The Old Man and the Old Moon

CT1711_Tomatom_573x437PigPen Theatre Company’s The Old Man and the Old Moon radiates joy at such a rate that you can practically feel its glow before you even get the chance to take your seat. I mean that somewhat literally. The cast roams the stage as the audience enters, silently chuckling along with all the pre-show chatter. At first, they’re pretty much invisible, but the soft, plucky riff of the acoustic guitar one of the performers is handling begins to set the tone. As people file in, another guitar joins, then drums. We don’t feel it at first, but as the audience begins to quiet, a song is beginning to take shape, until it suddenly explodes into a soaring folk anthem, and the show is begun.

My first thought leaving Southside’s spacious City Theatre was, of all things, about the mechanics of theater. The Old Man and the Old Moon‘s entire existence is predicated on the way it wears its 150 BPM heart rate on its sleeve – and it is very good at doing that – but it’s real accomplishments actually come from its storytelling intellect.

The Old Man and the Old Moon essentially has two stories to tell. The first is about a man who travels an uncharted world in pursuit of his wayward wife and a mythic past long forgotten; the second, cleverly, is about the people who tell us this story. When the intro (re: the greatest Lumineers song never written) concludes, a narrator (Matt Nuernberger) appears in its vacuum. He introduces us to the titular Old Man (Ryan Melia), who has been tasked with refilling the moon every night to ensure it remains full. He’s been doing this so long he can’t quite remember why he started in the first place. His wife (Alex Falberg), compelled by wanderlust and half-remembered purpose, sets sail in a rowboat to find herself. Distraught and utterly unprepared to face the outside world, the Old Man sets off to find her.

Our protagonist, then, is a classic folktale archetype, and while the script pulls heavily from Irish culture, I’m certain you could find him in the periphery of every legend, myth or fable the world over. Melia’s Old Man is a loose, classically put-upon guy who is nevertheless filled to the tweed cap with raw performative energy. The anachronism of his energetic physicality and his cartoon-perfect wavering vocals make for a compelling comic performance.

The rest of the cast adopt a similarly asynchronous approach to their characters. Falberg’s Old Woman is a loving Irish stereotype whose emotions bubble under her sarcastic charisma. Ben Ferguson briefly steals the show as a wide-eyed lunatic who gave up trying to escape the whale he was eaten by over a decade ago. His character largely echoes Jonah and the whale, but his performance is so casually insane he’s almost more reminiscent of that guy in every office who has visibly been there way too long.

The Old Man and the Old Moon’s primary aesthetic is a foggy woodworked dreamscape in which a dog is a mop, a bustling market is two large planks and a man holding a sign, and the moon is produced by the glow of a flashlight. Yet, the play is immersive, so much so that its patchwork landscape- the method with which it portrays the world of this gentle-hearted odyssey to us – is as rewarding as its narrative. A large-scale battle between warships happens in the play’s first act, and I found myself smiling in anticipation of seeing what PigPen was going to do with its limited toolset to accomplish such an ambitious scene.

Spoiler alert: as it turns out, this particular instance of naval combat is fought by two groups of men contorting themselves into a kind of horizontal pyramid and all shouting, and I quote, “SHIP.”

Yes.

Even in these extremely good and extremely goofy moments, City Theatre’s production encourages further exploration of its themes. Our narrator, who is so explicitly excited at the notion of telling us a story that he appears in his own story so that he may tell us even more stories – and then, in the process of doing that, re-iterate how much he loves storytelling – is a reminder of why we’re sat in the theater listening to him go on in the first place. It’s not only that we like being entertained, but that the pure unadulterated joy of the art of the story, the suggestion that the world is bigger than we understand it to be, is an undying human instinct.

The Old Man and the Old Moon reminds us that the world is full of amazing stuff, and that adventure will always await those who choose to seek it. That sensation you get as a kid, huddled around a flashlight at a sleepover while your friend tells you about fighting the horrible monster he found in the woods – that innate awe and anticipation of something new – is still there if you look for it.

The Old Man and the Old Moon runs at City Theatre through December 3. For tickets and more information, click here. For more about PigPen Theatre Co click here. 

The Humans

humansTime may march on, but there’s something immutable about the roles one regresses into during family holiday gatherings. Sibling rivalries flare, there are passive aggressive references to real or perceived slights of yesteryear, family traditions are observed, and there’s often some alcohol along the way to smooth or coarsen the track. Love is there, but navigating family can be its own rocky course, which is precisely the appeal in watching the holidays unfurl for fictional families. You identify pieces of yourself, and your own family normalizes a bit. Thanksgiving dinner with the Blake family includes all of the above and comprises the action in Stephen Karam’s play, The Humans, now playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.

PPT_The_Humans_011The play starts on the second floor of scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s magnificent set, a two-story apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. The lights come up on Erik Blake (J. Tucker Smith), an upper middle-aged man standing on the second floor landing with a grocery bag in each hand. He looks out, a modern-day Lewis and Clark in a plaid shirt, surveying this new frontier from on high, in this case his younger daughter Brigid’s (Valeri Mudek) new apartment she just moved into with her boyfriend, Richard Saad (Arash Mokhtar). A wheelchair behind Erik immediately signifies this is a multi-generational gathering. A spiral staircase provides access to the ground floor, but Schweikardt brilliantly chooses not to place a railing at the front of the second floor level. The long unprotected drop is unnerving. The precipice heightens the play’s emotional edges and creates visual vulnerability, reminding us we’re all one fragile misstep away from disaster.

Schweikardt’s black metal staircase winds tightly, appropriately double helix-like. The staircase is not simply a way to ascend and descend. Director Pamela Berlin thoughtfully utilizes it as a space where characters hover between floors, one ear cocked and listening to the conversation above or below. Each character is in transition in some way, and these pauses on the stairs, neither up nor down, symbolize those transitions.

