In the Company of Oscar Wilde

Company-of-Oscar-WildeThe thing we seem to forget about legendary creative radicals like Oscar Wilde is that they were, in a word, radicals. Oscar Wilde may have been a student of literary history, but his work was prescient. To Wilde, society was a solved puzzle box of obvious illusions masking desires that were even more obvious. He may have been inspired by the great authors who came before him, but he wasn’t the kind of artist who often looked back.

PICT’s In the Company of Oscar Wilde takes, in a very literal sense, exactly the opposite approach to storytelling. At the play’s open, two high society women (Marsha Mayhak and Karen Baum) approach the stage and commiserate about the party they’re attending and the men within it. Two of these men (Martin Giles and James Fitzgerald) enter mid-conversation and strike up a discussion about Oscar Wilde with the women, who have primarily only heard rumors about him.

This, I feel, is an unfortunate framing device for a story. I do not want the entirety of a narrative to be expressed by a pair of men interrupting women at a party to explain things to them; I also don’t want the women to express gratitude in return, because even a fantasy demands some context in reality when put onstage. I could very well be wrong, but if I remember correctly, there is at least one “well, actually…” moment early on that drives the point home.

I digress. All four participants begin speaking about Wilde’s life and written works at length – or, to be more precise, they begin to quote him directly ad nauseum. We learn Wilde’s real-life biography via these people, and nothing more, because they do not exist to be known. They are flesh-vessels of Wilde’s timeline, vague shadows of nineteenth century caricature energetically performing dozens of the man’s one liners before disappearing off into the ether.

They’re effective at being that, to be fair, as I learned a thing or two about Wilde I didn’t know before I entered the theater. I’m a fan of Wilde but I’m no expert, and some of In the Company’s greatest insights come from a dramatic reading of his diary, which was written while he was imprisoned for (more or less) his love affair with another man. When I call this moment a dramatic reading, I mean it literally: Alan Stanford, who both directs the show and acts as its contextual narrator, offers up insights and quotes from Wilde’s life his four protagonists cannot, in this case by simply reading Wilde’s diary to us. Stanford’s voice is effective, one I’d gladly sit with it in the context of an audiobook, but his narrative technique here reveals a lot about the show in general, too.

In the Company is an elaborate act of hero worship. It does not exist to explicate Wilde’s illustrious career – it just wants you to know the rough outline of it. There is a somewhat odd scene in which the well-loved Lady Bracknell (Ingrid Sonnichsen), a human brick wall of indecipherable high society judgement written for The Importance of Being Earnest, relieves the play of its reality by generating a corporeal form and reciting the dialogue from her most beloved scene in its entirety.  This sort of ‘fictional guest star’ role is exclusive to Bracknell, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. It’s no surprise that Stanford would refrain from fan fiction-ing new lines for the character, but she is the only of Oscar’s creations we get to see for ourselves. While I suppose it’s a particular kind of delightful to get a Bracknell-for-Bracknell’s-sake scene, as an isolated moment it’s jarring, and begs an obvious question: why don’t more of Wilde’s characters make an appearance? I don’t necessarily need to see Dorian Gray walk onstage and be a sociopath to everyone for a few minutes, but there are a lot of Wilde characters worth reading who are rarely read or studied. If there was ever a place to explore Wilde’s lesser-known work, this would seem to be it.

In the Company of Oscar Wilde is fine for newcomers or diehards with an unquenchable thirst for any and all things Wilde, but as it stands the show doesn’t engage in conversation with the author it is inspired by so much as embody the echo of his voice. It’s rather like a cover band of a group that broke up decades ago; your relationship with it will almost certainly be dictated by your pre-established relationship with its progenitor. In either case, you will at least have a few extra quips in your back pocket the next time a man at a party begins explaining things about your favorite author to you.

In the Company of Oscar Wilde has unfortunately already closed but you can check out what PICT is up to hereCompany-of-Oscar-Wilde

In Defense of Gravity

22859686_1629509380404795_2010279232903302675_oGrief is one of our most extraordinary creative motivators. The band Mount Eerie, a solo project by the musician Phil Elverum, released a song this year called “Real Death” that opens with these lines: “Death is real/someone’s there and then they’re not/and it’s not for singing about/it’s not for making into art.”  The existence of these lyrics are an anachronism, and yet I believe them. The passing of Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée, was the song’s subject; for Elverum, writing music was not a choice, but a compulsion.

Attack Theatre’s In Defense of Gravity, which debuted last weekend at the George R. White Studio in the Strip, is a fusion of dance, live music and poetry that is propelled by this same feeling. As the show opens, shimmering, dissonant electronic music forces our attention towards several figures emerging from backstage, reaching towards us as if underwater. A man in a business suit enters from outside, hangs up his hat and coat, and passes through the figures to sit himself in front of a trunk. Inside the trunk is a pink blanket barely larger than a washcloth, and the man grips it tightly. We don’t know everything, but we know enough.

The man is played by Peter Kope, who designed and choreographed the show alongside Michele de la Reza. Kope is here a stoic contrast to Attack Theatre’s more emotive cast. We see his character leave and re-enter the same night in his apartment over and over; the aforementioned figures, who at once embody grief, compassion and catharsis, bustle with kinetic energy until the man can do nothing except collapse into their influence.

From here, In Defense of Gravity reveals itself to the audience. The man sits in front of a book, and we hear a poem by local writer Jimmy Cvetic play over the loudspeakers: “the best lie told is the one you tell to yourself, and the greatest lie is the one you tell and believe.”

