It Could Be Any One Of Us

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couldbe

Pulling up to the Apple Hill Playhouse on Thursday evening I wasn’t sure if I was about to see a performance or sing karaoke at a roadside country bar thrown in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The half lit interchangeable roadside sign assured me I was in the correct place, though, as I pulled in to the gravel lot and attempted to find a parking space amongst the multitude of cars and a business bus toting a handful of senior citizens eager to see the show. I walked on to the back porch, which seemed to once hold more beer bottles than porch chairs, and attempted to make my way into the show only to be scolded by the attendant for not going downstairs to get my tickets first (my b Apple Hill, my b). After finding my way to this hidden box office, securing my tickets, and politely declining the 50/50 raffle ticket offer, I found my way to my seat, which was in the front row of the balcony of the theater. By the time I got settled in the lights were coming on, the announcer was taking the stage, and tonight’s showing of It Could Be Any One Of Us was about to begin.

The theater was very dark and dusty with little to no lighting coming from the outside. The space seems to have been transformed into this modern day theater from either a barn, bar, or both. I attempted to do some research on Apple Hill’s website to uncover its transformative past, but came up short. Regardless of what it used to be it is clear that its current tenants pride themselves on the country-esk feel of the place. This set the scene well for the performance about to take place in the Chalke country house’s living room on a rainy January evening.

The scene starts with a large bearded man named Mortimer Chalke (Rick Dutrow) playing the piano while several presumable family members are scattered around half-listening to the bland, but consistent tune. About a minute into the scene, Norris Honeywell (Craig Soich) bursts into the room from the outdoors soaking wet from the rainy evening. He is shushed by every one of the family members besides Mortimer who is still diligently playing his melody. He seems annoyed by this and continues to express his disinterest as everyone slowly, but surely begins to leave the room. He knocks over several fire pokers, which angers Mortimer and commences a screaming match between the two. The dynamic of these characters is intricately laid out in the opening acts and continues to follow them throughout the performance.

Other characters in this play include Mortimer’s sister, Jocelyn Polegate (Terri Bowser), brother Brinton Chalke (Matt Henderson), Jocelyn’s daughter, Amy Polegate (Angie Lavelle), and Wendy Windwood (Pam Lee) who is an old piano student of Mortimer’s who he claims he is going to leave the family estate to. Shortly after this announcement and Wendy’s arrival, the performance turns into a murder mystery bearing a striking resemblance to the famous board game and movie Clue. I say this due to the dysfunctionality of each of the characters, the various weapons and rooms that are used to commit the attempted and actual murders, and the underlying maladaptive humor of it all, which presides over each and every scene.

All of the actors gave great performances from the neurotic and perfectionist attitude Bowser embodied in Jocelyn to the pretentious yet clueless demeanor of Soich’s Honeywell and the excitable, but loveable Brinton that Henderson portrayed so eloquently. Lavelle’s portrayal of the angsty Angie seemed a bit over the top to me sometimes, but nevertheless humorous. Lee’s appearance made her seem to be just as upbeat and pleasant in real life as Windwood was throughout the performance and Dutrow’s bulky build and booming voice was the perfect match for Mortimer’s demeanor.

The stage was simple as it should be with only one room being needed for this performance. The antique furniture, books, games, and kitchenware perfectly suited the countryside home. Although the setting made it seem as though this performance was taking place in the past, a comment from Windwood about an incident outside Starbucks during the latter part of the show made me realize this was more of a present day interaction. The scenery definitely fooled me.

Speaking of scenery, major props go to Bowser who almost had a wooden fixture on top of the “kitchen door” fall on her in one of the final acts of the show. Judging by the audience’s reaction and context of the play this was certainly not planned, but she went along naturally with it urging Windwood to leave the home as fast as she could. Get. It. Girl.

All in all, I really enjoyed the performance despite the few minor hiccups. There will be several more viewings of the show through August 8 and to get more information on the dates and times click here. For ticket information and prices check out this link.

Performance Date: Thursday, July 30, 2015

Much Adoe About Nothing

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much adoe

It was my first time seeing a production by The New Renaissance Theatre on Saturday evening and after a very rainy Pittsburgh week it was refreshing to be able to attend a sunny outdoor performance. The theater was presenting their first showing of Much Adoe About Nothing, which is part of the company’s Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project (USP). The project presents plays using an Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique. I didn’t have the slightest clue about what this meant until the show’s prompter, Adam Rutledge, took to the grassy stage.

Rutledge explained that back when Shakespeare’s company gave their performances, there were multiple distractions (i.e. gambling, drinking, prostitution) and in order to keep the audience entertained, the performances had to be fast-paced and diverse. Because of this, the company presented different plays every day of the week leaving the actors little to no time to rehearse. Additionally, there were no copyright laws back then and nothing to keep an actor from taking copies of Shakespeare’s scripts and selling them as their own. So, instead of scripts, actors were given scrolls that contained cues such as the last few words of their lines, entrances, exits, and essential stage directions.

The USP actors are taught the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique with clues written by Shakespeare himself. As far as how the actors were going to know what to do on stage without rehearsals and access to the full script, the cue scroll was going to give them all they needed. The spelling, punctuation, language, and meter all contain cues for the actors and the characters’ word choice provides the actors with clues as to how the character should be portrayed. With scrolls in hand and Rutledge standing by with the full script in order to clarify any confusion, I was excited to see what the evening had in store. For information about the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique, check out their webiste here.

The first performance of the evening was a rendition of Adele’s Rumor Has It by one of the play’s actresses, Cassie Wood. The song wouldn’t have made much sense out of context, but given the plot of the show we were about to see, the melody tied in perfectly. The story intertwines two love stories, which are based on foundations of gossip and hearsay. The first of these romances unfolding between Hero (Cassie Wood) and Claudio (Steve Gottschalk).

Wood had a charming innocence about her, which meshed well with her character. There was a scene where she was playfully scolded by Rutledge for missing her cue to enter the scene, which had most of the audience chuckling with the understanding, “that’s so Hero.” Gottschalk perfectly embodied the commanding force of Claudio while also appearing boyish around his colleagues. Hero’s father, Leonato, was hilariously portrayed by Parag S. Gohel. I recently saw Gohel in Throughline Theatre Company’s production of The Ruling Class and continue to be impressed by his acting skills. His hilarious facial expressions compliment the absurdity of his characters perfectly and his comfortable demeanor on stage makes for a great performance.

The second romantic entanglement of the show takes place between Benedicke (Adam Huff) and Beatrice (Tonya Lynn). These two actors really stole the show with their performances. Huff added to the hilarity of Benedicke’s character by scrambling to remember his lines on more than a few occasions while Lynn was fearless in involving the crowd with her dramatization. Their hilarious interpretations and fumbles not only entertained the audience, but also entrenched a humanity within these characters that was both pleasant and natural.

The wardrobe for this performance was, for lack of a better word, amazing. Everything from the character’s outrageous hats to their ankle-length skirts screamed Shakespearean. Even the black yoga pants that made a few appearances were hidden well under the colorful garments and lavish corsets. The characters all seemed more than comfortable in these costumes, which added to the lack of scenery in the play. Although there were little to no props, the actors’ performances were more than enough to make the grassy stage seem like a Sicilian island.

It was apparent that artistic director, Elizabeth Ruelas, and managing director, Andy Kirtland, put a great deal of time and energy into this project. I don’t think they could’ve picked a more courageous and dedicated lot of actors to portray this technique. I was thoroughly impressed by the performers’ willingness to both embody these dynamic characters while also laughing at themselves along the way. Much Adoe About Nothing is playing throughout July at several venues around the area and this is a free event. For more information on this show or to learn more about USP be sure to visit their website.

Performance Date: Saturday, July 11, 2015

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

I was excited to see another show at the New Hazlett Theater this past Friday having thoroughly enjoyed my previous experience of All the Names in roughly the same location. Although these performances were housed in the same building, my experiences of each were extremely different. This was the first time I was experiencing a show in the theater portion of the venue and not roaming around the corridors and rooms of the old abandoned library. I appreciate New Hazlett’s creative use of each and every inch of their space and Friday’s performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, produced by new to the scene company TACT, only further solidified my love for the venue’s performance picks.

In case you are like me and haven’t read Shakespeare’s Hamlet since high school and forget whom Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, they are both minor characters in the original play that are given instructions from King Claudius to keep tabs on Hamlet and find out what is causing his “madness”. It might have something to do with the fact that Claudius killed his father, took his place on the throne, and is now shacking up with his mother…but that’s just a wild guess. Anyway, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are far too deeply absorbed in their existential crises to put the pieces of this puzzle together and let Hamlet outmaneuver and outsmart them through nearly every scene. Luckily, the two characters’ wits, a player, and some tragedians add some comedic relief to what would otherwise be an extremely melancholy play.

Quinn Patrick Shannon (Rosencrantz) and Johnny Terreri (Guildenstern) completely stole the show and given they were the main characters on stage for about 98% of the time I’m certainly glad they did. Shannon breathed a hilarious charm into Rosencrantz, which began to rub off on Terreri’s Guildenstern towards the end of the play as the character gave off a more serious tone up until then. They truly embodied these characters and gave the audience more than a few belly laughs throughout the night with their facial expressions, charisma, and execution of several amusing lines. Their chemistry was impeccable and not easily matched.

The Player (Christopher Josephs) and his several accompanying tragedians were equally as humorous throughout the night as they tirelessly worked to bring the audience blood, sweat, and tears through each of their performances…literally. One of the main tragedians, Alfred (Matt Henderson), had me laughing throughout the night at his quirky mannerisms and willingness to acclimate to any situation, however ridiculous it may be. I found myself wanting to be his best friend by the end of the night and I don’t know why…it was just something about his face. Other noteworthy performances came from Jonathan Visser (King Claudius), Kristiann Menotiades (Queen Gertrude), and Shaun Cameron Hall (Hamlet). Hamlet didn’t have a huge role in this performance, but in the few scenes that he did, Hall’s stage presence was intricate and commanding. I also want to give a quick shout out to John Henry Steelman, who played one of the King’s advisors, Polonius, in this performance. I feel like I’ve seen him in about 70 plays (rough estimate) in the past few months and I don’t know where he finds the time, but I’m glad he does because he does it well.

