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Cleveland’s Holiday Arts and Entertainment: My 2013 Top 10

Blogkeeping: Congratulations, entry 6 – Melanie, for winning the Rachael Ray Week in a Day giveaway. Please respond to my email by 5pm ET on Wednesday (12/11).

Holiday Arts and Entertainment: Great Lakes Theater's A Christmas Carol (now through December 22); photo by Roger Mastroianni

Great Lakes Theater’s A Christmas Carol (now through December 22); photo by Roger Mastroianni

It’s time for one of my favorite blog posts of the year — my wrap-up of holiday arts and entertainment coming to Cleveland. From the return of popular classics to new takes on old tales, here are my 10 picks for what to see around Cleveland this December.

Great Lakes Theater’s A Christmas Carol (through December 22)

This December, Great Lakes Theater celebrates a milestone for their annual holiday production — the 25th anniversary of A Christmas Carol! Through December 22, take the family to see their twist on the Charles Dickens classic. It’s Christmas Eve, twenty years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. The Cleaveland family sits down to read the story as it comes alive onstage, seen through the imagination of the family’s youngest child.

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Good People at Cleveland Play House is Great

Good People at Cleveland Play House

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People at Cleveland Play House through April 14

It’s a tall order to combine broad laughs, social commentary, and a melancholy, intimate, character-driven story.

But Good People – currently onstage at Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre through April 14 – succeeds with a subtle mastery.

When I was invited to attend Good People’s opening night last week, I was greeted by a “Welcome to South Boston” mural overlooking the back alley of a Dollar Store.

However, that mural may be one of the only welcoming things about Southie, the rough-around-the-edges neighborhood in Boston where Good People is set.

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In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play at the Cleveland Play House

In the Next Room is at the Cleveland Play House now through May 13

With a name like “the Vibrator Play” one can’t help but have some bubbling expectations as they take their seat at Cleveland Play House’s latest production. Is it a bawdy tale of lust and love? A stark look at humanity’s primal urges? An expose on 1950s horror movie gimmicks? And how important was that ‘mature audiences’ sign in the lobby?

When I first heard about Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, many of those thoughts were going through my head.   Playing on the Cleveland Play House’s Second Stage now through May 13, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and 2010 Tony Award® Nominee for Best Play is the cornerstone of CPH’s New Ground Theatre Festival.

From left to right, Dr. Givings’ patient Sabrina Daldry (Birgit Huppuch), wife Catherine (Nisi Sturgis) and midwife/assistant Annie (Gail Rastorfer) explore how the doctor’s treatment works. (All photos by Roger Mastroianni)

In the late 1800s which is when In the Next Room is set, strict moral codes ruled society. A side-effect of the time’s male-dominated repression was a rise in “hysteria” among women.

For these women who had “a tendency to cause trouble,” a common professional medical treatment would be prescribed: physicians and midwives would use manual manipulation to induce a “paroxysm” that could relieve whatever “womb imbalance” had caused the hysteria.

With the invention of electricity, doctors gained a new tool – the electromechanical vibrator.  It could produce a paroxysm in mere minutes and required no particular skill to operate. The vibrator was a purely medical device to correct what was construed as female “frigidity” before 1920s pornographic films destroyed its wholesome image.

From right to left, the blustery Mr. Daldry (Donald Carrier) brings his wife to Dr. Givings (Jeremiah Wiggins) because of her troublesome behavior.

In In the Next Room, audiences meet a doctor who has become known for being exceptionally good at delivering this treatment. Husbands bring their “troublesome” wives to see Dr. Givings on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, while even a few more sensitive men seek out relief from him.

While these treatments take place behind a closed door, Dr. Givings’ wife Catherine is in the next room dealing with her own issues after the birth of their first child. Feeling disconnected from her scientifically-obsessed husband, she starts speaking and building relationships with the patients that pay her husband a visit.

Because of her own struggles to bond with her newborn, Catherine (left, Nisi Sturgis) befriends her husband’s patients such as Mrs. Daldry (right, Birgit Huppuch).

However, In the Next Room is much more than a humorous tale about the early days of the vibrator. Moreso than almost any other play I’ve seen recently, Ruhl’s script is a complex masterpiece with countless layers of themes connected by its beautifully poetic dialogue.

Every character – whether it’s Doctor Givings, Catherine, his midwife, her wetnurse or the Doctor’s female and male patients – has their own dynamic journey that touches upon a different topic. On top of that, the individual relationships each character develops with one another build to new themes.

Even some men, such as the artist Leo Irving (right, Zac Hoogendyk), find that Dr. Givings’ (left, Jeremiah Wiggins) treatment helps their emotional struggles.

Because of Ruhl’s outstanding writing, the audience is gifted with so many ideas to explore: the search for emotional and physical health; the debate between scientific innovation/technology and humanity; the hardships of both infertility and motherhood; the desire to forge a meaningful connection with someone, as well as discussions on race, propriety, spirituality and art.

While it may be set in the Victorian era, In the Next Room is written for a contemporary audience with ideas that are universal, timeless.  For instance, those audience members who are interested in the most recent debate about personhood and the rights of women will find this serendipitously-timed production an excellent catalyst for conversations.

Although completely unintentional, the timing of In the Next Room complements the current debate about women’s rights and responsibilities, as seen through new mother Catherine (right, Nisi Sturgis) and her wetnurse Elizabeth (left, Rachel Leslie).

With so many themes, it would be easy for audience members to get lost or the play’s action to drag.  However, thanks to the skilled direction of Cleveland Play House’s Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley, each layer pieces together seamlessly.

Under her leadership, every actor is exceptional in their roles and the beautiful Victorian costumes and house design are effective in not just eliciting the time but also establishing physical reminders of the barriers that restrict the characters.

In the Next Room transforms Cleveland Play House’s versatile Second Stage space into a very effective thrust layout.

When Scott and I saw the production earlier this week, we stuck around for a post-show discussion with the cast. They shared that during rehearsals, Kepley explained to them how each character went through a process of awakening, connection and release during the play. It’s the one constant that unites them all.

