Chicago

chicagoWestmoreland and Somerset Counties and the entire Laurel Mountain region is world-renowned for their outdoor activities, but another treasure that lies in Westmoreland County is the production team of Split Stage Productions that adds that special touch to the region. When you come in from enjoying the summer weather and are ready to take in some entertainment indoors Split Stage has what you need. Most recently a production that included murder, exploitation, corruption, treachery, adultery, and violence in their production of Chicago  co-produced by Kelly Simon Event Management.

Well-known in the area for producing top-notch plays and musicals using local talent, Split Stage has been providing the region with entertaining fare that usually leaves audiences on their feet asking for more – think “rock concert encores” at the end of their productions. As the particularly large crowd left the Palace Theater in Greensburg, one could sense that the patrons indeed did get their money’s worth, earning kudos for Director Jim Mikula, Musical Director Eric Barchiesi, Choreographer Laura Wurzell and Stage Manager Alyssa Wano.

Chicago represents everything dazzling and inclusive when thinking about Broadway, and to undertake such a well-known and beloved musical requires a great amount of time and focus to ready the actors, singers, dancers, and designers for a single two day run. The energy all actors and dancers put into this musical left me a bit stunned. To put it simply, Split Stage’s production was fantastic, particularly in the area of musical talent (including an entire orchestra led by conductor Eric Barchiesi).  It’s not that I would never doubt Split Stage’s abilities – they simply pull off the impossible.

Fan favorites local attorney John Noble (Billy Flynn), Mandy Russak (Roxie), Victoria Buchtan (Velma), Ryan Hadbavny (Amos), and Shelly Spatara (Mama Morton) brought down the house in what I might call (because of the minimalist set and costume design Mikula used) more of a “Chicago Greatest Hits” version rather than a full out musical drama. Chicago is such a well-known musical, it wouldn’t be a stretch to fill the Palace Theater with patrons who just want to enjoy the musical numbers. Judging by the audiences’ reception to the show, it was a fun night out in the theater to hear the renditions of “And All That Jazz”, “Cell Block Tango”, “I Can’t Do It Alone”, “Mister Cellophane” (Hadbavny’s greatest moment – I absolutely loved the song and his rendition), “Nowadays,” and “Finale” to name  just a few.

All of the music in this version of Chicago was more than entertaining and led me scouring the playbill to learn more about the performers and whereabouts they came. Much to my surprise, from the lead roles to the smallest parts in the musical, most of these performers are from either the Westmoreland, Somerset, or Pittsburgh area. It is encouraging to know that that much talent exists in Western Pennsylvania.

Noble’s Billy Flynn steals the show. He’s good. Really good. He’s a local attorney that could have easily found a home on the big stage. It was fun to see Noble (in the finale) standing beside Barchiesi in the orchestra pit “helping” conduct the final songs.  It was not only funny, but it added to the entire ambiance of the evening – big time production with local flair. The audience seemed to enjoy this as much as they enjoyed the entire production.

This review simply doesn’t have the space to list the credits of EVERY actor in Chicago. The playbill is filled with paragraphs of not only the principles but the credentials of the entire cast of 23. Let’s just say that the entire cast has received theater education from the best the Pittsburgh region has to offer – Point Park, Robert Morris, Carnegie Mellon, Squonk Opera, and more. Split Stage Productions, particularly Jim Mikula, knows how to assemble a cast.  Just as the Broadway version featured some of Broadway’s elite talent, then the Split Stage version of Chicago includes some of Westmoreland County’s elites.

In addition to those actors mentioned above, a standing ovation has to go to Allysa Bruno (Hunyak), Savanna Bruno (Mona), Josh Daisley, Bill Fisher, Adam Fladd, Courtney Harkins, Ashley Harmon (Liz), Jeff Johnston, Kyley Klas, Barbara Lawson, Maddie Nick, Brady Patsy, Kevin Rabbits, Josh Reardon, Nicole Rosenbayger, Nicole Stouffer (Annie), Brittany Tague (June), and Ryan Wagner for their outstanding performances.

Split Stage Productions and Kelly Simon Event Manager have been bringing a very rich sense of popular drama and musicals to Westmoreland County, and with its very cozy atmosphere, the Palace Theater is always a place of comfort regarding the acts presented to this region.

Chicago has unfortunately closed already but you can find out more about Split Stage and what they’re up to here or check out their website here

Love, Ethics, and Religion: Kinetic Theatre’s Season Lineup

11066705_363701277174275_7381434187525949191_nKinetic Theatre announces 2017 season – three exciting Pittsburgh premieres: Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, David Ives’ hilarious adaptation of Corneille’s The Liar, and Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love. Full summer casting announced: David Whalen and Joshua Elijah Reese star in The Christians, Ethan Saks, Erika Strasburg, & Sam Tsoutsouvas lead the ensemble cast in The Liar.

