All Quiet on the Western Front

quietThere are times you’re acutely aware that while yes, you’ve faced hardships, you’ve also led a life of privilege simply by having a roof over your head and a bed to sleep in. All Quiet on the Western Front razor sharpens that realization in scene after scene, numbing you with war’s relentlessness in just two hours, a microcosm of life for the play’s German soldiers of B Company. They head off to World War I as jovial, adventure-seeking youths only to die or be aged in time-lapse by war’s atrocities.

All Quiet on the Western Front marks the inaugural production of Prime Stage’s 21st season as they continue their rich tradition of bringing literature to life on the stage. Impressively, this is also the play’s U.S. premiere. It was adapted for the stage by Robin Kingsland from Erich Maria Remarque’s famed 1929 novel of the same title, a novel that was subsequently banned by the Nazi party.

Despite the World War I setting, the play’s main characters are not heroes. They are boys persuaded by patriotism. The lure of wartime adventure proves more tantalizing than their humdrum, small-town life. The play starts with a metal door noisily rumbling up, and you hear the soon-to-be soldiers singing before you see them roll onto the stage aboard a large cart. The door’s sound is jarring, and director Scott Calhoon brilliantly uses the disconcerting sound to foreshadow the more jarring sounds of war ahead. You feel the anticipation and bursting eagerness of youth as they spill out onto the stage. The main character, Paul Baumer (Connor McNelis), an aspiring poet and lepidopterist, aptly describes the boys as “coiled shoots under the earth.”

The utter arbitrariness of war is a recurring theme. There are no playing favorites on the battlefield. The town’s champion gymnast, Franz, almost immediately loses a leg and dies slowly post-amputation. Projection designer Joe Spinogatti thoughtfully utilizes subtle projections of a wartime hospital floor in the background. They remind us that while we trace Franz’s story, he is one in a sea of many. But war also makes one an opportunist, even as one realizes the contemptibility of it. With supplies already in short order, Franz’s hometown compadres whisper bedside and contemplate taking his nice boots. They rationalize he won’t need them, and besides, they’ll just get taken by an officer. Paul ends up witnessing Franz’s death alone and walks away, then scurries back for the boots. McNelis never shies away from authentically conveying Paul’s struggles and sorrows. His face collapses with pain as he furtively departs, hugging the boots to his chest, both token and tear-stained battlefield advantage.

Normalcy proves to be an ever-shifting bar. The scene with the boots is at the war’s start. Later, the remaining men of B Company slip on blood and blown-up body parts as they scramble for shelter post-bombardment. In fellowship, they review the spoils each accumulated, including corned beef and cognac. One man casually breaks off a blood-spattered chunk of French bread. It’s grisly, but the shared sustenance and palpable relief in realizing the majority of their community has returned alive create a lightness amidst the gore. The four bottles of cognac were pilfered by the Company’s de facto leader, 40-year old Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Stefan Lingenfelter). Lingenfelter plays Kat with heart, a sort of gruff papa bear complete with 5 o’clock shadow who, like the others, is civilian turned soldier. Father-like, he puts the needs of his charges first, slyly conjuring up food and supplies when others can’t. As they move towards shelter, gripping their spoils, the actors keep their eyes forward and move as if they are walking over waves, shaking off the almost-dead who claw at their ankles crying for help. Thanks to Calhoon’s careful direction, it’s as if we see those ghosts in the elegant, grisly dance steps of the soldiers that leave you raw and aching.

Scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach’s towering set is an omnipresent reminder that the individual is minuscule in war, but the boxes the boys sit astride on the cart ride in the opening scene are Bohach’s masterpiece. They smoothly transform to classroom chairs, then take on a darker tone. After the boys sign up for war, Calhoon exchanges their casual poses for military postures as they face each other in two straight rows. The boxes too stand erect on their ends, revealing straps and becoming backpacks. Uniforms are pulled from a hole in the center, and the boys slip them on over their regular clothes, reminding us soldier is just a thin layer over their civilian identity. The boxes later morph again, laying flat in a circle, holes up, becoming toilets the soldiers race to after a potent wartime dinner of beans, and they laugh at their comfort with communal crapping. The ever-elusive bar of normalcy has shifted once again.

As I walked back to my car after the show, a nearly full moon hung low in the sky, and the cool night air stung my nose. In one scene, a new recruit is crazed for fresh air after weeks of bombardment in covered trenches. The crispness of the night air seemed magnified after the play, and I felt as if I needed to breathe more deeply, finding the air they couldn’t. I shivered, registering that I should have brought a warmer jacket, yet almost immediately chided myself for the thought; it felt selfish after hearing the “grim music of the shells” and watching such suffering. Theatre has the power to help us both confront our humanity and connect with humanity. Breathe deeply for those who can’t, and don’t miss All Quiet on the Western Front.

All Quiet on the Western Front plays through November 12th at the New Hazlett Theater. To reserve tickets and for more information, click here.

The Marriage of Figaro

22788809_900808640071496_1258060101835248540_nPittsburgh Opera gave the first performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro last night, and it was one of those rare occasions when a bit of magic mixed with the music in the air. The centuries’ old opera seemed to take on new life; there was a palpable, sparkling connection between the massive audience and the singers on the stage and the musicians in the orchestra pit that crackled like invisible static electricity. It was by far the best performance of the opera I’ve ever witnessed, and in many respects one of the best operatic productions I’ve seen and heard in a number of years. The cast is one of a uniform excellence rarely attainable, Conductor Antony Walker set the pace from the first note of the overture by vigorously following Mozart’s marking of presto, the scenery made effective use of the Benedum’s huge stage, and the singers were becomingly costumed and clearly well rehearsed. It’s difficult to believe that all this was a “fluke,” a “one off” – it seems much more likely that it was the brilliant result of meticulous preparation by all concerned, and that each of the remaining performances will be of the same caliber – indeed, possibly even better. The thunderous applause of last night was well deserved, and will probably inspire even better things to come.

Left to right - Count Almaviva (Christian Bowers), Cherubino (Corrie Stallings), Don Basilio (Eric Ferring), and Susanna (Joélle Harvey)
Left to right – Count Almaviva (Christian Bowers), Cherubino (Corrie Stallings), Don Basilio (Eric Ferring), and Susanna (Joélle Harvey)

Unless one escapes from the present for a few hours, and takes into consideration the age of the opera, the plot is about as politically incorrect as they come. Even in the 1780’s, the play Lorenzo Da Ponte used as the basis for his libretto, Pierre Beaumarchais’ La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (“The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro”), was banned in Vienna, and Da Ponte and Mozart had to clear several hurdles before their operatic treatment premiered there on May 1, 1786. The Marriage of Figaro picks up some years into the future from where The Barber of Seville leaves off, and covers a single “day of madness” in the lives of characters who have undergone a few considerable changes. Almaviva, the effervescent, romantic young tenor of The Barber, is now a bass-baritone Count, and a rather womanizing, conniving bully of a Count at that. The action takes place in his palace near Seville, and Rosina is now his Countess. Dr. Bartolo wants revenge against Figaro for ruining his earlier plan of marrying Rosina himself.

Having appointed Figaro the head of his servant staff, the Count now tries to take advantage of his “droit du seigneur” – the appalling right of a nobleman to take the place of a servant on his wedding night – with Figaro’s fiancee, Susanna, the Countess’ maid – all the while trying to dispense with Cherubino, a young page enamored of the Countess. He schemes to delay the civil union of his two servants, while Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess conspire to expose his plot. Thwarted at every turn, the Count retaliates by attempting to force Figaro to marry Marcellina, a woman old enough to be his mother – and just in time it comes to light that she actually is his mother! Through Figaro’s and Susanna’s manipulations, the Count comes to realize the Countess is his true love, and the story reaches a happy ending. What probably gives this tale appeal is that a “have” is out-witted and humiliated by “have-nots.” This would have been especially true at the time the opera was first produced, with the French Revolution festering on the near horizon.

Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin) laments that her husband has lost interest in her
Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin) laments that her husband has lost interest in her

It was apparent from the start that last night’s performance was going to be a remarkable one. Antony Walker and his brilliant orchestra dove into the music at a brisk and exhilarating pace that was maintained where appropriate and moderated throughout in accordance with the composer’s notations. The orchestra played beautifully, and pianist James Lesniak, providing the continuo – with much help from the singers – accompanied the frequently tiresome stretches of recitative in a manner that made them sparkle with interest and appeal. The ensembles of the principal singers outnumber the opportunities for the chorus, but, as usual, Mark Trawka made the most of that talented group’s moments.

Left to right - Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Dr. Bartolo (Brian Kontes), and Marcellina (Leah de Gruyl)
Left to right – Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Dr. Bartolo (Brian Kontes), and Marcellina (Leah de Gruyl)

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. All of the principal singers, a number of them new to Pittsburgh Opera, delivered performances that were impressive, engaging, and, in many spots, amazingly beautiful. Their acting, too, was highly entertaining. Tyler Simpson (Figaro), Joélle Harvey (Susanna), Brian Kontes (Dr. Bartolo) and Christian Bowers (Count Almaviva), all making their company debuts, proved to be a quartet of artists of the first rank, and were welcomed by an ovation that was unusually loud and long for a Pittsburgh audience. This enthusiasm, however, has been noticed more frequently in recent years, and the day may come when deserving performances see the curtain raised a second time. Had the same performance taken place in New York, these singers would have been obliged to take bows for fifteen minutes or more. The dark-voiced trio of male singers were fully up to delivering some cavernously low passages that were thoroughly musical in quality and projected well through the vast auditorium. Ms. Harvey gave a most convincing demonstration of why she has achieved such success with the role of Susanna. Her voice is limpid, pure and of great beauty.

Barbarina (Ashley Fabian)
Barbarina (Ashley Fabian)

Familiar singers were equally impressive. Danielle Pastin, as the Countess, delivered the performance that was expected – lovely in all particulars. She made a great success of her principal arias, and the famous “Letter Duet,” with Ms. Harvey, was a demonstration that the intricate art of duet singing is alive and well, as far as these sopranos are concerned. Corrie Stallings was a comedic delight as Cherubino, and the young woman’s voice proved that she belonged in such a stellar cast. Leah de Gruyl, as Marcellina (Figaro’s “long-lost” mother), was quite engaging, vocally and in action, and she could give lessons to stage actors wanting to fall realistically into dead faints. Ashley Fabian, as Barbarina, a character who makes her first appearance late in the opera, displayed a voice and stage manner well worth the wait.

Antonio (Andy Berry)
Antonio (Andy Berry)

There are two tenor roles in the opera (Don Basilio and Don Curzio), each with comparatively little to do, but with both in the hands of Eric Ferring, they took on a prominence that was out of the ordinary. So well made-up was Andy Berry, as Antonio, the aging, befuddled, inebriated gardener, that he was almost unrecognizable, but his appealing voice and acting abilities shone through unmistakably.

