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A Handful of Challenging Theatrical Works Arrive This Fall to Pique Our Interest

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Every theater season has certain shows on the horizon that you look forward to, for various and often different reasons. This season is no exception. And since we're staring down the barrel of a possible war, nuclear or not, with North Korea, maybe it's time to reflect on happier possibilities.

The five shows mentioned below do not equate to the only five shows worth seeing in the coming months. Hell, one or more of them may be disasters, which will be duly noted in this space, should it happen. And there will likely be other productions, unmentioned here, that soar far above any of these.

Still, on paper these shows tweak our curiosity due to the challenges they present. Let's review them in chronological order by their opening dates.

First up is The Hunchback of Notre Dame at Great Lakes Theater (Sept. 29 – Nov. 4). No, it's not a play about football. Instead, it is an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel about the captive bell-ringer Quasimodo whose evidently collapsed vertebrae give him that bent-over posture and a poorly paid gig of yanking on a rope.

Best of all it's a musical, with music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. And they each have serious chops, with Menken writing the music for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Little Shop of Horrors, and Schwartz penning lyrics for Wicked, Pippin and Godspell (along with the music as well). And it will be directed by the estimable Victoria Bussert, who knows a thing or two about staging big musicals.

It will also be interesting to see how Quasimodo's affection for the gypsy woman Esmeralda works out, since she is also being pursued by Quasimodo's captor, Frollo, as well as by a handsome captain of the King's Archers. Hunchback is promoted as a play about love and acceptance, and we all need that right about now.

From Oct. 13 to Nov. 12, Dobama Theatre will feature local legend Dorothy Silver in Marjorie Prime by Jordan Harrison. In this piece, an 85-year-old woman is communing with artificial intelligence that is programmed to recount the distant, fading memories of her life. This piece, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, promises to explore what it means to be human in the digital age.

But more than that, it is an opportunity to see Ms. Silver once again take the stage. Her list of acting accomplishments is too long to list here, but she is clearly a profound talent and any performance of hers is not to be missed.

Next up is a show fresh from Broadway: Waitress, Oct. 17 to Nov. 5 at Playhouse Square's Broadway Series. This musical about female restaurant servers has been fashioned by an all-female creative team — music and lyrics by five-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, book by Jessie Nelson and direction by Tony Award winner Diane Paulus.

In it, we see waitress Jenna try to rise above her duties waiting tables and baking pies to follow her dream of becoming a serious pastry chef. One hopes the show will also address the issue of how waitresses learn not to look at or acknowledge diners who are desperately waving at them to request another glass of water.

About a week after Waitress opens, Cleveland Public Theatre offers the world premiere of The Art of Longing written by local actress and playwright Lisa Langford. Recently, Langford was a key member of the cast of brownsville song (b-side for tray) at Dobama Theatre.

In this play, the plot follows the lives of six "third shift" workers who guard us and are ready to take care of us during those long nighttime hours. Dreams and reality merge in this theatrical experiment as, once again, CPT challenges us to encounter theater in new and unexpected ways.

The Hairy Ape (Nov. 17 – Dec. 10) will lumber into Ensemble Theatre, continuing that theater company's dedication to producing most, if not all, of Eugene O'Neill's scripts. Written in 1921, this expressionist drama offers social commentary on the divide between the rich and poor. Little did O'Neill know that his play would have such resonance in this country almost a century later.

Directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, this rarely seen play is about an engine room laborer named Yank on an ocean liner who undergoes an identity crisis after a rich socialite on the ship calls him a "filthy beast." This existential crisis fuels O'Neill's thoughts about the primitive nature of man. It was a controversial play in its time, since it brings up issues of race along with the oppression of the working class. We'll see how it registers in the here and now.

Those are the five shows that seem particularly interesting from our current viewpoint in late September. As always, however, there will be surprises aplenty as we witness which shows rise to the top and which productions don't measure up, quality-wise. That's what keeps the lively theater arts in our town so damn interesting.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 Easr 14 St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org.

Marjorie Prime

Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.

Waitress

Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.com.

The Art of Longing

Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.

The Hairy Ape

Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.

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