Annie

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I often commit the unfortunate preconception-based error of relegating certain plays, musicals particularly, to a realm of untouchably fey. Annie—originally adapted from Thomas Meechan’s book and Harold Gray’s comic strip for Broadway by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin—along with musicals like Hairspray and Sound of Music function in my memory as pieces that are so performatively sentimental and over-the-top that I cannot access their relatability or edge. I was taken aback, then to be confronted, in the best sense possible, with the acerbic wit and sonorous bleakness of Annie at a small theatre’s recreation of the piece.

Comtra Theatre, boasting a pleasingly cozy interior, augmented, by juxtaposition, the pleasantly jarring crassness of this most recent of production of Annie. The sentimental story is one certainly familiar to most in the theatre world—a plucky, assertive young girl, Annie, clings feverishly to the hope that her parents will retrieve her from the orphanage they abandoned her in years prior. However, Annie is given the opportunity to stay at the home of a munificent billionaire, Mr. Warbucks, over Christmas and soon becomes part of an unconventional family, despite the devious interventions of the mistress of the orphanage, Ms. Hannigan. Annie’s plot, by my recollection and preconceptions, was the appropriate hybridization of spirited melancholy and uplifting unreality for a musical targeted towards, primarily, children.

However, much like the often clandestinely sinister Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals or distressing Disney subplots, Annie is a musical that thrives on the darker elements accentuated by the sing-songy presentation. Much of the efficacy in making Comtra’s staging of Annie seem deceptively innocuous is the brilliant casting of perhaps the most precocious, promising troop of young women—or “little girls,” as Miss Hannigan scathingly refers to them as—that I have individually or collectively watched in quite some time. The titular precocious orphan Annie, is played with such unjaded spunk by outlandishly talented Zoie Beckas that I was compelled to reexamine the character, not as an irksomely optimistic twee thing, but a sassy, borderline crass, take-no-guff little girl ensconced in perhaps the most whimsically dreary conditions ever conceived. Furthermore, Annie’s cohort of ferocious orphanage dwellers—played with pitch-perfect mettle—were as unwaveringly spunky and boisterous as their lead, and the ensemble performance conveyed a certain lovely irreverence that I had not been able to enjoyably access in past viewings or a working memory of the musical. In addition to the undaunted performances of the young women, the entirety of the cast, down to the last extra, was exceptionally committed and exuberant to a fault. Miss Hannigan, captured with indomitable booziness by Cynthia Harding, was a savage comic relief to juxtapose some of the more hyper-sentimental or somber moments of the musical. It was perhaps Harding’s steadfast portrayal of Miss Hannigan that most solidified Comtra’s production as one that captured the multidimensionality of the play’s sneering bleakness.

While there were some technical points that could have been strengthened or remedied to enhance the overall quality of the viewing experience—for instance, the consistency and balance of the sound and the mics; the situating of the audience to avoid viewers being blocked by beams in the theatre—Comtra’s staging of Annie was an overall delightful (a term I wholly abhor using) experience that challenged my staunchly held opinions on the play’s overall consumptive appeal. Annie was a mirthfully dreary musical, in which lyrical snark presented a wonderful distraction (but with the right air of frustration) to the burdensome dreariness of current times, but not without giving a nod to the sourness of things today.

Annie runs at Comtra Theatre through December 16. Tickets and more information can be found here. 

Weirdo Extraordinaires Find Homes at the Glitterbox

15585269_1742874449365829_7244178980150380019_oFortitude of spirit; endurance in spite of all financial limitations and burdens put on resources; a nearly virtuous steadfastness to the art you are committed to producing and the community you seek to uphold; a truly strong gaggle of “weirdo extraordinaires”—these are perhaps the defining, or at least standout, features of a fast growing, scintillating theatre company carving out its niche in a town very saturated with very compelling companies. Glitterbox Theatre, a creative/collaborative theatre space run and located in Bloomfield, somewhat ironically situated behind the myriad of opulent car dealerships that serve as odd bookends to the neighborhood before it transitions into Polish Hill, emphasizes a robustly and undauntingly DIY and self-authenticating approach. For the sake of clarification, “weirdo extraordinares” is a term coined by the one of the four creative leaders and founders of Glitterbox, but, certainly, the designation is high praise and highly applicable for the fascinating crew and fascinating array of shows attached to the venue.

