Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water

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The cast of Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water with Director Wali Jamal

I loved Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water by Michael A. Jones and directed by Wali Jamal. The opening performance performance at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company was riveting, with other critics taking notes and a photographer snapping pictures.

Jones is a native of Homewood, but I imagine that at some point in his life he passed through or knew someone in New Orleans because Hercules is a play about the devastation created by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Jones is a very clever playwright. I call Jones smart for three particular reasons. First, in a one act play with minimal set changes, Jones captures a roof top, a bar, and a Chicago apartment. Second, there’s a brilliantly designed video camera placed in the back of the apartment used to show various changes in the story (time passing, plane flights). Finally, Jones wrote a play about various serious subjects (Hurricane Katrina and the death of a child) but manages to intersperse just enough comedy in the work to not drown the audience with sadness. There are several moments in Hercules that caused the crowd to laugh out loud.

Hercules is a tale of two couples: Tupelo (Sam Lothard) is with Char (Shaun Nicole McCarthy) while Maxine (Shanita Blvins) is with Eugene (Corey Lankford). There is also Youngblood (Lamar K. Cheston) who is a co-worker of Tupelo. Each of the actors bring certain unique talents to their character: Tupelo is the rock of the play, Char is a serious but warm woman, Maxine is a character in pain, Eugene is an emotionally distant character, and Youngblood who is an ever scheming dreamer provides much needed levity to many of the most emotionally difficult scenes in Hercules.

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The play begins with Tupelo leaving to work in New Orleans to help support Char, who is pregnant and planning to become a nurse. After the death of her child, Maxine has had difficulty coping with daily life and finds support in Char. Maxine is so upset that she even has several waking nightmares on screen where she is confronted with Eugene.

While working in New Orleans, Tupelo and Youngblood learn of the impending nature of Hurricane Katrina. Although Char tries to warn Tupelo through cell phone, Tupelo cannot be reached. Ultimately, Tupelo and Youngblood end up on a roof of a house flooded by Katrina waiting for rescue from a helicopter.

At first, I was tempted to say that the only weakness of the play is that the story of Tupelo and Char does not really connect to the story of Maxine and Eugene. But as I thought about things, the two tales interconnect. Both tales are about couples that are separated by emotional or physical distance and ultimately reunite. The characters in the play are ultimately redeemed from the landscape of despair by hope; not the hope of anything grand because these are all everyday but rather the hope of a new tomorrow. The play is not just a tribute to the damage left by Hurricane Katrina, but a comedic work that breaks our hearts just a little and leaves us wondering for the thoughts of a better tomorrow.

Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water runs through May 21st and ticket information can be found here.

 

First Time Fringer Saturday!

Whereas the Fringe line up on Friday was a combination of plays in both the dramatic and comedic vein, the line up today was much more oriented towards what one would colloquially describe as music of the alternative nature with an ending of a sombre (and for this reviewer, remarkably personal) note.

The Dorothy Matrix 8 Bit Orchestra

dorothy-matrix-72dpiHosted in the basement of Saint Mary’s Lyceum, this musical performance lies somewhere electronic and classical music genres meet. The titular Dorothy Matrix is actually Andrew Davis, a Philadelphia based musician who also works under the alias SloppyGoop. Matrix also has an assistant, Shari O’Sound, who is played by the remarkably charming Cory Kram. Together Matrix and O’Sound (or Davis and Kram, or SloppyGoop and Kram) have rigged together eight nintendo gameboys, which as any gamer who was alive during the early 90’s will remember operate on 8 bits. O’Sound controls the technical elements, while Matrix acts as the conductor. I hope this doesn’t come off as offensive, but there were several times during the performance when Kram reminded me of Mickey Mouse as the Socerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia. There is also an element of drag to the performance, which I’m not sure how much to play up or play down because Kram did not acknowlege this element during the entire performance.

One of the smartest bits of the performance is that Kram makes references to a fictional universe video games. The ingame universe revolves around stones including a fourth atonal stone, which a glitch. This whole video game and glitch element are reminiscent of Wreck It Ralph and the candy game glitch princess that was played by Sarah Silverman. An audience could expect to Rachmaninoff, Bach, Dvorak, Camille Saint-Soens, and Beethoven. The performance also used several pieces from a film, which I believe is called Lieutentant Kije and which as a lover of Russian film I intend to hunt down at a later date.

