Parade

Parade-PosterPainful stories and shameful histories benefit from the illumination of dramatization. While the audience views past events in almost real time, we are required to look and perhaps to learn.

Parade is more than worthy of your attention for these reasons and the stellar performances of a largely student cast at University of Pittsburgh Stages. You’ll be part of an event that echoes many recent events, conversations, and controversies from the last century with today’s societal and political overtones. This Parade production plays all its cards handsomely to tell a difficult true story beautifully as a well-crafted tragedy should.

It’s Atlanta, 1913, just 50 years after the Civil War. The first images are a soldier coming home from that war then we see his older self as Confederate Memorial Day is observed with a parade and festivities. In this distinctly Southern setting, 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan is found murdered the following day in the Atlanta factory where Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew married to a Lucille, a Georgia native, is supervisor. Frank is deemed a most likely suspect.

Parade follows Leo’s experience from that May holiday to the terror of imprisonment through the false accusations born of community hysteria during his trial. After the eventual commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment by the Georgia governor, there is a crowning horrific irony. Local men take Frank from the jail and lynch him by hanging in nearby Marietta, Mary’s hometown. No spoilers here. The historic case shed light nationally to Anti-Semitism and fueled the founding of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). It also ignited a more active Ku Klux Klan.

Director Robert Frankenberry is known as a versatile singer-actor, conductor, arranger, and lecturer in music theater at Pitt Theatre Arts. Frankenberry stages this 1998 musical imaginatively, adroitly moving his 28 actors efficiently on Gianni Downs’ lovely two-level set and even into the audience. A high frame for projected elements–ranging from the hills of Georgia to sensationalistic trial headlines–fills the space below the proscenium arch.

Roger Zahab conducts the University Symphony Orchestra of 31 instrumentalists in Tony Award winner Don Sebesky’s full orchestration. This version of the score was heard only once before for the 2015 Manhattan Concert Production’s Parade In Concert, conducted by the composer.

Jason Robert Brown’s score is indeed American flavored with some Southern spice (even a touch of Stephen Foster), replete with some lively patriotic percussion. At the Nov. 10 preview some cellos were missing, while Frankenberry told us he filled in for the guitarist.

Alfred Uhry’s script covers the timeline of Frank’s dilemma, trial, and death. The mystery of Mary’s murder gets muddled as theories about the crime are magnified by gossip and supposition. The writers believed in Frank’s innocence, but while Parade reinforces that belief, there’s no escaping that feeling that you are in the South. With the opening and closing number “The Old Red Hills of Home”, it’s all there: post-Reconstruction pride and ancestors who fought for “The Cause”.  The odd juxtaposition of New Yorker Leo and Georgian Lucille represents the ongoing tension between the Southerns and “the other”.

Dan Mayhak as Leo and Brittany Bara as Lucille create the heart of the story, bringing nuance and chemistry to their depiction of a devoted couple who likely took one another and Frank’s position for granted prior to this disaster. Their soaring and emotional duets are highlights of the production.

Dan Mayhak shines as Leo, traversing the deep layers of Frank’s discomfiture throughout, his work ethic, and his Jewish roots. Mayhak, a fourth year Pitt student recently seen in Front Porch’s Violet and Pitt’s Hair, is capable of playing Leo’s veiled emotion and subtext. His wonderfully sung numbers include “Leo’s Statement: It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”. During the vaudevillian “Factory Girls / Come Up to My Office” we see Leo’s possible “other side” when he leaves his trial defendant’s chair to participate in the incriminating number.

Brittany Bara is alternately subtle and passionate as Leo’s wife Lucille. Devoted but eventually weary of taunts around town, Lucille is steadfast and practical. This second-year performance pedagogy MFA candidate’s performance reflects her professional scope. Bara’s vocal performance is outstanding with “You don’t know this man” beautifully poignant and complex.

Tru Verret-Fleming, a pro seen most recently in the Scottsboro Boys at the Point Park’s REP Company, turns in a superb debut performance at PItt as Jim Conley, the pencil factory janitor (aka “sweeper”) who is led to further incriminate Frank. Verret-Fleming has the charisma to sell a number or spin a yarn, particularly when depicting what’s it’s physically like to be part of a chain gang (“Blues: Feel the Rain Fall”) or sealing Frank’s fate with his accounts of assisting the supervisor in his factory interactions.

While these performances would shine in a professional production, the wonderful thing is that this is true of all the lead performers in Parade. They undoubtedly support and inspire the mainly student cast.

Stand outs in other leading roles include Rachelmae Pulliam as Mary’s mother and Sally Slayton, the governor’s wife. Her lullaby-like “My daughter will forgive you” is heart-wrenching. Mature and polished, Alex Knapp is the savvy prosecuting attorney who carves his political path as he deviously manages the case, plotting with the governor and sneering in the courtroom.

As Governor Slayton, Zev Woskoff navigates the ramifications of his character’s pursuit of both political success and the truth. Dr. William Banks brings operatic chops to the role of the factory’s nightwatchman, Newt Lee. Tyler Prah as Frankie Epps (who fancies then mourns for Mary), Emily Cooper as Mary Phagan, and Davis Weaver as the returning young soldier who opens the show all provide strong performances and moments.

The cast is authentically costumed by KJ Gilmer. Hannah Blume’s movement coaching includes same snappy tap and dance steps. Meghan Bressler employs the Randall’s lighting range, illuminating the actors wherever they go. Zach Brown’s sound is fairly balanced and will likely work out any challenges over the run.

For a closer look at the production elements, Pitt has a wonderful online collection that provides audience https://pitt.libguides.com/2017-18mainstage/parade

The deep themes and controversial history of the Frank case and lynching deserve a closer look. You can read more about the musical’s history in a 2016 Playbill story Think You Know Parade? Think Again. And The Tuskegee Institute Archives reveal the staggering number of lynching not only the South, but throughout the US, 1877-1968.

Parade is onstage at the University of Pittsburgh Stages through Nov. 19 with performances Wed.-Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets range from $12-$25.

The Hard Problem

21640869_10154903688452997_3654990160686137979_o“Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart, or in the head?”

-William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Master playwright Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Quantum Theatre should move to the top of playgoers’ must-see shows list through November 19.

Cognitive vitality reverberates in spaces of the Energy Innovation Center where Quantum presents the second production of its 27th season. Artistic Director Karla Boos has again matched content to setting, creating another intriguing experience for her audience on the edge of the Hill District, overlooking Downtown Pittsburgh. A revived education and technical center, the venue is well matched for this regional debut. The views are a bonus, so jump in for a few dynamic hours with another top-notch Quantum ensemble, this time directed by rising American director Rachel M. Stevens.

