Risky Business

The new season reveals a theater scene eager to take its chances

We haven't produced a dead playwright yet!"

So says Clyde Simon, artistic director of Convergence-Continuum, a near West Side theater company with a clear mission for mounting challenging modern plays.

And while not all groups eat risk for breakfast as lustily as Con-Con, Cleveland Public Theatre, and Theater Ninjas do, there are some juicy treats in store for those who relish live theater that dances on the edge. With a bundle of world premieres written or devised by locals also on tap, the next three months are shaping up to be among the most adventuresome in local memory.

Simon is producing The Boys in the Band (October 7-29), an Off Broadway hit that also became a cult-fave flick. Mart Crowley's viper pit of self-hating gay men in the 1960s is a period piece with bite. In it, Michael gathers a few gay pals to throw a birthday party for Harold, a self-described "32-year-old pockmarked Jew fairy," who happens to be the Babe Ruth of the bitchy putdown. And that's where the group meltdown begins, fueled by plenty of cocktails.

The choice of Boys may seem a departure for Simon's daring troupe, but it really isn't.

"We are trying to produce a modern American classic play each year — as long as the playwright is living," he explains, citing a past performance of Buried Child by Sam Shepard.

Boys fills that bill, since playwright Crowley, although getting on in years, is still reasonably upright. Plus, this period piece is significant historically. "It's a big piece of gay history, and we do a lot of gay plays here," Simon says. "It was a production both I and the director, Tyson Douglas Rand, wanted to tackle.

"Remember, when Boys first opened Off Broadway in 1968, there was a city ordinance that prohibited openly gay characters from being on a Broadway stage. All they could do is appear briefly on stage and then exit."

Those exits were often followed by tragedies, since that was about the only acceptable path for a gay person at the time. Though those awful situations still occur, we've come a long way, baby. And The Boys in the Band is a stepping stone on that journey.

A Play About Sarah Palin? You Betcha!

Many months ago, when Dobama Theatre artistic director Joel Hammer was watching the TV news, the message of Sarah Palin motivated him to action. Perhaps not quite as she had envisioned, but action nonetheless.

"Her simplistic ideas infuriated me, and I wondered what we could do as a theater," Hammer recalls. "So we decided to commission a play."

Dobama will open its season with Grizzly Mama (September 9-October 2). The dark comedy — could it be anything else? — centers around a liberal mom who moves her clan next door to the half-baked Alaskan. It's claimed that murder is involved, but don't get your hopes up.

As it turns out, Grizzly Mama may not be quite what you're imagining. For one thing, there will be no Palin impersonator. As Hammer explains, "The local playwright George Brant developed his own story about a divorced mother who channels her mother's activist liberal politics."

According to Hammer, the play has evolved so that Mom and her teen daughter actually wind up focusing on a Palinesque (or Bachmann-like) presidential candidate. Suffice to say, mother and daughter aren't interested in stuffing envelopes for the Tea Party. But since the final script is still being developed, we won't know how grisly Grizzly Mama gets till opening night.

A Brechtian Christening &

3 World Premieres

The Cleveland Play House — gradually evolving toward the sportier moniker CPH — will open its new era on a new stage in a new location in a bold way with The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht (September 16-October 9).

Appropriately, the play is about a new age and the dawning of science, as seen through this slice of the renowned polymath's life when he was attacked for his teachings. Brimming with hefty ideas about reason vs. faith, this is a gutsy choice for CPH's initial foray in its new home, a reimagined Allen Theatre that is now vastly more compact and audience-friendly.

Within days of Galileo's closing, Cleveland Public Theatre will conspire with Theater Ninjas for the world premiere of Monster Play (October 13-29). This is a devised work — a play conceived, written, and brought to the stage entirely by the people connected with the production.

Monster promises to bear the always-boundary-expanding earmarks of CPT and director Jeremy Paul's Theater Ninjas, a group dedicated to creating accessible live performances that incorporate dance and improvisation.

"Even though there are monsters everywhere in this show, it's really about what makes humans human," says Paul. "We'll use ancient texts, fairy tales, B-movie tropes, and our own explorations to investigate everything monstrous."

CPT adds another world premiere to the mix with local performer Nina Domingue's autobiographical Ya, Mama! (November 3-12). It's a solo show that touches on the death of Domingue's mother, as well as Hurricane Katrina.

Karamu playwright-in-residence Michael Oatman has written a new play involving rowdy teens, oldsters in a retirement home, and lots of pop locking. In You Got Nerve! at Karamu (September 14-October 9), a group of unruly kids vandalizes a retirement home ... and their resulting community-service sentence involves a dance competition. Beats getting jacked up in the prison shower.

Heartbreaking Losses &

Dastardly Bosses

Last year, Cleveland Clinic teamed up with Karamu House to produce From Breast Cancer to Broadway, providing much-needed insight about detection and prevention as well as an involving theatrical experience.

This year, the Clinic will partner with Karamu again on playwright Michael Cristofer's The Shadow Box (October 28-November 20), which takes place at a hospice.

"We may actually use off-stage narration read by Cleveland Clinic doctors at the beginning of each show," says Karamu artistic director Terrence Spivey. "Although the words in the script will be the same, having a different physician saying the words could give each evening's performance a unique feeling — for both the actors and the audience."

In the wake of its smash success with Hairspray, Beck Center in Lakewood is taking a sharp turn toward more edgy, serious fare: David Mamet's Race (October 21-November 20) focuses on a wealthy white executive accused of raping a black woman. The 2009 play rings a 2011 bell, dropping us firmly in the realm of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn accusation.

As the Northeast Ohio theater scene has weathered the disappearance of several troupes in recent years, it's gratifying that so many are seeking to expand their offerings this year. There may be no fixing our gigantic national deficit, but there's no creativity deficit in sight as we enter the 2011-'12 season.

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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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