Performing Arts Reviews
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.play.pitt.edu.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.____________
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. http://www.insideoffthewall.com/ 1-888-71-TICKETS]
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.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater welcomed Camille A. Brown back to the Pittsburgh stage for the world premiere of her latest work, “Mr. TOL E. RAncE.” Brown says her relationship with the theater happened “very organically,” when she first performed a solo in 2009 for the newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. This past Friday and Saturday night, Brown brought her entire company to perform.
When Brown originally set out to create a piece about the first blacks on Broadway, one of her board members directed her to a book by Mel Watkins called On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy from Slavery to Chris Rock. She immediately tore through the material she needed, but came back to the book later, curious about what she’d missed. That, in turn, led her to more research, and ultimately broadened her theme to the history of African American humor.
The show was, in fact, humorous. Brown is known for her love of theater. She knew when she began choreographing that the piece called for theatrical comedy. Sprinkled in, though, were definite moments of poignancy, thought-provoking and heartfelt.
Act One opened with live piano by company collaborator, Scott Patterson. The dancers entered gradually, wearing gray pants and tops, suspenders and matching caps, costumes that resembled old minstrel show clothing. Their movement was slow, suspended, and darkly lit, to not compete with the musical performance.
As the sound suddenly crescendoed, so did the dance. In fast, furious movement, inspired by the tap genre, all seven dancers performed frenetic phrases of intricate, rhythmic steps. Most impressive was that the piano eventually quieted; the dancers didn’t follow any beat, but remained in unison by listening to the sound of their breath and the stomp of their feet. The section was a nod to famous black duos, like the Nicholas Brothers.
The piece slowed down as video projection took us through the years of black television sitcoms: Diff’rent Strokes, Good Times, The Cosby Show, Bernie Mac, and the classic Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The dancers hilariously shouted the lyrics to the theme song of the latter, and parodied the moves of that time with a quite perfected “running man.”
Act Two began with a different feeling. What started as an amusing disagreement between two dancers turned into an all out fight between the entire group. The scene set up a section about stereotypes in the black culture. The company mimicked an “awards ceremony,” wearing white gloves that were common in blackface shows, when white men mocked African Americans in offensive acts of racism.
One of Brown’s goals was to not only give an historical context, but to also show how current media and entertainment biases still exist. After some satirical booty shaking, crotch grabbing and ass smacking, the dancers came to an abrupt and powerful stop, leaving one male performer on the stage as the lights dimmed. The deliberate, yet simple gestures of the dancer were projected on the back curtain as the solo unfolded. The image had a reflective quality, as if he were looking into the future at himself, from a different time. Would his former self be pleased with society’s forward progress? Or saddened by old conventions still fixed?
The curtain eventually lowered, revealing the rest of the company in shadow, emerging slowly from the back as Erykah Badu’s “On & On” played in spurts. The movement of the group depicted struggle as they advanced. Six dancers fell to the ground, leaving Brown and Patterson to close the show.
Patterson played the simple melody of “What a Wonderful World,” providing just the right amount of hope, with a sense of realism, to end. Brown moved clearly and unhurriedly as the audience held their breath. She removed her white gloves, and the lights faded.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Friday night at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST) came as a wonderful and relieving surprise. It had been a long time since I’d seen anyone under twenty take the dance stage. In the day and age of Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance, watching children and teens perform has become an all and out spectacle – mostly tricks and sexy outfits, without depth or artistry.
Thankfully, the pageant feel was non-existent in East Liberty over the weekend. YouthMoves, a program the KST began four years ago, brought to the stage five young companies from the Pittsburgh area, in an effort to give young dancers a professional performance opportunity.
To open the show, resident choreographer of the theater, Staycee Pearl, presented her pre-professional company, SPdp2. The group performed three short pieces, all in the contemporary style, with Pearl’s signature, but very subtle, infusion of hip-hop. Each dancer had their moment of solo material, and displayed impressive technical integration that often comes much later in a dancer’s career. The movement ranged from slow and deliberate, to more high energy, and included simple partnering and interesting gestures.
Elena’s Dancers Elite, a company located in North Huntingdon, PA, performed twice on the program. The group studies dance styles more typical of kids – tap, jazz, hip-hop, and ballet. Although competition companies oftentimes emphasize performance over technique, these young girls had both. Their first work was a high energy, jazzy routine without a “showboat” feel. The second was more lyrical, sweet without the sugar coating.
Visionary Dance Academy also presented two works. Their studio emphasizes technique, while allowing each student to recognize his/her own unique style. That individualism showed. In brightly colored costumes, this large group excited the audience with hip-hop, contemporary and African movement. The kids’ lively confidence imbued the theater, and their message of positivity uplifted everyone in attendance.
The second half of the show brought two distinctive styles, ballet and musical theater dance, to round out the program.
Mid-Atlantic Contemporary Ballet Company featured a trio of young girls. Their technical mastery was evident from the moment they began. Bathed in deep red lighting, they effortlessly moved from classically long lines, accentuated by pointe shoes, to more modern parallel legs and flexed feet. The piece was dramatic, solemn but not glum. The dancers were sophisticated performers without any of the shyness that comes with being onstage at that age.
To close the show, Alumni Theater Company wowed the audience with scenes from the hit musical, Rent. The troupe had just performed the full show at the New Hazlett Theater a week earlier. While the bigger group dance scenes were impressive, it was hard to ignore the talent of the three featured singers. The scenes “Out Tonight,” and “Tango: Maureen” were particularly animated. The performers proved that the lost art of singing and dancing simultaneously is still possible.
The energy in the audience left the theater buzzing with enthusiasm. A dance party broke out on the stage. A new wave of young dancers received their congratulations. And another successful dance event at the Kelly-Strayhorn came to an upbeat end.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
“Second Saturday” at the Pillow Project keeps getting better and better. To call it a “happening,” rather than a performance or show, is right on target. Who else in the city combines the most happening art, dance, music and culture, and turns it into something that feels like the hottest underground club in town? Pearlann Porter, that’s who.
The company’s Point Breeze hub, “The Space Upstairs,” was jam packed Saturday night. Not surprising, as they are typically full for the regular monthly event. The theme this time, “The Speak Eazy,” featured sounds of the 1920s to the 1950s by musical guest and host, Vie Boheme.
Boheme and her band kicked off the evening by explaining the subject matter they considered before putting the show together. Prohibition, public drunkenness, and “the threat of the woman’s mind” all made the list. To go along with the topic, Porter announced that there would be a secret password to receive the “bathtub gin” after 10 p.m. The stage was set.
“Can I have some movement?” Boheme ad libbed as her band began a smooth swing. Audience members lounged throughout the space on vintage couches, chairs, high tops and floor pillows, waiting for the first dancer. “I said. Can I have some movement? Boheme asked again.
