Director Connor McCanlus’ deep experience as a comedian and improv artist shines in Throughline Theatre Company’s uproarious production of The Inspector General. McCanlus doesn’t limit the production to dialogue-driven humor. He is attuned to character and layers in well-timed physical comedy that spans the overt to the nuanced. The County Court Judge (Hazel Carr Leroy) pulls at his shirt and breathes heavily when the Postmaster (Rachelmae Pulliam) dramatically reads a racy letter aloud, hips swaying. Four doors on the set are often slammed in synchrony, reminding us this is a play about dramatic entrances and exits. The doors are so close they’re practically adjoining, so their very presence evokes a comedic air. Local gossips Bobchinski (Michael McBurney) and Dobchinski (Samwise Riley) were clearly Tweedledee and Tweedledum in another life. The two stooges, both in black bowler hats, try to enter the same door at the same time, their round bodies filling the doorframe as each tries to pop free in front of the other. The Inspector General centers on the mishaps resulting from a case of mistaken identity regarding a visiting government official. Nikolai Gogol’s play was first performed in April 1836, but it’s surprisingly modern. Much of this is due to the fresh take McCanlus brings it. When provincial government officials learn the Inspector General is coming from the big city of St. Petersburg, they quickly scramble on how to cover up and reposition their rampant bribetaking, misdirection of funds, and decadent personal gains at the public expense. Hmm, sound strikingly contemporary? Unfortunately, Gogol shows us the abuse of power is a timeless tale. With accusations of payoffs and personal gains making daily headlines in the current political climate, Gogol’s work seems ever more relevant. [caption id="attachment_7543" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Daniel Pivovar, Chelsea Bartel, Hazel Leroy, and Rachelmae Pulliam[/caption] The Governor (Everett Lowe) perfectly captures the sweaty freneticism of a man desperate to keep his house of cards from falling. He frantically gives advice to each of his fellow government officials that can only be described as slapping lipstick on a pig. He suggests the Commissioner of Charity and Warden of the Hospital (Chelsea Bartel) put patients one to a bed and top each with a clean nightcap. As hypocritical as her compadres, the Charity Commissioner with her Barbie-cocked arm and perennially dangling cigarette wears a designer suit and pearls. Costume designer Ali Roush wisely designs a white dress suit, a nice foil to the dirty hospital conditions that shows how removed the Commissioner is from the daily toil and reinforces her crimes of the white collar variety. Bartel’s black cat-eye eyeliner gives her an omnipresent look of abashed shock. The only charity coffers she cares to fill are her own, but Bartel neatly flips on a pretense of caring for the underserved in front of the supposed Inspector General (Gregory Tomasino). [caption id="attachment_7541" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Val Williams, Michael McBurney, Samwise Riley, Chelsea Bartel, and Tyler Ray Kendrick[/caption] Ultimately, the government officials solve the problem via the means they know best. They plan to bribe the Inspector General. They hope he’ll accept the funds and look the other way so they can continue with business as usual. Act II opens with a parade of officials coming to awkwardly speak with him, assure him all is well, and offer him an envelope of cash. Like any case of mistaken identity, the center cannot hold, so the play explores the indignant discovery that the Inspector General is not who they thought he was. Tomasino plays Khlestakov/the supposed Inspector General with a thoughtful lightness. He’s initially unaware why he's receiving the royal treatment, but he accepts it unquestioningly. He quickly mirrors the attitude of the local officials, brazenly and happily accepting their donations in exchange for his murmured assurances, showing the frighteningly lightning speed of power’s corruptive forces. Gogol comedically suggests we’re all inclined to be the worst versions of ourselves when the opportunity presents itself. [caption id="attachment_7542" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Rebekah Hukill, Greg Tomasino, and Everett Lowe[/caption] The play is full of comic asides and gender-bending, making it reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy. McCanlus does an admirable job of holding the line between chaos and clarity. The town officials mistake the supposed Inspector General’s girlfriend, Osip (Jalina K. McClarin), for his manservant, surfacing how expectation shapes perception. Osip is more perceptive than her partner and has one of the great asides as she lightly quips, “How easy it is to play the man.” Far less easy is playing the role of artistic director at any theatre company. The Inspector General marks artistic director Sean Sears’ final production after 10 years at Throughline, and Sears goes out on a high note with this memorably worthy swansong. Throughline Theatre Company’s production of The Inspector General continues through August 18th at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. Visit Throughline Theatre online where you can also purchase tickets via their website. Photos by Rick Moore.