Having reviewed Yinz Like Plays?at the Glitterbox space for Pittsburgh’s Original Short Play Series, I was enamored with the intimacy and air of rustication and grit the space possessed. Sharing a space with other creative/workshop/DIY-centric groups (like Prototype), the venue is entrancing and almost amniotic, giving a sense of immersion and closeness that is a fulcrum for an engaged viewership, regardless of the style or type of show or performance being presented. Much of the commitment and crucialness of space comes from the nomadic—but no less intertwined—quality of the four founders and financial directors of the theatrical space, who had worked and produced together and independently for quite some time. The crew—including Teresa, a writer of musicals and puppet shows (something the space has become known for being a home for); Nick, an actor and composer; and Chris and Matt, talented actors—had the collective impulse to find a space that would “help to nurture and develop a community of people that makes things [they] love to see.” Indeed, the group’s proclivity for “folk” theatre—puppet shows, immersive/interpretative/interactive storytelling, nonconventional musicals, etc.—has been evidenced in the diverse and eclectic stagings and performances put forth thus far. Glitterbox Theatre has hosted monthly Story Times, with different themes or motifs each occasion to shape the parameters of the pieces, and has been the stage for unusually provocative performances, such as Migraciones, a powerful, puppetry-based dramaturge.

What complements the proliferation of “folk” theatre that the individuals responsible for Glitterbox are so wed to, is their unwavering commitment to making Glitterbox the most affordable theatre space in Pittsburgh. While the partners in charge admit that it “remains to be seen how truly sustainable the model is,” the Glitterbox crew managed to secure not only a relatively cheap spot, but thus far maintain a low enough overhead so as not to demand exorbitant fees from performers seeking to use the space (and even providing the space for free for good causes when they are able). The founders of Glitterbox, in the face of personal financial detriment, have and continue to sacrifice in order to make the space maintainable, hospitable, and accessible to a wide theatrical community to continue to espouse their ideology of collaborative, inventive theatre.

Glitterbox Theatre, and the folks responsible for it, strive to uplift marginalized individuals and groups. This is perhaps the most appealing and fascinating component of folk-centric dramaturgy and performance art. When individuals are provided the creative and literal space to produce content without the vexations of high costs or elaborate production, narratives of individuals and groups otherwise unspoken for or under-represented can ecstatically push to the forefront. Glitterbox’s productions—both their own and those by individuals and troupes who have used the space—have frequently been minimalistic in nature, keeping with the space’s immersive, amniotic character. Often, the props and set will be “crudely” designed out of whatever found materials are easily attained—carboard, shoestring, and other crafty accoutrements. Glitterbox is dependent only on a thoroughly maker-mentality, acting as a harbinger for a wave of theatrical productions in the community that harken back to the time many actors, playwrights, producers, set designers and so on recall fondly of creating their art from the ground up. Not only does the DIY aspect proffer more visceral and authentic art from the performers and creators, this brand of ingenious, on-the-fly production creates a more invigorating and participatory experience for the audience.

Looking to their exciting future, the folks at Glitterbox dream of a space that perhaps will have the proper trappings of a prototypical theatre—a green room, a full-fledged box office, mayhaps being their own landlords. Even if those dreams don’t come to fruition, they have within reach goals in site—continuing their tradition of hyper-inclusivity and creating an ever safer, more accessible space for certain groups/individuals who might create in or visit their space (i.e. building ramps for the physically disabled community to use). Future goals and current status considered, Glitterbox theatre is profoundly and intriguingly becoming one of the most unique and welcoming theatrical spaces in Pittsburgh—one in which narratives and performances from queer individuals, feminist individuals, persons of color, disabled individuals, individuals creating narratives on trauma, and so on can find a palisade. To be horrifically trite, perhaps Glitterbox is the exception to the rule—that all that glitters is, in fact, gold, in truly surprising ways.

For more on the Glitterbox and what they’re up to, click here.

I Won’t Be in on Monday

22221868_1114709611993019_4043785944263293857_nThere is no introduction to the colloquially titled I Won’t be in on Monday. There is no perfunctory schpiel prefacing the performance concerning donors or future shows or money that is needed. That is not to say that these prefaces do not have their place, as calls to endorse the arts and small theatres are absolutely tantamount to the continuation of performances as fine as these. But Anne Stockton’s dislodging and immersive one woman show needs to be framed in precisely those conditions—dislodging and immersive. As the audience ambles into the packed theatre, there is a stark solidarity to the stage that, somewhat incongruously, fills the space with its haunting, bareboned quality. The singular chair facing the crowd, austere and perplexing, manages to command more space than the audience can thoroughly reconcile with or acknowledge. To have interrupted the experience of walking into and settling oneself in such an environment would have been a disservice to the show.

And so I Won’t be in… commenced with no interruption nor introduction, simply the play’s writer, sole star, and creative laborer, Anne Stockton, emerging onto the stage with strident force, seating herself in the eerily commanding lone chair on stage. The play, which unfolds as a dialogue that we as the audience are privy to only one side of (Stockton’s Nikki’s responses, diatribes, soliloquies and asides), is an interrogation of a vivacious woman in regards to expensive rings that have been stolen from the company with which she is employed. This is perhaps the most rudimentary exposition of the one woman show. What I Won’t be in… is at its most visceral level is an active disassembling of a woman’s tangled, multidimensional psyche as the façade she has constructed for herself and others is eroded throughout the play’s unconventional action. As Nikki converses with the unseen police officers, the audience begins to comprehend the meticulously sutured fragments of self that Nikki has very purposefully patched and woven together—she is a new employee and in love with her job and her very understanding employer; she met a new, extraordinarily wealthy, spontaneous and passionate man at a casino who she is in love with and has been living with; her life is a little unceremonious but ultimately fulfilling and coherent; she is absolutely befuddled as to how the rings could have been taken and where they could possibly be; etc., etc.

But as Nikki’s conversation with the detectives progresses, we are exposed to the fractured membranes of her inner self—she is heavily medicated; her relationship with her new lover (revealed through phone conversations) is crumbling without her even fully recognizing it; she is codependent on her mother; she is apt to switch her affections and her outlandish plan to fly out of the country (her reason, presumably, why she “won’t be in on Monday”) to the detective conducting her interrogation; she perhaps has more involvement with the disappearance of the jewelry than even she allows herself to be aware of. From a script standpoint, the play is nearly flawless, and Stockton’s progression from a self-possessed yet visibly unbalanced woman is extraordinarily subtle. By the time the play’s somewhat double entendre, titular meaning is actualized, the audience has connected to Nikki in a way that makes the conclusion even more complicatedly heart-wrenching. Stockton’s performance is resilient and unwavering, even though at times some of the technical aspects break down a bit. What is most transcendent about the show is Stockton’s ability to radically transform the experience of speaking to an audience into one in which she simply exists as her own microcosm on stage. That is to say, the audience never once feels as though they are an audience during I Won’t be in… Rather, Stockton simultaneously consumes and is completely absorbed into the theatrical space she inhabits, allowing the play to become something not just to be observed, but to be lived.

I Won’t be in… is a fantastic chapter in off the WALL’s stalwart legacy in presenting feminist-minded pieces. While at times the play veers on harmful or ghettoizing tropes for women—particularly women suffering from particular mental health issues—the play ultimately portrays a robust, flawed, and complexly damaged woman who is not defined by her gender or her psychosis. Both Stockton and off the WALL challenged the conventions of female representation in the show.

I Won’t be in on Monday has unfortunately closed already but you can follow off the WALL up to New York City in February. More details here. 

off the WALL Opens 2017-2018 Season with I Won’t Be in on Monday

22221868_1114709611993019_4043785944263293857_nProvocation. Undaunting steadfastness. Ruthless, feckless talent. Unwaveringly, emboldened authenticity.

These are descriptors which cling to one’s thoughts when one considers the works and mission of innovative theatre Pittsburgh theatre company, Off the WALL productions. Fiercely committed to not only supporting but rapaciously pursuing the cleverest, most scintillating, and quintessentially groundbreaking feminist pieces of dramaturge, Off the Wall is a theatre company which prides itself on an unwavering commitment to portraying the equality and complexity of human experiences. To date, the company’s productions have explored the viscera of fractious, cobwebbed relationships (Lungs); the rueful and joyful experience of a woman learning excavating her deepest self in a one-woman-show (Mother Lode); the agonizing and labyrinth-esque unending process of accepting and bestowing love amidst the myriad vexations of existing as a woman (Tunnel Vision); and a one-woman physical memoir of life as a stripper Sex Werque. While every unique and vivaciously performed piece is characterized by either a distinctly feminine voice/perspective, or an indomitable female character (particularly notable in the company’s fascinating season-project of staging a collection of one-woman shows), the shows are not necessarily feminist manifestos or creeds translated into theatrical productions. Rather, off the WALL is responsible for theatre that highlights and emphasizes the everyday woman and the extraordinariness of the banal or everyday in a way that challenges the viewer to reconceive of entire worlds through a feminist-minded lens.

When corresponding with Virginia Wall Gruenert, Executive Artistic Director for off the WALL and frequent onstage presence for the shows, the aim of the company’s upcoming season and the fascinating new show I Won’t Be in on Monday is to carry on this exhilarating tradition of presenting pieces with multidimensional and robust women. As Gruenert explains, I Won’t be in… “tells the story of a troubled yet optimistic woman with dreams (delusions?) of a better life. She is strong and vulnerable at the same time. She is hopeful. She is real.” To rely on the perhaps trite adage, the female lead of I Won’t Be in… encompasses multitudes, but maybe not in the way that demands people directly interact with a feminist narrative. Rather, her complexities and the vicissitudes of her selfhood in the face of a curious circumstance are astoundingly feminist in their own right. This is to say, the play’s plot—a high-powered financial worker (Nikki) is interrogated by a detective after the disappearance of very expensive rings—and the clever snark that courses through it, embody a feminism that should be apparent in the everyday. I Won’t Be in… capitalizes upon and carries on off the WALL’s strident commitment to narratives in which seemingly irrelevant or aberrant occurrences nestled within the mundane act as a catalyst for larger thought or dialogues, specifically thoughts and dialogues pertaining to women and female voices. Directed by Austin Pendleton, who has worked extensively as an Off-Broadway director as well as in film and television, I Won’t Be in… is written by Anne Stockton, whose creative candor and relationship with off the WALL ensures a production which will immerse viewers in a theatrical reconceptualization of feminine voice and experientiality.

In Gruenert’s own words, I Won’t Be In… and plays of that ilk epitomize and carry on the company’s mission of heading “forward, forward, forward, with no looking back…to many, it’s controversial to us, it’s the right thing to do.” Indeed, many of off the WALL’s productions have raised obdurate eyebrows, particularly Ella Mason’s aforementioned one-woman show Sex Werque chronicling the performer’s stint as a stripper. The show, which Gruenert eloquently describes, captures the “emotional and economic forces; the movement vocabulary; the masks; and the moments of authentic connection” that are involved in the very complicated and emotional line of work. The show perhaps best typifies the company’s mission—a piece that does not put experience or gender on a hierarchy, but portrays a human experience in its most raw and intimate fashion (and elevates the female voice throughout). However, the show was not without pushback (and some sensational rebuttal from the show’s stupendous defenders). But perhaps, in a time as dishearteningly draconian as our current socio-political climate, provocation and pushback in theatre are absolutely necessary for fundamental progress and change. As Gruenert notes, the disparity in female and male-authored dramaturgical pieces are staggering. The Theatre Communications Group indicated that of the 1,946 productions from the 411 theatre members in the group, the male-to-female author ratio was 63-26. Thus, off the WALL’s dedication to “recognizing, respecting, and honoring the female voice in American theater” is of the utmost importance. Given their recent ICWP 50/50 Applause Award, off the WALL is continuing their monumental efforts in both the theatrical realm and the realm of social attentiveness.

I Won’t Be in on Monday opens at Carnegie Stage on October 12. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Boundless

20933841_1520003164724181_4169740321440382889_oBefore the sensational sensuousness of Boundless even begins, a sort of breathless anticipation imbued the spacious yet cloistered theatre at New Hazlett Theatre. The dancers, pacing about with frantic delicateness, could be sensed in the wings and un the fibers and nerves of the skeleton of the stage. Nearly inexplicably, their ineffable yet unshakeable elation to enact the evocative and narratorial movement that unfolded throughout the dance performance was palpable in such a way that it prefaced the show with profound prescience. The kinetic energy that surged before the show even began was characteristic of the unique performances throughout the show.

Boundless, produced by Texture Ballet with the collaborative efforts and insights of visiting choreographer Robert Poe—The Big Muddy Dance luminary and COCA mainstay—was put forth as a collection of dance pieces meant to challenge the conceptions of bodily conventions and expectations. As a viewer who is constantly in awe and somewhat befuddled by the majestic physical power demonstrated by dancers—particularly ballet performers—any dance staging I watch or review appears to me as a challenge to conventions of physicality. Boundless, unlike other choreographed pieces I have seen as of late, began with very little introductory verbal or spatial explanation or deconstruction. Instead, the show commenced, with melancholically vibrant accompanying music swelling into the bones of the sparsely accented stage and the dancers engaging in complex yet not distracting beautiful “entanglements” with another. Entanglements is perhaps the best way to describe the movements and physical interactions that unfold on stage. While the dancers were astonishingly talented, conducting their bodies with unreal poise and outstanding muscle precision, they encountered one another on a stage with a certain degree of entangling.  The physical movements of the dancers, seamless and exquisite, perfectly syncopated with the musical accompaniment to evoke the entanglements that we most often find ourselves ensnared in—emotional memories; fleeting thoughts that seemingly come without provocation and redirect our entire day or train of focus; echoes of past feelings for lovers or haunting spasms of old physical touches. Boundless is extraordinary in executing choreography that achingly and eerily captures the entangles we find ourselves often unable put words to.

In addition, Associate Artistic Director Kelsey Bartman’s new ballet was presented to Max Richter’s “Infra” music. Both Bartman and Poe—friends from performances past—channeled the unique, physique-esque space of the New Hazlett Theatre and the sensuous elocution of the memories and emotions that often are trapped in our subconscious.

Boundless has unfortunately closed but you can find out more about Texture Contemporary Ballet on their website.

Jekyll and Hyde

20108255_1597843823593695_7924084507636953916_nThere is something to be said for the succulent, somewhat indulgent wave of hyper-camp that is necessary to successfully execute a musical adapted from seemingly unfitting source material. Musicals like Carrie, Batboy!: The Musical, Heathers and others of that ilk must evoke and maintain a certain degree of precise ludicrousness and poignancy to be enjoyable (or even bearable). The cast and crew responsible for McKeesport Little Theater’s musical adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde—originally conceived by Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden for the stage based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s infamous novella “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”—are certainly aware of the level of camp necessary for reproducing something as absurd as a melodramatically symphonic, at times vaudevillian, reconstruction of a story of the prototype “mad” scientist on his blind quest to reveal humanity’s dichotomous spirit. While on the whole enjoyable and self-reflexive, some of the finer points of the execution could have been strengthened in the staging.

Certainly, the musical, as is the case with the book, is heavily dependent on strong individual performances that give life to characters who are intensely caricatured. Director Edward Bostedo clearly took this to heart, making sure characters like Jekyll/Hyde, Spider, Lucy Harris, and the lecherous Minister were illuminated in extraordinarily seedy light. Eric Sciulli, responsible for playing the dangerously transcendentalist titular doctor, is very aware of the dramaturgical task he is beset with—and his impressive vocal range and power helps to give the doctor an air of unbridled passion that makes the familiar character feel unique. Additionally, Randi Walker, portraying the sex worker Lucy Harris (a character that is woefully sublimated in most iterations of the story) is an absolute scene stealer. Having seen Walker in other performances, it was by no means a surprise to be thrilled by her impassioned performance, but she truly did revitalize some of the slower moments of the play. At times, the play would rely too heavily on hackneyed or absurdist performances or quirks rather than character development or cohesion, but a great deal of credit should be given to the ensemble interactions and the expertise of the stage manager, Elizabeth Civello, and director and other crew members for guiding these interactions from behind the scenes. Set designer Edward Bostedo deserves a tremendous amount of credit for capitalizing on a very small, fairly limiting space and creating entire, compelling settings on a macro and micro scale in each scene.

Jekyll & Hyde at times falls short of the balance of consistent preposterousness and subtle poignancy that is necessary to keep the play going on all cylinders at all moments. That being said, the actors and crew impressively translate the essence of the source material while adding their distinct flair to the show that captures the audience and highlights their individual talents. The play shows promise for the ongoing caliber for the staggering 57th season of McKeesport Little Theatre.

Jekyll & Hyde runs at the McKeesport Little Theater through September 24th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Red Hills

19679103_10154706553307997_7852742964293851959_oMultidimensional, quasi-interactive plays are gradually becoming a phenomenon in theatre, in which evocative themes and transgressive or incredibly sensitive subject matter can be portrayed and explored with more efficacy, vitriol, and immersive sensorial touches that allow for greater intimacy. Moreover, the nature of multidimensional/interactive plays challenges the talents of the actors by trying their ability to maintain an aura of performatively while committing to the realness that is created by the disassembled fourth wall.

