I really wasn’t familiar with the plot of Equus before going to see it last Thursday at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theatre. I knew it had something to do with horses that would somehow call for Daniel Radcliffe to be naked on stage. And despite drawing some conclusions from that, I assumed the plot was a little more involved. I was correct, and although I entered the theatre with some hesitant curiosity, it proved to be a highly enjoyable show. The stage was set in the round with half of the audience in front of décor resembling a barn and the other half in front of several long sets of office window blinds. I noted this immediately and wondered about the purpose of the set dressing, but it all became clear within the first scene of the show. Equus is almost entirely set inside a psychiatrist’s office at a mental hospital. Any scenes involving the farm or the barn where the horses live is imagined in Alan Strang’s (Evan W. Saunders) mind as he struggles with telling his story to Dr. Martin Dysart (John E. Lane, Jr.). Because of this, the small set was versatile and served the story well. Strang’s odd story of mental torture and literal worship of horses was a hard one to hear, but it was compelling. Saunders was completely remarkable in the role, having to go from closed off and brooding to passionate or enraged within moments. This process was repeated throughout the play, and Saunders’ commitment to the physical aspects was captivating to watch. To come out of a story about a boy being treated because of his violence to horses and saying you feel sorry for him and commiserate with his point of view can only mean that the actor really worked to win you over. Likewise, Lane’s Dr. Dysart was the character the audience could relate to and experience their emotions through. This doctor spent the length of the show listening to the complex story as it unfolded and responding with much more sympathy than ever expected. It was because of this character that the boy seemed so human, and Lane’s care to interact with him as such made it that more intriguing to watch. He handed the boy with care, but not distantly. By the end of the show, he was even torn between doing what was socially right versus what he believed might be right on a human level. Dysart speaks the most out of all the characters, but I was never bored or lost in any of his monologues. There were several times where Lane slipped out of his English accent, which didn’t seem to happen with the rest of the cast. But, it was opening night and with the number of lines he had, it was excusable and didn’t deter from the play. It was a relatively small cast, and there were never more than three or four people on stage, if you don’t count the horses. The horses, by the way, were fascinating all on their own. Six actors played horses, and two of those actors had other small parts in the show. Each horse was wearing all brown or black, their hands held behind their backs. Then they had a wire framed horse head on like a hat and thick wire “hooves” attached to their feet, which made the sound of horses walking anytime they were on stage. Despite me constantly being worried someone was going to fall over (because I know I would have), it was hard to take my eyes off them anytime they were on stage. The first act ended with a breathtaking scene in which Strang recounts riding his favorite horse while Dysart stands by listening in awe, as if he can actually see the scene that is playing in Strang’s mind and in front of the audience. Director Justin Sines clearly worked hard at keeping this show tight and fluid. Together, the cast was strong, without any awkward moments or interactions. The costumes were simple, aside from the horses, of course. And the lighting was appropriately dramatic, lighting different sections of the stage to indicate various scenes without set changes. This is an emotional and captivating show, and despite there being no nudity in this version, I highly recommend getting out to see it! The Red Masquers should be proud of this one. Equus runs at Duquesne University's Genesius Theatre through April 29. For tickets and more information click here.
