The Whale

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As a writer, I am not often at a loss for words. But, when I went to see The Whale at Off the Wall Performing Arts Center (OTW) on Saturday night, I left the theater practically speechless. My sister show-goer, Suzanne Weessies, and I tried to discuss the play during the drive home, but all we said for the first few minutes were simple phrases like “Wow” and “That was amazing.” We couldn’t come up with anything more at the time, because we were both still in shock from the powerful, moving thing we’d just witnessed.

Acclaimed playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning drama finds a beyond-morbidly-obese man holed up in an apartment adjoining northern Idaho’s Mormon country. He’s on the verge of dying, knocking on death’s door, when doors in his own life begin to open, ushering in new faces, old problems and a final shot at redemption.

 

Dana Hardy, F.J. Hartland
Dana Hardy, F.J. Hartland

A modern masterpiece in terms of its writing, Hunter’s plot takes us on a journey through main character Charlie’s past, present and limited future, slowly showing how his weight, and circumstances in life, came to encumber him so greatly and burden those around him. And, like any great journey, The Whale is filled with pits and peaks, twists and turns, and unexpected roadblocks, as well as bittersweet moments shared with other travelers. From strained personal relationships, lost love and sexual identity to religious quandaries, bad habits, and issues over self-expression and ownership over one’s beliefs, writing and choices, no hefty stone is left unturned or, in a many instances, unheaved.

As much as Hunter’s script is a masterpiece of writing, so, too, the Pittsburgh Theater Premier cast delivered a masterpiece in terms of their performance. The above summary is but the skeleton of The Whale, to which the five-person ensemble added many meaty layers, fleshing out the matters of a heart buried beneath 600 pounds of a deep and delicate, somewhat dark character.

What F.J. Hartland did on the stage as Charlie was beyond criticism. He tackled a very complex role from many different angles and infused every pretend pound in his fat-suit with recognizable, relatable emotion. As the result of Hartland’s wise artistic decisions, the audience was pulled directly into Charlie’s life, to laugh at his remarks, cry at his suffering, and feel sympathy, aggravation and concern over his predicament. While it may be true that this is the goal of every theater production, it is not often that such immersion is accomplished as superbly and completely as it was in The Whale, which, for a brief two hours, made me feel like I really was somewhere else, like a fly on a wall, secretly watching others’ real life unfold before me.

Brian Knoebel, Abby Quatro, F.J. Hartland
Brian Knoebel, Abby Quatro, F.J. Hartland

Joining Hartland on stage were Amy Landis (Liz), Brian Knoebbel (Elder Thomas), Abby Quatro (Ellie) and Dana Hardy (Mary). No one of these actors matched Hartland’s intended size, though they all undoubtedly matched his talent. Jaded yet hopeful; determined yet clouded; disgruntled yet vulnerable; and distant yet defensive—each thespian, in turn, embodied his or her character fully, artfully portraying the juxtaposition and conflict around which Hunter’s plotline is centered. Their lines, exchanges, movements and responses were entirely believable, and provoked laughter, abhorrence and sadness.

As per other aspects of the production, they were, to the average audience member’s eye, flawless. Character shifts and clean-ups on the one-set stage were achieved quickly and without notice in the darkened theater, with fitting music and sounds of nature covering up any inadvertent clamor. What’s more, the sounds supported the progression of the story and further amplified the chaos and sense of intimate attachment brewing around the venue’s small main stage, pulling the audience deeper and deeper into this remarkable rendering of a remarkable work.

Remarkable, indeed! Many words come to mind when attempting to describe OTW’s production of The Whale, but, perhaps, none so fitting as the one word OTW Managing Director Hans Gruenert used to reference it in our casual conversation before curtain: brilliant. I’ve been promised a lot of things in my life—and haven’t gotten most—but as far as Gruenert’s promise that I’d find The Whale “brilliant,” I’m pleased to say that his cast and crew delivered.

That said, however, there was one major problem with Saturday’s performance—and it need be mentioned, for, if left unresolved, it’d mean this show would never get the attention, accolades and/or recognition it deserves… At Saturday’s performance, there were only 25 people in the audience, myself and Suz included. Unfortunately, Off the Wall is off the grid for many people, and, according to Gruenert, the venue doesn’t really pick up until the season is nearly over. Alas, the season is, once again, nearly over, but there’s still plenty you can do to bring this gem of a venue into the limelight. It’s not too late to get tickets to see The Whale, and it’s not too early to purchase a ticket package for OTW’s 2015-2016 season.

