We spend a lot of time as a culture romanticizing quirky iconoclasts, people who see the world just a little bit differently than us, in films, novels and plays. We spend considerably less time exploring the perspectives of those who actually see the world differently than the average person. There’s a clear (if unfortunate) reason for this: empathy is hard, and it’s easier to see Amelie in ourselves than it is to plumb the depths of working mental illness.
Originally written as an opera by Michael Nyman and based on a case study by Dr. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a play that follows a celebrated classical singer and college professor, Dr. P, who unknowingly suffers from an illness that contorts his perception of reality into crude shapes colored by memory. His brain is “like an identikit,” claims Dr. S, who personally visits the man’s home and explores his life to diagnose and assist his patient.
Produced by Quantum Theatre and directed by Karla Boos, this unique story of prosperity in a distorted reality is flavorful and humorous. This opera is a bittersweet celebration of a life of some detachment and confusion, granting its subject both gravitas and a necessary levity. Kevin Glavin as Dr. P is as stately, charming, and blissfully ignorant as Winston Churchill playing Mr. Bean. His sudden dalliances from reality feel real in a remarkable way, like the man couldn’t possibly understand what’s so strange about misinterpreting a painting of a field of wheat as a busy image of young people falling in love at a café. Doesn’t everyone get confused about these things?
Dr. P is supported by Dr. S (Ian McEuen) and Mrs. P (Katy Williams), his wife. Ian McEuen’s Dr. S is charmingly, infinitely curious in his inimitably patient diagnosis, which I imagine is a difficult feeling to convey primarily through long, booming vocals. Katy Williams’ relatable vulnerability to Dr. S is a highlight. Her nervous dismissals and urgent concern over her husband’s condition may well remind those of us who have seen or lost loved ones to disease of unhappier times. Yet the rarity of her situation could make one’s imagination run wild with possibility, most especially once the doctor decides on a prescription.
All performers have enormous range and easily fill the admittedly small stage with life. In fact, with so little space to explore, the performers space onstage was carefully considered, resulting in the actors being largely immobile in spite of their volume of presence, not unlike lions pacing in cages.
Additionally, there is a mathematical perfection to the vocals here that I appreciated, as it further deepened the themes at the heart of the narrative.
An opera so equally academic and whimsical demands a certain magical quality, and Quantum’s production has a pleasant degree of whimsy. Like many contemporary opera productions, the stage is flanked by a big screen which projects the lyrics of each song. The backing screen is also used as a fun and sometimes unconventional tool, simply overlaying a series of paintings by Dr. P which shift slowly from photo-realistic portraits of people to abstractions and colors one moment, and displaying real-time GoPro footage of Dr. P’s medical examination the next.
The opera, however, is not truly from Dr. P’s perspective, no matter the use of form as metaphor for his experience. It is from Dr. S’ perspective, who bookends the story with spoken word monologues introducing us to and easing us out of the beautiful, skewed world of Dr. P. This is a matter of no small note. In spite of the lighthearted tone, this is an opera about a doctor with deep empathy for his patient, a man who does his best to enter and redraw his patients’ experience. This point of view gives the opera its warmth, without which could easily lead to its descent into some kind of hellish, Wes Anderson-esque Forrest Gump.
That The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat takes the form of an opera is a thing of beauty. The common complaint of the new opera attendee usually centers on the way opera treats simple conversation as a hefty endeavor, each syllable requiring patience and excavation. Here, the plot is not an excuse to utilize the historied form, but rather an explicit endorsement of it as essential. Dr. P is a man who lives in patterns whose career is in music; these things neatly intertwine. I won’t spoil any sense of discovery one could easily achieve in the opera, but to tell this story without the honest abstraction of its music would detach it further from reality as opposed to grounding it.
Quantum Theatre’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is heartfelt and idiosyncratic, an easy recommendation for those who’d like to explore new perspectives of the world both literal and artistic.
For tickets and more information, check out Quantum’s website here.
Here’s the thing about this review: it’s loaded. Overall, the play was great because the acting and directing were well executed. Although, it tackles some issues with race that are compromising the sugary concept of a cut-and-dry satisfactory resolution by having all the principal characters be involved in some shady activities. To boot, they are all minorities, but what irks me even more is that the play eventually shines a redemptive light on these characters in a shallow, flash-in-the-pan type ending. Nothing is really resolved, but you’re left feeling as if something was. The play is contradictory, and therefore a real challenge.
Between Riverside and Crazy has very well written, spunky dialogue that is contemporary and full of a punchy imagery that acknowledges every side of New York City’s facets. The characters are introduced with a well-intact identity that almost immediately belies their truth and complexity. Three of these characters are black, two of them Latino, and two of them white. They all speak in a familiar way which outlines the brashness and confidence of New York City dwellers. There’s a relativity towards how New Yorkers approach the subject of health: “fit and diesel” or “ring dings and baloney”; or how they approach well-being: “You got emotionalisms, you know. Emotionalism is real.” It’s here that we see either truth or stereotype. Relatable characters relating an essence of what it is to be a New York identity, full of worldly knowledge, assertive confidence and wit.
The staging is brilliant and director Pamela Berlin deserves great praise for utilizing the full scope of body language and keeping the motivations subtle. When the arguments happen, the reasoning, the dissonance, the anger are all well practiced and presented to be natural. The body movement and activity of the actors is constantly engaged and makes the stage active and alive; especially Eugene Lee’s palpable drunkenness as Pops. It would be a disservice not to highlight Eugene Lee’s “Pops” whose every gesture, every phrase emanates the character with bold interpretation. He has animated eyes that speak mannerism fiercely making it a pleasure to watch this man in the lead.
The characters are introduced with a well-intact identity that almost immediately belies their truth and complexity. Alejandro Hernandez’s Oswaldo really works his drawn Bronx dialect and enthusiastic punchiness within the character and Christina Nieves’ coy, Puerto-Rican Lulu swims in her character’s giddy freedom and youthful impetuousness. All these New Yorkers speak in a familiar way which outlines the brashness and confidence of the New York City: the fastest city in America and its underserved, self-assured citizens.