Laundry Night

After starting off my morning at Saint Mary’s Lyceum (which by the way has laundry-night-72an awesome membership that I’m planning on joining shortly), I made my way to Artists Image Resource to see Laundry Night. If you think that a pair of Kiss boots, a golden cape, an accordian, and a large blowup dinosaur make for an awesome show, you need to check out Ambivalent Man. Ambivalent Man is a solo performer from Chicago, Illinois. I’d bill him as an accordian player, but that’s not necessarily true. There are also several Ambivalent Man songs that were originally recorded on prerecorded instruments that you used to be able to buy (and maybe still can) at Toys R Us. Ambivalent Man is from Chicago (or at least spent some time there) but his demeanor due to his dreamy and faraway quality remind me more of the Pacific northwest than Chicago.

The story told by Ambivalent Man revolves around Ambivalent Man’s struggle for love in Chicago, laundry based problems, and slow rise to international obscurity as a sideline figure in America’s Got Talent footage. There are several costume changes (and dinosaur inflations) throughout the performance, and at the very least Ambivalent Man’s performance is consistently surprising. If I had to make a comparison, I’d say that Ambivalent Man has some inklings of Emo Phillips, who also spent time in the Downer’s Grove part of Illinois. If you like the strange and peculiar, Ambivalent Man and Laundry Night is a can’t miss.

The Booth

the-booth-photo_origThe Booth was the first opportunity that I have had to check out the new Alphabet City building. Fortunately, due to both The Booth and Sophia Mintas I was able to see both the upstairs and downstairs parts of the very new Alphabet City building. As a resident of the war streets, I’ve been very excited about this building and all that is has to offer in the city of Pittsburgh. The Booth is a very funny, very clever (for those who are in the business) play about the lives of three “booth” people during the run of a play. Written by lance-eric skapura and so artfully directed by Alice McAllister, this play was a good piece of short writing.

In less than 30 minutes, The Booth made me laugh and wonder how much of the play was based on real life events. Special note should go to Lisa Germ as Athena Patel who is a gift to good comedic timing in Pittsburgh as well as Chelsea Forbes (Paul) and Bruce Story-Camp (Robert) of whom comedy is well played. Usually, in that amount of time, I don’t have those needs met. In a short amount of time, The Booth is to the punch. I don’t think the piece will run in larger circulation so I’d say check this out again, but instead I’ll say check out all of those involved.

Sophia Mintas Live!

Due to the influences (classical, maybe opera?) I felt a bit out of my ballpark sophia-mintas-fullsizerender-3_origlistening to Sophia Mintas. She’s a young songwriter and a voice student at Duquesne University. All I can say are good things. There’s a remarkably engaging quality about Sophia Mintas. In between the songs, Mintas told stories about her stuffed elephant, hot pink roses, how she got angry when her significant other did not call her and a childhood love of ice cream. Mintas has performed in  (and gained inspiration from her time in) Italy, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh. Many of her lyrics focus on the transcendent nature of love and the human being experience. Mintas has a very rich voice that serves as a fine compliment to her piano playing. The performance was held in the upper part of Alphabet City which has a lovely bookshop with some very interesting selections by local authors and deep, red curtains that remind me of the red room in Twin Peaks. I was very impressed with the Alphabet City building and plan on going back some time soon.

The Pink Hulk

For the last show of my Fringe Festival run, I headed back to Artists Image Resource. After a day that was spent taking in mostly unique and memorable music act, this was a very emotional performance to sit through. The Pink Hulk is a one woman play by Valerie David about her experience as a survivor of both lymphoma and breast cancer.

David uses a large amount of comedy and heartbreaking honesty to deal with the difficult topics of the play. As a two year survivor of stage three testicular cancer, I connected with this work on a remarkably personal level. I understood very well the topics that David brought up in the play like having valerie-david-the-pink-hulk-richard-booper-photography-pressyour hair until two weeks into chemotherapy and then watching it fall out in clumps, the struggles of chemotherapy, the feelings of desertion by the people to which you are closest. That said and this is a very small point, at one juncture in the play David posits that stage 2 breast cancer was worse than lymphoma. As cancer survivors, David and many others (including myself) frequently find ourselves comparing one form of cancer to another as if it was some strange comparison contest. The two cancers that David had are both brutal and not comparable. (Other than, breast cancer is a direct assault on one’s femininity in the same way that testicular cancer is a direct assault on one’s masculinity.)