In Stoppard’s tradition of intellectual plays like Arcadia, The Hard Problem (premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015) awakens drowsy thought processes in another stellar Quantum production through this third Stoppard script for the company and one that any theater fan should see.

It’s notable that this Stoppard play has a strong woman at its core. Hilary operates in a workplace that may feel familiar as gender dynamics and competition plays out. Hilary Matthews, a bright young psychologist, is at the heart of the action. Her curiosity about her work and life choices arouse empathy for don’t we all ask the same kind of questions? She is lured to work at the leading Krohl Institute for Brain Science not only livelihood but the “the hard problem”: how do we justify consciousness if humans are truly composed of matter and chemical reactions. If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness?

Alex Spieth is superbly engaging as Hilary who is nursing a private sorrow and a troubling question at work, where psychology and biology meet. She’s natural and open. We are never fearful for her–more apt to cheer her on. She prays and researches, ultimately asking if science and faith coexist? How does altruism coexist with egoism? What is stronger and which motivates an individual? Stoppard explores it all, so fasten your seatbelt for a ride through all those things that fill our brains with wonder, questions, and–dare we say it–emotion. You’ll take the questions from his adroit dialogue with you, just as Hillary does.

Hilary’s pursuit of the answers puts her at odds with her supervisors and mentor as she explores options in both research and relationships. Steven’s describes it as “the journey to find where our hearts live beyond our brain”, as she says she identifies with Hilary’s “twinkling optimism about the way the world functions.” This becomes the very source of Hilary’s challenges at work, as it inherently may be for many women.

Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s smart scenic design envelopes the audience. A cluttered, winding path loaded with the stuff of life, work, and attics lead to a three-quarters playing space. Our amassed consciousness is physicalized off stage while the stage area is a clean, crisp clinical setting enhanced by clever projected silhouette and formulas. Making one’s way to and from the theater playing area and banked seats, it’s impossible to avoid discarded objects like an antique adding machine, old lamps, and stacks of boxes filled with only God knows what.

On stage, lighting by Andrew Ostrowski and intriguing projections bring the mostly white and metal set elements to life. Pulsing shadows of the characters suggest the heartbeats and synergies of life. Projected code runs across on the floor at moments, adding to the movement and color that make the effects themselves something to ponder.

Stevens places every character on stage and within the audience from lights ups through final curtain, balancing the clinical setting with this reassuring touch. As actors watch from the edge of the action, their detached observation provides both a stronger connection both among the ensemble members and the audiences. Stevens guides each character’s journey through Stoppard’s rich dialogue, their motivations resonating within this exciting new venue and into a greater societal context.

Spike is Hilary’s tutor and lover. They mess around and talk a lot about Hilary’s work and the workplace politics. While Spike catches her praying at bedtime, their disagreement about the existence of God sheds some light on Hilary’s faith. She admits she’s praying for a miracle.

As Spike, Andrew William Smith displays an appealing versatility in his second Quantum appearance. He’s sweetly supportive as a charming lover who throws on Hilary’s robe, but progresses to tipsy cad at work celebrations. He’s passionate about Hilary on several levels but grows jealous of her success.

Ken Bolden is Leo, burdened with hiring, supervision, along with his research. He brings Hilary and tries to look out for her even though some research missteps. Bolden delivers another substantive and thoughtful Quantum performance, revealing that Leo has a bigger heart than his first scene might suggest.

Vinny Anand’s Amal is a super smart and well-off yuppie careerist who breaks into the institute in spite of Leo’s thoughtless job interview in the men’s room. He’s fairly ruthless and pays dearly when Jerry calls him on unethical behavior.

Co-workers Julia and Ursula are a couple, providing a rare glimpse of domestic stability and loyalty. Daina Michelle Griffith returns to Quantum as Ursula with a strong and nuanced performance. As onsite Pilates instructor Julia, Fredi Bernstein, injects physical energy to balances all that thinking especially when Hilary join her for a workout and shares a secret.

As the talented young researcher Bo, Claire Hsu draws a strong portrait of an ambitious team member who has a lot to learn.

Randy Kovitz as the institute’s head Jerry operates fiercely in support of his business and personal success while he has a softer scene with his young daughter Cathy, portrayed by Grace Vensel, a 7th-grade student at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. She’s already a pro. Her focused and thoughtful performance is lovely as she observes, questions, and mirrors Hilary’s curious smarts.

At the play’s end, a resilient and hopeful Hilary exits through that lighted pathway of clutter. Then the audience follows. And we think her miracle may indeed happen.

Read more about director Rachel M. Stevens in our pre-production interview. You might want to visit the Energy Innovation Center online or just be surprised when you arrive at 1435 Bedford Avenue, Pittsburgh (15219) where this is ample free parking in the Center’s lot.

The Hard Problem runs through November 19, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm. For details on plays, venues, special events, and tickets, visit Quantum Theatre at quantumtheatre.com

Belfast Girls

21414973_656198227916016_676337897416928893_oBelfast Girls deserves attention for the aspiration of founder and director Rich Kenzie in this debut production at Carnegie Stage through Sunday, Oct. 29 only.

Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. Chicago’s Artemisia Theater further developed the play and produced the world premiered in 2015.

During snippets of their three-month shipboard journey, they bond, full of aching memories, dark secrets, abject fear and a little hopeful anticipation. In the cramped confines of their ship bunk room, the quintet settle in, say farewell to Ireland, and prepare for to move on. Refugees all, each has already experienced a lifetime of strife that belies their ages.

A terrific ensemble of five young women carries this charming, funny, dark, and thoughtful two-act play by Jaki McCarrick, one of Ireland’s literary stars. Historically, the five represent some 4,000 young women who were shipped to Australia to provide wives to the predominantly male population there. The formal program was designed to reduce the workhouse populations and provide escape from the devastation of Ireland’s four-year potato famine (1845-49). The solution of shipping young women out conjures Ebenezer Scrooge’s suggestion that those who would avoid the workhouse might simply die to decrease the surplus population.

But these women have already survived, some of that resilience played out on the streets, some in varied realms of society. While hope is on the horizon (they are alive, after all), it is an ageless tale of women with few options. They may wind up again enslaved in arranged marriages or worse. We learn one was even sold by her own father. As Sarah says, “I’ve left so much. I’m startin’ to forget myself.”

Co-Directors Kenzie and Samantha A. Camp use Peter Bergman’s compact set and the naturally intimate Carnegie Stage theater to great advantage. Excellent sightlines and efficient direction invites the audience into the tiny world that foreshadows the wilds of Australia. Paige Borack’s apt lighting and authentic costumes via Spotlight Costumes further enhance this fine production.

The young women on shipboard for three months–ample time to consider the past and wonder about their futures. Each actress brings a vibrant performance–and within a few feet of the audience. It’s a powerful proximity and one of the reasons that productions at Carnegie Stage are vital in our regional mix.