Quantum Theatre’s recent production of Red Hills is an exercise in this sort of theatrical staging, incorporating a multitude of elements, disciplines, provocations and narratives into a story of identity, memory and representation ensconced in the Rwandan genocide. Told through multimedia flashbacks, and intensive interpersonal dialogue, Red Hills tells the story of a David (Scott Atkinson) who is confronted with a letter from an individual from his past who challenges the veracity of the book he wrote chronicling his tumultuous time as a student in the Mirama Hills, wedged between Rwanda and Uganda in the former country’s most bleak chapter. The buildup to the play is phenomenally atmospheric: half of the audience is sent to meet God’s Blessing (Patrick Ssenjovu) and understand his back story, the other half (as I was) was ushered off to meet David, giving a lecture to introduce his potentially problematic memoir. Atmospherically, the opening bifurcation of the audience is a bit misguided, as the elemental intrusions disrupt the introductory narratives provided by the characters that are necessary to connecting the purpose of the plot. That being said, speaking for Atkinson—and Ssenjovu as well, I assume, given his performance throughout the majority of the show—performed admirably and enthusiastically in spite of the unpredictable conditions in which they were besotted. As a general assessment of the piece, a tremendous amount of praise should be afforded to the Atkinson and Ssenjovu, as their performances were simultaneously unwaveringly engaged with one another, and thoroughly committed to audience interaction. Much like their contending with the elements of their outdoor stage, the two men demonstrated versatility in terms of switching between one-on-one interplay, and unique audience conversations.

There is indeed much to be lauded about the production of Red Hills. The grit and realness of the set is incomparable relative to most stagings I have seen of late. Deceptively barebones, the well-sculpted dirt mounds, the derelict vehicles, the small, subtle props thrown here and there exquisitely capture the essence of the war-threatened environment as well as evoking the landscape of memories charred by the traumas of war, conflict and loss. Additionally, the physical set and the multi-media dimensions of the play (specifically the pre-filmed “memory” dialogues) are perfectly executed to coexist and interact with each other in a way that challenges and grips the audience. And while the script was a bit awkward at times, the fluidity of the dialogue was such—and the confidence of the actors was steadfast enough—that the clunkier parts of the play could be disregarded.

That all being said, it is vexing to take part in a play centering on a cataclysmic, emotionally fraught moment in history–one which very critically examines the essence of race, violence, memory, appropriation and potential harmony—from the perspective of two men, with a distinctly masculinized tone. Before seeming too tendentious, I should say that any narrative that focuses and brings to light this type of story, this period of time, is absolutely necessary, and should be valued for the important work it is doing. I certainly do not intend to rob the show of its fantastically conveyed message. However, it is challenging to sit through a play in which women are reduced to tertiary references or digital faces. While innovative, the play’s reduction of non-patriarchal or non-masculine voices is disheartening, given the incredible paucity of female perspective in the media that centers on this period of time. This is not to say the actors and creative team did not do a phenomenal job of working with their material. It is simply to implore that as a theatrical community, given the incredibly troubling times, we want for more in our theatrical representation.

Red Hills runs at Recycling Building on the corner of 32nd Street and Smallman Street through September 10. For tickets and more information click here. 

The Audience

LLTC_TheAudience-300x268There is a sort of unintentional impracticality to presenting a dramaturgical narrative that focuses on the heavily romanticized (and even fetishized, to some extent) monarchical dynasty of the United Kingdom. More specifically, a narrative focusing on the emblematically stodgy and seemingly cantankerous Queen Elizabeth II seems like an almost esoteric subject, ossified by her crusty austerity and connection to the monolithic, pristine regime. Theatrical or cinematic pieces—like, say, The King’s Speech—while masterfully crafted, bear traces of being out of touch, particularly in intensely heated socio-political climates. Chronicling and dramatizing nuances and details of a royal family so entrenched in traditions steeped in Victorian sensibilities seems superfluously fey.

Allison Cahill as Queen Elizabeth II and Eric Mathews as the Archbishop
Allison Cahill as Queen Elizabeth II and Eric Mathews as the Archbishop

And yet, in Little Lake Theatre’s recent production of The Audience—originally penned by Peter Morgan, with, appropriately, Helen Mirren as the envisioned Elizabeth II—the inherent austerity and stodginess of the British monarchical family is upstaged by the exquisitely sensitive construction of characters and plot, and artful commitments to the archetypal, historicized figures that lead the very dialogue-centric action of the play. The Audience is a play that thrives on the intimacies and intricacies of private conversations and self-introspection manifested through intensive interactions and distorted self-perceptions. Thus, the play is one which relies heavily on the elemental design of the stage and the impassioned immersion of the actors to their characters. In terms of setting, Little Lake is a theatre—that houses a company who wisely and meticulously selects productions that behoove the innovatively in-the-round structure of the company’s space—that commands attention through its circular structure and unique seating. To complement this, the actual set design for The Audience, while minimalist, is appropriate and befitting for the degree of inwardness that dictates the story.

