Knickers

Knickers is a difficult play to review.  The play – about four western Pennsylvania women who create underwear in an attempt to revitalize their destitute little town – has the qualities of successful community theater.  A built-in crowd, a packed house on a Thursday opening night, adequate technical aspects and engaging actors.  But it also has no ambition to extend beyond the fleeting entertainment value of a single night’s worth of time, so there is the desire to ask Knickers to want more for itself – and for community theater in general.

Knickers is running at South Park Theatre, which is at least forty-five minutes from Pittsburgh – more if you’re driving in the evening traffic on the way to a 7:30 show.  But it feels as if director Allison M. Weakland recognizes that most of the audience will be coming from nearby, from the small towns that the play is set in.  Knickers takes place in a destitute Appalachian town full of men who don’t want to talk about their feelings and women who sit around complaining about their men.  It is filled with outside-Pittsburgh references and monologues about the mill jobs of the past that more than pander to a local audience.

This would all be a more understandable setup if the female characters of the play were more distinguishable from each other than the faceless men in their lives.  But unfortunately, each of them has the same stereotypical distrust of outside ideas, the same defensive comedy of small-town insecurity.  And while this plays into the comfortable comedy that Knickers relies on, it also limits the actors.  This aspect of the production is most frustrating.  Adrienne Fischer demonstrated the ability to surprise with her timing – mostly, but not always, for laughs.  Michelina Anne Pollini covered a range of accents and had an endearing presence throughout.  But there is little more than momentary reward for the actors, regardless how gifted, in a show where characterization is about broadly representing an regional demographic instead of creating individual roles that can unfold onstage.

But again, this is not to say that this production is not successful.  It all depends on what it hoped to achieve.  The pacing is good. The set – especially the diner location of the second act – was excellent.  And the audience was undoubtedly entertained for the duration of the play.  But Kickersdoesn’t leave you with much other than images of similar stereotypes and familiar, quickly-forgotten comedy.  There’s no demand that community theater not entertain – but the cast and crew of Kickers show that given the right material, they could entertain and then some.

Special thanks to the South Park Theater for complimentary press tickets. Knickers runs though June 6, tickets and more information can be found here.

Performance Date: Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Week of Will

This week marks the 10th year anniversary of the origin of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks.  PSIP was founded in 2005 by Jennifer Tober – who continues her work with the organization as Artistic Director today – with the primary goal of “providing the Steel City with excellent, energetic, entertaining and free Shakespeare.” Recent productions have included As You Like It in September 2014 and Romeo & Juliet in September 2013.

One of the things that makes Pittsburgh’s outdoor Shakespeare unique from similar festivals and production in other U.S. cities is the inclusion of a series of events that are not necessary theater-centric (some have an only tangential relationship to the works of Shakespeare).  Some of this year’s events include: a fundraising dinner complete with an auction; a “Shakespeare happy hour”; a scavenger hunt and a Shakespeare trivia contest.

The play remains the thing, however.  The highlight of the week was a full production of King Lear, which Jennifer Tober answered some questions about (while also elaborating on the “Week of Will” as a whole).

TP:  This year’s full production is King Lear.  Why this play, and what do you think it means to the Pittsburgh theater community to be able to access free Shakespeare?

JT:  We chose King Lear because we love the play, and we wanted our friend and wonderful actor Ron Siebert to play King Lear.  The director, Jeffrey Chips, has wanted to direct Lear for a while, and it just seemed right for this season (our 11th).  It is a tragedy, of course, so we encourage audience members to bring a very large bottle of wine along with their picnics. (kidding).  Lear is about dementia, family feuds, betrayal, familial loyalty, and about the love between a father and his daughters. Things timely for all of us in some way or another. Access to free Shakespeare should be a requirement – a budget line item – in every US city. There is nothing better than outdoor Shakespeare.
TP:  Unlike the free Shakespeare events/festivals in some other cities, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks includes many events that are not necessarily theater events or are directly related to the work of Shakespeare.  What does PSIP hope to accomplish with these different kinds of events?

