The Wizard of Oz

By: George Hoover
wooIf you are parents or grandparents of preschoolers, and love theatre, a suitable show to introduce them to the magic of theatre isn’t always easy to find. Gemini Children’s Theater has the perfect solution to introduce the kiddos to both live theatre and the Wizard of Oz. Their production, with an original musical adaptation for children by company founders Dennis Palko and Lani Cataldi, captures Dorothy’s (Savanah Bruno) adventure in a preschooler-friendly style.  Dorothy sets out on the familiar yellow brick road, with her beloved pup Toto (Quincy Sauter). She meets the Scarecrow (Darrin Mosley, Jr.) Tin Man (Bogdan Haiko) and the Cowardly Lion (Bob Colbert). They accompany her to find the Wizard and ask for the things they need; a brain, a heart, some courage and a way home. Palko and Cataldi along with Director June Beighley show their skill and experience in crafting a child-friendly production. It is not too loud, not too scary and it is very interactive. The lead actors play not only their characters but serve as “helpers” to keep the children in the audience engaged. Several times, just as the kids in the audience are on the edge of fidgety, the actors call them up on stage to help move the story along.  The actors teach them movement and marching with magic scarves that each child receives upon arrival at the theatre along with poppies to cast a spell. Excess energy is burned off, and when the children return to their seats, they are ready to absorb a new character and situation. This approach works superbly well over the two-hour runtime, avoiding any meltdowns in the audience. The munchkins, flying monkeys, students, citizens and crabby trees are played both by children and adults further engage the young audience and perhaps sparking interest in participating on stage in the future. (Gemini offers classes for children interested in theatre.) Bruno’s Dorothy approaches her adventure out of kindness and friendship, without fear. She yearns to get home, yet helps others along her way. Mosley’s Scarecrow takes advantage of his dance and theatre training at Slippery Rock with expressive movement and gestures. Haiko’s Tin Man is perfect. In an interesting twist, he channels a bit of C3PO from Star Wars, who was somewhat inspired by the Tin Man. The audience loved Colbert’s Cowardly Lion, the tough guy in search of courage. Carina Iannarelli as the Wicked Witch and Emily Palma as Auntie Em and Glinda (the good witch) are excellent in their portrayals. 26910225_1708740829188710_6605773551841023666_oLani Cataldi has written new songs and lyrics for the production and serves as Musical Director for the production as well. While I confess I didn’t leave the theatre humming a tune from the show, the score and songs integrate very well into the flow of the story and serve as another means to engage the young audience. Gemini’s production is different than the MGM musical extravaganza, but no one seemed to mind. The Wizard of Oz is an elaborate show to stage with many characters and locations. Dennis Palko’s set design is efficient and beautifully executed. Jill Jeffery’s costumes fit the bill perfectly, bright and colorful without overwhelming the characters. June Beighley’s imaginative direction seamlessly integrates it all together along with the audience interaction. After the show, the entire cast is available to sign autographs in the lobby which is a nice touch for the kids. Space for the autographs is provided in the program. Gemini Children’s Theatre has been around for twenty plus years; they have the children’s theatre thing figured out. There new modern home at the Father Ryan Arts Center is the perfect intimate venue for their work. If you have preschool kids or grandkids, Gemini Children’s Theater production of The Wizard of Oz is the perfect opportunity to introduce them to the magic of live theatre and spur their creativity and imagination. The Wizard of Oz, by the Gemini Children’s Theatre at the Ryan Arts & Culture Center in McKees Rocks. Performances are at 1 pm and 3:30 pm on Saturdays and Sundays now through  February 4th. For tickets visit https://geminitheatercompany.thundertix.com/events/111239 Thanks to the Gemini Theater Company for the complimentary tickets. Photos from Gemini Children's Theater