Flawless accents are supported by Lisa Ann Goldsmith’s wonderful Irish dialect coaching as the cast authentically navigates McCarrick’s dialogue. Tonya Lynn’s vibrant fight choreography takes the actresses all over the stage and practically at the audience’s feet at times.

The cast is top-notch with each actress drawing solid characterizations of substance and nuance. Together, the ensemble could likely transport itself into other scripts or projects; they are excellent artists who mine the comic, the tragic, the musical, and the profound.

As the Jamaican-born Judith, Sara Williams draws a strong survivor who may be the most street-wise of the group. She’s wise in her initial discretion but soon displays affection and empathy as relationships are defined. Seen previously in Pittsburgh, this Chicago actress will hopefully be back here soon.

Jenny Malarkey is Ellen, the quiet observer who pokes fun at the others is no less passionate. She is yet another strong spoke in the wheel as stories reveal more than we ever imagined.

Sarah, whose brother has already written to her from the destination continent, is portrayed by Cassidy Adkins. She is focussed on remembering what she’s left and brought along in a hat box of family things. The only traveler who has someone waiting for her, Sarah’s hopefulness is guarded, but we learn once more that her past and future may hold loss and fear. As Sarah says, “I’ve left so much. I’m startin’ to forget myself.”

Val Williams as Hannah brings a strong depiction to the mix–consistently stirring the pot with questions and a dose of reality. She nips at a flash, breaks into song, and whips up some contrast in the pensive under-desk digs.

Molly has some secrets, too, and Elizabeth Glyptis gives a moving performance that spans from innocent hope to painful reality. Molly reminds Sarah that times will someday change for women as women around the world are gathering to gain more equality in society and work. Her Molly’s journey is no less necessary than those of her comrades, but how she embarked has some surprising elements. We learn why Molly is different. Molly and Judith may burrow into some books Molly has brought along but their peace is broken by bits of reality before they land.

The play digs into a broad spectrum of classist prejudices, some related to the capitalistic disregard for those who suffered during the Famine. No one is safe, despite the refuge they all seek, so expect to be enlightened and surprised as each character backstory is mined.

On deck the women have some moments of sun and air. Remarkably they all finally arrive at the Australian shore when we are introduced to them once more–name by name. It’s heartening to know this sampling of girls from Belfast have made it thus far. Given what we know of them, we think they’ll make it. And we are thankful for knowing their story.

Belfast Girls is a slice of history that resonates with the ongoing challenges for young women seeking a safe life and viable livelihood. This is a valuable experience for adults and students of all ages. Consider getting out to Carnegie before Belfast Girls closes for a bite before the show (lots of dining choices within blocks of the theater), ample parking, and ticket options. Thursday, Oct. 26 is pay-what-you-will night and tickets are otherwise only $28, fair indeed for supporting a new company in the region and the fine work in Belfast Girls.

Performances are at 8pm through Sunday with a 2 pm matinee on Sat., October 28. Visit the ticket link to order now. Students and artists may request a discount via email.

Romeo and Juliet

rj-431x500In the close quarters of Little Italy, old New York is an appropriate volatile and steamy backdrop for the feuding families and young love in PICT Classic Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, playing through Nov. 4 at the Fred Rogers Studio, WQED.

Like “fair Verona”, there’s little room for a Capulet not to bump into a Montague on a hot day, igniting a knife fight. The subtext in Alan Stanford’s production is that these families may be, you know “families”–perhaps immigrants who moved from Italy and Sicily to find their way through whatever means in America.

The concepts plays well, especially on Jonmichael Bohach’s versatile and multi-purpose set, which spans the room’s width and height. His scenic elements conjure the streets of New York, an outdoor cafe, the play’s interior settings, and even the infrastructure of an elevated train–heard once as a critical climax of street violence erupt.

As the show opens, Stanford welcomes the audience and segues nicely into the prologue, describing the story of his own production, one he contends “everyone should watch now and again–especially if you have children.” His cast of 17 reminds us of the urgency at every turn. These outstanding artists comprise a solid and entertaining crew.

“Two households both alike in dignity.” The hot headed young people on the steamy streets of downtown Manhattan bite their thumbs and rough each other up. Even the women get into the action as they try to quell the violence.

Adrianne Knapp’s Juliet captures the innocence and yearning of a girl dreaming of true love and womanhood. She’s idealist yet dreamy–absolutely the smart Juliet of Shakespeare’s play and, here, savvy in the times her story is now set. Knapp is versatile and shifts her thoughts and moods thoroughly as she considers her options at every turn.

Her Romeo is sweet-faced Dylan Marquis Meyers, every bit the fickle and eager teen. He conveys a resolve that overshadows his tears upon his banishment. Meyers is both endearing and engaging. His smart Romeo is strong in his resolve and a fine match for Knapp.

The couple is sweet, lovely and empathic as they are not unlike kids through the ages, experiencing first loves that are powerful, hurtful and full of anticipated joy. By the play’s end they have grown up and take their fates into their own hands, recognizing what they cannot change and resigned to how their community and family have essentially turned against them.

Stanford supports Shakespeare’s lesson: feuds and misunderstanding over even the least important things can take our time and take lives. Adults too often shut out the pain of young people with tragic results. Romeo and Julietremains a timeless journey through family dynamics, parental posturing, pride, and stubbornness.

Martin Giles swaggers and asserts machismo as Lord Capulet, running the household and eventually steamrolling Juliet to marry Count Paris. He’s boisterous and one of the flames that ignite the ongoing conflicts. You sense he was likely on his good behavior when the Prince called him in while muttering about the Montagues on the way out. However he displays wisdom when he tells Tybalt not to cause a scene when Romeo crashes his party. There are important business and agreements on the street and there’s no time to disrupt them with petty arguments.

His nemesis Montague is Matthew J. Rush, who plays Romeo’s father as less impulsive, balancing the hot Capulets.

Shammen McCune is Juliet’s determined mother, a solid presence in any production, including as Jocasta in PICT’s Oedipus. She journeys from calculating in her plans her daughter’s courtship to Paris to frustrated angry as Juliet defies her father’s order to marry. McCune carves a classic figure, perhaps someone who moved from Italy for a new life in America to be ruled by family protocols and patriarchy. In this setting, Juliet’s life would not have been much better, but Lady Capulet at least has the security her husband dictates.

It’s Lamar K. Cheston as Romeo’s friend Benvolio who takes the reins as a young man perhaps wise beyond his years. Cheston, most recently seen as in the title role of Henry V at Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks and at PICT in Oedipus, brings thoughtful choices to a character that if often less integral than in this production. He keeps things together when all others are awry and he reports on the misdeeds of the streets. Cheston is a strong and focused young player from whom we may expect much. In this sequel to this Italian-American story, we see him as the >consigliere advising Montague.

