PNWF 2017: Program D

PNWF LOGOFor 27 seasons, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival has brought new one act shows to the stage from playwrights both local and from far away. Last weekend, I got to check out three non-local writers’ new shows during Program D of the PNWF’s four program run. As always, the shows are more focused on bringing the story to life, showcasing the acting and the words over staging and effects. I was pleased to see that all three of the shows I saw excelled in performing their scripts with limited sets and props.

olderThe first show, When You are a Little Bit Older, was an interesting presentation. I was warned to sit on audience left in the theatre to get a better viewpoint, as the characters were actually sitting in audience right during the show. This show, written by Matthew Weaver, was presented by Thoreau, NM- A Production Company. It featured three teenagers at the cinema watching a movie. At least, one of them was watching the movie. The other two spend the show trying desperately to make out but are continually thwarted by the younger brother, played by Korey Grecek. Grecek repeatedly makes his older brother (Peter Kelley Stamerra) go out to concessions for more snacks, upon the threat of telling his girlfriend’s father what’s they’re up to during the movie. Stamerra had a limited role in the show, spending most of his time crawling over actual theatre goers to get out of the aisle, but his exasperation at Grecek is well played, making me guess he has younger siblings of his own.

The show is really about the younger brother wanting a chance to chat up his bro’s girlfriend, played convincingly by Sophia Rose Englesberg. Grecek spends the time waiting for his brother to come back asking Englesberg about her past relationships, and eventually advice for the future of his own. Director lance-eric skapura did a great job with staging the show and blocking the kids, even if I wondered several times why these kids weren’t kicked out of the movie theater for constantly talking during the film. I thought the show could have been slightly shorter. There would only be so many times I’d be willing to return to concessions before I’d lose it, no matter what the threat was. Aside from that, this show is a cute, light-hearted piece with lots of humor. A very nice way to open the evening.

bernieThe South Hills Players presented the second show, Bernie, in my opinion the funniest of the evening. It was full of dark humor, involving themes of suicide, death, failure, and hopelessness. Despite all that, writer Fred Perry is skilled at making the audience laugh out loud time after time. Most of the laughs came from Steven F. Gallagher, who played the titular role. Bernie is the dictionary definition of cynical, having experienced loss, frustration, and constant setback. Losing his beloved dog is the last straw, and he decides to kill himself. Except he’s not very good at that either. Gallagher’s delivery of the lines is exceptional, clearly having a lot of experience with comedic timing.

Playing wonderfully alongside Gallagher is Dave Malehorn, Bernie’s brother Sid. Sid is called upon when Bernie’s suicide goes south, and Malehorn spends the show exasperated at his brother’s recent behavior. This is another theme, that goes along with the first and last show, of being there for family no matter how ridiculous or annoying they can be. Gallagher and Malehorn play extremely well off each other. Major kudos to director Jennifer Luta for her casting choices and direction of tone.After an intermission for

storyAfter an intermission for set change, the last show of the evening was presented: Story Road. While Stage Right Pittsburgh did a nice job bringing out the humor of playwright Mark Cornell’s piece, it was about conflict and unhappiness. A young girl was running away from her father, not because she didn’t love him, but because she’d had enough of his on-the-road-musician lifestyle. Ellie, played by Marybeth Herman, only wanted a normal life, with a house and friends and a family, all grounded in one location. Since her mother died, it’s been her and her father on the road while he performs his songs, which she reminds him several times are not very good, at different bars and clubs to make a living. Herman is great in her role of dramatically-annoyed teen girl, and you certainly get a sense from her that even if her father hadn’t caught up with her, she wasn’t really going to go anywhere.

Andrew Lasswell played Cleveland, a man who is struggling to provide for his daughter and himself the only way he can. The chemistry between Herman and Lasswell was earnest and heartfelt. And while there was a lot of humor, there was a lot of pain and frustration as well. Director Joe Eberle also cast this duo very well for each other, and he knew exactly when to play up the humor and highlight the serious moments. I may have even shed a tear or two at the ending.