Sex Werque

By: Jason Clearfield
25443090_1158464754284171_7776300173192766636_nThere's a certain banality to a stripper undressing at home after a shift.  It's still stripping, but it's just the bane of every working soul at that point: the slow unlacing of the stilettos and the rolling up of the leggings to be used again.  A negligee for a little warmth and a tumbler of bourbon. “I'm always really touched when they value the emotional labor I'm putting in,” says Moriah Ella Mason in her one-woman show: Sex Werque at Carnegie Stage. “It doesn't matter,” she says.  “Everyone is a fill-in for someone who is not there...the club is a fill-in for me too.” Understanding the vanity of the strip club for both parties involved: the spectators and the strippers; you're left with a qualification that is both surreal and disjointed as to 'what a strip club's for?' As Mason defines it, a place of “intense, unrealistic attention...A place entirely free from real love.” “I'm at work and I'm not your girlfriend.  So if you want to act like my boyfriend, you need to pay me.” The value, in question, fulfills a need.   A condolence for something missing.  And this show attempts to reconcile a justification for brilliant, bodily tribute to the female form with the damaged burden which surrounds it: patriarchy. There's never a moment without movement in this show.  It encapsulates all the embodiments of a body's mood: frenetic pacing, shaking, dancing, and even stillness worked up to create dramatic, stunning silences.  This is a study of the body, as Mason is never not on display steadily building up the crowd with her performative moves meant to arouse.  But they exist with a certain distance not allowing them to be tantalizing, but rather investigated: the 'sexy' becomes 'what is seen as sexy?'.  She gives numbers to the routine, building up to a point where she's gyrating each of her butt's cheeks counting off their position in the routine: “13...14...13...14...13, 13, 13...14.” She offers her routine, but with the stream-of-consciousness in her head it becomes a lesson in how the sausage is made, how the magician creates their illusion. The brilliant scoring by a percussionist and sound machine player J.F. Winkles and cellist Eric Weidenhof offer a sleek barroom jazz that transforms with electronic mutability into a soundscape which mesmerizes from mise en scène towards wildness as the story gains emotion.  With the slings and arrows of Mason's affirmations and decimations; come the palpable flavor of harmonies leading simultaneously to both promise and away into chaos. The Video Design and Projections given by Liz Barentine provide a gracious supplementation to the singular perspective of Mason.  On screen, as interludes between Mason's stories, are sections of interviews with other strippers.  You never see their faces, only hear their words and are thrown a montage of their body engaged either casually sitting around for the interview or showing off a focus of their own routines.  The largeness of a singular breast on screen, or the pan across an arm or a leg gives a focus to the body that takes away from the fantasy.  It separates the assumptions one makes about a person from simply seeing their face.  It concentrates on the way they have broken down their body into its parts and further gains insight into this strange alien perception of objectification.  You hear these women speak about their experiences, logic and understanding of both the queer motivations of men and a testament towards their identity as strippers.  This is work.  They are workers doing a job.  But the job (despite assumptions) is not to be an object, but to be a person for someone: a stand-in for what somebody needs. Ella-P004A great theme of this show is that there are two identities which define men at a strip club: “one who is actively looking for humanity versus another who is looking for an object...junk food versus a real meal.”  Mason describes her experience of sometimes essentially being “a therapist with my boobs out.” She unveils a certain vulnerability that men have with going to the strip club as a rite of passage for a Bachelor Party. The unique treat to be able to sit and talk with a man during a paid-for private lap dance rather than perform a perfunctory, ill-received demonstration of what this act of sexual gratuitousness should be: “Masculinity is a trap,” she says, “And [some] people want to get what they paid for, even if they didn't want that thing in the first place.” It's within this scheme of absurdity that her mission arises.  A magically provocative set of questions.  She asks the audience to ask her, “Why are you doing this?”  To various people, she answers: College Debt.  The Need to be Seen.  Nymphomania.  Loneliness. None of these answers are simply true; maybe aspects, but not wholly.  The real answer is ambiguous and layered, because it's work.  She will not have a simple back story, because there are many facets for her being this affirmative performer: money, a need not to feel ugly, to dress femme, to own herself. “I laid back, spreading my legs and letting a strange man stare at my pussy.  It's ridiculous.  It's ridiculous that this is my job." Mason is no longer a stripper.  And for the sake of not spoiling, I won't tell you why.  I will say that at the crux of her decision is a moment where the boundary between fantasy and reality gets betrayed.  In this cultural moment where consent is being defined and refined, the elements of sexuality are being put to question.  Mason pulls the audience into her show, asking us to take part in saying things to our audience neighbors.  Saying them in a sexy way, to a stranger.  Then engaging a stranger in a handshake, with full eye contact for 10 seconds.  “Great” she says, “you now have what it takes to be a stripper.” It's not just the dance, but the psychology of what it takes to fulfill the fantasy for lost, lonely people looking for connection.  She's at once a human defying objectivity by having a mission and a personality, but abreast in a world where the identity of the body is betrayed by the limits of ill-gotten objectification. It's about identity, and the needs therein.  And how someone can share themselves by being a human and by being with someone for a moment, fulfilling a human need.  And ideally, transcending what misogyny makes a woman's sexuality into a thing. Sex Werque runs at Carnegie Stage through January 21 for tickets and more information click here. Photos by Heather Mull.

