Of Art and Church Basements: Fringe 2018

The thing with attending the Fringe Festival is that you can’t really know what to expect. I’m keenly aware of this as I enter St. Mary’s Lyceum; as I enter, the only evidence a festival is occurring appears to be the laminated press pass hung around my neck. A single sign denoting the Fringe Festival’s presence is placed outside, and the bar patrons inside give me sidelong glances as I enter. A festival staff member lets me know I’ll need to head to the basement to see my first show: How to Suffer Better by Amanda Erin Miller.

howtosufferbetter-amiller-72dpiThe conceit goes like this: Celeste, an alcoholic sociopath who, guided by a piece of life advice pertaining to ‘suffering better’ on the underside of a Snapple cap, has gathered a motley crew (re: folks in apparent psychological duress) to compete in front of an audience to discover who, truly, suffers the best. Mix the opportunity for a wide variety of performances and the dismissive cruelty inherent to Suffer Better’s conceit, and you have a solid foundation for a bleak comedy, one which includes a clown named Amondo who falls into despair after an experience with a call center and a maid who constructs a dance partner out of cleaning equipment.

More characters follow, but not all of them feel comfortably balanced. Miller at one point re-enters the stage as the crowd-favorite Edith, an extremely horny octogenarian who workshops her dating app, a Tinder-style swipe-athon that includes the intimate medical history of its participants, which she demoes for the audience, Shark Tank-style. Things go well until Miller ensures we all understand that Edith is in a state of abject depression and is (so far unsuccessfully) seeking to end her own life via assisted suicide. It isn’t impossible to make light of mental illness, particularly if the character making the joke is doing so in an act of reclamation, but Miller frequently drops her characters’ darkest moments like anchors that bring the show’s energy to a halt.

Nowhere was this more acutely felt than in Miller’s portrayal of a teenager singularly obsessed with Donald Trump. There is a chance Miller didn’t intend to make a connection to the real-life incident in which a teenager in need of psychiatric helped scaled Trump Tower back in 2016, but the comparison there is obvious and, perhaps, in poor taste. Miller is clearly a versatile performer, but her characters need to be more than broad stereotypes that rely on desperation as a punchline.

3-x-3-72dpi_origThe next show in St. Mary’s I caught was David Lawson’s No Oddjob, a one man show that more or less acts as an interpersonal shorthand for the myriad controversies the video game industry has endured over the last twenty-plus years. Truth be told, however, Lawson’s anecdotes are more incidental to his comedic A Brief History Of-style show. While one anecdote regarding Wolfenstein becoming banned from his local Jewish Community Center feels somehow prescient to the narrative, others involving judging the perceived ‘performative’ geekery of wearing video game referencing t-shirts feel not only irrelevant to the history of video game controversy, but to his own narrative as an industry advocate as well. Even the mention of it recalls the gate-keeping notion of capital G “Gamer” culture, which posits that video games are a lifestyle, dammit, and forever holding one more venue for art and entertainment at arm’s length to a larger segment of the population who just kind of wants to play video games, thank you very much.

Worse yet, Lawson’s method of argument more or less rests on the assumption that everyone in his audience will find even the most graphic instances of violence in video games to be banal. While it’s true that the science is in on video games causing the desensitization of violence in teens (surprise: it’s a myth), that doesn’t mean that seasoned fans can’t become desensitized to violence as it’s portrayed in video games, just as it with film or television audiences. To show out of context clips of Wolfenstein: The New Order to an audience unfamiliar with video games would be like showing a character get slowly cannibalized in The Walking Dead to a person whose entire experience with television is reruns of the show Friends.

showupwebsiteartpittsThe final show of my first day, Show Up by Peter Michael Marino, is an improvised comedy about the life of the audience. Marino has a series of topics that form a larger narrative and audience members fill in the blanks with real stories from their lives.

Marino is clearly an experienced improviser, pulling collective laughs from an audience who at first appeared disjointed. I was surprised that Marino found quite literally the only woman in the audience unwilling to participate, and then forced her to do so. This resulted in the most awkward conversation imaginable, in which Marino more or less demanded that this unfortunate woman reveal any detail about herself, no matter how small.

Impossibly, the move paid off. I’m still not sure how. At some point in Marino’s narrative, which for us was a bizarre autobiography in which a child set a school teacher on fire and became a renowned Walmart greeter, this woman was forced onstage. Her refusal to speak ended up feeding into this oddly redemptive arc about silence and love, which was (predictably) peppered by awkward pauses between the two.

