Pittsburgh CLO Ignites a SPARK to Pierce the Dark

27332031_10155250785061696_3305618049594248234_nWhat comes first: the music or the lyric?

This question has been asked by people of all levels of engagement with the craft of musical theatre. One thing that has been true about musical theatre from the beginning is that its definition is fluid. The winding and widening timeline of musical theatre—from late 19th century operettas to early 20th vaudeville to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to Stephen Sondheim to Lin-Manuel Miranda and every writer, director, star, and innovation in between—has made that question virtually impossible to answer.

That’s where Pittsburgh CLO comes in with their inaugural SPARK festival.

SPARK is the centerpiece of Pittsburgh CLO’s Next Generation Capital Campaign. With its goal of igniting the future of new small cast musicals, SPARK seeks to continue CLO’s long legacy of excellence in the production of musical theatre. This is a legacy that includes over seven decades of bringing blockbuster Broadway razzle dazzle to the Steel City and nearly two decades of bringing sky high entertainment value to dinner theatre in their intimate cabaret venue. SPARK is also a window into the sometimes mystifying, sometimes dramatic, always rewarding creative process of writing a musical.

It’s neither the music nor the lyric that comes first when one is writing a musical. It’s inspiration. It’s the spark of an idea, a character, a situation that jumps off the page onto center stage and sings its heart out.

This is where a diverse group of 40 writers comes in. Literally.

The composers, lyricists, and book writers took residence with Pittsburgh CLO for up to three weeks to begin fine tuning their musicals for presentation in the festival. Each piece was in a different stage of development, but all were equally at the mercy of the artists in the SPARK rehearsal rooms—writers, directors, music directors, stage managers, dramaturgs, and a total of 85 performers.

Once a musical is written, rewritten, rehearsed, and rewritten more, the only way for the creative team to know if the show is on the right track to connecting with audiences is to get the show up on its feet. Three of the common methods for presenting a musical work in progress were on display at SPARK. Music stands, binders, and frantic page turning take the place of completely full-fledged props and design elements in the worlds of sit-down readings, semi-staged readings, and fully-staged workshop productions. In these settings, the audience shows their support for a show by engaging in talk back sessions after the curtain call rather than giving a standing ovation.

This is where the various musical theatre fanatics, industry professionals, friends/family of the festival participants, and I come in!

For me, there were eight shows over the course of two 7-9 hour days. There were brisk walks (in speed and temperature) up and down Liberty Avenue between the three homes of SPARK, CLO itself, Bricolage, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. And, most memorable of all, there was the huge grin on my face as I fed off the tremendous creative energy radiating from everything and everyone I encountered on my journey through SPARK.

The pieces I saw had astounding range in content, form, and presentation.

Three musical comedies like Adam Overett’s The Double-Threat Trio; Kellen Blair, Sarah Ziegler Blair, and David Christensen’s Just Between the All of Us; and An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake by Matt Schatz might seem to have a lot in common on paper based on their genre, but their approaches for getting laughs are varied.

The Double-Threat Trio, featuring a performance by Tony Award winner Beth Leavel, features three characters (each with a talent-based fatal flaw) and a woman of many hats (and personalities) determined to hit it big with a production of the musical adaptation of Oedipus called Oed! Metatheatricality melds with personal drama in An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake. In the show, one of the theatre’s most unsung heroes, the literary manager, is hopelessly torn between the abstract concept of artistic credibility and the chance to rub elbows with Mr. Jessica Biel. Just Between the All of Us swipes left on traditional theatricality as it employs a choose-your-own-adventure storytelling model and audience participation to relate the dating and mating tribulations of the indecisive Dr. Madeline.

The inclusion of other shows in the festival allude to a much more inclusive future for CLO’s musical landscape.

These Girls Have Demons is notable for being the only production in SPARK with an all-female creative team including its book writer/lyricist Meghan Brown and composer Sarah Taylor Ellis. It tells the story of what happens when all hell literally breaks loose on four tween girls who meddle with the dark arts to ease their adolescent woes. Writer and performer Jillian Walker processes her plight as a black woman in America live in living color in SKiNFoLK: An American Show. It’s a lyrical montage of movements in which music sprouts organically from the lost and found stories of a conflicted history.

In addition to the nine headlining productions of SPARK, CLO proved its staunch dedication to writers/creators by also presenting an eclectic handful of unique musical theatre experiences including late night performances from local improv troupes and other musical works-in-progress courtesy of CLO writers-in-residence.

The fourth wall between performer and spectator is broken down by the earth-shattering courage and vulnerability it takes for creators to share a still-gestating piece of work. It’s an electrifying experience to witness both groups discovering, reacting to, and internalizing the music and lyrics almost at the same rate.

This first-ever SPARK festival will be a tough act to follow, but I have no doubt that Pittsburgh CLO will be able to make lightning strike twice.

For more information about Pittsburgh CLO and the 2018 SPARK festival, click here.


Pittsburgh Opera’s Season To Close with “The Elixir of Love”

HeaderFor the final offering of its current season, Pittsburgh Opera will present Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (L’Elisir d’Amore) beginning next Saturday evening, April 21. With a libretto by Felice Romani, the music for the comic, melodious opera was composed in just six weeks, and for more than a decade after its premiere in Milan, in 1832, it was the most frequently performed work in Italy. Even today, it’s heard often enough to fall into the top twenty most frequently staged operas in the world. Its famous aria “Una furtiva lagrima” (“A furtive tear”), is a romanza that appears regularly on the concert programs of many tenors, and has been preserved for posterity by a large number of them since the birth of recorded sound, and at least a dozen studio recordings of the entire opera, many boasting legendary singers, have proved popular sellers since the 1950’s.

The simple but engaging plot concerns Nemorino, and his love for “the beautiful and wealthy Adina, who appears to be completely out of his league. His prospects are further diminished when the handsome and dashing Sergeant Belcore arrives. But when Doctor Dulcamara rolls into town and sells Nemorino a bottle of his dubious Elixir of Love, things get very interesting. Why is Nemorino suddenly popular with every girl in the village? Will he win Adina’s love before it’s too late?”