And thanks to the work of everyone involved, the audience is taken on a similar journey – being awakened by, connected to and freed by many of the play’s ideas – an effect that has lasted for me days after leaving the theatre.

The search for connection that Dr. Givings (left, Jeremiah Wiggins) and his wife Elizabeth (right, Nisi Sturgis) undergo is the journey around which the other characters revolve.

In the Next Room is in the Cleveland Play House’s Second Stage space through Sunday, May 13. Tickets are available at the PlayhouseSquare ticket office by calling 216-241-6000 or online at www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

As mentioned earlier, In the Next Room is part of CPH’s New Ground Theatre Festival. For more information about the festival, check out a preview here.

Disclosure: I was invited to attend a performance of In the Next Room in exchange for sharing my opinions about the production. The thoughts expressed in this post are sincere and my own.

Cleveland Play House's New Ground Theatre Festival

Cleveland Play House's New Ground Theatre Festival runs May 3 through May 12

I’ve written a lot over the last season about the changes going on at Cleveland Play House this season – from their move downtown to their increased dedication to audience engagement.

It’s been an exciting ride seeing a theatre that’s almost 100 years old not be content to rest on its laurels and reimagine itself.  Even though they’ve been in their new home for almost a year, the changes aren’t done yet.

To complement their move downtown, CPH decided it was the perfect time to makeover their renowned FusionFest, which had celebrated its 6th year last season. To recognize their new facilities and a greater focus on new theatre pieces, the festival has now received a much more fitting name: the New Ground Theatre Festival.

Starting May 3rd and running through the 12th, Cleveland Play House will present a variety of new work from nationally recognized artists.   From a show that will have Cleveland literally buzzing, to a unique collaboration with the Cleveland Orchestra and a handful of new play readings, the most difficult part for me will be deciding on what I want to see.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play - April 13 through May 13

The centerpiece of this showcase is Cleveland Play House’s Mainstage production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the vibrator play.  At the dawn of electricity, patients diagnosed with “hysteria” are being given a radical new treatment – arriving troubled but departing delighted with the assistance of the doctor’s “little helper.” Inspired by actual 1880s medical science, In the Next Room tenderly explores how we connect – both emotionally and physically – with our loved ones.

Although the New Ground Festival doesn’t start til May, you can actually see In the Next Room starting today (April 13). Due to advance audience demand, Cleveland Play House extended its run from now through May 13.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favor - May 3, May 4 and May 5

Another festival highlight that I’m particularly excited about is their production of Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favor: A Play for Actors and Orchestra.  I have been a big Stoppard fan since high school and I’ve been kicking myself ever since missing a production of this play when I lived in Philly.

With music by André Previn, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor is the only play ever written that includes an orchestra as central to the action. This witty satire on state-sponsored repression focuses on 2 cellmates, both named Alexander Ivanov. One’s a political protestor, the other a madman who ‘conducts’ an orchestra that only exists in his head.

Because you need an orchestra who’s up to the challenge, Every Good Boy Deserves Favor is not staged very often. Fortunately, Cleveland is lucky enough to have the Cleveland Orchestra.

The CPH production runs for only three performances – May 3, 4 and 5 – and features a cast of 6 actors and 38 Cleveland Orchestra musicians.  In my opinion, this unique collaboration between 2 of Cleveland’s most exciting cultural institutions is reason enough to go.

First Annual Roe Green Award New Play Reading - May 5

In addition to In the Next Room and Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, the New Ground Theatre Festival will include a public reading of a new play by Quiara Alegría Hudes, the winner of CPH’s first annual Roe Green Award. Awarded to a nationally recognized playwright, the prize included $7,500; a week-long residency including rehearsals; a Master Class with CPH Playwrights’ Unit, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University students; and a public reading of a new play.

On May 5, Hudes will workshop her new play as part of this award.

Lauren Weedman's BUST - May 10, May 11 and May 12

Rounding out the line-up are performances by solo artists Lauren Weedman (BUST) and Baba Brinkman (The Rap Guide to Evolution), as well as readings of new plays including one written by CPH’s own Artistic Director Michael Bloom:

  • BUST is Lauren Weedman’s semi-autobiographical play built around her experiences working as a volunteer advocate in a Southern California prison for women. With one foot in Hollywood and the other in jail, the former Daily Show correspondent careens wildly between the two worlds, taking the audience on a hilarious, poignant, and completely unforgettable ride. (May 10-12)
  • A novel species of theatre combining the wit, poetry and charisma of a great rapper with the accuracy and rigor of a scientific expert, Baba Brinkman’s The Rap Guide to Evolution uses hip-hop as a vehicle to communicate the facts of evolution while illuminating the origins and complexities of hip-hop culture with Darwin as the inspiration. (May 11- 12)
  • Written by CPH’s Artistic Director Michael Bloom, The Fagin Effect is a pastiche of Oliver Twist in which “ghosts” of the original characters are used to tell a new story that takes place in London, 1850. As entire neighborhoods are demolished to make way for the first underground railway, the appearance of a young man in the ‘shop’ of one Julius Fogel presents an opportunity for some of London’s dregs to turn their lives around with the assistance of a real estate developer named Whitelaw. (May 12)

Baba Brinkman's The Rap Guide to Evolution - May 11 and May 12

Tickets for the New Ground Theatre Festival are on sale now, and if you can’t make up your mind, you’re in luck because discounts are available when you purchase tickets to more than one show. Call 216-241-6000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com for more info.

After being impressed by my first FusionFest last year, I’m glad to see that although the name has changed, CPH has put together a lineup that rivals if not surpasses their previous festivals.

(Note: Images courtesy of Cleveland Play House)

The Art of Engagement, Part 1: Cleveland Play House

Engagement programs, like Cleveland Play House's Gen.NOW series, give audience members unique social experiences while learning more about the shows and theatres in Cleveland. Pictured: Mattie Hawkinson, Rob McClure and Lise Bruneau, part of The Game's Afoot cast, at the Gen.NOW pre-show happy hour.

Considering how much it interests me now, I’m sometimes surprised that it wasn’t until I was about to head off to college that the theatre bug bit me. I had enjoyed seeing plays and musicals as a child and had performed in a couple of shows like a lot of kids with an overactive imagination, but it wasn’t until an experience at the very end of high school that I found how enriching the performing arts can be.