This is the kind of moment you go to the Fringe Festival to witness. It was strange, immediate and inexplicable, that Fringe-specific concoction that results in a totally bonkers show exploding into life for just an hour before dissipating into an empty stage to be filled with yet another show, and yet another unpredictable memory in the making.

These moments require not only the talent, but also a sense of interconnectivity between audience, artist and venue in order for them to exist. Making my way across the North Side to the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church for my second set of shows on my second day, it occurred to me that there was a wide gulf between all three of these things. The higher venue count of last year’s festival meant that walking form one venue to another meant passing at least a dozen people with blue Fringe t-shirts or festival passes around their necks.

bottle-rocket_origThoreau, NM’s Bottle Rockets, my first show of day two, is a traditional three-person play about the lives of a local family; by local, I mean, like, super local, these characters ostensibly lived within a short walk from the theater their story was being performed in. Written by Lance-Eric Skapura and performed by Robin Beruh, Sophia Englesberg and Bruce Story-Camp, it’s a likable portrayal of authentic Pittsburgh life. Jordan is a twelve year old with a fascination for science and blowing stuff up, and the show initially revolves entirely around a variety of familiar trials she has to undertake such as: “what’s the deal with boys?” and, “why can’t I dismantle the brick fireplace with a chisel?” All three performers feel like neighbors you used to live across from. There is a nostalgic warmth and humanity to their dynamic.

Unfortunately, a startling twist midway through the show that forces a reevaluation of Bottle Rocket’s initial premise, which I wasn’t a huge fan of. A revelation about one the character’s is dropped like an anvil, and while I appreciated the sudden gut-drop of the moment I couldn’t help but feel I’d seen it coming. The world of Bottle Rocket felt too perfect, and as a result I was more or less forced to assume tragedy would strike. Members of the audience clearly felt differently: Bottle Rockets is quintessential ‘not a dry eye in the house’ material, and was a surefire Fringe Festival hit.

andrew-frank_origMy final show of the night, Andrew Frank’s comedy special, Macrocosm, is correctly billed as both “cerebral” and “empathetic” standup comedy. In an era of Louis C.K.s and TJ Millers, we need more performers in comedy like Andrew Frank, who view empathy as a comedic strength. So much of Frank’s comedy is political, but he’s also friendly and willing to call out larger acts of oppression within American culture. In fact, he actually managed to wring a few laughs out of me, and I’m something of a miserable asshole.

There was unique talent on display this year which I was lucky enough to catch, but I still left the festival feeling empty. This festival is at its best when it is a breathless sprint from one act to the next. The Fringe Festival is named so because it brings acts who are on the fringes of the mainstream to a single space for everyone to explore; this year, relegated primarily to two unbranded venues separated by what amounts to a 25 minute on foot trek, the word “fringe” was unfortunately literal.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here.

Inclusion and the Unknown: Pittsburgh Fringe Festival 2018

10928170_336051573250720_289964796702080005_n (1)“I guess I’d call it…an interactive Bingo comedy.”

I’m sitting at a coffee shop in the North Side, typing away at first draft of my coverage for the 2017 Fringe Festival, which (for me) began with Joey Buchecker’s Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace. I think about Roger Ebert’s old maxim: when in doubt, write what you saw. It’s a good rule to live by as a critic, because there are times when you become overwhelmed by a show, or in this case a series of shows, and your only recourse is to succumb to experience.

I look up from my laptop to my theater companion, who is unwrapping a piece of hard candy she had been pelted with earlier. In a rapture of Bingo euphoria during Bingo Palace’s first act, Betsy napalmed the audience with an assortment hard candy; one surprised elderly woman had gasped as the projectile hit an adjacent audience member square on the head.

My friend peers over the notes strewn across the table at our schedule to see what’s next, and asks, “One Man Apocalypse Now…that can’t be a literal title, right?” It was. “I mean, you’d have to be out of your mind to make a one man show out of that movie.” You would. “It would be an insane thing to do.” It is – and it was beautiful.

The thing with the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, which is gearing up for another weekend of art and mania on April 6th through the 8th, is that it is an experience. Nearly two dozen shows, each an hour(ish) long are performed throughout each day at a variety of North Side venues; some are from local artists debuting new work, others from seasoned Fringe vets returning with fan favorites from around the country. There are more than 200 Fringe Festivals around the world and over 50 in North America – ours is one of the youngest.

