A Christmas Carol

christmascarol-banner_origEverything about The Steel City Shakespeare Center’s (SCSC) production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol surprised me.  This was my first SCSC performance and I have to admit, I kind of want to go back today and watch the show again. For weeks I had been imagining what a show performed at the Troy Hill, V.F.W. would look like. I also wondered how a production company can carry out a play, with an extensive list of parts, using the concept of extreme casting. I was dreaming up all sorts of ideas, only to have each and every one proved wrong by the charm and cleverness of this production.

Walking into the performance space was somewhat startling.  The room was severely lacking in holiday decor.  I expected, at the very least, mock-Victorian wreaths or garland.  The walls were bare; not even red and green colored construction paper chains or Christmas lights taped to the wall.  I looked around the room again.  There is no scenery displayed; no painted plywood or drop cloths hanging from the ceiling, to assist the audience with their transport into 19th century London. The space is basically unaltered.  Standard hall chairs, metal with vinyl seats, are lined neatly in rows.  By four o’clock a handful of families began to trickle in. These young children carried ziplock baggies of candy and filled the rows beside me.  I took note; there are no screens for quick costume changes, no visible props and a roomful of young children eating candy.  I began to think this could end very bad.

In the time before the show began, I had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Mykita, actor and Director of Audience Development. Michael shared a bit SCSC’s A Christmas Carol history, now in its’ third season.  A Christmas Carol was initially a struggle to adapt from novella to stage-worthy interpretation.  Mykita and Artistic Director, Jeffrey Chips, spent a great deal of time working the story into a format ready for performing.  This season, director Jessica Schiermeister, desired to keep as much of the original story text as possible, so Mykita revealed, ‘the actors will narrate Dickens, then simply step into character as needed’.  Interesting concept, but I wondered, how was this really going to play out.  I hate to admit, I was skeptical.

With a cast comprised of 5 actors depicting all of the characters, there is no scenery, no costume changes, no stage, lighting, intermission or big musical numbers; this could not have been an easy task to execute.  Michael Mykita, cast as Scrooge, Sebastian Midence plays the roles of Bob Cratchit, the Ghost of Jacob Marley, Young Scrooge, Ignorance & Man with Bundle, David Loehr, cast as Fred, Fezziwig, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Peter Cratchit and Old Joe.  Susana Garcia Barragan playing the parts of Charity Lady, Little Boy Singing, Tiny Tim, Fred’s Wife, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  Last, Sandee Rollins, appearing as Charity Lady, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Mrs. Cratchit, Belle, Want, Laundress, and Christmas Morning Child. What SCSC provides cannot be compared to any other production of A Christmas Carol.  Through the most simple arrangements, SCSC has created an intimate experience of refined storytelling. Throughout the performance, I watched intently as the actors interacted, almost singularly using tone of voice and facial expressions to distinguish their characters.  This enchanting rendition is not the awkward challenge I expected but a moment of magic.   As the cast narrates Dickens, and continually reconstruct their enactments stepping in and out of multiple roles, I expected to be bored. I also figured the children in the audience, some appearing to be as young as 3 or 4 years old, would fidget or be noisy, but this was far from what materialized.

The cast was engaging, energetic and completely enveloped in character.  I was engrossed in the time and place of the story. Watching Mykita as Scrooge transform from bitter miser into a compassionate and gentle fellow is endearing.  Midence, as the ghost of Jacob Marley is a part I may forever associate with the role. Loehr, as the Ghost of Christmas Present is captivating but it is his representation of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, which is most notable. Barragan, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, shrouds herself in a long black cape, (one of the few props used in telling the tale) keeping her face hidden by a hood.  This menacing portrayal is striking in comparison to the times when she leads the audience in unembellished yet sweet and brief sing-a-longs. Her depiction of Tiny Tim, with a wooden crutch propped under her arm, is an impressive gage to the scope of her ability.   Rollins’s delivery of narration is most mesmeric. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, she maneuvers across the floor with a brilliant model of an astral figure by her side, flowing white and truly dreamlike, another of the few props used, easily evoking fear and grief from Scrooge.

I have never seen a performance like SCSC’s A Christmas Carol before.  When the show ended I walked outside and was utterly surprised by the arrival of evening. I had simply been swept up into the story and lost all track of time. I can speak highly of this show, but want to confirm the talent of this cast and crew will attract audience members of all ages.  The children in the audience Saturday sat transfixed, not making a peep. I felt comforted by the voices of the cast and feel I heard not just the words of Dicken’s but the message of A Christmas Carol for the first time.  This act certainly brought a calm to the chaos that often accompanies me during this time of year.

A Christmas Carol  runs December 15, 16, and 17th at various locations. For more information click here.

The Carols

nbfjksd,Carnegie Stage has a hit in the making on its hands with the Christmas musical The Carols which had its Western Pennsylvania premiere on Thursday in Carnegie. The show was commissioned by Philadelphia’s 1812 theatre company and first premiered there in December of 2016.  The book and lyrics were written by 1812’s Artistic director Jennifer Childs with music composed by Pittsburgh’s Monica Stephenson.

The Carols is set in the small town of Picatinny, NJ shortly after the United States officially entered World War II. It’s Christmastime and the town longs for their loved ones to return from battle.  The VFW Post is empty, manned only by the three Carol sisters, Lily, Rose, and Sylvia, who work with Miss Betty (Jill Keating), a grumpy middle-aged woman who appears to be the wartime keeper of the Post along Teddy (Nick Stamatakis), the resident silent pianist.

