The Carols

nbfjksd,Carnegie Stage has a hit in the making on its hands with the Christmas musical The Carols which had its Western Pennsylvania premiere on Thursday in Carnegie. The show was commissioned by Philadelphia’s 1812 theatre company and first premiered there in December of 2016.  The book and lyrics were written by 1812’s Artistic director Jennifer Childs with music composed by Pittsburgh’s Monica Stephenson.

The Carols is set in the small town of Picatinny, NJ shortly after the United States officially entered World War II. It’s Christmastime and the town longs for their loved ones to return from battle.  The VFW Post is empty, manned only by the three Carol sisters, Lily, Rose, and Sylvia, who work with Miss Betty (Jill Keating), a grumpy middle-aged woman who appears to be the wartime keeper of the Post along Teddy (Nick Stamatakis), the resident silent pianist.

Rose (Mandie Russak) is the boy crazy “dumb blonde” with a problem pronouncing words with silent letters, so “ghosts” to her are “gee-hosts.” Sylvia (Kate Queen-Toole) is the ambitious career girl who absolutely and gushingly adores Eleanor Roosevelt. Lily (Moira Quigley), the youngest, is the girl next door, the least hip of the trio, but she loves to use modern slang. She manages the story flow and serves as narrator.

The girls feel it is their patriotic duty to stage the annual production of A Christmas Carol even if it means doing so without male actors.  Betty, who mysteriously wants no part of this Christmas Carol effort argues to “just cancel the darn thing.”  After much debate, the girls conclude that the show must go on.

Audition posters go up which catch the eye of Mel (Leon S. Zionts), a too-old for combat and out-of-work Borscht Belt stand-up comic who is looking for a gig on the way his to Florida for the winter.

Without Betty’s help, the girls, Mel and Teddy, begin to craft their own version of Dickens’ classic tale as they bring their hopes for the future to the deconstructed classic.

Mel recognizes Betty as a famous burlesque and vaudeville performer. He was a patron of those arts as a young man when he was honing his comedic skills. To a young Mel’s eyes, Betty Bell was unforgettable. Betty has a revelation and comes around to join the show. Rose sends a perfumed note to the local military base inviting any boys who might be in town to come to the play. Sylvia asks her hero Eleanor Roosevelt to attend, and Lily holds it together in spite of her concerns for the future.  The show goes on, much to the delight of the audience.

If this sounds typical of the contrived plot of many Christmas shows, well, you are correct. The play may be the thing, but in the case of The Carols, it’s really about the skill of the director and the singing, dancing and acting talents of the ensemble cast that make it a fun-filled laugh-out-loud show to watch and enjoy.

Director Robyne Parish recently directed the well-received production of Violet for Front Porch Theatricals this past summer. In The Carols, she has drawn upon some of our regions most talented actors. Jill Keating has extensive acting experience and is a thirty-three-year member of Equity. Her portrayal of Betty is at first unsympathetic. In the number where she warms to the idea of playing Scrooge, she presents a fantastic transformation in demeanor both physically and vocally as Betty comes to appreciate her Burlesque past. Some period accurate costumes for her might be helpful, but her performance is stellar which, makes the costume oddity superfluous.

The three sisters’ characters as written are as thick as greasepaint. Parish has humanized them, reminding us that we all know and love someone who is just like them. All three young women are rising stars to watch in the Pittsburgh theatre scene.

In the intimate setting of Carnegie Stage, Russak’s Rose is a joy to watch. Her smile lights up the sage at the most opportune moments.  Her facial expressions, delivery, and physical comedy skills are top-notch.

Quigley’s Lily is most real of the characters as she wonders what will happen to her as she gets left behind in Picatinny when Rose and Sylvia leave to pursue their dreams. Lily and Mel have a fun tap dance number as they cement their friendship and kindred spirit.

Zionts as Mel is perfect, just the right mix of an opportunist Catskill comic, adoring fan, and all around funny guy and tap dancer. His butchered rendition of Dickens’s story is hilarious. Zionts and Keating have great chemistry as two old performers, a little past their prime. Their energy is magical to watch.

The brilliance of Parish’s casting shines in the vocal talents of the actors. With Nick Stamatakis in addition to playing Teddy serving admirably as musical director, the trio of Rose, Sylvia, and Lily is pitch perfect. Their harmonies in the acapella songs are stunningly and surprisingly beautiful. Jill Keating’s choreography is superbly subtle, not over the top Mamma Mia style, but the perfect finishing touch for this trio of talented voices.

Any shortcomings in the plot are more than made up by this talented ensemble of actors under Parish’s and Stamatakis’ direction.  For a laugh-out-loud evening of theatre that will leave you smiling and marveling at the talent in Pittsburgh, The Carols is a must-see show. Carnegie Stage – start a tradition, save the set and book all these actors for next Christmas season, you have a hit on your hands. Pittsburgh Producers – find another show for these three talented young actresses can work together.

The Carols at Carnegie Stage has performances on December 8th, 9th, 14th, 15th, 16th at 8 pm, December 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th  at 3 pm. For tickets click here.

Thanks to the Carnegie Stage for the complimentary tickets.

Belfast Girls

21414973_656198227916016_676337897416928893_oBelfast Girls deserves attention for the aspiration of founder and director Rich Kenzie in this debut production at Carnegie Stage through Sunday, Oct. 29 only.

Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. Chicago’s Artemisia Theater further developed the play and produced the world premiered in 2015.

During snippets of their three-month shipboard journey, they bond, full of aching memories, dark secrets, abject fear and a little hopeful anticipation. In the cramped confines of their ship bunk room, the quintet settle in, say farewell to Ireland, and prepare for to move on. Refugees all, each has already experienced a lifetime of strife that belies their ages.