As usual, the dancers seemed to appear out of nowhere, like they walked in off the street and decided they had to express themselves through movement that instant. All of the dance was performed in Porter’s signature style of “jazzing the music,” a technique she created that uses improvisation to physically express sound.
This show happened to coincide with the Pillow’s Summer Intensive Study Program, which meant that Porter’s students had the opportunity to perform alongside professionals. One by one, they made their way to the open space, reserved for artists, and let the keyboard, bass, drums and horns infuse their bodies with early jazz. Boheme, also a dancer, interacted with each performer, singing to them in acknowledgement.
In between band sets, DJ Jay Malls provided sounds of that period on original 78 records. The quintessential scratchy sound accompanied classics like “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Boheme encouraged people to mingle, enjoy a drink at the bar, or even a hot dog from the Franktuary truck parked outside.
To add to the entertainment, Jordan Bush created spontaneous drawings throughout the space. Special guest, Alaina Dopico, read her poetry while a duet of dance emerged. And new “fellow” of the Pillow Project, Riva Strauss performed part of a solo to premiere in full this fall. She described the piece as “an awakening…coming to a conscious understanding.” Dressed in a long, blue, fitted gown, she danced on a gold structure, raised from the ground. Although her face was masked, the intensity and articulation of her body communicated the emotion clearly.
It is hard to say when the evening ended. Porter’s functions can go on well into the early morning hours, and only the most passionate last that long. I was asleep before the stroke of midnight, filled up with the thriving art of Pittsburgh’s unconventional, and the hope that the secret of “Second Saturday” makes its way, in loud whispers, around the city.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
The Art and Style Dance Studio might be tucked away from the bustle of Pittsburgh’s South Side, but inside the nondescript building on Jane Street is a sense of liveliness unique to ballroom dance. Terry and Rozana Sweeney, the owners, hold classes and performances in latin and ballroom styles, for students of all ages and levels.
The space lends itself brilliantly to performance and competition. A sprawling wood floor provides plenty of room for the sweeping rise and fall of a waltz. The tall ceiling and round balcony compliment the regal nature of a fox trot. Even a sizzling salsa grabs the attention of the audience, seated up close and personal.
Friday marked the studio’s ninth annual showcase, where students competed with their partners in the style of their choice. The Sweeney’s choreographed each number, then coached the couples in technique, style and performance for a month prior.
Said Rozana Sweeney, “Compared to the competition we run every March for competitors from all over the country, this event is a more personal one for our students.”
The evening featured fourteen routines in an array of styles ranging from cha-cha to jive. Dancers competed as “amateur adults,” or “juniors.” Audience members were responsible for choosing the winners, via voting cards.
A group number opened the show. Two couples danced the bolero, a romantic and slower tempo latin dance. The women wore black flowing dresses with multicolored scarves at their waists and flowers in their hair. They rocked and swayed in their partners’ arms to the gentle lilt of the music.
In a more animated routine, dancers Mike MacConnel and Gena Melago danced a jive. MacConnel, an energetic performer, played the part of the quintessential nerd. The two brought sass and laughter to the audience.
Maria Chaderina and Adam Glatz danced a cha-cha, wowing the crowd with their fluid limbs and sultry hip undulations. Originally from Russia, Chaderina recently received her Ph.D in Finance from Carnegie Mellon University. She is clearly talented in many ways.
The crowd pleasers of the evening were seven-year-old Christopher Paluselli and nine-year-old Alyse Fay. The juniors danced a paso doble, and exhibited all the intensity and sharpness the style demands. Although they showed well practiced technique, their cuteness gave them an edge.
The overall winners of the evening were Becky Stern and Mike MacConnel. Their tango told the story of one woman’s fantasy. MacConnel played the part of a flirtatious restaurant waiter, while Stern was a customer bored with her date. They danced to “La Cumparsita,” a famous and instantly recognizable tango. In using both the ballroom and Argentine style of the dance, the two traveled through the space with drama, interspersing moments of close hold and articulate foot patterns. Their theatrical skill, in addition to the crisp clarity of their bodies, won them the show.
For anyone with a desire to cultivate their own inner ballroom dancer, check out Art and Style Studio. The Sweeney’s continue to teach students, regardless of their level, how to move with grace and flair. Each performer floated through the evening with poise and confidence.
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
Modern dance devotees flooded The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater over the weekend for the 4th annual newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival. The three day long celebration brought sixteen choreographers and over 40 dancers to the bustling East Liberty sprawl.
Program B took place on Friday, and hosted a range of national and international performers and companies from Pittsburgh, NYC, Philadelphia and, for the first time, Budapest, Hungary.
The evening felt significantly more bold than in previous years, with work that ranged from technical to theatrical and in some cases, an impressive blend of both. Each piece fit into the festival’s unexpected theme of “identity.” Exploration of one’s individuality seemed fresh on the minds of the young dancers and choreographers involved.
The show opened with the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble from right here in Pittsburgh. The company performed “TORQUE,” choreographed by Point Park professor, Kiesha Lalama.
To the sounds of traditional Irish and West African rhythms infused with electronic beats, the piece investigated how we try to escape the “daily grind.” Through a combination of slow, snaky undulations, and quick, fierce gestures, the company once again displayed their physical prowess. The tight unison of their movement proved the likeness of each dancer, despite their physical differences.
From Philadelphia came IdiosynCrazy Productions and Anonymous Bodies, two different duets that shared an edgy dance theater style.
IdiosynCrazy explored the theme of “sameness” in their work, “Plastic City.” The duo wondered how they might appear more similar despite their different anatomies, skin colors and movement habits. They succeeded in their quirky but seamless floor work and the unpredictable humor interspersed.
Anonymous Bodies presented a piece that used mostly dramatic elements to communicate their themes – a static TV screen, laptop computer, American flags and silver wigs that concealed the two dancers’ faces. They examined “theories of identity” with repetitive and often pedestrian movement mingled with moments of striking stillness.
Marjani Forte, of NYC, performed a solo about self-acceptance entitled “EGO.” Through the study of fear, change, growth and insecurity, Forte unearthed a wide range of movement dynamics, presenting herself as complex yet well-rounded and able to accept herself fully.
All the way from Hungary, in their first U.S. tour, Bloom! Dance Collective closed the show with their award winning full length dance, “CITY.” The company described the piece as a “political pamphlet entwined with movement,” and dealt with issues of belonging versus discrimination in urban life.
In light of the recent and frustrating immigration debates, the company managed to present the topic with hilarious mockery that had the audience doubled over with laughter. Perhaps it was the full frontal nudity right from the start. Body parts flipped and flopped as the dancers stood confidently front and center, bouncing to circus music that set the stage for satire.
