The Last of the Boys

22282100_1554313021278863_4299695260516918280_nWhat stands out most in The Theatre Factory’s production of Steven Dietz’s Last of the Boys is William Mitas’ commanding set design. The small 7-row theatre feels dwarfed by the massive set, looming as large as memories of the Vietnam War that provide the play’s backdrop. What begins as an annual visit and looks to be a shoot the shit session between Vietnam vets and friends, Ben (Dennis Kerr) and Jeeter (William Mitas, doing double duty as set designer), reveals layers as the visit progresses. Ben’s trailer sits nest-like atop the bald tires it’s perched on and provides the stage’s focal point. The trailer’s exterior looks like it would be at home in a modern-day reclaimed wood kitchen, but in fact, it’s just old and weather-beaten, much like Ben and Jeeter.

Before either main character even appears on stage, one starts to piece together Ben’s history as a proud veteran. Faded stickers plastered on the trailer and the outdoor icebox for beer read ARMY and Made in the USA. Despite being set in California, another sticker is in the shape of Michigan, and there’s a bumper sticker for the Great Lakes, letting us know this Midwestern boy landed far from home but maintains pride in his roots. The push and pull of home versus California is immediately relevant. As the play begins, Jeeter has just arrived at Ben’s, having driven from Ben’s father’s funeral in Michigan, which Ben chose not to attend, letting us know long-simmering father/son issues are now destined to remain forever unresolved.

Both men are gray and grizzled, and costume designer Matt Mylnarski neatly affirms their places in society with his costuming. Ben is a recluse with no need to impress anyone, as evidenced by his all-denim dad style. Jeeter is a humanities professor who teaches a course on the 1960s and has a penchant for bedding his female undergrads. Mitas appropriately plays Jeeter as bouncy and hyped, desperate to exude youth, but his bandana and t-shirt with an acid-tripping Rolling Stones logo paired with camouflaged cargo pants belong to a man who still hasn’t bridged the gap to the present.

The play’s primary faults lie in the writing itself. Steven Dietz cuts between the present and Ben’s enactments of Vietnam-era scenes as he channels Robert McNamara who was his father’s boss and the controversial Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. The awkward shifts are magnified by director Sue Kurey who seems unsure about how to elegantly handle the transitions and simply turns the lights blue during these scenes. Kerr does well in playing the slightly downtrodden and grumpy Ben, but he struggles with making these historical enactments believable, looking like a cat that’s embarrassed when it inadvertently falls off the couch. The Young Soldier (Domenic Jungling) who appears with Ben in these scenes seems as if he would be more at home in an Abercrombie ad than military regalia and could have used stronger directorial guidance from Kurey as he struggles awkwardly even in executing a crisp military walk. The narrative contribution for the Vietnam-era scenes is unclear, and one questions to what extent it’s in Ben’s mind until Jeeter’s new girlfriend, Salyer (Kaylyn Farneth), intrudes unexpectedly and questions Ben on what he’s doing.

Salyer and her mom Lorraine (played by her actual mother, Pam Farneth) round out the cast. Lorraine is an angry alcoholic, but Farneth’s rage is expressed as a high-pitched screech, her accent wavers, and the love that supposedly charges that anger never feels authentic. Lorraine’s character does get some memorable lines, and Farneth drolly owns, “Good whiskey doesn’t need a first name.” While Salyer is Jeeter’s girlfriend, she’s also 25 years younger than him, and Kurey never cultivates any detectable heat in this May-December romance. Dietz fails to flesh out Salyer’s character and properly motivate her actions, so she comes across as unpredictable with no discernable rhythm to her decisions. Yet, both women are scarred, and the barriers around the love-seeking heart have achingly passed from one generation to the next.

I parked in front of the American Legion down the street from the theatre, and walking back to the car, I noticed a sign in front of the building “Drill a Well. Bring a Soldier Home.” It’s a message to promote fracking, the operative theory being the natural gas industry will play savior by both providing domestic jobs and diminishing our military needs abroad with reduced dependence on foreign oil. War, what are we fighting for? We’re reminded this question is as hauntingly relevant today as it was during Vietnam.

