Before I moved to Cleveland, I worked for a couple of theatres in Philly. I enjoyed it a lot — working in subscriptions and marketing departments and working backstage on a show for a year. Even when I stopped being involved, I still loved experiencing Philly’s vibrant theatre community and the shows it produced. Because of this, I get very excited by seeing well-executed theatre.
When I first got to Cleveland, I saw a number of touring productions at PlayhouseSquare, and while they were all consistently entertaining, I missed seeing a show that was produced in house. To me, there’s something extraordinary when you have a theatre company with a group of actors, technicians and administrative professionals working together under an established mission. Oftentimes these teams have worked together on previous productions and have an established sense of community that shines through in a show. Subsequently, when I found out about the Great Lakes Theater Festival, which stages productions at PlayhouseSquare’s Hanna and Ohio Theatres, I couldn’t wait to see a performance.
The Festival features a resident artistic company committed to producing Shakespeare and other classic theatre in a rotating repertory throughout the year. It was initially founded in 1962 when members of the Lakewood Board of Education wanted to fill the Lakewood Civic Auditorium with cultural events during the summer. They reached out to a Shakespeare troupe founded by Arthur Lithgow who made the Auditorium their home. Over the years, they moved into PlayhouseSquare and expanded their scope to include non-Shakespearean classics and musicals; however, each season still sees a few productions by the Bard.
The 2009-2010 season included The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Twelfth Night, A Christmas Carol, Bat Boy: The Musical and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although I missed out on the Fall Repertory, I was determined to see their Spring Repertory of Bat Boy and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Since they’re produced in a rotating repertory, on days when there is a matinee and an evening show, the crew has to quickly strike the set of the first and load in the second in between. Additionally, the majority of the actors pull double-duty — featuring as characters in both Bat Boy and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I saw Bat Boy on its opening night on April 10. Now, Bat Boy may seem like an unusual choice for a theatre company focused on classic works, as Director Victoria Bussert mentioned in her Director’s Notes. However, as she explained, the plot of the musical – inspired by a tabloid story about a half-boy/half-bat found in West Virginia – has a level of tragedy and an underlying story about prejudice and acceptance that are the backbone of a lot of classic fare. And even though GLTF is more accustomed to traditional theatre, they still produced an amazing version of Bat Boy that was both campy and beautiful, entertaining and relevant. The actors and musicians did a wonderful job with an unusual set of characters and loud gospel-rock score. Particularly, I thought that Lynn Robert Berg who played Dr. Parker was outstanding. I found myself in one second despising how villainous he was, and then feeling sad for his pathetic state of affairs. I was equally impressed by the set – loving how they worked the cows (which served as a sort of MacGuffin to the story) at odd angles into the set pieces. Between the set, the music and the storyline, Bat Boy definitely proved to be a surreal experience.
If Bat Boy – as a non-classical show – was an unusual choice for GLTF, the uniqueness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was in its execution. Directed by Charles Fee – who is also the GLTF’s Producing Artistic Director, this production was set in 1960s London. Taking the spirit of The Beatles’ songs and both directly and indirectly working them into the play placed a different spin on the story and demonstrated its timelessness. Although purists may shy away from contemporary productions of Shakespeare, there was something amusing about the lover Lysander dressed in a young-Lennon-esque ensemble and his paramour Hermia dressed like a love-struck fanatical groupie. On the other hand, Puck (played by Eduardo Placer) was a classic ‘flower-child’ whose master, the fairyking Oberon, was inspired by the later-Beatles’ Indian influences. In what has become one of my favorite entrances of a character, Placer’s playful Puck literally swung onto the stage from a beautiful harvest moon. Not to be outdone, though, the Mechanicals – dressed as Srgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — stole the show at the end with their play within a play.
In addition to exhilarating productions, the GLTF provides a unique theatre-going experience in how they approach the audience. The non-traditional seating options – in addition to conventional fixed seats – allow for a more social environment. While the balcony box provided a private setting for entertaining a group of people at Midsummer’s, the banquette – a wraparound couch that we sat in for Bat Boy – was the most comfortable experience I’ve had while seeing a show.
To make the most of the theatre experience, the Hanna is also opened 90 minutes before and after the show. So I can arrive early, grab a drink and watch the artistic company prep for the performance. And if I’m not ready to head home after the curtain, the bar at the back of the Hanna stays open where I can hang out with my friends and the artistic company on Night Cap Saturdays.
The GLTF’s Spring Rep runs through next weekend closing on May 16. After the spring shows, the festival’s fundraiser has John Lithgow – former GLTF member and Arthur’s son – returning for 2 performances of ‘Stories by Heart’ on May 22nd and 23rd. The show has Lithgow invoking three generations of family history while looking at his own life as an actor and storyteller. I’ll be there for the matinee enjoying the banquette seating again.
After the Lithgow performance, the 2010-2011 Season starts back up in September with Othello and An Ideal Husband in the Fall, followed by A Christmas Carol, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Now that I’ve finally found the Great Lakes Theater Festival, I’ll definitely be back for more.
Great Lakes Theater Festival / Hanna Theatre 411: