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The Lion in Winter

By: Isaac Crow
Lion-Final-WebIt’s well into the holiday season and there’s a chance you’ve either had or will have a tense family dinner. No matter your family situation, you’re probably not going have as tense a Christmas as King Henry II and his family. In James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, Henry, his wife, his sons, and his mistress all gather round for a fun holiday of constant manipulation and harsh betrayals. PICT Classic Theatre opened their new production in the appropriately castle-like Union Project in Highland Park, and they invite you to spend a tense holiday with a family that will most likely make yours seem better. Henry and his wife, Eleanor, have quite the estranged marriage (he imprisoned her). But he invites her back to the castle on Christmas for some verbal sparring and to reveal his plans for his heirs. The eldest son, Richard, is a bold warrior and his mother’s favorite. The youngest, John, is weak and childish, yet is his father’s first pick. The middle son, Geoffrey, is very clever but feels ignored by both parents (middle children, right?). Also over for the holidays is the new young King of France, Phillip, and his half-sister Alais, who is betrothed to a son but is Henry’s lover. It’s a complicated situation as parents, children, and lovers try to deduce if there is any real love between them and who is just a pawn in the political game. Alan Stanford and Cary Anne Spear head things as Henry and Eleanor, capturing the utter contempt but also admiration the two have for each other. As the most senior members of the family the two are experts at “the game” they play, and the actors create characters that relish in the manipulation and putting on of “scenes’. Henry and Eleanor are very clever, and as such have some of the more biting lines in Goldman’s genuinely funny script. The history between them is fascinating: they both claim to have never loved the other, yet their love of the game suggests there may be affection there somewhere, even if they wouldn’t admit it. If a married couple could be called “Frenemies”, it would probably be Henry and Eleanor. Their sons are more easily broken. Tony Bingham’s Richard is physically intimidating and hotheaded, more prone to angry shouting than his brothers. Matt Henderson’s John is an annoying little twerp, but his childlike reactions bring a lot of humor to what could otherwise be ultra-heavy scenes. Gregory Johnstone as Geoffrey is the best thinker, no doubt inherited from his parents, but is ironically overlooked by them. Geoffrey has an air of smarm that masks some real hurt and, like everyone else, his breaking point can be reached. Karen Baum and Dylan Marquis Meyers play Alais and Phillip as strong young people who are still probably in over their heads, new players in a cruel game. PICT places its audiences in the castle with just a few simple touches. The set features a giant table in the center that serves to be whatever furniture the character’s need. A downed chandelier serves as a rack for characters to hang their crowns or jewelry off of when they’ve retired to their “rooms”. The audience sits on either side of the big table, and John Shepard’s direction has made it so no action or facial expression is missed out on depending on where you’re sitting. Costumes are just elaborate enough to suggest royalty without weighing down the actors or distracting from the story. If you’re unwilling to sit through your holiday dinner and argue about whatever horrible politics with your family, why not go see The Lion in Winter and watch horrible politics unfold in front of you? The royal family is probably funnier than yours anyway. It’s another solid production from PICT, so I would recommend seeing it before the real winter hits. Pittsburgh Irish-Classic Theatre's production of The Lion in Winter runs at the Union Project in Highland Park through December 17. For tickets and more information click here. Special thanks to PICT for complimentary press tickets.

Unbolted

By: Eva Phillips
Unbolted-Graphic(Small)There is a certain immutable emotion that resides in rhythmic silences.  That which we cannot articulate, understand, imitate in words or conversational gestures dwells in the physical pulsations of our movements with our own bodies and those around us.  Our relationships, our communicability is innately (though often subversively) dependent on these physical communications, these bodily extensions of our most internalized dialogues and thoughts, then become our predominant method of interaction. This, in addition to the show’s premise of “unbolting your chair and freeing your mind,” is what transforms the show from a beautifully orchestrated dance performance to a riveting, emotional excavation executed through interpretative choreography. Staged in three acts—or in three periods, as Attack co-founder Peter Kope emphatically and giddily implored the audience conceive of the show’s structure—Unbolted is a, on a prima facie level, a fragmented narrative compartmentalized into the three linearly fluid, thematically aligned movements.  Structurally, the purposeful interspersing of two intermissions is enormously beneficial to the show’s overall impact and consumption--and, indeed, Unbolted and the individual and collected performances exist to be consumed, indicated by the sumptuously open, inventively in-the-round seating arrangement. Each period is a microcosmic entity, in which the extraordinarily complex and painstakingly precise choreography escalates from evocative and expressive to rapturously frenetic.  Stakes increase subtly yet feverishly—a counterintuitive simultaneity that is only achievable by the flawless precision and creativity of the choreography.  Each intermission, then, functions as a caesura, a moment in which the audience is allowed to breathe and digest what they have just consumed. And each moment to digest is crucial.  While the first period is a mesmerizing slow burn, allowing the audience to acclimate to the ceaseless rhythmic narrative that is presented to them and adjust to the multifaceted complexities of viewing a dance performance in the round (or, rather, in the rectangle), it ends drastically, with Dane Tooney’s beautifully craven interpretative routine that employs an ever-extending ribbon that he zigzags achingly across the stage, calling upon some audience members to participate by holding.  This first finale is riveting, Tooney’s fluidity impeccable, and the denouement begs the audience to consider what is unspoken, and what we achieve or strive to achieve through physicality that cannot simply be evoked with words. Unbolted truly catapults into the emotionally overwhelming realm in the second period.  Staged in a deceptively austere, tempered opening choreography in which the performers are seated, facing alternating directions, in a straight line.  At first the movements are subtle—hands, arms, gazes interweave and interlock as if to convey or physicalize the pulsations of a heart, or the twitches of a gorgeous vertebra. This enthrallingly simple beginning swells with immutable and unspeakable emotional aching—again, with brilliant deception, as the period kicks off with jaunty, high-spirited musical accompaniment at first—and each dancer truly comes into their own in a staging of an exclusionary game that escalates to a mortal renunciation and the panicked turmoil of loss.  Sarah Zielinski and Kaitlin Dann are at their most devastating and haunting—their individual moves and facial expressiveness stir something truly inchoate and heartbreaking that, coupled with the use of Adagio for Strings, reduced me (in the best way) to tears. The third period of Unbolted culminates with the construction of the notoriously monstrous chair, and the reliance on props (specifically the maps that divided and unified the various performers throughout the show) is expert, allowing the dancers to highlight both their technical and performative acumen. What is more, there is a resounding sense of completion and journey that is brought to a head in the final piece—as an audience member, perpetually acclimating to the multidimensionality of the show and the hyper-emotionality throughout, the final period feels triumphant.  The complicated fractiousness witnessed throughout—particularly between expert performers Anthony Williams and Ashley Williams in their show-long, complex relationship—seems, if not resolved, then even more meaningful in the show’s conclusion.  Unbolteds unexpected strength, too, lies in the performers’ astonishing abilities and communication of visceral feelings and their ability to outshine the concept of the show (and the 10 foot chair).  The dancers of the company are phenomenal, and the future potential of Attack is unquestionable given the astronomical success of Unbolted. Special thanks to Attack Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Unbolted has unfortunately already closed but you can find out more about Attack Theatre and what they're up to by clicking here. 