PICT vets Karen Baum and James FitzGerald are the Nurse and Friar Laurence, confidants of the young lovers, but forces who contribute to their downfall. Their good intentions fail, of course. Baum draws a nurse who is practical, knows her place and has some fun with the comic bit. Moreover, she looks out for her girl and provides structure in the unstable Capulet household. A delightful jewel in every cast, Baum brings authentic care and wisdom to the unpredictable sea of fighting and family dynamics. Her nurse is spot on.

Likewise, FitzGerald’s stalwart Friar is essential alongside Romeo. Bringing depth and craft to every performance, FitzGerald is always wonderful to watch and a joy for listening to the poetry of this play.

Art Peden debuts at PICT as the Prince, presiding over the neighborhood more as moderator than ruler. He brings focus and reason and is an artist we’ll look forward to following here. Jonathan Visser, always compelling, is Paris, here an attentive and mature courtier.

The fiery Tybalt is Daniel Pivovar, insisting on the brawl. Alec Silberblatt is a drunken Mercutio–taking his bawdy tales and gestures to the max.

The always charming Matt Henderson is Sampson and Pete, drawing giggles as he wrestles with lists and street bullies. Eric Freitas portrays both Friar John and Abram in his first PICT appearance. The strong women of the neighborhood, Sarah Carleton and Sandi Oshaben apt support, evening jumping into the fray as needed. Christopher Collier appears as Gregory and the Apothecary in his first PICT outing.

Aside from bawdy bits, this is a wonderful “first Shakespeare” for all ages. Mercutio’s gestures are no less than what we see daily in media or on the street, so don’t hesitate to bring some young people to this engaging classic–and to talk about the show before and after.

PICT Classic Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet runs at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio through November 4. For tickets and more information click here. 

PICT Teaches Romeo and Juliet Lessons in the Neighborhood

rj-431x500When a door opens to create new productions in a historic spaces, creative opportunities are revealed. Now, PICT Classic Theatere brings classic stories to two of Pittsburgh’s most storied settings–the Fred Rogers Studio of WQED-TV in Oakland and The Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze.

This season, Artistic Director Alan Stanford leads as key storyteller to stage classics that fill an important niche in our regional arts menu. He will direct both Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Oct. 20-Nov. 4, and his own adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, April 5-28, in the studio where Mister Rogers was produced. Between adventures in production at WQED, the company takes up residence at the Frick Art & Historical Center for a week of Oscar Wilde programming, Dec. 6-10, in the museum’s lovely and intimate theater.

While many Pittsburghers already relate to the Rogers’ Studio as home of  “The Land of Make Believe,” PICT will bring it’s own versions of imagined stories to life.

Stanford considers the space one of the best block theaters in the city. Equipped for versatile television production, the studio will accommodate a 160-seat audience configuration.

PICT’s 100th production, this R&J takes a modern approach in playing out the timely themes Shakespeare explored via two teens whose affections cross the lines of feuding families. As this play is set in Italy, Stanford moves the action stateside to an Italian-American community suggesting New York’s Little Italy in the 1930s.

“You could set this play anywhere in the world at any time,” says Stanford. “The important point about the play that is true and has been true for over 400 years is that it’s a play about the damage that families and their feuds can do to their children.”

Stanford usually produces one Shakespeare play each season and he realizes the popularity of Romeo and Juliet might cloud the audience’s’ view of its importance for revisiting the play and often.  “This is one everyone should watch now and again–especially if you have children,” he says.

He points to the prologue’s clear foreshadowing: “Two households both alike in dignity. Shakespeare tells you that the two protagonists die and that they are not superior to one another.”  

Stanford is excited about the young pair he is directing in the title roles. Adrianne Knapp is Juliet and Dylan Meyers is her Romeo.

The meddling Nurse and Friar Laurence are played by PICT regulars Karen Baum and James FitzGerald. Art Peden is Prince of the turbulent neighborhood.

Cast in the Capulet house are: Martin Giles, Lord Capulet; Shammen McCune, Lady Capulet; Daniel Pivovar, Tybalt; Jonathan Visser, Paris; and Christopher Collier, Gregory. Portraying some of Romeo’s friends on the Montague side are: Alec Silberblatt, Mercutio; and Lamar K. Cheston, Benvolio. Rounding out the cast of 15 are: Matt Henderson, Sampson/Peter; Eric Freitas, Friar John/Abram; and Sarah Carleton, Girl 1.

PICT’s seasons continues on the East End moving from Shakespeare to writers Oscar Wilde and Charlotte Bronte as the company moves to Point Breeze and back to Oakland.

At the Frick for “Wilde at the Frick”, PICT presents a week-long exploration of Oscar Wilde and varied aspects of his life and works. Stanford loves the Center’s ambiance and its popular cafe, saying, “Afternoon tea is one of the secrets of Pittsburgh!”

On the work to be done, “I’ve been an Oscar Wilde fan all of my life. Oscar was majestic with language.” Stanford points out that while audiences enjoy many of Wilde’s works as English comedies, that “he really wrote a lot of Irish satires about the English.”

Stanford’s describes the dramatist as “a philosopher” who, like Dickens, wrote “brilliant articles” on the unjust imprisonment of children and social issues.

The play In the Company of Oscar Wilde has its US premiere with just five performances beginning on  Dec. 6. Crafted from Wilde’s words and writing, the dramatic piece draws a portrait of the brilliant writer who created some of the most enduring plays of the Edwardian era and a man who was imprisoned for homosexuality around his affair with a younger man, Bosie Douglas.

On Dec. 10 only, the company presents a rare dramatic evening about Wilde’s third trial based on the scarce documentation of the events as reconstructed by the writer’s grandson Merlin Holland. PICT describes the program as: “A recreation of the final cross-examination of Wilde by Sir William Carson at the famous trial of the Marquis of Queensbury, a dramatic exchange that cost Oscar his freedom and reputation.” A post-show discussion follows.

Coincidently, the Frick’s current exhibit is “Undressed”, on the history of undergarments, and open at times coinciding with some PICT events. Consult The Frick website for details.

For families and all ages, the company also performs two of Wilde’s beloved fairy tales, The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, written for his two sons. The one-hour program takes place only on Sat., Dec. 9 at 2 pm, with tickets at just $10.

PICT returns to the Rogers Studio for Jane Eyre, April 5-28, with the adaptation Stanford originally wrote on commission for the Gate Theatre in Dublin. An audience favorite at companies including the Guthrie Theater, the story of a governess and the secrets that haunt her beloved and his family.  

Stanford expects to share more news from PICT as the season continues. Watch for updates and visit the website to guarantee tickets as seating capacities for these intimate and compelling events: http://www.picttheatre.org.

