THEATER REVIEW: “Tiny Houses” at Cleveland Play House by Roy Berko

Photos by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 4/14

In 1906, San Francisco had an intense earthquake and resulting fires. Little did my newly immigrant grandfather know that when he went to build “shacks” in the city by the bay, that he would be part of what has recently become a new trend — building “little houses.” He constructed many 200 square feet or less temporary homes, some of which became permanent residences.

Grandpa appreciated the necessity of building small, quick and inexpensive, because of the need to provide living places for displaced people. On the other hand, as a man who escaped from the shacks of the shtetls, he probably would think the whole “new” trend of tiny houses was “meshuga.”

Tiny Houses, Chelsea Marcantel’s Roe Green Award winning play, which was originally presented as a staged reading in Cleveland Play House’s 2018 New Theatre Festival, is now in its world premiere at CPH as a fully staged production. The play, like my grandfather’s little houses, is purposeful. In this case it is part of the existential question of whether tiny living spaces, existing with few creature comforts like running water, and few possessions, leads to a better life.

It’s the backyard of a large home in rural Oregon. Center stage is a flatbed truck platform which is eventually to be the foundation of a 200-square-foot house. What will transpire is the construction of the structure by four young adults (with the help of a small assemblage of stage hands).

The purpose of the dwelling is to find out if the trend toward minimalism is practical and whether it will result in happiness for two young people in a four-month relationship who have given up their upscale jobs in New York. Well, she (Cath) has given up her well-paying career to come to his (Bodhi) home area to live out his Thoreau-like dream.

Building the house in the backyard of Ollie, who was Bohdi’s college roommate, turns out to be a series of amusingly misguided, awkward stumbles, missteps of relationships and construction. “Will living small be a huge mistake?”

Besides the house construction, there are a group of idiosyncratic characters, each looking for a place to physically and psychologically call “home.” Besides the young lovers, Cath and Bohdi, there is Ollie, a South African, Bodhi’s college roommate, whose profession is selling haunted dolls, on line. Yep, haunted dolls!

Jevne, Bohdi’s long time next-door neighbor and girlfriend, has a huge following for her online sharing of tales intended to put people to sleep through use of her “soothing” voice. She appears, with the intention of helping out and rekindling her relationship with Bohdi, the man of her dreams. (The plot thickens.)

Jeremiah, a local resident who left the area in search of self, has returned. He has a knowledge of construction which becomes a necessity for the amateur builders. As it turns out, his interest in the project, besides picking up some cash, soon turns to his attachment to Cath. (The plot thickens further.)

Yep, the plot twists and turns, and the underlying hanky-panky make this comical farce a real attention grabber (and holder).

The wonder of the theatrical enterprise is watching as an actual little house, complete with roof, windows and solar panels, is built during the 90-mimute play with no intermission. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design, technical directors Davin Gallo and Liam Roth and the Tiny House carpenters, Cayla DeStefano, Andy Rowland and Kaleb Yandrick, all deserve their own curtain call for the design and construction. (And think of this — they not only have to build the house each night, but have to dissemble it and get the pieces-parts ready for rebuilding at the next performance!)

Director Laura Kepley’s direction is spot on. The pacing is swift, the laughs constant, the fascination with the construction of the house impressive and the overall effect wonderful.

The cast is a perfect blend of eccentrics and “normals.” Michael Doherty delights as Ollie, the free spirit fascinated with haunted dolls. Though we know little about how he wound up in a huge house in Oregon, or why he is entranced with the eerie figurines, Michael Doherty creates a character that is creatively etched. Pretty Kate Eastman is believable as Cath, caught up in an adventure which had many unexpected twists and turns. Eastman leads us on a path of discovery that is both revealing and satisfying.

Studly Peter Hargrave, who played Bohdi in the staged reading, is a grad of the Case Western Reserve University/CPH MFA Acting program. He develops a real and conflicted character whose dreams are bigger than his realities, whether it’s building a tiny house or raising free-range chickens.

Cutesy Nandita Shenoy delights as the seemingly air-headed Jevne. At times her soft voice becomes hard to hear, but in the main, her sense of comic timing wins out, as does her character’s quest for Bohdi. James Holloway gives a realistic performance as Jeremiah.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Tiny Houses is one of those special pieces of modern theater that both delights and causes audiences to think. Is tiny better? Is minimalism good for society and individuals? Can we live deliberately? Was Thoreau all wrong, “a nut job,” in his search for authenticity? Whatever, go, see, be delighted, and learn how tiny houses are built.

Tiny Houses runs through Sun 4/14 in the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen Complex of PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

 

 

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