Nemorino (Dimitri Pittas) looks on in dismay as Belcore (Zachary Nelson) proposes to Adina (Ekaterina Siurina)
Nemorino (Dimitri Pittas) looks on in dismay as Belcore (Zachary Nelson) proposes to Adina (Ekaterina Siurina)

Ekaterina Siurina will sing Adina, Dimitri Pittas, Nemorino, Zachary Nelson, Belcore, Shannon Jennings, Giannetta, Paolo Pecchioli, Dr. Dulcamara, and young Simon Nigam will play Dr. Dulcamara’s assistant. In addition to the wonderful music for the lead singers, the opera has many fine opportunities for the excellent chorus, under Mark Trawka, and the orchestra will be conducted by Christian Capocaccia, whose last excellent turn at the podium with the company will assure him of a hearty welcome.

The production to be presented, owned by Opera North, moves the action to the 1950’s, and will be directed by Daniel Slater. It will be the 8th time he’s directed this production, and Pittsburgh Opera asked him if his approach has evolved since the first. “Yes, it has,” was his reply. “In fact, two years ago Opera North wanted to do it again. They had actually asked me to do it again few years before that, and I didn’t want to. Then they asked me again, and I said ‘Well, I’ll do it again if you don’t mind that we change it.’ Now, we can’t change the set – the set is what it is. The costumes are what they are, within reason. But I wanted to approach it as though Robert Innes Hopkins and I had worked on the set, worked on the costumes, and were looking at them with my choreographer for the first time, thinking ‘what would we do with these things?’ So, we just threw everything we’d done out, and just asked ourselves ‘What is the heart of this story?’ The heart of the story is obviously about Nemorino and Adina. So, we decided to do a staging of the Prelude that focuses attention on that.

Dr. Dulcamara (Paolo Pecchioli, back right) offers Nemorino (Dimitri Pittas, back left) his Elixir of Love while Nemorino watches Belcore (Zachary Nelson) woo Adina (Ekaterina Siurina)
Dr. Dulcamara (Paolo Pecchioli, back right) offers Nemorino (Dimitri Pittas, back left) his Elixir of Love while Nemorino watches Belcore (Zachary Nelson) woo Adina (Ekaterina Siurina)

“We decided to make the chorus’ body language, movement language, be a little more stylized than it had been before. We basically reinvented the show. This ‘new’ production was at Opera North two years ago, then it went to Houston and now it’s come here. So this is, if you like, the third incarnation of the new version of Elixir – though it’s been done eight times, in my mind this is the third time.

“I think this is one of the most accessible operas in the repertoire. I think it’s got enormous charm. It’s very funny, but it’s also touching. You can really genuinely be moved by the journey that Nemorino goes on, and that Adina goes on, too. So I hope they’ll come out feeling that they really related to those two central characters, and see Nemorino and Adina’s story reflect things that they have gone through in their lives. I hope also, that in the midst of this rather gross Pennsylvania weather we’re all enduring, it offers the audience a little brief two-and-a-half-hour summer holiday on the Amalfi Coast.”

Personally, I would have used several unprintable words to describe the weather in Pittsburgh lately.

“It’s hard to believe our 2017-18 season is almost over,” Christopher Hahn, General Director of Pittsburgh Opera shared with us recently. “We’re proud of the exceedingly high quality of our productions, and the variety we’ve given our patrons. It’s been a stellar blend of the classics, such as Tosca and The Marriage of Figaro, and the contemporary, such as The Long Walk and Moby-Dick, with an edgy world premiere thrown in as well. We enjoy ending our season with a light-hearted comedy, and we know our audiences will fall in love with The Elixir of Love.”

For tickets, photos of the production and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

David Bachman Photography

Five Fringe Shows, So Many Flights of Stairs

Day 3 of Fringe was my marathon day, in which I attempted a feat only dreamed of before. Five shows in one day! I did it, with the help of food trucks, coffee, $3 cocktails, and a brief nap in my car.

tentaclespghfringeshowgraphicwebHaving learned from the previous day’s mad rush, I arrived early for my first show. The helpful volunteers got me all checked in, and when the time came, led me downstairs for TENTACLES, from Voyage Theater Company. TENTACLES takes the form of a thesis presentation by Tessa (played by Tessa Flannery, who also wrote the show) studying the ravishment fantasies of an “anonymous subject” and attempting to reconcile them with her feminism.

The lecture is interrupted consistently. At first by the speaker/subject’s own fantasies, cutaway scenes lit in red that Tessa then sheepishly recovers from, and then by a spectator. We eventually learn that Chris (portrayed by Chris Fayne), was invited by Tessa to watch her presentation. But the Shakespearian actor-turned-porn star, who she had secret fantasies about during their college years, takes it upon himself to set the record straight on aspects of her thesis that he disagrees with. A good chunk of the crowd I was in didn’t realize at first that Chris was part of the show, so I got to enjoy people grumbling at him for heckling until his interjections escalated enough that he was clearly a cast member.

Despite being framed as a literal lecture, Flannery’s writing does a great job of raising the issues of the #metoo movement in a way that feels natural to the story and the characters. Chris’ interruptions are played for laughs until they aren’t, underscoring that Tessa has the final say in where the line is drawn. With great writing and acting throughout, this was a definite highlight of the weekend.

3-x-3-72dpi_origAfter a quick bounce upstairs and a few minutes of writing, I headed back to the St. Mary’s basement for No Oddjob, David Lawson’s one-man show about video games, and their impact on his life. I’ve spent a fair amount of time at sci-fi/comic/anime conventions that feature nerd stand-up, and too often the routines boil down to “here’s a reference, laugh if you get it!” so I was a little cautious about this show. But Lawson’s performance is more than that. As an examination of what kind of influence games can have on those who play them, the show follows Lawson through his youth and into adulthood. At each stage, he discusses the games he played, how he saw them, and how others reacted to them, whether that means parents, employers, or the government. The games are always central to the narrative, but the story is his.

Lawson’s primary focus is the perennial argument over violence in video games, resurrected once again by President Trump, and he argues that while games can inspire people, they don’t create monsters. It’s a point he makes well, but I think the show’s scope could be expanded. Every time he referred to “the next big controversy” I was expecting him to address the gamergate blow-up from a few years ago that focused not on violence but sexism in the gaming community. With his history and perspective, I think it would be interesting to hear Lawson’s take on that issue as well.

showupwebsiteartpittsNext on the agenda was Show Up, Peter Michael Marino’s improvised solo comedy. I thought this show was impressive as hell. In the course of an initial dialogue with the audience that Marino points out is mostly scripted on his end, he collects topics from the audience in several categories (Childhood, Addiction, Love Life, Job, etc…) and assigns the roles of Stage Manager and Sound Technician to two attendees. And that’s when the show kicks off in earnest. Using the props set out by the Stage Manager and a musical cure from the sound person to set each scene, Marino improvises a personal narrative that incorporates all of the topics suggested by the audience.