While shows this brand new often have a few imperfections, all three shows of Program D have enough humor and talent to beyond make up for the newness of the pieces. These seven actors have done fantastic jobs at bringing the shows to life, and I hope all the writers are proud of their work.

The Pittsburgh New Works Festival runs through September 24 at Carnegie Stage. For tickets and more information, check out their website here. 

Annie

936932-427366-14When I was given this assignment, I was greatly confused at being told that the theatre I was going to was in Greenfield. I lived on the Squirrel Hill/Greenfield edge for eleven years and have been doing theatre in Pittsburgh for fifteen, and I’ve never heard of a playhouse in Greenfield. That’s because this is a new venture, and a new company and the show I went to see is only their second theatrical production. While the Palisade Playhouse offers many services in their space including music classes, a choir, summer camp, and fitness sessions, as well as community church services, their main goal is to produce family friendly shows that can involve lots of artists in the Pittsburgh area. The theatre space is, in fact, a church that they’ve purchased and are fixing up to better suit their theatrical ambitions. Co-owner and children’s director Michelle Bellison says that plans are to eventually convert the second floor to a living space so their family can both live and work in the building. Their first musical was Clue in April, and now they’ve taken on a full cast of children and adults to do Annie.

Co-owner and director of this production, Matt Belliston had quite a challenge fitting an entire cast of kids onto the small church stage, but the actors never seemed to be stifled or lacking in space. Besides the stage area, actors used the aisle and fronts of the audience from time to time, making it feel more inclusive to the viewers sitting in the church pews watching. Given the space they had, it all seemed to fall into place nicely.

Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie
Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie

This production has two different casts for most parts, identified as the “red” cast and the “white” cast in the program. Presumably this is to give the actors (a lot of them children) breaks between shows. I saw a red cast night, and I got to see Miss Rachael Renee Parsons completely shine as the title character. Not only was her voice impressive and perfect for the role, Parsons clearly has the experience needed for her to go far in the world of drama. She had a great sense of comedic timing and tone, something I often find underdeveloped in child actors. In the red cast, Rachael Parsons is joined on stage by two of her sisters (Nicole and Danielle) who played Tessie and Molly, and her mother Tracey, who worked closely alongside her daughter onstage as Grace Farrell, Oliver Warbucks’ assistant. It’s clear where these girls get their talent from, as Tracey Parsons is an obvious veteran of the stage.

Another noteworthy performance was Jillene Stewart as the exasperated and often intoxicated orphanage manager, Miss Hannigan. Her portrayal of this woman, who could easily be frightening, is just enough of a villain to get the point across with humor while still being suitable for children. She ended up being mostly comic, which I think is generally the point of the character.

The orphans all worked together extremely well, coordinating their group dances and singing with ease. It was nice to see a group of girls of varying ages being so enthused about acting. I never caught one standing around looking out of place. They all were acting the full time they were on stage. Kudos also goes to the costumer of the show (unnamed in program) for the excellent work on the orphans’ clothes. The whole cast very much looked the part and felt like the right period, and for a fresh theatre company that’s pretty impressive. Choreographer Toni Dobransky obviously worked hard on getting everything to be on time and in place, because the dances all throughout the show were well organized and entertaining.

Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie, and Tracey Parsons as Grace Farrell.
Thomas Kurt Fuchel, Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Rachael Renee Parsons as Annie, and Tracey Parsons as Grace Farrell.

I was pleased in general with all the acting and singing, but one part of the show that really suffered was the technical end. This being the company’s second show, it’s easy to see that they simply need a bit more work at organizing the off-stage portion of things. Each scene had a full set change, which seemed very unnecessary, and that made each change go on far longer than it should have. On top of the length of each change, actors were moving things around stage very haphazardly, bumping into each other and banging set pieces on the ground. The company should consider a more rehearsed run crew in the future.

The music was played from a pre-recorded soundtrack, but the lights were designed by Aidan Setlock. Aside from a few odd color choices, the lights worked pretty well considering the space they had to play with. Although whoever was running the spotlight clearly needed a bit more practice.

