Reviews: Performing Arts

Dance Review: Just Us…The Journey Continues by Reed Dance

Monday, March 17, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Over the weekend, Reed Dance premiered Just Us…The Journey Continues. The show was their first since leaving the August Wilson Center. Despite the group’s makeover (several new company members and a smaller performing venue), they emerged as bold and fiery as ever.

The Alloy Studios was a great place to see the dancers up close and personal. The small black box allowed for many of the perks of a traditional theater – intricate lighting design, raked seating, and a lobby for chit-chat. And with its intimacy, we were able to see the dancers’ vivid expressions and the details of their movements.

Reed chose six works for the program, a blend of old and new repertoire. Terence Greene, a Cleveland choreographer who has worked with the company quite a bit, presented two joyful and expressive large group pieces. “Breath” and “Faith” both had an infectious, crowd-pleasing effect.

Each dance accentuated Greene’s contemporary and African styles, which the performers handled with ease. The costumes stood out as well. In “Breath,” local artist, Vanessa German, made exquisite dresses for the women – black and deep orange with detailed patterns. For “Faith,” Cleveland School of the Arts provided long robes for the men and bright blue, flowing dresses for the women.

“Faith” closed the show, as it always should, and had the audience clapping, singing and raising their hands as if in Sunday Baptist church, Greene’s imagined setting for the piece. Kaylin Horgan performed the female solo this time around. Her effervescence lit up the stage (maybe even the entire neighborhood), convincing and moving.

NYC choreographer, Christopher Huggins, also had two works in the show – “Mothers of War” and “The List.” The former portrayed the agonizing truths of war. An emotional duet between Antonio Brown and Rebekah Kuczma bookended the dramatic progression from the group throughout. The latter piece also described painful anguish, following one Jewish family’s horror through the Holocaust.

To break up the high-energy tempo of the show, two smaller works perfectly changed the pace. In the first half, Brown performed a solo called “Knock Knock.” The piece showed off his seemingly liquid joints and athleticism. Utilizing powerful text and a pulsating beat, Brown told the story of one man’s navigation through life without a father.

In the second half, Kaylin Horgan and Rebekah Kuczma performed a world premiere by NYC choreographer, Sidra Bell. “Now You Can Let Go” was perhaps the most unique piece in the show. With quirky, angular gestures and unpredictable partnering, the movement was sometimes tender, and oftentimes curious. Reed said the duet spoke to the women’s friendship.

Just Us… proved that Reed Dance will continue to shine under their new name. Each dancer had the versatility to perform the company’s wide range of repertory, with stamina and finesse as stunning as always.

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Dance Review: Beautiful Struggle By Baker & Tapaga Dance Project

Tuesday, February 25, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST), Janera Solomon, enjoys taking risks when choosing artists to perform at the thriving East Liberty space. Attracting patrons to the more unusual shows at the theater has become her specialty.

The Pittsburgh contemporary dance scene used to be small; we could count on seeing the same audience members at each show. Not true anymore, especially not at the KST. Friday evening, the lobby filled up with dance enthusiasts, community members, and what looked to be several newcomers.

Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project performed their latest version of an old work, “Beautiful Struggle.” Esther Baker, co-choreographer for the company (along with her husband, Olivier Tarpaga), was inspired lately by her role as an activist to dismantle white supremacy. Though the show could be described by some as “challenging,” people of all walks of life were engaged from the beginning.

The show started with an installation in the lobby. Baker stood on a 4×4 table, dressed in only underwear, a blonde wig, and red high heels. Volunteers instructed us to take a marker and write something directly on Baker’s body. Specifically, we were to write about a struggle of our own. Many went for it, without shyness. Others hung back and watched as Baker changed positions to offer different body parts.

From there, we progressed into the theater where the 45-minute choreographed piece took place. Tarpaga stood among the audience, playing bass and chanting rhythms with unique sound. Dancer, Lindsay Fisher, stood above him and watched while Tarpaga made his way to the stage and continued playing live music.

Fisher began a small phrase of movement that represented one of the major themes of the piece, our basic human struggle. In smooth and precise undulations through her torso, she scrambled around the front of the stage and then fell backwards as if knocked down by an outside force. That simple action escalated until Danté Brown joined her and the two skittishly crawled to the back of the stage, curled into fetal positions.

Eventually, Baker entered. She shook and twitched, hands tied by ropes to the table that had been used in the lobby. Her own distress was clear, but not specific. Perhaps she was putting movement to her own difficulties in life – navigating an interracial marriage and parenting a mixed race daughter in a world where prejudice still exists.

The voice of white anti-racism activist, Tim Wise, boomed over the sound of Tarpaga’s drumming, and Sabela Grimes’ live mixed beats. We heard one line repeatedly, “There is no such thing as the white race.”

Tarpaga and Grimes alternated between dancing and playing music. In one moment, Tarpaga performed an athletic phrase of African and contemporary movement. Later, Grimes had a short hip-hop solo that sent wavy motion through his chest and arms.

Brown, whose own work explores gender, provided the flash of comic relief. His solo reflected masculinity and femininity in their stereotypical forms. He shadowboxed with tight fists, and then sashayed like a model in the next second. All the while, he spoke to the audience. “You like this step? How about you, girl?”

The dancers came together at different times, sometimes in quick duets or smaller groups. Under a strobe light, all five of them showed off their individual styles in various movement sequences around the table.

To end, Fisher reminded us of the racial “struggle” still prevalent in today’s society. She staggered, fought, and fell down, again and again. We could hear her labored breath as the lights went down.

As Baker explained after the show, “beauty and violence can coexist.” The audience certainly witnessed both in the thought-provoking piece. Although the work was based on the personal journeys of the performers, the commentary was inclusive, compelling, and important for all of us.

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Dance Review: Recipes our Mothers Gave Us by Corningworks

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

A cheery voice boomed through the speakers at the New Hazlett Theater’s Saturday performance of Recipes Our Mothers Gave Us. “You have thirty seconds to choose your ingredients to make a happy life!”

Beth Corning, director of Corningworks, and her dancing partners, Maria Cheng and Francoise Fournier, all rushed to the back of the stage like contestants of a competition reality show, determined to cook up the right recipe for success.

That section came near the beginning of the hour-long dance theater production, and it was perhaps the most memorable: hilarious, but poignant and relevant. The entire show questioned the old clichés we were taught by our mothers. What “recipes” were passed down to us, and how many of those succeeded and failed?

Corning, who choreographed the show as part of the Glue Factory Project (dedicated to performers over age forty), added a Ken doll to her pot of “soup.” And later, as per the American way, a dash of white happy pills.

Cheng, a Chinese choreographer, playwright and actor, dropped a toy piano into her stew, which may have been a quip at the stereotype of Asian-Americans as aspiring pianists.

Fournier, a French-Swedish dancer, rocked a baby doll before tossing it into her mix. Fournier had many moments throughout the show that questioned the old convention of our biological clocks ticking.

Another funny, yet dark, moment came when Fournier performed an emotional solo under low lights. Cheng and Corning stood above her, making critical comments about the movement. They contradicted themselves constantly, proving the point that everyone has their own version of happiness, not to be projected onto others. “Too slow,” Cheng said. “No, too fast,” insisted Corning. Too fat! Too lean! And on and on until Fournier walked off the stage while the two continued to argue over what was right.

That section ended with Cheng speaking honestly about what her mother thought about womanhood. Beauty was sexy, and sex would keep her from being alone. To which Cheng asked the audience, “What if being alone is better than bad sex?”

The show was filled with that wonderful balance of humor and seriousness. Although there was no precise narrative, the three performers seemed to let go of what they’d been taught, to write new and unique grocery lists.

After mindlessly pushing a baby carriage around, Fournier placed it over her head, flipping the notion that children make women happy literally upside down. Cheng tried to squeeze herself into a stainless steel pot, only to discover she didn’t fit that mold. She tossed the ingredients in the air instead, and joyfully pranced through it before exiting the stage. And Corning danced to the beat of her own kitchen whisk. She stopped furiously stirring her soup in favor of her own lighthearted dance.

The show ended on a more subdued note. The three of them each lay on individual cooking carts they’d used throughout the performance. They wondered quietly if they were destined to become their mothers. Was it simply in their DNA? Corning shushed them, shunning the idea.

The stage went silent, then dark. The answer was clear. Life was what these seasoned performers had made of it. Like the full red wine they’d left onstage, in clear, tall glasses, these women had definitely become better with age. That particular cliché must be true.

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Dance Review: Objects of Desire By Continuum Dance Theater

Tuesday, December 17, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For the past nine months, Sarah Parker, Artistic Director of Continuum Dance Theater, has been working on her latest evening length work, as part of the New Hazlett’s CSA (Community Supported Art) series.

Saturday night, for one show only, “Objects of Desire” premiered at the theater. The choreography came from Parker’s musing on the subject of desire, and what people truly want in life.

While the choreographic process is often limited to behind closed doors, Parker and her company went straight into the community to create the piece. In several free open rehearsals, at places like the Fairmont Hotel, a juice bar, and the Kaufmann Center, they presented works-in-progress, and asked audiences to answer three questions. What have you desired in the past? What do you desire now? What do you desire for the future?

Dancer, Jess Marino, said the answers ranged from superficial to deep. A preschooler said he wanted a briefcase, and an elderly woman said she wished for good health. The company sorted through hundreds of answers and pulled out a few commonalities they then used to create the dance. Some themes included money, power, materialism and relationships.

The fifty-minute narrative centered around dancer, Michelle Skeirik, with the four other company members representing Skeirik’s desires. To begin, each dancer entered from different parts of the theater – the stage, the balcony and the audience. The set was quite elaborate, and included household objects like couches, chairs, shelves, a desk and a full-length mirror. We felt as if we were in Skeirik’s home.

In each section, the dancers explored different “objects” they desired. Parker wanted the choreography to feel like a movie. Her hope was that the audience would understand each theme clearly, so she used props as literal representations.

Piggybanks were tossed back and forth between each dancer in an exploration of money and power. The movement was bound and aggressive, fast and feverish, and gave the feeling of cut-throat attitudes and ultimate desperation.

The performers donned fur coats and pearls for a section about materialism. A woman they saw at the Fairmont hotel, dressed in fancy attire and head held high, inspired the movement. With tongue and cheek attitudes, the performers primped and posed, as if modeling their goods. Eventually, the pearls became heavy in their hands, weighting them down.

The most beautiful and poignant moment happened under low lights and in front of two tall mirrors. Heather Jacobs performed a solo to the haunting voice of Israeli singer-songwriter, Asaf Avidan. Jacobs’ movement was light, yet melancholic. Eventually, Skeirik joined her in a duet of conflict that shed light on the struggle of relationships. Skeirik became entangled in a bouquet of balloons until Jacobs finally freed her.

The lights came up slowly, revealing Jess Marino covered in a pile of bras that represented sex and sexuality. She and each dancer performed the section in seductive tops, weaving through the space in magnetic solos, whispered duets and partnered groups.

In the end, none of the objects held the same importance as they did at the beginning. Skeirik hesitantly tucked everything into a box, peering in for a few final glimpses of the objects she once desired. Again, Asaf Avidan’s voice filled the theater with lyrics about becoming old and the potential to share stories of a time passed. Skeirik finally closed the box and walked away as the lights faded.

Parker’s choreography exposed the superficial desires we all have at different times in our lives. But in the end, she reminded us the objects we crave may be meaningless on our path to true happiness.

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Dance Review: See What I Hear by Murphy/Smith Dance Collective

Wednesday, November 20, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

For the choreographic duo, Jamie Murphy and Renee Smith, sound matters. Murphy deals with hearing loss in her left ear. And Smith’s grandfather has suffered from hearing damage since serving in the war. In the dance collective’s latest piece, See What I Hear, the two explored ways in which we are affected by sound or silence.

The evening-length work took place at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater for two nights and one child friendly matinee. Seven dancers took to the stage with an array of musical accompaniment. Gordon Nunn composed the pre-recorded sound, and the dancers performed live, using their own voices.

Large sheets of paper created the set; some dangled from the rafters and some lay crumpled at the back of the stage. One long, thinner sheet created a pathway from the back right corner to the front left. The dancers moved in and around and on top of the sheets, which added another layer to the soundscape.