A terrific ensemble of five young women carries this charming, funny, dark, and thoughtful two-act play by Jaki McCarrick, one of Ireland’s literary stars. Historically, the five represent some 4,000 young women who were shipped to Australia to provide wives to the predominantly male population there. The formal program was designed to reduce the workhouse populations and provide escape from the devastation of Ireland’s four-year potato famine (1845-49). The solution of shipping young women out conjures Ebenezer Scrooge’s suggestion that those who would avoid the workhouse might simply die to decrease the surplus population.

But these women have already survived, some of that resilience played out on the streets, some in varied realms of society. While hope is on the horizon (they are alive, after all), it is an ageless tale of women with few options. They may wind up again enslaved in arranged marriages or worse. We learn one was even sold by her own father. As Sarah says, “I’ve left so much. I’m startin’ to forget myself.”

Co-Directors Kenzie and Samantha A. Camp use Peter Bergman’s compact set and the naturally intimate Carnegie Stage theater to great advantage. Excellent sightlines and efficient direction invites the audience into the tiny world that foreshadows the wilds of Australia. Paige Borack’s apt lighting and authentic costumes via Spotlight Costumes further enhance this fine production.

The young women on shipboard for three months–ample time to consider the past and wonder about their futures. Each actress brings a vibrant performance–and within a few feet of the audience. It’s a powerful proximity and one of the reasons that productions at Carnegie Stage are vital in our regional mix.

Flawless accents are supported by Lisa Ann Goldsmith’s wonderful Irish dialect coaching as the cast authentically navigates McCarrick’s dialogue. Tonya Lynn’s vibrant fight choreography takes the actresses all over the stage and practically at the audience’s feet at times.

The cast is top-notch with each actress drawing solid characterizations of substance and nuance. Together, the ensemble could likely transport itself into other scripts or projects; they are excellent artists who mine the comic, the tragic, the musical, and the profound.

As the Jamaican-born Judith, Sara Williams draws a strong survivor who may be the most street-wise of the group. She’s wise in her initial discretion but soon displays affection and empathy as relationships are defined. Seen previously in Pittsburgh, this Chicago actress will hopefully be back here soon.

Jenny Malarkey is Ellen, the quiet observer who pokes fun at the others is no less passionate. She is yet another strong spoke in the wheel as stories reveal more than we ever imagined.

Sarah, whose brother has already written to her from the destination continent, is portrayed by Cassidy Adkins. She is focussed on remembering what she’s left and brought along in a hat box of family things. The only traveler who has someone waiting for her, Sarah’s hopefulness is guarded, but we learn once more that her past and future may hold loss and fear. As Sarah says, “I’ve left so much. I’m startin’ to forget myself.”

Val Williams as Hannah brings a strong depiction to the mix–consistently stirring the pot with questions and a dose of reality. She nips at a flash, breaks into song, and whips up some contrast in the pensive under-desk digs.

Molly has some secrets, too, and Elizabeth Glyptis gives a moving performance that spans from innocent hope to painful reality. Molly reminds Sarah that times will someday change for women as women around the world are gathering to gain more equality in society and work. Her Molly’s journey is no less necessary than those of her comrades, but how she embarked has some surprising elements. We learn why Molly is different. Molly and Judith may burrow into some books Molly has brought along but their peace is broken by bits of reality before they land.

The play digs into a broad spectrum of classist prejudices, some related to the capitalistic disregard for those who suffered during the Famine. No one is safe, despite the refuge they all seek, so expect to be enlightened and surprised as each character backstory is mined.

On deck the women have some moments of sun and air. Remarkably they all finally arrive at the Australian shore when we are introduced to them once more–name by name. It’s heartening to know this sampling of girls from Belfast have made it thus far. Given what we know of them, we think they’ll make it. And we are thankful for knowing their story.

Belfast Girls is a slice of history that resonates with the ongoing challenges for young women seeking a safe life and viable livelihood. This is a valuable experience for adults and students of all ages. Consider getting out to Carnegie before Belfast Girls closes for a bite before the show (lots of dining choices within blocks of the theater), ample parking, and ticket options. Thursday, Oct. 26 is pay-what-you-will night and tickets are otherwise only $28, fair indeed for supporting a new company in the region and the fine work in Belfast Girls.

Performances are at 8pm through Sunday with a 2 pm matinee on Sat., October 28. Visit the ticket link to order now. Students and artists may request a discount via email.

I Won’t Be in on Monday

22221868_1114709611993019_4043785944263293857_nThere is no introduction to the colloquially titled I Won’t be in on Monday. There is no perfunctory schpiel prefacing the performance concerning donors or future shows or money that is needed. That is not to say that these prefaces do not have their place, as calls to endorse the arts and small theatres are absolutely tantamount to the continuation of performances as fine as these. But Anne Stockton’s dislodging and immersive one woman show needs to be framed in precisely those conditions—dislodging and immersive. As the audience ambles into the packed theatre, there is a stark solidarity to the stage that, somewhat incongruously, fills the space with its haunting, bareboned quality. The singular chair facing the crowd, austere and perplexing, manages to command more space than the audience can thoroughly reconcile with or acknowledge. To have interrupted the experience of walking into and settling oneself in such an environment would have been a disservice to the show.

And so I Won’t be in… commenced with no interruption nor introduction, simply the play’s writer, sole star, and creative laborer, Anne Stockton, emerging onto the stage with strident force, seating herself in the eerily commanding lone chair on stage. The play, which unfolds as a dialogue that we as the audience are privy to only one side of (Stockton’s Nikki’s responses, diatribes, soliloquies and asides), is an interrogation of a vivacious woman in regards to expensive rings that have been stolen from the company with which she is employed. This is perhaps the most rudimentary exposition of the one woman show. What I Won’t be in… is at its most visceral level is an active disassembling of a woman’s tangled, multidimensional psyche as the façade she has constructed for herself and others is eroded throughout the play’s unconventional action. As Nikki converses with the unseen police officers, the audience begins to comprehend the meticulously sutured fragments of self that Nikki has very purposefully patched and woven together—she is a new employee and in love with her job and her very understanding employer; she met a new, extraordinarily wealthy, spontaneous and passionate man at a casino who she is in love with and has been living with; her life is a little unceremonious but ultimately fulfilling and coherent; she is absolutely befuddled as to how the rings could have been taken and where they could possibly be; etc., etc.