The Kinetic Theatre Company’s Executive Producing Director Andrew Paul has lined up three thought provoking, engaging, and, more importantly “very real” dramas that question relationships, religion, and ethics for the Pittsburgh area that are sure to leave theater goers deep in thought and maybe leave their sensibilities exhausted.  Paul is beckoning audiences to:  “come on down: this is your life!” A bit of realism for everyone.

Paul is back in Pittsburgh this year once again to leave theater goers entertained but questioning “who they are” and how they fit into the worlds he has chosen to explore. According to Kinetic Theatre’s press release: “the mission of Kinetic Theatre Co. is three-fold: to explore the issues facing our diverse and rapidly changing world through the language of theatre, to value text, both classic and contemporary, as our primary source of inspiration, and to honor, value, and respectfully compensate the artist.”

Rife with experienced and highly successful actors, Paul’s works this year will most definitely have audiences questioning their core beliefs. Not shying away from topics steeped in debates, Mr. Paul is very careful to remain loyal to his supportive Pittsburgh fan base by presenting them with tales that provide a spin on traditionalist thinking.

Those familiar with his work formerly as founder and artistic director of PICT (Pittsburgh Irish  Classical Theatre) know him for his production of “risky” works, and, although he is no longer with PICT, it hasn’t stifled his willingness to move to the “next level” in challenging the sensibilities of his audiences.  He is single handedly providing Pittsburgh with theater worth seeing, adding to the tried and true knowledge that Pittsburgh is “someplace special” with “someplace thoughtful.”

When looking at the three plays he will be producing and directing, I found Paul to be a fearless producer and director who is not afraid to pull the proverbial plug on traditional beliefs, and Pittsburgh audiences should applaud his selections.Meeting with Mr. Paul in person, it was easy to sense the excitement and anticipation for Kinetic’s upcoming season and, as always, Pittsburgh in the Round will be paying close attention to these upcoming performances.

KINETIC CHRISTIANS LARGE SQUAREIn his first production The Christians, Paul is producing Lucas Hnath’s very timely, relevant, an unapologetic look at faith in America and challenge of understanding people’s belief systems. The Christians is a play loosely based on the life or Pastor Rob Bell who built a megachurch in Michigan. The play explores Bell’s – in this case named Pastor Paul (played by native Pittsburgher and fan favorite David Whalen) – disruptive life and his subsequent firing from his congregation because of his antithetical preaching. “Pastor Paul has spent 20 years successfully growing his church from a modest storefront to a gleaming megachurch, but he no longer believes in Hell; he (unrealistically) feels that his congregation will be happy to hear what he has to say. In a homily one Sunday morning that rocks the spiritual world of his congregation, which backfires and brings the congregation to its spiritual knees.”

Add to the drama is his troubled relationship with his Associate Pastor Joshua (played by another beloved Pittsburgher, Joshua Elija Reese) who feigns his proclamation and the church elders and congregation. This revelation rocks the foundations of the beliefs of his flock, which in turn is intended to disrupt the foundations of the audiences’ beliefs.  This timely feature explores an attack on the very Catholic and conservative belief that, according to Paul, if there is no hell, what motivation do we have in this life to obtain a pathway to heaven?

Paul utilizes the role of the “chorus” in this play, which is actually the congregation’s choir, providing background to the action taking place in the lives of Pastor Paul and his family, along with Associate Pastor Elijah’s battle for the souls of the believers. Additionally, as in most church services, Paul has all of his principles speaking the play using handheld microphones to present the very real feel of a church service.

The Christians is running June 16 through July 2, 2017 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Shore.

KINETIC LIAR LARGE SQUAREKinetic Theatre’s second offering is The Liar, a David Ives comic production based on Corneille’s The Liar. According to Paul, The Liar is “a sparkling urban romance as fresh as the day Pierre Corneille wrote it, brilliantly adapted for today by All In the Timing’s David Ives. Paris, 1643.” In The Liar – which puts a modernist spin on a French classic – Dorante (Ethan Saks) is a charming young man newly arrived in the capital, and he has but a single flaw: he cannot tell the truth. In quick succession, he meets Cliton (Patrick Halley), a manservant who cannot tell a lie, and falls in love with Clarice (Erika Strasburg), a charming young woman whom he, unfortunately, mistakes for her friend Lucrece.

The entire play is replete with misunderstandings and a series of breathtakingly intricate lies and springs one of the Western world’s greatest comedies.  Even when it serves no discernible purpose, Dorante compulsively and ceaselessly makes false statements.  This sublimely funny adaptation, written in rhymed iambic pentameter, is packed full of verbal ingenuity and has thrilled audiences in New York and across the country. CMU Drama alums Ethan Saks and Erika Strasburg play Dorante, the title character, and Clarice, the object of his affections, with Kinetic associate artist Sam Tsoutsouvas as Dorante’s clueless father, Geronte. Sumptuous scenery by Gianni Downs and costumes by Kim Brown make this a visual feast to match Ives’ hilarious text.

