Mythburgh: Round 2 with 12 Peers

21752367_1973464016000784_6131844286900303418_nI reviewed the first installment of 12 Peers Theater’s Mythburgh series last month. The second in this three-part series of Pittsburgh-focused stories was also staged at the Brillobox. Last time, the bar turned theatre venue for a night meant it was mostly standing room only. This time was no different, except I leveraged my lessons learned and wore flats instead of the 4-inch heels I chose last time. A simple, low stage was slung across the front of the bar space under towering windows rimmed by dizzying red wallpaper.

Part of Mythburgh’s intrigue is all of the plays are Pittsburgh-specific in some way, but Amy Hartman’s Lettuce & Loss seems to elude that criterion, which ends up being the least of its flaws. The play is like a mixed drink itself: one part reader’s theatre (everyone was reading from scripts clasped in 3-ring binders), two parts theatre of the absurd (the basic plot is a man forced to choose repeatedly between parting with his wife or a chair), plus a splash of classical Greek (the play also featured a needless Greek chorus). The missing ingredient is Pittsburgh, which is supposed to be the flavor that unites these shows. Just as a Long Island Iced Tea loses its appeal post-college when you realize the diminishing returns of mixing five kinds of alcohol, so too does Lettuce & Loss suffer from the ad hoc blend of many genres, leaving you a bit hung over.

Lettuce & Loss ends up being the kind of play you might imagine if you think about theatre with a capital T taking itself too seriously as director Michael Goldberg has all of the actors dress in black and default to over enunciation, as if you’re watching a caricature of a play – or certainly one that lacked adequate rehearsal time. The wife, Meg (Carrie Martz) clutches a taxidermied chicken at the start of the show, and Martz’s role mostly calls for hysterics, which she executes efficiently. The husband’s (Vince Ventura) repeated proclamations of love for the chair he built and admires for its “supple curves, intuitive curves” come across as forced and contrived. This effectively cuts off access to any deeper commentary on materialism or the desire to shape and control one’s love objects, which could have been as interesting to peel back as the chair’s lovingly crafted birch wood. The play does start on a high note as the bartender (Brittany Tague) welcomes the first black-ensembled actress (Mary Quinlan) by offering her a drink. Tague eyerolls when the woman launches into woeful dramatics over an unspecified loss. You sympathize with the bartender playing not just drink jockey but the unwilling role of psychologist.

Starting with the title, Don’t Look Now: The Tale of the Pittsburgh Shuffler, the second play compensates for the lack of Pittsburgh essence in the first. In this casual romp, two Point Park University students Taylor (Caitlin Dobronz) and Jessica (Hope Anthony) hit the bar for a night on the town. They come in with focus, immediately ordering and downing two cherry bombs, shots as red as the Brillobox’s vibrant interior. Playwright Matt Henderson brilliantly captures both the timeless quality of them – they are there playing the age-old procrastination game of delaying the inevitable writing of an anthropology paper due the next day, and their time-specific presence as they banter about Tinder and Taylor Swift, both clad in skinny jeans and high-heeled boots. Dobronz is a delight to watch as she encapsulates a modern-day mean girl, clearly the leader of the duo. Dobronz also directs the show and has both girls bouncing between their phones and scanning the room for action, centering a cultivated and feigned indifference. Anthony gives Jessica her moments of strength, but they quickly fade under Dobronz’s withering looks and ringleader authority.

For anyone who attended the first installment of Mythburgh, there are a few hidden Easter eggs to delight the careful observer. Henderson played fortuneteller Swami Matt in one of the plays, and Taylor refers to Matt when she talks about seeing a psychic. This leads into a discussion of the “green being of Pittsburgh” who physically manifests as Ray (Jim Froehlich), although both girls misread him as dressed in Halloween costume as green juices ooze through white gauze mummifying his head. Dobronz has the girls fittingly nod to Halloween in the most noncommittal and stereotypical of female ways; Taylor dons bunny ears, and Jessica wears cat ears. Henderson weaves in the supernatural as a through element as Ray can communicate with both the girls and Pinky (Natalia Rose), a ghost who travels with Taylor and clearly distains her.

During the event, I ended up standing at a table and chatting with a friend of the actress who played the bartender. There we were, a couple of strangers who struck up a conversation; she was from Erie and had acted in some plays there. I recently moved back to the Burgh after many years in California, and a similar situation there would generally mean both parties would tacitly agree not to converse, or even make eye contact. People tend to stay in the safe space of being heads-down with their phone. I was reminded such moments are Pittsburgh stories in themselves – casual, genuine conversation evolving between two people who walked into a bar as strangers and came out enriched in some small way after connecting with someone else. The warmth of Pittsburghers is no myth, and it’s no small part of the city’s charm. Mythburgh ultimately reminds us our stories as individuals are inevitably about place, and they’re more interwoven with our city than we realize.

There will be one more installment of 12 Peers’ Mythburgh presented at the Brillobox on November 19th. Tickets to Mythburgh are always Name Your Own Price, but you can find out more here.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play

Mr. Burns Image12 Peers’ production of Mr. Burns reminds me how theatre is actually a sickness: an uncontrollable urge for group chemistry to elucidate collaboration, values and to define social archetypes.   It’s a phenomenon that spans cultures for a reason; a desperate need to create Culture and expose the excitement of live spectacle, meaning, and catharsis.  Lessons come from theatre, so we see it evolve within this play from a distinct form of mythology, a past that is our present.  The shared experience is a communal and biological drug, such that trauma can be translated into release.

As this play begins, we are given traumatized strangers.  They all have stories, survivors of a looming, severe apocalypse.  Their pasts are reflected in the subtle hints and subtext; big reveals between the distractions of dialogue, really.  A great power this text imbues is its subtext.  It’s a treat actually, the guessing game, trying to figure out the lines-between of a character like Gayle Pazerski’s Jenny.  A great deal of the first act is just straight-up talking about a Simpsons episode.  But it’s so clearly a shiny, little cat toy.  Nostalgia is a bit of a painkiller, lightly treating symptoms.  You’re seeing this a bit in other actors, like Cassidy Adkins’ Maria or Joe York’s Matt.  But with Pazerski, there’s something about the other narrative that’s not revealed.  There are certain moments of stock, silent horror that comes down to looks.

The brilliance of this play is that it’s aggressively esoteric.  It won’t have the same effect 20 years from now when seasons 1-10 of the Simpsons don’t hit home to our millennial sensibilities, as they’re wont to do now.  When you are introduced to these characters, you can easily place yourself within them trying desperately to grapple the latent utopian feel when television characters’ conflicts were the brunt of thought and conversation.  It’s what people talk about these days, as if these fictional characters were their actual friends.

mr burns production photoI strongly encourage people to check out 12 Peers’ Facebook page and look at the profiles and questionnaires of each actor in the show. These actors have become aware of their characters’ pasts.  It reminds me of the research done with Uta Hagen’s process, where the character-on-stage is more fully realized by the actor making choices about said character’s necessary past.  There is a healthy amount of investigation that these actors have compiled for themselves, and the brilliance of Mr Burns is it only reveals so much.  The audience is allowed to answer for themselves what holocaust these players have gone through.

Another stand-out is Everett Lowe’s Gibson.  He powerfully exacts an exhausted person with a booming strength being tested to its limits.  We get glimpses of where he’s been.  But not so much that we know him.  He tethers the line well between imposing and comforting, setting up the dichotomy that is between architects of a new civilization coming from those who had survived the apocalypse.  Kudos to the actor for pulling off this duality.

The acts are divided between “Now”, “7 Years Later” and “75 Years Later”.  It’s the evolution of what the accumulated memories of a specific Simpsons episode come to mean culturally.

What Mr Burns epitomizes so well is the burn of claustrophobia; cabin fever.  It plays with the apocalyptic fears we obsess with as a culture and puts them into play.  Post-electric: how do we mythologize?

That Third Act, the “75 Years Later”; that’s got to be earned.  How do you even get a remote idea of what life might be like, “post-electric”, when it comes to 75 years later?

Probably the most interesting arc of the show belongs to Brittany Tague, who also shows her talent as the show’s choreographer.  Her character Colleen goes from shell-shocked stranger to company manager within a new economy built on compiling culture.  To allow this frame to materialize in what becomes a Greek tragedy/opera, built upon the vestiges of what elements from the 90’s can be remembered, allows a very grave part of the brain to be tickled.  What we illusorily imagine to be warm satire can be easily contrived as hollow or obsolete relics.  Think of the Parthenon’s white columns having the same white shade as a mausoleum.  It’s as if the culture it was created for is dead.  That’s exactly what it is: dead.  And yet we still have the relic.

What’s created 75 years later, is a testament to human need; using “The Simpsons” as a crude vehicle to get there.  I liked this production.  I would have liked it more with no stage lights and only “post-electric” scenic design; but that’s a nit-picky request, I know.  Still, I believe that the 3rd Act is earned.  It’s well-choreographed, well-sung and well-performed.  It left me with the sticky-sweet feel of a deep, non-superficial future that has its own sense of the past.  Rather than Futurama, it’s built into the new tribalism with a new set of Gods: an elegant regression.  I thought the drama of it was nauseous in the best way possible, turning my childish nostalgia into the effective tragedy of memory.  Vince Ventura did a great job as director and the singing was surprising for the limiting capabilities of the University of Pittsburgh’s black box.  Still, a stand out performance by Sara Ashley Fisher as Bart Simpson; as well as the whole ensemble.  The surprise of the sharp choreography shows a serious texture and is well-rehearsed.  It shows the intimacy this cast must have had with one another, which is important to the whole Das Boot of the entire concept.

This play plays on two very important features of today’s culture: the need for great comedy and the fear of the end.  It’s perfect in that regard, and this is a very decent, swelling performance.  Cromulent, as it needs to be.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs at the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh through August 20. For tickets and more information, click here

The Birds

The Birds Text-1

“Daphne du Maurier’s short story, also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, is boldly adapted by Conor McPherson—a gripping, unsettling, and moving look at human relationships in the face of societal collapse. In an isolated house, strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from relentless masses of attacking birds. They find relative sanctuary but not comfort or peace; there’s no electricity, little food, and a nearby neighbor may still be alive and watching them. Another refugee, the young and attractive Julia, arrives with some news of the outside world, but her presence also brings discord. Their survival becomes even more doubtful when paranoia takes hold of the makeshift fortress—an internal threat to match that of the birds outside.”

For tickets and more information, click here

The Birds

The Birds Text-1

“Daphne du Maurier’s short story, also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, is boldly adapted by Conor McPherson—a gripping, unsettling, and moving look at human relationships in the face of societal collapse. In an isolated house, strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from relentless masses of attacking birds. They find relative sanctuary but not comfort or peace; there’s no electricity, little food, and a nearby neighbor may still be alive and watching them. Another refugee, the young and attractive Julia, arrives with some news of the outside world, but her presence also brings discord. Their survival becomes even more doubtful when paranoia takes hold of the makeshift fortress—an internal threat to match that of the birds outside.”

For tickets and more information, click here

The Birds

The Birds Text-1

“Daphne du Maurier’s short story, also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, is boldly adapted by Conor McPherson—a gripping, unsettling, and moving look at human relationships in the face of societal collapse. In an isolated house, strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from relentless masses of attacking birds. They find relative sanctuary but not comfort or peace; there’s no electricity, little food, and a nearby neighbor may still be alive and watching them. Another refugee, the young and attractive Julia, arrives with some news of the outside world, but her presence also brings discord. Their survival becomes even more doubtful when paranoia takes hold of the makeshift fortress—an internal threat to match that of the birds outside.”

For tickets and more information, click here

The Birds

The Birds Text-1

“Daphne du Maurier’s short story, also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, is boldly adapted by Conor McPherson—a gripping, unsettling, and moving look at human relationships in the face of societal collapse. In an isolated house, strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from relentless masses of attacking birds. They find relative sanctuary but not comfort or peace; there’s no electricity, little food, and a nearby neighbor may still be alive and watching them. Another refugee, the young and attractive Julia, arrives with some news of the outside world, but her presence also brings discord. Their survival becomes even more doubtful when paranoia takes hold of the makeshift fortress—an internal threat to match that of the birds outside.”

For tickets and more information, click here

The Birds

The Birds Text-1

“Daphne du Maurier’s short story, also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, is boldly adapted by Conor McPherson—a gripping, unsettling, and moving look at human relationships in the face of societal collapse. In an isolated house, strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from relentless masses of attacking birds. They find relative sanctuary but not comfort or peace; there’s no electricity, little food, and a nearby neighbor may still be alive and watching them. Another refugee, the young and attractive Julia, arrives with some news of the outside world, but her presence also brings discord. Their survival becomes even more doubtful when paranoia takes hold of the makeshift fortress—an internal threat to match that of the birds outside.”

For tickets and more information, click here

The Birds

The Birds Text-1

“Daphne du Maurier’s short story, also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, is boldly adapted by Conor McPherson—a gripping, unsettling, and moving look at human relationships in the face of societal collapse. In an isolated house, strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from relentless masses of attacking birds. They find relative sanctuary but not comfort or peace; there’s no electricity, little food, and a nearby neighbor may still be alive and watching them. Another refugee, the young and attractive Julia, arrives with some news of the outside world, but her presence also brings discord. Their survival becomes even more doubtful when paranoia takes hold of the makeshift fortress—an internal threat to match that of the birds outside.”

For tickets and more information, click here

The Birds

The Birds Text-1

“Daphne du Maurier’s short story, also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, is boldly adapted by Conor McPherson—a gripping, unsettling, and moving look at human relationships in the face of societal collapse. In an isolated house, strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from relentless masses of attacking birds. They find relative sanctuary but not comfort or peace; there’s no electricity, little food, and a nearby neighbor may still be alive and watching them. Another refugee, the young and attractive Julia, arrives with some news of the outside world, but her presence also brings discord. Their survival becomes even more doubtful when paranoia takes hold of the makeshift fortress—an internal threat to match that of the birds outside.”

For tickets and more information, click here

The Birds

The Birds Text-1

“Daphne du Maurier’s short story, also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, is boldly adapted by Conor McPherson—a gripping, unsettling, and moving look at human relationships in the face of societal collapse. In an isolated house, strangers Nat and Diane take shelter from relentless masses of attacking birds. They find relative sanctuary but not comfort or peace; there’s no electricity, little food, and a nearby neighbor may still be alive and watching them. Another refugee, the young and attractive Julia, arrives with some news of the outside world, but her presence also brings discord. Their survival becomes even more doubtful when paranoia takes hold of the makeshift fortress—an internal threat to match that of the birds outside.”

For tickets and more information, click here