This is a task that could easily go off the rails, but Marino managed to put together a consistently funny and mostly coherent one-man show relating the life of Pedro, a shoemaker’s son who went on to co-found Moe’s Southwest Grill with a surprising amount of murder along the way. (That was my fault, actually. My weird family story involved murder.) According to the website showuptheshow.com, he will be performing a kids’ version of Show Up in New York City in May, which I assume will probably be dropping the “Addiction” category. So tell any of your family members back east who have reproduced in the last decade or so to check it out!

leahy-fringe_origFor my last stop downstairs, I saw Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, God! Based on the classic Judy Blume novel (which I should admit I haven’t read), Rude Cutlet Theater Company’s show features the long-awaited responses from God to Margaret’s repeated entreaties. God is mostly unsympathetic, which isn’t surprising, because maaaaaaaaaaaaan is Margaret an odd duck. The only-slightly-exaggerated excerpts from the novel that comprise Margaret’s dialogue mostly center on how much she wants a bra, to have her period, and to be ogled by an attractive teacher. God responds by pointing out how strange and problematic all of this is, and that we really shouldn’t have kids read this book anymore.

Writer/performers Dana Leahy and Emily Askin have a good concept for the show, but the jokes are pretty hit-or-miss. The best parts of Are You There Margaret?, as part of a larger comedy show, would be a great act. But as a full one-hour performance, it seems a little padded.

fc18194d203954691561a5799116379es-8_origIan Insect’s It Sounded Like A Good Idea In My Dreams is exactly the kind of madness I come to Fringe to see. An absurdist comedy revue, everything about this performance adds to the overall effect, even though none of them seem very closely related. Even before the show starts, you’re greeted by a surly usher who informs you that smoking is not permitted in the show while holding a cigarette. A sign at the front declares that laughter is only permitted when the red light is on. The performance is broken into two acts containing monologues, sketches, and songs, split up by an intermission that’s actually a sketch of its own, and parody ad videos from sponsors like Green Soda and RateMyInfant.guv.

A lot of the show is built around language – the opening disclaimer is a maybe-too-long discussion of whether the show is not for everyone, not for anyone, for someone, for somebody, or not for nobody, and Act II opens with a slide show on punctuation. Ian Insect wants you to think about what’s being said, and how. And he also wants you to feel a little uncomfortable while you’re doing that. Little things throughout add up to a sense that things aren’t going exactly as planned – the usher’s constant haranguing of the audience, the panicked writers’ meeting at intermission, the consistent technical errors when the ads play, a not quite long enough microphone cable. It all creates an atmosphere that contributes to the dreamlike, disassociated structure of the play.

This was also the perfect show to end on, in the final moments, as Ian Insect lay awkwardly (and unless I’m mistaken, creepily unblinking) on the ground amid the scattered salad and props that had been left untouched since Act I and Ann Usher yelled at us to leave (“We can’t go home until you’re gone! GO!”), the Fringe volunteers packing up the table and curtains in the background felt like part of the show. I hope I didn’t miss a Marvel-style after-credits scene, but I took the hint and walked off to the afterparty. Good Fringe.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here

Three Bearded Dudes and That One Girl: Fringe Day 3

The final night of the 5th Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival found me in yet another basement for three more shows, this time at the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. Unlike the prior night’s venue at St. Mary’s Lyceum, this location was an actual church. There was something immediately soothing about the diffusion of late afternoon light through the stained glass windows. There was also a wickedly glorious irony in having that light bathe over me with the pulmonating voice of Fringe Festival performer Bob Weick as Karl Marx filtering into the entryway. While the fates whisked me to the less charming basement multi-use room, the sound bleed from above was not nearly as bad and distracting as the Lyceum.

andrew-frank_origThe first show of the evening was Andrew Frank’s stand-up show, Macrocosm. While I don’t spend much time at comedy clubs, intellectualism is not necessarily my first association with stand-up. However, Andrew Frank wastes no time in establishing this is a thinking person’s show. He launches into bits on light speed (keeping it comedic by doing the math on the size of his proclaimedly large penis relative to light years), nonillion (a number with 30 zeros) and the Fibonacci sequence. You realize you came in expecting to play some version of Chutes and Ladders, and all of sudden, the chess board has come out.

To establish his legitimacy, Frank opens the show by telling us he’s done 11 years of stand-up. His transitions consist of giving his hipster haircut a faint tug and outwardly flipping his microphone cord, an onstage move that’s reminiscent of the recent water bottle flipping phenomena. Overall, Frank comes off as more gently amusing than genuinely comedic. There were few roars from the audience. Frank exudes an air of pretention, even when talking dismissively about his education at an unaccredited Christian school in Missouri. He struggles with straddling that line between making people laugh and making them feel dumb. After all, not everyone knows the Fibonacci sequence (a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers). Ultimately, the math of Frank’s comedy adds up to making one feel a little lesser.

28514724_10157160314724838_3180087440204844665_oThe second stand-up show of the night was Krish Mohan’s Empathy on Sale. Like Frank, Mohan also takes an intellectual approach, albeit more political in slant. However, Mohan is clearly more at ease than Frank. Mohan engages the audience with self-referential sideline commentary about their responses (or lack thereof), which dissolves boundaries and encourages easy laughter.

Mohan offers satirical commentary on the immigrant experience having come to the U.S. from India when he was 8. He reminds us of our biases as he addresses common questions like “Where is your accent?” Mohan helps us stand ever so slightly outside of our American box in considering the screwy nature of rampant capitalism. This is memorably evidenced by his family excitedly whisking his 68-year old grandmother off to a mall when she visits the U.S. from India for the first time.

While Mohan and his family have only been in the U.S. for 20 years, he dismally notes his father is a rabid follower of FOX News and regularly rails against the Hispanic immigrant influx. Ironically, it seems we quickly morph into fierce protectionists of our adopted home, ready to erect walls now that we’re here. It reminded me of living in California and people complaining about newcomers overcrowding the state when they themselves had only been there for a few years. Yet, this behavior is as old as America itself. Mohan quotes a journal entry from Christopher Columbus noting the native population will be easy to subjugate because they are welcoming and not technologically advanced. Ah, Amurika!

vanlife-201801-3x3-webjpgSqueezed between these two stand-up routines in the Unitarian church basement was the runaway sensation of the night, New Vintage Ensemble’s #vanlife. In this piece, Casey and Kimmie are two gay millennials in search of both escape and the meaning of their lives. They look to accomplish this by stripping down beyond the small house movement to its more extreme cousin – van culture. Participation in this movement will theoretically allow them to travel as freely as dandelion fluff on a breeze.

The show opens with hilariously fresh and cutting banter. It stays in sync, never missing a beat. The two friends nitpick at each other like an old married couple as they prep to record a YouTube video with the proper balance of humor (a chipper rattling of the van’s name: Jean-Claude Damme Van – or is it Van Damme? Damn!), hand gestures, charm and of course, product placement as they attempt to monetize their journeys. The quest to capture that perfect seamless, inspiring, breezy moment is peeled back to reveal a fiction. The show cracks open the wide delta in life between upbeat social media portrayals and the palpable realities of life as it is. For instance, Casey notes #vanlife pictures on social media are in meadows and on beaches, not in the Walmart parking lots where they actually congregate.

Of course, this delta isn’t limited to Casey and Kimmie. The very existence of the phrase “Facebook life” points to the fact that social media portrayals are not reflective of everyday reality. It’s a shiny final image with the right filter that elides the mess and muck along the way. Miserable and grumpy, Casey and Kimmie sideline into a debate on the relative merits of truckstop showers, before roping it back in and plastering on fake smiles for the YouTube camera. They’re combative, picking at each other with ease and an underpinning of affection worn by the trials of travel.

Kimmie wears an orange V-neck sweater and patterned LuLaRoe leggings. She decries that her life has just become “about managing people’s expectations of me.” She says it like it makes her unique. In fact, it illustrates her lack of self-awareness on the general human condition. These apparently oppressive expectations stifle her ability to figure out who she really is, so Kimmie does a past-life reading. In learning who she’s been, perhaps she’ll figure out who she is. Like any past-life reading worth its salt, her past turns out to have been far more intriguing than her present. This disconnect seems to provide the inspirational spark for her vanlife venture, and she successfully campaigns to have Casey join her.

Throughout the show, the two actors stand only a few feet apart, but they never look at each other. In fact, they’re mostly on a slight diagonal away from each other as if each is standing in the middle of an angry face emoji eyebrow painted on the floor. Casey and Kimmie literalize social media’s tendency to look downward or outward, but not inward and never making eye contact. Our laughter is underpinned with a recognition of ourselves.

Check out the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival site for more information on their shows.

Fringe Festival in Three Shows

This is only my second year seeing Fringe Fest shows, but I feel like I’m already a pro at it. For instance, this year I didn’t get lost trying to find St. Mary’s Lyceum, and once I walked inside I didn’t think twice about the small bar filled with smoke and people who would rather watch football than a play and showed it by speaking to the people sitting right next to them loud enough that you could keep up with their entire conversation while watching the performance in the back. This is only slightly a negative; it makes the festival feel familiar and local, and it nice to be able to grab a beer before a show if you’re into that sorta thing.

leahy-fringe_origThe first show I saw was Are You There Margaret? It’s Me, God! downstairs at St. Mary’s, so I didn’t get to hear the spillover from the bar, just a little thumping from the show upstairs. The Rude Cutlet Theater Company presented a show featuring two actors standing before the audience and reading from their scripts, so I’d call it a dramatic reading more than a one act play. Margaret, the character from Judy Blume’s famous novel, read her diary out loud. We got to hear about her crush on the teacher, her obsession with breasts, and the first time she got her period. Her diary was filled with actual excerpts from the book and additions to make the material more modern and call out the completely inappropriate material that makes you wonder how this was ever an acceptable book for teenagers. God, the character from the Bible and seemingly some dimension where you can work your way into achieving deity status in this particular rendition of the character, answered Margaret with sassy comebacks and complete horror at the more yikes-worthy parts. Although Margaret could not hear God’s answers.

There were lots of good parts in this show. A lot of the material was funny, and certainly relatable to the ladies in the audience. The concept of looking at material from decades ago and pointing out how problematic it is really makes for great entertainment. However, many of the jokes felt forced or were delivered oddly. Sometimes I was cringing at the diary entries, sometimes at the missed attempt at humor. It seems like this play could be amazing if it was just cleaned up a bit. But they should definitely keep the hamburger bit. That was pure comedy gold.

voa-poster-3x3Next, I moved on to a church in another part of the North Side for Voice of Authority. Much less smoke and beer (by that I mean none). When I arrived, I found Dean Temple, the writer and performer of this one man show, playing his guitar to the small audience. I thought he’d started early, but it turned out he was just performing his own house music. He used this to launch his show from the final song, which was a unique way of beginning the show. Temple certainly liked to keep the audience on its toes. The show itself was Temple telling a story, supposedly a true story of things that really happened to him, about how he went from the performing arts to making more money than he knew what to do with to being sued by the Department of Justice for $19 million and back to the arts again. This is all set up with the audience playing the part of therapist so he can talk his story and feelings out, often referencing the internal voice of authority that makes him make questionable choices.

The story was interesting, and Temple’s performance was well rehearsed. He changed mannerisms and vocals for the different characters that he was using, which helped to keep the story from being too confusing. It was still confusing, as it jumped around a lot and Temple’s high energy kept him bouncing around the stage. The lights were weird too, and the fact that they changed with certain moods and not others made it seem very avant-garde where I didn’t feel it needed to. If nothing else, the show was entertaining, and it was a story likely to be unique to everyone who hears it.

pittsburghfringewebsite_1_origBack to St. Mary’s for Falkland: The War the World Forgot, and upstairs this time so the multimedia and actors of Tasty Monster Productions had to work hard to keep the audience’s attention on them. They succeeded, and I was completely drawn into this story that was based on true events of a war that I’d never heard of. Which was the point in the telling of the story. The company used film to show what was happening in the world during this war in the Falkland Islands in Britain, along with recordings of interviews and newscasts, and photos of the actual war and aftermath. There were two actors- one who played a sheep farmer and one who split time playing a young soldier stationed on the farmer’s land and also the farmer’s wife in other scenes. It was a compelling story, showing how the war affected not only those who were fighting in it but also the civilians whose land was compromised during this time.

Heather and Luke, the company founders and the players in the show, did an excellent job of story telling and portraying the different characters. It was easy to feel their anxiety and fear, and it was easy to find yourself rooting for these characters that you’d barely met. And the sheep, which we got to see in some of the photos. This show made me want to learn more about this war, and the trouble it caused for the natives of the island. And that should be considered a win for this company. It was a really nice way for me to close out my festival experience.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here.

Fringe Day 3: St. Mary’s Lyceum: Part 2

pgh-fringe-website-photoLocal Pittsburgh buskers, Sean Miller and Kristin Ward are The Daring Douglasses. If you have been to any Pittsburgh events over the past couple decades, you most likely have seen them, a large crowd standing in a circle, watching with eyes wide and mouths gaping open in awe.   Fire eating, sword swallowing and lying on a bed of nails are incredible feats and sometimes hard to watch, but watch we must and this is evident by the crowd of people, sitting anxiously, awaiting the show to begin.

The first part of the title, Straw, Mud and Old Boards refers to the seating available at carnivals, festivals, and fairs; the venues The Daring Douglasses perform most often.  Over the course of the show, Miller and Ward colorfully recount their most memorable experiences up and down the United States from the Eastern Seaboard to the Mississippi and everywhere in between.

I think the audience expected to see the team perform some of their most daring acts; bursting, otherwise known as blowing huge, big balls of fire or swallowing fire or swords.  Unfortunately, due to insurance issues, these death defying displays of fearlessness were prohibited.  This did not prevent the dynamic duo from sharing plenty of stories and a few select tricks.  The most well received escapade demonstrated is not for the squeamish; the “Human Blockhead”.  Miller began his presentation by asking an audience member to choose a nail from a box of nails. Then he requested someone examine a hammer and confirm it is a standard, regular old hammer.  Next, Miller casually used the hammer to insert the nail into his nose.  Many in the audience turned their heads, but only slightly, so they could still see Miller extract the nail from his nostril with the claw end.   Ward, demonstrated the same trick using a glow stick.  The audience, clearly relieved she did not choose a nail,  but every bit as impressed.  These stunts earned several gasps followed by vigorous applause from the audience.

Miller and Ward primarily entertain at popular festivals, fairs, and carnivals but they are also engaging storytellers.  

Through a carefully planned narrative, they each tell their own stories; how they found their calling as sideshow performers, performances that were less than successful as well as some of their favorite showcases.

I  enjoyed this show.  I loved the storytelling and hearing about the history leading up to the forming of the troupe.  As a Pittsburgher, I have seen The Daring Douglasses perform at least one dozen times.  I think the concept of Straw, Mud and Old Boards is a crafty way to promote themselves and share their art despite the limitations due to the provisions set forth by the Fringe Festival;  and for good reason.   For just one second, imagine the liability associated with a fully bearded man, eating fire, in the back room of a bar on Pittsburgh’s Northside!

Audience members who have not witnessed The Daring Douglasses performance in full, Straw, Mud and Old Boards should whet your appetite for good old fashioned sideshow.

bbshakespeare_1Rounding out my Fringe Festival tour for Pittsburgh in the Round, is a witty performance by Pittsburgh’s Brawling Bard Theater, Shakespeare Annotated.  Written Alan Irvine, with help from William Shakespeare and performed by a company of extraordinary actors. The showcase begins with a brief introduction from Irvine, explaining the plot; actors deliver classic Shakespeare scenes and monologues while an expert librarian sits off to the side, prepared to provide footnotes when necessary.  He introduces the first performance, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1.  Alex, with her long flowing dark hair takes the stage and without warning begins reciting Sonnet 18.  The cast is quick to interrupt.  Alex insists, the sonnet is her favorite piece.  Everyone agrees it is a lovely sonnet- but despite her earnest attempt to persuade, the show continues with Hamlet.  I must say, being the most recognized Shakespeare play next to Romeo and Juliet, and despite attempted comedic elements the launch of the show fell short with Hamlet. The most memorable moments come from the apt and presumptuous ‘librarian’ sitting quietly with her nose in the books, barking out exceptional interpretation, whenever she felt it was needed.   By the second arrangement,  As You Like It, Act 2, scene 7, the cast seems to have warmed up and the show gets livelier.  I was relieved to see and hear some of the initial rigidity in the actors voices and movements melt away.   A genuine and more professional production emerged and it was almost an a-ha moment for the audience collectively once we figured out the entire show is a farce.  By the time A Winter’s Tale is presented, more props are introduced and the is loving the levity bestowed upon the classics.  With the presentation of As You Like It, we discover the world’s first flushing toilet. In The Winter’s Tale, Act 3 scene 3, a bear races through the theater.  The footnotes included in the introduction of Much Ado About Nothing, had the audience in stitches.  Alex’s second attempt to present her favorite sonnet was a small fiasco and the zany, knife fighting scene from Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 1, is expertly directed by Tonya Lynn, adding another layer of theatrical expertise to the company’s exhibition.

What began as a weak and lackluster program ended with cheers and smiles from both the cast and audience.

I read my fair share of Shakespeare in high school and college and I’ve seen several Shakespeare productions, of varying degrees, performed live, but none that compare to Shakespeare Annotated. The cast is energetic and invested in their roles, but it is the originality of the script that really won me over.   Shakespeare Annotated is not assigned reading in English 101, but probably should be.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival click here.

Fringe Day 3: St. Mary’s Lyceum: Part 1

logo_1_origChildren of Heaven produced by Laugh/ Riot Performing Arts Company Is pertinent following the #metoo movement currently storming media.  Before the performance begins I am greeted by a woman wearing all white.  She shook my hand, thanked me for coming, then stated, “We hope the message fills you”.

