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HOT FUSION 

Wilder, Star Wars and more headline CPH performance festival

"I think Fusion Festival came of age this year," says Cleveland Play House Artistic Director Michael Bloom. Now in its fourth year, the festival brings together a range of Cleveland’s performing-arts companies. But in previous outings, while the festival has booked celebrity performers, the city’s most prestigious institutions have been absent — a significant shortcoming if it hopes to represent the best of the city’s arts offerings.

This year, Bloom has partnered with both the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art on programs that will give the festival a depth that warrants Bloom's appraisal. He says it was luck and schedules aligning that brought these organizations on board. Fusion Fest opens with the Play House's world-premiere production of Thornton Wilder's comic Heaven's My Destination (April 24-May 17), adapted for the stage by Lee Blessing. Bloom took the time last week to give some insight into that production — which he directs — and the entire Fusion Fest lineup.

"Heaven's My Destination is the story of a traveling textbook salesman making his way through middle America during the depression," says Bloom. "It's adapted from an obscure novel, and [it was] Wilder's first foray into comedy, written three years before he wrote Our Town." Blessing approached Bloom two years ago with the idea for the adaptation, and a draft was given a reading at last year's Fusion Festival. Eight actors play 30-plus parts. Bloom describes the main character as a "Baptist Don Quixote," whose real mission is less about selling books and more about saving souls.

The production ties into other Fusion Fest events, including a symposium (April 26) with Thornton Wilder's nephew, Tappan Wilder, who is the executor of the author's literary estate. (Thornton Wilder attended Oberlin College for two years, and the college will host a reception after the symposium.) The play also informs the repertoire for a chamber music concert by members of the Cleveland Orchestra (May 8).

"We called the orchestra out of the blue and told them we're presenting Heaven's My Destination, and that we'd love to have a program of music from that period of American history," says Bloom. The program will include works by George Gershwin and Aaron Copland, among others.

The Play House's collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art started with a suggestion from the museum. "[CMA director of music, performing arts and film] Massoud [Saidpur] came to me because he wanted to present a performance by Basil Twist, and it's frankly too expensive for either of us to present on our own," says Bloom. Basil Twist is a puppeteer acclaimed for his eloquent use of abstract imagery and obscure techniques, including dogugaeshi, an ancient puppeteering technique that uses sliding screens to continually unfold a kaleidoscope of imagery. Twist named his production after the style. Dogugaeshi (April 30-May 3) performances in the intimate Brooks Theatre are nearly sold out.

Bloom hopes Charles Ross' One Man Star Wars Trilogy (May 6-10) will attract families. The tour de force of mimickry was inspired by a Frisbee game Ross played with his friends — in which the thrower would speak a line from the movie series and the catcher would recite the next line as he caught the flying disc.

This year's Fusion Fest continues the Play House's collaboration with several Cleveland companies. Verb Ballets will present the world premiere of Cleveland-raised choreographer Dianne McIntyre's In the Groove and Over the Top (May 1-2). McIntyre, who left Cleveland to attend OSU (where she earned a B.F.A. in dance) and moved to New York in 1970, has choreographed for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a slew of Broadway shows.

Karamu House will perform Max Sparber's bio-drama Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown (May 2), which uses an invented minstrel show by two performers in blackface to tell the true story of a lynching that took place in Nebraska in 1919.

The festival offers early looks at several new plays. The Mandel Jewish Community Center's Dorothy Silver Playwriting Award winner will get a hearing April 30. And the work of two playwrights in CPH's playwriting program will be performed in readings: Eric Coble's portrait of a barista pursuing life, love and the perfect latte, A Girl's Guide to Coffee (May 3); and Faye Sholiton's story of a Vietnam war protester turned fugitive, U.S. v. Howard Mechanic (May 9).

Finally, there's a bit of "show and tell." The Play House has teamed with MOCA Cleveland for Pecha Kucha (May 8), a kind of cultural charrette in which people (usually artists, designers and other creatives) follow specific rules to show the audience their work and tell them about it. Each presenter shows 20 images for 20 seconds each. Bloom will be among the presenters and seems amused by the rules, including one that says the show must start at 8:20 p.m. Pecha Kucha takes its name from a Japanese phrase describing the sound of conversation. "I haven't decided yet what to show and talk about," says Bloom.

mgill@clevescene.com

More by Michael Gill

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