Monday, September 12, 2011

Muses inspire at Pandemonium as Cleveland Public Theater receives $1m grant

The muses flitted onto the stage in sparkling, raggedy dresses, upstaging the proper professor droning on about Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy. “No need to look to the past!” a muse intoned, and the professor beat it, ceding the stage to a multiplying troupe of dancers evoking the leaps of creativity.

“Muses are everywhere,” the lead muse declared. “Be a muse for each other. Remember, the muse is you!”

From there, hundreds of guests fanned out across Cleveland Public Theater’s campus at Pandemonium, the theater company’s annual fundraiser. The event, held Saturday, is one of the biggest parties in Cleveland, and this year, the occasion for the nonprofit's announcement that it's received a $1 million grant.

The theater’s supporters mingled with 250 performing artists, including costumed muses, jesters, black-clad winged fairies, birdmen with beaks angling from their foreheads, Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons, and haunting Mardi-Gras style giant puppets.

Twenty-two indoor and outdoor stages each hosted performances pretty much nonstop for two hours. Early rain sent crowds indoors. In the former orthodox church’s lower level, renamed the Bruise Me Basement, we were turned away from Stephen Farkas’ short play “A Peculiar Case of Execution” by a barbarian with a blood-tinged eye. The prisoners’ cell was very crowded, he explained, but he invited us to return a few minutes later. “We execute them about five times tonight,” he said.

Outside, as the rain died down, Ray McNiece and his band Tongue-in-Groove performed The Revenge of Cleveland, a blend of music and poetry. McNiece’s spoken-word rant, set off by a tiny nouvelle-cuisine dinner in Boston, became a paean to local comfort food, including “a meal as profound and murky as an immigrant cathedral” and a chicken dumpling soup with floating fat globules “like the hundred suns that never shine in gray Cleveland.” Then the full band, including an insistent harmonica and horn, propelled his “Love Song to Cleveland,” which got the Mexican skeletons dancing.

Down the theater’s catacomb-like side passageways, one small space hosted back-to-back sorts by local playwrights David Hansen and Eric Coble. Hansen’s “DO DO that VooDoo,” set at Cleveland Heights’ Alcazar Hotel in 1936, is built on actual lines from Plain Dealer theater critic William McDermott’s florid, condescending, deeply ambivalent review of Orson Welles’ all-black Macbeth. (Copies of McDermott’s review were handed out to the audience after the short.) The play imagines Welles, at the Alcazar’s bar, duping a starchy yet tipsy McDermott into handing over a telephone so he and an assistant can dictate the review – an almost believable explanation for McDermott’s writing style.

Coble’s “Waiting For the Matinee,” performed by two actresses sitting in the first row of seats, imagines an audience of two waiting to watch a production of Waiting for Godot. The first and last lines of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play (“Nothing to be done” and “Let’s go”), and presumably the last stage direction (“They do not move”), frame the short. In between, it’s an entertaining satire of the rewards, trials, hopes and disappointments of frequent theater patrons.

Back in the main hall, executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan shook up the usual acknowledgments and thank-yous with a big reveal. He announced that the Kresge Foundation has awarded CPT a $1 million grant for upkeep on its theaters. The award, part of a $7 million fundraising campaign, addresses the avant-garde company’s challenges in mounting productions amid the Gordon Square Theater’s old-Cleveland run-down grandeur.

CPT staged a bit of political fence-mending as it honored city councilman Joe Cimperman and his wife, ParkWorks associate director Nora Romanoff, with its Pan Award. The theater invited Dennis Kucinich to introduce Cimperman, a surprise move since the councilman, once a young ally of Kucinich, ran aggressively against him for Congress in 2008. Kucinich seized the peacemaking opportunity, praising Cimperman’s sense of community and creativity.

For Pandemonium’s finale, CPT stuck to a successful trio from years past: a performance by an aerial acrobat in a silk hammock, a grand entrance by several human desert tables, and two kitschy-cool sets by singer Lounge Kitty, whose ever-expanding repertoire now ranges from Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” to Rick James’ “Super Freak.”

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