Cecelia Riddett in wheelchair then (left to right) Arash Mokhtar, Valeri Mudek, Courtney Balan, J. Tucker Smith and Charlotte Booker
Cecelia Riddett in wheelchair then (left to right) Arash Mokhtar, Valeri Mudek, Courtney Balan, J. Tucker Smith and Charlotte Booker

At one point, the mother, Deirdre (Charlotte Booker) comes down from the bathroom and overhears her two adult daughters making fun of the emails she tirelessly sends, ones with subject lines like “PLEASE READ THIS.” The audience laughs easily with Brigid and Aimee (Courtney Balan), and Deirdre’s all-caps emails are genuinely comedic and eyeroll-relatable. As she stands on the stairs listening, Booker’s face softly collapses behind bottle-dyed red hair as she realizes she’s become an object of ridicule. Deirdre loves her children, and her struggle to relevantly express it is both funny and poignant as she foists off a Virgin Mary statue on Brigid along with a wind-up radio, covering emergency preparedness from multiple angles.

Karam’s characters are written a bit one-dimensionally, considering The Humans won the Tony for best play of 2016. Cecilia Riddett is commendable as the grandmother, Momo, but she’s also a caricature of an old lady, an elderly inconvenience who dozes off, then punctuates the action with occasional outbursts. Deirdre and Erik juggle her care, and when Brigid implies they’re overmedicating Momo, Deirdre snaps, reminding her it’s a $100 a night for someone to watch Momo. Over half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, so night care isn’t an in-budget luxury. For the Blakes and most Americans, life is that railingless second floor.

Charlotte Booker and Arash Mokhtar
Charlotte Booker and Arash Mokhtar

Brigid and Richard’s moving truck has yet to arrive from Queens, so the whole apartment has a makeshift quality. A disposable tablecloth covers a cheap folding table, and the row of turkeys printed on it precipitously dangle over the table’s edge, a macabre death scene that echoes the imminent threat of falling from the level above. A tissue paper honeycomb turkey that looks like it would be more at home in an elementary school comprises the centerpiece and completes a sad dollar store nod to Thanksgiving.

Berlin appropriately chooses to stage Brigid and Richard as a couple you sense won’t work out, even before they unpack. There’s no perceptible attraction between them. Brigid is a frustrated musician with student loans and dual bartending jobs. She disparagingly notes to Aimee that Richard made a pro/con list on whether or not to move in together and also maintains a list of “ways to have fun,” which includes thrill-seekers like “long walks.” One gets the sense Richard comes from money, which is affirmed as the play unfolds, and given their lack of connection, it’s hard not to cynically wonder if Brigid sees him as a financial toehold.

J. Tucker Smith and Valeri Mudek
J. Tucker Smith and Valeri Mudek

A flaw of the writing, not the production, is the pacing. The first half is overly long, and there’s a sense of relief when everyone finally sits down and gets to the big meal, although Thanksgiving itself can feel that way as you’re forever waiting to eat. Deirdre repeatedly whispers to Erik to “tell them” almost from the outset, and Booker underscores her reminder with fiery eyes that widen and a steel set mouth. Erik’s big reveal, while unanticipated, feels strangely anticlimactic as Smith flatlines and struggles to make it believable. The ripple effect of the reveal is rushed and feels a bit contrived, but the play’s final moments are masterful and impactful.

Growing up, our most successful Thanksgiving dinners were the ones where we ate out as my mother was a weak cook at best. One Thanksgiving, she attempted to cook a goose. I vividly remember my dad standing over it, his carving knife revealing a bloody pink interior, triggering a swell of sailor-worthy cursing from my mother. Ah, blessed family holiday memories. You’ll laugh, nod, and find a piece of yourself and your family in The Humans this holiday season.

The Humans plays through December 10th at the O’Reilly Theater. To purchase tickets and for more information, click here.

Photos by Michael Henninger

Love’s Labor’s Won

23435043_10155257750121859_3773208933795964793_nDirectors and theatre companies have been adapting and tweaking the works of William Shakespeare for centuries. Alterations run the gamut from changing the setting and characters genders to modernizing the language. Sometimes the core story has morphed, for example, Romeo & Juliet begat West Side Story. Imagine if you could take a story concept and write it in the style of Shakespeare. Elizabethan English, in verse form with iambic pentameter rhyming schemes and his typical comedy conventions; the buffoon, the snooty royal, women dressed as men and missed identities. Theatre, just as the Bard would have written it.

Shakespeare’s Loves Labors Lost, first published in 1598, ends with the death of the King of France, leaving the other characters future in limbo. It has long been surmised that a sequel had been written by the Bard, but alas it has never been found. Scott Kaisers’ Love’s Labor’s Won could be that sequel, set near the end of World War I, just as the armistice is about to be signed. Thematically, it asks the question “Will love survive the brutal war?”

Many of the characters from Lost make the transition to Won. For a memory refresh, they are Ferdinand (Christopher J. Essex), the King of Navarre, the country in the center of the conflict and about to be divided. He has taken a three-year oath of celibacy and sobriety, encouraging his friends to do the same. Princess Isabelle of France (Kennedy McMann) arrives on the scene and causes that oath to fly out the window. She is a no-nonsense talented politician. She has lost her father in the war and also her purpose. Her position keeps her silenced, but she is just waiting to leap in and save the day.

Dumaine (Chase Del Rey) who is not the cleverest of the bunch. Decorum is not his thing but affection towards his crush Kathrine is, along with his other desire- for wealth. Kathrine (Myha’la Herrold) is Isabelle’s closest friend. She is beautiful and graceful, yet possesses and inner strength. She views Dumaine as a money hunger hypocrite but she loves him anyway.

Berowne (Christian Strange) is the ambitious class clown of the group all the while searching for a sense of stability in a war-torn world. His love Rosaline (Aubyn Heglie) who can verbally joust with the best of men. A woman of action, she calls Berowne a fool when he professes his love for her.

Longaville (Kyle Decker) has been locked up in the Embassy’s dungeon for being a spy. Of all the characters, he has the greatest sense of and respect for humanity. He has also signed up for the oath but has found a loophole, by proclaiming his love, Maria (Eleanor Pearson) is a goddess. Maria is calm and collected, but ultimately brokers the deal to finalize the armistice and restore all their relationships.