The piece did take a more serious tone at times, revealing the intelligence of the choreographers. A robotic voice, similar to an automated and unwanted telemarketer, repeatedly shamed one dancer who only wanted to be part of the group. The voice taunted – “Nobody wants you here,” “Put your clothes on,” and “You look like a criminal.” Although the work was largely theatrical, the movement quality was sweeping, with an ebb and flow that not only carried the piece, but held it together in a clean and clear way.
The success of the closing dance in particular raised the standard for newMoves, and brought attention to what will continue to “bloom” for the festival’s future.
by Arlene Weiner
Dutchman. By LeRoi Jones. Directed by Mark Clayton Southers. Starring Jonathan Berry and Tami Dixon. Bricolage Theater, 937 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh. Through May 12. http://www.bricolagepgh.org/
Bus Stop. By William Inge. Directed by Gregory Lehane. Philip Chosky Thearer, Purnell Center for the Arts. Carnegie Mellon University. Through May 5. http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=21675&schedule=list
At times I feel the phrase “embarrassment of riches” applies to Pittsburgh, and especially to Pittsburgh theater. In New York or London or San Francisco you might never even conceive the ambition to see all the plays that are offered, to say nothing of concerts and exhibits. Pittsburgh, though, is manageable in so many ways—as I once realized when I drove from the East End to the North Side through downtown at 1 pm, when office workers were teeming on the streets. Piece of cake.
Getting to all the plays? Not a piece of cake. A Viennese dessert cart, or one of those gut-busting Sunday buffets. My partner and I try to get to the productions of many of the small professional theaters and the college theaters. Put differently, we’re maniacs for theater. It is our great good luck, or burden, that as well as the two major professional companies and several minor ones there are ambitious community theaters, theaters within an hour’s drive of the city, and the universities’ drama departments. Two of the universities, Point Park and Carnegie-Mellon, have conservatory programs that prepare students for professional theater. So all together there are opportunities to see new or new-ish plays, demanding rarities, and even never-before-produced plays.
I think we’ll have seen six plays in two weeks, seven in three. We saw two plays now running almost back to back, and they make an interesting comparison: Bricolage’s Dutchman, by LeRoi Jones, directed by Mark Clayton Southers, and Carnegie-Mellon’s Bus Stop, by William Inge, directed by Gregory Lehane. Both are revivals of mid-twentieth-century plays: Bus Stop dates to 1955, Dutchman to 1964.
Dutchman, essentially a two-character play, is intense, claustrophobic, brief, and still has the power to shock. Bus Stop has eight characters and several meandering story lines. It was a three-act play, traditional at the time, but Lehane has wisely eliminated the intermissions, and his collaborator has cut the script down. Bus Stop was claustrophobic, too, the characters snowbound in a Kansas diner, but Lehane has “opened it up,” moving the diner setting outside a derelict bus with bleached winter grasses and wafflelike clouds above. In a talkback he explained that the team conceived the production as populated by ghosts, types that probably don’t exist any more. (For me and most people my age Bus Stop is also haunted by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe as the singer Cherie—Annie Heise is given a resemblance to the Blonde.)
The characters do indeed seem types (the cowboy, the professor, the no-better-than-she-should be lounge singer) more than characters, as if Inge was performing Kansas for his New York audience. While I watched Bus Stop I almost expected a character to break out into song, and I wonder why it never became a musical. (There is a song, interrupted, late in the play.) Maybe Oklahoma! had pre-empted the center of the country. The actors are winning, even winsome, Jessie Ryan as a naïve high school student especially so. Sometimes Carnegie Mellon student actors, as good as they are, are too young for their roles; Lexi Soha as the more-than-once-around-the-block Grace overcomes that. The technical values, set, costume, and lighting, are excellent.
The characters in Dutchman, too, are types, or even archetypes, and they call each other’s attention to that fact.: a striver, an African American man (or to use the mid-century word, Negro) and an aggressive, sexual, teasing, apple-proffering white woman. It’s summer on a subway car that isn’t air-conditioned. She comes on to him, he resists, then melts a little. Mark Southers not only keeps the claustrophic realistic setting, but also arranges the audience along both sides of the car, looking down on it as if at a bullring, appropriately enough. The acting and direction are superb. Highly recommended.
Bus Stop seems to want to please the audience, too much to seem true. Dutchman, a specimen of the theater of cruelty, wants to shake the audience. And it does.
[A further note: two more claustrophobic plays are currently being performed in the area. The first, an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terrible, about the dangerous games played by a brother and sister in their Room, in the Helen Wayne Rauh Theater at Carnegie Mellon, defines perverse. What a brilliant and (pardon me) seminal figure Cocteau was! You may think the production, with its contemporary references and paraphernalia and the deafening music drowning out the words, is itself inappropriately, or appropriately, perverse. Directed by Joshua Gelb.
The second play, Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, at Off the Wall Theater in Washington, PA, concerns a woman who was a political prisoner, tortured by a sadistic doctor. Years later she and her husband live in an isolated house. When a motorist comes to their home after a car breakdown she believes she recognizes his voice as her torturer’s. I have not seen it yet but I have a high regard for the actors. Through May 12. http://www.insideoffthewall.com/]
Reviewed by Adrienne Totino
It might be an oxymoron to say that Gia Cacalano is both a throwback and an innovator, quietly claiming her place on the Pittsburgh dance scene. But part of me was transported to Greenwich Village circa 1963 Saturday night, where the Judson Dance Theater met in rejection of modern dance restrictions of the time.
“BLINK,” a multimedia dance happening was performed at the Wood Street Galleries downtown and also brought a glimpse into the future. Gia T. Presents, Cacalano’s ensemble, performed in and around the gallery’s latest installation. “In Transit” largely used technology to transform the space with unusual light projection against the stark white floor and walls.
At Judson there weren’t any MacBooks involved, but the live atmospheric sound of Cacalano’s five musicians evoked a John Cage feel with their electronic beats, non-traditional instruments and interspersed moments of silence.
Both the music and the dance were entirely improvised. Although two of the dancers came in from out of town, only rehearsing with the ensemble for a few days, the cast came together brilliantly.
One highlight transpired when Vincent Cacialano (from Amsterdam and England), and Wendell Cooper (from New York) engaged in a powerful duet. The two men exploded through the space with the athleticism of a breakdancer and grace of a ballerina. Difficult to imagine? Picture them diving into the floor, pressing into handstands and leaping through the space without bravado or gimmicky tricks.
Ms. Cacalano and female counterpart, Jil Stifel, were equally mesmerizing. With intricate floor work and quick moments of partnering, the two sensed each other with the highly tuned focus of seasoned improvisors. Shadows raced across the ceiling like storm clouds over a black sky. Text and street sound layered the musical blend of percussion, horns and vibes.