The choreography gets more complex and demanding, as the dancers embody an infant’s first struggle to stand, a child’s first fight, a lesson in how to lie, a young adult’s first love, and so on. The cast, who are made up of Kaitlin Dann, Simon Phillips, Dane Toney, Ashley Williams and Sarah Zielinsky, are all credited with movement invention, which makes sense; much of the choreography, fitting of the show’s central theme, is peppered with small bursts of unique physical personality.

The show is propelled by more than metaphor, however. The presence of Cvetic’s poetry, which has a familiar quality, is fairly explicit about each stage of life portrayed onstage, which both ensures the audience stays grounded in the play and frees up the choreography to be more purely emotive. The method of delivery for said poetry, however, was a sticking point for me; Cvetic’s voice is made garbled and bass-y by the sound system, giving his interludes an unfitting inhumanism.

In many ways, though, the very presence of Cvetic is evidence that Attack Theatre’s latest is as propelled by intellect as heart, and rarely is a creative choice made that doesn’t encourage some deeper examination of its subject. A quartet underscores the vast majority of the play, and it’s honestly a little shocking how versatile they are. An early Duke Ellington cover, while resonant, led me to expect something in the way of convention, but musicians Ben Opie (clarinet/saxophone), Ben Brosche (piano), Jeff Berman (percussion) and Anqwenique (vocals) slip just as easily into a fusion of jazz, soul and experimental music as they do the familiar.

I enjoyed how true the show is to its theme. With acknowledgment to the loose, playful feel of much of the dance work, we’re never allowed to forget that every element of the narrative is a consideration of gravity. Even during the show’s most disparate moments, there’s always a sense that the cast is about to be pulled however unwillingly back into orbit.

In Defense of Gravity is an immersive, inventive work. There is an inevitable quality to Kope and de la Reza’s expansive narrative that could easily be reinterpreted as defeatist. In life, our greatest relationships must also bottom out to our deepest emotional valleys once our connection to one another becomes severed. We can’t change our role in that story, and we’ll all find ourselves in it at some point. Once we find ourselves pulled back to the start once again, Kope and de la Reza’s work challenges us to brace for impact and start anew.

In Defense of Gravity has unfortunately already closed but you can find out more about Attack Theatre and what they’re up to here. 

The Old Man and the Old Moon

CT1711_Tomatom_573x437PigPen Theatre Company’s The Old Man and the Old Moon radiates joy at such a rate that you can practically feel its glow before you even get the chance to take your seat. I mean that somewhat literally. The cast roams the stage as the audience enters, silently chuckling along with all the pre-show chatter. At first, they’re pretty much invisible, but the soft, plucky riff of the acoustic guitar one of the performers is handling begins to set the tone. As people file in, another guitar joins, then drums. We don’t feel it at first, but as the audience begins to quiet, a song is beginning to take shape, until it suddenly explodes into a soaring folk anthem, and the show is begun.

My first thought leaving Southside’s spacious City Theatre was, of all things, about the mechanics of theater. The Old Man and the Old Moon‘s entire existence is predicated on the way it wears its 150 BPM heart rate on its sleeve – and it is very good at doing that – but it’s real accomplishments actually come from its storytelling intellect.

The Old Man and the Old Moon essentially has two stories to tell. The first is about a man who travels an uncharted world in pursuit of his wayward wife and a mythic past long forgotten; the second, cleverly, is about the people who tell us this story. When the intro (re: the greatest Lumineers song never written) concludes, a narrator (Matt Nuernberger) appears in its vacuum. He introduces us to the titular Old Man (Ryan Melia), who has been tasked with refilling the moon every night to ensure it remains full. He’s been doing this so long he can’t quite remember why he started in the first place. His wife (Alex Falberg), compelled by wanderlust and half-remembered purpose, sets sail in a rowboat to find herself. Distraught and utterly unprepared to face the outside world, the Old Man sets off to find her.

Our protagonist, then, is a classic folktale archetype, and while the script pulls heavily from Irish culture, I’m certain you could find him in the periphery of every legend, myth or fable the world over. Melia’s Old Man is a loose, classically put-upon guy who is nevertheless filled to the tweed cap with raw performative energy. The anachronism of his energetic physicality and his cartoon-perfect wavering vocals make for a compelling comic performance.

The rest of the cast adopt a similarly asynchronous approach to their characters. Falberg’s Old Woman is a loving Irish stereotype whose emotions bubble under her sarcastic charisma. Ben Ferguson briefly steals the show as a wide-eyed lunatic who gave up trying to escape the whale he was eaten by over a decade ago. His character largely echoes Jonah and the whale, but his performance is so casually insane he’s almost more reminiscent of that guy in every office who has visibly been there way too long.

The Old Man and the Old Moon’s primary aesthetic is a foggy woodworked dreamscape in which a dog is a mop, a bustling market is two large planks and a man holding a sign, and the moon is produced by the glow of a flashlight. Yet, the play is immersive, so much so that its patchwork landscape- the method with which it portrays the world of this gentle-hearted odyssey to us – is as rewarding as its narrative. A large-scale battle between warships happens in the play’s first act, and I found myself smiling in anticipation of seeing what PigPen was going to do with its limited toolset to accomplish such an ambitious scene.

Spoiler alert: as it turns out, this particular instance of naval combat is fought by two groups of men contorting themselves into a kind of horizontal pyramid and all shouting, and I quote, “SHIP.”

Yes.

Even in these extremely good and extremely goofy moments, City Theatre’s production encourages further exploration of its themes. Our narrator, who is so explicitly excited at the notion of telling us a story that he appears in his own story so that he may tell us even more stories – and then, in the process of doing that, re-iterate how much he loves storytelling – is a reminder of why we’re sat in the theater listening to him go on in the first place. It’s not only that we like being entertained, but that the pure unadulterated joy of the art of the story, the suggestion that the world is bigger than we understand it to be, is an undying human instinct.