But as Nikki’s conversation with the detectives progresses, we are exposed to the fractured membranes of her inner self—she is heavily medicated; her relationship with her new lover (revealed through phone conversations) is crumbling without her even fully recognizing it; she is codependent on her mother; she is apt to switch her affections and her outlandish plan to fly out of the country (her reason, presumably, why she “won’t be in on Monday”) to the detective conducting her interrogation; she perhaps has more involvement with the disappearance of the jewelry than even she allows herself to be aware of. From a script standpoint, the play is nearly flawless, and Stockton’s progression from a self-possessed yet visibly unbalanced woman is extraordinarily subtle. By the time the play’s somewhat double entendre, titular meaning is actualized, the audience has connected to Nikki in a way that makes the conclusion even more complicatedly heart-wrenching. Stockton’s performance is resilient and unwavering, even though at times some of the technical aspects break down a bit. What is most transcendent about the show is Stockton’s ability to radically transform the experience of speaking to an audience into one in which she simply exists as her own microcosm on stage. That is to say, the audience never once feels as though they are an audience during I Won’t be in… Rather, Stockton simultaneously consumes and is completely absorbed into the theatrical space she inhabits, allowing the play to become something not just to be observed, but to be lived.

I Won’t be in… is a fantastic chapter in off the WALL’s stalwart legacy in presenting feminist-minded pieces. While at times the play veers on harmful or ghettoizing tropes for women—particularly women suffering from particular mental health issues—the play ultimately portrays a robust, flawed, and complexly damaged woman who is not defined by her gender or her psychosis. Both Stockton and off the WALL challenged the conventions of female representation in the show.

I Won’t be in on Monday has unfortunately closed already but you can follow off the WALL up to New York City in February. More details here. 

off the WALL Opens 2017-2018 Season with I Won’t Be in on Monday

22221868_1114709611993019_4043785944263293857_nProvocation. Undaunting steadfastness. Ruthless, feckless talent. Unwaveringly, emboldened authenticity.

These are descriptors which cling to one’s thoughts when one considers the works and mission of innovative theatre Pittsburgh theatre company, Off the WALL productions. Fiercely committed to not only supporting but rapaciously pursuing the cleverest, most scintillating, and quintessentially groundbreaking feminist pieces of dramaturge, Off the Wall is a theatre company which prides itself on an unwavering commitment to portraying the equality and complexity of human experiences. To date, the company’s productions have explored the viscera of fractious, cobwebbed relationships (Lungs); the rueful and joyful experience of a woman learning excavating her deepest self in a one-woman-show (Mother Lode); the agonizing and labyrinth-esque unending process of accepting and bestowing love amidst the myriad vexations of existing as a woman (Tunnel Vision); and a one-woman physical memoir of life as a stripper Sex Werque. While every unique and vivaciously performed piece is characterized by either a distinctly feminine voice/perspective, or an indomitable female character (particularly notable in the company’s fascinating season-project of staging a collection of one-woman shows), the shows are not necessarily feminist manifestos or creeds translated into theatrical productions. Rather, off the WALL is responsible for theatre that highlights and emphasizes the everyday woman and the extraordinariness of the banal or everyday in a way that challenges the viewer to reconceive of entire worlds through a feminist-minded lens.

When corresponding with Virginia Wall Gruenert, Executive Artistic Director for off the WALL and frequent onstage presence for the shows, the aim of the company’s upcoming season and the fascinating new show I Won’t Be in on Monday is to carry on this exhilarating tradition of presenting pieces with multidimensional and robust women. As Gruenert explains, I Won’t be in… “tells the story of a troubled yet optimistic woman with dreams (delusions?) of a better life. She is strong and vulnerable at the same time. She is hopeful. She is real.” To rely on the perhaps trite adage, the female lead of I Won’t Be in… encompasses multitudes, but maybe not in the way that demands people directly interact with a feminist narrative. Rather, her complexities and the vicissitudes of her selfhood in the face of a curious circumstance are astoundingly feminist in their own right. This is to say, the play’s plot—a high-powered financial worker (Nikki) is interrogated by a detective after the disappearance of very expensive rings—and the clever snark that courses through it, embody a feminism that should be apparent in the everyday. I Won’t Be in… capitalizes upon and carries on off the WALL’s strident commitment to narratives in which seemingly irrelevant or aberrant occurrences nestled within the mundane act as a catalyst for larger thought or dialogues, specifically thoughts and dialogues pertaining to women and female voices. Directed by Austin Pendleton, who has worked extensively as an Off-Broadway director as well as in film and television, I Won’t Be in… is written by Anne Stockton, whose creative candor and relationship with off the WALL ensures a production which will immerse viewers in a theatrical reconceptualization of feminine voice and experientiality.