The Liar runs from July 13 through July 30, 2017 at the Henry Heymann Theater on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

KINETIC LOVE LARGE SQUAREWith religion and ethics having been explored, Kinetic Theatre’s third and final production this year is Mike Bartlett’s comedy Love, Love, Love. The show serves basically as an indictment on the “baby boomer” generation. This offering, divided up into three acts, explores the lives of a couple who meet and marry in the era of the Beatles – 1967 – the years of drugs, sex, and rock and roll – to their lives in typical suburbia in 1990 raising two children who are antagonist to their parents, to the final scene which takes place in 2011 when their ungrateful daughter shows up and demands that her parents buy her a house because they “owe her a life” that they didn’t provide her growing up. The main characters advance from the ages of 19 to 64. Love, Love, Love, states New York Times critic Ben Brantley in his rave review of the play’s American Premiere last November at the Roundabout Theatre Company,pulls you along through the decades with galloping satirical wit as Bartlett’s heat-seeking intelligence locates telling and authentic emotional detail.”

Love, Love Love has yet to be cast, but knowing how much talented actors are attracted to Paul’s ironic and satirical style, it certainly will be replete with branded thespians who are more than prepared to entertain.

Love, Love, Love runs from November 30 through December 13 at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

For tickets and more information about Kinetic Theatre Company click here.

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Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical

tenderly

The board of directors at the Theatre Factory in Trafford has a reputation of not shying away from challenging productions, and this group has the pluckiness, daring, and foresight to bring theater to Pittsburgh that not only entertains but teaches and inspires as well. According to this organization’s philosophy, performing plays and musicals for the sake of performance is one thing (this they do extremely well), but choosing entertaining plays and musicals to bring to the Pittsburgh cultural scene that continues to draw diverse audiences is quite another.

The Theatre Factory once again hits some pretty high notes by bringing Rosemary Clooney back to larger-than-life status with their performance of playwrights/composers Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman’s musical Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical.

This two person trip down a “memorable lane” takes the audience on a 30+ year journey of Clooney, her rise to stardom, her relationships, her very public battle with drugs, her eventual fall from grace, and then her recovery and triumphant return to perform at the Hollywood Bowl in 1998.

Most of the real “meat” of the story takes place in Clooney’s psychiatrist’s office after she is committed to a sanitarium following her 1968 nervous breakdown on a Las Vegas stage caused by a plague of relationship, money, and drug problems. The musical bounces back and forth between Clooney’s issues with her mother, her sister Betty, husband Jose Ferrer, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Bobby Kennedy, and Dante DiPaolo, including the music taken from the 20+ albums she recorded during her life.

Breanna Deutsch (Ariel in Little Mermaid, Mary Poppins, Isle in Spring Awakening), an energetic and spirited performer who hits all the right notes, portrays the troubled starlet Clooney, takes each of the singer’s indiscretions and demons, and then, in a most smooth and flawless performance, ties them into the lyrics and musical score that made her famous.

Tenderly director Katya Shaffer is able to take Vogt and Friedman’s original intent of showing the “meaning behind the music” that audiences in the 50’s and 60’s could not have imagined. In an era of jazz and pop music where performance, style, and glamour were “the thing,” Shaffer and Deutsch pull the cover off what many would have thought to be simply entertaining “songs,” which, in reality, contained the very real pain that Clooney was feeling.

In fact, Ms. Deutsch is able to turn those upbeat and romantic songs of Clooney’s into lyrics that are the script of a woman in distress. The show brings to mind the same issues that Monroe, Davis, Wood, Mansfield, and Elvis experienced.  Audiences failed to see angst and humanity, choosing rather to see a “flawless” performer with a buttery voice who rubbed elbows with the Rat Pack and the Kennedy’s. Duetsch is able to move the character of Clooney from insecurity to stardom and back again so briskly that it is no wonder Clooney experienced a meltdown. Deutsch brings this to life so realistically that even if the audience didn’t know of Rosemary Clooney, her life, and her music, will leave the theater feeling personally attached to her.

Toward the end of the play, Deutsch’s portrayal of Clooney makes you want to just put your arm around her and tell her “everything will be alright.”  She is the quintessential example of the star who has everything but experiences a deep and dark emptiness in her life.

