Arts » Theater

Capsule reviews of current area theater presentations.

Before It Hits Home -- In its effort to probe the impact of HIV on the black community, Karamu has produced a play that has its heart in the right place, but few other vital organs correctly positioned. Written by Cheryl L. West in the early '90s and expressing many of the reasonable fears and excessive phobias about AIDS that existed at that time, the play attempts to show how a man who's in a relationship with a woman, but having sex with a dude on the side, fractures his family once he is diagnosed. Unfortunately, West never allows us to learn about the man -- jazz musician Wendal Bailey (Tremayne Mitchell) -- apart from his disease, since he starts coughing from his first appearance onstage straight through to the end. Thus, we never appreciate why his wife was attracted to him and why another man agreed to shack up with him. Employing scenes that are often too short to allow any momentum to develop, West force-feeds the audience Wendal's plight. This is all to set up the second-act confrontation that takes place when he returns home to face his family. Through April 9 at the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077. -- Christine Howey

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets -- It's exhilarating to find a short show that's entirely diverting and worthwhile -- not to mention free. The title of this George Bernard Shaw piece refers to the 24 sonnets by William Shakespeare purportedly addressed to a "dark lady," who served as the bard's muse for a spell. Although her identity was never revealed, speculation has it that she was Mary Fitton, the maid of honor to Queen Elizabeth. So Shaw has placed Will on the terrace of the palace at Whitehall, eager to meet his dark lady and feed his urges. Since Shaw was of the opinion that Shakespeare was just a "snapper-up" of overheard talk, he portrays him as a shallow writer, an insulting cad and sycophant -- and David Hansen delivers the part with irrepressible zest. The show's rich language, sly humor, and pitch-perfect performances (including Michael Regnier as a frank and funny palace guard) make this a half-hour that keeps you laughing and thinking. Presented by the Great Lakes Theater Festival through May 7 at various locations; for more information, go to www.greatlakestheater.org. -- Howey

Dark Room -- The conventional image we have of playwrights and poets is of lonely souls slaving away in a poorly lit basement. Well, you've got the location and the illumination right, but everything else about the Dark Room project is much cheerier. Sponsored by the Cleveland Theater Collective, it's a once-a-month workshop/cabaret for writers who want to try out their new efforts on a small but extremely encouraging audience. On this night, in a basement room in the Parish Hall at Cleveland Public Theatre, the quality of the pieces varied widely, as is to be expected with scenes or verses that are still being developed (thus, the dark room). But one monologue by Tom Huggins, describing the burnout of nurses dealing with psycho patients in hospitals, was as irreverent and hilarious as a David Sedaris essay. Other offerings, each under 10 minutes, touched on the obnoxious questions asked of "little people," a musical take on holiday haters, and a little girl's imaginary friend, who is a middle-aged Dame Edna type. Reading from scripts (and dragooning anyone nearby to fill out a cast), the writers express, share, and support. And that's a terrific environment for any embryonic artistic endeavor. Takes place the second Thursday of every month at Cleveland Public Theatre's Parish Hall, 6205 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, www.clevelandtheater.com. -- Howey

Menopause, the Musical -- Everybody enjoys musicals dealing with energetic young people on the brink of conquering the world. But what about the people in the audience: the nearsighted, overweight, and wrinkled denizens of middle age, who rarely see their own physiological mysteries put into song? For them, there is Menopause, the Musical, a hoot of a show written by Jeanie Linders. It's a foot-stomping 90-minute revival meeting for women who've had to deal with The Change while also trying to maintain their careers and family relationships. Menopause is frequently repetitious, even teetering on the brink of tiresome, but the energetic cast of four and spirited direction by Patty Bender and Kathryn Conte maintain the flow, so to speak. All women with a few decades on them -- even those who only use "menopause" as an excuse to get out of going to football games -- will probably get a stiff neck from nodding in agreement and a tender side from all the laughter. Playhouse Square Center's 14th Street Theatre, 2037 East 14th St., 216-241-6000. -- Howey

Midnight Martini Show -- There is a strange attraction in 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 so easy. 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 downtown on a Friday or Saturday night. 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. Fridays and Saturdays at Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 East 4th St., 216-241-7425. -- Howey

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers -- According to Plutarch's telling of the mythological rape of the Sabine women, ancient Rome was losing population and females were in short supply, so some horny soldiers glanced over at the hotties down the road and figured, hey, let's go get us some of that. This mass felony is also the central theme of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the theatrical interpretation of the 1954 film. This iteration tries to capture some of the electric Michael Kidd choreography that made the movie so watchable. But despite consistently strong singing voices and a load of earnest effort, the production is sunk by leaden pacing and uninspired dancing, along with tunes and dialogue that rarely elevate above the mundane. There are so many dead ends in this work that it might more accurately be named Seven Weddings and a Funeral. Through April 29 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey

Well -- This work by Lisa Kron defies easy categorization, since it's an autobiographical quasi-monologue in which other people show up (some uninvited by the playwright) and have speaking roles that often call into question Kron's ability to develop a coherent theatrical work. In essence, it's a memory play that continually questions its own memory and in doing so creates, against all odds, a warm and touching story of familial devotion. Right from the start, the playwright-narrator Lisa gets it all wrong when she explains, "This is a play about illness and wellness, it's not about my mother and me." As Lisa tells it, her mother, Ann, has been sick most of her life with allergies that keep the plump, sixtyish woman planted on her living-room chair. Lisa confesses that she's using this theatrical exploration to help her come to grips with her mom's complex sickness-wellness persona. Denny Dillon is adorable as Ann, who gently chides her daughter and warmly reaches out to the audience and other characters. Alicia Roper fashions sarcastic Lisa as an exact opposite in most ways, but her love for her mother pulses in every moment. Through March 26 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-795-7000. -- Howey

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