Real/Time Interventions Presents Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers

21558947_1589498057738984_6722449227359433515_nI think many would agree that we could use more compassion in this world. I’m guessing though that most would not look to a concert musical about female serial killers as a possible outlet. Surprise, Pittsburgh! Real/Time Interventions, a local theater company, is debuting Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers this October at Aftershock Theatre in Lawrenceville. The show is a cabaret concert featuring a slate of songs performed from the perspective of women who have killed. Lyricist and composer Molly Rice notes that the work is coming from a place of inquiry and empathy, “The play is about more than sensationalizing stories. These women were born a certain way, and a thought I had was— how can we open the definition of human race to include even those who are born with a fascination with violence? Wow, if we can do that, what kind of empathic culture can we be?”

Years before Angelmakers was conceived, Director Rusty Thelin began researching and writing a play about serial killers that never came to fruition. During that period he came across a book called Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters by Peter Vronsky, which inspired Angelmakers. Part of what drew Thelin back to the material was that female serial killers are in general less sociopathic and more often than not there are societal reasons behind their motivation to murder. He said, “They unmask a deeper idea about society- there is a lot of darkness underneath. It’s really disturbing and bleak.”

Rice pointed out that, “There were a lot of women who became serial killers because they had to get out of a situation. For example, there was a big rush of serial killers in the 1800’s and there were reasons for it. One was the Industrial Revolution where everybody was poor and struggling and had large families, so if you had too many family members that couldn’t work anymore they were draining resources and the other thing that happened was arsenic came onto the market as an everyday thing that you could buy at the drugstore to kill rats. It does sort of demonstrate how inequality can lead to the creation of so-called monsters in our society.”

Rice though was quick to note that not all of the women portrayed in Angelmakers are the victims of capitalism. One noted serial killer profiled is Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed, who was a woman of noble status in Transylvania. She believed that by bathing in the blood of virgin girls, she would remain young and beautiful. Also of note, at the time of my conversation with Rice and Thelin, no women of color were featured in the production due to the fact that most female serial killers are white.

Thelin and Rice created the work as a way to examine the lives of these often misunderstood and maligned women. The songs are, according to Rice, imagined moments in these women’s lives. The characters portrayed say what they would want to say if the could talk to us now. Rice said, “For example, Aileen Wurnos, she comes back and says, ‘You know if I hadn’t been born in Michigan, everything might have been different’, and that is something she actually did say in her interviews—in other words, it was so cold, and If I hadn’t been kicked out of my house and had to turn tricks to survive, things might have been different.”

Pittsburgh audiences may recall a 2015 Real/Time Intervention work that was staged in collaboration with local artists and Bricolage Production Company called the Saints Tour: Greater Braddock. I believe we can expect this work to be another challenging and gracious entry into this company’s oeuvre. Supporters and curiosity seekers can be sated before October by coming out to the company’s fundraiser this Thursday, September 28 at Cattivo, where revellers will get to perform karaoke to a special song list about murder and mayhem. Don’t miss out!

Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers opens at the Aftershock Theatre in Lawrenceville on October 25. For more information on the show and their fundraiser, check out their Facebook page. 

Artist Spotlight: Tony Sirk

13393943_10103484202307648_5888429201040680467_nIn the theater world it is hard to find someone not vying for the spotlight. Tony Sirk, one of Pittsburgh’s most sought-after costume designers, told me that he hated to talk about himself. Perhaps this kind of reserved attitude is due to of mid-western upbringing in Indiana. Pittsburgh is the biggest town he has ever lived in, but he likes it because of its neighborhood-y feel. It’s not too big.

Tony has a few gigs in Pittsburgh— he is the First Hand at Point Park University, and he is Resident Designer at both Pittsburgh Musical Theater and Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Looking at his handiwork in person or on his website, you would not assume that he only began sewing as an undergrad theater student at Ball State University. Tony attributes some of his skill to genetics. His grandmother and mother both were hobby-seamstresses. Although they never showed him the ropes, he just picked up on sewing when he needed to provide costumes for a student production.

The Drowsy Chaperone at Western Carolina University
The Drowsy Chaperone at Western Carolina University

After leaving Ball State, he bounced around the south between the Creede Repertory Theatre, the Alabama Shakespeare festival and various spots in Florida. He missed winter, and his husband is from West Virginia not too far from Pittsburgh, so moving here was a good fit.

