Fresh Starts and Great Stories: 2017 Theater

Ensemble Theatre and Cincy Shakes excelled in their new homes; other local theaters presented audience-pleasing productions

click to enlarge Cincinnati Shakespeare Company opened its new Otto M. Budig Theater in Over-the-Rhine. - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company opened its new Otto M. Budig Theater in Over-the-Rhine.

This was a big year for theater locally, what with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s new Otto M. Budig Theater coming to life in September and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati reopening after some major renovation and expansion in October. 

While quite distinct, both venues — just two blocks apart — are beautiful and well suited to the essence of each theater company. Cincy Shakes’ space is sleek and stylish and the auditorium features excellent proximity for audiences; there are just six rows of seats plus a single set of seats on the front edge of the balcony so that all theatergoers are within 20 feet of the stage. ETC’s auditorium has been spruced up (new seats and easier access), but the Vine Street facility’s expansion also offers several versatile spaces for varied programming while preserving historic details and paying heed to views of the neighborhood. Both companies have done great work over the years with less than perfect facilities; now they have homes to match their aspirations.

ETC did some fine work during 2017, earning several Critic’s Picks from CityBeat, including a pair of shows by playwright Steven Dietz: Bloomsday and This Random World. His work especially resonates with Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers’ affection for shows with emotional depth and contemporary relevance. Dietz is the most frequently produced playwright at ETC, which specializes in premiering works that are new to local audiences. 

His script Bloomsday is set in Dublin, inspired by James Joyce’s  1922 novel Ulysses. The story of an interrupted love affair perhaps coming back to life closed the theater in April before renovations began. To reopen in October, Meyers picked another Dietz show, This Random World, a poignant story of missed connections. 

Both productions were impeccably staged and both featured noteworthy performances by theater veteran Annie Fitzpatrick. In Bloomsday, she was the latter-day object of possible romance; in This Random World, she played a secretive matriarch with health issues in a role considerably older than Fitzpatrick’s actual age. ETC’s other standout production during 2017 was an entertaining musical, First Date (January), a humorous look at the ups and downs of finding love in today’s world.

click to enlarge Nick Rose (right) as Prospero with Geoffrey Warren Barnes II in Cincy Shakes’ The Tempest - Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Nick Rose (right) as Prospero with Geoffrey Warren Barnes II in Cincy Shakes’ The Tempest

Cincy Shakes concluded its tenure at a one-time Race Street movie theater with a beautiful rendition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (April-May). It was a show full of magic, monsters and sweet farewells. It featured one of the company’s co-founders, Nick Rose, as the magician Prospero. 

To open its Over-the-Rhine theater, Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips staged a jaunty A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a big cast using all the bells and whistles (including flying) built into the new facility. 

Earlier in 2017 at Race Street, the company’s fine performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III (February-March) gave actor Billy Chace a chance to channel his often-manic comic energy into a very serious role. A sterling production of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 masterpiece, A Raisin in the Sun (March-April), featured an impressive array of Cincinnati’s African-American theater talent. In October, the company staged an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Steven Dietz at the same time that his play This Random World was onstage at ETC.

click to enlarge Nick LaMedica in the Playhouse’s outstanding Curious Incident - Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Nick LaMedica in the Playhouse’s outstanding Curious Incident

Other local theaters presented many fine productions during 2017. The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park began the year with a polished and highly entertaining staging of the campy musical Little Shop of Horrors (January-February), featuring Nick Cearley as Seymour. And there were two worthwhile Shelterhouse productions in the first half of the year — Summerland (February-March), Arlitia Jones’ play about spirit photography, and At Wit’s End (May-June), a season-ending one-woman show about folksy newspaper columnist Erma Bombeck. The latter proved immensely popular and was extended well beyond its intended four-week run. This fall’s production of Daniel Beaty’s one-actor show, Mr. Joy (September-October), had a powerful performance by Debra Walton. The New York-based actor (who trained at the University of Cincinnati) convincingly portrayed nine distinct characters. And The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (October-November) used creative staging and sensitive acting to tell the story of an unusual boy on the autism spectrum.

Broadway in Cincinnati brought several audience-pleasing touring productions to the Aronoff Center. Something Rotten (February-March), a Shakespeare-inspired musical comedy, was the favorite of many theatergoers. In May, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical had people humming hits from the ’50s and ’60s. Wicked returned with a five-week run in September for its fifth iteration locally, and kids injected a lot of energy into the productions of Finding Neverland (November) and A Christmas Story (December).

Know Theatre presented another successful Cincinnati Fringe Festival in June. But it also offered varied works including Dragon Play (January-February), a fanciful fable about unrequited love, and The Arsonists (September-October), a searing drama about a father-daughter team who set fires and were bonded, even after his death.

Cincinnati Landmark Productions offered sturdy work at the Covedale Center with a fine staging of The Miracle Worker (September), the play about Helen Keller being brought out of the isolation of blindness and deafness by a devoted teacher. At Price Hill’s Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, CLP staged a delightful production of The Drowsy Chaperone (August), a show with a sweet narrator who waxes nostalgic about musicals from bygone days. Van Ackerman winningly reprised the role he played admirably a few years earlier with Cincinnati Music Theatre.

One of the finest productions I saw during 2017 wasn’t here in Cincinnati: Actors Theatre of Louisville produced a magnificent staging of Tony Kushner’s sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Angels in America, Parts I and II (September-October). Perhaps the greatest theatrical work of the late 20th century, this production — totaling seven hours of riveting theater — was memorable in every aspect, including acting, design and musical accompaniment. A much-admired London production of Angels in America comes to Broadway next spring and is eagerly awaited , but having seen the Louisville staging, I don’t feel the necessity to head to New York City. This one was that good.

Contact Rick Pender: [email protected]

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