Cesear's Forum describes itself as "Cleveland's smallest resident professional theater company," but that may be a bit grandiose. This tiny company is a niche theater tucked inside a nook and shoved deep into a cranny. Many Playhouse Square theatergoers, as they bustle through the hallways on their way to the Palace or State theaters, never even know there's another theater down that unobtrusive stairway to the left.
But that basement space is where Cesear's Forum has been staging plays, lo these many years, for small and select audiences. And it has always been led by founder and artistic director Greg Cesear. As Keith A. Joseph, local theater critic par excellence once put it: "Cesear rates a crown of laurels, for he is as foolhardily brave as any conquering hero in his championing of esoteric theatrical classics that bedevil first-year theater majors."
Although they don't produce many plays during a given year, no doubt due to a budget that probably approximates what Playhouse Square allocates for a month's worth of Styrofoam cups, Cesear's Forum soldiers on with pride and purpose. Their mission is to produce plays that "combine social commitment with theatrical experimentation, works that shine light on the gamut of human experience."
And that they have done over the years, often producing exceptional productions of a variety of plays that usually aren't done elsewhere. This is theater for adventuresome audiences who are not put off by challenging scripts and risk-taking staging. And as a result, a jaunt into Cesear's little underground hideaway can often be quite rewarding.
Of course, when you're all about rolling the dice theatrically, sometimes the results come up snake eyes. Their current production of Peter Weiss' The Investigation is a case in point. A classic example of verbatim theater, in which plays are built from the actual accounts of people involved in a particular event, The Investigation gives chapter and verse descriptions of the horrors committed at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The play takes place during the Frankfurt-Auschwitz Trials, which ended in 1965, the same year Peter Weiss assembled this work. When it was produced at many theaters that same year, the reaction was powerful, with controversy swirling around Weiss' technique of presenting the testimony of witnesses juxtaposed with the self-serving statements of camp guards and supervisors. None of the victims are identified (except one, who doesn't speak), and their recitation of detailed atrocities becomes numbing.
And that is as it should be, since the play wants to make the plight of these victims universal and not specific. Delivered straight-faced and without emotion, the agonies pile one atop the other and the result should be shattering.
This production is both good and original. Unfortunately, what is good is not original, and what is original is not good. The Weiss script is certainly good, as it deploys facts, even down to the measurements of sleeping platforms and torture rooms. This fact-based approach serves to distance the audience from the individuals and thereby enlist observers in the banality of this overwhelming evil. And when the evil is described, including babies being torn limb from limb, it still shocks one to the core.
But the original aspects of the production, developed by director Cesear, don't serve the piece well. It begins as people are finding their seats, with one of the actors, a game John Kolibab, mopping the stage, yelling offstage to another staff person, and bantering with the audience. He also calls the roll of the audience, reading some real names of patrons who reserved seats and insisting that they respond, "Here!"
This attempt at comic distancing (and perhaps a bit of pseudo-authoritarianism) is a chancy stroke that just doesn't work. In order to be effective, this pre-show improv should be more stylized and pointed, not just a guy shuffling around and trying to cadge titters from the mostly mystified onlookers. Then, a planted singer (Audrey Baran) is invited on stage to trill a song from sheet music accompanied by a violinist (Max Bruno) — a pre-planned gambit that is a tiny bit excruciating in its obviousness. Again, it should be done bigger with a sharper comic edge, or not at all.
Once the actual play begins, Cesear over-blocks his actors, who are almost constantly in motion, carrying chairs on and off stage, facing the audience and then facing away, testifying seriously or chatting casually to one another. It's basically a cluster-block, and it makes it hard to actually focus on the words. Not to mention the terror behind the words.
The talented cast labors mightily to make it all work. In addition to Kolibab they include Tricia Bestic, Brian Bowers, Zach Griffin, Michael Johnson, Lee Mackey, Michael Regnier, Jeanne Task and Valerie Young.
While The Investigation does not succeed, it is one more example of the risks Greg Cesear and his troupe love to take. And for that, they deserve a deep bow.