JT:  We have recently become very ambitious what with our “Week of Will” – ending on April 27th with our BYOB Bring Your Own Bard reading night at the Te Cafe in Squirrel Hill.  We try to reach as many audience members and other artistic companies as we can, and we love to collaborate with groups such as Poets Corner, Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project and Steel City Shakespeare.  We also like to take Shakespeare and theater to surprising public places – Mellon square downtown, Franktuary, Social, the Shakespeare statue….we believe that art can and should happen everywhere.

TP:  What do you hope will come out of this year’s PSIP, and what do you anticipate will change in future years?

JT:  We hope for a patron to step forward and write us a very big check.  Kidding! We hope to create a fantastic production that is seen and enjoyed by scores of people, to reach new audience members (including kids, who almost always love and understand our shows), and as always to foster a love for who we believe to be one of the greatest playwrights of all time. We hope to keep mining the plays for richer, deeper aspects; and of course, to grow our funding base as we forge ahead into our 11th season and beyond.

For more information of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, check out their website or Facebook page.

**Unfortunately due to technical difficulty, photos will be added at a later date.**

Endless Lawns

Endless-Lawns-poster-REPEndless Lawns is an example of excellent execution of a poor plan.  The problems with the production cannot be attributed to those who put together this incarnation of the play (its world premiere); the acting, set design, lighting and pacing all serve to pull an audience along effectively.  The glaring problems with Endless Lawns lie in its script.

The story places Torch and Flo – two adult daughters of a respected but debaucherous actor father – who grew up rich but now live paycheck-to-paycheck after being denied any of their father’s fortune after his passing.  He opted to financially fortify his young mistress instead – their primary point of contention with him (Flo also mentions getting scolded for smoking weed that one time).

Cary Anne Spear (left) Laurie Klatscher (right)
Cary Anne Spear (left) Laurie Klatscher (right)

Torch, the more reasonable sister, becomes engaged to Ray, her manager at K-Mart.  But this is complicated by the return of Graham (Mark D. Staley), a WASPy former lover of Torch’s – and the father of her son who was given up for adoption decades ago.  Flo, the loud, bitter and generally self-obsessed sister serves little in the way of narrative function, but luckily Cary Anne Spear is able to pull consistent audience laughs as an otherwise despicable character.

The structure of Endless Lawns makes Torch the nominal protagonist, but she is not the main character here.  The strongest force in this show is the dead actor father of the sisters, or “Daddy,” as they call him incessantly.  (There’s a chance the play uses the word more than any other in English-language history.)  Daddy is the reason Ray feels simple and inadequate.  Daddy is the lure which calls Graham back to his Connecticut hometown – the once-wealthy wanderer has pipe dreams of recovering the sisters’ fortune.  And Daddy is the implicit reason Torch is an alcoholic and Flo is a failed actress; he’s also the very explicit reason neither has any money (anymore).  The unending importance of Daddy to his daughters is especially troubling – there’s something like a familial male gaze lording over every move Endless Lawn’s female characters make.

Jason McCune (left) Laurie Klatscher (right)
Jason McCune (left) Laurie Klatscher (right)

his obsession with Daddy not only renders the agency of the sisters nonexistent, it makes all of the living characters largely inconsequential in their actions.  Case in point is Ray – the only proletarian voice in a play that seems to be at least ostensibly interested in satirizing wealth and class – whose lines are few and futile.  This is difficult to watch, because McCune embodies Ray with a relatable lowliness reminiscent of Matthew Maher in Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winning The Flick or Paul Giamatti in just about everything.