Some of the best acting of this show was performed by Dawn Mcgee’s Detective Audrey O’Connor. Her talent for staging provided so much emotional understanding of the character. She guards herself behind a chair, she defends herself with her arms crossed, she crosses the stage to make a point. It was true to life and yet so charismatically dramatic.
This story focuses heavily on identity; particularly black identity. The crux of the drama regards whether the main character “Pops” Washington was the victim of a clumsy trigger-finger or a hate crime. Throughout the play audiences come to understand the mixed motivations of characters. This play circles the idea of identity and what it means to be a minority in New York City. All of the four minority characters involve themselves in either criminal activity or scandalous lies.
This play is centrally about gentrification and the cultural appropriation that comes along with it. The setting provides weight to the theme; the rent-controlled apartment is a fortress built up around a gentrifying neighborhood. It is the owner’s garrison; his battle for ownership in a changing world as well as a hold-out for another time. The play seeks to identify the main character’s complex struggle that is the aging and underserved class feuding with the evolution of New York’s gentrification. The Public gives a great identity to this place: both claustrophobic and cozy. The rotating stage was central, adding intimacy with each rotation as it allows characters to be given one last action as they exit. This was a particularly striking theatrical effect, it gives the illusion of the heaviness of a moment, as if setting the action up for its place in the historical importance of each scene.
The play is full of rich Black and Puerto Rican humor and performance, but it’s an uncomfortable situation to take eyes away from the stage and see an almost entirely white audience and wonder with what understanding is this joke making people laugh. The idea of racism as an institutional concept would infer certain assumptions about why people do the things they do. I am left to contemplate: how is this story of African-Americans and Latinos trying to get by with a liberated concept of entitlement playing on this audience? At this performance of Between Riverside and Crazy, the mostly white audience finds humor in the strange depictions of minorities that are probably built upon dedicated truths of New York individuals, but it still creates a weird mythology particularly because only the minority characters in the play were involved in some kind of illegal activity or lying game. Is the audience laughing with the characters or at them? Importantly, the white characters are cops. But they too beguile and manipulate in a way meant to orchestrate some concept of justice that sits apart from a greater truth: to be a black cop is to be an agent disliked by all parts of society.
I left this play’s first act feeling it was a brilliant, modernist diatribe and exactly what to expect from Pittsburgh Public: Realism!, i.e. the nitty-gritty Arthur Miller-esque truth of mundane, regular life. These stereotypes are prevalent for a reason; people do grandstand in New York and they do make jokes throughout conversation in a way that this play captures truly. It’s after the play’s conclusion and the sharp contradictions lain within the reliability of the protagonists, that I left thinking this play was either half-baked or brilliantly modeled to make you fiercely work towards understanding why anyone was a worthwhile character in this story.
By the end of the play I felt both dissatisfied and overwhelmed trying to figure out why it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2015. A lot of the conflicts are written off and the epilogue-type ending seems to ruin the arcs of drama that compelled the plot. It’s all hung up on a talisman which is very hard to give gravity to. There are a lot of are big questions of the play and I don’t feel a satisfactory answer is laid out easily for any one of them.Everyone is essentially a criminal, and I think it’s an important task to come to understand why. Looking at in that context, perhaps the less-redeeming qualities of some of the criminally-acting characters in this play can actually be seen as redemptive in certain light. Perhaps that’s the key to the play; the truth of the world is that life is shit and you have to just run with it.
The Pulitzer Prize committee must have thought so. Because in depth, this play searches for a truth amongst what we as a society, as a justice-wielding throng of onlookers, have decreed as criminal. Overall, it is well-told, full of kinetic performance, as well as rich character development and dialogue
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Public Theater for complimentary press tickets. Between Riverside and Crazy runs through December 11th. Tickets and more information can be found here.
The Kinetic Theatre Company presents the American premier of Three Days in the Country, Patrick Marber’s smart and funny adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in The Country at the New Hazlett Theatre on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
The play is set in Russia on the sprawling Islaev’s country estate in the 1840s. Natalya Petrovna, the central character, is a headstrong woman. She is married to Arkady Islaev, a rich landowner seven years her senior. Her family consists their son Koyla, and their seventeen-year-old foster Vera, who is a not so distant “relative” and their ward. Arkady’s mother Anna, her friend Lizaveta, tutors and servants also occupy the home.
She is bright but bored with life and she encourages the attentions of Mikhail Rakitin, as her devoted but resentful admirer, without ever letting their friendship develop into a love affair.
A handsome 21-year-old student Aleksei, who comes to tutor to her son Kolya, ends Natalya’s boredom. She falls in love with Aleksei, but so does Vera. Natalya considers an arrangement conveniently suggested by Shpigelsky, her doctor. He proposes that Vera should marry their rich old neighbor Bolshintsov. This would eliminate Vera as a rival for Aleksei’s attention.
Rakitin struggles with his love for Natalya, and Natalya wrestles with her’s for Ratkin and Aleksei. The young tutor seems to be happy playing the field between Natalya, Vera and the maidservant.
Doctor Shpigelsky “proposes” marriage to the spinster Lizaveta, the piano teacher, in an offering that she calls “more of a look at his undergarments, stains and all”.
This is a very busy home, active with trysts and encounters along with messy misunderstandings. When Arkady begins to the have his suspicions about is wife, both Rakitin and Aleksei are obliged to leave. The outcome is for you to discover.
Director Andrew Paul’s Three Days in the Country is a beautifully cast ensemble of players many of whom are regularly seen in Pittsburgh. Nike Doukas’ Natalya is the perfect conflicted and unfulfilled yet caring wife. Sam Tsoutsouvas’ Doctor is wonderful as Lizaveta’s suitor. David Whalen’s Arkady, Leo Mark’s Rakitin and Adam Hans Hunter’s Belyaev are all handsome enough to conflict Natalya, and yet each come across as deeply flawed characters. Katie Wieland’s Vera starts out as a naive young girl and grows to be a wise young woman. I particularly enjoyed the scene where the doctor presents his proposal and Lizaveta, played exquisitely by Pittsburgh’s Helena Ruoti dissects it with precision, as if it is a recipe for happiness. Kudos go to Will Sendera as the son. Sendera’s long list of show credits is quite impressive for a 7th grader at CAPA. He will be an actor to watch as his theatre career develops.
The New Hazlett is configured in the round for this production. Narelle Sissons set design is a basic wood planked platform, serving as both interior and exterior living spaces with a few well-choreographed changes of furniture buy the cast and crew. Lighting Designer Cindy Limauro washes the scenes in warm and cool shades subtly changing with the story’s mood. Kim Brown’s costumes feel just perfect for the period and the social classes of the players. Angela Baughman sound design is a perfectly unobtrusive underscore.
Andrew Paul’s realization of Three Days in the Country is a beautiful and nearly flawless theatrical experience. A former professor of mine would have called it a unified design concept. I would say that it just all works together perfectly. In the round staging can be a bit distracting with audience members always in view, but seldom was I distracted from the performance.
Saturday night I left the theatre wondering if one could love the production and not necessarily like the play. Upon reflection this morning, and remembering the play’s closing lines, the outcome is one not everyone will feel satisfied by. Life’s choices in the search for love and happiness don’t always end with total satisfaction. We make the best choices we can at the time. Three Days in the Country brings those choices and their consequences to life in this perfect re-mastered production of a classic.
Special thanks to Kinetic Theatre Company for complimentary press tickets. Three Days in the Country runs at the New Hazlett Theatre through December 4th. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Stage 62‘s The Music Man presents a caliber of talent that surpasses the status quo of community theater. This rhythmic masterpiece, made up of sweet melodies, a lively story and charming characters is a slice of American pie. The production boasts a wide range of music styles, dance ensembles, comedic moments and romance. This is a performance the whole family can enjoy. There are opportunities for performers of all ages to shine and Stage 62‘s rendition rises to this challenge.
The performance begins with the orchestra playing the overture. The sound swells the theater, traditionally designed for concerts, permitting the acoustics to resonate. Having never seen The Music Man before I enjoyed the prelude of familiar tunes realizing just how many songs I recognized. The story unfolds quickly, partly due to the tempo of the first 3 musical numbers, Rock Island, Iowa Stubborn and (Ya Got) Trouble, and the superior delivery of dialogue by con man ‘Professor’ Harold Hill (Andy Folmer) the fast- talking traveling salesman. Hill’s scam; convince parents their sons will keep out of trouble by joining in a band. Hill sells instruments, uniforms and music materials, promises to offer instruction and direction to the boys, then once the supplies are delivered and payment collected, he’ll skip town before anyone catches on. Arriving in River City, Iowa Hill learns the townsfolk are not very friendly. He determines the best way to earn the confidence of parents is to gain the assurance of the local music teacher/ librarian, Marian Paroo (Becca Chenette). She too is cold and stand-offish but luckily, for Hill, Marcellus Washburn (Chris Martin) a former ‘associate’ turned straight, is living in River City. Washburn agrees to help Hill launch his scheme and escape town without a hitch. Things go, more or less, as Hill intends; except for the few residents who question his credentials, a young boy in need of a father figure and a blossoming romance that quickly changes the path of Hill’s plan.
If you’re familiar with The Music Man you won’t be surprised to learn this is a 61 person cast. Director Rob James successfully incorporates all elements necessary for a seamless production and choreographer Devyn Brown manages to keep the shows momentum flowing with movement. Two memorable dance numbers, Marian the Librarian and Shipoopi, showcase the abundance of talent from supporting cast members Chris Martin, Adam Speers as Tommy Djilas and Alex Ficco as Zanetta Shinn. Other highlights include, the harmonizing Quartet and the ladies Pickalittle (Talk-a-Little) song and dance. There’s a lot of theatrical zeal from each character especially the budding talent of cast members Alexa Speicher as Amaryllis and Elliott Bruno as Winthrop, who appear poised and confident in character despite their young age.
A strong supporting cast and a dynamite ensemble can carry a show a long way but The Music Man demands veteran performers to fill the shoes of Professor Hill and Marian Paroo. Andy Folmer as Hill is a big presence on a small stage, a virtuoso of voice, he consistently maintains savvy delivery of both dialogue and song. Becca Chenette is a genuine Marian. Her voice is lilting and strong. A seasoned vocalist she exudes sweetness and sentimentality while singing the beautiful ballads.
Stage 62‘sperformance of The Music Man is lively and fun. It has all the elements of a classic American musical. The costumes are bright and represent a time and place that accentuate the extensively detailed set. Highlights of the show included the expertly executed speak- song, Rock Island the highly energetic Ya Got Trouble, the notableSeventy-Six Trombones and the endearing Till There Was You .
Special thanks to Stage 62 for complimentary press tickets. The Music Man runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall (ACFL& MH) Carnegie, PA through November 20th. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Few scripts are as universally lauded as Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men. A tense drama driven entirely by conversation, the plot follows white 12 jurors in 1950’s America who are preparing to sentence a non-white, formerly convicted criminal to death around a small table in the sweltering heat of summer. The vote is unanimously in favor of execution – save for one man.
It’s an easy enough setup, but the beauty here is in the details. There are no extraneous details, no clear cut metaphors in the shape of characters; moments of silence, even, are nonexistent. The script is built from pure, authentically written battles of ideology, critical thinking, and unshakable passion.
Lora Oxenreiter’s production over at McKeesport Little Theater is actually slightly sparser than even the Sidney Lumet directed film, as it’s missing a set for the bathroom. Additionally, the small room in which the deliberations take place can actually feel quite large thanks to some hawk-eyed cinematography, and characters split off into different portions of the room as their hour and a half conversation continues. The space at MLT is even tighter, and has been split into three sections: the window, the table, and the corner of the room.
