To enter the University of Pittsburgh’s production of Marie Antoinette in the Cathedral of Learning’s Studio Theater is to be confronted. Actors dressed alternately as nobles or revolutionaries either welcome you to the party as you enter or congratulate you on being on the right side of history, respectively. Accompanying them are at least a half dozen maps and pieces of French art, all plastered by bright red text stylized as graffiti. “Make France Great Again,” reads one, but all pieces more or less emphasize that the tagger in question is not, in fact, With Her. The Her in question is Marie Antoinette, the eponymous lead character in David Adjmi’s re-contextualization of history’s most extravagant It Girl. Few historical figures are quite as easily relegated to the role of cautionary morality tale as the former Queen of France, who spent an inordinate amount of money on pointless displays of excess while her ruled class, steeped in the dregs of poverty, plotted to behead her for it. Adjmi’s script continues a conversation begun by Soffia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, which explored Antoinette’s human qualities through an art-punk lens. Adjmi takes quite literally an identical tactic by also mismatching royalty and punk, except where Coppola is an artist working in implication, Adjmi Jackson Pollock-s the stage with angry, metaphoric talking sheep, penis jokes, and a sharp, contemporary style of dialogue that fits somewhere in the gulf between Curb Your Enthusiasm realism as absurdism and the forceful manipulation of history of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. It’s interesting, then, that Pitt’s production of Adjmi’s already escalated work is propelled by an even further need to escalate. First there is the costume design, which features so many colors. KJ Gilmer has given Antoinette a series of wigs in every color of the rainbow, and abandoned the doily-ed wardrobe of the era for a kaleidoscopic sense of fashion better fitting a Nicki Minaj concert than a ballroom dance. The original production of this show also featured wild statements of coloring book fashion, but in lieu of a mainstage budget Pitt’s production has instead opted for a wider, stranger variety of visual design which works wonders, especially in the play’s early goings. The cast, as directed by Le’Mil Eiland, are primarily wealthy, hapless narcissists made brutal by the power of their indifference. The show feels in so many ways to be like a circus, or better yet, a sitcom from hell. The implication is that, for both King Louis the 16th and Anotinette, life is a ridiculous joke. Alexis Primus plays Antoinette as a woman intellectually hardened by privilege; she has every material thing a person could want for, yet has so precious little to live for. Antoinette’s is a loveless life without purpose. Primus imbues Antoinette with an innate desperation for some missing, essential piece of humanity, and no scene ends without our acute awareness of her listless existence. Adam Nie’s Louis the 16th, meanwhile, is a perfect foil of spineless power and privilege. Nie is more classically comedic, and as such is a greater instigator of satire in performance. In a way, Louis is no less a victim of a fated heritage than Antoinette, but he’s also dramatically less equipped to confront himself. Very nearly all successful moments of levity are placed on Nie’s shoulders – that is, save for the surreal physical humor of Meg McGill, who appears as a sheep-human manifestation of Antoinette’s inner dialogue. For both Antoinette and Louis, Leadership is an annoying obligation to be dismissed for other, better things, like receiving one-sided flatteries at a dinner party or indulging a new hobby. The play’s breezy enough first act does nothing if not cement this in our minds; the people can wait. Except, no they can’t. By the play’s intermission, Antoinette’s inevitable trudge to the guillotine is well underway, as Louis and Antoinette are taken hostage by a series of furious rebels (Joe McHugh and Zach Fullerton). Orders are spit at our protagonist in the staccato rhythm of a Taken-era Liam Neeson interrogation scene. It’s here that the production’s erratic sense of tension is at its greatest imbalance. Generally, Eiland explodes whatever tension is present in a given conflict, meaning the cast is frequently intense in their hostilities towards one another. It all feels somewhat in character given the contemporary absurdism of the play’s first act, but once we’re able to find so little to contrast as far as volume between conflicts that happen in relative comfort versus conflicts that happen under extreme duress, Marie Antoinette starts to feel too exhausting. The fact that we spend so much time during the final act with so little for Antoinette to do other than succumb to despair deeply compounds the problem. Regardless, the final act sees Marie Antoinette embrace the surreal. Several clever uses of stage design, especially one sequence that utilizes the presence of the audience to great effect, are some of the production’s brightest highlights. Pitt’s latest is no salve to soothe the pain apparent in your latest Twitter thread, but it is at least a comforting reminder that privilege is ultimately not impenetrable. Marie Antoinette runs at the University of Pittsburgh through February 25. For tickets and more information, click here.