When the four dancers came together, they seemed to be of the same body. Bathed in white, blue and fluroescent green light from the installation, they shared a whimsical, otherwordly quality. Like abstract visual art, the piece was open to the interpretation of each audience member. I saw elements of exploration and awakening in the rise and fall of their bodies and fluidity of their transitions.
Pittsburgh dancer, or “moving installation,” Allie Greene, bookended the evening by introducing the dancers and acknowledging their end. Costumed in bubble wrap, the silvery glow gave her a futuristic and omniscient feel.
“BLINK” succeeded in many ways. Cacalano chose an ensemble with equal skill and matching style, while managing to showcase each dancer’s individuality. The show had a performative quality that is oftentimes missing in improvisation. The ensemble proved that to execute dance spontaneously at a professional level, one’s skills and technique must be honed.
As an accomplished performer with a vintage feel, Cacalano brought to mind a venerable era in modern dance, with the promise to advance the future of this lesser known style.
Presented by No Name Players
reviewed by Rita Malikonyte-Mockus
Disguised from childhood,
from voices and fears and little pleasures,
we come of age as masks.
More than seventy years ago, a French playwright and theatre director, Antonin Artaud, introduced a dissenting observation: “Sophocles speaks grandly perhaps, but in a style that’s no longer timely. His language is too refined for this age, it is as if he were speaking beside the point.”
No Name Players, a group of professional Pittsburgh actors, seem to have been speaking to the point locally for more than ten years now. They are part of what is now known worldwide as a true-to-life theatre. Nothing exalted or ineffectual gains entrée to their experimental playground: the performances are short, colloquial, witty and based solely on ensemble collaboration and the players’ respect for each other’s talents. No more masterpieces, no more stars, no more lengthy and boastful brochures.
The company’s most recent choice, The Mistakes Madeline Made by Elizabeth Meriwether, directed by Marci Woodruff (Pitt Studio Theatre), is laden with the familiar symbols, realities and rituals of our neurotic age. It takes place in a world of fear and masked identity. All of the main characters are portrayals of knotted psyches, bruised by the unlived unconscious content that is never silent in them. The play can be perceived as an allegory of the debased and vulnerable modern self, the self that is largely atrophied by brutally efficient bureaucratic forces and injured by its own ineffective coping mechanisms.
The setting of the play is an odd kind of office where everybody is running errands for a rich family that the audience never gets to see, a sure breeding soil for all kinds of psychological deterioration. “We are a country of babies and secretaries,” observes the late war journalist Buddy (Todd Betker), parsing the karma of the corporate madness. Buddy’s sister Edna (Liz Roberts), still mourning her brother’s death and also becoming more and more disturbed by the absurdity of the office routine, develops ablutophobia, a fear of bathing – beyond the pale in a culture that fears uncleanness like the Last Judgment. Edna’s boss, Beth (Tressa Glover) is the master tamer of unruly office workers, but, ironically, a highly pitiful character herself. Beth’s extremely adaptive modus operandi is jam-packed with the artificiality of her hackneyed locution of choice: “confirm or deny,” the kind of office slang that forms the limit of her speech. Wilson’s (Don DiGiulio) caricature of the office life is expressed through his compulsive act of imitating the sounds of the copying machine. But Wilson is a romantic geek. His developing love for Edna leads this comedic spectacle of office horrors to a somewhat expected melodramatic conclusion. Ironically, Beth, who clearly lacks love and intimacy in her life, unintentionally fast-forwards the play to its sentimental conclusion: “Life is all about the tiny miracles of love.”
It would probably sound like a serious violation of the humble No Name Players’ intention if I were to praise their professionalism individually. But their merit in the amusing ensembles as well as in the jolting scenes kept the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire duration of the play.
The most obvious criticism of Meriwether’s play may be that it is so eclectic and packed with seemingly unrelated elements, that not even Woodruff’s directorial acrobatics can weave it together into a satisfyingly coherent whole. But is it a fault? Rilke’s lyric describes the human fate as “haphazardly assembled”; this is all the more true of work and leisure in our highly impatient, fragmented, spectacle-driven times.
by John Samuel Tieman
We all watch for fire
for all the fallen dead to return
and teach us a language so terrible
it could resurrect us all.
– Joy Harjo, In Mad Love And War
So a colleague says, “You’re a veteran. What are your favorite war movies?”
I am alternately drawn to, and disturbed by, war movies. But it’s not for the reasons a lot of people think. A lot of folks think that a war movie, verisimilitude notwithstanding, can never depict war. I’m an artist. I don’t ask the artifact to be the war. I just ask the art to give meaning to witness.
I don’t like most war movies, because there is nothing transcendent. All they do is remind me that, when I was a soldier, I was violent. On the other hand, I find the violent fantasy arousing. I miss my M-16. There’s nothing transcendent about that. It’s disturbing.
Here’s what I like. Some of the best war movies are not about war. They are about coming home from war. They are about finding meaning in witness. That’s what I like.
What follows is personal, my likes, my dislikes. I will illustrate this not by talking about whole movies, but by centering upon great scenes.
When this movie came out in 1986, I saw it six times. It was the first time I saw a movie that looked and sounded like Vietnam. Oliver Stone is a Vietnam veteran.
In The Nam, he also learned something about the meaning of evil. Stone ends the movie with Chris Taylor, the central character, saying, “I think now, looking back on it, that we did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” The movie was, in some quarters, criticized for what was perceived as moral ambiguity. Taylor, however, learns that there is nothing morally ambiguous about the fact he, the soldier, has to kill – and I mean to kill anyone at all. Taylor finishes by saying that we need “to teach to others what we know, and to try, with what’s left of our lives, to find a goodness and meaning to this life.”
There is the one other scene that I love. That’s the scene where The Heads are in a bunker smoking dope. My war buddies and I had such a bunker. There is a camaraderie known to those who have shared danger,. Too much can be made of that comradeship, and too often in movies it is clichéd. Stone spares us the sentimental. So, when I see this scene, hear that music, I think of our bunker and The Heads I knew.
The Best Years Of Our Lives
Here’s your trivia question. What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1946? It’s A Wonderful Life? Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V? Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Razor’s Edge, based on the 1944 Somerset Maugham novel?
No. The movie that won is the movie that 16 million returning veterans wanted to see, The Best Years Of Our Lives, the movie about three guys readjusting to civilian life.
Harold Russell won two Academy Awards for the same role. Russell plays Homer Parrish, a disabled ex-sailor. While serving as a paratrooper, Russell in fact lost both hands.