The Old Man and the Old Moon reminds us that the world is full of amazing stuff, and that adventure will always await those who choose to seek it. That sensation you get as a kid, huddled around a flashlight at a sleepover while your friend tells you about fighting the horrible monster he found in the woods – that innate awe and anticipation of something new – is still there if you look for it.

The Old Man and the Old Moon runs at City Theatre through December 3. For tickets and more information, click here. For more about PigPen Theatre Co click here. 

Arsenic and Old Lace

arsenic-oldlace1Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is a play about how we interpret spaces. When our protagonist Mortimer Brewster (Ron Clawson) returns to his family’s home, he’s pleased to once more re-enter the womb of boyhood memory. The aunts who were so sweet to raise him, Martha (Dorothy Fallows) and Abby (Jan Gerber), are still as safe and mundane as a Norman Rockwell portrait. His brother, Teddy Brewster (Randy Berner), continues to suffer from a dissociative psychological condition that has reduced his life to the pleasant recurring fantasy that he is actually former US President Theodore Roosevelt, therefore rendering him harmless. You know, normal stuff. Life is knowable; life is good.

Life, also, can be terrifying. Mortimer does not expect to find that his aunts are more or less remorseless serial killers who lure unmarried elderly men into their home to poison them. He also does not expect to find that his other, more sociopathic brother, Jonathan Brewster (John Paul Richie), is back in town with a new face the intent to murder. Everything Mortimer thought was knowable is not, and likely never was.

And so it is with us, the audience, during McKeesport Little Theater’s production. We enter the theater to find ourselves in a lovingly hand-crafted living room in Brooklyn. It is a space designed by Edward Bostedo, who is also Arsenic’s director, and it exudes a dusty American nostalgia. The lights dim. Abby appears, and disposes of a corpse as casually one would throw away a receipt to the tune of Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” which immediately blows out the theater’s speakers. This generates static, making the otherwise comedic image immediately unsettling. Martha joins her shortly after, barely masking her enthusiasm to discuss their latest victim. The women are so plainspoken that their detachment from the murder reads as realistic.

Enter: Teddy, who storms around the stage in a larger than life performance that is all practiced caricature. His comedic physicality literally shakes the decorative plates and framed photographs hung around the apartment. Later, when Mortimer arrives and discovers the body, which is roughly half his size, it weighs him down as dramatically as a bag of bricks. Clawson’s mixture of incredulity and his ability to improvise comedy out of production bumps and scrapes – at one point a gesticulation launched the receiver of a telephone he was using clean from the chord, which he used to re-ignite his character’s sense of panic – make him a kind of self-foiling straight man, simultaneously Abbot and Costello, especially when contrasted with the other three protagonists.

A lot about McKeesport’s Arsenic and Old Lace can be excavated from its war of performative tones; it feels like several interpretations of one play. Example: Fallow and Gerber’s Arsenic is a quiet show propelled by the witticisms of two realistic women who have lost touch with reality. Clawson’s panicky Mortimor and his put-upon partner, Elaine (Elizabeth Civello), have classic comedic chemistry and transmogrify Arsenic into a dark, yet friendly improv show. The introduction of a disparate third duo, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein (Michael Ciarlone), initially feels like an attempt at narrative cohesion, considering how Jonathan is such a straightforward (re: convincing!) killer and that Ciarlone’s Einstein feels like it was pulled straight out of an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory. Unfortunately, because the play’s tone is so scattershot they actually end up feeling too menacing, and scenes in which they put bystanders in peril become such a tonal mishmash that it propels any potential comedy violently into a wall.

I will say that Arsenic and Old Lace is a play that has aged well. Our rose-colored perception of its ‘40s-set America has defanged the era enough that revealing its quaint exterior to be such a brutal space escalates an already fairly escalated farce. It’s also a play that, appropriately, has so much more thematic depth than is popularly portrayed and is therefore ripe for re-interpretation. To the credit of McKeesport’s production, its varied methods of performance do make the play read differently. These interpretations, however, are largely without cohesion. Much like Martha and Abby’s poisoned victims, we the audience need to believe Arsenic and Old Lace’s façade before we succumb to it.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs at the McKeesport Little Theater through November 19, for tickets and more information, click here. 

The Busy Body

22539000_1625142317538422_1922857777296597990_oPeople, in a singular sense, can change. According to centuries of written narrative, however, people collectively tend not to. No matter the time or place in human history, we have our tropes. There is always the young couple deeply in love, but forced apart by a more powerful exterior force. There is always the selfish, wealthy old man who takes advantage of the less fortunate. There is always the lustful idiot. Crucially, in-between it all, there is also always the Marplot.

The Red Masquers’ production of Susanna Centlivre’s The Busy Body, a farcical comedy originally penned in the 1700s, is a fun, breezy take on a generally under-looked play. Any production of a classic runs the risk of feeling stuffy, but thanks to some free-flowing performances and John E. Lane Jr.’s almost casual sense of direction, The Busy Body is able to be both accessible and occasionally even prescient in its comedy.

Like a lot of similar works, we follow two young couples whose love is restricted by their society; there are also a ton of characters and motivations to keep in mind at any given moment. There is Sir George (Nathaniel Yost), who sets the play’s tone by waxing poetic to Charles (Evan W. Saunders) about his visible erection. These men are fairly stupid, unflappably earnest, and desperately horny for Miranda (Amy Dick) and Isabinda (Sadie Crow) respectively.

