Spring theater brings new stages, new productions, new promise

The theater season’s biggest news has been the opening of the Playhouse in the Park’s new mainstage, Moe and Jack’s Place – The Rouse Theatre.

You’re too late for the March 16 grand opening. But you’re NOT too late for the opening production, “A Chorus Line.” It will be on the stage of the 537-seat theater until April 15. So if you want to be part of the Playhouse’s memorable step forward, you still have time.

But if “A Chorus Line” isn’t for you, there are many, many other shows on area stages that – on paper, at least – look like they may turn out to be top-notch productions. Here are five that look especially promising.

‘The Chinese Lady’ promotional image (Photo by Tony Arrasmith)

‘The Chinese Lady’

March 25-April 30, Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre, Playhouse in the Park

A year or so ago, the Playhouse’s Shelterhouse Theatre got a facelift and a new name. What we used to know as the Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre is now the Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre. Don’t worry. They haven’t completely overhauled the place. The theater feels much the same as it did before. But the seats are roomier. And many of the theater’s technical support systems have been upgraded. If you haven’t been to the “new” Shelterhouse, the opening of Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady” would be a good occasion to visit.

Korean-American Suh was born in Detroit and educated at Indiana University, but is inextricably tied to the 1950s Korea of his father’s childhood. So the idea of straddling cultures is a regular subject of his many plays. In this case, the story revolves around 14-year-old Alfong Moy, the first known Chinese woman in the U.S. Unfortunately, when she arrived in 1834, she wasn’t allowed to simply live her life and become absorbed into the culture around her. Instead, she became part of a touring show, traveling around the country as an onstage novelty, introducing audiences to Chinese silk, bound feet and chopsticks.

But her fame was fleeting. And within a decade or so, she slipped off the radar of the popular press. Suh’s script speculates on so much of what the history books have been unable to tell us. “Eventually,” according to Suh and the Playhouse’s press materials, “the lines between her performance and her own identity become blurry.”

“It’s a fascinating and illuminating play,” says Playhouse producing artistic director Blake Robison. “I think Lloyd Suh is an exciting new voice in the American theater. And he tells stories that many of us have never been exposed to.” 

Detail of poster

‘Serials! 13 – Thunder Hedron’

March 27 and April 10, Know Theatre of Cincinnati

Know Theatre has plenty of shows with multiweek runs. But I have always had a special fondness for the Know’s “Serials” presentations. Launched in 2014, “Serials” is, for my money, the area’s most wonderfully unpredictable showcase of live theater. More so, even, than the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which is also presented by the Know.

“Serials” has had a few format changes over the years. But there are always similarities from season to season. Inspired by episodic TV, the Know’s producing artistic director, Andrew Hungerford, invited playwrights, directors and actors to stage 15-minute playlets every other week.

This year, the first week’s presentation – Feb. 13 – began with five short plays. At the end of the evening, the audience voted and two shows were eliminated. Two weeks later, two new shows joined the mix, while the three that survived the week one vote returned with a second chapter of their stories.

Chaotic? You bet. And uneven in quality, too. Some plays were stinkers. But others were quite brilliant.

So if you’ve counted up the weeks, you’ll realize that you have already missed the first three episodes. But like any good TV serial, it’s possible to leap in at any point along the dramatic journey. And if you are reading this right when this issue comes out, you do have time to catch both the final two episodes, which take place March 27 and April 10.

Are you taking a chance if you go? Absolutely. But at just $15 a pop, you really can’t miss.

‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’ promotional image

‘Gruesome Playground Injuries’ / ‘Measure for Measure’

April 1-23, Gallagher Student Center Studio Theatre, Xavier University

Yes, these are student productions. But year after year, Xavier manages to populate its dramas with fine actors. And in this case, they’re showing off that strength by running two shows in repertory over two weekends. One is Shakespeare’s sobering reflection on abuses of power, “Measure for Measure.” The other, Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” is probably less well known to you. It’s a play as witty as it is probing. The two characters, Kayleen and Doug, meet for the first time in the nurse’s office in their elementary school. Over the course of the next 30 years, we see their various calamities bring them together again and again. So often, in fact, that a reviewer of an earlier production referred to them as “scar-crossed” lovers.

Torie Wiggins, author of “Who All Over There?” (Photo by Mikki Schaffner)

‘Who All Over There?’ – a world premiere dramedy

April 8-30, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati

It’s such a cold and clinical word. But when it comes to Torie Wiggins, the most direct way to describe her is as a “multihyphenate.” When it comes to theater work, it seems that she can do it all. And do it well. She is one of this area’s most beloved and capable actors. No matter what sort of role you throw at her, she excels. As a director, she is thoughtful and incisive. She sings, too. And teaches acting, bringing the most out of people who were convinced they didn’t have a shred of ability. And, though we see it less often, she is also a writer.

She co-adapted the stage version of the late Kathy Y. Wilson’s “Your Negro Tour Guide.” And starred in it, too. This month, we will get to see more of Wiggins, the playwright, when Ensemble Theatre stages the world premiere of “Who All Over There?”

ETC describes it as “an updated remix of the critically acclaimed classic ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’” But since that film was released 55 years ago, it’s probably worth rehashing the movie’s dramatic landscape.

In the movie, a young white woman brings her fiancé home to meet her parents. Only when the couple arrives do the parents learn that the fiancé is 14 years older than their daughter. And he is black.

Societally, much has changed in the ensuing years. And Wiggins, mind you, isn’t giving the film a literal update. But she is exploring the still-complicated emotional and cultural issues that interracial relationships often bring to the surface. 

Is it a grim show? Definitely not. Indeed, it has a good deal of humor in it. But it does explore issues too seldom discussed. And, in doing so, it reveals how those race-based rifts we hoped might be erased by 2023 are still there, lurking not very far under the placid surface of our lives.

“Hadestown” promotional image


April 18-30, Broadway in Cincinnati, Aronoff Center

For diehard theater aficionados, this is easily one of the most anticipated productions of the year. Don’t be afraid when you hear that it blends a pair of mythological tales; Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as Hades and Persephone. This is a show that, despite its title, is an often-inspiring paean to love.

Everything is unlikely about this show, even the fact that it took 13 years for it to make it to Broadway. It originated as a small production in Barre, Vermont, in 2006, then wound its way through small New England towns until it made its way to Broadway, where it won eight Tony Awards, in 2019, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.