Last of the Boys plays through October 22nd at The Theatre Factory in Trafford, PA. To reserve tickets and more information, click here.

Side Show

sideHuge ensemble casts were a hallmark of 1930s theatre, which was largely driven by government funding of the Federal Theatre Project as part of the Works Progress Administration. A cast of 30 clearly generated more employment opportunity than a cast of 4, so large ensembles became the norm. While the musical Side Show was first performed in 1997, it is set in the 1930s. It nods to its Depression-era contemporaries with 25 characters, which Split Stage Productions fills with a cast of 19, still a sizable commitment by today’s standards where the one-man show reigns supreme as economic safeguard. Side Show (book and lyrics by Bill Russell, music by Henry Krieger) traces the career trajectory from sideshow to vaudeville of real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton.

Side Show begins thoughtfully long before you’re seated. A 1930s period sideshow poster for the Bearded Lady hangs outside the Apple Hill Playhouse, waving flag-like and setting a tone of the exotic. As you enter, Split Stage skillfully manages to engage the theatrically neglected olfactory with the wafting scent of fresh popcorn luring you under the proverbial big top. Sideshow act posters line the lobby walls, including one for the Invisible Man – cleverly blank. A poster of The Sheik and his shimmying Harem Girls smiles alluringly as you ascend the stairs to the theatre. Inside, music director Joy Morgan Hess’ choice of tinny ragtime player-piano music provides a peppy accompaniment to more sideshow poster boastings.

In a metatheatrical moment, director Jim Scriven chooses to start the show by projecting the movie poster for Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks onto the curtain. This now cult-classic about a sideshow featured the real-life Daisy and Violet Hilton as well as other actual sideshow “freaks” of the time. The curtain is gauze-like, and through this shrouded veil, the show’s freaks filter onto the stage, belting out “Come Look at the Freaks.” They are each damaged in their own way, and the gauzy curtain feels like a bandage, a thin protection against a cruel world that’s violently yanked off as the curtain rises. Sideshow owner and master of ceremonies, Sir (Joe York), introduces each freak, commanding them to manifest their talents, saving Daisy (Rori Aiello Mull) and Violet (Victoria Buchtan) for his final reveal. A tattered suit and frayed tophat complement Sir’s Snidely Whiplash mustache. He is a cruel profiteer who treats his ensemble as property, not people, yet York keeps Sir from lapsing into dismissible stereotype.

The lifting of the curtain and stage lighting highlight the flaws in Alicia DiPaolo and Jim Gracie’s prosthetics and make-up. The prosthetic outlines on the Human Pin Cushion (Nate Newell) are easily visible, and the Geek’s (Mike Hamilla) long bulbous nose is obviously lighter in tone than the rest of his face. These distracting defects are correctable attentions to detail that could heighten the sideshow illusion instead of detracting from it. In our first glimpse of Daisy and Violet, Scriven artfully chooses to elevate them on a platform above the others, visually signifying their importance. They are also backlit, making their height difference obvious. Finding two actresses of the same height and build is obviously a challenge in casting conjoined twins, but Mull’s Daisy is several inches taller than Buchtan’s Violet, and even though Buchtan wears higher heels, the height difference is hard to ignore and takes you one more step out of the illusion.

However, Mull and Buchtan clearly trained in tandem and walk in absolute lockstep. Their Daisy and Violet move with surprisingly natural ease, even in awkward positions where you expect them to falter. Costume designer Sharon Wiant commendably creates costumes that both highlight their conjoined status and trace their shift from Sir’s tight-fisted sideshow operation to the bright lights of vaudeville. When Sir first introduces them, they are wearing little more than thin white nightgowns. In their first vaudeville appearance, they wear slinky red dresses, black feather boas snaking through their limbs as they seductively belt out “Ready to Play” surrounded by a black-suited male revue with red bowties, ready for their audience to imprint some version of a ménage a trois fantasy onto them.

