edlinger) flies up above the audience, it is exhilarating. But when Faye Hargate is hoisted up at the end of the show, doing the same airborne moves, it has a "been there, done that" feel that doesn't help the show conclude with force.

That's too bad, since there are some lovely words and images in the final piece, "Water and Woman," written by Hargate and Bobgan, as they explore the idea that we can choose to believe in a brighter future for our river, our land and our city.

Even with some wrinkles — and we're not talking about the fingertips of the marinating water spirits — Fire on the Water consistently surprises and challenges the audience. And those are the elements of a memorable theatrical experience.


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