The Homestead Strike of 1892

LatestLatestFlyerThe voices and stories of Pittsburghers bring the Battle of Homestead to life in Mark Clayton Southers’ The Homestead Strike of 1892. Dramatic historical interpretation by some of the region’s leading actors recreate vivid moments from one of American labor’s most significant management vs. workers incidents.

The world premiere was created as part of the Battle of Homestead Foundation’s 125th anniversary commemoration of the clash between unionist steelworkers and mill owner Andrew Carnegie and his plant manager Henry Clay Frick. The script introduces some of those who experienced the strike and its outcomes.

The historic Pump House in Homestead is the setting for the action that took place right there on the Monongahela River and its shores.

The characters include some of the workers at the Homestead Steel Works, employees of the Carnegie Steel Company. They were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (forerunner to the United Steelworkers).

Southers himself was a steelwork for 18 years, so his perspective on the heat, dangers, and physical labor of steel making is first-hand.

“I really understood the sacrifices those workers and their neighbors made for the cause of labor and fair wages,” says Southers, who is the founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

The Foundation program describes the events, which were reported around the world: “The Battle of Homestead began July 6, 1892, when thousands of locked-out steelworkers and townspeople clashed with Pinkerton guards hired by Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Management fortified the steel mills and both sides fired guns and cannons at each other. The Pinkertons surrendered and townsfolk, including women and children, rained blows upon them and tore their clothes, then burned the barges they floated in on.”

Scene from attempted assassination of HC Frick (L-R Matt Henderson, Arjun Kumar, Paul Guggenheim, Michael Sullivan as Frick)
Scene from attempted assassination of HC Frick (L-R Matt Henderson, Arjun Kumar, Paul Guggenheim, Michael Sullivan as Frick)

Regional social activist Mel Packer portrays Andrew Carnegie who turns management of the mill over to Henry Clay Frick, personified by Michael Sullivan, in his absence. While Carnegie retreated to Scotland, Frick brought in the Pinkerton detectives to take back the mill. The hiring of scab labor further fueled the animosity and the National Guard was also summoned. Overall, seven workers and three of the some 300-400 Pinkerton agents were killed with some 60 people wounded.

The action is set in the mill, the nearby Bost Building (the union’s headquarters on Eighth Ave.), the riverfront and Frick and Carnegie conduct business, among other locations. The audience needs to accept that the Pump House is not a theater, but a historical site accommodating a story that runs a bit more than one hour.

Arrive assuming to take on the role of listener than to be entertained. For this show, expect to hear a story not a hi-tech production. This is a site-specific piece about the often unheard voices of those who lived and died during these significant events. Listen and learn more about the industrials whose names are one our museums and libraries. You’ll get to know some of the townspeople of Homestead, a place that deserves our attention and respect for its role in planting the roots of the labor movement and how the steelworkers and their descendants have survived all that’s happened here since.

The Battle guns are heard (L-R Jonathan Visser, Susie McGregor-Laine, Paul Guggenheim)
The Battle guns are heard (L-R Jonathan Visser, Susie McGregor-Laine, Paul Guggenheim)

The cast members are stellar storytellers in multiple roles. Their characters share a stark historic drama in the Pump House where raised platforms and a small audience area creates an intimate experience.

The scenes are connected by major story points read by narrator Paul Guggenheimer. The actor and broadcaster provides a contemporary viewpoint while also interacting with the historical action. He’s internationally anachronistic but it’s a way into another time and the place in which the audience sits and once shows up as a reporter questioning Frick.

As Frick takes over, the narrator says: “They called it Fort Frick. After all, he was the one behind it. While Carnegie shot quail in the Scottish Highlands, Frick had his sights set on the working man right here in Homestead.”

Mel Packer portrays a rather stoic Andrew Carnegie and Michael Sullivan appears as the cold and calculating Frick. For balance, Southers adds a character of his own, Raymond Washington, created by Wali Jamal provides an eyewitness account.

David Crawford’s description of his work as a “puddler” in the mill is a fascinating look at steelmaking tasks that required much strength and stamina. He shares that a reformer said to him: “It’s an outrage that men should have to work like this.” “They don’t have to,” he replied. “Nobody forced me to do this,” the puddler explains. “I do it because I would rather live in an Iron Age than live in a world of ox-carts. Man can take his choice.”

Crawford appears later as Robert Pinkerton with the chilling account of what the guards’ at first secret but somewhat doomed mission.

Juggling the roles of Carnegie Steel’s John Alfred Potter, steelworker John McLuckie, Ed Spear and others is the capable Jonathan Visser who creates a handful of memorable characters and their stories. His Ed Spear captivates as he describes the “trap” set for the arriving Pinkertons who traveled to Homestead on a barge but were not told their destination.

Marcus Muzzopappa portrays Pastor James J. McIlyer, one of the local clergy who eulogized slain workers and called for unionization as the solution for worker’s rights.

Would-be assassin Alexander Berkman takes aim at Frick ( Arjun Kumar)
Would-be assassin Alexander Berkman takes aim at Frick ( Arjun Kumar)

Susan McGregor-Laine takes an authentic turn as the Irish keeper of the Rolling Mill Tavern and a leading organizer Margaret “Mother” Finch and also Meredith Davies. The cast also features Kan Champion as union president William Weihe and James Howard who appears as Frick’s porter and others. Matt Henderson provides strong support in multiple roles.

When Russian activist Emma Goldman, played by Sara Fisher-Ventura reads of the strike in a New York newspaper, she rallies her colleague Alexander Berkman, portrayed by Arjun Kumar, to get involved. Following the strike, he attempts to assassinate Frick by shooting and stabbing him in his Pittsburgh office. Frick lives, but the strike dies. The characters gather on stage to share the epilogue and reinforce the importance of this history.

Southers concise dramatic retelling deserves long life as an educational and theatrical piece in our region and beyond. His script provides the Battle of Homestead Foundation with vignettes full of potential as stuff of interpretative history for future programs and docent-driven work.

The Homestead Strike of 1892 plays Friday and Saturday, September 22, and 23 at 7:00 pm, with matinees Friday at 1 pm and Sun. at 2:00 pm. More tickets have been made available for all remaining performances as the opening weekend sold out. Tickets are on sale for $20 at directly at: eventbrite.com

The Pump House is located at 880 East Waterfront Drive, adjacent to the Waterfront complex in Munhall (15120), past the Lowe’s side of the shopping area.

