The Busy Body

22539000_1625142317538422_1922857777296597990_oPeople, in a singular sense, can change. According to centuries of written narrative, however, people collectively tend not to. No matter the time or place in human history, we have our tropes. There is always the young couple deeply in love, but forced apart by a more powerful exterior force. There is always the selfish, wealthy old man who takes advantage of the less fortunate. There is always the lustful idiot. Crucially, in-between it all, there is also always the Marplot.

The Red Masquers’ production of Susanna Centlivre’s The Busy Body, a farcical comedy originally penned in the 1700s, is a fun, breezy take on a generally under-looked play. Any production of a classic runs the risk of feeling stuffy, but thanks to some free-flowing performances and John E. Lane Jr.’s almost casual sense of direction, The Busy Body is able to be both accessible and occasionally even prescient in its comedy.

Like a lot of similar works, we follow two young couples whose love is restricted by their society; there are also a ton of characters and motivations to keep in mind at any given moment. There is Sir George (Nathaniel Yost), who sets the play’s tone by waxing poetic to Charles (Evan W. Saunders) about his visible erection. These men are fairly stupid, unflappably earnest, and desperately horny for Miranda (Amy Dick) and Isabinda (Sadie Crow) respectively.

Miranda is crafty, and spends the play’s opening act inventing a second persona to attract Sir George intellectually as well as physically. There is a plot reason for this, but in reality the entire purpose for her to do this is to create situations in which we laugh at George, because he is, like I said, fairly stupid.

Isabinda, meanwhile, is about to be married off to an anonymous Spanish merchant because her father happened to enjoy a trip there. Sadie Crow’s performance here is the most complete interpretation of matured teenage angst. When explaining her situation to others, she adopts this detesting thousand yard stare and shudders at the potential reality of the forced marriage, the Spanish merchant, and the very idea of Spain as an entity itself; the word “Spain” is not spoken so much as it is expelled from her like a sickness.

These four are not the most original protagonists, but Centlivre’s satire is built on wit that’s as blunt as a hammer, to the point of genre deconstruction. The play’s antagonists are two Seussian rich, old white men literally named Sir Gripe (Jay Keenan) and Sir Jealous Traffick (Nathan Freshwater). Gripe has no other intentions than to be the richest and most powerful individual in the play, and therefore has little to nothing in terms of complexity. As played by Jay Keenan, he is also one of the best parts of this production. Keenan imbues the character with an inexhaustible smarmy energy that breaths a lot of energy into scenes that are too dense with plot otherwise. He leans almost entirely into the character’s shrewdness, and we therefore never see the him as physically imposing to Miranda, which lightens up scenes that would otherwise significantly darken the play’s tone.

Jealous Traffick, meanwhile, is a more imposing figure, and his psychotic determination to maintain his daughter’s sexual purity are a grim if hilarious reminder of the effects of sexual repression. I quite liked Nathan Freshwater’s take on the character, who plays Jealous Traffick like a devout social conservative who has never reflected on his beliefs until this very moment in which he’s being challenged, like a sheltered kid during his first week in a college dorm or a far-right radio talk show host.

Tim Colbert’s bubbly, well-intentioned Marplot is The Busy Body’s greatest character. He is the titular busy body, and creates an endless amount of chaos via his need to help. Marplot, despite being utterly and infuriatingly hapless, is so warmhearted and abused that it’s hard not to root for him through each and every awful mistake he makes. He is the play’s weird little brother, and, sure, a little Marplot goes a long way, but The Busy Body would be painfully straightforward without him.

Like many of the more classically-minded farces, The Busy Body inevitably gets buried under its own plot. This is an area where Red Masquers’ production favorably compares to other restoration era shows. The intent isn’t so much to slavishly devote itself to period detail or to dynamically reinterpret its source material, but instead to extract as much of the play’s inherent sense of fun through performances that are big and goofy, but also smart. There are a lot of ways to interpret these characters, and the cast never makes choices that take away from the show’s inherent playfulness.

That said, there’s little in the way of extra flavor. Stage design is as minimal as humanly possible, and the play is paced rather quickly for its density. The Busy Body is good at what it does, but what you see is what you get, too. Theatergoers new to the era might have some trouble keeping up without a Wikipedia article at the ready during intermission, but seasoned veterans will enjoy a production that thoroughly understands what makes Centlivre’s comedy work.

