The Clebut: The Curtain Goes Up In Cleveland

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"Our Greatest Year," a multimedia play about Cleveland sports and the sadness they bring to all those who dare to care about them, made its well-received New York City debut at the Comic Book Theater Festival at The Brick during the summer of 2011. But the play, a collaboration between playwright (and Classical contributor) Robert Attenweiler and artist/animator/writer Scott Henkle has yet to be performed in the city that is both its setting and its protagonist. That changed on Thursday night, when Our Greatest Year made its Cleveland debut at the Dobama Theater. Attenweiler and Henkle will file dispatches from Cleveland during the debut week. The first one is here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Tavern Co.

Time: 9:55pm

Local Food Consumed: 1 Polish Boy, 1 Panini’s Sandwich (not a panini, but both sandwiches served with fries and cole slaw on top)

Drinks: 2 Great Lakes Brewing Company Burning River Ales, 2 Peroni, shot of Marker’s Mark.

Performances Completed: 1

This has been a terrible week in Cleveland. Which is to say that it’s been 70 degrees and sunny every day we’ve been here. A.) I don’t like competing with nice weather. It seems a little unfair, even: I mean, Cleveland resembles the inside of a black box theater for much of the year anyway. But to ask people not to go outside when the weather's actually nice—and so add to their risk of melanoma! and other things!—is a pretty tall order in these parts. That’s A.

And 2.) Much of the success of this play is about exploiting the Clevelander’s sense of constantly being on the brink of soul-crushing disappointment and everything I’m hearing since getting here is not disappointment, but an oddly positive astonishment. Like the Grinch peering down on Whoville, I’m left befuddled over the fact that everyone’s just so damn happy. They sing without winning. They sing without jobs. They sing without floo-floos, pimandoes and wahs.

But then it all turns. What began the week as “This day is so beautiful” slowly morphs into “You know it’s supposed to suck this weekend, right?” And, just like that, I’m back in.

This is the “homecoming” show—our Cleveland show about Cleveland but, much like my attempts to get Bernie Kosar to come to the show (because we talk about him and a fictional fight he had with Muhammad Ali), there is a wrinkle here. We’re trying to sell our audience on the fact that this play is about them. And it’s not them. But it is them, after a fashion.

Bernie Kosar, I finally relented, probably does not want to see our imagining of him, or hear about this fight that we came up with as Bernie’s clear self-flagellation in atonement for the ways he failed the local sports populace. It takes place the spring following Ernest Byner’s The Fumble and Kosar insists on a fight with the retired Parkison’s-stricken champ to prove that he could stand there and take a punch from The Greatest of All Time. The punch he really needed to prove that he could take was from Cleveland fans.

A big section of Scott’s comics—the one that still knocks me out (ahem) when I see it—focuses on The Fumble, when Ernest Byner lost the ball at the 2 yard line on first and goal. It was the 1987 AFC Championship game against the Denver Broncos. And Bernie (we were reminded by our guest, Marla Ridenour, columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal who has been covering the Browns since 1981) had gone nuts in the second half just to get the Browns back to a point where they might have won the game. It wasn’t Bernie’s fault. So, I get why Bernie wouldn’t want to come see my play. Sucks to relive suck, clearly.

But what worried me was if this was true for Clevelanders too. I’d ridden this project for so long on the platform of “It’s about you guys” when trying to get people interested that I was petrified at the prospect of resistance to it. That there would be a feeling, however slight, that I had exploited the suffering-ness of a population and I could walk myself back to my fancy 20-square-foot Manhattan apartment now, thank you very much.

And our first show was for 90% college-age students who, while alive in 2007 (except for this really brilliant 4-year old we met, accounting major, story for another time) hadn’t lived through The Drive, The Fumble and The Shot or, as I sometimes call it, “The 1980s backbone of how we destroy anything that’s ever good in life.”

But no one resisted our take on Cleveland misery. In fact, they laughed. They laughed more than any other audience we’ve had. They laughed at the saddest parts of the play, knowing them to be sad, but seeing the absurdity of their own obsessions—or the obsessions of people they knew very well (but, really, let’s face it, theirs) given a public outing.

So, Bernie Kosar, if you’re reading this, the invitation still stands. Yes, The Fumble will still hurt. It still hurts me and I’ve seen the play about 35 times by this point. But maybe you won’t sue the pants off us for libel or misrepresentation. Maybe you’ll laugh. Or maybe you’ll just keep signing those 8x10s I brought you for $25 a pop. Either way.

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