When I was trying to decide on colleges, I spent the weekend at La Salle University with a senior who was involved in their theatre program. She took me on a tour of the theatre before curtain went up on opening night. I met the cast and crew and got to experience the behind-the-scene workings.

It was this experience, and my fascination with how much went on backstage, that started my engagement in the arts – leading me to get involved in productions during college and for a few years after graduation.  And even though I don’t work in theatre anymore, I still look for opportunities to go beyond what I see onstage to learn and further my experience.

When I moved here, I was happy to discover Cleveland’s theatres offer a variety of engagement programs to enrich my experience as an audience member – from learning more about the show’s history to how the production fits within the Cleveland community.

It’s easy to take advantage of these programs — most of which are free. Usually it’s as easy as knowing what each theatre offers and when.

Because I feel these off-stage programs have made my Cleveland theatre-going experiences more fulfilling, I’m going to take a look over the next month at the different ways Cleveland theatres get their audience members engaged.  I hope you find something you like and have a chance to check some of these offerings out.

I’m starting things off with the Cleveland Play House.

ClevelandPlayHouse.com

CPH’s move downtown this Fall was not the only change America’s first regional theatre made to further engage and enrich audiences during their 2011-2012 season. Last Spring, they hired Corey Atkins for a brand new position – Artistic Associate – Engagement.

As one of only two positions like it in the country, Atkins’ Engagement role is unique because it is not a marketing position, but an artistic one. The purpose is to create new relationships through engagement events and build upon the experience of current audiences through enrichment programs — regardless of whether someone purchases a ticket.

Their new downtown theatres - like the Second Stage pictured here - weren't the only changes CPH made this season to further engage audiences.

When I spoke with Atkins last week, he shared that one of the changes he made right away was to evolve the already-existing pre- and post-show talks into a conversational format — as more of an audience forum than a lecture. Although CPH staff may facilitate the conversation, guests are able — and encouraged — to openly share their opinions and experiences.

I saw this openness first-hand when I attended a pre-show conversation for The Game’s Afoot and we learned detailed history about the Gillette mansion from an audience member who had visited it.

If you can make it to the show early, these half-hour pre-show conversations start 45 minutes before every performance. The post-show discussions take place after the second Tuesday and final three Sunday performances. Both are free with your ticket to the show and allow you to connect with the people that are involved in the production and continue the dialogue that was started on stage.

Also new this season, CPH has introduced comprehensive Play Guides and a Reading Club for further insight into each play.

The play guide for Ten Chimneys, their latest production, features profiles on the real-life theatre legends that the play is based off of, as well as a history of American theatre and an interview with a Case Western Reserve University/CPH Master of Fine Arts student who is in the production. If you’re planning on attending the show, it’s a great read.

For $10, the Cleveland Play House Reading Club provides audience members with a copy of the script and discussion questions four weeks prior to the show. Then when they see the show, audience members can engage in a lively discussion with the artistic staff and other audience members about the production. The best part is that Reading Club members can bring along any family or friends for free to the discussion.

Gen.NOW, night.OUT! and College Night @ CPH are all part of this season's new SHOW+ programming.

In addition to fostering a deeper relationship with their current audiences through these enrichment programs, CPH is also building new audiences by giving the community more reasons to check them out.

Their new SHOW+ programs introduce younger and more diverse audiences to CPH as a social experience. While the show is always the focus, SHOW+ guests get to also enjoy a pre- or post-show party. These happy hour parties feature food and drink where guests can interact with one another and meet the actors and CPH staff, while enjoying a special discounted ticket price.

Just like their move downtown, the SHOW+ program reflects CPH’s dedication to contemporary theatre and contemporary audiences by reaching out to community members that have been absent in the past and are necessary to keep the theatre growing.

For instance, the Gen.NOW and College Night @ CPH programs target young and engaged Clevelanders and college students, respectively — encouraging them to explore downtown restaurants and bars and socialize with one another in a creative, fun atmosphere. Plus, they get to enjoy the show at a price that fits their budget.

The next Gen.NOW and College nights take place April 24 and May 1, respectively, during In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. The discount code for Gen.NOW is “NOW” and college students are able to take advantage of CPH’s student discount.

I am a huge fan of CPH’s third SHOW+ program because it was created to engage with another under-served audience – the LGBT community and friends. night.OUT! focuses on providing a friendly environment for socializing and networking with a happy hour and show costing only $25.

After the success of their first night.OUT!, the Jan. 19th performance for Ten Chimneys is nearly sold out.

The next night.OUT! on Jan. 19th will feature a pre-show party at The Wyndham’s Blue Bar with free appetizers and drink specials, followed by a performance of Ten Chimneys.  CPH will also offer a night.OUT! event on April 19th for In the Next Room (discount code: OUTCPH).

For each of the SHOW+ events, CPH incorporates a creative activity to encourage guests to step out of their comfort zones and meet new people. For instance, during The Game’s Afoot Gen.NOW event, audience members were given a slip with either a Question or Answer on it when they arrived. If they found the matching clue among the other guests, they were entered in a raffle for tickets to a future show.

The growth and success of the SHOW+ events so far have demonstrated the need for programs like this within Cleveland. Individuals and Cleveland young professional groups have helped the Gen.NOW program triple in attendance between The Life of Galileo and The Game’s Afoot. 

Similarly, night.OUT! has been so popular that online tickets for the Ten Chimneys event are sold out. CPH is reserving a block of tickets for the January 19th performance that are available by phone on Jan. 17 only. Details about this special block of tickets are available here.

Ten Chimneys, playing on the brand new Second Stage until Feb. 5, will also feature other community engagement programs, such as a special discussion for University Hospital outpatients and their families with actress Mariette Hartley.

Hartley, who is not just famous for her theatre experience, but also as the former host of the CBS Morning Program and the author of Breaking the Silence, will lead a conversation on emotional and mental health while sharing her own journey and struggles.

Additionally, Ten Chimneys actress Jordan Baker will run a workshop on the business of acting for CSU and Case students – reflecting the play’s theme of balancing an onstage and offstage life.

