"Central Concern"

Jonathan Apriesnig (from left), Jeannine Gaskin, Chris Walker, Roxana Bell, Daniel McNamara, Maes Lunaria and Wesley Allen

Imagine if Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s political satire “Threepenny Opera,” where the characters make life decisions based solely on the desire for material things, was about the Ohio real estate industry. Then picture this play-with-music living inside the grotesque world of a Hieronymus Bosch painting that is populated by the menacing but buffoonish Blue Meanies from “Yellow Submarine.”

Such is “Central Concern,” a delightfully subversive and genuinely bizarre work conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson, who is the 2018 recipient of the Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for playwriting. The one-act, 85-minute play’s world premiere production, in partnership with the Ohio City Theatre Project, is on stage and pretty much in your face at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Admittedly, a theatrical production that traces Cleveland’s urban and suburban housing history, from the proprietors of the Connecticut Land Co. at the close of the 18th century to today’s unethical mortgage practices and abundant foreclosures, sounds neither engaging nor particularly entertaining. It’s the social studies civics lesson we skipped out of in high school.

But the intriguing story set in Robertson’s sights is how Cleveland’s real estate practices championed property values at the expense of civil rights, which institutionalized discrimination and historically impacted segregation.

And the storytelling is performed by an always interesting ship of fools straight out of the medieval theater tradition of “bouffon,” which addresses very serious matters with a disarming and highly exaggerated air of mockery and through semi-belligerent but harmless audience interaction.

Our fools are the quick witted, fully vested and vocally talented Jeannine Gaskin, Wesley Allen, Maes Lunaria, Roxana Bell, Chris Walker, Jonathan Apriesnig (also on drum), and Daniel McNamara (who also wrote the music and plays accordion and piano). In whiteface, colorful wigs that look like layers of modelling clay, and grotesquely distorted over-padded costumes, designed by Carolyn Dickey, they perform slapstick and satire, sing some songs about real estate – including an amusing and caustic ditty about the Van Sweringen brothers, famous for developing Shaker Heights and building the Terminal Tower – and swarm, en masse, to engage the audience in some Q&A. And they deliver no shortage of truth-telling.

When not in the aisles and among audience members, the troupe’s make-shift performance space is comprised of discarded packing materials wedged into a corner of the James Levin Theatre.

Though scripted and fact-heavy, the play allows the bouffons to deviate from the prepared discourse and work responses from the audience into the dialogue. While the innovation is appreciated, attempts at improvisation more often result in missed cues and missed opportunities.

And because “Central Concern” was originally performed as a 15-minute wandering piece as part of CPT’s Station Hope, the work as a full-length performance piece gets occasionally tedious. But it is always thought-provoking and the kind of civics lesson we would have attended in high school if only our teachers would have donned the suit and wig.

Everyone in attendance will learn something and be amused during the process, which is not a bad takeaway from an evening of theater.

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman.

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Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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