They Busy Body runs at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theatre through November 12. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Orphie and the Book of Heroes

oatbohPittsburgh’s oldest amateur theatre company, The Duquesne Red Masquers opens its 105th season with Orphie and the Book of Heroes. This season’s selection of shows co-ordinates with The National Conference of 18th Century Women Writers that will be hosted by Duquesne University, and what better way to kick off the season than a girl-empowering musical by Duquesne alumnus Christopher Dimond?  The playwright wanted to focus on a teenage girl in ancient Greece since there are little or no female heroes in ancient Greek mythology.

The musical follows the story of Orphie (Samantha Espiritu), a spunky young girl who is obsessed with the stories that her guardian Homer (Max Begler) has told her. She longs, though, to hear a story about a Great Girl Hero.  Orphie has to put her own powers to the test when Homer is taken from her by the god of the dead and riches, the sinister song-and-dance man Hades (Grant Shadrach Jones).

The quest to rescue Homer takes her from the heights of Mt. Olympus to the depths of the underworld. As the journey progresses, she realizes that the girl hero she’s been looking for is closer than she thought.

Orphie and the Book of Heroes offers fun mash-ups of Greek Culture and our modern world filled with humor and unexpected character twists, geared for a preteen audience. Not only does it strive to empower young girls by example, it makes classical Greek mythology fun.

This is the fourth production of Orphie and the Book of Heroes. It was originally commissioned for and premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2014. One of Dimond’s goals was to create a “producible” musical for family audiences. Productions of Greek mythology conjure up grand adventures on an epic and inherently expensive scale beyond the resources of many theatre groups. The production is intended to be colorful yet simplistic in its design and presentation.

Director Jill Jeffrey (Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Gemini Children’s Theatre) succeeds in creating an intimate epic on the Genesius Theatre stage with a slightly larger number of actors than Kennedy Center, still with many playing double or triple roles. Standouts go to Samantha Espiritu’s energetic and enchanted Orphie, Grant Shadrach Jones’ evil Hades and Max Begler, channeling a younger John Stewart, as Homer. Typical of Red Masquers productions, the cast and crew come from a variety of majors, not just theatre arts. Choreographer Katheryn Hess does a nice job of scaling the choreography to the scene design and performance space, engaging but not over done.

The cast clearly enjoyed performing. However, theatre pieces aimed at children and preteens are best enjoyed when they make up a large portion of the audience. Their enthusiasm and excitement is contagious for both actors and audience. That would have helped put this production of Orphie and the Book of Heroes over the top.

Orphie and the Book of Heroes is playing at the Genesius Theatre on the campus of Duquesne University from September 29th – October 15th with performances Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sunday matinees at 2 pm.

Tickets can be purchased at http://www.duqredmasquers.com/purchase-tickets

Note: Parking can be a tad expensive on Penguin home game nights.

Thanks to the Red Masquers for the complimentary tickets.

True West

Screenshot (16)The incessant, nagging chirp of crickets.

It’s the iPhone noise that never reached the popularity of the classic marimba ringtone. It underscores many a painful, unending awkward silence in our imaginations and in TV and film. Crickets also supply the unofficial soundtrack for much of the Duquesne Red Masquer’s milquetoast production of True West. Unfortunately, that is not solely as a recurring component of Nick Cipriano’s overbearing sound design but also as the audience’s prevailing reaction to the show.

Director Michael Makar chisels some striking tableaus out of Sam Shepard’s solid-as-a-rock, Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-nominated script. In True West, Shepard ignites fireworks by repeatedly smashing beer can-shaped circle hole Lee (Evan W. Saunders) into Ivy League-educated square peg Austin (Max Begler). While screenwriter Austin is away from his own wife and children, house sitting for his mother, his brother Lee blows in like a tumbleweed to disrupt his creative process and repeatedly ask to borrow his car.

Their five-year estrangement makes the tension between the brothers positively palpable. The arrival of flashy Hollywood agent Saul Kimmer tacks on a professional layer to the bitter blood feud. When Kimmer is unexpectedly intrigued by Lee’s half-baked concept for an authentic story about men in the west, Austin’s world begins to crumble. As they question all the choices they’ve made in life, they have only the fickle and dangerous call of the wild to give them answers.