All in all, this show was a well-done musical that hosts a great amount of talent. Palisade Playhouse is just getting started, and there’s always a few bumps in the road at first. From seeing this production, I can tell that they’re going to be a company to really watch for in the coming years. Best of luck to them!

Annie runs at the Palaside Playhouse through September 2. For tickets and more information, click here

Photos courtesy of Salene Mazur Kraemer

Carlow University Presents Alumni Show This Fall

528219_10151395835667183_921612747_nFall is approaching, and students are already moving back into the dorms. That means fall semester auditions are about to start at local universities. And although Carlow University in Oakland doesn’t have a theatre degree program, they have an impressive drama group putting on several must-see shows every year. Maybe I’m a bit biased because Carlow is my alma mater and I have spent many hours upon that stage, but Carlow’s shows are consistently underrated. Because there is no dedicated theatre major, all the work that goes into each show is on a volunteer basis. The students that come together to spent hours rehearsing, building sets, and performing are all doing it because they love the art. They give up their free time to make these shows happen, and it really shows in the craft they present.

The cast of the 2008 alumni production of Much Ado About Nothing
The cast of the 2008 alumni production of Much Ado About Nothing

Carlow’s theatre director and professor Steve Fatla has overseen the theatre group at Carlow for many years now, and his enthusiasm for the art is what keeps the group alive and thriving. I can personally say that working with this group is always a fun and rewarding experience, even if we all have the urge to drink many alcoholic things after the shows. Carlow’s theatre group has a kind of closeness that I don’t often see in other theatrical organizations I’ve worked for in Pittsburgh. It’s not a job, it’s a passion.

One great example of how this group bonds is the annual alumni show. Once a year, all alum are invited to come back and audition for a show or to work on the crew in some aspect. This fall will be Carlow’s tenth annual alumni show. The first was Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in 2008. It was an all-female cast, which was intentional! Carlow is a mostly female campus, but this theatre group has its share of men wandering through. Since then, every year has seen a different alumni show, mixing roughly half veteran Carlow thespians with current students, both on stage and back stage. Everyone helps build the sets, and everyone helps tear down the sets before a cast party on the final night.

The cast of the alumni production of The Tempest in 2013
The cast of the alumni production of The Tempest in 2013

This year’s alumni show will be Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the hilarious and dark take on what happens to Shakespeare’s characters when they’re not on stage during Hamlet. Steve Fatla will be directing, and as always there will be a mix of alum and student actors and crew. Auditions will happen shortly, and the show will run Oct 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, & 21 at 8pm in the Antonian Theatre on Carlow’s campus. For those of you who never seem to know where that is, get on Fifth Avenue in Oakland going away from Pitt towards town. You can’t miss it! The theatre is in the first building on the hill, but there will be signs. Tickets are $15 for this show, with discounts for students and seniors. If you want to make a reservation for this show, or if you have any questions about the show or the group, you can call the box office at 412-578-8749 or email Steve directly at sfatla@carlow.edu.

After the alumni show, the Carlow University Theatre Group will also be presenting their annual show of one acts. These shows are free to attend, but the material and casts have yet to be determined. You can find out more information on this show by seeing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead in October. And keep your eyes open for future Carlow performances. You might just be surprised with what you see!

For more information about Carlow University’s Theatre Minor program, click here. 

The Tempest

tempest-pageheader_origSummer is here, and it’s time to get out of the house and smell that delicious Pittsburgh air! Whether or not that sounds appealing to you, Shakespeare in the park definitely should. You get all the fun of a theatrical experience, but you can take your shoes off and eat Swedish Fish while you’re watching it! What’s not to love?

Steel City Shakespeare is undertaking one of my personal favorites of the Bard’s- The Tempest. Something we can all relate to here after the weather this past week. They set their stage in the Troy Hill Citizen’s Park, but no worries! If a literal tempest comes along, they have the church across the street as a backup location. And Shakespeare in the church would also be pretty cool, right?