Costard (Jordan Plutzer) is the foot soldier, wounded in battle and worse for wear. With a bad eye and a bad leg on his left side, he always seems to be searching for the right direction. He adds the comic relief to what would otherwise be very sad times. Rayquila Durham plays the jazzy Jacquenetta, his love interest.

The playwright, Scott Kaiser, has written several books on Shakespeare and another play Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues. He clearly knows and understands the Bards writing style and conventions. He has created a very watchable and enjoyable play. Some of the rhymes are a bit over the top, but hey why not. Perhaps the double entendre is a bit overdone at times. The characters have depth and complexity with the ultimate outcome of the story in doubt until the very end.

CMU has a well-deserved reputation for recruiting top talent. That talent with a master director really shines in this production delivering rich well-crafted performances. The university posts no cast bios, so it’s a guess as to their path to CMU, past experience or whether they are undergraduates or grad students. Regardless you can see bright futures for them as actors. Two standouts are Jordan Plutzer’ Costard for his comedic skills and timing along with Rayquila Durham’s as Jaquenetta for her exquisite singing voice.

The Scenic Design by Fiona Rhodes looks as if a grand marble staircase was lifted from one of Pittsburgh’s old mansions, or perhaps the Carnegie Museum. The single set design conveys the essence of a country on hold in wartime. The intersecting point of the character’s lives. Priceless works of art, initially secured and sequestered have come unwrapped as the war raged on, just as relationships have come undone over time. Kudo’s to the painting artists and crew.

Natalie Burton’s costumes convey the almost post great war era. Men in their uniforms, although not always military, and women with that soft flowing radiance that leads into the era of the flapper. In the opening scene, Costard’s uniform tells you everything about the time and place of the play, before the first word is spoken.

Anthony Stultz’s score and Sound Design for Jaquenetta’s songs at the close of Act II nicely and understatedly foreshadow the world of post-war France.

Leaving the theatre and thinking about were these young actors and designer’s careers would take them, we overheard two young women walking behind in animated conversation.  “The men were stupid and stubborn, but the women, they ended the war”.  A fitting sentiment for these times.

Carnegie Mellon University Drama’s production of Love’s Labor’s Won at the Phillip Chosky Theater, Purnell Center for the Arts has a performance on Saturday, November the 18th at 8 pm. Performances resume after Thanksgiving, November 28th through December 3rd. For tickets visit http://drama.cmu.edu/box-office/loves-labors-won/

Thank you to CMU Drama for the complimentary tickets.

James and the Giant Peach Jr.

410bc1174d6a19beb7e212476e00019b950281e5Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center presented their third junior production, James and the Giant Peach. Based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book, this production features students from grades seven through nine, along with featured dancers. It is an hour long show with no intermission.

James and the Giant Peach is about a young boy, James, whose parents were killed in a tragic accident with a rhino – leaving James to live in an orphanage. That is until his two selfish aunts are granted custody, and he is moved out to live with them and their schemes to get rich. Upon arriving, James meets the magical Ladahlord who guides him to make a potion that will bring full power to whoever digests it. But then things go wrong, and a giant peach grows from the dilapidated peach tree, leading to gigantic adventures.

Walking into the Center, still to this day, continues to take my breath away. Once you walk through the double glass doors, you are greeted by an open foyer with a high-arching ceiling. Typically, during events, refreshments will be served, a gift shop booth to purchase Center or Charter School clothing, and a small table with coloring pages and crayons for the little ones. A cute attraction outside the Main Theater is the cardboard cut-out of a peach with two face-shaped holes for anyone to take a picture with. Although I have been a student here, my excitement never dwindles each time I enter the grand building.

James and his aunts
James and his aunts

A lot of the times I could barely hear and understand the actors while they were singing and speaking. Their voices would be quiet – almost in a hushed tone – as if they were voicing out to the audience, and not into the mics attached to their foreheads. Although, after a few moments, their voices would become clear and crisp, indicating an issue with the sound that was not yet resolved before the actors went onstage.

Nicholas Vanhorenbeck, who played Grasshopper, could have been a bit more clear and concise with his speaking and singing parts. His voice was very quiet and shy, which made it difficult to hear and understand what he was saying. I am unsure if this was first night jitters, or not. But, I would have liked for him to have belted out his words more confidently. Professionals always say that you know you are doing well when you feel embarrassed – so just run with it. It is common, though, to experience nervousness when performing your first big musical.

Although, Vanhorenback’s counterparts, Hannah Post (Ladybug) and Clare Rectenwald (Spider) performed with astounding voices that were almost soothing at some points. Even though these two are one of the eldest of the cast, being ninth graders, I was taken aback by their precise singing. Each note seemed to be on key, and their voices never wavered.

Sydney Clay, who played the Matron Nurse, needed more expression for her role. During the times that she had a speaking part, she seemed she was uninterested in performing that part, within the play, or in general overall. When she did speak, she was monotonous and didn’t try to add any changes in tone or facial expressions to give the character a more three-dimensional feel. It’s always exciting to feel the actors’ excitement to be performing onstage at a young age. I’m sure with more practice and being in more plays will help her improve.

Tyler Pintea, who played Earthworm, had such an enthusiastic performance. Even though this is supposed to be about James, hence the name of the musical, Pintea stole the show with his humorous acting and confident tone. The audience was laughing until they were teary-eyed during “Plump and Juicy” where Pintea danced around the stage while he sang of being the best snack for the seagulls. Laughter always erupted when he would scream, wiggle his body, and flaunt his behind.

James (in vest) and cast members
James (in vest) and cast members

Olivia Dempsey (Spiker) and Sophia Curry (Sponge) both had these odd accents that made their parts hilarious at times. When they would sing, they still kept that strange accent within it. Once again, being very impressive for freshmen in high school. They also handled a small accidental incident when Curry dropped a can of whipped cream. Instead of panicking and making a show of it, she kept on acting as though she had never dropped it. Although, it was enjoyable how Curry kept spraying mouthfuls of whip cream into her mouth.

A really creative aspect of this play was when they demonstrated the peach growing bigger and bigger on the tree. Some actors stood underneath the cardboard branch and opened up a few umbrellas in intervals. It was a cute and unique way to express the growth of the gigantic peach.

All of the character’s costumes had a sort of 50s or 60s era spunk to them. The costumes were full of bright colors and cute little pins that adorned frilled jackets. It brought light to what would be seen as a bleak situation. Though the rhino, played by Luke Brahler and Tyler Johnston, was simply a blanket thrown over two actors, with a few pots put together to create the head. It may have been intriguing and filled-in more to have seen an all over fabric costume (like those two-person horse ones) or even a cardboard cut-out that an actor moved around.

Despite the actors all being younger, they showed a level of matureness within this junior production. They were able to work together as a team with the leaders of the Center, and were treated as though this was a true Broadway show. A strong amount of confidence and eagerness poured from the souls of these young minds as they performed in this show.

You can see James and the Giant Peach at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, Pennsylvania from November 17-19. Tickets range from $15, $18, and $20 and can be purchased online at lincolnparkarts.org.

Photos courtesy of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center.

The Impresaria and Djamileh

.kljhgdtsetdrfykhuIt has been said that musical theatre and opera are the two most collaborative art forms. Actors, singers, dancers, designers, musicians, choreographers, and directors must work together in real time to create the work of art. If your passion is opera, you must find a like-minded group of individuals to collaborate with, unlike the more solitary work of a painter.  For those whose passion has not become a professional career, community theatre and opera community provide a vehicle to express their art and passion. Undercroft Opera’s mission is to “create a community for singers and orchestral musicians by offering performance experience to emerging and seasoned local artists and developing audiences through both innovative and traditional operatic productions.”  Closing out Undercroft’s 11th season with a wildly varied and unique offering of two one-act operas, The Impresaria and Djamileh, display both their commitment to the mission and the company’s versatility.

The Impresario, or Der Schauspieldirektor was composed in a day as part of a contest by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is arguably the most renowned figure of late 18th-century opera. Mozart describes it as “comedy with music” and it is viewed as one of the most playful of his works.  Undercroft has updated and adapted the story and characters to the 1950s. The traditional male role of the impresario has been switched to be a woman, hence the title shift to Impresaria

Set in post-war Vienna, famed soprano turned director Francesca Zeller is starting a new theatrical company. But funds are tight and her assistant Buff comes up with a tried but true solution. Get an eager actresses’ sugar daddy to finance the tour! The said actress is the not so young anymore Alura Pierce. She auditions with a long Noel Coward piece. As she finishes, an aspiring young singer arrives to wow Francesca and Buff, but she comes with way too many demands for a wannabe. This sets off a seemingly endless parade of aspiring actresses and actors all who desire a larger and larger cut of the non-existent budget pie. Finally, two sopranos arrive, duel it out with different arias that, turn into a catfight for bragging rights as to who really is the diva. Once that is “settled”, the fight over salaries breaks out again. Francesca, who cleverly demonstrates why she is The Impresaria, turns it all around and the company comes together to celebrate their art in the final song.

As operas go, this interpretation of The Impresario is heavy on dialogue and light on singing. That’s too bad as the auditions involving singing are entertaining and well done as opposed to those that are just belabored readings.  No schauspieldirektor worth their salt would let those take up so much of their time in auditions.

Anna Singer (formerly WQED host and recently seen in Pittsburgh Festival Operas’ Sweeny Todd) makes an excellent Impresaria and gets to show off her singing chops in the opera’s first scene.

Rob Hockenberry’s and Mary Beth Sederburg’s direction can’t quite find purpose the growing masses of hopefuls on stage with little to do as the auditions wind their way to the dueling soprano’s in this “odd duck” of an opera. The singers all have strong voices, clarity is sometimes difficult to discern in the acoustically live auditorium in Seton Center. Conductor Hyery Hwang (Ball State University) has an excellent command of her musicians and brings out the beauty of Mozart’s score. The orchestra is marvelous and underutilized in this performance.

The second presentation of the evening is Djamileh is an opéra comique in one act by Georges Bizet.  The opera begins at the end of the day the caliph Haroun (William Andrews) reclines and smokes a hookah in his Cairo palace, with his servant Splendiano (Zach Luchetti). The conversation turns to Haroun’s lover Djamileh (Mary Beth Sederburg), who is actually his slave girl. As is his standard practice, Haroun trades in his lover at the end of the month for a new model.  Djamileh’s month is up and therefore she must go. Splendiano confesses to Haroun that he loves her and would like to keep her for himself. Haroun says not to worry; “he is not in love with her, only with love itself.” Djamileh however loves Haroun.

The slave merchant, Mervin, brings the prospective new girls in to dance for Haroun, and he chooses his new concubine. Splendiano comes up with a scheme to confirm Heroun is not in love with Djamileh. He will dress her as the new girl. If she fails to win Heroun’s heart, she will be available to Splendiano. Heroun eventually recognizes her and therefore Splendiano has lost out.

Undercroft calls this is a “stylish evening of one-act operas galvanized by Diva Dynamism.” Are slave girls taken as lovers on a monthly upgrade cycle truly representative of girl power?

There were some interesting glitches with the auditorium lights during the Impresaria, but the actors, singers, and musicians paid it no heed. It was distracting but not disastrous.

Tonight’s evening featured excellent singers, a great conductor, and an accomplished orchestra, a tribute to the quality of opera and musical talent in the Pittsburgh area.

Undercoft Opera’s performances of The Impresaria and Djamileh are at the Seton Center Auditorium, 1900 Pioneer Ave in Pittsburgh on  November 17th and 18th at 7:30 pm and November 19th at 2:00 pm. For tickets visit https://www.undercroftopera.org/community/tickets/

Thanks to Undercroft for the complimentary tickets.