And that’s where her co-star, multi-purpose actor extraordinaire Jeremy Kuharcik (Billy Flynn – Chicago, Jitter – Musical of Musicals, Paul – Barefoot in the Park, and Bert – Mary Poppins) falls into this psychological journey. Kuharcik plays no less than 12 roles as he transforms from Clooney’s sister Betty to her husband Jose Ferrer to her friends and lovers Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dante DiPaolo. Not only does his role require him to impersonate of all of these characters, he must sing “in character” – performing entertaining duets with Deutsch. Kuharcik’s character transformation from one to another is a credit to his commitment to his craft. At the very end of the musical, when Clooney performs at the Hollywood Bowl in her comeback performance, Kuharcik (the psychiatrist) pays her a visit as an older, tattered, and physically broken friend. This is Shaffer’s intended direction which provides the audience a timeline meant to highlight the many decades of Clooney’s relevance.

A really special treat in this musical is the trio of talented musicians, band leader Kirk Howe (keyboards), Jesse Walls (percussion), and Mike Mara (bass), who provide the soundtrack that is reminiscent of the jazz and pop beat that underscored Clooney’s songs. (As well as Crosby and Sinatra). Music director Kirk Howe and stage manager Alicia DiPaola, and their assistants, are on point in providing the audience with the authenticity that is necessary in this production.

Finally, Clooney aficionados are treated to versions of such favorites as “Mambo Italiano,” “Come-on-a-My House,” “Botcha-A-Me,” “Count Your Blessings,” “Hey There,” “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair,” “Tenderly,”  and 15 other hits that provides a refreshing walk down memory lane.

Tenderly also shows how prolific Clooney was in her heyday and how she never stopped, causing her breakdown. Her successes created her own Sisyphus character, who, without the help of friends such as Sinatra, might have steamrolled over her and ended her life.

Tenderly is a lively and entertaining musical that is a tribute to Clooney’s Phoenix-like resolve.

The show runs through May 14th and you can find ticketing information at www.thetheatrefactory.com

The Three Musketeers

ThreeMusketeersImage2The playbill for Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama’s aggressive and successful challenge of Andre Dumas’ timeless classic The Three Musketeers employs much space dedicated to “adaptation” – its meaning and its role in the theater. In “Theory of Adaptation” featured in the playbill, director Andrew William Smith states “adaptions accomplish a few things; they bring the source to life in an immediate and kinesthetic way and they transform it to the specifications of a distinct medium such as theater….The audience experiences the transformed source text through the production, tailor-made to and influenced by the political, social, and cultural currents running through its world….An adaptation from 1978 might not be engaging for a 2017 audience; therefore, adapters change the story again and again [however] preserving what they find useful and relevant and revising what they don’t….”

Smith and his extraordinarily talented cast of actors pull off a seamless performance by employing adaptations that leaves the audience quite fulfilled. The use of a musical background score set to match the mood and action, the addition of women as Musketeers, freeze frames that allowed two or even three scenes to be moving on at the same time on the stage, and slow motion action scenes during several of the sword fights all add to the success of this entertaining piece.

This group of talented young actors pulls off realistic slow motion action (we’re used to seeing this on the big and small screens with film editing), but to see a slow motion, vicious, and deadly sword fight take place in real time performed in front of you is something extra to behold. Kudos to Smith and his cast for pulling this off brilliantly. It is a sight that theater-goers should actively seek out when looking for a drama with true entertainment value.

Additionally, Smith’s use of women, Aramis (Lilli Kay) and Captain Treville (Victoria Perdretti), as Musketeers basically are directed and performed so well that it is barely noticeable, coupled by the fact that this ensemble cast is so strong and the pace of the play so quick that the audience doesn’t have time to really allow that adaptation to be of concern, however extraordinary it is.

In this strong performance, it is difficult to select one or two cast members to single out as being “more powerful” and “more persuasive” than any other cast member. This gang of fearless thespians moved fluently on stage and between scenes that, again, the audience barely has time to notice Smith’s adaptations. Musketeer “dandy” Porthos (Freddy Miyares) – truly a diamond in this cast with his ability to stay in exact character during his time on stage – Milady (McKenna Slone), Planchet (Alexandra Miyashiro), Cardinal Bonacieux (John Way), beyond arrogant Rochefort (Isaac Miller), and brave and righteous D’Artagnon (Siddiq Saunderson) put on standout performances in this talent-rich cast.  Pollard even recovered from a minor wardrobe malfunction and continued the scene without missing a line, block, or bit of action. That’s how well prepared this cast is.

To wit, not one of Dumas’ original intentions to set up this entertaining and suspense-filled drama is missed or left out, and that is a credit to Smith and his cast.

Adding to the continuous action taking place on stage is an original and “modernist” multipurpose set (scenic design director Sarah Keller and assistant designers Henry Blazer and Adryan Miller-Gorder) offers a stage designed for multi-purpose usage, moving from a cathedral-type “stained glass” window made out of wood that also transforms into a royal residence, a ship, a secret hiding place, and several other uses.