Events such as these reinforce the notion that plays and artists can make a ripple not just on stage, but within the broader community as well.

CPH staff, crew and cast members are often involved in each show's audience engagement programs. Pictured here: Gail Rastorfer, Mariette Hartley, and Jordan Baker in CPH's current production - Ten Chimneys. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

As they look at the success of this year, CPH is looking ahead to next season’s engagement goals. Building on the success of night.OUT! and Gen.NOW, Atkins hopes to create more ethnically and culturally diverse programs. They also will closely examine how the work that is produced more directly connects with different parts of the city.

The Cleveland Play House is just one great example of how Cleveland theatres are making more of an effort to engage the community and build awareness within the region. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be spotlighting other examples in a series of posts titled “The Art of Engagement”. Next up – Gordon Square Arts District’s Near West Theatre.

Many thanks to Corey Atkins for sitting down with me to discuss Cleveland Play House’s audience engagement programs. All images are courtesy of Cleveland Play House.

The Game's Afoot for the Holidays at the Cleveland Play House

Ken Ludwig's "The Game's Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays)," directed by Aaron Posner, is on stage in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare, now - December 24, 2011.

A triple murder and assassination attempt may not be the first things that come to mind when I think about the holidays. However, the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays) at Cleveland Play House is a hilarious, quirky and thrilling alternative to your standard holiday entertainment.

The Game’s Afoot opens with a performance of one of William Gillette’s famous Sherlock Holmes adaptations. As the cast takes their bows and the playwright-slash-actor wishes the audience a happy holiday, a gun rings out in the theatre and Gillette is shot.

Not one to let an assassination attempt ruin his holidays, Gillette gathers his co-stars to his lavish Connecticut mansion for a Christmas Eve celebration. 

After tragedy strikes again, Gillette picks up the curved pipe (which – thanks to him – would become synonymous with the character) and sets to work solving the crime as only Sherlock would do.

The Cleveland Play House’s holiday production is a world premiere. Written by Ken Ludwig (of Lend me a Tenor fame), The Game’s Afoot is inspired by the real life William Gillette – the man who brought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective from page to stage, paving the way for the likes of Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey Jr. and many other actors.

Random Sherlock Holmes trivia: it was Gillette – not Sir Arthur – that we can thank for the origins of the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” after he wrote “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.”

William Gillette (Donald Sage Mackay in The Game's Afoot) is famous for portraying "Sherlock Holmes" on stage. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

In addition to being a renowned actor, writer, producer and inventor, Gillette was also a bit of an eccentric – much like the character he performed on stage 1300 times. With the money from his productions, Gillette built his retirement home, what is now called “Gillette’s Castle” in East Haddam, Connecticut.

The twenty four room stone mansion was considered by some as his greatest creation; others called it “Gillette’s folly.” From the hand-carved puzzle locks on the outside of all the doors to a 3 mile train track that runs throughout the house to a mirrored surveillance system that allowed Gillette to monitor what was going on at any point in the mansion, I think it sounds amazing and Scott and I already plan to visit it when we’re in Connecticut for a wedding this April.  

Cleveland has the distinct honor of originating this play. Over the course of the play’s rehersal period in Cleveland, Ludwig penned 9 versions of the script, which after working with Director Aaron Posner, the cast, crew and staff of the Cleveland Play House, resulted in a hilarious sendup of murder mysteries that kept me guessing until the very last scene.  

William Gillette and his cast of "Sherlock Holmes" discover a clue. Pictured from left: Patricia Kilgarriff, Lise Bruneau, Eric Hissom, Donald Sage Mackay, Rob McClure, Mattie Hawkinson. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

While a lot of this success can be attributed to Ludwig’s well-honed script and Posner’s directing, much of the credit is due to the actors. 

It’s rare to be able to honestly say an entire production is perfectly cast. Many times there’s at least one actor who may have a mis-step or not shine as brightly as the others. However, in Game’s Afoot, every single actor who steps on the stage seems custom fit for their role.

Donald Sage Mackey has the difficulty of portraying the larger than life William Gillette as he bounces between his own real life idiosyncracies and the persona of his Sherlock Holmes role. 

While those many levels can be a daunting task for an actor, Mackey accomplishes this without turning his portrayal into a caricature. 

He walks the line of creative eccentric and paranoid madman. Although he was the protagonist of the play, I’ll admit there were a few moments where I questioned even his innocence.

Murder most foul! Aggie (right, Mattie Hawkinson) screams when Daria (Erika Rolfsrud) grabs her in "The Game's Afoot." Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

That was really one of the things I loved about the cast in this play.  Each actor did such a great job of balancing laugh-out-loud levity with subtle moments of menace that no one is above suspicion in the madcap murder mystery.

Eric Hissom and Lise Bruneau play Felix and Madge Geisel, veteran actors and long-time friends of Gillette. You’re often left wondering, though, whether their trouble in paradise is enough to lead to murder or if Felix has taken too much to his onstage role of the conniving Moriarty.

Mattie Hawkinson plays Aggie Wheeler — the young ingenue of Gillette’s acting troupe and an unfortunate widow after her husband’s skiing accident. And Rob McClure plays the bumbling Simon Bright, the helpful friend-turned-lover to Aggie, who was there to pick up the pieces after her husband died. Is their bright-eyed innocence all an act or are they just pawns in someone else’s game? (insert melodramatic sound cue here!)

And then you can’t forget Erika Rolfsrud’s Daria Chase (the vindictive, and slightly crazy, theatre critic that Gillette invites to his house for an interview); Patricia Kilgarriff’s Martha Gillette (Gillette’s loving, overprotective and slightly crazy mother); and Sarah Day’s Inspector Harriet Goring (the theatre-obsessed – and yes, slightly crazy – detective called to the house to investigate a crime).

William Gillette (left, Donald Sage Mackay) takes on his "Sherlock Holmes" persona when trying to solve the mystery with Inspector Goring (Sarah Day). Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

While there were rightfully a lot of moments of over-the-top comedy, the writing, direction and acting managed to also get plenty of laughs from its quieter turns.  I think I laughed the hardest at McClure’s reactions to Daria Chase’s seance skills – without any words he had me in stitches.    

