One of Pittsburgh’s most treasured annual events, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival has successfully bestowed upon us another year of marvelous original work! I had the pleasure of viewing their fourth round of original one-acts at the lovely Carnegie Stage (home to Off the Wall Productions). Program D included Brotherhood by Garry Kluger, Influence by Jennifer Tromble, and Once Upon a Mattress Store by Stephen Engel. Gary Kluger, a notable author of books, plays, and television contributed his play, Brotherhood to the festival, which was produced by The Theatre Factory. A piece rooted within the buried complexities of the past, Brotherhood revolves around the unusual reunion of two brothers. Due to a mutual business deal of sorts, the brothers are seeing each other for the first time in years, in rather unexpected (and unpleasant) circumstances. A conflict between the two that begins based on business dealings, branches into an expression of the family conflict they never confronted. Not only did the actors (Terry Westwood and Tom Kolos) convey a realistic and relatable struggle between brothers… but they lead us into a clear and thorough exploration of the characters’ inner conflicts.The collaboration in writing and acting very eloquently interwove elements of inner struggle, hardships in relationships, and the stress of life’s consequences. After seeing the show, I was impressed and surprised by how well I felt I was able to get to know each character, despite the short length of the piece. Brotherhood brought drama while still illustrating relatable struggles through a unique and well executed plot in which I felt fully intrigued and involved in. I loved this piece because it had a clear sense of closure, yet still left me wanting to find out more. Influence by Jennifer Tromble, presented by the Heritage players, continued the thematic thread of the inner-workings of family. I absolutely loved Influence; a piece showing us a conflict between mother and son, but truly about the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. In the play, a son is confronting his mother, Marie, about his suspicions that she is a “bad influence” on his young daughter. Through discussing why this is not so, a very clear picture is drawn of the strong, positive relationship between the granddaughter and her grandmother… despite the blue-collar harshness of Marie’s attitude. It is suggested that perhaps this little girl’s father isn’t truly looking at the reality of what’s going on… pointing out the importance of accepting reality in order to progress. The part of Marie was executed so, so well by Linda Anschuetz-- she reminded me in so many ways of some very strong, wonderful Pittsburgh ladies that I know and love. Shining light on the importance and necessity of deeply examining what is really going on with your loved ones, and with yourself, Influence was a heart-warming piece full of strong character and truth. Lastly, we saw Once Upon a Mattress Store by Stephen Engel produced by Stage Right Pittsburgh. This was the perfect finale to the night- an incredibly hilarious piece with a majorly impressive twist at the end that I won’t give away here! The play takes place in an LA mattress store, during closing time. The presumed manager of the store, Larry, lets in one last customer for the night, who in fact ends up being a robber. Despite some initial weirdness, Larry and his late night robber get to talking, or rather the robber gets to listening to Larry’s odd perspective on life. George Saulnier (Larry) gave a performance to die for- hilarious beyond words; his character taking absolute control of a commonly negative situation in a quirky, off the wall fashion. Playing the role of the thief, Connor McNelis offered an extremely captivating performance, exuding some big energy. Together, Saulnier and McNelis created a character chemistry that carried an already glowing script into a very high level of comedic gold. A truly enjoyable evening, I was very taken not only by the brilliant writing, direction, and acting of all that I saw, but also by the supportive, warm energy of the event as a whole. Not to mention the phenomenal venue, the Carnegie Stage, brought to our fair city by Off the Wall Productions. Make sure to check out the next New Works Festival! Special thanks to the Pittsburgh New Works Festival for complimentary press tickets. Program D runs just one more time tomorrow, September 25th at 2pm.
Often disheartening fodder for plays, films and other creative works, the concept of a world in which art is subjected to critical sanitization and scorning approval from a dispassionate demagogue is one which reasonably breeds discomfort and queasy responses. Perhaps now, in a time where artistic production is at its most scintillating and provocative, yet the strictures of conservative, suffocating powers-to-be seem more and more draconian, more omnipresent, this idea of a censor who regulates what art is acceptable or must be bowdlerized seems all the more daunting and starkly realistic. David L. Williams’ The Censor stiflingly and inventively captures the anxieties of living in a world in which the titular cultural overseer is omnipresent, feared and (seemingly) ruthless. The play, staged by the Throughline Theatre company in Lawrenceville’s intimate Greybox Theatre, is a disquieting but never off-putting telling of The Censor, Charlotte, as she visits an art gallery and takes a keen interest in the work of a radical visual artist, Nellis. Problematizing Nellis’ already perceivably incendiary art is the fact that Nellis is a transgendered man, which relegates him to a life of secrecy, castigation and intense discretion. Charlotte, however, is not all that her ostensible persona would seem—she expresses that she is willing to allow certain themes or artists deemed insidious by the Commonwealth—the loosely defined, but clearly strictly regimented government super-structure that dictates which art is permissible and what is passable as quality—slide and allow standards to be more flexible. Charlotte’s involvement with Nellis’ artistic world becomes more fascinatingly complicated as he agrees to commission a portrait of Charlotte to assuage her feelings of being disregarded by the patriarchal figures in the Commonwealth. It is from this point that the evolution of Charlotte’s fierce humanity, especially in relation to the art and the dire need for personal expression that Nellis depends upon, that drive the rest of the dramaturgical action. The at first obfuscated but gradually revealed poignant sensitivity that permeates Charlotte’s spirit is what is truly evocative, as the play's plot unfurls into one of artistic liberation at the hand of Charlotte’s machinations for the sake of undermining the Commonwealth’s regime. Maura Underwood is striking as the titular censor, establishing the appropriate amount of austerity and snarling