Whether the characters are embroiled in heated face-to-face conflicts or unable to look at each other in the eye, many of the images, created by Makar’s occasionally meticulous hand, are dying to be photographed—pre-show, anti-cell phone announcement be damned. Despite the literal extended setup of the toaster scene in Act II, the punchline, like the bread, truly popped as a refreshing bit of slapstick.

Makar wears not one but two cowboy hats with the production. But his works as a set designer is anything but picturesque. He deploys an enormous swath of white fabric against the back wall that succeeds only in cannibalizing the rest of the simple scenery and accentuating Antonia Gelorme’s garish, unfocused lights.

With his casting of the two leads, Makar emphasizes the ways in which Lee and Austin are more alike than they’d care to admit. They share something thicker than blood or water—an all-encompassing desire for what the other has.

If you thought it was hard to direct and set design for a single production, be prepared to marvel at Saunders’s ability to manspread, smize, pout, and constantly shrug hair out of his face all in a single performance. He’s not always convincing when he talks tough or takes a physical jab at Austin, but he most definitely looks the part of the hard-bitten desert drifter in a Canadian tuxedo and black tank top designed by Clare Rahill. Saunders’s chops aren’t strong enough to chew on any scenery, but he makes easy and hilarious work of a prop with his teeth. It is in such moments of mild mania that he embodies Lee’s truth most honestly.

Begler too relishes the chance to unleash Austin’s id in the character’s increasingly violent and desperate outbursts. For much of the first act, he relies too heavily on hands-in-pocket acting to appear uptight. But, as if he got a jolt from sticking a fork in one of Austin’s beloved toasters, Begler plays drunk and downtrodden almost too well.

I instantly remembered hearing about a production of True West where Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly occasionally alternated in the roles of Austin and Lee. I think Begler would be more than up for the challenge. As Lee attempts to begin writing a screenplay, Begler hurls insults across the room like darts and hits a bullseye every time. No matter who has the keys to Austin’s car, the actor who portrays him is firmly in the driver’s seat of this production.

You’ll find Hayden Lounsbury and Christina McElwee riding in the back playing two small, yet pivotal roles. As Saul Kimmer, Lounsbury more than holds his own with the strong lead actors. McElwee, who plays Lee and Austin’s mother, is upstaged by a dying plant in the corner.

In the pursuit of truth, the Duquesne Red Masquers are on the right track. But they’ll need a stronger compass (along with more polished design elements and a more cohesive cast) to locate true west.

Thanks to the Duquesne Red Masquers for the complimentary tickets.

True West runs at the Genesius Theater until Sunday April 30th. For more information, click here.

 

 

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

BB andrew jThe Duquesne Red Masquers could not have asked for better timing for their production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. A show about a populist President who rides to power by claiming to represent the will of “The People,” only to find himself in over his head? There’s really no way that could get any more on-the-nose, right? Well… on its opening day, Donald Trump visited Jackson’s grave. And then talked about how he disagreed with a court ruling about people he didn’t want in the country. Although written prior to 2008, the themes of populism and racism explored in the show sometimes feel eerily relevant to the current moment. The Red Masquers actually decided to stage this play before the election, but its result obviously influenced director Jill Jeffrey’s choices in developing the production.DSC_0535

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical satire written by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, provides a not-quite-sympathetic chronicle of the life of the seventh President from his origins in rural Tennessee to his clashes with Congress and the courts in Washington. Depicting Jackson as a swaggering rock star, the show embraces the DIY aesthetic and breakneck pace of a punk show. Jackson himself is one of the only constants on stage, portrayed by sophomore Michael Tarasovich. The rest of the cast cycle through multiple characters, donning simple additions to their costumes to identify each one. The effect can be jarring at first – especially as the plot rockets through Jackson’s early life without a lot of recurring characters. But with Jackson’s entry into politics, the show finds a steadier pace and it becomes easy to identify actors with characters.