In Gruenert’s own words, I Won’t Be In… and plays of that ilk epitomize and carry on the company’s mission of heading “forward, forward, forward, with no looking back…to many, it’s controversial to us, it’s the right thing to do.” Indeed, many of off the WALL’s productions have raised obdurate eyebrows, particularly Ella Mason’s aforementioned one-woman show Sex Werque chronicling the performer’s stint as a stripper. The show, which Gruenert eloquently describes, captures the “emotional and economic forces; the movement vocabulary; the masks; and the moments of authentic connection” that are involved in the very complicated and emotional line of work. The show perhaps best typifies the company’s mission—a piece that does not put experience or gender on a hierarchy, but portrays a human experience in its most raw and intimate fashion (and elevates the female voice throughout). However, the show was not without pushback (and some sensational rebuttal from the show’s stupendous defenders). But perhaps, in a time as dishearteningly draconian as our current socio-political climate, provocation and pushback in theatre are absolutely necessary for fundamental progress and change. As Gruenert notes, the disparity in female and male-authored dramaturgical pieces are staggering. The Theatre Communications Group indicated that of the 1,946 productions from the 411 theatre members in the group, the male-to-female author ratio was 63-26. Thus, off the WALL’s dedication to “recognizing, respecting, and honoring the female voice in American theater” is of the utmost importance. Given their recent ICWP 50/50 Applause Award, off the WALL is continuing their monumental efforts in both the theatrical realm and the realm of social attentiveness.

I Won’t Be in on Monday opens at Carnegie Stage on October 12. For tickets and more information, click here. 

PNWF 2017: Program D

PNWF LOGOFor 27 seasons, the Pittsburgh New Works Festival has brought new one act shows to the stage from playwrights both local and from far away. Last weekend, I got to check out three non-local writers’ new shows during Program D of the PNWF’s four program run. As always, the shows are more focused on bringing the story to life, showcasing the acting and the words over staging and effects. I was pleased to see that all three of the shows I saw excelled in performing their scripts with limited sets and props.

olderThe first show, When You are a Little Bit Older, was an interesting presentation. I was warned to sit on audience left in the theatre to get a better viewpoint, as the characters were actually sitting in audience right during the show. This show, written by Matthew Weaver, was presented by Thoreau, NM- A Production Company. It featured three teenagers at the cinema watching a movie. At least, one of them was watching the movie. The other two spend the show trying desperately to make out but are continually thwarted by the younger brother, played by Korey Grecek. Grecek repeatedly makes his older brother (Peter Kelley Stamerra) go out to concessions for more snacks, upon the threat of telling his girlfriend’s father what’s they’re up to during the movie. Stamerra had a limited role in the show, spending most of his time crawling over actual theatre goers to get out of the aisle, but his exasperation at Grecek is well played, making me guess he has younger siblings of his own.

The show is really about the younger brother wanting a chance to chat up his bro’s girlfriend, played convincingly by Sophia Rose Englesberg. Grecek spends the time waiting for his brother to come back asking Englesberg about her past relationships, and eventually advice for the future of his own. Director lance-eric skapura did a great job with staging the show and blocking the kids, even if I wondered several times why these kids weren’t kicked out of the movie theater for constantly talking during the film. I thought the show could have been slightly shorter. There would only be so many times I’d be willing to return to concessions before I’d lose it, no matter what the threat was. Aside from that, this show is a cute, light-hearted piece with lots of humor. A very nice way to open the evening.

bernieThe South Hills Players presented the second show, Bernie, in my opinion the funniest of the evening. It was full of dark humor, involving themes of suicide, death, failure, and hopelessness. Despite all that, writer Fred Perry is skilled at making the audience laugh out loud time after time. Most of the laughs came from Steven F. Gallagher, who played the titular role. Bernie is the dictionary definition of cynical, having experienced loss, frustration, and constant setback. Losing his beloved dog is the last straw, and he decides to kill himself. Except he’s not very good at that either. Gallagher’s delivery of the lines is exceptional, clearly having a lot of experience with comedic timing.

Playing wonderfully alongside Gallagher is Dave Malehorn, Bernie’s brother Sid. Sid is called upon when Bernie’s suicide goes south, and Malehorn spends the show exasperated at his brother’s recent behavior. This is another theme, that goes along with the first and last show, of being there for family no matter how ridiculous or annoying they can be. Gallagher and Malehorn play extremely well off each other. Major kudos to director Jennifer Luta for her casting choices and direction of tone.After an intermission for

storyAfter an intermission for set change, the last show of the evening was presented: Story Road. While Stage Right Pittsburgh did a nice job bringing out the humor of playwright Mark Cornell’s piece, it was about conflict and unhappiness. A young girl was running away from her father, not because she didn’t love him, but because she’d had enough of his on-the-road-musician lifestyle. Ellie, played by Marybeth Herman, only wanted a normal life, with a house and friends and a family, all grounded in one location. Since her mother died, it’s been her and her father on the road while he performs his songs, which she reminds him several times are not very good, at different bars and clubs to make a living. Herman is great in her role of dramatically-annoyed teen girl, and you certainly get a sense from her that even if her father hadn’t caught up with her, she wasn’t really going to go anywhere.

Andrew Lasswell played Cleveland, a man who is struggling to provide for his daughter and himself the only way he can. The chemistry between Herman and Lasswell was earnest and heartfelt. And while there was a lot of humor, there was a lot of pain and frustration as well. Director Joe Eberle also cast this duo very well for each other, and he knew exactly when to play up the humor and highlight the serious moments. I may have even shed a tear or two at the ending.

While shows this brand new often have a few imperfections, all three shows of Program D have enough humor and talent to beyond make up for the newness of the pieces. These seven actors have done fantastic jobs at bringing the shows to life, and I hope all the writers are proud of their work.

The Pittsburgh New Works Festival runs through September 24 at Carnegie Stage. For tickets and more information, check out their website here. 

PNWF 2017: Program C

PNWF LOGOThe 27th season of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival at Carnegie Stage continues with a trio of new one-act plays in Program C.

