Pittsburgh New Works Festival’s Program A

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Thursday, September 3 I sipped an orange Pellegrino at Carnegie Stage, thrilled to have been invited back a second time in one week this time for Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) series kick- off, Program A.  The inaugural presentation consists of three original one act plays performed by various regional theater companies.

The first performance of the evening, presented by CCAC South Campus, Prodigal Returns written by esteemed author Garry Kluger, directed by established Pittsburgh theater contributor Lora Oxenreiter, and produced by none other than George Jaber, 2010 Pittsburgh New Works Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.

The show begins when Sara, played by Rebekah Hukill, comes breezing into a living room, pours herself a shot of whisky and throws it back like there is no tomorrow.  Her sister Jody, played by Teresa Madden Harrold, appears looking disheveled from sleeping.  We quickly learn through the sharp dialogue that Sara has arrived at the family home, after being away for many years.  She is twelve hours late for their father’s funeral. The two sisters banter back and forth outlining the emotional family rift that ultimately drove Sara away. The two sisters manage to tone down their language and open, not just their ears to hear each other but their minds as well to actually listen and by the end of the performance, their hearts.  Their familial wounds festered for so long reconciliation between the two seems almost impossible.  Jody announces she does not agree with Sara’s homosexual lifestyle and does not recognize Sara’s marriage to Carol as a ‘marriage’.  Sara outlines the gritty details of Jody’s failed matrimony to a man that ended in a bitter divorce.  Jody defends her union with the production of a child. Sara reaches into her bag, pulls out a picture of a baby, holds it up for Jody to see and announces, ‘…my marriage qualifier’.  Suddenly the mood of the play shifts.

Sitting in the audience was much like eavesdropping on a private conversation and both Hukill and Harrold really work well together developing their characters nicely throughout the performance.  The final moments of the play, they walk off stage together chattering like two little girls, cinched together the entire performance.

The second play Empty Plots, presented by Stage Right and written by PNWF four- time Outstanding Playwright award winner, Chris Gavaler.  No set is required for this show and none of the characters have names. Actors Anne Rematt, Deb Wein and Kurt Stridinger command the stage through a blend of representational and a vague hint of presentational acting techniques.  The show starts when Rematt enters the stage from the audience carrying a potted flower; she peers into the faces and over the heads of us viewers.  Stridinger follows, and together they search the names etched into tombstones, looking for the grave of her deceased mother.  The discourse between the two reflect their pre-baby jitters with anticipation of the birth of their first child due in just ten days as well as topics cemetery roaming conjure.  Chatting about mortality, dying, religion, church and the mass manufacture of funerals are just a few of the subjects the two touch upon.   One can sense their intimacy and devotion as a couple growing in the moment.  The conversation bounces back and forth between abstract and real as they search out the gravesite of her mother who happened to die during childbirth; her birth.  Then a second woman, played by Wein, enters the scene.  She either does not notice or chooses to ignore the couple as she approaches a grave site carrying a bouquet of flowers. She stops and begins to speak, as if the dead was listening. She falls to her knees and begins to pray. This act throws husband and wife for a reality check; suddenly realizing death is not so much about the person who is deceased but the people left behind.

The transition between the representational and presentational acting keeps the audience interested.  Furthermore, the acting is strong enough to not require a set of artfully designed tombstones as props to convince an audience they are on burial ground.  The play did stir up in me some melancholic feelings but my guess is nothing more than what most people ponder when faced with the subject of death, the unknown and preconceived notions regarding the afterlife.

The last production of the evening, Two written by Eugenie Carabatsos, a CMU MFA Dramatic Writing student and produced by Thoreau-NM-A Production Co. The story is a sweet and sentimental show staring Layne Bailey as Bernadette and Ryan Baker as Benjamin.  The performance is directed by filmmaker, actress and artistic director Christine Marie.

Bernadette and Benjamin are rag dolls, dressed in complementary outfits reminiscent of a Raggedy Ann and Andy style.  They are trapped in a box, but not a nice cardboard box with a clear window in front like that had lived in before.  This box is musty, moldy, dark and hot.  How long have they been there? When will they get out?  Bernadette is going stir crazy and contemplating suicide.  Benjamin, a much more level- headed helps keep Bernadette grounded by playing games, telling stories and thinking positively.  This show used no set and no props. The empty stage allows for the viewers imagination to go where it needs to go.  A lovely piano accompaniment helps create an ambience of innocence and playfulness. The costumes were clever, specifically the unraveling threads on the dolls arms and neck showing their age and wear.

This performance is the shortest of the evening, but a perfect length to tell the story of two rag dolls and what they might be thinking and feeling if we could know.  As children we spend most of our time suspending our disbelief to accept the feelings of cartoon characters, the habits of inanimate objects in illustrations and so forth.  Two allows the audience to return to that place with a more mature intellect.

Program A still has a few more performances! For tickets and more information click here.

Performance Date: Thursday, September 3, 2015