We are all aware of the phone bank on TV, appearing during the WVIZ membership drives and popping up for a litany of other causes. Those chairs are usually populated by diligent folks talking on the phone, forcing smiles when the camera pans across their faces. But we suspect they act a bit differently when the camera's red light goes off.
Now, just imagine if those telephone volunteers were all superheroes, and they were confined in a claustrophobic submarine. That's the situation in Spirits to Enforce by Mickle Maher, the wonderfully offbeat and mostly successful production now at Cleveland Public Theatre. Maher authored the invigorating play There Is a Happiness that Morning Is, which played last year at CPT.
As for Spirits to Enforce, the play's title and cause are borrowed from Shakespeare's The Tempest — the one with Prospero and Caliban, etc. — and Will's play is at the heart of everything that happens in this arts-infused Das Boot-style sequel. The superheroes are pleading with people for funds so they can stage their own production of The Tempest.
They have time on their hands, you see, since their arch nemesis, Dr. Cannibal (an almost-anagram of Caliban), has been sent to the hoosegow and the streets are momentarily safe. But since superheroes aren't paid even the sucky minimum wage, they have to go begging for their money.
The entire 85-minute show is played by a dozen actors seated behind a phone bank, usually with phones jammed to their ears. And much of playwright Maher's clever dialogue is delivered in long skeins of interrupted conversations as first one, then another, superhero makes his or her plea for a hot credit card number.
There are so many witty things going on at once, it's sometimes hard to keep them all in mind. The watery torment of The Tempest is eliminated, since the submarine is safely tucked below the raging surf. But the superheroes are still bedeviled by power snafus in the U-boat that now and then zap them with shocks and power outages.
As for the superheroes themselves, they each have civilian cover names as well as their character names in The Tempest. So Cecily Grey is the superhero the Page, who takes on the role of Prospero (performed by a sly and mysterious Holly Holsinger). Prospero's spirit Ariel is just himself, and Arif Silverman is compelling early on, although his self-confessed failure as an actor ("Every time I spoke, Shakespeare died again") isn't as amusing as it could be.
When you do the math with all these multiple personas, there are 35 identities on stage, and we're not about to sort through all of that. Suffice to say that it does become clear who each of these characters is, even if their rehearsal and ultimate playing of the Shakespeare play is fairly garbled.
When it comes to their "super" powers, many seem based on some aspect of The Tempest, with freehand comical twists added by the playwright. So the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand are Memory Lass, who is more often Memory Loss, and the Tune, a hypnotic singer who doesn't like singing. They are played with the quiver of young passion by Cathleen O'Malley and Val Kozlenko.
Among a strong cast, Brian Pedaci stands out as Caliban (the Untangler), a man who can unsnarl any knot and show you how this releases your brain for more brilliant work. Pedaci is a glowering menace while also managing to land some of the biggest laugh lines. When he tells a person on the phone that he's raising funds for a Shakespeare play, he listens for a moment and then responds to the person's unheard question with a helpless shrug, "Uh, William?"
Indeed, most of the play is like an extended homage to Bob Newhart's old standup schtick, where he was on the phone and all you heard was his responses (i.e., "Sorry I got so drunk at your party last night, Marge! Oh, I did what to Bob? Right through the front window, eh?"). Under the precise direction of Matthew Wright, all of Maher's humorous snips and quips mesh into a symphony of need and a tribute of sorts to the power of creativity and the magic of the performing arts.
The latter is especially true at the end when, after a fractious rehearsal period, the superheroes raise the curtain on opening night and see all their mortal enemies populating the audience. Chief among them, of course, is the Critic (mwah-hah-hah!), perched like a vulture to feast on the entrails of their dreams.
If you loosen the reins on your usual theatrical expectations, this involving and often sparkling comedy follows the recipe offered by Shakespeare through Prospero, when that character says in the Epilogue, "...Now I want/Spirits to enforce; art to enchant..." There is enchantment afoot at CPT.
Spirits to Enforce
Through Oct. 25 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.