The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Allison Cahill (seated) as Queen Elizabeth II, (standing: left to right) Rick Bryant as Tony Blair, David Hoffman as Gordon Brown, Eric Mathews as Winston Churchill, Joe Macerelli as John Major, Patricia Cena Fuchel as Margaret Thatcher, Bracken Burns as Anthony Eden, Joe Eberle as Harold Wilson, and Nate Butler as David Cameron
The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Allison Cahill (seated) as Queen Elizabeth II, (standing: left to right) Rick Bryant as Tony Blair, David Hoffman as Gordon Brown, Eric Mathews as Winston Churchill, Joe Macerelli as John Major, Patricia Cena Fuchel as Margaret Thatcher, Bracken Burns as Anthony Eden, Joe Eberle as Harold Wilson, and Nate Butler as David Cameron

As an audience, we are visually connected throughout most of the play to Queen Elizabeth II’s “office” (and/or bedchambers), which is the center of not only Elizabeth’s professional and intimate dialogues with various members of British government and parliament, but is also the externalization of her memories, fears, anguishes and need for composure. In addition to the smartly structured stage, the performance of Allison Cahill as Elizabeth is the appropriate balance of muted self-awareness, quieted rage at the anticipatory nature of her queenly demureness, and sly snarkiness. Cahill manages to fill the space and manipulate it to be an extension of her performance. More specifically, Cahill introduces the cracks in Elizabeth’s demeanor with the right amount of suddenness to convey the difficulty of Elizabeth’s aura. Additionally, the array of actors ensembled to play the various Prime Ministers and other dignitaries—like Thatcher, Blair and others—channel the proper characteristics to pique, endear or vex Elizabeth at various moments in time and personal development, all of which Cahill presents masterfully. While the stage movements and accents could be a bit clunky, the eloquence of the portrayal of the complexities of Elizabeth exceeded expectations.

Though the play is moored by the seeming irrelevance of British monarchy in a time of furious politics and international relations, Little Lakes thoughtful presentation elevates the play a well-done examination of human interactions and introspections. The Audience carries on Little Lake’s tradition of sensitively crafted theatrical pieces that defy expectations.

The Audience plays on the Little Lake stage through August 26. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of James Orr.

Mamma Mia

20292706_10154800983161696_6800590976824145690_nAny fairly seasoned or routine theatre-goer has a certain expectation for crowd makeup at certain shows. The niche, hyper-baroque, perhaps one person piece—the crowd is replete with art majors, the wandering scraggly dude wearing overalls with nothing underneath as a form of expression. Edgy musicals, potentially featuring puppets or Andrew Jackson will have crowds stacked with the more avant-garde choir nerd who discovered themselves in college. And then, there’s the crowd that flocks to Mamma Mia!  Typically, overly giddy hordes of folks who rocked out—with various manifestations of their groove things shaking—to the sex-laced disco/pop hits of ABBA in their bedazzled prime in the 70s flock to see Mamma Mia! The Pittsburgh CLO’s recent production of Mamma Mia! was in no way an exception, as the Benedum was filled to the breaking point with ebullient, giddy beyond compare, dressed-to-the-nines,  ready to practically claw their way on stage to follow the musical journey set to ABBA’s greatest hits.

Lori Hammel, Sally Ann Triplett, and Michelle Dawson
Lori Hammel, Sally Ann Triplett, and Michelle Dawson

And indeed, a massive factor in the success and excitement that goes with witnessing Mamma Mia! on stage is the enthrallment of the crowd and the participatory element that feeds the actors rapture conducting their performances. The story is simple and enjoyable convoluted: Sophie, a beautiful young girl about to wed the love of her life, mails out three wedding invitations to three men, one of whom she assumes to be her father based on her pillaging her mother’s old diary. As the wedding preparations reach a frenetic pace, and her unwitting mother’s eccentric friends (and also, importantly, former band mates) descend upon the scene, the twists and turns of Sophie’s mother’s relationships with the three men—and the truth behind Sophie’s real father—is divulged and unravels, moments up to the “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”  There is nothing particularly emotionally wrenching or complex in the characters’ interactions, nor does the plot demand a great deal of attention from the audience. Thus the songs, the exquisite grandiosity of the stage direction and choreography, and the pure performative spectacle of the show can command the rapt audience’s full attention.

