22051152_714075818781625_319411422180188185_oThe leaves are starting to turn, the wind is getting a little cooler (in theory… most of the time…), and candy prices are going up. That’s right, it’s Halloween season! And while the standard haunted houses popping up around town offer a classic, traditional way to get your spook on as the holiday approaches, maybe you’re looking for something a little different? Cup-a-Jo Productions and Pittsburgh Fringe offer just that, putting a creative twist on the format with the new haunted theater experience UNHINGED.

UNHINGED is a series of four short performances linked by a guided tour through a haunted house built inside the Blue Hazel Studios space in Etna. It’s kind of like walking through a Treehouse of Horror episode. As the show begins, the attendees gather in a waiting area with snacks, Halloweeny magnets, and other decorations. Soon, your slightly-off-his-rocker host arrives to usher you inside, cackling and cajoling you to stay close as you enter the maze.

The haunted theater itself is very well executed. Build Manager Nicolette Chilton Spudic and her team have brought years of haunting experience to the task, and it shows. The space feels huge as you walk through its corridors, and is filled with nooks and crannies from which the crew of haunters can jump out and scare guests. (Or offer candy. They’ve got both trick and treat covered.)

At each stop on the tour, the host guides the attendees into position around the set of the performance as the action begins. For the first performance, Maura Underwood, Eric Matthews, and Michael Todd Schneider perform EYESEEYOU, written and directed by Schneider. EYESEEYOU follows a young couple whose preparations for a Halloween take an unexpected turn … into terror! Schneider’s performance as the villain of the piece gives the show an excellent start. I don’t want to give anything away, but he absolutely captures the menacing unpredictability that the part demands.

The show’s second spine-chilling spectacle is The Scariest Halloween Maze in the World, written by Kim Z. Dale and directed by Todd Betker. In this psychological horror piece, Joanna Lowe – Cup-a-Jo’s artistic director and the mastermind behind the whole UNHINGED concept – and Madeline Dalesio star as a mother and daughter lured by a clown (George Saunier) into what they think is an ordinary Halloween maze. But inside, they find a different kind of fear than they expect. This piece was submitted as part of a competition to pick one of the stories for UNHINGED, and stood out from the rest as a perfect fit for their concept. Lowe and Dalesio do a great job establishing the mother-daughter relationship in the opening, which heightens the impact of later events in the maze.

UNHINGED’s third sinister showcase is a spoken word/dance piece about a serial killer haunted by lost love. Which is not a sentence one gets to write every day. Written and read by Joanna Lowe with direction and dance by Liz Tripoli and Lacy Brooks, “All My Available Space” is a dark tour through the reminiscences of a killer. As she autopsies her latest victim, another from the past dances through her mind. Along with Tripoli’s choreography, the set design and costuming here very effectively set the mood for the poem. The inclusion of “All My Available Space,” a really creepy performance of a completely different style than the others, highlights the flexibility of the anthology format.

The frightful journey culminates with an adaptation by Everett and Joanna Lowe of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” Unfortunately, in this instance crediting the actors would be a spoiler. The adaptation of this literary classic to the unique stage in UNHINGED creates a lot of fun possibilities. The narrator’s slide into madness as the sound of the heartbeat persists is one of the most effective “haunting” moments of the night – the crew of haunters lurks in the areas outside the stage, chanting “faster and louder” so the audience feels it pressing in from all sides as well. Familiar faces from the other performances make appearances as the show draws to a close, tying the whole experience together.

And it’s not done yet! After the show is over, the cast and crew mingle with the attendees in the reception area by the entrance. It’s a great chance to check out some of the costumes up close and hear about the development of the show.

UNHINGED is a creative and ambitious take on the haunted house genre. It’s a great experience for Halloween lovers, and I hope to see the format continue in the future. Go check it out, and make sure to stick around for the reception! (Tell the cast of “The Telltale Heart” they did a great job since I couldn’t.)

Cup-A-Jo Productions’ UNHINGED runs three shows (at 8, 9:30, and 11 PM) Fridays and Saturdays until 10/27 as well as on Halloween. Make sure to book tickets in advance!

That’s a Wrap: Fringe Day 3

Day 3! The last day of my first Fringe Festival! And it was a beautiful one. Finally, I could happily live the dream of comfortably biking around town seeing plays. On Friday it was all dreary and rainy for my agenda of puppetry and chiptunes. Saturday was super cold as I caught hugs, colorful fabrics, and classy mid-Atlantic wit. But Sunday! Lovely sun and balmy air for… cancer, conversion therapy, and an examination of mental illlness. Get ready for a good time, everyone.

My second paragraph always opens with a beer at James Street, so let’s get that out of the way. Coffee stout instead of brown ale today! Having checked that box, I headed over to AIR for The Pink Hulk: One Woman’s Journey to Find the Superhero Within, written by and starring Valerie David, and directed by Padraic Lillis.unnamed (12)

The Pink Hulk is a one-woman show following David’s diagnosis with and treatment for breast cancer, opening with her celebration of fifteen years cancer-free after an earlier struggle with lymphoma. This show spans just about the whole range of human emotions, from a playful hookup in Aruba in the beginning to sadness and loneliness after the second diagnosis and a rollercoaster between defiance and despair as the treatment goes on. David offers inspiring moments when she chose to do things differently from her first battle with cancer, to place them on her terms instead of passively letting them happen – having a party to shave her head before the hair falls out; getting a better wig, then deciding she doesn’t need it. But each one is soon followed by doubt, reflecting the sadness of having struggled with the disease once only to have to do it all over again.

David’s performance is as intimate and boundary-free as a show of this nature needs, and in the lighter moments, she’s very funny – which helps the audience deal with the gravity of the material. The set doesn’t change throughout the performance, but changes to the lighting give a different tone to each scene.

Unfortunately, I had to skip the talkback afterward, as it was time to head over to the Allegheny Inn for Happy/Sad Collective’s The Principle, written by Alan Stevens. The Principle is a short, but dense, drama focusing on Thomas and Jess, a gay man and a trans man who have been forced into Conversion Camp, where the doctors force them to live as Tom and Jessica. The dark, dungeon-y basement of the inn is a perfect setting for the room the two have been placed in for their final test.unnamed (13)

The two characters, portrayed by Jim Hartley and Brittany Stahl, use the occasion of the test to finally talk about who they really are, away from the constant monitoring of the camp. They share their experiences, what made them happy in their former lives, and their feelings on what they’re going through in the program. The actors have clearly put a lot of work into these performances. Their tense movements and body language convey the emotions their characters have been struggling to keep bottled up for so long.

Despite its short runtime, Stevens’ writing draws you into the world of the show. A decision is made at the end that implies there could be more story to portray if he wanted to extend the show. But the heart of the play is the examination of these two characters, and the moment Stevens has chosen for this scene gives you all you need to get to know them. I think it will win an award. Call it a hunch.

After The Principle, I bolted over to St. Mary’s, but my first show there was canceled so it became dinner time! Back at James Street after an attempt to eat at Park House, I wound up sitting next to The Pink Hulk herself, Valerie David! We had a whole corner of the bar just for New Yorkers. Yay for making friends!

On Friday I saw the very first show of the festival, and now it was time for me to see the very last: Krish Mohan’s Approaching Happiness. Approaching Happiness is Mohan’s standup act, that he has performed on tour throughout the country. As the title suggests, Mohan is interested in helping people to be happy, particularly those with anxiety and mental illness. Starting with the personal, his own anxiety and its origins – his discussion expands to society and the human mind. With jokes, of course. That sounded a bit heavy, but don’t worry, it definitely is comedy.

One of the Fringe volunteers told me “The closer you get to the front, the better it will be for you.” I was the only one who heeded that advice, so I wound up alone in the front row, receiving a lot of eye contact. Which kind of fit with the talk of anxiety. I was feeling it. Comedy’s not always supposed to be comfortable, and Mohan warns at the top that he’s going to get weird and esoteric. He keeps his promise, but fortunately also keeps you laughing.

The night ended with the awards ceremony, where I got to see a ton of familiar faces from the weekend and enjoy a few drinks with the rest of the PITR crew that spent their weekends running between the venues. Overall, it was a solid day and weekend.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For more information about Fringe, click here. 

Solos Going Steady at the Fringe

Fringe Day Two kicked off with my extremely questionable choice to bike over to the north side despite it not being nearly as warm as I wanted it to be. After stopping at James Street for my now-customary pre-show beer (two times counts as a custom, right?) I locked up my bike outside Allegheny Inn and headed inside to join the Hugging Army.

The Hugging Army: An Experience in Connection is a storytelling performance by Vanessa White Fernandes, who shares her experiences offering free hugs to people over the last several years. For an intimate experience like this, the living room of the Allegheny Inn bed & breakfast is an ideal setting. Sitting on the couch, White Fernandes invited the audience to pull their chairs in closer and form a circle. As she discusses her thoughts and memories, she cycles through a series of pictures illustrating key points or meaningful moments.unnamed (6)

The goal of The Hugging Army is to help people feel a connection with other people, whether they’re strangers or someone you already know. So naturally, the show ends with an invitation to hugs all around. I happened to be sitting next to Laundry Night’s Captain Ambivalent, so I can report to you, dear readers, that that dude is a good hugger. During the show we were told that a good hug lasts for three breaths, and he stayed in for all three. No hesitation.

Unsurprisingly for a person who spends her time hugging strangers, White Fernandes does a good job of making the audience comfortable in what feels more like a conversation than a performance. And sharing long hugs with seven or eight fellow theater-goers in a bed & breakfast is honestly a great way to warm up after a chilly bike ride.

My second event of the night was Proxemics, upstairs at AIR. Proxemics is a short visual art performance by fabric sculptor Hannah Thompson. I’m just
going to walk you through my train of thought on this one, because it has been my biggest Fringe-venture unnamed (8)surprise so far. When I read the description the other day I saw the sentence “The sculptures have bodily connotations challenging the concept of proximity,” and thought “This is going to be weird and I’m not even remotely artistic enough to know how to appreciate or write about it.” But hey, it’s Fringe, so I’m game for anything.

Sitting on the floor of AIR’s upstairs gallery, I was able to chat for a couple minutes with the artist and some other people in the audience. She’s a Pittsburgh native, and had just returned from a residency of Proxemics out in Spokane, Washington. The performance itself consists of Thompson wearing several of her creations, moving her body and changing positions within the colorful, stretchy fabric to create changing images. She also has some kind of electrical apparatus that changes the sound generated by an amp on the side of the space depending on its position. I was seriously enthralled. If we’re being honest, I’m not sure I got the full message of the piece, but as a visual experience, it’s really striking. The performance only lasts twenty minutes, and it feels much shorter. I’d definitely recommend seeing this if you have a chance.

To finish out the night, I stayed at AIR for The Portable Dorothy Parker. Three one-woman shows in one night! TPDP, written by Annie Lux, features Margot Avery portraying the writer as she selects the pieces to be included in a collection of her works. Quips and poems are excerpted as she reminisces to her unseen and unheard editor. I’m not super familiar with Dorothy Parker (do I have to turn in my NYC ID after that admission?), but Lux’s dialogue and Avery’s performance definitely matched the tone of what we heard of her actual writings. And both are very funny – my “ooh, I’m totally using that line” reflex was triggered several times.unnamed (9)

While the writing and acting were both strong throughout, it did feel a little longer than it needed to be. That might have been a result of seeing it as a late show after several shorter ones, so take it with a grain of salt. The Portable Dorothy Parker plays again at AIR Sunday afternoon, and this summer in Edinburgh. So if you happen to be in Scotland in August, stop in and give it a shot!

Epilogue: I ran into Hannah Thompson on my way home. Hats off to her for impressive memory skills. Recognizing a beardy white dude on a bike in the Strip as someone from a performance hours earlier is pretty amazing. There’s about a million of us out there.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

The Fringe Awakens

unnamed (4)Although the Fringe Festival is now in its fourth year, this is the first for me. If we’re being honest, it’s actually my first theater festival. So I’m easing into it. Only two shows today! After number nine on Sunday, we can all look back at how young and naïve I was at this moment.

I got into the neighborhood a bit early for my first show – actually the opener for the whole festival, a 3:45 performance of Penelope’s Dragon. So after changing out of my work clothes in the car, I decided to jog through the rain and kick things off with a beer at James Street Gastropub. Which wasn’t technically open, but it was the bartender’s last day, so he bent the rules a bit. A good omen.

For this performance, Artists Image Resource was hosting Puppets in Performance – a group organized by Darlene Fedele Thompson, who wrote and directed Penelope’s Dragon. This musical comedy riffs on the standard fairy tale plot: dragon terrorizes village and kidnaps a fair maiden, dashing knight sets off to rescue her. Except in this case, the dragon and the maiden are perfectly happy together. They met at a Ren faire and she brought him home to meet the family (who were none too pleased). And the knight’s a bit hapless and greedy. The dragon is totally terrorizing the village, though. All things considered, the Queen’s anti-dragon policy seems fairly well justified.unnamed (3)

Fedele Thompson, who constructs many of her own puppets, did a great job with this show. Drake, the titular dragon, is represented by three distinct puppets at different points, with the final one impressively sequined and floppy-tongued. Sir Dirk, the knight, sports a helmet vizor that flaps animatedly when he talks, perfectly matching the G.O.B. Bluth-y airheaded arrogance that actor Chris Cattell voices for him. The set consists of a series of wheeled platforms that rotate from the sides of the stage to the center as needed. As much fun as it is to watch the puppets, I also enjoyed keeping an eye on the actors who weren’t currently performing setting the props for each scene while trying to hide behind the platforms.

At only 45 minutes, Penelope’s Dragon is a fun, quick show. The playbill says it’s rated PG, but I don’t think anyone should feel uncomfortable bringing kids to see it. In addition to Fedele Thompson (as Lester the Jester and Penelope’s father) and Cattell (who also voices Seth the zookeeper), the cast features Elena Egusquiza as Penelope and a second dragon who may or may not have been named, Joe Milliren as Drake, and Nupur Charyalu as Queen Ellie (not Nellie). Pro tip: keep an eye on Charyalu. She’s acting along with the puppet the whole time and it’s great. The next two performances of this show are at Alphabet City. So don’t show up at AIR expecting puppets. You’ll only be disappointed.

I decided not to drive over to St. Mary’s Lyceum for The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra, which may have been a mistake because it was definitely still raining. Word to the wise: St. Mary’s is very much a smoking bar. As a recent transplant from a non-smoking city, these things still take me by surprise.unnamed (5)

The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra is a chiptunes symphony, with drag queen Dorothy Matrix conducting an orchestra of eight game boys playing selections of classical music. Between pieces, capable assistant Shari O’Sound sets up the Game Boys required (one to eight, depending on the track) while Matrix regales the audience with tales from her former life as the protagonist of the game “Super Maestro Adventures” before escaping to the real world. Occasional technical difficulties meant more time for this part of the show, which I was fine with because Matrix is an engagingly eccentric character.

The performance itself is well done, if you’re into 8-bit music. Even if it’s not your thing, you have to respect the creativity needed to render the wide variety of sounds in a classical piece through the audio abilities of a vintage 1989 AA-powered hunk of junk. (Remember how terrible all the Pokemon’s cries were in the original game?) At one point in a Prokofiev piece, I thought one of the Game Boys was glitching out, but then I realized it was playing a martial snare drum beat, and it completely worked.

Two quick notes: First, I’d advise anyone going to see this performance not to read ahead on the program. There’s a bit of audience engagement that works better if you’re just following along with the show. Unless that was improvised and it never comes up again. Go find out! Second, for any shows at St. Mary’s, there will be a food tent set up outside the building all weekend. They’re super friendly. They gave me an oversized hunk of chicken on my sandwich! So if you’re in need of some not-too-pricy snacks during your Fringe experience, stop by. I swear I’ll get the name of their operation next time I’m over there.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

BB andrew jThe Duquesne Red Masquers could not have asked for better timing for their production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. A show about a populist President who rides to power by claiming to represent the will of “The People,” only to find himself in over his head? There’s really no way that could get any more on-the-nose, right? Well… on its opening day, Donald Trump visited Jackson’s grave. And then talked about how he disagreed with a court ruling about people he didn’t want in the country. Although written prior to 2008, the themes of populism and racism explored in the show sometimes feel eerily relevant to the current moment. The Red Masquers actually decided to stage this play before the election, but its result obviously influenced director Jill Jeffrey’s choices in developing the production.DSC_0535

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical satire written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, provides a not-quite-sympathetic chronicle of the life of the seventh President from his origins in rural Tennessee to his clashes with Congress and the courts in Washington. Depicting Jackson as a swaggering rock star, the show embraces the DIY aesthetic and breakneck pace of a punk show. Jackson himself is one of the only constants on stage, portrayed by sophomore Michael Tarasovich. The rest of the cast cycle through multiple characters, donning simple additions to their costumes to identify each one. The effect can be jarring at first – especially as the plot rockets through Jackson’s early life without a lot of recurring characters. But with Jackson’s entry into politics, the show finds a steadier pace and it becomes easy to identify actors with characters.

For most of its runtime, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson refuses to rest for more than a few seconds. Although the minimalist set remains mostly static, the cast successfully draws attention to one area while the others are being re-furnished to accommodate new scenes. Cast members move into the audience when Jackson is addressing the people, or speak from behind the fence that divides the stage in half (see, I told you it was topical) when breaking the fourth wall is called for. It is only late in the production, when the consequences of the President’s increasingly erratic behavior begin to catch up with him, that the action slows down to dwell on his legacy with the song “Second Nature.” Jeffrey accentuates this moment with images of the modern America Jackson helped to create and the people he hurt along the way.DSC_0879

The Red Masquers are a student theater group at Duquesne University, but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an alumni show, featuring returning members alongside current students. Although the cast members’ experience levels vary widely, they work well together. “The Corrupt Bargain,” a number featuring the plotting of the Out-Of-Touch Coastal Elite, demonstrates this range:  John Beckas, who plays soon-to-be-former President James Monroe, is a first time actor, while Justin Sines – a hilarious John Quincy Adams – is a veteran of multiple local theater companies and is the Technical Director for the very Genesius theater in which this show was performed.

In addition to leading man Tarasovich, who captures the posturing hotheadedness that is Jackson’s defining characteristic here, the show features notable performances from Lauren Gardonis and Katheryn Hess. While individual singers can sometimes get lost in some of the larger ensemble pieces, these two stand out shine in songs that focus on their voices  – Gardonis in the dark “Ten Little Indians” and Hess as Jackson’s wife Rachel in “The Great Compromise.”IMG_2322

This is a lively and relevant show that seems to be as much fun for the cast as the audience. But it should come with a bit of a content warning. Remember, it is a punk show. First of all, there’s a few f-bombs. Some dick jokes. A very-nearly-too-old reference to the Tea Party movement that takes a while to register if you weren’t active on Daily Kos in the early years of the Obama administration. (I guess that’s a dated reference, too? My bad.) But the controversy that has followed this show through multiple productions is its treatment of Native Americans. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not subtle in its portrayal of its title character as the villain – the phrase “American Hitler” is actually used at one point – but any piece that deals with genocide in a broad satirical tone has to be careful. Especially when relying on simple visual cues to identify characters. Masquers alum Jeff Johnston, who plays Black Fox, the most prominent Native American character, made it clear in a post-performance talkback that the company was very aware of this and did their best to avoid stereotypes. As long as you’re comfortable with all that, the Red Masquers’ production is an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through March 19 at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theater, with shows at 8:00 and Midnight on Friday and Saturday, and a 2 PM matinee on Sunday. Visitors unfamiliar with the Duquesne Campus would also be well-advised to make sure you know where the Genesius Theater actually is. Hint: it’s not at 600 Forbes. I totally knew that.

Special thanks to the Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. For tickets and more information, click here

Photos courtesy of Dale Hess and Morgan Paterniti.