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Year in Review 2018: From ‘American Dreams’ to ‘Boogieban,’ standouts on Northeast Ohio stages

December 30, 2018

Year in Review 2018: From ‘American Dreams’ to ‘Boogieban,’ standouts on Northeast Ohio stages

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Linear creatures that we are, we can’t resist making sense of the world using lists. So why fight it? But list-making isn’t simply reflexive and reductive. It forces us to really think about why a work of art is not only excellent, but memorable.

Some productions earned a spot among our 10 best because of their stunning overall artistry; others made us think about a classic in an entirely new way or reminded us of why a play or a musical became a classic in the first place. Many delivered pitch-perfect performances, while a few tackled topical issues with wit and grit and grace.

What all the productions share is that for one reason or a host of them, we couldn’t get them out of our heads. Here, for your consideration, arranged in order of their premieres, are our top 10 productions of 2018. (All capsule reviews by Simakis, except as noted.)

“Grounded” George Brant’s one-woman war drama about a fighter pilot grounded by an unexpected pregnancy — awarded the Smith Prize for a new play on American political themes in 2012 — is a gift to actresses that keeps on giving. In the Dobama Theatre production directed by Alice Reagan, Anjanette Hall poignantly captured the hotshot flyer’s descent from confident, steely killer to a woman increasingly haunted and unmoored by her work operating a drone from a trailer outside Las Vegas.

Tesia Dugan Benson’s artful, utilitarian set design was dominated by a swooping “X” that evoked both a runway and a bulls eye, like the one used by the Pilot to target her prey. A corrugated metal silhouette of a mountainous landscape doubled for a Nevada desert and her killing ground in South Asia. The simplicity of the staging let Hall, and Brant’s powerful, poetic language, soar.

“American Dreams” In the world premiere of “American Dreams,” three game-show contestants — a Pakistani cartoonist, a Palestinian chef and a Mexican medic — competed for a coveted prize. Not A BRAND-NEW CAR or A TRIP TO ANTIGUA, but something much more valuable: U.S. citizenship. What could be more topical? But the play, by Leila Buck, directed and developed by Tamilla Woodard at Cleveland Public Theatre, offered more than smart performances, whiz-bang visuals, ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter and clever, cheeky packaging.

Never shrill or preachy, “American Dreams” didn’t advocate for open borders, nor did it embrace choking off all entry. Instead, it engaged our heads and hearts, asking us to confront a thorny problem only the most disingenuous pundits and politicians promise has an easy fix.

“Hair” By audaciously infusing the time capsule that is “Hair” with contemporary political references and pop culture imagery, director Victoria Bussert, with the help of mesmerizing video montages from multimedia artist Kasumi, refused to let us relax into a pot-smoke haze of nostalgia. Instead, the Beck Center for the Arts production paid homage to the 1968 Broadway original by daring to make us uncomfortable.

Vintage footage of Vietnam-era and civil rights rallies blurred and faded into crowds holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” creating the feeling of instant time travel, knitting the “then” with the “now.” Student actors from Bussert’s Baldwin Wallace University music theater program hoisted homemade signs, written on the spot at every performance, that reflected their own, present-day politics: “Gay Rights are Human Rights”; “My P---y Grabs Back”; “Build Kindness Not Walls.”

“Macbeth” This canny production realized Shakespeare’s profound tragedy is perfect and relevant just as it is, and didn’t change a thing. Great Lakes Theater’s treatment of this most classic classic was straightforward, traditional, intimate and wonderful. Refreshingly, Charles Fee set the Bard’s bloody tale in medieval Scotland, not in some soulless skyscraper or Hitler’s Germany or any of the myriad other modern settings to which directors have transported the power-seeking power couple to end all power couples. Instead of heavy-handed references, this was a production of nuance and great emotional power. — Laura DeMarco, The Plain Dealer

“The Royale” Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” at Cleveland Play House, inspired by the life of the first African-American world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, was savage poetry in motion. Perfect in every way, Robert Barry Fleming’s production harnessed the power of minimalism, from its spare scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West, dominated by a drum-shaped ring, to stylized boxing sequences choreographed with the help of Krumping consultants Javion Allen and Keith T. Benford and fitness/boxing adviser KJ Johnson.

