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Stretch to Fit 

Two challenging productions release fresh energies and new perspectives.

Just as it's good to stretch after a long sleep, it's often a fine idea to extend one's theatrical intake and loosen up some of that calcified brain matter. New World Performance Laboratory, led by co-artistic directors James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta, presents aggressively different works that certainly fill that bill, and two of them are now being performed in repertory at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Deathwatch, by famed French playwright and habitual felon Jean Genet, is a meditation on loneliness and despair, as seen through the eyes of three caged men -- prisoners of the state and their own limited worldviews. The cell is dominated by the brutal Green Eyes, a murderer who will be executed in two weeks. He is alternately wooed and tormented by both Maurice, an effeminate inmate, and the intellectual George, who writes and reads the correspondence of Green Eyes, since the latter is illiterate. Like tarantulas trapped in a small box, all three men are attempting to survive, using whatever mental skill, physical presence, or shifting personas they can summon -- a neat metaphor for life, in or out of the slammer.

Three powerful, enormously visceral performances by Cuesta (Green Eyes), Christopher Buck (Maurice), and Justin Hale (George) are diluted by several factors. Director Slowiak has set the action on a large square of clean white carpeting that, along with a crisply painted platform in the center, makes the space look more like a suburban patio than a penitentiary. Also, the hovering presence of a mostly silent guard, who would have given the piece a much-needed oppressive tone, has been eliminated. Cuesta is the most physically compelling actor of the three, but his accent makes a number of his lines indistinguishable, taking the punch out of Genet's quicksilver wit.

Stairway to Paradise, intriguingly subtitled "A Cabaret Soul Journey," is a slender piece assembled by Slowiak and solo performer Megan Elk. Blending a mystical fable with songs from some renowned pop composers (Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin), the show intends to track the trip we all hope to take in one way or another: leaving home, facing challenges, and finally returning as a hero.

While this thematic goal is only partially realized, Stairway has a rather hypnotic, ethereal quality that is strangely captivating. The effect is due in large part to Elk's tenderly observed stylings, with the spare accompaniment of only a drum (yes, a drum). Many of the songs are unfamiliar tunes from the pop songbook, including the amusing "Jenny, Bright as a Penny" written by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin. But Elk uses her lovely soprano voice to infuse each tune with such honest emotion that it's impossible not to join her on this trek. Even though the integration of the song subjects with the story is often either obscure or obvious -- when the protagonist is warned about consorting with inhabitants in the land of darkness, it's followed by "Blues in the Night" -- Elk's performance, supported by percussionist Ronald Martin, never loses its hold.

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