Even though I love this play, Shakespeare can sometimes get a bit dull after seeing the same show throughout the years. Luckily, SCS has provided its audience with a fun twist for this production. The play has over twenty the tempest 1characters, but director Jeffrey Chips is presenting fifteen of them portrayed by only five actors. Slight costume changes signal the transition from one character to another, which works sometimes well and sometimes hilariously as a few characters jump between personas within the same scene. This was generally successful, especially for the most obvious change: the charismatic Sandee L. Rollins’ transition from magic-dealing Prospera to that character’s own brother, Antonio. The only times characters were kind of jumbled were when smaller characters switched around quickly. Much kudos to the actors of this show, who not only memorized the lines of multiple characters but could also keep them straight and change bits of wardrobe and set at the same time.

My personal favorite of the dual characterization was Miranda and Ariel, both played by Anne Rematt. In a brilliant move on Chips’ part, Miranda seems to sleep or “disappear” every time Ariel pops up, giving the impression that Ariel is a spirit dwelling inside Miranda, only coming out when her mother Prospera needs help with trickery. Rollins and Rematt have a wonderful chemistry on stage, both as mother and daughter and as master and servant. The shift in their relationship as Rematt’s characters changed was obvious but natural.

tempest 2I’d also be remiss not to mention that fan favorite trio of Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano. These characters make up the drunken fools of the show and were brought to life comically by David Loehr, Paige Borak, and Ryan Bergman respectively. Each of them also had several other characters to take on. Bergman stood out especially, switching from climbing trees and playing an accordion as an inebriated Stephano to mourning his presumed dead son while enduring a strange and frightening land as the solemn Alonso.

The magic of the storm and the island were worked about as well as could be on a very sunny day in a park in the city. Everyone watching is expected to use their imaginations to create the scenery not provided. There were a few instruments used, and some practical sound effects, but for the most part, the acting seems to be what Chips meant to highlight in this production. It was incredibly reminiscent of a traveling theatre troupe. The costume pieces and props not in use sat just off the side of the playing area, and the actors not in a scene did as well. Having everything exposed and obvious as part of the craft of theatre was a fun aspect that is not often seen. And it absolutely made viewers feel more connected with the art, somehow involved with the things normally only found behind black curtains.

Of course the script was cut down in some places; the entire performance, the tempest 3including a small intermission, lasted only about two hours. This was a welcome change, as sitting in the humidity could have been exhausting if the entire show had been performed. Thankfully, they housed the audience in shade, making the heat easier to bear and taking the sun out of our eyes.  All the actors were easy to hear, despite the occasional children playing in a backyard or camera shutter clicking behind the spectators.

Steel City Shakespeare is suggesting a $15 donation to come see the show, and they sell some snacks and drinks there as well. The area offers plenty of free street parking, and the area itself is easy to find, even for someone like me who had never been to Troy Hill before. If you’ve never been to a performance in an outdoor setting, it’s really something you should experience. And if you have, you know how new and special it feels every time. SCS only has two more performances left of The Tempest, and I highly recommend getting out to one!

The Tempest runs two more times June 24 and 25 in the Troy Hill Citizens Park! For more information click here

Photos courtesy of Ringa Sunn!

Throughline Theatre: Heading to New Places

The Fair SexIt’s shaping up to be an innovative year for Throughline Theatre Company. After producing four shows a year at the Grey Box Theatre for the last five years, they’ve had to find a new space. Michael McBurney, Throughline’s Public Relations Director, says the company is excited about being in a new space. They will be performing their shows this year at the Henry Heymann Theatre in Oakland. Due to the space switch, they will only be performing two mainstage shows this season, but there will be a third show with a fun new format!

Throughline’s theme for this season is “The Fair Sex,” which follows up their 2016 theme of “Can You Trust the Government?” When asked if current events have been inspiring their recent themes, McBurney says they’ve definitely been taking the cultural environment into consideration. This year, theatre goers can expect to see shows about gender, sex, and equality. And while there will be comedy throughout each show, the underlying message will be easy to spot.