Southers’ play is part of a yearlong series of offerings to honor the Homestead battle and related history. Visit battleofhomestead.org for details. Events are funded in part by The Waterfront, The Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, United Steelworkers, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Read more about the strike and local labor history at Battle of Homestead Foundation

Photos by Lynne Squilla and Rosemary Trump

Artist Spotlight: Rachel M. Stevens

6-2It’s only Tom Stoppard and the question of the root of human consciousness, but rising American director Rachel M. Stevens eagerly takes on The Hard Problem for Quantum Theater. The Wallingford, PA, native puts her life and theater chops to work at a point in her career trajectory that seems just right. Her journey is taking her between New York and Pittsburgh and Stevens is enjoying the ride.

Growing up in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Steven became fascinated with theater from first playing “make believe” with her brother and following his path through school plays (debuting as Gretel in The Sound of Music at age 5) to college and grad school.

“I come from a very tight, small supportive family,” says Stevens. “My grandparents lived down the street from us–me, my brother Marcus and mother and myself. When my brother was seven he asked for a little sister” and she became his “biggest fan”.

Her commitment for further study in theater was confirmed when she came to Pittsburgh to see his work at Point Park University and she wound up in the MFA program in musical theater. Stevens was initially on stage in school and college projects, but the concept of directing clicked for her.  

“I always wanted to be in charge of how the time machine was built and our environments…I loved creating concepts that elevated the storytelling.” She went on to earn her MFA in New York at the Actors Theater Drama School at Pace University.

The show her brother was working on at PPU was the musical Floyd Collins at PPU, which Stevens would herself stage in Pittsburgh along with The Spitfire Grill for Front Porch Theatricals’ 2016 season.

“It was a great experience. I loved the company’s family,” she says, likening the close-knit company to the appeal of her early theater experiences.

Front Porch fell between her earliest regional stints as an assistant director at City Theatre and for two world premieres–most recently, the Broadway hit musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 as well as The Bandstand, a new musical debuted at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey.

“Stoppard’s hard to resist,” Stevens confirms. “Arcadia was one of the most mesmerizing experiences I’ve had in the theater.”

And Quantum is a truly comfortable match for Stevens. The Hard Problem is the stuff of which Artistic Director Karla Boos has built Quantum with its production history distinctively characterized by choices of plays and venues vary significantly from those of other regional companies.

“My relationship with Karla is fairly new, “ says Stevens, but “we are very kindred spirits.”

Stevens was still awaiting final word on the venue for this Stoppard play when we spoke to her in early August and the location is still to be announced as this story is posted. But the mystery for her creative team adds to the anticipation of yet another unforgettable audience experience for Quantum fans.

Quantum describes the play as: “Bristling with intellectual energy and wit…exploring the complexities of consciousness, and the nature of belief.”

The Hard Problem had its premiere at London’s National Theatre in 2015, and Quantum presents its regional premiere.

Stoppard introduces Hilary, a young neuroscientist who questions the source of consciousness at the same time she’s working through some personal sadness and loss. She and her colleagues raise all the hard questions that will keep audiences members’ own brain cells working through Stoppard’s adroit dialogue gymnastics. Like Arcadia, this script promises to awaken those drowsy thought processes to consider the questions of science through characters whose lives represent the human experience while they consider technology’s role in understanding the mind.  

Stevens considers it “the journey to find where our hearts live beyond our brain,” noting that she identifies with Hilary’s “twinkling optimism about the way the world functions.”

As rehearsals begin on September 26, Stevens has prepared through her intuitive process–reading and rereading the text while alternately her personal work with production conferences and her own wedding to PPU alumnus Joey Scarillo in Pittsburgh in late August. She’s made the shift from wedding to production planning with a design team of colleagues she knows that includes Stephanie Mayer-Staley, scenic designer via Point Park University, and Andrew Ostrowski, the lighting designer who also lit her wedding.

Regarding her found space venue, “starting from scratch is scary,” Steven admits. But she’s up for the challenge. This director’s own journey on the location of this production is like that of Quantum audiences–surprise us and we won’t mind a bit as Stevens aims to “make this play soar off the page.”

She describes it as “finding where the audience’s heartbeat is in the play…I don’t think there is another company that can do that.”

Sure, Stoppard’s writing can seem dense, but she works to ‘distill it down the gorgeousness of the language.” Steven seriously admits, “I try not try to think about it too much.”

To get there, she describes her process as reading the text “like a story” about six times to date, “writing questions, underlining things”. She then asks “What is the scene really about?” and “What does the character really want?” And “what is the journey EACH of these characters is on?” As she begins working with her cast, they’ll travel to “find where their hearts really are.”

Quantum Theatre’s The Hard Problem continues its 2017-18 season, Oct. 27 to Nov. 19 on the 5th Floor of the Energy Innovation Center at 1435 Bedford Ave. Red Hills, runs through Sept. 10. Pittsburgher Gab Cody’s Inside Passage has its world premiere, March 2-25. For details on plays, venues, special events, and tickets, the Quantum Theatre, quantumtheatre.com.

Design team for The Hard Problem:

Stephanie Mayer-Staley, Scenic Design
Andrew Ostrowski, Lighting Design
Angela Vesco, Costume Design
Joe Spinogatti, Projection Design

Historic Labor Conflict Comes to Life in New Battle of Homestead Play At The Pump House

LatestLatestFlyerAt the end of June, actor Mark Rylance shared how he caught the Pittsburgh bug on his first visit more than a decade ago, fueling new projects steeped in our region’s labor history. Fresh from an exclusive visit to the Edgar Thomson works on June 30, Rylance drew the focus of guests at a meet-and-greet fundraiser at the historic Bost Building in Homestead on a date with significance to the 1892 Battle of Homestead and the foundation that takes that name. A preview of his script-in-progress with co-author Peter Reder and a cadre of regional actors captivated a full house at Homestead’s Carnegie Library Hall in early July.

Now, the series of events presented by the Battle of Homestead Foundation continues commemoration of the 125th anniversary of clash between steelworkers and mill owners, including Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie.

Mark Clayton Southers’ historical one-act play The Homestead Strike of 1892 brings stories of this conflict to life through his research of memoirs and documentation of the event. Southers’ fact-based dramatization is likely to be as mesmerizing as those accounts shared this summer, so audiences are in for a relevant and revealing historic journey. The September 15-23 performances take place in the historic Pump House where critical riverside events rolled out in Homestead.

The drama of the setting in which the earlier members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (forerunner to the United Steelworkers) worked is familiar territory for Southers.

“I was in the steelworkers’ union 18-plus years, and it wasn’t until I began to research the Battle of Homestead that I really understood the sacrifices those workers and their neighbors made for the cause of labor and fair wages,” says Southers, founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

“They may have lost that battle in 1892,” he says of his profoundly moving research, “but they set the precedent for working people, including African Americans, to demand their piece of prosperity!”

Commissioned by the BOH Foundation to provide an original work at the Pump House, Southers set out to create a concise dramatic retelling that is likely to have a long life as an educational and theatrical piece in our region and beyond.

