Reviews

Actors make Adaptation of ‘Bluest Eye’ Sizzle

Until I saw The Bluest Eye, directed by Fred Sternfeld at Karamu House in Cleveland, I don’t think I had ever watched a production that inspired two contradictory trains of thought.

Before I explain those divergent trains, a background of the play is necessary. The Bluest Eye is adapted from Noble Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name.  The story centers on young Pecola Breedlove, a black girl living in Ohio in the years immediately following the Great Depression. Pecola yearns to have blue eyes, like little white girls. Throughout the story she faces racism, incest and child molestation and, consequently, the book is banned from schools and libraries across the country.

Needless to say, this play isn’t for the faint of heart.

During curtain call of 'The Bluest Eye'

Although I’ve never encountered Toni Morrison beyond the mandatory reading of Sula during my junior year of high school, I felt this production was soft-shoeing around the grittiness of the reality of being poor, black, and living during the 1940s. (Not to mention incest and child molestation.)  I remember having a gut-wrenching reaction to Sula. I walked out of this production saying, “that’s too bad” but otherwise being unmoved.

For this, I feel the responsibility lies mostly with the script.  Lydia R. Diamond, the woman who adapted the novel for the stage, did just that– adapt a novel for the stage. The play had the dynamics of a book on tape. Fortunately for her, she picked a majestic/compelling/insert-positive-adjective-here piece of literature.  Morrison’s lyrical poetry was ever-present throughout the play. Many of my “reviewer” notes included quotes, which turned out to be appropriated from the novel.

After doing research to write this review, Diamond could have picked better events from the story to ensure the play had the emotional impact of the novel.  Or– and I don’t say this often– I would have gladly sat through something longer than the 90-minute one act that was The Bluest Eye.

I left wanting more.

Which brings me back to the divergent thoughts. Seeing the play, I felt I had enough of an understanding of the book that I didn’t need to read it. On the flip side, I wanted to devour everything Toni Morrison has ever written.

The actors deftly handled Morrison’s poetry; it flowed from their lips as natural as everyday speech and infinitely more beautiful.  Their talents turned a lackluster script into an enjoyable evening of theatre. This group of actors was a well-oiled ensemble, whose interactions made the family dynamics and intricate relationships sizzle.  A special mention goes to Andrea Belser, who plays Pecola. Her ability to exude a deep, deep sadness is limitless and made me want to run onstage and carry her far away from the pain.

During curtain call of 'The Bluest Eye'

Karamu made a wonderful decision putting The Bluest Eye in their black box theatre. The intimate space– which couldn’t fit more than 50 people– places you in direct confrontation with the characters and their terrible situations.  The only problem is that more audience members won’t get to experience this engaging production.

The show continues Feb. 10-26.  Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Several performances are already SOLD OUT. Tickets range from $16 for students to $25 full price.  Visit Karamu House for more information.

-Benjamin Rexroad
Managing Artistic Director

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“The Walking Dead” is Resurrected for 2nd Season

My first encounter with The Walking Dead was in the form of a graphic novel.  I read a collection of the first 6 comics in the series, The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye, sometime in 2007.  Being a college student who found out I was living beyond my means, I couldn’t afford to buy volume 2.

I was reminded of the series when I read a newspaper article discussing the premiere of the AMC show.  Being a horror enthusiast and a client at the George A. Romero Halfway House for Undead Addicts, I was giddy about the prospect of a weekly zombie fix.

Zombies are the ultimate horror creatures.  Not because they are smart or fast or handsome or even all that scary (at least one at a time) but because we can use their lifeless corpses to draw rich metaphor and powerful social commentary.  And what’s scarier than seeing yourself reflected in the empty eyes of the dead?

After viewing the first episode of Walking Dead, I understood why it was airing on the channel that got its name showing “classic” movies.  The show was so heartbreakingly boring that I stopped watching.

It wasn’t until the 2nd season premiere that I heard anything else about the show.  Suddenly, everybody in my Facebook feed was talking about The Walking Dead.  Still, I wasn’t persuaded. Then I stumbled across an article on Slate that changed my mind. (Here’s the link.)

Torie Bosch, the article’s author, presents the show (and other zombie fare) as commentary on white-collar workers.  In this alternate universe, we become zombie chow because our white-collar skills don’t include things like auto maintenance.