Miranda is crafty, and spends the play’s opening act inventing a second persona to attract Sir George intellectually as well as physically. There is a plot reason for this, but in reality the entire purpose for her to do this is to create situations in which we laugh at George, because he is, like I said, fairly stupid.

Isabinda, meanwhile, is about to be married off to an anonymous Spanish merchant because her father happened to enjoy a trip there. Sadie Crow’s performance here is the most complete interpretation of matured teenage angst. When explaining her situation to others, she adopts this detesting thousand yard stare and shudders at the potential reality of the forced marriage, the Spanish merchant, and the very idea of Spain as an entity itself; the word “Spain” is not spoken so much as it is expelled from her like a sickness.

These four are not the most original protagonists, but Centlivre’s satire is built on wit that’s as blunt as a hammer, to the point of genre deconstruction. The play’s antagonists are two Seussian rich, old white men literally named Sir Gripe (Jay Keenan) and Sir Jealous Traffick (Nathan Freshwater). Gripe has no other intentions than to be the richest and most powerful individual in the play, and therefore has little to nothing in terms of complexity. As played by Jay Keenan, he is also one of the best parts of this production. Keenan imbues the character with an inexhaustible smarmy energy that breaths a lot of energy into scenes that are too dense with plot otherwise. He leans almost entirely into the character’s shrewdness, and we therefore never see the him as physically imposing to Miranda, which lightens up scenes that would otherwise significantly darken the play’s tone.

Jealous Traffick, meanwhile, is a more imposing figure, and his psychotic determination to maintain his daughter’s sexual purity are a grim if hilarious reminder of the effects of sexual repression. I quite liked Nathan Freshwater’s take on the character, who plays Jealous Traffick like a devout social conservative who has never reflected on his beliefs until this very moment in which he’s being challenged, like a sheltered kid during his first week in a college dorm or a far-right radio talk show host.

Tim Colbert’s bubbly, well-intentioned Marplot is The Busy Body’s greatest character. He is the titular busy body, and creates an endless amount of chaos via his need to help. Marplot, despite being utterly and infuriatingly hapless, is so warmhearted and abused that it’s hard not to root for him through each and every awful mistake he makes. He is the play’s weird little brother, and, sure, a little Marplot goes a long way, but The Busy Body would be painfully straightforward without him.

Like many of the more classically-minded farces, The Busy Body inevitably gets buried under its own plot. This is an area where Red Masquers’ production favorably compares to other restoration era shows. The intent isn’t so much to slavishly devote itself to period detail or to dynamically reinterpret its source material, but instead to extract as much of the play’s inherent sense of fun through performances that are big and goofy, but also smart. There are a lot of ways to interpret these characters, and the cast never makes choices that take away from the show’s inherent playfulness.

That said, there’s little in the way of extra flavor. Stage design is as minimal as humanly possible, and the play is paced rather quickly for its density. The Busy Body is good at what it does, but what you see is what you get, too. Theatergoers new to the era might have some trouble keeping up without a Wikipedia article at the ready during intermission, but seasoned veterans will enjoy a production that thoroughly understands what makes Centlivre’s comedy work.

They Busy Body runs at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theatre through November 12. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Clue: The Musical

ClueClue: The Musical, like the board game which is its source material, is full of little surprises. Just as the show seems to settle on being one thing – the goofy send up of murder mysteries it initially presents itself as quickly gives way to a completely new take on the genre as the show introduces itself as something completely new in the second act. The entire comedic basis for the production revolves around a board game I’ve never played and makes use of a script by Peter DePietro that is, on its face, unbalanced, yet Little Lake Theatre’s newest crowd-pleaser has more in it than its seven obvious British caricatures would suggest.

Like the Hasbro game, Clue: The Musical is an interactive murder mystery. Mr. Boddy (Eric Thomas), a man who is not so much evil as just generally a little gross to everyone he knows, acts as the story’s narrator. He introduces us to our cast of archetypes: there is Professor Plum (John M. Hermann), a pedantic academic who lost his family fortune to one of Boddy’s bad business deals. Mrs. Peacock (Kathy Hawk), Boddy’s current wife, has made her fortune from the unfortunate deaths of her ex-husbands. The psychotic Colonel Mustard, meanwhile, is engaging in an affair with Peacock, and filled jealousy.

(Back row- left to right) Jeff Johnston as Mr. Green, Samantha DeConciliis- Davin as Miss Scarlet, Dewayne Curry as Colonel Mustard, and John Herrmann as Professor Plum (Front row- left to right) Kathy Hawk as Mrs. Peacock, Eric Thomas as Mr. Boddy, and Leah Hillgrove as Mrs. White
(Back row- left to right) Jeff Johnston as Mr. Green, Samantha DeConciliis- Davin as Miss Scarlet, Dewayne Curry as Colonel Mustard, and John Herrmann as Professor Plum (Front row- left to right) Kathy Hawk as Mrs. Peacock, Eric Thomas as Mr. Boddy, and Leah Hillgrove as Mrs. White

There are more, of course, and they each have sufficient motive. It all sounds rather grisly written out, but just as the audience has come to enjoy solving a murder puzzle, the characters have come to enjoy building one. It’s not only because the play features a random assortment of outcomes, or that Boddy dishes out clues inbetween scenes that have everyone scrawling out notes on little white checklists. The characters rejoice in their bizarre existence, none more so than Boddy himself, who literally demands the audience forego their sympathy. He’s the destined murder victim, after all, and he loves it. Like the cow who was born to be eaten in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series, the humanitarians are the real villains.

Speaking of, Clue’s utilization of Mr. Boddy as a willing victim of murder is without question the creepiest sequence in any play I’ve seen this year. I understand that the production wants us to consider him as we would a board game piece, but watching a man giggle as he is torn asunder by six murderers is infinitely more off-putting than simply obscuring the violence.

