There are a few theaters in Cleveland that have built their brand around presenting new, cutting-edge plays. And thank goodness for that. Companies such as convergence-continuum, Cleveland Public Theatre, Dobama Theatre, None Too Fragile Theater, and a couple others are doing an admirable job filling the need for new plays.
Ensemble Theatre takes a slightly different approach to their offerings. Sure, they do the occasional newer play, such as Rajiv Joseph's acclaimed Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which they will stage this coming spring.
But Ensemble is focused on presenting the American classics, as they have been since their inception in 1979. That's when Lucia Colombi, the mother of the company's current artistic director Celeste Cosentino, founded the theater.
As Cosentino says, "My mother loved the classics by 20th century American playwrights, especially the plays by Eugene O'Neill, and she always wanted to produce them when possible. So we have been staging some O'Neill plays lately, including two in the last couple years (The Iceman Cometh, Beyond the Horizon). And we have another one to open the 2014-15 season."
This week, Ensemble Theater kicks off with O'Neill's Anna Christie, a play that won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Loaded with the familiar markers of an O'Neill drama — a squalid seaport bar, a couple of prostitutes (Anna included), a dicey father-daughter relationship, a troubled love affair, lots of fog — the play is a challenging one for anyone to produce.
But that is something that intrigues Cosentino. "Our credo as theater artists is to dig into the human condition, and few playwrights do that as well as Eugene O'Neill. His people are buffeted by life, but they try to get up and move on.
"Plus, my mother had a passionate and colorful family life, which is why I think she was drawn to a non-conformist such as O'Neill. And that attracts me too."
Anna Christie will feature Katie Nabors as Anna, Greg White as Anna's father Chris Christopherson, and Michael Johnson as Mat Burke, Anna's seafaring love interest. It is directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, director of operations at the theater.
Ensemble will follow Anna with another play that takes place in the early 1900s, an adaptation of The Great Gatsby by Simon Levy. The impulse to do this show was much different than it was for the O'Neill work.
In Cosentino's words, "Of course, I was familiar with the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I saw the Baz Luhrmann movie of Gatsby and I thought it was an awesome story. And since no productions of this adaptation had been done in the Northeast Ohio area, I thought it would be a good choice for us."
The London Free Press has described this adaptation as "a beautifully crafted interpretation of the 1925 novel which defined the Jazz Age." Indeed, the Gatsby persona is a rather hypnotic one for people of all ages. This intriguing millionaire and his girlfriend, the former debutante Daisy Buchanan, seem to embody all the idealism and excess that the Roaring '20s could provide. The book is a prime example of "the great American novel," and the goal is to make the stage version just as appealing.
While the scripts may be a bit older, the production values at Ensemble are often on the leading edge. For instance, Gatsby will feature large-scale projections to set the time and place, with some live action videos mixed in to generate even more visual interest. It is rumored that Gatsby will also include some aerial fabric dancing to help convey the dazzling glitz and luxury of the world Jay and Daisy inhabited.
Another way that Ensemble shows are set apart is in their non-traditional casting, which is another part of the theater's artistic mission. Gatsby will be played by Kyle Carthens, a talented local African-American actor. As Cosentino explains, "There are such gifted theater people in Cleveland, and we cast our roles by focusing on who is right for each part, regardless of other factors."
Cosentino comes by this impulse honestly, since her mother Lucia was fond of pushing boundaries. "In one of Ensemble Theatre's first productions, my mother cast a fine African-American actor, Caliph Haines, as Henry David Thoreau in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. I think this happened because of her long involvement with Karamu Theatre for 21 years. She was committed to non-traditional casting, as I am."
In addition to the two main stage productions, Ensemble has an off-shoot called TheaterCLE. These are small, black box productions of shows where, as Cosentino describes, "we can try out new technologies, such as live streaming with multiple cameras, with a small budget and with just a calculated risk."
In fact, they just concluded a two-week run of The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute. And in October, they will offer St. Nicholas by Connor McPherson, a one-man show and ghost story featuring vampires (performed by Dana Hart) for one weekend only. They then follow it up the next weekend with Frankenstein by Oakley Hall III, a dandy and spooky Halloween event.
From classic scripts to innovative technologies to unexpected casting, Ensemble Theater is adding a much-appreciated jolt to the local theater scene.
Anna Christie, Sept. 26 - Oct. 19
The Great Gatsby, Nov. 14 - Dec. 14
St. Nicholas, Oct. 23 - 26
Frankenstein, Oct. 30 - Nov. 2
2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.