This is a production that shouldn’t be missed. A better one would be very hard to find, indeed. For tickets and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

“The Artistic Team” for The Marriage of Figaro

Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, David Paul; Set Designer, Benoit Dugardyn; Costume Designer, Myung Hee Cho; Lighting Designer, Cindy Limauro; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist/Continuo, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.

David Bachman Photography

The Crucible

crucible-logo-300x287Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, is a dramatized and partially fictionalized play based upon the Salem Witch Trials during 1692/93.  When taken at its simplest form, the plot centers on a love triangle between John Proctor (Eric Leslie) his wife Elizabeth (Jennifer Sinatra) and their young and quite attractive former servant girl Abigail Williams (Elizabeth Bennett). When his wife suffered from a period of sickness, he committed adultery with Abigail. John generally views this as an unfortunate indiscretion not to be repeated, but Abby feels as though a much deeper relationship has developed between them. She plots to get Elizabeth out of the way and marry John.

Abby’s scheme to secure John as her husband takes advantage of the growing fear of witches. She convinces the colony’s clergy that she and other young girls have seen the older village women commit witchcraft and cavort with the devil. The young girls were caught dancing in the moonlight and claimed they were possessed as a diversion from their activity. Abby frames Elizabeth with a doll and accuses Elizabeth of using the doll to hurt her. This sets up Elizabeth to be hanged, so John Proctor would then be available to marry Abby.

(left to right) Jennifer Sinatra, Eric Leslie and Elizabeth Bennett
(left to right) Jennifer Sinatra, Eric Leslie and Elizabeth Bennett

In the English system of justice in the late 1600s, both the courts and church together established the standards of justice and prosecution. The easiest way for the court to gain a conviction and an execution for charges of witchcraft was a confession.  As it turns out, in reality, none of the accused Salem witches who confessed were convicted or executed. However, all of the women and men who refused to confess to consorting with the devil were found guilty and executed.

As the suspected witches watched the other’s trials progress, they become faced with a moral choice; confess to witchcraft and most likely you would be spared from the gallows. Then you would only answer to God upon your death and have your soul damned to hell. Miller’s play asks us think about how we would handle ourselves if we were to find ourselves in this situation, would we lie to save ourselves and our family?

(left to right) Sophia Englesberg, Lindy Spear, Isabella Englesberg, Elizabeth Bennett, Martha McElligott, Amanda DeConciliis-Weber, Heather Dressel, Moriah Hathaway
(left to right) Sophia Englesberg, Lindy Spear, Isabella Englesberg, Elizabeth Bennett, Martha McElligott, Amanda DeConciliis-Weber, Heather Dressel, Moriah Hathaway

While The Crucible appears to be totally about the Salem Witch Trials, Miller wrote the play in 1952 as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the rallying cry of the era was “Are you now or were you ever a member of the Communist Party?” How different is that from with the question that haunts The Crucible: “Did you see Elizabeth Proctor or Francis Nurse with the Devil?”

The intimacy of the Little Lake Theatre should be just perfect for this type of soul searching drama. However, as seems often the case at Little Lake, actors and directors fail to take advantage of the intimate setting to create a nuanced and sublime performance, instead resorting to shouting to accentuate the drama. By the end of the second act, Director Jena Oberg’s over the top delivery style becomes tiring. This is regretful just as the simple love triangle story transitions to the more complex morality play that requires our full attention.

(left to right) Joshua Antoon, Eric Leslie, Warren Ashburn, and Jeff Johnson
(left to right) Joshua Antoon, Eric Leslie, Warren Ashburn, and Jeff Johnson

That is not to say that this production doesn’t have its moments. Standout performances are delivered by Elizabeth Bennett for her portrayal of Abigail, Jennifer Sinatra as Elizabeth Proctor and Ina Block as the elder Rebecca Nurse. John Reilly is the perfect representation of the self-perceived totally infallible and yet totally evil Judge Hathorne.

The resurrection of witch hunts seems to be common practice in today’s political environment.  The Crucible takes us back in time to America’s original witch hunt, the questions raised then are just as relevant today.

Arthur Miller’s classic, The Crucible, at Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg, PA 15317. Performances Thursday, Friday and Saturdays, November 2-4, 9-11 & 16-18 with all performances at 8pm.

For tickets visit https://www.showclix.com/event/the-crucible

Photos by James Orr

Beauty and the Beast

22256807_10154913721746016_2095757868663835950_oA tale that has enchanted old and young alike opened at the Byham Theater to the tones of a live orchestra tuning. A slightly blurry projection of the traditional Disney’s Beauty and the Beast logo graced the promising black curtains and the myriads of little girls matching in their Nutcracker and Swan Lake best, complete with faux fur stoles, left no doubt in an attendee’s mind that magic was about to happen on stage.  

Our journey with Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory’s production begins with the rich voice of the Narrator ushering us through the follies of the Young Prince’s youth, Carson Gregg, as lighting and translucent screens mostly hide and reveal the transformation of the Young Prince into the Beast before we transition to a French open air market of generically post-mediaeval time period. The costumes and choreography of the day-to-day hustle and bustle of rural townspeople flowed together and presented a convincing portrayal of natural human interaction, though some of the non-main characters’ lines and musical phrases were drowned out by the orchestra due to muffled speakers and uneven sound mixing.