In what could be called a reverse bedroom scene, Homer’s fiancée, Wilma, played by Cathy O’Donnell, comes by to break their engagement. Wilma is reluctant to leave Homer, but her parents want to send her away. “I want you to be free, Wilma, to live your own life. I don’t want you tied down forever just because you’ve got a kind heart,” Homer tells her.
He tells her further that she really doesn’t know what she’s getting into. “I’m going upstairs to bed. I wantcha — I want ya to come up and see for yourself what happens.”
She follows Homer to his bedroom. He takes off his pajama top with surprising dexterity. Then he stands before her, his harness and hooks displayed. He wiggles out of the harness, and tosses it on the bed. With his left stub, he points to the harness and says, “This is when I know I’m helpless. My hands are down there on the bed. I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. I can’t smoke a cigarette or read a book. If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room. I’m as dependent as a baby that doesn’t know how to get anything except to cry for it.” To her credit, she marries him.
There are a couple of things that make this scene powerful. Russell, in a sense, isn’t acting. “This is when I know I’m helpless.” He speaks for almost all war veterans, the wounded and the whole. Why? Almost all war veterans, the occasional sociopath notwithstanding, are psychically wounded. This woundedness is compounded frequently by a feeling of isolation. Homer is luckier than most. He is able to share his pain with Wilma.
A seemingly odd choice. But there’s this old joke among war vets. Do you know the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? A fairy tale starts, “Once upon a time,” and a war story starts, “Now this here ain’t no bullshit.”
I love a great story. And every war vet has at least one story that, as the bard says, “would harrow up thy soul.”
I mention this movie because of one scene only, a great scene, a story told by Quint, the captain of the ship that chases the shark. Amid much drinking aboard his vessel, Quint recalls the 1945 sinking of his cruiser, the U. S. S. Indianapolis. Quint spent four days in the water waiting for rescue. Hundreds around him were eaten by sharks. For Quint, hunting sharks is all about his war. It is his way to revisit his trauma, and this time, hopefully, fix it.
Quint’s mesmerizing tale is based upon a true story. Of 1,196 folks aboard the cruiser, only 316 survived. And, yes, hundreds, by sharks. And this here ain’t no bullshit.
Robert Shaw, who played Quint, completely rewrote the monologue, which director Steven Spielberg came to regard as one of the the best scenes he ever shot. Originally, mention of the Indianapolis was just a passing reference to Quint’s familiarity with sharks.
Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
I love Peter Sellers. But, when it comes to this movie, I’m a Slim Pickens fan. As Air Force Major T. J. “King” Kong, Pickens rides a hydrogen bomb like some nuclear bronco, smacking it with his cowboy hat until the scene flashes to stark white.
There is an absurdity to war that this scene captures. A war buddy of mine, Dick Bittner, used to talk about “a cartoon”, some absurd scene going on right in the middle of a war. Like the time my buddies were asked to paint artillery shells as they were being fired. The artillery guys kept objecting that paint was getting all over their hands and the howitzer, but, hey, orders are orders. Then there was the time an army band was sent into the field to play “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines”, this while dignitaries, generals and such, ate finger sandwiches, drank wine, and watched an air strike kill Viet Cong. It is as if, in the search for meaning, existential absurdity itself reminds us that it’s one option.
All Quiet On The Western Front – any version
In the most painfully stark scene of a painfully stark film, the German soldier Paul, the main character, stabs a French soldier. He dies slowly. Because of the fire overhead, Paul is then trapped in a shell hole while his mortally wounded enemy groans — all night.
Paul learns the identity of the man. Gerard Duval. A printer. Paul even learns his address, and vows to write Duval’s wife and child. It’s personal.
War is personal Perhaps the greatest lie of any war is that the enemy is not human, that the enemy is not like us. War is always personal. A North Vietnamese war poet once said that, when he aimed his rifle, he aimed first at the heart of that soldier’s mother.
Paths Of Glory
Platoon begins with a quote from Ecclesiastes. “Rejoice, oh young man, in thy youth.” When I was in Nam, Chuck Willis’ nickname was “Pop”. He was 24. With all respect to the professional soldier, and the occasional old coot, war is associated with youth. And old veterans looking back on what they were, and what they’ve become because of war.
Paths of Glory, a 1957 film by Stanley Kubrick, takes place during World War I. Kirk Douglas stars as Colonel Dax, the French commanding officer of three brave soldiers, who refused to continue a suicidal attack. Dax defends them against a charge of cowardice. They are court-martialed and executed. Their own comrades are forced to shoot them.
In the final scene of the movie, a young woman in a tavern begins to sing a German folk song. The soldiers are at first hostile, and the viewer can easily anticipate rape. But the hardened troops instead end up humming along, some openly weeping, as she sings “The Faithful Hussar”. They weep for what they have become.
“For he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile…” Wasn’t that what Henry V said? I used to wonder about this good old boy I used to see at a V. F. W. hall. He was a physician at the St. Louis University hospital. But, during World War II, he was a pharmacist’s mate on a submarine. Once a month, he’d meet-up with his old shipmates. Working men. I used to wonder about that. The physician and the plumber.
I went to a reunion of my Nam unit, the 4th Infantry Division. I always avoided these things, but this time the 4th was meeting here, my hometown. I spent the evening talking to a guy who, today, is a crane operator. The Ph. D. and the high school dropout.
And what draws us together? Memories. A few laughs. A terrible knowledge. And while art cannot replicate the experience, it can, in fact, give that knowledge meaning. As for the experience per se, that’s what reunions are for.
As for the movies. Why are so many good war movies really coming home movies?
There are a lot of other movies I could mention. Born On The 4th Of July. The Deer Hunter. The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit. Coming Home. Or, for that matter, Rambo. My point is this. It took me a lot of therapy to learn a simple truth. I will never recall The Nam and not be sad. But I don’t hate the army. I hate what I became because of war. Sometimes art, for an hour or two, gives that a meaning.
Reviewed by Kayla Washko
King Hedley II. By August Wilson. Directed by Eileen J. Morris. With Ben Cain, Tyla Abercrumbie, Chrystal Bates, Kevin Brown, Jonas Chaney, and Leslie “Ezra” Smith. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company in association with August Wilson Center for African American Culture. 980 Liberty Avenue Pittsburgh, PA.
Often described as the darkest play of Wilson’s twentieth-century cycle, King Hedley II is set in the Hill District section of Pittsburgh in the 1980s. The story of one family’s struggle for understanding and identity, it is the eighth play that Wilson wrote, and the only to pick up with characters and conflicts introduced earlier in the cycle (Seven Guitars).