To begin, we heard rushing water and hushed but excited voices. The dancers entered gradually, a few from the audience. As a group, they performed a gestural movement phrase that mimicked each sound they made. For example, we heard the creak of a screen door opening while the dancers used a pulling arm motion. Without the beat of traditional music, the dancers had to tune into each other with heightened sensibility.

Later, Smith performed a solo while five dancers voiced the accompaniment using a deep but breathy “whoosh,” a high-pitched “boop boop boop,” and more. When they noisily crescendoed, Shana Simmons tried to shush them, then yelled “Stop it!” which put an end to the racket. Eventually that led to a duet between Murphy and Smith. They manipulated each other with simple but interesting partnering, a calm after the sound storm.

One particularly compelling section used video projection to show how different sounds affect different people. Abigail Adkins moved lightly and freely to the image of birds chirping. Laura Warnock used pointed gestures to accent a smart phone’s many tones. When presented with the image of war and repetitive gun shots, Lamar Williams and Brady Sanders were jolted into spastic motion. In a humorous moment, Smith had a frenetic solo of fist pumping and hair pulling to the sight and sound of a Jerry Springer show. Eventually the solos and sounds overlapped and the audience was bombarded with a barrage of noise that ended in screaming, laughter and a blackout.

The lights came back up slowly. Murphy, Smith and Sanders all moved quietly on top of the sheets of paper. Sanders performed a lovely solo; paper shifted underneath him as he appeared weightless on his feet.

Each dancer re-entered, making their way to the diagonal pathway across the stage. Their individual movement phrases, combined with unison and moments of contact, showed how communication through touch is important. To end, they frantically tore down the paper, ripped it, and kicked it in a final wave of sound before the lights went down.

In a day and age of buzzing smart phones, beeping texts and dinging email notifications, the show reminded us to broaden our senses and heighten our awareness. I personally walked out with an appreciation for the bustling sounds of East Liberty, thankful that the Murphy/Smith Dance Collective created art that demanded a level of mindfulness important for all of us.

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Theater Review: The Zero Hour

Friday, November 1, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

The Zero Hour. By Madeleine George. Directed by Robyne Parrish. Off the Wall Productions, Main Street, Carnegie, PA. October 25–November 9.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

At Off the Wall Theater currently, Erika Cuenca and Daina Michelle Griffith are giving virtuoso performances as multiple characters. Their principal roles are the enmeshed lovers Rebecca (Cuenca) and O (Griffith). Cuenca’s Rebecca is the barely controlled Felix of the pair, gainfully employed writing school textbooks, riding the New York subway to work, seeing a therapist. Griffith is O, unpredictable, funny, impossible. She’s a Wild Thing, but one who doesn’t leave their one-room, leaky-ceilinged squat. They squabble comically like old married people. Both assume other roles. Griffith in particular becomes a dizzying variety of people Rebecca meets, from Rebecca’s therapist to a subway-riding Nazi with hypnotic blue eyes. Cuenca becomes O’s mother, then Rebecca’s.

I find it exhilarating to see theater whose artifice is transparent, as here. A row of chairs and a horizontal pole represent the subway, always in sight. (The Number 7 train is practically a co-star.) Quick costume changes take place on stage. The same person plays many roles. It’s a stunt, in a way, like watching the Cirque de Soleil of acting. But the level of acting here goes beyond virtuosity. Cuenca and Griffith inhabit their roles, make them human—and, not incidentally, sympathetic. We care about Rebecca and O. And they’re sexy. And comic.

At a poetry workshop recently I said that I generally feel that poetry that links the Holocaust with some personal emotional travail is disproportionate. Narcissistic. The Zero Hour comes perilously close to this but tactfully avoids it. Here, Rebecca is writing a text about the Holocaust for seventh-graders. O wants her to include material on Nazi persecution of gays, impossible in the bland, offend-nobody textbook world. The political is the personal: O wants Rebecca to come out, to her mother and the world. Rebecca doesn’t want to think about her sexual identity. She becomes more and more preoccupied, finally obsessed, with the Holocaust, until she’s seeing Nazis everywhere, including the train.

John Steffenauer is effective in a small role. I’d call him the deus ex machina that enables Rebecca’s climactic recognition, but the role’s no deus, more like a dork. No, sorry, Steffenauer, not a dork. A decent guy, maybe. The direction and technical team deserve a lot of credit. (Those costumes had to be engineered for quick changes.)

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Theater Review: Oklahoma!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Oklahoma! Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs. Directed by Patrick Cassidy. Point Park Conservatory Theater. October 18-27.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

It was morning in America on the stage at Point Park’s Rockwell Theater. I wasn’t eager to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, set in Indian territory on the verge of becoming the Sooner State. I almost said “evergreen” musical—can it really be evergreen? It’s actually 70 years old. Post-Sondheim, post-Chorus Line, post- the attacks on America and drone warfare, wouldn’t the corn be too high?

Reader—remember how good corn tastes? This production was sweet and fresh. It was done without irony, thank goodness, and was exceptionally lavish yet tactful. I wondered whether even the original Broadway production had such a large cast of cowboys, farmers, and calico-clad gals. [Evidently, according to the Internet Broadway Database, it had.] The student cast was absolutely equal to their roles, and the direction as well as the actors must get credit for the perfection of such details as the comic timing of Ado Annie and Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler. There was also a clarity about the production—the cowboys and farmers distinguishable, the dance sequences part of the drama. Projections of what appeared to be period photographs during the overture and musical interludes supplied historical context and, for me, didn’t tip over into intrusiveness, as audiovisual enhancements frequently do.

The dancing was spectacular. It was new, choreographed by Zeva Barzell, but the cowboys’ dancing had the flavor of Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo choreography. Repeated gestural elements, as when Laurie and the girls sang “Many a New Day,” read very clearly. I expected the ballet sequence, Laurie’s dream, to be too long, awkward and dated, but the excellent young dancers, supported by the background projections and music, made it suspenseful, built real tension. Also building tension, and real menace, was the Jud Fry, both in the dream and in “real life.”

If I recall correctly, Leonard Bernstein made an extended comparison between the genres of musical and operetta, using Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella as examples. In addition to their formal differences, musicals, he said, came out of the milieu familiar to the New York audience and authors, like Guys and Dolls; operettas were set in a faraway exotic place—The Most Happy Fella in the Napa Valley of California. (Was this before South Pacific?)

It may not seem obvious now, when it plays all over the country and its title song is Oklahoma’s unofficial state song, but Oklahoma! would have been exotic to the Broadway audience. And recall the date: 1943. This sunny all-American musical opened during World War II, when the real-life boys were in uniform and the real-life girls might be wearing snoods and slacks for war work.

I have two regrets about this Oklahoma!: like most musicals I’ve seen lately, it was miked; and I didn’t see it early enough to recommend it to everybody I know.

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Monday, September 9, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Gia Cacalano and her multimedia ensemble brought new work to the Wood Street Galleries this past weekend. The show was a continuation of a piece they presented last March called “The Frequency of Structure and Flow Part 2.”

The piece was created as a deliberately pared down version of the first. Or, what one of the dancers, Vincent Cacialano, described as “the skeleton.” Back in the spring, the ensemble collaborated with French artist, Miguel Chevalier, whose video installation covered the walls in bold and bright images.

This time, the performers were given a blank slate, as no visual artist was currently in residence. Cacalano explained that she wanted to let the space dictate the performance. The result was simple and quite stunning.

Five dancers performed, four from the regular group – Cacalano and her brother, Vincent, from the UK, Wendell Cooper from NYC, and Jil Stifel from Pittsburgh. Newcomer, Joanna Reed, also joined the ensemble for the first time.

Philadelphia musician, Michael McDermott, created the music, some recorded and some mixed live during the show. And Wendell Cooper created black and white video footage that was projected against the walls.

Because all of the movement was improvised, the show differed each night. However, the group did work within a structure of five or six sections to keep an overall shape and cohesiveness to the piece.

Like all of Cacalano’s work, the themes were loose, open to interpretation and focused largely on the movement connections between each dancer. The quality always has a meditative feel that is gracefully hypnotic. Although there were definite dynamic changes within the hour long show, the through-line felt like Zen stillness.

Perhaps that is because of each performers’ heightened awareness of each other that puts our smartphone culture to shame. Each dancer took their time exploring the space as if it had been the first time they stepped foot onto the gallery floor. The connection they had to one another was astonishing, considering their long distance working relationships.

The piece began with slow and purposeful walking that gradually expanded into small movement gestures and eventually larger phrases and powerful fast moving sections. Solos organically shifted into duets and group segments, each as interesting as the last.

A few moments stood out in particular. Cacalano and Stifel shared a duet of discovery that had a soothing sense of calm, and ended as they seemed to disappear while the sound and images faded.

Afterward, Cooper, Cacialano and Reed entered the space in near silence, simply standing for what felt like a few minutes. With incredible patience and a comfort level reserved for only the most seasoned performers, they allowed the audience to watch the movement of their breath and subtle shifting of weight and expression. The effect was completely engrossing.

That moment steadily built into a high energy group section with all five dancers weaving in and out of each other. The video images flashed bright while each performer managed to effortlessly stay composed despite the beautiful chaos.

The section ended with an exciting solo from Cooper who seemed to defy gravity with his light-footed, off-center style. He ended up lying center stage while Cacalano soloed around him. She eventually pulled him to standing, cradling Cooper in her arms and pulling him offstage in a completely gratifying ending.

The audience exhaled, relaxed into the same present state of mind as the performers, and waited silently for a bit before sharing their grateful applause.

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How Ralph Vaughn Williams Saved My Life

Wednesday, August 28, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by Nola Garrett

Driving my 2010 orange Honda Fit, I was on my way to the University of Tampa’s inaugural concert of their new pipe organ. I was stopped for the red light at the six lane intersection of Sunset and McMullan Booth Road. I had just slipped in my new CD of Williams “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallas” and other works written during the years he began collecting English folk songs during the early part of the 20th Century. I was happy, relaxed, and filled with anticipation.

My first brush with Ralph Vaughn Williams’s music was All Saints Sunday, 1973, in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, when I first sang what I gradually came to know as one of his most famous compositions, his hymn tune, “For All the Saints.” That majestic opening, a single deep bass, full reed organ stop, G quarter note, followed by the hymn’s melody and slow walking bass gave me shivers. I felt as if that hymn dragged me up from the violent depths of my first marriage to consider a second life. Each of the eight stanzas began the same way, and each time I found myself shivering. Still do, every time I sing it decades later.

I’ve come to think that deep bass G and that following walking bass may have acted as a sort of sounded dark light or chiaroscuro on my perception. Scientists studying perception say that the brain doesn’t just passively receive but actively reaches out. The mind with its own hopes, according to Frederick Turner in a recent essay, “The Dark Light of Domenic Cretara,” in
seeks confirmation or a check on its view of the world. Sometimes this check leads to the reinforcement of denial or depression; other times it grasps the light or trust. So, the melody would have been my light while the single deep bass G and walking bass would have been and continues to be my shadow that gives form to my light.

Because “For All the Saints” has eight verses and that authoritative, initial bass G, most church organists, including First English Lutheran Church’s cantor, Cynthia A. Pock, Obl. ECST, AAGO, will be quick to tell you, “It’s not an easy hymn to play.” The hymn should be played slowly, and both that initial G and the walking bass are scored for pedal. Truth be told, eight slowly played verses is a very long hymn either to sing or to play. Ralph Vaughn Williams, composer and church organist, certainly understood that strain, for he wrote an alternative four part harmony setting for verses 4,5, 6, and eliminated the pedal walking bass. Often these three verses are sung by the choir, and/or the 8 verses are sung alternately all, men, all, women, all, choir, all, all. Either way, it’s still an endurance test for organists. Nevertheless, on a few special occasions I’ve heard organists, including Cynthia Pock, open the hymn with an elaborate improvisation and/or end the seventh verse with a improvised key-change modulation, adding further majesty (and mystery) to the last verse!

Eventually, I wondered if other Williams compositions would effect me the same way. I sought out his recordings, read the liner notes, researched more details about his life, and his growth as an English composer. None of his other music gave me shivers, but at least I found the word that most writers used when describing much of music he wrote based on his folk song research—mysterious. Another description for shivers. I felt relieved that at least I wasn’t some sort of religious nut.