Lungs

By: Victor C. Leroi

scaled_256Some lines from Robert Frost’s 1914 "Home Burial" came to me Friday night while watching off the WALL's production of Duncan McMillan’s Lungs:  “You that dug with your own hand - how could you? - his little grave?” Dramatic works about failed pregnancies are at least one hundred years old. Some of the more famous works on this matter include Juno, Alfie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Cider House Rules. Lungs revisits much of this same territory without adding much new in terms of commentary or approach to the subject matter.

Lungs also implements some unique staging: there are what look like two small putting greens elevated at different levels with a long stretch of lights running up the center of the stage. There are no props and no changes in the scenery in the play even though the actors are meant to be in many different locations. The play also starts (and concludes) with very unusual interpretive dancing. Ten minutes into the play I was wondering if this Richard Wilson nostalgic staging was going to be so distracting that the entire play would be inaccessible, only to discovered that Richard Wilson in fact did stage design during a London version of Lungs.

I also have no idea why the play is called Lungs except that the work is about a couple worried about what “carbon footprint” bringing a child into the world would create. I wish that there’d maybe been the sound of lungs at some point in the background of the play or something more than an inference that provided an idea to the play’s title.

It might sound like I’m about to lambast Lungs. I’m not. This play is a very emotionally effective play despite having a few noticeable shortcomings and this effectiveness is nothing short of a testament of McMillan’s sensitive and natural dialogue and some top notch acting.

[caption id="attachment_4037" align="aligncenter" width="656"]Photo courtesy of off the WALL Photo courtesy of off the WALL[/caption]

The play features two characters, a boyfriend (Alec Silberblatt) and his girlfriend (Sarah Silk). I’ve been following Sarah Silk’s career since I used to watch her prodigious acting as a high schooler at Shady Side Academy. Last I’d heard, Silk was studying acting at the legendary Actors Center Conservatory (now the Actors Center) and I am so very glad that Silk is back in Pittsburgh. Her range has grown immeasurably as an actress and I wouldn’t be lying if I said that Sarah Silk is almost too good at the neurotic, eventually heartbroken female lead in Lungs. Silk’s ability to show sorrow mixed with longing and love with an occasionally dose of humor keeps the audience hanging on for more through the 100 minute, no intermission Lungs. Silberblatt gives an emotional and praiseworthy performance as well, but Lungs asks more out of its female performer and Silk responds by giving us our very own modern Madam Bovary.

The play’s plot is fairly simple, and I will do my best to give readers who might be interested in attending the show an idea of the play’s story without any spoilers. The couple contemplates having a child with special care taken to the environmental damage that can be created by bringing a human being into the world. Unfortunately, the couple encounters some hardships, which comprises the main drama of the play. There were some belly laughs during the beginning due to how the characters argue with each other, but I couldn’t find much humor in the play and I think that laughter were mostly the result of the audience growing accustomed to the performance and its character. The play carries the audience from light laughter, though, to intellectual weight to real emotional drama and tension. Does the play follow a similar arch to many other dramatic works? Yes, it does. But somehow, feeling like I’ve seen the whole thing before does not slow the evening down because the dialogue is honest and the characters (by which I mean actors) are so tremendously brave in their performances. I should also mention that Lungs uses an interesting technique throughout the play to fast forward through what might be conceived the boring moments of the couple’s story. Sometimes this technique works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The novelty and the way in which this narrative technique highlights certain elements of the storytelling in Lungs.

Lungs is not for younger viewers. Lungs is also not for those who might find the play’s subject matter a bitter overwrought. Sure, Lungs may not be as blindingly memorable as theater classics like After the Fall or Long Day’s Journey but it is an incredibly moving play. If you measure the success of a play by the amount of thoughts and emotions the work can create in an audience then don’t miss Lungs because the play is an unquestionable success.

Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets. Lungs runs at Carnegie Stage through Saturday December 17th. For tickets and more information click here.

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