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Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations. 

Dark Room -- The conventional image we have of playwrights and poets is of lonely souls slaving away in a poorly lit basement. Well, you've got the location and the illumination right, but everything else about the Dark Room project is much cheerier. Sponsored by the Cleveland Theater Collective, it's a once-a-month workshop/cabaret for writers who want to try out their new efforts on a small but extremely encouraging audience. On this night, in a basement room in the Parish Hall at Cleveland Public Theatre, the quality of the pieces varied widely, as is to be expected with scenes or verses that are still being developed (thus, the dark room). But one monologue by Tom Huggins, describing the burnout of nurses dealing with psycho patients in hospitals, was as irreverent and hilarious as a David Sedaris essay. Other offerings, each under 10 minutes, touched on the obnoxious questions asked of "little people," a musical take on holiday haters, and a little girl's imaginary friend, who is a middle-aged Dame Edna type. Reading from scripts (and dragooning anyone nearby to fill out a cast), the writers express, share, and support. And that's a terrific environment for any embryonic artistic endeavor. Takes place the second Thursday of every month at Cleveland Public Theatre's Parish Hall, 6205 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, -- Christine Howey

The Diary of Anne Frank -- The tragedy of Anne Frank's truncated existence has been diluted over time so much that everyone thinks they have internalized the message. But now we have a chance to relive her story and engage it anew in this powerful adaptation by playwright Wendy Kesselman. Once again, we encounter the almost unbelievable scenario of eight people who spent 25 months shut up in four rooms attached to the building where Otto Frank's business was located, never leaving and hardly ever daring to peek outside. Kesselman slowly ratchets up the tension as we watch these frightened people cooperate and collide with each other, always with an ear turned to the steep stairway and the hidden door, listening for the footfall of an SS officer or a paid informant that could spell their annihilation. Director Sarah May blends a number of distinct voices into an evening of theater that has the seamless continuity of a program by a top-flight chamber orchestra. Much of the credit goes to young Heather Farr, who belies her tender age by crafting an Anne who is wonderfully spirited and endearing. Through February 26 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540. -- Howey

I Love You, You¹re Perfect, Now Change -- Loosely organized around a chronology that extends from a nervous first date to an elderly twosome who meet at a funeral parlor, this collection of sketches and songs pounds away at any number of conventional dating and marital clichés. But thanks to relentlessly energetic and inventive performances by Carousel Dinner Theatre's cast of four, the evening is surprisingly delightful. The two women, Jennifer Swiderski and Holly Davis (an understudy who performed on this night), scored early with a smoky rendition of "Single Man Drought," smilingly lying to their clueless dates and wishing to be somewhere else, to be a lesbian -- to be anything other than stuck with the losers across the table. The boys are every bit their equal: Gavin Esham essays a number of characters with consistent charm and precision, and Mark Sanders delivers the show's best song, "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You?," with tender feeling, as his wife of many years keeps her head buried in the morning paper. Through February 25 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

Intimate Apparel -- There's nothing in a fabric store that you can buy and use immediately. But for some, the unlimited potential that resides in those bolts of silk, wool, and organza is endlessly enriching, sparking the creative impulse and often leading to remarkable results. So it's fitting that fabric is a central theme in this deeply engrossing play by Lynn Nottage. Structured around a 35-year-old black woman named Esther, who is a self-employed seamstress in 1905 Manhattan, Intimate Apparel is like a long swath of richly hued and textured cloth that gradually takes its shape over two acts. Though it starts slowly and feels overly familiar early on, the show offers up six characters who continue to delight in unexpected ways until the downbeat but thoroughly satisfying conclusion. The role of Esther is a challenging assignment, since the character is on from start to finish, and Gwendolyn Mulamba hits almost every note with precision. Though Esther "knows her place" in the racially intolerant world of early 20th-century America, Mulamba gives this talented but flawed woman a strong spine and an unquenchable spirit. Through March 5 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Howey