I read Simon Heffer’s Williams biography published by Northeastern University Press in 2000 and discovered Williams’ beliefs, or perhaps more precise, his doubts concerning Christianity. At the time Williams wrote his hymn tune for William W. How’s text, “For All the Saints,” he also helped revise the 1906 English, all the while forthrightly acknowledging his agnosticism, even refusing to take communion at the church where he served as organist. I respect Ralph Vaughn Williams for his honest doubt which I think may well be another source of the mystery pervading his compositions. Heffer describes his listening impressions of the first English folk-song Williams collected:

…on first hearing the tune, it strikes the listener as though he has known it all his life. It has the strain of heroic melancholy and profound peace that is religiose without being religious…stripped of sentiment and romanticism. It echoes and represents the mysticism that would become a dominant strain in Vaughn Williams character, a substitute for orthodox religion that would increasingly inform his music.

Yes! What a joy it was to find in someone else’s words a description of what you’ve been shivering, feeling, needing to understand. Thank you, Simon Heffer.

So. Just as I settled back into my driver’s seat to the first orchestral measure of “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” I heard/felt a loud, dull bang-quick wham as my car was rear-ended & I closed my eyes & felt my seat belt tighten & felt the back of my head flap back into the padded headrest & next my head whacked left & hurt hard. I opened my eyes, heard Ralph Vaughn Williams’s music still playing, and I turned off the ignition so my car wouldn’t catch fire. I saw that my driver’s side air bag had deployed like a sad balloon. Two teen age boys were opening my car door and saying “I’m sorry!” “I’m sorry.”

I found my purse still sitting beside me. I grabbed it as the two boys and an older man helped me out of my car which I noticed was now pointing toward home. My head didn’t hurt as much, but my calves stung. And, I knew I was alive and walking to the berm. Minutes later the EMTs from the fire station I had passed a half mile back were paying no attention to the teenage boys, but were taking my blood pressure, asking me my age, counting my heart beat. My blood pressure was 130 over 80. “A little high for me,” I told them, though they assured me “It’s damn good.”

Turns out that the two teen age boys—brothers— were driving at least 60 mph the blue Toyota truck that rear ended me. They never looked up until their cell phones flew from their hands into what must have become part of the pile of glass, metal, and plastic someone swept to the roadside. Also, seems that my car was not only rear ended, but also then thrown into a six inch steel pole on the driver’s side and turned around 180 degrees.

In my wallet I found my Florida driver’s licence, owner’s card, insurance card, copied the boy’s info, used my cell to phone my husband to come take me home, answered the police’s questions, thanked the two witnesses who stayed more than a hour to talk with the police. They had been driving separate cars they swerved out of the way of the heedless brothers.

Magically, a tow truck arrived. The driver handed me his card, then wenched my hunched Honda Fit crookedly up as if he were hoisting an very old man onto a hospital bed. I didn’t cry, but I wished I could. My legs still stung, though my opaque hose were intact. It would be more than 3 months before all my many, many bruises disappeared.

A few days later, I drove a rental Kia Soul to the tow yard to remove my personal effects and licence plate from what had now officially been deemed my totaled Honda. The guys at the yard immediately demanded my ID, checked their list, then stepped back, saying “You’re alive? That’s a car in a world of hurt! When we opened the hood we found that the engine mounts had snapped. The engine was sitting loose, sideways in the engine compartment.”

The guys walked me to my car, removed my crumpled licence plate, helped me retrieve most of my stuff. Strangely, I sit in my dead car’s driver’s seat. The keys hang in the ignition. On a whim I push the CD eject button and out slides “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” Though it’s still a mystery to me why my car’s battery powering that CD player gave my music back to me, I relaxed. I felt the same happiness I had felt a few days earlier when I first placed Williams’ CD into that machine.

I am grateful for Honda’s engineering that keeps the passenger compartment secure during almost any accident, which is why I made the two brothers’ insurance company buy me an new orange 2011 Honda Fit. I also believe that because I was so relaxed, Ralph Vaughn Williams saved my life. Twice.


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Scarcity. By Lucy Thurber. Directed by Justin Zeno. Organic Theater Pittsburgh in the Studio Theater at the University of Pittsburgh. With Matt Bonacci, Bridget Carey, Hanna. Hannah McGee, Michael Moats, Meagen Reagle, Jaime Slavinsky, and Michael Young. August 8-18th.

Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes. No Name Players, at Off the Wall Theater, Carnegie, Penna. A world premiere performance of an adaptation from classic Greek dramas by Sean Graney. Directed by Steven Wilson. With Cameron Knight, Ricardo Vila-Roger, Colleen Pulawski, John Garet Stoker, Todd Betker, Patrick Cannon, and Tressa Glover. Music by Ryan McMasters. August 2-17.
Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Lucy Thurber is currently getting the unusual recognition of having five of her plays produced simultaneously in New York City, in off-Broadway theaters. These are “The Hilltown Cycle.”[] This isn’t a hail-and-farewell to a playwright long past her prime—Thurber is in her 40s. Pittsburghers can have a taste of her quality (20 percent of those productions) at Organic Theater’s Scarcity.

There’s a long history in American theater, extending back at least to the early 20th century, of entertaining the classes with the economic troubles and sexual low- and hi-jinks of the masses, particularly the rural masses, which were exotic to the New York audience. Tobacco Road, which I imagine played as a tale of hillbilly degradation, ran for years. Then on a different plane there’s Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Desire Under the Elms.

Organic’s Scarcity falls on a prurience-to-profundity scale between Tobacco Road and Orpheus Descending. There’s a hint of mystery and fate, in a child’s reading of a Tarot pack and her claim to “see,” but I think that’s a red herring. Mostly it’s a realistic (there IS a kitchen sink) melodrama of people who are hard up and pretty hard to take. There’s considerable sexual heat and tension in the play, much to the credit of the main actors and the directors. The gorgeous Jaime Slavinsky (though she’s in jeans, not in the Daisy Mae shorts featured on the poster) and the almost equally gorgeous Matt Bonacci are the fussing, fighting, and fecking parents of two children, a high school student (Michael Young) and the considerably younger Rachel, the talented Hannah McGee. Michael Moats and Meagan Reagle separately visit this family, drawn in by their separate sexual hungers. The role of Moats’ wife (Bridget Carey), when she shows up, seems written for a sit-com.

What’s new about this play? Perhaps that it’s presented from the point of view of the blue-collar people rather than the idealistic but un-self-knowing school teacher (Meagan Reagle) who’s the stranger who comes to town to set the action in motion. Her mouth, expressing distaste, is something to behold. Her stiffness and clumsy condescension make her a cartoon until…Until she turns into Miss Julie. Michael Young, playing the student in whom she takes an interest, is wonderful in both his eagerness and his contempt. Hannah McGee plays Rachel, one of those preternatural children wiser than anyone around her. When she dealt the Tarot for herself, I feared for her life. Jaime Slavinsky makes Martha sympathetic despite her flaws. The father of the family is not.

There’s a whiff of incest.

And the f-bombs fly.

When I saw the set before the beginning of Scarcity, I thought, uh-oh. Is this supposed to be rural degradation? The Jukes and the Kallikaks? Because they don’t have a k-cup coffee brewer and granite countertops? It looks homey. I didn’t think that when I saw the set of Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes. We seemed to be in a hospital that has gone to the dogs. An IV hangs from a pole. A cupboard is open, revealing packages of bandages. The whole playing area is littered with crumpled papers. An unanswered monitor alarm keeps up an irritating beep.

Finally (the beep goes on) the actors file in, face the audience, sing Stephen Foster’s lovely and melancholy “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and exit. That is all that remains of the Greek chorus lamenting the plague that has struck Thebes. For this play—and play is a good word for it—is a mashup of five ancient plays dealing with the cursed family of Thebes and Sean Graney aims to tell the story by any means necessary: to strip away some elements, like the chorus, and the necessity of having messengers narrate offstage action, and to reimagine it as a mixture of tragedy and farce. (Some exposition is handled simply and frankly by one of the actors in a blue spotlight to speak it.)

Once again we have a dysfunctional family, but these people are much better dressed. Beautifully, in fact, in modern dress, with purple for the royals, including a tailored lilac-colored suit for Creon. And beautifully played. I’ve mentioned Cameron Knight before. He has the resonant voice and presence—and the arrogance—to play King Oedipus and is a hoot as a Muhammed-Ali-like Theban champion. Ricardo Vila-Roger is excellent as the cheesy Creon (literally cheesy—he noshes a bag of Cheetos, called “cheese curds” in the script, through most of the play) and Todd Betker as Polynices. Tressa Glover plays multiple roles well. Colleen Pulawski is astonishing as Jocasta and Antigone: beautiful bearing, expressive eyes, fine line readings. John Garret Stoker is fine in two small roles, and Patrick Cannon’s small turn as Eteokles matches Polynices’ inanity.

A couple of years ago I saw a production that married Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida with Thomas Heywood’s The Iron Age to tell the whole story of the Trojan War. Bad idea, though it had some striking moments. It didn’t last ten years, but it lasted too long. I feared that this play would do the same—not only incorporating all three plays of Sophocles’ Theban cycle (many literature majors will remember Oedipus and Antigone, not so many will remember Oedipus at Colonnus) but also adding material from Aeschylus and Euripides. I was wrong. It’s not quite The Reduced Shakespeare Company, but it dispatches Jocasta and Oedipus’ eyes quite rapidly and moves on to Oedipus and Antigone in exile. And holds our interest for the rest of the evening. (Geekily, I read Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes the morning after I saw it and I can report that Graney’s adaptation is very free—and cunning—indeed.)

Oedipus’ arrogance and Creon’s truckling are established by Oedipus’ repeating “I solved the riddle of the Hellbitch” [the Sphinx] and Creon’s invariably and quickly responding, “And that was terrific”—or “splendid.” That’s farcical. As is Haemon’s, “What is it with this family?” Though it isn’t the Reduced Shakespeare Company, it has in common with RSC that it loves the plays and it nudges them in the ribs from time to time as only a lover can do.

(A shout-out to Don DiGiulio, scenic design, Kate Mitchell, costume design, and Eve Bandi, lighting design.)


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Dance Review: Sidra Bell Dance New York In ‘Garment”

Monday, August 12, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Sidra Bell is more than a choreographer; she is a philosopher who thinks deeply about life and art. In addition to her MFA in choreography, she holds a degree in history from Yale, lectures at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and was an adjunct professor at Barnard College. Her smarts come through in the dances she makes, but not in a traditional or predictable way.

Bell first worked with the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in 2009 for the newMoves festival. Since then she has been back several times, in various locations. Last week, she and her dancers rehearsed a brand new piece at the Alloy Studios that will premiere in the spring of 2014. To culminate the week-long residency, her performers showed the work-in-progress, “Garment,” on Friday.

The dance was mainly about identity, specifically how we shift identities. Audience seating was not only in the round, but a few chairs were situated right in the middle of the dance floor, to allow for more active viewing.

“The passivity of culture bothers me, and affects how I approach dance,” Bell says. The seating arrangement worked to fit her goal. The five dancers weaved in and around the chairs, approaching the audience directly, breaking our perceived personal space, and sometimes even touching us. “Touch is a strange phenomenon in our society,” she says, admitting that she considers dance making a place to break rules and “misbehave.”

Lucky for the company, our Pittsburgh dance community was up for it. One woman watched intently as a dancer crawled onto the empty chair next to her. Another seemed totally at ease when a dancer sat in her lap.

Most of the thirty-minute piece was that up close and personal. Much of it was a whirlwind of frenetic solo movement. And although there is truth in the saying, “everything in art has already been done,” there were some truly unique moments.

Dancer and Associate Artist Director of the company, Alexandra Johnson, had a wild solo that half resembled krumping with her free, hard-hitting and uninhibited style. Slower partnering phrases seemed to happen accidentally, the dancers molding into each other.

At one point, the performers manipulated one another in slow, hypnotic waves, adjusting body parts, clothing and even hair. Because there was so much to see, in every part of the studio (Bell likes to “split focus”), the one unison phrase was deeply satisfying.

It will be fascinating to see how the piece changes and grows from now until next spring. As always, the dance community will welcome Sidra Bell Dance New York back to Pittsburgh with an eager and open mind.


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Dance Review: Texture Contemporary Ballet In ‘Perpetual Motion’

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Texture Contemporary Ballet is just two years young, and the company is already taking huge balletic steps. They have impressed the local dance scene, but have been noticed nationally as well. The Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Out Festival in Massachusetts will host the company as one of only a few groups from Pittsburgh.