Also, if you’re a fan of mystery tropes, watching Inspector Goring – a Miss Marple-esque “lady detective” complete with the tweed outfit and flighty demeanor – pair up with the Holmes-obsessed Gillette was a dream come true.  As Scott called it, the loving parody was the “Shaun of the Dead of murder mysteries.”  

With all of this love for the acting, I don’t want to downplay the technical aspects of the production. Because the play is set in Gillette’s famous mansion, the designer Daniel Conway and all of the scenic artists had a huge undertaking in front of them. In fact, this is one of those instances where the setting becomes its own character with all of its hidden passageways and nuances.

I think that the audience reaction on opening night says enough about how beautifully the final product turned out. As the curtains opened on the fully realized interior of Gillette’s house, a gasp of awe followed by a long applause erupted from everyone.

The set is the largest seen on a CPH stage in over a decade. They replicated the beautiful stonework  and wood beams, Gillette’s many disguised rooms and endearingly bizarre touches.

The magnificent set of Gillette's castle wowed the audience at Cleveland Play House's The Games Afoot. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

The Game’s Afoot is the perfect gift for the holidays. Not only is it a fantastically fun night out at the theatre (with enough seasonal overtones to qualify it as holiday fare), but also, as a world premiere, future productions will have Cleveland Play House’s name on it as the first place it played.

It’s something we can be proud of as a city and another reminder why Cleveland’s arts are one of our greatest gifts.  

Due to its popularity, the run for The Game’s Afoot has been extended until December 24th. Purchase tickets here for all performances. 

Young professionals can also take advantage of the Cleveland Play House’s Gen.NOW series tomorrow Dec. 6. For $20, Clevelanders in their 20s and 30s can get a ticket to the show, admission to a pre-show happy hour with free heavy appetizers and 1/2 price drink specials, and an after-show discussion with the cast.

Happy Homicide!

The Game’s Afoot / The Cleveland Play House 411:

Disclosure: I was provided 2 media passes to see The Game’s Afoot; however, my opinions on the production are 100% my own

Cleveland Play House's Life of Galileo

The Life of Galileo runs until October 9 at the Cleveland Play House's Allen Theatre

With a $32 million “Power of 3″ fundraising campaign and a renovation project that’s been going on for a year, Cleveland Play House opened its doors to the public this month with Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo.

A couple days before seeing the show last week, I got to take a look at the newly renovated Allen Theatre during our PlayhouseSquare Partners meeting. I’d read a lot about the renovation over the last year so I knew a few of things to expect (for one, how they had transformed a cavernous theatre into a very intimate space), but I was still blown away. 

I think what most impressed was how well the theatre balances the new and the old — still respecting the old architecture and not harming or touching it, while creating a sleek lobby and instituting modern amenities and tech in the performance space. I think this balance is most clearly seen by how the acoustic panels on the ceiling and perforated metal panels along the wall adjust the acoustics of the room but still allow you to admire the Allen’s ornate decorative plasterwork and murals.

The Life of Galileo examines the later part of Galileo's life (played by Paul Whitworth) as his scientific discoveries fly in the face of religious dogma and politics. (Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni)

For its first show in their new space, the Cleveland Play House made a fitting choice with Brecht’s The Life of Galileo because it really showcased the capabilities of the new space.

The Life of Galileo focuses on the later part of Galileo’s life from his “discovery” of the telescope through his persecution and house arrest (with some liberties taken with his personal life – especially regarding Galileo’s daughter). Brecht himself witnessed and experienced political persecution during WWII and the Cold War, and to an extent his opposition to certain parties can be seen in the play’s discussions of dogma and the debate over whether someone should stand their ground in the face of oppression.

While staying true to the text and ideas of the work, the Play House contemporized the production through modern dress and by linking the play’s themes to our current political and dogmatic landscape.

The sun at the center of this production’s universe was Paul Whitworth as Galileo Galilei. He played the same role when Director Michael Donald Edwards helmed the play at Asolo Repertory Theatre last year. Not only was he physically an amazing match for the philosopher and scientist, but his performance fully captured the dynamic, revolutionary genius of the Father of Modern Science and the flawed, overindulgent nature of the man.

The combination of Paul Whitworth's performance (left) and the beautiful production design made The Life of Galileo an ideal start to the Play House's new life in the Allen Theatre. (Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni)

Fittingly, the rest of the ensemble revolved around Whitworth like the planets around the sun – none of them shining as brightly, but nonethless complementing and supporting the actor’s performance, contributing to a very strong production.

I especially enjoyed Robert Ellis, Sheldon Best, Stephen Caffrey and Jeremy Kendall’s performances as they rallied around Galileo and then were ultimately devastated by his recantation, as well as Myra Lucretia Taylor and Kim Krane who played the women in his life (his housekeeper and daughter).

While Signora Sarti and Virginia Galilei’s devoutness to the Church may have conflicted with Galileo’s new theories, Taylor and Krane did an excellent job at demonstrating their characters’ unconditional dedication to him (even when his confrontation against the Church greatly impacts their own lives).

I was also happy to see that the Cleveland Play House brought the quality of production design I’ve always enjoyed to their new space. Although the stage started out completely stripped (a nice touch that allowed the audience see all the way to the back wall), it quickly filled as the cast entered.

Projections and a strong use of multimedia helped modernize the production and demonstrate its relevancy in our current political landscape. (Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni)

Instead of utilizing huge pieces to set the various scenes, the production went with a simpler approach using a couple of flats and furniture. This allowed the moments of surprising multimedia to be even more impressive. For instance, when Galileo is showing off the views of the planets and moons that can be seen through his telescope, beautiful projections of our moon, the Milky Way, and Jupiter’s orbiting moons suddenly appear in the background.

While a production may take a risk in implementing video and projections into a play (especially if it’s not done well), the Play House did an excellent job incorporating it. It made Galileo’s passionate descriptions of the skys even more splendid. And on the occasion when Brecht’s speeches on politics get a little overwhelming, there are a few extravagant moments (like the trippy rap sequence that parallels the play to current issues) which jar your attention and re-invigorate the action.