Southers has assembled some favorite regional actors for the project. Mel Packer portrays Andrew Carnegie and Michael Sullivan appears as Henry Clay Frick. The cast features: Kan Champion, David Crawford, Matt Henderson, Wali Jamal, Marcus Muzapoppa, Arjun Kumar, and Susan McGregor-Laine. Sarah FIsher plays the activist Emma Goldman who led a plot to assassinate Frick. Paul Guggenheimer is the Narrator.

The Foundation web site describes the events: “The Battle of Homestead began July 6, 1892, when thousands of locked-out steel workers and townspeople clashed with Pinkerton guards hired by Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. It was a story reported around the world, as management fortified the steel mills and both sides fired guns and cannons at each other. The Pinkertons surrendered and townsfolk, including women and children, rained blows upon them and tore their clothes, then burned the barges they floated in on.”

The National Guard was summoned while the industry titans hired scab labor. Anarchist Alexander Berkman attempt to assassinate Frick. As labor lost the struggle, American unionism and collective bargained was damaged, with effects of this event felt into the 1930s.

The iconic conflict continues to inspire labor and management disputes as the future of unions is played around strikes, picket lines, and negotiations.

The Homestead Strike of 1892 plays Fridays and Saturdays, Sept. 15,16, 22, and 23 at 7:00 pm, with matinees Sept. 22 and 23 at 1:00 pm. The Pump House is located at 880 East Waterfront Drive, adjacent to the Waterfront complex in Munhall (15120). 

Southers’ play is part of a yearlong series of offerings to honor the Homestead battle and related history. Visit battleofhomestead.org for details. Events are funded in part by The Waterfront, The Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, United Steelworkers, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

About Mark Clayton Southers

Mark Clayton Southers is an award winning playwright, photographer, scenic designer, theatrical producer and stage director; founder and producing artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. Mr. Southers recently directed the jazz / R&B opera A Gathering of Sons for Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s 2017 season and toured his Miss Julie, Clarissa and John at the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina and The Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland in August. From 2010 to 2013, Mr. Southers served as the Artistic Director of Theatre Initiatives for the 486 seat August Wilson Center for African American Culture. More at markclaytonsouthers.com

Ted Pappas’ Grand Finale at PPT

Tedheadshot (1)“I’m kind of crazy about this season,” says Ted Pappas of his 2017-18 programming for Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The company’s 43rd season is also his last as artistic director. Pappas aims to provide audiences with a journey of infinite variety and imaginative vision. His selections are consistent with the wonderfully balanced array of plays and musicals he has programmed at PPT for more than two decades. What’s his formula?

“It’s a simple bit of chemistry,” says Pappas. “I produce the way I like to attend.”

Pappas is simply celebrating playwrights, directors, and actors he loves for his own finale season.

“I made it extra special for me, the directors, and I hope for the audience.” He’s also providing some terrific roles of the actors who will appear at the O’Reilly Theater stage beginning Sept. 28 and through July 1, 2018.

His tenure is a run of substantive programming that is at once entertaining and thought-provoking. While Pappas loves both directing and choreographing (as he will again for PPT’s annual musical), he has a knack for crafting a season with broad appeal and inroads for even the youngest or newest theater goers.

Audiences members will move from the deepest regions of the human psyche to the peak of musical theater frivolity. Along the way, patrons will meet Vietnam hero, an American family at a holiday dinner, an unlikely couple, and some very silly Shakespeareans.

The first productions are all works that Pappas considers as three of the most acclaimed works in theater–all Tony winners for Best Play, presented “back-to-back”. They are followed by “three very special projects” that also reflect PPT’s range. These six major productions are complemented by a solo show with undeniable Pittsburgh roots.

equus“Each of the plays is a blockbuster and all are monumental,” says Pappas.

Pappas was thrilled at PPT’s popular run of Shaffer’s Amadeus, so to open the season he revisited the British playwright as Equus “speaks passionately to the transformative power of the theater…and engages the audience In such a visceral way.”

Decades before the innovations of War Horse, Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1973) called on actors to portrays horses that are central to the plot’s central incident. The compelling psychological mystery connects a disturbed stable boy’s violence and a curious psychiatrist. Pappas praises “the extravaganza Shaffer demands of the director and designers.”

In his 29th PPT appearance, Daniel Krell portrays Dr. Martin Dysart. Pappas says he chose Equus “especially for Dan” but also as the play “epitomizes the team work we’ve built over the decades.” Six men in sculpted metal heads and hooves portray the horses in a cast of 14 in Equus, running Sept. 28-Oct. 29.

humansFor this season, Pappas also observes that “the new plays seem to balance the comedy and serious so well.” This quality is a hallmark of playwright Stephen Karam’s work which includes The Humans, Tony winner for 2016 best play (and finalist for a 2106 Pulitzer Prize).

The play is bound to conjure some beloved yet uneasy family gatherings for audience members during its Nov. 9-Dec. 10 run. Pappas says it may seem like many family members are part of this play and admits the pre-holiday timing is fun.

A Brooklyn couple hosts Thanksgiving for family members from back home in Scranton, PA (the playwright’s own hometown). All the neuroses and doubt swirling around dinner tables today provide alternately comic and dramatic moments. Karman’s script has been praised for its honest realism and wit–qualities Pappas couldn’t resist.

He also knew the script was a strong match for director Pamela Berlin. She returns for her 11th production with PPT, having staged Clybourne Park, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Between Riverside and Crazy.

Pappas, who considers The Diary of Anne Frank “a very significant production for the company”, emphasizes that Berlin “attracts great designers and actors”. PPT is one of the first companies to stage The Humans following its Broadway success.

Layout 1And, no, Rocky Bleier didn’t have to “fight back” for another run of his solo show The Play at PPT; Pappas was eager to invite the Steelers legend to again “star in his own story”, Dec. 28-Jan. 6. He gleeful admits most any Steeler fan would love tickets for one of Bleier’s nine performances, calling The Play “a great night out and I’ve done your Christmas shopping for you!”

Layout 1In 2018, Pappas will both stage and choreograph A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a timely and infectious comedy that weaves all things classical with hysterical situations.

He directed Forum in PPT’s pre-Cultural District days two decades ago at the Hazlett Theater.

“In a way, it’s a ‘thank you’ from me to the company for allowing me to be part of the company for the past 20 years.” Pappas promises “a new production of a musical that is both funny and great to look at…frisky and delightful.” Forum plays Jan. 25-Feb. 25.

Layout 1City Theatre’s most recent artistic director Tracy Brigden returns to direct Heisenberg, her fourth PPT production and a director Pappas is “just crazy about.”

