The Gift of the Maji

WebMAGI  The Gift of the Magi was adapted by Jon Jory from a 1905 short story by O. Henry. Logically enough given the genre of origin, the play is fairly short and condensed. The narrative traces newlyweds Della and Jim Young on their quest to purchase Christmas gifts for each other in spite of their tight finances. True, the paltry amounts they have to purchase gifts with are laughably outdated. After all, Della’s hard-saved $1.87 will not even score you a Starbucks coffee these days. Sadly, the harsh realities of financial hardship are nonetheless just as palpably relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. In fact, Jim (Josh Mooiweer) has been forced to accept a one-third pay cut at work. The company positions itself as benevolent, opting for a pay cut over a layoff. As Della (Becky Brown) finds, there is little joy in managing the home economics of subsistence living as Jim lines his worn shoes with borrowed newspaper from a coworker each day, literally limping along.

Despite the economic distress of the Youngs, the play’s tone is far more cheery than depressing. This is largely due to two factors: the holiday setting and the freshly minted newlyweds. Before the play, carolers dressed in period costume sing. The live music is an unexpected delight given the recorded, speaker-fed music that precedes most plays. There’s genuine joy and spreading cheer as rising song warmly fills the theater, and you slide effortlessly into the holiday spirit without even realizing it.

Lighting designer Antonio Colaruotolo enhances the holiday mood with an understated, abstract snowflake pattern illuminated on the red curtain behind the carolers. In addition, the holiday spirit literally frames the stage as pine garlands interwoven with white lights and red ribbon trace the proscenium. When the curtain rises, it’s a Victorian tableau reminiscent of a Nutcracker performance. Actors in period costumes spring into action singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” and dancing. Costume designer Joan Markert unifies the ensemble with costumes that complement without competing or being overly busy.

We learn that according to Della’s diary, newlyweds Jim and Della Young have only been married for 171 days. They clearly live to and love to please each other, always finding a positive spin for their sacrifices and troubles. With the play’s youthful eagerness and heartwarming exuberance, it’s well-suited for a college production, making it a perfect fit for Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse. Brown and Mooiweer, both Point Park University students, radiate undaunted youth and exude a vibrancy that keeps the play from delving headlong into the darker elements that cloud it. Fast forward ten years, and Jim and Della may be bitter and worn-down. However, at this moment in time, there is a fresh and hopeful optimism about them that’s appropriately captured by Brown and Mooiweer who are occupying a similar space in life – the world of boundless future possibilities that college represents.

Della is one of three daughters all united by D names, and we get a glimpse into her roads not taken as we meet her sisters. The narrator (Somerset Young) informs us Donna Marie (Cara Quigley) went to Utah determined to marry well and achieved that goal. While Quigley’s appearance is brief, she exudes a bold, space-filling presence fitting for the expansive western prairie as her jacket’s fringe sways rhythmically.

While Della’s other sister Dot (Emily Stoken) is only a train ride away, Dot’s life is a world away from Della’s. When the disheveled Della arrives at her door, the posh and polished Dot rings a tinkling bell for her housemaid to bring hot water. Stoken is appropriately restrained and reserved as befits Dot’s character. The living spaces of the two sisters stand in stark contrast. Dot’s stately and sparkingly well-appointed Christmas tree towers over Della’s Charlie Brown-like tree that Jim charitably deems “most original.” When Della reminds Dot she too married for love, Dot immediately dispels that romantic notion, flatly and transparently stating she married for position. O. Henry’s is a world of binaries. One can be poor and in love or well-situated without love. The appeal of cash flow is not lost on Della, at least subconsciously, as she hastily departs from her sister’s house. Brown lets herself display the nuanced tensions of Della’s dilemma – love for her sister versus wanting to put distance between herself and her sister’s opulence before she can question her own fate, now sealed by marriage.

There’s a dual sadness and sweetness to the play’s ending as the young couple sacrifice for each other’s happiness, raising obvious questions about fiscal responsibility in light of economic plight. However, thanks to Penelope Lindblom’s careful direction, she disables easy, snap judgments about the young couple’s fiscal decisions. After all, the desire to please and delight those we love is as natural as the holiday spirit the play easily conjures.