Both mainstage shows will run over two weeks on a Friday/Saturday then Thursday/Friday/Saturday schedule. Each Saturday will have a matinee performance as well as an evening one. The first Saturday of each show will be a “pay what you can” day for those who are tight on money. Throughline is also working on new ways to engage groups related to the theme. “We’re trying to branch out for what Throughline can offer to folks,” McBurney says. If you have a group that would be interested in working with Throughline on a special evening or group engagement, you can email him at mcburney@throughlinetheatre.org.

Vibrator PlayIn the Next Room (Or the Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl

Set in the 19th century, this show tells the story of a family who is struggling with intimacy, as was the case for many families in the era. The husband, a doctor, has created a wonderful new invention that runs on electricity and can cure women of “hysteria.” The play provides heartfelt moments as well as spotlighting the lives of several women who are affected by this new machine.

In the Next Room will be directed by Abigail Liz-Perlis, who also directed the company’s acclaimed version of Everyman a few years ago. The show will run June 16-24, and there will be a talkback on Friday, June 23rd, immediately following the show.

Cloud 9 ImageCloud 9 by Caryl Churchill

This is a story of sexual exploration, social and racial roles in society, and soap opera-esque flip-flopping of relationships. The play is set in British colonial Africa for the first act and London for the second. Twenty-five years pass between the acts, and the actors all play different roles in the second act. It’s a highly amusing tale of men and women and their scandalous exploits, and ultimately about accepting people as they are.

Cloud 9 will be directed by Edwin Lee Gibson, who is a new member of Throughline’s board. The show will run August 11-19.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

For the third show of Throughline’s season, they’ll be delivering an exciting one night only live-read podcast recording of Shakespeare’s classic comedy. This well known show about love and deceit will be read by Throughline actors for a live audience as it’s recorded to be released as a podcast.  This event will be happening at the Glitter Box Theatre sometime in September, so stay tuned to Throughline’s social media outlets for news about this event!

For more information about Throughline and what they’re up to, check out their website here

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.

And don’t forget to sign up for our email blasts here. 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

16864036_10154948753785797_8467742892383435851_nEver have that dream where you’re suddenly in the middle of a play, but it’s in someone’s living room instead of on a stage and the actors are inches away from you? And then you realize it’s not a dream; you’re just watching Cup-a-Jo Productions’ version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Never had that experience? Just me? Oh. Well, you’re in luck, because for the next two weekends you’ll be able to live the dream and see a powerful piece of theater while you’re at it.

If you’re not familiar with the play, it’s entirely set in a living room and there are only four characters. Cup-a-Jo decided to make the play-viewing experience as real as possible. Or surreal, in some ways. Their version is performed in a living room instead of on a stage. A real, authentic living room, as in someone lives in this house and now you are there watching actors sit on their furniture. It fits the play perfectly, and aside from some initial awkward feelings, I found that it truly benefited the performance.Woolf production8

I’ve seen many shows with box seating, some extremely small and intimate, but they’ve always been on a stage somewhere. For this show, there is no “set” because the set is real. Where I’d spend a good deal of time in a different play looking around at the scenery and set pieces, here it was a familiar setting. I got to spend those moments watching the actors instead. My attention was focused on the players, which could have been a bad thing if they hadn’t performed so wonderfully.

All four actors are significantly practiced thespians. Their experience must have been a delight to director Everett Lowe. Because the whole show is set in one room with the same pieces of furniture, the movement he gave the characters becomes so much more important. Nothing feels forced, and the characters’ activity is natural. The discomfort between them is intentional and expertly done.Woolf production4

The most awkward character, Honey, is brought to life by Hilary Caldwell. You start to feel sympathetic for Honey before she even appears onstage, with the two main characters talking about her before she arrives. Caldwell plays up the shy and sweet side of Honey, who really just wants to have a fun night out. Her physical acting is spot on, becoming less stiff and more fluid the more she drinks. And although everyone is an emotional wreck by the end, Caldwell siphons pity from the audience with her facial expressions and reminders that Honey never asked for any of this.

Honey’s husband, Nick, is more of a straight man. Tom Kolos is excellent in giving Nick an even yet firm personality. You could almost be fooled into thinking he isn’t very emotional, until he hits a breaking point. Both Nick and Honey are broken down to places of disbelief throughout their evening. Kolos makes his character’s suffering stand out by giving him such control the rest of the time. His reaction to the other three characters is distinct and varied, and while you do feel bad for him, you don’t feel that bad for him.