So, I decided to resurrect a series I thought was dead in order to watch it through my newly acquired point-of-view.  (It should also be said the fact that the first season was only 6 episodes long was a major selling point.)  What I’ve found is a shambling yet enjoyable series.

At times, the show’s pacing feels as fast as one of its resident zombies, which is to say slow.  Odd in a show with guns, sex and explosions.  It’s possible the people behind the scenes want to paint as realistic a picture of the apocalypse as possible.  But they threw that out the window when they decided to include zombies.

However, the thing that makes Walking Dead a success is its ability to place the viewer in the shoes of its characters.  Every choice they make may result in life or death and the best one doesn’t mean everybody lives happily ever after. Or–for that matter–lives.  Watching the show, I found myself weighing the options along with the characters and trying to figure out what I would decide.

The true horror of the show isn’t the zombie menace, but realization that you might choose to leave a little girl, who was under your protection, because she ran into the woods and got lost.

-Benjamin Rexroad
Managing Artistic Director

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Community” Earns A+

Last week, I was sick. So I locked myself in my room with Community, a television show I had been avoiding, and didn’t come out until I had watched every episode.  I wasn’t avoiding the show for any reason other than I didn’t need another 22-minute distraction in my weekly routine.  In fact, I had heard very good things about it on Slate’s Culture Gabfest (here’s the link).

Community is in its third season as part of NBC’s Thursday night line-up, airing alongside heavy-hitters like The Office, Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock.  It has the highly coveted 8 pm timeslot that was once ruled by another ensemble-based hit, Friends.  In fact, the show has proven so successful for NBC that during both its first and second season the station ordered additional episodes beyond the originally planned 22.

The show revolves around a loveable band of misfits who unwittingly formed a study group at the fictional Greendale Community College.  Through numerous trials and hi-jinks, the group becomes friends.  Dan Harmon, Community’s creator, based the show around a study group he formed at Glendale Community College while trying to win back his then-girlfriend.  The cast features Joel McHale from The Soup, Chevy Chase from, well, being Chevy Chase and Yvette Nicole Brown who attended the University of Akron, to name a few.

However, the appeal of the show doesn’t come from big-named stars, but from the offbeat and, sometimes, offensive humor.  Community is often meta, acknowledging its own use of familiar onscreen clichés, usually through the character of Abed (played by Danny Pudi) whose brain contains more information about movies than IMDB.

In an interview in Venus Zine’s Fall 2010 Issue Gillian Jacobs, who plays the wannabe rebel Britta, said, “there’s an absurdity to the show.  We exist in a world in which anything can happen week to week, and that pushes me in so many ways.”  At Greendale, anything does happen: a Halloween party where the student body turns into zombies, a stop-action animated Christmas special, a western-style paintball fight that turns the school upside down– and that’s just a short list.  In every episode the show plays with our collective associations.

My one concern for new viewers is that the show is so self-referential to past episodes that it may be hard to join somewhere in the middle.  For example, at the beginning of this season, the Dean finds out a monkey, named Annie’s Boobs, is living in the vents of the school.  If you’ve seen past episodes, you know the monkey was once a pet of Troy (played by Donald Glover), was released by evil Abed and has been living in the vents, stealing things from the study group ever since.  If you haven’t, you may not understand the monkey.

I, personally, love that the show offers callbacks for fans. Often times, something will happen in a show and it will have no bearing on future episodes (i.e. the entire last season of Dexter.)

If you have the time, I recommend going back to watch the last two seasons before starting the third.  If not, watch the show any way.  I’m sure it offers enough humor and pop culture references for you to want to become a Greendale Human Being (the “ethnically neutral” school mascot.)

-Benjamin Rexroad
Managing Artistic Director

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The Monsters in “Monster Play” at CPT
Give a Spine-Tingling Performance

Last night, TJ and I attended Monster Play, a devised play created in partnership between Theatre Ninjas and Cleveland Public Theatre.  For those of you who may not know, “devised” refers to a work created in a collaborative process, most often with actors improvising scenes and dialogue before establishing a fixed form for performance.

As far as I know, very few theatres in our community devise shows.  Most prefer using scripts written by playwrights.  Needless to say, I was excited to see Monster Play.

The production did not disappoint.

Jeremy Paul, artistic leader of Theatre Ninjas and the show’s director, made his greatest contribution to the show by casting these 5 young and physically adept actors as the ensemble.  Their moments of unison action and group interplay were beautiful to watch and showed a group of people who were completely in sync.  Their crawling, clawing and cawing evoked those baddies that hide under the bed and go bump in the night.  In one of many outstanding moments, 3 actors created a quick-fire montage of mythical monsters using only their bodies.

