East Texas Hot Links

21728303_10155106170854482_5179045031400984274_nI loved this show.  But I’ve had to sit on it for a few days before writing about it, because it touched me so damn much.  It scared me.  It really did.  It just jarred me and gutted me a bit.  I loved it.  Loved it.  I found it enchanting because of its sense of place and mesmerizing because it was astoundingly well performed, well-written and the direction by Montae Russell is sharp as a lilting rhythm.  It moves.  Emotionally and for the sake of timing, this play skips, beats and ticks with flow.

Though, Pittsburgh Playwrights production of East Texas Hot Links reflects the terrorism of a specter that is the violent, racist white supremacy in the South, and perhaps most spectacularly without showing any white actors.  It focuses, rather, on the laid back setting and the pleasurable, relaxed vibe that inhabits a little African-American, hole-in-the-wall bar.  Then, it leaps.  It leaps into its plot and things fundamentally change.

However, this play is largely about conversation.  But that’s what’s so masterful about it: it reflects such a philosophically potent and yet empirically casual treatise on how to be a human and how to deal with one’s anger.

I want to call out every performance because the ensemble is outstanding.  I’ll say that Monteze Freeland as Roy Moore is becoming one of my favorite actors to see in Pittsburgh.  He’s got an amazing range; and for the sake of this show, his gusto in performing the part has such a ticklish richness.  He’s a smooth talker with a reputation that precedes him, so beyond the toothpick lying idle on the tip of the lips comes the affected weight of his character’s struggle and mistakes.  His rivalry with Jonathan Berry’s XL takes leaps that puncture with sudden momentum.  I loved seeing the jolts of offense that could carry these characters’ motivations.  XL, another man gushing with pride and a bit of boorish, misplaced anger is played so sincerely by Berry.  His turns within the show collect the audience to his side just as fast he ignites them against him.  It’s the mark of a great actor to show earnestness in ignorance, and an unfathomable logic gently strolling through its dilemmas.  I loved watching him work.

Cheryl El-Walker’s role as Charlesetta, the tavern owner, makes for an amazing arc.  As the only female cast member, we see her tackle the essence of a shrewd entrepreneur, who uses her femininity as a modest weapon.  I loved how when the plot changed, El-Walker’s pulse changed with it.  Her fear mixes with a confidence that displays a sort of heroic composition.  She becomes the heart of the play and within that, El-Walker finds such a wondrous piece of the character’s nervousness, both stuttering and taking command with the same energy.  I loved feeling the adrenaline she imbued.  I got chills.

I’ll say briefly how the scene changed with the entrance of both Sam Lothard’s Buckshot and Charles Timbers’ Boochie.  I loved how these characters could bring into the space a whole new ethereal energy, carrying with them not just jokes or their cunning masculine confidence; but rather an upset to whatever standing alliances were standing within the current situation on stage.  Lothard carries with him a hulking frame, but beyond it gives Buckshot a true liberated ease.  We see the character has quite a bit of packed physical tension; but just as clearly, quite a profound sense of release.  He is someone whose “temper got the best of him”, who paid and who now pays taxes on his mistakes obligingly.  Lothard’s ability to just roll, to lay into his jokes with plush relaxation, is visibly a man wise because of his lessons.   It was great to see this character so pleasurably sink into the environment, awash in the benign conversation.  It makes his impact as the plot unfolds that much more potent—when the environment changes, you see the other edge to the sword.

Timbers, relatably, brings with him a vibrant coolness.  The direction on this character’s entrance was so expertly crafted.  Owing once again to the organic composition of this entire tale, Boochie’s place provides a certain amount of mysticism within this story—changing a rather innocuous night into the spiritual significance of a parable.  Timbers imposes so craftily, stylishly; he haunts.

I’ve not said much of the plot because I don’t want to ruin anything. Understand simply that a play like this reaffirms what there is to like about theater.  It happens in real time, in a single place.  It’s so tight knit.  The characters are astoundingly well-developed and their dialogue is punchy, brilliant, convivial, August Wilson-esque perfection.  It’s the riffing and wisdom of African-American culture meets the bastard of a plot unwanted.  I am absolutely jealous of the community this play depicts—despite the hardships of a black culture in the American South; there is such a beautiful, timeless vibe.  The way they move from table to table, bar to jukebox; idly eating peanuts and riffing on each other.  It’s a cloud in heaven, until…

The claustrophobia of a safe space when a violent world closes in.  It’s a tragedy.  But this play is a masterpiece.

East Texas Hot Links runs at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre through November 5th. For tickets and more information click here.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play

Mr. Burns Image12 Peers’ production of Mr. Burns reminds me how theatre is actually a sickness: an uncontrollable urge for group chemistry to elucidate collaboration, values and to define social archetypes.   It’s a phenomenon that spans cultures for a reason; a desperate need to create Culture and expose the excitement of live spectacle, meaning, and catharsis.  Lessons come from theatre, so we see it evolve within this play from a distinct form of mythology, a past that is our present.  The shared experience is a communal and biological drug, such that trauma can be translated into release.

As this play begins, we are given traumatized strangers.  They all have stories, survivors of a looming, severe apocalypse.  Their pasts are reflected in the subtle hints and subtext; big reveals between the distractions of dialogue, really.  A great power this text imbues is its subtext.  It’s a treat actually, the guessing game, trying to figure out the lines-between of a character like Gayle Pazerski’s Jenny.  A great deal of the first act is just straight-up talking about a Simpsons episode.  But it’s so clearly a shiny, little cat toy.  Nostalgia is a bit of a painkiller, lightly treating symptoms.  You’re seeing this a bit in other actors, like Cassidy Adkins’ Maria or Joe York’s Matt.  But with Pazerski, there’s something about the other narrative that’s not revealed.  There are certain moments of stock, silent horror that comes down to looks.

The brilliance of this play is that it’s aggressively esoteric.  It won’t have the same effect 20 years from now when seasons 1-10 of the Simpsons don’t hit home to our millennial sensibilities, as they’re wont to do now.  When you are introduced to these characters, you can easily place yourself within them trying desperately to grapple the latent utopian feel when television characters’ conflicts were the brunt of thought and conversation.  It’s what people talk about these days, as if these fictional characters were their actual friends.

mr burns production photoI strongly encourage people to check out 12 Peers’ Facebook page and look at the profiles and questionnaires of each actor in the show. These actors have become aware of their characters’ pasts.  It reminds me of the research done with Uta Hagen’s process, where the character-on-stage is more fully realized by the actor making choices about said character’s necessary past.  There is a healthy amount of investigation that these actors have compiled for themselves, and the brilliance of Mr Burns is it only reveals so much.  The audience is allowed to answer for themselves what holocaust these players have gone through.

Another stand-out is Everett Lowe’s Gibson.  He powerfully exacts an exhausted person with a booming strength being tested to its limits.  We get glimpses of where he’s been.  But not so much that we know him.  He tethers the line well between imposing and comforting, setting up the dichotomy that is between architects of a new civilization coming from those who had survived the apocalypse.  Kudos to the actor for pulling off this duality.

The acts are divided between “Now”, “7 Years Later” and “75 Years Later”.  It’s the evolution of what the accumulated memories of a specific Simpsons episode come to mean culturally.

What Mr Burns epitomizes so well is the burn of claustrophobia; cabin fever.  It plays with the apocalyptic fears we obsess with as a culture and puts them into play.  Post-electric: how do we mythologize?

That Third Act, the “75 Years Later”; that’s got to be earned.  How do you even get a remote idea of what life might be like, “post-electric”, when it comes to 75 years later?

Probably the most interesting arc of the show belongs to Brittany Tague, who also shows her talent as the show’s choreographer.  Her character Colleen goes from shell-shocked stranger to company manager within a new economy built on compiling culture.  To allow this frame to materialize in what becomes a Greek tragedy/opera, built upon the vestiges of what elements from the 90’s can be remembered, allows a very grave part of the brain to be tickled.  What we illusorily imagine to be warm satire can be easily contrived as hollow or obsolete relics.  Think of the Parthenon’s white columns having the same white shade as a mausoleum.  It’s as if the culture it was created for is dead.  That’s exactly what it is: dead.  And yet we still have the relic.

What’s created 75 years later, is a testament to human need; using “The Simpsons” as a crude vehicle to get there.  I liked this production.  I would have liked it more with no stage lights and only “post-electric” scenic design; but that’s a nit-picky request, I know.  Still, I believe that the 3rd Act is earned.  It’s well-choreographed, well-sung and well-performed.  It left me with the sticky-sweet feel of a deep, non-superficial future that has its own sense of the past.  Rather than Futurama, it’s built into the new tribalism with a new set of Gods: an elegant regression.  I thought the drama of it was nauseous in the best way possible, turning my childish nostalgia into the effective tragedy of memory.  Vince Ventura did a great job as director and the singing was surprising for the limiting capabilities of the University of Pittsburgh’s black box.  Still, a stand out performance by Sara Ashley Fisher as Bart Simpson; as well as the whole ensemble.  The surprise of the sharp choreography shows a serious texture and is well-rehearsed.  It shows the intimacy this cast must have had with one another, which is important to the whole Das Boot of the entire concept.

This play plays on two very important features of today’s culture: the need for great comedy and the fear of the end.  It’s perfect in that regard, and this is a very decent, swelling performance.  Cromulent, as it needs to be.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs at the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh through August 20. For tickets and more information, click here

Watch: A Haunting

unnamed (18)This is a review for WATCH: A Haunting.  It is a play by Molly Rice, read at Mansions on Fifth and produced by Real/Time Interventions.

But preceding the review, please excuse this small diatribe on the nature of readings:

Readings are half-baked. That’s the point.  Their final registry doesn’t exist yet; it’s being found.  They are plays in flux waiting for feedback and the perfect sounds of rhythm.  They are for actors to try things, for the writer to listen.  They are for directors to plan and cut and encourage.  But they are flawed and sometimes slow and confusing.  You’re just hearing about something you should be able to visualize.  The subtleties are lost because those choices have (for the most part) not been made.

So, it’s hard to put a finger on what was lacking in WATCH: A Haunting, and I feel that’s because of the nature of readings.

Let’s start with Mansions on Fifth, really a lovely, powerful building.  Built in 1900, and finished in 1906; it has a weight to it, a sincere grandeur that places you anachronistically through the veil and into the ghost of the past.  WATCH: A Haunting is a play about a haunted mansion.  There is a girl, Vi, who is arrested by restlessness from hearing voices through the walls.  There is a creepiness inherent, but I didn’t feel it from the space.  Maybe it was the aspect of being cramped into a room and imagining the booming.  I think the play would be able to utilize sound as a character in its final incarnation.  The Mansion provided an aesthetic, but without seeing the basement or the characters move in the space, it felt a little bland.

It’s possible that the issue, in general, was tone.  This play has comedy.  It has horror.  It has sentimentality.  It has it all!  The problem is perhaps too much.  I felt the horror plotline was subverted by something that was confusingly sentimental.  The ending, for that reason, didn’t seem to make sense.

There were also other storylines that were barely treaded on:  a suspicious, ghostly woman from another time; a psychologist who exploits the main character for his own publicity.  I was confused by their importance, though they did help to propel the questioning of the main character, Vi.

Julianne Avolio is a terrific actress, but as Vi I didn’t understand her character in this part.  I didn’t quite see the lines matching her depiction.  It was hard to tell, but I believe this play was supposed to ride on its comedy.  I believed that she was supposed to be a tragi-comic character (with a torrid burden placed upon her).  Avolio brought a wealth of desperation and anxiety to the role, but the lines felt like they could have used more goofy, childish wit.  I was confused by it because it didn’t seem to connect.

There are wondrous stage directions written, including rats scurrying across the stage, an elephant throwing Vi into the air, and flowers popping out of the ground.  One I felt immensely grand was:

One thousand bodies trickle into the room.  We can only see their eyes gleaming.

How does this happen?  I’m intrigued, but dumbfounded.  It seems awesome, but I can’t imagine.

I believe that Molly Rice is an intriguing writer.  This play has substance and is going in many places, but I feel that there was a disconnect in focus. I believe the mix of horror with comedy and an optimistic family drama could evolve well, but it’s composition didn’t seem to be complete.  C’est la vie, re: reading.

Rice does bring solid imagery and dialogue to her characters.  Her amorphous, but palpable descriptions speak of an idea that is powerfully, impossibly visceral.  Vi describes the ghost as: “like in black and white, an old movie.”  She says it smells like “old books and oranges.”

I will say too that Kimberly Parker Green as Vi’s mother Mona as well as Hazel LeRoy as Grandma truly felt within their characters.  Green’s Mona produced a depth of denial and ambivalence that, I believe, reflected a complexity upon the mother of an ailing child; as if she was dealing but couldn’t deal.  It was played with an empath’s heart but a mind for manipulation.  And LeRoy’s Grandma did a splendid job with her bits for comic relief.  I would have liked to see more.

There’s a version of this play in flux which creates a resolution tying all the sideplots together neatly.  It throws the audience into a hallucination with its stunt-fueled stage presence.  And there’s quite a bit of subtlety to exist between the pauses, but I believe it must be seen.  Perhaps the text, like a ghost, reflects a hauntedness: old and smelling of oranges.  I believe this show could be scary, sweet and deranged.  I just can’t see it yet.

For more about Real/Time Interventions and what they’re up to this season, click here. 

Wife U

WIFE-U-WEB-COVER_Page_1A great word for adaptation is “knock-off”.  Like ‘cheap’; ‘pegged-down’; an insinuation that’s just a bit crappier.  The ill craftsmanship of a poorly made, get-rich-quick impostor, aesthetically just as pleasing as it needs to be to seem classy.

