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.

A Space to Subvert: The New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art Fall Season

10402045_10153426093016115_825396057528686509_nTheater is essential for its immediate nature, and for its ability to exist suddenly and without warning by people left out of pop-cultural conversations. For a few of my friends, the theater is something different, a fun but limited part of their media diet; for the rest, the theater is that place where they do Hamlet over and over again, so why bother?

The New Hazlett Theater’s CSA (Community Supported Art) program, in many ways, is a rebuttal to that interpretation of the form. Their upcoming season, which begins on October 26th, contains the 5 most disparate shows I’ve seen performed at a single theater. All of them play with expectation, and all of them feature stories you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. It is, in other words, a very active space.

“The thing I most enjoy about this program is that it isn’t static. We don’t believe that it can be,” says Bill Rodgers, CSA’s Director of Programming. “The CSA can give artists a launch pad of sorts. It can provide an opportunity for seasoned individuals to experiment.”

In other words, this is a program in which fresh voices are given an opportunity and a budget to bring their work to life, and artists with known-work under their belts are able to take risks and push boundaries. It’s a breeding ground for new thoughts.

BetweenUsandGrace-620x443The program’s first show, Between Us and Grace (October 27th), explores a space familiar to most all creative hopefuls: the open mic. Starring show writer Clare Drobot alongside local singer-songwriter Nathan Zoob, the play follows Stella, a 17 year-old songwriter who is increasingly in contrast with her religious hometown upbringing. It’s a coming of age story in which music intersects with narrative, though Drobot is quick to point out that the play not a musical: “I promise, no jazz hands,” she asserts in one promotional video.

Drobot’s narrative of redefining faith, while personal, will depict a struggle most anyone can relate to. Between Us and Grace will be directed by Anya Martin and will be performed on October 26th.

Presence-620x443CSA’s second show, the concert/visual-theater mashup, Presence, is more indicative of the program’s playful relationship with convention. Performed and created by saxophonist John Petrucelli, Presence will utilize a jazz quintet, a string quartet, electronic music and a lighting director to create a musically and thematically complex space to exist within.

The music is being composed alongside the show’s visuals, and is a unique amalgam of both influence and musical philosophy. “[The show will] merge natural sounds, urban acoustic sounds and voices,” said Petrucelli.

The roots of the show are on some fundamental levels at odds, and Petrucelli was quick to point out in conversation that bridging the strict nature of classical composition versus the more organic form favored by jazz musicians is in itself a difficult task. However, this fundamental conflict has opened up Petrucelli’s creative palate to some new spaces.

When asked what a jazz newbie could get out of a performance like this versus a seasoned veteran, Petrucelli’s answer was clear: the chance to exist in a “totally immersive space.” Presence will be performed on December 7th.

ApartFromMe-620x443Apart From Me, CSA’s third show, is another heavily experimental piece striving to immerse and provoke its audience to reflect. Created and performed by H. Gene Thompson, Arvid Tomayko and Ru Emmons, the show will use physical performance, wearable sculptures and a dynamic soundscape to explore the rift between the individual versus society versus the self. The group’s outfits will activate various parts of the environment as they perform, which in turn will create sounds and additional visuals.

The show won’t be a straightforward dance piece that follows a clear narrative, but will instead use abstractions to explore the way in which our social spaces have themselves become fairly abstract. Cell phone use, for example, is probably our most popularly discussed social moray. We’ve all heard the phrase “you’re always on your damn phone” from an uncle or two, or a hundred, and even those of us who religiously spend the day staring at a screen generally have some scruples about social media obsession. But what’s to be done about it? Tomayko had an answer:

“We’re using iPhone sensor technology to connect people in a creative space with each other, rather than with their phones.” Apart From Me will be performed February 8th.

BuersKiss-620x443CSA’s fourth show, Büer’s Kiss, written and created by local cartoonist Carl Antonowicz, is a dynamic live production of medieval-set graphic novel storytelling. More than a live reading, the show is slated to feature multiple voice actors, live foley effects and projections of its panels. The show follows a woman named Felicia who contracts a fictional disease similar to leprosy and is forced to live with other sufferers in a secluded island away from a society that reviles her. It is the culmination of years of medieval research on Antonowicz’s part, who draws his fable in a strikingly dark pop-art style. Büer’s Kiss will be performed April 12th.