John Herrmann as Professor Plum and Laura Barletta as the Detective
John Herrmann as Professor Plum and Laura Barletta as the Detective

This commitment to board game design extends beyond a few fourth wall breaking gags. Clue doesn’t indulge in its musicality so much as succumb to it occasionally as punctuation. There is no great reason for Clue to be a musical other than that it opens up the opportunity for gags and breaks tension. The music, originally written by Galem Blum, Wayne Barker and Vinnie Martucci with lyrics by Tom Chiodo is well enough and Little Lake’s cast (accompanied by pianist Laura Daniels and percussionist Josh Anischenko) is bursting at the seams with energy when a song begins. Whether you like or dislike musicals, however, will almost certainly be incidental to how you feel about Clue.

The reason Little Lake’s friendly and colorful production won me over so easily is because of its earnest adherence to gaming’s primary quality: play. It is a show that has internalized Clue’s classist stereotypes and dark comedy, compartmentalized the game’s core mechanics of building and releasing tension through (for the most part) punching up, and has come out the other end insisting Clue should be fun for any audience anywhere with its fangs intact. At the risk of getting overly academic, Clue is literally a show that gives physical form to society’s dissonance and allows you to revel in its collapse. The ability to stand outside of discourse and laugh at it helps us reenter it more receptively. Little Lake has thrown in some light political jabs to their production – bipartisan jabs, I’ll hasten to add – and I was surprised at how united the audience was in its laughter.

Dewayne Curry as Colonel Mustard with Kathy Hawk as Mrs. Peacock
Dewayne Curry as Colonel Mustard with Kathy Hawk as Mrs. Peacock

There is also the unassailable chemistry of the cast, as directed by Art DeConciliis. On the ‘chew the scenery’ scale, the entire cast is at a 10, and they all go about their mastication in an entirely different way. Leah Hillgrove plays Boddy’s put-upon personal servant Mrs. White, and manages the incredible feat of embodying working class caricature without the slightest hint of condescension; she is also unbelievably funny. Miss Scarlet (Samantha DeConciliis-Davin) and Mr. Green (Jeff Johnston), meanwhile, wouldn’t feel out of place in a spoof of mob films from the 1980’s. Kathy Hawk spins the audience around her fingertips when she is center stage. John M. Herrmann’s Mr. Peacock, who begins the play as a somewhat tertiary figure, reveals himself to be boiling over with mania by the play’s finish. Dewayne Curry’s Strangelove-ian Colonel Mustard is straight up kind of terrifying. There is even an avatar for the Clue player in Laura Barletta’s hardboiled detective, who rather cleverly succumbs to anxiety when it’s her turn to push the story forward.

As a game, Little Lake’s Clue: The Musical is, if we’re being honest, a series of random chances that lead to one of six monologues at the end. Thankfully, the play’s distillation of play is so much fun that it doesn’t matter in the end.

Clue: The Musical runs at Little Lake Theatre through October 28. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photos by James Orr.

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad

sinbad-banner_origFor all that’s been said about the appeal of the heroic epic, one of the genre’s least appreciated aspects is that its protagonists are malleable. Joseph Campbell’s infinitely referenced literary analysis, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, is so quotable because its narrative roadmap is so familiar: reluctant protagonist experiences a call to action after a brush in with the fantastic, is faced with a task that challenges his strength or intellect, and then leaves the situation with some reward he can bestow upon others. The heroic epic is objectively satisfying structurally, and allows for practically any kind of protagonist or tone; it’s a story made as easily into comedy as drama.

Enter Steel City Shakespeare’s production of The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, which I caught this past Sunday. The show began at 4 pm, and was located at the Fineview Overlook at the corner of Catoma and Lanark, which features a gorgeous overlook of downtown Pittsburgh. The locale is warm and neighborly, a perfect fit for a creative team that is nothing if not friendly. It is not the dangerous landscape painted in the original text, One Thousand And One Nights, but in this production you’d never know it.

Like Steel City Shakespeare other productions, Sinbad is an all-ages theatric retelling of a literary classic that fills the gaps left by its modest budget with homemade whimsy. The actors read passages as they act, emulating everything from traumatic shipwrecks to fatal acts of violence in the midst of the fable’s well-worn prose. When some kind of monster or figure of myth enters the story, the crew uses homemade puppets, elaborate costumes, household tools and other familiar trappings to get the point across.

Tracey D. Turner as Old Sinbad
Tracey D. Turner as Old Sinbad

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad has us follow the elderly Sinbad (Tracy D. Turner), a man of enormous wealth who has lived the most insane life humanly imaginable. We get to know about his various adventures as the show switches to the perspective of the young Sinbad (Isaiah Christian): the time he accidentally was granted kinghood over an island full of satanic demons; the time he stumbled onto a society in which all spouses are buried alive with their deceased loved ones; the time he crash landed onto an island where everyone was nude and the only source of food reduced men to madness. When a younger, poorer man (Sebastian Midence) also named Sinbad visits his castle, our protagonist can’t resist the opportunity to grant the man some of his wealth in exchange for his listening to each of his seven voyages.

Steel City Shakespeare’s earnest, ‘anything goes!’ approach to storytelling gives the production a Wes Anderson-patchwork aesthetic, which is its best asset. Despite the original folk tales being quite literally ancient, the nature of Steel City Shakespeare’s work means the text never comes across as staid, academic or predictable. Those unfamiliar with the stories of Sinbad will find themselves genuinely surprised at how weird and off-kilter the tales can be, and those already in the know will find themselves waiting with anticipation for Steel City Shakespeare’s next dynamic interpretation.