We’re in Disneyland, the gift shop, and there’s this knock-off of a Molière play.  It pulls the same strings, the plot is basically intact, it’s got a veneer of plasticky faux-gilding and an over-saturation of color whose sheen is a little too contrasting to be considered subtle or clean.  Oh, and it’s full of irony: like it’s made to look that cheap.  The way of Disneying the icon is to pull it out of its regal, self-centered and dated 17th Century aristocratic French flare and slap it with the 20th Century sweatshop stickiness of facsimile.  But then also show it for what it is: indulgent, quick-buck garbage.

This is CMU fellow director Sara Lyons and writer Eric Powell Holm’s adaptation of Moliere’s School for Wives as Wife U taking the fructose out of a satirical french fruit and putting it into laffy taffy.

I’m not saying this wasn’t good.  It was very good.  Perhaps I should highlight that after so many negative words: THIS WAS VERY GOOD!  It was strange, it was very talented and entertaining and it was provocative.  But it was a take on a classical play that needed a cultural updating.  It’s as director Sara Lyons said in a press release for the show:

“Going all the way back to School for Wives, the way that I’ve described it to people is that it’s Taming of the Shrew-level messed up.  It’s really frightening and problematic in terms of its treatment of women.”

So, this is an adaptation that cheapens some of the aspects in that ‘problematic’ play, issues with sex and class.  Importantly, they do that on purpose!  They lathered up the old scheme of a classically contrived plot concerning a beguiling villain, commentary on the nobility and lines that lick the air of assonance in cleverly lain verse.  And then they add green-screen with photoshop; faux-gilding on tacky baroque chairs.  And the star, Clay Singer’s Arnolphe; the lanky shit eating grin, of an Eric Trumpesque skeezball with a misogynist bent and leading man likeability that fits him right into the scheme.   Classic story, classic villain.

Wife U attempts to give more to the women, the classic shill who are consistently harangued in stories that use them as the buffer.  As, again, Lyons said, “Holm’s adaptation maintains Molière’s style in terms of rhyming and wit, but it’s contemporary language and criticizes the play for its violence. I wanted to push this further and make an effort, in the production, to shift the point of view, actually inside of the play, from Arnolphe’s to Agnes’.”

Amanda Fallon-Smith’s Agnes has all the poise of a debutante and the levity of a flower.  She’s a beautiful woman, and this is an undeniable aspect of the plot from either perspective.  Her beauty though is not a begetting of her grace, rather within Lyons and Holm’s adaptation the depiction of woman’s beauty is a scourge of defiance and consciousness rather than simply conclusions.  They wanted to make a feminist show and so they gave the thing over to the women.  Fallon-Smith’s evolution in character, from vapid to alpha has a resonance when she holds her coldness.  Her pain is felt in realization.  She’s the only character who stops rhyming.  She transcends trope for humanity very well.

Shining within the trope though are the comedic duo of Iris Beaumier and Lea DiMarchi, whose chemistry in spinning the speed and timing of their characters’ spoofiness really lends itself to the slapstick usually reserved for male parts.  It’s important that they shine so silly, that these actresses also play uppity men in a cheap drag as well.  It’s the energy, I feel, of these two actresses that makes the momentum of this play feminist.  Its comic heels are set upon women’s timing.

That isn’t to denounce Singer, though.  He mesmerizes with his ability to play the villain.  Comic chops that very much reel and succor at the loose ends of opportunity.  Every bit of silence is met with a glance and every bit of smug tirade is met with a smirk.

And finally John Clay III’s Horace exudes a very exciting frankness which carried so heartily a great theme of Molière’s play that is then subverted in Lyons and Holm’s adaptation.  This is the idea that earnest and honest passion is deserving of true love.  It’s a certain amount of entitlement that’s shoved in the face by the adaptation.  It’s a bizarre subversion because it takes what it wants of the original and leaves the rind to rot on stage.  This is nuanced by the very thing that makes this play unique: it’s palpable postmodern imagery.

Media Designer Sylvie Sherman and Scenic Designer Trent Taylor created such a masterful commentary on the frivolous embracing of wealthy imagery.  As I’ve said before, the entire play is laden with knock-offs: photoshop, green-screen, karaoke, midi-made muzak.  The posh decadent cheapness of gilded furniture in an era where we seem to be in the throes of a rich man’s ego representing the cultural more of success.  Would we forget that Molière’s audience at the Palais-Royal represents an aristocracy with cultural values needing not only the insightful critique of theatre, but perhaps the revolutionary candor of a societal revolt?  Even the satire sometimes needs to be satirized when the reality is too absurd.

I’ll give it to this fine ensemble which tied the comedic chops and absolutely astonishing command of verse into followable and electric banter.  I’m not sure this play delivers the insightful call-to-arms, riot-grrrl style it promises.  For instance, nary a riot grrl song is included.  Tsk tsk. Though, I do believe within its creepy critique of wealth culture and wannabe ego-driving; it hits on another nerve: disgust.  Like so much that this play critiques, examines, and glorifies: it powerfully substantiates the idea that, in this reality-tv, society of the spectacle-cluttered culture right now: stupid can be smart and we love what we hate.  This is banality on ecstasy.  I hope they can stage it at Mar-A-Lago sometime soon.

Wife U closed Friday night April 28, 2017. For more information about the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama, click here. 

 

Lights Out

hamburg-1050643_492-300x200Setting controls a play.

It’s its backbone.

This is particularly true when the setting contains an entire plot within a singular space.  Also,  particularly true when the audience feels forced into it, packed into the confined atmosphere that’s suddenly been created.

This describes the claustrophobia and intimacy of Lights Out, Pittsburgh Playwright’s exhibition of Pittsburgh writer Steve Hallock and Director Cheryl El-Walker’s care, coldness and warmth while capturing a particular setting.

A bunch of anybodys are caught on a train under Mt. Washington.  Suddenly, their lives begin to mesh because they can’t help but share things about themselves.  This mutates into empathy, projection, and blame.

“It offers a unique and artful look at Pittsburgh life” says Mark Clayton Southers, Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Artistic and Executive Director.   And remember, the lights are out for the audience too.  They become part of this, stuck in this dilemma-facing world, as well. Distracted people carry their baggage onto a train concealed.  But what happens when the transience becomes semi-permanence.  Suddenly,  you’re in a room.  When the train stops, everyone suddenly looks at the situation (and everyone else) closely.

What if people combusted into their stories like colorful bouts of expression poured out from the anxiety of being trapped?  What is the threshold for anxiety in this situation?  How does one deal with an annoying passenger?  How does one manage grief that suddenly creeps into the mind?  Or the emotions of an actively failing relationship?  Or even the randiness of a brand new one!

They look like anybodys, but with a smidgen of focus you begin to unravel searching, human souls.  It’s like watching the interactions come forward from an Edward Hopper painting.  These people are haunted.

Sandy Zwier’s Florence along with John Michnya’s Stanley speak to their significant others throughout the play.  They share a florid familiarity within the conversation, a familiar communication or the apparent lack thereof.  They are two people who are haunted by grief or unhappiness.  And their partners are mannequins, literal mannequins.