Arsenic and Old Lace

arsenic-oldlace1Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace is a play about how we interpret spaces. When our protagonist Mortimer Brewster (Ron Clawson) returns to his family’s home, he’s pleased to once more re-enter the womb of boyhood memory. The aunts who were so sweet to raise him, Martha (Dorothy Fallows) and Abby (Jan Gerber), are still as safe and mundane as a Norman Rockwell portrait. His brother, Teddy Brewster (Randy Berner), continues to suffer from a dissociative psychological condition that has reduced his life to the pleasant recurring fantasy that he is actually former US President Theodore Roosevelt, therefore rendering him harmless. You know, normal stuff. Life is knowable; life is good.

Life, also, can be terrifying. Mortimer does not expect to find that his aunts are more or less remorseless serial killers who lure unmarried elderly men into their home to poison them. He also does not expect to find that his other, more sociopathic brother, Jonathan Brewster (John Paul Richie), is back in town with a new face the intent to murder. Everything Mortimer thought was knowable is not, and likely never was.

And so it is with us, the audience, during McKeesport Little Theater’s production. We enter the theater to find ourselves in a lovingly hand-crafted living room in Brooklyn. It is a space designed by Edward Bostedo, who is also Arsenic’s director, and it exudes a dusty American nostalgia. The lights dim. Abby appears, and disposes of a corpse as casually one would throw away a receipt to the tune of Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King,” which immediately blows out the theater’s speakers. This generates static, making the otherwise comedic image immediately unsettling. Martha joins her shortly after, barely masking her enthusiasm to discuss their latest victim. The women are so plainspoken that their detachment from the murder reads as realistic.

Enter: Teddy, who storms around the stage in a larger than life performance that is all practiced caricature. His comedic physicality literally shakes the decorative plates and framed photographs hung around the apartment. Later, when Mortimer arrives and discovers the body, which is roughly half his size, it weighs him down as dramatically as a bag of bricks. Clawson’s mixture of incredulity and his ability to improvise comedy out of production bumps and scrapes – at one point a gesticulation launched the receiver of a telephone he was using clean from the chord, which he used to re-ignite his character’s sense of panic – make him a kind of self-foiling straight man, simultaneously Abbot and Costello, especially when contrasted with the other three protagonists.

A lot about McKeesport’s Arsenic and Old Lace can be excavated from its war of performative tones; it feels like several interpretations of one play. Example: Fallow and Gerber’s Arsenic is a quiet show propelled by the witticisms of two realistic women who have lost touch with reality. Clawson’s panicky Mortimor and his put-upon partner, Elaine (Elizabeth Civello), have classic comedic chemistry and transmogrify Arsenic into a dark, yet friendly improv show. The introduction of a disparate third duo, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein (Michael Ciarlone), initially feels like an attempt at narrative cohesion, considering how Jonathan is such a straightforward (re: convincing!) killer and that Ciarlone’s Einstein feels like it was pulled straight out of an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory. Unfortunately, because the play’s tone is so scattershot they actually end up feeling too menacing, and scenes in which they put bystanders in peril become such a tonal mishmash that it propels any potential comedy violently into a wall.

I will say that Arsenic and Old Lace is a play that has aged well. Our rose-colored perception of its ‘40s-set America has defanged the era enough that revealing its quaint exterior to be such a brutal space escalates an already fairly escalated farce. It’s also a play that, appropriately, has so much more thematic depth than is popularly portrayed and is therefore ripe for re-interpretation. To the credit of McKeesport’s production, its varied methods of performance do make the play read differently. These interpretations, however, are largely without cohesion. Much like Martha and Abby’s poisoned victims, we the audience need to believe Arsenic and Old Lace’s façade before we succumb to it.

Arsenic and Old Lace runs at the McKeesport Little Theater through November 19, for tickets and more information, click here. 

The Silver Theater Project Presents Mother Tongue

MTThe Silver Theater Project presented the third of their 2017 inaugural fall season’s Salon Readings with F.J. Hartland’s Mother Tongue on Saturday, at the Glitter Box Theater. Most readers will be familiar with the staged reading of a play, where the actors are still “on book” with perhaps a costume piece or two and a couple of props with generally no scenery. The Salon concept originated in Italy in the 1600s as “a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, it serves partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation.” The Silver Theater’s Salons are on book and more un-staged, with the readers seated or standing. The important added feature over a staged reading is the opportunity for the audience to interact with the author, readers and each other before, at intermission and after the reading. This serves as a valuable tool for playwrights to try out scripts and revisions. For the audience, it is an opportunity to let your imagination roam, conjuring stage directions, scenery, lighting & costumes in your mind. It also brings the dialogue to the forefront unencumbered by the trappings of a partial or full production.

It has been said that “Love conquers all.” Hartland’s Mother Tongue adds the tincture of time as an essential element of the equation. Bertie, read by Marianne Shaffer, is living in Seattle and divorced from her husband who left her for a younger woman. He later passed away rather suddenly without her seeing him before he met his end. The combination of anger and an admitted tinge of grief sends her into therapy. The solution for her to deal with her “issues” is to become a standup comedian so she can vent and unleash every mean-spirited joke about men and relationships to help her cope with her loss.

Bertie has a gay son in his mid-twenties, Matt (Ezra Dickinson) who is living in New York City and struggling to get his artistic painting career off the ground. The play opens with Matt “under the sheets” with his new love interest, an older gentleman named Cale, (Randy Oliva) who tries to distract himself from Matt’s oral skills by reciting the multiplication and periodic tables out loud. During one tryst as the scene nearly reaches its climax, Bertie, forgetting the time zone difference, rings up Matt. She guesses from Matt’s curt answers that he has a man over and persuades Matt to put him on the line.  Let the grilling begin!

Mother Tongue juxtaposes Bertie’s comedy club routines with scenes of the budding relationship of Matt and Cale as we learn their backstories and the impact of Bertie’s standup career on Matt and his own unresolved issues with his father and his sexuality. The full and complex story of the relationships reveals itself in an emotional and touching fashion as the play comes to an end.