Rose (Mandie Russak) is the boy crazy “dumb blonde” with a problem pronouncing words with silent letters, so “ghosts” to her are “gee-hosts.” Sylvia (Kate Queen-Toole) is the ambitious career girl who absolutely and gushingly adores Eleanor Roosevelt. Lily (Moira Quigley), the youngest, is the girl next door, the least hip of the trio, but she loves to use modern slang. She manages the story flow and serves as narrator.

The girls feel it is their patriotic duty to stage the annual production of A Christmas Carol even if it means doing so without male actors.  Betty, who mysteriously wants no part of this Christmas Carol effort argues to “just cancel the darn thing.”  After much debate, the girls conclude that the show must go on.

Audition posters go up which catch the eye of Mel (Leon S. Zionts), a too-old for combat and out-of-work Borscht Belt stand-up comic who is looking for a gig on the way his to Florida for the winter.

Without Betty’s help, the girls, Mel and Teddy, begin to craft their own version of Dickens’ classic tale as they bring their hopes for the future to the deconstructed classic.

Mel recognizes Betty as a famous burlesque and vaudeville performer. He was a patron of those arts as a young man when he was honing his comedic skills. To a young Mel’s eyes, Betty Bell was unforgettable. Betty has a revelation and comes around to join the show. Rose sends a perfumed note to the local military base inviting any boys who might be in town to come to the play. Sylvia asks her hero Eleanor Roosevelt to attend, and Lily holds it together in spite of her concerns for the future.  The show goes on, much to the delight of the audience.

If this sounds typical of the contrived plot of many Christmas shows, well, you are correct. The play may be the thing, but in the case of The Carols, it’s really about the skill of the director and the singing, dancing and acting talents of the ensemble cast that make it a fun-filled laugh-out-loud show to watch and enjoy.

Director Robyne Parish recently directed the well-received production of Violet for Front Porch Theatricals this past summer. In The Carols, she has drawn upon some of our regions most talented actors. Jill Keating has extensive acting experience and is a thirty-three-year member of Equity. Her portrayal of Betty is at first unsympathetic. In the number where she warms to the idea of playing Scrooge, she presents a fantastic transformation in demeanor both physically and vocally as Betty comes to appreciate her Burlesque past. Some period accurate costumes for her might be helpful, but her performance is stellar which, makes the costume oddity superfluous.

The three sisters’ characters as written are as thick as greasepaint. Parish has humanized them, reminding us that we all know and love someone who is just like them. All three young women are rising stars to watch in the Pittsburgh theatre scene.

In the intimate setting of Carnegie Stage, Russak’s Rose is a joy to watch. Her smile lights up the sage at the most opportune moments.  Her facial expressions, delivery, and physical comedy skills are top-notch.

Quigley’s Lily is most real of the characters as she wonders what will happen to her as she gets left behind in Picatinny when Rose and Sylvia leave to pursue their dreams. Lily and Mel have a fun tap dance number as they cement their friendship and kindred spirit.

Zionts as Mel is perfect, just the right mix of an opportunist Catskill comic, adoring fan, and all around funny guy and tap dancer. His butchered rendition of Dickens’s story is hilarious. Zionts and Keating have great chemistry as two old performers, a little past their prime. Their energy is magical to watch.

The brilliance of Parish’s casting shines in the vocal talents of the actors. With Nick Stamatakis in addition to playing Teddy serving admirably as musical director, the trio of Rose, Sylvia, and Lily is pitch perfect. Their harmonies in the acapella songs are stunningly and surprisingly beautiful. Jill Keating’s choreography is superbly subtle, not over the top Mamma Mia style, but the perfect finishing touch for this trio of talented voices.

Any shortcomings in the plot are more than made up by this talented ensemble of actors under Parish’s and Stamatakis’ direction.  For a laugh-out-loud evening of theatre that will leave you smiling and marveling at the talent in Pittsburgh, The Carols is a must-see show. Carnegie Stage – start a tradition, save the set and book all these actors for next Christmas season, you have a hit on your hands. Pittsburgh Producers – find another show for these three talented young actresses can work together.

The Carols at Carnegie Stage has performances on December 8th, 9th, 14th, 15th, 16th at 8 pm, December 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th  at 3 pm. For tickets click here.

Thanks to the Carnegie Stage for the complimentary tickets.

A Christmas Story

cache_899459874The Theatre Factory’s holiday offering of A Christmas Story opened Thursday, December 7, 2017 to a small, but enthusiastic audience. Adapted for the stage by Philip Grecian, and directed for the Theatre Factory by Catherine Kolos, the play attempts to capture the magic of the original 1983 movie chronicling 9-year old Ralphie Parker’s quest for the perfect Christmas present: the legendary official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200 shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time! Unfortunately, this production falls short of the mark.

Let’s face it, anyone trying to re-create the specific humor and chemistry of the original movie already has a hard row to hoe. Any chance of success requires mad skills from everyone involved. It requires a light touch, that lets the wry comedic voice of the original storyteller, Jean Shepherd, speak for itself, while allowing the individual creativity of its new storytellers to shine through as well. This production didn’t manage to do this.

