Ensemble's 'Ages of the Moon' largely shines

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS — We've heard it said repeatedly, in various versions of the same saying: No two persons' versions of the past are exactly alike.

As a result, what exactly happened during bygone days can seem ambiguous and unclear, like an eclipse blocking the clarity of a full moon on a cloudless night.

The power and reliability of memory, the yearning for the past and the emotions it can conjure, the process of aging, loss and the secrets we keep, even from our best friends, help make "Ages of the Moon" a relatable, touching and amusing two-character play written by renown playwright Sam Shepard.

One could mention those same qualities, and add "humorous" to describe Ensemble Theatre's mostly solid production, on-stage through Dec. 6.

The play offers a more concrete kind of relatability than another play which it brings to mind: Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot,“ an existential, often comic, plotless play in which two eccentrics wait in no-man's land for some being named "Godot."

One must delve deeper into "Godot" than your average play to truly grasp the characters' motivations and the playwright's intentions. Becket presents us with an absurd, irrational world in which its characters struggle to find meaning in an existence largely devoid of it. The main characters in ”Godot“ clown around and bicker, similar to what Ames and Bryon do in Shepard's play.

But while "Ages of the Moon" is somewhat out of this world (it takes place during the hours leading up to a lunar eclipse), its themes and character motivations are more down to earth than ”Godot.“

Before the play begins, senior citizens Ames and Bryon haven't seen each other in some 50 years. In the play, set in 2007, Ames decides to call Bryon to his country house, looking for moral support after the former cheated on his wife.

Daylight slowly gives way to dusk and the lighting design by Ian Hinz, Steven Barton and Stephen Vasse-Hansell, who also directs, suggests this.

Over Bourbon on ice, the characters bicker about Ames' past (he accuses Bryon of trying to "insinuate" himself into his past). The reunited friends also talk about the upcoming eclipse and generally josh with each other.

This being Shepard, of course, there's violence.

And as is true with other Shepard plays, there's symbolism. For instance, a screen door constantly slams behind Ames when he enters his home. Ames, at one point, becomes nostalgic for his past and tries to re-connect with it, only to hear Bryon present a different version from the past Ames remembers. The man feels like his past belongs to him and Byron's trying to take it from him. The door slamming can represent the harsh reality of the past leaving Ames, and even its shutting himself out from it.

There's also symbolism in the play's movement from bright daylight to darkness; the play's mood grows progressively darker.

Shepard combines the poignantly poetic with the humorous, to create a heartfelt. amusing and at times shocking evening at the theater.

Some of the humor stems from shock value, such as the unexpected mention of a certain sexual act in the beginning.

Things are also said out of the blue, which is another source of humor. Out of nowhere, as the two stare straight ahead, sipping on booze, Ames asks "Is there anything sexier than women on bikes?"

At times in this production, the dialogue seems rushed, as though the actors are anticipating their character's responses.

But Vasse-Hansell's direction makes good uses of pauses, suggesting tension and at other times, reflection, as well as peace and quiet from everyday life. The director has instilled the necessary playful demeanor in the actors for the lighter scenes and Ames' anger is palpable.

Vasse-Hansell, who also designed the set, has created a realistic, plain, aging home and porch that appears to be in the middle of nowhere. It's a fitting depiction of the setting: These two men are lost, lonely souls, longing for connection.

Allan Byrne imbues the antsy Ames with a nervous energy, a sense that he's searching for something missing in his life.

Allen Branstein’s performance offers contrast, depicting Bryon as a laid back, jokey, sardonic man, but also a calming presence to the thin, nerdy, nervous Ames.

Branstein is just as adept at conveying vulnerability and panic during Ames' rages.

Most importantly, the actors play their characters as recognizable people, allowing us to see in them people we know.

For those who prefer plot-driven plays, "Ages of the Moon" may seem static and unmemorable. But for those who value character-driven plays with relevant themes, Shepard's play will be memorable — possibly as memorable as the rare moment one gets to watch a lunar eclipse.



WHAT: ”Ages of the Moon“

WHEN: Through Dec. 6. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays as well as 2 p.m. Sundays.

WHERE: Coventry Building, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights

For ticket information, call 216.321.2930 or visithttp://www.ensembletheatrecle.org/