In rehearsal: Randy Olivia as Cale, Liam Ezra Dickinson as Matt and Marianne Schaffer as Bertie
In rehearsal: Randy Olivia as Cale, Liam Ezra Dickinson as Matt and Marianne Schaffer as Bertie

Allison Weakland (BA – Seton Hill) directs the reading as well as delivering the stage directions to the audience. Weakland takes her readers to near performance level acting particularly, the scenes between Matt and Cale. The intimacy of the Glitter Box makes this an ideal venue for Salon Readings, it’s as if you are a fly on the wall listening in without distractions. The facial expressions and body language between the men make their mutual attraction, that turns to love, all the more believable. You can see the Bertie character evolving to become more of a female George Burns or Don Rickles type, or perhaps the attitude of an older Sara Silverman in a more fully developed performance.

Playwright F.J. Hartland (MFA – CMU) has sixteen appearances in the Pittsburgh New Works festival to his credit along with over one-hundred stage directing credits and twenty-six years as an Equity actor. His newest full-length work, Rust, had its world premiere at Duquesne University this past February. Keep Mother Tongue on your radar, I expect to see a full production premiere in Pittsburgh’s future.

Founder and Artistic Director Michael McGovern (BFA – Point Park, MFA – CMU) created the Silver Theatre Project as a venue for actors and authors over forty.  For an enjoyable and affordable evening watching new works come to life in an intimate setting coupled with some nosh, a glass of wine and good conversation, the Silver Theater Projects’ Salon Readings are hard to beat.

The Silver Theater Project takes a winter hiatus (Florida anyone?) returning in the early spring. Follow them to learn of the next reading at https://www.facebook.com/TheSilverTheaterProject/

Salon Readings are one night only events on Sundays at the Glitter Box Theatre in Oakland with a $10 suggested donation per person.

Thanks to the Silver Theater Project for the complimentary tickets.

You on the Moors Now

WebMOORSIt is an interesting phenomenon when the storytelling trends currently dominating the television and film landscapes creep up in the theatre world.

Every new project announced nowadays, whether it’s for the big or small screen, seems to be either a reboot of a previously successful property or some sort of crossover event that brings together fan favorite characters for an epic adventure. This year alone, we’ve seen the first installment in the third incarnation of the Spider-Man film franchise and, later this week, the Justice League will assemble for the first time in a live action movie.

On the other side of the genre and content spectrum from those blockbusters, Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre Company presents a surprisingly physical and universally stunning production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s play You on the Moors Now

Backhaus’s script operates as a reboot/sequel to some of the 19th century’s greatest novels that have since become staples of high school syllabi around the world. The play opens as the worlds of Jo March (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women), Jane Eyre (the titular character in Charlotte Brontë’s novel), Catherine “Cathy” Earnshaw (from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights), and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) collide during pivotal moments in all their lives. They have each received marriage proposals from their respective love interests and, to their surprise, they’ve all said no. Now, they are all left with an even bigger and more difficult question to answer: What’s next?

Julia Small (Elizabeth Bennett), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), Aenya Ulke (Jane Eyre), & Shannon Donovan (Jo March)
Julia Small (Elizabeth Bennett), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), Aenya Ulke (Jane Eyre), & Shannon Donovan (Jo March)

Their decisions to abandon their homes and families and strike out on their own have disastrous effects for the people in their lives. It’s definitely a four way tie for who handles this the most poorly between the young women’s jilted suitors Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, and Mr. Darcy. With the help of some colorful supporting characters from each of the novels, the men hunt down our heroines. Their search leads them into the mysterious world of the moors where Jo, Jane, Cathy, and Lizzie have set up camp.

An all out battle of the sexes ensues between the gendered factions. It takes disfigurement and death on both sides to bring the conflict to an end. Even though it’s not until ten years after the end of the war that we meet our characters again, it’s clear that those who survived are still dealing with the pain of their psychological scars. In one way or another, our four heroines find peace within themselves and with the choices they’ve made in their lives.

Bryan Gannon (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Evan Wormald (Mr. Rochester) & Micah Stanek (Heathcliff)
Bryan Gannon (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Evan Wormald (Mr. Rochester) & Micah Stanek (Heathcliff)

I’m sorry to be purposely vague on the plot details of You on the Moors Now, but I think the best way to experience the show is knowing as little as possible. There are tons of twists, turns, and Easter eggs for fans of the books. But, if you’re like me and you got stuck reading Ernest Hemingway and Aldous Huxley in high school instead of Alcott, Austen, and the Brontë sisters, you’ll love getting to know these bright, quirky young women and easily identify with their struggle for independence

While I maintain that on paper this play sounds like a television or movie pitch waiting to happen, I credit director Sheila McKenna with employing thrilling movement and combat sequences to give the piece an impact that only theatre can achieve. As the play skillfully subverts our expectations and perceptions of these classic characters, she along with dance captain Meghan Halley and fight captain Shannon Donovan raise the stakes of what could be considered by an especially cynical viewer as simply feminist fan fiction. The way that the opening line dance and the fight scene that ends Act II echo each other is truly poetic.

It is a story 100% by and about women that is truly feminist for the way it establishes women and men as equally fearsome adversaries on the battlefield and equally able to make and learn from their mistakes.

Unfortunately, for all of their talents, McKenna, Halley, and Donovan are not able to rescue the production from its tidy and tedious ending in the play’s third act. That task is left to the show’s designers Tucker Topel (sets), Terra Marie Skirtich (costumes), and Heather Edney (lights), whose work was a beauty to behold for the entire show but definitely shone brightest in its final moments.

Meghan Halley (Nelly Dean, Beth, Jane Bennett) & Adam Rossi (Joseph, Marmee)
Meghan Halley (Nelly Dean, Beth, Jane Bennett) & Adam Rossi (Joseph, Marmee)

The actors literally wore their characters’ emotions on the sleeves in outfits that looked like they were ripped from the runway of a 19th century-inspired Urban Outfitters collection. You’ll truly feel like you’re in the world of a book with the walls painted to resemble scorched parchment pages and where you can be transported from deep in the woods to high in the stars in an instant.