That David was able to turn her experience into a play and has the blind courage as a performer to speak about her time in the fire with such candor is nothing short of a demonstration of her many gifts as an artist. If you or a loved one has been affected by any type of cancer, I’d follow David and try to see The Pink Hulk. While a very hard performance to sit through, the play is also immensely rewarding. It was nice to end the Fringe Festival with David’s piece, it brought me back into the daily concerns and perspective that David and I have as survivors while also giving me strength.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

 

First Time Fringer Friday

This is the first Fringe Festival that I ever attended so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. With today’s four plays, I got a little bit of everything including drama, comedy, cross-dressing, a little science fiction, and even bingo. More importantly, I didn’t dislike a single of the four shows and found a lot to admire.

waiting-for-death-screen-logoWaiting for Death

I saw this play at Artists Image Resource, which has been converted to have a neat little stage. Produced by college students, Waiting for Death was staged by the WU Players, a group of college students from a variety of majors. The play revolves around the idea that the grim reaper comes to visit a dinner party. It’s suggested that the grim reaper will kill someone and the duration of the play is determining who will be the reaper’s victim. While this premise might sound like the play will be grim in nature, the story is actually tongue in cheek and that’s a remarkably wise choice. I won’t disclose the play’s ending, but it’s a clever choice that’s not expected by the audience.

In its current form, the play reminds me of a more comical approach combined with a tone reminiscent of some of the early Clive Barker plays. The actress playing the Grim Reaper is an inspired choice and is capable of a very strong deadpan delivery of lines. The Grim Reaper is an amalgamation of how Death has depicted in a very of cultures, but there was one monologue that reframed the “appointment in Samarra” story that appears in the novels of John O’Hara and Paul Bowles that fell a bit flat. But, this is a memorable play by a young group of actors with some genuinely funny lines. Waiting for Death started the evening on a comedic but somewhat serious tone.

Shedding Skinskinpittweb

I don’t often review dance pieces. I have nothing against dance, it’s just not an art form with which I am particularly familiar. Shown at Saint Mary’s Lyceum, Shedding Skin was created by Julie Leir-VanSickle of Creative Moves. An Idaho artist, Leir-Vansickle created the piece after watching her child’s reptile. Thematically, the plot would be described as a process of shedding one’s weight and being born anew.

Serious, and slow in tone, the intimacy of the work was its greatest charm. Leir-Vansickle started dancing without any formal announcement that was about to begin and concluded the work by confusing all in attendance by simply leaving the room. In between these two events, there were some moments where the dancer was simply lost in the dance, colliding between jarring violent rhythms and more graceful patterns. If this is what interpretive dance is, I’m going to have to look into this form much further because this was an engaging act.

purple-betsy-final (1)Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace

This is the most entertaining and enjoyable show that I’ve ever seen in Pittsburgh. Also shown at St. Mary’s Lyceum, Betsy Carmichael’s Bingo Palace is best described as a descendant of Dame Edna and Dixie’s Tupperware Party. The titular Betsy Carmichael is a drag version of an old woman who loves Bingo, wears outrageous glasses, and calls everyone “dear”. Betsy will beat you at Bingo, believe me, I know, I tried.

The performance, which is interactive, revolves around several rounds of Bingo with Betsy Carmichael, Betsy’s two female friends, and the man who reads the bingo numbers. If you don’t dance and make the proper hand motions when certain numbers are called,  Betsy will yell at you. Most of the audience was laughing throughout the performance. If I didn’t have to go see more works at Fringe Festival tomorrow, I’d be headed to take in as much Betsy Carmichael as I could before she leaves town and goes back to Betsy’s native Buffalo.

The Principlethe-principle-poster

The Principle was shown at Allegheny Inn, which is a building I’ve passed a thousand times as a resident of the war streets and often wondered what was inside. The space in a small corner downstairs basement with one strong light and some music cues was perfect for The Principle. Simplicity is what the work needed. Written by Alan Stevens, much of the dialogue in The Principle is very enviable and it works well to establish the tone of the play fluctuating between very dark humor and sad, almost heartbreaking poetry.

I’m not sure if The Principle was supposed to be a science fiction story or a particularly harrowing story of conversion therapy survivors. The play doesn’t attempt to explain which of these is true and that’s a clever decision because refusing to make such a decision allows both tones to exist in the world of the show. The play tells the story of Jess (Brittany Stahl) and Thomas (James Hartley) who have suffered through conversion therapy and are now being monitored by doctors. Both of these actors were remarkably talented performers. Hartley reminds me of a very young Robin Williams in the few early works when Williams acted serious and Stahl is a strong, quiet actress that is able to use comedy when necessary. I don’t often say this, but I loved the world, the tone, and the actors in The Principle and would enjoy seeing this play extended.

I started watching plays today at 4 and got done with The Principle around 9:45. I’m excited and curious what plays will form my second day of Fringe Festival.

Stay tuned for more Pittsburgh Fringe fun! Follow along with our adventures through our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #PITRdoesFringe 
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival for complimentary press passes. For tickets, day passes, and more information, click here. 

Pump Boys and Dinettes

Hero_50074In the book “Get-R-Done”, Larry the Cable Guy once quipped: “This is the first book I’ve written since 1975, when I was in the 7th grade and wrote Boogers Are Good Eatin’.” If you took a little bark out of the bite in Larry the Cable Guy’s humor, you’d have Pump Boys & Dinettes: A Music Comedy which is currently playing at CLO Cabaret.

No sooner does the show start with its location setting opening number “Highway 57” (written by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann) the audience is transported to a small town, one gas station city somewhere in the middle of the American heartland. The rhythm is very classic rock and roll in mostly four/four time. There are two things that immediately become apparent about the six actors that perform in the show. First, it’s very impressive that the performers were able to play their own instruments, which is a feat that I’ve seen done in Pittsburgh. Second, the two female performers or “the dinettes” played by Drew Leigh Williams and Erika Strasburg had something off in their vocal stylings. Both have lovely voices but the two actresses simply could not blend well with one another.

JUSTIN BENDEL, DAVID TOOLE, JON ROHLF AND LUKE STEINHAUER
JUSTIN BENDEL, DAVID TOOLE, JON ROHLF AND LUKE STEINHAUER

Pump Boys directed by Benjamin Endsley Klein is a strangely homogenized tribute to small towns and rednecks. The staging for Pump Boys is quite spectacular with many small nuances, but I was left wondering if all the detail paid to the stage was really necessary in order to effectively perform the musical. The trouble is, the show isn’t exactly nostalgia because it attempts to be too funny but the musical doesn’t take enough chances with its humor to actually be funny. The songs are polished but forgettable and the segues between numbers are strained.

DREW LEIGH WILLIAMS, ERIKA STRASBURG, DAVID TOOLE AND JON ROHLF
DREW LEIGH WILLIAMS, ERIKA STRASBURG, DAVID TOOLE AND JON ROHLF

For the most part, you can expect to not find a plot in Pump Boys, its ragged storylines has a general emotional thrust but there’s certainly not three act structure. In between the broad, ironic winks at America’s past, the performers search the material for cuteness in ways that often come as cloying. Listening to “Fisherman’s Prayer” which is supposed to be clever because it’s a song about obtaining a fishing license, I found myself thinking of how many other directions the set and actors could have taken. “Drinkin’ Shoes” is turned into a strong Act One closing number but at some point there was a really bright, blinding blue light that got raised. I think accidentally.

Too often, the performers are simply singing into space without any reason for being there, they can all sing and act just fine and often do so in applause-milking ways but I’m the type of reviewer that likes a story. There aren’t personal relationships here, there aren’t thematic developments, and this is all well and fine if you like something light as you eat dinner and sip on a cocktail but I’ve always come to the theater to be moved.

Pump Boys and Dinettes runs at the CLO Cabaret through April 15th. For tickets and more information, click here. Special thanks to the Pittsburgh CLO for complimentary press tickets.

Photos by Matt Polk

 

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical

PageantSliderIn a shift from its usual Christmas offering, the Conservatory Theatre Company at Point Park University has chosen to play The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical for its holiday show. It’s Christmas, all right – in more ways that one. Pageant is a retelling of a 1971 children’s book that was published by Harper & Row. With this source material, The Conservatory Theatre Company has given us a lovely little show that’s like a reimagined It’s a Wonderful Life for a contemporary America where everybody is willing and ready to acknowledge that some high schoolers smoke, drink, and shoplift.

Pageant is also a musical and has something like a dozen and a half songs throughout the performance. While the songs manage to convey simple emotions akin to something out of the Cole Porter songbook, the songs do not congeal with the rest of the performance and the audience is often left waiting for the songs to end so that the narrative can continue. This is not to say that the music in Pageant is anywhere near bad or unenjoyable, it’s just that the audience will not find itself humming or tapping along to the melody.

Grace Bradley (Nora Krupp) is assigned with the duty of overseeing the local Christmas pageant when the pageant’s original leader, Helen Armstrong (Shannon Felletter) falls and breaks her leg. The announcement for pageant auditions occurs on the day that the Herdmans happen to be at the church. The Herdmans are six rough and tumble children who are the bad eggs in the community who lie, steal, smoke, and hurt other kids. The Herdmans manage to bully their way their way into each of starring roles in the year’s Christmas pageant.