Love, Janis -- Janis Joplin's six-pack-a-day voice and the gentle soul behind it are the undeniable stars of Love, Janis. Based on the book of the same name by Laura, Janis' sister, the play is in effect a full-blown concert, with short interludes that show the singer's quieter and more reflective side. Quoting liberally from the letters she sent home, a more three-dimensional picture of Janis emerges as she fights professionally to avoid becoming "the poor man's Cher." As adapted and directed by Randal Myler, two women portray Janis, one speaking and one primarily singing, to emphasize the bifurcation of her psyche (at one point the icon says, "I gotta go change into Janis; she's upstairs in a box"). Katrina Chester as the singing Janis (she shares the tonsil-ravaging role with Clevelander Mary Bridget Davies) embodies the explosive energy and total commitment of Joplin's full-body-contact blues. Even when she's not singing during musical bridges, Chester's "going down" on the bass guitar or dry-humping the drum set, always making love to her music. Amazingly, Morgan Hallett, as the speaking Janis, matches Chester's intensity by stitching thoughts from the singer's missives and remembrances into a homespun quilt of surprising and poignant sweetness. This show is not to be missed. Through February 26 at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Menopause, the Musical -- Everybody enjoys musicals dealing with energetic young people on the brink of conquering the world. But what about the people in the audience: the nearsighted, overweight, and wrinkled denizens of middle age, who rarely see their own physiological mysteries put into song? For them, there is Menopause, the Musical, a hoot of a show written by Jeanie Linders. It's a foot-stomping 90-minute revival meeting for women who've had to deal with The Change while also trying to maintain their careers and family relationships. Menopause is frequently repetitious, even teetering on the brink of tiresome, but the energetic cast of four and spirited direction by Patty Bender and Kathryn Conte maintain the flow, so to speak. All women with a few decades on them -- even those who only use "menopause" as an excuse to get out of going to football games -- will probably get a stiff neck from nodding in agreement and a tender side from all the laughter. Playhouse Square Center's 14th Street Theatre, 2037 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction in Frank Sinatra's loosely organized Rat Pack and their infamous, loopily disorganized Las Vegas shows that ran for a few golden years back in the 1960s. Frank, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. mixed pop songs, corny jokes, and Johnnie Walker into an irreverent, hip evening that seemed so easy. What the Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic proves is that it ain't easy at all. This one-hour set attempts to capture the bored-with-it-all sophistication and the slightly inebriated intimacy that the Rat Packers achieved, but it fails on several counts, from the overly eager performers to the florid songs and lame drinking jokes. Which is not to say that this no-cover show doesn't provide a convenient glide path for those downtown on a Friday or Saturday night. Indeed, some of the American standards are sung well enough. Now the task is to find directors and performers who understand that being casually funny while delivering classic tunes takes a lot of work. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey

Mo Pas Connin or My Torment -- This production of Nina Domingue's script at Cleveland Public Theatre -- where the show first emerged in the Big Box experimental series last year -- demonstrates again the enormous range of Domingue's talent. Her crisp renditions of several wildly different personalities give a ground-level view of some of the African Americans who (used to) live in New Orleans. Blending mysticism with dance, drugs, religion, and depression, the 90-minute work is laced with laughter and some hard truths about people doing their best to keep moving forward. This work has taken on even more resonance since Katrina, which has likely blown away much of the resolute optimism shown by Domingue's characters. But when she shifts into the bubblegum voice of impish grade-schooler Jasmine or snaps at people as a hard-core crack addict, you know you're in the presence of a consummate performer. Adorable one moment and fierce the next, Domingue, under the direction of Hassan Rogers, embodies the soul of the Crescent City and makes one wonder how much has truly been lost. Through February 26 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Howey

Sorrows and Rejoicings -- South African playwright Athol Fugard had to deal with thoughts of abandoning his country in the last years of apartheid, and many of those issues are brought to life in Sorrows and Rejoicings. The deceptively simple premise is that three women in Afrikaner poet Dawid Olivier's life have gathered, just after his funeral, at his home in the small town of Karoo. Sick with leukemia, Dawid had recently returned from his exile in London to spend his last days in his home on the veldt. As it turns out, though, his wife Allison, an Englishwoman, and the black servant Marta have a lot in common. Dawid and Marta had an affair extending over many years, and it resulted in Rebecca, the 18-year-old woman who's also in the room. As Dawid is seen in flashback scenes, much is divulged about his past and his relationships with these women: Marta and Allison still quietly pine for him, while Rebecca harbors deep resentment. Directed with a profound sense of stillness and compassion by Licia Colombi, Sorrows explores just how crippling the poet's exile became. Presented by Ensemble Theatre through February 26 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-321-2930. -- Howey

When the World Was Green -- For most of us, the myths and memories of childhood are a bubbling brew of joys and terrors that stay with us our whole lives. And no matter how big we grow, there are always nagging issues from our formative years that we keep trying to resolve or eradicate. Fortunately, it's rare when a youngster is saddled with the assignment of killing his own cousin in retribution for a family conflict dating back several generations. That's the baggage carried by the aging master chef in this play by Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard. The playwrights have subtitled their work "A Chef's Fable," which apparently gives them license to freely twirl lyrical pretensions at the expense of reason. Even so, ill-fitting details keep getting in the way of this Cesear's Forum production, in spite of the best efforts of a talented two-person cast. Through March 18 at Cesear's Forum at Kennedy's Down Under, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

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