Sinbad a balancing act that works thanks to the production team’s ingenuity and attitude. As a result, however, retellings of voyages that feature little in the way of ridiculous fantasy feel meager in comparison to their more over-the-top counterparts. So much of the fun of Steel City Shakespeare’s Sinbad comes from its colorful visuals, and while the cast are active readers who clearly enjoy sinking into their characters, the inconsistency of energy from scene to scene proves to be a limiting factor.

Sebastian Midence as Birdman
Sebastian Midence as Birdman

The production I attended didn’t feature much in the way of audience interaction or improvisation due in large part to the rainy weather that had us sat under a tent, and I wonder how much that element may have changed the energy of the show. Switching from Turner to Christian to portray Sinbad works as a framing device, and I like the way the cast is constantly switching from one bit part to another, but I kept wanting the show to take things even further. I was delighted to watch Midence’s sudden transformation into an indignant man-bird replete with huge blue wings in one scene, and there was something distinctly funny in watching the cast go from well-meaning neighbors to mass murderers during the fourth voyage. Earlier on, however, the cast mimics insanity as they feast on poisoned food – everyone commits to the moment, sure, but there’s just not enough happening visually there to really capture the moment.

There is a fable in Sinbad in which the eponymous hero finds the Old Man of the Sea, who straps his legs to Sinbad with the grip of a boa constrictor around his neck. The Old Man rides Sinbad like a tricycle, ordering him around and cackling about it for days and weeks – which means we get a passage in which Sinbad reveals that the Old Man was frequently relieving himself during the trip. It’s an odd passage in the original text, and not particularly exciting. Steel City Shakespeare’s production, which features an adorable puppet operated on Christian’s back, elevates what may have otherwise been a strange, awkwardly paced aside in the larger story. Steel City Shakespeare’s embrace of playfulness makes it a highlight, in fact. By contrast, a story revolving around a giant who cooks Sinbad’s crew alive and then eats them seems almost barebones. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare that is making a story with that much gore into a scene easily presentable to a family, but until gaps like these are bridged the show won’t feel as cohesive as it needs to.

Steel City Shakespeare’s The Seven Voyages of Sinbad is literary epic as theatric playground, and I love that about it. I just think it could use an extra swing set or two.

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad runs at the Fineview Overlook through October 15. For more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of John T. Beck.

The Goodbye Girl

goodbyeYoung Americans are fascinated by other young Americans struggling and making it in New York City. At times, it feels like every sitcom on television is some variation of this plot. Millennials, more than any generation, are obsessed with the grit and grime behind that fantasy. Girls can afford to rent a living room and a half because of their upper middle class privilege, whereas Friends pleasantly enjoy entire coffee shops and spacious two bedroom apartments. Aziz Ansari sacrifices his acting career to host a reality show, whereas Jerry Seinfeld’s life is so quietly successful I’m not entirely sure he’s ever so much as frowned onscreen. Yadda yadda yadda.

The Theatre Factory’s The Goodbye Girl, therefore, appeals to just about everybody. Based on the 70’s film of the same name written by Neil Simon, the musical follows Paula McFadden (Chelsea Bartel), a struggling single mother who is bounced from relationship to relationship by actors eager for a quick thrill. Her career as a dancer on television – the kind of dancer that peps up TV advertisements for dietary supplements – yields similar results.

The musical opens with Paula once more on the outs. Her latest ex left unceremoniously in the night and rented out their apartment to fellow actor Elliot Garfield (Nick Mitchell), who is more or less a total jerk. But Paula isn’t alone: Lucy (Amelia Bender), Paula’s wise-beyond-her-years preteen daughter, is a more adult figure than any of Paula’s prior flings.

The struggle is real, in other words, and the first act is almost merciless in how few wins it allows Paula. The Theatre Factory’s latest is in some ways a reminder of how much popular perception of struggling in the big city has changed. Being a production of a Neil Simon script it is relentlessly positive, but thanks to the energetic sarcasm of its performers it also feels in line with more contemporary comedy-dramas.

However, some subplots that worked as funny goofs in the 1970s play different in the 2010s. Elliot – who we are unsurprised to see develop into Paula’s latest love interest – shows up late in the night to the McFadden’s apartment, makes it clear he can legally evict his newfound roommates at any point, and quickly makes good on his promise that he likes walking around his apartment in the nude. With a young girl around.

I can’t entirely blame the source material on my discomfort with the character here. Nick Mitchell doesn’t soften Elliot’s edge so much as sharpens it, and in another play could be framed as a scary dude. Chelsea Bartel’s Paula, meanwhile, is in a perpetual state of emotional exhaustion, but always feels like she’s ready to give the audience a laugh. She’s a very grin-and-bare-it type, but her pain is visible all the same. There is a moment in the second act in which Elliot’s entire career is put at risk during a disastrous performance as a multi-gendered Richard III. We’re meant to be enjoying his misfortune, but even in such a humbling moment The Goodbye Girl seems to be insisting we reframe Elliot as a beleaguered eccentric worth cheering for. I wasn’t sold, and therefore never fully bought into the romance between the two.

More believable is Paula’s relationship with Lucy. Amelia Bender performs Lucy with a fun mix of earnest spirit and a touch of early onset irony, making her a perfect fit. Bartel plays Paula like a woman who caught on fire a minute ago and is the last one to realize it. She bleeds imperfection, but we never question her determination to make a good life for Lucy, and as a result have an easy time laughing along.

