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Walking in to see my first Quantum Theatre production ever I had no idea what to expect. Chickens in the Yard by playwright Paul Kruse has given me a unique style to continue to look forward to from Quantum, and the Hatch Arts Collective. From the moment I entered the space in Lawrenceville I was invited not just to watch but to participate in a theatrical event. The space, what appeared to be a small gutted machine shop, had been designed by Britton Mauk to feel/look like both a back porch, and a recently built chicken coop. Basing wholly on the title of the play, the corrugated sheet metal, simple pine set, and warm lights strung across the rafters, it made me feel like I was inside a home-made chick incubator. The simplicity of the set, acceptance of the performance space, and the fact that elements blended together throughout the span the entire house made me feel welcomed and invited to this world. Playwright Paul Kruse has created a wonderful set of characters in his writing. This play features several story arcs that all weave tightly together, like chicken wire, closely wound together at points, spreading apart only to tightly wind around another. The play opens with three chickens, Lucille Two (Laurie Klatscher), Bruce Lee (Joseph McGranaghan), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Alec Silberblatt) strutting around the yard in hen-peckingly precise stylized movement. While I was a little nervous at this opening action, wondering how a play about chickens was going to keep me engaged, I was quickly, and carefully shown. The transition between movement of chickens, and the entrance of human characters was created in a delightfully simple convention of stepping slightly off and on stage. Through these carefully and clearly observed conventions chickens became humans as the characters who seek out discovery of self and family. The scene begins Tom, also played by Silberblatt, and Joyce, played by Klatscher, having a discussion of concern that it’s been almost a year and none of the hens have lain any eggs, and an apologetic Tom admitting that he’s forgotten to by chicken feed on his way home from work. Instead, he brought home a fourth chicken. The fourth chicken, Anne Hutchinson (Siovhan Christensen) timidly joins the brood. Within minutes Anne Hutchinson is fighting with Bruce Lee. The scene progresses as Joyce’s son John, Tom’s partner, played by McGranaghan, arrives home from work. Hints of tension are revealed as the young hospital administrator is asked about his day with his reply of “I don’t want to talk about it.” Amidst the excited clucking of approval and uncertainty, John is let off the hook as Abby, Tom’s sister, whom he hasn’t seen since he left his family’s farm when she was four, appears at the door. Abby, played by Christensen, arrives at the house under the guise of researching colleges in the city. She enters the space as timidly as her fowl counterpart did minutes ago. Abby’s surprise visit, puts all previous conversations on hold, allowing them to incubate, and grow throughout the show, at the same time creating a fantastic tension as her own problems add to the mix. Laurie Klatscher, who plays Joyce Park, proved to be a great mother hen for the cast. She has developed a powerful balance between a seemingly aloof hippy raising chickens in the city, and a woman who is incredibly sharp. In group scenes, she is seen to be incredibly caring and free spirited, encouraging creative thought and gentle banter. In moments alone with other characters, Klatscher uses these elements to powerfully inform Joyce’s maternal instincts, revealing a woman who is truly grounded and protective of those around her. Klatscher has developed a character who has accepted who she is, and what she wants. McGranaghan and Silberblatt’s characters spend the most time searching for their identities. John, the more down to earth of the couple, spends much of his time trying to discover who he is. While Tom, an out of work artist, is searching to understand their identity as a couple. The two cluck and coo as feathers get ruffled, when John, unsure of who he is, struggles to understand Tom’s selfless need for John to be happy. Watching Ms. Christenson craft Abby is as intense as it is unsettling. She comes off as incredibly shy and quiet, kind and polite. Much like her counterpart, Abby is quick to avoid conversations that get too close to the truth. It is clear that she is telling a different story to each character, her way of struggling to discover who she is. More important is her own self-discovery of why she lies. It was evident to me throughout the show how careful and clear director Adil Mansoor was with his intentions. There never seemed to be a moment that wasn’t well thought out and crafted as discovery of self unfolds for each character in the show. However some of the stylistic choices didn’t always make sense to me. In several flashbacks during the show several actors at once would appear as a memories of a single character, moving and speaking in beautifully crafted moments, but I was not sure of necessity of the stylistic choice. Patrick Hayes lighting design, and David JM Bielewicz’ sound design were great conceptual aids to the show. While in the present moments, the lighting was warm and inviting, and the live music gentle and caressing to the ear. In the more stylistic moments, such as the memories, lights were utilized in a simple shift to a much cooler tone, as did the music. Much like the actors transformation into chickens, this simple convention only aided in the story telling. So what does it take to “…want the things you want?” And how does one decide who they are? I think Chickens in the Yard explores these questions wonderfully, while not offering a definitive answer. After leaving the theatre, and driving home I wondered that myself. Am I who I will be? Do I want what I want? For now, yes to both questions, but I also expect both answers to change over time. I hope that when they do, I am ready to see, and accept the change. Special thanks to Quantum Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Chickens in the Yard runs through December 6, tickets and more information can be found here.
