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As One

By: George B. Parous
As One HeaderThere was an elbow-to-elbow crowd on hand in the George R. White Opera Studio at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters last night for the Pennsylvania premiere of As One, including the composer, Laura Kaminsky, and co-librettists, Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. They must have been pleased with the reception their work received, for it was a favorable one, and hopefully the performers realized that a large share of the enthusiasm was for them, as well, because the two singers delivered trying music quite excellently, as did the string quartet conducted by James Lesniak (a name we’re used to seeing on the programs as “coach or pianist,” but last night in his first conducting assignment). The audience was as diversified as could be imagined, which somehow, considering the topic of the chamber opera before them, offered encouragement and hope for a sense of peace and unity in these days of bombastic division. In less skilled hands, the subject matter of the emotional struggles and inner turmoil of a transgender person trying to find peace and a sense of being in a vast, confusing and sometimes hostile universe offers every opportunity to go awry. But the librettists manage to remain focused on providing just enough every day, “real” experiences in the life of Hannah, from her youth, to college years, to “finding herself” in young adulthood, to make her seem like a real, plausible character, and, along with Kaminsky’s effective and appropriately shaded score, charged with drama, empathy, and, when needed, a touch of humor, makes no attempt to demand sympathy and acceptance from the audience. It simply and quite effectively tells the story of a portion of one person’s life – a person who happens to be transgender. [caption id="attachment_4253" align="aligncenter" width="488"]Hannah before (Brian Vu) feels compelled to be the “perfect boy” and hide Hannah after (Taylor Raven) Hannah before (Brian Vu) feels compelled to be the “perfect boy” and hide Hannah after (Taylor Raven)[/caption] While the characters are nominally identified as “Hannah Before” and “Hannah After,” for the most part they are on stage together. Through a series of sung pieces, they either individually narrate the story or interact with each other as separate parts of a yet inseparable “whole,” and the concept works. As might be expected, there are parts that are emotionally harrowing, such as when Hannah writes a letter full of excuses for why she won’t be coming home from college for Christmas this year, and the episode in which she relates her narrow escape from an attacker who demands “What the fuck are you!?” The piece leaves the impression that the action takes place in the not so distant past, as there are references to yellowing library card catalogs, pen-to-paper letter writing, and looking things up “online.” Historically, operas that rely principally on “psychological” drama tend to have a tough go of things. But since As One was premiered in 2014, it has been performed in the better part of a dozen venues, with at least one more to come next month. Whether it will endure due to its musical and artistic merits, rather than as a timely curiosity, only the future will tell. A string quartet serves as a perfect accompaniment to the story – much more would be excessive for the complex yet sometimes simple psychological drama taking place on the stage. James Lesniak did an excellent job of maintaining a proper sense of balance, proportion, and volume, and the players, Charles Stegeman (Concertmaster and Violin I), Rachel Stegeman (Assistant Concertmaster and Violin II), Jennifer Gerhard (Principal Viola) and Kathleen Melucci (Principal ‘Cello) never wavered in their playing of the score, sometimes intricate and prominent, sometimes an appropriate whisper. [caption id="attachment_4254" align="aligncenter" width="594"]Hannah starts to feel more comfortable with herself Hannah starts to feel more comfortable with herself[/caption]   As far as a vehicle for the display of the vocal talents of two members of the Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program is concerned, a better choice than As One can hardly be imagined. It seems as if had the standard pairing of a tenor and soprano been chosen by the composer, the work would have lost some of its effectiveness. The unusual opportunity of hearing such sustained singing by a baritone and mezzo-soprano was not only a rare treat, but the voice types more effectively add to and color the drama of the story. Brian Vu, as “Hannah Before,” was given the opportunity to display his vocal abilities here as never before. That he had a baritone voice of quality in its lower register was already well known from his appearances in various smaller roles this season and last, but the strength and brilliance of his upper register came as a revelation. He sang the difficult music of the part with a ringing resonance that thrilled throughout, and he acted the role with an engaging sprightliness and a fine sense of pathos by turns. [caption id="attachment_4256" align="aligncenter" width="658"]Brian Vu as Hannah Before Brian Vu as Hannah Before[/caption] He was partnered perfectly by Taylor Raven as “Hannah After.” Her mezzo-soprano voice is of a lovely timbre and wide range, and she, too, acted the part appropriately and with a varied assortment of moods and emotions. The role is not new to her, as she has sung it with Seattle Opera, but it was clear that she and Mr. Vu had spent many hours working together to achieve optimal results with “Hannah,” and their work paid off well. “I have come to really connect with the character of Hannah,” Ms. Raven shared with me a few days ago. “I'm inspired by her honesty and bravery and I feel very honored to tell her story.” Vocally and dramatically, she tells it very well, indeed. The opera will be repeated on February 21, 24 and 26. For tickets, performance times, a complete synopsis, and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera. It’s highly recommended that those wishing to hear the work not waste time in securing tickets, as seating is limited and they are moving at a brisk pace. Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for the two complimentary press admissions. The “Artistic Team” for As One – Conductor, James Lesniak; Stage Director, Frances Rabalais; Set Designer, Chen-Wei Liao; Lighting Designer, Todd Nonn; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Stage Manager, Attitra Lelahuta. Photography: David Bachman    

The Pink Unicorn

By: Mark Skalski
scaled_256Elise Forier Edie's The Pink Unicorn at off the WALL invites us into the home of a woman named Trish. The stage is a cozy southern kitchen, modestly furnished with a Martha Stewart-ian color palette and sensible, inoffensive decorations. We are unsurprised to hear Stampede, a local country band, setting the mood. Trish enters. She'd like to tell us a story about her daughter; specifically, the story of her daughter's coming out. After an opening scene of down-home hospitality delivered in a classic southern drawl, we are unsurprised to find that Trish is less than comfortable with her daughter's proclamation of identity. The reason we are unsurprised is that we have some preconceived notions about Trish, about her cultural identity, and by extension how she might feel about others. When her daughter, Joline, a passionate 14-year-old high school student who owns a Tarantula named Beetlejuice and dresses “militantly” in black, comes out of the closet, we have a pretty good idea of how Trish is going to feel. The Pink Unicorn, a one woman show directed by Ingrid Sonnichsen, is about a woman comfortable in her straight white womanhood stumbling into the leadership of a pro-LGBTQ social justice movement after an anti-gay celebration breaks out at her church. Forced to choose between her daughter and the pre-defined social mores of the world around her, Trish does her best to stand up for what she doesn’t understand and barely believes in. This is a pointed play; or, rather, a very definite point taking the shape of a play, an anecdotal essay written as a one woman show. The Pink Unicorn’s intended audience and the thesis of its persuasive argument are far from obscure, which makes its supporting points an object of fascination for me. This is a play about gay rights from the perspective of a straight, “traditional” woman who is open enough to dodge the label of closed-minded, and it is entirely her experience we are concerned with, not the voices of the oppressed. I found myself waxing and waning in regards to Trish, and I say that to the play’s credit. When confronted with her daughter’s identity, her immediate instinct is not of joy or fear, but violence. “I wanted to beat her until she started acting right, I really did,” she says. Trish is no ideal ally, but she is also vulnerable and honest, which is made apparent thanks to Edie's careful, occasionally blunt prose. Yet, the play doesn’t put Trish into a box. There is a particularly beautiful moment in the play in which Trish, in an attempt to intellectualize her daughter’s experience, comes up with a time when she didn’t feel gendered. “There was a time in my life where if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would've told you a big brother," she says. “I remember feeling so strong, watching my arm muscles bunch when I climbed a tree, and shucking off my shirt in the middle of a hot summer day...and a kind of go-to-hell freedom I felt when I took off that label girl and put on that label big brother.” It's this moment, as well as her palpable love and acceptance of her daughter, that leads us to believe her when Trish begins collaborating with the ACLU to protest an instance of discrimination at Joline's school. Amy Landis plays Trish with a sensible straightforwardness befitting the character, and I was impressed with the humanity she unearthed in the play's most divisive moments. It is thanks to this performance, often brimming with parental love, that will leave audience members on either side of this struggle sitting comfortably in their seats throughout the story - though a few may still shift uncomfortably now and then. If it is clear that Trish, although largely born out of a stereotype of the likable everywoman confused by gender fluidity, cannot be reduced to her stereotype, it is less clear if the characters in her story can be afforded the same consideration. There is a woman at Trish’s church who spurs on the school protest, but according to Trish, this woman is really just a series of fat jokes on human legs. And Trish’s voice deepens an octave when speaking as her, her voice hoarse and out of breath for comedic effect. Moments like these aren’t exactly few and far between. What we know about many of the LGBTQ characters of the play is, basically, that they walk around bein’ gay. Even Trish’s daughter is a kind of mystery. Yes, we are told Joline is scrappy and stands up for everyone else and wears black and shaves her head. But these are implications of a personality. As it stands, she’s a perfect imagistic vessel for an LGBTQ hero, but whatever else she is remains unexamined. It’s this reliance on stereotypes that remove the play from the people it intends to defend. While we may cheer on Trish at her valiant attempts at inclusion, the fact of the matter is that in the real world not everyone oppressed has a Trish. The reality for many in the LGBTQ community is that they did not have a parental figure who spent hours on Wikipedia learning about gender fluidity and who recalled a time when they were open to a non-binary view of self. Still, The Pink Unicorn doesn’t seem to directly address people who identify with Trish’s daughter. It instead is interested in speaking to people who feel the exact opposite. As a tool for cultural reform, I can see the legitimacy of this play as a conversation starter between a child and their parent who are about to, or have had, the "big talk," or for a couple anxious theater-goers unprepared to come to terms with a world that’s changing faster than ever. I would also be remiss to not repeat that there are moments of beauty here. Trish is a character with some big thoughts, and the tension between her instincts as a loving mother and as a social conservative are well illustrated. At its best, the play feels like a warm escape, but its broad characterization and uncomplicated narrative may hold it back from being the bridge-making unifier it clearly intends to be. The Pink Unicorn at Carnegie Stage has unfortunately closed but you can catch it again starting May 18th. For tickets and more information, click here.  Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets.