Cut to Brett Sullivan Santry, who absolutely shines as George, the manipulative professor and husband. It’s often hard to tell what George is up to, but it’s not hard to be captivated by Santry’s flow and commitment to the character. Sitting so close up to the show, it’s easy to notice all the details of fighting, prop handling, facial responses, etc. Santry excels at all of it. You find yourself at war internally over George: hating him and pitying him, finding him disgusting and being impressed by him. Albee wrote George to demand the attention of the other characters, and Santry demands the attention of the audience.Woolf production3

But for me, the most profound performance was that of Joanna Lowe as Martha, George’s bitter and brutal wife. The mind games played between George and Martha are nearly scandalous to watch. Lowe acts in waves, throwing out humor, lust, deception, nostalgia, rage, apathy, and grief at any given moment. She’s able to transform sentiments like flipping a light switch. Martha is a woman who could take on the world, and a woman who has been utterly destroyed. I don’t know how Lowe is able to perform like this every night and not be completely exhausted.

All four actors have a palpable bond with their characters, and watching this show will give you feelings. Which is exactly why you should go see it. It’s long, each of the three acts taking roughly an hour, but refreshments are provided before the show and during intermissions. Because it’s in a private residence, you’ll have to make your reservation before you’re given the address. But I can promise you, this is not your average night at the theater.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs weekends through March 25. For ticket reservations or more information click here for their Facebook page or email cupajo.woolf@gmail.com.

Photos courtesty of Ken Kerr.

Artist Spotlight: Billy Hepfinger

unnamedThe room is filled with paintings. Classics; works you would recognize but might not recall the name of on sight. Walking into the large open space where people are milling about and speaking in hushed tones, the paintings are what catch your attention first. But it’s not a gallery or museum. At least, not until the stage manager calls lights up.

North Hills native Billy Hepfinger is talking with his fellow actors before they start the day’s rehearsal. The wall that’s covered in paintings is a mere reference tool for the actors, but it’s an impressive one. A few short moments later, Hepfinger is stepping into the scene as a security guard of a museum, hence the reference photos.  And while he’s not THE guard mentioned in the title of the City Theatre’s upcoming production of The Guard, his scenes are primarily with the main character providing the comic relief.

“He’s kind of a big-hearted doofus,” Hepfinger says of his character.  Which is always a fun role to play, he points out. This production of Jessica Dickey’s play is only the second run of it anywhere, although it’s completely new to Pittsburgh. Asked whether it adds any pressure to bring life to a character so new, he claims the opposite. Unlike with a Shakespeare play or well-known musical where people expect each character to act a certain way, doing a new show allows you to invent the character yourself and put your own art into it. It must also help that Dickey is an actress herself, and because of her work in this year’s Humana Festival in Louisville she isn’t on set much to watch the actors bringing her script to life.

This is Hepfinger’s first time doing a full production at the City Theatre, although he’s done readings there before and is certainly no stranger to the Pittsburgh theater scene. In his six years in professional theater, most of that has been in Pittsburgh. While he lives in New York now, his roots in the craft are unquestionably here. His first professional gig was at the CLO’s Gallery of Heroes where he played George Washington in a traveling educational show for school students. As with many traveling troupes, Hepfinger helped the rest of the cast and crew to load and strike their small set twice a day as they traveled show to show. He also recalls seeing names mentioned in their show on Pittsburgh street signs, noting the wealth of history this town offers.

He has lately noticed a change in the Pittsburgh theater community compared to when he was getting started. “The Pittsburgh theater scene has expanded,” he explains. “More people from New York are coming here and settling down.” He notes that this is due to Pittsburgh now being a town where you can live and make a career in theater, and that wouldn’t be possible without the supportive theater-going crowd that we have here.

