Out of This Furnace

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Out of This Furnace, adapted for the stage by Andy Wolk from the novel of the same name by Thomas Bell, is currently in its second revival at Unseam’d Shakespeare. Having been produced by the company in both 2008 and 2011, it’s clear to see why this is a hometown favorite—it tells the story of strong Pittsburghers. We get to see the fictional tale of three generations of the Kracha/Dobrejcak family trying to create a better life for themselves and their children after arriving in America and settling in the small town of Braddock, Pennsylvania to work in the steel mills. We follow their journey from arrival, through much struggle and suffering, and finally to triumph.

It’s quite an epic story. And at times, the melodramatic and “soapy” elements, coupled with the overwhelming sense of tragedy bog the audience down.  Director Lisa Ann Goldsmith does well with the script and keeps all of the different elements cohesive, but could have pushed this story along at a much, much quicker pace.

The cast tends to shine during the upbeat moments of the script, but falter a bit with the sadness, sickness and death. And there is a lot of sadness, sickness and death. In some ways, this is a memory play and Max Pavel acts as our narrator—he plays Dobie Dobrejcak, who leads us along the journey of his grandfather coming moving to a new country and trying to find his way, his father and mother continuing that same struggle to make ends meet while living off the mill, and his own efforts to unionize and get fair wages to live the America Dream with his family. Pavel is electric and you can’t keep your eyes off of him. He’s one to watch.

The design elements of this show are masterful. In the small black box theatre, Scenic Designer Gordon R. Phetteplace created a simple and neutral playing ground for the actors, just a series of industrial platforms and walls that transition us to many different locations. The set is complemented with sound by Mark Whitehead and lighting by Michael Boone. Whitehead has the noises and “music” of the mill underscoring every scene and it mimics the theme of the steel industry looming over and controlling the lives of this family for three generations. It’s never distracting, but it’s always there to remind you. Boone, who also serves as the production’s Technical Director, uses lighting to help move us from place to place and forward in time. The moods he creates are wonderful, but the timing of some of the cues could use a bit more finesse.

Andy Wolk tells a wondering, interesting and important story in his novel. And although this version for the stage could use some editing, it is worth seeing for the story and fight of these strong Pittsburghers and for Pavel’s brilliant performance.

Out of This Furnace continues by Unseam’d Shakespeare in the Studio Theatre on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh until June 27, extended from the original end date of June 21. Tickets range from $15-30 and can be purchased at 412-621-0244 or athttp://unseamd.com/box-office/.

Special thanks to Unseam’d Shakespeare for two complimentary press tickets on June 11th.

Performance Date: Thursday, June 11, 2015

Animal Farm

index2Prime Stage Theatre states the following two principles in their mission statement “… to entertain, educate, and enrich…” and “to bring literature to life.” These goals are both lofty and important, especially for today’s youth. This mission—as well as some very successful story-telling—is accomplished in Animal Farm by Andrew Periale, adapted from the novella of the same name by George Orwell, currently running until March 15th at the New Hazlett Theatre.

I’m going to assume you’ve all read this book, but just in case you skipped that week freshman year of high school, I’ll give you the reader’s digest version. Basically, some animals live on a farm. They are tired of the treatment they are getting from Farmer Jones and stage a revolt to take over. They create a utopian society of friends and run the farm themselves, changing the name from Manor Farm to Animal Farm. At Animal Farm, “all animals are equal.” Things get hard. The pigs take over. And all of a sudden “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Soon the pigs start walking and talking and drinking like humans, and return Animal Farm to its original Manor Farm. And everything sucks.

John Michnya as Boxer. Photo credit to Rebecca Antal Mutschler.
John Michnya as Boxer. Photo credit to Rebecca Antal Mutschler.

Director Melissa Hill Grande leads an energetic and fully committed cast as well as a clearly capable production team through this journey. This production truly embraced the ideals of Bertolt Brecht and his Epic Theatre. This was an evening of story-telling; I sat in the theatre and was told the story of George Orwell’s novella rather than be shown the story. Most contemporary theatre strays from this and hopes to get the audience so emotionally invested in the story that they almost forget they are sitting at a play. This is the opposite, this play wants to you always be aware that you are a sitting at a play. There is no fourth wall, the audience is involved in most of the scenes and narration is given directly to us during scene changes. At one point, there is even a sing-a-long. A lot of people are down for a sing-a-long. I am not one of those people. The goal of Brecht and his approach to theatre was to make the audience think—to to think critically about social and political issues as well as their own personal involvement in the world around them—and this production honors that.

The set, which was designed and painted by Adrienne Fisher, is phenomenal. The rustic old farm grounds of Manor/Animal Farm look beautiful under lighting designed by J.R. Shaw. The cast is captivating and entertaining while totally embracing their ever changing roles and various animal characteristics. We get to hear them sing and do some puppetry, as well as perform some great pantomimes, which I’m assuming are choreographed by Movement Director Stefan Zubal.  John Michnya (as cart-horse Boxer) and Chelsea Bartel (as caring and loveable Clover) stand out among the talented cast because although the audience is somewhat detached emotionally from the story, they are the two you find yourself having compassion for.

This production is going to be a very polarizing one—you’re either going to love it or you’re going to hate it. I don’t think there will be many people who fall in the middle. Even though it may not be everyone’s “cup of tea,” per se, it is definitely a fantastic tool for entertaining, educating and enriching as well as “bringing literature to life.”

Special thanks to Prime Stage Theatre for two complenetary press tickets for the preview performance on March 6th. Tickets for the show can be purchased here.

Wolves

WolvesOnce upon a time; in the deepest and darkest part of the forest there is a murder. A murder complete with screaming, lots of screaming, and blood, lots of blood. To hear the story of this dark and edgy modern fairy tale, you need to get to Carnegie Mellon University’s Studio 201 in Point Breeze to see the Pittsburgh premier of Wolves by Steve Yockey, running this week only.

The action of Wolves takes place over one long evening in a “very small apartment in a very large city” belonging to Ben and Jack. These boys are ex-lovers and current roommates. Nothing bad could come of that, right?  Ben wants to stay in and order Chinese, like the pair does almost every evening, but Jack wants—or needs—to go out. Ben warns Jack about the dangers of being out in the forest (the city) in the dark alone and tells him that he should be afraid of the animals out there. After much debate and one black eye, Jack goes out “hunting,” much to the disappointment of Ben, and brings back a big, bad Wolf to the apartment. Things turn violent and get messy when Ben tries to protect Jack. Through all of this and all the way to the end of our tale, an omniscient Narrator leads Ben, as well as the audience, through the story, and turns out to be a little vindictive herself.

Yockey is quickly rising as a fresh, inventive, and quirky voice in the world of theatre. He isn’t afraid to take risks and combines spectacle and realism with great skill. Wolves is a story of basic human emotions and needs and explores the themes of love, fear and sex. Director Ian-Julian Williams and an incredibly creative design team do just the right amount to highlight the themes and beautifully written dialogue in this script without going over the top.  The set, designed by Christine Lee, begins as a tiny city apartment but turns out to have quite a few tricks up its sleeve. With two screens on either side, we are able to get insight from the Narrator when she’s off stage as well as get a different view of things happening live on the stage. Complemented by a gorgeous lighting design by Daniel Bergher and media design by Kevin Ramer, the set is the perfect playing space for this dark, twisted story. Even though the show had a few microphone issues at the beginning, the eerie sound design and original music by Emma Present blended well with the other design elements and helped keep the audience invested in this modern day fairy tale. My only real issue with the production was when the videos shown during the penultimate scene became a bit art house-y and took what, at its core, is a simple and human story and made it into something it isn’t—or shouldn’t be.

The stand out of the cast was David Patterson as the Wolf. He understood the dark comedy of the whole thing and was a true powerhouse. Madeline Wolf plays the Narrator with a sharp wit and has a commanding presence.  We also get some nice moments from Jeremy Hois and Austin James Murray, as Ben and Jack respectively. Overall, the cast does a fine job with the material, but are slightly overpowered by the first-rate production elements.

In an interview printed in the program Yockey is asked about his favorite theatrical conventions, to which he replied “…I’ll embrace anything that completely transforms the space from beginning image to final image…” This production fully embraces that idea and gives us a completely different and new image at the end of the play than what we start with, both literally and figuratively. Seriously, the last haunting imagine of this play will stay with you when you leave. Williams and his production team were not afraid to take risks, and almost all of them pay off in this interesting and fresh piece of theatre.

Special thanks to CMU Drama for press tickets. Wolves runs through February 21st and tickets can be purchased here.

Performance Date: Wednesday, February 18, 2015