The Confessions of Punch and Judy -- All intimate human relationships reside in the shadowy area between two stark terrors: the fear of being alone and the fear of having the same person denting your favorite easy chair every night. Small wonder, then, that the old Punch-and-Judy puppet shows were so popular on English street corners. As those wooden-headed lovebirds smacked each other ass-over-teakettle, audiences lapped it up, seeing in miniature but exaggerated form the conflict they sensed -- if they didn't actually experience it -- in their daily home life. Created by director Raymond Bobgan and his two actors, this production blends straightforward dialogue scenes with music, mime, dance, snatches of fairy tales, old jokes, mythology, light bondage, cabbage-chopping, and random hammering to create a surreal take on the dynamics of a relationship. Confessions is not as anarchically violent as the traditional puppet shows from which it springs, but it's consistently surprising and often quite funny, and features two delightful performers in Tannis Kowalchuk and Ker Wells. Through October 9 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727. -- Howey
Ears on a Beatle -- Back in the tie-dye years, the FBI was sniffing around many protesters of the Vietnam War, including ex-Beatle John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono. In Ears, playwright Mark St. Germain imagines what it might have been like for two domestic spies on the trail of the outspoken couple. Instead of becoming a predictable political screed, Ears focuses on the arc of the two agents' lives and attitudes, from the early '70s until Lennon's violent death in 1980. Joel Hammer is a lean, bullet-headed hardass as jaded veteran spy Howard, glaring at fuzzy-faced Daniel (Andrew Tarr) with venom as he tries to whip his careless understudy into shape. We gradually see the elder spy soften and adapt to a world that isn't as black-and-white as his endless files would have him believe. Director Charles Kartali keeps the 90-minute production beautifully focused, helping his actors explore these layered, fictitious lives within a historically accurate framework. By repeatedly addressing multiple conspiracy theories but never truly engaging any, St. Germain's script can be faulted for a weakness of political spine. But the story is told so compellingly that the result is thoroughly satisfying. Through October 10 at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396. -- Howey
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf -- This Karamu production is an absolute must-see for anyone who revels in challenging, involving, and completely entrancing theater. Director Terrence Spivey has assembled a drop-dead gorgeous cast of eight strong, expressive women who take the poems penned by Ntozake Shange and turn them into a mosaic of the hopes, fears, and realities of African American women. Ranging from abstract imagery to brutally frank narration, the scenes flow together beautifully, thanks to Spivey's clever staging and silken choreography. In an outstanding cast, both Corene Woodford and Nina Domingue practically stop the show with their impassioned second-act monologues -- one, a fuming portrait of a woman who's losing herself to her relationship with a man, the other, a gut-wrenching tale of urban tragedy. Also, Kimberly Brown is sultry as a woman and fearsome as a man scoping out the neighborhood ladies, while Monte Escalante is riveting in all her pieces. Desperate as some of the situations are, a spirit of resilience and strength abides in a show that is sure to raise more than a few goose bumps, along with laughter and tears. One can hardly ask for more. Through October 17 at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070 ext. 226. -- Howey
The Importance of Being Earnest -- In the hands of professionals such as those at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, this century-old classic leaps to life with astonishing vigor. The play hinges on bachelors Algernon and Jack, who are in pursuit of two lovely young women who are insistent on marrying a man -- any man -- named Ernest. Algernon, a man of voracious appetites, is played with splendid ease and casual good humor by David Anthony Smith. As Jack, Douglas Frederick is a bit too stiff and not quite ditzy enough to bring out all the fun of his character. But he loosens up in the third act and handles the collision of borrowed identities with affecting aplomb. Laura Perrotta as Gwendolyn mixes cool refinement and simmering passion into a heady concoction, and Kelly Sullivan is equally adept as the teenage heartthrob, Cecily. The first meeting of these two women quickly turns into claws-out hostility, as they assume they're engaged to the same man. Director Charles Fee gives his actors room to invent, while keeping the whip-smart language the star of the show. It's a hilarious must-see for anyone who hasn't taken a recent walk on the (Oscar) Wilde side. Presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival through October 16 at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Julius Caesar -- There are few plays so chock-full of great