Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

On Stage
Black Nativity -- Karamu's annual presentation of Langston Hughes' gospel extravaganza has less of a plot than other versions. But the combination of spectacular singing and emotional, energetic dancing makes the evening memorable on many counts. In two clearly differentiated acts -- the first recounts the story of Jesus' birth, and the second takes place in a contemporary church filled with foot-stomping parishioners shouting call-and-response -- the show encompasses a lot of Christian history and a whole lot of fine gospel tunes. The 17 full-throated singers are supported by two polished dancers, Michael Medcalf and Kathleen Turner, as well as electrifying young hoofers from the Cleveland School of Performing Arts. Director-choreographer Terence M. Greene adds a little humor with an older couple that gets with the beat in the church, but he keeps the focus where it belongs: on exuberant music that can free the mind and nourish the spirit. From familiar standards such as "We Three Kings" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" to lesser-known anthems, the singers can lift audiences right out of their seats through an undisguised passion for music that captures the sound of faith. Through December 30 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7070. -- Christine Howey

Dark Room -- The conventional image we have of playwrights and poets is of lonely souls slaving away in a poorly lit basement. Well, you've got the location and the illumination right, but everything else about the Dark Room project is much cheerier. Sponsored by the Cleveland Theater Collective, it's a once-a-month workshop/cabaret for writers who want to try out their new efforts on a small but extremely encouraging audience. On this night, in a basement room in the Parish Hall at Cleveland Public Theatre, the quality of the pieces varied widely, as is to be expected with scenes or verses that are still being developed (thus, the dark room). But one monologue by Tom Huggins, describing the burnout of nurses dealing with psycho patients in hospitals, was as irreverent and hilarious as a David Sedaris essay. Other offerings, each under 10 minutes, touched on the obnoxious questions asked of "little people," a musical take on holiday haters, and a little girl's imaginary friend, who is a middle-aged Dame Edna type. Reading from scripts (and dragooning anyone nearby to fill out a cast), the writers express, share, and support. And that's a terrific environment for any embryonic artistic endeavor. Takes place the second Thursday of every month at Cleveland Public Theatre's Parish Hall, 6205 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, -- Howey

Love, Janis -- Janis Joplin's six-pack-a-day voice and the gentle soul behind it are the undeniable stars of Love, Janis. Based on the book of the same name by Laura, Janis' sister, the play is in effect a full-blown concert, with short interludes that show the singer's quieter and more reflective side. Quoting liberally from the letters she sent home, a more three-dimensional picture of Janis emerges as she fights professionally to avoid becoming "the poor man's Cher." As adapted and directed by Randal Myler, two women portray Janis, one speaking and one primarily singing, to emphasize the bifurcation of her psyche (at one point the icon says, "I gotta go change into Janis; she's upstairs in a box"). Katrina Chester as the singing Janis (she shares the tonsil-ravaging role with Lauren Dragon) embodies the explosive energy and total commitment of Joplin's full-body-contact blues. Even when she's not singing during musical bridges, Chester's "going down" on the bass guitar or dry-humping the drum set, always making love to her music. Amazingly, Morgan Hallett, as the speaking Janis, matches Chester's intensity by stitching thoughts from the singer's missives and remembrances into a homespun quilt of surprising and poignant sweetness. This show is not to be missed. Through February 12 at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Menopause, the Musical -- Everybody enjoys musicals dealing with energetic young people on the brink of conquering the world. But what about the people in the audience: the nearsighted, overweight, and wrinkled denizens of middle age, who rarely see their own physiological mysteries put into song? For them, there is Menopause, the Musical, a hoot of a show written by Jeanie Linders. It's a foot-stomping 90-minute revival meeting for women who've had to deal with The Change while also trying to maintain their careers and family relationships. Menopause is frequently repetitious, even teetering on the brink of tiresome, but the energetic cast of four and spirited direction by Patty Bender and Kathryn Conte maintain the flow, so to speak. All women with a few decades on them -- even those who only use "menopause" as an excuse to get out of going to football games -- will probably get a stiff neck from nodding in agreement and a tender side from all the laughter. Playhouse Square Center's 14th Street Theatre, 2037 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction in Frank Sinatra's loosely organized Rat Pack and their infamous, loopily disorganized Las Vegas shows that ran for a few golden years back in the 1960s. Frank, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. mixed pop songs, corny jokes, and Johnnie Walker into an irreverent, hip evening that seemed so easy. What the Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic proves is that it ain't easy at all. This one-hour set attempts to capture the bored-with-it-all sophistication and the slightly inebriated intimacy that the Rat Packers achieved, but it fails on several counts, from the overly eager performers to the florid songs and lame drinking jokes. Which is not to say that this no-cover show doesn't provide a convenient glide path for those downtown on a Friday or Saturday night. Indeed, some of the American standards are sung well enough. Now the task is to find directors and performers who understand that being casually funny while delivering classic tunes takes a lot of work. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey

Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge -- For those who prefer their holiday eggnog with a healthy squirt of Ronrico 151, Cleveland Public Theatre has brought back this careening parody of the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, which offers many of the well-known characters, as well as a few throw-ins from Oliver Twist, It's a Wonderful Life, The Gift of the Magi, Touched by an Angel, and The Queen of Mean (the Leona Helmsley biopic). As for the basic story, you know the drill: Shilling-squeezing Scrooge is visited by three spirits, who toss him in the time-scrambler and coach him on ways to be nice to people. But in Christopher Durang's demented tale, nothing is taken seriously except for a deep desire to screw with every Christmas cliché in sight. Meg Chamberlain reprises her take as sociopathic Gladys, snarling like a cornered ferret and longing for a case of Zoloft. As her husband, Bob, Tom Weaver is thin as the Dickens and an ideal foil for Chamberlain's rampaging domestic hysteria. Even when the missus goes off to a bar before tossing herself in the river, then is magically transported back to her family dripping wet, Weaver's oblivious Bob keeps smiling and leading his brood through their tortured holiday rituals. Through December 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Howey

