Theater season kicks off with compelling productions

'The Diary of Anne Frank,' 'The Legend of Georgia McBride' and 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' are just some of many compelling productions to choose from this weekend.

click to enlarge Courtney Lucien (Anne) and Barry Mulholland in "The Diary of Anne Frank" - PHOTO: MIKKI SCHAFFNER PHOTOGRAPHY
Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Courtney Lucien (Anne) and Barry Mulholland in "The Diary of Anne Frank"
The fall theater season is in full swing this weekend. There are more choices than you could possibly attend, so read up and pick one or two that you find appealing. I’ve given Critic’s Picks to the productions at Cincy Shakes, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Playhouse — very different shows, all worth seeing.

I didn’t expect Cincinnati Shakespeare’s staging of The Diary of Anne Frank to be at the top of my list. The stage adaptation of the writings of a precocious Jewish teenager hiding out from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic during World War II has been around a long time, and her sad story is well known. But some outstanding acting, especially by Courtney Lucien in the title role, makes this the most compelling performance currently onstage. She never caricatures Anne’s impetuous ways, but she’s charming in conveying a spirited adolescent who’s forced by the horrors of war and intolerance to explore her innermost emotions and thoughts at an age when most teens are consumed with immature matters. Her scenes with Barry Mulholland as her rational, caring father Otto, are especially affecting. Read my full review here. Through Oct. 1. Tickets: 513-381-2273.

I was also surprised by Ensemble Theatre’s The Legend of Georgia McBride, a seemingly frivolous entertainment about an Elvis impersonator who needs to become a drag queen. It’s definitely an amusing piece — downright hilarious more than once — but Michael Gerard Carr’s performance as Casey, who has to wrestle with who he is and how to understand what performing drag might be about beyond some predictable stereotypes, is quite genuine. He’s reinforced by his interaction with Margaret Ivey as his pregnant wife, unfairly kept in the dark and whose shocked reaction forces some deeper exploration by Casey of what his newfound gig tells him about himself. This is the kind of heartwarming show that ETC’s D. Lynn Meyers excels at elevating from entertainment to enlightenment. Find the full review here. Through Sept. 25. Tickets: 513-421-3555.

I had high hopes for the Cincinnati Playhouse’s staging of an adaptation of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I wasn’t disappointed. If you’re familiar with this popular novel, you will recall that it’s about two inextricably related characters: John (Jeremy Webb), the story’s narrator, and his boyhood friend Owen (Sean Mellott), a strange, tiny being with a “wrecked voice” who proclaims himself to be an instrument of God. Odd and unapologetic, Owen is bullied, doubted and misunderstood, but he inspires John from disbelief to faith. Blake Robison’s production is full of theater magic as some of the strange twists of fate and surreal visions that Owen experiences are staged. This is the kind of show you need to pay attention to in order to appreciate its complexities, but you’ll be rewarded for the effort — as well as entertained by the many zany, off-kilter characters that populate the tale. Read more here. Through Oct. 1. Tickets: 513-421-3888.

Other productions to consider: The Covedale Center has opened its season with a production of the New Testament-inspired musical Godspell (through Oct. 2), and Clifton Players is presenting a brand-new play by NKU grad Robert Macke, The Road Through Damascus (through Oct. 1), about an off-kilter town in North Carolina. In Dayton, the Human Race Theater Company has kicked off its 30th-anniversary season with a production of Stephen Sondheim’s scary musical Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (through Oct. 2).

I caught the first installment of Know Theatre’s Mini-Serials last Monday, “five bite-size shows in three weekly episodes.” It’s the fifth iteration of this creative series featuring the work of local writers and directors, performed by many actors familiar to audiences who frequent Know’s annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival. I especially enjoyed John Bromels’ The Interview, with a quirky comic performance by Rory Sheridan as an oblique interrogator and Tess Talbot as his unfortunate subject. James Allen’s Working Title features Piper Davis as a self-centered, cryptic movie director, and Alice Flanders’ Elizabeth and Annie brought together a 16th-century serial killer from Hungary with American sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Where these tales will go is anybody’s guess, but audiences will be back (it was a full house in Know’s Underground bar on Monday) for two more installments on Sept. 19 and 26). Tickets: 513-300-5669.


Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here

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