For most of its runtime, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson refuses to rest for more than a few seconds. Although the minimalist set remains mostly static, the cast successfully draws attention to one area while the others are being re-furnished to accommodate new scenes. Cast members move into the audience when Jackson is addressing the people, or speak from behind the fence that divides the stage in half (see, I told you it was topical) when breaking the fourth wall is called for. It is only late in the production, when the consequences of the President’s increasingly erratic behavior begin to catch up with him, that the action slows down to dwell on his legacy with the song “Second Nature.” Jeffrey accentuates this moment with images of the modern America Jackson helped to create and the people he hurt along the way.DSC_0879

The Red Masquers are a student theater group at Duquesne University, but Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is an alumni show, featuring returning members alongside current students. Although the cast members’ experience levels vary widely, they work well together. “The Corrupt Bargain,” a number featuring the plotting of the Out-Of-Touch Coastal Elite, demonstrates this range:  John Beckas, who plays soon-to-be-former President James Monroe, is a first time actor, while Justin Sines – a hilarious John Quincy Adams – is a veteran of multiple local theater companies and is the Technical Director for the very Genesius theater in which this show was performed.

In addition to leading man Tarasovich, who captures the posturing hotheadedness that is Jackson’s defining characteristic here, the show features notable performances from Lauren Gardonis and Katheryn Hess. While individual singers can sometimes get lost in some of the larger ensemble pieces, these two stand out shine in songs that focus on their voices  – Gardonis in the dark “Ten Little Indians” and Hess as Jackson’s wife Rachel in “The Great Compromise.”IMG_2322

This is a lively and relevant show that seems to be as much fun for the cast as the audience. But it should come with a bit of a content warning. Remember, it is a punk show. First of all, there’s a few f-bombs. Some dick jokes. A very-nearly-too-old reference to the Tea Party movement that takes a while to register if you weren’t active on Daily Kos in the early years of the Obama administration. (I guess that’s a dated reference, too? My bad.) But the controversy that has followed this show through multiple productions is its treatment of Native Americans. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is not subtle in its portrayal of its title character as the villain – the phrase “American Hitler” is actually used at one point – but any piece that deals with genocide in a broad satirical tone has to be careful. Especially when relying on simple visual cues to identify characters. Masquers alum Jeff Johnston, who plays Black Fox, the most prominent Native American character, made it clear in a post-performance talkback that the company was very aware of this and did their best to avoid stereotypes. As long as you’re comfortable with all that, the Red Masquers’ production is an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through March 19 at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theater, with shows at 8:00 and Midnight on Friday and Saturday, and a 2 PM matinee on Sunday. Visitors unfamiliar with the Duquesne Campus would also be well-advised to make sure you know where the Genesius Theater actually is. Hint: it’s not at 600 Forbes. I totally knew that.

Special thanks to the Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. For tickets and more information, click here

Photos courtesy of Dale Hess and Morgan Paterniti.

How I Learned to Drive

Drive Small Posters (5)[2]Sexual abuse and the way women are often negatively sexualized once they experience the onset of puberty is a subject that has been at the forefront in recent news headlines; making the overarching metaphor in How I Learned to Drive, a play written by Paula Vogel and directed by Justin Sines, perfectly timed to bring about awareness and discussion about the issue.

On a simple set featuring large archway made out of wire fencing with various street signs  attached to the top and sides, the audience is introduced to one of the main characters, Li’l Bit, played by Fiona Montgomery, who is growing up in the mid-60s and early 70s. Also present in the performance space is an unmoving, upholstered seat with a back that serves as the seat of a car for the majority of the play, and two identical, backless seats located in close proximity on either side.

Learning how to drive portrayed as a metaphor for learning about sexual boundaries and sexual abuse is clear early on in the performance, making the length of the 90 minute piece perhaps a bit unnecessary.DSC_0296

The inappropriate sexual nature of the relationship among family members that has been passed down through generations is made apparent immediately, as Li’l Bit explains that everyone in her family has a nickname that relates to a part of a person’s genitalia. Her grandfather’s nickname is, “Big Pappa,” while her uncle’s name is, “Uncle Peck;” both obvious metaphors.

