Pittsburgh New Works Festival’s Program B

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25 years is nothing short of celebratory. In its quarter of a century return, The Pittsburgh New Works Festival manages to retain a gracious amount of humility and appreciation. These are both important things to have in producing the new one act plays chosen for Program B of the PNWF at the Carnegie Stage. The three plays were selected from a batch of 228 previously unproduced entries from places like Moctezuma, Iowa and even Barcelona, Spain. Program B put focus on the loves, lives, and losses of women in different time periods and alternate universes.

Sounds of triumphant fanfare underscored the opener, Queen Stefi, by Zac Thompson, produced by Actor’s Civic Theater. To further establish the royal kingdom ruled by the headstrong, titular queen captured by Sara Barbisch, the set had flairs of decorum with three tapestries and a chaise. Queen Stefi climbed her way to the top rank after originally entering her empire as a slave girl. With her foreign-born attitude, she often disagrees with the specific traditions of her new land. The tone of the piece instantly comes across as comedic thanks to Richard Cavallucci’s portrayal as Bacillus (the Eunuch), Stefi’s oafish messenger. Now, if you don’t know what a “eunuch” is, Zac Thompson made it extraordinary clear with his stab at a Monty Python-esque use of innuendo and word play. Director, James Critchfield, aided the writing with his use of physical comedy from bumbling guards to a lumbersexual slave girl in constant bevel, who was actually Stefi’s ex-fiance, Doug (the Valiant) returning from the grave to steal her back.

Stefi’s mantra seemed to be “forget the past, seize opportunities as they come to you.”, but many of these “opportunities” were that of the flesh making the story less about the intrigue of the characters’ pasts to what lie beneath their tunics. Zac Thompson tries to walk the fine line of melodrama only to cross it, losing a strong sense of conflict and instead favoring a more phallic-ly challenged world.

The heart of the program was Sweet Tea and Cadillacs by Ben Torbush. During the transition, the stage was replaced with a table and three chairs demonstrating the hollow judgment of an audition room. Michael R. Petyak’s direction effectively used the intimate space to his advantage especially with his cold opening with assistant, Bruce Story-Camp describing to casting director, Partick Stanny, Tinder 101- proving to be my only real laugh of the night. But, Sweet Tea and Cadillacs is not what it is made out to be for the audience and for aging actress, Juliana, played with fractured grace by Tracie Black. Juliana is in the audition room to read for the part of a mother, pointing out the ageism seen in Hollywood. But, when reading over the script she doesn’t find authenticity of the outspoken mother role she is reading for. This leads to an argument of quick fire dialogue among them. Ben Torbush has great control of his pacing knowing when to crank it into high gear and putting a more dynamic emphasis to moments of solemn contemplation. These moments lie solely in the reactionary strength of Ms. Black during her striking monologue of her past life that she herself imagined would be “sweet tea and Cadillacs”. A seamless lighting cue gives her the aura of a David Lynch night club singer. Despite the audience being confronted by the backs of the casting directors, Tracie Black tell us exactly what we need to know.

Stanny repeats over and over “I want real!”, and that is exactly what Torbush and the Cup-A-Jo Productions serves, a glass of sweet tea with gritty pieces of sugar that just can’t seem to dissolve.

If nursery rhymes had nightmares, that’s exactly what The Old Maid and Her Old Goose would be. The wonky country charm of the windows and love seat told the audience to be ready for something familiar, but off-beat. This assumption was reinforced with the entrance of the grand dame herself, Marilyn, played by J. Swauger in drag. Swauger has never made costume jewelry look so good. Marilyn has an air of a steampunk Marie Antoinette who was lucky enough to keep her head… well almost. Marilyn has an off-kilter personality with an affinity for highly romanticizing love and teaching her niece, Valencia, about proper womanly etiquette. Valencia doesn’t care much for these lessons and prefers the life of a criminologist as she vilifies her cat. Much of the play, written by Kyle John Schmidt and produced by The Theatre Factory, was spent establishing the alternate universe which played upon it’s gender bent and Vaudevillian antics leaving only a short period of time for conflict when Valencia’s other aunt, Bessie, arrives at their home. She serves as a foil to Marilyn, believing in love only as a measure of lust and passion. A neighboring pig farmer drops by in the last few minutes to seek Marilyn’s hand in marriage, which she takes after years of waiting for love. Schmidt subtly reveals the fate of Marilyn, like the old goose who is killed by Valencia’s cat, the future for Marilyn appears gruesome.

In every nursery rhyme or fable there is a moral. The wisest of words from The Old Maid and Her Old Goose being, “Love and war are both dangerous improvisations.” The dark frolicking attitude of the play chosen for the end of the program left me wanting something with a more resonant punch like was given from the victor of the night, Sweet Tea and Cadillacs.

It was clear seeing where the strengths and weaknesses in each play lie, but never did that prohibit the audience from raucously enjoying the program. That is because these productions and the Pittsburgh New Works Festival tackle the most organic nature of theater- collaboration. Check out PNWF’s website for more information on tickets and Program B performances.

Performance Date: Friday, September 4, 2015