In House

27173194_1590811670966839_5858054825740971537_oThere is something so inherently simple about the deconstruction and even excoriation of an individual’s interior by following passages through rooms in the individuals’ personal space. How a person fills their space with their possessions; how a person uses their movements, consciously and unconsciously, to interact with and interpret themselves within their space; and how a given space or room may be an interpretation or interruption (or both simultaneously) of a person’s sense of self, are seemingly apparent understandings of rooms and spaces. And yet, the multidimensionality of the elocution of self and the traumas the self processes through bodily communication is far more complex than one might anticipate in Corningworks’ most recent production In House.

Intriguingly staged in the annex to the Mattress Factory (and brilliantly and organically incorporating many of the extant art installations), In House is a show which seeks to explore who an individual is when they believe no one is watching them within their space. Again, the premise is one that seems apparent enough—we presume the “dance as if no one is watching” principle (pun perhaps slightly intended given the context) applies to the concept that individuals will function without inhibition in their spaces if they believe they are functioning without scrutiny or external observation. This premise, though, takes on a more complicated dimension when one considers the built-in artifice of watching individuals function as if no one were observing them as a staged performance. And this is perhaps where the unique strength in Corningworks’ production comes from. The unexpected anxiety that is palpable in the audience as we try to situate and assert ourselves as a unit watching simulated uninhibitedness. When we first are led into the show, we observe a man, vulnerable in his boxers, tinkering with a toy house (reminiscent of the one on the cover of the program). We then sit in a room as the aforementioned man (John Gresh) announces how his day has been “crap,” and proceeds to dance nostalgically and address some unseen entity.

This establishes a particular tenor of the piece. Upon being split into two groups, the audience is traipsed through a series of rooms (at simultaneous moments, marvelously manipulating the structure of the rooms in the Mattress Factory) in which the various performers interact with their unique space or unique set pieces in a way that shatters the artifice of the concept of the show and the notion that there are elements of predictability in how individuals interact and coexist with their space and material things. The performances and parallel structures of the individuals brought to life by Gresh and Corningworks’ Creative Director Beth Corning highlight the sense of demolished artifice and the impassioned spontaneity that is inherent to In House. Gresh’s club-kneed, disheveled man who is haunted by some presence—either imagined or real, the audience is left to speculate throughout his soliloquy and performance—moves with brittle poignancy throughout his room, playing music, and seemingly is governed by some sort of nostalgic pulse. Yet as he continues, Gresh moves in such a way which conveys that the space in which he ambles and wobbles wistfully to his favorite rueful song possesses him far more than he possesses it.

Though he attempts to be the arbiter of his memories and belongings and the haunted dimensions of his room, his physical movements and emotions are contorted by the spirit imbuing the space in which he moves. In the next room, the audience watches as Corning, with typical physical transcendence, takes this concept of an unconventional intimacy and relationship with possessions in her agonized dance (of sorts) with a briefcase. Through her breathless choreography, the audience almost uncomfortably (uncomfortable in the most emotionally visceral sense) watches as the woman portrayed by Corning is rent by some compelling force or connection tied to this material object. Corning, through her thrusting and savagely mournful movements, anthropomorphizing the briefcase to make it no longer a prop but an individual as dictated by anxieties and anger and memories as Corning’s woman is. By the end of her performance, the briefcase bears as much intrigue and heartbreak as the woman does, and the audience is left bemused at the beautiful discombobulation of space and meaning that In House is predicated upon.

As the show proceeds through the vignettes in different rooms—two solo performances (featuring the exquisitely gifted Kristin Garbarino and Patricia Petronello)—physical space, sound, and light are all magisterially used and allowed to function with their own vitality in such a way that further illuminates the shared psychosis and subconscious between individuals and their space and things that is problematized by having a present, interactive audience. Most devastatingly raw is Petronello’s performance, in which she, with gorgeous violence I rarely see well-captured in dance or dramaturge, presents the volatile and inversely possessive relationship an individual can have with a space given their unraveling psyche. Though the conclusion of the show leaves some loose ends in terms of narrative and dialogue, the final group vignette combines the unique physical signatures of each performer in such a way that leaves the audience aching to understand the nuances of individuals subversive connections to their rooms or things, and who actually has control of their bodies, their spaces and their thoughts. In House is a striking examination on the disruption of the tropes of space and self, and profoundly suggests the power of innovative, nonconventional dance pieces.

In House holds its final performances this evening at the Mattress Factory Annex. For tickets and more information click here. 

Evil Dead: The Musical

2017Mast-EvilDead (1)The first time I ever experienced true terror that wasn’t generated by my own imagination and confabulation, I was watching the original Evil Dead film while my parents were across the street at a dinner party. While unnerving, the film didn’t reach it’s true paralyzing climax until a scene of card-playing, in which the recently-tree-ravaged sister violently reveals the full extent of her ghoulish possession by the vengeful tree spirits. Predicting all the cards in a card game, she turns to expose herself in all her monstrosity and begins the absurd, claustrophobic terror that runs rampant throughout the rest of the film. It’s a simple gag, but unspeakably horrifying. And I thought no adaptation could do the original justice.

27624703_10155207763716016_3563414022812913716_oThe musical version of the Evil Dead trilogy—The Evil Dead, The Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness—put on by Pittsburgh Musical Theatre’s after-hours series, managed to circumvent many of the misgivings and surpass most of the expectations I held seating myself at the late night, palpably rowdy (an enthusiastically buzzed, very respectful rowdy). Even though horror-inspired musicals like Carrie the Musical and the Silence of the Lambs musical have won me over, there is a certain over-the-top outrageousness inherent to the story and theatrics of Evil Dead that made a musical adaptation seem unlikely to adequately capture the extreme camp of the film.

27625381_10155207791611016_1802177905710278705_oThe opening moments are exuberantly but unsurprisingly raucous and enjoyable, introducing us to our cast of doomed youths as they head to the doomed cabin referenced in the relentlessly peppy “Cabin in the Woods,” while simultaneously combining elements from the Evil Dead sequels that explore the mythos and history of the curse. While the raw talents of the cast members are evident throughout the opening numbers—particularly B.A. Goodnack as the Evil Dead series’ infamous, unwitting protagonist Ash (who Goodnack superbly plays with the spot-on mixture of rogue charm and hapless buffoonery) and Kait Marie Descutner as Ash’s starry-eyed supermart romance interest Linda—the musical truly finds its footing with the outlandishly sinister number “Look Who’s Evil Now,” performed by the outstanding Sandy Zwier as Ash’s sister Cheryl. “Look Who’s Evil Now” is a recreation of the moment in the film which brought me such relentless terror as a child, and manages to satire it flawlessly and without being an affront to horror nerds. In fact, the audience was replete with the most wonderfully archetypal horror nerds one would anticipate if one is familiar with the cult of Evil Dead, and the mood throughout the musical was beyond elated (particularly those audience members who were seated in the first 2-3 rows—and a special nod should be given to the special effects and production management for pulling off certain theatrics).

27500865_10155207798746016_3926478459087222756_oThe musical as an entire venture is seamlessly produced and coordinated, which is particularly important given the elaborate stunts, gags, and carnage that transpire on stage. Evil Dead manages to effortlessly weave the stories and characters of different Evil Dead universes into one cohesive—if not absolutely ludicrous—narrative, and allows peculiar characters like Scott (marvelously tacky Adam Fladd, whose shining moment is disembowelingly fun) and Jake (delightful Joe York) to shine amongst the more prominent characters. The musical manages to also deal as sensitively as it can with the major, somewhat problematic plot point of the first film—the cursed trees that sexually violate Cheryl—though I question what the benefit would have been had this component of the story been. And to Sandy Zwier’s tremendous credit, her take on Cheryl—who suffers from the beleaguered trope of the awkward, sex-deprived sister in the film—is my second favorite after the 2013 reboot’s Mia (Jane Levy). Evil Dead: The Musical was unequivocally the most fun I’ve had at the theatre in quite some time, and you can saw my hand off if I’m lying.

Evil Dead: The Musical runs at Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s new space in the West End through February 10. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos by Melissa Wallace

Rules of Seconds

26173763_1868698836482380_115050685523504759_oCodes of honor have multitudinous iterations with a variety of names. Omerta for the Mafia. Bushido for Samurai. Courtly love for the softer-hearted knights of the Middle Ages. Regardless of the title or the culture, the codes center around ethics feigning to be nuanced and intricate—rules on the degree of offensiveness of the reciprocating offense relative to the initiating offense; rules on the declaration of pardon and surrender; rules on what exactly “honor” pertains to, exactly. Each code plays upon the indecencies and ignominies that individuals—men—feel are the greatest slights upon their perceived indefatigable honors. Each code is predicated upon a sense of fragile femininity that demands the codes stalwartness. Each code, of course, is really just bullshit.

This latter point–the ludicrous pointlessness of codes in their various forms; the laughably supercilious (at best) and violently toxic (at worst) masculinity that informs codes—is implicitly the driving force behind barebones productions recent show, Rules of Seconds (written by John Pollono).  At a cursory level, Rules focuses on a pompously honor-bound dignitary, Walter Brown (played Mindhunter actor and recent Pittsburgh transplant Cotter Smith), who seeks out retribution against overly-anxious and somewhat foppish Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds (Pittsburgh stage-familiar Connor McCanlus) after an alleged violation of his honor. Keeping with the code, Brown challenges Nathaniel to a duel (the semantics of which are as absurd and delicately wrought as the code they are tied to), and Nathaniel must reconnect with his wily, foul-mouthed, estranged brother James Leeds (barebones productions founder and artistic director Patrick Jordan) to serve as his second, per the rules of the duel. The title of the show alludes to the arbitrary standards established to maintain the honorific smoothness of codes and the outrageous strictness with which standards of codes and duels are enforced (a man challenged to a duel must find a suitable second; if not the order of things is disrupted).

The self-awareness of the outlandish obsessiveness of these proceedings—and the fragility of the masculinity they defend—is the heart and sardonic humor of Rules. As one might deduce, the violation upon Mr. Brown’s honor is no real violation at all (it involves a splash of tea and an overload of vanity), and, in fact, Mr. Brown’s outrage has been festering for decades after he was romantically rejected and consequently humiliated by the Leeds boys’ mother, Martha (played with fierce stoicism by Point Park University’s head of acting, Robin Walsh), because of his low class. This notion of class disparity and “honor” relative to social status and gendered predominance is one of the stronger elements of the play’s narrative. The codes the men of the play ruthlessly abide by—with the exception of Nathaniel, who is coded as more logical and thus more feminine and less brutalist in the world of the play; and men in the working class like Bonnie (a very enjoyable Dave Mansueto) and Dyett (a robust Wali Jamal), who do not have the same access to honor that men of prestige do, it would seem—are simply performances to protect those things which they pathetically cling to as trademarks of their artificial masculinity. Both Patrick Jordan and Cotter Smith’s performances excellently highlight the artifice of masculinity and the silly semantics of the codes—they are flawlessly aggressive and grandiloquent; calculated and yet defiantly unaware of the pointlessness of their respective ethos. But it is perhaps the women of Rules, Robin Walsh and Nancy McNulty, who, through superb performances, most expertly demonstrate the play’s underlying remark on codes, masculinity, and the bullshit of it all.

The production crew truly makes the most of the rather small space of barenones’ new theatre in Braddock. The lighting and sound are masterfully manipulated to both remind audiences of intimacy, and yet render the viewer completely engulfed in the world of the show. Structurally, director Melissa Martin—whose keen and snarky eye gives the play a wit and mettle that enhances the experience exponentially—brilliantly arranges the play through a series of vignettes that are punctuated by the narration of Daniel Leeds, played with devilish cunning by Jack Erdie (whose face has been haunting me since his recent turn as the repugnant Richard Speck in Mindhunter). Erdie’s performance and placement throughout the play, along with fellow actors Wali Jamal, Dave Mansueto, and Mickey Miller, give the play a certain richness that augments the nearly flawless presentation and production, as they refuse to let smaller characters fade into the trope ether. One of the more enjoyable theatrical experiences I’ve had of late, both barebones and the cast and crew of Rules of Seconds put forth an outstanding production that abides by the codes of damn good dramaturge.