We read a book, a character is described, we form a mental picture: how she moves, the timbre of her voice, the look in her eye. Some descriptive power is so vivid—theatrical even—that it gives the casting department little wriggle room. So says Jeffrey Hatcher, the writer of Kinetic Theatre's newest production Holmes and Watson. And Holmes? Holmes allows a certain amount of leeway, but he had better be tall, he had better be trim, with aquiline features not soft ones, and God help the actor with a pug nose. His voice must have the authority of intellect and empire, and his diction must cut diamonds. This play manages to do something very playful, but honorific at the same time. It revamps the canon—the same time-honored tradition of this Elizabethan/Edwardian classic (Sherlock Holmes) but with a new candid script that plays on the trope of a well-established character (Sherlock Holmes). This is, in effect, META-HOLMES!!!! [caption id="attachment_6281" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Darren Eliker and Tim McGeever[/caption] The question, “Who is Sherlock Holmes?” has been asked countless times since the character first appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. Sometimes the question has to do with Holmes' character or personality. Sometimes it's about his background and upbringing. And since Holmes quickly became one of the most depicted characters in modern fiction, the question also has to do with how is he drawn, what features do the illustrators emphasize, who plays him on stage, in film, on television? I can't talk to you about the plot. The ol' tract laid out as an imploring: “'For the enjoyment of future audiences, we ask you not to reveal the surprising plot twists that occur in Holmes and Watson.” I will tell you based on the short synopses that you might find online, the plot has to do with uncovering who the real Sherlock Holmes might be. It's a querulous deep dive into a well-excavated, near forgotten genre that nevertheless has bulky roots in our understanding of the detective tropes. To create something new out of an already was and always will be is not easy, and this play humbly relies on the audiences pre-conceptions meeting the traditional game of Detection! [caption id="attachment_6283" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Tim McGeever, Daryll Heysham, and James Keegan[/caption] I will tell you that this is an indelible thrill ride into an era where the mystery-thriller was new. The game of trying to upend the convoluted plot before the ending was cascading through the anxious energy in the crowd. The entire ensemble commits to the accent game well, with aplomb. Everyone is comfortably cast, blessed with the ability to handle the gravity of the Victorian highfalutin' with the comic timing for what could be considered light intrigue, a splash of the farce. This play is fun. It commits itself well to its bygone era. The utilization of New Hazlett's space is always a curious treat. With two-tiers of catwalks and multiple entry-points, it gives to the wondrous splay of perspective. In a play that relies on the accountability of the sharp eye, but constantly leads askew with plenty of unreliable narration; the use of space was a key character in this telling. Hence the farce, because the situational comedy of things playing then replaying arcs you, the audience, into the investigation. [caption id="attachment_6282" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Gregory Johnstone, Darren Eliker, Daryll Heysham, and David Whalen[/caption] I'd say this play is for and of itself. I mean it is not imposing any messaging, or any sense of bastardizing what is very much a canonized concept. It's simply what it is: a well-played plot and you as a player in its discovery. It is refreshing, this classic, with a new plot and a new life to the sensation of 'figuring it out'. Stand out performance by Tim McGeever whose comic timing as what I would consider very much a straight man role plays upon the levity as situations find themselves absurd. David Whalen is quite enjoyable as his role (Holmes #2, I'll say no more), playing on the potential for bodily comedy and with a nuance that stands him out in his respective Holmes-role for provoking more questions than may have been intended for the character. The entire ensemble works very well, with a sporty kind of chemistry, illustrated in the craft of the staged mystery—quick-paced, withholding substance and steady, punchy timing. I'll call it neo-elementary. It's a nice stock surprise refurbished with a new set of exploding expectation. Holmes and Watson runs at the New Hazlett Theatre through March 4. For tickets and more information click here. Photos by Rocky Raco