John Michnya
John Michnya

This directorial choice struck me as a strange one, an absurd set-piece given to the display.  Though, it focuses the characters who are live.  By talking to mannequins, we are forced into the lens of their perspectives. The woman who is thrown into this conundrum of her anxiety, asking herself about her 8-year old girl dealing with bone marrow treatments.  Asking “what reason is there for this?”  Zwier captured the restraint of this character well.  I felt for her motherliness, the sad longing that very much showed the shadow she carried in her expression.

And then there’s this man, complaining to his wife about the theatre they’re returning from:  “The lines are cliché, the lot is predictable.  It was overly convoluted and complex.  Faux existentialism.  You know what that means?”

He’s mansplains to a mannequin and is none the wiser that he is eating his words on the stage, a nigthhawk on display for the sake of us: flies on the wall penetrating the stillness of this sudden play that he’s in.  Is this self-reflection, a writer’s wink?  Maybe then this is a play on plays, and he’s the wise fool.

A great theme of this piece is that in a claustrophobic environment, we all descend into archetypes.  ‘Who are you?’, it asks.  But more importantly, ‘who do you become within this setting?’

What’s bizarre about Lights Out is that it doesn’t subscribe to the standard construction of a plot.  It leaves much unresolved.  Some characters end on low notes, others on high notes.  There is no arching resolution, only painful or exciting revelations.

Some characters end wanting nothing but a cold beer, like Sam Lothard’s Manny.  Lothard plays a coolly, composed everyman; really locking on the fast-thinking coolness of the character.  The setting changes, and his demeanor changes with it.  There are choices to be made in the story, and you can see these choices made.  His growth as a character is palpable.

Connor Mccanlus‘s Sam Alec is the clown, the entertainer.  He prompts the darkened train car into community by playing out music from his computer.  He asks the other passengers questions, or interrupts their private conversations.  He pulls the train car into the narrative that he wants to be there.

Mccanlus’ edge for this role is rather impressive, touting the line of a curiously obnoxious provocateur.  While Sam Alec riles the interaction out of people, it’s Mccanlus’ timing and ferocious smarminess that creates the punctuation within the role.

Some characters suddenly find themselves in a trapped situation, forced to grip their personal demon and wrestle with it on the floor of a darkened train car.  It can get messy.  It can get vulnerable.

But it can also get romantic with Jenny Malarkey’s Nadine and Michael Lane Sullivan’s Mick just being two characters who are horny and suddenly there’s this black-out and they’re like ‘fuck it’ and then they’re just making out for a while.  Meanwhile, there’s this drama brewing in the background and they’re just sort of messing around.

That’s the treasure of a setting.  It’s a habitat.  It’s alive with unfocused environmental figures, acting autonomously or interacting.  It’s a painting come to life.  There’s also Melissa Franklin’s Anita, just muttering to herself nothing but bible verses.  She’s not frightened, but strengthened and yet still; she’s essentially incommunicable and obsessed.  Just a strange part of this situation.  The Setting crawls with itself, its habitat.   The anxiety is set dressing for the people who are suddenly simply there.

This play’s satisfaction is caught up with the inescapable madness that some people are dealing with sisyphean tasks in their lives: failure, grief, love, alcoholism.  It’s burrowed into a sudden plot, under a mountain; that reveals strengths and weaknesses, unknown warmths, truth and coldness.  But there’s much humanity in it, which is sometimes obnoxious or hard to see; and sometimes beautiful.

It’s a strange, lonely trip to take suddenly becoming part of this environment where people are forced to reveal themselves.  It’s naked and it’s fascinating.

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company for complimentary press tickets. Lights Out runs at their space downtown through April 15. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photo by Monteze Freeland

An Apocalyptic Tour of Fringe 2017

Fringe is such a strange festival.  It’s really a concoction of the eccentric, a bumbling mind manifested into the sphere of Deutschtown that is Pittsburgh’s North Shore.   There’s a sort of cragginess to the event, a propped up expressionism that hangs together from wires and a shifty foundation, and yet palpitates with the charisma, charm and dressed-down splendor that a discovery usually has.  It’s Einstein’s maxim that revelations are made with a “that’s funny” rather than a “Eureka!”.  It’s at Pittsburgh Fringe that you’ll unearth a basement wonder, a treasure secluded on the fringe of mind, society and theatre itself.  Down into the crawlspace you go, dear Alice to find a spark of catharsis hidden at the end of the tunnel…

traige-3x3-webAllegheny Inn is a resplendent Victorian red-brick mansion with polished hardwood furniture and art on the walls, but its basement was made to exude the post-apocalyptic hellscape that is represented by Bent Antennae Productions’ Triage.  Performer Anna Bennett with a gas mask hosts an underground game show in a seeming post-apocalyptic environment.  Set dressing is a natural advantage for a quality divulgence into scene and that’s found in the claustrophobic, concrete-floored and damp basement of this pronouncedly immaculate building.  Its age is certainly felt and for the sake of the play; and the agedness becomes a great question: How long has the Earth been a hellscape?

Triage is modeled as a game show, which parodies many of the entertainments we indulge ourselves with today: there’s Top Chef, American Idol, America’s Top Model, Survivor, Real World.  Only the songs are made up.  The fashion is derived from scraps and tarps and strange tool implements.  There is sparse, horrible food.  There is no water.  All of the memories are scarred and let on to the origins of certain unnamed horrors.  And it’s all made up on the spot.  And there was good improv by the actors (though it’s a bit weird that their names aren’t exhibited on the program.)

Ms. Bennett’s host game with herself in wearing a gas mask the whole time served as a tiny model for the ticking clock of near apocalypse.  For a 75 minute show, the thing steamed up by midway.  At a certain point within improv, you’re seeing not how the dancers dance but watch how they avoid falling.  But with a steamed face, she pressed on—lobbing grenades and dancing like a standing hyena in heels, quips about their inevitable deaths, the drudge of radiation that is the world outside.  Laughing, beckoning cheering and audience participation.  No water, no crops, all desolation.  But the actors have room for brilliant back and forths, recalling an event of milking a cow:

“I wish we could drink water…”

“Drink Walter?!”

“No, I said ‘water’”

“But I heard ‘Walter’…”

“But you can’t…”

“But what if…”

“See, it’s funny because I heard ‘walter’ and you said ‘wat–‘”

“hey, I think you just solved a problem.”

I do think that perhaps the act could have been played out a few more times for a little better execution.  It was a very good piece with a few rough edges, but what apocalyptic story isn’t?  I’d call it a very ticklish concept and a hell of a good time!  Who doesn’t like postmodern parodies of our decadent, useless lives scrutinized under the lens of a futuristic generation mocking our entitlement!  We’re all bastards, ha!  But we’re fun bastards, aren’t we!!

