- Larry Nehring and Brian Zoldessy, in a scene from the JCC production of Modern Orthodox, playing at Tri-C East through November 5.
Frozen -- While not exactly a walk in a pansy field, Bryony Lavery's almost three-hour dissection of three people linked by unspeakable misery has moments of humor and some interesting takes on the nature of evil. Wielding a fine-tipped brush, the playwright paints a devastating portrait of Nancy, a mother crushed by the loss of her young daughter, Rhona. The girl had been on her way to her grandmother's house in London when she was whisked up by a pedophile named Ralph, never to be seen again. We encounter Nancy (Kate Duffield) and Ralph (Sean Derry) in a series of monologues at the beginning of the evening, interspersed with the thoughts of a psychiatrist (Laurel Johnson) who is interviewing the convict for her scholarly paper on serial killing as a forgivable act. Set on starkly plain platforms in front of white walls, all the focus is on the actors as they negotiate this minefield of emotion. But a tendency for excessive explication and one off-note performance turn what could have been a powerful drama into what occasionally feels like an imaginatively staged dissertation. Still, this daring show has the earmarks of a Bang and Clatter production: It's involving even when you'd rather just turn away. Through November 12 at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, 140 East Market St., Akron, 330-606-5317. -- Howey
Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! -- This Karamu show is the theatrical version of an empty-headed PowerPoint presentation. Billed as "a history lesson for the entire family," it's actually a bloodless chronological march through the history of gospel music that turns the avatars of this compelling musical idiom (Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, et al.) into ciphers on a timeline. And it's a shame, because gospel music deserves a much more thoughtful and compelling tribute. Clearly, all those involved have their hearts in the right place. Writer-director Otis Sallid wants to honor those who wrote and performed gospel music over the years, but by trying to encompass so much calendar time, he runs out of performance time -- cutting many songs down to 30-second snippets that don't allow the music to grab hold. Also, there's virtually no insight into any of the personalities who have made gospel the transcendent spiritual force that it is. The uneven 10-person cast does hit some high points and gets the audience shouting their responses. But the effect created by much of the music feels oddly muted, either by flaccid arrangements or awkward performances. Through November 5 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 98th St., 216-795-7077. -- Howey
The Pillowman -- Martin McDonagh's rather overwritten comedy features many pillow suffocations and is blacker than a lump of anthracite. But under the intense artistic pressure of director Sonya Robbins and some fiercely intelligent performances, it turns into a diamond that blazes brilliantly for almost the entire three-hour playing time. So what's black about it? Well, how about a little girl swallowing razors shoved inside an apple, a little boy getting his toes cut off, and another little girl, who thinks she is Jesus, being crucified by her cruel step-parents. That's pretty dark kiddie mayhem, but who cares? It's all fiction, so it doesn't really matter. Or does it? Those gruesome events take place in the creepy stories authored by Katurian K. Katurian, who is being interrogated by two tough cops in an unnamed police state. K-3 is on the seat of heat because actual children in the area have been murdered in the exact ways spelled out in his mostly unpublished works. Given the rank unpleasantness of the subject matter, this production manages to keep the laughter rolling, with much of the humor provided by Joel Hammer's neatly pressed and casually malevolent turn as an interrogator. Presented by Dobama Theatre through November 5 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Ave., 216-932-3396. -- Howey
Urinetown -- Artistic director Sean Cercone is to be commended for his courage: Given songs titled "Privilege to Pee" and "Snuff That Girl," it couldn't have been easy deciding to mount this edgy and hilarious show in the frequently placid confines of Carousel Dinner Theatre. In this piece about a desperate water shortage and restrictions on free peeing, director Jennifer Cody keeps the dialogue pace very slow -- consider it the "large-print" version -- presumably to make sure that no one in the sprawling, well-fed audience loses track of the proceedings. But fine performances abound, particularly from tiny Karen Katz, who brings a feisty vibe to Little Sally. Al Bundonis handles Officer Lockstock's meta-narration ("Welcome to Urinetown . . . not the town, the musical!") with slick precision. And Robert Stoeckle is a cloyingly venal presence as Caldwell B. Cladwell. Although Michele Ragusa is a bit too petite for restroom-diva Penelope Pennywise, she works her powerful voice to maximum effect. Thanks to excellent singing voices from top to bottom, some dazzling dance numbers choreographed by Brian Loeffler, and taut execution from a talented chorus, this Urinetown is a golden shower of pleasant surprises. Through November 4 at Carousel Dinner Theatre, 1275 E. Waterloo Rd., Akron, 800-362-4100. -- Howey