Because attending the Fringe Festival is so much like unearthing buried treasure, it’s important to have a few shows in particular to orbit your Fringe experience around. Xela Batchelder, Pittsburgh Fringe’s executive director, had a few suggestions for me when I had the opportunity to speak to her about the upcoming festival:

Voice of Authority, an autobiographical one man show by Dean Temple, covers a period of the artist’s life in which the US Department of Justice served him with a $19,000,000 lawsuit. It’s comedic in nature, and is somehow also – mysteriously – about music and matzoh ball soup.

Peter Michael Marino’s Show Up, “an improvised solo comedy about your crazy life” which premiered at the largest Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, promises to be a perennial Fringe favorite. Armed with little more than post-it notes, stage lights and the anecdotal direction of the audience, Marino uses the precious few tools at his disposal to subvert the comedic one man show format.

To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter from Fred Hampton, performed by Iron Age Theatre’s Richard Bradford, is a likely devastating retelling of true-to-life grief, loss, compassion and empowerment. Hampton, a Black Panther, was murdered by Chicago police in front of his pregnant wife; the show represents Hampton’s final sentiments to the son he’d never be allowed to meet.

Of the shows Xela and I discussed, New Vintage Ensemble’s #vanlife caught my attention immediately because its premise so neatly encapsulates the Fringe’s spirit. It is, literally speaking, a show about people who move into a van. The blurb promises it is about messy folks living in a “perfectly tailored photo gallery” of a world, and so they “become unhinged” and “document everything.” As a set of descriptors, the show promises to be esoteric, weird, evocative and totally interpretable to the reader. The only way for an interested festival attendee to solve the riddle of its existence is to seek it out and unearth it themselves.

Audience members who commit themselves to an entire day or weekend of theater binging should come prepared to feel, more or less, unprepared. Many of the shows are unknowable until experienced, and few adhere to tradition. Xela considers the Fringe’s role to be therefore both instructive and inviting.

“I feel like we – and the festival – have to train audiences to think of theater differently. You’re so used to going in to see a show that you’ve heard or read about, [but with this] you have to go in with an open mind, because [a show] could be anything. You never know what you’re gonna come across. It’s kind of exciting.”

In addition to the value and variety of the Fringe Festival’s content, the unique quality of the individual theatergoer’s experience is an important factor of the festival’s appeal. Even considering the nationally touring shows appearing this year, few festival attendees will have a comprehensive knowledge of the Fringe’s theatric lineup. The ability of a person to zig-zag between the obscure, the conventional and everything in between is unparalleled in Pittsburgh’s art scene. No two Fringe experiences are ever truly the same.

This goes for both audience and artist. Showrunners, performers and audience members weave in and out of the same bars and cafes in between shows. Because of the structure of the festival, the barrier between raw, local indie experiments and budgeted mainstream successes are essentially eliminated.

“Fringe just feels more inclusive. It gives opportunities to people who might be curated out, or who don’t get a chance. Fringes kinda help grow the scene in a city. It gives people chances to go out and try things, and some of them then keep going with it and do bigger things.”

As far as I’m concerned, Pittsburgh’s Fringe Festival has room to grow, and I really hope it does. It’s an environment that is weird, inclusive, friendly, shocking, and occasionally bruise-making (if one participates in the violence of an interactive Bingo comedy, at least). So rarely in art and life are we afforded both inclusion and discovery on a whim, which is the Fringe Festival’s greatest ambition. There’s nothing like it in the city. This kind of artistic translucence makes for a difficult event to preview, but that’s the point.

For tickets and more information click here

Marie Antoinette

27971885_2300826963276600_7420616822735801788_nTo enter the University of Pittsburgh’s production of Marie Antoinette in the Cathedral of Learning’s Studio Theater is to be confronted. Actors dressed alternately as nobles or revolutionaries either welcome you to the party as you enter or congratulate you on being on the right side of history, respectively. Accompanying them are at least a half dozen maps and pieces of French art, all plastered by bright red text stylized as graffiti. “Make France Great Again,” reads one, but all pieces more or less emphasize that the tagger in question is not, in fact, With Her.

The Her in question is Marie Antoinette, the eponymous lead character in David Adjmi’s re-contextualization of history’s most extravagant It Girl. Few historical figures are quite as easily relegated to the role of cautionary morality tale as the former Queen of France, who spent an inordinate amount of money on pointless displays of excess while her ruled class, steeped in the dregs of poverty, plotted to behead her for it.

