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Take your brain for a heady promenade at CPT's Wanderlust Fine performances save Humble Boy's iffy script

If you've ever faced down an angry driver vying for the last open parking spot near a store entrance, you know how obsessed we modern humans are with the avoidance of walking. That's why it's good to pause and reflect on the joys of bipedal locomotion in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, now playing at Cleveland Public Theatre.

This world premiere, adapted by Matthew Earnest from an identically titled book by Rebecca Solnit, is a stimulating freeform collection of observations, quotes, and snatches of scenes involving walking that cover the globe and all of human history. If that sounds exhaustive (and exhausting), it is — this is no walk in the park for the audience. But the rewards are immense, even if you ultimately feel you've missed some of the moments.

Beginning with the group of paleontologists that unearthed the bones of Lucy (our ancient forbear who unquestionably strolled in some form on her hind legs), the play, like a good walk, meanders and follows its own impulses. By turning into this interesting alleyway and following that enticing bend in the road, the immediate subjects continually shift, but the overall focus remains steady.

From a walking tour at the Acropolis in Athens and a streetwalker in Brooklyn to Walt Whitman's words ("Afoot and lighthearted, I take to the open road") and people doing the cakewalk dance, the play is a paean to the glory of action, as well as the convergence of walking and thinking. Indeed, it posits that we perambulate and cogitate at the same speed, around 3 mph. While texters and tweeters might disagree with such a slow pace, remember that we're talking about actually thinking.

All this is infused with the manic imagination of director Earnest, who can turn the blandest scene into a visual amusement and often a revelation. The seven-person cast animates Lucy's bones so we can see her walk, cavorts stylishly in their loose-dirt sandbox of a set, and even gives us a bird's-eye view of Solnit as she writes at her desk. Plus, Earnest's staging of a Las Vegas family vacation is hilarious, and the conclusion is startling and absolutely perfect.

The players, who handle countless character fragments and are completely plugged in to Earnest's inspired vision, include Trae Hicks, Nicole Perrone, Jonathan Ramos, and Adam Thatcher. Pandora Robertson is tender and wistful as an English lady off on a jaunt to buy a pencil, and Kevin Charnas drills his take on a sassy curbside whore. As Lucy, among others, the ridiculously young and remarkably talented Alexis Generette Floyd proves she can do anything — play the violin, walk on walls — and do it well.

You may repeatedly find yourself a step behind the show's intense kinetic pace, still musing over that last Jean-Jacques Rousseau quote while watching a woman in a blonde wig being importuned on a table top. But once you open yourself to unexpected possibilities (remember, this is a "walk"), Earnest's thrilling theatrical chops should make you kick your heels in glee.

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What are the chances that six of the best stage performances of the year could show up in the same production? Almost zero. Still, it's happening right now at Dobama Theatre's Humble Boy.

This very British play written by Charlotte Jones, while flawed, benefits from interesting characters throughout. And whether the actors are skating close to the edge of parody or mining more subtle characterizations, they are consistently on point and immensely entertaining.

Felix Humble, an astrophysicist and researcher, has come home to bury his father, a schoolteacher and beekeeper who apparently died of a heart attack. But Felix is soon stuttering like he did as a child when crossing swords with mom Flora, a tightly wired bundle of nastiness who has just had some plastic surgery.

Mirroring Hamlet, the show then reveals that Flora has been boffing a neighbor, oafish coach-company owner George Pye, and they are planning to wed. Moreover, Felix's former girlfriend, George's daughter Rosie, shows up with surprising news (at least it's news to Felix) about her own daughter, and a wise old gardener shuffles about issuing trenchant comments. Rounding out the group is Flora's best friend, self-effacing Mercy.

The pleasures to be had here reside in the performances, not in the strained, overly cute (if married, Flora would be a Humble-Pye) and laboriously metaphorical story (see, the dead guy kept bees, and his wife is the queen bee, and the drones are ... ah, whatever).

As Flora, Maryann Nagel is actually more wasp than bee, stinging her son and others repeatedly with devastating results. Yet she deftly negotiates a turn later that allows us to see a different side. Andrew Cruse does not carry the extra body weight Felix calls for, but his stuttering is spot-on, and he manages to craft a fully realized person out of some dense material.

In the role of the brash and ham-fisted George, Greg Violand works against his often-suave persona and delivers a minor masterpiece, showing his raging desire for Flora and disgust with her wimpy son. As Rosie, Laurel Johnson shares some of Dad's unvarnished tone, while shading it with believable tenderness toward Felix. Laura Starnik is a stitch as Mercy, fumfering and fluttering about, especially in a dinner scene when she unwittingly adds an odd ingredient to the gazpacho — a gag in more ways than one.

Grateful bows go to director Joel Hammer, who cast these actors and crafted an ensemble production of surpassing quality. Kudos also to set designer Ron Newell for his storybook cottage and grounds.

The script should end when gardener Brian Zoldessy's not-so-secret identity is revealed and he interacts with Flora in a scene that echoes with deep emotional connection. Instead, the play goes on and ends with a whimper. But the performances that bring us to that point are quite a treat.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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