The rhythm of the performance was always just a little off, comedic timing was not quite there, and the cast never meshed as a unified whole – which is a shame, because the adult cast all seemed like competent performers, and I’d like to see them in other productions. On the positive side of things, particular note should be given to Brittany Bara as Miss Shields and Marianne Bayard as Mother, who created intelligent, subtle, interesting characterizations with strong stage presence. Also of note was Lawrence Karl, who did yeoman’s work playing multiple ensemble roles, including the nefarious Scut Farkas. On the negative end, the relationship between Mother and The Old Man never really clicked. And grown up Ralph, the narrator for the whole piece, was too presentational and declamatory for my taste, descending too much into sentimentalism at the end of the play. I write this somewhat reluctantly, since he did have charisma and carried us through the narrative of the play with unwaning energy.

The Theatre Factory is a semi-professional company working in an underserved area of Pittsburgh, and creating opportunities for children to be introduced to and participate in theater through their KidWorks program – all very laudable goals, deserving of support.

Their budgets would appear to be small, based on the production values of this show, and I never expect small budget shows to have the same material quality as higher budget shows. What I do expect is companies to use their resources effectively and creatively. The Theatre Factory didn’t meet this mandate for me with this production of A Christmas Story. The set was more 1920s depression-era flop house than 1940s nostalgic middle-American family home. The black wall at the back of the stage was downright spooky and depressing. The stationary set ultimately limited staging options and the ability to create multiple locations effectively. The set pieces were mismatched and beaten up. Costume choices ranged from “Little House on the Prairie” skirts to 80s outerwear. Lighting was awkward with uneven focus and execution. The sound cues that existed were actually well done. But, this is a show that benefits from an almost continuous soundtrack, so the existing cues only served to highlight the dearth of sound during the rest of the show.

And details matter – having no food props, especially the turkey, when the anticipation of the turkey was a highlight of the action, was a mistake. Lighting the Christmas tree with modern lights instead of appropriate period lights was a mistake. And, Mother’s unconvincing fake “knitting” was distracting and a mistake.

I am passionate with my criticism, because I saw a potential that I believe can grow into creative success for this company. I want their talented actors to have success. I also happen to ADORE the original A Christmas Story movie, and play it for the entire 24-hour marathon usually offered on Christmas Day. So, I really want any stage adaptation to be flawless.

You can visit The Theatre Factory’s website at www.thetheatrefactory.org or email theatrefactoryboxoffice@gmail.com.

Annie

Annie-FB-Header

I often commit the unfortunate preconception-based error of relegating certain plays, musicals particularly, to a realm of untouchably fey. Annie—originally adapted from Thomas Meechan’s book and Harold Gray’s comic strip for Broadway by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin—along with musicals like Hairspray and Sound of Music function in my memory as pieces that are so performatively sentimental and over-the-top that I cannot access their relatability or edge. I was taken aback, then to be confronted, in the best sense possible, with the acerbic wit and sonorous bleakness of Annie at a small theatre’s recreation of the piece.

Comtra Theatre, boasting a pleasingly cozy interior, augmented, by juxtaposition, the pleasantly jarring crassness of this most recent of production of Annie. The sentimental story is one certainly familiar to most in the theatre world—a plucky, assertive young girl, Annie, clings feverishly to the hope that her parents will retrieve her from the orphanage they abandoned her in years prior. However, Annie is given the opportunity to stay at the home of a munificent billionaire, Mr. Warbucks, over Christmas and soon becomes part of an unconventional family, despite the devious interventions of the mistress of the orphanage, Ms. Hannigan. Annie’s plot, by my recollection and preconceptions, was the appropriate hybridization of spirited melancholy and uplifting unreality for a musical targeted towards, primarily, children.

However, much like the often clandestinely sinister Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals or distressing Disney subplots, Annie is a musical that thrives on the darker elements accentuated by the sing-songy presentation. Much of the efficacy in making Comtra’s staging of Annie seem deceptively innocuous is the brilliant casting of perhaps the most precocious, promising troop of young women—or “little girls,” as Miss Hannigan scathingly refers to them as—that I have individually or collectively watched in quite some time. The titular precocious orphan Annie, is played with such unjaded spunk by outlandishly talented Zoie Beckas that I was compelled to reexamine the character, not as an irksomely optimistic twee thing, but a sassy, borderline crass, take-no-guff little girl ensconced in perhaps the most whimsically dreary conditions ever conceived. Furthermore, Annie’s cohort of ferocious orphanage dwellers—played with pitch-perfect mettle—were as unwaveringly spunky and boisterous as their lead, and the ensemble performance conveyed a certain lovely irreverence that I had not been able to enjoyably access in past viewings or a working memory of the musical. In addition to the undaunted performances of the young women, the entirety of the cast, down to the last extra, was exceptionally committed and exuberant to a fault. Miss Hannigan, captured with indomitable booziness by Cynthia Harding, was a savage comic relief to juxtapose some of the more hyper-sentimental or somber moments of the musical. It was perhaps Harding’s steadfast portrayal of Miss Hannigan that most solidified Comtra’s production as one that captured the multidimensionality of the play’s sneering bleakness.

While there were some technical points that could have been strengthened or remedied to enhance the overall quality of the viewing experience—for instance, the consistency and balance of the sound and the mics; the situating of the audience to avoid viewers being blocked by beams in the theatre—Comtra’s staging of Annie was an overall delightful (a term I wholly abhor using) experience that challenged my staunchly held opinions on the play’s overall consumptive appeal. Annie was a mirthfully dreary musical, in which lyrical snark presented a wonderful distraction (but with the right air of frustration) to the burdensome dreariness of current times, but not without giving a nod to the sourness of things today.

Annie runs at Comtra Theatre through December 16. Tickets and more information can be found here. 

In Defense of Gravity

22859686_1629509380404795_2010279232903302675_oGrief is one of our most extraordinary creative motivators. The band Mount Eerie, a solo project by the musician Phil Elverum, released a song this year called “Real Death” that opens with these lines: “Death is real/someone’s there and then they’re not/and it’s not for singing about/it’s not for making into art.”  The existence of these lyrics are an anachronism, and yet I believe them. The passing of Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée, was the song’s subject; for Elverum, writing music was not a choice, but a compulsion.

Attack Theatre’s In Defense of Gravity, which debuted last weekend at the George R. White Studio in the Strip, is a fusion of dance, live music and poetry that is propelled by this same feeling. As the show opens, shimmering, dissonant electronic music forces our attention towards several figures emerging from backstage, reaching towards us as if underwater. A man in a business suit enters from outside, hangs up his hat and coat, and passes through the figures to sit himself in front of a trunk. Inside the trunk is a pink blanket barely larger than a washcloth, and the man grips it tightly. We don’t know everything, but we know enough.

The man is played by Peter Kope, who designed and choreographed the show alongside Michele de la Reza. Kope is here a stoic contrast to Attack Theatre’s more emotive cast. We see his character leave and re-enter the same night in his apartment over and over; the aforementioned figures, who at once embody grief, compassion and catharsis, bustle with kinetic energy until the man can do nothing except collapse into their influence.

From here, In Defense of Gravity reveals itself to the audience. The man sits in front of a book, and we hear a poem by local writer Jimmy Cvetic play over the loudspeakers: “the best lie told is the one you tell to yourself, and the greatest lie is the one you tell and believe.”

The choreography gets more complex and demanding, as the dancers embody an infant’s first struggle to stand, a child’s first fight, a lesson in how to lie, a young adult’s first love, and so on. The cast, who are made up of Kaitlin Dann, Simon Phillips, Dane Toney, Ashley Williams and Sarah Zielinsky, are all credited with movement invention, which makes sense; much of the choreography, fitting of the show’s central theme, is peppered with small bursts of unique physical personality.

The show is propelled by more than metaphor, however. The presence of Cvetic’s poetry, which has a familiar quality, is fairly explicit about each stage of life portrayed onstage, which both ensures the audience stays grounded in the play and frees up the choreography to be more purely emotive. The method of delivery for said poetry, however, was a sticking point for me; Cvetic’s voice is made garbled and bass-y by the sound system, giving his interludes an unfitting inhumanism.

In many ways, though, the very presence of Cvetic is evidence that Attack Theatre’s latest is as propelled by intellect as heart, and rarely is a creative choice made that doesn’t encourage some deeper examination of its subject. A quartet underscores the vast majority of the play, and it’s honestly a little shocking how versatile they are. An early Duke Ellington cover, while resonant, led me to expect something in the way of convention, but musicians Ben Opie (clarinet/saxophone), Ben Brosche (piano), Jeff Berman (percussion) and Anqwenique (vocals) slip just as easily into a fusion of jazz, soul and experimental music as they do the familiar.

I enjoyed how true the show is to its theme. With acknowledgment to the loose, playful feel of much of the dance work, we’re never allowed to forget that every element of the narrative is a consideration of gravity. Even during the show’s most disparate moments, there’s always a sense that the cast is about to be pulled however unwillingly back into orbit.

In Defense of Gravity is an immersive, inventive work. There is an inevitable quality to Kope and de la Reza’s expansive narrative that could easily be reinterpreted as defeatist. In life, our greatest relationships must also bottom out to our deepest emotional valleys once our connection to one another becomes severed. We can’t change our role in that story, and we’ll all find ourselves in it at some point. Once we find ourselves pulled back to the start once again, Kope and de la Reza’s work challenges us to brace for impact and start anew.

In Defense of Gravity has unfortunately already closed but you can find out more about Attack Theatre and what they’re up to here. 

White Christmas

white-christmas-marcus-center-show-detailOne can’t help but feel the warm glow of the holiday spirit watching the endearing production of White Christmas at the Palisade Playhouse in Greenfield. The playhouse is a converted Presbyterian church, which lends itself to rebirth as a theater space with the pulpit turned stage. Typical theater seats are solo and separated, everyone jostling for armrest territory, whereas the seating arrangement of pews embodies the borderless, bringing theatergoers together in warmth and solidarity.

Based on the 1954 classic film of the same name, the musical White Christmas was written by David Ives and Paul Blake with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. The play starts on Christmas Eve 1944. Captain Bob Wallace (Brett Goodnack) and Private Phil Davis (Brandon Keller) are participating in a Christmas variety show for the 151st division they’re part of, spreading holiday cheer to their fellow American troops stationed abroad. Wallace’s jaunty Santa hat and Davis’ rope of bells provide cheery nods to the season as they burst into “Happy Holiday.” General Henry Waverly (John Henry Steelman) busts up the fun, but Steelman plays the cane-holding General as a kind-hearted grandfatherly type. Although Waverly’s remark that there are “no flying reindeer over this corner of hell” reminds us that the somber realities of war rage around them, and even Santa knows enough to make it a no-fly zone.

