Fall Guide: The Year of Living Parsimoniously

Theaters hunker down for 2009-10 with oldies and laughers

The recent news of the Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company going belly up was only the latest in a continuing series of body blows delivered to local theaters by the depressed economy. It's a melancholy trend that shows few signs of reversing.

Early last year, musical-comedy specialists Kalliope Stage succumbed to insurmountable debt.  At the same time, Charenton Theater Company — another small, but intriguing, living-on-the-edge outfit —staged a disappearing act without any formal announcement. For its oh-hell-and-farewell presentation, BNC will mount in its Akron location Craig Wright's Lady (Sept. 25-Oct. 17), a rudely comic reunion of guys loaded with recriminations and guns. The company's phone number and website are both down, though, so we're not sure how you get tickets.

For several seasons, both large and small playhouses have been increasingly instituting significant cutbacks in the number and adventurousness of productions, cast sizes and administrative staffs. This summer, for the first time in 70 years, Cain Park did not offer a large-scale production in its outdoor amphitheater. Likewise, in June, presumably to lop off a chunk of payroll, Great Lakes Theater Festival abruptly dismissed associate artistic director Andrew May, by far the troupe's most popular member and — one would have thought — an untouchable asset.

The depth and comprehensiveness of the ongoing carnage is most starkly demonstrated by a perusal of the area theater schedules for the 2009-2010 season. It's a rare organization that's not resorting to the standard prescription for tough times: cutting the number of productions and mounting proven box-office warhorses and feathery comedies.

Hardest hit appears to be Beck Center (17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216.521.2540, beckcenter.org). In April, it made an emergency general fundraising appeal, apparently aimed at just keeping its doors open. Only a few years back the town's leader in progressive fare, Beck's season has been slashed from nine (once 10) offerings to five (four musicals and a comedy). It is eliminating its entire Studio Theatre program, the home of its most daring productions. For the fall, Beck will present that Seabiscuit of war ponies, Fiddler on the Roof (Sept. 18-Oct. 18), and a repeat of its Christmas favorite, Peter Pan (Dec. 4-Jan. 3).

The Cleveland Play House (8500 Euclid Ave., 216.795.7000, clevelandplayhouse.com) has made a less severe but still considerable curtailment from a high of eight subscription-series shows to six, beginning with another go-round from solo pianist, raconteur and singalong meister Hershey Felder in Beethoven, As I Knew Him (Sept. 15-Oct. 4). This time, Felder does for (and to) Ludwig what he's previously done for Gershwin and Chopin. That's followed by one of theater's trustiest old steeds, Inherit the Wind (Oct. 23-Nov. 15), the fictionalized account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, and then a return of its holiday staple, A Christmas Story (Nov. 27-Dec. 20).

Clinging to existence by chewed nails for what seems like ages, Ensemble Theatre (performances at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216.321.2930, ensemble-theatre.com) seemed sure to expire under the double afflictions of the economy and the sad, near simultaneous deaths earlier this year of artistic directors Lucia and Licia Colombi. But, under new boss Bernie Canepari, the Little Theater That Could is miraculously returning for a 30th anniversary season, opening with The Man Who Came to Dinner (Oct. 2-25) — in this case, less a nod to the box office than to Ensemble's venerable mission and tradition as a revival haven.

For its parsimonious part, Great Lakes Theater Festival (2067 E. 14th St., 216.241.6000, greatlakestheater.org) will coddle its audiences to participate in the lightweight The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Sept. 24-Nov. 1) by voting on the ending. This much-performed adaptation of Dickens' unfinished final novel will run in repertory with Shakespeare's comedy, Twelfth Night (Oct. 8-31), before giving way to the customary holiday breadwinner, A Christmas Carol (Dec.4-23).

PlayhouseSquare (1501 Euclid Ave., 216.241.6000, playhousesquare.com) needs no tutoring in the art of priming the commercial pump. The road version of Mel Brook's reworking of his filmYoung Frankenstein (Oct. 13-25) will be followed by yet another month's run of the mega-popular blockbuster Wicked (Nov. 18-Dec.13).  Also, PlayhouseSquare will try to install for a lengthy spell in the 14th St. Theatre Dixie's Tupperware Party (tentatively Sept. 30-Oct. 18), a one-man drag show where a cracked southern belle harangues onlookers into partaking of her goods.

Bucking the trend after years of vagrancy, Dobama (2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216.932.3396, dobama.org) will debut its new home in the former Cleveland Heights Y with Eric Coble's Ten More Minutes From Cleveland (Sept. 25-Oct. 18), a sequel to his similar 2005 compilation of vignettes about the vicissitudes of local flora and fauna.  Gutenberg! The Musical (Dec. 4-Jan. 2) is next, a humorous two-man tale of a pair of promoters trying to sell the unlikely title project to backers' auditions.

Karamu (2355 E. 89th St., 216.795.7077, karamuhouse.org) and Cleveland Public Theatre (6415 Detroit Ave., 216.631.2727, cptonline.org) also seem to be in somewhat less perilous financial health. The former initiates its schedule with Fabulation (Sept. 18-Oct. 11), described as a satirical comedy about a pregnant and abandoned woman forced to return to her childhood home. Yellowman (Oct. 30-Nov. 22) deals with the issue of racism among blacks.  A surprise this year is the replacement of Karamu's holiday fixture, Black Nativity, with God's Trombones (Dec. 3-27), a musical adaptation of James Weldon Johnson's famous collection of folk sermons.

CPT is perhaps the theater most doing business as usual. It opens with two graduates of its Big [BOX] development series. Michael Sepesy's Alice Seed (Oct. 8-24) is "part horror story, part family drama," which to some might seem a fine-line distinction. Running simultaneously is No Child ..., a one-woman account of the experiences of a Bronx schoolteacher, featuring Nina Domingue. Veteran playwright Christopher Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them (Oct. 15-31) traces a black-comedy ride through yellow, orange and red alerts, while local playwright Eric Schmiedl's Browns Rules (Nov. 19-Dec. 13) sends up and pampers in cabaret form our obsession and frustration with our pigskin princes and paupers. And how could the year satisfactorily end without a visit from that irrepressible part-time Macy's elf and full-time kvetcher in The Santaland Diaries (Nov. 27-Dec. 19).

Clyde Simon and his convergence-continuum theater (at the Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216.687.0074, convergence-continuum.org) continue to ply the murky seas of contemporary theater with Jordan Harrison's gothic tale of a family's return to a house haunted by murder and sexual deviance, Finn in the Underworld (through Oct. 17). That psycho-sexual drama is followed by Tom Jacobson's Ouroboros (Nov. 13-Dec. 19), a time-tricking mix of déjà vu and The Twilight Zone that plays on the spiritual quests of two American couples visiting Italy.

Perhaps the majority of our hunkered-down theaters have chosen the best way to survive. But wouldn't you like to see just one rise up and collectively shout: "Screw it! If we're going down, let's go challenging ourselves with a repertory of the drama's glories that we've always been too scared to try." For them and for us, the question might be: What have we actually got to lose?

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