The play has a single setting—the backyard of King’s family home where he, his wife Tonya, and his mother Ruby, live. The set consists of two dilapidated brick houses, the land surrounding them littered with an old rubber tire and other debris. At the play’s opening, King is planting seeds in a plot of bad soil, an act which quickly becomes a metaphor for his frustrated attempts to escape the stigma of his murder sentence and subsequent stint in jail. Now, King clings to hopes of building a better life for himself and his pregnant wife. Tensions rise with a surprise visit from Elmore, the smooth-talking, long-time suitor of Ruby, as well as an announcement from newspaper-hoarding next-door-neighbor Stool Pigeon: Aunt Ester, the 366-year-old spirit guide (she’s as old as slavery in the United States), has died, leaving the community without a moral compass.
The stakes are high from beginning to end, the characters plagued with existential questions about identity, family, justice, and retribution. Ben Cain gives a stunning performance as King, the father-to-be trying to lift himself above the physical violence and moral transgressions that “mark” him. Chrystal Bates is both hilarious and heartbreaking as King’s mother, Ruby, a washed-up road singer with a troubled romantic history.
Staging presents a challenge in any of Wilson’s plays, which are rich with character development and dialogue rather than action. King Hedley II is monologue-heavy, but this is well-handled by the performers, especially Cain and Tyla Abercrumbie (Tonya), who deliver their speeches with rawness and honesty.
As with many of Wilson’s plays, King Hedley II forces audiences to consider how external pressures and tensions often wind up—tragically—when they are played out inside the family home. For while the conflicts of King Hedley II are often rooted in white hegemony—King’s outrage about everything from the legal system to sales receipts—the real tragedy here is that of a family troubled by the past, destroyed by pride.
For those interested in further study of August Wilson’s plays, the Center holds a monthly reading round table. More information can be found here:
by Noah Gup
Alan Ayckbourn’s “House & Garden,” is held together on a fairly incredible concept: two separate plays with the same cast going on at the exact same time. Characters run in and out, often screaming, complaining, or mumbling. Plates are shattered, marriages crumble, copious amounts of alcohol are consumed; essentially it is standard dark comedy. Yet with a deft touch for humor and all-around splendid acting, PICT brings “House & Garden” to life, creating a hilarious, chaotic, shallow, but ultimately entertaining look into the intersecting lives at the Platt residence.
Each play centers on a different dysfunctional relationship. “House” focuses on the comical communication problems between Teddy and Trish Platt, who are hosting a fete at the house and garden mentioned in the title. The focus of “Garden,” is the Mace marriage (close friends of the Platt’s), whose relationship is shaken by the discovery of adultery. Weaving between the two quarrelling couples is a pair of young lovebirds, Jake Mace and Sally Platt, who regard their parents with a realistic mix of admiration and revolt. Throw in some eccentric house help, a slick city visitor, and a famous French actress, drizzle with rum, shake repeatedly, and there you have “House & Garden.”
Of the two plays, “House” is a more standard affair, focusing on the Platt legacy. In the house, the characters work to present their lives as clean as the house. It is the more dramatic of the two works and also the more cohesive. In “Garden,” however, characters are not afraid to get dirty, and Ayckbourn’s comical characterization shines. Despite leaving many questions unanswered (and at points succumbing to silly slapstick), I left “Garden” entertained, even moved. David Bryan Jackson brings wrenching sincerity to deer-in-the-headlights husband Giles Mace, and his awkward attempts at father-son bonding are simultaneously humorous and tragic. However, Giles is sadly absent from most of “House,” just as the city slicker Gavin (played appropriately icky by Leo Marks) is virtually nonexistent in “Garden.” Yet this is the nature of “House & Garden” and a full, satisfying grasp of all the characters can only be gleaned through watching both. And with Ayckbourn’s vivid characters, returning to see them again is like visiting new friends.
Still, both plays are riddled with jumps in logic. Characters make brash decisions and change drastically with little motivation. While all of this creates ridiculous comedy, it is often more ridiculous than comedic. While Ayckbourn’s web of intersecting failed relationships are fascinating and funny, the plot is familiar. “House & Garden” has many funny moments, but, after leaving the theatre, the plays are easy to forget. Instead, it is the gears working behind the scenes that make the experience memorable. As both the house and the garden fall into disarray, the actors remain completely coordinated, moving from stage to stage naturally. Even amid the chaos on stage, the actors’ movements from stage to stage are completely controlled. After seeing both, the care Ayckbourn took to create his project becomes clear, as does the actors’ skillful transitions. Through a wonderful ensemble cast and painstaking organization, PICT brings Ayckbourn’s ambitious vision to life. While it may not be life changing or heart breaking, “House & Garden,” underneath its elaborate concept, is pure and simple entertainment.
(“House & Garden” runs through July 17th at the Charity Randall and Henry Heymann Theatres. For more information visit www.picttheatre.org.)
Reviewed by Rita Malikonyte Mockus
Only from the Greek worldview has the genuine artwork of drama been able as yet to blossom forth. – Wagner
Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, founded around the time when Europe was enthralled by the poetic frenzy of Romanticism, was a fitting location for the three summer evenings (June 9-11) of theatrical lamentation for love lost to death. Each performance started with Schubert’s famous art-song The Shepherd on the Rock—which he wrote in poor health during the last months of his life—and ended with Ricky Ian Gordon’s theatrical song cycle Euridice and Orpheus (originally Orpheus and Euridice), written on commission from clarinetist Todd Palmer at the time when the composer was in agony over his partner’s imminent death. The Arcadian scenery of the cemetery contrasted by its monolithic statuary, reminiscent of antiquity, served as the perfect setting for the pastoral German art-song and the contemporaneously re-envisioned myth of Orpheus’ quest to release his wife from death.
But who represents Orpheus, the musician and poet, in this opera? While writing the piece, Gordon imagined the clarinetist Todd Palmer as Orpheus: “In the books, it was a lute./ But in my dream/ it was a reed./ […]/ he could cry/through that strange instrument.” In Pittsburgh’s production, Attack Theatre’s dancer Dane Toney articulates Orpheus’ excited unrest by placing it inside his moving body, thus turning joy and sorrow into vivifying motion. Perhaps Orpheus is also the composer himself, a poet and musician, drafting the essential shape of his own sorrow to fit the finest of the ancient story’s tragic tissue. Similarly, Euridice is represented both by a singer (Laura Knoop Very) and by a dancer (Liz Chang).
Though sometimes harmonically unsettling, Gordon’s Euridice and Orpheus was essentially melodic and tonal, at times alluding to Broadway pop and Benjamin Britten’s art-songs. But when the tragedy started to show its first adumbration of darkness, the music slowly became suffused with the kind of aching that can be produced by a prolonged melody (the “effect of suspension,” as Schopenhauer would have it), as its duration restlessly created the illusion of dissonance, longing to be anchored back to consonance.