From this point in the play forward, a master of dramaturgy is not required to determine how this show will conclude. But even if we are certain of how Pageant will end, following the play to its inevitable conclusion is immensely enjoyable. There are several laugh out loud moments that appear at random junctures throughout the play. The actors that play the Herdmans do a particularly skillful job of creating a humorous and riotous crowd of delinquents. The rest of the actors in this play are competent, but the Herdmans carry the comedic tone and thematic message.

Pageant is a very quick musical. I’m tempted to call the piece a play because the story is what stuck with me the most and what I will remember. I’m not aware of another unique and memorable Christmas musical or play that’s being performed in Pittsburgh this holiday season. The play is also without an intermission and if my less than stellar timing abilities then Pageant has a running time of a little over an hour.

The play’s scene design by Tucker Topel is particularly noteworthy. Topel really manages to maximize the stage by using a simple theatrical techniques including sliding walls to effectively convey the three or four main locations of the play. There are also a couple of very smart choices for character entrances in the play. So, at the end of the day, you might not fall in love with the music in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever but it’s a very embraceable show that I would recommend seeing if you’re in need of a good Christmas performance this year.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever runs at the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Rauh Theatre through December 18th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Special thanks to Point Park University for complimentary press tickets.

 

Lungs

scaled_256Some lines from Robert Frost’s 1914 “Home Burial” came to me Friday night while watching off the WALL’s production of Duncan McMillan’s Lungs:  “You that dug with your own hand – how could you? – his little grave?” Dramatic works about failed pregnancies are at least one hundred years old. Some of the more famous works on this matter include Juno, Alfie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Cider House Rules. Lungs revisits much of this same territory without adding much new in terms of commentary or approach to the subject matter.

Lungs also implements some unique staging: there are what look like two small putting greens elevated at different levels with a long stretch of lights running up the center of the stage. There are no props and no changes in the scenery in the play even though the actors are meant to be in many different locations. The play also starts (and concludes) with very unusual interpretive dancing. Ten minutes into the play I was wondering if this Richard Wilson nostalgic staging was going to be so distracting that the entire play would be inaccessible, only to discovered that Richard Wilson in fact did stage design during a London version of Lungs.

I also have no idea why the play is called Lungs except that the work is about a couple worried about what “carbon footprint” bringing a child into the world would create. I wish that there’d maybe been the sound of lungs at some point in the background of the play or something more than an inference that provided an idea to the play’s title.

It might sound like I’m about to lambast Lungs. I’m not. This play is a very emotionally effective play despite having a few noticeable shortcomings and this effectiveness is nothing short of a testament of McMillan’s sensitive and natural dialogue and some top notch acting.

Photo courtesy of off the WALL
Photo courtesy of off the WALL

The play features two characters, a boyfriend (Alec Silberblatt) and his girlfriend (Sarah Silk). I’ve been following Sarah Silk’s career since I used to watch her prodigious acting as a high schooler at Shady Side Academy. Last I’d heard, Silk was studying acting at the legendary Actors Center Conservatory (now the Actors Center) and I am so very glad that Silk is back in Pittsburgh. Her range has grown immeasurably as an actress and I wouldn’t be lying if I said that Sarah Silk is almost too good at the neurotic, eventually heartbroken female lead in Lungs. Silk’s ability to show sorrow mixed with longing and love with an occasionally dose of humor keeps the audience hanging on for more through the 100 minute, no intermission Lungs. Silberblatt gives an emotional and praiseworthy performance as well, but Lungs asks more out of its female performer and Silk responds by giving us our very own modern Madam Bovary.

The play’s plot is fairly simple, and I will do my best to give readers who might be interested in attending the show an idea of the play’s story without any spoilers. The couple contemplates having a child with special care taken to the environmental damage that can be created by bringing a human being into the world. Unfortunately, the couple encounters some hardships, which comprises the main drama of the play. There were some belly laughs during the beginning due to how the characters argue with each other, but I couldn’t find much humor in the play and I think that laughter were mostly the result of the audience growing accustomed to the performance and its character. The play carries the audience from light laughter, though, to intellectual weight to real emotional drama and tension. Does the play follow a similar arch to many other dramatic works? Yes, it does. But somehow, feeling like I’ve seen the whole thing before does not slow the evening down because the dialogue is honest and the characters (by which I mean actors) are so tremendously brave in their performances. I should also mention that Lungs uses an interesting technique throughout the play to fast forward through what might be conceived the boring moments of the couple’s story. Sometimes this technique works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The novelty and the way in which this narrative technique highlights certain elements of the storytelling in Lungs.

