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A History of the American Film

By: Eva Phillips
[caption id="attachment_3534" align="aligncenter" width="656"]Nathaniel Yost and the Salad Girls Nathaniel Yost and the Salad Girls[/caption] There is a certain, almost ineffable, quality of striking mimesis that courses through the entirety of The Summer Company’s staging of Christopher Durang’s 1978 bizarrely (at times even baroquely) satirical piece A History of the American Film that gives the already fantastic play an added element of hutzpah to an audience member with a background specializing in film.  As the audience begins to trickle in, the players are already seated, as if in a film theatre themselves, singing along to a rousing number as black and white film footage plays on the awning above them so they audience may partake in their film-watching experience.  This continues for several minutes to a point of almost diluting the momentum of the opening.   However, the first moments of the first scene subtly captivate in such a way that it makes up for the near-monotony of the introductory singing. The players on stage, rapt with attention, watch as a hyper-melodramatic silent film—reminiscent of the hyperbolic emotiveness of films like Sunrise (1927) or Broken Blossoms (1919)is acted out in front of them as the audience is shown the narration captions of the film on the awning.  This silent film’s plot is a standard baleful tale: a nameless mother—played by tremendously expressive Jillian Lesaca, who vibrantly appears later in the play as Clara--finds herself unable to care for her newborn child, and beseeches God to take the child away from her safely only to die tragically (and not-surprisingly) shortly after the child is left at an orphanage.  Every trope is marvelously enacted, but what is most compelling are the subsequent reactions of the players acting as the audience.   Played with relish, each actor demonstrates the quintessential gamut of responses to the film—the spirited hopefulness for the mother; the repulsed disdain that any woman would dare be incapable of caring for her offspring—in such a way that transforms the experience of watching this multidimensional presentation of the film watching process.The Cast The efficacy and fastidiousness with which the actors pull off the initial scene of film-watching is ultimately what catalyzes the transition into the meat of play so brilliantly.  History tells the divinely surreal story of Loretta—played with phenomenally ironic golly-gee-whiz pluckiness by Colleen Garrison—the orphaned daughter of the nameless mother in the first scene, as she tries to navigate through the harrowing perils of being a “nice girl” in the big city.  As passed out, fatigued and overwhelmed, a prototypical scoundrel, Jimmy—the ace-in-the-hole, wise-guy sneering Frank Schurter—settles into the bench next to her, which, of course, leads to a whirlwind romance between the two after Jimmy ushers her away to his home in the derelict, noir-esque Shantytown.  History, is artfully constructed by Durang (who was nominated for a Tony for this play, and won the award for Best Play in 2013 for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) to traverse the multitude of distinct genres that characterized the evolution of American popular cinema while simultaneously chronicling Loretta’s growth and utterly idiotic love for Jimmy.  These transitions, in less skillful hands than the incredibly talented cast and director (John E. Lane Jr.) and crew, may be disorienting or clunky, but these genre migrations are dizzyingly seamless and uproariously funny. [caption id="attachment_3536" align="aligncenter" width="656"]Colleen Garrison as Loretta and Frank Schurter as Jimmy Colleen Garrison as Loretta and Frank Schurter as Jimmy[/caption] As Loretta and Jimmy entangle in a romance in Shantytown, they embark on the musical-portion (featuring the oddly sweet “Shantytown Romance” ballad) of the narrative, in which Loretta is the ideal domestic woman (making profoundly blissful existential remarks like “Look, I’m IRONING!”) heedless to the shady goings-on of her lover.  Upon the introduction of the scorchingly surly Bette—played by Jill Jeffrey with saucy vamp splendor—who is Jimmy’s original lover, the play cycles from musical, to grimy noir/crime film, to courtroom/prison drama (the sickeningly hilarious drama of which hinders on one of the funniest miscarriage scenes [it is awful, but it must be seen to be understood]), to a completely dreadful screwball comedy where, I believe, the actors rhythm and pacing and comfortability with the ludicrousness of the plot they are in really hits a wonderful, breakneck stride. Throughout these genres, Loretta is sentenced to jail, released by divine intervention, accused of another crime, put on a chain-gang where she meets the down on his luck Hank (played with the thundering, authentically old-timey charm of Nathaniel Yost). The two then transcend the play’s meta-examination of Western film; both parodying the trope and satirizing the absurdity of the production of Western film. Tim Syicarz’s cantankerously flamboyant Director Fritz Von Lefling is at once offensive and stupendous.  All the while, Jimmy has died several times, lived with Bette in a Phantom of the Opera-esque dreary home, and hunted down Loretta to no avail.  