Gordon’s musical intention was adeptly embodied by the lyric coloratura soprano of Very, while the beauty of the “richer, darker, starker” sound which, according to the libretto, only reed instruments can produce, was emanating from the two clarinets played by a native of Pittsburgh, John Culver, and a Carnegie Mellon graduate, Ricky Williams.
Under the mindful choreography of Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, the dancers of The Attack Theatre (Liz Chang, Dane Toney, and Ashley Williams as Spirit) represented the story in a language of emotive kinesthetics that uniquely employed many of the elements of contemporary dance, including mime, props, and contact improvisation. Even the pantomime (one of the popular forms of entertainment in Ancient Greece, accompanied by a sung narrative and flute) was, appropriately to the event’s purpose, part of the choreographers’ palette.
Nature lent her assistance. The performance began with sunset and serenity, but later stormy weather gathered as the plot grew more tense. The valiant Orpheus attempted to inveigle Hades and Persephone to liberate Euridice from the underworld. Her dancing, which at first had been ecstatic and joyous, began, under the coercion of fate, to gravitate towards the River Styx, represented by the little pond in the cemetery. During lulls in the music, the listeners’ attention was caught by a honking sound that turned out to be an addition by the inhabitants of the pond, a flock of geese warning of the approach of the tragic conclusion.
For further information:
Directed by Don DiGiulio. No Name Players, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. June 10 through June 25, 2011. Featuring Allison Fatla, John Feightner, Kelly Marie McKenna, Jody O’Donnell, and Gayle Pazerski. Stage Managing by Dave Ranallo. Technical Direction by Nick Coppula. Scenic Design by Alanna James. Sound Design by Brad Stephenson. Costume Design by Mandi Fisher.
Reviewed by D. Gilson.
The Book of Liz is quite silly, really, but a lot of fun. It’s the story of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a Squeamish—the fictional religious sect akin to the Amish—who leaves the safe fortress of her village, Clusterhaven. Within those walls she is infamous, but grossly underappreciated, for both her humorous spirit and the cheese balls she painstakingly makes every day in two varieties: smoky and traditional. Whtin the frame of 90 minutes, Elizabeth sets out on her journey away from the village and to the city, on her quest for self and freedom. Along the way, she befriends a Ukrainian woman dressed as a peanut and becomes a waitress at a Pilgrim-themed pancake house. Meanwhile, life completely falls apart back in Clusterhaven without her.
The show’s book does not disappoint. We’ve come to expect nothing less than genius from the comedically raucous Sedaris siblings—Amy, star of Strangers with Candy, and David, National Public Radio humorist and best-selling author of Naked and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Within the ridiculous surface of the script, however, there lies the enduring truths of the human spirit, truths the No Name Players were especially adept at bringing to light.
The cast is lead by Gayle Pazerski as Elizabeth, a role she portrays stunningly. Pazerski brings a contemplative and understated humor to the stage; had the role been given to a less skilled actor, one who may fall to the temptation of taking on the role as an over-the-top caricature, the show would be decidedly less successful. Pazerski, however, leads with measured grace and opens the door for a solid cast of character actors playing multiple roles well. The affect reminds one of a Christopher Guest film, a shorter Mighty Wind, perhaps. In the world of comedic performance, I can think of few higher comparisons.
As her journey nears an end, Sister Elizabeth asks her village leader “Why is it, old friend, that I had to dress like a peanut in order to feel like a human again?” Yes, The Book of Liz is quite silly, really. But maybe we’re all, like Elizabeth, seeking what it takes to be human, and further, maybe—nay, definitely—what we need is to sit back in the dark of a theatre for a couple of hours and just laugh.
For performance information visit www.nonameplayers.org.
Reviewed by Arlene Weiner
Shining City. By Conor McPherson. Directed by John Shepherd. With Dennis Schebetta, F.J. Hartland, Karen Baum, and James Maschiovecchio. Off the Wall Productions. 147 N. Main Street, Washington, PA.
How come Shakespeare wasn’t Irish? So many of the classical English-language playwrights were: Congreve (though born English), Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw—not to mention those who took Ireland and her people for their subject, Synge, Yeats, O’Casey. And in our day Irish playwrights flourish: Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson. Perhaps it’s the relation of plays to, well, relations. Not just relationships but relating, storytelling. Not all modern Irish drama, but some, rejects the divide between presentation and representation—it shows by telling. In Friel’s play The Faith Healer, for example, the three characters never interact, they only narrate alternately, until their narratives become a braid, a noose that exacts a gasp.
So it is, in part, with Shining City. The two main characters are a therapist and his patient. How convenient, we think: for a therapist can be the confidant, that theatrical device into whose ear exposition is poured. But that’s not McPherson’s game, or not entirely. For the patient isn’t the main character and the therapist a sock puppet. There’s a kind of rhyme between the two. Each has female trouble. Each has his anguish.
Nevertheless a good swatch of this play is the tale told, in pieces, by the unhappy patient.
The patient’s wife has died, violently, and he has seen her since her death. He’s terrorized and at wit’s end. And the marvel is that in the telling, this story, its fractions, both these stories, move us to pity and terror. In intervening scenes we learn about the therapist’s past and present and doubtful future, and are moved by them as well.
The marvel is due in large part to the wonderful acting of F.J. Hartland and Dennis Schebetta, which must mean marvelous direction by John Shepherd. Karen Baum and James Maschiovecchio are also very effective. (All but Maschiovecchio are Equity actors.)
The night my companion and I went to Shining City we drove I-79 through thunder, lightning, and torrents of rain. We ascended to the theater (it unfortunately is not, unless I’m mistaken, handicap-accessible). I think it was worth the trip.
Shining City runs May 6-7, 13-14, 19-21 at 8pm, 5/15 at 3pm.
Reviewed by Rita Malikonyte Mockus
“I do not despise the world. I simply don’t know how to live in it,” sings religiously apprehensive Blanche (performed by Amanda Majeski) to her affectionate father, Marquis de la Force (James Maddalena) in the last Pittsburgh opera of the season. In this opera by the 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc, every encounter with the profane produces in Blanche a state of unbearable unease: she must devote her life to the contemplation of the agony of Christ. Amanda’s expressive soprano weaves the harmony of disquiet, as her character Blanche is trying to evacuate every drop of precious strength from her fragile inner nature as she prepares to leave her father’s house for the convent. The emphatic moment finally comes after Blanche is mortally frightened by the noise of the riotous crowd. Blanche retires from the world, takes the veil and joins the Carmelite order.