The first show is Julie Zaffarano’s Destiny is a Careless Waiter, as presented by R-ACT Productions. The stage is set with two café tables. Flowing red tablecloths drape the tables like melted red wax on the sides of a Chianti bottle. Champagne flutes on each table reinforce this is a destination of romance.

destinyOf course, things are not always what they appear. However, the romantic restaurant seems fitting when the show opens with the high-pitched squeals of Bria (Brittany Bara). She shrieks with excitement after discovering a ring atop her dessert. Bria possessively pushes on the ring, not even pausing for her newly betrothed to slip it on, extending her arm and admiring her finger, all while rattling on incessantly. Her new fiancé, Justin (Spencer Whale), looks befuddled, and one suspects he’s just the inert type.

It’s an intimate restaurant where tables almost kiss. The couple at the next table reacts to the engagement. The man (Sean, played by Travis Ascione) finds it sweet and tries cajoling his girlfriend (Emily, played by Carley Adams) into the same response. Emily’s nonstop texting and cynical eyeroll indicate she is not impressed by the trite textbook proposal. Beyond that, she casts dubious glances at Bria, clearly finding her overzealous reaction extreme.

While it’s a play of couples, the women assume the primary roles, and their costuming establishes them as opposites. Emily is tall and willowy, a brunette with severe bangs who wears a classic little black dress. Adams plays Emily with a resting bitch face when she’s dealing with Sean, but it’s not a one-note default as she warms and softens in other interactions. Bria’s evergreen perkiness is made manifest by a colorful floral skirt and vibrant fuchsia cardigan. Bara’s energetically fresh interpretation of Bria is a pleasure to watch, and Bara flips some cynicism when needed, not limiting herself to an always on mode.

It turns out Justin’s confusion is genuine. He had no plans to propose. It’s a madcap rush, reminiscent of a 1930’s screwball comedy, but director Mike Nelson is careful not to speed through the plot twists. The play ends with Justin and Sean making eye contact as they simultaneously shout “Server,” although it sounds more like “Serve her,” advice we learn both men failed to take.

r and jRelationship drama, albeit offstage, also forms the cornerstone of the second play, the Actors Civic Theater’s presentation of William Sikorski’s Romeo and Juliet: Epilogue. Director James Critchfield’s set choice is appropriately austere for an interrogation room: a folding table and three chairs. The play opens with Friar Lawrence (Eric Mathews) slumped over the table in his brown habit.

There’s immediate juxtaposition. Two modern detectives come into the room, one clutching a donut bag. They start rapid-fire questioning the startled-looking friar. Just when one thinks it’s because he’s a man of God who’s wrestling with being questioned by the police about his role in the dead bodies found in a tomb, he responds in Elizabethan English.

Detective Sam Davis (Candice Fisher) bristles offensively at the Elizabethan response. Fisher plays the detective with limited range; Fisher’s two modes are smartass and shrill as she gets in the friar’s face. Detective William Stanley is played by Joel Ambrose who brings more nuance to his performance and pushes beyond stereotypes. However, Stanley is like an American abroad who speaks more slowly and loudly, hoping that will solve the communication gap.

Sikorski’s narrative misses the mark and is tied up a bit too abruptly and neatly. Ultimately, the detectives’ forceful abrasiveness seems questionable, but Critchfield doesn’t explore that thread, which is a missed opportunity for relevance given ever-present stories on police brutality. Instead, the two detectives just break into the donuts. Cops will be cops.

branniganDomestic drama provides a through line connecting the third and final play, Lezlie Revelle’s The Wrong Brannigan (presented by McKeesport Little Theatre) to its two Program C predecessors. The action unfolds in a living room, lived in but warmly pleasant. A champagne-colored brocade couch behind a green area rug provides the focal point of the room. A chair nestled on each side and a wet bar across the room completes a scene of domestic tranquility.

This tranquility is reinforced by the play’s opening as occupant Ronnie Brannigan (Randy Berner) enters the room. Berner perfectly channels a very nice, but immediately forgettable, mid-50s male. He enters the living room with an open book and settles on the couch to read. His tranquility is short-lived as a man ringing the doorbell ever more incessantly breaches Ronnie’s peace. The breach turns out to be of more than just solitude. The man, Bill (Chris Cattell), pulls a gun on the perplexed Ronnie. Ronnie’s wife Jerri (Jane Scutieri Tinker) arrives home to a tense scene as the gun-brandishing Bills faces off with a confused Ronnie who’s wrestling with the tension between spousal loyalty and troubling new revelations. Tinker struggles to make her character believable throughout, leaning towards the comedic easy laugh as an escape valve.

Relationship drama continues to escalate when the Brannigan’s college-age daughter, Katie (Kaitlin Cliber) arrives home for the holidays. Her costuming marks her as a girl still trying on identities, dark hair chopped short with blonde tufts and a long burgundy sweater with swinging fringe. The number of secrets and twists unravels at a near-dizzying frenzy. Director Catherine Gallagher fails to still the pacing at critical moments, leaving one feeling a bit like a hapless passenger on a roller coaster ride. While the tone remains comedic, Ronnie clearly surprises himself when he taps into his own dark side a bit, raising questions about the lengths we’ll go to in protecting the ones we love.

Program C of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival runs through September 23 at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106.

For more details, click here.

PNWF – New Works from Around the World: Part 3

This third post covers the Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) Programs C & D! Six new one-act plays will be produced during this portion of the festival, all performed at the Carnegie Stage in Carnegie. If you missed the first post on PNWF check it out hereand the second one here

“One of my favorite parts about the festival is that since they are all new plays, the stories are all a surprise.”

Andy Coleman, PNWF Communications Director

Detailed ticket information follows at the end of this post. For more information about the festival visit

Program C is presented on September 14th, 22nd and 23rd at 8pm, the 16th at 4pm and the 17th at 2pm.

destinyDestiny is a Careless Waiter

by Julie Zaffarano

Broomall, PA

Produced by R-ACT Theatre Productions


Sean invites Emily to dinner to propose marriage. He brings his grandmother’s engagement ring to the restaurant and instructs the server to place the ring in Emily’s dessert. Justin invites Bria to the same restaurant at the same time, planning to break up with her. When the engagement ring intended for Emily ends up in Bria’s dessert, the chaos begins.

Julie Zaffarano is an emerging playwright in the Philadelphia area. Her play, The Play Makers, was named the Winner in the 2016 What If? Productions Annual Playwrights Festival. Julie holds two Masters Degrees: MA in Classical Studies and an MS in Organization Science from Villanova University.

Romeo and Juliet:  Epiloguer and j

by William Sikorski

Birchwood Village, MN

Produced by Actors Civic Theater


The subsequent criminal investigation of the multiple homicide at Juliet’s tomb. Detectives Davis and Stanley interrogate Friar Lawrence at the Verona 41st Precinct Police Station.

William H. Sikorski lives in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, where he works as a laboratory manager for 3M. In his (limited) spare time he writes (very) short plays. He has had several 10-minute, 1-minute and even a 1-second play produced.

branniganThe Wrong Brannigan

by Lezlie Revelle

Olathe, KS

Produced by McKeesport Little Theater


Mistaken identity and bad timing wreak havoc on a family full of secrets!

Lezlie Revelle is a playwright, author and singer-songwriter from the Midwest. Lezlie’s plays have been produced and won awards across the United States, including New York, Kansas City, and San Diego.

Program D’s performances are September 15th, 1th and 21st at 8pm, the 23rd at 4pm and the 25th at 2pm

When You Are a Little Bit Olderolder

by Matthew Weaver

Spokane, WA

Produced by Thoreau, NM – A Production Company


Cooper and Ava have a hot date at the movies, but Cooper’s younger brother Owen tags along. Everything’s going as well as can be expected until Owen runs out of popcorn …

Matthew Weaver is a Spokane, Wash., playwright and screenwriter. His plays have been performed in Washington State, Canada, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia.


by Fred Perry

Roswell, GA

Produced by The South Hills Players


Bernie Heller has always been a bit of a schmo. And his life hit bottom today. Miserable, divorced, and a brilliant but failed artist, Bernie finally decided to end it all by getting smashed, then hanging himself – with a child’s skip rope. But when he jumped off the ladder, the thin rope snapped, the fall resulting in two broken ankles. Now three sheets to the wind and totally helpless, he calls the only person who can get him back on his feet: his renowned brother, Doctor Sid Heller.

Fred Perry is a produced playwright and screenwriter authoring six feature films for Omega Entertainment. Fred’s plays have been performed in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Georgia, where his two-act comedy, The Ascension of Twyla Potts premiered last October at the Rome Little Theatre.

Story Roadstory

by Mark Cornell

Chapel Hill, NC

Produced by Stage Right Pittsburgh


Directed by Joe Eberle, winner of the 2016 Donna Award for Outstanding Director

Cleveland is a struggling singer-songwriter and, after losing their house, has taken his 15-year-old daughter Ellie on the road. One night, tired of the hard life they are leading, Ellie decides to run away.

Mark Cornell has had more than 70 of his plays produced in theatres around the world, from England to Australia to Singapore and all across the U.S.. He has an MFA in playwriting from UCLA.

The Pittsburgh New Works Festival is a great opportunity for you to checkout new plays as well as the work of our region’s many talented actors, directors and companies.

For tickets:

Visit or 1-888-71-TICKETS (1-888-718-4253) to reserve your seats by phone.

Main Stage Festival passes are $40. Pick your own dates with the Flex Pass or select one of the pre-built packages for a specific day and time. Either way you can experience every new play in the Festival and save a few bucks over single ticket prices.

Show times are Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm

Single Tickets Prices $15 Regular Admission ($17 at the Door) $12 Students and Under 25 ($14 at the Door)

Carnegie Stage is located at 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA  15106.  There is plenty of free parking and a great variety of restaurants and shops within easy walking distance of the theater

A final note: The final dress rehearsals of Pittsburgh New Works mainstage shows are open to the public and feature American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and live audio description for our guests.  Learn more and reserve your seat for an accessible final dress rehearsal at

PNWF 2017: Program A

PNWF LOGOThe Pittsburgh New Works Festival kicked off this past weekend with a trio of original one acts: CCAC South Campus Theater’s Roosevelt’s Ghosts, The Summer Company’s The Pivot and The Theater Factory’s Doing Time. None of them are quite what you’d expect.

Roosevelt’s Ghosts, written by Aaron Scully and directed by New Works rooseveltFestival Managing Director Lora Oxenreiter, is a reflective presidential fantasy with a quite literal title. We see a 25 year-old Theodore Roosevelt (Corwin Stoddard) speaking with Thomas (Mike McCarthy), an aide, about his wife Alice’s (Megan Grocutt) failing health. This is an important moment for the future 26th President: after losing his mother and wife in less than 12 hours, Roosevelt would go on to live a series of different lives that would culminate in two of the most consequential terms in office in American history, and this was the tragedy that propelled him to do so. “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” he once wrote.

I digress. The lights go out, and come on again. Mittie’s (Samantha A. Camp), the ghost of his mother, stands suddenly in the room. After a familiar ‘I must be out of my mind’ exchange and a few accusations about Theodore’s lifestyle from Alice, it becomes clear that we’re quite literally watching Roosevelt’s own personal A Christmas Carol.

As someone who studies American Presidents as a hobby, I had a good time watching CCAC’s production weave in and out of history. Corwin Stoddard, whose performance portrays both confidence and exhaustion, actually replicated Roosevelt’s odd, squinty smile once or twice, which in turn put a huge smile on my face. The fascination with Roosevelt is obvious in Scully’s script, and you get a sense of the entire emotional arc of his young adulthood in just over thirty minutes, which is impressive.