It is the diversity of Pittsburgh’s theater scene that really makes Tony love living here—that and the fact that Pittsburgh supports the arts. Tony noted that no one gets into the theater to get rich. What he loves about costume design is that at the end of the day he has something tangible to show for his hours at work and that he rarely does the same thing twice. Tony approaches his work as a problem solver. In his position at Point Park, he receives a general idea, and then he makes it work. Recently, for the musical Pinkalicious, Tony made four-foot cupcakes out of yoga mats.

Jekyll and Hyde at Pittsburgh Musical Theater
Jekyll and Hyde at Pittsburgh Musical Theater

Working in the academic world at Point Park and freelancing with local theaters has been a blessing for Tony because he gets to work with students, and he gets to go deep into design work. Pittsburgh Theater has been a welcoming scene for him, and at times he even turns down work. His favorite shows to design are shows that have never before been staged. That way he can truly create a vision instead of deriving from another designer’s work. This summer he will be costuming Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s A Gathering of Sons which is an opera examining racial politics surrounding the police shooting of an unarmed black man, and a family’s grief at the loss of their child.

Guys and Dolls at Creede Repertory Theatre
Guys and Dolls at Creede Repertory Theatre

Currently, Tony is working with high school students who are staging a teen-friendly version of the musical Hair as part of their training with Pittsburgh Musical Theater. The kids remind him of why theater is so powerful. He said, “I look at them having fun and I think about the first time I did a show. Those kids enjoy it so much”.

Keep an eye out for what Tony is up to this summer by following along with our reviews of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s summer season!

We would love to hear from our readers and follow along with your theater adventures so keep in touch with us on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #SummerwithPITR.

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Sunday Fringe: Taking a Dive into the Absurd

chrisdavisapocalypsenowpostcardfront-1_origMy Sunday Fringe viewing took a dive into the absurd. I began my afternoon by catching One Man Apocalypse Now in the smelly basement of St. Mary’s Lyceum. Full disclosure: at the conclusion of this show, I thought—holy Hell, what can I possibly say about this? I have never seen the movie this play is based on, so as much as I enjoyed this production, I honestly have no idea how to describe the plot.

First the praise: the one man behind this one-man show, Chris Davis, is an incredible performer. He deftly embodied I’m guessing about twelve distinct characters over the course of an hour. At times he told the audience who he was (“I’m Laurence Fishburne, age fourteen…), and other times he transitioned without comment.

Also, this piece was surprisingly funny, particularly the part where Davis got meta. At one juncture he delivered the line: “you send a theater-artist to assassinate me?” In another scene he took on the persona of a Playboy Bunny and pantomimed some rather risqué moves.

I left feeling conflicted not about the show, but if I ever actually want to watch Apocalypse Now in its movie form. I kind of enjoy the idea that my only impression of this iconic movie comes from Davis’ interpretation.

After catching One Man Apocalypse Now I jetted over to Alphabet City, the new, beautiful, bookstore opened by City of Asylum to catch a showing of Eva and Hillary a production by Tardigrade Theatricals. The premise of this show is rather interesting—Hillary Clinton post-election is sequestered in a cabin watching CNN and binging on alcohol and raw cookie dough when suddenly Eva Peron appears for a meeting.

eva-hillaryThanks to the strong acting chops of the actresses playing Hillary and Eva I was able to sink into the action unquestionably. The strongest moments were in the ribald exchange between Hillary and Eva regarding Hillary’s likeability and the nature of being a woman with power.

In the last ten minutes of the show Donald Trump shows up to taunt the “girls”. After he gets grabby with Eva, Hillary pulls out some Kung Fu and knocks him out. I wish that was where the writers decided to end this show but instead the audience was treated to a rather disturbing scene of Hillary pressing Donald’s face into her crotch as she launched into an orgasmic-tinged monologue about how even if she didn’t break the glass ceiling she sure put some cracks in it. After climaxing, Hillary drops Donald back on the floor and Eva knocks ash from her cigarette onto his prostrate body.

Dear reader, I believe that true revolution is not about taking on the behavior of our oppressors but is actually about redefining power for a new, better age. Unfortunately, the end of this play only reinforced the “if they can do it, we can do it too” kind of cheap feminism our culture so embraces a la’ capitalistic “girl power”. What started out as a play with an interesting critique of likeability politics, unfortunately, lost its way.

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

Tips and Tricks at Saturday’s Fringe

philadelphiajugglermagicianDouglas Stafford, the writer and star of The Bad Idea Variety Show: My Lack of Social Life delivered a meta-style show at AIR Saturday night about what he describes as the truth of entertainment. Stafford tells a linear story about how he came to be a juggler and magician. Of course you can’t tell a story about magic and juggling without actually demonstrating those skills. For instance, while telling a story about the first time he got drunk, he performed a magic trick involving the shuffling of liquor bottles and a shot glass.

I think, unfortunately, there were many points in the show when Stafford’s magic tricks distracted from the storytelling so that both elements did not come off well. He seemed to be so distracted by performing the slight of handwork that often his lines were delivered with a kind of afterthought. For instance, he told a story about learning his father converted to Sikhism but then quickly launched into an apple, marshmallow, and bowling ball juggling bit. As an audience member, I didn’t understand the takeaway from the story about his father. I was left wondering if perhaps the performance interludes were actually deflections from delving into more emotionally vulnerable storytelling material.

Towards the conclusion of his show Stafford spoke about the idea of magic as human connection. I’m wondering what Stafford was aiming to connect to exactly. There were moments where he seemed genuinely invested in his material—especially when he was talking about his early love of magic but then he delved into some throwaway type jokes about the Penn State child molestation scandal and a bit about Michael Jackson that really didn’t serve his purpose. I think in the coming years we will see Stafford growing into an even better performer and storyteller, and I hope he continues to participate in the Fringe.

After catching Stafford’s show I stuck around to catch The Seven Suitcases of a Snake Oil Salesman by O’Ryan the O’Mazing. Before I get into my review of fringe-3x3this show, I would like to note that I don’t believe O’Ryan’s act was best served by being scheduled within a half hour of Stafford’s show because both performances shared very similar elements of narration with magic tricks, and they even shared many of the same props.

O’Ryan began the show delivering a missive about the nature of lies and lying while standing in front of a stack of seven suitcases.  He opened the suitcase on top of the pile and narrated a story about the origin of the phrase snake oil salesman. It ends up snake oil was a tonic used by Chinese immigrants when the US rail system in the 19th and early 20th century. It was only when white people began marketing and attempting to make the tonic for profit that the phrase was associated with fraud.

After wrapping up that segment, O’Ryan opened another suitcase and delivered a short puppet show illustrating what is possibly a Hopi fable on the theme of lying for survival. I think it was in this segment that O’Ryan lost his commitment to the show. He prefaced this vignette with an aside about throwing the act together at the last minute, and that he found the fable late at night on the Internet. I felt dismayed that a performer of his experience and caliber would toss out those kinds of comments. As an audience member I was immediately less invested in his work.

After the fable concluded O’Ryan spoke more about the payoff of lies for people in power while eating Cheetos, which was an obvious illusion to our current Cheeto-in-Chief.  And then he delivered a charming shadow puppet tale interpreting story by Frog and Toad author Arnold Lobel who was a closeted gay man until he was in his eighties. O’Ryan is amazing at shadow performance and his execution was on point. I think I understand where O’Ryan was going with this portion of the show by alluding to hiding as a form of lying but I believe he needs to add deeper analysis so it more clearly connects to his overall theme.

The show as about three-fourths over when O’Ryan asked how much time he had left. Faced with a looming curtain call O’Ryan then delved into a short monologue about times he lied. This section was both revealing and relatable when he discussed his anxiety and all of the ways he has found to not return texts and emails. He then delved into some charming material about lying his way through several states as a busker. I think what I saw Saturday night was the skeleton of a show-to-be for O’Ryan. With more rehearsal time and confidence, O’Ryan will turn this work into something great.

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

Fringe 2017 Day 1: Teeth & Sinew and The Chronic Single’s Handbook

404501_10150601331240797_648691161_nCup-A-Jo Productions, a Pittsburgh-based artist collaborative, returned to this year’s Fringe Festival with another challenging piece: Teeth & Sinew. At the beginning, we see two figures—a man with his back to the audience facing a large sheet of paper and a woman standing upstage. Then the pre-recorded score is played. There is the sound of a woman’s voice over a musical accompaniment. The voice begins telling the story of how she met and fell in love with her future husband. The woman on stage performs an interpretive dance in response to the voice narration as the man on stage dips his hands into bowls of paint and begins his own interpretation by painting on the sheet of paper.