In fact, hot off their latest performance at the New Hazlett Theater, the group is set to hit the world renowned festival this Friday.

“Perpetual Motion” ran for four consecutive shows over the weekend and featured four world premieres. The choreography was mostly split between Alan Obuzor (Artistic Director), Kelsey Bartman (Associate Artistic Director) and Gabriel Gaffney Smith (Dancer and Composer for the group).

In the first piece, “Mulberry Way,” more than ten dancers took the stage. In Part 1, the large group showed off their classical and contemporary skills, blurring the lines between genres.

Using a more melancholy sound by the rock band, Elbow, the following two sections slowed down, and had a more emotional component. In a lovely trio (Part 2), Amanda Summers moved through two doors and between two partners with beautiful technique and a relatable lack of clarity.

Part 3 featured a quartet of difficult partnering that was both inventive and emotive. To close the piece, the entire group entered for a playful section that ended on a deeply satisfying note.

“Wash” was the second dance on the program, a duet between Bartman and Smith and music by Bon Iver. The two moved smoothly in and out of the floor, alternating between quick and sharp to slow and sweeping dynamics. Their relationship had believable tension.

The third piece, “Broken Mirror,” was the highlight of the evening. With solid choreography reminiscent of the late great Merce Cunningham, the large cast used walking patterns to transition in and out of movement phrases. The dance had a slow build that crescendoed near the end and eventually subsided into the subtle partnering and solo movements of the beginning. In its simplicity, the audience was lulled into a mesmerized state.

The program ended on a high note with live music by Meeting of Important People. Although the piece, “MOIP,” went on a bit too long, the dancers’ energy was infectious. Some parts had humor that required acting and more jazzy technique. Some parts were downright contemporary, practically non-balletic, and proved the span of each performer’s experience.

Mostly, though, “MOIP” was a celebration of movement that ended with an elated fall to the floor and quick blackout. The dance was a testament to the energy of Texture and their staying power among the city’s finest dance companies.


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Theater Review: The Tempest by Unseam’d Shakespeare

Saturday, June 22, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle. By William Shakespeare, John Dryden, and William Davenant, adapted by Scott Palmer. Directed by Michael Hood. With Ron Siebert, Colleen Pulawski, Claire Chapelli, Nicholas Browne, Nick Benninger, Thomas Constantine Moore, Jennifer Tober, Kevin Donohue, Brett Sullivan Santry, Charles Beikert, Michael Perrotta, Marc Epstein, Connor McCanlus, Andrew Miller. Unseam’d Shakespeare Co. June 13 through 29. Studio Theater, University of Pittsburgh (basement of Cathedral of Learning).

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

Even before the lights dimmed for Unseam’d Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or the Enchanted Isle, the scenery prepared us for a charming and tongue-in-cheek performance: A gaily painted faux proscenium and footlights, rows of curling waves, flats representing tropical palms and horrid caves.“This is not Shakespeare’s play,” director Michael Hood warned us in the program.

Shakespeare Improved was the title of a 1920s collection of Shakespearean plays presented in Restoration times. How improved? Change the ending, add rhyme, sentimentalize, do whatever you care to. The Restoration era in England was the return of the repressed, with a vengeance. The Puritan Parliament had closed the theaters in 1642, had executed King Charles, and had ruled for more than a decade. When, after civil war, the Stuart king Charles II came to the throne, the atmosphere was libertine and frothy, and the restored stage was too. Why, women’s roles were taken by women!

Unseam’d Shakespeare previously presented John Dryden’s All for Love, a classicized tragedy imitating Antony and Cleopatra. (Disclosure: For a time I was on Unseam’d Shakespeare’s board.) Dryden “reformed” Shakespeare’s play by concentrating the action in time and place—Dryden knew Aristotle’s rules. But that came later. This Tempest is another kettle of fish. It may remind you of Gilbert and Sullivan. The adaptors and the director are out to maximize the fun and farce, and they wink and nod and camp it up from the moment that Ron Siebert as Prospero steps over the cardboard waves and pretends not to know his lines. Which is not to say that they throw Shakespeare into the trash. No, you will hear Shakespeare’s glorious language, particularly the songs (with contemporary music composed by David Martynuik), sung by a graceful, campy Ariel (Kevin Donohue). You will see the comedy of the low characters, wonderfully funny in the performance. It’s just that Davenant et al. admired Shakespeare’s conceptions so much that they couldn’t get enough of them. Did Shakespeare’s Tempest have an innocent young woman who has never seen a young man? Well, then, let’s have TWO such young women. And let’s have a young man who has never seen a woman. (Why not? He’s been imprisoned in a rock for his whole life.) Do you like Caliban, the morally and physically repugnant half-human in Shakespeare’s Tempest? Let’s give him an equally lecherous (and nearly nude) sister! And let’s make the most of the opportunities these new characters give us for smutty pursuits!

The large cast (three of whom are Equity actors) and the technical crew are excellent. Unseam’d Shakespeare’s Tempest was an entertaining evening.

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Dance Review: Continuum Dance Theater at the Three Rivers Arts Festival

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

After a week of on and off rain that is typical for Pittsburgh’s annual Three Rivers Arts Festival, the sun shone brightly on Point State Park for Saturday’s activities.

As one of the final dance performances of the week, Continuum Dance Theater hit the Second Stage at Gateway Center to perform an excerpt of their latest work, “Objects of DESIRE.”

The piece will premiere in full at the New Hazlett this December, as part of the theater’s first ever “CSA: Artist Harvest” performance series. Through interviews with local community members, the company has gathered material about what we desire most in life to inspire their choreography.

For an audience of mostly festival patrons (with a few familiar dancer faces), Continuum showed a small section of their work, but also polled us on our own “American Dream,” using those answers to inform their movement.

To start, dancer Jess Marino lay buried in a heap of bras, eventually digging her way out and performing a solo amongst the sexy lingerie. The image brought to mind the unfortunate reality of women as sexual “objects.” Shana Simmons joined her and the two continued in a duet that took them right off the small stage and into the audience. Despite the concrete and lack of space, they managed to show off their partnering skills and even some floor work.

After the short excerpt, the audience was asked to write down something that they desired in the past, right now, and for the future. From the collection of responses, Marino and Simmons chose a few words and promised to incorporate them into a movement section they would perform near the end of their hour long set.

Before that, they gave the audience another chance to influence the show. In a game of improvisation, a few patrons were given small signs, each with one word written in large print – balance, pursuit, union, consistency, and others. During that section, audience members held up their signs, one at a time, and the dancers let that particular word affect their movement. For example, during “balance,” they teetered precariously from the edge of the stage, mostly dancing on one leg.

To finish the show as promised, Marino and Simmons revealed their chosen responses to the question of what we, as an audience, truly desire. They picked several meaningful answers: a family, wisdom, true happiness. And some humorous: girls, a bigger butt.

With those words in mind, they performed the same excerpt they began with, using our responses to change the quality of their movement. One moment resembled “wisdom,” when Simmons perched thoughtfully at the edge of the stage. And there was definitely a nod to “bigger butt,” when Marino shook her not-so-large backside center stage.

Among the visual art that fills the festival, it was nice to have live performance also included. To be a part of Continuum’s choreographic process was clearly fun for everyone who eagerly watched, nodded, and applauded as the dancers simultaneously educated and entertained us.


Check out the Continuum Dance Theater website for details of the full-length show this December:


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Theater Review: Radio Golf by August Wilson

Friday, June 14, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Radio Golf. By August Wilson. June 8-June 29, 2013. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. 937 Liberty Avenue. [] Directed by Eileen J. Morris. With Chrystal Bates, Kevin Brown, Wali Jamal, Mark Clayton Southers, and Art Terry.

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

August Wilson undertook the ambitious project of writing a play reflecting African-American life for each decade of the twentieth century. Shortly before he died at 60 he finished the last and latest play: Radio Golf, set in 1995. Inspired by Wilson, Mark Clayton Southers undertook the project of producing all of the plays. Southers’ Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre’s current production of Radio Golf is the capstone of both projects, and, like nine of the plays, is set firmly in Pittsburgh.

What could be more boring than golf on the radio? I once ate in a place where the TV was tuned to a golf tournament. For the entire time I ate lunch, I’m sure, the cameras followed one of the contenders beating grass in the rough looking for his ball. Now imagine that without visual interest. And certainly Wilson wasn’t any more interested in golf on the radio than I, which is a measure of his distance from the character who is. (Behind that “certainly”—at a talkback, Chris Rawson, a scholar of Wilson, said that Wilson had frantically to rewrite Radio Golf to change the golf references, since he didn’t know anything about golf.)

I’d seen Radio Golf before, and thought then that it was less interesting than other of Wilson’s plays. But this production, in PPT’s intimate and somewhat hard-to-find space, is tense and moving. It redeems the play for me. The ensemble acting is excellent, and credit to Eileen J. Morris for creating dynamism among the players. Mark Southers’ Harmond Wilks, stolid at first, contrasts well with Chrystal Bates’ seductive warmth and Kevin Brown’s antic jiving. In Art Terry’s performance, Roosevelt Hicks’ exuberance allows us to have empathy with a character who might be merely a villain in lesser hands and with a lesser playwright. For one of Wilson’s strengths is that he doesn’t stack the deck, at least not completely. In earlier plays, his hard businessmen—West, Caesar Wilks—aren’t lovable, but they may just be right in turning away from sentimentality. The immersive nature of the intimate space with audience on three sides is amplified because most of the characters enter through a door from the audience’s side.

Who has said that all the persons of the dream are the dreamer? The power of the conflicts in Wilson’s plays must be that they externalize conflicts within him. Surely he had to shut the door on distractions and importunings in order to make his work, the monumental Pittsburgh Cycle.

I haven’t mentioned the language, the humor, the wonderful language of the man who started as a poet, the humor of signifying characters.

Pittsburgh people, and people near Pittsburgh, catch this production while you can.


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Dance Review: ( ) by The Pillow Project

Tuesday, May 21, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

In the dark quiet of late Saturday night, The Pillow Project welcomed an intimate crowd for their latest work, a study about distance and connection titled: ( ).

Director of the Project, Pearlann Porter, has always been curious about a relationship quality she refers to as “the space between us.” Her philosophical nature leads her to create work that is both inquisitive and passionate. Despite the lack of storyline that may confuse a non-regular audience member, everyone leaves feeling the emotion of the performers.

Although a distinct feeling comes through in all of Porter’s work, it is not because of any overdramatic performance style by the dancers. It’s actually the opposite. The movement is minimal, but the lighting, set-up and music always provide a meaningful tone.

This show opened with three couples, each wrapped in an embrace, under individual and very dim spotlights. Pedestrian and street sounds accompanied their subtle movement – a slight turn, a shift of the head and neck, a touch of the cheek. The closeness of each couple, both physically and emotionally, was palpable and quite sensual.

As the lights went down soft string music began, eventually revealing David Pellow playing live upright bass while two dancers took the center of the space. The couple maintained close contact at first, and seemed to be engaged in a gentle struggle of push and pull. Eventually they broke apart, but remained connected by a long band of fabric looped around their bodies.

The slow pace of the music picked up and the dancers responded with quick bursts of movement. Eventually the two freed themselves from the fabric connecting them, but ended up coming back together physically at the end of the section.

For the rest of the show, each couple took their turn entering and exiting the space, sometimes leaving their partner alone for a moment of solo material. Atmospheric music eventually pulsed a rhythmic beat, giving opportunity for the dancers to react with more prominence and weight.

Even when left alone, each performer maintained their connection to the group, sometimes mirroring a couple’s movement from afar, sometimes simply keeping eye contact. That was all part of Porter’s larger point – that despite the distance between us, that empty space remains full and alive.

Like much of Porter’s work, the show lulled the audience into a hypnotic dream-like state, and eased us back to reality slowly with stillness from the dancers, followed by a revisit to the sound that began the show, and finally a gentle lifting of the lights.

As always, Porter thanked the audience and invited everyone to stay for coffee and discussion. While the rest of the world is home on their “pillow,” Porter and her artists find inspiration in the late night musings of life and art. What happened Saturday night after the lights came up will likely be fodder for her next show.


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Dance Review: Mash Up Body by Anonymous Bodies

Sunday, April 7, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Janera Solomon, met Kate Watson-Wallace eight years ago at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Solomon was impressed with her creative idea for a dance trilogy called “American Spaces,” where she would create work in a house, a car, and a store. The two developed a relationship, and since then, Watson-Wallace has performed in Pittsburgh several times.