The results were mesmerizing, a potent vehicle to tell the story of the spiritual father of Muhammad Ali, who set out to right the wrongs of racism in 1910 Jim Crow America with his fists and his wits.

“Audra McDonald Sings Broadway” Some performances so transcend space and time, attention must be paid. So allow us an unorthodox entry: The most Tony-winning single performer of all time brought the Great American Songbook, by way of classic and contemporary Broadway, to Blossom Music Center and slayed.

Funny, fervent and able to inhabit a song with supernatural acumen, McDonald, with longtime music director Andy Einhorn conducting the Cleveland Orchestra, introduced us to little-known gems (the achingly beautiful “I’ll Be Here,” from Adam Gwon’s 2009 musical “Ordinary Days,” about a 9/11 widow daring to find love again) and thrilled us with crystalline renditions of towering standards (“Summertime,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”). If she comes this way again, you know what to do.

“Pride and Prejudice” “Pride and Prejudice” is one of the most popular books in the English language for good reason — make that several good reasons. From its delicious language and myriad laughs to its universal tale of romantic longing, the novel’s enduring appeal is obvious. Great Lakes Theater’s production honored the classic with a sparkling adaptation of Jane Austen’s witty and winsome novel of love and manners.

The casting couldn’t have been better. Laura Welsh Berg shone as the proud second-eldest Bennet sister. Nick Steen was perfect as moody Mr. Darcy, a damaged man with a surfeit of pride and a heart of gold. And Carole Healey nearly stole the show as Mrs. Bennet, whose outrageous silliness hid the very real fact that matching off her daughters was a matter of great seriousness in a time when women couldn’t work and in a family where they would not inherit. — DeMarco

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Edward Albee’s corrosive masterpiece can go south so easily, what with the operatic bickering on nearly every page played out in the living room of George and Martha, a couple unafraid to draw blood, over one long and boozy night. Don Carrier’s production at the Beck Center for the Arts reveled in the challenge, bringing a ferocity and speed to the domestic field of battle that made each nasty jab and withering remark all the sharper.

The ensemble was always in glorious harmony: Michael Mauldin and Derdriu Ring starred as G & M, and Daniel Telford and Becca Ciamacco as Nick and Honey, young marrieds who have no clue what they’re in for when they drop by. Aaron Benson’s set captured the shabby-chic, book-strewn lair of a worn-out academic and his perpetually dissatisfied wife in the mid-20th century. The very sofa sighed with resignation.

“Boogieban” Year after year, some of the best theater in Northeast Ohio is happening in a cramped black box behind Pub Bricco in Akron, home to None Too Fragile. The company continued that tradition with the world premiere of “Boogieban,” a play that co-artistic directors Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky raised $75,000 to bring to the None Too Fragile stage. In August and September, they’ll take it on the road to Chicago and New York, but its birth here is something to celebrate.

In the emotionally wrenching two-hander by D.C. Fidler, jaded military psychiatrist Lt. Col. Lawrence Caplan (David Peacock) is about to retire after 25 years of head shrinking. But his last client, Spc. Jason Wynsky (Travis Teffner), a young wounded soldier on leave from Afghanistan and suffering from nightmares, is more than he bargained for, stirring up the doctor’s own suppressed trauma from Vietnam.

The play’s message about the human cost of war is timely and uncompromising; the lived-in performances of Peacock and Teffner are two of the most affecting and memorable of 2018. The climactic scene, played out on a Freudian couch in Caplan’s office, ambushes you like sniper fire.

“A Christmas Story” The Cleveland Play House’s adaptation, directed by John McCluggage, is a trip down memory lane with the Parker family that takes equal parts from the movie and Jean Shepherd’s writings. The Play House’s production stays true to the nostalgic essence of the film by boiling it down to several key moments and two key threads: Ralphie’s dreams of his Red Ryder air rifle and the narrator’s melancholic dreams of his lost childhood. Christopher Gerson as the Old Man and Jeff Talbott as the adult Ralph/narrator are knockouts. — DeMarco

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