The audience watches as the play’s timeline jumps back and forth, guided by driving instructor, voiced by Colleen Garrison, who utilizes driving instructions for a manual car to indicate a shift forward or backward in time. The nonlinear timeline provides a glimpse into the inappropriate nature of Li’l Bit’s relationship with uncle Peck and the sexual abuse he inflicts on her from an early age, how it affects her throughout her teenage years and the lasting affect it has on her as a young adult.DSC_0402

While driving directions allow the audience to perceive the timeline has changed and provides further depth to the main metaphor, if the secondary characters had not often announced that there was a change in the year, I would not have necessarily picked up on the fact that Li’l Bit’s age shifts during the performance. Li’l Bit is often distressed, as she should be considering the circumstances, and Montgomery does a good job of making this apparent to the audience through her expressions. However,  Montgomery unfortunately makes almost no alterations in Li’l Bit’s mannerisms or tone of speech to indicate that the character’s age has changed, rendering the performance flat.

Uncle Peck, played by Michael Makar, is definitely the antagonist in the play, and the fact that his character does not come across as obviously creepy or perverse provides further comment on the relationship between victims of sexual abuse and those abusing them. Often times, the people that prey on others fly under the radar and come across as unassuming and harmless. Uncle Peck grooms Li’l Bit her entire life, skews sexual boundaries, makes her believe that what he is doing is not wrong and is able to accomplish this under the guise of a caring and loving family member.DSC_0484

While this point is well taken by the way that the character is portrayed in the performance, at the close of the play I found myself wishing that Makar had made me more uneasy and uncomfortable as the plot progressed. The way that Makar depicts the character of uncle Peck made him seem one dimensional and stiff. Uncle Peck is supposed to be leading two different lives, one in which he is a loving and devoted husband, and one in which he is a sexual predator. Had Makar made uncle Peck come across as a more sly and sneaky, I think the character would seemed more dynamic and realistic.

The play ends with Li’l Bit preparing to go for a drive by herself, however, although she does this on her own, she follows the driving instructions taught by her uncle Peck. As she adjusts the rearview mirror, Makar sits in the back seat indicating to the audience the lifelong affect sexual abuse has, and will have, on Li’l Bit’s life, and the cyclical nature of this behavior.

Special thanks to Duquesne Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. How I Learned to Drive runs through November 13 at Duquesne Genesius Theater. For tickets and more information, visit duqredmasquers.com.

Photos courtesy of Dale Hess.

Avenue Q

AVQ Small Poster%2FProgram Cover (1)It should be noted, in all fairness as a spectator, that I walked into The Red Masquers production of Avenue Q with a profoundly intense ardor for the quirky—at times aberrant—musical.  Ardor may be putting it lightly, even—on various iterations of my iPod and iTunes, “The Internet is For Porn,” “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada,” “If You Were Gay,” and “Schadenfreude” were all featured in my top fifteen most frequently played tracks, each with well over 500 plays.  Based on the book by Jeff Whitty, with lyrics and music by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q was released as on Off-Broadway production in 2003, and was heralded as a bizarre triumph, blending the aged, acerbic snark and crass disillusionment of 90s sitcoms with the puppet sensibility and sly innocence of Sesame Street. My first stumbling upon the play as a 14 year old, peculiarly enough, was through my father, whose students had burnt him the soundtrack in order to convey the ennui of the post graduate Gen Xers—those who found themselves over-talented, over-educated, over-preoccupied with themselves, and distinctly underemployed and under-stimulated.  I listened to the soundtrack in the car with my father religiously, strangely bonding over the perverse cleverness of the lyrics, the strange appeal of the hyper-sexual, obscene monsters, and the nuances of the caricatures portrayed by both the wily monsters and plucky humans alike.  Avenue Q impacted me in a particularly unique way, as months prior the musical object of my obsessive affection had been Rent. Q was a hyper-realistic Rent on a come down from a bender.IMG_6893

I could appreciate the biting humor and musical flare of Q at 14, but the scathing realism of the musical fiasco was lost on me in a way that now, as a 25 year old barista with a Master’s Degree, is achingly funny given my current position.  And perhaps so much of the triumph of the production of Avenue Q—because the source material was incredibly familiar and nearly impossible to spoil—was the stupendous efficaciousness and vibrancy of the multi-talented cast.  Set appropriately on a minimalist stage, the cast delivered each song, each demoralizing joke with a certain dead-on-the-inside hutzpah that is completely apropos for the play.  It is first necessary to sing the praises of the cast responsible for portraying the “real humans” in the ensemble—Angela Griffo as Christmas Eve, Nate Yost as Brian and Mikayla Gilmer as Gary Coleman.  It is no small feat to act side by side to the purposefully exaggerated stage theatrics of actors doubling as puppeteers, but the crew of “real folks” pull it off beautifully.  Yost brings his usual bombastic versatility to the spirited but underappreciated wannabe standup comedian; Griffo tackles the, at times, problematically stereotypical “Asian wife” Christmas Eve, with harmonic splendor and steadfastness through the more uncomfortably caricatured moments of the character; and Gilmer is utterly electric as the show’s inexplicable omniscient celebrity/landlord, Gary Coleman.IMG_6870