Lungs is not for younger viewers. Lungs is also not for those who might find the play’s subject matter a bitter overwrought. Sure, Lungs may not be as blindingly memorable as theater classics like After the Fall or Long Day’s Journey but it is an incredibly moving play. If you measure the success of a play by the amount of thoughts and emotions the work can create in an audience then don’t miss Lungs because the play is an unquestionable success.

Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets. Lungs runs at Carnegie Stage through Saturday December 17th. For tickets and more information click here.

Feeding the Dragon

YT17-Feature-DragonOne actor plays in the theater are often attempted but few really succeed. The charming, funny, and moving autobiographical play Feeding the Dragon at City Theatre gets everything right. From age 5 to 12, playwright and actress Sharon Washington lived in the custodial apartment inside the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library on 81st Street and Amsterdam in Manhattan. I know Washington from Todd Solondz’s recent film Weiner-Dog, but most will likely know Washington’s role as Molly Mathis in Gotham.

The hour and a half, no intermission play transports the audience back to the early 1970’s. There isn’t much of a central story to be told within the play, which I first saw as perhaps a shortcoming of the work but the more I have thought about it, Feeding the Dragon thrives as a series of vignettes and collection of small moments and funny stories. From time to time, Washington lapses into impressions of the various other family members that lived in the small library apartment including her stern mother, her alcoholic father, her artistic uncle, and her southern aunt.

If Feeding the Dragon has a central storyline, the play is about Washington’s father’s struggles with alcoholism. The play treads this subject lightly: depicting the addiction through the eyes of Washington as a child with feelings of guilt, uncertainty, and confusion about her father. The play leaves the library for several minutes when Washington describes a trip that she took with her father and offers a suggestion about the cause of the father’s addiction. But, the play doesn’t try to give messages or wrap things up even regarding this topic. Feeding the Dragon is much more focused on describing the variety of emotions that Washington experienced as a child inside the library.

The expert dance between plotting both hilarious and tragic moments in the play is done with such alarming audacity that at times I was simply taken aback by Washington’s sheer gifts as an actress and her ability to not only just remember all of the play’s lines but to remember the myriad of inflections and tones used throughout the piece. Although I looked for any sign that Washington was still trying to nail down the elements performance, I could not find any and the actress pounced through the play with hushed confidence.

Because the play does not really have a driving narrative, when the conclusion of Feeding the Dragon does come, it seems a bit sudden. There is no tidy way to end a play, which I am certain could be significantly longer.

Tracy Bridgen, Artistic Director at City Theatre, and Clare Drobot, the director of New Play Development, greenlighted Feeding the Dragon for production and paired Sharon Washington with Maria Mileaf, a director who did a brilliant job on Playwright Horizon’s Lobster Alice and is building a strong reputation for developing new plays. Mlieaf’s direction has no doubt helped accentuate Sharon Washington’s combination of comic timing with heart-breaking vulnerability in addition to creating some particular staging ideas that accentuated certain moments in the play. The intricacies of the stage by set designer Tony Ferrieri combined with Ann G. Wrightson’s bold and transformative lighting also enhance the nostalgia. But the most memorable thing about Feeding the Dragon is that the play manages to create a series of powerful vignettes in a one woman play, something which I have not seen successfully done in a new work for years and never in Pittsburgh.

Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Feeding the Dragon runs through November 20th in City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio. For tickets and more information, click here.

Barefoot in the Park

barefoot-in-the-parkNeil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park is one of those plays that annually gets produced probably more than it should. The play was considered contemporary in 1963, when Barefoot was considered a sophisticated Broadway hit about the perils of living in New York City. In 1967, Barefoot was turned into a film. Having lived in New York City for many years, I can confidently say that if you were not alive in the 1960’s and living in New York, the play’s script is hopelessly out of date and irrelevant. Add to this antiquated-ness that Barefoot is a Neil Simon play. I recognize Neil Simon’s contributions to the theater, but I’ve never been a fan of his works, which seems to always string together one straight laced character with one eccentric character. The only thing that could potentially be engaging about this play is the script’s witty and racquetball-like dialogue.

While it might sound like I’m about to lambast Theater Factory’s production of Barefoot, I’m not. I saw the play on opening night and it was one of those nights where you go to the theater begging to be transported somewhere. I was. To New York City. Maybe not my version of New York City, but a New York City I recognized, full of young love, high rents, and brutal apartment walk ups. You call these things the New York City universals.

The set design by Kaleb Yandrick is bare bones but sufficiently communicates the tone of the couple’s new and barren apartment. I will say that I was left wondering throughout the play what the staging would like if a company ever tried to do a modern version of Barefoot.  The play’s staging should be commended for doing a good job of making use of all spots throughout the stage.