Children of Heaven is performed in 2 acts, by students from Edinboro and California State Universities. The show unfolds as each woman, dressed in white, shares a personal narrative about sexual assault, harassment and victim blaming followed by a statement of gratitude to Lilith for rescuing them from a wicked and crumbling society.  Each woman has an experience of abuse and a need for healing.  Their stories are not unique, but each actor delivers an honest account wrought with emotional agony, remorse, disdain and shame.  You can’t help but feel the ugliness they convey.  The casts tributes to Lilith evolve from a culture supportive and nurturing to all women, a family who lives apart from mainstream society.  In other words, they are members of a cult, led by Lilith. Lilith has convinced these women they could not function happily, at peace, nor should they want to, outside of the society.

Act 2 features Lucy, a young woman who has left the cult.  Per the request of her parents, Lucy is being interviewed by Harvey.  He has been hired by Lucy’s parents, to integrate her back into society and reunite her with her biological family.  Lucy is angry and not at all receptive to conversation.  She portrays a ‘feminazi’ type character who wants nothing more than to take down Harvey and will try at all costs.

It’s clear Children of Heaven is an attempt to raise awareness of important issues such as rape culture, victim blaming and patriarchy, but the script does very little to support feminism in a beneficial manner.  The cast is sincere in dramatic representation of characters ultimately the message falls short of being supportive of women, men or feminism. I get it, not all endings have to be happy but the message here could easily be misconstrued and that is not helpful for anyone.

img-7386-web-2-cecilia-takes-lolipop-from-wyatt_origWho- Ha is a cluster of chaos.  Choreographed by Anthony Alterio, faculty member of the University of Kentucky, Who- Ha is a performance art piece which begins and ends in an intense explosion of untamed energy.  The show begins when the performers pass out index cards to audience members.  Each card has a question written on it that the audience is expected to answer.  After writing your response, a troupe member takes the card from you, reads the question and answer aloud in front of the audience. Then the performer snatches a piece of tape from off of a poster board, sticks the tape to the back of the card and slaps the card onto another performer.  This is done within a matter of minutes. The girls run at high speed, read quickly and zigzag about the performance space with no perceived direction, appearing disorganized and out of control. Once all of the index cards have all been collected and the questions and answers presented aloud, the dancers line up in front of the audience with pieces of tape and index cards dangling from their hair, shoulders and backs.  The props begin to fall off the girls, dropping to the floor, scattering across their feet and I kept wondering, how are they going to dance with all that stuff on the floor?  In this instance, dance is subjective.  There is movement, some clearly choreographed.  There is music too, but for most of the performance there is so much happening on stage simultaneously;  each performer moving in a different direction, some standing on their feet, some rolling on the ground, while another runs aimlessly or dances on top of a box. I really struggled to follow what was happening; I didn’t know where to look, or whom to watch.  I felt lost and confused.

The Fringe program synopsis reads, “Who- Ha is a performance dance piece that showcases feminine hygiene, feminine characteristics and feminine oppositions in pop culture”.

I typically enjoy performance art and I enjoy dance performances. Unfortunately, I think Who- Ha missed the mark.  The direction was far too scattered for me to appreciate Mr. Alterio’s choreography nor could I extract any of the aforementioned themes from the movements or music.  

* As I reflect back, a day later, I realize, I initially felt the subject matter being presented was lost in translation, but perhaps, this is Who- Ha’s point.  Sometimes, after experiencing a piece of art, it takes a day or two for all I saw, heard or felt to sink in.  I’m still mulling this one over.  Who- Ha is definitely left up to audience interpretation.

Ballet, Puppets, Memories, and Marxism: Fringe Day 3

This year, my first day of Fringe was my last day, but it was no less of an experience than last year’s.  My first show was Bobby’s Ballet Lessons in the basement of the Unitarian Church.  Coming in at fifteen minutes, it’s the shortest play I have seen at Pittsburgh Fringe, but it still tells a fairly complete story.  We meet Bobby and Leah who are two eight-year-olds in a dance studio where Bobby’s mom signs him up for ballet lessons with Leah’s mom, the instructor.  The children immediately befriend one another, and Leah doesn’t mind that Bobby is nonverbal and stims when frustrated or excited.  Leah’s mother seems more reserved but still teaches him, and we see the children grown and dancing ten years later at their final recital.

evening-of-creativity-006_origThe child actors are a joy to watch, and not just for the cute factor many bigger productions exploit.  They connect and present a genuine moment of childhood friendship.  Most scenes are short and punctuated by a blackout at the end of each one.  While this lends an effect of taking a snapshot of the characters’ lives, some scenes feel too brief to provide a full sense of who everyone is.  More to the point, we never get to know Bobby.  After the first scene establishing his autism, the rest of the characterization goes to Leah.  Rather than allowing Bobby his own personhood and growth, he becomes a lesson for Leah.  Kindness can make a huge difference in our lives, but what does it do for Bobby?  Leah even asks her mother, “Will he be okay?” as if he has no chance of independence.  Theatre needs more autistic representation, but we must also be mindful of how that representation serves that community.

kyle-bounderThe second show taking place in the same space, Bounder the Rescue Dog, by Puppets in Performance addresses a similar theme, but brings it to a child’s level using puppets and songs.  They tell the story of Kyle, a boy struggling with ADHD, who desperately wants to adopt an abandoned stray named Bounder, who has been surviving on the streets.  Both Kyle and Bounder face down bullies: an obnoxious girl, Clarissa, and a fanged and scarred bruiser, Zig-zag.  Meanwhile, Kyle’s mom fights for fair treatment at school.  The brochures Kyle’s math teacher hands to her illustrate the lack of understanding and options for children with learning impairments.  The story pushes the idea that Kyle getting a dog will solve his problems, but that is hard to believe.  A therapy dog can help, but it is no cure for his disability.

Puppets are the perfect medium and give kids a way into what can be a difficult topic.  The actor/puppet combo behind Zig-zag was one of the strongest performances.  Both were equally animated and committed to the character.  Most of the other actors’ facial expressions were very animated, but it didn’t quite come through the puppet.  The ending also felt abrupt and just a little too good to be true, with a missing Bounder suddenly showing up at Kyle’s house and his combative mother giving a blasé “Okay” to the dog being in her son’s room.  This is probably not an issue for a younger audience who may be just happy to see dog and boy finally together.

marxinsoho72dpi3x3l_2I moved upstairs to see Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn by Iron Age Theatre’s Bob Weick, which requires some contextualization that doesn’t touch on the show itself.  Everywhere I found it, the show was scheduled for a 4:00 curtain.  After waiting a surprising amount of time with no sign of the show starting, I finally found out it would start at 4:30.  No sign or notice was posted outside the space.  After a long surprise wait in a hard pew, I was a little less than disposed to give the show my full attention when it began and it eventually made it difficult to pay attention at the end.

That being said, Marx in Soho by Howard Zinn was most definitely not geared for children like Bounder.  As Karl Marx recounts most of his life in monologue to the audience, there are moments inappropriate for kids, but it mostly delves into a lot of material that is over kids’ heads – some of it even over mine.  That’s not to say I can’t follow Marx’s arguments, but he tends to drop more historically obscure names without explaining.  There is an expectation of knowledge when he should very well know our capitalist society doesn’t allow socialism to be taught in classes without demonizing it.  The performance tends toward a lecture, with many smug asides about how our world can’t be as backwards as his was (as we well know it is), and then going on to explain how we are still backwards (which we already know).  However, he managed to stir my emotions with the line, “To be radical is to grasp the root of the problem.”  In a world where commodities and CEOs are king, loving and respecting your fellow human beings unconditionally are the most radical things you can do.

mg-6468-brochure-2_origAnd funnily enough, the last show of my night, Come as You Are, a group from Rochester, NY, does just that.  Taking more of an open-mic route rather than a traditional play performance, four storytellers got up and recounted a memory from their lives, often deeply personal in some way or another.  I feel it wrong to tell any of their stories for them, but I think I can safely mention a funny story that involves mud with ants in it passed off as chocolate ice cream.  They invite audience members up with their own stories at the end and they gently tease you into taking part.  It was a sweet and relaxing end to the day and the best example of theatre creating community and acceptance.

For more information about the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, click here.

A Fringe Bookend

The last day of Fringe felt much like the first…with one major difference. After spending the first two days at St Mary’s Lyceum I was happy to have a change of venue. At this point a description of the differences between this year’s two Fringe spaces would benefit no one. We’ll let it rest at the fact that Unitarian Church is just that, a church, wooden pews and all. The forced aesthetic reverence, the associations from my childhood were all present during the first of my evening viewings.

fredhampton72dpi3x3To My Unborn Child: A Love Letter From Fred Hampton was one of the most powerful pieces I saw over the weekend. As a political choice the story of the Black Panthers is hyper-relevant. Contemporary activist and conscious communities of various shades are finding new links to and resonance with the stories of the Panthers, COINTELPRO (the counterintelligence operation that essentially murdered and jailed a generation of powerful black leadership in our country), community defense and cooperative programs. Those stories have a lot to teach us about what it means to struggle and how to go about fighting for change in a world that wants to divide and conquer, and is highly skilled at it.

During the performance Richard Bradford reaches out from the 60’s and incorporates some of the strong physical imagery that we (somewhat incorrectly) associate with movements of our current time. The show reminds the audience that black bodies lying in pools of blood at the hand of police, that black hands in the air, and that anger at the politics of older black leaders spans decades of struggle. Bradford personalizes Hampton’s story beautifully. There is a central choice that opens the play wherein Hampton is laying in a pool of his own blood staining his bedsheet. The blood stained sheet remains front and center for the entirety of the performance and acts as not just a reminder of the end of one person’s life, but also used at one point as the blood of community in which Hampton both politically and personally shrouds himself, and at another point as the blood of his living son with a dire political tone.

As an actor Bradford has the energy and skill to hold us for the entire show, no small feat for such an energetic performance. We are invited into the passion, sadness, and community of Hampton’s vision. I was reminded of another performer, Roger Guenveur Smith, who did a similar show in the late nineties, but at that time embodied Huey P. Newton. If you don’t get a chance at some point to see Richard Bradford’s performance I would suggest you watch Spike Lee’s recording of Smith’s, A Huey P. Newton Story. I didn’t get a chance to ask if Bradford had been influenced by this production, but I find the act of embodying historical political personages as a brilliant device for communicating radical political thought through the very flesh, blood, and emotive tissue of humanness. In radical struggle there is a deep love, for self and for others.

voa-poster-3x3The last show of my short Fringe career was Dean Temple’s, A Voice of Authority. Over the course of the performance Temple literally asks us to be his personal shrink, calling the audience Doc, as in, “Hey, doc, what do you think about this…”. We are asked to evaluate two lives, one of a person who struggled for something he didn’t care about, and one who struggled to attain a clear dream. Temple’s piece is based on a true story, and the details embedded within the performance feel like they couldn’t be entirely made up by anyone. The titular voice of authority is one that can lead us toward a false sense of safety. It does not hold our, or Temple’s, true desires at heart. In the end there is not a major reveal or conclusion other than, hey, we just gotta keep trying.

That theme bookended my fringe experience. My first show of the weekend was Michael Marino’s piece, Show Up, which had a similar core sense of itself. So like I said, I left Fringe as I had begun.

No Matter Where You Go, There You Are – Fringe Day 2

My second day at the Fringe was spent at two locations: St. Mary’s Lyceum and Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church. It takes between 20 to 30 minutes to walk between the two locations, so, depending on the weather, the time of day, and the time in between the shows you are seeing, this can be a nice opportunity to take a break, get some fresh air, and enjoy some of Allegheny Commons North Park.

The second day of the Fringe was a social justice movement tsunami of new works, with a little bit of silliness thrown in to help weather the storm. It makes me wish I could have seen every single show that Fringe has to offer, to see if this searching, pushing, floundering, reaching demand for a better way of doing things, a clearer direction, was a universal undercurrent throughout the festival, or if I just got lucky with the performances I attended.

mg-6468-brochure-2_origCome As You Are is not so much a performance as a group storytelling session. The stories are personal, real-life accounts of the struggle to fit in, to achieve outside approval, the tolls taken, and the lessons learned. It’s very intimate. It’s unvarnished, honest, and brave.

From a theatrical perspective, it’s really not much of a “performance.” This group of presenters seems new to the art of oral storytelling, though many of them have a background in radio and writing. There are no carefully crafted narratives, no weaving together of images and ideas, no surprise revelations or attempts at creating memorable characters inside their tales. Instead, there are unvarnished, unrehearsed confessionals, offered up to the audience by non-performers, much more self-conscious and unsure than seasoned professional storytellers or actors would ever be. And yet, I was moved by their vulnerability.

Come As You Are often felt like a group therapy session, as opposed to a theatrical presentation, and I have very strong feelings against theater as therapy. There is theater. And there is therapy. Both can elicit enlightenment and catharsis, but theater is primarily an external vehicle of entertainment, while therapy is a private attempt at personal growth and healing. I don’t approve of mixing the two worlds. And yet, I was caught up in the glimpses into these presenter’s lives and grateful to get to know them.

At the end of the planned presentations, the collective opened up the floor for audience members to share stories of their own experiences, and, surprisingly, gratifyingly, several individuals did just that. So, there we all were, complete strangers, in the dark, sharing intimate moments from each other’s lives. It was really rather beautiful, and…therapeutic.

Next up for me: Tentacles, a two-person production grappling with female sexuality, fantasy, power, and, worse, disempowerment.

tentaclespghfringeshowgraphicwebTentacles is hands down the best production I saw during my time at the Fringe. It is well written, wonderfully performed and directed. It is intellectual, emotional, titillating, fascinating, unapologetic, surprising, funny, horrifying. I really hope this production gets more performances, all over the country. It’s just that good.

Written by Tessa Flannery (who also plays the lead character) with direction by Rebecca Cunningham, Tentacles is initially framed as a lecture on feminist ravishment fantasies in relation to pornography and the depiction of female rape given by “grad student” Tessa. The lecture itself is really interesting and informative. In fact, I would love to have a bibliography identifying the source materials used in the research of this piece. In the midst of this lecture, Tessa often grapples with her own personal fantasies, depicted with great humor by Ms. Flannery. These fantasies interweave with the subject at hand, challenging her professional, clinical self-representation.

To complicate matters further, Tess is confronted by Chris (played by Chris Fayne), a former college friend, now porn actor, who confronts, criticizes, and demeans Tessa and her work. The confrontation slowly devolves from debate to sexual overture to an assault that leaves Tessa incoherent and almost speechless. Her voice has been stopped; her power subverted. It is a disturbing and deeply resonant moment that looks the audience squarely in the eye and demands we not be complicit, that we stay alert, and that we take action when it is needed. It was a truly electrifying production.

The minor problems with the show do not ultimately take away from its final impact. Tessa Flannery’s performance is much stronger and skillful than Chris Fayne’s, though Chris is completely committed and willing to take the fall as the “bad guy.” The character of Chris is a bit of a straw man, since there is literally nothing likable about the guy from word one. So, while the characters’ interactions honor the complexity of the issue at hand, the antagonist himself does not. And the idea that a man would be allowed to hijack a public lecture in the way that Chris does without intervention by the audience or venue security is a bit unrealistic. It’s worth suspending one’s disbelief in order to engage with the material, but I expect there is a writing fix for this weird plot anomaly.

Regardless, this is truly an amazing piece of theater. You should see it, more than once, if possible.

28514724_10157160314724838_3180087440204844665_oComedian Krish Mohan continued the call for social justice in his standup performance called Empathy on Sale. I liked Mr. Mohan. I mean, I don’t actually know him personally, but his style of comedy is gentle, kind. He does, indeed, seem empathetic to his fellow human beings. So, he can address social justice issues like racism, immigration law, and political extremism, and, even if you don’t agree with all of his observations, you can appreciate his sense of humor and his genuine empathy. I thoroughly enjoyed my time listening to Mr. Mohan’s comedic observations, and I’d love to meet both his parents and Uncle Marv(?); they sound like really interesting people.

IMG_0159Finally, there was #vanlife, written, performed and directed by Kimmie Leff and Casey Thomas. I admit to being entertained by this witty, fast-paced theater piece, if a little put off by the relentless snarkiness of its characters. They were funny, after all, just really, really irritating; heck, they didn’t seem to like each other most of the time either. Which may have been the point.

#vanlife was the perfect show with which to end my Fringe experience, since it’s a show about people trying to escape. Escape the complexities of the modern world. Get away from everyday disappointments. Get away from adulthood. Hit the road. Be free!

Anyone over the age of 15 has had this fantasy. Only, instead of motorcycles à la Easy Rider, it’s retrofitted vans. And, instead of just fantasizing about it, our characters actually do it. They give up most of their worldly possessions, pack up their van, and start driving, searching for….what, something…some ineffable thing. And they are sure, based on all the cool Instagram posts from other van-life practitioners, that their world will be full of romance, peace, beauty – all the stuff their real life lacks.

And yet, in their determination to leave behind all of the trappings of their trapped lives, these modern day Kerouacs can’t seem to break away from their need for a good Wifi connection. After all, what is life? What is adventure? If it can’t be documented on Facebook or Instagram? Their flight towards freedom is also hampered by the, irritatingly always present, practical needs of life – money, food, shower facilities, a legal place to park their van. The vicissitudes of life on the road quickly begin to wear on our intrepid pair. Until, disillusioned (van-life does not solve all our problems, does not lead to enlightenment, much less good toilet paper supplies), our duo decides to expose the seedy truth of van-life with their own behind-the-lies posts on Facebook, et. al.

As their followers grow, the two find themselves monetizing their feeds, until they too are part of the conspiracy, posting pics and promoting products online, instead of truly pursuing self-improvement or that all illusive enlightenment. In the end, Kimmie and Casey just decide to go back home, à la Dorothy Gale this time. The answers aren’t “out there” somewhere, self-understanding cannot be manufactured, you can’t run away from your adulthood.

I found the commentary on our modern obsession with social media resonant. And that aching longing for….something….poignant. However, I felt like the performances were a bit stale; these folks know this show inside and out, and it didn’t feel like they were really present with the audience for the performance. I also totally did not understand why the actors never looked at each other!? I did not get whatever message this was supposed to convey. At all. Unless their disconnection as actors on stage was supposed to reflect their disconnection as characters? I don’t know. It bugged me. And maybe that was the point.

Anyway, #vanlife inspires me to always remember: “No matter where you go, there you are.” à la Buckaroo Bonzai.

The Fifth Annual Pittsburgh Fringe Festival unfortunately ends today but if you’d like to learn more about Fringe click here.