This time, she and her company, Anonymous Bodies, spent a year in residency at the theater, working on her world premiere of “Mash Up Body,” an installation piece that ran this past weekend for an intimate crowd at the Alloy Studios.

The studio was transformed into a theater-in-the-round, with black curtains draped over the floor to ceiling windows, new lighting, and a full sound board for collaborator and musician, Christopher Sean Powell.

The hour long show took place in two “acts.” In the first half, partially inspired by a David Lynch film, the performers dressed in all black, casually entering and exiting the space from the audience seating. The shape of the phrasing did have a “Lynchian” feel, random like a dream sequence, at times baffling, but always entertaining.

In creating the piece, Watson-Wallace was interested in the “random ways in which we use our bodies to play people we are not.” The dancers did use traditional movement styles, but just as we would start to see a classic contemporary phrase, the performers would suddenly stop, pose in an unusual way, model a runway walk, or even talk to an audience member. Each performer showed us their many distinct qualities, sometimes spastic and sometimes quite vulnerable.

Mostly, the work was humorous. In one section, Devynn Emory spoke into a microphone, directing the other dancers in random tasks – breathing in and out; lifting one another; and lying down to snuggle. The audience even joined in for the “tonal work,” poking fun at the vocal spiritual practice.

The second half was mostly improvised, with the idea of “mashing up” or wrecking the first half. Cori Olinghouse entered the space in loud pink and purple clothing, an orange chair slung over her shoulder before she threw it violently to the floor. The rest of the cast entered in the same bright colors, trashing the space with cords, clothing and more chairs.

One hilarious moment came near the end when Marjani Forte mimicked Watson-Wallace in a classic question and answer forum that often follows dance performances. “Thank you for having us…Yes, I was interested in having a variety of bodies on stage…Thank you so much to the Kelly-Strayhorn.”

The music grew louder over Forte’s voice on the microphone, and suddenly the entire cast was dancing, party-style, to Janet Jackson’s “All For You.”

If it all sounds like sixty minutes of random absurdity, I assure you it wasn’t. In fact, it didn’t go on quite long enough, and Watson-Wallace could have been on stage much more often.

Of Watson-Wallace’s work, Solomon said it best: “Even in the moments when she pushes her audience, she’s not simply toying…she’s inviting us into her world and asking us to consider seeing her (and ourselves) differently. I appreciate that opportunity.”

The audience clearly appreciated the opportunity as well, showering the performers with excited applause. Although we may have been unsure of what we had just witnessed, it somehow resonated with us deeply. And that kind of resonance, to me, equals success.


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Theater Review: City of Asylum

Friday, April 5, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

City of Asylum. Conceived of and directed by Cynthia Croot. Henry Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, University of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. April 4-14, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM, Sunday Matinees at 2PM, ASL Interpretation Performance Saturday, April 6th at 8PM.

reviewed by Dylan Jesse

For the first time in the long history of our species—the first to develop so complex, intricate, and varied a system as language—we have the ability to broadcast our every utterance on a global scale at the slightest whim.With the advent of ever more expansive and refined communication technologies, every bad joke, minor quip, heavy thought, and meager comment can reach from our neighbors to our friends to people we may never meet. We put ourselves so readily out to the globally connected community, but how many of us are willing to face imprisonment, hard labor, torture, or exile for the thoughts and words we proffer? This is a consequence that many courageous individuals—whether or not we ever read their works or learn their names—face across the globe even as you and I sit and read these words from the comfort of our chairs. Our words are arguably one of our greatest achievements as a species, and even in this hyper-connected age they can bear a terrifying weight. They can spark revolutions (look to the impact outlets like Twitter had on the momentum of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia for a recent example) or end the lives of those who penned them. Thankfully, Pittsburgh provides refuge for a few invaluable voices as part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), allied stateside as part of the Cities of Asylum network with Las Vegas and Ithaca. An under-sung feature of the Steel City, this program gets much-needed exposure in the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre’s newest original production, City of Asylum.

In its 90-minute continuous run time, City of Asylum brings to the stage a stirring collage of material cobbled together from interviews, videos, online journals, poem, and other works of the authors that have been supported by the City of Asylum program operating here in Pittsburgh: Israel Centeno (from Venezuela), Khet Mar (from Burma), Horacio Castellanos Moya (from El Salvador), and Huang Xiang (from China). These four luminaries have faced horrors unimaginable to most of us for the works they authored—be them journalistic, fictional, or poetic—and it is to their credit that they had the determination and courage to say what they have. City of Asylum highlights the beauty and artfulness of their words as well as the unfathomable brutality they endured in their homelands. The production brings together the circumstance, character, and a brief taste of the content that has brought these four individuals to Pittsburgh as part of ICORN. The interweaving of the writers’ works with dramatic presentations of their personal stories and own words is a challenging task that, under the direction of Cynthia Croot, the Pitt Rep cast pulls off with acumen.

The production itself is a patchwork multimedia presentation that utilizes the fullness of the proscenium stage’s backdrop to immerse the audience in the world of each of the four featured writers, starting with the most recent City of Asylum writer-in-residence, Israel Centeno, and working back to the first, the revolutionary dissident poet Huang Xiang. Each is handled differently: the emphasis on Centeno’s own works; the childhood and eventual emigration of Khet Mar; the captivating depiction of Castellanos Moya’s journalistic background and writing process; the torment of Huang Xiang and the entrancing poetry he was able to produce even during years of torture and incarceration. City of Asylum is smartly crafted to whet the audience’s appetite to seek out the authors’ works themselves.

While the entire cast delivers emotionally challenging and memorable performances, not to be missed is the Pitt Rep debut of Weiqi Li and his powerhouse performance of Huang Xiang’s poetry (projected on the backdrop in the author’s native writing) in the fourth and closing act. The merging of a bi-lingual spoken presentation, the multimedia projection, and the otherwise spartan staging lay bare the beating heart of the writing that provided the impetus for City of Asylum. Though the other three acts are all done entirely in English (with a few words and phrases exempted), all are done with deft emotional precision. We are truly privileged to have them as part of our city, as part of our Pittsburgh literary culture, and as part of our global writing community. And we are equally privileged to have a director, a university, and a repertory theatre that are willing to help share their contributions with not just Pittsburgh, and not just the literary or theater-going audience, but with the ever-growing global voice demanding the freedom of and respect for artistic expression.


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Theater Review: Looking for the Pony

Monday, March 11, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Looking for the Pony by Andrea Lepcio. Off the Wall Theater, 25 West Main Street, Carnegie, PA. Directed by Robyne Parrish. With Daina Michelle Griffith, Karen Baum, Theo Allyn, and Cameron Knight. Music by EMay. March 1–2, 7–9, 14–16 at 8:00 p.m. March 3 & 10 at 3:00 p.m.
Before the performance of Looking for the Pony begins at Off the Wall’s theater, you notice Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s set. In the center of the stage area is a large platform with two circular tiers. On the floor, a compass rose, the arrows pointing to all directions, radiates from its center. Behind this platform, against the rear wall, is an elevated desk. A fair portion of the wall is covered with chalkboard. Oh, there’s a seesaw, too, and a lectern.

Why the compass directions? Probably to express the physical distance between the two main characters, Ouisie and Lauren, but perhaps also reflecting an expression I’ve heard quite a bit recently: a “cancer journey.” One of these two women, friends from childhood, sisters by need rather than by blood, will be diagnosed with breast cancer early in the play and will endure a merry-go-round—it might almost be a roller coaster—of hope, fear, tests, doctor-shopping, filling out forms, contradictory diagnoses, insurance hassles, and the whole nine yards of “courageously battling” cancer, as too many obituaries have it.

If you’ve experienced cancer up close, you might hesitate to see this play. Don’t. It’s not a Disease of the Month tearjerker, though you might want a couple of tissues. It’s more about Ouisie’s dis-ease. Ouisie, who’s a few years younger than Lauren, is torn between getting on with her late vocation as a writer and “being there” for Lauren, who lives far away from her. Ouisie considers deferring her admission to graduate school, and the chance to study with a Big Writer, to stay with Lauren; but Lauren insists that she leave and take up this big chance. And Lauren continues to insist that Ouisie choose her writing over Lauren’s needs whenever a conflict arises.

Time is fractured. We jump forward a few months or a year, back twenty-five years, forward again. (OTW’s plays recent productions The Other Place and Gruesome Playground Injuries had this structure, too.) One minute the “sisters” are children on that seesaw, the next they are speaking on the telephone about Lauren’s children and Ouisie’s writing seminar. It’s to the credit of the director and the actors that this isn’t confusing. And that circular platform turns out to rotate, expressing the dizzying instability of dealing with cancer’s life-and-death doubt, while dealing with ongoing life.

The four local Equity actors are excellent. Karen Baum and Daina Michelle Griffith make the main characters touching and often funny. Theo Allyn and Cameron Knight play a zillion supporting roles each and range from moving to hilarious. There’s a Marx-brothers-like struggle between Allyn, as an insurance company representative, and Knight, as a lawyer trying to get her to approve payment for an expensive procedure. It’s a physical chase, wrestling match, mixed martial arts event.

I’ve seen the three women in many local productions, but Knight is new to me. Hats off to his infinite variety. He creates credible characters in a few minutes each. As a hair stylist and a vain celebrity doctor he’s exaggerated and funny; as the elderly client of Lauren, a social worker, he’s touching. And hurrah, the writing guru isn’t caricatured. Hurrah, too, that an African American actor is playing roles that don’t necessarily specify an African American.

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Dance Review: Black Grace at the Byham Theater

Monday, March 4, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

With all the American contemporary dance happening in Pittsburgh lately, New Zealand company, Black Grace, came as a welcome surprise Saturday night.

Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer, Neil Ieremia, was born and raised in New Zealand, but attributes his signature style to his Samoan heritage. Growing up, singing and dancing were part of his traditional culture.

The company was formed in 1995, and for years was comprised of all men. When the original dancers’ careers came to a close, Ieremia found it difficult to find many new male dancers. He joked that in New Zealand, men are usually “growing beards and playing rugby.” Admittedly, I haven’t seen a rugby match since college, but the athletic style of Black Grace seemed equally, if not more, physically taxing than the extremely vigorous sport.

Ieremia asserts that the women he added to the company bring elegant lines to the choreography. But the men were equally impressive in that area. The entire company had an incredible athleticism that barely slowed during the two hour show. To develop the speed and stamina necessary to perform the work, the dancers cross-train, running hills and even wrestling to stay in shape.

The first half, called “Pati Pati,” was influenced by traditional Samoan dances that use body slapping and seated motifs. To the beat of a drum, the dancers pounded the floor, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet in complicated rhythms.

A particularly intricate section that used snapping and chanting came from an old piece about children’s hand games. The dancers had precision and power unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In repetitive jumps and falls to the floor, the energy didn’t waiver even once.

The second half began in silence, with a slower rhythm and partnering sequences using smaller groups of dancers. One visually beautiful section used a large light blue cloth. The dancers weaved in and around it, wrapped themselves inside of it, and lifted one another over top of it. Eventually, they held the cloth still, while images of varying landscapes were projected onto it. To the sounds of nature, scenes of mountains, oceans and seasons changing gave a break from the more vigorous movement.

Act 2 included more contemporary material, proving Ieremia’s talent in multiple genres. The tempo varied, and his use of space expanded from large group unison to interesting duets and trios. Although the program was a touch too long, the audience rose to their feet at the end, in awe of the uniqueness and dynamism that is distinctly Black Grace.


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Dance Review: On Being by Staycee Pearl Dance Project

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Staycee Pearl’s latest evening length work, “…on being…” began as an exploration of post-blackness in America, a concept even Pearl had trouble defining because of its broad meaning.

She and her company spent months researching black art, music, literature, dance and more. While they gained insight and inspiration, none of them could come up with a singular definition of black culture in the 21st century. As one dancer, Mariana Batista, said, “I have many more questions now than when we started.”

In modern dance, there certainly isn’t a clear characterization of black movement. Established African-American choreographers of today have their own signature styles, from Camille A. Brown’s rhythm to Kyle Abraham’s intricacy, to Sidra Bell’s theatricality.

