Cardboard characters come to life at Cleveland Public Theatre's new show.

Worth the Wait! 

Cardboard characters come to life at Cleveland Public Theatre's new show.

Talk to the hand: Floating Piata Head silences - Wendy.
  • Talk to the hand: Floating Piata Head silences Wendy.
The bios of famous people often include the phrase "who grew up in a small town," as if that's some badge of achievement. Guess what -- we're all from a small town, the borders of which are the bony left and right walls of the cranial cavity. It matters little whether the body happens to be respiring in New York City or Flyspeck, Alabama; we are confined to the whistle-stop our brains create for us, until circumstances or sheer force of will expel us into the wider universe. Of course, there are many who live and die in that same tiny gray place, waiting for something to happen that never does.

This is the idea behind Wait! by Julie Jensen, now being given a sensational rendering in a co-production by TITLEWave Theatre and Cleveland Public Theatre. On the surface, this script seems to step on every banana peel it can find. The handful of characters are formulaic and stereotypical: The young woman is shy and confused, the father's an alcoholic, and the local theater director -- can you guess? -- is flamboyantly gay. On top of that, they all live in a predictable dead-end burg that is so downscale, the central family occupies a home that is actually the basement of a house that never got built. Amazingly, this production gracefully skates across all these potential slip-ups, twirls three times in the air, and sticks the landing by turning a handful of cardboard characters into real (albeit rampantly unusual) people.

The lead character in this enterprise is Wendy Burger (ha-ha), who calls herself the "wallboard woman" because she blends into the background and finds it hard even to speak to others. However, she jabbers to the audience plenty, as she narrates her changing emotional states along with the action of the play. Turns out, she lives with her beer-swilling dad, who burps and drools his days away, feet propped up on a coffee table made of Quaker State motor-oil cases. Other than driving for UPS, Wendy has nothing going for her until Lu, the local drama queen, decides to sweep the dead vermin out of the decrepit opera house and start puttin' on plays. This places aspiring thespian Wendy in close proximity to a couple of outrageous female actors named, incongruously, O Vixen My Vixen (inspired by the Walt Whitman poem) and Floating Piñata Head. Yes, it sounds unbearably precious and pretentious, and we haven't even mentioned the barely understandable Greek/Romanian couple, Jen-Ya and Hazar, who live near Wendy, along with Modesto, Dad's main squeeze, a brazenly self-described "woman of meat," who carries rib-eyes in her purse and who has hands that look like grilled sirloin. But amazingly, it all comes together astoundingly well.

While the script gradually leads these losers toward a fractured production of Hamlet, the impressive TITLEWave cast is busy spinning its characters' flax into gold. As Wendy, Jennifer Clifford is a waif with a spine of steel, vulnerable and needy, but ready to explore anything that will release her from her town or her claustrophobic mindset. She's overwhelmed with passion for Vixen, played with wacky earnestness by Marni Task, who is full of comically trenchant insights ("Then I realized . . . life is what theater is based on!") that sweep Wendy off her sensibly shod feet. The other three cast members play three characters each. Meg Chamberlain is hilariously pugnacious as the Atkins-diet dream girl, the beef-loving Modesto, and the helpful Jen-Ya. But Chamberlain's one-note Gloria Swanson/Kate Hepburn take on Floating Piñata Head becomes tiresome and ultimately less interesting than her other roles. In a bravura performance, Randy Rollison crafts three distinct and diabolically funny characters. His Dad is a leering letch, but Rollison gives him more dimension; his final scene with Wendy, in which he's soaked in his own post-binge dreck, is surprisingly touching. At the same time, Rollison manages to make Lu lovably swishy and the gruff and guttural Hazar a minor comic gem.

Productions of wacky scripts such as Wait! always run the risk of becoming too enamored of their own zaniness. Director Gregory Vovos avoids this by keeping his actors focused on the humanity that pulses in Jensen's words. And thanks to Jenny Hitmar's spare staging -- Wendy's upstairs apartment is represented by the fifth rung on a 12-foot stepladder -- we are left teetering between Wendy's real and imagined lives.

Once Lu's production of Hamlet is staged -- with a flickering blue light playing the lead role (à la Tinkerbell), after the designated actor had to go shingle his girlfriend's roof -- Wendy reaches an epiphany of sorts. Perhaps space-cadet Vixen sums it up best when she sagely observes, "Maybe that's what theater's about: like give and like take!" Like, yeah.

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