The Gift of the Magi is playing at the Pittsburgh Playhouse through December 17th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

White Christmas

white-christmas-marcus-center-show-detailOne can’t help but feel the warm glow of the holiday spirit watching the endearing production of White Christmas at the Palisade Playhouse in Greenfield. The playhouse is a converted Presbyterian church, which lends itself to rebirth as a theater space with the pulpit turned stage. Typical theater seats are solo and separated, everyone jostling for armrest territory, whereas the seating arrangement of pews embodies the borderless, bringing theatergoers together in warmth and solidarity.

Based on the 1954 classic film of the same name, the musical White Christmas was written by David Ives and Paul Blake with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. The play starts on Christmas Eve 1944. Captain Bob Wallace (Brett Goodnack) and Private Phil Davis (Brandon Keller) are participating in a Christmas variety show for the 151st division they’re part of, spreading holiday cheer to their fellow American troops stationed abroad. Wallace’s jaunty Santa hat and Davis’ rope of bells provide cheery nods to the season as they burst into “Happy Holiday.” General Henry Waverly (John Henry Steelman) busts up the fun, but Steelman plays the cane-holding General as a kind-hearted grandfatherly type. Although Waverly’s remark that there are “no flying reindeer over this corner of hell” reminds us that the somber realities of war rage around them, and even Santa knows enough to make it a no-fly zone.

The next scene fast-forwards us ten years to 1954. Wallace and Davis are singing “Happy Holiday” once again, but they’ve swapped their army green uniforms for showy red blazers. They’re now Broadway stars performing on The Ed Sullivan Show with 11 girls tap dancing behind them Rockette-style in red velvet peplum one-pieces with red-trimmed white satin gloves to match. They’ve transcended from military talent show to a powerhouse performing duo, as evidenced by the women who flock around both men, although only Phil responds with relentless flirting, clearly the playboy of the pair. With this first ensemble, the number of cast members occupying the Palisade stage suddenly surges, and you feel the floor vibrating as they tap in synchrony. The tap dancing girls are all young, ranging in age from roughly 10 to 16, which means not only are their sizes variable but inevitably, their performance quality varies. Toni Dobransky’s choreography could have been sharper given the space constraints. In ensemble scenes sans dance, director Matt Belliston would have benefited from stronger blocking. Actors often seem randomly and distractingly placed on the stage, contributing to poor sight lines and distracting from the main action.

While the young dancers aren’t always in lockstep or evenly spaced in the ensemble numbers, their hearts are big. Each of their multiple appearances garners easy applause from the audience as it’s hard not to be moved by their sweet earnestness. The festive red velvet costumes in the first number definitely enhance the holiday spirit. For what is a simple production, there are a truly staggering number of costume changes, making you wonder just how chaotic things must be backstage, especially with so much young talent. However, that’s all nicely hidden from the audience, and no one misses a beat as far as coming out in the wrong costume or with a piece missing, a testimony to stage manager Carissa Hardy.

In contrast to the parade of show-enhancing costumes, the amateur set design is mostly comprised of poorly painted cardboard pieces. Wallace and Davis end up following a sister act they are sweet on and want to hire for their revue to a Vermont lodge, which has a fireplace chimney that’s an outline of painted rocks on cardboard. The lodge’s main entry room is signified by a pair of painted cardboard windows adorned with curtains that bookend the stage. Clumsy, cumbersome set changes lack fluidity and create unnecessary long breaks in the action, especially given how many there are. The flimsy sets and poor stage lighting during set changes undoubtedly contribute to the lag time.

While the supporting cast is variable in quality, Goodnack’s Wallace and Keller’s Davis as well as the two sisters, Judy and Betty Haynes (played by Julia Lodge and Amanda Leight, respectively) are all delightful. The strongest and most powerful moments in the play are clearly when Goodnack and Leight occupy the stage together. They are both powerful vocalists, and their soulful voices harmonize together and make credible the evolution of their relationship from romantic cynics to sweethearts. Before they even meet, Wallace and Betty both sing “Love and the Weather” to their show partners in decrying their views on love, and Belliston cleverly positions them on opposite sides of the stage in their respective dressing rooms. The song nicely foreshadows them coming together as well as the complications that attend any relationship between two people who belt out “love and the weather, can’t be depended on.”