I can’t help but feel The Goodbye Girl is tonally inconsistent. I’ve seen Mitchell before, as an aggrieved survivor in a production of The Birds, and found his ability to be a caring partner one minute and an angry mess the next unsettling in how believable it was. I believe him here, too. I’ve seen Bartel’s work at The Theatre Factory before during a production of Next To Normal, where she played a mother suffering from schizophrenia. I saw it with a friend whose parent was afflicted by a similar condition, and the performance shook her. What I’m saying is, these are good performers, but the tone of the show changes depending who is taking center stage. If it’s Mitchell, it’s the New York City from Girls; if it’s Bartel, it’s the New York City from Friends.

The dissonance is only exacerbated by The Goodbye Girl’s musicality, which was uneven during the show’s premier. Mitchell nailed the Richard III fiasco, which is the play’s greatest scene. He really leans into Elliot’s narcissism and his constant, desperate asides to stage hands and ridiculous physicality really sells the moment. Placed next to Bartel’s doe-eyed optimism and bright, dynamic vocals, however, Elliot needs to shift hard towards warmth, or perhaps Paula needs to learn harder into the playful sarcasm from earlier scenes.

The Theatre Factory’s The Goodbye Girl can be uplifting, and I found myself wanting to escape into Scott Calhoon’s colorful, Hollywood soundstage-esque set design. True to life, however, the world it’s built around is too erratic to be fantasy.

The Goodbye Girl runs at The Theatre Factory in Trafford through September 24. For tickets and more information, click here. 

A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing

LLTC_Masterpiece_2-300x186A good comedy, as described by A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing’s Broadway agent protagonist Jerry Cobb (Art DeConciliis), is one hundred jokes sprinkled throughout two acts. He argues that audiences don’t care about plot, or deeper narrative; people don’t go to the theater to think, he says, but to be told what to think. It doesn’t even matter what the play is titled. Call it A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing and they’ll believe you.

I have to give Little Lake Theater some credit because their production of Masterpiece is energetic enough drive through such a blunt moment like that without getting its wheels caught in the mud. Written just two years ago, Robert Caisley’s 60’s-set comedy serves as a reminder of how fun the classic, one-liner driven comedies of decades past could be – however, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore for a reason. Little Lake’s production, on the other hand, is sincere, likable, and well-paced, but director James Critchfield can only do so much to elevate what can at times be a muddled script.

(left to right) Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb, Greg Caridi as Danny "Nebraska" Jones, and Jeff Johnston as Charlie Bascher
(left to right) Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb, Greg Caridi as Danny “Nebraska” Jones, and Jeff Johnston as Charlie Bascher

Cobb’s comedic analysis is given to Danny “Nebraska” Jones (Greg Caridi), a depressed playwright working on a new comedy Cobb is funding. With the help of his clumsy but wholly devoted assistant, Charlie Bascher (Jeff Johnston), Cobb is trying desperately to get Jones out of his funk so that he’ll write his next Broadway show and make them all a fortune. There’s more at stake here than money, however: Cobb owes some shady Russian financiers a debt that only a smash hit play can repay.

The pace is set by DeConciliis, who plays Cobb with unending exasperation. Despite past successes and an enormous lexicon of his own self-help adages, Cobb’s disinterest in the feelings of others combined with Jones’ dejected gloominess reveal Cobb to be a loud, beleaguered figure incapable of change. He’s a wealthy ‘60s bully too smart for the people around him, but too clumsy and short-sighted to be anyplace else; he’s Don Draper as played by George Costanza.

DeConciliis’ performance doesn’t stretch the character too thin by overplaying his likability, and he’s great at alternating between the put-upon and the put-upon-er. It’s fortunate, too, that DeConciliis is so convincing, because A Masterpiece consists primarily of Cobb yelling at or explaining things to other characters.

 

(left to right) Jeff Johnston as Charlie Bascher, Greg Caridi as Danny "Nebraska" Jones, and Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb
(left to right) Jeff Johnston as Charlie Bascher, Greg Caridi as Danny “Nebraska” Jones, and Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb

Bascher, meanwhile, oscillates between socially-aware straight man and total goofball, enough so that it’s impossible to tell if the play is trying to convince us he is a savant, an idiot, or both. Johnston imbues Casher with an emotional distance that almost gives the character a kind of Grouche Marx-esque madness-as-commentary edge, but the character is always a little at odds with himself. In the play’s craziest moments I don’t quite believe in him, especially when Caridi’s depressive writer and Sara Barbisch’s appropriately ridiculous ‘I’ll sleep my way to the top!’ Nola Hart are so consistent in their motivations.

 

Besides being a nostalgic comedy about a more glamorous era of celebrity vapidity, A Masterpiece is, true enough to its word, some of the play’s better moments are more or less vessels for Cobb to spit witticisms at his ridiculous counterparts. That’s not a terrible thing, considering Caisley’s comedic hit/miss ratio is actually pretty good, but there are a series of longer bits which get to be a slog. Example: there is an extended conversation about what letters are funny sounding which seems to go on forever. That the punchline is everyone laughing at something that isn’t funny feels particularly frustrating.

(left to right) Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb and Sara Barbisch as Nola Hart
(left to right) Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb and Sara Barbisch as Nola Hart

Let’s get back to Cobb’s analysis about a good comedy being a hundred jokes and a thin plot. True enough, but A Masterpiece is weirdly kind of plot heavy. My favorite moments in this occur when Jones presents his first draft of the comedy to Cobb. It begins with a distraught Russian woman who is watching her child be devoured alive by wolves. It’s a ridiculous moment and I love it, but it’s followed up by a parade of one-liners from Cobb, none of which are anywhere near as memorable or hilarious as the moment that precedes them. It almost works as a counter argument to the point the play itself is making.