Also, want to note: the music for Triage was amazing.  Jingles put on the spot, a layering that was at once children show and cynical commentary.  Well done from another mystery artist.

chrisdavisapocalypsenowpostcardfront-1_origIn the basement of St. Mary’s Lyceum is a large room with structure support columns, linoleum floor and drop ceiling.  Marked by the stage lighting hanging from I-beams and the minimalist rapport that identifies the space as a classroom, unhinged.  Throughout the basement performances, the din of noise upstairs.  People stomping on the floors, falling; in other Fringe plays.  For the sake of solitude, it might be too noisy.  To establish madness, though, it’s a charm!

Can we talk about the film Apocalypse Now for a second?  An amazing cast with Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Laurence Fishburne, Harrison Ford.  This film is canon.  It’s set in stone as a Vietnam “great”.  But what is it, but a deluge of personalities in different states of setting madness aboard an adventure; often described as a hellish or horror.

You’d think: Why watch this theatre version of a film?  Isn’t that redundant?  What is this, Cliff Notes?

It’s actually a pretty intensive, analytical study of the composition of the movie.  To relay certain affects and physical characteristics about each character, to provide the dialogue or narration back in a different, but loyal cadence; even the fruit of the spectacle, which is to see this film dialed back and rediscovered for its historical value and it’s license to do things as a pioneer film: it’s another postmodern treatise on something that is stored in the mind as canon, but re-realized as the juicy embodiment of a child’s mind coveting madness.  Chris Davis’ One Man Apocalypse Now is the sensationalist odyssey of a fan’s tribute towards the compulsion of method acting that created such viscerally composed performances.

I was a bit skeptical from the start.  His impression of Martin Sheen leeching up from a tropical, sweaty insomnia looked a bit like interpretative dance gone silly.  Though Davis’ approach is one of excited mutability, going in and out of the movie, making jokes about certain characters’ tics (his Harrison Ford impression is a blessed mockery of the man’s first acting job).  He pulls you into the movie, but rather than just give a delivery that’s face-deep and impressive; he modes the entirety of the film into a personal quest into his sake, his own journey and the connect between either depressive or adventurous themes in his own life.

This is a very masculine movie, driven by male roles.  But they are also akin to weaknesses that we don’t often see in the stereotypical male.  Much crying, much cowardice.  Davis tortures himself by being dunked in a bucket of water onstage again and again.  He goes shirtless to clothed, back and forth, imitating the constructions of each part’s necessary nudity.  He commits to things like dancing as a playboy bunny.  He dives into personal stories of attempting to save helpless kittens and failing.

We see the oppressive state of guilt unfolding through his catharsis built upon enjoyment of the film.  A good movie means something personal to someone.  And while we re-watch aspects of the film through his behavior, there’s never a moment where we’re not glaringly looking at the actor on the stage.  He provides clues to who he is, the lies he tells, the sadness, hope and fear that pervade his personal esteem; and finally, what drives him to compose an homage to this 40 year old classic.

He takes on each role with the gusto of a Robin Williams’ face-melding clown mixed with the pomp of Robert Duvall’s insane masculinity.  His performance leeches with the full mix of emotion that captivates all the necessary ironies of his becoming familiar identities, but also undoubtedly sharing dark truths about himself.  The play is at once funny, sad and familiar.  He’s a comic bastard, who pulls lines about not knowing what he’s doing in his 30’s, in a basement, in a strange neighborhood in Pittsburgh, shirtless, re-enacting a scene where he’s about to bludgeon himself to death.

Perhaps the spirit of Pittsburgh Fringe is madness.  It’s the madness for actors to attempt to create a work of art in brutally austere spaces for limited audiences to question their sanity.  A lonely sharp turn down the implacable trajectory of unfettered will, or dumb hopes and dreams attempting solace; looking for reason.  I wish more people came to see these shows, got trapped in the mesmerizing strangeness of this event.  It’s like being inside of a mind sheltered within the old buildings along the cobblestone streets and balloon-framed houses of the North Side.  Not much has changed in a hundred years and a well-preserved darkness sustains the old world charm of a dark city and the echoing clack from a shoe walking on a quiet, thin, lived-in street.  It’s a perfect place to go deep into the fetters of the mad.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

Bricolage Production Company’s 12th Annual BUS!

general5-474x224Bricolage’s BUS is an amazing compilation of talent.  They do a great job of mixing together spontaneity and creative ability.  It’s a challenge.  Playwrights are asked to put themselves on a 90-minute bus ride and to submit to the experience in such a way that they are inspired to write a play.  That’s it.  Just a little fun, a bit of the unexpected and weird, and a surge of forced inspiration.

It’s impressive how this experiment works.  And it does.  It works very, very well.  You have 36 performers (24 actors, 6 playwrights, 6 directors) and they all bring something diverse, impressive and original.  They make tangible, real, accessible theatre in the span of 24 hours.  I was FLOORED by how great the actors were in these shows.  They not only memorized their entire part within the span of a workday, but they delivered on so many emotional and driven levels.

What the process of BUS relies upon is that things will happen when provocation occurs.  Creative Talent + Inspiration = Creation.  The actors’ parts are created for them, for something exhibited from their personality.  And thus plays are created truly spontaneously, with a driving force of talent and a whirl of inevitable luck.

Bricolage, I believe, is attempting to create a flare within theatre that is alchemical.  It’s like theatre, but it’s an admixture of something more unexpected: spontaneous participation.  It seems like the kind of thing that improv works off of, but I believe it’s a little more experimental.  For one thing, it invokes the audience.  You have only to look at how the handling of BUS 12 began.  A technical difficulty involving the keyboard’s connection to the house speakers inhibited the host’s opening performance.  So, Programming and Artistic Directors Jeffrey Carpenter and Tami Dixon (respectively) were secluded to their spots offstage.  An awkward moment started with an awkward silence.  But their mics still worked.  They asked for patience.  Then Tami’s voice saying, “You’d think after 12 years…”

The audience laughed.  Then a random heckler chimes in: “Get a Casio!”

Another voice over the mic, “Oh great.  Just what we need: hecklers.”

A guy in the balcony yells, “Well, at least it’s better than Senator Toomey’s Town Hall!”

Another laugh.

Jeffery Carpenter asks back, “Does anybody know how to juggle?”  And Dixon seconds, “Does anybody know how to hum?”

The whole audience begins humming.

The audience is roaring from a malfunction that should have been devastating.  But the feeling of the evening, this rich celebration of Pittsburgh’s talents is exactly what BUS, and therefore Bricolage, is all about.  The creation of the spectacle at hand is key in fomenting a new vision of what could be the theatrical moment.  The mistake is probably the most authentic form of seeing something real happen on stage.  It’s up to the maturity and skill of the actors to handle the mistake responsibly.  The entire spirit of Bricolage’s “making artful use of what is at hand” happens in these moments.  It’s like Arthur Miller once said, “The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.”

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BUS shows a cavalcade of different kinds of emotions.  The heartfelt broaching of loneliness and memory in Gayle Pazerski’s “This Call May Be Recorded.”  Or the almost philosophical nostalgia of four people talking to themselves of how they remember buses being friendly before smartphones in Mark Clayton Southers’ “People Don’t Talk on the Bus”  Or perhaps the madness of four cartoonish version of DSM-IV style mental disorders banding together to save themselves from a bus that crashed because of a suicidal bus driver in Sloan MacRae’s “Normal”.

