How Cleveland Play House sprouted its new complex

The Cleveland Play House has been one the country's better-known resident theater companies for the better part of a century. From its little Romanesque two-theater headquarters (the Drury seats 500, the Brooks 160), it expanded into a nearby church 20 years ago for a ''temporary'' third stage. Now it has moved into a $12.5 million complex designed by Philip C. Johnson that surrounds the old building with a Disney-like fantasy of low towers , columns, corridors, lobbies, and rotunda.

The new third stage, the Bolton Theater, and the expansion and updating of the Play House's facilities have been in the works since the late '40s. Once the Play House was offered a grant that would enable it to hire an architect to design plans it could afford to reject if need be, the ball was rolling, according to George Kirkham, president of the Cleveland Play House Foundation. following sentence a CHO Philip Johnson's original plan placed the theater across the street from the Play House, until Sears, Roebuck & Co. announced it was closing the department store that abutted the Play House. Then the new large complex was born.

''Originally, we had budgeted $5 million, but we knew it would be more,'' Mr. Kirkham recounts. Had the real figure - almost $13 million - ever been bruited about, says Kirkham, not a penny could have been raised. But at this writing, some $9 million is in the hopper. The rest will be harder to raise, since, as Kirkham stated, ''It's hardest to raise money after the building is built. We have run through 99 percent of our big givers. We've charged the staff to come up with a break-even budget. It may not be possible, but it's a good exercise.

''So many new theater (complexes have) bankrupted (resident) companies - not us. We're not really moving, it's more like consolidation. Our operating expenses haven't risen. It won't be cheaper than it used to be, but it's no more expensive. We don't sell subscriptions, coupon books, tickets. We simply have a window. We can do a lot of selling, and we've never really done it.''

For now, there is an ever-present reminder to all patrons of the Play House that money is still needed. The huge rotunda that houses the box office and serves as a central access to all three theaters, is utterly unfinished - still raw cement blocks and girders rather than cream-painted plaster, subtle decorative detail, and so forth.

And what about the new Bolton Theatre? It seats 644, has remarkable sightlines, and boasts three tiers of false balconies to give it the feeling of a court theater. Those tiers are painted in creamy tones that tend to call attention to themselves when the lights are down. But the stage is airy and roomy - and the production of ''The Tempest'' I attended moved very handsomely on the stage. The actors had no problem projecting into the generally favorable acoustics.

I asked artistic director Richard Oberlin why he chose a proscenium theater in this day and age. ''I don't consider that this is a conventional proscenium, '' he said. ''This is as flexible a proscenium as we could get. It was a hard decision to make. It finally came down to the fact that you could do almost anything on some variant of a proscenium stage, (while) the reverse was not true on other forms of stages.''

Oberlin went on to describe the hidden doors in the proscenium that allow actors to begin a scene while a set is being changed. He notes that the apron, curved for a slight thrust feeling, steps up to stage level to cover a pit that holds 22. The backstage is immense, with a full slip space so an entire set can be wheeled off and another wheeled on in a few minutes.

The Cleveland Play House under Mr. Oberlin (who has been with the the troupe since '55, and has been director since '72) may not be a bold innovative company , but it serves its audiences well, with a strong spread from Shakespeare to Broadway musicals.

While I was there, ''A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine'' was playing in the smaller Drury Theater. Later this season, the company will present ''Amadeus,'' as well as ''Peter Pan,'' ''Children of a Lesser God,'' ''Mass Appeal,'' and ''Home'' (by Samm-Art Williams). There is an active high school program that involves both actors going out to talk in classrooms and children coming to the theaters to see whatever is playing at the time.

Richard Halverson, with the company since '57, has watched the troupe transform. ''The basic feeling of the company is the same. We've got here that sense of family, of belonging to our own company, our own group. Today, we're giving the public a better-quality play. The audience has grown and has gotten younger, because of our large high school audiences.''

And what about the product on stage? ''The Tempest'' is an easy-enough play to obfuscate. Director Toby Robertson has kept things simple yet theatrical. Charles Keating (best known in the US for roles in ''Brideshead Revisited'' and ''Edward and Mrs. Simpson'') made a dignified, ardent, very human Prospero. On that believable foundation - a strong, youngish man with genuine passions and hatreds, rather than some wise old wizard with an unperturbable mien - the entire production builds. The Ariel (William Rhys) has an especially effective scene as the Harpie - a terrifying vision with huge grotesque wings and harpie bodice. The comedy works well, the subplots are all clear, the irony especially scalding when needed.

Among the large cast, Mr. Halverson (Alonso) is a particular standout, along with Si Osborne (Trinculo), James P. Kisicki (Gonzalo), Steven Breese (Ferdinand), Catherine Long (Miranda). Richard Gould's sets allowed for some unusual visual effects; Estelle Painter's myriad costumes were suitable and imposing; and Dennis Parichy's lighting was particularly sophisticated.

It's hard to say too much about a troupe on the basis of only one night, but the standard in this ''Tempest'' - a few substandard performances notwithstanding - was high. The Bolton is comfortable to sit in; one feels one is really in a theater, which is not always the case with new auditoriums.

One also senses a company spirit everywhere in the the complex - backstage, in the halls, at the stage doors. Everyone smiles, everyone seems to feel they are involved in something worthwhile. Certainly any arts institution that can build itself a $12.5 million complex virtually exclusively with private funds has to be doing something right - and clearly is fulfilling a need in the community.

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