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Stage Frights & Delights 

Looking back at the shows that made 2004 memorable.

It's time once again to lounge in front of a roaring fire, prop our SpongeBob slippers on a hassock, sip a fragrant hot toddy, and mull over the past 12 months of theater. Of course, even if you're slipperless and haven't the faintest idea what a toddy is, despair not -- reasonably clean sweatsocks and a frosty longneck will do fine. Here, then, are some of the significant high points -- and a few low ones -- that made 2004 memorable:

A (Sort of) Hidden Cache of Diamonds
There are a few superior theater companies that fly too far under the radar, because they either perform in a basement or meander from location to location like gypsy troubadours. And it's a shame, because the quality these groups provide -- in play selection as well as production chops -- deserves much wider attention. The Charenton Theater Company mounted one of the finest productions in recent memory with the beautifully performed Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet's engrossing peek into the maw of the capitalist beast, as represented by sleazy real-estate hucksters. Likewise, Charenton's repertory presentation of three one-acts in Absurdity in the Streets was a terrific open-air theater treat. Three other shows that played great outdoors were Bad Epitaph's delicious rendering of The American Revolution and the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival's Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest. And Cesear's Forum, tucked away under the Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square, took on challenging plays that offered many high points. These companies are little gems, so make a mental note to find them, wherever they may be in the coming year.

Born Again on East 89th Street
After a few years in the theatrical doldrums, Karamu has returned with a surge of creative energy and purpose that is exhilarating to witness. Under the inspired creative direction of Terrence Spivey, the company has mounted shows that are both challenging and incredibly captivating. Spivey directed Bee-Luther-Hatchee, a clumsily named but engrossing exploration of ethics and intellectual honesty, while the many layers of mother-daughter relationships were peeled back in the splendidly acted Jar the Floor. Even their near-misses -- such as the controversial Stonewall Jackson's House -- are fascinating and thought-provoking.

Tragedy Is Easy . . .
Of course, all was not sunshine and lollipops in 2004's theater world. Sometimes, the culprit was the play itself, as with Beck Center's well-produced Agnes of God, John Pielmeier's stultifying melodrama featuring unbelievable nuns and other assorted wackos. Another particularly lame script was unearthed for the Red Hen production of Veona Thomas's Tuesday in No Man's Land, a sadly misguided and maudlin snapshot of three women who meet at an abortion clinic and proceed to behave with absolutely no human credibility. At other times, the problems stemmed from bad casting (a short and balding Stanley in Porthouse's Streetcar Named Desire) to just plain old bad performances (an embarrassingly banal Midnight Martini Show at Pickwick & Frolic).

. . . Comedy Is Tough
Considering the apparent glut of stand-up comics streaming through our comedy clubs these days, you'd think it was easy to make people laugh. Actually, not so much. But a couple local sketch/improv groups have managed to harness the giggle factor and keep audiences in stitches. The none-too-subtle group Last Call Cleveland filled the Cleveland Black Box Theater with some hearty guffaws in the spotty Corvette Summer and then topped itself earlier this month with Michael Stanley Superstar, a consistently hilarious analysis of Cleveland's beloved rock icon and record-spinner. And the Second City comedy group, renamed Oliver Twisted, put on a risky and thoroughly entertaining evening of humorous improvisation at Pickwick & Frolic. Although they tried hard, the less experienced Off the Wall improv group showed that there's no substitute for experience, in life and on stage.