This minimized version of 12 Angry Men’s sweaty anger box actually reveals some things about the script’s structure. The window, our only view to the outside world, is a space characters only inhabit to cool their anger by escaping the other 11 men. The table, obviously, is where most everyone is all the time. The corner, the deepest part of the room, is essentially the ‘let’s split up and commune privately’ section. These spaces, then, roughly equate to a space for self-reflection, a space for public conversation, and a space for private commune. It’s a neat simplification of this space that distills its (easily extrapolated) visualization of individualism versus group think, as the tenor of conversation between these spaces differs greatly.
That said, this limited space is problematic as well. The Little Theater isn’t setup as a theater-in-the-round – this means half of the cast perform the play with their backs turned towards the audience. Besides the obvious problems this odd setup creates, it ends up visually removing some of the men in a way that can minimize the drama.
There were a few performance hiccoughs the cast appeared to be working through during their debut (on November 4th) as well, specifically with actors sometimes trampling over their lines or unnecessarily hanging onto certain moments. No actor slowed the production to a halt or anything, but the play did have a certain stutter in its rhythm. 12 Angry Men is snappy and immediate, so any deviance from the fast pace can make the impassioned arguments feel structured or prepared, and removes them of their import.
Oxenreiter’s sense of direction is an important element of the play’s success. I could feel in each actor’s performance a reliance on naturalism above all else, and a dedication to both organic immediacy and faithful recreation. The script’s amazing representation of personal bias and cultural suppression is woven into these performers. You can see the hesitancy to stand alone a life of hardship can instill in a man in Juror #5 (Justin Kofford). The calm rationale of a natural-born teacher or manager in Juror #1 (Tom Sarp). The comfort in espousing intellect above all else in a dangerous situation a life of prosperity instilled in Juror #4 (Johnny Terreri).
Following the caustic nature of the 2016 election, 12 Angry Men’s themes of thoughtful response and collaboration in the face of deep polarization are more essential than they ever have been. During an interview I conducted a few months ago, producer Linda L. Baker assured me the choice to put on this socially conscious work so close to Election Day was not out of some pointed commentary, and instead the result of the theater’s tradition of mixing stone-cold theatrical classics with one remarkably unconventional work during its seasons. Still, I have very little doubt that each and every audience member will bring their political protest, fear and hope to their viewing of the work. In each heated exchange will lie a reminder of what will, for many of us, surely be the least appealing Thanksgiving dinner in history. But watch closely at how all the anger and debate between classes and culture transform anew into collaboration and strength; perhaps 12 Angry Men, for Pittsburghers at this very moment of history, is a story worth revisiting.
Special thanks to the McKeesport Little Theater for complimentary press tickets. 12 Angry Men runs through November 20th, tickets and more information can be found here.
Sometimes romantic, occasionally funny, and always unsettling, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice makes audiences squirm. The play mirrors not only the historic anti-Semitism of the late 1500s but an ongoing reality.
PICT deserves kudos for staging such a thoughtful and timely production of Merchant, a less frequently programmed Shakespeare play as this work has been put on trial itself due to anti-Semitic characters and the perceived stereotyping of Jewish characters. Consider this play in the context of its historical origins, but remember that it is Shakespeare’s timeless and keen observation of human nature that makes his works resonate through time.
Thus, Artistic Director Alan Stanford has chosen to stage this complex “comedy” (as it’s categorized in the First Folio but also regarded as one the “problem plays”) in the 1930s. The setting foreshadows the rise of the Third Reich in Germany and Fascism in Italy. Stanford’s “Venice” could be anywhere, a choice providing even more relevance to this sometimes misunderstood text in November 2016.
The titular merchant Antonio is in debt after losing ships and cargo to storms at sea. His resultant contract with moneylender Shylock is rather gruesomely drawn up: the Jewish debtor requires that Antonio give “a pound of flesh” if he reneges on the loan. Even Antonio chuckles at such a ridiculous condition. But when he can’t pay up, Shylock takes the merchant to court. Add in three mysterious boxes at the lovely bachelorette Portia’s estate Belmont, numerous colorful suitors who include Antonio’s friend Bassanio, Shylock’s daughter Jessica running away with her beloved Lorenzo, and a renown courtroom scene. Smart cross-dressing enables Portia and lady-in-waiting Nerissa to pose as legal experts in court to help Bassanio’s friend, shades of the forest in As You Like It.
Gershwin pre-show tunes set up the period and casual elegance. Stanford’s cast is costumed accurately and attractively from head to toe by Michael Montgomery. They are like 1930s movie stars on Johnmichael Bohach’s clean and practical Bauhaus-inspired set and the style suits the characters’ ultimately careless natures in this version.
Bohach excels in creating appealing details and practical choices for diverse settings at PICT and other area theaters. The elevated stage in the center of the Union Project’s Great Hall has an attractive floor suggesting stone diagonally set with dark wood accents that are replicated as stage and furniture trim. Low, sophisticated furniture pieces are outfitted with flat ivory cushions and bolsters. Seating on either side of the rectangular stage, the audience readily can focus on the actors and the text. Keith A. Truax’s unintrusive lighting also perhaps intentionally sheds more light on the audience in this production.
The space represents the dressing room at a men’s club, posh residences, a courtroom, and more. The pace might benefit from some tightening between scenes, including a reduction in furniture moving that only sometimes clearly defines scene settings.
As Shylock, James FitzGerald brings the nuance and strength audiences have come to expect of this versatile actor. His Shylock is a savvy businessman, professional and thorough. He is certainly guarded, undoubtedly having managed to build a career in the early 20th century despite implied and overt discrimination. His heartbreak at his only child Jessica’s elopement is palpable and the loss of his late wife Leah’s ring seems genuinely more important than the money Jessica takes with her. Fitzgerald conveys the conflicts within Shylock about family, financial security, and reputation. It’s believable to attribute his determined revenge on merchant Antonio as wrought from the pain of his personal losses.