The Whale runs at OTW Friday, Saturday, Sunday through May 3. Tickets can be purchased here, or by calling 1-888-71-TICKETS.

Special thanks to Off the Wall Performing Arts Center for complimentary press tickets

SWAN Day Pittsburgh 2015: One Show, Sixty Women and Tons of Talent

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They stitched the first flag, penned the world’s most infamous novels, founded the Red Cross, and invented windshield wipers, among many, many other things…“They” are the women who have made major contributions to our human history, and, one month each year, we celebrate their achievements.

March is Women’s History Month, and, if you’re looking for a special way to mark the occasion, No Name Players’ annual offering is right up your alley. Each year, the group celebrates the women who are making history right now, by hosting an event known as SWAN Day.

“SWAN” is an acronym for “Support Women Artists Now,” and that’s exactly what No Name Players’ unique event aims to encourage and accomplish. The event showcases the work of females on the forefront of the arts and promotes increased awareness about the ways women are currently contributing to, and reshaping, culture.

This year’s event will be held at 8 pm on Saturday, March 14, at The Twentieth Century Club in Oakland, and the impressive multidisciplinary lineup will feature world premiere works by more than sixty local female artists, including, but not limited to, musicians, dancers, theater artists, filmmakers and visual artists.

According to No Names Players Producing Artistic Director Tressa Glover, SWAN Day Pittsburgh 2015 will be comprised of three short plays, three musical numbers, three choreographed dance performances, two short films and a variety of other pre-show, interlude and standing room exhibits. There will even be a number of visual artists on hand, each painting live in the audience, in response to the performances of her peers.

The entire event is expected to last under two hours, which, Glover said, means just about every minute is going to be jam-packed with creative genius. What’s more, she went on, the multidisciplinary, multi-artist showcase will not only be well-rounded, but also cohesive, as the individual pieces are intimately connected.

Artists were asked to submit works in response to a prompt (“Everyone has an untold story hidden behind closed doors. Try to understand that people are not always as they first seem.”). Glover explained that SWAN Day Pittsburgh 2015 contributions were compiled in three concerted movements: first by selecting theatre scripts that exemplified this prompt; then by sharing the scripts with musicians, who were asked to interpret the script in their music; and then by sharing the music with choreographers, who were tasked to use the music in their creations.

The films, which are stand-alone pieces, and the visual arts displayed in the gallery were also inspired by the initial prompt, as were the many other surprises slated for Saturday.

Tickets for SWAN Day Pittsburgh 2015 can be purchased in advance online at ShowClix or on the day of the show, at The Twentieth Century Club. Student discounts are available with valid school ID.

Doors open at 7:15 pm and everyone in attendance will get a chance to take a piece of the evening home with them. With your ticket purchase, you’ll also receive a raffle ticket, to try your luck at giveaways for items related to the arts, such as theatre tickets, CDs and artwork.

This will be the seventh year No Names Players has hosted a SWAN Day Pittsburgh event. Over the past six years, the group has brought the work of more than 300 women into the limelight—and, with more than sixty artists on the books for 2015, the numbers keep growing.

The first SWAN Day Pittsburgh was inspired by the international SWAN Day movement, in conjunction with WomenArts. Though scores of other cities across the world are involved in this movement, No Name Players and SWAN Day Pittsburgh is one of only seven official SWAN Day partners, as named by SWAN Day co-founder and Executive Director of WomenArts, Martha Richards. The other six SWAN Day partners are in Bulgaria, Kenya, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida.

In other words, SWAN Day Pittsburgh is making a global mark in the arts and drawing attention to local artists, giving Pittsburgh a cultural accolade to be proud of—and, it’s giving local patrons of the arts a unique way to celebrate the women, and the city, around them.

“There’s an energy that happens at this show, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before,” Glover told us. “It’s a community event, happening here in Pittsburgh, presented by people who live here and work here, who want to celebrate all the area has to offer and support the many incredible things Pittsburgh women are doing.”

Wanna be a part of this celebration? What are you waiting for?!?! Get your tickets now!