Even with all of the other aforementioned “adaptations,” this serious play adds a continuous supply of dry humor when necessary.  In a play that contains deceit, death, and betrayal, the actors and audience seem to enjoy the witty one-liners riddled throughout.  Even the ever-brooding Athos (Andrew Richardson) has his moments of providing the audience with an occasional heartfelt and humorous one-liner.

Rounding out the cast are Daryl Paris Bright (Queen Anne), Henry Ayers-Brown (King Louis), Isabel Pask (Constance), Joe Essig (Buckingham), and Spencer Pollard (Richelieu).  All play multiple roles as guards, thugs, thieves, innkeepers, and assassins. Again, this cast trades roles so seamlessly and that the audience has no time to notice who is playing each role. Even if the audience is paying attention to the “other minor roles” each actor plays, it would be difficult to notice these transformations.

Finally, but not less important, a special hats off has to go to fight director Michael Rossmy whose time spent on the plethora of swashbuckling, sword fighting scenes riddled throughout the play, again, is well worth the cost of admission. The sword play is convincingly realistic. Sitting in the front row, I had to, on several occasions, be prepared to jump out of the way with no less than 10 characters engaged in a full out brawl, swords, and candelabras flying through the air. Additionally, designer Marla Parker’s costumes are beautifully specific to the time era.

Once again, CMU’s School of Drama defines why it has garnered so many successes. The direction and design (on all fronts) and the smooth acting ability of the student/actors in The Three Musketeers will hold up as one of their more engaging and entertaining offerings.

Special thanks to the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama for complimentary press tickets. The Three Musketeers runs at the Philip Chosky Theater through April 29. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Polish Joke

16427723_1414233895288023_3891042495884003170_nQuestion: “How do you sink a Polish battleship? Answer: Put it in the water.”  Please, don’t get offended, the David Ives’ play Polish Joke is loaded with “Polish jokes” that are not meant to offend, but to explain a feeling, an emotion, an acceptance of a lifestyle. For example, “How do you get a one armed Polish person out of a tree? Wave to him.”  But this play being performed at McKeeesport Little Theater is much more than a machine-gun litany of Polish one-liners.

As the play opens, a very Polish Uncle Roman (Eric Buell) has the audience in stitches sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway with his barrage of “typical” Polish jokes while trying to indoctrinate his then 9 year old nephew Jasiu (Arjun Kumar) as to the reasons that Polish people are doomed to be at the receiving end of some pretty hefty amounts of stereotypes. Why? Because, according to Uncle Roman, the birthright of Polish descendants is to accept the public’s perception of them as lazy and basically not too bright. As he explains, Polish people are prone to sit around drinking beer with eggs and salt, eat blood sausage, and hang kielbasa in their living rooms.  “That’s what Polish people do,” he explains to young Jasiu.

However, the response of Jasiu always being a “why does this have to be” is the driving force behind this comedy. Jaisu is determined not to settle into this fate. Hence, the Polish Joke becomes, in actuality, Jasui’s quixotic journey into fighting his own windmills (in this case, his Polish heritage) to become anything but Polish, discovering, along with way, that this is an impossible task. He fools no one.

Polish Joke is a “coming of age” ritual of Jasiu’s to purge his ethnicity, at least publically, which moves him into an extremely confused adulthood. He leaves home to explore the world and chooses a variety of surnames and occupations (Jewish, WASP, Irish) hoping to settle on a “heritage” that will be more accepting.  The task of each of the other four actors in this comedy is to become “someone” or “something” different, to teach Jasiu a lesson, which, actually, works well on stage.

The real joke is not the expected, actual Polish jokes heard throughout the play, but the fact that it is the understanding toward Jasiu’s adulthood. The joke is actually on him. His “Polish cover-up” never really works.

Ives’ play, directed by David Hofmann, itself is produced into small collections of 13 scenes that follow Jasiu throughout his life, returning to the acceptance of his history, and, after (finally and accidentally) settling in Poland and marrying an authentic Polish woman, returns home to explain to his uncle that being Polish is not as bad as he was lead to believe.

Kumars angst, which he carries throughout the play, is believable, surrounded by characters of all different cultures ultimately discovering his false attempts to join the “intelligencia” of the world. This leads to soliloquies directed at the audience that beg the question of “who am I, really?”.  It’s actually up to the other characters to discover his true identity – forcing him to accept his Polish fate. The lesson Jasiu learns is that one cannot escape one’s identity presented by Uncle Roman in the first scene of the play.  Kumar’s four cast mates help move him to this reality.

Each of the five actors cast in this play take on a variety of roles: sanitation workers, doctors, priests, Irish travel agents, florists, policemen, Yentas, and more and do so convincingly in extremely quick scene changes.