authority in her first few scenes that makes her eventual vulnerability and conviction in later scene all the more heartfelt. A show filled with truly robust performances, the interactions between Nellis—a soft-spoken, delicately powerful Liam Ezra Dickinson—and Charlotte convey a certain viscera, a certain understanding of nuanced human relationships that they are remarkably worth remaking upon, as they carry the tension and suspense of the play. The Censor is a play whose importance is obvious but never redundant or pedantic—the beautifully articulated trans narrative; the imperative role of art in society and the ramifications of the limitations on art; the wariness of overpowering government. Much of the power of the play and immense feeling of masterfully crafted anxiety comes in the casts subtle performances and the intimate setting of the theatre. Special thanks to Throughline Theatre Company for complimentary press tickets. The Censor runs at the Grey Box Theatre through September 24th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Mental health is a tricky subject to approach in storytelling. Do you try to solve the depression of a character, and risk pulling all the weight out from under your story’s credibility? Do you try to define the core of a character’s mental illness, and risk simplifying the psychological and biological complexities of a common real world problem? Do you avoid diving into the issue out of fear, reducing an otherwise compelling spider web of head and heart to the dusty cobwebs of an unswept stage? Next to Normal is impressive in that it hits precisely zero of these potholes. No one who sits through even the opening number in this musical could accuse writer Brian Yorkey of pulling his punches. Nor could an audience member accuse The Theatre Factory of not diving 100% headfirst into Yorkey’s subversive, manic portrayal of a family living in the shadow of mental illness. Chelsea Bartel is Diana, a woman slowly being crushed under the weight of her own ‘50s housewife persona. She is a mother and a wife – but is she anything else? Her husband, Dan (Jason Swauger), is more acutely aware than anyone of the chasm between what Diana is and who she is, but has settled into a pattern of stoking the dimming fire that is his family by readjusting the rose tint on everyone’s glasses. One thing we can discern about Diana right away is her inability to be present for Natalie (Layne Bailey), her unsettling worry the presence of her son, Gabe (Anthony Masetto), and that her relationship with antidepressants is unhealthy. To say more would be to spoil what is by all accounts a genuinely thrilling, twisty rock musical that commits just as hard to its absurdist portrayal of familial alienation as it does to the very real inner turmoil it’s dedicated to exploring. Why tiptoe through a minefield of potential insensitivity when you can spring through it with a blinking neon sign that reads “HEY GUYS, WE’RE GONNA TALK ABOUT THIS.” The Theatre Factory has cast the show quite well. Besides nailing the vocals and choreography on a technical level, there’s an undeniably natural quality to the performances here that breathe so much life onto the stage. There is a clear focus on the vulnerable human being beneath the (at times) maximalist cast of characters. Henry, for instance, could most easily be reduced to the stereotype of stoner high school kid, but as played by Josh Reardon, we can always tell he’s young, romantic, and trying to figure things out. Even Josh List’s Dr. Madden, Diana’s psychologist, has an earnest drive to explore Diana’s intellect and motivations, and is pressing and genuine in moments. He’s not just the psychologist; he is a person who is a psychologist. Bailey’s Natalie similarly caught me off guard at how complete a performance she gives. There is a certain classic quality to her character’s teen angst, but Bailey’s ability to wear both ambivalence and vulnerability in equal amounts brought a necessary immediacy to the sometimes unpredictable character. In contrast, Jason Swauger’s Dan is a character whose motivations are at all points entirely clear; he is simple, caring, and easily likable. Primarily, he is a caretaker with sometimes selfish reasons for doing so. As such, Swauger’s greatest moments are when he’s holding onto Diana with one tenuous thread, trying to fix with words a problem barely diagnosable. The play’s biggest presences are Diana and Gabe. Massetto’s Gabe is an intense, leering presence here. He rolls across the stage as if he were a bowling ball and his cast mates the pins. I say this not only because I like making really bad similes, but also because the performance is too visual not to be described in visual terms. Massetto uses the set almost like a jungle gym, or perhaps…a stripper pole? Gabe often proves to be the most intense figure in the play, so it’s appropriate that, unlike the rest of the cast, there’s no focus on subtlety here. The cast is at its strongest when their motivations run totally parallel to one another. Many of the play’s best moments are scenes in which one character, desperate for normalcy and/or validation, loses their minds at Diana through a charging rock chorus, while Diana is performing a whole other song back at them, or maybe past them. Chelsea Bartel is an excellent Diana, particularly during the show’s first act, when the character is pure energy confined in one small broken space. She has a laser focus on both the comedy and tragedy of the character, and emotes trauma and self-deprecation in equal measure. She is hilarious, and knowing, and sad, and desperate to escape herself. She is a sunny, upbeat voice shouting horrible things. In the play’s wildest moments, Bartel’s performance is so on point it feels like she herself invented the character, but in the play’s quietest, most intimate conversations, I felt I lost the character behind this satirical affectation. There is a fairly sizable technical issue that detracted from the show, namely the actor’s mics cutting out or creating noticeable digital noise. I’m usually the last person to turn up my nose at a hiccup like this, but the issue persisted for much of the play and kneecapped a few moments that were otherwise in perfect rhythm. Anyone suffering from mental illness, or anyone who cares deeply about someone who does, knows how broken conversations on the topic can be, how little tools we have with which to work through that invisible trauma. More than anything, this play is a colorful and dynamic musical that absolutely simplifies conversation around the issue by compounding its effects rather than simplifying them. Next to Normal is the exact kind of engaging, brazenly huge experience necessary to do its subject matter justice. Special thanks to the Theatre Factory for complimentary press tickets. Next to Normal runs weekends through October 2, for tickets and more information click here.