Conjuring fantasies is a larger metaphor for their lives as they live pinball-like, always a means to someone else’s end without asserting their own needs or having them appropriately considered. Terry Connor’s (Tyler Brignone) quick sales pitch lures the twins from sideshow to vaudeville with startling ease, undoubtedly aided by his clean-cut good looks and black suit. At times, Brignone struggles with staying in character. He’s supposed to be in love with Daisy and claims to be enraptured by the sisters, yet while they pour their hearts out singing “Like Everyone Else” in answer to his question of what they want, Brignone looks distracted and unfocused. While Connor does deliver on his vaudeville promises, he’s ultimately another opportunist looking to use the sisters to advance his financial gain and fizzling career as a talent scout. Whether it’s Sir or Terry, both men perennially refer to Daisy and Violet as “girls.” They’re sexualized on one hand but infantilized on the other as not able to properly care for themselves and needing a strong, guiding male hand.

When I was growing up, we weren’t a daytime TV kind of family, which is perhaps why I have such a clear memory of watching Tod Browning’s Freaks with my father one weekend afternoon. I must have been about 10, dust motes swirling in the air as the afternoon sun tried to part the drawn curtains as if we were in our own big top tent. Looking back, I think it was my father’s way of teaching me a lesson on tolerance and inclusion. After all, in the film, the sideshow’s freaks have the moral compass while the “normal” looking people prove to be liars and cheats. Things aren’t always what they appear. Go ahead, peek behind the curtain, get your freak on, and you’ll find something you like at Side Show.

Side Show runs at the Apple Hill Playhouse through October 14. For tickets and more information, click here. 

12 Peers Presents Pittsburgh Plays in First Installment of Mythburgh

21752367_1973464016000784_6131844286900303418_nWhile I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, I moved away as a teenager and only moved back to Pittsburgh-proper this year after a long interregnum. My relationship with the city kind of feels like that aunt you see every other Thanksgiving – somewhat familiar and you know you’re related, but it’s a little awkward as you’re lacking on shared experiences and knowing each other’s nuances.

Given this, I was wondering just how much of an outsider I’d feel like at 12 Peers Theater’s inaugural production of their new Mythburgh series that focuses on Pittsburgh-specific stories. My concerns eased as soon as I walked into the Brillobox. This is the first play I’ve seen in a bar, and there was something immediately relaxing about the setting. People were warmly mingling, and there was the usual din of bar chatter, nothing to indicate this was about to become a theatrical space beyond the regular performance antics of people with alcohol. There was no territoriality in staking out your assigned bingo-like seat number or squeezing past knees to claim a vacant spot as the space was mostly stand-rooming only, another theatrical first for me.

It was easy to gloss over the simple, makeshift stage with two chairs and a small table nestled in front of three towering windows separated by panels of Dr. Seuss-inspired red polka dot wallpaper. In a delightful surprise turn, director Nick Mitchell chose to stage the first play, Brian Edward’s Close Encounters of the Yinzer Kind or Super Bowl Forty, not on the stage but at a ledge-like table jutting out from a side wall, an appropriate choice given the play’s focus is two Southside locals sharing a story in a bar.

In another thoughtful directorial decision, Mitchell has the play start in media res. There was no formal announcement or sign the play was commencing, so most people missed the actual opening as twin brothers Donny (Joe York) and Melvin (Hank Fodor) lumber into the bar and order beer. They shout to be heard, and the gathered crowd gradually quieted in the collective realization this must be the play starting. York and Fodor are well-cast. They believably convey the casual ease between brothers that allows you to call each other jagoffs while still finishing each other’s sentences. They dominate the space both physically, bushy beards and shirts straining over their XXL heft, and verbally, locals who flick off the play’s attendee occupying their table with a casual “Get the fuck outta here.” Edward as a Pittsburgh native clearly has an ear for regional tones that he captures in the brothers’ speech, and also liberally peppers his work with local references from Primanti Brothers and PennDOT to Giant Eagle and CoGo’s.

Edward’s narrative comfortably vacillates between the broader story of the twin brothers, their shared 26-year tenure with PennDOT on the 4 am deer removal shift, and the specific story they share, which takes place at their house during Super Bowl XL. Edward wisely realizes he doesn’t even need to mention for this audience that the Steelers creamed the Seahawks, but for Donny and Melvin, the game is memorably interrupted by the arrival of an extraterrestrial visitor.

The supernatural carries over to the second play, Molly Rice’s Swami Matt and the Ghost Kiss. In the break between Close Encounters and Swami Matt, fortuneteller’s assistant Stella (played by Moira Quigley) circulated the room, chatting up attendees as she cracked her gum. While Rice draws Stella’s character a bit one-dimensionally, director Rusty Thelin helps Quigley hits that note well. Quigley elicits easy laughter as she memorably squeezes the accordion at key moments. Her croptop with the lipstick kiss print is hard to forget, a literal visual imprint of the love she’s seeking and a foreshadowing of the play’s ending where she hits on, then leaves with, the bartender.

The play ends up being a hybrid of improvisation and the scripted, and it’s abundantly more successful in its scripted portion. In the first two sequences, fortuneteller Swami Matt (played by Matt Henderson) visibly struggles with improvisation. The woman next to me was the first called on-stage when the fortuneteller conjures a reference to the “fighting Quakers” (the woman’s school mascot) from a slip of paper Stella hands him. Swami Matt closes each session with a rushed utterance of “Okay thanks,” and there’s palpable relief in those words.

In the third and final sequence, which is clearly all scripted, Henderson is better able to find his stride once he can focus on form over content creation. It’s a Groundhog Day narrative where Swami Matt gets the same name and is forced to retell the same story each night. As the story progresses, the emotion valence deepens. Although Henderson struggles to make it fully believable, you realize it’s not a mythical tale. This is a veiled story about Matt himself.

This past May, I ran my first marathon, and I was surprised to find the Pittsburgh marathon was as much about Pittsburgh as the running. There was something unexpectedly powerful and pride-inducing in running past Pittsburgh landmarks and across the city’s bridges, a heightened awareness that you’re part of something bigger. Similarly, Mythburgh connects you to our city, engendering pride and reminding us as we look around and laugh together that we’re more similar than different, a comforting reminder in a world that can feel divisive as you scroll your newsfeed. We not only get it – pierogies, chipped ham and Steeler nation – it’s part of us.

There will be 2 more installments of 12 Peer’s Mythburgh presented at Brillobox October 22 and November 19. Tickets to Mythburgh are always Name Your Own Price but you can find out more here. 

PNWF 2017: Program C

PNWF LOGOThe 27th season of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival at Carnegie Stage continues with a trio of new one-act plays in Program C.

The first show is Julie Zaffarano’s Destiny is a Careless Waiter, as presented by R-ACT Productions. The stage is set with two café tables. Flowing red tablecloths drape the tables like melted red wax on the sides of a Chianti bottle. Champagne flutes on each table reinforce this is a destination of romance.

destinyOf course, things are not always what they appear. However, the romantic restaurant seems fitting when the show opens with the high-pitched squeals of Bria (Brittany Bara). She shrieks with excitement after discovering a ring atop her dessert. Bria possessively pushes on the ring, not even pausing for her newly betrothed to slip it on, extending her arm and admiring her finger, all while rattling on incessantly. Her new fiancé, Justin (Spencer Whale), looks befuddled, and one suspects he’s just the inert type.

It’s an intimate restaurant where tables almost kiss. The couple at the next table reacts to the engagement. The man (Sean, played by Travis Ascione) finds it sweet and tries cajoling his girlfriend (Emily, played by Carley Adams) into the same response. Emily’s nonstop texting and cynical eyeroll indicate she is not impressed by the trite textbook proposal. Beyond that, she casts dubious glances at Bria, clearly finding her overzealous reaction extreme.

While it’s a play of couples, the women assume the primary roles, and their costuming establishes them as opposites. Emily is tall and willowy, a brunette with severe bangs who wears a classic little black dress. Adams plays Emily with a resting bitch face when she’s dealing with Sean, but it’s not a one-note default as she warms and softens in other interactions. Bria’s evergreen perkiness is made manifest by a colorful floral skirt and vibrant fuchsia cardigan. Bara’s energetically fresh interpretation of Bria is a pleasure to watch, and Bara flips some cynicism when needed, not limiting herself to an always on mode.

It turns out Justin’s confusion is genuine. He had no plans to propose. It’s a madcap rush, reminiscent of a 1930’s screwball comedy, but director Mike Nelson is careful not to speed through the plot twists. The play ends with Justin and Sean making eye contact as they simultaneously shout “Server,” although it sounds more like “Serve her,” advice we learn both men failed to take.

r and jRelationship drama, albeit offstage, also forms the cornerstone of the second play, the Actors Civic Theater’s presentation of William Sikorski’s Romeo and Juliet: Epilogue. Director James Critchfield’s set choice is appropriately austere for an interrogation room: a folding table and three chairs. The play opens with Friar Lawrence (Eric Mathews) slumped over the table in his brown habit.

There’s immediate juxtaposition. Two modern detectives come into the room, one clutching a donut bag. They start rapid-fire questioning the startled-looking friar. Just when one thinks it’s because he’s a man of God who’s wrestling with being questioned by the police about his role in the dead bodies found in a tomb, he responds in Elizabethan English.

Detective Sam Davis (Candice Fisher) bristles offensively at the Elizabethan response. Fisher plays the detective with limited range; Fisher’s two modes are smartass and shrill as she gets in the friar’s face. Detective William Stanley is played by Joel Ambrose who brings more nuance to his performance and pushes beyond stereotypes. However, Stanley is like an American abroad who speaks more slowly and loudly, hoping that will solve the communication gap.

Sikorski’s narrative misses the mark and is tied up a bit too abruptly and neatly. Ultimately, the detectives’ forceful abrasiveness seems questionable, but Critchfield doesn’t explore that thread, which is a missed opportunity for relevance given ever-present stories on police brutality. Instead, the two detectives just break into the donuts. Cops will be cops.

branniganDomestic drama provides a through line connecting the third and final play, Lezlie Revelle’s The Wrong Brannigan (presented by McKeesport Little Theatre) to its two Program C predecessors. The action unfolds in a living room, lived in but warmly pleasant. A champagne-colored brocade couch behind a green area rug provides the focal point of the room. A chair nestled on each side and a wet bar across the room completes a scene of domestic tranquility.

This tranquility is reinforced by the play’s opening as occupant Ronnie Brannigan (Randy Berner) enters the room. Berner perfectly channels a very nice, but immediately forgettable, mid-50s male. He enters the living room with an open book and settles on the couch to read. His tranquility is short-lived as a man ringing the doorbell ever more incessantly breaches Ronnie’s peace. The breach turns out to be of more than just solitude. The man, Bill (Chris Cattell), pulls a gun on the perplexed Ronnie. Ronnie’s wife Jerri (Jane Scutieri Tinker) arrives home to a tense scene as the gun-brandishing Bills faces off with a confused Ronnie who’s wrestling with the tension between spousal loyalty and troubling new revelations. Tinker struggles to make her character believable throughout, leaning towards the comedic easy laugh as an escape valve.

Relationship drama continues to escalate when the Brannigan’s college-age daughter, Katie (Kaitlin Cliber) arrives home for the holidays. Her costuming marks her as a girl still trying on identities, dark hair chopped short with blonde tufts and a long burgundy sweater with swinging fringe. The number of secrets and twists unravels at a near-dizzying frenzy. Director Catherine Gallagher fails to still the pacing at critical moments, leaving one feeling a bit like a hapless passenger on a roller coaster ride. While the tone remains comedic, Ronnie clearly surprises himself when he taps into his own dark side a bit, raising questions about the lengths we’ll go to in protecting the ones we love.

Program C of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival runs through September 23 at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106.

For more details, click here.