Adjmi’s script continues a conversation begun by Soffia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette, which explored Antoinette’s human qualities through an art-punk lens. Adjmi takes quite literally an identical tactic by also mismatching royalty and punk, except where Coppola is an artist working in implication, Adjmi Jackson Pollock-s the stage with angry, metaphoric talking sheep, penis jokes, and a sharp, contemporary style of dialogue that fits somewhere in the gulf between Curb Your Enthusiasm realism as absurdism and the forceful manipulation of history of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

It’s interesting, then, that Pitt’s production of Adjmi’s already escalated work is propelled by an even further need to escalate. First there is the costume design, which features so many colors. KJ Gilmer has given Antoinette a series of wigs in every color of the rainbow, and abandoned the doily-ed wardrobe of the era for a kaleidoscopic sense of fashion better fitting a Nicki Minaj concert than a ballroom dance. The original production of this show also featured wild statements of coloring book fashion, but in lieu of a mainstage budget Pitt’s production has instead opted for a wider, stranger variety of visual design which works wonders, especially in the play’s early goings.

The cast, as directed by Le’Mil Eiland, are primarily wealthy, hapless narcissists made brutal by the power of their indifference. The show feels in so many ways to be like a circus, or better yet, a sitcom from hell. The implication is that, for both King Louis the 16th and Anotinette, life is a ridiculous joke. Alexis Primus plays Antoinette as a woman intellectually hardened by privilege; she has every material thing a person could want for, yet has so precious little to live for. Antoinette’s is a loveless life without purpose. Primus imbues Antoinette with an innate desperation for some missing, essential piece of humanity, and no scene ends without our acute awareness of her listless existence.

Adam Nie’s Louis the 16th, meanwhile, is a perfect foil of spineless power and privilege. Nie is more classically comedic, and as such is a greater instigator of satire in performance. In a way, Louis is no less a victim of a fated heritage than Antoinette, but he’s also dramatically less equipped to confront himself. Very nearly all successful moments of levity are placed on Nie’s shoulders – that is, save for the surreal physical humor of Meg McGill, who appears as a sheep-human manifestation of Antoinette’s inner dialogue.

For both Antoinette and Louis, Leadership is an annoying obligation to be dismissed for other, better things, like receiving one-sided flatteries at a dinner party or indulging a new hobby. The play’s breezy enough first act does nothing if not cement this in our minds; the people can wait.

Except, no they can’t. By the play’s intermission, Antoinette’s inevitable trudge to the guillotine is well underway, as Louis and Antoinette are taken hostage by a series of furious rebels (Joe McHugh and Zach Fullerton). Orders are spit at our protagonist in the staccato rhythm of a Taken-era Liam Neeson interrogation scene. It’s here that the production’s erratic sense of tension is at its greatest imbalance. Generally, Eiland explodes whatever tension is present in a given conflict, meaning the cast is frequently intense in their hostilities towards one another. It all feels somewhat in character given the contemporary absurdism of the play’s first act, but once we’re able to find so little to contrast as far as volume between conflicts that happen in relative comfort versus conflicts that happen under extreme duress, Marie Antoinette starts to feel too exhausting. The fact that we spend so much time during the final act with so little for Antoinette to do other than succumb to despair deeply compounds the problem.

Regardless, the final act sees Marie Antoinette embrace the surreal. Several clever uses of stage design, especially one sequence that utilizes the presence of the audience to great effect, are some of the production’s brightest highlights. Pitt’s latest is no salve to soothe the pain apparent in your latest Twitter thread, but it is at least a comforting reminder that privilege is ultimately not impenetrable.

Marie Antoinette runs at the University of Pittsburgh through February 25. For tickets and more information, click here. 

The Last Five Years

25994911_1550878684977725_3018241327874582467_nIt’s difficult to be close friends with both halves of a couple, because you become the ultimate Third Wheel; you are, in fact, the Third Wheel incarnate. The best case scenario for the Third Wheel is that your friends develop a rewarding, long term relationship, in which case you either lose two friends simultaneously or at least re-contextualizing both friendships forever; ‘let’s all go out’ replaces ‘wanna grab a drink’ in the buddy lexicon.

The worst case scenario is that the relationship fails, and you, the noble Third Wheel, rattle along your crooked path of awkward lunch dates and uncomfortable implications, which leaves you with a choice: to tether yourself to just one buddy for a while, which is terrible but easy, or to toe the line between both aggrieved parties like a unicycle on a tripwire.