The show is sectioned into three parts. The first part has a lightness about it as we listen to the story of early romance. The second part of the show featured a different dancer who used different movements as the story in the narration progressed. It is in this section there is foreshadowing of the narrator’s relationship taking an abusive turn. We hear the narrator speak of a breakup and subsequent return to her relationship—a kind of settling into being in the relationship with her partner.

The last section of the show again features a different dancer. I found it curious that the company decided to switch out dancers but not the man painting, obviously both parties in the story, the man and woman, change over the course of the narration but that wasn’t reflected in a cast change of the painter.

The story concludes with the narrator acknowledging the kind of cage of abuse she was living in with her partner and her coming to a tentative resolution after leaving the abuser. I found this part of the narration most moving because it didn’t offer an easy wrap up for the audience but instead acknowledged the kind of continuing journey of leaving abuse.

Kudos to composer Dan Glynn for creating the original score of the work. The show’s sound added emotional depth to a very basic visual set up.

I love watching one-person shows where the performer is also the writer. It ischron-single-3in-72dpi a pleasure to see someone interpret and perform his or her own work. This is why I love the Fringe so much. Randy Ross based the play The Chronic Single’s Handbook off of his just released novel of the same title.

In the beginning of the show we meet the narrator fresh off losing his job. He is romantically unattached (he neurotically presents his dating history to the audience via spreadsheet) and inspired to travel the world in search of culturally enriching experiences and trysts with attractive women. We are then treated to some increasingly harrowing hijinks. The narrator almost but not quite makes it with a Russian woman on a Greek Ferry. He then has a brief encounter with a Cambodian prostitute. Afterwards there is a vignette when the narrator acts out a BDSM scenario with a reluctant girlfriend. The play then returns to vignettes featuring another prostitute, this time in Cape Town.

Ross wraps up the play by taking the audience to the narrator’s more present circumstances. We watch the character struggle with finding that his new love is possibly not up to snuff and philosophize on what it even means to be attached to someone.

Ross is a great performer. He has great presence, and in particular his delivery of comedic lines is solid. I can also praise his writing to a certain extent. His show is well structured—he deftly moved between tense and scene without losing a logical thread. What The Chronic Single’s Handbook lacks is a sense of humanity. I am a not a critic who believes that characters have to be likeable in order for a show to have merit, but what I do believe is that a show suffers when it deals in one dimensional, misogynistic portrayals.

The narrator of The Chronic Single’s Handbook appears to be a man who just can’t believe that the women he encounters were not put on this planet to serve his needs and pleasures. This premise, while promising at the beginning of the work, fails to develop and so the play becomes a tedious diatribe. The women the narrator encounters appear to all be crazy and also incredibly beautiful. Some might even say the women populating this play are manic-pixie dream girls.

When watching a one-man show, it is easy to confuse the character being portrayed with the actor/writer performer behind the work.  The ending line of the show is, “A girl has limits.” Yes, she does.

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

Artist Spotlight: Jeffrey Chips

unnamed (1)Jeffery Chips is trying to be it all: husband, father, theater director, and day-job-worker. He said, referring to the old idiom of burning the candle at both ends, that he had actually located a third end to burn. He started Steel City Shakespeare Center (SCSC) in 2012 with the intention of creating a space for actors to gather, workshop and audition. It wasn’t until two years after its founding that Chips pursued producing plays under the SCSC banner.

SCSC specializes in a kind of performance that Chips characterizes as “extreme casting”. Their productions are bare-bones in style, utilizing a small cast to convey many characters. The actor’s work with minimal sets, lighting and sound production, instead relying on the strength of their skill set to create the atmosphere. Chips noted that a production like this challenges the audience to use their imagination—to play along with what is happening on stage. For example, in SCSC’s production of Twelfth Night featured Chips playing two characters getting in a fist fight with each other.

The company is still finalizing the details of its 2017 season; though Chips was able to give some insight into what Pittsburgh audiences can expect. Theater, he said, can be an agent to counteract our culture’s current state of isolation and polarization. “Let’s all come together and share stories as a means of uniting.” When pressed about whether a dead white guy, such as Shakespeare, is really the platform to achieve those goals, he noted that he too struggles with that concept, but ultimately Shakespeare can speak to a multitude of experiences. His company, he said, has also produced non-Shakespeare, albeit white and British-centric plays such as last year’s Pride and Prejudice. The production was Steel City’s Shakespeare’s most successful show to date.