This is not to say that the rest of the acting is not strong.  It is.  Gregory Lehane’s directing can’t be faulted, either: the movement of the production is solid.  If you’re looking to attend a well-assembled show founded upon a reliably comfortable formula, Endless Lawns won’t disappoint you.  But when it comes to theater as message, the play functions most effectively as an argument for an inheritance tax of one-hundred percent (so as prevent future characters as entitled and loathsome as these from being presented as familiar and interesting people).

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets. Photo credits Jeff Swensen. Endless Lawns runs through April 12, click here for tickets and more information.

Theater (and Dance and Music and Film and Painting) at SWAN Day 2015

SwanDayPittsburgh_0

Unfortunately, the No Name Players-organized Swan Day Pittsburgh only runs one night a year.  But if the talent on display this past Saturday at the Twentieth Century Club is any indication, this is an event worth marking each year’s calendar for.

Swan Day 2015 was far from a typical night at the theater – but theater factored in heavily.  There were also several musical acts, live painting, film and dance, all by Pittsburgh-based female artists who were working with the following prompt: “Everyone has an untold story hidden behind closed doors.  Try to understand that people are not always what they first seem.”

One of the standouts – in an evening with few weak spots – was a short film by Kahmeela Adams (left untitled in the playbill) in which the artist films herself giving advice to her pre-high school self (back in the early 90s).  It is nostalgic, endearing and nearly tragic at moments.  And though it utilizes the editing style of a YouTube confessional, it never loses grasp of its audience or its focus.

SWAN 2015 Photo 11

The three plays of the night were surprisingly complete works given that they ran at about ten minutes each.  The first piece, Lady A. by Angela Citrola, finds a woman (played by Siovhan Christensen, pictured above), nearly forty, in a sterile, unenviable relationship with an emotionally unengaged investment banker (David Bielewicz, also pictured above).  She is an aspiring writer with little to show for it other than an ungrateful husband and a laptop full of unpublished articles on love and loss.  What begins as a relatively light piece – our protagonist bemoans her lackluster love life with a man who’s “slightly smaller than average” – becomes more desperate with time.  There are dire admissions and aimless arguments, and at the end of the piece the husband attempts to placate his wife with the always-less-than-reassuring: “everything is going to be okay.”  “I hope so,” she replies, her tone revealing longing more than optimism.

Social by Gayle Pazerski was the second play of the night, and like a few other Swan Day pieces, it had social media as its thematic focus.  This makes sense, given the aforementioned prompt – there’s always more to a person than his or her social media presence, which, as Social reminds us, can be misleading to the point of deceitfulness.  The play places a young woman in an unpassionate romance (Laura Barletta) with a social media expert (Jena Oberg) whose aim it is to improve the online appearance of her clients.  Playwright Pazerski takes what could be a suffocating setup and lets it breathe, allowing the play to become as much about character revelation as it is about social (media) critique.

The third play of the evening was Morning, Mourning by Elizabeth L. Ruelas, the most overtly comedic of the three.  In it, a brother-sister pair grieve the loss of an old acquaintance – former roommate to the brother (Everett Lowe), former five-day boyfriend to the sister (Kaylyn Farneth).  The female half of the two is a scantily-clad day-drinker, aloof and unrepentant next to her tall, stoic older brother.  The banter between the two is quick and sharp – and mostly funny and fleeting.  But even Morning, Mourning accomplishes some emotional gravity by the end of its ten minute slot.

SWAN 2015 Photo 333

With over fifteen separates acts, it would be impossible to do Swan Day Pittsburgh the critical justice it deserves by mentioning each individual contribution.  Toward the end of the show, there was a dance piece entitled A World Through a Fun House Mirror set to the lively, disjointed music of Ratatat.  Members of Texture Contemporary Ballet put on the piece, which was wild and playfully aggressive, incorporating traditional dance elements into an unapologetically contemporary piece.  It was strange and it took chances and even though so much had gone on before it, we were all wide awake for its entirety – and in that way, it unintentionally encapsulated the spirit and energy of Swan Day Pittsburgh 2015.