The Year in Local Theater Productions

Highlights include 'The Revolutionists,' 'Jitney,' 'Disgraced,' 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' 'Beertown' and more

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click to enlarge Clockwise: Hannah Gregory (in red) stood out in "Chicago"; Giles Davies played the titular character in "The Elephant Man"; "The Revolutionists" was a 2016 highlight; the cast of Cincinnati Playhouse’s "Jitney"
Clockwise: Hannah Gregory (in red) stood out in "Chicago"; Giles Davies played the titular character in "The Elephant Man"; "The Revolutionists" was a 2016 highlight; the cast of Cincinnati Playhouse’s "Jitney"
Cincinnati theatergoers had a lot to enjoy during 2016. Each of the following shows earned a 2016 CityBeat Critic’s Pick.

The Cincinnati Playhouse continued to give women playwrights their due with a world premiere by a rising young playwright, Lauren Gunderson. The Revolutionists (February-March), commissioned by the Playhouse, was for me its best production during 2016. Gunderson’s scintillating script, packed with provocative ideas, portrayed four women in prison during the French Revolution. Gunderson brought together Queen Marie Antoinette, assassin Charlotte Corday, playwright Olympe de Gouges and Marianne Angelle, a woman of color from the Caribbean. Dressed for the 18th century, they spoke using very 21st-century language. The playwright’s motive — to put women back into history  — was achieved with humor and wit.

Provocation was the theme of another Playhouse production, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (September-October). The Pulitzer Prize-winning play was fueled by extreme differences of opinion. An aggressive New York attorney of Pakistani descent and his wife, a thoroughly American painter, host another couple for dinner, an African-American attorney and her Jewish husband, a museum curator. It was a challenging show to watch, but it advanced an appeal to listen and understand, behavior much needed in today’s America.

The Playhouse also presented August Wilson’s Jitney (October-November), written in 1979, the first script in his monumental 10-play cycle about African-Americans across the 20th century. Wilson’s stories about people struggling to get by are repeatedly elevated and humanized by everyday dialogue. In the hands of director Timothy Douglas, who has considerable experience with Wilson’s works, this tale about gypsy cab drivers trying to make ends meet had an undercurrent of joy. Lost loves, quick tempers, questionable motives and broken families are Jitney’s building blocks, but the profoundly real humanity of these men was palpable in this production. 

Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati marked its 30th season in 2015-2016 by moving audiences with fine scripts and acting. Sharr White’s Annapurna (March-April) was a two-hander about a cowboy poet/college professor and his ex-wife intersecting after 20 years. The show, peppered with sardonic humor and deep wounds, was a great vehicle for veteran ETC actors Dennis Parlato and Regina Pugh, underscoring the theater’s excellent “ensemble” of talent.  Annapurna was followed by Jeanine Tesori’s Violet (May), a musical ETC staged in 1999 when its existence was in doubt and audiences hesitated to venture to Over-the-Rhine. The passing of 17 years made this heartfelt, anthem-filled musical a metaphor for a theater that has now found its place. It’s the story of an angry, self-conscious young woman (played by Brooke Steele) who believes her life is a dead end due to a disfiguring facial scar. Violet’s desperate search enables her to find her way. That parallels what ETC is doing today, as its physical presence on Vine Street grows toward a promising future. 

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is also evolving, moving to a newly built Over-the-Rhine venue next September. Its Shakespearean productions are always exciting, but the company’s classical repertoire extends beyond those masterpieces. This fall opened with The Diary of Anne Frank (September-October), featuring Courtney Lucien as the sensitive, brave young woman forced by the horrors of war and intolerance to explore her innermost emotions at an age when most teenagers are consumed with immature issues. Anne’s writing sustained her despite depressing confinement, and her yearning to “go on living — even after my death” was brilliantly displayed when her words were projected on the walls of the theater in the show’s final moment. 

The company’s subsequent production, Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man (October-November), employed veteran actor Giles Davies as the horribly disfigured Victorian man whose body made him an object of scorn and morbid fascination. With no make-up or prosthetics Davies took on John Merrick’s deformed physicality with remarkable skill, yielding a poignant and powerful portrait. 

Know Theatre pushes boundaries annually during the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. In March it presented Beertown, a touring project by past Fringe act dog & pony dc. In an imagined village, the audience became citizens at a town meeting to decide which items in their time capsule to add or retire. They do this every five years. With planted messages by actors playing townspeople, the show became a civic dialogue exploring what’s meaningful to a community. 

Just two months after Gunderson’s Revolutionists at the Playhouse, Know presented her play Silent Sky (April-May), a rapturous portrait of a real woman, Henrietta Leavitt, an aspiring astronomer from the early 20th century who struggled for recognition during an era when men took the lead and women were relegated to supporting roles. Cincy Shakes regular Maggie Lou Rader portrayed the zealous scientist with luminous energy. 

Elsewhere, Falcon Theater staged Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane (March-April) at its intimate Newport theater. The crackling script is a dark Irish tale of a mother and a daughter (searingly portrayed by Tracy M. Schoster and Tara Williams) locked in mortal combat, and an emotional rollercoaster that careens between dark humor, self-centered aggression, loneliness and abuse.

Landmark Productions presented Kander and Ebb’s classic musical Chicago (August-September) at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater. It was a dark yet highly entertaining story, reminding audiences of the success realized in the theater’s inaugural season a year ago. Hannah Gregory and Alex Caldwell were perfect as “celebrity criminals,” the murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, in this vaudevillian satire on corruption and the production had a solid ensemble. ©

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