However, despite the fact that I can’t say I’ve seen this exact riff on Charles Dickens’ perennial classic, the pace and dialogue are too familiar for the play to make a stamp of its own on this oft-retold story. I couldn’t help but feel that any figure in history could supplant Roosevelt and the experience of the play would be more or less the same. If the history is unfamiliar to the audience, plot points certainly won’t be.

pivotNext up is The Summer Company’s smart and succinct The Pivot, written by Seth Freeman and directed by Justin Sines. A man named Walter (Brett Sullivan Santry) waits alone in an office for job applicants to enter. Two women named Cindy, identical but for the color of their skin, take their seats.

We watch the interviews occur simultaneously. The women share lines and have the same resume. For the first woman (Krista Graham), who is white, the interview is cordial, even complimentary. Walter silently pivots (aha!) his chair to the second woman (Meleana Felton), who is black, and the interview seems colder somehow. The longer we watch, the more the divide Walter has created for the women becomes apparent.

The Pivot couldn’t have been more than six or seven minutes, but like any good short work, it has a certain intellectual catchiness to it. What I liked best about it was the play’s focus on the actual act of pivoting. When Walter moves, his face becomes stone cold, and the stage falls silent. He really takes his time getting there, too, and it creates an unsettling atmosphere to sit in.

Lastly we have The Theater Factory’s Doing Time, written by Mary Poindexter timeMcLaughlin and directed by Scott P. Calhoon. This was easily the conversation starter of the afternoon. The play follows an old man (Tom Mirth) and a young man (Steve Gottschalk) who represent a different philosophical approach to life, each brought about by what appears to be a generational gap.

The play begins in a nearly vacant space, equipped only with a couple chairs, a table, and a window. Mirth’s Older Man is in a tattered suit and seems to have lost his shoes. He has a flute and plays it as much as humanly possible – importantly, he only actually knows a single six or seven-second riff. For a while, we’re just sitting with this man.

Without warning, the younger man, whose outfit is pristine, explodes into the room and spills a small novel’s worth of papers onto the floor. He reveals that they’re the pages of his autobiography, which he must write perpetually, or he will die. The play then becomes a physical comedy, as the slightest sound from the older man causes the younger man to spiral into a fit.

I really liked Doing Time visually. There’s a great contrast between Mirth’s older man and Gottschalk’s younger man. Mirth’s movement is fluid and unhurried. He’s always contorting himself into odd, almost ape-like positions (think Andy Serkis in front of a green screen) as he navigates the stage, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Gottschalk is rigid efficiency personified.

Suffice to say, the older man has a few things to teach the younger man about smelling the roses. I won’t be too descriptive in terms of plot here, but the older man is prepared to sacrifice a lot for the younger man’s addiction to chronicling himself, which gives him a revelation. There’s a clear analogy for social media consumption here, and like many works pleading with millennials to stop it with the cell phones already, I think its heart is in the right place but its message isn’t exactly comprehensive. Like any issue worth discussing, social media overconsumption as a problem deserves a solution more complicated than “have you tried just not doing it?”

I won’t pigeonhole McLaughlin’s work any further, because I think its entirely possible to walk out of this with wholly different conclusions. This is a memorable experience, warts and all, and is the kind of self-contained, imaginative play one would hope to find at the New Works Festival. It’s unique and worth engaging with.

If I’m to judge The New Works Festival based on its ability to show me what I haven’t seen before, it’s off to a good start. I’m looking forward to what’s coming up next.

Program A runs at Carnegie Stage through September 9. For tickets and more information, click here

*A previous version of this review had Samantha A. Camp and Megan Grocutt’s character’s mislabeled.

PNWF 2017: Program B

PNWF LOGOThe 27th annual Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) Program B offers is a mixed bag of theatrics.  On stage, three world premiere one act plays, produced by local theater troupes.  I reviewed the line up beforehand on PNWF’s website and just knew my dramatic pallet would be well attended to.  

Program B features The Heritage Players, longtime PNWF contributors, the artists collaborative, Cup-A-Jo Productions, and The Duquesne University Red Masquers, the oldest amateur theater company in Pittsburgh.  Each company, with their own unique cast, offers a dramatic illustration of the playwright’s characters, a time and place showcased in their new works; gently breathing life into the story.  

exitFirst up for review, Exit Strategy by Fairbanks, Alaska playwright Tom Moran, is produced and directed by Jay Breckenridge and Nicole Zalek of Pittsburgh’s South Hills troupe The Heritage Players. Love dating?  Hate dating?  Either Way, Exit Strategy offers insight on improving your date worthiness, navigating the desires and intents of the opposite sex and being true to yourself.  This one act consists of a simple set; a high top bar table and a couple of glasses.  Lead character Sean, played by Connor McNelis, experiences a series of dates, each one propelling him to tweak his ‘style’.  His dates played by Nicole Zeak, Elena Falgione and Renee Rabenold help McNelis deliver Moran’s dialogue, which is ordinary and familiar, often fast paced and 100% natural.  Sean’s evolution of self- awareness is comedic, mainly because it’s an honest representation.  The dialogue keeps the audience engaged and Sean’s attempts to improve his dating skills are anything but cliche. The end offers a pleasant surprise, sometimes a happy ending is the icing on the cake.

finalThe second play, All Sales Final, by New York City playwright John Yarbrough, is presented by Cup-A-Jo Productions and performed by a seasoned cast of actors.  The play takes a subject typically considered delicate, sacred and often sensitive and introduces financial exploitation and the callousness of greed through the absurdity of a ponzi scheme and characters with questionable personal boundaries. The comic relief flourishes from actors Mark Yochum, as Mr. Festerberger and Megan May cast as Mrs. Wilkinson.   All Sales Final has a lot of ‘one liners’ that seemed to challenge the cast into keeping a straight face.  I enjoyed seeing the actors reactions to each other as much as I enjoyed watching them perform.  Director, Nick Mitchell’s stage direction requires the cast utilize the whole stage and is high energized, both appropriate and appreciated.  Produced by Joanna Lowe for Cup- A- Jo Productions, together Mitchell and Lowe present a cast who brings Yarbrough’s one act melodrama, a rendition of a price tag on life to the stage with passion.  