The gamut of talent is shown by experimenting with how people think on a bus.  Pazerski’s content contains nothing about buses, but it allows for an emotional depth which surely comes out of the script and perhaps a lonely bus drive just outside of town.  In her play, we see a very visceral relationship being unveiled by the act of Brett Goodnack’s Tom calling Quinn Patrick Shannon’s Mark at his job at a stressful call center.  Shannon’s ability to show the facial breaking of a frustrated man on the brink of both redemption and insanity was palpable.  I was also a fan of Elena Alexandratos and Julianne Avolio’s comic chops on the side.

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Pair that with Kim El’s “Get Off (The Bus)” a Twilight Zone-like tale about a professional white woman who boards a bus and is suddenly confronted with mystical black deities who force her to confront her privilege by subjecting her to live a day as an African-American woman.  Shakara Wright’s Faith and TaeAjah Cannon’s Joy were appropriately creepy and stunning in their roles, veritable goddesses, and demons in the same body.  Director Teisha Duncan did a great job at taking us onto the bus and taking us out of this ethereal plane with minimal special effects.

It’s a variety of performance, very festive, unpredictable and a great sampling of what kind of active subject matter is happening amongst playwrights in this town.  What makes Bricolage such a fountain of strange possibility is that they covet the experiment.  They try things, and they create an environment where trying things is protocol.  It’s minimal, but it’s audacious.

You wind up with stand-out performances like Wali Jamal’s Clown in Dave Harris’ “Mythical Creatures”.  Always a pleasure to watch his bottled volatility shake itself up, pure baking soda and vinegar; this man spews rawness up in a rage.  Or Gab Cody’s “Misoneism”, a tricky play about AI that’s really all a prop for stand-out performances.  Missy Moreno’s Betty pops onto the stage with firecracker power and delivers a potpourri of Robin Williams and Animal from the Muppets.

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Bricolage does something.  They don’t do the rote, mechanical straightforward delivery.  They make you work, they make their players work and it’s an appreciated work.  There’s power in trying.  I think that’s the aspect of theatre that’s washed with such an abundance of entertainment in the digital age.  To make artful use of what is at hand, you must be willing to go out into the world and grab whatever’s near.  Pittsburgh is a slew of odysseys, and thank god a company is ravenous for what it has to offer.  This was a hell of a cabaret.

For more about Bricolage Production Company and what they have for us coming up, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Louis Stein.

1984

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Prime Stage Theatre’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1949 classic, 1984, is ambitiously loyal to its original text.  It attempts to extrapolate the inner story of one man inside of a paranoia machine, and does so with many attributes reminiscent of the original if only lacking a bit of the fervor.

It is the story of Winston Smith, a forlorn citizen in a world made up of enemies; or a world where every area of the world is under surveillance.  Government agents have the right to surreptitiously stalk and hunt and arrest any citizen on a whim.  Neighbors are forced by fear of their own unannounced imprisonment to all work as deputy spies against one another.  Everyone is scared of everyone.

1984 holds a lot of very relevant themes that should be explored more.  The main focus of this story is to expand on an idea that history is merely the story of the victors, and how nefarious that idea might be in an information age.  This is a story that ties the insidious pull of propaganda, the neuroses of a surveillance state, the anxiety of a police state and the challenging eventuality of what could be the inevitable progression of nationalism as a belief structure.  It is a book that foretells of a civilized society becoming an entire prison-like world filled with lies and terror.

Prime Stage’s adaptation has done a fine job achieving certain aspects of the original: the storyline is barely changed, the leads fit their character types, the world is somewhat surreal, sterile, ominous and oppressive.

1984 is a horror story.  It’s about a man living under the oppressive circumstance of an all-controlling fascist government, yes.  But it’s also so much richer in horror than simply that.  It’s horror in the details.  1984 explores how a futuristic fascism could, as it’s said in the play, “narrow the range of thought.”

It’s an entire world that is creepy, overarching, dim, and terrifying.

My favorite aspect of this show was the video design, which I suppose are attributed to Artistic Director Wayne Brinda.  These contain uniform images dotting the landscape of what seemed to be droll, oppressive institutional walls, as well as creative uses of CCTV-style display.  For a show that really deals in a story that accurately predicted a kind of futurism, I feel that this aspect was handled in a very strong manner.  It was captured perhaps best in what was the climactic moment of the show: a truly agonizing physical assault.  To hear Winston scream in unrelenting terror captured exactly what this story is: an unflinching, freakishly frightening nightmare.

Justin Fortunato’s Winston comes off as an awkward, bumbly Englishman.  He’s squeamish, cautious and his anxiety shines through his stolid mannerism.  I was irked by watching the actor, thinking how little I’d like to be his character.  He delivered in sturdily displaying his hidden well of apprehension.

This is a surreal, horror story.  I can’t say that enough.  Prime Stage does eventually achieve the mood that I believe makes the book what it is: riveting, institutional terror.  However, they don’t get to this point of swollen emotional piercing until the third act.

When they do get there though, what an amazing job of reflecting the horror of torture and interrogation.  My god.  Combining imagery of relevant torture iconography (Abu Ghraib, anyone) with the insanity of a power who doesn’t offer solutions: What do you want me to do?  How can I do it, if I don’t know what it is!  The last leg of the play ends on a great note.  Not a high note.  But a note that carries with it the right weight of troubledness.  (Though the use of modern music in both the scene changes and for the last bit of the play are pretty awful and don’t fit with the loyal adaptation at all.  I literally cringed at the last lights out from the tacky use of a certain song).

One place that delivers rather well is the linguistic conversation had by Michael Lane Sullivan’s Syme.  I always understood this character as a weaselly intellectual sort, with a nuanced ignorance in decimating the exact thing that made him intelligent: the breadth of language.  Sullivan’s ability to play this part with the candor of confidence, not too annoying and not not annoying; but just annoying enough.  (I guess “double-plus un-annoying”?)  It’s a well-realized character.

Another stand-out is Samantha Camp’s Parsons, who does a good job of taking a robotic, creepy churchliness to a monstrously sterile level.  She reminded me of an HR lady on a strict diet of amphetamines and fake news

This production does utilize many of the original details and the script fully utilizes the prose from the original.  The problem is it’s a bit boring.  There’s a great attention to detail, but not the detail’s detail.  This story contains the aggravating encapsulation of an intelligent man repressing by necessity all of his human instincts and surviving within survival mode amongst a seemingly mundane, or inconspicuous set of factors.  It’s a boring outside world (save for the people disappearing every so often, and the routine projections of forced, constructed violence (more to come on that)).  We see the inner man in an outer world in the book of 1984.  In the stage play, we see this strange outer world but don’t get as much of a sense of the true arc of suspense, recoiled reaction, and ghastly, disturbed awe that creates such an emotional arc for Winston.  There are great hints of it, sure.  But not the impact of a world so turned on its head, it’s impossible to be sane.

I’m mostly conflicted about the direction.  In some regards, I really appreciated the choreography and the staging.  The “Two Minutes of Hate”, for instance, is a surreal episode where the government employees are forced to watch a speech by a terrorist (who was previously known as a revolutionary for the state, a la Trotsky or someone of his ilk), and then they are watched and rated for how fiercely they deject and boo the screen on which he talks.  The book characterizes this episode so well, I personally recall the vitriol in detail.  It’s such a captivating moment to be captured.  To quote the novel:

People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen…

A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp….

To me, this scene has lasted within my head for the last seventeen years since I first picked up this book.  The sheer animosity and vivid nature of the scene strikes me like the chaos in an auditorium during an air raid.

What this production lacked was the hysteria.  We saw the characters from the show lob words of hate, stamp their feet.  Even the moment when one of the workers throws a shoe at the telescreen happens.  But I think this moment lacked the visceral nature of Orwell’s intention.  I think the power of it comes from the madness.  It wasn’t really brutal, it was just a little tense.  Orwell wanted to show an emotional outlet in a deranged, mindwashed people.  I think Prime Stage only gets a glimpse at the surface.  I was craving a theatricality that was much more severe.

The same could be said for Winston and Julia’s relationship.  Jessie Wray Goodman’s Julia looks the part of Winston’s counterpart.  Orwell described her as young, pretty and sexless.  Goodman does a great job of approaching the part with a pent-up air, a shrunken tenacity.  She looks like someone who would obsess over a uniform, and this makes her reveal all the lovelier.  When they are finally allowed a life together, her contentedness and excitability is mousy and comes in small, gleeful gestures.  She plays this character well.

And yet, there was an issue with their arc too.  What makes Winston and her relationship so lovely is that it comes after a long, turbid set of doubts and reveals.  I know that prose is much different than a stage play, but the difference between saying “I love you” versus receiving the note and poring over its authenticity in a context where any sort of conviviality could easily be a trap set by a sociopathic compatriot….it just spells a different kind of inner turmoil, a slushy force of trusting in a distrustful environment.

I’m nitpicking.  I apologize.  But there’s something to the swish and sway of the neurotic Winston in Orwell’s 1984 that gets to the modern reader.  It’s a reason why it’s regarded as probably the most influential modern novel.  It is still cited constantly by people using its terms, its themes and the probably cheaply, overused (and ironic, therefore) “Orwellian.”  It’s because this story really gets inside the head of a paranoid person in fear of surveillance.

All said, 1984 is a cool trek through a classic.  It falls short in reaching some of the ecstatic buzz of both terror and overwhelming relief I believe the original achieves, though it does get the point of the original novel across sincerely.  I believe this show was made with an earnest enthusiasm for the content and sums up the book nicely, including even the wracked fear and anxiety of its meat.  And it’s testament to a future that, especially at this particular time, seems all the most relevant.  Read it.  See it.  Whatever.  Know it.

Ignorance isn’t Strength, comrade.

For ticketing information visit Prime Stage Theatre’s website here.

Ragtime

Ragtime-JPEGThis musical has so much;  it is so rich.  It is a cascade of characters who are fully drawn, with captivating arcs.  It’s a litany of singing performances, CMU’s great bastion of talent loading all of their guns at once and firing three-part harmonies and swelling solos up and through the soul again and again and again.  It’s cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and by that I mean: rich, camp and unrelenting.  It’s saccharine and tangy, but also somber and fierce.  It is a musical with everything.  Everything twice.  And it’s exhausting, but tremendous.

This is a show meant to excite, challenge, enrage and instill a sense of empathy for the common man.  This show examines the life of an individual through the scope of their experience in American history.  It is an expansion of what a life is like in a broader context, but it is also a treatise on what it is to be American: the saga of hope and the potential for defiance against stereotype and bland trajectory.  It is a mission statement for what music can come from opportunity.

This piece is also wholly relevant in confronting an oppressive obelisk in this country’s patterned and horrible xenophobic and racist foundation; dealing with its citizens, both new and native, with unconscionable indignities redeemed only by perseverance and solidarity.

It’s not every day you see a pro-socialist play.

It’s not every day you see anarchists blaze the stage as protagonists, with bombs bursting in air.

It’s not every day you see the archetype of a white woman who fiercely defends inclusion and empathy towards people of other races.  This is a feminist play.  It is also aggressively liberal with its determination towards equal rights and representation.

Let me back up.  This play is about ragtime:

“Small, clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets. There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by his music.”

The play follows three sets of tribes: white people, black people, and immigrants; as they collide and intersect amidst a roaring scape of American hardship and prosperity, celebrity and history; in the early part of the 1900’s.

It is a songbook.  Following the rag of John Clay III’s Coalhouse Walker Jr., a pianist whose illustrative interpretation of how music, simple and sublime, can give the nation a new syncopation.  Clay does an outstanding job bringing the weight of the character’s strong hold on the zeitgeist to his leading role, his belting sustained notes carry the auditorium.

As previously mentioned, there are a litany of solos.  Many songs that share the gorgeous bigness of CMU’s voices.  Hanna Berggren’s Mother withholds such a tightly strung presence for a seemingly conservative early 20th Century white woman, and though her movements are pensive and ladylike her voice booms out an emotional reckoning which scintillates an era of strange empathy denoting the epitome of American humanity.  This is fully realized in Berggren’s “Back to Before”,  a crucially emotional and swelling song that builds, binds and destroys.  As a friend put it, “makes for a full-on ugly cry.”

CMU has to be acknowledged for their “ballsiness” in going head first into accents.  Following this year’s full-cast doting Northern Irish brogues for Playboy of the Western World; this play sees Latvian, Hungarian, Russian, and German accents.  Perhaps none stands out as much as the Caribbean accent donned by Arica Jackson’s Sarah.  She holds this voice with such esteem, and carries the raw, visceral emotion for tear-jerker songs like “Your Daddy’s Son” And “President” without so much as a sliver of reveal that it’s all of the act.  It’s a truly captivating performance.

The same could be said for Clay Singer’s Tateh.  He really brings this role into a masterfully starry-eyed composition.  More than any other character, I empathized with his struggle.  I believed him.  I believed his humor, his optimism and the piercing, glowing hope that sang his songs for him.  Accolades to Singer, for his talent seems to be a treasure lotted to him by surname.  He embodies this role.

There were so many amazing performers.  So many top-notch songs.  Amanda Fallon Smith’s Evelyn Nesbit had me swooning in my seat.  Her comedic timing is a gift, and the choreography was excellent.  Lea DiMarchi’s Emma Goldman truly found the punchy, antagonistic severity of Goldman’s bite and was able to place it in song.

The set was outrageously cool.  A trio of three story spinning platforms unfolding the different settings with like the gears of a clock twirling buildings.  The choreography stung as well.  This show pulled out all the stops and really flew into an exhaustive sway and array of musics, emotions and displays of pure talent.  I left the theater with stars twirling around my head.

