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2018 Fall Theater Preview: At Dobama Theatre, season celebrating women’s work brings Annie Baker’s ‘John’ and Dorothy Silver to the stage

September 22, 2018

2018 Fall Theater Preview: At Dobama Theatre, season celebrating women’s work brings Annie Baker’s ‘John’ and Dorothy Silver to the stage

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Nathan Motta loves Annie Baker. And he doesn’t care who knows it.

“I think she is one of the most important playwrights we have today,” Motta says.

He’s staged two of her plays at Dobama Theatre since taking over as artistic director five years ago: “The Aliens” in 2014, Baker’s sly, slacker homage to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”; and “The Flick” in 2017, her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that captured the grungy, sticky-floor realism of the lives of employees in one of the last movie theaters in Massachusetts to show 35-millimeter film.

Motta helmed both of those productions, and in October, he’ll make it a Baker’s trio with the Midwest premiere of “John,” a puzzle of a play too temptingly weird to let anyone tackle but himself.

In “John,” Jenny and Elias stop at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on their way home to New York after visiting Jenny’s parents in Ohio. There, the young couple encounter not just Civil War history – a passion of Elias’ – but aging eccentrics Mertis, the B&B’s proprietress; her batty friend Genevieve; and a house filled with thousands of dolls and other tchotchkes that seem to be watching them.

“It’s supposed to be a little creepy,” said Motta. “But it’s very subtle creepy, like, Annie Baker creepy, not Wes Craven creepy.”

Motta delights in the surreal complexity of this particular Baker script – he likens directing it to being an archaeologist on a dig, excavating strata of earth. “You take off one layer and there’s another layer underneath that helps explain the layer above and you just have to keep going and going.”

Dorothy Silver, whom he has cast as Genevieve, shares his appreciation for the brainteasing text, the way you turn it this way and that trying to solve it, like a Rubik’s Cube.

“I read the play and it was fascinating,” says Silver. She’s in Motta’s office in late August, about a month before the first table read. “I don’t understand a lot of it yet.”

Silver turned 89 in February and is the undisputed grande dame of Cleveland theater. Motta, now 38, has taken Dobama to new, daring heights during his relatively short tenure. “John” will be the first time the two have worked together as actor and director.

“It’s an adventure,” Silver tells Motta, “for you and for me.”

“I must tell you,” she continues, “I was talking to one of my sons about you asking me to read the play. . . ”

“So,” her boy asked. “Tell me about the part.”

“I said, ‘She’s 85, she’s blind and she’s crazy.’

“He says, ‘Mom, how can you resist – it’ll stretch you!’

“I have children who are, fortunately at my age, wanting to stretch me, not to just sit there and wait,” says Silver.

She did her first Dobama show at 60 in 1989, directing “Reckless,” a dark comedy by Craig “Prelude to a Kiss” Lucas in which a contented suburban housewife learns that her husband has hired a hit man to hunt her down on Christmas Eve.

“I was just reading about this!” says Motta. “We have this history of Dobama thesis that someone did in ’95 and you’re all over it.”

Genevieve, says Silver, is “clinging to her insanity. . . I think she’s almost proud of it.

“She really is like some people I have met, whose whole life is composed of a combination of imagination and fact and you can’t separate them.”

And yet, it’s Genevieve who perceives things others can’t – including the extradimensional goings-on inside the quaint B&B.

“The idea of a blind character goes back to the oracle of Greek drama,” says Motta.

“Genevieve, from the minute she appears, is blunt as all get out. She’s like, ‘This place is haunted,’ so she is the truth-teller, again – a soothsayer, an oracle.

Genevieve’s blindness also affords her expanded hearing, says Motta, as well as “this expanded sense that goes beyond just what you see in front of you – she talks about hearing things in the house or sensing things. She really sees and understands and hears more than any of the other human characters.”

Still, don’t except a boo, bump-in-the-night sort of ghost story. Baker is out to explore human-made hauntings that are no less disquieting than supernatural ones. And, ultimately, harder to exorcise. There are the ghosts of previous relationships and the things we do to hurt one another. Genevieve is haunted by the memories of her ex-husband; Jenny and Elias by their unresolved conflicts.

And then there are the ever-unsettling dolls. Motta has one of them – a glassy-eyed American Girl doll named Samantha who will also appear in “John” – in his office. Just as in the play, she seems to be somehow sentient, eavesdropping in on the conversation atop a bookshelf.

Jenny: When I was little I always worried about my dolls. I had this one doll, um, Samantha, and I always felt like she was incredibly angry at me.

Genevieve: Of course she was angry.

Mertis: What do you mean, Genevieve?

Genevieve: Angry to be a doll! To be a piece of plastic or glass and to be shaped into a human form and trapped! With one expression on your face! Frozen! People manhandling you. And then put in a dress. Put in an itchy little dress!

Women in the play – and everywhere – can relate.

“Genevieve very specifically ties [dolls] to the role of women and how women traditionally – and still today – can be made to be frozen and dressed up and pretty and quiet,” says Motta.

No one could ever mistake Silver for being passive or frozen. She seems in constant motion: She was the titular “Marjorie Prime” at Dobama in November 2017 and Holocaust survivor Gizela in the theater’s “On the Grill” in June 2018.

“I’ve played, since I turned 70 practically, only old ladies. When I was 30 or 40, I thought all old ladies were alike – and they’re not,” she says.