One source of support that has been crucial to Steel City Shakespeare’s growth is their partnership with New Sun Rising. New Sun Rising is a project out of Millvale, PA dedicated to supporting local artists and entrepreneurs. SCSC has received mentoring in the fields of development and visioning. NSR also happens to be Pittsburgh in the Round’s fiscal sponsor.

A longtime lover of theater, Chips has found it challenging to balance all the life roles that he has taken on. After completing his graduate degree in Shakespeare and Performance and training at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, he returned to Pittsburgh and performed in a few local productions. When those shows completed he said to himself, “Is this it?”.   The answer he came to was a resounding no.  To Chips, people are told that once they have children, they are to “get serious.” He believes though, that children benefit from seeing their parents thrive.

What helps Chips thrive is heading SCSC. When in production, he has packed weekdays where he runs lines while driving to and from his job, eats dinner with his family every night and then goes off to rehearsal. Often, after rehearsal, his work continues back at home where he then focuses on selling ad space in the program or he types up his notes for actors.  Relaying a conversation he had recently with Jim Warren, Artistic Director of the American Shakespeare Center, Chips told me that Warren said, “You have to make a decision that will help you down the road. Keep moving and keep building that momentum.”

He trusts that his hard work will pay off one day, and he will hopefully not have to juggle his artistic life with his day job. Chips also pointed out that his wife wouldn’t mind him pitching in more with the laundry and dishes as well. Pittsburgh is the right place, he said, to be in the arts, but he also has some feedback for his peers: “ The arts community needs to challenge itself and say— we are worthy of earning more.”

To stay up to date with all the fun happening at the Steel City Shakespeare Center, check out their website here. 

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Artist Spotlight: Sean Sears

Sean Sears
If you listen closely enough, you can hear the North Carolina in Sean Sears’ speech. We met for tea last week, and over our hour-long conversation I could just barely discern a drawl at the end of a few words. After spending both his adolescence and college years down south, Sean and his wife, Ursula moved to Pittsburgh to help found the Throughline Theatre Company with some of Sean’s college friends in 2009. You may recall the U.S. was in an economic recession then. He noted that there is never actually a good time to start a theater company; “No one ever says—you know what’s a money maker? Theater arts.”

Since its founding, Sean has held a number of roles in the company: Director of Development, President of the Board of Directors, and Associate Artistic Director. Currently, the Company is going through a staffing transition on a few fronts, and Sean is taking the helm of Artistic Director for the upcoming season. The founding mission of Throughline is to, “demonstrate the existence of common themes throughout literary history that bridge generations and bring into perspective the constancy of the human condition”. This season’s theme is the “Fairer Sex” focusing in on the stories on of gender equality. Sean, so far, has settled on producing two plays, Cloud 9 about shifting identities and power structures and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) a play examining traditional women’s roles. He has not settled on the third play that Throughline will be staging later in the season.

Some have identified the forthcoming presidency of Donald Trump as a rejection of multiculturalism. This may be true but Sean continues to support that ideal. He said, “the arts are the cutting edge, so you work backwards from the arts.” When focusing in on the theme of gender equality Sean acknowledged that you have to explore the actual construct of gender. For Sean, “It can’t just be shows of women about women’s rights. That isn’t enough. You aren’t really diverse if you do that.” I questioned if Throughline’s audience was ready for Sean to push the envelope. He believes that to have empathy for your audience is the key to your audience enjoying the show. “You can’t beat up on them and then ask them for donations,” he said. Still he believes theater can be an excellent tool for change. It’s a medium like no other where an audience is living and breathing with the art unfolding in front of them. Theater is the ultimate shared experience, he believes. He elaborated on the theme of empathy, “[audiences] need to have themselves reflected at themselves so they can either learn or say, absolutely—thank you. We can be a release for people that struggle and are in pain. That is what theater is.”

He admits that he is still learning how to best be an Artistic Director practicing his ideals. He wants to act with an open mind. He offered me this caveat, “I’m a cisgender, heterosexual, white guy, so a lot of things I say come with a big dollop of privilege. My job as I see it is to learn and to shut up when other people who actually experience these things are talking. I can’t just take for granted that I’m an artist that I can tell anyone’s story. Some stories aren’t meant for me. Those aren’t my stories to tell, but they are still worth telling.” In that case Sean is going to put someone with a more authentic perspective in front of that production.