As part of the ensemble, Val Kozlenko meshed perfectly with the other actors.  When he stepped out to inhabit a particular role, Val shined.  His way of playing with his vocal score throughout the production left me delighted.  The monologue he performed entirely in Russian was made accessible through his delivery, allowing the audience to follow his thoughts through the sound of the words and not their meaning.

The Ensemble of "Monster Play." From L-R: Lauren B. Smith, Jenni Messner, Val Kozlenko, Stuart Hoffman and Ray Caspio

The only negative was with the performance text.  A vague ending left me feeling unresolved.  After speaking with TJ, I’m still shaky about how the play wrapped itself up.  However, the cast was so delightfully wicked to watch that I am able to forgive what would have been a deal-breaker in another production.

Monster Play is performed in the round with no set, few props and a powerful lighting design.  Which leaves room for the scariest monster of all: our imagination.  Paul says in his director’s notes, “monsters aren’t real, they never have been, but the fear of monsters, the ones we instinctively know are there, that fear has always been real, or at least as real as we are.”

And this frightenly enjoyable production does a skilled job of channeling our fear of what’s lurking around the corner.

***

After you see Monster Play, make sure you check out the performance art installation Royal Ann’s Preserves.  Explore, through your senses, creators Joan and Fay Hargate’s, sometimes differing, memories of their family.

It’s free with the purchase of your ticket.

Monster Play
Playing:
Now through October 29
(Thursday-Saturday with a special Monday performance)
Curtain: 7 pm
(There is NO late seating for the production. Please plan to arrive early.)
Run Time: 1 hour with no intermission
Tickets: $10-$25 Go to www.cptonline.org or call 216.631.2727

-Benjamin Rexroad
Managing Artistic Director

_____________________________________________________________

“I Dreamed of Rats”

A living room.  A man.  A few props.

We, the scarce amount of guests, had been invited to watch a performance that almost felt like an intrusion into somebody’s private home and, in a way, it was.  Terence Cranendonk is creating a new paradigm for theatrical art in Northeast Ohio.  His “Where We Live” series is bringing “bold and creative new theater” to people’s homes–beginning with his own.

The first piece in the “Where We Live” series is entitled I Dreamed of Rats.  The story is an adaptation of Nickolai Gogol’s The Inspector General.  In this version, the Russian classic is pared down to one man, a few props and forty-five minutes.  The mayor, a supporting character in the original text, gets the full treatment in Rats, enacting the entire story as part of some wild imagining.

According to the playbill, Cranendonk has been living with this show for 15 years.  “I started working on I Dreamed of Rats fifteen years ago.  Over those fifteen years, I performed this piece in Cleveland, Chicago, and Italy, and took a hiatus from performing it for eleven years.  Even during that eleven year break, however, I kept the performance alive inside of me, rehearsing it, reconsidering it, mulling it.”

The Mayor (Terence Cranendonk) reads a letter that sends him into an evening of panic.

The performance began slowly, unraveling at a pace that helped draw the audience into the world of the play.  By the end, however, Cranendonk transformed from character-to-character and moment-to-moment with lightning speed and precision.

Cranendonk was at his best during instances of outrageous physical comedy, engaging his whole being in a way unparalleled by most actors.  These moments never passed into cartoonish overacting, but stayed firmly rooted in action– even when prancing around the room wearing a coat hanger on his head.

It was clear from the performance that, like a skilled craftsman, Cranendonk has a mastery over his tools.  Nothing he did was unnecessary; the economy of movement was refreshing.  Through his artistry, a coat and scarf became convincing acting partners with Cranendonk virtually disappearing while they played out a scene together.

After the production, the entire audience was invited to stay for a party, including wine and light refreshments– an atmosphere that could only be improved by beginning before the performance.

Due to popular demand, Cranendonk has added another performance of I Dreamed of Rats on Saturday, August 20.  Tickets are $15 and available by calling 330.664.0623.

Seating is VERY limited and you must call to reserve a spot.  Rats is also available for private engagements, including in-home performances.  Contact Cranendonk at the above number for more information.

An interview with Cranendonk about creating I Dreamed of Rats be can downloaded from Heads Up Arts Radio at www.headsupproductions.net/huar.

-Benjamin Rexroad
Managing Artistic Director

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