Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cleveland & Akron

Fire on the Water
Cleveland Public Theatre
Review by Mark Horning | Season Schedule

Also see Mark's reviews of Once and Ken Ludwig's Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Courtesy of Cleveland Public Theatre
After a brief introduction by Raymond Bobgan, Executive Artistic Director for Cleveland Public Theatre as well as conceiver, co-director, lead playwright and producer of Fire On The Water, the audience is led into the performance space. Instead of the traditional static seating arrangement, a large number of rolling office chairs (courtesy of City Desk) are scattered about the floor.

We each take a seat on a chair and begin to take in the surroundings. On the walls are video projections of bridge abutments, while higher up, blue reflective light patterns dance. Three large tubs of water are positioned on the perimeters, inhabited by actors who gently splash in the water. With the encouraged rolling mobility, we witness the various performance areas from different perspectives, suddenly flowing not in, but along the river. This is the definition of totally immersive theater.

What follows is a collection of sixteen separate but connected works and three musical numbers by a cast of fifteen actors and five musicians who propel this story of two antithetical elements (fire and water) and the effect they had on our local history and the world.

The thing that makes this collaborative venture unique is the collection of artistic institutions that the co-directors, playwrights, technical staff and actors are associated with. This includes Cleveland Public Theatre, Dobama Theatre, Talespinner Children's Theatre, Ma'Sue Productions, Cleveland Play House, Baldwin Wallace University, Convergence-Continuum, Cuyahoga Community College, Great Lakes Theatre, Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Ohio City Theatre Project, Karamu Theatre, and Maelstrom Collaborative Arts.

Using acting, singing, aerial acrobatics, interpretive dance, puppetry, waterworks and music, they tell the story of the Shawnee-named Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, and how it came to national prominence after catching fire in 1969. It was not the first time the river had caught fire (it was in fact the 13th) nor was Cleveland the only major city where this had happened, but soon Cleveland, instead of being known as Forest City, was given the "Burning River" and "Mistake on the Lake" monikers as it became the butt of numerous jokes. The situation, however, was not hopeless because it in effect forced Congress to pass into law the Clean Water Act, which banned the dumping of industrial wastes into our waterways, leading to an eventual nationwide clean-up.

The members of the cast include Courtney Nicole Auman, Sidney Edwards, Faye Hargate, Brinden Harvey, Shatara Jordan, Michael Levin, Kim Martin, Terah McGowan, Daniel McKinnon, Mary-Francis R. Miller, Zach Palumbo, Adam Seeholzer, Kat Shy, Anastasia Urozhaeva, and Hillary Wheelock. The musicians include Devin Hinzo, oboe; Ariel Clayton Karaś, violin; Amara Sperber, violin; Natalie Frakes, violin, Buck McDaniel, piano and electronics. Co-playwrights are Raymond Bobgan, Jeremy Paul Cathleen O'Malley, John Dayo-Aliya and Alison Garrigan, with co-directors Raymond Bobgan, Jeremy Paul, India Nicole Burton, Cathleen O'Malley and Alison Garrigan. Lighting design is by Benjamin Gantose and costumes are by Alison Garrigan. T. Paul Lowry handles the video and scenic design.

The cast literally throw themselves into the show with boundless energy. Nothing is left on the stage as each and every performer sweats it up during their portrayals. The only criticism of the show was a sound failure during the 1969 segment at the performance I attended, and some confusion about which segment is being enacted. These two small problems will surely be addressed in future performances.

This expanded version (two and a half hours plus intermission) of the original 2015 production (Part Four of The Elements Cycle) is a theatrical masterpiece that utilizes every square inch of the performance space while using every form of artistic endeavor imaginable. It is as complete a show as you will ever see. Come to be wowed.

Fire on the Water, through March 2, 2019, at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland OH. Tickets are available online at and by phone at 216-632-2727.

Privacy Policy