What comes first: the music or the lyric? This question has been asked by people of all levels of engagement with the craft of musical theatre. One thing that has been true about musical theatre from the beginning is that its definition is fluid. The winding and widening timeline of musical theatre—from late 19th century operettas to early 20th vaudeville to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to Stephen Sondheim to Lin-Manuel Miranda and every writer, director, star, and innovation in between—has made that question virtually impossible to answer. That’s where Pittsburgh CLO comes in with their inaugural SPARK festival. SPARK is the centerpiece of Pittsburgh CLO’s Next Generation Capital Campaign. With its goal of igniting the future of new small cast musicals, SPARK seeks to continue CLO’s long legacy of excellence in the production of musical theatre. This is a legacy that includes over seven decades of bringing blockbuster Broadway razzle dazzle to the Steel City and nearly two decades of bringing sky high entertainment value to dinner theatre in their intimate cabaret venue. SPARK is also a window into the sometimes mystifying, sometimes dramatic, always rewarding creative process of writing a musical. It’s neither the music nor the lyric that comes first when one is writing a musical. It’s inspiration. It’s the spark of an idea, a character, a situation that jumps off the page onto center stage and sings its heart out. This is where a diverse group of 40 writers comes in. Literally. The composers, lyricists, and book writers took residence with Pittsburgh CLO for up to three weeks to begin fine tuning their musicals for presentation in the festival. Each piece was in a different stage of development, but all were equally at the mercy of the artists in the SPARK rehearsal rooms—writers, directors, music directors, stage managers, dramaturgs, and a total of 85 performers. Once a musical is written, rewritten, rehearsed, and rewritten more, the only way for the creative team to know if the show is on the right track to connecting with audiences is to get the show up on its feet. Three of the common methods for presenting a musical work in progress were on display at SPARK. Music stands, binders, and frantic page turning take the place of completely full-fledged props and design elements in the worlds of sit-down readings, semi-staged readings, and fully-staged workshop productions. In these settings, the audience shows their support for a show by engaging in talk back sessions after the curtain call rather than giving a standing ovation. This is where the various musical theatre fanatics, industry professionals, friends/family of the festival participants, and I come in! For me, there were eight shows over the course of two 7-9 hour days. There were brisk walks (in speed and temperature) up and down Liberty Avenue between the three homes of SPARK, CLO itself, Bricolage, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. And, most memorable of all, there was the huge grin on my face as I fed off the tremendous creative energy radiating from everything and everyone I encountered on my journey through SPARK. The pieces I saw had astounding range in content, form, and presentation. Three musical comedies like Adam Overett’s The Double-Threat Trio; Kellen Blair, Sarah Ziegler Blair, and David Christensen’s Just Between the All of Us; and An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake by Matt Schatz might seem to have a lot in common on paper based on their genre, but their approaches for getting laughs are varied. The Double-Threat Trio, featuring a performance by Tony Award winner Beth Leavel, features three characters (each with a talent-based fatal flaw) and a woman of many hats (and personalities) determined to hit it big with a production of the musical adaptation of Oedipus called Oed! Metatheatricality melds with personal drama in An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake. In the show, one of the theatre’s most unsung heroes, the literary manager, is hopelessly torn between the abstract concept of artistic credibility and the chance to rub elbows with Mr. Jessica Biel. Just Between the All of Us swipes left on traditional theatricality as it employs a choose-your-own-adventure storytelling model and audience participation to relate the dating and mating tribulations of the indecisive Dr. Madeline. The inclusion of other shows in the festival allude to a much more inclusive future for CLO’s musical landscape. These Girls Have Demons is notable for being the only production in SPARK with an all-female creative team including its book writer/lyricist Meghan Brown and composer Sarah Taylor Ellis. It tells the story of what happens when all hell literally breaks loose on four tween girls who meddle with the dark arts to ease their adolescent woes. Writer and performer Jillian Walker processes her plight as a black woman in America live in living color in SKiNFoLK: An American Show. It’s a lyrical montage of movements in which music sprouts organically from the lost and found stories of a conflicted history. In addition to the nine headlining productions of SPARK, CLO proved its staunch dedication to writers/creators by also presenting an eclectic handful of unique musical theatre experiences including late night performances from local improv troupes and other musical works-in-progress courtesy of CLO writers-in-residence. The fourth wall between performer and spectator is broken down by the earth-shattering courage and vulnerability it takes for creators to share a still-gestating piece of work. It’s an electrifying experience to witness both groups discovering, reacting to, and internalizing the music and lyrics almost at the same rate. This first-ever SPARK festival will be a tough act to follow, but I have no doubt that Pittsburgh CLO will be able to make lightning strike twice. For more information about Pittsburgh CLO and the 2018 SPARK festival, click here.
As the progeny of two alcoholic parents, I felt mixed emotions going into Sean Daniels’ autobiographical play, The White Chip. The play traces his descent into alcoholism and subsequent emergence into sobriety. I was an expert martini maker by age 8. It’s no testimony to any nascent mixology skills. My father drank out a glass with an etching of bouncy-ringleted 1930s child star Shirley Temple to ensure my ease of precision – gin to her chin, vermouth to her tooth. As The White Chip makes manifest in 90 compelling minutes, alcoholism starts at the individual level. However, it subtly shifts from individual to communal impact as its destructive power grows. Kyle Cameron as Sean Daniels unabashedly explores all of the ridges on the road from first drink at age 12 to near coma-level blood alcohol content to sobriety’s many false starts. Thanks to the careful direction of Tony nominee director Sheryl Kaller, the show is extraordinarily well-paced. It is divided into relatively even thirds that treat each aspect of the journey with equal attention. Kaller lets you linger with Daniels on the relatable euphoria of social drinking without releasing the grip when Daniels’ escalating alcoholism has him slurring and lying. Kaller visually reinforces this degradation. Cameron’s initially neat appearance becomes gradually more disheveled. His finely combed hipster haircut devolves into ragged, out-turned spikes as Cameron pulls his hands through his hair. [caption id="attachment_6818" align="aligncenter" width="3926"] Daina Michelle Griffith, Kyle Cameron, and Daniel Krell[/caption] Hank Bullington’s scenic design is a visual feast that nudges on overwhelming without edging over. An upstage chalkboard stretches to the ceiling. Abundant chalk drawings, most of which feature liquor bottles, foreshadow Daniels’ story. In a thoughtful detail, the floor turns out to be painted with chalkboard paint, which provides another unexpected canvas for the story. This could have easily been a one-person show, which is what I was expecting given its autobiographical nature. Daniels wisely chooses not to take that route, and the addition of two other characters provide nuance and dimension. Kaller has them both onstage the entire time, utilizing them appropriately, but letting them fade into the background in solo scenes, present but absent. Cameron shares the stage with #1 (Daina Michelle Griffith) and #2 (Daniel Krell), both of whom play multiple roles. Griffith, in particular, shines as she shapeshifts into Daniels’ mother, wife, lover, coworker, AA facilitator, and Jewish alcohol counselor. Her role is clearly tough as she constantly morphs between a diverse character set, yet Griffith enviably glides effortlessly between them. She casually puts her hair in a ponytail or knots her thigh-length cotton shirt-vest to signify a character shift. While these visual cues are useful augmentation, they’re not even necessary for such a strong actress. It’s never unclear whom she’s portraying at any given moment. As #2, Krell fulfills a similar shapeshifting role within the play. While not as unforgettable as Griffith, Krell is most memorable and developed in his role as a Jesus-pushing rehab counselor with a twang. Daniels excels most strongly at outwardly expressing the inner workings of the alcoholic mind, and Cameron brings this to life with conviction. Getting to ride-along on an alcoholic’s inner dialogue is both enlightening and terrifying. At one point, he’s attending AA for the second go-around, and he’s gotten to the point where he can “save” his relapses for when he’s out of town. Adopting the what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas logic, he rationalizes these relapses don’t count because his drinking is site-specific. Of course, the center never holds, and each strategy for managed drinking terminates in another bender. His tips on undetected day-drinking in the workplace are a LinkedIn article gone wrong with Gatorade and vodka hydration in the morning, followed by creatively hidden Diet Coke bottles generously spiked with vodka for the afternoon. It’s all an elaborate house of cards, and in the end, neither he nor others are fooled by the recurring collapse. It’s odd to say a play about alcoholism is ultimately life-affirming. Daniels finds levity and never gets preachy without shying away from alcoholism’s bleakness, successfully avoiding the schmaltz of a Lifetime movie. Daniels’ character opens the show by saying, “When you believe everything is over, it’s just beginning.” It’s an optimistic message that transcends the specificity of alcoholism, a reminder that we all get to navigate new beginnings. City Theatre and Pittsburgh are fortunate enough to play host to this second production of The White Chip. It’s clearly just beginning for this show. Be part of its origin story. City Theatre’s production of The White Chip continues through May 6th. Learn more and purchase tickets online from the City Theatre.