It will be hard to witness a more energetic and charismatic ensemble than the one featured in this production. They are led by the aforementioned Ms. Donovan (Jo), Julia Small (Lizzie), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), and Aenya Ulke (Jane), who all combine the classic elegance and strength that made these characters iconic with a modern wit that makes these worlds worth revisiting today.

Their bond is indestructible and sweet (without being sappy) as in the scenes where Cathy hilariously bemoans her sister-less state and her three friends reassure her that she’s never without a sister as long as they’re around. Point Park’s You on the Moors Now makes sisters of all this revisionist riff. Regardless of age, gender, or era, we’re all just fighting to be heard and have our dreams respected.

You on the Moors Now runs through November 19 and from November 30 through December 3rd. For more information, click here.

Photos by John Altdorfer

Parade

Parade-PosterPainful stories and shameful histories benefit from the illumination of dramatization. While the audience views past events in almost real time, we are required to look and perhaps to learn.

Parade is more than worthy of your attention for these reasons and the stellar performances of a largely student cast at University of Pittsburgh Stages. You’ll be part of an event that echoes many recent events, conversations, and controversies from the last century with today’s societal and political overtones. This Parade production plays all its cards handsomely to tell a difficult true story beautifully as a well-crafted tragedy should.

It’s Atlanta, 1913, just 50 years after the Civil War. The first images are a soldier coming home from that war then we see his older self as Confederate Memorial Day is observed with a parade and festivities. In this distinctly Southern setting, 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan is found murdered the following day in the Atlanta factory where Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew married to a Lucille, a Georgia native, is supervisor. Frank is deemed a most likely suspect.

Parade follows Leo’s experience from that May holiday to the terror of imprisonment through the false accusations born of community hysteria during his trial. After the eventual commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment by the Georgia governor, there is a crowning horrific irony. Local men take Frank from the jail and lynch him by hanging in nearby Marietta, Mary’s hometown. No spoilers here. The historic case shed light nationally to Anti-Semitism and fueled the founding of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). It also ignited a more active Ku Klux Klan.

Director Robert Frankenberry is known as a versatile singer-actor, conductor, arranger, and lecturer in music theater at Pitt Theatre Arts. Frankenberry stages this 1998 musical imaginatively, adroitly moving his 28 actors efficiently on Gianni Downs’ lovely two-level set and even into the audience. A high frame for projected elements–ranging from the hills of Georgia to sensationalistic trial headlines–fills the space below the proscenium arch.

Roger Zahab conducts the University Symphony Orchestra of 31 instrumentalists in Tony Award winner Don Sebesky’s full orchestration. This version of the score was heard only once before for the 2015 Manhattan Concert Production’s Parade In Concert, conducted by the composer.

Jason Robert Brown’s score is indeed American flavored with some Southern spice (even a touch of Stephen Foster), replete with some lively patriotic percussion. At the Nov. 10 preview some cellos were missing, while Frankenberry told us he filled in for the guitarist.

Alfred Uhry’s script covers the timeline of Frank’s dilemma, trial, and death. The mystery of Mary’s murder gets muddled as theories about the crime are magnified by gossip and supposition. The writers believed in Frank’s innocence, but while Parade reinforces that belief, there’s no escaping that feeling that you are in the South. With the opening and closing number “The Old Red Hills of Home”, it’s all there: post-Reconstruction pride and ancestors who fought for “The Cause”.  The odd juxtaposition of New Yorker Leo and Georgian Lucille represents the ongoing tension between the Southerns and “the other”.

Dan Mayhak as Leo and Brittany Bara as Lucille create the heart of the story, bringing nuance and chemistry to their depiction of a devoted couple who likely took one another and Frank’s position for granted prior to this disaster. Their soaring and emotional duets are highlights of the production.

Dan Mayhak shines as Leo, traversing the deep layers of Frank’s discomfiture throughout, his work ethic, and his Jewish roots. Mayhak, a fourth year Pitt student recently seen in Front Porch’s Violet and Pitt’s Hair, is capable of playing Leo’s veiled emotion and subtext. His wonderfully sung numbers include “Leo’s Statement: It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”. During the vaudevillian “Factory Girls / Come Up to My Office” we see Leo’s possible “other side” when he leaves his trial defendant’s chair to participate in the incriminating number.

Brittany Bara is alternately subtle and passionate as Leo’s wife Lucille. Devoted but eventually weary of taunts around town, Lucille is steadfast and practical. This second-year performance pedagogy MFA candidate’s performance reflects her professional scope. Bara’s vocal performance is outstanding with “You don’t know this man” beautifully poignant and complex.

Tru Verret-Fleming, a pro seen most recently in the Scottsboro Boys at the Point Park’s REP Company, turns in a superb debut performance at PItt as Jim Conley, the pencil factory janitor (aka “sweeper”) who is led to further incriminate Frank. Verret-Fleming has the charisma to sell a number or spin a yarn, particularly when depicting what’s it’s physically like to be part of a chain gang (“Blues: Feel the Rain Fall”) or sealing Frank’s fate with his accounts of assisting the supervisor in his factory interactions.

While these performances would shine in a professional production, the wonderful thing is that this is true of all the lead performers in Parade. They undoubtedly support and inspire the mainly student cast.

Stand outs in other leading roles include Rachelmae Pulliam as Mary’s mother and Sally Slayton, the governor’s wife. Her lullaby-like “My daughter will forgive you” is heart-wrenching. Mature and polished, Alex Knapp is the savvy prosecuting attorney who carves his political path as he deviously manages the case, plotting with the governor and sneering in the courtroom.

As Governor Slayton, Zev Woskoff navigates the ramifications of his character’s pursuit of both political success and the truth. Dr. William Banks brings operatic chops to the role of the factory’s nightwatchman, Newt Lee. Tyler Prah as Frankie Epps (who fancies then mourns for Mary), Emily Cooper as Mary Phagan, and Davis Weaver as the returning young soldier who opens the show all provide strong performances and moments.

The cast is authentically costumed by KJ Gilmer. Hannah Blume’s movement coaching includes same snappy tap and dance steps. Meghan Bressler employs the Randall’s lighting range, illuminating the actors wherever they go. Zach Brown’s sound is fairly balanced and will likely work out any challenges over the run.

For a closer look at the production elements, Pitt has a wonderful online collection that provides audience https://pitt.libguides.com/2017-18mainstage/parade

The deep themes and controversial history of the Frank case and lynching deserve a closer look. You can read more about the musical’s history in a 2016 Playbill story Think You Know Parade? Think Again. And The Tuskegee Institute Archives reveal the staggering number of lynching not only the South, but throughout the US, 1877-1968.

Parade is onstage at the University of Pittsburgh Stages through Nov. 19 with performances Wed.-Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets range from $12-$25.

Annie

annie300x300I had high expectations for Stage 62’s production of Annie. Sitting in the audience at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, I listened dreamily as the orchestra introduced the show with a lively preface to one of the best known children’s Broadway musical score.  As the rich red curtains open to reveal the stage crowded with bunk beds and little girls quickly scrambling into place I am quickly swept into the story.  Annie is heartwarming.  A tale of a girls orphanage in New York City during the  1930’s overseen by an abusive and drunk Miss Hannigan. Annie, a precocious orphan with boundless hope that she will soon be reunited with her parents.  The story unfolds when she is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Warbucks as an act of goodwill for the holidays.  Warbucks quickly warms up to Annie, touched by the story of her abandonment, and agrees to help locate her biological parents.  

Nora Hoyle, Lola Armfeild
Nora Hoyle, Lola Armfeild

The show boasts a sizable cast.   Actors range in age from very young children, portraying underprivileged yet adorable orphans to others whose faces and voices are custom to Stage 62.  Each are boundless with talent.  Nora Hoyle, in the starring role, has a strong voice and maintains the spunk of her character, an innocent and neglected but optimistic orphan, throughout the show.  The orphan ensemble is tireless and animated.  Together this group of young performers, exude charisma.  They especially dazzle during the energetic “It’s the Hard Knock Life” song and dance scene.  Tom Strauman, as Oliver Warbucks has the looks to easily come across as the big named billionaire.  I didn’t feel he clearly revealed the cold and callous side to Warbucks but his mannerisms easily align with a distinguished and wealthy man and his performance during, “Something Was Missing” is incredibly sweet and touching.   It is really Stage 62’s ubiquitous Becki Toth as the heartless Miss Hannigan who steals the show.  She is nothing short of a powerhouse performer.  The pitches of her voice illuminate into the audience and her imitation of sloppy drunkenness delivers a show stopping performance.  She immediately wins the audience’s applause during her rendition of “Little Girls” and portrays her role with pizzazz.

 Candice Fisher, Seth Laidlaw, Becki Toth
Candice Fisher, Seth Laidlaw, Becki Toth

I am particularly pleased by Annie’s set design.  Designed by Andy Folmer, the exhibition of many different places; a dreary orphanage, Miss Hannigans disheveled office, the slums of Hooverville, to name a few, are enchanting.  One of my favorite scenes, the opening of Act 2, The NBC Radio Studio, hosted by Bert Healey, played by Jeff Way and staring the Boylan Sisters, Amy DeHaven, Kaitlin Schreiner and Katie Turpiano, depict the timeframe of the story with sweet sentiment. Folmers highly detailed sets and a smart selection of props offer opportunity for the cast to create an added level to their character.  The comedic moments laced into the fabric of the plot and a glimpse into the lost art of radio media, is a highlight of the show.   

The actors who hold supporting roles, Ashley Harmon as Grace Ferrell, Carmen LoPresti as Drake, Heather Friedman cast as Mrs. Pugh, Nina Napoleone portraying Cecille and Amy LaSota as Mrs. Greer alongside the ensemble wow the audience in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”.  Another stunning performance, “Easy Street”, which features the unmistakable talent of Seth Laidlaw as Rooster and Candice Fisher cast as Lily St. Regis.  Alongside, Toth, this trio complete a fantastic musical number.  The reprise of “Tomorrow”, sung by Annie, Warbucks, President Roosevelt, played by Chris Martin, and cabinet members is another high point in the show.  This scene highlights director Rob James’ focus on creative visuals that propel the audience to become emotionally invested in the characters.

Nora Hoyle, Jeff Johnston
Nora Hoyle, Jeff Johnston

I do have mixed feelings about the use of a puppet to portray Sandy the dog, a stray Annie finds while wandering the slums of NY.  In many instances theater companies hire or train a live animal but Stage 62 chose to use a life sized Marionette whose movements are orchestrated by a puppeteer.  Initially I thought this was clever.  There is an instant bond between Annie and Sandy that is irresistible, yet as the scene progressed I began to feel there was something bizarre about the whole thing.  Perhaps it was the way the puppeteer placed the dogs two front paws on Annie’s shoulders and continually maneuvered it to lick her face and neck.  It quickly lost all allure for me and left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable.  Fortunately, the role of Sandy was used primarily in just one scene and I was relieved to not have to witness too much interaction between Hoyle and the concocted canine .  

Growing up in the 80’s with red hair and freckles Annie was my childhood hero. A neighborhood friend owned the movie soundtrack and we listened to it on her suitcase record player while dressing Barbie Dolls. I loved the record so much I received my own for Christmas, only the one I got was the original Broadway recording.  At first listen I turned my nose up to it, the voices were not the same, the music was different, including songs I didn’t recognize from the film, but after a few plays I fell in love, especially to the overture. Soon I was tap dancing through the house to It’s the Hard Knock Life and You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.  Annie was probably the show responsible for my lifelong love affair with musicals.  What this all means is I expected a powerful performance. Once again, Stage 62 presents a caliber of talent on and off stage, and the ability to make their art truly come alive for the audience.  Annie is delightful and will certainly entertain an audience of all ages.

Annie runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall through November 19. For tickets and more information click here. 

Photos by Friedman Wagner-Dobler.