Jordyn Walker as Belle was a breath of fresh air as she danced onto stage with natural grace. An obvious wig and too much eye makeup were quickly overshadowed by the ease with which she interacted with her fellow cast members and the pure quality of her beautiful voice. The chemistry between Belle and Brecken Farrell as Gaston made their scenes together utterly believable and Gaston’s inappropriate advances all the more skin crawling. Throughout the production Gaston stole the show with his over the top performance that was simultaneously convincing and absolutely absurd. Gaston was often accompanied by a disappointing LeFou, Amarianna Busa, whose wonderful physicality was marred by songs that should have been set to a key more compatible to her range

A lovingly bumbling Maurice, Jeramie Welch, opens the curtain to the enchanted castle after a brush with Wolves that was a convincing dance scene not too scary for the younger eyes in the crowd. A multi-tiered interior castle scene gave characters the opportunity to play out encounters with diverse blocking, leading each scene to be unique and visually intriguing. On the far sides of the sets, however, the painting details evoking stone work was not continued with as much care and the visible wood sheets covering the set’s skeleton put a just little ding in the fantasy illusion’s armor.

Though the set may not have been as polished, a delightfully festooned Lumiere, Nick Staso, and Cogsworth, Ben Godley-Fisher, married their French and British accents to perform classically witty repartee. And while the chemistry between Lumiere and Cogsworth was not mirrored by the relationship between Belle and the Beast, Matty Thornton, Belle interacted with the characters of the castle with absolute conviction. But after a compelling scene where Belle stands up to the Beast on behalf of her father, the progression of Belle and the Beast’s relationship seemed forced and lacked the spark that warms actual relationships. And while the Beast had a devilishly clever mask, which had a working jaw that made it look like he was actually speaking, his plain costume looked like it had just been whipped up from muslin. Though of course a Beast would not care about his appearance, any clothing remaining from the Beast’s human days would have been at least as rich as the maître’d Lumiere’s.

But when Belle, and the audience, was asked to Be Our Guest, the costumes of the various household implements were positively delightful and Mrs. Potts, Mia Schmidtetter, and the Wardrobe, Torrance Bejuszik, stole the show with their powerhouse vocals. The entire Be Our Guest sequence was spectacular with a rich array of household objects in delightful costumes – a particular favorite was a cheese grater – and well-executed dance moves utilizing the entirety of the set, and it was obvious the directors and choreographers had taken great care to entertain their audience as much as the cutlery were entertaining Belle. The only drawback in the ensemble’s costuming were the plates who were clothed in short, pink, lingerie-esque baby dolls. Putting minors in undergarment-showing costumes for a show where most of the attendees are young girls seems to go directly against the message of brains and bravery over beauty that Belle embodies and tries to turn young girls into sexualized inanimate objects.

Once Mrs. Potts began to sing Tale as Old as Time, time itself seemed to stand still because of her flawless intonation and musical expression. Mrs. Potts serenaded Belle and the Beast as they twirled before a background of actually twinkling stars and realized they were in love when the Beast learned to let go of his last true hope for physical humanity. Belle’s gown was a gorgeous interpretation of the classic golden gown and the Beast’s new-found finery was exquisite as obvious care was given to this beloved scene from director to costumer to actors.

As a whole, Beauty and the Beast was an entertaining, high-school level production that left the audience humming and skipping a little as they wound out of the theater into the chilled October air. Beauty and the Beast at the Byham Theater has unfortunately closed, but to find out more about PMT’s season, click here. 

The Hard Problem

21640869_10154903688452997_3654990160686137979_o“Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart, or in the head?”

-William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Master playwright Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Quantum Theatre should move to the top of playgoers’ must-see shows list through November 19.

Cognitive vitality reverberates in spaces of the Energy Innovation Center where Quantum presents the second production of its 27th season. Artistic Director Karla Boos has again matched content to setting, creating another intriguing experience for her audience on the edge of the Hill District, overlooking Downtown Pittsburgh. A revived education and technical center, the venue is well matched for this regional debut. The views are a bonus, so jump in for a few dynamic hours with another top-notch Quantum ensemble, this time directed by rising American director Rachel M. Stevens.

In Stoppard’s tradition of intellectual plays like Arcadia, The Hard Problem (premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015) awakens drowsy thought processes in another stellar Quantum production through this third Stoppard script for the company and one that any theater fan should see.

It’s notable that this Stoppard play has a strong woman at its core. Hilary operates in a workplace that may feel familiar as gender dynamics and competition plays out. Hilary Matthews, a bright young psychologist, is at the heart of the action. Her curiosity about her work and life choices arouse empathy for don’t we all ask the same kind of questions? She is lured to work at the leading Krohl Institute for Brain Science not only livelihood but the “the hard problem”: how do we justify consciousness if humans are truly composed of matter and chemical reactions. If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness?

Alex Spieth is superbly engaging as Hilary who is nursing a private sorrow and a troubling question at work, where psychology and biology meet. She’s natural and open. We are never fearful for her–more apt to cheer her on. She prays and researches, ultimately asking if science and faith coexist? How does altruism coexist with egoism? What is stronger and which motivates an individual? Stoppard explores it all, so fasten your seatbelt for a ride through all those things that fill our brains with wonder, questions, and–dare we say it–emotion. You’ll take the questions from his adroit dialogue with you, just as Hillary does.

