Pittsburgh New Works Festival’s Program D

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After four weeks of new theater full of joy and excitement, the 25th season of Pittsburgh New Works Festival is coming to an end. I was fortunate enough to be present at both the very first round staged readings, and the last full production program of the Festival. And after seeing those three wonderful plays that opened last Friday night with Program D, I can tell you right now that the journey only gets better!

The first one-act play of the evening is Grim Tidings, written by Dennis Jones and produced by Heritage Players. It tells a story about a Russian banker, Edward Hastings, who met a mysterious fortuneteller Madam Zaekov on one Christmas Day and learned about his fortunate fate and unfortunate destiny through three prophecies. The entire plot focused on the third and last prophecy where a Grim Reaper, a.k.a. the devil a.k.a. Death Agent, is coming to kill Edward, and hence how he is trying to avoid this fatal incident by working together with the fortuneteller.

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The act opened with three long bell rings–“The time is 1885.” And within a few minutes you can tell this is going to be another classic love and murder story by the mischievous lighting atmosphere and the actors’ British accents. All the background stories were introduced in the banker’s monologue and after the first two prophecies we already knew that he’s rich and has a wife. The tension was building up slowly for the third deadly prophecy, yet a lot of questions still remained unanswered, such as why this Grim Reaper is coming to kill Edward, and why a fortuneteller would know every details about the rules of killing and is suddenly interested in helping the rich banker. Then as the narration went on, the perspective of the story shifted to a year later—the day when the killing was supposed to happen. And more comedic characters were introduced, such as an oddly nosy butler and the fore-mentioned wife whose only role in the plot seems to be helping the final revelation easily “make sense”. Overall the acting managed to covey the warm Christmas story feeling while maintaining the suspense of a murder set up. Most of the plots were directly explained to the audience instead of dramatized, but every once a while you would get a good laugh.

nanashome movies

The second piece Nana’s Home Movies is an one-man play produced by McKeesport Little Theater and featured a carefully crafted script written by F. J. Hartland, who holds a PNWF record of fifteen productions as a playwright and has won the award for Best Play four times. If you’ve read my recent review of Games of the Mind, a full length play written by Mr. Hartland and produced by Throughline Theatre Company, you probably remember that Mr. Hartland is a master of creating colorful characters with rich background stories while developing the plot. Well, this script proved just that, if not better with the actor Joel Ambrose’s wonderful portrait as the narrator Landon in the play.

The story follows Landon as he goes through his deceased grandmother’s possessions and recalls childhood memories by watching Nana’s old home movies. Each movie introduced a little bit more about the family’s history to the audience, and through this journey we started to have a clearer picture of what every family member, such as his grandmother, grandfather, and sisters, were like “back to the old days”. The plot took a shocking but still reasonable turn when we got to the last movie of the play, titled “Goodbyes”, as we realized that this story is more than just reminiscing about old times and family stories–it’s also about growing up, about idealism versus reality. We learned the reason why Landon likes to watch these home movies is not only just to remember, but also to escape. The design team used a blank rectangle LED projection to symbolize the movie screen, which works out perfectly. The drama of the entire play is solely based on Landon’s monologue with some occasional “breaking the fourth wall” moments that will win the connection and laughter from the audience. And with the poetic yet whimsical language from Mr. Hartland’s script, the play offers a nostalgic feeling that will dig out all of your emotions.

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The third and final play of Program D The Green Eyed Monster was written by Michael Wolfson and produced by South Hills Players. The script features a David Lynch narration style that just when you thought you figured out what was happening with all the characters on stage, it turned on itself and made the overall theme actually about something else. But don’t get me wrong; it’s still a great story.

The act opened with a woman named Ellen pointing a gun from the aisle at her husband Carl who’s standing on stage, which immediately intensified the atmosphere in the theater. Carl was noticed to be a little bit carefree with a gun pointing at him, while Ellen’s angry behavior seemed plausible if not overdue. Then a third character joined the stage and gave the audience the “Aha!” moment as we realized that the situation here was actually not that urgent after all (trying not to spoil anything here). At this point the jealousy in the story is entirely based on Ellen’s strong belief that Carl is having an affair with another person. And as the plot moved forward we learned that this conflict between the two characters might be more than just about their marriage. The play then threw another big surprise at the audience as the fourth character jumped on stage, and everyone is now thinking, “hold on, so this is a play within a play, within a play?” In the end it seemed like almost everybody in the story became the green eyed monster, but just when you thought this is a story about jealousy with a cliché love triangle, the play took the third sharp turn and went off with a completely different direction. The last moment of the play can be easily considered as open to interpretation. The script occasionally has a few rather confusing comments on some real life issues (e.g. morality of directors’ methods, age gap in acting industry, etc.) that made me think if the structure of the narration was a little bit overdone just “for the sake of plot twists” and eventually overshadowed the true theme of the play, but perhaps that is the original intention of the play for the experimental spirit of a new work?

This year at the 60th Annual Drama Desk Awards, when Lin-Manuel Miranda won all three categories for his book, music, and lyrics of his new musical Hamilton(now a massive success on Broadway), he said, “Sondheim was right, art isn’t easy”. And he’s absolutely correct. As we all know, the craft of dramatic art is incredibly complex, and the business side always requires serious navigation. But when it comes to new works, all you really need is love—unshakable love and passion for telling your stories, inspiring new ideas, and changing the face of next-generation theater.

Thank you Pittsburgh New Works Festival for always reminding us of that love. Here is to another great 25 years.

Grim Tidings:

Dennis Jones (Playwright), Sean David Butler (Edward Hastings), Sandi Oshaben (Madam Zaekov), Patrick Conner (Portofov), Andy Coleman (Nigel), Amanda Leigh (Amanda Broom), Nicole Zalak (Director), Carol Shafer (Producer), Jay Breckenridge (Stage Manager)

Nana’s Home Movies:

F. J. Hartland (Playwright), Joel Ambrose (Landon), Catherine Gallagher (Director), Linda L. Baker (Producer), Rogella Tirone (Stage Manager)

The Green Eyed Monster:

Michael Wolfson (Playwright), Dave Joseph (Carl), Jennifer Luta (Ellen), Ruthy Stapleton (Stacy), Andrew Yackel (Barry), Naomi Grodin (Director), David Grande (Producer), AJ Bradshaw (Stage Manager)

Special thanks to Pittsburgh New Works Festival for the complimentary press tickets. Program D runs until September 27th. For more information about performance dates and ticketing, check out PNWF’s website

Performance Date: Friday, September 18, 2015