The next scene fast-forwards us ten years to 1954. Wallace and Davis are singing “Happy Holiday” once again, but they’ve swapped their army green uniforms for showy red blazers. They’re now Broadway stars performing on The Ed Sullivan Show with 11 girls tap dancing behind them Rockette-style in red velvet peplum one-pieces with red-trimmed white satin gloves to match. They’ve transcended from military talent show to a powerhouse performing duo, as evidenced by the women who flock around both men, although only Phil responds with relentless flirting, clearly the playboy of the pair. With this first ensemble, the number of cast members occupying the Palisade stage suddenly surges, and you feel the floor vibrating as they tap in synchrony. The tap dancing girls are all young, ranging in age from roughly 10 to 16, which means not only are their sizes variable but inevitably, their performance quality varies. Toni Dobransky’s choreography could have been sharper given the space constraints. In ensemble scenes sans dance, director Matt Belliston would have benefited from stronger blocking. Actors often seem randomly and distractingly placed on the stage, contributing to poor sight lines and distracting from the main action.

While the young dancers aren’t always in lockstep or evenly spaced in the ensemble numbers, their hearts are big. Each of their multiple appearances garners easy applause from the audience as it’s hard not to be moved by their sweet earnestness. The festive red velvet costumes in the first number definitely enhance the holiday spirit. For what is a simple production, there are a truly staggering number of costume changes, making you wonder just how chaotic things must be backstage, especially with so much young talent. However, that’s all nicely hidden from the audience, and no one misses a beat as far as coming out in the wrong costume or with a piece missing, a testimony to stage manager Carissa Hardy.

In contrast to the parade of show-enhancing costumes, the amateur set design is mostly comprised of poorly painted cardboard pieces. Wallace and Davis end up following a sister act they are sweet on and want to hire for their revue to a Vermont lodge, which has a fireplace chimney that’s an outline of painted rocks on cardboard. The lodge’s main entry room is signified by a pair of painted cardboard windows adorned with curtains that bookend the stage. Clumsy, cumbersome set changes lack fluidity and create unnecessary long breaks in the action, especially given how many there are. The flimsy sets and poor stage lighting during set changes undoubtedly contribute to the lag time.

While the supporting cast is variable in quality, Goodnack’s Wallace and Keller’s Davis as well as the two sisters, Judy and Betty Haynes (played by Julia Lodge and Amanda Leight, respectively) are all delightful. The strongest and most powerful moments in the play are clearly when Goodnack and Leight occupy the stage together. They are both powerful vocalists, and their soulful voices harmonize together and make credible the evolution of their relationship from romantic cynics to sweethearts. Before they even meet, Wallace and Betty both sing “Love and the Weather” to their show partners in decrying their views on love, and Belliston cleverly positions them on opposite sides of the stage in their respective dressing rooms. The song nicely foreshadows them coming together as well as the complications that attend any relationship between two people who belt out “love and the weather, can’t be depended on.”

There are a number of memorable moments throughout the production. John Wheeler’s Ezekiel Foster only responds a monotone “yep” to requests as he helps ready the Vermont lodge’s barn space for Wallace and Davis, then sits alluringly for a few moments and belts out a couple of lines of “I Love a Piano” after Judy and Davis sing it and leave the barn, reminding us we all have a bit of the aspiring performer inside of us. At the finale, the church’s pocket doors are opened in mirror of the opening of the Vermont barn doors when Wallace and Davis perform on Christmas Eve 1954, and everything comes full circle. It’s truly a white Christmas.

White Christmas plays through December 9th at the Palisade Playhouse. To purchase tickets and for more information, click here.

Love, Love, Love

KINETIC-LOVE-LARGE-SQUARE-1Playwright Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love is damn fine theater, performed with great style, humor, pathos, bravery, and yes, love, by a damn fine ensemble, assembled and directed with intelligence and insight by Andrew Paul, producing artistic director of Kinetic Theatre Company.

At the grand old age of 37, Mike Bartlett is already one of Britain’s distinguished modern playwrights. His award winning plays on Broadway and across the pond include the much lauded King Charles III, Earthquakes, An Intervention, COCK, Bull, Game, 13, and Albion. Mr. Bartlett also boasts impressive radio and television credits, including the BBC series “Dr. Foster.”

Love, Love, Love was first produced in England in 2010, when Mr. Bartlett was only 30 years old – a fact I find particularly interesting since that makes him a member of Generation X….or Generation Y…or both…it depends on who you ask.

Since the distinction between the generations is so central to Mr. Bartlett’s play, I decided to take a look on the internet to clarify the ages attached to each generational label. There is not an absolute consensus about the division and categorization of the generations into distinct groups, but most people agree the Baby Boomers include people born between 1945 and 1964. Generation X encompasses people born between 1965 and 1984. There’s a nebulous Generation Y that may or may not exist that covers between 1975 to 2005, sort of. And then there are the Millennials born between 1982 to 2004. No one has come up with a name for the folks born after 2004 yet.

