Sunday, September 8, 2013

Cleveland Public Theater shines with drama, comedy, song at Pandemonium

The doctor stalked the stage, spouting hokum. Three sexy assistants in white lab coats flitted around him, checked his chalkboard theories, and danced to mambo music as they set up a tall ladder near a giant, inert light bulb.

The stage went dark. Performers on the balconies, illuminated by hand-held spotlights, quoted Shakespeare, e.e.cummings, Walt Whitman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Langston Hughes. The light bulb glowed, and the doctor returned, now an old, bearded man. “Light! Liiiight!” he bellowed, like Dr. Frankenstein celebrating his creation.

That absurdist yet earnest theatrical mishmash set the tone for last night’s Pandemonium, Cleveland Public Theater's fundraiser and performance extravaganza. The introduction illuminated the night’s theme, “Shine” – dedicated, said executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan, to “the artist that shines inside each one of us.” The annual event seems designed to overwhelm patrons with the creativity of CPT-affiliated artists and supporters, with 17 stages hosting comedy, drama, music, spoken word, installation art and dance.

“There’s pressure to see everything,” partygoer Don Pavlish said. But that’s impossible. The most you can do is see a few intimate performances and keep moving at a quick pace.

Orthodox, the former church on CPT’s campus, hosted a rotating vaudeville show, including “Shhh! Alice is watching,” a short play that imagines director Alice Guy-Blache directing a scene from a century-old silent film. It’s played as a farce, with Guy-Blache’s pride at her pioneering accomplishments undercut by her assistant’s slapstick awkwardness and a creeping knowledge that the audience doesn’t know her. The play achieves a retro-magic when a wordless actor and actress take the stage in ashen black-and-white makeup. The assistant manipulates them into place like mannequins, and they pantomine a courtship scene as lights flicker like the sprocketed flashes of silent film.

Outside, on old outdoor staircases attached to the Parish Hall building, Carolyn McNaughton and Dana Hart enacted “The Lighthouse Keeper,” a tale of lost love on the sea inspired by the traditional folk song “House Carpenter.” The lighthouse keeper blew a bosun’s whistle and scribbled notes at the top landing as a young woman in a raggedy dress, in an alcove below, collected messages and objects in a pail. Now and then the lighthouse keeper pulled the pail up by rope and examined the contents for clues to her whereabouts.

At one point the young woman ascended the stairs and handed me a shell. “If you see him, will you give this to him?” she asked. “He needs to know I’m sorry.”

At length the lighthouse keeper descended. I handed him the shell. He gave me a note sealed with wax. “If you see her, give her this,” he said.

Several minutes later, I spied her wandering forlornly through the crowd and gave her the note. “Does he know?” she asked. He does.

Across CPT's campus, in an upstairs room, singer Juliette Regnier also evoked elusive love. Regnier’s French cabaret act ranged from a quirky comedic song about a spurned woman, with the plot explained by cartoon placards, to an emotive version of the ultimate French love song, Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” – one verse in French, one in English.

Three guys from the comedy troupe Last Call Cleveland – Aaron McBride, Mark McKenzie and Matt Zitelli – entertained on an outdoor stage near the local chefs’ tables. Their act included the least sexy R+B love song ever, a sendup of every seductive crooner of the last 30 years. No one can really make love all night long, the singer admitted, and proceeds to lower his lover’s expectations further and further as he went along. Later, claiming they were running out of time on the bill, two of the guys performed as simultaneous standup comedians, the joke being that almost every standup act is pretty much the same.

The performances ended back in the main theater with Pandemonium’s now-traditional finale: an aerial silk dancer, Heather Hammond of Heliummm Aerial Dance and Entertainment, twirling in knotted sashes to the music of Spectrum and Florence + the Machine.

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