Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

Cleveland theater

The Confessions of Punch and Judy Based on the characters from the puppet show, Cleveland Public Theatre's exploration of volatile love relationships first graced its stage in 2005. Now it's back with the original cast. Ker Wells and Tannis Kowalchuk, as Punch and Judy, have refined their tough-love ballet into an amazingly pure distillation of damn near every argument any two sweethearts can have. Taking place in a single all-night bash-a-thon, the performers transition seamlessly from angry confrontation to sulking isolation, sampling a heady mélange of theatrical styles: commedia dell'arte, mime, a cappella singing, slapstick, and kitchen-sink melodrama. Some snatches of dialogue seem perfectly sensible, but then one or the other of the characters will drift off into a personal reverie involving the story of Adam and Eve (with hammers standing in for the principals) or the myth of the Minotaur. More than anything, Confessions is a dance of dysfunction that slyly incorporates the tools of disagreement so familiar to most couples. When irritated, Punch retreats to his hideaway to pound nails into boards, while knife-wielding Judy attacks a head of cabbage. And they lie to each other while wearing masks, asking each other questions, and then hating the answers. Written by the two actors and director Raymond Bobgan, this is a show that every couple should see before they consult a marriage counselor. For the price of admission, it could save them hundreds. Through February 23 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727. — Christine Howey

Gee's Bend While there is no doubt a powerful story to be told about Alabama women who make quilts that will one day hang in museums, this play ain't it. Written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, Gee's Bend makes the almost-always-fatal decision to cover multiple decades in 90 minutes. As a result, the audience gets the bends as the play rushes a young girl named Sadie through awkward adolescence, a pregnancy, a bad marriage, and feisty decrepitude. Played out on an overly spacious stage, the script attempts to encapsulate the entire scope of the civil-rights movement. The result is a well-intentioned jumble in which no characters remain the same age long enough for us to care. The four talented actors assigned to this production do what they can with the threadbare material. As Sadie, Erika LaVonn captures the girl's awkward teenage phase, but never develops the warmth or depth the character needs. Shanesia Davis, as Sadie's friend Nella, garners some well-deserved chuckles as a woman who has no interest in quilting. Wendell B. Franklin and Wandachristine ably play their respective roles as Sadie's husband and mother/daughter. Director Shirley Jo Finney keeps the pacing brisk, but sadly, Wilder's script never delves into the intricacies of quilting. Instead, she skims across the surfaces of these potentially enriching lives at warp speed. That isn't how great quilts, or involving plays, are made. Through February 24 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000. — Howey

Julius X Superimposing one character upon another seems an unnecessary stunt, but when you combine Julius Caesar and Malcolm X, you come away marveling at how the two men — whose lust for power led to their assassinations — fit together. Following Shakespeare's Julius Caesar storyline, Playwright Al Letson situates the characters in racially charged 1965 Harlem. A large part of the unrest is ignited by Nation of Islam Leader Elijah Muhammad, who appoints Julius/Malcolm X as the organization's sharp-edged spokesman. Julius enthralls blacks and terrifies whites, but after traveling to Mecca, he returns with a belief that Islam can transcend racial animosities. This idea — combined with Julius' hunger for power — leads the Nation's leaders to put a contract on his life. The production has many compelling moments, blending spoken-word poetry and gospel-inspired singing. But the talented cast often loses its grip on the material, resorting to increased volume when increased attention to character would have served better. And Abdullah Bey can't fit his quirky style to the title role, which requires an actor who speaks with clarity and sense of purpose. Jonathan Wray is solid as conspirator Cassius, Jason Dixon's Brutus touches on the complexity of the man, and Jason Walker gnashes his teeth in despair as Julius' cheerleader, Marc Antony. But all three depend far too often on shouting. Director Justin Emeka brings out the bells and whistles — strobe lights, fog, and two singing soothsayers — and set designer John Konopka's brick walls and chain-link fences nicely evoke Harlem. But it's a shame more of Malcolm X's fire isn't captured onstage in this less-than-entirely-successful production. Through February 24 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077. — Howey

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