Hilary’s pursuit of the answers puts her at odds with her supervisors and mentor as she explores options in both research and relationships. Steven’s describes it as “the journey to find where our hearts live beyond our brain”, as she says she identifies with Hilary’s “twinkling optimism about the way the world functions.” This becomes the very source of Hilary’s challenges at work, as it inherently may be for many women.

Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s smart scenic design envelopes the audience. A cluttered, winding path loaded with the stuff of life, work, and attics lead to a three-quarters playing space. Our amassed consciousness is physicalized off stage while the stage area is a clean, crisp clinical setting enhanced by clever projected silhouette and formulas. Making one’s way to and from the theater playing area and banked seats, it’s impossible to avoid discarded objects like an antique adding machine, old lamps, and stacks of boxes filled with only God knows what.

On stage, lighting by Andrew Ostrowski and intriguing projections bring the mostly white and metal set elements to life. Pulsing shadows of the characters suggest the heartbeats and synergies of life. Projected code runs across on the floor at moments, adding to the movement and color that make the effects themselves something to ponder.

Stevens places every character on stage and within the audience from lights ups through final curtain, balancing the clinical setting with this reassuring touch. As actors watch from the edge of the action, their detached observation provides both a stronger connection both among the ensemble members and the audiences. Stevens guides each character’s journey through Stoppard’s rich dialogue, their motivations resonating within this exciting new venue and into a greater societal context.

Spike is Hilary’s tutor and lover. They mess around and talk a lot about Hilary’s work and the workplace politics. While Spike catches her praying at bedtime, their disagreement about the existence of God sheds some light on Hilary’s faith. She admits she’s praying for a miracle.

As Spike, Andrew William Smith displays an appealing versatility in his second Quantum appearance. He’s sweetly supportive as a charming lover who throws on Hilary’s robe, but progresses to tipsy cad at work celebrations. He’s passionate about Hilary on several levels but grows jealous of her success.

Ken Bolden is Leo, burdened with hiring, supervision, along with his research. He brings Hilary and tries to look out for her even though some research missteps. Bolden delivers another substantive and thoughtful Quantum performance, revealing that Leo has a bigger heart than his first scene might suggest.

Vinny Anand’s Amal is a super smart and well-off yuppie careerist who breaks into the institute in spite of Leo’s thoughtless job interview in the men’s room. He’s fairly ruthless and pays dearly when Jerry calls him on unethical behavior.

Co-workers Julia and Ursula are a couple, providing a rare glimpse of domestic stability and loyalty. Daina Michelle Griffith returns to Quantum as Ursula with a strong and nuanced performance. As onsite Pilates instructor Julia, Fredi Bernstein, injects physical energy to balances all that thinking especially when Hilary join her for a workout and shares a secret.

As the talented young researcher Bo, Claire Hsu draws a strong portrait of an ambitious team member who has a lot to learn.

Randy Kovitz as the institute’s head Jerry operates fiercely in support of his business and personal success while he has a softer scene with his young daughter Cathy, portrayed by Grace Vensel, a 7th-grade student at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. She’s already a pro. Her focused and thoughtful performance is lovely as she observes, questions, and mirrors Hilary’s curious smarts.

At the play’s end, a resilient and hopeful Hilary exits through that lighted pathway of clutter. Then the audience follows. And we think her miracle may indeed happen.

Read more about director Rachel M. Stevens in our pre-production interview. You might want to visit the Energy Innovation Center online or just be surprised when you arrive at 1435 Bedford Avenue, Pittsburgh (15219) where this is ample free parking in the Center’s lot.

The Hard Problem runs through November 19, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm. For details on plays, venues, special events, and tickets, visit Quantum Theatre at quantumtheatre.com

Mythburgh: Round 2 with 12 Peers

21752367_1973464016000784_6131844286900303418_nI reviewed the first installment of 12 Peers Theater’s Mythburgh series last month. The second in this three-part series of Pittsburgh-focused stories was also staged at the Brillobox. Last time, the bar turned theatre venue for a night meant it was mostly standing room only. This time was no different, except I leveraged my lessons learned and wore flats instead of the 4-inch heels I chose last time. A simple, low stage was slung across the front of the bar space under towering windows rimmed by dizzying red wallpaper.

Part of Mythburgh’s intrigue is all of the plays are Pittsburgh-specific in some way, but Amy Hartman’s Lettuce & Loss seems to elude that criterion, which ends up being the least of its flaws. The play is like a mixed drink itself: one part reader’s theatre (everyone was reading from scripts clasped in 3-ring binders), two parts theatre of the absurd (the basic plot is a man forced to choose repeatedly between parting with his wife or a chair), plus a splash of classical Greek (the play also featured a needless Greek chorus). The missing ingredient is Pittsburgh, which is supposed to be the flavor that unites these shows. Just as a Long Island Iced Tea loses its appeal post-college when you realize the diminishing returns of mixing five kinds of alcohol, so too does Lettuce & Loss suffer from the ad hoc blend of many genres, leaving you a bit hung over.