The question of Shakespeare’s continued relevance in the modern world is an inquiry that never fully quiets. After all, so much has changed across four centuries since William Shakespeare penned Macbeth in 1606-07. However, Macbeth reminds us how strikingly little has changed when it comes to confronting those in power. We witness a country’s leader go rogue and continually one-up his docket of crimes while those around him fail to speak out, and even in that description, is the play or the present being referenced? The answer is both. Shakespeare holds the complacent accountable as their silence fuels the unchecked growth of Macbeth’s menacing power, yet his power instills fear as it is built on shutting down those who threaten him. Such are the meaty issues that Duquesne University’s Red Masquers must wrestle with in their highly relevant production of Macbeth. Productions often center on Lady Macbeth as the mastermind, reducing Macbeth to a sort of puppet. In the quest for relevancy, director Dora Farona wisely puts the ever-spiraling Macbeth at the center of this production. His murder of the king, a chess move that results in his own ascension to the throne, proves to be not an inhibiting source of horror, but the first domino in a stream of evil crimes. While the focus on Macbeth is a thoughtful choice, Nathaniel Yost’s Macbeth is not fully up to the challenge. You rarely forget it’s Yost as there is a self-conscious quality to his Macbeth that inhibits the character’s believability. He struggles to achieve the harder edges this Macbeth demands. Beyond Yost, consistency of performance quality is a broader issue within the show. While consistency challenges are not uncommon in college productions, it certainly doesn’t enhance the audience experience. The tone of the play changes, and the audience is clearly most engaged when the play’s three commanding witches (Sadie Crow, Lauren Gardonis and Katelyn Donnelly) are onstage. The trio works well together, none overshadowing the others. Yost’s performance draws from them and is strongest in their presence. He eagerly seeks them out, using their prophecies and interpreting their veiled references to support the evil he already wants to do. They become his political advisors and the executors of his devious plans, both literally and metaphorically. Farona chooses to set the production at the close of the transformative Victorian era, and costume designer Kim Brown supports the period’s look in her designs. The lone exception is the witches who wear vampy black lace dresses that read showgirl sexy with a twist of goth. Brown’s Victorian costumes are best exhibited with Lady Macbeth (Dana Demsko) who wears all black or all white in each of her scenes. We first see her in a ruffled, ankle-length black hoop dress with wide sleeves where she tucks away a letter from Macbeth. Demsko struggles with committing to a portrayal of Lady Macbeth who ends up seeming a bit scattered. She’s lashing out at her husband one moment and fainting the next. In ensemble scenes where she’s not speaking, Demsko’s Lady Macbeth is quietly tuned in, and you can see her observing and calibrating the room’s mood. When the ghost of the slaughtered Banquo (Max Begler) haunts Macbeth at a banquet, Demsko is at her best. She exhibits the tensions of a nervous wife working to excuse her husband’s odd behaviors while also playing the role of charming hostess in trying to distract her guests and ensure their happiness. John E. Lane Jr.’s set design is memorably impactful. The wooden set has stairs that switchback up to an elevated, railing-rimmed balcony. Lady Macbeth often speaks and looks down on her domestic sphere from the balcony, which also makes literal the eventual dead end of Macbeth and his schemes. The set extends out to the floor, which is covered with a red brick pattern. Lane creates tension by darkening some of the bricks to define a winding walkway through the center. At the play’s start, the wooden set is tilted. It’s already a world off center, and the darkened walkway spills from the corner of the set, foreshadowing the stain of spilled blood to come. Lane’s set spins and visually enhances the play’s sinister twists, but it is clearly heavy and proves cumbersome. Additional crewmembers to help move it more efficiently between scene changes would reduce choppiness and enhance the play’s flow. The opening scene concludes with the three witches chanting, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” While the play ends with Macduff (Eric Matthews) vanquishing Macbeth in a well-choreographed swordfight (also by Eric Mathews), Macbeth’s reign has literally gutted much of the next generation of Scotland’s royal leaders. Foul does seem to be fair, a leadership legacy that’s as troubling today as it was then. Duquesne University’s production of Macbeth continues through February 25th at the Genesius Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Red Masquers online.