sparrowsProgram B’s  final performance, The Sparrows, written by Pennsylvanian playwright Evan W. Saunders and presented by The Duquesne University Red Masquers.  An introspective plot offering a brief examination into the memory of Will, played by Ian Brady.  Will struggles to accept a memory or the way the event actually occurred. The memory includes Holly, played by Angela Trovato, and he relives a moment in time, playing out many different angles and possible outcomes.  Holly sometimes shows compassion, other times frustration and boredom all while Will remains reticent. This one act is an interesting perspective and constructs a somewhat surreal reflection on life.  The dialogue is repetitive but with each imagined scenario the actors deliver in a different manner. I really enjoyed The Sparrows being placed at the end of the series.   I enjoyed the sentimentality Saunders created with a visit down memory lane.  

Remaining true to their mission and style, Carnegie Stage, once again hosts the month long PNWF.  Always a hospitable staff, beverages, ample parking, accessible location to tri county roadways and ample restaurants and bars within a few short blocks from the theater and innovative and unique theater experience with every visit.  PNWF is a great opportunity for the theatrically adventurous audience, writers, and performers to explore Pittsburgh’s theater community.

For tickets and more information about the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, click hereStay tuned for more coverage of the festival coming soon!

PNWF – New Works from Around the World: Part 2

This second post covers the Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) Programs A & B! Six new one-act plays will be produced during this portion of the festival, all performed at the Carnegie Stage in Carnegie. If you missed the first post on PNWF check it out here.

“One of my favorite parts about the festival is that since they are all new plays, the stories are all a surprise.”

Andy Coleman, PNWF Communications Director

Detailed ticket information follows at the end of this post. For more information about the festival visit

Program A performances are on August 31st September 8th and 9th at 8pm and September 2nd at 4pm and September 3rd at 2pm.

rooseveltRoosevelt’s Ghosts

by Aaron Scully

Warresnburg, MO

Produced by CCAC South Campus


On February 14th, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt suffered the loss of his mother and his wife within hours of each other. Legend has it that Roosevelt spent time in his study alone and when he came out he hardly ever spoke of his mother or wife again. This play explores one idea of what may have happened during that time in his study.

Aaron Scully is a playwright, director, actor, teacher and scholar. Most recently he was awarded an Outstanding Achievement in Dramatic Writing from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

The Pivotpivot

by Seth Freeman

Pacific Palisades, CA

Produced by The Summer Company


In this very short play’s genre-bending structure, an apparently well-qualified job applicant simultaneously faces and doesn’t face unexpected obstacles.

Seth Freeman’s plays have been presented at over a hundred fifty theaters and festivals around the world. He has received multiple Emmys, Writers Guild Awards, Golden Globes and numerous other honors for screenwriting, fiction writing, and journalism.

timeDoing Time

by Mary Poindexter McLaughlin

East Aurora, NY

Produced by The Theatre Factory


Confined in an undefined time and place, a young man attempts to write his “Book of Life” amidst the interruptions of an old man. Together, they argue about the significance of memory and the consequences of an undocumented life, ultimately helping each other learn the greatest lesson of all: the freedom of letting go.

Mary Poindexter McLaughlin holds a BA in English from Stanford University, where she was the recipient of Stanford’s Golden Grant Award for playwriting. Her plays have been finalists in the Samuel French One-Act Festival.

Program B runs September 1st, 2nd and 7th at 8pm and the 9th at 4pm and 10th at 2pm.

Exit Strategyexit

by Tom Moran

Fairbanks, AK

Produced by The Heritage Players


Sean has a brilliant strategy to avoid getting dumped: hit ’em with paperwork.

Tom Moran has been produced 33 times in 19 different cities in 13 states Tom holds a bachelor’s in English from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

finalAll Sales Final

by John Yarbrough

New York, NY

Produced by Cup-A-Jo Productions


When a dying man puts his life insurance policy up for sale to the highest bidder, all involved prepare to meet their maker.

John Yarbrough is a playwright in New York City. His plays have been performed throughout the country, and his play Petra was a selection for the Best American Short Plays 2014-2015.


by Evan W. Saunders

Nanticoke, PA

Produced by The Red Masquers


Two friends wait for a train, trapped in a memory on repeat. Only the truth will set them free, but in this strange world of changing conversations and bagel-carrying sparrows, what if one doesn’t want to leave?

Evan W. Saunders’ plays have been performed as a part of the 2016 Pittsburgh New Works Festival and the Duquesne University Red Masquers’ Premieres Festival. His first full-length play, All in the Numbers, is currently in development.

Stay tuned for more information on Programs C and D in Part 3 coming soon!

For tickets:

Visit or 1-888-71-TICKETS (1-888-718-4253) to reserve your seats by phone.

Main Stage Festival passes are $40. Pick your own dates with the Flex Pass or select one of the pre-built packages for a specific day and time. Either way you can experience every new play in the Festival and save a few bucks over single ticket prices.

Show times are Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm

Single Tickets Prices $15 Regular Admission ($17 at the Door) $12 Students and Under 25 ($14 at the Door)

Carnegie Stage is located at 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA  15106.  There is plenty of free parking and a great variety of restaurants and shops within easy walking distance of the theater.

A final note: The final dress rehearsals of Pittsburgh New Works mainstage shows are open to the public and feature American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and live audio description for our guests.  Learn more and reserve your seat for an accessible final dress rehearsal at