Ryan Vona and Erika Henningsen
Ryan Vona and Erika Henningsen

Resounding critical applause should be given to the all those in charge of and involved in the choreography of the show.  Beyond flawless and matching the pacing and throbbing, feverishness emotions of each song, the choreography and the supporting cast of dancers were—and this is a characterization I hesitate using—utterly transcendent. The stage motion and dance accompaniments were so spot on, so spirited, and so technically precise that they would have awed perhaps the more skeptical audience member (and there were certainly several fourteen year old boys who needed convincing). While the younger members of the cast certainly held their own—as well as the pleasantly caricatured men playing the three potential dads—the spotlight, as it is meant to, was claimed gloriously by the three women playing Donna (Sophie’s mother) and her two best friends/former band mates, Tanya and Rosie. While the characters are certainly archetypal, veteran stage and screen actresses Lori Hammel (Rosie), Sally Ann Triplett (Donna) and Michelle Dawson (Tanya) were every bit as luminescent as they could have been. And most importantly, they had the utterly wild and thrilled audience in the palms of their hand, thus making CLO’s production of Mamma Mia the ultimate, incredibly fun guilty pleasure delight that it was intended to be.

Mamma Mia has unfortunately already closed but there’s still more fun from the Pittsburgh CLO this summer, for more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Archie Carpenter.

Macbeth

19466329_1710954552531860_4629879117822679369_oAn appreciation for the true essence of ensemble theatre, the electricity of enthusiasm and kinetic nerves that can pulsate through members of a troupe, is something that is not often considered or discussed in modern dramaturgy. While there are certainly a preponderance of awards specifically honoring the strength of ensembles, the actual spirit of ensemble acting or the dynamics which emerge from the productions put on by troupes, is somewhat lost on modern audiences. In the New Renaissance Theatre Company’s recent outdoor production of Shakespeare’s Tragedie of Macbeth, actively challenged and both the conventions of modern theatrical staging and the conceptions of ensemble interactions.

This recent staging, which was paired with the Company’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew, was designed specifically to capture the Shakespearean vision for theatrical productions, specifically of his own works (if, of course, you believe they were indeed his own). This staging of The Tragedie of Macbeth was prefaced—after an impressive, charmingly anachronistic sonorous introduction by two of the company members singing a very impassioned rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Trouble”—by the prompter for the show explaining the historical precedent for an outdoor, unrehearsed performance of Shakespearean theatre. Explaining the fear of creative theft and wanton reproduction in the absence of copyright laws, the prompter emphasized the importance of spontaneity in performance style and the irreproducibility of the scripts that the actors would work have to work with in their nightly stagings. Not only would actors not have the chance to rehearse their lines and stage directions for the highly demanding pieces they would have to perform each night (and often in a different locale every night), but each actor would be dependent upon a scroll that would only contain their own lines, in the hopes of preserving the integrity of the whole play. This production of Macbeth, part of the innovative Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project, forced the actors to rely on not only just a scroll of parchment with only their lines transcribed upon it, but was also completely unpracticed (or, at least, relatively “unpracticed,” given the inability for a modern thespian to exist in a vacuum which Shakespeare or Macbeth cannot permeate) rendition of the play. Moreover, the Company’s production braving the element outdoors added to the purist authenticity of the production.

The results, while at times anxiety-inducing given the precarious weather, were invigorating if not a little a disjointed. Granted, a fair amount of the disjointedness of the production can be attributed to the show’s lack of rehearsal—and, to the Company’s credit of authenticity, the actors relied impressively on a prompter for the entirety of the show as performers in the Shakespearean era would have. The production of Macbeth, while occasionally interrupted by modern disruptions like helicopters and planes, was enlivening, and the actors’ stamina and commitment to their cohesion, remarkable. The interconnectivity of the actors truly highlighted the potential of ensemble acting to be a beautiful beast in its own right—though, forced to single out, the Duncan, Lady Macbeth, and beloved witches truly stood out. The New Renaissance Theatre Company aptly lived up to the challenged they set out for themselves. And what is more, getting to hear a grown man with a beard belt out Kesha’s “Tik Tok” as a way of distraction from an interrupting plane was a delight, and probably had Shakespeare (or whoever actually penned Macbeth) sneering from his grave.

The New Renaissance Theatre Company’s productions of Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew sadly have both already closed but if you’d like to know more about New Ren and their Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project, click here.