There are a number of memorable moments throughout the production. John Wheeler’s Ezekiel Foster only responds a monotone “yep” to requests as he helps ready the Vermont lodge’s barn space for Wallace and Davis, then sits alluringly for a few moments and belts out a couple of lines of “I Love a Piano” after Judy and Davis sing it and leave the barn, reminding us we all have a bit of the aspiring performer inside of us. At the finale, the church’s pocket doors are opened in mirror of the opening of the Vermont barn doors when Wallace and Davis perform on Christmas Eve 1954, and everything comes full circle. It’s truly a white Christmas.

White Christmas plays through December 9th at the Palisade Playhouse. To purchase tickets and for more information, click here.

The Humans

humansTime may march on, but there’s something immutable about the roles one regresses into during family holiday gatherings. Sibling rivalries flare, there are passive aggressive references to real or perceived slights of yesteryear, family traditions are observed, and there’s often some alcohol along the way to smooth or coarsen the track. Love is there, but navigating family can be its own rocky course, which is precisely the appeal in watching the holidays unfurl for fictional families. You identify pieces of yourself, and your own family normalizes a bit. Thanksgiving dinner with the Blake family includes all of the above and comprises the action in Stephen Karam’s play, The Humans, now playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

PPT_The_Humans_011The play starts on the second floor of scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s magnificent set, a two-story apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. The lights come up on Erik Blake (J. Tucker Smith), an upper middle-aged man standing on the second floor landing with a grocery bag in each hand. He looks out, a modern-day Lewis and Clark in a plaid shirt, surveying this new frontier from on high, in this case his younger daughter Brigid’s (Valeri Mudek) new apartment she just moved into with her boyfriend, Richard Saad (Arash Mokhtar). A wheelchair behind Erik immediately signifies this is a multi-generational gathering. A spiral staircase provides access to the ground floor, but Schweikardt brilliantly chooses not to place a railing at the front of the second floor level. The long unprotected drop is unnerving. The precipice heightens the play’s emotional edges and creates visual vulnerability, reminding us we’re all one fragile misstep away from disaster.

Schweikardt’s black metal staircase winds tightly, appropriately double helix-like. The staircase is not simply a way to ascend and descend. Director Pamela Berlin thoughtfully utilizes it as a space where characters hover between floors, one ear cocked and listening to the conversation above or below. Each character is in transition in some way, and these pauses on the stairs, neither up nor down, symbolize those transitions.

Cecelia Riddett in wheelchair then (left to right) Arash Mokhtar, Valeri Mudek, Courtney Balan, J. Tucker Smith and Charlotte Booker
Cecelia Riddett in wheelchair then (left to right) Arash Mokhtar, Valeri Mudek, Courtney Balan, J. Tucker Smith and Charlotte Booker

At one point, the mother, Deirdre (Charlotte Booker) comes down from the bathroom and overhears her two adult daughters making fun of the emails she tirelessly sends, ones with subject lines like “PLEASE READ THIS.” The audience laughs easily with Brigid and Aimee (Courtney Balan), and Deirdre’s all-caps emails are genuinely comedic and eyeroll-relatable. As she stands on the stairs listening, Booker’s face softly collapses behind bottle-dyed red hair as she realizes she’s become an object of ridicule. Deirdre loves her children, and her struggle to relevantly express it is both funny and poignant as she foists off a Virgin Mary statue on Brigid along with a wind-up radio, covering emergency preparedness from multiple angles.

Karam’s characters are written a bit one-dimensionally, considering The Humans won the Tony for best play of 2016. Cecilia Riddett is commendable as the grandmother, Momo, but she’s also a caricature of an old lady, an elderly inconvenience who dozes off, then punctuates the action with occasional outbursts. Deirdre and Erik juggle her care, and when Brigid implies they’re overmedicating Momo, Deirdre snaps, reminding her it’s a $100 a night for someone to watch Momo. Over half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, so night care isn’t an in-budget luxury. For the Blakes and most Americans, life is that railingless second floor.

Charlotte Booker and Arash Mokhtar
Charlotte Booker and Arash Mokhtar

Brigid and Richard’s moving truck has yet to arrive from Queens, so the whole apartment has a makeshift quality. A disposable tablecloth covers a cheap folding table, and the row of turkeys printed on it precipitously dangle over the table’s edge, a macabre death scene that echoes the imminent threat of falling from the level above. A tissue paper honeycomb turkey that looks like it would be more at home in an elementary school comprises the centerpiece and completes a sad dollar store nod to Thanksgiving.

Berlin appropriately chooses to stage Brigid and Richard as a couple you sense won’t work out, even before they unpack. There’s no perceptible attraction between them. Brigid is a frustrated musician with student loans and dual bartending jobs. She disparagingly notes to Aimee that Richard made a pro/con list on whether or not to move in together and also maintains a list of “ways to have fun,” which includes thrill-seekers like “long walks.” One gets the sense Richard comes from money, which is affirmed as the play unfolds, and given their lack of connection, it’s hard not to cynically wonder if Brigid sees him as a financial toehold.

J. Tucker Smith and Valeri Mudek
J. Tucker Smith and Valeri Mudek

A flaw of the writing, not the production, is the pacing. The first half is overly long, and there’s a sense of relief when everyone finally sits down and gets to the big meal, although Thanksgiving itself can feel that way as you’re forever waiting to eat. Deirdre repeatedly whispers to Erik to “tell them” almost from the outset, and Booker underscores her reminder with fiery eyes that widen and a steel set mouth. Erik’s big reveal, while unanticipated, feels strangely anticlimactic as Smith flatlines and struggles to make it believable. The ripple effect of the reveal is rushed and feels a bit contrived, but the play’s final moments are masterful and impactful.

Growing up, our most successful Thanksgiving dinners were the ones where we ate out as my mother was a weak cook at best. One Thanksgiving, she attempted to cook a goose. I vividly remember my dad standing over it, his carving knife revealing a bloody pink interior, triggering a swell of sailor-worthy cursing from my mother. Ah, blessed family holiday memories. You’ll laugh, nod, and find a piece of yourself and your family in The Humans this holiday season.

The Humans plays through December 10th at the O’Reilly Theater. To purchase tickets and for more information, click here.

Photos by Michael Henninger

All Quiet on the Western Front

quietThere are times you’re acutely aware that while yes, you’ve faced hardships, you’ve also led a life of privilege simply by having a roof over your head and a bed to sleep in. All Quiet on the Western Front razor sharpens that realization in scene after scene, numbing you with war’s relentlessness in just two hours, a microcosm of life for the play’s German soldiers of B Company. They head off to World War I as jovial, adventure-seeking youths only to die or be aged in time-lapse by war’s atrocities.

All Quiet on the Western Front marks the inaugural production of Prime Stage’s 21st season as they continue their rich tradition of bringing literature to life on the stage. Impressively, this is also the play’s U.S. premiere. It was adapted for the stage by Robin Kingsland from Erich Maria Remarque’s famed 1929 novel of the same title, a novel that was subsequently banned by the Nazi party.

Despite the World War I setting, the play’s main characters are not heroes. They are boys persuaded by patriotism. The lure of wartime adventure proves more tantalizing than their humdrum, small-town life. The play starts with a metal door noisily rumbling up, and you hear the soon-to-be soldiers singing before you see them roll onto the stage aboard a large cart. The door’s sound is jarring, and director Scott Calhoon brilliantly uses the disconcerting sound to foreshadow the more jarring sounds of war ahead. You feel the anticipation and bursting eagerness of youth as they spill out onto the stage. The main character, Paul Baumer (Connor McNelis), an aspiring poet and lepidopterist, aptly describes the boys as “coiled shoots under the earth.”

The utter arbitrariness of war is a recurring theme. There are no playing favorites on the battlefield. The town’s champion gymnast, Franz, almost immediately loses a leg and dies slowly post-amputation. Projection designer Joe Spinogatti thoughtfully utilizes subtle projections of a wartime hospital floor in the background. They remind us that while we trace Franz’s story, he is one in a sea of many. But war also makes one an opportunist, even as one realizes the contemptibility of it. With supplies already in short order, Franz’s hometown compadres whisper bedside and contemplate taking his nice boots. They rationalize he won’t need them, and besides, they’ll just get taken by an officer. Paul ends up witnessing Franz’s death alone and walks away, then scurries back for the boots. McNelis never shies away from authentically conveying Paul’s struggles and sorrows. His face collapses with pain as he furtively departs, hugging the boots to his chest, both token and tear-stained battlefield advantage.

Normalcy proves to be an ever-shifting bar. The scene with the boots is at the war’s start. Later, the remaining men of B Company slip on blood and blown-up body parts as they scramble for shelter post-bombardment. In fellowship, they review the spoils each accumulated, including corned beef and cognac. One man casually breaks off a blood-spattered chunk of French bread. It’s grisly, but the shared sustenance and palpable relief in realizing the majority of their community has returned alive create a lightness amidst the gore. The four bottles of cognac were pilfered by the Company’s de facto leader, 40-year old Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Stefan Lingenfelter). Lingenfelter plays Kat with heart, a sort of gruff papa bear complete with 5 o’clock shadow who, like the others, is civilian turned soldier. Father-like, he puts the needs of his charges first, slyly conjuring up food and supplies when others can’t. As they move towards shelter, gripping their spoils, the actors keep their eyes forward and move as if they are walking over waves, shaking off the almost-dead who claw at their ankles crying for help. Thanks to Calhoon’s careful direction, it’s as if we see those ghosts in the elegant, grisly dance steps of the soldiers that leave you raw and aching.

Scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach’s towering set is an omnipresent reminder that the individual is minuscule in war, but the boxes the boys sit astride on the cart ride in the opening scene are Bohach’s masterpiece. They smoothly transform to classroom chairs, then take on a darker tone. After the boys sign up for war, Calhoon exchanges their casual poses for military postures as they face each other in two straight rows. The boxes too stand erect on their ends, revealing straps and becoming backpacks. Uniforms are pulled from a hole in the center, and the boys slip them on over their regular clothes, reminding us soldier is just a thin layer over their civilian identity. The boxes later morph again, laying flat in a circle, holes up, becoming toilets the soldiers race to after a potent wartime dinner of beans, and they laugh at their comfort with communal crapping. The ever-elusive bar of normalcy has shifted once again.

As I walked back to my car after the show, a nearly full moon hung low in the sky, and the cool night air stung my nose. In one scene, a new recruit is crazed for fresh air after weeks of bombardment in covered trenches. The crispness of the night air seemed magnified after the play, and I felt as if I needed to breathe more deeply, finding the air they couldn’t. I shivered, registering that I should have brought a warmer jacket, yet almost immediately chided myself for the thought; it felt selfish after hearing the “grim music of the shells” and watching such suffering. Theatre has the power to help us both confront our humanity and connect with humanity. Breathe deeply for those who can’t, and don’t miss All Quiet on the Western Front.

All Quiet on the Western Front plays through November 12th at the New Hazlett Theater. To reserve tickets and for more information, click here.

Mythburgh: Round 2 with 12 Peers

21752367_1973464016000784_6131844286900303418_nI reviewed the first installment of 12 Peers Theater’s Mythburgh series last month. The second in this three-part series of Pittsburgh-focused stories was also staged at the Brillobox. Last time, the bar turned theatre venue for a night meant it was mostly standing room only. This time was no different, except I leveraged my lessons learned and wore flats instead of the 4-inch heels I chose last time. A simple, low stage was slung across the front of the bar space under towering windows rimmed by dizzying red wallpaper.

Part of Mythburgh’s intrigue is all of the plays are Pittsburgh-specific in some way, but Amy Hartman’s Lettuce & Loss seems to elude that criterion, which ends up being the least of its flaws. The play is like a mixed drink itself: one part reader’s theatre (everyone was reading from scripts clasped in 3-ring binders), two parts theatre of the absurd (the basic plot is a man forced to choose repeatedly between parting with his wife or a chair), plus a splash of classical Greek (the play also featured a needless Greek chorus). The missing ingredient is Pittsburgh, which is supposed to be the flavor that unites these shows. Just as a Long Island Iced Tea loses its appeal post-college when you realize the diminishing returns of mixing five kinds of alcohol, so too does Lettuce & Loss suffer from the ad hoc blend of many genres, leaving you a bit hung over.

Lettuce & Loss ends up being the kind of play you might imagine if you think about theatre with a capital T taking itself too seriously as director Michael Goldberg has all of the actors dress in black and default to over enunciation, as if you’re watching a caricature of a play – or certainly one that lacked adequate rehearsal time. The wife, Meg (Carrie Martz) clutches a taxidermied chicken at the start of the show, and Martz’s role mostly calls for hysterics, which she executes efficiently. The husband’s (Vince Ventura) repeated proclamations of love for the chair he built and admires for its “supple curves, intuitive curves” come across as forced and contrived. This effectively cuts off access to any deeper commentary on materialism or the desire to shape and control one’s love objects, which could have been as interesting to peel back as the chair’s lovingly crafted birch wood. The play does start on a high note as the bartender (Brittany Tague) welcomes the first black-ensembled actress (Mary Quinlan) by offering her a drink. Tague eyerolls when the woman launches into woeful dramatics over an unspecified loss. You sympathize with the bartender playing not just drink jockey but the unwilling role of psychologist.

Starting with the title, Don’t Look Now: The Tale of the Pittsburgh Shuffler, the second play compensates for the lack of Pittsburgh essence in the first. In this casual romp, two Point Park University students Taylor (Caitlin Dobronz) and Jessica (Hope Anthony) hit the bar for a night on the town. They come in with focus, immediately ordering and downing two cherry bombs, shots as red as the Brillobox’s vibrant interior. Playwright Matt Henderson brilliantly captures both the timeless quality of them – they are there playing the age-old procrastination game of delaying the inevitable writing of an anthropology paper due the next day, and their time-specific presence as they banter about Tinder and Taylor Swift, both clad in skinny jeans and high-heeled boots. Dobronz is a delight to watch as she encapsulates a modern-day mean girl, clearly the leader of the duo. Dobronz also directs the show and has both girls bouncing between their phones and scanning the room for action, centering a cultivated and feigned indifference. Anthony gives Jessica her moments of strength, but they quickly fade under Dobronz’s withering looks and ringleader authority.

For anyone who attended the first installment of Mythburgh, there are a few hidden Easter eggs to delight the careful observer. Henderson played fortuneteller Swami Matt in one of the plays, and Taylor refers to Matt when she talks about seeing a psychic. This leads into a discussion of the “green being of Pittsburgh” who physically manifests as Ray (Jim Froehlich), although both girls misread him as dressed in Halloween costume as green juices ooze through white gauze mummifying his head. Dobronz has the girls fittingly nod to Halloween in the most noncommittal and stereotypical of female ways; Taylor dons bunny ears, and Jessica wears cat ears. Henderson weaves in the supernatural as a through element as Ray can communicate with both the girls and Pinky (Natalia Rose), a ghost who travels with Taylor and clearly distains her.

During the event, I ended up standing at a table and chatting with a friend of the actress who played the bartender. There we were, a couple of strangers who struck up a conversation; she was from Erie and had acted in some plays there. I recently moved back to the Burgh after many years in California, and a similar situation there would generally mean both parties would tacitly agree not to converse, or even make eye contact. People tend to stay in the safe space of being heads-down with their phone. I was reminded such moments are Pittsburgh stories in themselves – casual, genuine conversation evolving between two people who walked into a bar as strangers and came out enriched in some small way after connecting with someone else. The warmth of Pittsburghers is no myth, and it’s no small part of the city’s charm. Mythburgh ultimately reminds us our stories as individuals are inevitably about place, and they’re more interwoven with our city than we realize.

There will be one more installment of 12 Peers’ Mythburgh presented at the Brillobox on November 19th. Tickets to Mythburgh are always Name Your Own Price, but you can find out more here.

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.