Escape-Velocity-620x443Escape Velocity, the final show of the season by Double Blind Productions, features a dynamic, almost ‘choose your own adventure’-style narrative in which tarot cards drawn by audience participants will actively shape the outcome of the plot. The show will follow a circus, and will deal with themes of fate vs. choice. It will be performed on May 31st.

Audiences craving the bold and unique in their storytelling are bound to find New Hazlett’s Community Supported Art season to challenge their perception of theater, and open their eyes to some new voices who will shape the stage for years to come.

For tickets and more information, check out the New Hazlett’s website here

Big Fish

big fishThere is a reason we tell each other stories that go beyond a recollection of the facts. We like to think we’re our own historians, and sometimes we are, but we don’t make myths as a matter of record. The stories we make into legends capture something about who we are that our receipts never could.

Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Big Fish is about a man whose realities and fantasies may as well be one in the same. We follow Edward Bloom (Billy Hartung), a traveling salesman who lives his life like it’s the lost epilogue to Homer’s The Odyssey. He comes home after a trip to tell his son Will (Mario Williams) the story of how he taught a man how to fish via dancing – specifically, by using the fabled Alabama Stomp. We flash back to that moment, with Edward patiently hearing out a fisherman afraid for his starving family, and a song begins. The music soars as Edward tap dances entire schools of fish into the sky, and his dumbfounded companion, in awe, begins to stomp along as the waters rage around them and fish hail down onto the earth.

Missy Moreno, Stanley Graham, Matthew Augustyniak, Kristiann Menotiades, Billy Hartung, Hope Anthony
Missy Moreno, Stanley Graham, Matthew Augustyniak, Kristiann Menotiades, Billy Hartung, Hope Anthony

“If you give a man a fish,” Edward tells his son, “he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man the Alabama Stomp, you feed his soul!”

The man, the fish, and the music fade, and there is a beat of silence. Will immediately asks, “what the hell does that mean?”

This is the push and pull of Big Fish: idealism vs. realism. Decades go by, and Will (now played by Matt Calvert) is a reporter engaged to be married to a fellow journalist, Josephine (Hope Anthony). Will meets with Edward before the wedding and practically begs him not to tell any stories or give any toasts. All it takes is this conversation to give us an enormous amount of context for their relationship. For Edward, the world seems to naturally orbit him, and it puts his head in the clouds; Will’s feet are planted firmly in the ground, and he’s still waiting for his father to come down to his level. The question is: are either of these men capable of meeting in the middle?

Front Porch’s production is as emphatic in its energy as its lead character. Big Fish is a series of explosive revelries and fantastic characters, and the potential for the show to become bittersweet is swept away by its sheer joy for life.

Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Mario Williams as Young Will Bloom
Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Mario Williams as Young Will Bloom

Just like the characters onstage,  we the audience are yanked into Edward’s orbit. Billy Hartung’s performance isn’t exuberant, but his ability to take in the magic of his world as a matter, of course, can be invigorating. There’s a moment in this where he is shot out of a cannon by a werewolf onto the college campus Sandra (Kristiann Menotiades), his future wife, is attending – there’s, uh, a lot going on there, but it makes sense in context, I promise – and when he lands he gets almost immediately to flirting with her. Why not?

The show is directed by Spencer Whale, who seems keen on imbuing the slice of life portions of the musical with as much character as its colorful fantasies. The cast is as effective musically as they are dramatically, and there are some memorable moments: Kristiann Monotiades leads a fun number during a dance audition that shifts suddenly into a slow-motion meet cute, and I was struck by her ability to be simultaneously intimate and energetic. Elizabeth Boyke’s Jenny Hill is, at first, a one-note object of affection for Edward, but she becomes much more return during the play’s final moments, and in just one scene is able to remind us of the difficult humanity of the narrative through her performance alone.

Big Fish is a musical with a purpose, and so it is the best kind of musical. Newcomers to the genre uniformly pose the same question after their first show: “but why did it have to be a musical?” Screenwriter John August and musician Andrew Lippa’s original work blends fantasy and musicality so easily with the juxtaposition between theater and dance, that it begs the opposite question: is there any reason why this shouldn’t be a musical?

Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades as Sandra Bloom
Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades as Sandra Bloom

The world itself also deserves praise. Gianni Downs’ set design is rustic, yet vibrant, and complements Big Fish‘s elevated Americana really well. Even with the show’s aesthetically patchwork quality, it never descends into ‘indie-film of the moment’ design. It’s got a sense of handcrafted wonder to it, but at the same time feels like it’s built on sturdier stuff, both literally and artistically.

There are a few flies in the soup, though, especially in the larger narrative of the show. We learn almost immediately in the first act that Will is about to have a child. Considering how Edward and Will are such obvious foils for one another as father and son, the narrative instinct to make Will’s child a vessel for whatever lesson Will is going to learn is jarring in how direct it is. For as much joy the show builds, that’s just too saccharine of a plot point to hit the mark, and it’s made doubly frustrating by the fact that it already has a pretty great framing device in Edward’s penchant for skipping stones.

That said, Big Fish‘s conclusion is well earned. Will demands a certain amount of party-pooping by nature of his character, but Matt Calvert allows us to believe in his ability to change and grow. By the time we’re in the middle of one more new story from Edward, we’re already so won over that we’re willing to follow him just about anywhere.

Front Porch’s latest pulses with the heartbeat of the form, and is an easy recommendation to most any kind of audience.

Big Fish runs at the New Hazlett Theater through August 27. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Martha D. Smith

Finding New Solutions in Old Problems: Pitt Stages’ Upcoming Season

10547577_925614320797878_2778221222100940625_nFor an extraordinary variety of reasons better cataloged elsewhere, it is a confusing time to be a young person in America. Thanks to a blame game-y media environment, one needs only type in the phrase “Millenials Are Killing” into Google’s search bar to admire our various war crimes against chain restaurants and department stores (or whatever). This generational hostility has created a kind of disinterest in what Millennials actually feel about the world around them to older generations – which is what makes college theater a more important space than it has been in a long time.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Theater program features an unusual amount of agency for its student body. Besides playing host to a series of shows that are entirely student run, the program also allows its students to have a say in what mainstage shows, which are typically directed by theater professors, will end up making the cut. This season features an eclectic mix of classics with a twist and unconventional works by contemporary writers, and will likely be an opportunity to hear young voices in a raw creative setting.

OurTown-Poster-WebFirst up at the University of Pittsburgh Theater’s fall season is Our Town. Originally written by Thornton Wilder, Our Town is primarily about the complexities of small town life in early 1900’s America. However, Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama isn’t your average slice of life Americana. Rather, it is a dark, complex reflection on life and death. The play is a working definition of minimalism in theater, featuring performances that, on the whole, are voice-less, and an omniscient narrator who directly addresses his audience.

Despite its familiar old-school trappings, director Ricardo Vila-Roger stressed to me that Pitt’s production would be immediate, and prescient.

“[Our Town]…is possibly even more important today, in that everyone is kind of rushing to get to the next thing,” Vila-Roger said. “Our main character [doesn’t realize] all she’s missed because she’s not paying attention to what’s in front of her. It’s the same today with cell phones.”

The production will also, unlike Wilder’s original production, feature a diverse cast.  “We’re telling the story of a lot of people, not just one kind of person. If I’m going to create a town on stage, I’m going to create the town I’d want to live in.”

Our Town will run from October 5th to the 15th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Parade-PosterNext up is Parade, a musical based on a true story that was originally written by Alfred Uhry with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, this time directed by Rob Frankenberry. Of all the shows in Pitt’s upcoming season, Parade is easily the story that most encapsulates contemporary social discourse. Our main character is Leo Frank, a Jewish American accused of murder whose wildly unethical trial was a keystone moment in the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, as well as an inciting action in the reformation of the KKK.

The musical, set in 1913, follows several characters of some historical import, including an opportunistic journalist who capitalized on the event, a jury fueled by the distrust of outsiders, and the hapless man at the trial’s center.

Vila-Roger described the musical as “important, and very difficult,” It is also a potential moment for reflection for its audience and cast. “The music is beautiful, and I think the message – good Lord – is so important right now.”

Parade will be performed from November 9th through the 19th at the Charity Randall Theatre.

Besides Pitt’s mainstage shows, the theater also produces Student Lab shows, which are almost entirely directed and produced by students. The first student lab show is [title of show], an extraordinarily meta musical that is about its own creation and execution. Originally written by Jeff Bowen, [title of show] is quite literally a work in progress, beginning with the cast – all playing themselves in the show’s initial production – discussing what the opening of their new show should sound like as they’re performing their initial brainstorm. Pitt’s production will be directed by Alex Ditmar and will run from October 18th through the 22nd at the Henry Heymann theater.

Next comes Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck!, directed by Chloe Torrence and originally written by Jay Torrence. The play is a fictionalized retelling of a real tragedy that befell the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918 when a train collided with the circus’ caravan, resulting in many of the performers’ dwellings being set ablaze. More than 80 lives were lost, and over a hundred more were injured. Roustabout, however, focuses on the colorful lives of those affected, and seeks to extract something more from the senseless accident. It will run from November 15th through the 19th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Those looking for more originality and thematic complexity in their night at the theater will find that there’s plenty more to discover in Pitt’s Student Lab Show’s upcoming productions. There’s The Lifeboat is Sinking, a Shel Silverstein one act comedy about a woman who forces her husband to imagine their bed is a sinking ship and the boat’s dead weight his mother. The show will premiere alongside a production of An Oblation, a short one act written by the ever-inventive Taylor Mac, which is a comedy about two women who catalogue the deaths of friends and acquaintances at their own version of the last supper. Ann Amundson will direct both. Then, there is Victory on Mrs. Dandywine’s Island, written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Zev Woskoff, which is an Oscar Wilde-style spoof of high society. All three of these shows will be performed simultaneously on January 31st to February 4th at the Henry Heymann Theatre.

Pitt’s final Student Lab show will show will be Suddenly Last Summer, an underappreciated Tennesse Williams drama about a woman whose mental instability hides a dark family secret. It will be directed by Nic Bernstein and will run from April 11th through the 15th at the Henry Heymann Theater.

Meanwhile, the remaining Mainstage Productions will be a mix of the classic and contemporary, continuing with a production of Howard Ashman’s well-revered musical adaptation of the B-Movie cult classic, Little Shop of Horrors. The show will be performed on February 8th through the 18th at the Charity Randall Theatre and be directed by Reginald Douglas. This will be followed by a production of Upton Sinclair’s Marie Antoinette, directed by LeMil Eiland and running from February 15th to the 25th. The mainstage’s final production will be an original play written and directed by Cynthia Croot named Recoil. It will run from April 5th to the 15th.

At its best, university theater is a space in which people can essentially attend a show to see what’s next in American drama, and the University of Pittsburgh’s upcoming season has the potential to be particularly potent.

For tickets and more information about the University of Pittsburgh’s upcoming season, click here.

Little Shop of Horrors

20451726_1486317781414549_2142172775752597892_oHorror and comedy mix well. Laughter and terror are base emotions, but both require a degree of nuance to actually work. A comedy with stilted rhythm is unsettling; horror without subtlety is hilarious. Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors wasn’t the first horror comedy ever produced, but it was the first to intrinsically understand that a bad horror film is often a great comedy.

The Comtra Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors, a new production based on the musical adaptation (written by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken) from 1982, is an energetic wellspring of fun horror motifs. The story goes like this: Seymour (Robby Yoho), a put-upon florist who purchases an unknown breed of plant from a stranger, is surprised to find that his new ‘discovery’ is eye-catching enough to attract dozens of new customers to the floral shop where he works. He is more surprised to learn that the plant’s only source of sustenance is fresh human blood.

The larger the plant grows, the more of a local celebrity Seymour becomes, and the more human sacrifice the plant demands. Once it becomes clear the plant can no longer sustain itself on pinpricks alone, Seymour faces a difficult choice: how far will he go to maintain his sudden success?

Comtra’s production is acted, directed and produced almost entirely by students from nearby high schools. The theater has produced other high school shows in the past, including four other works helmed by Little Shop of Horror’s director, Jocelyn Kavanagh, a senior at Seneca Valley Senior High.

As someone who grew up watching almost a half dozen art programs be bled dry by lack of funding or interest, Comtra’s latest production is an easy example of how much good art programs actually do. This is a coordinated production. It’s ambitious, even, in its performances and set design. There’s this bizarre instinct out there to dismiss high school students as somehow unable to make anything resonant without extensive guidance, and Little Shop of Horror’s cast and crew – happily – have proven the sentiment ridiculous.

This musical is a particularly smart choice for a young production. Little Shop of Horrors is sharp-edged enough to feel a little dangerous, but without going beyond the pale. Characters in it possess complexity. There’s Orin, a psychotic dentist who gets high on both the pain of his patients and the extremely potent laughing gas he gives himself before operations. This character is played by Matt Kraynik, who plays many characters of interest in the play. He has a natural comedic instinct and embodies his characters easily. Audrey, who is sweet hearted and an unfortunate victim of abuse, is something of a cartoon-y damsel in distress in the source material, but Emma Hackworth takes her seriously as a human being. In this production, Audrey is not a passive victim of circumstance, but a woman who is self-destructive and desperate. That is a good choice.

I’m far from the most experienced theatergoer at PGH in the Round, but I think I’ve seen enough shows to be an authority on technical difficulties. For an audience, a play is not the script or its intent. A play is what happens in front of us, and nothing else. There was a moment during Little Shop of Horrors where Yoho’s Seymour must throw an object at some distance into the plant’s giant head. He misses, and Tyler Mortier, who plays the plant, begins heckling Yoho’s aim. I’ve seen too many shows where some important part of a character’s wardrobe is accidentally flung off in a fight scene, or an important piece of the set is shattered, or a pair of pants fall completely off of an actor without any mention from a panicked cast. All of these examples are real, and I remember them for a specific reason. Left unacknowledged, an audience leaves a show remembering these moments as funny, awkward things that happened to the people in the play. Own it, and suddenly the event is part of the play’s narrative.

This incident was a small part of the show, but it’s a nutshell moment for the cast and crew. Comtra’s Little Shop of Horrors is a showcase for young talent. Mel Welles, an actor in the original film, said that Little Shop of Horrors’ success was based in large part because it was “a love project.” The same joy in creativity is present here. The Comtra Theatre has enabled its team to stretch their creative muscles, and they will be better equipped to pursue work in and beyond theater as a result. It is good that the venue exists; spaces like it deserve celebration.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at Comtra Theatre through August 19. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Rumors

20232030_10154616136341976_1839936879485858061_oNeil Simon’s Rumors rumbles with all the kinetic energy of a whodunit but happily ignores the bullet points from the genre’s rulebook. This isn’t a play where the shock and awe come from the dramatic reveal of a criminal’s identity, but rather from the absurdity inherent in trying to conceal a criminal.

The play begins at the house of the Deputy Mayor of New York, who is throwing an anniversary party with his wife. We see another married couple, Ken and Chris Gorman (Mike Crosby and Stacy DiPasquale respectively), in a state of panic. The Deputy Mayor is in a bedroom passed out and bleeding from a gunshot wound to the ear. His wife is nowhere to be found. Although the Gormans are alarmed for their friend’s safety, concerns turn immediately to his political image. Ken is the Deputy Mayor’s lawyer, and his career is likewise in jeopardy if something disturbing has happened.

Suddenly, additional party guests arrive, one couple after another. The Gorman’s have a mission: restore the Deputy Mayor’s health, find out what’s going on, and ensure no one at the party ever learns what happened. You won’t be surprised to hear this is impossible. The second couple to arrive, Lenny and Claire Ganz (Dan Krack and Alexandra Swartz), uncover the ruse almost immediately but share the Gormans’ concerns and agree to help conceal the truth. Which is when the third couple arrives.

Apple Hill Playhouse’s latest is a series of complex comedic errors, with each newly produced falsehood giving way to more and more absurd untruths. Although Rumors is a play that deals primarily in speedy, crackling dialogue, director Stephen Toth takes an equal interest in its physicality. Actors desperately spin new characters, plots, and motivations into their hastily assembled lies like Looney Tunes characters plugging the holes of a sinking ship with their fingers. To watch Rumors is to watch one neurotic upper class egotist after another reach their mental boiling point. There is, of course, some mean spirited pleasure to be had in that.

On the whole, the production is a breezy experience. Although the Gormans’ narratives are knotty, Rumors itself never strays from its goal: watching its cast crack under pressure. We become interested in the group dynamics quickly, and it’s fun to discover what happens when some characters are absent. What will Lenny, who is sarcastic and aggressive, do to keep Cookie (Stacy DiPasquale), a cooking show host who is literally unable to take life in stride, off his tracks? How will Claire and Chris, who resent being dragged into all this, handle a sudden knock at the door?

There is one real mark against the show, and it happens once all of the characters begin participating in the same scene.  Smaller moments of conversation reveal a smooth, if manic, chemistry amongst the cast. Larger moments, in which every character appears to be reacting as much as possible regardless of their cohorts’ levels of energy, almost as if in a vacuum, make the cast resemble an unfinished connect-the-dots puzzle. For a show that’s built around a series of outbursts and raucous surprises, this rigid adherence to hitting the exact beat by beat nature of the script instead of allowing the characters to dynamically react to one another detracts from the production.

Still, there are some great instance of nuanced comedy in this. Dan Krack and Alexandra Swartz’s portrayals of the Ganz’s, the most self-aware characters in the play, are particularly hard to resist. A monologue performed by Krack that occurs late in the play is so pitch perfect in its delirious energy that I could actually feel the crowd’s captivation with him.

Apple Hill’s latest is a fun night at the theater. For those of us feeling stressed out each day as the headlines fly past, Rumors’ honest dishonesty is a welcome distraction.

Rumors runs that the Apple Hill Playhouse through August 5. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Pippin

19390883_1454735337903299_7244909319322567608_oFew Broadway shows are referred to as often and simultaneously as misunderstood as Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin. For the unfamiliar, it’s a musical about the real-world medieval figures of King Charlemagne and his son, Pippin, although what’s portrayed onstage has very little in common with world history. Pippin is a precocious, somewhat unwilling heir to the throne of his tyrannical father. After realizing he’s not made out for war, Pippin travels the land, trying on a variety of personalities and lifestyles until his morals and ambitions get the better of him.

What’s funny is, though I’ve technically described the plot in some detail, the musical has almost nothing to do with any of that. Rather, Pippin is really about its narrators, a fourth wall-breaking performance troupe full of characters who weave in and out of the musical as storytellers, audience, and figures in the plot. The more Pippin interacts with them – and particularly with the mysterious and hyperactive Leading Player – the more we get the sense that there is a discrepancy between Pippin: the royal heir and Pippin: the protagonist.

I may have said too much even with that – it’s a play best experienced without context, I think – but this bizarre push and pull between character and plot make for an ambiguous show that’s well-suited for multiple productions.

The Theatre Factory, a venue that is no stranger to the bold and unique, is the right kind of place to see Pippin, a musical practically begging to be taken apart and reconstructed over and over again. As far as reinventions go, I’m glad to say that Pippin is a show with a direction all its own, and that it possesses a youthful energy that breathes some life into the musical mainstay. That said, some issues in execution leave Pippin feeling somehow incomplete.

First thing’s first: director Matt Mlynarski has aesthetically reimagined the meta-medieval melodrama into a fun hodgepodge of 80’s high school filmmaking, safe-for-Broadway urbanity, and period piece. Think Grease meets Rent, meets John Hughes meets Shakespeare. If that descriptor seems like nonsense, that’s because it kind of is, and that’s ok. Pippin is all about messy textual interweaving.

I like what the stage design does, but I can’t help but wish it went further. Much of the cast simply wears typical street clothes – flannels, jeans, t-shirts etc. – but important characters get the distinction of multi-purpose outfits, which are a mixed bag. The best example that comes to mind is the outfit of Alec Albright’s Leading Player. Arguably the most important character in the show, the Leading Player needs to stand out, but the white tee-shirt he’s wearing – which sports large printed paint splotches in every color of the rainbow streaming down the middle – along with Pippin’s ripped-at-the-sleeves tweed jacket, both set against a constructed alleyway decorated with #graffiti, make the show look more High School Musical than is likely intended.

The cast is consistent and performs well. Sean O’Donnell feels like a natural fit in the titular lead role regardless of which stage of life his character is in, Sabrina Picciani has natural comedic edge as the crafty Fastrada, and I had a lot of fun with Rebekah Lecocq’s over the top Berthe. Albirght’s Leading Player is possibly the show’s most notable performance, as he exudes this great subdued malice beneath the frenetic energy of a showrunner, which perfectly fits the role.

That said, some of Pippin’s vocal performances can at times feel uneven. Although the choreography is playful, inventive, and maybe of more import than the actual singing, this is a musical, and nothing removes the energy of a show faster than issues with vocal range.

I have a substantive problem with the musical itself, too. I really like watching the way the narrative plays with reality, and meshes the struggle of self-discovery and unfound ambition until they are one in the same conflict, but about half of the first act is dedicated to Pippin learning a foregone conclusion – he’s not fit for the military. This sequence includes the show’s least interesting songs and a lengthy battle sequence. There are so few conceivable, practical ways to make a medieval swordfight look interesting in the context of a musical. You can only see someone be dance-stabbed so many times before you want to hit fast-forward. Instead of the show starting out running, this sequence forces it to start out in an awkward shuffle.

The Theatre Factory’s production of Pippin is worth checking out, especially if the show hasn’t been on your radar up to now, but its sometimes off-kilter design may put off some returning fans.

Pippin runs at The Theatre Factory in Trafford through July 23. Their website is currently under construction so you can check out their Facebook page here for more information.