And several side vignettes pop up, including a daft take down of Grapes of Wrath (1940) and the outrageously strange but ultimately ecstatic musical interlude performed by Hank as he embarks on his Hollywood career to escape the chain-gang that functions as an ode to salad. It makes almost no sense, is beautifully choreographed and is one of the highlights of the entire show. And all this is before the intermission and Jimmy shipping off to war.  It’s a berserk and fantastic, and though the stage design is minimal, the performances and production carry the lunacy into the realm of giddy entertainment. [caption id="attachment_3538" align="aligncenter" width="656"]Jill Jeffrey as Bette and Colleen Garrison and Loretta, background is Tyler Jennings, Sarah Williams,LaMar Darnell Fields, and Eric Matthews Jill Jeffrey as Bette and Colleen Garrison and Loretta, background is Tyler Jennings, Sarah Williams,LaMar Darnell Fields, and Eric Matthews[/caption] History has some problematic moments of racial and gender stereotyping that undermine the talents of the actors playing the roles (who tackle these characters masterfully) that could have served a reworking.  But on its whole, History is an inimitable delight that genuinely surprised me in it’s execution. The commentary on film (and the subtle hints of spectatorship versus participation and reality versus fabrication), the dismantling of genre and tropes, and the interesting remarks on gender and archetypes (seen in the resentful bonding of Bette and Loretta that plays like a reverse White Christmas (1954)).  At one point near the end of the first act, Loretta shouts “I feel like the 1930s are never going to be over!” and if it means digging in these tropes a little more, than quite frankly, my dear, I just don’t give a damn if they ever do end. Special thanks to The Summer Company for complimentary press tickets. A History of the American Film runs at Duquesne University's Genesius Theatre through August 28th. For tickets and more information, click here. Photos courtesy of Justin Sines.

Pittsburgh Playhouse Brings Dramaturgical Powerhouse Season

By: Eva Phillips
playhouseAudacious drag queens, a surreal reimagining of The Tempest, the devastatingly pointed Harriet Beecher Stowe slave narrative, and the indomitable grimy charm of a deaf and blind pinball wizard are only a few of the exhilarating highlights set to tantalize audiences in the fantastic upcoming Fall 2016/Spring 2017 season of Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse.  Putting forth a powerhouse dramaturgical trifecta, The Rep will launch the season with Tarell Alvin McCraney’s astoundingly multidimensional Wig Out!” Centering on the explosive personalities, incandescent interwoven galaxies of culture and presentations of selfhood, and outlandishly unique language and dialects of performance of queer and drag communities, Wig Out! is a lavishly dramatic and sonorous telling of Eric, a gay man dubious of the world of drag and the gender/relational dynamics that ensconce it, as he falls for Wilson—or Ms. Nina as he is known in the World of Light, the drag world that functions as an ethereal, alternate universe in the play’s mythology—and is inculcated into the complex, rapturously rich tapestries of the drag world and the intersections of gender expression, sexual desire, and politics of body and place.  Directed by the acclaimed Tome Cousin (who has most recently helmed Guilin in 2016), the play—scintillatingly and deliciously risqué (so, cautioned to be for more mature audiences) will preview September 8th and have its complete run September 9th through 25th at Point Park’s Rauh Theatre.The Rep On the divine heels of Wig Out!, a more subdued but equally provocative portrayal of fraught interpersonal dynamics and dialogues, director Robert Turano will present the Halley Feiffer sardonic off-Broadway piece, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard.  With an attention-grabbing title that sends queasy shivers down a former Christian schoolgirl’s spine, Feiffer’s Outer Critics Circle Award nominated play is a rivetingly intimate examination of an abrasive-father/daughter relationship, set in the intense agonizingly eternal moments awaiting the reviews for the daughter’s (Ella) stage debut.  The onslaught of sly fatherly eviscerations of a daughter’s burgeoning career will be staged September 30th through October 16 in the Studio Theatre (and, as with any scathing family piece, is recommended for mature audiences).   Concluding the Fall/Winter season is the profoundly inventive one-woman show, Woody’s Order! written by Ann Talman, which is centered around the axiomatic quandary of being one’s brother’s keeper.  Woody’s Order!—which alludes to the magical command of the lead’s brother, Woody, who pines for a sister and wills his mother to have another child—is one woman’s delineation of her magical birth and the imperative care for her brother and the essence of one’s duties in life.  The play, directed by Point Park’s John Shepard, will feature at the beginning of 2017 at the Studio Theater, previewing February 2nd and running February 3rd-19th.CTC1 Certainly a veritable equal match in compelling dramaturgy this impending season, the Conservatory Theatre Company will present a robust lineup of six plays spanning from boisterous musical legends to a raucous revenge on a Christmas standard.  Quite literally kicking off the season clad in denim and snarling bite is the Pete Townshend’s The Who’s Tommy.  Based on The Who’s ecstatically rocking 1969 double album rock opera Tommy, the musical, which debuted in 1992, is the bildungsroman of an emotionally turbulent boy—the titular Tommy—who is born amidst the rubble of the end of the Second World War who loses his sight and hearing at a young age after witnessing a violent murder at the hands of his father.  The play, which follows Tommy’s ascension to a pinball wizard and tormented almost cult figure, will be directed by Zeva Barzell and run at the Rockwell Theatre from October 21st-October 30th.  Taking on the sometimes daunting task of yet again reinventing Shakespearean themes, Edward Bond’s bizarrely tumultuous The Sea will follow the quintessential rock opera.  Directed by Point Park’s David Cabot, the play—steeped in the somber melodrama of Edwardian England—toys with Shakespeare’s The Tempest as it delves into the themes of loss, grief, and, naturally, alien hysteria as the protagonist Willy grapples with the ineffable mourning and guilt of failing to save his friend from drowning, as his home village internalizes that mourning and their own hysteria in acute extraterrestrial occupation paranoia.  The quasi-farcical drama will run from November 11th to December 4th at the Studio Theatre. Closing out 2016 will be the irreverent kiss-off to Christmas spectacles and homage to childhood angst in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! Directed by Philip Winters, which chronicles six devious children’s plot to spoil the Yuletide pageantry in their pursuit of free snacks.  The outlandish comedy will run December 9th-18th at Rauh theatre.CTC2 Embarking on 2017, Point Park will put forth Charles L. Mee’s—noted for his mosaic-esque dramaturgical style and a background in reconstructing historical texts—Aeschylus-reminiscent experiment Big Love (no relation to polygamy or Bill Paxton).  The play’s action is catalyzed by the mass-fleeing of fifty brides who are attempting to escape betrothal to their own cousins, and fixates on the meta-dialogues on issues of gender disparities and the nature of love and commitment between three couples.  Big Love will be helmed by Reginald Douglas—whose directing credits include Paradox of the Urban Cliché and Lines in the Dust- and will run in the Rauh Theatre from February 24th to March 12th of 2017.  Keeping 2017 going theatrically strong, Miachel Rupert will direct the Conservatory in staging another musical flush with pop-splendor in Sweet Charity.  Featuring lyrics by the iconic librettist Dorothy Fields and based on the book by the tried-and-true New Yorker Neil Simon, Sweet Charity reflects on the at times amusing, at times crushing volatility of love and finding one’s true self (if that’s even a feasible reality, after all).  Exposing the minor-catastrophes of love in the dizzying swarm of New York, the musical will run March 17th to March 26th at the Rockwell Theatre. Finishing the season with a poignant historical narrative, Tome Cousin will debut his talents yet again in staging Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or the Most Popular American Play You’ve Never Seen: an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s pivotal slave narrative by George Aiken, depicting the environment, injustices and aching ramifications of Tom, besieged by the hostile world of American slavery.  Uncle Tom will close out the spring season. In addition to the phenomenal repertoire lined up for the Fall 2016/Spring 2017 seasons, Point Park’s tremendously talented Conservatory Dance Company will present four collections beginning in October.  The Student Choreography Project will debut three days (October 14th-16th) of original student choreography at the GRW Performance Studio, allowing for an eclectic mix of individual-minded choreographic and stylistic output.  November promises the evocative collection put forth in the Contemporary Choreographers performance, staged at the GRW Performance Studio from November 16th-20th, an endeavor in transcendent movement with new pieces by David Norsworth, Helen Simoneau, James Gregg and Stephanie Martinez.  Ballet Off-Center will take the stage at Rockwell Theatre from December 2nd to December 11th, highlighting the contemporary, experimental talents of up and coming ballet choreographers and featuring new works by Darrell Moultrie and Jason McDole (among others).  The faculty choreographers will join forces with the Conservatory’s dancers to produce CDC at the GRW Performance Studio, spotlighting the bevy of rhythmic and dance styles across genres from February 23rd to 26th.  Finally, the Conservatory’s impressive season will concluded with the CDC at the Byham Theatre, showing April 13th to 15th, and will be a showcase of the multifariousness of dance and performance, and feature the swan song of cherished Point Park dance faculty member Doug Bentz. Point Park’s ambitious and excitingly diverse Fall 2016/Spring 2017 lineup seeks to provoke, to titillate and to challenge conventions of performance with these daring, fascinating pieces.  Be sure too to make time for the youthful talents at Playhouse Junior in such plays as Pinkalicious (May 3rd-21st at Rockwell Theatre) and The Adventures of Nate the Great (May 4th-21st, Rauh theatre). For tickets and more information about what the Pittsburgh Playhouse has to offer, click here. Check out the rest of our Collegiate Preview and follow along with our Collegiate adventures on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtag #PITRUniversity!

CMU Drama to Engage and Challenge in 2016-2017 Season

By: Drew Praskovich
Playboy-JPEG-2At the 70th annual Tony Awards, seven alumni of the Carnegie Mellon University school of Drama were nominated for various awards from Best Costume Design of a Musical to Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. Of those seven, two actors, Leslie Odom Jr. and Renée Elise Goldsberry went on to win for Best Actor and Best Featured Actress respectively. The span of the nominees is decades long the earliest being 1960 to 2004. The CMU School of Drama presence has a strong grip in the theatre world from Pittsburgh to Broadway. The competitive and rigorous conservatory program is still putting on seasons aimed to challenge and inspire their students like it’s upcoming 2016-2017 season.RoverJPEG-1 The School of Drama presents three different series in the season, the Subscription series, the Director series, and the New Work series. Each series accommodates a different branch of students within the school. Erin Scott, the Director of Marketing and Communications for the School of Drama, spoke to the selection of the season. At the beginning of each year the CMU faculty gathers a committee to select the season where they consider material that will engage and challenge their student body, particularly the juniors and seniors, who will be the constituency that performs, directs, designs and manages the shows. The whole School of Drama community is welcome to propose plays and musicals they are interested in producing. After proposals have been submitted, they compare what we discussed relative to the needs of the student body to what the community is interested in producing and go from there. Scott said, “We really keep the students at the center of the process.” The Mainstage productions in the Subscription Series are all directed, choreographed, and musically directed by professionals, the students still have lots of power in making creative decisions. The sets, lights, and costumes are all designed and created by the School of Drama. The Subscription Series includes four Mainstage shows, The Playboy of the Western World, The Rover, Ragtime, and The Three Musketeers. Ragtime-JPEG The Playboy of the Western World directed by faculty member Don Wadsworth will run Oct. 6-15. Written by John Millington Synge is set in early 1900s Ireland uses heavy amounts of poetic and evocative language in telling the story of a young man running away from his farm claiming he killed his father. A comedic play, The Rover, from Aphra Behn, the first known female playwright runs Nov. 17-19 and Nov 29 – Dec 3. Dave Bond, head of acting at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, Wales, will direct the hilarious and lustful adventures of a group of Englishmen. Ragtime will be the only musical helmed at the School of Drama this season from Feb. 23 – March 4, just like last season’s The Full Monty directed by alumnus, Patrick Wilson. Ragtime and The Full Monty couldn’t be more polar. Ragtime, composed by Pittsburgh native, Stephen Flaherty, depicts the racial and classist struggles at the turn of the century in America. With diversity as one of the most pressing topics in the theatre community, Erin Scott added, “We in the School of Drama are very keen to represent all of our students and their varying backgrounds and identities in the work we create, so yes, this always factors into our season selection.” The poignant and sweeping drama will still have plenty of relevancy today. The School of Drama turns to gender for inspiration for their last show, The Three Musketeers. This production directed by Andrew Smith will become unapologetically feminist when dramaturg Megan Monaghan Rivas re-writes one of the Musketeers to be a woman. “This season is particularly interesting because it explores a number of really salient political issues through different historical lenses,” said Scott.ThreeMusketeersImage2 The Director series allows students within The John Wells Directing Program a chance to mount plays. The series includes, Mr. Marmalade, a black comedy about how a four-year-old girl views adult life. Wife U is an adaptation of Moliere’s School for Wives, I’m Very into You a piece created through the emails of two people 7,500 miles away from the other, Edward II is one of English’s earliest plays, Gruesome Playground Injuries which follows the relationship of two childhood friends, boom where a scientist turns his apartment into a shelter for the imminent end of the world in the hopes he can remake humanity, and “Hybrid” a music video/documentary by Joe Hill. The New Works Series, which highlights the work of graduate student playwrights, will be Oct. 26-29, and again in the spring, April 12-15. Professor Peter Cooke, head of the School of Drama, said, “A cavalcade of societal and theatrical fireworks drawn from 400 years of dramatic invention lies ahead in the 2016-2017 season."CMU season For more information about Carnegie Mellon University and their theatre department, please click here. Check out the rest of our Collegiate Preview and follow along with our Collegiate adventures on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtag #PITRUniversity!

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