The Complete History of America (abridged)

By: Stephen Arch
complete-history-of-americaThe Theater Factory’s The Complete History of America (abridged) directed by Jen James is a delightful and frantic journey through the formation of the United States, from Vikings to Native Americans to all sorts of the scandals, wars, presidencies, doctrines, and missteps that arise when nation building – a work with a mix of vaudeville, camp, sketch comedy, slapstick, and one-liners. The actors leave the audience a bit winded by their unceasing movement and quick-paced dialogue, The plot is not new:  select the most important events from leading up to and including the formation of America, add countless scandals and conspiracy theories, comedy, song, dance, and some extremely campy antics, and you have The Complete History of America (abridged). Blink, you miss a funny one-liner. Turn away, you miss a fool running across the stage with some daffy prop. If you miss a joke or a pun, not to worry, there’s another following it. This cast of three (Nick Mitchell, Chelsea Bartell, and Adam Seligson) scramble through this fast-paced, don’t-stop-to-take-a-breath comedy, forcing the audience to pay close attention to every bit of action taking place on the stage. They hold the audience captive playing the likes of Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, George Washington, J. Edgar Hoover, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, WWII soldiers, and just about any major figure who had a hand in the making America. Although no actor plays the “lead” role, Nick Mitchell (Complete Hollywood abridged, Newsie, Cat, The Bridge in Madison County) acts as the narrator for much of the action. His booming, resonating presence is the tour de force, the “adult” so to speak.  He is a steadfast presence, playing all the “manly characters” and whose actions serve as a springboard for all of the slapstick humor (although in this comedy, nothing is actually manly nor serious – Mitchell dons a dress while portraying J. Edgar Hoover). In the second act, Mitchell delivers a performance containing so much dialogue that I had to turn and look back at the sound board to see if someone was holding cue cards. The original play, written for three men, however, contained James’ one of two major original successes – that of casting a woman, Chelsea Bartell (Hairspray, Hedwig and the Angry Witch, The Wizard of Oz, A Christmas Carol), as a leading “man/woman/whomever.” You name it, she plays it. And she does a splendid job stealing the show. Her comfortable and hilarious abilities seem to come from her heart as if she is adlibbing her scenes. No forced dialogue from her. Additionally, this being the first night’s production, her portrayal of George Washington (whose wigs falls off mid-dialogue) and Adolf Hitler (again, whose mustache falls off in mid-dialogue) didn’t deter her. As simple covering the mouth with a sheepish “oops” even endears her more to the crowd. Bartell is a scene stealer, and it is very difficult to take your eyes off this actor. She’s that good. Adam Selegson (A Good Old Fashioned Redneck County Christmas, Anything Goes, The Odd Couple),  in keeping with the idea of “the fool” as played in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, ends up playing, many times, the woman to Bartell’s man. As important as Mitchell and Bartell were (in some spots), it was Selegson who supplied the real slap-stick.  In the second act, Selegson plays a frantic Lucy Ricardo, asking a film noir-ish private dick, Mitchell, to find poor Ricky, who has been deported. And that’s what made it so funny – comic relief inside a comedy. With no real setting (a large GOOGLE sign appeared in the back of the stage letting the audience know that fact-checking could be done just as easily as a Wikipedia search) the empty stage forces the three actors to fill it with bold and madcap personalities. James’ other major success was the addition of timely music throughout the play and scene changes. This added a necessary continuity and connection from sketch to sketch. The music helped move the pace of the show. She’s a smart director and seems to know exactly what the audience wants and gave it to them. Everyone left the theater happier than when they came in, and that was directly the result of James’ directing and the acting of Mitchell, Seligson, and especially Bartell. The cast’s extremely self-deprecating portrayal of all characters made the play that much more enjoyable. It’s healthy (and very Shakespearean) to see characters make fools of themselves for the entertainment of others. That’s the way comedy should be: it stands out as being part Saturday Night Live sketch comedy, Second City Improvisation, Garrison Keiller live performances complete with homemade sound effects, and campy Falstaff Shakespearean wit. THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF MAKING OF AMERICA (ABRIDGED) is definitely worth the trip to Trafford. I would even recommend seeing it twice so as not to miss the quick dialogue and puns contained in the script. (A rewind button would have come in handy – “did I just hear that?”) And the chemistry James finds among Bartell, Mitchell, and Seligson works. It is obvious she had to find just the “right” actors to make this comedy work. Special thanks to the Theatre Factory for complimentary press tickets. The Complete History of America (abridged) runs through February 26th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

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