Stage 62 has done it again, another performance with impeccable professionalism and a cast with boundless talent. The Rocky Horror Show (TRHS) is not for the conservative or prudish. This is a show rife with sexual prowess and decadent human behaviors, all in the name of fun! Having grown up as a Rocky Horror Picture Show groupie I promised myself I would not sit through the performance constantly comparing the play to the film, but in all honesty, the two are nearly identical. Except for one added song in the live show, “Once In a While”, performed by Brad, the film thoroughly mimics the live show. If you are familiar with the movie, or perhaps have seen TRHS performed someplace else, you will have a great time. If you have yet to experience Rocky, in any form please read ahead, the show is not for everyone. The musical begins with Kristen Welch, as Magenta, on a dark stage. She shines a flashlight directly on her face, emphasizing her dark red lips as her velvety voice hits all the right notes in the opening number, “Science Fiction Double Feature”. The bartender/ narrator, Stage 62 newbie, Nathan Hough whose smooth but smoky voice delivers the dialogue and complements his charming hipster styled suit complete with plaid bowtie. Without missing a beat he is quick to retort the call lines that are shouted by the audience and maintain a cool and collected demeanor. The story begins with Brad Majors, played by senior Point Park University musical theater major Nick Black, and his newly engaged girlfriend Janet Weiss, played by cute-as-a-button Marissa Buchheit driving in a rain storm and the car breaks down. Fortunately, they see a castle in the distance and decide to ask who ever lives there if they can borrow a phone to call for help. Upon arriving at the castle, Brad and Janet meet Riff- Raff the man servant, played by vast vocalist Keaton Jadwin, Riff’s sister the maid Magenta and admirer Columbia, followed by rock n roller Eddie, played by Joyce Hinnebusch, an avid Pittsburgh community theater performer and then the stars of the show, Dr. Frank N Furter, a self-proclaimed scientist, transvestite alien from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy Transylvania, and his man made creation, the buff and tan muscle man, Rocky and Dr. Scott. During the musical the cast wears very little clothing, flaunt their bodies, and simulate various sex acts with one another as Dr. Frank N Furter attempts to convert Brad, Janet and his newly unveiled boy- toy Rocky to his depraved way of living. This is an incredibly ludicrous story, a parody of old B Sci- Fi and horror films. It’s difficult to explain the energy is that keeps TRHS audience cheering and begging for more, but I can attest to the catchy musical numbers and the inappropriate, over sexualized characters dancing and singing “The Time Warp” as the audience jumps to their feet and follow along. There is a lot of shouting “Asshole” or “Slut” when Brad and Janet are on stage, a remnant from audience participation at the infamous midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All of this unconventional behavior could overwhelm someone or make them uncomfortable if they show up unaware of the nature of TRHS. For people who have participated before the audience is open to much of the same behaviors that occur in the movie theater. This cast is energetic and the entire show is like a party. It’s obvious the cast is having a blast on stage and this spirit spills over into the entire theater. Buchheit’s silvery voice has a hint of innocence and Black’s small stature is deceiving, I expected a delicate voice and was excited to hear him produce an accomplished and talented ability. Roberts plays an astounding Frank n Furter. He struts across the stage, stomps his feet and crawls on all fours in thigh highs, garters and a g-string with an appearance of sheer effortlessness. His long legs are sexy but are no match to Adam Mazza’s pectorals and quadriceps. In form fitting, short denim shorts and a pretty smile, Mazza was built for the part of Rocky and on stage, he owns it, ‘just 7 hours old’, he is gullible and easily persuaded, and the audience cheers him on. Larissa Jantonio as Columbia is meek at first, following the lead of Dr. Frank N Furter, Magenta and Riff Raff, but as the show progresses her character gains strength and so does Jantonio’s voice. During the floor show she nails the notes and seems comfortable performing exotic dancing, shaking her petite frame while rubbing a feather boa around her body. Eric Mathews role as Dr. Scott is perfection. He does not falter a moment with his accent and his skills moving around stage in a wheelchair. Lastly, I must mention the Phantoms, TRHS ensemble. Their harmonizing during “Hot Patootie” and the licentious orgy scene toward the end of the musical were definitely highlights of the performance. Expect moments that will shock you, make you laugh and sometimes cause you to shift uncomfortably in your seat. Ultimately a free-for-all style show where anything can happen. Prepare to be wowed by a cast with vocal and acting aptitudes beyond the scope of TRHS script and remember, it’s supposed to be fun, ‘so give yourself over to absolute pleasure’ and check out Stage 62’s final two performances tonight at 8pm and midnight. Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. For more information, check out their website here.