Pittsburgh Opera’s Benjamin Taylor Takes “The Long Walk”

By: George B. Parous
HeaderFor the third offering of its current season, Pittsburgh Opera will present another local premiere of a contemporary work, The Long Walk, beginning Saturday evening, January 20, at the CAPA Theater. With music by composer Jeremy Howard Beck and a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, the opera is adapted from Brian Castner’s critically acclaimed, autobiographical book of the same title. The opera explores a soldier’s return from Iraq, where he served as an officer in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit, and his struggle with “the Crazy” that gnaws at his brain as he tries to re-adapt to family and civilian life. Opera Saratoga premiered the work in the summer of 2015. Castner’s emotional story is said to tell the tale with a “brutal honesty” that carries over to its operatic treatment. Resident Artist Benjamin Taylor, baritone, will sing the leading role of Brian, and earlier this week shared some thoughts with us about his career and his part in the upcoming production.  It’s always interesting to learn from young singers how they began their pursuit of operatic careers. “I’ve been enamored with music since I was a child,” Mr. Taylor shared. “I sang in choirs and also played in metal bands throughout middle and high school.  I got into opera when I did a program in Rome for six weeks, and saw Verdi’s Rigoletto for the first time. Rigoletto’s aria ‘Cortigianni vil razza dannata’ moved me so much that I changed my plans of doing choral work to becoming an opera singer.” [caption id="attachment_6132" align="aligncenter" width="494"]Former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War, Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) Former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War, Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)[/caption] His studies and experience to date are quite impressive. He has a Master’s of Music degree from Boston University, where he also earned his Performer’s Certificate from Boston University’s Opera Institute. His performances with the Institute included roles in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Così fan tutte, La Tragédie de Carmen, Angels in America, and other works. For the past three summers Mr. Taylor has been a Gerdine Young Artist, and Richard Gaddes Festival Artist with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where he sang roles in The Barber of Seville, Shalimar the Clown, Madama Butterfly, and covered roles in La Bohème, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Trial and other operas. In 2016, he sang the role of Marcello in La Bohème with Crested Butte Festival, and Yamadori (Madama Butterfly) in Berkshire Opera’s inaugural season. He received his Bachelor’s of the Arts at Morgan State University, where he sang with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. [caption id="attachment_6133" align="alignright" width="199"]Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) and her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor) Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) and her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)[/caption] “There are a lot of wonderful challenges in this role for me,” Mr. Taylor added regarding the upcoming performances of The Long Walk. “This is the biggest role I have ever sung, as well as the hardest musically. One major hurdle is that I’m running in multiple scenes and singing at the same time. Being that I don’t run for exercise - or enjoyment - I had to learn to love it, at least for a few months!” Sustaining the breath control and tone production so necessary in opera, while involved in vigorous physical action is, indeed, no easy task. “I have a lot of family members who have served in almost every branch of the military, and just as many friends that have served as well. One of my best friends served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he deals with his own ‘long walk.’ Doing this piece is special to me because I am able to have a glimpse of what Brian and my friend experienced after coming back from the war and empathize with them on some level.” Since past seasons have proved that the company's Resident Artist productions are frequently very impressive highlights of the winter months, Pittsburgh Opera's The  Long Walk  should prove a worthy presentation of the work's first local hearing. Joining Mr. Taylor in the cast will be Resident Artists Leah de Gruyl, Eric Ferring, Shannon Jennings, Ashley Fabian and others. Glenn Lewis will conduct for the production, directed by Frances Rabalais and designed by Kathryn Fetrow. For tickets, full cast and production details, educational resources and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera. David Bachman Photography

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