Martin Giles’s Antonio is debonair and detached. He’s that cool, sometimes troubled friend who always gets by. A top actor to catch in town, Giles is a bit James Mason, mustached with something else under that dashing surface. His Antonio is an enigmatic presence and seems more interested in the mix of his cocktail than the legalities that could ruin him.
Gayle Pazerski is a smart and cool Portia, a woman of means trapped in her late father’s terms for her inheritance. Pazerski draws Portia as a 20th century woman who can play the game and win, subtly setting up Bassanio’s courtship. Well-spoken and a lovely blonde in this production, Pazerski is alluring but not as charming as one could choose to play this cross-dressing heroine. Her “quality of mercy” was more matter-of-fact than a thoughtfully passionate argument, but was effective as delivered directly to Shylock center stage.
Friend and waiting lady Nerissa is portrayed by Karen Baum, a PICT regular whose spunky comic flair and priceless expressions always reflect fierce motivation. Baum delightfully supports Pazerski’s every move as her devotion brings more depth to Nerissa. Her male legal clerk is spot on via her deepened voice and boyish attitude.
Fredi Bernstein nurtures the conflicting emotions of Shylock’s daughter Jessica. Warm in her scenes with the clown Gobo and uncertain in a new environment at Portia’s Belmont, her Jessica tries hard to fit in. Bernstein draws on much the little Shakespeare provides, sadly pointing up the irony in “on such a night as this” with Lorenzo.
Bassanio as played by Luke Halfery is a young gent learning the ropes. Certainly smart, Halfery’s Bassanio seems less experienced than his desired Portia. He drops Bassanio’s privileged air when he wins her with infectious delight when he gets the girl. As Lorenzo, Michael Steven Brewer solidly builds a case for winning Jessica. His almost businesslike demeanor suggests Lorenzo is may indeed be an opportunistic lover.
Jonathan Visser is the brash, sometimes inebriated Gratiano, contrasting with the other young men in perhaps class and education. Visser shines in his energy and attention to the essence of Gratiano as an eager-to-please, attentive, but unpolished guy. Impetuous and outspoken, Gratiano benefits from Visser’s height and physical attitude, implying he could act even more inappropriately if given the chance.
Connor McCanlus creates a warm and light Launcelot Gobo, the clownish servant in Shylock’s household. The Elizabethan clown may be challenging when time traveling and McCanlus handles it well. With a Chaplinesque approach that suits this period, McCanlus aptly plies Gobo’s words for sweet effect in scenes with his blind father and Jessica.
Ken Bolden delivers a triple play, showing off his range and lovely voice as Portia’s Spanish suitor Arragon, Old Gobo, and the Duke of Venice as courtroom judge. Bolden’s comic edge is delightful with his handlebar mustache and straw hat at Belmont, tottering as an elder, and sharp and suave in pinstriped suit at court. In court, Bolden and FitzGerald’s intense eye-to-eye discourse is memorable for the textual agility they bring.
Parag Gohel courts Portia as the dashing Morocco, determined to win, then ambivalent at his loss. As Shylock’s adviser Tubal, Gohel cuts a contrasting style with Orthodox garb and forelocks. Carolyn Jerz as maid Stephania, Portia’s maid, and Simon Colker and Justin Bees are Salanio and Salerio provide support all around.
The themes of ethics, loyalty, and judicial wisdom resound in another memorable production that sets PICT apart as the city’s keeper of the classics. Merchant again raises more questions than answers. Stanford resists telling the audience what to think. In his director’s note, Stanford asks some essential questions, including: “Do we by our own behavior, teach others to treat us as badly as we treat them?”
Ample manipulation includes not only Shylock’s pound of flesh requirement but the ring trick Portia and Nerissa play on their spouses. Bad behavior includes Gratiano’s inappropriate outbursts in court (in the script) and grabbing Shylock’s yarmulke from his head as the observant Jew leaves the courtroom (director’s addition). That Gratiano wears a sort of brown shirt isn’t lost on us given what happens next in Europe.
PICT’s production supposes is that these self-indulgent folks will next be asked to follow the wave of Fascism or suffer the consequences. Love feels bittersweet and Antonio’s rescue seems a legal card trick motivated less by friendship than power. Most get out of this story safely with some resources intact–even Jessica. The production suggests that only Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity might save him.
Jessica is the last on stage. The reality set in that that the court says she will still inherit Shylock’s remaining assets. The clown escorts her off. As usual, Shylock is the absent one. We can only imagine the moneylender’s fate.
PICT stages The Merchant of Venice, the second production of its 19th season and the second at its new home The Union Project, 801 North Negley Ave (15206), through Sat., Nov. 19. Consult the calendar for dates and prices.
Thank you to PICT for opening night tickets to cover the production.
Richard Strauss’ colossal Salome was the second of Pittsburgh Opera’s offerings last night, and an immense audience rose in a roar when the curtain dropped at the conclusion of the one-act German masterpiece. Major road closures and detours couldn’t stop the mass of humanity that thronged the Benedum, although the curtain had to be held for a few minutes. There were many aspects of the production which warranted the enthusiasm, such as the marvelous interpretation of the orchestral score, but it might also be interpreted as a hint to the management that German music-drama is a welcome addition to the standard Italian and French operas usually on the company’s roster. Added to the explanation of the loud and long ovation might be the fact that there are no set pieces or “arias” to speak of – Strauss, clearly under the influence of Richard Wagner, keeps the music flowing constantly, with no pauses for applause, so that any enthusiasm on the part of the audience must wait until the conclusion of the work. But when it came, there was certainly a lot of it, and it must have cheered all concerned with the performance.