As someone who was reared in the golden era of Disney, I stand out as one of the anomalies who has never seen The Little Mermaid. Part of this exclusion from the canon was my mother’s renouncing of any narrative that she perceived as outrightly endorsing a “princess/woman desperately seeking” message. But the primary contributing factor to my never going under the sea, as it were, was my visceral fear and hysterical outbursts as a child that would occur whenever someone would try to make me watch Mermaid and Ursula would appear on the screen. I could never get past it to have a meaningful viewing experience (or as significant of a viewing experience as a four-year-old can have). Lo and behold, though, in Comtra Theatre’s recent production of The Little Mermaid, Ursula—played with ravishingly, sneering glee by Clay Glenny—not only stole the show but managed to enrapture me completely. Which is not to say the entire cast didn’t shimmer and shine with beautiful incandescence like one of Ariel’s pilfered nautical treasures. This is perhaps an aggressively trite sentiment to open with, but the cast of The Little Mermaid, as a multitalented, multifaceted ensemble, is above and beyond one of the most charming and effervescent group of actors I have watched in quite some time. Every player—from the spellbinding duo of Victoria Buchtan as Ariel and Naomi Costanza as Flounder; to the hilariously charismatic Ryan Wagner as Scuttle—is resplendent with their own charm and dynamic group energy. More often than not, there is a noticeable dichotomy in the performance style when a cast takes on a venerated/beloved children’s classic—the performances are either abundantly “eager-beaver,” being a bit too cheeky and too over-the-top; or dulled to oblivion, besotted with a sort of begrudging “let’s do the kids show” air. The cast of Mermaid, however, is so incomparably delightful, imbuing each song and exchange with the perfect level of gleeful pomp and raw talent. No cast has been more ebullient, more flawless in their vocal performances and energetic stage presences. Their collective and individual performances, and the utterly enthralled and deeply connected reactions from the audience that they evoked were reminders that not only is there space for whimsical, blissful musicals and adaptations in today’s theatre, but there is a distinct joy in partaking in a superbly and authentically acted piece of theatre. Mermaid, which adheres very religiously to the source material, is an overwhelmingly accessible and enjoyable production, except for the structural problems that arise with the stage limitations at Comtra. While the “in the round” style that Comtra strives for with the space they have to work with is wonderful conceptually, the structure of the space often disallows members of the audience to see certain players in a given scene and the full breadth of the action on stage. However, despite this, the stage production and costume work on Mermaid overcompensates for the limits of the space, and the bombastic elements of wardrobe and design are almost characters in and of themselves. The Little Mermaid is a marvelously delightful instance of pure fun at the theatre that should not be missed. The cast and crew effortlessly adapt and perfects the original in such a way that leaves the audience feeling overjoyed and pleasantly impressed. I am thrilled my terror at Mermaid was officially drowned with this lively remake. The Little Mermaid runs at Comtra Theatre in Cranberry through August 19. For tickets and more information, click here.
Apple Hill Playhouse’s latest production, Mama Won't Fly, opened to a full house of loyal followers on Thursday. (The show had its world premiere at Stage Right in 2011.) Written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten, the show is basically a long-form version of the “classic” TV sketch comedy as done on The Carol Burnett Show or In Living Color. Outrageous situations, bad jokes, and over the top physical comedy held together by quick pacing can make for a hilarious and entertaining show. Mama Won't Fly is the story of a daughter, Savannah Sprunt Fairchild Honeycutt (Dr. Lisa Bompiani-Smith), who agrees to drive her mother, Norleen (Pam Eyler), across the country from Alabama to California to attend her brother’s wedding because her mother announces “she won’t fly.” After much debate, Norleen agrees to head cross-country in Mama's vintage sedan, but not before Hayley Quinn (Katy Grant), the effervescent, over-eager bride-to-be arrives unannounced. Hayley is convinced that traveling together to her wedding is the perfect way to bond with her soon to be in-laws. In Mama Won’t Fly, anything that can go wrong does. There are encounters at an underwear museum, stolen vehicles, crafty cops, community theatre barflies, lost loves, and a “murder” at a family reunion. The show is rich in bad jokes, to the point they seem to pop up for no reason. Did the three writers each bring their copy of the literary classic Uncle John’s Bathroom Humor to their writing sessions? The conclusion, however, will surprise you with a satisfying ending to an otherwise rough and bumpy ride. In addition to the three main characters, four actors: Craig Soich, Mike Crosby, Susan Szymanowski Shirley (who also Stage Manages), and Pamela Lee, cover the seventeen characters the ladies meet in those humorous situations as they travel across America. Crosby’s over the top portrayal of Officer Dugger and the drag queen/showgirl/minister along with Lee’s drunken English lassie at the bar provide refreshing moments to this longish journey. Director Chelsea Fredrickson is credited in the program for “stepping in at the last minute to save the show.” Judging from the reaction of most of the audience throughout the performance, she succeeded. The production does have its moments, particularly the performances of Crosby and Lee. Despite the efforts of Director Fredrickson, the actors and backstage crew, Mama Won’t Fly, is still a mediocre comedy at best. Mama Won’t Fly heads cross country at 7:30 pm on August 10th, 11th, 16tgh, 17th, and 18th with a matinee on the 12th at 2 pm. Tickets for Apple Hill Playhouse shows and events are only available through the AHP box office which is staffed Mon-Thurs 6-8pm. Outside of those hours, please leave a message at (724) 468-5050 and box office staff will get back to you as soon as possible.