The scenery was rather minimal in this performance, but the wardrobes were incredible. I particularly enjoyed the Queen’s lavish garments as well the tragedians’ multiple costumes. I also appreciated the use of the theater’s backdrop for several of the scenes, which consisted of multiple old apartment-looking levels and doors. This worked well when multiple dialogues needed to be taking place between several of the characters. The fashion and surroundings worked well with the era the play was set in and only further added to the English dialogue and traditional customs taking place on the stage. My only critique of the setting was when the music tracks seemed to be skipping towards the end of the show. This may have been on purpose, but it threw me off a bit.

I would definitely recommend this performance to theater fans, but do warn that if you are looking for a night of thoughtless entertainment this is not the performance for you. Being a “theater newbie” myself, it wasn’t always easy to follow along with where the dialogue was going and some of the references were lost on me. All in all, though, I felt the actors did a superb job at making the performance easily accessible and entertaining for all. Be sure to check it out before the last performance on June 28. Hit up TACT’s Facebook page here.

Performance Date: Friday, June 26, 2015

The Ruling Class

Having never been, I was excited to visit the quaint yet vibrant Grey Box Theatre on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Living just up the street from it, I always pass by on my adventures for food and beverages, but hadn’t had a reason to ever go in. I always notice how entertained and awestruck the audience seems to be by the performances taking place at the corner of Butler and 36th and after my experience of Thursday night’s performance of The Ruling Class by Throughline Theatre Company I can certainly see why.

From the moment I walked in the door, the venue was bursting with vibrant characters decked out in old-timey British clothing belting their hearts out to whatever ode they felt like shouting. Their energy was excellent and perfectly set the stage for the lively performance we were about to see. Their spirits carried on into the performance as the 13th Earl (Tom Mirth) took the stage to display his affluence and unusual pastimes.

Each character was nothing short of delightful, eccentric, and hilarious all wrapped into one. I liked the way the crew used the whole theater to encompass their performance including the outside of the venue that is first utilized when the 14th Earl of Gurney, or Jack as he sometimes goes by, (Everett Lowe) enters the scene. I have to say he was my absolute favorite performer in this show. He perfectly encompassed the delusional schizophrenic attempting to fit into his “normal” surroundings that may not be so normal after all. I actually cringed in empathy during one of his “episodes” as his losing his mind was so relatable to the pressures we all feel going about our “regular” days facing all of the obstacles life has to throw at us.

The hilarity of Dr. Paul Herder (David Colin Lynch) and Lady Claire Gurney (Jenny Malarkey) absolutely shined in this performance. Having studied psychology, I couldn’t help, but laugh at the clever references and innuendos made by Dr. Herder as he stroked his lab rat and cited Freud. His cleverness as a performer took hold of this role as he seduced Lady Gurney with dirty experiment talk. Malarkey’s facial expressions and mannerisms were priceless as she perfectly encompasses Lady Gurney’s conceitedness throughout the evening.

The other performances were also spectacular from the disapproving Bishop Lampton (Parag S. Gohel) to the overdramatic Charles Gurney (John Michnya). The loveable yet bitter servant, Tucker, (John Henry Steelman) was also a delight although I sometimes had trouble hearing him when he sang as I did with some of the actors’ dialogue when they spoke in extremely thick British accents. This sometimes made it hard to catch the jokes and references each actor was alluding to.

I would be remiss not to mention the extraordinary voices each of the female actors’ displayed. Larissa Overholt and Amanda Montoya, who sometimes took the stage together as Mrs. Treadwell and Mrs. Piggot-Jones, harmonized perfectly together no matter what role in the performance they were taking on and Laura Barletta, who played Grace Shelley, had an absolutely amazing set of pipes. They all took on many roles throughout the performance and mastered each and every one.

While the stage wasn’t too large or filled with props, the costumes helped set the scene nicely. Besides the white Nike jacket that temporarily made an appearance on Jack, I felt like I was right in the middle of Britain. The upper class’ outfits showcased how highly they thought of themselves while the middle class remained humble and the lower class still looked sharp, but modest.

I do have to say I was pleased by my decision to not sit in the front row. The characters often got very involved with the audience members in these chairs and while I love to watch others get put on the spot, I turn as red as a cherry when it happens to me. Not to mention, there was some serious spittle action flowing from several of the characters mouths during some of the more passionate scenes. At least no one can say they didn’t put their heart and soul into it.

All in all, this was great performance and perfect display of the so-called “normalcy” we are all expected to strive for each and every day. The genuineness in each character’s performance was truly a delight and I hope to see another Throughline production sometime again in the future.