Mindy Woodhead and Darren Weller
Mindy Woodhead and Darren Weller

In Love, Love, Love Bartlett sends up the behavior of both the Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers, demanding accountability for their mistakes, but always from a perspective of affection and sympathy. The play gives us three distinct, exquisitely distilled moments in time, each act expertly crafted into its own mini-play with its own emotional highs and lows, climax and denouement. Taken together, the three acts of Love, Love, Love let us witness the turning of the world over a period of 43 years – its politics, its economic conditions, its obsessions – through the microcosm of some seriously, yet endearingly, narcissistic people.

Through the actions of Kenneth (played by Darren Weller) and Sandra (played by Mindy Woodhead), we experience the Baby Boomer generation – their optimistic aspirations, their selfishness and self-obsession, their struggles with adulthood, the realities of marriage, money, and children, and the consequences of their life-long self-absorption for the next generation, as depicted through Kenneth’s and Sandra’s children, Rosie (played by Aviana Glover) and Jamie (played by Ethan Saks). This is all brilliantly accomplished by a remarkable acting ensemble. Darren Weller and Mindy Woodhead adroitly careen through the years as pot-smoking 19 year olds, 43 year olds feeling trapped by the obligations of adulthood, and then 62 year olds who are content to enjoy themselves and leave it up to their children to figure everything else out. Mr. Weller fares a little better as a 19 year old Oxford student than does Ms. Woodhead, but both performances are remarkable for their humor, subtlety, and no-holds-barred emotion throughout. Likewise laudable were the performances of Ms. Glover and Mr. Saks, who bravely played the whiny (often with good reason), bewildered, entitled children, who might be unhappy because they aren’t “rich and famous,” but also must look on with disbelief as their parents barrel through life blissfully unaware of pretty much anyone but themselves. Playing ages ranging from 14 to 37, both Ms. Glover and Mr. Saks manage to remain sympathetic in the midst of whining and shirking adulthood. Mr. Saks should be congratulated for also taking on the role of “Kenneth’s” slightly older brother, “Henry,” in the first act; Henry just missed out on the “summer of love” and represents the hard working, no non-sense, get-the-job-done generation known today as the Greatest Generation; he’s dead in the third act of the play, which I find emblematic.

Ethan Saks, Mindy Woodhead, Aviana Glover, and Darren Weller
Ethan Saks, Mindy Woodhead, Aviana Glover, and Darren Weller

The sets, costumes, and make up design of the show were almost universally successful. It was great fun watching the living room for each act getting bigger and nicer with each iteration. I was particularly fond of the 80s pastels and prints in Act II; it all hit the right notes for each time period. And let us not forget the amazing hair and wardrobe changes required of “Sandra” for each time period. Except for some minor technical problems with Ms. Woodhead’s Act I and Act II costumes, which I expect will be addressed as the play proceeds, all of the design work was spot on for this production.

And I love the Pittsburgh Playwrights theater space. It’s dirty and sweaty, small and unpretentious. The small space allows intimacy and immediacy for the audience that you miss in grander, more well-heeled spaces. It’s a space that says, “Come in. We love theater, and we’ll make it happen!” Just my kind of space. And it works perfectly for the immediacy of this play.

Kinetic Theatre Company’s production of Love, Love, Love runs through December 17, 2017 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. You can find tickets at www.kinetictheatre.org. During this holiday season, if you’re looking for something more substantial than Nutcracker, but still want some humor and humanity, this is the perfect play for you.

Photos by Rocky Raco.

A Tuna Christmas

TunaChristmasIt seems that every theatre company has its own Christmas show or two. The Little Lake Theatre Company in Canonsburg has A Tuna Christmas, set in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas. Like everywhere else, the Yuletide holidays can wreak havoc, and create turmoil in what is otherwise a pretty low-key community. The “big doins” here is the town’s annual Christmas Yard Display Contest, usually won (14 times in a row) by one Ms. Vera Carp. This year the contest has been thrown into tailspin by a mysterious “Christmas Phantom,” who is covertly sabotaging the yard displays! Tuna embraces the usual holiday angst of Christmas; tipsy radio announcers, a crazy gun dealer, reform school loser, stressed waitresses, over-crowded animal shelters, alcoholics, dysfunctional siblings and grandmas, a pregnant cat and a struggle to mount the annual holiday pageant production without electricity.

If all that sounds silly, it is, and fun as well! A Tuna Christmas is a loving yet biting satire of life in a small Texas town. The second of three “Tuna” plays, it was first produced in 1989 and played a command performance at the White House for President George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

In reality, all three Tunas resemble the TV comedy sketches by Harvey Korman and Tim Conway from the Carol Burnett Show which, aired on CBS the previous decade.  As cleverly written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, Tuna Christmas’ large cast of characters pop in-and-out of scenes like customers at a Starbucks in the morning.

To add just a bit more zaniness, the authors have chosen to have all twenty-two of the townspeople played by only two actors. Kevin Bass and Art DeConciliis who brilliantly share the load equally performing the mixed bag of characters; young, old, men, women and all just a little off center. Dozens of back and forth costume changes occur at breakneck speed throughout the show. Dressers Rebecca Herron and Danette Marie Levers receive well-deserved billing for their herculean efforts.