Lettuce & Loss ends up being the kind of play you might imagine if you think about theatre with a capital T taking itself too seriously as director Michael Goldberg has all of the actors dress in black and default to over enunciation, as if you’re watching a caricature of a play – or certainly one that lacked adequate rehearsal time. The wife, Meg (Carrie Martz) clutches a taxidermied chicken at the start of the show, and Martz’s role mostly calls for hysterics, which she executes efficiently. The husband’s (Vince Ventura) repeated proclamations of love for the chair he built and admires for its “supple curves, intuitive curves” come across as forced and contrived. This effectively cuts off access to any deeper commentary on materialism or the desire to shape and control one’s love objects, which could have been as interesting to peel back as the chair’s lovingly crafted birch wood. The play does start on a high note as the bartender (Brittany Tague) welcomes the first black-ensembled actress (Mary Quinlan) by offering her a drink. Tague eyerolls when the woman launches into woeful dramatics over an unspecified loss. You sympathize with the bartender playing not just drink jockey but the unwilling role of psychologist.

Starting with the title, Don’t Look Now: The Tale of the Pittsburgh Shuffler, the second play compensates for the lack of Pittsburgh essence in the first. In this casual romp, two Point Park University students Taylor (Caitlin Dobronz) and Jessica (Hope Anthony) hit the bar for a night on the town. They come in with focus, immediately ordering and downing two cherry bombs, shots as red as the Brillobox’s vibrant interior. Playwright Matt Henderson brilliantly captures both the timeless quality of them – they are there playing the age-old procrastination game of delaying the inevitable writing of an anthropology paper due the next day, and their time-specific presence as they banter about Tinder and Taylor Swift, both clad in skinny jeans and high-heeled boots. Dobronz is a delight to watch as she encapsulates a modern-day mean girl, clearly the leader of the duo. Dobronz also directs the show and has both girls bouncing between their phones and scanning the room for action, centering a cultivated and feigned indifference. Anthony gives Jessica her moments of strength, but they quickly fade under Dobronz’s withering looks and ringleader authority.

For anyone who attended the first installment of Mythburgh, there are a few hidden Easter eggs to delight the careful observer. Henderson played fortuneteller Swami Matt in one of the plays, and Taylor refers to Matt when she talks about seeing a psychic. This leads into a discussion of the “green being of Pittsburgh” who physically manifests as Ray (Jim Froehlich), although both girls misread him as dressed in Halloween costume as green juices ooze through white gauze mummifying his head. Dobronz has the girls fittingly nod to Halloween in the most noncommittal and stereotypical of female ways; Taylor dons bunny ears, and Jessica wears cat ears. Henderson weaves in the supernatural as a through element as Ray can communicate with both the girls and Pinky (Natalia Rose), a ghost who travels with Taylor and clearly distains her.

During the event, I ended up standing at a table and chatting with a friend of the actress who played the bartender. There we were, a couple of strangers who struck up a conversation; she was from Erie and had acted in some plays there. I recently moved back to the Burgh after many years in California, and a similar situation there would generally mean both parties would tacitly agree not to converse, or even make eye contact. People tend to stay in the safe space of being heads-down with their phone. I was reminded such moments are Pittsburgh stories in themselves – casual, genuine conversation evolving between two people who walked into a bar as strangers and came out enriched in some small way after connecting with someone else. The warmth of Pittsburghers is no myth, and it’s no small part of the city’s charm. Mythburgh ultimately reminds us our stories as individuals are inevitably about place, and they’re more interwoven with our city than we realize.

There will be one more installment of 12 Peers’ Mythburgh presented at the Brillobox on November 19th. Tickets to Mythburgh are always Name Your Own Price, but you can find out more here.

Clue: The Musical

ClueClue: The Musical, like the board game which is its source material, is full of little surprises. Just as the show seems to settle on being one thing – the goofy send up of murder mysteries it initially presents itself as quickly gives way to a completely new take on the genre as the show introduces itself as something completely new in the second act. The entire comedic basis for the production revolves around a board game I’ve never played and makes use of a script by Peter DePietro that is, on its face, unbalanced, yet Little Lake Theatre’s newest crowd-pleaser has more in it than its seven obvious British caricatures would suggest.

Like the Hasbro game, Clue: The Musical is an interactive murder mystery. Mr. Boddy (Eric Thomas), a man who is not so much evil as just generally a little gross to everyone he knows, acts as the story’s narrator. He introduces us to our cast of archetypes: there is Professor Plum (John M. Hermann), a pedantic academic who lost his family fortune to one of Boddy’s bad business deals. Mrs. Peacock (Kathy Hawk), Boddy’s current wife, has made her fortune from the unfortunate deaths of her ex-husbands. The psychotic Colonel Mustard, meanwhile, is engaging in an affair with Peacock, and filled jealousy.

(Back row- left to right) Jeff Johnston as Mr. Green, Samantha DeConciliis- Davin as Miss Scarlet, Dewayne Curry as Colonel Mustard, and John Herrmann as Professor Plum (Front row- left to right) Kathy Hawk as Mrs. Peacock, Eric Thomas as Mr. Boddy, and Leah Hillgrove as Mrs. White
(Back row- left to right) Jeff Johnston as Mr. Green, Samantha DeConciliis- Davin as Miss Scarlet, Dewayne Curry as Colonel Mustard, and John Herrmann as Professor Plum (Front row- left to right) Kathy Hawk as Mrs. Peacock, Eric Thomas as Mr. Boddy, and Leah Hillgrove as Mrs. White

There are more, of course, and they each have sufficient motive. It all sounds rather grisly written out, but just as the audience has come to enjoy solving a murder puzzle, the characters have come to enjoy building one. It’s not only because the play features a random assortment of outcomes, or that Boddy dishes out clues inbetween scenes that have everyone scrawling out notes on little white checklists. The characters rejoice in their bizarre existence, none more so than Boddy himself, who literally demands the audience forego their sympathy. He’s the destined murder victim, after all, and he loves it. Like the cow who was born to be eaten in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide series, the humanitarians are the real villains.