Special thanks to Throughline Theatre Company for complimentary press tickets. The Ruling Class has three more performances, closing Saturday the 13th, tickets and more information can be found here.

Performance Date: Thursday, June 11, 2015

Fences

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It was a sold out show on Thursday at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre as yinzers far and wide gathered to see August Wilson’s 1983 play, Fences. The performance takes place in the 1950s during the beginning of the civil rights movement in none other than the Pittsburgh region where Wilson was born. This timeless tale centers around a character named Troy Maxson (Kevin Brown) and his wife Rose Maxson (Sandra Dowe) who struggle over varying viewpoints on how to raise their son Cory (Carter Redwood) in the ever-changing society around them. The audience anxiously waited to see what the night had in store.

Fences originally premiered on Broadway in 1987 starring James Earl Jones as Troy, which later won him a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. Reviews of a recent 2013 British production of Fences focused mainly on actor Lenny Henry’s performance of Troy, which was described as “magnificent,” “superb,” and “perfectly controlled.” From these reviews alone it is clear that whoever is brave enough to take on the role of Troy in this performance must do so with the utmost determination to fully encompass this character. Brown not only met expectations, but exceeded them. He made me love, loath, pity, sympathize, and grieve with his character all in a matter of three hours. He was more than brilliant in intertwining his determinacy to be a good father with his hypocritical tendencies.

Brown’s performance not only captivated the audience throughout the evening, but also amplified Dowe’s, who effortlessly portrayed the caring and compassionate Rose. Her humble approach to this character was spot on with nurturing undertones that made you want to hug her on more than one occasion throughout the performance. Their varying viewpoints on raising Cory left you on the side of Rose more often than not as the young boy struggled to find his place. Redwood’s performance of this character was equally as captivating, though it sometimes felt a bit over-acted. Nevertheless, this brilliant yet broken family left you wondering what drama was going to unfold next.

There were several other performers in this play including Gabriel Maxson (Bryant Bentley), Troy’s brother who suffered a head injury during his service in WWII; Lyons Maxson (Maurice Redwood), Troy’s first son whom he had with another woman; Jim Bono (Wali Jamal), Troy’s best friend and co-worker; and Raynell Maxson (Nia Woodson) Troy’s daughter that stems from an affair he partakes in later in the performance. While all these performances were spectacular, I was extremely impressed by Bentley’s portrayal of Gabriel who, although severely mentally disabled, seems to be able to predict Troy’s fate before he can himself. Redwood also performed the perfect portrayal of a loveable deadbeat while Woodson illuminated the stage with the innocence of Raynell, and Jamal displayed the essence of a more than dependable best friend.

The setting for this play was inside and outside of he Maxson’s household with a rotating set to display each or both of the scenes at the appropriate times. The outside setting displayed a homely porch, with a half-built fence, and rugged old ball tied to a string where Troy often practices or reminisces about baseball. The inside was a small kitchen setting where the Maxson family often gathers to discuss matters or have a meal. The setting was beautifully built and just enough to satisfy the needs of the actors around it. I particularly like the split scene when Raynell is first brought home by Troy who sits outside on the porch and wondered what the other side of the audience was seeing from the inside viewpoint of Rose.

Overall, the cast of characters expertly entangled the themes of family values, tradition, blues, and death in this coming of age performance. I can honestly say there wasn’t a dull moment throughout the night as the actors more than kept my attention in each of the scenes. If you haven’t done so yet be sure to catch this riveting performance at Pittsburgh Playwrights before you miss your chance.

Directed by Mark Clayton Southers

Runs May 9-30, 2015 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. For tickets and more information click here.

Performance Date: Thursday, May 21, 2015

Eerie Hotels and Spooky Taverns: Fringe Recap Day 2

I was more than honored, as I’m sure all of the PGH Stage writers were, to be asked to review several shows at this year’s second annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival. My initial imagination of what the festival might be like consisted of a colorful outdoor tent, the inside of which contained room after room of eccentric performances with local distributors shelling out everything from locally grown food to locally crafted beer. The actual layout of the festival, though, was so much better as it entwined several Pittsburgh businesses all within miles of each other into the story telling and overall festival experience.

My first stop of the night was at the Maker Theater in east end. I was excited to return to this quaint space after seeing “Lovecraft’s Monsters” there back in March. There is something about the space that gives it a very warm, welcoming feeling. Perhaps it’s the beautiful colors lining the outdoor walls as you walk in, the more than friendly event staff to greet you as you enter, the quiet comfortable stage area that you find on the inside, or a combination of all three. Today I was here to see “The Village Hotel,” which was written by Tyler Plosia, a fellow PGH Stage writer. I knew I was in for a treat when Natalie Spanner, who is simply referred to as “her” in the performance’s program, began her opening dialogue.