It didn’t take a highly sensitive young aristocrat to experience the turmoil and uncertainty in the late years of the 18th century in Paris. All of France was about to be transformed by the terror of the French Revolution. Poulenc, who also wrote the libretto for the opera based on the play by Georges Bernanos, follows the innovative tradition of his operatic predecessors Gluck and Wagner and admits his debt to the Russian composers Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. The appropriately somber tone, at times reminiscent of liturgical music, of the ariosos and recitatives, creates a continuous unity of discourse between the feeling melodies of the musical score and the human drama of religious passion expressed in the lines of existential libretto. All the elements of this opera are seamlessly interwoven, leaving nothing superfluous in its dramatic fabric: no grandiose arias, no virtuoso ensembles, not even an overture that usually opens the operas of the classical period; just genuine dialogues among the pious equals.
The most puzzling character in the opera is the dying Prioress, Madame de Croissy, who, after a long and somewhat accusatory interrogation, finally gives the blessing to the neophyte Blanche. “I am the prisoner of the holy agony! […]. “Who am I to concern myself with God – let him first concern himself with me,” screams the Prioress in her funereal contralto (performed by Sheila Nadler). Believing that strength, force, suits the realities of nunnery life better than agony, she refuses to accept the young novice’s desire to take the name of Blanche of the Agony of Christ. Blanche de la Force, so it is.
Shared pilgrimage to the holy site of inner strength forms the focal point of Act II and III. The ungodly revolution declares the practice of religious orders illegal. The desecrated convent becomes a testing ground for fear. Different voices express their meaning of it: “One must risk fear,” “Is fear a sickness?” “Fear doesn’t offend God. Fear is not a sin.” Blanche dreads martyrdom, the vow her holy sisters humbly take. Act II contains an abundance of superb lyrical singing based on Christian worship music (most notably, “Ave Maria” and “Ave verum corpus”). Torn by the exigent choice between life and death, both equally menacing, Blanche runs away.
The final scenes of great operas are epitomes of bel canto singing. Scene IV of Dialogues of the Carmelites follows this tradition in a way peculiar to its subject matter: the opera ends in a prayer of a true bel canto quality, the Salve Regina, Mater Misericordiae, as the nuns fearlessly march one by one to the scaffold to be guillotined, suddenly joined by Blanche, who finally mounts the scaffold singing a prayer of her renewed faith in God: Deo Patri sit Gloria (All praise be thine, o risen Lord).
The director, Eric Einhorn, stages a musical drama true to its theme. The endless gripping spectacle reflects the tragic poetry of the plot. The gloomy colors of the scenery are germane to the sacred dialogues’ minimalist stage setting.
The opera offers excellent performers, splendid directing, and expressive conducting by Jean-Luc Tingaud – it is a tour de force.
Final performance Sunday May 8 at 2:00 pm.
Tickets and further information available at www.pittsburghopera.org.
Superior Donuts. By Tracy Letts. Directed by Ted Pappas. Pittsburgh Public Theater, O’Reilly Theater. April 14 through May 15, 2011. With David Agranov, Sharon Brady, Donald Corren, Brandon Gill, Daryll Heysham, Joe Jackson, Wali Jamal, Antoinette LaVecchia, Anderson Mathews. Scenic Design by Michael Swhweikardt. Costume design by Amy Clark. Lighting design by Phil Monat. Sound Design by Zach Moore.
Reviewed by Arlene Weiner
Tracy Letts is a smart playwright. He knows what we in the audience want. He’s a prodigy, too. I’ve seen three of his plays now: Bug, August: Osage County, and most recently Superior Donuts, in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production. They are all different from each other. Bug (which I saw in Pittsburgh’s barebones theater’s production) is a claustrophobic Sam Shepherd-like play: two no-hope characters in a seedy motel room: intense. And I thought it said or implied something about America. August: Osage County (which I saw in New York) is relatively sprawling: numerous characters, one of whom, whose long monlogue opens the play, disappears. Companies don’t like to waste an actor—played in that production by Tracy Letts’ father–like that! And August: Osage County is a rarity these days, a three-act play. Well-made, too, one surprise revelation after another. If we don’t like any of the characters, with few exceptions, it’s a ride.
Superior Donuts, like Bug, takes place on one set, a rundown doughnut shop in Chicago’s Uptown. The shopowner, Arthur, is stuck. Depressed, refusing to make any change in his life, he’s a regular pot smoker but he never has any highs. His toking just leads to ruminations about his past, which we hear. He had Polish immigrant parents. He ran to Canada to avoid the draft. His father died—right in the shop–and he couldn’t attend the funeral. Nobody in his life hears his stories—he’s a clam. His sentences trail like his gray ponytail, but they illuminate his current (in)actions, as when he says, “There’s a difference between a resister and an evader…I—evaded,” and we see him evade choice in the present.
Into Arthur’s shop come a variety of regulars: two cops, one a woman who’d like to date him; a bag lady; the Russian immigrant who owns the DVD shop next door. Most centrally, a new person comes in: an exuberant young African-American man who applies for the job advertised in the window. Franco (named, we learn, after Franco Harris) is the opposite of Arthur: a mile-a-minute talker, full of plans, and especially full of hope—hope that makes Arthur round on him with uncharacteristic energy: things don’t happen that way. Good things don’t happen, hopes don’t come true.
The play is full of comedy, and, finally, poignant. I can’t imagine it’s having a better production. The actors are fine. The set is perfect. Ted Pappas’ direction is broad in comic moments and effective in moments when deeper meaning must be gleaned. Brandon Gill’s and Donald Corren’s physicality as Franco and Max Tarasov may be a little exaggerated at times, but that serves the play, contrasting with Anderson Mathews’ stasis as Arthur—very difficult to pull off being the center of attention without moving. I noted particularly that Corren was persuasive both as a hard guy and a clown, not easy, and that Sharon Brady as the bag lady perfectly conveyed a pivotal speech, flat yet oracular, when she tells Arthur, “You know what to do.” Wali Jamal as one of the cops shows up in a Star Trek outfit and yet is able to deliver the tragic load of what amounts to a Messenger’s speech in a Greek tragedy.
Because something shocking and terrible happens. Arthur’s view of life would seem to be confirmed. Instead, there’s a transformation, one that we as the audience wish for. Heartwarming. And yet. There’s a flavor of sit-com about the play: the cast of eccentrics with funny lines dropping in. The menace that brings about the climax doesn’t seem organic, doesn’t speak to the condition of life in Uptown—and seems to be quashed more magically than realistically. Maybe unfairly, I recalled August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, in which sharply defined characters drop into a diner. That play—which arguably is not so well constructed as Superior Donuts—seems, like Bug, to speak to our social condition, not just to the individuals’ fates. This is a cavil, a hope that Letts will require more from us the next time. Superior Donuts in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production is an entertaining night in the theater.