Over the past year, our local colleges have mounted some fine stage offerings, including the dazzling Crazyface at Tri-C West and A Soldier's Play at Tri-C Metro. Those performances proved that a college production can blend student actors with experienced area professionals and achieve dynamic results. Then again, there are shows such as Heartbreak House at Cleveland State's Factory Theatre -- as wretched an example of theatrical malfeasance as you're likely to encounter.
Let's be clear that the responsibility for this steaming pile of thespian misery doesn't fall on the actors; it must be shoved squarely in front of director Margaret Ford-Taylor. Now, Ms. Ford-Taylor has an estimable résumé, so let's assume that she possesses real directorial ability. If so, her blame is magnified, since she mailed it in on this show with 36 cents postage still due. Granted, George Bernard Shaw's minor masterpiece concerning the droll dysphoria of England's pre-World War I leisure class is no easy play to pull off. But this crew's hatchet job on Shaw's elegant construction is ugly to witness and interminable (at some three hours) to sit through.
The Chekhovian story takes place in the drawing room of Captain Shotover, a crotchety and semi-loony retired sea captain with an interest in psychic phenomena and powerful explosives. Experienced actor Mark Cipra has fun with the oldster's overly candid musings ("Why do women always want other women's husbands?" "Why do horse thieves always prefer to steal horses that have been broken?"), but the undertow created by the other performers drowns his best efforts. Director Ford-Taylor inexplicably allows pages and pages of dialogue to dribble along with no shape, no theatrical style, and no beats. It's as if her young cast was left alone to read its lines, one phrase at a time, off a particularly slow-moving teleprompter.
In addition, Ford-Taylor permits her student charges to indulge some theatrically destructive habits. As the Captain's daughter Hesione, Wendy Lynn Temple latches on to a fairly functional smirk and then carefully maintains that same smug expression for the whole show. As for the other daughter, Lady Utterword, Liza Foster shreds her delicately witty part with a grating, sing-songy voice. Meanwhile, Shahnaz Ali as the beauteous Ellie is constantly delivering her lines while looking up into the lighting grid, as if her co-actors were dangling there from ropes. In fact, there is so little eye contact between these performers, one almost wonders if Ford-Taylor mistakenly thought she was directing a radio play.
Among the other student performers, Drew Kopas shows flashes of stage presence as randy Hector, and Benjamin Gates is intermittently amusing as the callow Randall. But these brief glimpses of hope are dashed by others -- including Bob Fadeley, who bobbled many lines, and Candace Freed, who was allowed to turn the comical nurse into an arm-flailing farce.
Grievous as it is, let's hope this unendurable Heartbreak House turns into a learning experience for the undergrads and a lesson in humility for Ford-Taylor.