A couple of months ago I saddled up to my Netflix and watched the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? For an hour or so I absorbed the story of singer/activist Nina Simone and got teary at her political and personal struggles. More recently when I sat down at City Theatre’s production of Sunset Baby I was shown the struggles of another woman named Nina. That’s not a coincidence: the character Nina was named after Nina Simone by her parents. Nina has taken to listening to the songs of Ms. Simone in her apartment, which serve as the soundtrack for the show. Just like when I watched the documentary, Sunset Baby allowed me to follow the story of another strong woman just trying to survive the world she lives in. Nina is a young woman living in a dingy apartment in East New York, Brooklyn. Her mother, a well-known black activist and a drug addict, has passed away a few months earlier. Nina makes her money by pushing drugs and robbing men with her boyfriend Damon. The opening scene sees Nina dressing in revealing clothing to go out and then going to her kitchen drawer and casually pulling a gun out of it. Nina is a hardened woman living a dangerous life, and she is used to it. She receives an unexpected visit from her father Kenyatta, who was recently released from prison. Nina considers her father a stranger since he was never around during her childhood, and greets him with hostility. He claims to be there to read letters Nina was left from her mother, although Nina points out the letters are of great value to anyone who would want to publish the words of the late activist. This distrust is the main source of conflict between them; is Kenyatta there for love or is he looking out for himself? Over the one-act play we see many sides of Nina. In the second scene Nina comes home still dressed in her “street” clothes. Over a somber Nina Simone song, Nina changes out of her street attire and into some sweats, removes her wig and makeup, and fixes herself a cup of tea. Joniece Abbott-Pratt sells these silent actions by giving Nina a vulnerability so different from the woman we met earlier. Nina is tough as nails, and will yell and defend herself against anyone who gives her trouble. Inside her, though, is a woman who just wants to escape to anywhere else and live a much simpler life. Nina’s plan with Damon is to make enough money to move away and give up this life she knows she doesn’t really want. Ms. Abbott-Pratt does a great job at capturing the complicated mind of Nina. Nina has an understandably harsh world view and we see her facing some big demons. While she bends a little bit to the pressure she never fully breaks down; Nina is a survivor through and through. The men in her life are just as complicated. Keith Randolph Smith plays Kenyatta as a charismatic and soft-spoken man, and at the beginning you truly believe he wants to reconnect with his daughter and his late wife. His monologues that occur between scenes are said into a video camera that is projected onto the back of the set. Kenyatta is leaving video messages for his daughter, his version of letters to get out everything he’s wanted to say to her over the years. But, as both Nina and Damon point out, Kenyatta is no stranger to hustling people and while his intentions may be pure he is not above using manipulation to get what he wants. Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson) appears to be in a loving “Bonne and Clyde” relationship with Nina, and Mr. Nicholson gives him a charm and intelligence one would not automatically expect from a drug-dealing boyfriend type. Beneath the surface is the undeniable truth that they are living a dangerous life and that Damon has the capacity to be a dangerous man. There is no “good” or “bad” with any of these characters; they are people trying to get by. In her program notes playwright Dominique Morisseau asks of black activists “how do you build a world and a home at the same time?”. Nina’s mother was trying to create a better world for all black lives, including her daughter’s, but in her struggle she ended up leaving her daughter in an undesirable situation. Nina’s personal struggle is in trying to build a life for herself. Her mother may have made some changes in the world, but Nina’s going to have to be the one to create her own personal happiness. Nina craves a simple life when her current one is very complicated and full of secrets. In a way, Sunset Baby shows how difficult it can be to achieve happiness in the world. In the process of changing things for the better there are bound to be casualties, whether they’re actual lives lost or important relationships abandoned. The end of the play was met with some mild griping from my fellow audience members, although whether that was from confusion or just dissatisfaction I can’t say. I liked it though; it ended on a hopeful note for Nina. It wasn’t a “happily ever after” story, but the story of a survivor. Because at the end of the day, we’re all Nina and we just have to survive. Sunset Baby Presented by City Theatre Company Directed by Jade King Carroll Written by Dominique Morisseau Designed by Tony Ferrieri (scenery), Angela M. Vesco (costumes), Andrew David Ostrowski (lighting), Joe Pino (sound), Kristi Jan Hoover (photos) Starring Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Nina), J. Alphonse Nicholson (Damon), Keith Randolph Smith (Kenyatta). Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Sunset Baby runs until December 13th. Tickets and more information can be found here.