That’s one reason when Motta decided to do “John,” he immediately thought of Silver and the “killer part” that awaited her.

“It was natural fit,” says Motta happily. “Everything just worked out.”

Silver is the kind of actor with whom directors want to work, says Motta, because she “can mine a script and make strong choices about her character in the same way that I would as a director.”

She has the smarts to read a challenging playwright like Baker, understand the story Baker is trying to tell and translate that understanding from the page to the stage.

“What you don’t want to have to do is cheerlead – ‘Give me more, give me more,’ says Motta.

It also doesn’t hurt if the actor is someone Motta wants to spend lots of time with.

“You want somebody you’re gonna enjoy working with, someone who’s kind. Not necessarily nice but kind. There’s a difference.”

“I’m mostly nice,” says Silver.

Silver is as particular about her directors as Motta is his casts.

Before she signs on to do a show she and Motta don’t just discuss the script and the part. “Dorothy always asks, ‘well, who’s directing,’ says Motta. “It really matters. It’s an intimate collaboration.”

And collaboration is the operative word. No didactic control freaks who instruct actors to “weave two steps to the right,” says Silver, need apply.

“Oh I must tell you,” Silver says, reaching across Motta’s desk to rest her hand on his arm.

“Someone came to me yesterday and said they saw “A Doll’s House Part 2″ and there’s a part for me in it. . .”

And just like that, we might have just gotten a sneak peek at Dobama’s 2019-20 season.

Dobama Theatre’s 2018-19 Mainstage Season

Times, tickets and more

All shows are at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights. Memberships are $156. Single tickets are $29-$35. Holiday ticket prices for “Ella Enchanted: The Musical” are $37-$40. Senior, military and student discounts are available. 

Preview performances are $15 and need-based “pay as you can.” The first Sunday of the run is a “pay as you can” performance. To purchase tickets, go to dobama.org or call 216-932-3396. 

The following descriptions are based on information provided by Dobama Theatre and the reporter’s own notebook. 

Through Sunday, Sept. 30: “Sunset Baby,” written by Dominique Morisseau. Directed by Justin Emeka. Ohio premiere.

Nina, a tough, independent woman in Brooklyn, New York, is visited by her estranged father, Kenyatta, a former revolutionary in the black liberation movement who is desperate to mend their broken relationship. As father and daughter circle one another, old wounds and generational differences are exposed, and blazing truths laid bare. 

Showrunners of gritty, prestige cable TV shows have discovered playwrights like Morisseau, a writer and producer of “Shameless,” the Showtime series starring William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher, the dad nobody would choose to have.

Friday, Oct. 19-Sunday, Nov. 11: “John,” written by Annie Baker. Directed by Nathan Motta. Midwest premiere.

It’s the week after Thanksgiving, and Elias and Jenny, a troubled young couple struggling to stay together, stop at a bed and breakfast crammed with toys, figurines and Victorian kitsch. 

During their visit, they encounter a cheerful innkeeper and an eerie world filled with one very odd American Girl doll, among other supernatural surprises. (In previews the Tuesday and Thursday of opening week.)

Friday, Nov. 30-Sunday, Dec. 30: “Ella Enchanted: The Musical,” adapted by Karen Zacarias. Music by Deborah Wicks La Puma. Directed by Nathan Motta. Regional premiere.

In this modern-day Cinderella story, baby Ella is given the “gift” of obedience by a misguided fairy and cannot disobey any order. Now a teenager, the strong-willed Ella must outwit her evil stepmother, escape hungry ogres and hold on to her best friend, all while getting rid of the troublesome curse and finding her own voice. 

Expect actors playing multiple roles, interactive puppets, giants and other fairy-tale creatures in this musical adaptation of the 1997 novel by Gail Carson Levine. (In previews the Tuesday and Thursday of opening week.)

Friday, Jan. 25-Sunday, Feb. 17: “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again,” written by Alice Birch. Directed by Sarah Wansley. Cleveland premiere.

In 2013, the Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned four women to respond to the prompt “well-behaved women seldom make history.”

The oft-repeated aphorism made playwright and British screenwriter Birch angry, she has said, because she didn’t know what it meant. She dived into feminist literature searching for answers and produced what one admiring critic dubbed a funny and horrifying manifesto on how to revolutionize language, relationships, work and life, told through a series of vignettes. (In previews Wednesday and Thursday of opening week.)

Friday, March 8-Sunday, March 31: “The Nether,” written by Jennifer Haley. Directed by Shannon Sindelar. Cleveland premiere.

In the not-too-distant future, The Nether is a virtual-reality wonderland that provides total sensory immersion. Just log in, choose an identity and indulge your every desire. 

But when a young detective uncovers a disturbing brand of entertainment involving a little girl in one of its darkest corners, her investigation forces us to consider the cost of living out our private dreams. (In previews the Wednesday and Thursday of opening week.)

Friday, April 26-Sunday, May 26, 2019: “This,” written by Melissa James Gibson. Directed by Nathan Motta. Regional premiere.

Jane is not OK. She’s a single mom and poet with writer’s block, and her dating life is in shambles. Her helpful pals are only helping to make things more complicated. This unromantic comedy captures the uncertain steps of a circle of friends backing their way into middle age.

Like Morisseau, Gibson has a prestige cable pedigree as a writer for “The Americans” and as a producer on “House of Cards.” (In previews the Tuesday and Thursday of opening week.)

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