Speaking of, Clue’s utilization of Mr. Boddy as a willing victim of murder is without question the creepiest sequence in any play I’ve seen this year. I understand that the production wants us to consider him as we would a board game piece, but watching a man giggle as he is torn asunder by six murderers is infinitely more off-putting than simply obscuring the violence.

John Herrmann as Professor Plum and Laura Barletta as the Detective
John Herrmann as Professor Plum and Laura Barletta as the Detective

This commitment to board game design extends beyond a few fourth wall breaking gags. Clue doesn’t indulge in its musicality so much as succumb to it occasionally as punctuation. There is no great reason for Clue to be a musical other than that it opens up the opportunity for gags and breaks tension. The music, originally written by Galem Blum, Wayne Barker and Vinnie Martucci with lyrics by Tom Chiodo is well enough and Little Lake’s cast (accompanied by pianist Laura Daniels and percussionist Josh Anischenko) is bursting at the seams with energy when a song begins. Whether you like or dislike musicals, however, will almost certainly be incidental to how you feel about Clue.

The reason Little Lake’s friendly and colorful production won me over so easily is because of its earnest adherence to gaming’s primary quality: play. It is a show that has internalized Clue’s classist stereotypes and dark comedy, compartmentalized the game’s core mechanics of building and releasing tension through (for the most part) punching up, and has come out the other end insisting Clue should be fun for any audience anywhere with its fangs intact. At the risk of getting overly academic, Clue is literally a show that gives physical form to society’s dissonance and allows you to revel in its collapse. The ability to stand outside of discourse and laugh at it helps us reenter it more receptively. Little Lake has thrown in some light political jabs to their production – bipartisan jabs, I’ll hasten to add – and I was surprised at how united the audience was in its laughter.

Dewayne Curry as Colonel Mustard with Kathy Hawk as Mrs. Peacock
Dewayne Curry as Colonel Mustard with Kathy Hawk as Mrs. Peacock

There is also the unassailable chemistry of the cast, as directed by Art DeConciliis. On the ‘chew the scenery’ scale, the entire cast is at a 10, and they all go about their mastication in an entirely different way. Leah Hillgrove plays Boddy’s put-upon personal servant Mrs. White, and manages the incredible feat of embodying working class caricature without the slightest hint of condescension; she is also unbelievably funny. Miss Scarlet (Samantha DeConciliis-Davin) and Mr. Green (Jeff Johnston), meanwhile, wouldn’t feel out of place in a spoof of mob films from the 1980’s. Kathy Hawk spins the audience around her fingertips when she is center stage. John M. Herrmann’s Mr. Peacock, who begins the play as a somewhat tertiary figure, reveals himself to be boiling over with mania by the play’s finish. Dewayne Curry’s Strangelove-ian Colonel Mustard is straight up kind of terrifying. There is even an avatar for the Clue player in Laura Barletta’s hardboiled detective, who rather cleverly succumbs to anxiety when it’s her turn to push the story forward.

As a game, Little Lake’s Clue: The Musical is, if we’re being honest, a series of random chances that lead to one of six monologues at the end. Thankfully, the play’s distillation of play is so much fun that it doesn’t matter in the end.

Clue: The Musical runs at Little Lake Theatre through October 28. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photos by James Orr.

Belfast Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle Pastin – Homegrown “Countess” to Grace Pittsburgh Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro”

Marriage-of-Figaro-2For the second production of its current season, Pittsburgh Opera is offering an excellent cast in Mozart’s perennial favorite, The Marriage of Figaro. That this 18th century comic story of romance and mistaken identity continues to delight audiences over 200 years after its first performance might surprise Mozart himself, but his fascinating music will probably keep it on the stage for many years to come. As mentioned in a previous Figaro review, even Albert Einstein was awed by Mozart’s compositions. “Beethoven created his music,” he once wrote, “but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it – that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed.”

Judging from photographs, The Marriage of Figaro will be as impressively mounted as the opening production of Tosca. Directed by David Paul and conducted by Antony Walker, the performances will take on added interest in the fact that four of the leading roles will be taken by singers entirely new to Pittsburgh Opera. From the Metropolitan Opera comes the American bass-baritone Tyler Simpson in the role of Figaro. His impressive resume includes international opera and concert appearances. Baritone Christian Bowers, another American with successes at home and abroad, will appear as the Count Almaviva. Soprano Joélle Harvey, who has made a specialty of Mozart and Händel roles, will introduce to Pittsburgh audiences her interpretation of Susanna, one of her “signature” parts. She, too, is an American, as is Brian Kontes, who will appear as Dr. Bartolo. He possesses a “dark bass and strong dramatic energy,” according to Opera News, and while he will be making his Pittsburgh Opera debut, his professional debut took place here in 1998, when he appeared as Elder McLean in Carlyle Floydʼs Susannah at the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.

Resident Artists, past and present, are included in the cast as well. Corrie Stallings, the recent prize-winner in the prestigious “Mildred Miller International Voice Competition,” will appear in the charming “pants role” of Cherubino – a part sung by Mildred Miller herself at the Metropolitan Opera well over fifty times. Leah de Gruyl will be heard as Marcellina; Eric Ferring will do double duty as Don Basilio and Curzio; Andy Berry will sing Antonio, and Ashley Fabian, Barbarina.