The real gift to this play, though, is Natalie Spanner, who in the role of Corie Bratter executes the giddiness and humor in a wife who is deeply in love despite fears that she she’s found a lousy apartment. Jeremy Kuharick as Corie Bratter’s husband Paul plays the role a bit too comically and rather than acting as the straight-laced young lawyer husband to offset Corie’s humor, too much slapstick is brought to the role and risks potentially spoiling the whole tone of the play. When the play lapses into discussing divorce after some ouzo imbibing in the second act, Spanner does a noteworthy job of dancing between both drama and hilarity.

Special note should be made of veteran stage actress Linda Stayer as Corie’s mother and Dennis Kerr as the Bratter’s neighbor Victor Velasco. Both actors work in the cadence and tone the play intends. Stephen Toth appears briefly as a repairman during the play’s opening, and the briefness of his appearance was a misstep because Toth lit up the stage and I, for one, would enjoy seeing him appear in a larger role.

The stage at the Theater Factory is lovely and large, the lighting in the play by Christopher Robin was extremely competent, the staging captured the atmosphere of the play, and the acting if not entirely capable of carrying across the tone of the play was engaging.

Special thanks to the Theatre Factory for complimentary press tickets. Barefoot in the Park runs through  November 6, for tickets and more information click here.

I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard

14485152_10154572068509464_6864965656436858843_nI’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard is a play about a genius playwright father and his daughter, an aspiring actress who cares for him. The potently acted drama is a bit like David Auburn’s Proof, only a darker and more harrowing ride. The production of the play at the Pittsburgh Playhouse is the closest that I’ve ever gotten to a New York City off-Broadway production in Pittsburgh. The acting was particularly strong and while the play is engaging, there are certainly some elements in the script that detract from making the play completely engaging.

Martin Giles drops seamlessly into playing the role of David, a mean-spirited Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who is deep in the process of trying to drink himself to death in an Upper West Side Apartment. David commences to tear through a long litany of curse words that at one part focuses on perhaps the most hated of all theater-goers, the critic. David’s focus then turns towards the director who has failed to recognize the talent of his daughter, Ella, played by Cathryn Dylan.

Much of the first half of the play is focused on letting David foam at the mouth with swear words. There are moments where David’s speech creates an atmosphere of uncomfortableness. There are moments where it seems like David keeps running on the one note of his tirade a little too long. But, in retrospect, most of this anger is needed to make the character work. David’s rage eventually even turns against his own daughter. At one point, David goes so far as to insinuate that Ella’s did not get the part because the director wanted to cast a pretty stress in the role. Meanwhile, Ella keeps helping her father to pour white wine down his throat, then marijuana, then cocaine. Eventually, David cools down at an alarming flick of the switch. Ella seems well acquainted with the terror of her father. But, that’s where the play hits one of its potential snags.

Photo credit: John Altdorfer
Photo credit: John Altdorfer

The character of Ella in the first act of the play exists only to adore and goad on her father. Ella seems to exist just to keep the man talking. At one point, while she sits in his lap, the relationship between David and Ella seems to veer towards tones of an Electra complex. But that moment is quickly defused. Ella continues to let her father talk and apologizes profusely when she interrupts. Cathryn Dylan portrays Ella as less of a meek or nervous woman, but a woman who blindly worships her father.

Sitting through the first act of the play, it is very easy for the viewer to also feel trapped in David’s world. The first half of I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard is particularly challenging because the act extends for a much longer length of time than the second half of the play. Calling the part of the play after intermission a “half” is even a bit of a misnomer, epilogue would be more fitting.

In the epilogue that takes place many years later, Ella has become a successful and self-confident actress. Although we know precious little about Ella during the first half of the play, it is extremely difficult to view this woman as Ella. Ella has likely taken the psychological terror installed in her by father and used to become a cocaine hungry, celebrity who barks at people on their phones. Eventually, an older David, who has now survived a stroke, comes shuffling onto the stage. While we anxiously wait for the character to embark on another litany of swear words, we learn that David has become increasingly more peaceful in his later days.

The set design for the play was at a particularly high level. As was the stage direction. The play used every bit of the Studio Theater. And the design effectively evoked the mood of a New York City apartment. Musical and sound cues are used in small places throughout the play to sometimes distracting and sometimes successful ends. But, ultimately, the staging and set fall second to the acting performances, particularly the role of David. There is one staging technique that is used in the play’s epilogue that works particularly well at capturing the feeling of being trapped in an apartment with David. So, the staging and set while certainly effective and believable exist mainly to heighten the terror and anger of David.