Strauss composed the music to a libretto of his own, a much shortened revision taken from a German translation by Hedwig Lachmann of Oscar Wilde’s French-language play. He said something to the effect that his ideal Salome would be a “16-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde.” This combination is quite impossible, and explains more than a century of sopranos who have wisely avoided the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” and the ones better equipped to present a visual approximation but who weren’t up to the music’s huge vocal challenges. The entire music-drama is a challenge – the score is a difficult but highly effective combination of a wide range of keys, extended tonality, chromaticism, odd modulations, periods of tonal ambiguity, and more. Much like Wagner’s great works, the music also contains “leitmotifs,” or short chords or melodies symbolic of certain characters, themes or emotions. Entire volumes and doctoral dissertations have been written on Strauss’ complex combination of all of the above.
While the work runs for less than two hours, the plot is rather complex. The story takes place around 30 A.D., at King Herod’s palace in Judea. Princess Salome is the daughter of Herodias and a brother of Herod, thus making her the King’s stepdaughter (and niece). The action is set on a terrace that includes the cistern in which Herod is holding John the Baptist (Jochanaan). Narraboth, captain of Herod’s guards (and possibly the only prominent character besides the prophet with whom it is possible to sympathize), is gazing through a passage into the palace, singing of the beauty of the Princess and his admiration of her, while she is seated at a banquet taking place within. A page of Herodias warns Narraboth that it is dangerous to stare at Salome, and is the first to fear that something terrible is about to take place. The voice of Jochanaan booms from the depths of the cistern about the coming of the Messiah, while two guards speak of the prophet’s gentle disposition and Herod’s fear and confusion over this possible “Man of God.” Salome, bored with Herod’s festivities and his lecherous, incestuous leering, suddenly appears on the terrace and expresses an interest in the prophet’s voice, which is now proclaiming damnation of her sinful mother. The guards refuse her request to bring the prophet up to her, but she works her wiles on Narraboth until he relents, and the ragged holy man is brought before her.
Salome recoils in fear at the sight of Jochanaan, but her fear turns to fascination with the prophet who refuses to look at her, and she begins to beg to touch his hair, his skin, his mouth. Narraboth, overwhelmed with fear and despair, stabs himself to death without Salome even bothering to notice, so enraptured is she with begging the holy man for a kiss. Jochanaan tells her to save herself by seeking the Messiah, before he disappears back into the depths of the cistern. Herod, followed by Herodias, emerges from the palace in search of the missing Salome. Slipping in Narraboth’s blood, he is seized with fear by the ill omen, and begins to complain of feeling a strong breeze that seems to be caused by the flapping of the wings of huge, ominous bird hovering over the palace. He joins the others who have feared that something terrible is about to happen. Herodias derisively dismisses his rantings, and insists that he return to the banquet with her. He calms at the sight of Salome, and attempts to lure her with offers of food and wine. Once again, Jochanaan’s voice wafts up from the unseen depths, cursing the sins of Herodias, who angrily insists that Herod turn him over to the Jews who have been asking for him for months. Herod refuses, and a chaotic argument ensues among the Jews, two Nazarenes discuss the miracles of the Messiah, and Herodias demands that the prophet’s insults be silenced, while Herod adds that he is appalled at the idea of raising the dead.
Greatly agitated by the chaos, Herod begs Salome to dance for him, as it will soothe his nerves. She refuses until he promises her anything she desires. Salome seizes the opportunity and says she will dance only if Herod swears to keep his word. He does so, and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” begins. At its conclusion, Herod’s lascivious delight turns to horror when Salome demands the head of Jochanaan on a silver platter as her reward. He desperately offers her anything else, while Herodias laughs approvingly at her daughter’s cruel trick. Repeatedly, Salome demands that he keep his promise, until he collapses in despair, waving an executioner toward the cistern. When presented with her “reward,” the deranged princess sings to the head of Jochanaan as if he were still alive, and finally steals the kiss that he refused her in life. Herod’s lust quickly turns to disgust, and he commands that soldiers “Kill that woman,” as the story crashes to its conclusion and the stage is plunged into blackness.
It’s easy to imagine the commotion Salome caused when it was premiered in Dresden in December 1905. Gustav Mahler was refused permission to produce the opera in Vienna, and it was not heard there until 1918. It was resisted in London until 1910, and was heard once at the Metropolitan Opera in early 1907 before additional performances were immediately cancelled. It was not heard there again until 1934. Yet within a couple of years of its premiere, it was performed in over fifty theaters in Germany and elsewhere, and today is well established as a musical masterpiece. There are many studio recordings, the quintessential one probably being Decca’s 1961 version with Birgit Nilsson in the title role and Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
Antony Walker returned to the conductor’s podium last night, and did wonders with the immense and complex orchestration. There were possibly three brief, inconsequential slips in the orchestra, as the instrumentalists thundered or whispered the accompaniment by turns, with all sections giving of their best. Even in periods of tremendous volume, every slap of a tambourine, strumming of the harp or click of castanets rang out clearly. The tremendous climaxes were delivered with an overwhelming impressiveness, as were the delicate, hauntingly exotic quivering of strings. In the final scene, after Salome kisses Jochanaan’s severed head, the orchestration grows to a mighty climax, ending with a cadence of shocking dissonance. This moment has been described as “the most sickening chord in all opera.” But that was the composer’s intention, and Walker and his gifted players delivered it with remarkable accuracy. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” was exquisitely rendered.
Nearly all of the singers of the major roles made their Pittsburgh Opera debuts in the performance. Patricia Racette, known best for her interpretations of Puccini roles, sang the title part, one relatively new to her, as she has sung it only once before, earlier this year. She is not the 16-year-old Isolde of Strauss’ imagination (who possibly could be?), but has a sufficiently capable grasp on the demands of the stupendously difficult music. She displayed intelligence in keeping her voice in reserve as much as possible, because it was in the second part of Salome’s final soliloquy that she sounded her best. She did the infamous “dance” herself, with the assistance of a few of Attack Theatre’s male dancers. The choreography is odd and ineffective, and staged in a way that made the brief flash of total nudity seem gratuitous and forced. She is quite an attractive woman, capable of delivering the illusion of youth, and acted the part probably better than any other Salome the writer has seen. She may want to tone down her handling of her “reward,” since the weight of a human head accounts for about 10% of the body’s entire mass, and she tossed it around as if it were a skein of yarn.
Nmon Ford was another new face, singing and acting the role of the unfortunate Jochanaan. His baritone voice is a bit lyrical for the role, but the passages sung from the depths of the cistern were powerfully declaimed and seemed to be reverberating from deep below 7th Street. His singing done on the stage was a little less impressive, but effective to a degree in certain passages. Robert Brubaker, as Herod, sang and acted his role very realistically, and his performance made quite an impression on his first Pittsburgh Opera audience. Also making her local debut was mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens as Herodias. It is not an especially large singing part, but she displayed a rich voice of quality. Largely due to the staging of the opera, her acting of the part was somewhat restricted. But she made the listener wish to hear her in a more prominent role.
In the smaller roles, tenor Jonathan Boyd as Narraboth, and mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl as the Page of Herodias, stood out in the crowd, as did baritone Brian Vu as the Second Nazarene. The others adding to the production in smaller roles were Joseph Barron (First Soldier), Matthew Scollin (Second Soldier), AndyBerry (A Cappadocian and the Fifth Jew), Shannon Jennings (A Slave), Michael Papincak (First Jew), JamesFlora (Second Jew), Adam Bonanni (Third Jew), and Eric Ferring (Fourth Jew). These singing actors were a combination of members of the Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Program, both present and past, or newcomers altogether.
The single set was acceptably impressive, a wide stone staircase with flaming torches at the base of each side leading to the terrace, with a portion of the palace visible to the right, the cistern dead center. To the left a balcony rail looked out on a dark and cloudy sky and a gigantic moon. It appeared to be the dark side that was visible, perhaps an attempt to lend creative artistic license to the darkness of the plot. It seems that at some point in rehearsal, a lighting designer might notice that the people on the stage were casting shadows on the clouds and moon, and make adjustments to correct the problem, but this was not the case last night.
As a whole the production is a worthy one and holds together well, and this rare opportunity of hearing a German masterpiece should not be missed, as they come our way rarely, few and very far between. For tickets, cast biographies, and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Opera for the two complimentary admissions.
The “Artistic Team” for Salome –
Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, Andrew Sinclair; Set Designer, Boyd Ostroff; Costume Designer, Richard St. Clair; Lighting Designer, Andrew David Ostrowski; Wig & Make-up Designer, JamesGeier; Choreographer, Michele de la Reza of Attack Theatre; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Director of Musical Studies, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, FrancesRabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.
Prime Stage Theatre has kicked off its 20th-anniversary season with a not-to-miss production of the beloved literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird, which continues to play for two weekends at the New Hazlett Theater in the North Side.
One of the best parts of this two-act show, which runs two hours plus an intermission, comes with the double-casting of the Scout character. One actress – Samantha A. Camp, who recently returned to Pittsburgh after 11 years in the Tacoma, Washington area – plays the adult, who goes by the proper name of Jean Louise Finch. The adult Scout serves as a reminiscing narrator whom the other characters don’t see. With a good Southern accent reflecting the story’s 1935 Maycomb, Alabama setting, she talks to the audience as she looks back on this dramatic time in her life, and sometimes – like during the trial of Tom Robinson – she sits quietly and watches for long stretches of time.
The tomboyish child Scout – played very well by double-braided, overalls-clad sixth-grader Grace Vensel – captures and brings to the stage the spunk of the literary character. During the opening and closing scenes, the adult and child Scouts face each other across the Finch’s front porch and hum a sweet tune.
Author Harper Lee’s bestseller – adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, and directed for Prime Stage by Scott P. Calhoon – comes to life on stage in this condensed version and captures the feel and theme of the novel. The theater did a good job of creating a stage scene with little room, portraying three house fronts in a Maycomb neighborhood, with an American flag hung off the Finch’s porch, and a spooky look at the Radley house. Strings hung from the ceiling over a mock tree, depicting the Spanish moss trees common in the South. A tire swing hung near the Finch porch. Then, in the second act, the central stage scenery changed to depict a courtroom with a witness chair and lawyer tables.
Actor Brian Ceponis – a former professional volleyball player who has acted in TV shows including “NCIS” – gives a solid performance as the gentle, patient, smart and moral Atticus Finch, who sets an example for his children and the townspeople. Brian Starks gives a moving performance as Tom Robinson, the man falsely accused of sexual assault by a white woman.
The To Kill a Mockingbird story contains a timeless lesson that is just as relevant today: Don’t judge and hurt people who have done nothing to hurt anyone else. The mockingbirds in this story are the African-American Tom Robinson, who tragically is convicted of a rape he clearly didn’t do because of his skin color; and Arthur “Boo” Radley, the mysterious neighbor thought to be a monster. But as it turns out, the hermit Boo is just a socially awkward but harmless character who saves the lives of Scout and Jem when they are attacked at the end. If we look around us, it wouldn’t be difficult to find metaphorical mockingbirds in our world.
To Kill a Mockingbird continues through Nov. 13 at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Special thanks to Prime Stage for complimentary press tickets. Tickets are $25 to $30 for adults, $20 to $25 for age 63 and older, and $12 to $17 for kids under 18. Details: 724-773-0700 or primestage.com
A certain part of me thrives off of conspiracy theories. I’ll admit–it’s a malignantly nefarious part of me, one which dwells in the gallows of my brain and entertains tomfoolery that by all standards is ludicrous, if not downright harmful. Did the government manufacture or benefit from 9/11? Was LBJ a key player in the assassination of JFK (if, at the very least, to give him initial only name preeminence)? Was crack dispersed into lower socioeconomic communities by the government to fuel a war against poor African American men (this seems entirely to real to be pejoratively considered a “conspiracy,” but I digress)? These hypotheses fester, they gnaw, and ultimately, they never get resolved. Which is what makes them so masochistically enticing–they are the unsolvable puzzle, always teasing us with that one missing piece.
And therein too lies the strength of Throughline’s Production of Yankee Tavern, an adaptation of oft-lauded playwright Steven Dietz’s 2007 work. Yankee Tavern functions as an intensive introspection into the minds of individuals who steadfastly believe–or have been directly impacted by those who steadfastly believe–in the cosmos of conspiracy theories which encircle American history and lore. What is all the more compelling, though, is that this dramaturgical analysis of conspiracy theory phenomena is enveloped in a much more intimate framework–one in which a snapshot of a young couple’s harried engagement/wedding plans serves as a parallel for the distrust of American government and cookie-cutter history.
Much of the impact of Yankee Tavern is derived from the performances of its small but exquisitely talented cast. Malic Williams is sensational as Adam, the Masters student and soon-to-be-betrothed protagonist who has inherited his fathers pub as well as the oft-inebriated blowhard (a delightfully grandstanding Bob Rak) who frequents it (and was Adam’s father’s best friend before he passed). Williams is jocular when called for–informing his future wife Janet (an impassioned Ursula Asmus Sears) that the reason his wedding invites were all returned was because he made all of his past family and friends up to placate her is touchingly hilarious. But more importantly he is subtly ferocious and vulnerable–necessary qualities for the young man basing his thesis on 9/11 conspiracy theories as he is haunted by the ghost of what may have killed his father.
The acumen of the cast is tantamount to the play’s success, as it is, at times, a play that doesn’t quite find it’s cadence. This is certainly not to say that the play falters or fails, rather, the fervor of the narrative often gets carried away or misfires. The cast is impeccably relatable, though, which helps to reel the dialogue–particularly Sears, who’s painstaking assertiveness and scrutiny are so realistic, they evoke a very specific emotional response.
Begging to ask the question of which is more odious, the conspiracy or the invisible machine that propels the conspiracy, Yankee Tavern is a worthwhile 90ish minutes for anyone seeking entertainment with an aching sense of curiosity.
Special thanks to Throughline Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Yankee Tavern runs through November 5th, tickets and more information can be found here.
Photos courtesy of Throughline Theatre/Rick Moore.
In spirit of the season of the autumnal harvest, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has conjured up a spectacular production of the 19th century ballet, Giselle. An eerily beautiful way to burst into Halloweekend, PBT has once again succeeded in a full and vibrant ballet production.
Inspired by the Slavonic legend of the Wilis women, Giselle is a product of the post-Classical, Romantic period. Romanticism offered an artistic appreciation for emotion, individualism, and nature. As written about by Heinrich Heine in De l’Allemagne, the Wilis women were a group of deceased, affianced women; buried before they reached their wedding day. The Wilis women were said to have hearts unable to maintain their affinity for dance, thus they passed away of broken hearts as a result. In the afterlife, the Wilis women returned to the world at night in order to dance wandering men to death. Giselle, a young peasant girl from a nearby village with a heart of gold, and a love of dance, meets her fate as a Wilis woman. Driven to her death by the stress of two men fighting over her, finding out that her love was engaged to another woman, and her insistence on dancing the days away… Giselle returns in the second act from the grave… Spooky!!
The first act of Giselle depicts the sacred festivities of the harvest festival in medieval, rural Germany. Act I opened the stage with an autumnal warmth– the revitalizing sense of safety and togetherness that the fall weather often brings us– exuded across the stage as the dancers, the musicians, and the technicians invited us into a celebration of the harvest. PBT never fails to entice me with their masterpiece set designs, a definitely impressive factor in this production. Before getting to know the main character Giselle, we meet her admirer/ future fiance, Count Albrecht. Albrecht has come in disguise as a peasant to woo Giselle, a simple maiden girl. Immediately capturing my attention, the Count and his squire not only mastered an introductory allegro with energy and precision, but they did so while embracing their roles as actors as well. Throughout the whole production, something that I found to be most wonderful was the energy maintained through character interaction, which can be extremely difficult while also keeping up with that super fast petit allegro choreography!
Shortly after the ballet begins, Giselle makes her first appearance in a number which was executed with equal parts power and poise, exhibiting both the character’s love for dance, but also the dancer’s solid connection with her role. As the festival continues, Giselle is eventually crowned the new Harvest Queen, a section in which the climax of the first act comes to a peak. In all the excitement, Giselle unfortunately finds out that Albrecht is engaged to another woman… which segways us into a totally sappy, broken-hearted, classic, tear-jerking death scene, in which this production hit the nail on the head with. I loved it. As act one comes to a close, Giselle melts to the ground in an utterly heart-wrenching romantic death. In a cohesive collaboration of performance and design, the first act of Giselle drew me in via aesthetic beauty, as well as the magnetizing energy that made me want to dance, myself– always the sign of a successful show!
Just as I thought it couldn’t get any better, I returned to my seat, glass of wine in hand, to a dark, haunting second act. In the second act, Giselle saves Albrecht from the harm of the Wilis women, but what this act is TRULY about is the after life of these beautiful, jaded women, forsaken by men and love! Adorned in ghost-like wedding gowns and veils over their faces, the dancers playing the Wilis women embodied a ghostly power in their movement, shifting eerily across the stage. It made me think of a vaguely emo Swan Lake… which, in my book, is brilliant. As the second act carried us through the night of the Wilis women, I found myself once again enticed not only by the impeccable skill I observed in the dancers, but the ways in which each aspect of the production tied together to tell the tale of Giselle extravagantly and also clearly. After the show, I felt mesmerized but also revitalized in the spirit of fall!
Giselle is all over for this season, but make sure to catch Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s upcoming seasonal treasure, their production of TheNutcracker!
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for complimentary press tickets. For tickets and more information about PBT, click here.