Melinda Helfrich as Madeline, Andrew May as Henry, Stephen James Anthony as Dodger, Billy Hepfinger as Jonny
Melinda Helfrich as Madeline, Andrew May as Henry, Stephen James Anthony as Dodger, Billy Hepfinger as Jonny

 

While Hepfinger is thrilled to do shows in Pittsburgh, he finds it very fulfilling to live in New York. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices to live there,” he notes. One of those being that he doesn’t get to see many of the shows that run near him on and off Broadway. “If I’m in New York, it means I’m not working,” he jokes. And despite putting in for the Hamilton ticket lottery every day for nearly a year, he’s had no luck so far.

Not to say that he doesn’t ever work in New York. The bulk of his work in theater has been in musicals, and New York is notorious for those. “If you can sing, you end up getting cast in musicals,” he says, and he’s done several shows off Broadway. Although he doesn’t seem to really have a preference between musicals and plays, he is aware that some thespians who work strictly on plays don’t understand the work that goes into a musical. “I will stand in their defense,” he says with a laugh. “Acting in musicals is very technical.”

Along with the world of theater, Hepfinger does voiceover work when he can. He joins the growing number of actors with sound equipment set up in his house, noting that it’s an easy aspect of the business to find yourself involved with. Being able to act remotely is handy, especially when he finds himself constantly traveling between New York and Pittsburgh. Similarly, it was through a skype audition that he got his part on the locally filmed television show Outsiders. And while skype is certainly useful in being able to audition for a Pittsburgh project from New York, it’s a bit odd to be acting to a computer. “It’s really difficult to convey emotion complexly across a screen,” he admits, “but at least the end result is going to be on a screen anyways.”

Outsiders is currently airing its second season, and Hepfinger has appeared in fifteen out of twenty episodes so far. He calls his character “recurring” rather than a main character, but he’s firmly a part of the project. It’s a different world acting for the camera, especially on a television project where you can get a rewrite or have a scene cut moments before shooting. He hasn’t felt thrown off by any of that so far, however, though he mentions that if his character was a bigger role it might be harder to make those adjustments. “The craft is the same no matter whether it’s on stage or in front of a camera,” he observes, maintaining that despite the great diversity that exists between the different versions of acting, it’s all the same in the end.

When questioned about which he prefers, theater or film acting, Hepfinger scrunches up his face a bit, indicating the toughness of this choice. With many artists, being asked to choose a preferred medium can be the equivalent of choosing a favorite child. “I’ve been doing more film lately, over the past couple of years, so it’s been really refreshing to come back and do theater. So right now I’m in a theater mindset,” he answers, noncommittally. “In a perfect world I’d put a balance between the two. This work is really fulfilling.”

It surely helps that when Hepfinger is in town working on a play, he gets to spend time with his family, who still live in Pittsburgh, and old friends he’s still in contact with from his early theater days. It’s easy to get attached to the cast and crew of a show; the time you spend with them is incredibly condensed and close. Theater friends from years ago will even be in his upcoming wedding, another happy reminder of his roots in Pittsburgh drama.

Andrew May as Henry & Billy Hepfinger as Jonny
Andrew May as Henry & Billy Hepfinger as Jonny

When speaking of the cast of The Guard, Hepfinger is enthusiastic and says they all get along very well. “Tracy is a wonderful director,” he adds, speaking of City Theatre’s long-time artistic director Tracy Brigden. She’s instrumental in inserting the humor into the show, which has a lot of serious moments. “It delves into some pretty heavy themes, but throughout there’s a lightness to it, and there’s a lot of humor. And I think by the end of the play you really grow to like all these people a lot.” He wishes he could get to watch the final product himself, inserting, “It’s gonna be fun to watch, and it’s very human. It has a lot of interesting things to say.”

No matter how many film projects or off-Broadway musicals Hepfinger ends up working with, he’ll always have his roots in the Pittsburgh drama scene. And he doesn’t hide his pride at all the work he’s done. As for The Guard, Hepfinger’s experience and enthusiasm can only be a boost to the small cast, but he remains humble. “All the performances are wonderful,” he confirms, smiling warmly. “I feel very lucky to be a part of it.”