And while I could muse on the play’s commentary about the trappings of fame, at the end of the day I don’t understand why either of the characters changed in the way that they did. Due to the strength of the actor’s performances, I buy the transformations of these two characters. I’m just not sure how to treat the disparate ends.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Playhouse for complimentary press tickets.

I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard runs through October 16th. For tickets and more information, click here.

PNWF Program C

1456790_591177400919641_1267552918_nI am consistently impressed by unique staging techniques, and each of the three short pieces at the New Works festival managed to pack a unique idea into a small running time. While it is certainly not mandatory for playwrights to pack an original concept into a one act, doing so certainly helps the play quickly grab the audience’s attention and remain memorable long after the curtains have closed.

The premise of Key Ring, the first of three one act pieces presented at the Carnegie Stage certainly succeeds at breathing depth and life into four keys on a key ring. Kaitlin Kerr in the role of “Her” serves as the cornerstone of the play, a performance which is made all the more impressive by the few words that Kerr says in the brief but powerful piece.

Towards the end of Key Ring, the tone of the play turns from amusing to a much darker note. When the main lights begin to dim, we start to feel sentimental about the lives of four keys. By the time the darkness of the stage is total, we’re left with a great deal of compassion towards four ordinary keys. Somehow, each of the four actors in the piece manage to personify unique and strong depictions of various keys: Car (Tom Kolos) is troubled, Mailbox (John Henry Steelman) is neurotic, House (Steven F. Gallagher) is tough, and Her is the character that sets the world in motion. One might even say that the entire arc of a much longer piece is nicely compressed into the short play.

Following Key Ring was the slightly longer Thread, which is a play about relationships or more accurately, the dissolution of romantic relationships. Actually, there are two staging techniques utilized in Thread, one concept has to do with the humorous and friendly narrator (Victor M. Aponte) while the other unique concept has to do with the author’s dramatization of how we remain connected in relationships. While Thread is a very much about one particular young couple, the writing works on such a universal level that Thread could very easily about many couples. The stage direction is particularly strong and manages to make several location changes with a few scant pieces of scenery that the audience is more than willing to follow. Both in its unique narrative technique and setting Thread asks the audience to make several imaginative leaps, which much of the audience takes because we care about the play’s two central characters, the emotionally engaged Isaac (Charlie Wein) and the slightly distant Amanda (Lyric Bowman). Thread is the first produced work by the playwright Evan W. Saunders, a junior at Duquesne University. I anticipate that if Saunders can continue combining original theatrical concepts with engaging characters he will continue to produce interesting work.

The evening concluded with Your Princess Is In Another Castle, which was slightly less serious in tone than the other two works but I think will be the most memorable piece for many individuals who attended that night’s performance if merely gauging by the large number of belly laughs that resonated throughout the audience. In its depiction of how pervasive the roots of popular film and video game culture have been, the play manages to crystalize the peculiar stranglehold that Pokemon, Star Wars, and Super Mario has had on society. But the real reason that the play delivers the depth that it does is due to the particular strength of the play’s two main actors: Chuck Hayes (Alex Manalo) who dresses up as Yoshi, Super Mario’s horse-like dinosaur, and Skip Whitaker (Andy Coleman). Andy Coleman’s performance as Skip Whitaker was not just the highlight of the play but the performance. Short on rent and dressed up as Super Mario, Skip Whitaker follows in the vein of the sad clown character depicted in many other works. Skip Whitaker’s world is a streetlight and a trash can which become a literal portal to another dimension as Whitaker does his impression of Mario in the hopes of gathering stray coins from passer-by’s. While remaining in one location Your Princess.. manages to make the most out of a few props through some initiative use of sound and unique arrivals onto the stage. While I was worried for a few minutes that the play was going to make nothing more than comedy out of the play’s characters and situations, Your Princess… manages to find depth in the humorous world of the play; thanks in no small part to the ability of the actor’s to maintain straight faces and serious tones when required.

So in a piece about a key ring, the end of a romantic relationship, and performers doing cosplay, Program C of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival managed to deliver a few laughs and some strong moments of drama. But, what I will remember most are the unique staging elements executed in each play and the strong performance by Coleman, who I will keep a particular eye out for in future performances.

Special thanks to the Pittsburgh New Works Festival for complimentary press tickets. For tickets and more information about the remaining performances, please click here.

**A previous version of this post credited George C. Montgomery as Car in Key Ring. We apologize for any confusion.