Count (Christian Bowers) and Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin)
Count (Christian Bowers) and Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin)

Last but by no means least, as the saying goes, Pittsburgh’s own Danielle Pastin will appear as the Countess Almaviva. This exceptionally gifted soprano is no stranger to local opera audiences, and those familiar with her work won’t be surprised to read that Opera News considers hers to be “one of the most sheerly beautiful voices on the scene today,” possessing a “lovely demeanor and irresistibly creamy timbre.” I admit to being a great admirer of the singer, and was thrilled when she agreed to take the time to answer a few questions about the upcoming production of The Marriage of Figaro.

“The cast is superb,” she said, “so it will truly be a wonderfully sung and acted production. We’re having a really great time putting this opera together, and I think that will only continue, once we hit the stage and start getting feedback from the audience.” Her role is one that truly hits the ground running, since the second act curtain rises on her first appearance and she is required to launch into one of the opera’s best known arias. Not being a singer, I have always wanted to ask someone who is how one prepares for what seems to this layman an extremely daunting task.

Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Count (Christian Bowers) and Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin)
Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Count (Christian Bowers) and Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin)

“It all comes down to the warm up time,” was Ms. Pastin’s response. “It takes me twice as long to warm up for a role like this, because, as you say, the first appearance I make is singing my first aria. It has to be a well thought out warm up, too, because I have to make sure I don’t over warm, which would make it harder to access the lower middle part of my range, which is where the Countess’s music mostly lies. Typically I do my usual warm up and then sing through the aria at least once in my dressing room before heading to the stage.”

Ms. Pastin’s career has taken her to cities and venues stretching across this country and the Atlantic. Yet she is a Pittsburgh resident. The inevitable question – “Why?” – received a response that, quite frankly, came as no surprise.

“Pittsburgh always feels like home,” she began, then enthusiastically continued: “I graduated from the Pittsburgh Opera Young Artist Program in 2010 and decided to stay in Pittsburgh for a couple of reasons. I have a lot of family in the area, including my parents.

“And it’s such a great city to live in! I love the vibe that the city projects and the restaurants that are popping up keep getting better and better. I love that Pittsburgh supports so many arts organizations and that they continue to thrive, while at the same time it supports our sports teams. I also love that no matter where I travel in the world, I can always find a STEELERS bar! That says something about how great Pittsburgh is.”

The words of a true Pittsburgh “Countess” and Steelers fan.

For tickets, performance dates and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera. I have a hunch that “The Marriage of Figaro” will be one of the highlights of the company’s present season.

David Bachman Photography

Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers

21558947_1589498057738984_6722449227359433515_n“Everyone deserves one song.” Author Molly Rice has provided just that in her work Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers. Performed as a cabaret-style concert, it features the impressive vocal and instrumental talents of Milia Ayache accompanied by Zorahna on guitar and bass and Murder for Girls Michele Dunlap on drums.

Rice’s songs attempt to explain the rationale behind the eight-featured killer’s behaviors.  At the same time they ask the audience, “How is this possible for a human being to do such evil things to others?” .  What is the motivation?  Is it personal abuse or social inequity that simmered and festered resulting in violence or is it just some strange personality quirk?  As we reflect on our world today, these questions are even more relevant given today’s capabilities to inflect serial death in “rapid-fire” succession.

Aftershock Theatre is a new to the current cultural scene performance space. The Venue is located in a historic Slavic social hall in upper Lawrenceville.  The property is undergoing major renovation, and it is a good match for this concert play by Real/Time Interventions. Director Rusty Thelin uses the raw space on the main floor as his performance space. Walls are draped in plastic, chairs with white slipcovers and the band in white nurses’ dresses. It’s an appropriate gritty space that is enhanced by the fresh smell of old plaster dust and the hum of a portable propane heater. There is the feeling of a being in a haunted house as you enter the performance space, perhaps the ghosts of the killer’s victims are in the audience as well seeking the explanation for their fate?

Since the social hall is under renovation and possesses the barest of essential accommodations, it creates essentially a pop-up performance space. In spite of the lack of any formal theatrical infrastructure at this point, the tech team has created an intimate venue with an accompanying intimate cabaret sound.

In a typical cabaret performance, there is usually some banter between the performer and the audience. In Rice and Thelin’s collaboration, there is no verbal banter, just pantomime involving objects selected to reflect the killer’s persona, and their photo pulled from a bulletin board. The audience is left to read their backstories in the program. (Hint- do so before the performance begins.) I would have liked the performer to have introduced each song, making a more direct connection to the evil events that the songs attempt to explain. There is a precedent for this within the show as Ayache does introduce the last number as intended for those who have yet to kill.

The band, lead by Ayache as the lead vocalist, is really quite good. Once the break of character leading to the curtain call, it would be fun to listen to them jam for a post-curtain encore, complementing the inclusive nature of the Aftershock Theatre’s mission.

Theatre is a constantly evolving art form, Pittsburgh is fortunate to have companies like Real/Time Interventions and spaces like Aftershock Theatre to push that evolution ahead.

For more, read our Nichole Faina’s insightful preview click here. 

Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers by Real / Time Interventions at Aftershock Theatre, 115 57th St. in Lawrenceville, now through November 11th with performances Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. On-street parking is available but needs to be looked for, so allow time for this. Price: $20 for a ticket (includes one adult beverage with each ticket).  Tickets at www.realtimeinterventions.org