Pearl’s choices usually bring a mix of past and present. Within a phrase of her movement, one may see a big, technical leap reminiscent of her time at the Alvin Ailey school. And in the next second, her dancers may sink to the floor with the release styles more prevalent today.

“…on being…” suited the cast, all of whom excel at multiple genres. But what they brought to the stage in terms of self-exploration was even more exciting. Her dancers realized they could not define themselves by their race, when so much factored into their artistic experience. Gender played a role in their work, as did sexuality.

The result was a non-narrative piece focused on the individuality of the dancers. Although the five of them come from varying life experiences, they were strong as a unit. Perhaps that was the point. “We are all very round, whole people,” Jessica Marino wisely noted.

Herman Pearl, Staycee’s husband and collaborator, mixed music that ranged from recognizable soul to hypnotic waves of atmospheric sound. Each dancer had plenty of solo moments wrapped around duets, trios and a few sections featuring all five of them.

One particularly memorable duet was between Seth Grier and Ethan Gwynn. To a spliced version of “Natural Woman,” the two moved simplistically, allowing the audience to ponder notions of sexuality and gender without hitting us over the head with any overt message.

The quiet and lovely Jasmine Hearn also had some beautiful moments, many quite theatrical. She seemed to step outside her comfort zone, showing growth in her performance ability.

Jessica Marino and Mariana Batista were equally breathtaking, most notably in a duet of unique floor phrasing.

The most interesting part of the evening came when Internet persona, Hennessy Youngman, talked (via video footage) about how to be a “successful black artist.” He sarcastically instructed his audience to fall back on slavery as something white people are likely interested in. His humor was a reminder of cultural stereotypes still present in our day and age.

Pearl’s piece worked because there was no direct message. The choreography explored themes that she couldn’t, and may never, define. Because she was comfortable with that, the audience was, too.


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Theater Review: Zanna, Don’t!

Monday, February 18, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

reviewed by Dylan Jesse

Zanna, Don’t!. By Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris. Directed by Robert C.T. Steele. Musical Direction by Harry Jamison. A production of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. February 14 through March 3, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM. Sunday Matinees at 2PM.

Pittsburgh in the last bitter throes of winter is not known for the kind of vivid color and unbridled exuberance that Zanna, Don’t!, the Off Broadway hit by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris, brings to the stage in the current production by the Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. And I, for one, am grateful that it does. Zanna, Don’t! walks a fine (and fantastic) line between a whimsical drama of troubled high-school romances and the deeply heavy issue of intolerance in a culturally-inverted world where chess-team captains are school sex symbols and the most shocking thing imaginable is a heterosexual kiss scene in the school play. No, Zanna, Don’t! is not a subtle exploration of these themes but the points that it makes are not only timely but timeless. With a run time of an hour and forty minutes (done without intermission, no less), Zanna, Don’t! is a lively and blistering musical production that charges straight into the questions of what it means to fall in love in a time and place that rigidly proscribes what is and is not an acceptable expression of what the heart desires.

The world of Zanna, Don’t! is something of a photo-negative reflection of small-town American adolescence re-done in sequins and Technicolor. Set in the halls and hangouts of Heartsville High, the play follows the lives of students in a world where same-sex pairings are not only the norm, but the only thinkable option. The school DJ, Tank (played with incredible energy by Jay Garcia) reminds everyone, “Girls grab your girl, and guys grab your guy,” as the play begins with an upbeat number that introduces one of the most memorably over-the-top characters on the whole production: Zanna (played magnetically by Rocky Paterra). Zanna is part fairy godmother in lightning-patterned fuchsia pants, part magic wand wielding cupid in a gold-fringed jacket (complete with wings, of course). In this Gilbert and Sullivan-esque world where the marginalized have become the mainstream, Zanna is the incessantly optimistic magical match-maker. The score, it should be noted, is flawlessly delivered by a live group of musicians up center stage under the sharp leadership of conductor and pianist Harry Jamison. The music itself is a suitably vivacious mix of ’50s and ’70s pop-influenced numbers that keep the whole production clipping along through the uninterrupted run time.

Music aside, Zanna finds himself entangled in a slew of romantic shake-ups, not the least of which is his quest to light a fire in the hearts of the bashful school heart-throb (due to his standing as chess team captain, of course) Mike (played by Ethan Miller) and the new boy in school (and lowly football quarterback) Steve (played by Aric Berning). Among the moments to watch out for with these two are a scene at a Heartsville High football game wherein (through a novel use of strobe lighting) Steve in all of his pink-sequined uniformed glory wins the game with a touchdown by catching his own pass, and the locker room scene afterward where Zanna and Tank conspire (with several comically frustrated attempts) to make the two swoon with the power of a well-timed radio request. The comedic abilities of the cast as a whole are not to be under-rated: between the cheeky writing and the just-too-much nature of a musical about high-school romance, the cast delivers an energetic performance that keeps the audience laughing while challenging the authority of socially-informed notions of right and wrong regarding sexual orientation. And when else are you going to see a world in which a high school has a competitive mechanical bull-riding team (and I might be showing my ignorance here, but is that a thing?), and it is firmly seated at the apex of female social structure?

The social critique comes to a real head when Mike, our dreamy chess team captain, proposes a new play for the school musical—one that dares to ask the question of whether straights should be allowed in the military. In his words, “If musical theatre doesn’t address important issues, what will?” Just one in a slew of subverted expectations, the question itself provides the vehicle whereby this play gains its strongest and most culturally relevant grounds. It should be noted here that new boy Steve’s two dads are both generals in the army, and they are certain to be in attendance. Steve is faced with the most daunting and controversial aspect of the performance: an actual, real-life, on-stage heterosexual kiss. In the world of Zanna, Don’t!, the military is still a staunchly conservative (read: homo-normative) culture, and this is where we really start to see the fruits of the play’s often reductionist social inversions.

In our own world, it has only been since September 20th, 2011, that the federal law banning openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals (known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, or DADT) was done away with. And still we read stories in the news about organizations like the Boy Scouts of America prohibiting openly homosexual men and boys from joining their ranks. As progressive as we may think our society to be, the threat of discrimination based on sexual orientation is not a thing of the past—it is terrifyingly real and often much more than just a threat. The power of this production is its ability (both through the writing and the abilities of the actors under the keen directorial eye of Robert C.T. Steele) to present its audience with a context that affords even the most comfortably heterosexual audience member with a much-needed “what-if” lesson in empathic understanding. In the world on stage, the opposite-sex kiss inevitably leads to an off-stage romance between Steve and his female counter-part (played by Liz Dooley), one which they try their best to in turn ignore, deny, hide, then embrace as they plan to escape to that great shining bastion of heterosexuality: San Francisco.

I would love to tell you how all of it ends, but that not only ruins the fun, it is beside the point. The point is the message: that love is love no matter who feels it; that the heart wants what it wants apropos of no one’s approval; that football uniforms could seriously use some more sparkle. The Pitt Repertory Theatre’s production of Zanna, Don’t! more than meets the challenge of a musical performance that is as demanding on its actors as it is rewarding to its audience. What’s more, the Pitt Repertory Theatre is partnering with area GLBT organizations like PFLAG, GLSEN, and Persad to host after-show community discussions to address issues concerning not just the GLBT community, but everyone who knows that love is something we all share, even if we do not always share it with each other.


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Dance Review: Backlit in a Whole New D by The Pillow Project

Tuesday, January 29, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

There’s just something about Pearlann Porter. Her company, The Pillow Project, presents work unlike anything else on the Pittsburgh dance scene. Her latest evening length show was the product of a 16 year work in progress. The result was hypnotic.

“Backlit in a Whole New D” premiered this past weekend, and was set to music that captured Porter’s attention back in 1996. It might be difficult to imagine five contemporary dancers improvising to a punk rap group. But The Beastie Boys’ lesser known instrumental album, “The In Sound from Way Out,” feels more jazz and funk than hip-hop.

After several attempts at choreographed material, Porter realized that the music called for improvisation. By that time, her style of “free jazz” had solidified and she had a host of dancers perfect for the job. Rather than moving to the music, she teaches her dancers to play the music with their bodies. This doesn’t come easily for all trained artists. Porter says it requires a certain “honesty.”

What adds a unique dimension to Porter’s work is the “luminography” design by collaborating artist, Mike Cooper. Cooper uses a camera and several projectors to light the dancers in unusual ways, often creating stunning visual effects. His work in this show was the most complex I had seen.

Like most of the performances that take place at The Space Upstairs (the Pillow’s home), the vibe was more communal than concert dance. The couches, chairs and high top tables gave the space an intimate bar feel. In fact, martinis were served after the show.

Audience members snuggled in with their complimentary 3D glasses, and watched as the company casually entered from various parts of the large room. Under low light, the movement began with what felt like good old fashioned groovin’. Immediately evident was just how much the music fed the dancers’ souls.

What was even more impressive was how each performer connected with the lighting. Depending on where they landed a phrase of movement, one dancer’s hand lit up in red, while another’s face was bathed in blue.

But that wasn’t even half of it. Eventually, the images of the dancers were projected onto the back wall, and then multiplied. The effect was like watching the dance through a kaleidoscope. Black and white images came in waves, on and off the wall. The 3D glasses, which we were instructed to wear when we pleased, gave it a colorful, even hallucinogenic look.

The dancers seemed to be conversing among themselves through movement that ranged from shadow boxing to playful taunting to flat out jamming to the contagious beat. One stunning and tribal moment came when they all clumped together and pounded the floor, shouting in ecstasy.

Each individual grabbed the audience’s attention in different ways. The young Grant Haralson rolled up his shirtsleeves and performed a short solo that showed off his technique and theatrics. Riva Strauss simply strutted forward and slipped off her jacket, and the crowd was sucked in. And, as far as I’m concerned, Taylor Knight could improvise for hours to the sound of nothing, and it would be impossible to look away. Near the end of the show, he improvised with a cigarette, and somehow made smoking look like an art form.

“Backlit in a Whole New D” was one of The Pillow Project’s most innovative works to date. I’m looking forward to what Porter dreams up next.

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Dance Review: Private Places by IdiosynCrazy Productions

Tuesday, December 18, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Philadelphia based dance company, IdiosynCrazy, shook up the local contemporary dance scene this past weekend in their hilarious and haunting new work, “Private Places.”

Audience members gathered in the lobby of the Alloy Studios, much like travelers huddled around the entrance gate to an airplane. The piece was inspired by just that – the inside of an airline cabin. Not only was Artistic Director, Jumatatu Poe, interested in people who work in tight, enclosed spaces, but also how flight attendants in particular are trained in “emotional management.”

We’ve all heard stories of passengers losing their cool; maybe we’ve even witnessed it. And we’ve seen the calm, but strange smiles on the faces of the flight attendants taught to deal with such outbursts. Think of the Saturday Night Live airline skit from the early 90’s – David Spade and Helen Hunt as disgruntled attendants, rushing passengers out with a snarky “Bye-Bye.”

The eight performers of IdiosynCrazy took that idea about one hundred steps further, deeply investigating human relationships and what might happen if psychological madness ensued during a regular commercial flight.

Each audience member was assigned a letter – A, B, C or D – which indicated our seating during the performance. Three dancers greeted us in the lobby, with the kind of insincere smiles that indicate something boiling underneath. One group at a time, they ushered us to our seats.

The third floor studio was transformed into an airline cabin. A long, rectangular space was enclosed by large plastic sheets. Movable chairs were lined up in four rows. Dancers sat us individually, with a blank stare that sometimes lingered a bit too long. We waited and watched, as others were greeted and sat in the same peculiar manner.

Right away, the neuroses of the performers developed. In a robotic tone, three dancers circled each other maniacally, repeating the phrase “Do you need anything from me?” Others moved about as if drugged, making strange sounds one would imagine hearing in the hallways of a mental institution. Another trio danced a slow unison phrase of overly sexual movement. Poe was inspired by a dance form called J-Setting, a club culture that pushes boundaries of masculinity and femininity, and is popular in the gay community.

All of this happened in the small aisle space in between seating, to the lulling tic-tock sound of a metronome. Dancers bullied audience members, asking them to get up and move, and invading their personal space. Somehow it was funny, and the group of us were willing to go along for the ride.

As the piece continued, the dancers appeared to be breaking down emotionally, moaning, crying and shouting. The physical and sexual barriers continued to fall away. Costumes came off, revealing bare breasts and bottoms. And in an escalation of fury, the entire cast came together and stripped completely.