I think the relevance of this play really shines in thinking of resistance as an option.  An American ideal is self-affirmation, but then there are other selves.  This is a nation of others, and of sovereignty betrayed by neighbors sharing space.  What can that mean except for a choice between accepting outsiders as brothers and sisters, or defying the creed of democracy and spiting a people for their alien identity?  To put it musically: How does a lyrical revolutionary deal with injustice?  How does a black man who creates lyrical music deal with white racial exploitation?  How does a Mother share her empathy beyond her children, to all those in need of help and saving?

This musical turns the bleeding heart into a firework.  It’s brilliant and catchy and honest, though perhaps I should acknowledge it’s pretty historicized fiction.

Regardless, it’s a brocade of floral ribbon painting the whole picture of integration with red, white, blue; and through and through, the whole rainbow.  What is ‘America’ as a theme?  It’s klezmer, brass bands with the gentle parlor music and the Harlem rags versus the Tin Pan Alley Rags of Atlantic City.  It’s Harlem meets Irving Berlin.  It’s a nation on the precipice of profound change.  It’s a world where there was suffering and now there’s penitence.  It’s grand, and I’d hope you see it.

Special thanks to the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama for complimentary tickets. Ragtime runs through March 4 but it has managed to sell out in advance. For more information about CMU Drama’s season, click here.

The Royale

YT17-Feature-The-RoyaleThis was the tightest play I’ve ever seen: opening night of The Royale at City Theatre.  The jabbing dialogue overlays every continuous line.  The chorus that pieces the fight, from build to final punch, works within the direction so smoothly; it fixes the adrenaline of a boxing match into the beat of a song.

I’ve never seen a show before that captivates you so much with rhythm and the natural effect of bodies making noise.  This play smarts with anticipation because of its artfully directed pace.  I owe this experience to “Body Percussion and Movement Choreographer” Stephanie Paul and the interlacing that occurred to carry the plot so fluidly.  It is four men creating a tempo that is undeniably compelling.  You could hear the audience’s hearts sync-up with the reverberation of a fighter getting psyched.

A boxing tale is an age old frame for an inspired narrative: the underdog using his one god’s gift to create a place for his pride and person in the world.  It is an age-old story at this point, but this theatrical experience offers something new.  What makes this play unique is the ensemble.  The entire force of the play is compelled by the energy of its entire small cast making the music with their stomping, clapping and choral chanting.

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Desean Kevin Terry

Director Stuart Carden creates such a powerful frame to combine timing with stillness.  Momentum is arranged with finesse between scenes.  Because there is this masculine thump, the beat and clap of hands on hand or chest;  the silence in their absence holds as much weight as the feeling of falling.  The violence of each fight is abstracted into the music of a fight.  In such a paradigm, the quiet moments lend themselves to paintings, boxing into its element of a fight is abstracted to the picturesque click of a moment—lights flash—the beauty of boxing is ballet.  It is the picture of two narratives in repose.   This concentration of person within the masculine edge of violence compels such a strong dramatic story; which is found in the elements that create the odyssey of the central character: Jay “The Sport” Jackson.

Desean Kevin Terry’s Jay is introduced in a vain that casts him as the villain.  He is cocky, spurious and cuttingly witty: “Oh you that kinda pony, pony throwing one trick?”

And yet, he’s the unsung hero.  This is Boxing, a sport that brings the strength of poor men together to battle for a dime: culture “red in tooth and claw”.  Would it be a fight without cruel jabs?  Terry’s ability to play the two sides of Jay’s coin plays heartily into the great themes of the play, surrounding race and the violence of affirming identity.  His stage presence as a boxer is a tightly-knit masquerade.  In learning his vulnerability, we learn the true fight of the play:  Is a black man allowed to be titled the “Heavyweight Champion of the World”?

In the time of this play, some point between 1905 and 1910; this question was apocalyptic.

Bernard Gilbert, (upstage) Tim Edward Rhoze, Desean Kevin Terry, (upstage) Andrew William Smith
Bernard Gilbert, (upstage) Tim Edward Rhoze, Desean Kevin Terry, (upstage) Andrew William Smith

Segregation wasn’t ‘separate, but equal’, it was defiantly apart.  And Jay “The Sport” Jackson puts himself on a path to crash two worlds together.  It’s a whole other leg of violence, and the psychological toll turns brutality into stark-raving empathy.  Why is a fighting chance for the truth so hotly rejected?

Not that there’s not wit. Buried in the chest is the spur that rejects snide supremacist bullying: “Don’t you think your people have a predilection for fighting?”  To which Jay replies, “I’d say your people have predilection for watching.”

When asked why he’s targeting the white-skinned heavyweight champion, he answers “As long as they climb in the ring, they’re comin’ out purple.”

I appreciate the range of emotions this play brings out with such fluid conductivity.  There’s so much still to fight for to right a criminal past with a rectified and fair future.  Marco Ramirez’ play looks into this relevant dilemma with the same authority of allegory that Arthur Miller’s Crucible did in the 1950’s.  Through the lens of a fictionalized true story: Jack Johnson fought and defeated the white champion Jim Jeffries in 1910.  Rather than be celebrated in our oh-so-inclusive America he was derided, threatened and eventually jailed.  Now I take this directly from the play’s program:

The backlash against Johnson’s victories was swift and severe.  By 1913, Johnson was tried on trumped up charges of violating the Mann Act, which covered transporting women across state lines ‘for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.’  Johnson’s supposed crime was bringing his white girlfriend from Pittsburgh to Chicago.  Johnson was forced to flee the country and ultimately surrendered to authorities in 1920, serving a year for the crime in Leavenworth prison.  Only in 2015, through a bi-partisan effort, was Johnson posthumously pardoned for his conviction, after years of lobbying to clear his name. 

Tony II Lorrich, Bria Walker, (down) Andrew William Smith, (up) Bernard Gilbert, Desean Kevin Terry, Siddiq Saunderson, Tim Edward Rhoze
Tony II Lorrich, Bria Walker, (down) Andrew William Smith, (up) Bernard Gilbert, Desean Kevin Terry, Siddiq Saunderson, Tim Edward Rhoze

As a culture, we need to be eternally reminded of our hypocrisy.  History is a demon of origin that needs to be consciously redeemed by recognition and correction. I recommend the power of percussion.  This play brings that.  The hate and inner turmoil this play infects with vibrato.  It’s a drum, the focus of cacophony; a knowledge the audience comes to feel.

I applaud the whole cast in its ability to carry this story viscerally with the utmost execution.  It was like seeing a title-match performed by a symphony.  You can feel the exercises they must have done to make this play work, sharp and steady with carefully lain body synchronization.  It is a fundamentally different way to experience a show because it ripples with whatever catharsis lurks in the feeling of adrenaline.

Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. The Royale runs in City Theatre’s Mainstage through February 12. Tickets and more information can be found here. 

Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover