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.

12 Peers Presents Pittsburgh Plays in First Installment of Mythburgh

21752367_1973464016000784_6131844286900303418_nWhile I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, I moved away as a teenager and only moved back to Pittsburgh-proper this year after a long interregnum. My relationship with the city kind of feels like that aunt you see every other Thanksgiving – somewhat familiar and you know you’re related, but it’s a little awkward as you’re lacking on shared experiences and knowing each other’s nuances.

Given this, I was wondering just how much of an outsider I’d feel like at 12 Peers Theater’s inaugural production of their new Mythburgh series that focuses on Pittsburgh-specific stories. My concerns eased as soon as I walked into the Brillobox. This is the first play I’ve seen in a bar, and there was something immediately relaxing about the setting. People were warmly mingling, and there was the usual din of bar chatter, nothing to indicate this was about to become a theatrical space beyond the regular performance antics of people with alcohol. There was no territoriality in staking out your assigned bingo-like seat number or squeezing past knees to claim a vacant spot as the space was mostly stand-rooming only, another theatrical first for me.

It was easy to gloss over the simple, makeshift stage with two chairs and a small table nestled in front of three towering windows separated by panels of Dr. Seuss-inspired red polka dot wallpaper. In a delightful surprise turn, director Nick Mitchell chose to stage the first play, Brian Edward’s Close Encounters of the Yinzer Kind or Super Bowl Forty, not on the stage but at a ledge-like table jutting out from a side wall, an appropriate choice given the play’s focus is two Southside locals sharing a story in a bar.

In another thoughtful directorial decision, Mitchell has the play start in media res. There was no formal announcement or sign the play was commencing, so most people missed the actual opening as twin brothers Donny (Joe York) and Melvin (Hank Fodor) lumber into the bar and order beer. They shout to be heard, and the gathered crowd gradually quieted in the collective realization this must be the play starting. York and Fodor are well-cast. They believably convey the casual ease between brothers that allows you to call each other jagoffs while still finishing each other’s sentences. They dominate the space both physically, bushy beards and shirts straining over their XXL heft, and verbally, locals who flick off the play’s attendee occupying their table with a casual “Get the fuck outta here.” Edward as a Pittsburgh native clearly has an ear for regional tones that he captures in the brothers’ speech, and also liberally peppers his work with local references from Primanti Brothers and PennDOT to Giant Eagle and CoGo’s.

Edward’s narrative comfortably vacillates between the broader story of the twin brothers, their shared 26-year tenure with PennDOT on the 4 am deer removal shift, and the specific story they share, which takes place at their house during Super Bowl XL. Edward wisely realizes he doesn’t even need to mention for this audience that the Steelers creamed the Seahawks, but for Donny and Melvin, the game is memorably interrupted by the arrival of an extraterrestrial visitor.

The supernatural carries over to the second play, Molly Rice’s Swami Matt and the Ghost Kiss. In the break between Close Encounters and Swami Matt, fortuneteller’s assistant Stella (played by Moira Quigley) circulated the room, chatting up attendees as she cracked her gum. While Rice draws Stella’s character a bit one-dimensionally, director Rusty Thelin helps Quigley hits that note well. Quigley elicits easy laughter as she memorably squeezes the accordion at key moments. Her croptop with the lipstick kiss print is hard to forget, a literal visual imprint of the love she’s seeking and a foreshadowing of the play’s ending where she hits on, then leaves with, the bartender.

The play ends up being a hybrid of improvisation and the scripted, and it’s abundantly more successful in its scripted portion. In the first two sequences, fortuneteller Swami Matt (played by Matt Henderson) visibly struggles with improvisation. The woman next to me was the first called on-stage when the fortuneteller conjures a reference to the “fighting Quakers” (the woman’s school mascot) from a slip of paper Stella hands him. Swami Matt closes each session with a rushed utterance of “Okay thanks,” and there’s palpable relief in those words.

In the third and final sequence, which is clearly all scripted, Henderson is better able to find his stride once he can focus on form over content creation. It’s a Groundhog Day narrative where Swami Matt gets the same name and is forced to retell the same story each night. As the story progresses, the emotion valence deepens. Although Henderson struggles to make it fully believable, you realize it’s not a mythical tale. This is a veiled story about Matt himself.

This past May, I ran my first marathon, and I was surprised to find the Pittsburgh marathon was as much about Pittsburgh as the running. There was something unexpectedly powerful and pride-inducing in running past Pittsburgh landmarks and across the city’s bridges, a heightened awareness that you’re part of something bigger. Similarly, Mythburgh connects you to our city, engendering pride and reminding us as we look around and laugh together that we’re more similar than different, a comforting reminder in a world that can feel divisive as you scroll your newsfeed. We not only get it – pierogies, chipped ham and Steeler nation – it’s part of us.

There will be 2 more installments of 12 Peer’s Mythburgh presented at Brillobox October 22 and November 19. Tickets to Mythburgh are always Name Your Own Price but you can find out more here.