Heinsenberg was a surprise hit about a woman who falls for an older man after a chance meeting. Pappas saw the show and “got the rights while it was still on Broadway. I predict it will one of the most produced plays in American over the next two to three years” says Pappas. The title alludes to the physics of attraction in this two-character play by Simon Stephen whose work includes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Heisenberg is on stage March 8- April 8.

Layout 1Pappas has produced Shakespeare about every other season with a balance of comedies and tragedies. Along with Equus, Hamlet was still on Pappas wish list of future productions. He describes his final production as “a classic production and beautifully designed”, running April 19-May 20.

Once more, student matinees will bring young people to each of PPT’s offerings during additional matinees. Pappas considers students “the future of theater and our country.”

“We don’t believe in dismissing the potential of student audiences. They will see all of our plays. Student performances of Hamlet are already selling out,” says Pappas. “We create the audience of the future through these plays.”

abridgedAnd a fun finale to the whole season is the return of the Reduced Shakespeare company in their Will’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), May 31-July 1. What should we expect? What could possibly go wrong? Pappas says “pandemonium on stage at the OReilly!”

Pappas considers the Public as “one of my favorite audiences and theaters” but the season he’s created will demand much of him.

“I’d like to go out with a little bit of fireworks, Pappas says. “My hope is to hand off the company in a top condition.

“I’m taking my vitamins.”

About Season and Ticket Options

Each of Pittsburgh Public Theater’s six main productions run about four weeks, with The Play having only nine performance dates. Single tickets starting at $30 are on sale September 5 with some popular subscriber dates already listing limited seating. A wide range of tickets options including flex packages of just three shows as well as group and other discounts, including 70% savings for students and anyone 26 or under. Tips: Take the time to explore PPT’s ticket info for interesting options and events such as post-show talk backs. You might want to some varied seating in the 650-seat O’Reilly throughout the season. Most any seats closest to the stage (regardless of price or seat level) afford some interesting perspectives. Visit online at: ppt.org

Ironbound

YT17-Feature-IronboundThe waiting in life takes up a lot of our time–waiting for the next big thing, the next job, the next person. Ironbound’s Darja reconfirms out that anyone who takes public transportation is captive to waiting. Her attachment to a significant bus stop represents her own continual anticipation of the right man and better times.

City Theatre’s Pittsburgh premiere of Ironbound depicts an important slice of immigrant life in America. It reminds us that everyone on the bus has a story, a reality perhaps most magnified in the dense greater New York-New Jersey metro area. Ironbound zooms in on one woman who could be anyone, but Darja is inspired for playwright Martyna Majok by both her own Polish immigrant mother and the notable absence of working class women in contemporary plays.

Rebecca Harris, in her 10th role with the company, captivates with impeccable realism as Darja. Harris is the constant force here along with a dark, menacing bus stop. Her solid and fierce portrayal is someone like many who endure wearing commutes to whatever job they can get to make rent while avoiding any unexpected financial catastrophes. They persevere and crave, as Darja says, “even the ugly jobs they don’t have no more.”

This Polish immigrant cleans houses in an upscale community two buses away, struggles to make ends meet following the loss of her factory job. Darja’s own crises are not just about being alone; she could easily become homeless due to a bad choice or broken relationship, perhaps more recognizable in hindsight.

Rebecca Harris as Darja
Rebecca Harris as Darja

On stage for all of the 90-minute piece (intensely performed with no intermission), the actress is either alone or interacting with three male characters. Harris’ powerful performance impresses with raw and honest craft as a character who is remarkable in her stamina, resilience, and lifeforce. She weighs her options in relationships and finances, bargaining to try to somehow gain some enhanced security.

City’s Artistic Director Tracy Brigden, who was eager to program this new play, said in the production news release that  Majok’s “unique point of view as the child of Polish immigrants ripples throughout her work. Ironbound is a truly American play—raw and alive from the very first words.” And we must agree as Ironbound so deftly depicts aspects of the immigrant experience that Brigden describes as “so vital to this moment in time.”

Ironbound debuted in New York at Rattlesnake Theater in 2016 before Brigden took the wheel to direct its next production. Pittsburgh audiences will recognize the ramifications of losing an industrial economy.

Brigden places the Elizabeth, New Jersey bus stop intimately in City’s thrust configuration.The centerpiece of Anne Mundell’s compact set is a giant graffiti covered steel girder appearing to pierce the top of the theater as it towers over the action, the litter, and a ubiquitous abandoned car tire. Lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski flashes from above as Eric Shimelonis’ sound effects are heard by the audience upon and arrival and continue to indicate the rattling of both New Jersey transit trains and traffic above and in in the house. If you know New Jersey and I-9, you can especially conjure the traffic, potholes, and smells. The stink of the paper factory where Darja once worked may be gone in this century, but the setting evokes the industrial Jersey of the late 20th century.

JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja
JD Taylor as Maks and Rebecca Harris as Darja

We wait with Darja at this dark and dirty bus stop where a lot happens but some things never change. As time shifts among scenes, her journey of relationships always brings her back to the bus stop near her former factory job and its associated memories.

In several flashback scenes, her first husband Maks is sweetly played by JD Taylor. Darja’s backstory is built through their alternately hopeful and bittersweet encounters. In 1992, she is pregnant with their son Alex as Maks dreams of making music in Chicago.

In his one scene with her, Vic, a young man played by Erick Martin, finds a battered Darja trying to sleep at the bus stop after her second husband has abused her. Vic provides an objective listening ear and a comedic rap. He reminds her that a shelter or motel room would be safer and offers some money to help her out. Pittsburgh’s Erick Martin’s Vic is the energetic parallel to her son Alex–the absent male in this version of Darja’s story. Martin is endearing in his portrayal of a kid who’s struggling with his sexual identity.

Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic
Rebecca Harris as Darja and Erik Martin as Vic

Don Wadsworth’s exacting dialect coaching supports Darja and Mak’s Polish slant. The characters’ sometimes muddled sentence structure also adds to the authenticity of Majok’s script along with her inclusion of some Polish.

Costumes designed by Robert C.T. Steele aptly convey the look of the implied decades from Vic’s track suit and sneakers and Tommy’s geeky postman shorts.

Ironbound reminds us how lives intersect–even if only for a few minutes on our respective commutes as everyone dreams and holds on to survive a new day.

Closing City Theatre’s 41st season, Ironbound runs through June 4 with tickets starting at $15 for under 30 with generous discounts for many patrons (seniors, military, etc.) as well as a “pay-what -you-want” option for the Sat., May 27 matinee. Special audience opportunities include a post-show talkback on May 24 and another with the playwright on Thurs., May 25. Greenroom on second Fri., May 26 provides a $25 ticket that includes beverages and a post-show chance to hang out with the show’s cast and team. Click here for more information. 

Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover