The Goodbye Girl

goodbyeYoung Americans are fascinated by other young Americans struggling and making it in New York City. At times, it feels like every sitcom on television is some variation of this plot. Millennials, more than any generation, are obsessed with the grit and grime behind that fantasy. Girls can afford to rent a living room and a half because of their upper middle class privilege, whereas Friends pleasantly enjoy entire coffee shops and spacious two bedroom apartments. Aziz Ansari sacrifices his acting career to host a reality show, whereas Jerry Seinfeld’s life is so quietly successful I’m not entirely sure he’s ever so much as frowned onscreen. Yadda yadda yadda.

The Theatre Factory’s The Goodbye Girl, therefore, appeals to just about everybody. Based on the 70’s film of the same name written by Neil Simon, the musical follows Paula McFadden (Chelsea Bartel), a struggling single mother who is bounced from relationship to relationship by actors eager for a quick thrill. Her career as a dancer on television – the kind of dancer that peps up TV advertisements for dietary supplements – yields similar results.

The musical opens with Paula once more on the outs. Her latest ex left unceremoniously in the night and rented out their apartment to fellow actor Elliot Garfield (Nick Mitchell), who is more or less a total jerk. But Paula isn’t alone: Lucy (Amelia Bender), Paula’s wise-beyond-her-years preteen daughter, is a more adult figure than any of Paula’s prior flings.

The struggle is real, in other words, and the first act is almost merciless in how few wins it allows Paula. The Theatre Factory’s latest is in some ways a reminder of how much popular perception of struggling in the big city has changed. Being a production of a Neil Simon script it is relentlessly positive, but thanks to the energetic sarcasm of its performers it also feels in line with more contemporary comedy-dramas.

However, some subplots that worked as funny goofs in the 1970s play different in the 2010s. Elliot – who we are unsurprised to see develop into Paula’s latest love interest – shows up late in the night to the McFadden’s apartment, makes it clear he can legally evict his newfound roommates at any point, and quickly makes good on his promise that he likes walking around his apartment in the nude. With a young girl around.

I can’t entirely blame the source material on my discomfort with the character here. Nick Mitchell doesn’t soften Elliot’s edge so much as sharpens it, and in another play could be framed as a scary dude. Chelsea Bartel’s Paula, meanwhile, is in a perpetual state of emotional exhaustion, but always feels like she’s ready to give the audience a laugh. She’s a very grin-and-bare-it type, but her pain is visible all the same. There is a moment in the second act in which Elliot’s entire career is put at risk during a disastrous performance as a multi-gendered Richard III. We’re meant to be enjoying his misfortune, but even in such a humbling moment The Goodbye Girl seems to be insisting we reframe Elliot as a beleaguered eccentric worth cheering for. I wasn’t sold, and therefore never fully bought into the romance between the two.

More believable is Paula’s relationship with Lucy. Amelia Bender performs Lucy with a fun mix of earnest spirit and a touch of early onset irony, making her a perfect fit. Bartel plays Paula like a woman who caught on fire a minute ago and is the last one to realize it. She bleeds imperfection, but we never question her determination to make a good life for Lucy, and as a result have an easy time laughing along.

I can’t help but feel The Goodbye Girl is tonally inconsistent. I’ve seen Mitchell before, as an aggrieved survivor in a production of The Birds, and found his ability to be a caring partner one minute and an angry mess the next unsettling in how believable it was. I believe him here, too. I’ve seen Bartel’s work at The Theatre Factory before during a production of Next To Normal, where she played a mother suffering from schizophrenia. I saw it with a friend whose parent was afflicted by a similar condition, and the performance shook her. What I’m saying is, these are good performers, but the tone of the show changes depending who is taking center stage. If it’s Mitchell, it’s the New York City from Girls; if it’s Bartel, it’s the New York City from Friends.

The dissonance is only exacerbated by The Goodbye Girl’s musicality, which was uneven during the show’s premier. Mitchell nailed the Richard III fiasco, which is the play’s greatest scene. He really leans into Elliot’s narcissism and his constant, desperate asides to stage hands and ridiculous physicality really sells the moment. Placed next to Bartel’s doe-eyed optimism and bright, dynamic vocals, however, Elliot needs to shift hard towards warmth, or perhaps Paula needs to learn harder into the playful sarcasm from earlier scenes.

The Theatre Factory’s The Goodbye Girl can be uplifting, and I found myself wanting to escape into Scott Calhoon’s colorful, Hollywood soundstage-esque set design. True to life, however, the world it’s built around is too erratic to be fantasy.

The Goodbye Girl runs at The Theatre Factory in Trafford through September 24. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Jekyll and Hyde

20108255_1597843823593695_7924084507636953916_nThere is something to be said for the succulent, somewhat indulgent wave of hyper-camp that is necessary to successfully execute a musical adapted from seemingly unfitting source material. Musicals like Carrie, Batboy!: The Musical, Heathers and others of that ilk must evoke and maintain a certain degree of precise ludicrousness and poignancy to be enjoyable (or even bearable). The cast and crew responsible for McKeesport Little Theater’s musical adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde—originally conceived by Frank Wildhorn and Steve Cuden for the stage based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s infamous novella “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”—are certainly aware of the level of camp necessary for reproducing something as absurd as a melodramatically symphonic, at times vaudevillian, reconstruction of a story of the prototype “mad” scientist on his blind quest to reveal humanity’s dichotomous spirit. While on the whole enjoyable and self-reflexive, some of the finer points of the execution could have been strengthened in the staging.

Certainly, the musical, as is the case with the book, is heavily dependent on strong individual performances that give life to characters who are intensely caricatured. Director Edward Bostedo clearly took this to heart, making sure characters like Jekyll/Hyde, Spider, Lucy Harris, and the lecherous Minister were illuminated in extraordinarily seedy light. Eric Sciulli, responsible for playing the dangerously transcendentalist titular doctor, is very aware of the dramaturgical task he is beset with—and his impressive vocal range and power helps to give the doctor an air of unbridled passion that makes the familiar character feel unique. Additionally, Randi Walker, portraying the sex worker Lucy Harris (a character that is woefully sublimated in most iterations of the story) is an absolute scene stealer. Having seen Walker in other performances, it was by no means a surprise to be thrilled by her impassioned performance, but she truly did revitalize some of the slower moments of the play. At times, the play would rely too heavily on hackneyed or absurdist performances or quirks rather than character development or cohesion, but a great deal of credit should be given to the ensemble interactions and the expertise of the stage manager, Elizabeth Civello, and director and other crew members for guiding these interactions from behind the scenes. Set designer Edward Bostedo deserves a tremendous amount of credit for capitalizing on a very small, fairly limiting space and creating entire, compelling settings on a macro and micro scale in each scene.

Jekyll & Hyde at times falls short of the balance of consistent preposterousness and subtle poignancy that is necessary to keep the play going on all cylinders at all moments. That being said, the actors and crew impressively translate the essence of the source material while adding their distinct flair to the show that captures the audience and highlights their individual talents. The play shows promise for the ongoing caliber for the staggering 57th season of McKeesport Little Theatre.

Jekyll & Hyde runs at the McKeesport Little Theater through September 24th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

PNWF 2017: Program C

PNWF LOGOThe 27th season of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival at Carnegie Stage continues with a trio of new one-act plays in Program C.

The first show is Julie Zaffarano’s Destiny is a Careless Waiter, as presented by R-ACT Productions. The stage is set with two café tables. Flowing red tablecloths drape the tables like melted red wax on the sides of a Chianti bottle. Champagne flutes on each table reinforce this is a destination of romance.

destinyOf course, things are not always what they appear. However, the romantic restaurant seems fitting when the show opens with the high-pitched squeals of Bria (Brittany Bara). She shrieks with excitement after discovering a ring atop her dessert. Bria possessively pushes on the ring, not even pausing for her newly betrothed to slip it on, extending her arm and admiring her finger, all while rattling on incessantly. Her new fiancé, Justin (Spencer Whale), looks befuddled, and one suspects he’s just the inert type.

It’s an intimate restaurant where tables almost kiss. The couple at the next table reacts to the engagement. The man (Sean, played by Travis Ascione) finds it sweet and tries cajoling his girlfriend (Emily, played by Carley Adams) into the same response. Emily’s nonstop texting and cynical eyeroll indicate she is not impressed by the trite textbook proposal. Beyond that, she casts dubious glances at Bria, clearly finding her overzealous reaction extreme.

While it’s a play of couples, the women assume the primary roles, and their costuming establishes them as opposites. Emily is tall and willowy, a brunette with severe bangs who wears a classic little black dress. Adams plays Emily with a resting bitch face when she’s dealing with Sean, but it’s not a one-note default as she warms and softens in other interactions. Bria’s evergreen perkiness is made manifest by a colorful floral skirt and vibrant fuchsia cardigan. Bara’s energetically fresh interpretation of Bria is a pleasure to watch, and Bara flips some cynicism when needed, not limiting herself to an always on mode.

It turns out Justin’s confusion is genuine. He had no plans to propose. It’s a madcap rush, reminiscent of a 1930’s screwball comedy, but director Mike Nelson is careful not to speed through the plot twists. The play ends with Justin and Sean making eye contact as they simultaneously shout “Server,” although it sounds more like “Serve her,” advice we learn both men failed to take.

r and jRelationship drama, albeit offstage, also forms the cornerstone of the second play, the Actors Civic Theater’s presentation of William Sikorski’s Romeo and Juliet: Epilogue. Director James Critchfield’s set choice is appropriately austere for an interrogation room: a folding table and three chairs. The play opens with Friar Lawrence (Eric Mathews) slumped over the table in his brown habit.

There’s immediate juxtaposition. Two modern detectives come into the room, one clutching a donut bag. They start rapid-fire questioning the startled-looking friar. Just when one thinks it’s because he’s a man of God who’s wrestling with being questioned by the police about his role in the dead bodies found in a tomb, he responds in Elizabethan English.

Detective Sam Davis (Candice Fisher) bristles offensively at the Elizabethan response. Fisher plays the detective with limited range; Fisher’s two modes are smartass and shrill as she gets in the friar’s face. Detective William Stanley is played by Joel Ambrose who brings more nuance to his performance and pushes beyond stereotypes. However, Stanley is like an American abroad who speaks more slowly and loudly, hoping that will solve the communication gap.

Sikorski’s narrative misses the mark and is tied up a bit too abruptly and neatly. Ultimately, the detectives’ forceful abrasiveness seems questionable, but Critchfield doesn’t explore that thread, which is a missed opportunity for relevance given ever-present stories on police brutality. Instead, the two detectives just break into the donuts. Cops will be cops.

branniganDomestic drama provides a through line connecting the third and final play, Lezlie Revelle’s The Wrong Brannigan (presented by McKeesport Little Theatre) to its two Program C predecessors. The action unfolds in a living room, lived in but warmly pleasant. A champagne-colored brocade couch behind a green area rug provides the focal point of the room. A chair nestled on each side and a wet bar across the room completes a scene of domestic tranquility.

This tranquility is reinforced by the play’s opening as occupant Ronnie Brannigan (Randy Berner) enters the room. Berner perfectly channels a very nice, but immediately forgettable, mid-50s male. He enters the living room with an open book and settles on the couch to read. His tranquility is short-lived as a man ringing the doorbell ever more incessantly breaches Ronnie’s peace. The breach turns out to be of more than just solitude. The man, Bill (Chris Cattell), pulls a gun on the perplexed Ronnie. Ronnie’s wife Jerri (Jane Scutieri Tinker) arrives home to a tense scene as the gun-brandishing Bills faces off with a confused Ronnie who’s wrestling with the tension between spousal loyalty and troubling new revelations. Tinker struggles to make her character believable throughout, leaning towards the comedic easy laugh as an escape valve.

Relationship drama continues to escalate when the Brannigan’s college-age daughter, Katie (Kaitlin Cliber) arrives home for the holidays. Her costuming marks her as a girl still trying on identities, dark hair chopped short with blonde tufts and a long burgundy sweater with swinging fringe. The number of secrets and twists unravels at a near-dizzying frenzy. Director Catherine Gallagher fails to still the pacing at critical moments, leaving one feeling a bit like a hapless passenger on a roller coaster ride. While the tone remains comedic, Ronnie clearly surprises himself when he taps into his own dark side a bit, raising questions about the lengths we’ll go to in protecting the ones we love.

Program C of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival runs through September 23 at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106.

For more details, click here.

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

Boeing, Boeing

21427438_10154733323486976_7798150765565575284_oA funning thing happened when I got home from the airport!

Set in a Paris flat, this Mad Man era play was written by French playwright Marc Carmoletti. The lying lothario Bernard (Justin Mohr) has managed to acquire three fiancés with associated benefits. How do you ask? They are all flight attendants and by carefully studying their flight schedules, Bernard has gotten engaged to all three without them knowing about each other. Yet.

His not so willing accomplice in this misrepresentation is his housekeeper, Berthe (Shelly Spataro). She dutifully changes out the pictures and cooks their regionally appropriate meals in step with Bernard’s master schedule, complaining all the while.

All this seems to be working out perfectly until Bernard’s old college friend Robert shows up unannounced for a visit at a most inappropriate time.  All three of the stewardesses have short layovers in Paris the same day. Not to worry, Bernard and Berthe have the liaisons planned out like clockwork. If you are wondering where the title Boeing Boeing comes into play, the dawn of the jet age and speedier travel looks like it could throw a monkey wrench into this well-orchestrated scheme.

First to arrive is Gloria (Sarah McKee) a Savanah girl in search of a husband. She’s no sooner out the door than the spirited Italian Gabriella (Ashley Harmon) arrives for lunch and a quickie, before her flight out. Scheduled for dinner is the German fräu·lein Gretchen. The well-laid plans start to fall apart as Robert becomes increasingly unable to keep the women and their schedules straight in his mind and he starts to slip up in front of each of them. Despite Robert’s best efforts to run interference, once their flights start to get delayed, arrive early or are flights canceled, the prospect of the three women meeting each other becomes inevitable.

As the catastrophe looms, director Ron Ferrara ramps up the physical comedy in this charmingly funny farce. By playing up both the historical stereotypes of the characters and the innocent physical comedy, Boeing-Boeing won the Best Revival of a Play Tony in 2008. Ferrara continues that approach in his direction. Ten years after the Broadway revival, the sweet and sexually adventurous southern girl, sexy Italian babe, German dominatrix and complaining servant could be considered offensive stereotypes. Ferrara and the cast navigate that concern with the right mix of silliness that doesn’t quite get to the level of slapstick.

At the end, everyone comes out very happy, by means you wouldn’t have imagined. The journey to resolution is what makes this farce so satisfying.

The are several standout performances.  Shelly Spataro as Berthe brings great gestures and facial expressions to the extremely competent, frustrated and underappreciated housekeeper. Her interplay with Bernard is priceless.  Chris Patrick’s Robert is the perfect combination of hapless innocence, fascination, and envy. His kissing scene with Gloria is perfection, not to mention his lust for Gretchen.

Chris Patrick as Robert carries the bulk of the dialogue. There are a few tongue twisters there that caught him on opening night but recovery was good.  His character is believable in part because he comes across as actually caring for each of his fiancés. Sarah McKee, Ashley Harmon and the over the top Pamela Farneth, as the three stewardesses, all capture the essence of their characters.

Richard Caugherty set design serves the production well. Clark Stewarts lighting is perfect in its functional simplicity. Matt Mlynarski’s costumes capture the stylized airline uniforms of the day. All the design elements support the production without distracting from it.

For a nostalgic and fun look back at the pre-feminist 60’s, this production of Boeing-Boeing is a great trip. Fasten your seatbelts, turbulence is expected!

Boeing-Boeing by Orchard Performing Arts Company is at the Apple Hill Playhouse in Delmont with evening performances at 7:30 pm on September 15, 16, 21,22, 23 and a matinee performance September 17th at 2 pm

For tickets e-mail boxoffice@applehillplayhouse.org or call 724-468-5050

The Scottsboro Boys

20863574_10155638855594464_1555720063175253618_oAs we began to write The Scottsboro Boys, it was immediately apparent why it was so important to tell their story.  Behind the headlines, the spectacle, the ongoing trials, the histrionics of politicians and lawyers was the story of nine young African American boys, determined to prove that they mattered…

–Composer, John Kander

Black lives matter.  Let’s consider also that the immensity of any individual life has to be looked at directly to show how and why—to enable a life to sing.  Pittsburgh Playhouse’s production of The Scottsboro Boys traps you into looking with its first breath, it opens on the silent chorus: an African-American woman, beginning to hyperventilate.

From the start, this is a violent twist of emotions.  It rings with the insanity of a culture whose proud integrity has been entirely and hypocritically forsaken.  It brings us to face nine individuals who are smacked suddenly with the fake virtue of a fiction called Justice and the humor of nonsense as horror.

The bitter irony of displaying this trial as a minstrel mimics the level of absurdity existent in Alabama’s justice system in 1931—Everything is a righteous farce.  Everybody is a clown.

Ivy Fox as The lady
Ivy Fox as The lady

We get to see this reflected in the eyes of that silent muse; the one woman chorus, Ivy Fox’s Lady.  Her silent acting does something for this show that manages it, conducts it.  It’s a powerful and strange tool, to have an emoting chorus who says almost nothing and yet says absolutely everything with her emanating presence.

Welcome to this world, a psychotic other dimension led by superstar showmen Billy Mason and Jr Whittington as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.  These hosts are exceptionally powerful guides through the odyssey.  They fill ironic roles: the minstrelsy, fools.  Mason’s side-eye as he performs the tasks of Sheriff WhiteMan or Whittington’s haphazardness in his role as lawyer Johnny Walker; they are a strew of characters, diving into a critically injured American psyche that is in denial until satire can see it.  And they both lead sensationally.

Susan Stroman, the original Director and choreographer, remarks,

Typically minstrelsy uses white actors to portray African Americans in ways that are negative and disrespectful.  But we asked ourselves, ‘What if it were a group of African Americans playing white people?’  It would allow these nine actors to play white women, white prison guards, white sheriffs, white judges: it would allow them to play parts they would otherwise never play.

21457457_10155695876934464_8669559662130794580_oThis power gives credence to a performance like Joseph Fedore’s Eugene Williams, a 13-year-old boy who was sentenced to death for a crime he doesn’t even understand; tap dancing a song about the electric chair as he suffers the terror of having persistent nightmares about it.  The twisted and beautiful take on a holocaust moment where a terrified teenage boy and two corpses (Steven Etienne and Scott Kelly) can suddenly breakout into truly whimsical movement reflects a splendid, musical softness within such a deep, destitute lostness:

Hey little boy

look over there

that’s what they call

an eleca-tric chair

Or perhaps the same minstrelsy is reflected in performances like Jared Smith and Lamont Walker II’s as two Alabama ladies who accuse the Scottsboro Nine of a false rape.  So there are two of the Scottsboro Nine, then also playing their villainous false victims: what a quandary.  This preys upon the mercy for rape victims and satisfies the salvation of one at the expense of the many others who, with this false testimony, did not matter.  How to perform this on stage and yet still execute the joke of the substance, the sickness?

It’s done camp, with panache and with diva flare.  Charles Weems plays the hoot of his Victoria Price, the hammed up damsel in distress, playing on the rich cream of a woman’s successful acting causing nine men to be imprisoned and tortured for nothing.  The haunt of her success story is the catastrophe of these innocent men.  Or Walker II’s Ruby Bates, who within her song “Never Too Late” attempts to retract her testimony only to be met with a justice system who refuses her repentance.  Oh, how Lamont Walker II plays this woman up!  He brings her fully fledged, over-the-top to a place which takes the drag of it to a new level: he divas this woman, this false, redemptive victim into her breach into the mythology of the story: women are victims too.  It’s society that’s not real, that allows for this breach of trust.  And it’s a sorrowful farce, that rape culture can immediate the dramatic purging of nine black men, but the reality is we live in a cruel world with no clear answers and no promise of true justice.  So what do you do?  You sing.

21367051_10155695876799464_1080342176479291535_oThe entire ensemble carries so much precision and talent.  This show truly empowers in a creepy, disturbing way.  It irks to the point of inspiration.  It compels by getting under your skin.  Director and Choreographer Tomé Cousin leaves not a second of this two-hour show untapped for its active involvement with the audience.  It is so well-played, well-cast and harrowing.

I give special credence to Lighting Designer Andrew David Ostrowski whose seamless touchings of the characters provides a wealth of world within the limited stage frame.  The set was absolutely stunning within its minimal capacity, in that with almost nothing it does nothing but provide.  The brilliance of the chair set pieces, which construct and deconstruct so many levels of staging, show the capacity for a musical to be simple and so contained.  I loved those damn chairs.

This was an amazing, aggravating, horrifying and explosively powerful show.  I just wish it didn’t feel so relevant too.  I’ve never seen a tragedy so comedically charged, ironic and desperate; and so beautiful and horrifying as this.

The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland through September 24. For tickets and more information click here

Photos by John Altdorfer.

A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing

LLTC_Masterpiece_2-300x186A good comedy, as described by A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing’s Broadway agent protagonist Jerry Cobb (Art DeConciliis), is one hundred jokes sprinkled throughout two acts. He argues that audiences don’t care about plot, or deeper narrative; people don’t go to the theater to think, he says, but to be told what to think. It doesn’t even matter what the play is titled. Call it A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing and they’ll believe you.

I have to give Little Lake Theater some credit because their production of Masterpiece is energetic enough drive through such a blunt moment like that without getting its wheels caught in the mud. Written just two years ago, Robert Caisley’s 60’s-set comedy serves as a reminder of how fun the classic, one-liner driven comedies of decades past could be – however, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore for a reason. Little Lake’s production, on the other hand, is sincere, likable, and well-paced, but director James Critchfield can only do so much to elevate what can at times be a muddled script.

(left to right) Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb, Greg Caridi as Danny "Nebraska" Jones, and Jeff Johnston as Charlie Bascher
(left to right) Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb, Greg Caridi as Danny “Nebraska” Jones, and Jeff Johnston as Charlie Bascher

Cobb’s comedic analysis is given to Danny “Nebraska” Jones (Greg Caridi), a depressed playwright working on a new comedy Cobb is funding. With the help of his clumsy but wholly devoted assistant, Charlie Bascher (Jeff Johnston), Cobb is trying desperately to get Jones out of his funk so that he’ll write his next Broadway show and make them all a fortune. There’s more at stake here than money, however: Cobb owes some shady Russian financiers a debt that only a smash hit play can repay.

The pace is set by DeConciliis, who plays Cobb with unending exasperation. Despite past successes and an enormous lexicon of his own self-help adages, Cobb’s disinterest in the feelings of others combined with Jones’ dejected gloominess reveal Cobb to be a loud, beleaguered figure incapable of change. He’s a wealthy ‘60s bully too smart for the people around him, but too clumsy and short-sighted to be anyplace else; he’s Don Draper as played by George Costanza.

DeConciliis’ performance doesn’t stretch the character too thin by overplaying his likability, and he’s great at alternating between the put-upon and the put-upon-er. It’s fortunate, too, that DeConciliis is so convincing, because A Masterpiece consists primarily of Cobb yelling at or explaining things to other characters.

 

(left to right) Jeff Johnston as Charlie Bascher, Greg Caridi as Danny "Nebraska" Jones, and Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb
(left to right) Jeff Johnston as Charlie Bascher, Greg Caridi as Danny “Nebraska” Jones, and Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb

Bascher, meanwhile, oscillates between socially-aware straight man and total goofball, enough so that it’s impossible to tell if the play is trying to convince us he is a savant, an idiot, or both. Johnston imbues Casher with an emotional distance that almost gives the character a kind of Grouche Marx-esque madness-as-commentary edge, but the character is always a little at odds with himself. In the play’s craziest moments I don’t quite believe in him, especially when Caridi’s depressive writer and Sara Barbisch’s appropriately ridiculous ‘I’ll sleep my way to the top!’ Nola Hart are so consistent in their motivations.

 

Besides being a nostalgic comedy about a more glamorous era of celebrity vapidity, A Masterpiece is, true enough to its word, some of the play’s better moments are more or less vessels for Cobb to spit witticisms at his ridiculous counterparts. That’s not a terrible thing, considering Caisley’s comedic hit/miss ratio is actually pretty good, but there are a series of longer bits which get to be a slog. Example: there is an extended conversation about what letters are funny sounding which seems to go on forever. That the punchline is everyone laughing at something that isn’t funny feels particularly frustrating.

(left to right) Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb and Sara Barbisch as Nola Hart
(left to right) Art DeConciliis as Jerry Cobb and Sara Barbisch as Nola Hart

Let’s get back to Cobb’s analysis about a good comedy being a hundred jokes and a thin plot. True enough, but A Masterpiece is weirdly kind of plot heavy. My favorite moments in this occur when Jones presents his first draft of the comedy to Cobb. It begins with a distraught Russian woman who is watching her child be devoured alive by wolves. It’s a ridiculous moment and I love it, but it’s followed up by a parade of one-liners from Cobb, none of which are anywhere near as memorable or hilarious as the moment that precedes them. It almost works as a counter argument to the point the play itself is making.

That said, the fact that A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing is still a lot of fun speaks to how consistently smart The Little Lake Theater’s productions are. For my larger issues with the play, I still found myself laughing along anyway thanks to some really fun performances, evocative set design and well-tuned direction.

A Masterpiece of Comic Timing runs through September 16 at Little Lake Theater in Canonsburg. For tickets and more information click here.

Photos by James Orr.

Henry V

19260472_1446609108731259_5171885934157671035_nPittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks marks its thirteenth year running with a production of Henry V, directed by Alan Irvine.  It is the last in a cycle of plays that mostly focuses on the youthful Prince Henry, or Hal, who starts out as a disappointing prince, drinking and carousing with dissolutes in London’s East Cheap, but eventually coming into his own as heir to the throne and then as King Henry.  With the crown on his head, he is all business and little play, as PSIP demonstrates in their scenic location in Frick Park.

Lamar K. Cheston takes up the challenging role of Henry in this production, a man who must prove himself worthy of his father’s throne and who must convince his country to follow him into his great war with France.  While Cheston nails the seriousness with which Henry comports himself, he lacks the spark of charisma necessary to persuade anyone.  For most of the play, it is difficult to see why any soldier would want to fight for him.  During the Battle of Harfleur, when he must get his men back on their feet and into the fray, his “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” rings hollow.

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Lamar K. Cheston as Henry V

But something changes when he must rouse his army before the Battle of Agincourt.  Cheston pours himself into the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and the audience gets a glimpse into the kind of king the English must see.  This is not just a moment of overblown oration – Henry believes in his cause, believes that in this moment he will be triumphant over the French and he wants to share in that glory with the men who have come this far with him.  As he says, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers./For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother”, he reaches out to an audience member and clasps him by the arm.  The spectators become part of the English army and there is a palpable sense that most would stand up and fight too.  This is Henry (and Cheston) at his best.

Though the play is named after Henry, he is certainly not the only character involved, nor is it all serious politics and gruesome battles.  Some of Henry’s old friends from East Cheap, Pistol (Charles David Richards), Bardolph (Ryan Bergman), and Nym (Sarah Carleton) join the army in hopes of striking it rich.  They provide entertaining antics as the scuffle among themselves, but there is also a poignant moment when Henry will not prevent Bardolph’s execution because he feels he must uphold the law which his former friend has broken.

Lamar K. Cheston as Henry V and Princess Katherine
Lamar K. Cheston as Henry V and Amy Dick as Princess Katherine

Princess Katherine (Amy Dick) and her lady-in-waiting Alice (Nick Benninger) also bring a touch of levity to the production.  Alice tries to teach Katherine some English at the princess’s request, but Katherine does not take to it very well (she accidentally says “bilbow” instead of “elbow”).  Later on, when Henry is trying to woo her, there is some difficulty in translating.  And as Katherine tries to avoid Henry’s advances, she throws Alice in his way, almost ending up in a kiss.

Though the set and design of the production needs to be minimalist, Lisa Leibering’s costumes grounded the action in a medieval timeframe.  They distinguish not only the French from the English in general terms (the French in red versus the English in blue), but also contrast the richly dressed French nobility from the more practically dressed English who seem far more prepared for war.  Henry himself wears the same simple tunics his men wear and does not set himself above them with the trappings of a king.  Moreover, the costumes help to denote new characters when actors must double and triple roles.

The Soldiers Company greets audience members with the King's banners.
The Soldiers Company greets audience members with the King’s banners.

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks works very hard to give the audience enough material that the imagination can fill in the rest, in true Shakespearean fashion.  Under the shade of a few, stately trees, they conjure up Henry V’s great struggle to make himself a force to be reckoned with and his great victory at Agincourt.  It becomes easy to oblige the Chorus, “Gently to hear, kindly to judge [their] play.”

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ shows are always free, including Henry V but you can find out where they’re playing next by checking out their website. 

Six a Breast: The Absurd Life of Women

sabLuckily for us, Beth Corning’s moved to Pittsburgh in 2003 to serving as Artistic Director of Dance Alloy. In 2010, she launched (to critical acclaim) CORNINGWORKS as a vehicle for “seasoned” performers and artists over 40. Her Glue Factory Project was an outgrowth of that mission.

Her latest work, Six A Breast, is a brilliantly executed exploration of what she finds as “ridiculous” about being a woman. The performance is a series of very short scenes that chart expectations that shape a women’s experiences on her journey through life. Those expectations are driven by our societal & cultural norms and some are self-imposed. Upon reflection, many are ridiculous, some absurd. Corning says: “Six A Breast encapsulates the lunacy of all our lives, no matter the gender, but women . . . they got the “mother lode” backward and in heels.”

Corning uses a style familiar to those of us of a certain age, that of the quick “Laugh In” vignette, we grew up watching. Early MTV, Sesame Street and today’s” viral” videos share that short attention span style. In Six A Breast it is not so much choppy quick cuts but a flow or a progression through the chronologic milestones of a woman’s life. The scenes are illusions, not in your face representations, of sex, childbirth, manners, behaviors and the conundrums that women face.

The stories are told mostly in dance by three female characters, performed by Beth Corning, Sally Rousse, and Laurie Van Wieren. Each is unique in appearance, mood, and behavior, but all will remind you of someone in your life.

The last scene, with the three ladies all seated together on a bench, deliver Samuel Beckett’s one-hundred- twenty-seven word most perfect play, Come and Go, in near darkness.sab2
Corning and Costume Designer Lindsey Peck Scherloum clad the women in white, in the style of “the uniform of the day” appropriate to each vignette. This with the exception of the last scene, which is “in living color”.

The production design is a stark black stage with minimal props helping to create the illusion. Iain Court’s pure white lighting design bathes and sculpts the women with nuanced yet dramatic subtlety.

Corning and Recording Engineer Greg Reierson have created a developed a perfectly matched score so tightly integrated that it’s hard to imagine which idea came first; the story, the choreography or the music.

Let us not forget this is a Dance Theatre piece, and choreography is front and center in the journey. There are snippets and longer form styles and genres of dance, each again perfectly applied to that phase of life’s journey.

You will laugh, cry, gasp and applaud these women as the present the absurd life of women. At the end of the opening nights performance, following the bows, the audience didn’t want to leave, sitting quietly and reflecting on what they had just seen.

Mothers, take your daughters to see Six A Breast. Women, if your partner is one of those unfortunate creatures, a man, take him with you. Regardless of who you go with, and do go with someone, this show will spark interesting conversations on the way home.

Remaining performances are September 7th to 10th at the New Hazlett Theatre on Pittsburgh’s North Side as follows:

Thursday at 8 pm includes the 7:15 pm pre-performance Bare Arms series How to Say “No”: with Joy with Christiane Dolores

Friday at 8 pm with the 7:15 pm pre-performance Bare Arms series No, You Take Out the Garbage; the art of negotiation & delegation with Jen Saffron and post-performance informal cast talk-­‐back

Saturday at 8 pm includes the 7:15 pm pre-performance Bare Arms series On Beauty, the Good, Bad, Ugly guest Artist TBA

Sunday 2 pm with “pay-what-you-can admission” available only at the door, regular reserved tickets are available online.

For tickets visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3023829

Thanks to Corningworks for complimentary press tickets.

PNWF 2017: Program A

PNWF LOGOThe Pittsburgh New Works Festival kicked off this past weekend with a trio of original one acts: CCAC South Campus Theater’s Roosevelt’s Ghosts, The Summer Company’s The Pivot and The Theater Factory’s Doing Time. None of them are quite what you’d expect.

Roosevelt’s Ghosts, written by Aaron Scully and directed by New Works rooseveltFestival Managing Director Lora Oxenreiter, is a reflective presidential fantasy with a quite literal title. We see a 25 year-old Theodore Roosevelt (Corwin Stoddard) speaking with Thomas (Mike McCarthy), an aide, about his wife Alice’s (Megan Grocutt) failing health. This is an important moment for the future 26th President: after losing his mother and wife in less than 12 hours, Roosevelt would go on to live a series of different lives that would culminate in two of the most consequential terms in office in American history, and this was the tragedy that propelled him to do so. “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” he once wrote.

I digress. The lights go out, and come on again. Mittie’s (Samantha A. Camp), the ghost of his mother, stands suddenly in the room. After a familiar ‘I must be out of my mind’ exchange and a few accusations about Theodore’s lifestyle from Alice, it becomes clear that we’re quite literally watching Roosevelt’s own personal A Christmas Carol.

As someone who studies American Presidents as a hobby, I had a good time watching CCAC’s production weave in and out of history. Corwin Stoddard, whose performance portrays both confidence and exhaustion, actually replicated Roosevelt’s odd, squinty smile once or twice, which in turn put a huge smile on my face. The fascination with Roosevelt is obvious in Scully’s script, and you get a sense of the entire emotional arc of his young adulthood in just over thirty minutes, which is impressive.

However, despite the fact that I can’t say I’ve seen this exact riff on Charles Dickens’ perennial classic, the pace and dialogue are too familiar for the play to make a stamp of its own on this oft-retold story. I couldn’t help but feel that any figure in history could supplant Roosevelt and the experience of the play would be more or less the same. If the history is unfamiliar to the audience, plot points certainly won’t be.

pivotNext up is The Summer Company’s smart and succinct The Pivot, written by Seth Freeman and directed by Justin Sines. A man named Walter (Brett Sullivan Santry) waits alone in an office for job applicants to enter. Two women named Cindy, identical but for the color of their skin, take their seats.

We watch the interviews occur simultaneously. The women share lines and have the same resume. For the first woman (Krista Graham), who is white, the interview is cordial, even complimentary. Walter silently pivots (aha!) his chair to the second woman (Meleana Felton), who is black, and the interview seems colder somehow. The longer we watch, the more the divide Walter has created for the women becomes apparent.

The Pivot couldn’t have been more than six or seven minutes, but like any good short work, it has a certain intellectual catchiness to it. What I liked best about it was the play’s focus on the actual act of pivoting. When Walter moves, his face becomes stone cold, and the stage falls silent. He really takes his time getting there, too, and it creates an unsettling atmosphere to sit in.

Lastly we have The Theater Factory’s Doing Time, written by Mary Poindexter timeMcLaughlin and directed by Scott P. Calhoon. This was easily the conversation starter of the afternoon. The play follows an old man (Tom Mirth) and a young man (Steve Gottschalk) who represent a different philosophical approach to life, each brought about by what appears to be a generational gap.

The play begins in a nearly vacant space, equipped only with a couple chairs, a table, and a window. Mirth’s Older Man is in a tattered suit and seems to have lost his shoes. He has a flute and plays it as much as humanly possible – importantly, he only actually knows a single six or seven-second riff. For a while, we’re just sitting with this man.

Without warning, the younger man, whose outfit is pristine, explodes into the room and spills a small novel’s worth of papers onto the floor. He reveals that they’re the pages of his autobiography, which he must write perpetually, or he will die. The play then becomes a physical comedy, as the slightest sound from the older man causes the younger man to spiral into a fit.

I really liked Doing Time visually. There’s a great contrast between Mirth’s older man and Gottschalk’s younger man. Mirth’s movement is fluid and unhurried. He’s always contorting himself into odd, almost ape-like positions (think Andy Serkis in front of a green screen) as he navigates the stage, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Gottschalk is rigid efficiency personified.

Suffice to say, the older man has a few things to teach the younger man about smelling the roses. I won’t be too descriptive in terms of plot here, but the older man is prepared to sacrifice a lot for the younger man’s addiction to chronicling himself, which gives him a revelation. There’s a clear analogy for social media consumption here, and like many works pleading with millennials to stop it with the cell phones already, I think its heart is in the right place but its message isn’t exactly comprehensive. Like any issue worth discussing, social media overconsumption as a problem deserves a solution more complicated than “have you tried just not doing it?”

I won’t pigeonhole McLaughlin’s work any further, because I think its entirely possible to walk out of this with wholly different conclusions. This is a memorable experience, warts and all, and is the kind of self-contained, imaginative play one would hope to find at the New Works Festival. It’s unique and worth engaging with.

If I’m to judge The New Works Festival based on its ability to show me what I haven’t seen before, it’s off to a good start. I’m looking forward to what’s coming up next.

Program A runs at Carnegie Stage through September 9. For tickets and more information, click here

*A previous version of this review had Samantha A. Camp and Megan Grocutt’s character’s mislabeled.