From the renovated audience space to the performances — and most definitely the production design, The Life of Galileo is an ideal beginning to the Cleveland Play House’s new life in the Allen Theatre.

The production is playing until October 9th and tickets can be purchased online or by calling 216-241-6000.

The Life of Galileo / The Cleveland Play House 411:

Disclosure: I was provided 2 media passes to see The Life of Galileo; however, my opinions on the production are 100% my own.

Coming Soon to a Cleveland Theatre Near You…

Great Lakes Theater's 1980s-infused production of The Taming of the Shrew is just one reason to be excited about this Fall's lineup of Cleveland theatre

In another life long long ago (err, 6 years ago) and far far away (Philly), I used to work in theatre.  Specifically, marketing, sales and a little bit of backstage production work (random factoid #352: I worked backstage on this show for almost 2 years when it was in Philadelphia). 

So when Fall rolls around, I get excited not just because of the changing leaves or the promise of pumpkin pie, but because it marks the beginning of a new season for most theatres.

That’s no different in Cleveland as many of our local theatre companies start to kick things off the next few weeks. My personal favorites? Cleveland Play House (who’s celebrating a new home), Great Lakes Theatre (who’s celebrating a new name and their 50th anniversary), and Cleveland Public Theatre (who I need to see more of this year).

However, the city is a hotbed of performing arts so check out this Cleveland Theatre Company Guide for 2011 which has dozens of listings. From PlayhouseSquare’s Broadway Series (on sale Friday, Sept. 9), to The Beck Center for the Arts, Dobama and convergence-continuum, there are a lot of  options beyond what I’m highlighting below.

Last year's Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant returns to Cleveland Public Theatre this December as part of a season featuring 7 world premieres

Cleveland Public Theatre

CPT — a cornerstone in Gordon Square’s plan for economic revitalization through the arts — has always produced challenging and innovative works in Cleveland. And their 2011-2012 season is no different of course. This year they have 7 world premieres — five by Northeast Ohio artists.

They promote a unique and new approach to creating productions called “devised theatre” – where the structure of the play and what the actors say comes not from a pre-written script but the rehearsal process. 6 of CPT’s shows this season were created using this unconventional method.

The Pandemonium '11: Amuse Me fundraiser on Sept. 10 starts off CPT's season this Saturday - tickets are still available and include entertainment, food and drink

I’m really happy to see that one of these 6 is the return of Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant. Scott and I saw this during last year’s sold-out run at CPT.  If you’re curious about this show filled with crazy cabaret, improv comedy, death and a mighty tasty five-course meal, you can read my full review here . It runs Dec. 1-18 at Cleveland Public Theatre.

If you don’t want to wait for that, check the link above for all of their other productions, including this Saturday’s Pandemonium ’11.

Pandemonium is CPT’s annual fundraiser and features a ridiculously long list of performance groups and plays that will all be packed into their campus on Sept. 10 (fittingly, with so many options for entertainment, this year’s theme is “Amuse Me”).  Over 35 Cleveland restaurants will be in attendance as well, and all food, drink, entertainment and valet parking is included in the tax-deductible ticket.

Cleveland Play House

Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo kicks off Cleveland Play House’s inaugural season in PlayhouseSquare’s Allen Theatre (here’s the full 2011-2012 lineup). Completely renovated and transformed, the tiny glimpse I’ve seen of their new home looks amazing! 

To celebrate this landmark season for them, Cleveland Play House has a number of upcoming events. While many of these are open to the general public, some of them are targeted to specific audiences like Young Professionals, families and the LGBT community to provide a different backdrop for social and networking opportunities. 

Check the list below for their full roundup (including a new Play Date series for caregivers and their children).

Cleveland Play House celebrates their inaugural season in PlayhouseSquare's Allen Theatre with Brecht's The Life of Galileo, Sept. 16-Oct. 9

  • CPH Open House – 4:30pm – 8:00pm, Monday, September 12, 2011 – Join Cleveland Play House for tours, giveaways and more to celebrate their new home at PlayhouseSquare.
  • CPH Season Opening Party – Sunday, September 18, 2011 – A gala pre-theatre cocktail reception and a special 7:30pm performance of The Life of Galileo.
  • Galileo Play Date – Sunday, September 18, 2011 – A new program for parents, grandparents, caregivers and their children. While grown-ups are watching the show, children are in a play date designed by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
  • nightOUT! LGBT Series– Thursday, September 22, 2011 – A new program that gives a chance for the LGBT community and friends to mix and mingle with a rotating series of happy hours, after parties and more.
  • Gen.NOWSeries – Tuesday, September 27, 2011 – A new program that encourages the next generation of young Clevelanders to engage with each other, downtown hotspots and CPH’s newest show.
  • College Night @ CPH Series – Tuesday, October 4, 2011 – A new program where college students from all universities mingle, enjoy free snacks and soda, then see a show.
  • Pre-show conversation – Arrive to your performance 45 minutes early for a lively discussion with a member of the cast or creative team (this takes place at every show).
  • Post-show discussions – Sunday, September 25; Tuesday, September 27; Sunday, October 2; Sunday, October 9 – Join actors from the cast for these post-show discussions moderated by a member of the artistic staff.
  • Student Matinees – 10:30am on Friday, September 23 and Wednesday, October 5, 2011. For details, call (216) 795-7000, ext. 149.

Great Lakes Theater

Great Lakes Theater was originally founded in 1962 as the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. Over the years the name was changed to Great Lakes Theater Festival as they moved beyond producing just the works of Shakespeare. 

With their 50th anniversary season just getting started and because they no longer present plays in a festival-style format, they’ve streamlined it to Great Lakes Theater. Of course, regardless of the name change, Great Lakes Theater is still my favorite place to see Shakespeare and other classics performed in Cleveland.

Great Lakes Theater is also celebrating their huge anniversary with a packed season of 6 productions (up 1 from previous years). Things start with their fall repertory of Cabaret and The Taming of the Shrew running together from Sept. 23 until Sept. 30.

The Taming of the Shrew runs in rotating repertory with Cabaret to kick off Great Lakes Theater’s 50th anniversary season, Sept. 23-Oct. 30

As I’ve written many times before, attending a show at Great Lakes Theater is about more than the production, it’s also about the experience of the Hanna Theatre.  Before CPH moved into PlayhouseSquare’s transformed Allen Theatre, the Hanna Theatre complex was renovated for Great Lakes Theater to similarly create a more dynamic, engaging experience for theatregoers.

With a variety of seating options (my favorite is the couches) and a bar inside the theatre that’s open 90 minutes before and after the show (if you’re lucky, you’ll get to watch a combat rehearsal!), a night out at a show takes on a different meaning at Great Lakes Theater. 

In fact, seeing what Great Lakes Theater has done and continues to do at the Hanna is one of the reasons I’m so excited for Cleveland Play House’s move. Now I’ll have two very unique theatre experiences to check out at PlayhouseSquare!    

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I hope with that short rundown I have you just as excited for Fall Theatre in Cleveland as I am. Of course, if you’re still hungry for more, browse through Examiner.com’s Cleveland Theatre Company Guide for links to the many, many other options for theatre in Cleveland.

What shows are you most looking forward to?

Photo Credits:

Embracing Change with Cleveland Play House's Legacy of Light

Legacy of Light, directed by Bart DeLorenzo, is the Cleveland Play Houses last mainstage production before they move to PlayhouseSquare this Fall. Its in the Drury Theatre until May 1st. (all photos from clevelandplayhouse.com)

Over the last six months, my husband Scott and I have discussed starting a family. And as any couple newly setting down this path, the standard questions have arisen: Are we financially stable enough to have kids? Will we be good parents? Is it going to be possible to balance our current lives with the dedication needed to raise a child?

All of these questions boil down to whether or not we think we’re ready.  Have we come up with a definitive answer yet? No. But as I’m starting to realize, it’s not really something you can fully prepare for. The questions will always be there — not just for us, but for anyone who’s contemplating the decision.

This same sentiment was beautifully explored in the Cleveland Play House’s current mainstage production, Legacy of Light.

Legacy of Lights story parallels the challenges that a contemporary female scientist and one in the age of Enlightenment face. Olivia (played by Michelle Duffy, left) is overwhelmed when she feels her child kick inside her surrogate Millie (Amelia Pedlow). Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni

Legacy of Light is an empowering and heart warming comedy about the challenges facing women (and the men in their lives) as they strive to lead lives that are emotionally, intellectually and spiritually fulfilling.

Traveling back and forth through time, the dual storyline follows 18th century French countess Emilie du Châtelet (whose mathematical research, in collaboration with Voltaire, paved the way for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) and a modern day astrophysicist on the verge of making a major breakthrough on planet formation.   Though separated by 260 years, these women face the same challenges as they contemplate childbirth and how children will affect their careers.

The play was written by Karen Zacarías who was inspired by a similar situation in her life. While she was pregnant with her third child she received a major play commission. Writing a play is an all-encompassing labor of love and, with her third child on the way, Zacarías was often pondering whether it was possible to balance a busy career with her family life.

The end result was an honest but optimistic look at love (and its many different colors), the plans we make (and how life sometimes violently collides with them), and the interweaving of science and art. With the two storylines we could see how the emotional and social constructs facing each woman have changed — or in some cases haven’t changed — over the last 260 years.

As the dual storylines collide in Legacy of Light, Voltaire (played by Lenny Von Dohlen, left) discusses children, love and change with Olivia (center) and Millie (right). Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

The six-person cast that helped explore this was a true ensemble. As can sometimes happen with ensembles, one or two actors may outshine or overpower, but in Legacy of Light, there was a perfect balance between each actor. This was important with many of the actors playing mirror roles in the overlapping storylines.

[And as a side note on the casting: for all of those Twin Peaks or Psych fans (like me!), the role of Voltaire was played by Lenny Von Dohlen, who played the agoraphobic Harold Smith in Twin Peaks and Sheriff Andrew Jackson in Psych’s awesome homage episode to Twin Peaks, Dual Spires.]

Complementing the acting was a similarly well-balanced design that left me in awe during moments. The sound, lighting, costume and scenic design shined and reawakened a desire to return to technical theatre because of the production team’s creativity.

The sound design was often instrumental in connecting the dual storylines by transitioning a contemporary song from its modern version to an adaptation with classical instruments.

The costumes captured each characters’ personality and Emilie du Châtelet’s dresses in particular stunned.

What started as a subtle prism effect with the light design transformed into one of the most visually striking and beautiful scenes of the entire play.

And the apple tree designed and built by the Play House’s scenic design department was an engineering accomplishment as it became not just a symbol of the science discussed in the play, but an integral set piece.

Legacy of Lights technical design sparkled as much as the actors performances. Pictured, Emilie du Châtelet (played by Cerris Morgan-Moyer) ponders the theory of light and heat and its parallels to her personal life. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

Overall, Legacy of Light was the perfect end to the 2010-2011 season – the Cleveland Play House’s last season in its current home. After Legacy of Light and the rest of FusionFest closes, the Play House will begin its move to PlayhouseSquare’s Allen Theatre in time for its first show of next season, Galileo.

Legacy of Light wasn’t just a fitting end because of how well done it was, but also because of the story itself. At the end of the play, one of the characters utters the line “Everything changes, but nothing is lost. Ever.” Reflecting not just the scientific theories discussed in the play, but also of the changes going on in the characters’ lives, the statement is an ideal way to look at what’s going on at the Play House.

The move to PlayhouseSquare is a natural and smart change that the Play House is gearing up for; however, they also recognize their history at 8500 Euclid Ave. Before they relocate, they will hold their annual benefit on May 7th in the current theatres and rotunda of Cleveland Play House. It will be a unique opportunity to celebrate the 95+ year history of CPH as well as its future with attendees being invited to dress in black tie attire or as characters from their favorite Play House plays.

"Everything changes, but nothing is lost. Ever." Emilie du Châtelet discovers the impact of her legacy in Millie. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni.

As Scott and I undergo changes in our own family, I’ll continue to ask whether we’re ready. However, even if we aren’t as ready as we’d like to be, things do change regardless. And like the characters in Legacy of Light, all I can do is hope that when the time comes it will be enough.

Legacy of Light / The Cleveland Play House 411:

The Cleveland Play House Sends Off Euclid Ave. Theatre with FusionFest

Cleveland Play House's FusionFest runs from April 13 to April 23, bringing local arts groups together to present an array of new work to the community. (all images from clevelandplayhouse.com)

This coming Fall, the Cleveland Play House will be making a huge move from its home for the last 84 years at 8500 Euclid Avenue to PlayhouseSquare’s newly transformed Allen Theatre. The year-long, $30 million-plus transformation of the historic movie palace just hit its halfway point earlier this month.  And when it’s finished in August, the Allen will not just house the Play House, but also CSU’s dance and drama department.

Before they move, though, the Play House is sending off their current facility with the 6th annual FusionFest, the only multidisciplinary performing arts festival at a regional theatre in the country. With FusionFest, which runs from April 13 to April 23, the Play House will bring Cleveland arts groups together to present an array of new work to the community.

There are a number of productions worth checking out, and the Play House is fortunately making this easy on the wallet by offering a discount: purchase a regular-priced ticket to a FusionFest show and get 1/2 off a second event’s ticket.

To help you figure out what you’d like to see, below are some of the offerings:

Legacy of Light

Legacy of Light by Karen Zacarias is the mainstage anchor production of the FusionFest.  In this new time-traveling comedy, two female scientists search for self-discovery, knowledge and love while their biological clocks tick away. One, living in the age of Enlightenment, races to complete her research before her child is born. The other, living in the present and unable to conceive, arranges for a surrogate to carry her child. It plays in the Drury Theatre from April 8 – May 1 and is the production I’m most looking forward to during FusionFest.

Stew and The Negro Problem

When Stew and Heidi Rodewald began work on Passing Strange, a musical that went on to become both a Spike Lee-directed movie and Tony Award-winner for Best Book of a Musical, their band The Negro Problem was put on hold. This past year, however, the band returned and is touring Making It, a multi-media, rock show collage of song, text, and video. The show traces the unlikely careers of Stew and Heidi from the dive rock clubs of Hollywood to the footlights of Broadway. On the Baxter Stage, April 21-23; Thur. @ 8:00pm, Fri. and Sat. @ 9:30pm. 

 Pollock

With my love for art history, I cannot wait for this one-man piece by and starring Joe Peracchio.  Described as a ferocious and provocative journey through the heart and mind of Jackson Pollock, Pollock is a multi-media production that also features original music by jazz great Ornette Coleman.  Set somewhere between the artist’s barn-studio on Long Island and the vastness of his playful and tormented internal world, Pollock takes the audience through the history, memories, desires, and influences that created one of the most brilliant legends of art. On the Baxter April 15 and 16 @ 8:00 pm.

 Shaheed:The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto

In her solo show, writer/performer Anna Khaja illuminates the lives and historical forces surrounding slain Pakistani Prime minister Benazir Bhutto. In Shaheed, the influence of Bhutto’s life and death resonates far beyond the boundaries of Pakistan, reshaping the world’s struggle to reconcile the precepts of Islam with those of democracy.  In the Brooks Theatre, April 15 and 16, Fri. @ 7:30pm, Sat. @ 5:00pm.

The Real Americans

Playwright and actor Dan Hoyle spent 100 days traveling through small-town America and found himself immersed in the populist anger of the people whom Sarah Palin famously described as ‘The Real Americans’ and awed at the disconnect between Obama Nation and Palin Country. Portrayed with humor, sympathy, confusion, angst, and song, this vivid performance challenges the audience to move beyond their bafflement and engage with the future of a politically polarized America. It’s a disconnect I often marvel at myself, so I’m hoping to see this April 22 or 23 @ 7:00 pm in the Brooks Theatre.

 Marigold Wars

Robin VanLear, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s community arts director who is renowned for Parade the Circle, is leading a team of collaborators in creating a world-premiere interactive performance about the struggle to find reason, peace and beauty amid the ravages of war. With the production, she fuses together sculpture, puppetry, and music from around the globe and multiple forms of dance. Marigold Wars plays on the Baxter Stage, April 14 – 17, Thur. @ 8:00 pm, Sat. @ 2:00 pm, Sun. @ 7:00 p.m. 

 Karamu Readings: TaKe A hArD RIDE

TaKe A hArD RIDE is an original trilogy written by three of Cleveland’s leading African-American playwrights: Part 1 – ANY MAN and FIVE CENTS will pay a COLORED GIRLS FARE all the way to nowhere by Cornell Calhoun III; Part 2 – Truth Out by Mary Weems; and Part 3 – Hunger is a Wanderer by Michael Oatman, a member of CPH’s Playwrights Unit. The production is presented by Karamu House, directed by Terrence Spivey and will be performed on April 17 @ 4pm in the Brooks Theatre.

Voices of Healing

Voices of Healing is a unique collaboration between the Play House, local artists, the Cleveland Clinic and Summa Health System. The production explores the questions: “What does it take to truly heal another person? To be healed? What, ultimately, is our relationship with our most precious possession: our own body?”  Conceived by Martin Kohn, Director of the Program in Medical Humanities, Cleveland Clinic, and written by Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine students, patients and doctors from Summa Health System, and local artists Eric Coble, David Hassler, Nicole Robinson, and Katherine Burke, Voices of Healing will take the audience inside the minds of physicians, patients, and caregivers to explore Northeast Ohio’s medical community as it’s never been seen before. Playing in the Brooks Theatre, April 14 @ 6:00pm.

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In addition to the above productions, other FusionFest highlights include new play readings and the Local Explosion event, which will feature four new short performances fusing local artists from a wide variety of disciplines.  April 21st will also see the presentation of the Dorothy Silver Playwriting Winner hosted by the Mandel Jewish Community Center at 7pm in the Brooks Theatre.

More information and tickets can be found at www.clevelandplayhouse.com/fusionfest or by calling 216 795 7000. With such a varied selection of new and challenging shows in this year’s FusionFest, I think it’ll be the perfect way for the Play House to say goodbye to the place it’s called home for over 80 years.