Spanner’s performance was impeccable throughout the show. Her charismatic ability to jump from discussing a painful abortion, being a support system for her neurotic boyfriend (Michael Perrotta), and platonically befriending a worn out hotel clerk (Chuck Timbers) was the stuff of any emerging actress’s dream. She was even able to keep her cool during the final scene when an unfortunate phone mishap in the sound booth began blaring an Amazon commercial right before she was about to deliver her final line. Only three words come to mind for her: get it girl. The other performers and storyline were equally as riveting, with only a few minor mishaps in the dialogue and a touch of over-dramatization at the end.  All in all, though, the performance kept me fully entertained throughout and only ignited my excitement for more Fringe.

As my guest and I walked into Max’s Allegheny Tavern we were a bit confused. We hesitantly walked up to the hostess asking, “Um, is there a show here?” “Yes,” she said with excitement, “they can help you out right down there!” Sure enough we were in the perfect historic location for the performance we were about to see entitled “Michael McGovern: Stand-up Horror,” which was appropriately held in the basement of the tavern. I grabbed my whiskey sour goblet (which I highly recommend if you are ever visiting this North Side location) and headed downstairs to see what was in store.

A lovely older gentlemen greeted us, who we later found out was Michael McGovern himself. I appreciated the willingness of the playwright and actor to be so hands-on and friendly at his own performance. It didn’t take long for McGovern to continue to cheer the audience up with countless the jokes and puns that filled his stand-up horror stories that were extremely creative and equally as entertaining. He made countless humorous references, some of which I understood and some of which I did not…damn millennials, right? My personal favorites, though, were the exaggerated teenage girls who faced everything from vicious werewolf men in their dorms to blood sucking sorority sisters. Even more impressive, McGovern wrote almost all 26 skits that kept the audience more than attentive throughout the evening.

Keep your eyes peeled for more from the rest of us here at The Pittsburgh Stage! #TPSdoesFringe

While the humorous skits were great, I would be remiss not to mention the impressiveness of McGovern’s second to last skit entitled “The Testimony of Charles Manson” in which he portrayed what may have happened on that witness stand in 1970. McGovern said he almost didn’t do this sketch as it wasn’t meant to be humorous, but boy am I glad he did. Not only was the dialogue compelling, but I dare say I was actually sympathetic to McGovern’s interpretation of this deranged killer. It truly showcased his range and solidified the perfect end to my wonderful Fringe experience.

Lovecraft’s Monsters

412651646153Having only briefly heard a mention of Howard Phillip (H.P.) Lovecraft in a high school literature class many years ago, I really had no idea what to expect walking into the Maker Theater for the first time on Friday night for 12 Peers latest production, Lovecraft’s Monsters. The building itself was very quaint and until the extremely friendly artistic director and stage manager, Vince Ventura and Sara Fisher, greeted me with a complementary beer I thought I might be barging into someone’s colorful Ellsworth Avenue apartment. The theater was equally as cozy as I settled into a seat along with about 10 other audience members there to see the show that evening. I usually enjoy an intimate setting such as this, but the fact that I was on the back end of a week-long seasonal coughing spree made me feel a bit disruptive (my apologies to anyone in the theater that night that agreed). Nevertheless, I was excited to see what the night had in store.

After a brief greeting by Ventura we were immediately thrust into the mind of H.P. Lovecraft as portrayed by David Crawford. It was clear from some initial unorganized, but coherent rambling that Lovecraft was an anxious man. After a brief glimpse into this aspect of his personality, we are taken back into the earlier years of Lovecraft’s life at home in Providence with his mother and aunts. It was clear through several interactions with his mother that their relationship was not central to the foundation of Lovecraft’s being, but the passing of Lovecraft’s grandfather is what truly troubled his young adult life as is mentioned in several biographies about the writer. We begin to see Lovecraft’s emergence into poetry and writing in the midst of his grandfather’s passing.

The next integral part of Lovecraft’s journey that is portrayed through Crawford is the writer’s marriage to Sonia Greene and relocation to New York. This is where we truly begin to see the extent of Lovecraft’s reclusive and unique personality. Due to his nighttime adventures and adverse lifestyle he is unable to make the relationship work and moves back to Providence. He seems to have little to look forward to there other than a mere single piece of literary work being published for a dollar, making the audience aware that much of Lovecraft’s fame did not take place during his lifetime and he was often scraping by for essentials such as food and clothing. Crawford’s portrayal of this makes it very easy to sympathize with the writer.

The stage setting was very minimal including only a few objects such as a stool, black table, and notebook. Although Crawford did very well to make up for the lack of sensory scenery with his narrative dialogue it might’ve been nice to see a little more prop usage or backdrops on stage. The lighting was clear and concise, but not all that dynamic and I didn’t even realize there were sound effect capabilities until the final scenes. I’m not sure if this was due to lack of resources (which I can relate to since my bank account is bordering on the negative right now) or if this minimalist approach was meant to reflect Lovecraft’s attitude/possessions, but there were certainly scenes where I felt like this was appropriate and others I felt could’ve used a little more.

