There’s a reason (actually, many, many reasons) why Ken Ludwig is the only playwright we bill as “Cleveland favorite!” Ken’s relationship with Cleveland Play House stretches back to 1985 when we were just the second theatre to stage one of his very first plays, Postmortem. Since then, Ken’s comedies have brought generations of CPH audiences together in joy and laughter. In total, we have produced six of Ken’s plays, including Moon Over Buffalo (1997) and the world premieres of Leading Ladies (2004) and The Game’s Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays) (2014), the hilarious holiday whodunit that audience members still talk about to this day.
For our audiences, Ken’s name has become synonymous with big laughs, swift-pacing, well-earned moments of heartfelt truth, opulent design, bursts of heart-racing action, and inventive theatre magic. It comes as no surprise that since our 2011 move to our new home in downtown Cleveland, every one of Ken’s plays has broken sales records, and has drawn top talent like iconic costume designer William Ivey Long and Tony-nominated actor Rob McClure to Cleveland. There are many wonderful stories and memories from our 30+ year relationship with Ken to share, but it is perhaps our two most recent productions of his work that most clearly demonstrate what make Ken and his plays so special.
In Fall 2015, Cleveland Play House celebrated our 100th birthday and designation as America’s first professional regional theatre. Our history embodies the adage “the show must go on” and we have kept the doors open and plays up on our stages during the Great Depression, WWII, the turmoil of the 60s, and many frozen Cleveland winters. We chose to launch our historic centennial season with an uproarious comedy penned by a beloved CPH family member: Ken’s A Comedy of Tenors, a farcical tribute to “the show must go on” and all the passion, determination, and yes, even a little madness, this business entails.
Ken was in residence at CPH for A Comedy of Tenors. To step into the rehearsal hall and observe Ken at work was to witness a maestro in his natural element. Ken has a deep understanding of structure and timing, drawn from years of studying the comedy greats and his own natural comedic metronome. In rehearsal, Ken was an expert technician, attuned to both the tiniest of details and the larger cadences of his play. He made in-the-moment adjustments, deceivingly slight changes that took a line from a chuckle to a full-out guffaw. It was a sight to behold.
One of the great pleasures of Ken’s work is how he translates his vast knowledge of theatre and entertainment history into engaging plays that speak to contemporary audiences. In A Comedy of Tenors you can see how he draws on and honors the sparkle and wit of Noel Coward; the swashbuckle and joie de vivre of Douglas Fairbanks films; the rapid back-and-forth of screwball comedies; and of course, the mistaken identity and wordplay of his beloved Shakespeare. Ken’s ability to harness and build upon this rich comedic tradition is why he is one of the preeminent writers of comedy in American theatre today.
Ken doesn’t stick to comedy alone. He is an artist who mixes genres, and in doing so creates accessible, highly entertaining theatre that captures – and stretches – the imagination. He infuses adaptations of world classics with slapstick comedy; marries mystery to madcap; entwines romance and adventure. His work builds bridges, appealing across generations and to both the most seasoned of subscribers and a first-time theatre goer. This is on no better display than in Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, which we produced this past winter.
A spooky and kooky adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic, Baskerville melds Ken’s sharp ear for comedy with his ability to propel story and continually build suspense. Baskerville, like all of Ken’s plays, is marked by ingenuity, wit, rigor and the highest level of craft, and requires the very same from its cast and creative team. With its constantly shifting locales, numerous quick changes, and supernatural elements, Baskerville offers a healthy challenge to designers and plenty of room to play. Meanwhile, the ensemble of five must portray nearly 40 characters and speak in dozens of accents. It calls for actors who are at the top of their game, trained in classic technique as well as clown and improv. Such exciting, challenging feats make for unforgettable theatrical experiences for artists and audiences alike.
Ken is a master craftsman, a passionate scholar-artist, and a dedicated friend to the regional theatre. He cares deeply about his work, but also the companies that produce it. Ken has played an important role in CPH’s success, as he has done for so many theaters across the world. On behalf of your CPH family and your many, many, many past and future fans here in Northeast Ohio and beyond, congratulations on this well-deserved recognition, Ken! We look forward to our next adventure together!
This article was contributed to and edited by Rachel Lerner-Ley, Literary Manager & Resident Dramaturg.