Returning to the theme of empathy, he noted that half of the arts is empathy. You can portray on stage situations you haven’t personally experienced, but you also need to be willing to take a step back and ask yourself if what you are doing is authentic. Is your production true to the mission and message that the piece is trying to convey? If you find that you are being inauthentic, then it is time to take a step back.

He sees the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council as vanguard for these conversations. This December he will be attending a forum about equitable casting hosted by GPAC. The forum, December 12th is free and open to the public. He strives for equitable casting in Throughline’s Productions, but he does see limits. If one is doing a show about family and the family portrayed is by a multiracial cast, he believes it would behoove the story to offer some kind of background or context in that case. If the particular role you are casting is racially neutral then there is no reason to explain the casting decision. According to Sean, if an audience member leaves a show wondering why a role was played by an actor with a specific racial make up then that is a fail of the Artistic Director because the real message of the play was something else entirely.

Sean’s work with the Throughline Theatre Company is truly a family affair; his wife currently holds the position of Marketing Director. Maybe we’ll even see his young child, Rowan, step onto the stage in the near future. Watch out for the launching of Throughline’s season later this autumn.


Trial by Jury and Gianni Schicchi

tmp_18942-trial-01-1926570402When asked to review The Pittsburgh Savoyard’s productions of Gianni Schicchi and Trial by Jury I at first refused. Up until my attendance of these operas my experience of this art form was limited to watching Bugs Bunny in a Viking helmet in Saturday morning cartoons. Do I like admitting my cultural limits in public? Of course not! But I believe I am in good company here. I write this review not from an expert’s perspective, but as a new and excited opera audience member.

I am a Pittsburgh transplant, and every year I reside in this fine city I find more reasons to love living here. One of those reasons is the ticket price accessibility of the Pittsburgh’s cultural institutions such as the Pittsburgh Savoyards. The ticket prices are in the $20 range, which many can afford. This company is celebrating their 79th season, and I attended opening night of their latest production at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA.SCHICCHI_1794

Gianni Schicci and Trial by Jury are both one-act operas. Gianni Schicci, an Italian opera written by Puccini circa 1917-18. Though it was performed in English I was assisted in my comprehension by the supertitles projected above the stage. It is the story of the welcome death of a family patriarch and the scramble to change his will to benefit his family and not the convent he intended. Running concurrent to that narrative thread there is also a love story featuring the patriarch’s nephew and a lower class young woman. In the interest of not spoiling show for future viewers, I will not reveal the major plot twist that brings these two storylines together.14566332_884531705014864_6168818726483592190_o

There were a few standout actors in this production. I couldn’t take my eyes off Ian Greenlaw in the title character of Gianni Schicchi. To borrow a phrase from the hippies, he just had great energy. Most of the scenes in Schicchi are group scenes with characters delivering lines at each other in rapid-fire succession. I would have been overwhelmed if not for Greenlaw’s dynamism on stage. He was a grounding point for the whole production. Also of note was Katie Manukyan as Lauretta singing on “Oh, my dear papa”. Manukyan, a Notherwestern University trained singer delivered this song about not being able live without her love with a reserved sincerity that let the audience really focus on the emotionalism of the lyrics. I was truly moved by her performance.

My major qualm with this production has to do with a style choice.  Pittsburgh Savoyards producers and director James Critchfield adapted the script to reflect a modern Pittsburgh aesthetic. This means the property that is at stake in the contested will include a house in Wilkinsburg, steel mills and a Porsche. Also the stage was replete with enough Steelers paraphernalia that it looked like a cheesy storefront in the Strip.  Lastly, they brought in McFeely (in reference to Mr. Roger’s Mr. McFeely) as a deliveryman, and for reasons I can’t decipher, Hillary Clinton as an estate lawyer. I admit that at first I found the idea of an adaptation to be potentially fun, but when executed it fell flat for me. The problem was that I found myself investing more in anticipating what new Pittsburgh reference would be revealed in the plot than actually investing in the story execution. When you are on the edge of your seat to see how the actors pronounce East Liberty (Sliberty) instead of the edge of your seat to see how the conflict will be resolved, there is an issue.TBJ_DAY1_2610

The second show of the night was a Gilbert and Sullivan farce first produced in 1875 called Trial by Jury. This show was also adapted with a Pittsburgh aesthetic in mind but that was mainly interpreted in the cast’s wardrobe. I didn’t find the Pittsburgh as distracting. Trial by Jury is the story of a woman suing her former fiancé (wearing a yellow tuxedo shirt and black pants with a gold stripe down the leg) because he fell in love with another woman and broke off their engagement. The jury consisted of bridesmaids wearing black and gold gowns, McFeely again, and a few other men. The judge was outfitted in typical judge attire and the bride also appeared in standard wedding wear. There is something just really charming and campy about a courtroom musical where the feuding parties, the jury and even the judge sings.