The revelation was slow enough that we didn’t feel like voyeurs. Perhaps it was because the disorder was well underway when we arrived. We were invited into it. By the end, we certainly had more questions than answers. But for reasons I’m not even sure of, the whole thing made sense. Maybe in our own “private places,” we can relate to the chaos in this crazy world.


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Theater Review: Columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli

Friday, November 30, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli. Directed by Ben Kaye. Dramaturgy by Patricia Hersch. Conceived by PJ Paparelli. Presented by the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland Campus. November 28th through December 7th, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., High School Matinee, Tuesday December 4th at 10 a.m. For tickets: 412-624-7529 or

Reviewed by Dylan Jesse

As a play that roots itself in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, Columbinus looks beyond the facts exhaustively covered in the news to give us the—arguably truer—story of how adolescents can find themselves propelled into becoming the agents of such unfathomable violence. I’d like to tell you that you know how this story ends, except we all know that it hasn’t ended yet. The Columbine massacre was not without precedent, nor was it the most recent (or even most deadly) school shooting in the United States. Fifteen human lives were lost at Columbine, a total that was more than doubled in the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. We see this story repeated over and over, and every time it plays out we ask each other the same questions: How could someone do such a terrible thing? How could this have been prevented? Is there a lax gun law or some anti-depressant medication that might also be to blame? The same story, the same irreversible loss of human life, the same questions. No answers. The easy thing to do in the absence of answers is call the whole thing evil. The harder thing—the necessary thing—is to stare into the ultimately human face of that evil and try to understand it. Karam and Paparelli’s Columbinus attempts to do precisely that.

The University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre’s presentation of Columbinus exceeds the limitations of the text and delivers a number of robust and haunting performances. The play clocks in at a little over two hours, with a single intermission providing the division between the fictionalized first act and the grittier, more true-to-life second. The cast of nine opens the performance with a note that the characters were developed out of interviews and conversations with high schoolers from across the country. The characters that make it to the stage feel more like prototypes for a Breakfast Club rip-off: there is the jock, the prep, the popular girl, the bookworm, the rebel girl, the religious good girl, the loner, and the misfit. The first act passes without any of the characters actually having a name. Instead, each has a token object to secure their designation in the stratigraphy of high school social standings: for the jock, a Columbine-history-appropriate white ball cap; for the rebel girl, a pack a cigarettes; for the bookworm, glasses; and so on. The loner and the misfit are the only ones to receive any significant character development in the first act and are not solidified as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine infamy until the second act.

The first act comes across as an attempt to establish that adolescents of all cliques and quirks feel alone, unheard, and unappreciated, suffering in their own rights. The raw vibrancy of the actors’ portrayals and the inventiveness of the staging and set lighting make up for the shortcomings of the writing. With most of the cast being only a few years out of high school themselves, the texture of adolescent frustrations carries well through their performances. Each has their own moment to highlight their particular brand of personal struggle or dysfunction (be it anger at feeling disrespected by school authority figures, a hidden nascent homosexuality, or unplanned pregnancy) that is set outside of the narrative by precise and visually gripping changes in the set lighting. Through visual cues we are taken out of time in the first act’s narrative and pulled directly into the inner thoughts and fears of the characters through a cavalcade of soliloquies. The naked honesty revealed through those surreal shifts in and out of the characters’ own private thoughts is simply exhilarating. It is clear from the players’ intricate and measured movements through those frozen-in-time scenes that director Ben Kaye knows how to take advantage of moments of interiority.

Where Columbinus becomes disturbing is the second act. The listless narrative of the first act is dropped in favor of a close look at Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the run-up to their rampage. The second act opens with actual photos of Harris and Klebold projected above the stage as the actors who are taking up their mantle stand in opposite corners, nearly naked, glancing at the projected faces as they dress themselves in black combat boots and trench coats. Between them, a table of homemade explosives, guns, and ammunition. Most of the rest of Columbinus was written out of Harris and Klebold’s own journals and videotapes that they left behind, detailing their plans, their motivations, their anger and hate. It goes so far as to incorporate a lengthy recording of an actual 911 call placed by a teacher named Peggy who was in the library where most of the killing occurred. From there, Columbinus stages a dark and abstract recounting of Harris and Klebold’s killing spree in the school’s library. This is when the play becomes supremely troubling. With no new insights into those moments, no real advancement of our collective understanding of the nature of such violence, the entire library scene—precisely and fiery as it was performed—feels more like an exercise in voyeurism than a revelation into the human side of such evil. However, the legacy of the violence at Columbine is the necessary gravity that Columbinus needs to bring the questions we never seem to answer back into public discussion so that we can ask them before another tragedy rather than after.

The male leads, Rocky Paterra (as Eric Harris) and Mark Tumblin (as Dylan Klebold), play off of each other with an effortless intensity that elevates the tragic trajectory of their story into a theatrical experience that dissolves the artifice of the stage and the long years since Columbine first made the news. Adolescent suffering is more nuanced and mercurial than how we often see it portrayed in popular media. Paterra’s Harris is genuinely captivating as he develops a terrifying sense of purpose after stopping his anti-depressant regimen, and Tumblin’s Klebold gives some of the strongest deliveries of the show as he slips further and further under the spell of Eric Harris’ hypnotic sense of outrage.

Not to be missed are the performances by the three women of the cast, Lucy Clabby, Chelsea Faber, and Jacqueline Saporito as they both draw out some of the more painfully awkward and angsty characteristics of the soon-to-be-gunmen as well as deliver solid performances of their own in the first act. They and the rest of the cast (Billy Bourgoiun, Bryant Edwards, and Max Pavel) come together in the second act for an unavoidably heartbreaking retelling of the destructive rampage that ended with 15 human lives lost on that auspicious day more than 13 years ago. As an ensemble, this cast brings an earnestness and an honesty to the stage that a chilling story like columbinus demands. In the capable hands of director Ben Kaye and the Pitt Rep cast, Columbinus gets the sincere and affecting delivery its message deserves.

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Dance Review: Drenched by Luke Murphy

Monday, November 19, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

“There is something about when you are soaked by a heavy rain. You give in…realize that sunshine is not coming. There is an empowerment that comes with it. I think of passion that way,” says dancer and choreographer, Luke Murphy.

The Ireland native and Point Park graduate brought his latest duet, Drenched, to the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater this past weekend, for its US premiere. Murphy showed snippets of the piece as part of the East Liberty Live Series over the summer, leaving audience members intrigued and excited for the full length version.

The hour-long finished product did not disappoint. Murphy and his dancing partner, Carlye Eckert, brought their quiet passion to the stage in an exploration of romance. The aim of the piece was to deconstruct idealistic notions of romantic relationships portrayed by the media, arts and literature.

Sometimes humorous and other times beautifully realistic, Murphy and Eckert revealed how passion can, indeed, feel like being “drenched” by a downpour.

The piece opened with a more conventional image of a romantic partnership, an embrace. The two dancers swayed slowly center stage as the lights rose gently, then fell not long after.

A solo by Eckert led into a very funny section where Murphy wrote love letters to a woman named Agnes, as Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You blared over the speakers. What began as amorous affection, ended in name calling and beer drinking when Murphy realized that Agnes didn’t feel the same way.

Another hilarious part came later in the evening when popular movie scenes were projected onto a large screen. When Rose and Jack, main characters from Titanic, moved into the famous “flying” scene, Murphy and Eckert acted the parts while a robotic voice gave them stage directions – Take two steps forward; close eyes; tilt head; hands on waist. The section used incredible wit to expose the insincerity of the scene.

To break up the moments of dry humor, the dancers used effortless partnering, and impressive movement phrases to convey the more genuine aspects of a relationship. Two of those sections stood out.

The first came after a scene from Gone with the Wind, when Clark Gable spoke the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Murphy and Eckert moved through a mostly disconnected duet, as rose petals fell from the rafters over their bodies. An honest sense of letting go came to mind.

The second was near the end of the show, when the dancers performed a more intense section, representative of an argument. Devoid of melodrama, the two pushed and pulled against each other, using quick and bound energy to depict an emotional struggle. The effect was authentic, and quite moving.

To close, Murphy cleverly brought back the image from the opening, this time with a more realistic version of what it means to be in a partnership. In what appeared to be a balancing act, the two leaned against one another, working to stay afloat despite the water that had soaked them.


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Theater Review: Compleat Female Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher

Sunday, November 11, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Compleat Female Beauty. By Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Dave Bisaha. A production of the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, University of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. November 8-18.

Reviewed by Dylan Jesse

“Change your life, Neddy, change what you do. What we do is what we are.”

So we hear from the half-naked Duke of Buckingham mid-steam bath as he addresses the great actor Edward “Ned” Kynaston, his once-upon-a-time paramour. It is the Restoration, the great cultural rejection of the eighteen years of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth of England, . For eighteen years public theater performances were forbidden: no actor could take the stage, no lord or lady or common citizen could escape the drudgery of common life with an evening of song and drama. But with the return of the Stuart dynasty, with Charles II returned from France—and we all know how, shall we say, liberal France had been with its attitudes towards what was permitted upon the stage—England was ready to welcome theatre back into the cities. Of course, Charles II returned with decidedly French notions regarding theatrical performances, and soon after his instatement to the throne, London saw its first female actors on the stage. And for actors like Edward Kynaston, who specialized in female roles like Shakespeare’s Juliet and, most emphatically, Desdemona, and whom Samuel Pepys once called “the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life,” it meant the end of both an era and of his career.

The play Compleat Female Stage Beauty , written by Jeffrey Hatcher and debuted in 1999, wrestles with themes as immense as cultural mores, gender and sexual identity, society’s tolerance of the “deviant,” and the institutional restrictions that we all run into at different times and to varying degrees. Most importantly, and most challengingly, it shows us how a figure as beautiful and as troubled as Edward Kynaston confronts those forces, how he tries and fails and sometimes succeeds in dealing with them. As a period piece, this play is by no means dated, and the entirety of the Pitt Repertory Theatre troupe was, to borrow a British-ism, bang-on with their performances. From the period-appropriate sparsely decorated stage to the detailed costuming to the delightfully fey and foppish Samuel Pepys and Sir Charles Sedley, respectively, Compleat Female Stage Beauty is more uproariously funny and more heartbreaking than you might expect.

As wonderfully crafted as the play itself is, it is impossible to not be taken with the veracity and sincerity with which the players bring these historical figures—our cultural fore-bearers, in many ways—to the intimate setting of the Henry Heymann Theatre. Staged as a full-thrust (i.e. audience seating on three sides of the stage), the performance treats the stage as both the myriad physical locales within the play itself as well as the historical stages upon which Kynaston, his fellow actor Thomas Betterton (Othello to Kynaston’s Desdemona), and the newly-legal-to-act-on-stage Margaret Hughes live and bleed and die. But the real thrill comes with how those boundaries are broken: the trick, you see, is that some among you are part of the show. More than once the play becomes a play within a play (which should be of no surprise to either fans of Shakespeare or Inception) when Kynaston becomes either the Bard’s Desdemona or Jonson’s Epicœne. More than once at those moments there are players in the back rows, off to the sides, who heckle and abuse, and you, the audience member, are now complicit in the scene, no matter how horrific it becomes (and there is much to feel horrified about).

In reviewing this performance, I wanted so much to quibble over little details of historicity with language and the series of events. There are a number of liberties taken with recorded history and with the presumed sexuality of Kynaston, but I was left so pleased and sated that all I care to remember are the brilliant performances. Dylan Meyers as Edward Kynaston was nothing short of screen and West End ready, as were Mike Magliocca (as Thomas Betterton), Mallory Fuccella (as Margaret Hughes), Aric Hudson (as the Duke of Buckingham), and Mike Zolovich (as the Ur-Fop Sir Charles Sedley). The performance from Laura Gray as the theatre seamstress cum actress Maria was gripping. Unfortunately, Maria is given far too brief a role, but she commands every moment she is given. Perhaps the most tensely erotic and personally riveting moment comes when Maria and Kynaston (now banished by a new law from performing as a woman on stage and reduced to singing bawdy songs at the Cockpit-in-Court) engage in a series of clothes-on sexual positions, each punctuated with the pertinent question “Who am I now?” The interplay of personal sexual identity and interpersonal power through sexual expression come to such a peak at that moment that you cannot help but forget about the historical setting. We see this in our own lives still. Who is each of us? How do we find ourselves? What do we do when neither of those are easy answers?

And that is what we want from a good show, is it not? To be taken somewhere we never knew we wanted to find ourselves. If the troupe was not up to the challenge of the nuanced characters and the fragile balance between historical fact and historical truth this performance would have flopped. Thankfully, director Dave Bisaha and the whole of the cast are up to those challenges. What you find on (and around, it turns out) that stage is revivifying. True, it claims a hefty run-time of two hours, twenty minutes, with a single intermission, but the power of the performances across the board will keep you in your seat, still wanting more when the last of the house lights come up.


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Dance Preview: Twenty Eighty-Four by the Pillow Project

Monday, October 22, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Preview by Adrienne Totino

“No matter how much we seem to annihilate ourselves, there is always a rebirth,” says Pearlann Porter, Artistic Director of the Pillow Project. Her latest work is, in fact, a revival. The piece, “Twenty Eighty-Four,” was originally created in 2008, but will premiere in its newest incarnation for six more shows this week.

The evening length work was originally inspired by Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Orwell’s1984. Porter describes the main theme of the show as “the disconnected feeling we have about our place in this very isolating, yet demanding time….the panicky need to embrace this information age, knowing that we might lose our sense of real interaction.”

There are two main characters in the cast of seven. Riva Strauss plays the part of the information obsessed, overcome with the fear of getting left behind and not knowing what is going on in the world. Zek Stewart plays the opposite role, detaching himself from the age of information, resigned to the fact that he cannot change the world we live in. But despite their differing points of view, they find themselves in the exact same place – isolated, and feeling numb.

Although the piece is quite dark, it doesn’t come without Porter’s optimistic side, inspired by the science and philosophy of Carl Sagan. “To grow, as a whole, you need to fall,” Porter says. “Maybe we need to go down this road, to go off a cliff together, then step backwards and try it all again.”

As always, Porter has created a highly elaborate set for the performance. At her Point Breeze location, The Space Upstairs, huge walls create a semicircular stage, with the audience placed in two corners. The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with propaganda designed by local artist, Jordan Bush. Decaying papers are scattered all over the floor.

The look feels very “menacing and archaic,” says Porter. There are a mountain of old televisions in one corner, all obsolete. The dancers’ clothing is worn out and unwashed, to convey the sense of a tired and battered humanity.

Although the movement will be improvised, the piece was meticulously directed by Porter, perhaps her most technical work to date. In collaboration with lighting designer Mike Cooper, Porter has created moments where the entire space is lit, and times when the audience can only see a small part of a performer. News channels blare on large screens, while live tweeting occurs throughout.

Porter is highly regarded in Pittsburgh for creating stunning visual landscapes through technology. And despite the strong opinion in her work, she finds a way to free herself from the self-absorption sometimes found in politically charged art. As a deep and critical thinker, she isn’t capable of righteousness.

Of the directorial process, she says, “I ask myself three questions – is the work simple, clear, and open? By simplifying the feel, it allows everyone to contribute their own perspective. I think that’s the role of the artist. We’re supposed to speak of our time, but transcend the specifics of words.”


Show Details:

Where? The Space Upstairs – 214 N. Lexington Street in Point Breeze, Pittsburgh.

When? October 22, 24, 25, 26, 27 & 28. Doors open at 8:00 p.m. The show begins precisely at 8:30. Latecomers will not be allowed entrance.

How much? $15 general admission, or $10 for current students.

*Enter the code “STUDENT” and present your current student ID at the door for the discount.____________

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Theater Review: The Other Place

Monday, October 15, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Arlene Weiner

The Other Place. By Sharr White. Off the Wall Theater, 26 Main Street, Carnegie, PA. October 12 -27, 2012. Directed by: Melissa Hill Grande. With Erika Cuenca, Virginia Wall Gruenert, Mark Conway Thompson, Ricardo Vila Roger.

Off the Wall Theater’s production of The Other Place is a double Pittsburgh premiere: a play we haven’t seen, and a brand-new theater. A theater sentimentalist, I like to reminiscence about the quirks and hardships of remembered venues, where good things sometimes came in ugly packages. I recall The Pit, the University of Pittsburgh’s small theater with its vacant-warehouse vibe, where theatergoers had to peer around two posts planted right in front of the first row; and the Odd Chair Playhouse, with its museum of reclaimed chairs, somewhere south of the Monongahela; and the Upstairs on Penn Avenue in Garfield, which wasn’t upstairs. And will anyone who attended it forget the funky Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater venue on the second level of a downtown garage, and its second space, the Couch Theater, with, yes, couches on risers for seats?

Among these spaces, Off the Wall’s former theater in Washington, PA was as funky as any. First: It was in Washington. Then: It had a parking lot canted at a 30 degree angle, or so it seemed when it poured rain, as it so often seemed to when we ventured there. Up many steep steps, the theater space, which seemed to be a decommissioned church, was divided by a wide middle aisle, so that most of the seats felt off center no matter how good they were. And yet, we traveled from the East End of Pittsburgh to Washington many times for Off the Wall’s offerings, which most times were, as France’s Michelin Guide would say, “vaut le voyage”—worth the trip.

Well, huzzah. Off the Wall now has a sleek and worthy new theater in Carnegie, PA. Sorry, Washington. Across the street (Carnegie’s Main Street), a level public parking lot that’s free in the evenings; the theater handicap-accessible; very good coffee served in the lobby. As before, community-minded Off the Wall provides a showcase for artists. And there are nearby restaurants that look promising, including some that give sponsorship to the new theater.

But what, you ask, of the play? It’s taut and moving. The Other Place is a play centered on a confident, even arrogant, woman who specializes in introducing and promoting a new drug to conferences of physicians in luxurious resorts. Under Melissa Hill Grande’s direction, the play unfolds mysteries, present and past, in Juliana’s life, work, and relationships. She is a researcher whose breakthrough produced this drug, it seems. Seems, the operative word, because in brief scenes the play presents a kaleidoscope of views of Juliana, her husband Ian, their daughter, another physician, and other characters. Is Ian philandering? Is their daughter seeking a reunion with them? Why does Ian refuse to talk to Juliana about certain topics? What is the “episode,” or “thingy,” that causes Juliana to stop mid-stream in her practiced spiel? It happens “out of the blue,” and the setting takes its cue from this—the minimal, fluid set is all sky blue, with the backdrop abstracting windows and doors of “the other place” where she intermittently longs to be. Slides projected on the background illustrate Juliana’s sales spiel. In the second half of the play, parts of the set unfold to surprise with a more conventional and cosier setting—very appropriately.

Virginia Wall Gruenert, in the role of Juliana, is equal to the challenge of being onstage nearly every moment, shifting time, place, and tone, dominating the play. Mark Conway Thompson as her husband is convincing even at times when, I think, the script may use him as a convenience. Ricardo Vila Roger is effective in the smallest role. Erika Cuenca very capably undertakes several roles, switching back and forth easily but making the characters distinct, and in particular brings emotional warmth to the play’s resolution, which might be unconvincing in lesser hands. Finally, Juliana has a touching speech as simple as Lear’s self-recognition.

[Warning: the web site talks. 1-888-71-TICKETS]


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Theater Review: Her Hamlet

Friday, October 5, 2012
posted by Michael Simms

Reviewed by Dylan Jesse

Her Hamlet. By Lisa Jackson-Schebetta and Theo Allyn. Directed by Lisa Schebetta-Jackson. With Theo Allyn and Robert Frankenberry. Joint production from the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre with Shakespeare-in-the-Schools. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. October 5-13, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM, Sunday Matinees at 2PM, ASL Interpretation Performance Saturday, October 13 at 8PM.

Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on’t—Frailty, thy name is woman!

(Hamlet Act I, scene II, 142-146)

Frailty, thy name is woman.

But not so in the daring new production, Her Hamlet (presented by the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre) where a hitherto obscure historical figure—William Shakespeare’s youngest daughter, Judith—takes wonderfully invigorating control of center stage. True, Judith (played commandingly by Theo Allyn, Teaching Artist-in-Residence at the University of Pittsburgh) comes to us as a young woman trying earnestly to piece together an understanding of her absentee father William from the scraps of play texts he has left behind in their Stratford-upon-Avon home. And doubly true, Judith is a troubled character: she attempts to build an understanding of her father with the aid of (and often against impediments from) her “imaginary” friend, none other than Yorick—the court jester that appears in the Hamlet play texts only as a skull and a mention. But this is not an Elizabethan- or Shakespearean-focused production, nor is it one that pretends to be: this is a wholly unique theatrical creature that gives audiences a much-needed alternate look at the legacy of the Bard and the wake his dubious—if also under-catalogued—history has left behind.

This one-act play is billed as “Her Hamlet: based on Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare,” which is both true and completely beside the point. The truth: yes, so much rests upon the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia whom many of us have encountered in our high-school or college English classes. The deviation from the truth: well, that’s the interesting part. Despite ostensibly centering on the true-to-fact daughter of the Bard, Her Hamlet is no Elizabethan period piece. Nor does it restrict itself to the original Hamlet text (or original three, if you want to be scholarly about it). No, Her Hamlet takes thrilling leaps across the centuries between now and the true Judith’s own lifetime to present audiences with a layered and nuanced portrait of a woman about whom history remembers essentially nothing, but who gives us a unique and invaluable window into both one of our most cherished and culturally valuable figures, Willam Shakespeare, and the struggles modern-day women face in coming to terms with their own representation in cannonical English literature.

Her Hamlet does take tremendous liberties with chronology. It opens (more or less) with Judith reciting the well-remembered “To be or not to be” soliloquy from the later Hamlet texts with which we are all so familiar (from the second quarto and first folio, for Shakespeare purists like myself). The first character audiences meet is actually Yorick (played keenly by Robert Frankenberry, who also composed and performs the play’s entire score) musing over a skull, the very same image we all have of Yorick from the original Hamlet texts. As if that were not enough, the stage itself is quite a lot to wrap one’s head around: the back stage harbors a netting-and-fabric willow supporting a Raddedy-Ann doll—a striking reinterpretation of the famous John Evertt Millais painting that inspired Kenneth Branagh’s treatment of the character Ophelia—which becomes all the more poignant for those familiar with the debate over Ophelia’s death (but that is for another aritcle). Frankenberry shares the stage as Yorick with Allyn’s Judith for the length of the play, but is still central to the story, being the perturbingly present embodiment of what was originally a ghostly, tertiary character. Judith’s father, the William Shakespeare, never makes a single appearance, and so Yorick, whom Judith expressly says she “has made up,” is an electrically understated foil to the man we all think we know and expect to see but never do.

When we hear “based on Shakespeare,” we do not generally expect to hear “dude” or see flashlights and swimming goggles on stage, but that is what Her Hamlet gives us. There is a distinct shift that happens time and again where the audience is brought from recitations of the play texts Judith has recovered in her home back to modern parlance, where the audience is presented with a very up-to-date woman in the same Judith who expresses the self-assertivenes that we have come to expect from modern performers. It plays wonderfully off two pivotal quotations from Shakepeare’s contemporary (and often critic) Ben Jonson: first, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”; and second, “I remember, the players have often mentioned it as an honour that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, ‘Would he had blotted out a thousand.’” And so it is with Her Hamlet: it is not concerned with providing a period piece portraying the Bard’s youngest daughter in strict historicity so much as it is willing to transgress the bounds of chronology to provide an audience with a woman who is both searching for her place in her own family (after the death of her fraternal twin brother Hamnet, none the less) and who embodies the idea that Jonson ascribed to her father: she is beyond the bounds of her historical context: she is a woman for all ages.

For those who are Bard afficiondaos, the careful play-goer will catch references to other bits of Hamlet as well as snippets from King John, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a musical treatment of The Tempest (by Frankenberry as Yorick) to name a few. For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s body of work, Theo Allyn provides a magnetic depiction of a young woman struggling to understand herself through the fragments of plays her father—the father “of scraps and patches”—has left behind. Both Allyn and Frankenberry command the stage for an all-too-short play that reënvisions typical treatments of cannonical characters and begs, begs, begs for more daring treatments of all-too-well-worn theatrical source-material. If you love Shakespeare’s penned work, then here is your chance for a fresh look at familiar theatrical ground. If you have never cared for Shakespeare’s work, then here is a play to stir your interests. Either way, Her Hamlet is a unique and refreshing theatrical experience.


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