Milan Paurich rates local theater productions for 2011

By MILAN PAURICH | Special to the Metro Monthly

Over the years, various individuals have graciously thanked me for compiling my annual “Top 10 in Community Theater” lists. According to them, they’ve served as a welcome corrective to the increasingly myopic, frequently contentious YACTA awards. If that’s true – and I’ve never considered these year-end musings to be anything more than my personal bests – consider the following one earnest scribe’s humble attempt at setting the record straight and hopefully getting it right for posterity’s sake.

1. Michael Dempsey – Triple-threat Dempsey had an excellent year in 2010 with “Curtains” and “Macbeth” (both at the Youngstown Playhouse). And 2011 was even better. Besides having his first novel published (sci-fi genre-bender “Necropolis”), Dempsey directed two outrageously good shows. In March, there was a masterful Oakland Center for the Arts production of Doug Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife” with its nonpareil performance by Jimmy McClellan in a multiplicity of roles. And June’s Salem Community Theater mounting of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera perennial “Jesus Christ Superstar” was the single most entertaining – and brilliantly sung – musical I’ve seen in five years of reviewing community theater. Shockingly, the immensely gifted Dempsey didn’t have a single directing gig lined up for the 2011-12 season while lesser talents had multiple assignments on their dance cards. Bummer.

2. John Cox – Unlike some area thespians who hop from show to show like exhibitionistic tadpoles, phoning it in most of the time, Cox always brings the utmost professionalism, commitment to his craft and total conviction to every role he plays. As a short story writer in an unnamed totalitarian country accused of being a child murderer in “The Pillowman;” a cuckolded small town mayor in “That Championship Season;” or, most memorably, a successful New York architect whose mid-life crisis involves l’amour fou with a barnyard animal in “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?,” Cox delivered every time at bat. In fact, his performance in “The Goat” was nothing short of a master class in thesping empathy. He made us feel not only his character’s anguish, but the crazy ecstasy of an interspecies affair that he knows will surely prove his (professional and personal) downfall. Cox has been reliably strong for years (see 2010’s “Speed-the-Plow” or 2007’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), but “Goat” just might be his crowning achievement to date.

3. “The Pillowman,” “Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me” – Two of the strongest dramatic productions of the year, these Youngstown Playhouse and Rust Belt Theater Company standard-bearers demonstrated the wisdom of selecting stellar contemporary dramas, casting them with the finest available talent and orchestrating every character nuance and physical detail to perfection. With “Pillowman,” Mary Ruth Lynn did her finest work yet as director. And her prodigiously gifted cast (John Cox, David El’Hatton, Johnny Pecano, Lauren Cline and Jason Green) proved up to the formidable task of Martin McDonagh’s award-winning play. In Frank McGuiness’ hostage drama, Robert Dennick Joki proved that it’s indeed possible to make compelling theater out of three actors chained to a wall for two-and-a-half hours. Of course, it helps if those actors are Brandon Smith, Chuck Kettering and Dan Popke.

4. “Bye, Bye Birdie” – While Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ 1960 musical was never anyone’s idea of an American classic, you wouldn’t have known it from New Castle Playhouse director Michael Cavalier’s kicky, deliriously designed and deliciously acted staging of the Camelot-era chestnut. As usual for Cavalier, the cast was practically bursting with young talent (where does he find so many prodigiously gifted singing-and-dancing kids?), and his unerring eye for compositional detail created some of his most eye-popping human tableaux to date.

5. Jenna Cintavey – The Oakland Center for the Arts’ rendition of Neil LaBute’s “Fat Pig” was hardly perfect. For starters, the male lead was woefully miscast which threw off the balance of the entire production. Yet director Christopher Fidram struck gold when he selected the wondrous Cintavey whose spectacular, utterly fearless turn as a plus-sized, twentysomething librarian looking for love in all the wrong places deserves to become the stuff of local legend. Her delightful, touching performance provided my only “‘A Star is Born‘ Moment” all year.

6. “Titanic” – Trying to make sense of the loopy, Hellzapoppin’ plot (two contested paternity suits, hedgehogs, tin foil and white bread are involved) required more concentration than it takes to follow one of Shakespeare’s Byzantine comedies. And a berserk potpourri of characters–and their connection(s) to each other–defied both comprehension and, frequently, belief. But who needed logic or even coherence when the laughs in this Rust Belt Theater Company production of Christopher Durang’s sublimely silly, polymorphously perverse one-acter ricocheted across the stage like a gatling gun?

All successful farces require a brisk, nonchalant pace, and director Robert Dennick Joki proved to be a master of the form. His crackerjack cast (including Suzanne Shorrab, Don Popke, an irrepressible Kage Coven and dazzling newcomer Jennifer Caventer) didn’t miss an absurdist beat. “Titanic” was the incontrovertible highlight of Rust Belt’s “Durang-ed Summer” series.

7. Phil Cowen – I first encountered this wildly charismatic young actor in Top Hat’s production of “The Boys Next Door” this spring where he played a mentally challenged resident in an adult group home. A month later, Cowen impressed me once again in a completely dissimilar role (aw-shucks cowpoke Will in New Castle Playhouse’s splendid revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”). That type of enviable range marks him as one of the most promising new talents on the local theater scene. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

8. Paula Ferguson in “The Rose Tattoo” – Like Jenna Cintavey in “Fat Pig,” indomitable trooper Ferguson somehow managed to overcome some casting snafus (once again, the male lead was conspicuously weak) in this uneven New Castle Playhouse production of Tennessee Williams’ romantic comedy. Her ineffable portrayal of widowed Sicilian immigrant/single mom Serafina was truly the vibrant, bleating lifeforce of the play.

9. Brandy Johanntges and Jason Green – There’s nothing more satisfying than watching an actor step out of their perceived comfort zone. In 2011, Johanntges and Green–two performers best known for lighter fare, usually musical comedies–tackled challenging dramatic roles that would have tested the mettle of even the most seasoned thespians. In “The Pillowman” and “Fat Pig,” Green displayed previously untapped depths of feeling that marked him as a dramatic actor to be reckoned with. And Johanntges proved more than up to the task of headlining the Youngstown Playhouse’s quirky dramedy, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone.” Johanntges’ naturalness and natural warmth prevented us from ever getting creeped out by her character’s sometimes reckless and/or erratic behavior.

10. “reasons to be pretty” – It would be unconscionable of me to ignore this June Rust Belt production of Neil LaBute’s masterwork just because (full disclosure) I directed it. But “rtbp” was the most memorable and uniquely satisfying theatrical experience I had in a theater all year. The amazing contributions of my extraordinary cast (Cheney Morgan in the year’s finest male performance; Candace DiLullo; Terri MacSkinning; and Chuck Kettering) helped make the creative process an unbelievably thrilling adventure, and a palpable joy for anyone lucky enough to have seen it during its too brief two-weekend run. Objectivity be damned, this WAS the best show of the year.

© 2011 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

Join 3,591 other followers


  1. No. “Pillowman” was better.


  2. Nice article and congrats to all recognized but Dempsey directed ‘MacBeth’ for Youngstown. I should know, I wiped up a lot of ‘damned spots’ during intermission and at the close of each show.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: