Midsummer

Nothing yells rom-com louder than meeting a stranger in a bar and proceeding to party for three days straight. Yet, although Midsummer, running at City Theatre, contains this, it penetrates deep into the human soul, creating a niche genre all its own. Medium Bob (Randy Redd), a petty thief who peaked in high school, meets Helena (Carey Van Driest) in a wine cellar in their home town of Edinburgh. Fate turns their one night stand into hedonistic debauchery in a climax that sparks laughter, and promotes self-reflection.

Playwright David Greig was born in Edinburgh and uses his intimate knowledge of the location to sustain a rich environment for his characters. He uses the literal Midsummer celebration to symbolize Bob and Helena’s proverbial midsummers, owing to their age of 35. He explores personal responsibility, aging, and what it means to live rather than exist in a new age. Greig’s deft writing explains this, combining sketch comedy with science. Masterfully, Greig integrates his themes into the narrative by utilizing the constant repetition of time in order convey the morbidity of time running out.

What truly propels Midsummer forward, however, is its method of narration. Redd and Van Driest narrate the stories through their characters point of view similar to a first person novel, then spring into sketches, acting events out as they take place. Van Driest proves herself a formidable actress here by playing many characters, juggling all of Bob’s lowlife friends while still being undeniably Helena. Although Redd is restricted to mostly Bob, he plays the part beautifully, making what should be an incredibly unlikable character seem like an old friend. A highlight of the play is a five minute conversation Bob has with his own genitalia, Redd playing both roles.

Billed as a play with songs, Midsummer uses music to provide emotional relief rather than to drive the narrative. In an odd turn of events however, the one song that narrates their hangovers may just be the most entertaining song in the play. Gordon McIntyre provided Midsummer with a completely acoustic score, with every song played onstage by Redd and Van Driest. The score accentuates the natural, emotional themes of the play without distracting from the rather fast paced action.

With a spartan set and a lavish backdrop consisting of a large piece of art, even the set provides a picture of the wealth dichotomy faced by Bob and Helena. The technical crew do a great job using different lighting effects to represent day and night, and they even provide a little prop humor. All of this stems from artistic director Tracy Brigden’s adept and creative mind for theatre.

Midsummer emanates creativity through its narrative devices, wonderful acting, and well thought direction. Although there are a few plot points that are shoved in haphazardly during the denouement, the show more than easily makes up for it by entertaining and dazzling the audience whilst managing to impart on them food for introspection. Alone or with a date, Midsummer is sure to please.

Midsummer runs through May 31st. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets.

Performance Date: Saturday, May 16, 2015

Fringe Sunday AKA The Lost Reviews

Bonnie and Clementine (on Their Way to the Grand Canyon, Explore the Limits of the Dramatic Form) relies on straight man comedy to produce a funny, strange, and satisfying show that breaks the fourth wall and explores dramatic tropes. Shannon Reed’s writing in the first story is superb, perfectly utilizing a skeptical straight man as a foil to a zany, out of touch protagonist. The true beauty of the show comes out when the audience forgets about the dramatic form limitations and starts suspending disbelieve. Perhaps this is a self-referential allegory. When the show sheds its humor, it becomes a symbolic masterpiece. Welcome to Your Life, on the other hand does not quite get there. Both characters are well acted, and the plot revolves around the unknown rather than exploration of tropes. The follow up to Bonnie and Clementine stops short because there is no symbolic breaking point, no subtle shift from comedy into drama. The whole piece leans from one side to the other until it ends without a satisfying resolution. Both pieces are directed well, and both are generally entertaining, but Bonnie and Clementine beats Welcome to Your Life in terms of writing.

Brandy Loyal: Disposable Pop Star Illuminati Robot is the second of two shows on Sunday that had ridiculously long titles. Although billed as a “campy, satirical, modern pop musical” in the fringe program, it basically amounts to spoken word poetry to a few pop beats. It starts strongly, with a song introducing the pop star robot and including the audience chanting to the beat, much like at a concert. This song is very fun. Afterwards, most of this audience participation dies out, and so does the show. The poetry was not bad by any means, but the narrative that strung each poem together was nonexistent. In the end, the piece satirizes how Americans know nothing about America, but how it gets there is still hard to say. Keep it fun, then hit the audience with the dark stuff.

Bedtime Stories from Laugh/Riot Performing Arts Company, hits hard or misses. It is a collection of short stories revolving around nighttime and mortality (a common thread in the Fringe Fest this year). Each story is self-contained, with no overlap other than theme. The acting is very inconsistent, much like the whole show. Every actor has ups and downs, but there is not one actor who does not succeed spectacularly at some point. The piece is totally engrossing and interesting, with every story approaching thought provoking subject matter. It opens with a couple discussing the apparent uselessness of life through moral-less stories. A pizza delivery gone wrong turns into the best executed scene of the show, while a macho display of violence morphs into necrophilia in one of the lesser scenes. Still, each scene imparts the audience a sense of fleeting life and how the small adventures make it worthwhile.

Beltane delivers a surprisingly apt musical improv session to Pittsburgh Fringe. Fabricating a musical out of nothing but audience suggestions, Beltane is literally a once in a life time experience. The actors of local improv group Always B Sharp and the Steel City Improv do an incredible job off the top of their heads. Of course there is not going to be Broadway level writing, but they make do with what they have in an incredibly entertaining way.

Intentional Icing is a tasteful, complex story about feminism and sports. Written by C.S. Wyatt, the Pittsburgh original never fails to entertain. Jo Bulloch (Cindy Jackson), the first woman to play on a minor league hockey team, makes headway into advancing her career after a young fashion journalist (Minda Briley) prompts a recovering champion to assist her. The piece deals with sexism, fandom, and pride incredibly tactfully. Each actor does a wonderful job, engaging the audience without scaring anybody away. Tyson Sears as Robby Rowan encapsulates the pompousness of a star athlete, and Cindy Jackson as Jo Bulloch paints a very unconventional female athlete. The entirety of the play is engrossing, with its message not taking precedence over plot.

Bortle 8 by Chris Davis is the result of putting David Sedaris, William S. Burroughs, and Ray Bradbury in a blender and serving the residue as a Jell-O shot. Davis magnificently blends sincerity with symbolism, the absurd with the practical in a one man show about self-discovery in darkness. The piece consists of three parts: an intimate exposition, a two character romp through the cosmos, and a beat-worthy dark piece of stream of consciousness. The exposition proves Davis’ extreme affability and charm, while the meat of the plot lies in Davis’ surreal journey with God-like John Bortle. Yet, the finale causes evacuation of oxygen from the human body. Davis ties every symbol, every motif of his hour long monologue into one Poe-meets-Kerouac poetic explosion. Bortle 8 leaves the audience looking inside themselves in one fringe-worthy burst of personality and professional storytelling.

Religion, Murder and 9/11: Fringe Day 2

St. Jimmy Celebrates “Food at Our Feet” is right at home at the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival. Jimmy Grzelak delivers a sermon-like cabaret posing the question: What is the relationship between God, sustenance, copyright laws, sex, and Food network? While the answer is not explicitly stated, the journey is as satisfying as beat salad served with brie and figs on toasted naan. Perhaps with a bay leaf garnish. Slightly disjointed, the performance is carried on Grzelak’s plentiful charisma. This is certainly one of the most fringe-ish shows at the festival. Audience members hold pineapples for no apparent reason, follow in hymns to the great Sandra Lee, and recite copyright infringement laws like pieces of scripture. Part vocalist, part storyteller, part self-absorbed reverend, Jimmy Grzelak accomplishes something unique: a satire on religion without atheistic undertones. The Food at Our Feet breaks spirituality into its ingredients and serves a self-reflective dish.

Major (part of teen Fringe), written and directed by Maddie Ince and Casey Quinn, makes light of acting stereotypes in a farce about reunion. Two high school friends (Ince and Quinn), separated during college, dine together with their boyfriends. Most of the comedy comes from the significant others, one being a frat boy and the other a homosexual stereotype. Every actor plays their part very well. The writing is obviously geared towards high school students; many of the jokes are about the closeted sexuality of Julian (Matt Werner). The plot goes straight from exposition to resolution, but the show is also only thirty minutes long, so some narrative shortcutting is excusable. Although the acting and directing seems almost professional, the writing is slightly amateurish pertaining to deeper literary ideals. The piece does not really mean anything underneath the surface, and most jokes come not from word play or circumstance, but from tropes. However, what Major does, it does well. It is a very impressive piece stemming from youth.

Storytelling World Honors winner Regina Ress weaves a collection of beautiful stories together in Compassion, Generosity, and Grace: Stories from 9/11. By focusing on aspects of community and passion within victims, Ress uses the tragedy of 9/11 to create a heartwarming verbal collage, each with a common thread. She combines folk tales, informal chats, and years and years of experience into a remarkable tale of the lightness in the human heart. Her reach expands world-wide, telling of a mountain top culture who wants to understand others’ pain, yet also of teachers comforting displaced children at a middle school. Compassion, Generosity, and Grace demonstrates the richness of human community and society in the wake of devastation.

The Murder of Gonzago, written and directed by Alan Irvine, depicts a tale of revenge gone wrong. Based on the meta-play in Hamlet, The Murder of Gonzago is a silly but comedic romp through some Shakespeare archetypes. Like Hamlet, a nephew (Jared LoAlbo) attempts to murder his uncle (Michael Mykita), but in this case the impetus is not revenge. Rather, the tragic hero is trying to pay off debts. Unlike Shakespeare, the plot is fueled on the stupidity of the main characters instead of societal quandaries or treachery. Actually, the main character is pretty unlikeable. What makes The Murder of Gonzago good is the interplay between minor characters. Adam Rutledge’s Detective D’Berry is the best written and acted in the show, with Dylan Mahaffey’s Toby coming close in the writing department. The show, although set up like a tragedy, really falls underneath a comedy mostly because of the difficulty of attaching to any of the serious characters. The play shines the light hearted bits like the prequel 5 Conversations. And a Bear. The entirety of that piece relies on comedic relief through short ursine related attack scenes. This creates a goofy atmosphere that emanates humor. When this occurs, both plays are at home.

Resurrection by Hudson Rush is an interactive art exhibit focused on the release of regrets and the self-affirming effects of visual art. The piece features meditation during a chalk outline of the participant’s body, aimed at symbolizing the death of the past. Resurrection creates a take away piece to be hung on a wall, displaying one’s past self, and the droll mortality of a persona.

Day 3 of my Fringe Festival experience: coming soon!

Fringe Festival Rocks the Northside Friday Night

Hedwig and the Angry Inch succeeds both in humor and in sound. Ryan Borgo does a terrific job of displaying the duality of Hedwig’s confused gender identity, while still maintaining her sass. Hawk tells Hedwig’s tragedy with both parts despair and egotistical whimsy. This creates a sympathetic, yet pompous air for Hedwig fit for her character to a T. Chelsea Bartel, playing Yitzhak, is livid and removed the entire performance, which works perfectly as a foil to the gaudy Hedwig. Both vocalists hit nearly every note and craft a beautiful sonic atmosphere. The band rocks as well, although the small venue combined with the big sound drowns out the lyrics occasionally. The overall tone is informal, Hawk encouraging and at times forcing audience participation. Two high notes are “Sugar Daddy” and (obviously) “Wicked Little Town.” The Angry Inch rocks hard.

Harrison Stengle’s original piece Cult Classic tells of a woman stuck inside an isolated cult who struggles to find justice in an inhumane world. Using Neo Symbolism, Stengle works meaning into every facet of the production. Color symbolism, biblical imagery, and political cartooning are used throughout the entire play. The piece begins to falter, however, when it starts driving its point in. The play bears all, without leaving anything to the imagination on a literary level. Cult Classic is an interesting play lacking in subtlety.

More to come on my Fringe experience soon!

*A previous edition of this review stated that Kyle Hawk played Hedwig and Cheryl Randal played Yitzhak, we apologize for any confusion*

Bus Stop

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Bus stops, those dreadful asylums for awkward stares and weather talk, are not a place of insight, a place of harbor, nor a place for incredibly meaningful conversation. Odd, then, that everybody seems to know everything about each other and yet nothing about life in “Bus Stop,” by William Inge. The play, presented by The Summer Company and directed by Justin Sines, runs on August 28-30 and may be worth your time.

It takes clever writing to make a story about being stuck at a restaurant bus stop over night entertaining. “Clever” describes the whole play almost to a T (No more bus puns). The script is overflowing with innuendo, situational comedy, and smart wording, but fails to really grasp its message. Every twist is expected and almost as clichéd as a theatre critique. I won’t spoil anything because I don’t need to unless you, the reader, have an IQ below that of the average fish. The play also lacks logic at times, making some scenes laughable in a bad way. During the build up to the climax, a fatherly character tries to consol a younger man on how to become desirable to the opposite sex via tenderness. Directly after, the female of his choosing says multiple times, very loudly how much she wants her theoretical spouse to be gentle. Hear that, Bo? Gentle. I said tender. I want a man to be compassionate. Really, I’d do anything for that type of guy. Delayed possibly five seconds after she almost yells her desire for a sensitive mate, her down trodden counterpart says, “I just can’t see how any woman could like a man who’s tender.” Whether its awkward phrasing from the script or a lack of self awareness from the actors, something that should have been properly funny fell flat. If you’re looking for a play to watch that punishes you for thinking, but is truly comical, consider Bus Stop.

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The acting is also hit or miss, but thankfully less so. Every actor conveys the symbolism of their character very well if not too obviously. Stand out performances by Everett Lowe and Roberta Honse carry the production from a thematic and comedic perspective respectively. The other actors don’t. They act well, but fall into triteness occasionally and are quick to overact during pivotal scenes. The result is not bad by any meaning of the word, but extinguishes any sense of sensitivity. Yes, a drunkard reenacting the balcony scene should be comically overplayed. Through the process, however, the audience forgets the dark aspects of him trying to seduce a young woman. The acting is very much like the script, funny and blunt.

With very appealing set design and surprisingly good direction, it’s odd that “Bus Stop” fails to reach depth. Except for one surprising and well played twist involving Richard Eckman (who acted sparsely but delightfully), the play is held back and could have been profound. “Bus Stop” does not suffer from lack of humor, lack of self realization (in the script, at any rate) or poor planning, but from a missing soul. It’s an elaborate pattern set up with dominoes by someone who very evidently knows what they are doing but due to a few poorly calibrated pieces fails at achieving anything but entertainment. See it if you need a laugh and it will deliver.

Thank you to The Summer Company for free admitance to “Bus Stop.”

Performance Date: August 26, 2014

Fixing King John

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“Fixing King John,” running July 18 – August 2 at Off the Wall Theater, by Kirk Lynn is a triumph in both parody and irony. This contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King John” capitalizes on vulgarity and juxtaposition in order to create a beautiful trashy train wreck that works in every respect. On top of the fantastic script, Steven Wilson’s directing and the acting of No Name Players highlights every nuance needed to carry this splendid and hilarious piece of writing into the realm of healthy endearment for Shakespeare.

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Not that the script doesn’t show case that itself. Rich in alliteration and full of poetic lines, the dialogue truly feels like a Shakespeare piece written recently. With that, of course, comes plenty of perverse comedy and adult language. The swearing at points comes off as childish, but in a show revolving around conflicting images, the language works in “Fixing King John’s” favor. It’s surprisingly entertaining to watch twelfth century royalty throw out expletives. That is really the strength of the writing. For however kingly any character acts, they show their true colors by being twice as rash or childish. And it’s hilarious.

“Fixing King John” still has a two pronged approach at entertainment thanks to the wonderful direction and fantastic performances by all involved. While it makes the audience laugh and smile with its smart dialogue (even if it is slightly overly vulgar), “Fixing King John” also connects with the audience on an emotional level to deliver a powerful ending. Mike Mihm delivers a robust performance as King John, transforming from a rash angry king to one truly deserving the title of great. The script contains some monologues performed by Tressa Glover that deserve the adjective “Shakespearian.” Although it seems at first that she’s overacting, it turns more into a homage to the acting style of Elizabethan England. Even though that could get tedious and pretentious, Glover does it superbly and is balanced by more nuanced performances. One of which being Todd Betker’s Pembroke. Without having an abundance of lines, he delivers each word perfectly and plays up the sleaze ball element of this show. It would be wrong to call any of these performaces stand out, because not one actor fails at stealing the show. Gregory Lehane’s King Philip fuels much of the play’s drama and still does so comically. Ricardo Vila-Roger’s Bishop is so self-righteous it hurts. It’s a masochistic pain, however. The only qualm with the show is an odd accent The Bastard, the pseudo chorus, puts on. Still, it creates a sense of class division between royalty and a former peasant, so it isn’t objectively bad. Just slightly distracting. Well done by everyone involved.

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When the show gets dark, it still doesn’t fail to stir up laughter. This is the work of Steven Wilson, the director. The show could easily have forgotten its roots and tried to leave the audience with a profound message by force feeding it like a poorly done indie movie, but by not exaggerating the importance of the story (and all historical inaccuracies present) the message becomes more easily swallowed. Along with fantastic blocking, Wilson crafts a meaningful, worth while production that never seems to be repeating scenes.

The canopy for King John’s madness is unique enough to be outlandish. The set requires a lot of imagination on the audience’s part to piece everything together, but the construction theme plays at the heart of the show and ultimately works towards a symbolic gesture. Yes, they use a ladder for a wall. Yes, they use scaffolding for a palace. But when the intelligence of every character is low budget at best, the backdrop doesn’t need to be grandiose to reflect their struggles.

During intermission, I heard one actor explaining how somebody tried to count the number of “F-words” said in the show. Everybody who attempted failed. With that, a comparison to Tarentino is apt. The show is bloody, the show is dirty, and the show is good. To the people at No Name Players, I have but three words: Five Fucking Stars.

Special thanks to No Name Players for two complimentary press tickets.

Performance Date: July 19, 2014