Naming Names
Our area is blessed with numerous talented actors and directors, and you should know their names. Even though some of the following weren't stellar every time out (and who among us is?), they have a damn good batting average and deserve your attendance when they're involved in a production. They are, in no particular order: Larry Nehring, Nicholas Koesters, Bernadette Clemens, Thomas Fulton, Robert Hawkes, Andrew May, Laura Perrotta, Greg Vovos, Jill Levin, Seth Gordon, Bernard Canepari, Paul Floriano, Andrew Narten, Alison Hernan, Derdriu Ring, Scott Plate, Victoria Bussert, Paul F. Gurgol, George Roth, Aaron McBride, Charles Fee, Maryann Nagel, Bob Navis Jr., Mary Dismuke, Allyson Rosen, Scott Spence, Matthew Wright, Lucia Colombi, Jean Zarzour, Meg Kelly Schroeder, Fred Sternfeld, Jennifer Clifford, Bernice Bolek, Terri Kent, Sandra Emerick, Magdalyn Donnelly, Ray McNiece, Mark Cipra, Kyle Primous, Lucy Bredeson-Smith, Ron Newell, Connor O'Brien, Wayne Turney, Dudley Swetland, Clyde Simon, Juliette Regnier, Mike Polk, Hassan Rogers, Fabio Polanco, Randall Harr, Lynn Robert Berg, James Levin, Aled Davies, Charles Kartali, Joel Hammer, Tom Ford, Tracee Patterson, Randy Rollison, Mitchell Fields, Martin Friedman, Marc Moritz, and Sonya Robbins.

Shows You Won't Soon Forget . . . Unless You Never Saw Them
There's an undeniable poignancy to great theater: It can't be bottled or shrink-wrapped and stored for later enjoyment. Theater exists only in the moment, and if you don't haul your butt out to the right place at the right time, it's gone forever. Along with some of the shows mentioned elsewhere in this article, here are a few gems that created magical moments last year:

· Urinetown, at Playhouse Square -- For slicing satire and rocking music, this show was, um, No 1.

· Charge, by Cleveland Public Theatre and TITLEWave Theatre -- It wrenched visceral laughs from the gloomy absurdities that surround us.

· Far Away, at the Cleveland Play House -- Caryl Churchill's ghastly, fascinating vision of normalcy gone mad was a mind-bender.

· Nickel and Dimed, by Cleveland Public Theatre and Great Lakes Theater Festival -- The working poor punched in and got their time in the spotlight.

· Carousel, at Kalliope Stage -- Great show, superb singing, splendid staging -- all on a postage-stamp-sized stage.

· Reefer Madness, at Beck Center -- A giddy send-up of adult authoritarian bullshit, with zingy musical accompaniment.

· Ragtime, by the Jewish Community Center and Cuyahoga Community College -- This fabulously professional production was polished to a gleam.

· Ears on a Beatle, at Dobama Theatre -- Two FBI spies gumshoeing John and Yoko revealed more about the spooks . . . and us.

· Guys and Dolls, at Porthouse -- An old Broadway warhorse was brought to spirited life at Blossom's open-air venue.

· Hot 'n' Throbbing, by Convergence-Continuum -- A typically thrilling production of a flawed script by the folks at the Liminis.

Ghost of Lame Productions Past
The Cleveland Play House needs reconstructive surgery to recover from its slide into irrelevance during the past few years. This task falls to its new artistic director, Michael Bloom, who will have a chance to put a major imprint on the theater with his 2005-'06 schedule. His inclination to reach out to the community, seen already in several ways since his arrival a few months ago, is certainly promising. But Bloom's selection of plays for the Play House's 90th season will give a strong indication of whether he is willing to take some chances and turn this magnificent facility into the stimulating, vigorous theatrical hub it was meant to be.

Intersection of Broadway and Euclid
Some of the national touring musicals that wind up at the glorious theaters of Playhouse Square are less than stimulating (two words: Mamma Mia!). But many other productions are absolutely galvanizing. Jesus Christ Superstar was a rock blast, decked out in Roman and Nazi drag, and the Deaf West Theatre production of Big River raised goosebumps in a multitude of ways. So here's a toast to those intrepid hoofers and crooners who travel this way -- and to Ray Shepardson, who kept those gilded pleasure domes from being steamrolled into asphalt car pastures some years ago.

And so it went last year: Lots of good stuff, some bad, but all of it undeniably, uncompromisingly alive. That's what makes theater the special art form it is, and that's why we look forward with eager anticipation to the moments that await in '05.

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