That said, the fact that A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing is still a lot of fun speaks to how consistently smart The Little Lake Theater’s productions are. For my larger issues with the play, I still found myself laughing along anyway thanks to some really fun performances, evocative set design and well-tuned direction.

A Masterpiece of Comic Timing runs through September 16 at Little Lake Theater in Canonsburg. For tickets and more information click here.

Photos by James Orr.

PNWF 2017: Program A

PNWF LOGOThe Pittsburgh New Works Festival kicked off this past weekend with a trio of original one acts: CCAC South Campus Theater’s Roosevelt’s Ghosts, The Summer Company’s The Pivot and The Theater Factory’s Doing Time. None of them are quite what you’d expect.

Roosevelt’s Ghosts, written by Aaron Scully and directed by New Works rooseveltFestival Managing Director Lora Oxenreiter, is a reflective presidential fantasy with a quite literal title. We see a 25 year-old Theodore Roosevelt (Corwin Stoddard) speaking with Thomas (Mike McCarthy), an aide, about his wife Alice’s (Megan Grocutt) failing health. This is an important moment for the future 26th President: after losing his mother and wife in less than 12 hours, Roosevelt would go on to live a series of different lives that would culminate in two of the most consequential terms in office in American history, and this was the tragedy that propelled him to do so. “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” he once wrote.

I digress. The lights go out, and come on again. Mittie’s (Samantha A. Camp), the ghost of his mother, stands suddenly in the room. After a familiar ‘I must be out of my mind’ exchange and a few accusations about Theodore’s lifestyle from Alice, it becomes clear that we’re quite literally watching Roosevelt’s own personal A Christmas Carol.

As someone who studies American Presidents as a hobby, I had a good time watching CCAC’s production weave in and out of history. Corwin Stoddard, whose performance portrays both confidence and exhaustion, actually replicated Roosevelt’s odd, squinty smile once or twice, which in turn put a huge smile on my face. The fascination with Roosevelt is obvious in Scully’s script, and you get a sense of the entire emotional arc of his young adulthood in just over thirty minutes, which is impressive.

However, despite the fact that I can’t say I’ve seen this exact riff on Charles Dickens’ perennial classic, the pace and dialogue are too familiar for the play to make a stamp of its own on this oft-retold story. I couldn’t help but feel that any figure in history could supplant Roosevelt and the experience of the play would be more or less the same. If the history is unfamiliar to the audience, plot points certainly won’t be.

pivotNext up is The Summer Company’s smart and succinct The Pivot, written by Seth Freeman and directed by Justin Sines. A man named Walter (Brett Sullivan Santry) waits alone in an office for job applicants to enter. Two women named Cindy, identical but for the color of their skin, take their seats.

We watch the interviews occur simultaneously. The women share lines and have the same resume. For the first woman (Krista Graham), who is white, the interview is cordial, even complimentary. Walter silently pivots (aha!) his chair to the second woman (Meleana Felton), who is black, and the interview seems colder somehow. The longer we watch, the more the divide Walter has created for the women becomes apparent.

The Pivot couldn’t have been more than six or seven minutes, but like any good short work, it has a certain intellectual catchiness to it. What I liked best about it was the play’s focus on the actual act of pivoting. When Walter moves, his face becomes stone cold, and the stage falls silent. He really takes his time getting there, too, and it creates an unsettling atmosphere to sit in.

Lastly we have The Theater Factory’s Doing Time, written by Mary Poindexter timeMcLaughlin and directed by Scott P. Calhoon. This was easily the conversation starter of the afternoon. The play follows an old man (Tom Mirth) and a young man (Steve Gottschalk) who represent a different philosophical approach to life, each brought about by what appears to be a generational gap.

The play begins in a nearly vacant space, equipped only with a couple chairs, a table, and a window. Mirth’s Older Man is in a tattered suit and seems to have lost his shoes. He has a flute and plays it as much as humanly possible – importantly, he only actually knows a single six or seven-second riff. For a while, we’re just sitting with this man.

Without warning, the younger man, whose outfit is pristine, explodes into the room and spills a small novel’s worth of papers onto the floor. He reveals that they’re the pages of his autobiography, which he must write perpetually, or he will die. The play then becomes a physical comedy, as the slightest sound from the older man causes the younger man to spiral into a fit.

I really liked Doing Time visually. There’s a great contrast between Mirth’s older man and Gottschalk’s younger man. Mirth’s movement is fluid and unhurried. He’s always contorting himself into odd, almost ape-like positions (think Andy Serkis in front of a green screen) as he navigates the stage, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Gottschalk is rigid efficiency personified.

Suffice to say, the older man has a few things to teach the younger man about smelling the roses. I won’t be too descriptive in terms of plot here, but the older man is prepared to sacrifice a lot for the younger man’s addiction to chronicling himself, which gives him a revelation. There’s a clear analogy for social media consumption here, and like many works pleading with millennials to stop it with the cell phones already, I think its heart is in the right place but its message isn’t exactly comprehensive. Like any issue worth discussing, social media overconsumption as a problem deserves a solution more complicated than “have you tried just not doing it?”

I won’t pigeonhole McLaughlin’s work any further, because I think its entirely possible to walk out of this with wholly different conclusions. This is a memorable experience, warts and all, and is the kind of self-contained, imaginative play one would hope to find at the New Works Festival. It’s unique and worth engaging with.

If I’m to judge The New Works Festival based on its ability to show me what I haven’t seen before, it’s off to a good start. I’m looking forward to what’s coming up next.

Program A runs at Carnegie Stage through September 9. For tickets and more information, click here

*A previous version of this review had Samantha A. Camp and Megan Grocutt’s character’s mislabeled.