Rules of Seconds plays at the Barebones Black Box Theater in Braddock through February 17. Tickets are selling fast so reserve yours here.


23800303_2089092071312824_9089249469029343903_oFemininity is rarely allowed to exist or function outside of intentional or unintentional archetypes. Since so much of the conception of femininity coincides with the process of othering or making women into The Other, it is inevitable that femininity slides into ghettoized realms. The Nymph. The All-Giving Mother. The Domestic Goddess. The Mad Woman. The Frigid Bitch. The Soccer Mom. The list is endless, each installment diluting characteristics and complexities of women and femininity into reproducible and digestible tropes to reduce their selfhood. Often this process of reducing femininity and women to archetypes is so insidious that it is often internalized and recreated by women or feminine entities in an attempt to bestow power, but ultimately sublimating the feminine radiance and narrative that could be achievable or attainable.

In their most recent creative endeavor, the members of the unconventional dramatic collective folkLAB—a community and self-sustained theatre group aimed at putting forth an eclectic array of performance pieces in three-week intensives that focus on unifying themes of race, gender, sexuality, spirituality etc.—challenge the imbedded conventions and archetypes of femininity that often have a deleterious impact on the strength of female voice, identity and autonomous narrative. The piece, evocatively and assertively titled FEMME, is a forty-five minute exploration into the types of archetypes of femininity that are definable and strikingly recognizable to individuals fairly well versed in folk lore and themes of mythological narratives. FEMME—starring the outstandingly committed and invigoratingly promising Asia Bey, Paige Borak, Abigail Lis-Perlis and Kelsey Robinson—is, on a cursory level, a piece centering around a feminine-mystique bildungsroman in which a young bean sprout escapes the earthly realm to a mythic, feminine-fueled cosmic utopia (of sorts) after overwhelming feelings of rejection from her verdant earthly family.

The play, which utilizes the unique space in Bloomfield’s Glitterbox theatre to move through the story’s elements in a way which involves the audience (who, at the beginning of the piece, are told they are about to embark on their cosmic “birthing” process that will conclude with their violent, sanguine expulsion from a womb), tracks the bean sprout as she meets three feminine forces—a vegetative spirit; a neurotic story teller; and a sensuous mother spirit. As the bean sprout—whose womanly physical growth is remarked upon at each stage of her journey—goes through her “birth” journey that the audience was presumably intended to partake in (and the “surprise” element of her arrival is played with deftness by the women), she challenges the trenchant expectations that each character has for their feminine archetype.

This is the real power of FEMME’s takeaway—the challenging and deconstruction of imbedded feminine archetypes for the sake of elevating female identities. While the nontraditional uses of space and defying of theatrical conventions of dramaturge (that is, the interactive opening and the idea of the play “upended” by the bean sprout’s arrival) were certainly compelling and well executed (which takes a lot for me to say, as such toying with space often make me uncomfortable to the point of spoiling the experience), FEMME was most profound in its relentless dismantling of feminine archetypes that were initially presented in the narrative as being “truly feminine” or deeply meaningful. As the bean sprout interacts with the first guide on her spiritual/symbolic birth journey, the vegetative feminine spirit, she questions who that spirit truly is and what her journey and worldly pains were. She challenges her to remember her own body and growth instead of focusing only on the individuals she is meant to elevate. When she meets the story teller, who spends her time meticulously taking notes on every individual she meets to document their life, the bean sprout challenges her to revisit and retell her own story (which, without revealing too much, is perhaps one of the more haunting moments of inventive storytelling I’ve seen in quite some time). Finally, when the bean sprout meets the sensuous mother spirit, the two engage in what it truly means to be born, to have one’s dimensions and selfhood ascertained (and if that is even should be an achievable thing at all).

The play culminates in a gorgeous combination of physical performance and dance, and the company capitalizes on the brevity of the play to strengthen the audience’s lasting impression. folkLAB promises an outstanding output if their creative ventures match the uniqueness and luminousness of the FEMME.

FEMME has unfortunately already closed but you can find out more about Folklab here. 



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. 


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.