If you went to see theater locally during 2015, you had a lot to choose from. Here are the shows that I particularly admired and some of the reasons why. If you didn’t see them, I hope this inspires you to add some productions to your 2016 calendar at our excellent local theaters.
The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has been honored with two Tony Awards, a feat matched by only a few regional theaters. Peter and the Starcatcher, the inventive Peter Pan prequel that won the 2012 Tony Award, had a national tour. But thanks to the tenacity of the Playhouse’s Blake Robison, we had a locally mounted production (March-April) that used numerous storytelling tricks rather than special effects. It was a fine example of the family-friendly shows Robison presents regularly at the Playhouse.
Robison has also shown a commitment to produce plays by women, giving many new works their premiere or early productions. A perfect example was the Playhouse’s September-October production of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, a witty script about writers — one male, one female — on divergent literary paths. In a production staged by KJ Sanchez (a female director), the characters collide in ways that are humorous, provocative and thoroughly entertaining.
At Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, D. Lynn Meyers sustained her track record of shows that audiences love. (So strong is the faith of ETC’s subscribers that many sign up for the season before it’s announced by Meyers.) John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar (presented in May) told an emotional story of love, land and respect for aging in contemporary Ireland. Meyers recruited retired Playhouse artistic director Ed Stern to stage it; he landed two stage veterans, Dale Hodges and Joneal Joplin, and paired them with two regulars from Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Brian Isaac Phillips (Cincy Shakes artistic director) and Jennifer Joplin (Joneal’s daughter).
In September, Meyers opened ETC’s 2015-2016 season with Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale, the troubling story of a beleaguered social worker (played with weariness and integrity by ETC veteran Annie Fitzpatrick) navigating a tug-of-war over a baby between her drug-addicted parents and her fundamentalist grandmother. With no easy answers offered, it exemplified the kind of thought-provoking and socially relevant stories at which Meyers excels.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company remains steadfastly committed to the Bard, but its scope is broader. They staged Richard Bean’s hilarious farce, One Man, Two Guvnors (June-July), derived from a work by 18th-century playwright Carlo Goldoni, and Arthur Miller’s 1949 tragedy, Death of a Salesman (October-November). The latter starred Bruce Cromer, one of the best actors in Southwest Ohio, as Willy Loman, a broken man clinging desperately to a career in which he was never really very good.
Know Theatre, the producer of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, had good luck with several imported shows. One was The Handmaid’s Tale (January-February), Joe Stollenwerk’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. In 2011, Cincy Shakes’ artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips workshopped the one-woman script with actress Corinne Mohlenhoff (who happens to be his wife) about a strangely evolved future America where women are used for compulsive breeding. They teamed again for a compelling and fully staged production at Know.
The other show that landed on Know’s stage after a development process across the United States was Hundred Days, a Rock & Roll folk opera performed in August by singer-songwriters Shaun and Abigail Bengson. Their piece, an inventive blend of storytelling and moving Alt-Rock songs, was cultivated in fringe festivals here and elsewhere, with staging by two-time Obie Award winner Anne Kauffman.
Smaller companies doing noteworthy work included Clifton Players, local professionals who crowd into a basement space on Ludlow Avenue to perform challenging shows like Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (February-March), and Diogenes Theatre Company, which staged a thrilling psychological drama, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (April). Both groups set high standards for compelling theater.
Theater real estate is also booming. Cincinnati Landmark Productions built and opened — on schedule — its new venue, the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater in East Price Hill. (CLP also operates the Covedale Center.) The Incline had a remarkable summer, selling out three productions, including The Producers (June), a showbiz satire, and 1776 (July), the seldom-produced story of America’s founders. This fall, the Incline began offering more adult fare, including William Mastrosimone’s searing drama, Extremities, and a just-concluded production of Rent, a 20-year-old musical that’s still timely with messages about poverty and creativity.
CLP’s success with its new venue was a harbinger of exciting developments by other theater companies. In November, Cincinnati Shakespeare announced its plans for a theater to be built at 12th and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine. Seating will expand from 150 to 244. Demolition of the former Drop Inn Center begins in January; construction starts in April, and the facility is expected to be ready in time for the 2017-2018 season.Even sooner, the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati is presently putting the finishing touches on its new facility at 4015 Red Bank Road in Hyde Park. For the first time, the company will have its own 150-seat performance space. Main productions for kids will continue at the Taft Theatre downtown. And Ensemble Theatre , marking its 30th season this year, has announced that it is in the final stages of fundraising for its long-awaited expansion of its Over-the-Rhine footprint and capacity on Vine Street.
Finally, New Edgecliff Theatre, which planned to perform at Urban Artifact, is still at loose ends due to delays in finishing and soundproofing the sanctuary space. Nevertheless, they staged a powerful production of Terrence McNally’s romantic drama Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune in a makeshift space in Walnut Hills’ Essex Studios in September featuring strong performances by Sara Mackie and Dylan Shelton.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]