lines and open interpretations as this classic, and the hip, contemporary look employed here imbues it with immediacy. Shakespeare's glorious, indelible language is performed by a troupe that hits all the high notes, though it misses some of the subtler undertones that could have made this production truly memorable. On the plus side, Richard Klautsch is fascinating as the conflicted Brutus, a favored citizen who is maneuvered into an assassination for which he will pay dearly. As Mark Antony, David Anthony Smith segues from a laid-back, pastry-popping pal of Caesar's to a warrior bent on the destruction of Brutus and his cabal. Along the way, Smith delivers the play's most memorized, irony-laden speech ("Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .") with such plain-spoken, unaffected honesty that it's easy to see why the crowds flock to his side. Add an almost unstoppable flow of blood, some cool jazz licks, and a couple of chicks in tight dresses, and one might wonder whether this is really good ol' Caesar or maybe CSI: Rome. Presented by Great Lakes Theater Festival through October 16 at the Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction toward 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 to come so easy to the performers. 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 who are downtown on a Friday or Saturday night and want to do something else before heading home. 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. Or maybe a whole lot of real drinking. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey
Oliver Twisted -- It has been claimed that there's a gene in some people's DNA spiral that compels them to seek out risky, potentially harmful activities, such as rock-climbing, deep-sea diving, and parking at expired meters in Cleveland Heights. True to their risk-adoring genes, the seven-member group titled Oliver Twisted (made up of former members of the now-defunct Second City Cleveland) does audience-inspired material exclusively, without the safety net of scripted modules. And thanks to a fortunate blending of physical types and personalities among the performers -- along with their determined insistence on yanking every loose comedic thread -- this is an improv experience that will leave you laughing far more often than wincing. The troupe's resident nutcase, Randall Harr, is a fairly normal-looking fellow who transforms into a maniacally, often hilariously intense embodiment of whatever animal, vegetable, or mineral he's been assigned. Mondays at Hilarities Comedy Club at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 E. 4th St., 216-736-4242. -- Howey
Summer of '42 -- Yep, it's a musical version of the movie, and it's a good thing Kalliope decided to do it, since it requires adolescent boys to sing and act. Thankfully, this company's dedication to splendid voices and evocative presentations has landed it some very talented local high schoolers, who perform like seasoned troupers. Alex Wyse plays the lead, Hermie, with such a cute and fragile boyishness, you just want to hug him (and it doesn't hurt that he looks like a teenage Fred Astaire). Hermie falls for an older woman (of say, 30) named Dorothy, acted and sung to perfection by Jodi Brinkman. The original music by David Kirschenbaum ranges from average to excellent, with the high points being a hysterical double-date song sketching the awkward moves boys make on girls in "The Movies" and a tender ballad titled "Promise of the Morning." In supporting roles, Aaron Dore is terrific as Hermie's rough-and-tumble pal Oscy, and Jay Strauss gets some laughs from his Walter Winchell bits. Director Paul F. Gurgol finds all the nooks of sentiment and crannies of humor (a boy buying his first "rubbers" in a drugstore) to give everyone a twinge of longing for the blissfully naive good ol' days. Through November 7 at Kalliope Stage, 2134 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-321-0870. -- Howey
Triple Espresso -- If Lawrence Welk had been a jokester and not a bandleader, this is the kind of comedy show he would have created. Squeaky-clean and with all the edge of a Nerf ball, this mildly humorous pastiche of familiar gags, magical flimflam, and shadow puppets (yes, shadow puppets!) is the perfect production to send your not-so-hip grandparents to on their anniversary. The plotless exercise is based on the entirely believable premise of a miserably unfunny 1970s comedy trio, back for a reunion at a coffeehouse owned by an unseen native of Zaire with a funny, African-sounding name (ha-ha). Thus the reason for a title that does not, alas, refer to the level of stimulation provided. Co-authors (with the absent Bill Arnold) Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg overdo their signature mugging, with the latter working his baffled-Dickie-Smothers double takes way too hard. Triple Espresso has been playing for a long time in some cities, thanks to its genial good humor. But if you like your comedy with bite, this one will gum you to death.Through January 30 at the Hanna, 2067 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey
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