Whether the subject is politics, sports, or the arts, year-end recap articles have always been popular in journalistic circles. And why not? Looking back allows the writer to spew lots of random, quirky opinions (see below), throw bouquets and brickbats at certain people and events (see below), and craft a handful of supposedly clever subheads (see below).
But in the theater world, a year-end recap in late December falls right in the middle of most companies' seasons, which normally run from fall to spring (except for the ever-contrary Convergence-Continuum group -- yeah, see below). This means we must review the last half of last year's season and the first half of this year's, which isn't terribly tidy, but who gives a damn? Pass the eggnog, and on with the merriment!
Be Glad Butch Davis Doesn't Direct Musicals. This thought probably makes sports talker/Broadway-musical devotee Bruce Drennan wake up sweat-drenched in his Hello Dolly footie pajamas. Sure, the Browns looked pretty miserable this year, but imagine the carnage if head coach Davis were in charge of a large, high-strung cast performing 42nd Street. Fortunately, the touring-company version of Street that appeared last February at Playhouse Square Center was a prime example of how entertaining a classic musical can be, when performed with verve and imagination (words, incidentally, that have never been used to describe Browns' offensive coach Bruce Arians' play-calling for our lovable pigskin elves).
The "Bitch-Slapped Like Dick Goddard" Award goes to several theaters that were forced to curtail their seasons last year after being whupped upside the head by the rotten economy, throttled by soaring expenses, and clobbered by the lack of public funding. The innocent victims included Dobama Theatre, Ensemble Theatre, and Cleveland Public Theatre. Even worse, this year the Jewish Community Center canceled its entire 2003-'04 season, thanks in part to economic pressures. This mugging of live theater (not to mention TV meteorologists) must stop!
Your Show Sucks. No, It Does. Really. So, given the perilous position many theaters find themselves in, why do critics insist on panning shows when they could be more gentle and encouraging? Good question. Any theater critic worth her 3x5 spiral notebook is compelled to candidly comment on the shows that don't make the grade -- no matter how much we love and support the local theater scene. We owe this to the readers as well as to the great shows and the outstanding people who create them, since if no shows are truly bad, everything exists in the mushy realm of "OK." And that is a sure way to strangle interest in this lively art. Unfortunately, some groups overreact to this reality of stage life. For example, Actors' Summit in Hudson (motto: "A Professional Theater") is petulantly attempting to discourage this reviewer from darkening its doorway after negative reviews for its painfully atonal productions of the musicals The All Night Strut and Suds. However, most mature theater people embrace the risk/reward dynamics of honest -- even brutally honest -- criticism. To quote poet Robert Frost from another context: Presenting theater in the absence of vigorous, informed criticism is like playing tennis with the net down.
What's the Best Thing on Earth? Great Theater. Is a tremendous play better than a fabulous movie? No contest. Theater is alive, right in front of you, responding to your laughs and sniffles, your applause, and often most profoundly, your attentive silence. It is a shared experience that can actually become a part of you, forever. In addition to Charenton Theatre's Six Degrees of Separation (named top play of the year in our Best of Cleveland issue), here are some of the other winners from the past 12 months:
Hello Again, at Beck Center -- Sexy, tuneful romp with a gaggle of spot-on performances.
Proof, at the Play House -- Fascinating exploration of creativity and the mathematics of relationships.
In the Blood, at Dobama -- Overachieving portrayal of the underprivileged.
Tartuffe, by Great Lakes Theater Festival -- Religious hypocrisy skewered in high comic style.
Fiddler on the Roof, at Cain Park -- Perhaps the most flawless production all year.
Wait!, at Cleveland Public Theatre -- Wacky show with brains, wit, and heart.
Oklahoma!, at Porthouse Theatre -- Cowboy up!
Sincerity Forever, by Convergence-Continuum -- KKK vs. Jesus as a foul-mouthed black woman with attitude.
Crazyface, at Tri-C West -- Vulgar farce that sparkled with spirit.
If These People Are Performing or Directing, Buy a Freaking Ticket! These stalwarts were wonderful in 2003 and are certainly worth a look next year, no matter what the play is: Dorothy Silver, Reuben Silver, Alison Hernan, Jacqi Loewy, Sarah May, David Hansen, Brian Zoldessy, Rasheryl McCreary, Tracee Patterson, Susan Emerick, Nick Koesters, Scott Plate, Fred Sternfeld, Nina Domingue, Meg Chamberlain, Wayne Turney, Licia Colombi, Bernadette Clemens, Scott Spence, Tom Fulton, Glenn Colerider, Seth Gordon, Andrew May, Thomas Cullinan, Terri Kent, Clyde Simon, Fabio Polanco, Jennifer Clifford, Randy Rollison, Bernice Bolek, Kevin Joseph Kelly, Robert Ellis, Paula Duesing, Dan Folino, Derdriu Ring, Victoria Bussert, Brian Breth, Molly McGinnis, Peter Hackett, Ryan Bergeron, Greg Cesear, Lucy Bredeson-Smith, and Morris A. Cammon.
Back Away From Those Roller Skates, or We'll Have to Kill You. It wasn't such a good year for gimmicky shows that relied on four-wheeled actors (listen carefully and you can still hear the drone of skates from Playhouse Square's stultifying Starlight Express) or weird diseases (accelerated aging in Dobama's desperately daffy Kimberly Akimbo). But of course, there's always an exception, and the gimmick that worked was in Cain Park's outrageous Bat Boy: The Musical, in which a half-man, half-bat played by Gary Walker hung upside down, rocked out Lion King parodies, and channeled Noël Coward.
The Evel Knievel Award for Risk Taking . . . To attain to the heights in theater, an actor, a director, and a company must be willing to take risks. Playing it safe just don't get it done. But it's scary to take risks, and just like ol' Evel, eyeing that jump over the fountain at Caesar's Palace (after which he broke almost every bone in his body), you never know how it's going to turn out. A number of Cleveland theaters stretched the risk-taking envelope last year (Beck Center and Cleveland Public Theatre high among them), but only one repeatedly took the envelope, shredded it, and joyously threw the bits in the air. And the winner is: the Convergence-Continuum group. Performing at the tiny Liminis Theatre in Tremont, Con-Con is devoted to the weirdly inspired scripts of ex-Clevelander Mac Wellman, Sam Shepard, and others. Their confrontational, physical, take-no-prisoners approach is absolutely mesmerizing. The theater's dark from now until April, but make a note to see a production there in 2004; these folks are the real thing.
That was the calendar year that was in Cleveland theater. But remember, most of these organizations, as well as many others, are still in the throes of their current season and readying more stage treats for January and beyond. Why not make a pledge to see a few more of their productions in the coming year? Hey, when it comes to New Year's resolutions, it beats giving up any of your more pleasurable vices.