Opal -- Kalliope Stage, an enormously gifted ensemble that often features the best singers this side of Manhattan, has tasked itself with breathing life into a collection of songs and a script that is mundane, when not wincingly saccharine or gratuitously savage. The sweet-and-sour package offers fleeting glimmers of theatricality awash in a sea of stock characters and aggressively unmemorable tunes. A preteen girl is washed ashore in 1900ish Oregon after her ship sinks in a storm, taking her parents with it. Claiming to be of royal lineage from some undefined country, the girl is taken in by a woman at a lumber camp and taught to slop pigs, scrub floors, and sing unnecessary songs. Told in episodic sequences by a handful of anonymous storytellers, the newly named Opal tries to reunite with her drowned parents by "finding a way to make Earth glad." Perhaps in other hands, such an arch conceit could work. But Robert Lindsey Nassif, who wrote every jot and tittle of this 100-minute excursion into banality, has such a tight grip on his characters, he chokes the life out of them. It's all that the actors and inventive director Paul F. Gurgol can do to keep this creaky enterprise moving forward. Through December 18 Kalliope Stage, 2134 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-321-0870. -- Howey

The Santaland Diaries -- Hefty and dyspeptic Mark Alan Gordon brings a new energy to this now familiar monologue by David Sedaris. Walking onstage in a plaid shirt and baseball cap, Gordon scans the room with a baleful gaze and proceeds to divulge the story of his employment as an elf at Macy's. Soon, he's stripping off his street clothes to reveal the green tasseled tunic, candy-cane leggings, and curly-toed slippers (with bells) -- his official attire as Crumpet when in Santa's Village. Looking like a 45-year-old Teamster foreman forced at gunpoint into someone else's nightmare, the actor puffs on a cigarette as he scathingly analyzes his co-elfs, including a clueless female gnome and an aggressively cruising male pixie named Snowball. Although this Diaries works with an abridged script, Gordon's performance under the direction of Rohn Wilson has an easy amiability and seamless sarcasm that works 95 percent of the time. It's only at the end of the 60-minute routine, when Crumpet encounters some genuine Christmas spirit, that Gordon seems uncertain how to segue from free-floating hostility to elfin vulnerability. December 15, 16, and 23 at the Cleveland Play House Club, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Howey

The Santaland Diaries -- This delightfully acidic performance by Andrew Tarr gets virtually everything right, bringing out author David Sedaris' multiple mean streaks while never crossing the line into abusiveness. Whether he's poking fun at asshole fathers from Long Island who visit Macy's Christmas commune or a group of retarded youngsters on a holiday field trip (no sacred cows here), Tarr's tortured elf is continually and hilariously in the moment. Even better than his narrative voice are the mini-characters he creates, especially a motivational elf cheerleader and his impression of Billie Holiday singing "Away in a Manger." Although he speeds too quickly through some lines, losing some laughs in the process, Tarr and his director, Bethany Hamilton Sandvik, generally find the ideal pace for this material. Most important, Tarr is quite touching when, in the conclusion where he works with a Santa who really connects with his visitors, the witty elf confronts himself and admits, "I'm not a good person." Lots of chuckles wrapped up with a tear at the end, Diaries doesn't get a whole lot better than this. Through December 18 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Howey

States of Shock -- This accurately named work is less a traditional play than a portrait of a country's fractured mindset amid today's war culture. Written by Sam Shepard in response to the first Gulf conflict, back in 1991, it employs stock characters in a coffee shop operated by a distracted and fearful waitress. The gruff Colonel, a war-loving officer who thanks God for having an enemy to fight, pushes a wheelchair bearing a young, disabled vet who may be his son. The two engage in psychological sniper fire while, at another table, a couple dressed all in white is oblivious to the rage and pain a few feet away. Far from a subtle metaphor, this play precisely depicts the state of shock in the U.S. now, as governmental parents shove other people's children off to death and dismemberment, while the majority of Americans hardly get their hair mussed. At 70 minutes, this short piece under Clyde Simon's focused direction has more emotion than thought process and is frequently frustrating in its sketchy development of ideas. But if you want a snapshot of our country right now, here it is. Presented through December 17 by Convergence-Continuum at the Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074. -- Howey

T.I.D.Y. -- Conspiracies are all the rage these days, so they would seem rich territory for theatrical comedy. Of course, it's incumbent upon the playwright to assemble a deft and captivating vehicle that can poke holes in pompous and arrogant governmental schemers while giving us a hero with whom we can bond. Local playwright Eric Coble has attempted such a task in this world-premiere comedy, and while the first act shows some promise, the second act jumps so many sharks, it feels like a water-ski show on the set of Jaws. It's a shame, too, since the uniformly fine cast -- featuring Sarah Morton, Kevin Joseph Kelly, and Nicholas Koesters -- is worthy of much better material. In brief, anal-retentive Emily Danbert is a geek who has created a computer program for libraries that provides information about every person in the U.S. (Makes you wonder if the playwright ever heard of Lexis-Nexis or Google.) Soon she's being tracked by assassins, having her flat bugged by a suspicious cable guy, and meeting a mysterious phone caller in a parking garage. In the process, Coble continually gets in his own way with writing that often smacks of skit night at summer camp. Through December 18 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey

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