The final scenes were extremely compelling and excellently performed. Without giving too much away, Crawford decides to put a twist on Lovecraft’s The Shadow over Innsmouth to wrap up the writer’s tale. To me, it was perfect way to blend the life, hardships, and troubling personality traits that followed the writer throughout his life. Not many can pull off a one-man show, but Crawford did so exquisitely.

Written and performed by David Crawford

Lighting Design, Sound Design, and Board Operator: Vince Ventura

Stage Manager: Sara Fisher

Props & Costumes: David Crawford

Special thanks to 12 Peers Theater for a complimentary press ticket. Lovecraft’s Monsters runs through March 21, tickets can be purchased here.

All the Names

All-The-Names-Quantum-Theatre

As I pulled up to the Allegheny Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and then got back in my car and looped around to the former Northside Library (thinking to myself that I should’ve paid more attention to that preceding instructional e-mail from a generous Quantum staff member) I really had no idea what to expect out of the night. I had never been to a performance by the Quantum Theatre before and was used to grabbing a glass of wine, finding my cushy seat, sitting through an hour or two of performance, and hoping there is an intermission to relieve myself of the wine I regretted drinking. As we all gathered around in the lobby area we were instructed that the play would take place in several rooms of the library where we would be standing, sitting, and occasionally asked to move. This is different, I thought, as I joined the pack of anxious performance-goers up the stairs to the first scene.

Eerie is the only word that can be used to describe the Northside Library and the rooms inside. I overheard an audience member talking about how the library wasn’t used for anything nowadays, “well besides this,” he explained to his friend. This type of building was more than perfect for the scenes that followed. We entered into what may have been a past version of the setting’s main registry office or simply a dreary dream of the space seen through the eyes of an employee. It was a desolate hollow place made from the stuff of nightmares with seemingly forgotten names etched onto the walls in chalk. The present day registry in the next room wasn’t much better.

The all too familiar boring office setting where employees slowly lose hope of their dreams and goals was what surrounded the audience throughout the night. The first character we see in this room is what I assumed to be an employee of the registry climbing up a ladder to file a document with a red string wrapped around his ankle. It is later revealed that employees of the registry must tie this string around them when going into the room where the records of those who have died are kept. “Isn’t that crazy that they have to put that rope around them when they go in there so they don’t get lost,” said a woman to those accompanying her in the audience. It was interesting to hear her say that when I had initially interpreted the string as a leash, which chained the employees to their unfulfilling jobs and lives. This was what was so great about this play throughout, though. Each individual audience member could interpret things how they wanted.

Mark Conway Thompson (front) James Fitzgerald (back)
Mark Conway Thompson (front) James Fitzgerald (back)

I later came to find out that the man I thought was a random employee was actually the one of the main characters, Senhor José. Well, not exactly. Senhor José as the main speaking part of this character was portrayed by James Fitzgerald, but rather a part of the mind of Senhor José or his alter ego if you will. I absolutely loved this aspect of the play. It kept reminding me of the 2007 film, Mr. Brooks, with Kevin Costner and William Hurt. Hurt is Costner’s alter ego in this film just as Thompson is to Fitzgerald in this performance and I must say both of the duos pulled this concept off seamlessly. I saw similarities in the alter egos of these two performances as they pushed the main characters to do things they wouldn’t be confident enough to do on their own, stood by their sides in times of need, and even conducted the same mannerisms simultaneously. It truly takes a pair that is in sync to successfully execute this technique and Quantum couldn’t have picked two better performers to do so.

Cameron Knight (left)
Cameron Knight (left) James Fitzgerald (right)

We are briefly introduced to the Registrar in the first speaking scene, but see much more of his personality in the following where we are taken into a room where he sits in a large chair behind an even larger table slanting in his favor. I heard an audience member (apparently I was in a mood to eavesdrop) describe this setting as “dreamlike.” I couldn’t agree more. I feel this was also a good representation of how the employees saw the Registrar as somewhat God-like in the workplace setting. This is also where Senhor José starts his journey of finding the unknown woman and begins this by chatting with one of the unknown woman’s previous neighbors played by Bridget Connors.

(from left to right) Bridget Connors, Cameron Knight, James Fitzgerald, Mark Conway Thompson
(from left to right) Bridget Connors, Cameron Knight, James Fitzgerald, Mark Conway Thompson

I don’t know why the decision was made to have Knight speak for Connors on and off throughout this scene, but I’m certainly glad it was. Knight’s voice was a commanding, articulate presence as Connors and he morphed into the same synchronization we saw play out through the performance of Fitzgerald and Thompson.

My only critique of the setting throughout the night would be the inability of the audience members to predict the character’s movements and give them the space they needed accordingly. I realize this is a similar concept that Quantum took on in their previous production Tamara, which I did enjoy, but didn’t think I was alone in the sentiment that I was often in the way of the art unfolding. I groundlessly decided to take a step back in one of the scenes right before Fitzgerald rushed through the place I had just been standing. Luckily, I had some baby sheep to look at and calm me from this near collision. No, you didn’t misread that, there are real live adorable baby sheep in this play and if you are on the fence about going to see it I hope this sealed your decision.

Nevertheless, this incredibly relatable storyline resonated with me in an emotional way as I found myself wanting to give Senhor José a hug after all was said and done. The author of the original novel, José Saramago, once wrote that out of all of the characters he had created he felt that Senhor José was the closest to himself. After viewing this performance I can see parts of Senhor José in many others I know as well as myself. There was a particular line I found myself mulling over afterwards. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it had to do with the thrill of the search being more powerful than finding what exactly it is you are searching for. We all find our fulfillment in some form or another. Without this sense of purpose we all would become unknown women and men.

All the Names runs through May 2nd. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Special thanks to Quantum Theatre for two complimentary press tickets. Photo credits: Heather Mull.

The Wiz

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A packed house filled the Philip Chosky Theater on Friday night preceding Dorothy (Annie Yokom), Aunt Em (Johari Mackey), and Uncle Henry’s (Ethan Crystal) appearance on stage. While I had never seen the original 1978 version of “The Wiz,” my friend’s mention of Michael Jackson’s appearance in it prompted me for a night filled with charismatic singing and dancing. Within the first few minutes, Mackey began her beautiful performance of “The Feeling we Once Had” and I was immediately hooked. Prior to the performance I had skimmed the program, which mentioned that during the Jim Crow Era, which this performance takes place in, there were often urban orphans sent to rural areas where they may have ended up with guardians of a different race, as was the situation between Aunt Em and Dorothy in this opening scene.

The backdrop of slanted lights and frames set the scene perfectly for the impeding tornado that would take Dorothy to Oz, but didn’t seem to serve much more of a purpose than to illuminate a different colored light for each scene. I felt the choreographed dancing during the tornado was a nice touch and immediately fell in love with the munchkins that greeted Dorothy on the other side of the storm. Not only were the munchkins hilarious in their different colored onesies, but the good witch of the North, Addaperle (Joel Weil), also performed fabulously, although I was concerned if she bent down too low she might pull a Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident circa 2004 in her costume.

The stellar performances continued as Dorothy encountered the Scarecrow (Philippe Arroyo), Tinman (Harron Atkins), and Lion (Jean G. Floradin). It was easy to tell which character the King of Pop played all those years ago as Arroyo was dismounted from the Scarecrow stand and immediately fell into several agile splits. Atkins stole the show with his natural rhythm and beautiful voice while pulling off his simple yet effective costume of overalls and silver paint effortlessly. Floradin’s sly movements and immaculate mane helped compliment his character’s fierce, yet timid personality, but I felt that his charming voice was drowned out a bit by the orchestra.The Wiz 2

The gang’s arrival into Emerald City was met with flashy lights and even flashier costumes on the city’s residents. While this served well to portray the glitz and glamour of the city, there were several instances throughout the performance where the lights were too busy blinding audience members to impress them. The appearance of the Wiz (Erron Crawford) posed the same problem I saw earlier in Floradin’s performance, as the band seemed to overshadow parts of Crawford’s singing. Nevertheless, Crawford portrayed the character as nothing less than powerful, with the ending of Act I employing a circular computer screen to serve as the Wiz in a forceful robotic form. It must be helpful to have such strong computer science and drama schools within the same University when putting on performances such as this one and the proper use of resources definitely showed. There were also two additional screens in the backdrop, but didn’t see them being utilized quite as often as I would’ve liked.

The opening of Act II featured the wicked witch of West, Evillene (Veladya Chapman), performing “No Bad News” in a stunning dress and heels that she pulled off without a hitch. While her costume was anything, but ugly, her on stage performance certainly made up for the evil personality she was there to portray. I was also extremely impressed by the winkies enslaved in her castle who were convincing enough to believe that their freedom during the performance of  “Brand New Day” was actually taking place right in front of your eyes.

All of the characters that were featured in the performance’s choreographed dance scenes were impeccably in sync from the main four yellow brick road travelers to the four dancers who served as the yellow brick road itself. It was clear that an adequate amount of time had been put into these routines with the perfect mix of enthusiasm from each and every dancer. The last scenes featuring the glittery good witch of the South, Glinda (Maya Maniar), and the quadlings served as a perfect conclusion to the already impressive performances throughout the night.

The Wiz, presented by Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama

Adapted from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum

Book by William F. Brown

Additional Materials by Tina Tippit

Music & Lyrics by Charlie Smalls

Directed and choreographed by Tome’ Cousin

Musical Direction by Thomas Douglas

Runs through February 28, tickets can be purchased here.

Special thanks to Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama for two complimentary press tickets.

Performance Date: Friday, February 20, 2015

Mr. Joy

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MrJoy_573x437_rev (1)

Mr. Joy, which is thought of as a sequel of sorts to Daniel Beaty’s first popular solo work, Emergency!, illuminated the stage for a packed house on Friday, January 30. Emergency!, which told the story of a slave ship arising out of present-day New York’s Hudson River, used strategies such as slam poetry, song, and multi-character transformation to portray the characters’ varied commentary on their own personal identity and freedom. Beaty revisited some of the characters from his original piece, while adding several new voices that were nothing short of enthrallingly independent and unknowingly broken all at the same time.

