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Elements series concludes with FIRE ON THE WATER at Cleveland Public Theatre


Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association & Cleveland Critics Circle)

FIRE ON WATER is the fourth play in Cleveland Public Theatre’s Elements Cycle, plays about the environment.  According to Artistic Director, Raymond Bogban, the plays were not created “to preach or propagandize.  We wanted to make plays that explored our ongoing efforts to understand and transform our relationship with the world.”  The presentations have done that, with varying degrees of artistic success.

Most of the efforts were “devised theater,”  productions which have no playwright, per se, but are conceived by the performers and other theatre staff.

In the case of FIRE ON WATER, the production is a partnership with other west-side theatres:  Blank Canvas, Ohio City Theatre Project, Talespinner Children’s Theatre and Theater Ninjas.  “Each of the five theatres involved sought to create plays about sustainability and the burning of the Cuyahoga [River].”

The collaboration is both the strength and weakness of the evening.  The fourteen playlets, plus some transitions, made for over two hours of performance, plus the intermission.  Listening to the stories of the burning of the river over and over made for redundancy and a very long sit.  Some of the tedium was relieved because the offerings moved from the stage units at both ends of the main theatre, to smaller platforms and tubs of water, distributed through the space.

In a creative staging device, the audience members were each seated in their own plush wheeled office chair and were silently directed by cast members where to skootch.  It was almost like being on the Dodgem Bumper Cars at an amusement park, but the object here was not to run into your fellow audience members.  Some attenders made the movements into a game by spinning around on their chairs as they moved.  This may have been facilitated by the availability of beer, which was allowed into the acting arena.

Segments covered the historical settling of what is now referred to as Greater Cleveland, how the river was named [Native American for “crooked river”], how it got polluted, the role of such companies as Standard Oil in the destruction of clean water, how fire and water can work together or can counter each other, what happens to fish when the river gets polluted, the role of the Clean Water Act in attempts to clean up the sludge and oil, the numerous times the river caught on fire (there were at least 12 occasions that were recounted), the Hough riots, the successes and failures to pass laws to help the environment, and the citizen flight from this area.

The devices used to convey the ideas varied from spoken words to sung and played music.  There were puppets of varying sizes and materials, projections, an ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET television show reenactment, a scuba diving probe into the dark river waters, swimming in large tubs of water, and acrobats swinging like Peter Pan over the heads of the audience.

According to Bobgan, “This is truly homegrown theatre that acts locally with a global vision.”   To this he added “how we act in this world is a mater of choice and belief.” After participating in this adventure, a strong feeling of the need for action became apparent.

The large cast worked as a well functioning unit to portray the ideas developed.

Capsule judgement: Cleveland Public Theatre, with its Elements series, continues to use theatre to not only entertain its audience, but to act as an arts device to alert people to the needs and wants of society, as well as teach civic and social responsibility.  FIRE ON WATER, though overly long and redundant, is an interesting piece of devised theatre, that, as the rest of the Elements series, illustrates the fragility of the world in which we live. 

FIRE ON WATER, runs through April 6  at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to