To be an audience member in Split Stage Productions’ The Last Five Years is to be that Third Wheel. The lovelorn musical opens with an introduction to Jamie (Josh List), an ambitious author skyrocketing towards stardom, who meets Cathy (Emily Hamilla), his “Shiksa Goddess,” and consequently becomes enamored. Meanwhile, on stage right and five years later, Cathy is alone in her bedroom in a state of devastation – Jamie has left her. The musical continues in this fashion, whiplashing us from one far point on the linear timeline of their relationship towards another until both characters finally meet in the middle – literally, they meet in at the play’s midpoint center stage. It is the only sequence in the play in which both characters interact physically with one another.

If it sounds heavy, that’s because it kind of is, though the show’s author Jason Robert Brown strikes a tone that’s more ‘what shall be, shall be’ than ‘wherefore art thou.’ List’s Jamie is a wrecking ball of friendly confidence. He carries the character with sheer posi-vibe charisma. Jamie is always on the up-and-up, and even his fantasies of infidelity, which (hilariously) drew a fractured response of chuckles and shifting seats from the audience, waft by like a joke about the weather because of the actor’s charm.

Cathy, meanwhile, is an aspiring actress with a lot more to lose, and she has gained little. Hamilla’s depiction of Cathy’s professional anxiety is dynamic, stumbling, and human. Through Cathy we see the harsh realities of the audition room treadmill: the hours spent memorizing scripts, the casual indifference of casting directors who wave actors away mid-line, and the dawning realization that there are at least a hundred identical actors in the room with her, all the same – except, of course, some are younger and “have already been to the gym.” For Cathy, finding a career in the arts is a struggle to be overcome, a last ditch effort in which she must grasp at the tiniest precipice of success for fear of the fall. Seeing Jamie laugh along on an escalator to the wealth and fame is understandably (if not unfairly) a point of contention in their relationship.

Split Stage Production imbues The Last Five Years with so much earnest energy and warmth that it almost (almost) washed the bad taste of last year’s similarly themed musical La La Land out of my mouth. Both Hamilla and List are onstage at any given moment, one living out a painful memory in front of our eyes while the other is placed in the blissful reverie of a first date, or a Christmas spent under a shared blanket. Laura Wurzell directs her performers to behave as people do, and they are therefore tender, or too chipper, or caught in a frustrating cycle of their own glum mythos. A quartet composed of J. Eric Barchiesi, Larissa Marple, Dave Minda and Matt Peterson, performs an hour of live music, giving The Last Five Years a palpable urgency.

While the rom-com melodramatic appeal of The Last Five Years‘ narrative structure is apparent, there is a telling detail in my plot synopsis up there – the play begins with Cathy, not Jamie. In the haze of my memory I’d forgotten this detail, but for a good reason; even without searching around the playbill, it’s fairly obvious The Last Five Years was written by its male protagonist, and that the play has an unambiguous authorial lens.

Jamie’s role in his own crumbling relationship is too neat, too easily forgiven for me to believe him, and the moments in which he actually falters barely register on the drama scale. Cathy, meanwhile, who sabotages Jamie’s happiness by instigating fights before major events in his life, is another story. She brings a wellspring of hurt she’s chosen to weaponize against her own relationship, and she is therefore directly culpable in its downfall in a way Jamie just isn’t. Even the play’s structure, which puts Jamie on the forward-end of the timeline and Cathy at the reverse, forces the narrative at first to be a mystery about how Jamie could be so happy to meet his “Shiksa” only for things to end badly, to a tragedy in which Jamie must make an awful decision while Cathy sits happily lovelorn on the other end of the stage. Without additional context, The Last Last Years may as well be called “My Ex-Wife Can’t Handle How Attractive and Successful I Am.”

Yet, List’s Jamie occasionally is driven by jolts of rage during arguments that speak to a larger problem of self-expression in the character; his performance revealed more dimensions to Jamie than the script does. I suppose there’s a certain meta-narrative quality to undermine from the contrast between the real and the supposed as presented here, but much of that will take place outside of the theater.

As I left the Theater Factory to reflect on the time I’d spent as Cathy and Jamie’s willing third wheel – as I weighed the qualities of each person, their actions, their disparate stories – I couldn’t help but feel I’d been affixed to the wrong bicycle. I felt moved, yes, and I wanted to go along for the ride – but still. I had this lingering feeling that I should give my other buddy a call.

The Last Five Years runs at the Theatre Factory through February 3rd. For tickets and more information click here. 

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.