Highlights of this performance include Aleç Donaldson’s singing as the fiancé Edwin on the songs “Is this the Court of Exchequer” and “When first my old, old love I knew”. Donaldson’s voice is rich and has a command of harmonizing. I found Donaldson’s vocals and the vocals of the learned Judge Michael Greenstein to be the strongest of the Trial by Jury’s cast. Kudos also to the set design. The warring parties were blocked center stage and behind them on both sides were stacked risers where the jury sat. The simplicity helped me focus on the quickly unfolding action whereas the cluttered stage design of Gianni Schicchi made for a scattered viewing experience.TBJ_DAY1_2617

Overall, I had a fine night attending my first opera. Bravo to Pittsburgh Savoyards for more making opera accessible and for putting on a rousing community production. Bravo to Music Director and Conductor Guy Russo for leading a fine orchestra of talented musicians. Their playing was on point. And lastly bravo to the people behind the renovation of the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie, PA; the work that has been completed is already beautiful. I can’t wait to see more productions in this space.

Please note that there were two casts alternating performances. This review is based on the October 7th performance.

Unfortunately, Gianni Schicchi and Trial by Jury closed on the 16th. For more information about the Pittsburgh Savoyards and their Spring production of Patience click here.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Savoyards for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Greg Kornides.

Twenty Years of Prime Stage

Prime Stage Logo-2015Wayne Brinda has his wife to thank for giving him the push to start the Prime Stage Theatre Company in 1995. Brinda, had been working for a grant funded company that was facing financial hardship and Wayne’s wife, Connie pointed out that he had always wanted to start his own company—why not do it now? In its twentieth season, the Prime Stage Theatre Company is still going strong. This year’s season will feature the plays: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and the exclusive premiere of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Prime Stage Theatre Company has a unique relationship with Pittsburgh’s mockingbirdschools; the company produces plays based on the student reading lists and teacher curriculum. In order for a play to make it to the company’s stage it has to meet the approval of a teacher advisory committee. As demonstrated by this year’s productions, Prime Stage takes on both classic and contemporary work.  These upcoming shows, Brinda pointed out, are stories in some way about integrity, either integrity in the face of unjust systems, such as To Kill A Mockingbird or 1984, or integrity in the face of carving out an identity such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Prime Stage has hosted exclusive premieres in the past including a very popular production of The Westing Game. To produce to a work that has never 1984been done before is a process that can typically take up to two years. Brinda first approaches the author of the book he wants to stage as a play. If the author concedes, Brinda then begins negotiations with the author’s agents and attorneys. After a contract is secured, he then goes about finding the right playwright to bring the book to life.  Once a play is written it than goes through script readings and additional drafts before it’s ready for Prime Stage’s audience. A Penn State College student who is friends with the book’s author, Stephen Chbosky, wrote the script for The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Currently, Brinda is in talks to acquire the rights to Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, which is a story about youth, parenting, and coming to grips with one’s traumatic past.

The stories that Prime Stage chooses to tell are challenging. Last year, the perkscompany put on A Lesson Before Dying, which is a story of a young black man, who is an innocent bystander to a murder, is sentenced to death. Brinda noted that the play took on special significance in the context of real-world killing of unarmed black men by police officers, and the resulting protests. He added, “We are not afraid of doing things that are provocative.” Brinda finds real joy in his work as Producing Artistic Director. His drive is simple—to get audiences excited about reading. One powerful way to do that is to stage compelling stories. That, he says, is his one and only agenda. He’s not pushing any kind of mindset or political framework. He aims to “focus on the story and let people become affected by it”.

When it comes to thought-provoking, well-produced theater, audience goers have much to look forward to this year. Catch the season’s opener, To Kill a Mockingbird, opening November 4. Followed by 1984 opening March 3, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower opening May 5.

For tickets and more information about Prime Stage, check out their website here.

Check out the rest of our 2016 Fall Preview here! Follow along with our autumn adventures with the hashtag #FallwithPITR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Floyd Collins

Floyd CollinsTrue confession: I wasn’t initially thrilled at the prospect of attending a two and half hour musical about a man trapped in a cave in rural Kentucky. To me, the premise was dubious at best. I’m glad to report that my hesitation was unfounded, Front Porch Theatrical’s production of the musical Floyd Collins is some of the strongest theater I’ve attended in Pittsburgh. All of the elements were there: strong cast, creative stage design, and a story well told.

This play is based on real events that transpired in 1925 in Cave City, Kentucky although the town is named Barren Country in the play. The show opens as freewheeling, big-dreaming Floyd Collins prospects for a cave to turn into a moneymaking tourist attraction. We see Floyd discover what could be a cash cow for his working poor family, the only catch is that when he attempts to leave the cave, soft limestone and pebbles fill in around his arms and legs, trapping him in the exit shaft. All of this happens in the first fifteen minutes of the play, the drama then unfolds both above and below ground as we witness Floyd, his siblings, his family, and friends, and mining professionals come to realize the Floyd’s entrapment cannot be easily remedied.

Ensemble singing “Remarkable”, featuring dancers/reporters Gena Simms (L), Mason Lewis (C) & Jordan Plutzer (R), also seen (L-R) Danny McHugh, as Floyd Collins (in cave), Nathan Salstone, as Homer Collins (background), & Ryan Bergman (far R), as Skeets Miller
Ensemble singing “Remarkable”, featuring dancers/reporters Gena Simms (L), Mason Lewis (C) & Jordan Plutzer (R), also seen (L-R) Danny McHugh, as Floyd Collins (in cave), Nathan Salstone, as Homer Collins (background), & Ryan Bergman (far R), as Skeets Miller

The play’s action spans the course of two weeks, and with each passing day Floyd’s struggle gains more notoriety, first as its covered by local reporter Skeets Miller, and then gaining national press thus attracting not only would be rescuers but also throngs of onlookers, ironically creating the kind of tourist spectacle that Floyd intended to bank on in the first place.

The stage design, I thought, was really unique. Utilizing multiple stepladders, so when characters wanted to visit Floyd we watched them scrabble to reach him conveyed the underground.

The weight of this play’s success was carried on the shoulders of actor Danny McHugh who played Floyd. He deftly conveyed the inner life of a trapped man with the understated emotionalism that the role called for. Another strong performance was by Lindsay Bayer in the role of Floyd’s sprite-like little sister. Her acting added levity to what could have gotten too depressing tonally; also of note was actor Ryan Bergman as the local reporter Skeets Miller who gave a moving portrayal of a journalist who befriends and attempts to rescue his subject.

Nathan Salstone, as Homer Collins (L) & Danny McHugh, as Floyd Collins, on the Swing Tree in “The Riddle Song”
Nathan Salstone, as Homer Collins (L) & Danny McHugh, as Floyd Collins, on the Swing Tree in “The Riddle Song”
Sandy Zwier, as Miss Jane (L) & Lindsay Bayer, as Nellie Collins, singing “Lucky”
Sandy Zwier, as Miss Jane (L) & Lindsay Bayer, as Nellie Collins, singing “Lucky”

What I haven’t mentioned yet is the music of the production. An eight-piece highly skilled orchestra accompanies the play, and the songs in the production were in the style of Americana/folk hybrid. This is a critique of the play’s author and not of the production itself, I believe there were perhaps a few too many songs in the production, the pacing felt slogged down in the first half. All of the actors had strong voices but the real stand out was Billy Wayne Coakley who played the minor character of Ed Bishop, Floyd’s friend. His best musical contribution came in the second act, and I felt my interest really snap to once Coakley started belting out his lines. I do hope that Front Porch Theatricals gives him a starring role in a production soon. I would love to hear an entire theatrical experience centered on his singing talent.

Pittsburgh is fortunate to have a company of the Front Porch Theatrical’s caliber. The artistic directors are to be commended for producing a play as unknown and challenging as Floyd Collins.

Special thanks to Front Porch Theatricals for complimentary press tickets. Photo credits: Martha Dollar Smith

Floyd Collins runs at the New Hazlett Theatre through September 4. For tickets and more information, click here.