Buell, Amanda Anne Leight, and Justin Koffard are asked to do almost the impossible by the continuously changing roles, action, and scenery in this work. They all do a yeoman’s job changing themselves into believable characters transforming every scene. The one aspect of this play that works is that Buell, Haggerty, and Kofford pull off the changes and, through the usual but necessary “willing suspension of disbelief” force the audience to believe that these truly are different characters.

However, the witty and eccentric Kate Haggerty very much pushes this comedy along and carries the weight of the real wit and humor throughout the variety of scenes. She portrays the foil to Kumar’s seriousness as he seeks an identity; it is Haggerty who transforms each of the scenes into almost “belly-laugh” responses from the audience.  Her portrayal of a nurse, a Yenta, and a Polish flight attendant are precious.

Haggerty captures the comic essence of the six or seven roles she plays help to add the true hilarity Hoffman is searching for in this work.  She’s a funny actress and definitely an audience grabber. It’s difficult to take your eyes off her because she is that adorable and scene grabbing.  She knows shtick. Her portrayal of an Irish travel agent and a Polish Airline stewardess (eventually Jasiu’s wife as he accidentally settles in Poland) is “tears-in-the-eyes” funny.

The cozy and inviting McKeesport Little Theater, including director Hoffman, took a chance on this at times fragmented comedy (Ives’ issue, not Hoffman’s), and, for the most part, he and his band of actors pulled it off.  No one in the audience left offended by what the title might suggest.  Polish Joke is no joke. Rather, it’s a journey toward human understanding.

Polish Joke runs weekends through March 26, for tickets and more information click here

Cup-A-Jo Productions’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: Inviting Audiences Into Their Home

16864036_10154948753785797_8467742892383435851_nWhat happens when relatives or friends invite you over to their house for a casual social and the two hosts break out into violent invectives, anger, outrage, and total hostility, and you are forced to sit and watch this display of self-destruction? It gets uncomfortable, to say the least. Now, add 20 to 25 people watching this display only feet away, and what do you get? A houseful of guests probably looking for the quickest exit.

The upcoming Cup-A-Jo production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? does just that. Director Everett Lowe is producing the 1962 Edward Albee play in an actual living room of a house (to be named when your purchase your tickets) in Point Breeze.  According to Lowe, since all of the action of the original play occurs in a living room, why not hold the play in a real living room? According to Joanna Lowe (who plays Martha in this production), there was no other choice. The Lowe siblings have been chomping at the bit to perform Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for years and when Cup-A-Jo decided to produce this 60’s emotional nightmare, Joanna Lowe felt that the only place this play belongs is in a real living room, with real guests forced to watch the self-destructive couple.

Woolf rehearsal
Martha (Joanna Lowe) and George (Brett Sullivan Santry)

According to her, “it’s where it belongs.” Her brother Everett agrees. Their point is that when “the original play opened and the curtain went up, there was the living room. No scene changes. All of the action takes place in the living room. Then why not hold the play in someone’s actual living room?” Everett Lowe wants the audience to feel the authenticity of this piece and of the emotions that Martha (Joanna Lowe) and George (Brett Sullivan Santry) and house guests Nick (Tom Kolos) and Honey (Hilary Caldwell) feel.

Both Lowes fell this new type of drama, with its realism of the venue,  makes the play terrifying, in your face, and extremely painful. The realism brought about when the audience is just feet away from the action is designed to turn the entire house into what Lowe refers to as a “boiling crucible” – an effect that, according to Lowe, “places very much extreme devastation not only in front of Nick and Honey, but squarely in the lap of the audience.”Woolf rehearsal3

And, according to Joanna Lowe, the truths of the play still have the bite they had in 1962, except the “bite is very real, very painful” to watch.  The cast of four have been rehearsing in Point Breeze mansion for the past few weeks, and they feel that the raw emotions the audience will feel, being that close to the vindictiveness portrayed in the play, is well worth the cost of admission.

And, and as Everett Lowe is want to say about his version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” Who really gets hurt (the actors or the audience) is yet to be decided.

For more information, check out Cup-a-Jo’s Facebook page here or to reserve tickets, email cupajo.woolf@gmail.com.

Big Love

BigLove883x397The Pittsburgh Playhouse’s adaptation of Big Love wrestles with relationship language the same way that the 470 BC tragedy Aeschylus’ The Suppliants did.

Big Love is a very smart but daring play – it takes one of the earliest tragedies of the Western World and applies it to the world today, adding gender politics, love (in so many different forms), domestic violence, refugee status, woman’s rights, race relations, equal protection under the law, empathy, compassion, rage, heartache, death and much more.  Two things must occur to make this play “work” – emotional language and physicality.

How does director Reginald Douglas move this tragedy forward with humor/comic relief? It’s the responsibility of an extremely energetic brood of actors to make sure the audience doesn’t leave confused and understands the play’s implications.

Saige Smith (Olympia), Markia Nicole Smith (Lydia), Amber Jones (Thyona)
Saige Smith (Olympia), Markia Nicole Smith (Lydia), Amber Jones (Thyona)

The three sisters, Lydia (Markia Nicole Smith), Olympia (Saige Smith), and Thyona (Amber Jones) and the three cousin suitors, Nikos (Nate Wiley), Oed (Charlie Rowell), and Constantine (Drew Campbell-Amberg) make up the center of the experiment of the complications of arranged marriage, translated more to the experiment of how to elude oppression.  It’s really up to these six characters to make the audience feel the intensity of all of those emotions listed above, again, through their real attachments to one another and to their “causes.”

Their relationships to the audience in this drama are important, particularly that of Thyona (Jones).  Thyona is the “glue” that holds the sisters together. It is Thyona who sways her sisters to stick firm to the fact that they are not going to be forced to marry their cousins. Jones acts throughout the play as the chorus, uttering dynamic soliloquies reminding the audience of the truth of what is occurring on the stage. It is Thyona who plans the mass murder of the suitors on their wedding night.

Drew Campbell-Amberg (Constantine) and Nate Willey (Nikos)
Drew Campbell-Amberg (Constantine) and Nate Willey (Nikos)

The defiant Thyona stands up against forced oppression rather than being suppliant to the whims and needs of the soon to be husbands.  Jones delivers her role throughout the tragedy as “THE angry young woman.” As far as stage dynamics are concerned, it is Jones who delivers; Jones who clenches her fists; Jones who demands relevance.

She is Big Love’s version of Antigone – willing to kill or be killed for her beliefs. And she delivers in this role. Sitting only rows from center stage, I felt that her anger was real, not contrived, not melodramatic.  Clenching her fists in what appeared to be real rage demonstrated to the audience that she believed what she was saying.

At times, however, for comic relief, Thyona, Olympia, and Lydia take on a hilarious 3 Stooges-like performance (breaking dishes and planters while singing Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”) and other antics. Lydia and Olympia play the roles of young girls undereducated to their fate. This is where Olympia and Lydia play the foil to Thyona.  Thyona quickly quells their needs for gaiety and companionship.

Bebe Tabickman (Bella)
Bebe Tabickman (Bella)

But a special place in this work has to be held for the performance of Bebe Tabickman in the role of Bella – instantly connecting with the audience portraying a true Nonnino, comparing her 13 sons to a basket of tomatoes which is so humorous that to explain her actions would not do justice to her acting ability. Her initial scene endears her to the audience, and Tabickman has just the right demeanor and accent to be a believable strong Italian woman.

She appears throughout the play, however, acting more the “fool” than the voice of wisdom, but tragedies have fools, and we know it is the fool who often times speaks the truth.  At the end of the work, it is Tabickman who explains the tragedy of what just happened on stage. She ends the play with a voice of reason and wit.  She is the true chorus that would, I am sure, have made Aeschylus proud, cleaning up the horrific murder scene with her words of truth and reason.

The fact that she moves from a comic figure to such a serious interpreter of the play is interesting to say the least and in keeping with the tragedy. She shouts to the audience that “love trumps everything” after she has scolded all of the actors for their childish and murderous behavior. She reminds the audience that no one is innocent. Like Thyona, she is not only speaking to the characters in the play, she is speaking to us, the audience. She is the wise sage. The laughable, kind character becomes an extremely angry matriarch, literally shaking as she gives her final chorus and warning to the audience.

Nate Willey (Nikos), Markia Nicole Smith (Lydia), Gabe Florentino (Guiliano), Bebe Tabickman (Bella), Mel Holley (Piero)
Nate Willey (Nikos), Markia Nicole Smith (Lydia), Gabe Florentino (Guiliano), Bebe Tabickman (Bella), Mel Holley (Piero), Marisa Taylor Scott (Eleanor), Adam Jeffery Rossi (Leo)

The remainder of the cast include Giuliano (Gabriel Florintino) who portrays Bella’s gay grandson, Piero (Mel Holley) is the owner of the home in Italy where the sisters land in their escape from Greece, and Leo and Eleanor (Adam Rossi and Marisa Scott), a married couple who are friends of Piero and who assist the maidens prepare for their nuptials and act as those “regular people” who get caught up in the crossfire of a tragedy.  They are the “us” in the play – the observers who accidentally are caught in the cross hairs of futility, anger, and death.

The fact that the actors and Douglas received a standing ovation is proof that the “experiment” worked. Kudos also must go to Gianni Downs who designed a beautiful set which reminds one of a bright, sunny Italian countryside villa, a fitting setting for such a thought-provoking drama.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets. Big Love runs through March 12, tickets and more information can be found here. 

Photo credit: John Altdorfer

The Complete History of America (abridged)

complete-history-of-americaThe Theater Factory’s The Complete History of America (abridged) directed by Jen James is a delightful and frantic journey through the formation of the United States, from Vikings to Native Americans to all sorts of the scandals, wars, presidencies, doctrines, and missteps that arise when nation building – a work with a mix of vaudeville, camp, sketch comedy, slapstick, and one-liners. The actors leave the audience a bit winded by their unceasing movement and quick-paced dialogue,

The plot is not new:  select the most important events from leading up to and including the formation of America, add countless scandals and conspiracy theories, comedy, song, dance, and some extremely campy antics, and you have The Complete History of America (abridged). Blink, you miss a funny one-liner. Turn away, you miss a fool running across the stage with some daffy prop. If you miss a joke or a pun, not to worry, there’s another following it.

This cast of three (Nick Mitchell, Chelsea Bartell, and Adam Seligson) scramble through this fast-paced, don’t-stop-to-take-a-breath comedy, forcing the audience to pay close attention to every bit of action taking place on the stage. They hold the audience captive playing the likes of Richard Nixon, Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, George Washington, J. Edgar Hoover, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, WWII soldiers, and just about any major figure who had a hand in the making America.

Although no actor plays the “lead” role, Nick Mitchell (Complete Hollywood abridged, Newsie, Cat, The Bridge in Madison County) acts as the narrator for much of the action. His booming, resonating presence is the tour de force, the “adult” so to speak.  He is a steadfast presence, playing all the “manly characters” and whose actions serve as a springboard for all of the slapstick humor (although in this comedy, nothing is actually manly nor serious – Mitchell dons a dress while portraying J. Edgar Hoover). In the second act, Mitchell delivers a performance containing so much dialogue that I had to turn and look back at the sound board to see if someone was holding cue cards.

The original play, written for three men, however, contained James’ one of two major original successes – that of casting a woman, Chelsea Bartell (Hairspray, Hedwig and the Angry Witch, The Wizard of Oz, A Christmas Carol), as a leading “man/woman/whomever.” You name it, she plays it. And she does a splendid job stealing the show. Her comfortable and hilarious abilities seem to come from her heart as if she is adlibbing her scenes. No forced dialogue from her. Additionally, this being the first night’s production, her portrayal of George Washington (whose wigs falls off mid-dialogue) and Adolf Hitler (again, whose mustache falls off in mid-dialogue) didn’t deter her. As simple covering the mouth with a sheepish “oops” even endears her more to the crowd. Bartell is a scene stealer, and it is very difficult to take your eyes off this actor. She’s that good.

Adam Selegson (A Good Old Fashioned Redneck County Christmas, Anything Goes, The Odd Couple),  in keeping with the idea of “the fool” as played in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, ends up playing, many times, the woman to Bartell’s man. As important as Mitchell and Bartell were (in some spots), it was Selegson who supplied the real slap-stick.  In the second act, Selegson plays a frantic Lucy Ricardo, asking a film noir-ish private dick, Mitchell, to find poor Ricky, who has been deported. And that’s what made it so funny – comic relief inside a comedy.

With no real setting (a large GOOGLE sign appeared in the back of the stage letting the audience know that fact-checking could be done just as easily as a Wikipedia search) the empty stage forces the three actors to fill it with bold and madcap personalities.

James’ other major success was the addition of timely music throughout the play and scene changes. This added a necessary continuity and connection from sketch to sketch. The music helped move the pace of the show. She’s a smart director and seems to know exactly what the audience wants and gave it to them. Everyone left the theater happier than when they came in, and that was directly the result of James’ directing and the acting of Mitchell, Seligson, and especially Bartell.

The cast’s extremely self-deprecating portrayal of all characters made the play that much more enjoyable. It’s healthy (and very Shakespearean) to see characters make fools of themselves for the entertainment of others. That’s the way comedy should be: it stands out as being part Saturday Night Live sketch comedy, Second City Improvisation, Garrison Keiller live performances complete with homemade sound effects, and campy Falstaff Shakespearean wit.

THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF MAKING OF AMERICA (ABRIDGED) is definitely worth the trip to Trafford. I would even recommend seeing it twice so as not to miss the quick dialogue and puns contained in the script. (A rewind button would have come in handy – “did I just hear that?”) And the chemistry James finds among Bartell, Mitchell, and Seligson works. It is obvious she had to find just the “right” actors to make this comedy work.

Special thanks to the Theatre Factory for complimentary press tickets. The Complete History of America (abridged) runs through February 26th. For tickets and more information, click here.