A Tuna Christmas is so watchable and enjoyable due to the excellent physical comedy skills and near-perfect comedic timing of Bass and DeConciliis (who also co-directs). Theirs is a combination of Korman, Conway, Red Skelton and Robin Williams style-wise with the delivery of punch lines like two boxers feinting and throwing punches in the ring. Both actors have years of experience working together and separately, and it shows in the quality of their work. Yes, the jokes are a little stale. Co-director Jena Oberg, Bass, and DeConciliis offer a few surprise jokes reflecting current times.

Yes, the show is a bit too long. None the less, the audience filled Little Lake’s barn theatre with laughter and smiles throughout the evening. Watching these two veteran actors pull off the show in a brilliant an engaging fashion is definitely worth the trip to Canonsburg.

A Tuna Christmas runs December 1st, 2nd, 7th 8th 9th 14th, 15th 16th at the Little Lake Theatre. For tickets visit https://www.showclix.com/event/a-tuna-christmas

This show will sell out quickly so don’t wait to get your tickets.

Thanks to Little Lake Theatre for the complimentary tickets.

The Old Man and the Old Moon

CT1711_Tomatom_573x437PigPen Theatre Company’s The Old Man and the Old Moon radiates joy at such a rate that you can practically feel its glow before you even get the chance to take your seat. I mean that somewhat literally. The cast roams the stage as the audience enters, silently chuckling along with all the pre-show chatter. At first, they’re pretty much invisible, but the soft, plucky riff of the acoustic guitar one of the performers is handling begins to set the tone. As people file in, another guitar joins, then drums. We don’t feel it at first, but as the audience begins to quiet, a song is beginning to take shape, until it suddenly explodes into a soaring folk anthem, and the show is begun.

My first thought leaving Southside’s spacious City Theatre was, of all things, about the mechanics of theater. The Old Man and the Old Moon‘s entire existence is predicated on the way it wears its 150 BPM heart rate on its sleeve – and it is very good at doing that – but it’s real accomplishments actually come from its storytelling intellect.

The Old Man and the Old Moon essentially has two stories to tell. The first is about a man who travels an uncharted world in pursuit of his wayward wife and a mythic past long forgotten; the second, cleverly, is about the people who tell us this story. When the intro (re: the greatest Lumineers song never written) concludes, a narrator (Matt Nuernberger) appears in its vacuum. He introduces us to the titular Old Man (Ryan Melia), who has been tasked with refilling the moon every night to ensure it remains full. He’s been doing this so long he can’t quite remember why he started in the first place. His wife (Alex Falberg), compelled by wanderlust and half-remembered purpose, sets sail in a rowboat to find herself. Distraught and utterly unprepared to face the outside world, the Old Man sets off to find her.

Our protagonist, then, is a classic folktale archetype, and while the script pulls heavily from Irish culture, I’m certain you could find him in the periphery of every legend, myth or fable the world over. Melia’s Old Man is a loose, classically put-upon guy who is nevertheless filled to the tweed cap with raw performative energy. The anachronism of his energetic physicality and his cartoon-perfect wavering vocals make for a compelling comic performance.

The rest of the cast adopt a similarly asynchronous approach to their characters. Falberg’s Old Woman is a loving Irish stereotype whose emotions bubble under her sarcastic charisma. Ben Ferguson briefly steals the show as a wide-eyed lunatic who gave up trying to escape the whale he was eaten by over a decade ago. His character largely echoes Jonah and the whale, but his performance is so casually insane he’s almost more reminiscent of that guy in every office who has visibly been there way too long.

The Old Man and the Old Moon’s primary aesthetic is a foggy woodworked dreamscape in which a dog is a mop, a bustling market is two large planks and a man holding a sign, and the moon is produced by the glow of a flashlight. Yet, the play is immersive, so much so that its patchwork landscape- the method with which it portrays the world of this gentle-hearted odyssey to us – is as rewarding as its narrative. A large-scale battle between warships happens in the play’s first act, and I found myself smiling in anticipation of seeing what PigPen was going to do with its limited toolset to accomplish such an ambitious scene.

Spoiler alert: as it turns out, this particular instance of naval combat is fought by two groups of men contorting themselves into a kind of horizontal pyramid and all shouting, and I quote, “SHIP.”

Yes.

Even in these extremely good and extremely goofy moments, City Theatre’s production encourages further exploration of its themes. Our narrator, who is so explicitly excited at the notion of telling us a story that he appears in his own story so that he may tell us even more stories – and then, in the process of doing that, re-iterate how much he loves storytelling – is a reminder of why we’re sat in the theater listening to him go on in the first place. It’s not only that we like being entertained, but that the pure unadulterated joy of the art of the story, the suggestion that the world is bigger than we understand it to be, is an undying human instinct.

The Old Man and the Old Moon reminds us that the world is full of amazing stuff, and that adventure will always await those who choose to seek it. That sensation you get as a kid, huddled around a flashlight at a sleepover while your friend tells you about fighting the horrible monster he found in the woods – that innate awe and anticipation of something new – is still there if you look for it.

The Old Man and the Old Moon runs at City Theatre through December 3. For tickets and more information, click here. For more about PigPen Theatre Co click here. 

The Humans

humansTime may march on, but there’s something immutable about the roles one regresses into during family holiday gatherings. Sibling rivalries flare, there are passive aggressive references to real or perceived slights of yesteryear, family traditions are observed, and there’s often some alcohol along the way to smooth or coarsen the track. Love is there, but navigating family can be its own rocky course, which is precisely the appeal in watching the holidays unfurl for fictional families. You identify pieces of yourself, and your own family normalizes a bit. Thanksgiving dinner with the Blake family includes all of the above and comprises the action in Stephen Karam’s play, The Humans, now playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

PPT_The_Humans_011The play starts on the second floor of scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s magnificent set, a two-story apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. The lights come up on Erik Blake (J. Tucker Smith), an upper middle-aged man standing on the second floor landing with a grocery bag in each hand. He looks out, a modern-day Lewis and Clark in a plaid shirt, surveying this new frontier from on high, in this case his younger daughter Brigid’s (Valeri Mudek) new apartment she just moved into with her boyfriend, Richard Saad (Arash Mokhtar). A wheelchair behind Erik immediately signifies this is a multi-generational gathering. A spiral staircase provides access to the ground floor, but Schweikardt brilliantly chooses not to place a railing at the front of the second floor level. The long unprotected drop is unnerving. The precipice heightens the play’s emotional edges and creates visual vulnerability, reminding us we’re all one fragile misstep away from disaster.

Schweikardt’s black metal staircase winds tightly, appropriately double helix-like. The staircase is not simply a way to ascend and descend. Director Pamela Berlin thoughtfully utilizes it as a space where characters hover between floors, one ear cocked and listening to the conversation above or below. Each character is in transition in some way, and these pauses on the stairs, neither up nor down, symbolize those transitions.

Cecelia Riddett in wheelchair then (left to right) Arash Mokhtar, Valeri Mudek, Courtney Balan, J. Tucker Smith and Charlotte Booker
Cecelia Riddett in wheelchair then (left to right) Arash Mokhtar, Valeri Mudek, Courtney Balan, J. Tucker Smith and Charlotte Booker

At one point, the mother, Deirdre (Charlotte Booker) comes down from the bathroom and overhears her two adult daughters making fun of the emails she tirelessly sends, ones with subject lines like “PLEASE READ THIS.” The audience laughs easily with Brigid and Aimee (Courtney Balan), and Deirdre’s all-caps emails are genuinely comedic and eyeroll-relatable. As she stands on the stairs listening, Booker’s face softly collapses behind bottle-dyed red hair as she realizes she’s become an object of ridicule. Deirdre loves her children, and her struggle to relevantly express it is both funny and poignant as she foists off a Virgin Mary statue on Brigid along with a wind-up radio, covering emergency preparedness from multiple angles.

Karam’s characters are written a bit one-dimensionally, considering The Humans won the Tony for best play of 2016. Cecilia Riddett is commendable as the grandmother, Momo, but she’s also a caricature of an old lady, an elderly inconvenience who dozes off, then punctuates the action with occasional outbursts. Deirdre and Erik juggle her care, and when Brigid implies they’re overmedicating Momo, Deirdre snaps, reminding her it’s a $100 a night for someone to watch Momo. Over half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, so night care isn’t an in-budget luxury. For the Blakes and most Americans, life is that railingless second floor.

Charlotte Booker and Arash Mokhtar
Charlotte Booker and Arash Mokhtar

Brigid and Richard’s moving truck has yet to arrive from Queens, so the whole apartment has a makeshift quality. A disposable tablecloth covers a cheap folding table, and the row of turkeys printed on it precipitously dangle over the table’s edge, a macabre death scene that echoes the imminent threat of falling from the level above. A tissue paper honeycomb turkey that looks like it would be more at home in an elementary school comprises the centerpiece and completes a sad dollar store nod to Thanksgiving.

Berlin appropriately chooses to stage Brigid and Richard as a couple you sense won’t work out, even before they unpack. There’s no perceptible attraction between them. Brigid is a frustrated musician with student loans and dual bartending jobs. She disparagingly notes to Aimee that Richard made a pro/con list on whether or not to move in together and also maintains a list of “ways to have fun,” which includes thrill-seekers like “long walks.” One gets the sense Richard comes from money, which is affirmed as the play unfolds, and given their lack of connection, it’s hard not to cynically wonder if Brigid sees him as a financial toehold.

J. Tucker Smith and Valeri Mudek
J. Tucker Smith and Valeri Mudek

A flaw of the writing, not the production, is the pacing. The first half is overly long, and there’s a sense of relief when everyone finally sits down and gets to the big meal, although Thanksgiving itself can feel that way as you’re forever waiting to eat. Deirdre repeatedly whispers to Erik to “tell them” almost from the outset, and Booker underscores her reminder with fiery eyes that widen and a steel set mouth. Erik’s big reveal, while unanticipated, feels strangely anticlimactic as Smith flatlines and struggles to make it believable. The ripple effect of the reveal is rushed and feels a bit contrived, but the play’s final moments are masterful and impactful.

Growing up, our most successful Thanksgiving dinners were the ones where we ate out as my mother was a weak cook at best. One Thanksgiving, she attempted to cook a goose. I vividly remember my dad standing over it, his carving knife revealing a bloody pink interior, triggering a swell of sailor-worthy cursing from my mother. Ah, blessed family holiday memories. You’ll laugh, nod, and find a piece of yourself and your family in The Humans this holiday season.

The Humans plays through December 10th at the O’Reilly Theater. To purchase tickets and for more information, click here.

Photos by Michael Henninger