See Billy and the rest of the cast in The Guard starting previews at City Theatre Saturday March 11, and officially opening Friday March 17. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Production photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover

Rust

Rust promoEven steel rusts, and that is the underlying theme, and title, of the new play currently in production by Duquesne University’s Red Masquers. The play, written by Duquesne alum F.J. Hartland, neatly ties the name of the show into the general premise as well as the emotional undertones of the characters. Even steel rusts, but metal isn’t the only thing that can wear over time.

Set in 1983 Pittsburgh, this play tells a familiar story to many who grew up in the area. The mills are closing and unemployment is high. Families are struggling to make ends meet. The world is changing. Desperation sometimes leads to greeting those changes with violence, and frustration often leads to ending the day with a trip to the bar. Pittsburgh’s always been a drinking town, after all. Scene changes are covered by radio announcements keeping the audience up to date with current affairs as the play goes on. It certainly helped me put myself in the mindset of these characters, being let down by the daily flood of tedious news.

For the Strnad family, dealing with the unemployment of Marek (Neil Donaldson), the husband and father of house, is the main stressor, but certainly not the only one. Luckily his wife Verka, played well as a tired yet persistent strong woman by Raquel Isabel Millacci, is employed. This makes it slightly easier on the household of the couple and their three children. The oldest child, Pavol (Evan W. Saunders), is in college but with substantial struggles of his own that find their way back into his parents’ home. And we can’t forget Marek’s elderly Slovak mother, Zuzana. The banter brought to the show by Alex McLeod’s Zuzana, or “Babka” as the family calls her, was delightful and familiar. While she was there mostly for her dry humor, McLeod’s Babka supplied the play with several little nuggets of wisdom. She’s a constant reminder that this is a story of the development of immigrants, despite tribulations. It’s a timely message.16804196_1368597823192874_1286359514723108611_o

Another firm reminder of the family’s roots is the mysterious imaginary friend that the Strnad Family’s youngest son, Matus, always has by his side. Matus is played by fourth grader Mark Henne, and he is a pleasure to watch on stage. The curiosity of his foreign mill-working friend (Byron Stroud) that only he can see is explained as the show plays out, and it puts a little twist on the imaginary friend trope. The humor found with this duo is a nice subtle compliment to the over-the-top hilarious Lauren Bostedo, who plays the middle Strnad child, Lenka. She’s struggling to find herself, and the attention of her family, and perfectly embodies that 80s high school girl cliché that we all know so well.

Director Lora Oxenreiter has a long history in theater, and her craft is evident in this new work. The characters move about the set fluidly and naturally. It was easy to feel like I was a guest at the Strnad house, observing dinner from afar. For the most part, the players were a great fit in their roles. Even the secondary characters stood out and had their moments. It was evident that Oxenreiter cast the show fittingly, playing to the actors’ humor and strengths. There was only one problem I had with the cast.

As the story played out, I wanted to sympathize with Marek. I’ve been through the unemployment runaround. It’s frustrating and can certainly make you want to throw things. Marek’s constant need to count to ten to settle himself spoke volumes to me. However, I was constantly distracted by the age of the actor playing Marek. Not to say that a younger man can’t play older, but with the rest of the cast so spot-on, this main character stood out. A beard would have gone a long way in transforming this college student into a father of a college student. Even some slowing of the speech, something to age his movements… It was hard to commiserate when I was thoroughly unconvinced.16797426_1370119506374039_180358350129153447_o

That being said, the show as a whole was highly enjoyable. The story is solid, and there is plenty of humor laid throughout to break up the gravity of the situation. The set and technical elements of the show were modest, bringing you into the scenes without stealing from the characters. And given that I saw the opening night of a brand new show, the cast and crew did a fantastic job bringing this show to life. The play is intriguing, especially because of the local interest piqued by Hartland. Rust reminds us to think about the hardships that paved the way for where we are now. That as things corrode, it takes work and time to make them sturdy again. Something we could all benefit from remembering now and then.

Rust runs at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theater through February 26th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Special thanks to the Duquesne Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of their Facebook page.