But there is much to be said too, as one would presume, about the flawless performances of the “monster” ensemble.  While the finer manipulations of the puppets jabberwocking were sometimes evident, the translation of human to puppet emotions and physicality were nearly impeccable across the board.   Moreover, the musical prowess and resounding enthusiasm of the cast is palpable—and the enthusiasm holds up in even the more taxing numbers, like the uproarious “You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)” (which accomplished miracles of puppet coitus that I am still daunted to imagine in normal intercourse).  Each “monster” or human puppet—Princeton/Rod, Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, Nicky/Trekkie Monster, Bad Idea Bears 1 & 2, Mrs. Thisletwat and Ricky (lplayed respectively by Daniel Watts, Sienna Dalessandro, Hayden Lounsbury, Bandon Anderson and Katheryn Hess, Izzy Tarcson—is animated with such poise and pizzazz, and impressive ability to often switch between distinctly different puppet roles, that to enumerate their skills would be a two page review unto itself.  A standout of gruff proportions is unquestionably Hayden Lounsbury, bringing the masturbation-addled Trekkie Monster and oblivious desire-object and supportive straight best friend Nicky to life with such distinctly eccentric flair that does justice to both very unique characters.IMG_6882

The poignant, yet savagely funny moments of Avenue Q ring true even more agonizingly in this stage iteration—the forlornness of closeted Republican Rod’s pining for his roommate Nicky (in a fantastic take on the Bert and Ernie relationship) is brilliant; the despondency of the question of what do you do with a BA in English is iridescently brutal.  There are moments, though, that in a re-watching may have been better altered given current social climates, like the tricky, if not brusquely funny “Everyone Is A Little Bit Racist.”  That being said, the production is worth partaking in regardless of any foreknowledge of the play.  After all, what else are you going to do with your liberal arts education?

Special thanks to the Duquesne University Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. Avenue Q runs at the Genesius Theatre through October 9th. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photo credit: Morgan Paterniti

A History of the American Film

Nathaniel Yost and the Salad Girls
Nathaniel Yost and the Salad Girls

There is a certain, almost ineffable, quality of striking mimesis that courses through the entirety of The Summer Company’s staging of Christopher Durang’s 1978 bizarrely (at times even baroquely) satirical piece A History of the American Film that gives the already fantastic play an added element of hutzpah to an audience member with a background specializing in film.  As the audience begins to trickle in, the players are already seated, as if in a film theatre themselves, singing along to a rousing number as black and white film footage plays on the awning above them so they audience may partake in their film-watching experience.  This continues for several minutes to a point of almost diluting the momentum of the opening.   However, the first moments of the first scene subtly captivate in such a way that it makes up for the near-monotony of the introductory singing.

The players on stage, rapt with attention, watch as a hyper-melodramatic silent film—reminiscent of the hyperbolic emotiveness of films like Sunrise (1927) or Broken Blossoms (1919)is acted out in front of them as the audience is shown the narration captions of the film on the awning.  This silent film’s plot is a standard baleful tale: a nameless mother—played by tremendously expressive Jillian Lesaca, who vibrantly appears later in the play as Clara–finds herself unable to care for her newborn child, and beseeches God to take the child away from her safely only to die tragically (and not-surprisingly) shortly after the child is left at an orphanage.  Every trope is marvelously enacted, but what is most compelling are the subsequent reactions of the players acting as the audience.   Played with relish, each actor demonstrates the quintessential gamut of responses to the film—the spirited hopefulness for the mother; the repulsed disdain that any woman would dare be incapable of caring for her offspring—in such a way that transforms the experience of watching this multidimensional presentation of the film watching process.The Cast

The efficacy and fastidiousness with which the actors pull off the initial scene of film-watching is ultimately what catalyzes the transition into the meat of play so brilliantly.  History tells the divinely surreal story of Loretta—played with phenomenally ironic golly-gee-whiz pluckiness by Colleen Garrison—the orphaned daughter of the nameless mother in the first scene, as she tries to navigate through the harrowing perils of being a “nice girl” in the big city.  As passed out, fatigued and overwhelmed, a prototypical scoundrel, Jimmy—the ace-in-the-hole, wise-guy sneering Frank Schurter—settles into the bench next to her, which, of course, leads to a whirlwind romance between the two after Jimmy ushers her away to his home in the derelict, noir-esque Shantytown.  History, is artfully constructed by Durang (who was nominated for a Tony for this play, and won the award for Best Play in 2013 for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike) to traverse the multitude of distinct genres that characterized the evolution of American popular cinema while simultaneously chronicling Loretta’s growth and utterly idiotic love for Jimmy.  These transitions, in less skillful hands than the incredibly talented cast and director (John E. Lane Jr.) and crew, may be disorienting or clunky, but these genre migrations are dizzyingly seamless and uproariously funny.

Colleen Garrison as Loretta and Frank Schurter as Jimmy
Colleen Garrison as Loretta and Frank Schurter as Jimmy

As Loretta and Jimmy entangle in a romance in Shantytown, they embark on the musical-portion (featuring the oddly sweet “Shantytown Romance” ballad) of the narrative, in which Loretta is the ideal domestic woman (making profoundly blissful existential remarks like “Look, I’m IRONING!”) heedless to the shady goings-on of her lover.  Upon the introduction of the scorchingly surly Bette—played by Jill Jeffrey with saucy vamp splendor—who is Jimmy’s original lover, the play cycles from musical, to grimy noir/crime film, to courtroom/prison drama (the sickeningly hilarious drama of which hinders on one of the funniest miscarriage scenes [it is awful, but it must be seen to be understood]), to a completely dreadful screwball comedy where, I believe, the actors rhythm and pacing and comfortability with the ludicrousness of the plot they are in really hits a wonderful, breakneck stride.

Throughout these genres, Loretta is sentenced to jail, released by divine intervention, accused of another crime, put on a chain-gang where she meets the down on his luck Hank (played with the thundering, authentically old-timey charm of Nathaniel Yost). The two then transcend the play’s meta-examination of Western film; both parodying the trope and satirizing the absurdity of the production of Western film. Tim Syicarz’s cantankerously flamboyant Director Fritz Von Lefling is at once offensive and stupendous.  All the while, Jimmy has died several times, lived with Bette in a Phantom of the Opera-esque dreary home, and hunted down Loretta to no avail.  And several side vignettes pop up, including a daft take down of Grapes of Wrath (1940) and the outrageously strange but ultimately ecstatic musical interlude performed by Hank as he embarks on his Hollywood career to escape the chain-gang that functions as an ode to salad. It makes almost no sense, is beautifully choreographed and is one of the highlights of the entire show. And all this is before the intermission and Jimmy shipping off to war.  It’s a berserk and fantastic, and though the stage design is minimal, the performances and production carry the lunacy into the realm of giddy entertainment.

Jill Jeffrey as Bette and Colleen Garrison and Loretta, background is Tyler Jennings, Sarah Williams,LaMar Darnell Fields, and Eric Matthews
Jill Jeffrey as Bette and Colleen Garrison and Loretta, background is Tyler Jennings, Sarah Williams,LaMar Darnell Fields, and Eric Matthews

History has some problematic moments of racial and gender stereotyping that undermine the talents of the actors playing the roles (who tackle these characters masterfully) that could have served a reworking.  But on its whole, History is an inimitable delight that genuinely surprised me in it’s execution. The commentary on film (and the subtle hints of spectatorship versus participation and reality versus fabrication), the dismantling of genre and tropes, and the interesting remarks on gender and archetypes (seen in the resentful bonding of Bette and Loretta that plays like a reverse White Christmas (1954)).  At one point near the end of the first act, Loretta shouts “I feel like the 1930s are never going to be over!” and if it means digging in these tropes a little more, than quite frankly, my dear, I just don’t give a damn if they ever do end.

Special thanks to The Summer Company for complimentary press tickets.

A History of the American Film runs at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theatre through August 28th. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Justin Sines.