The stage setting for Mr. Joy revolved around a screen in the background, which opened by projecting images of various streets, buildings, and people in inner-city Harlem. Before the show’s sole performer, Tangela Large, enters the scene we are shown several faces of young children, which sets the stage perfectly for her opening performance of the young and impressionable Clarissa.

Mr. Joy pic 1

Clarissa is by far one of the most animated characters in Beaty’s set. She spends her days working in Mr. Joy’s shoe shop and learning from him and the rest of the characters about living, loving, and working in Harlem. She seems old enough to understand the lessons of Mr. Joy, but young enough not to be jaded by the broken system she lives in. As we begin to adore this sweet girl and her playful stories, the harsh truth behind her unfortunate situation begins to unfold.

Clarissa’s grandmother Bessie has had to raise Clarissa on her own due to both of her parents dying from AIDS. Clarissa has inherited this condition, which causes them both to spend countless hours rearranging schedules, remembering pills, and visiting the hospital. While Bessie doesn’t spend too much time talking about Clarissa’s parents, she does spend a fair amount of time discussing the recent influx of crime in her neighborhood and her dislike for the Chinese people who are beginning to “take over” Harlem business. To me, Bessie represented the member of the older generation that we often encounter, who “grew up differently” and “doesn’t know any better.” Does that make it okay, though?

DeShawn is a beautifully spoken word smith who wonderfully ties several of the characters together. He has a brilliant creative spark, which is portrayed through a carefully crafted poem detailing the struggles he faces living in the inner-city. We undoubtedly hope for the best for DeShawn, but soon see his surroundings bring out the worst.

Mr. Joy’s son John Lee is quick to judge an entire race by his experience with a few members as we see so often happen to individuals in our society. He is overworked and overstressed, which causes him to take his aggression out on those he stereotypes and those he believes to be stereotyping him.

Rebecca is a middle-aged white woman who gets everything, except struggle. She boasts of dating John Lee’s boss, Clifford. She claims the fact that she is dating Clifford could never make her racist although her entire dialogue is littered with racist undertones. As a white woman, Rebecca’s character made me stop and think “wait, I’m nothing like that.” But then again, is anyone really like the stereotypes that are placed on them without their say?

Peter is Clarissa’s young boyfriend who stops by the shop on occasion to sing her a song or do something she describes as “nerdy.” We are never fully made aware of Peter’s race, which I believe represented the effortless ability of young people to see past skin color. Peter’s character also wonderfully complimented the vibrant youth of Clarissa.

Rebecca’s wealthy boyfriend Clifford owns his own property management business. We catch him in the midst of a therapy session where he spends most of his time reflecting on the choices made by his son turned daughter, Ashes, who used inheritance money given to her by Clifford to complete her sex change. Clifford refuses to speak to Ashes because of this, but is clearly struggling between what he has been raised to believe as appropriate and the hardship of losing his child.

Ashes also seems to be struggling with the loss of her father, but covers her pain with outrageous stories and lavish expressions. While she strives to express her identity as a woman we see her second guessing what her life would’ve been like if she would’ve conformed to what her father wanted instead of what she felt to be right.

James was not a major character in this performance, but an important one nonetheless. As the screen behind him fades to dark and dingy streets we see a man who has let his surroundings completely wear him down from the creative artist he once was to a jaded street dweller. We are left only to hope that DeShawn doesn’t follow a similar path.

While he is never seen in the actual performance, Mr. Joy is referenced by all of the characters to be an outstanding man with the utmost of class. He treats every character, no matter their race, as an equal and seems to be the type of person all of his counterparts wish they could be. The characters are all brilliantly connected through him and the shoes that he fixes for them whether they realize it or not.

Mr. Joy pic 2

Large was nothing short of brilliant in her portrayal of these extremely diverse and dynamic characters. Only a few props including shoes, a lunch box, and a sketch book were used, which only further demonstrated her ability to breathe a new life into each of the character’s she portrayed. She was able to navigate through the vibrant youth of Clarissa to the jaded attitude of James with ease making you feel like you were truly experiencing different performers every time. The images on the screen also perfectly complimented the complex portrayals happening around the extremely diverse areas within Harlem.

With recent events in Ferguson and incidents involving Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, this eye-opening performance couldn’t have been released at more appropriate time. It allows us to see up close and personal the inequality that ravishes several social groups in our society and the lasting effects it can have on our ever-impressionable youth who either overcome this racial disparity or are forced to succumb to it.

 

Mr. Joy,  World Premiere presented by City Theatre Company

Written by Daniel Beaty

Directed by Lou Jacob

Photo credits Kristi Jan Hoover

Runs through February 15, tickets can be purchased here.

Special thanks to City Theatre for two complimentary press tickets.

Performance Date: January 30, 2015