The Busy Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orphie and the Book of Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to the Red Masquers for the complimentary tickets.

Go Back for Murder

gbfmThe Summer Company presents Agatha Christie’s Go Back for Murder, an unusual take on the traditional murder mystery. What could be more exciting than family secrets, intrigue, suspense, romance and seduction?

The story begins as a young English woman from Canada, Carla Crale (Rebekah Hukill), returns to England, to try and discover the truth behind her father’s death. Her mother died in prison following her conviction for poisoning her husband, Carla’s father.  When Carla turned of age, she was given a letter her mother wrote to her, proclaiming her innocence, which sent Carla on her quest to find the truth.

Carla enlists the help of a young solicitor, Justin Fogg (Grant Jones), who was at her mother’s trial, in order to help her locate some of the people who were present when her father died. This, over the objections of her boorish fiancée Jeff Rodgers (Nathaniel Yost).

In the first act, which is set in 1962, Carla meets with those present on the day of her father’s death at Alderbury House on the south coast of England. Each is asked to ‘go back’ to the day of her father’s death in order to recount their version of the events.

In the second act, the action slips seamlessly from 1948, the year in which the murder actually occurred and 1962. Justin and Carla successfully manage a semi-reconstruction at the murder scene with all the witnesses. Together they uncover the various inconsistencies in testimonies and the drama arrives at the disturbing truth.

The story is interesting in its own right as we follow the plots twists and turns on the way to discovering the real truth about Carla’s father’s murder. What really makes the Summer Company’s production of Go Back for Murder is the casting. The eleven characters are portrayed by a great group local Pittsburgh area actors young and old.  The older seasoned actors make the difference, but none of the ensemble should be discounted in terms of their abilities.

It is Susan McGregor-Laine as Mrs. Williams, the former governess for Angela, Mrs. Crale’s half-sister, that really steals the show. It’s not just her lines that draw frequent laughter but her years of experience that create a fully realized portrayal of her character. The nuances, gestures, and movements are perfectly timed with her delivery.

Phillip and Meredith Blake, two gentlemen who have known Carla since she was a youngster are perfectly played by Jay Keenan and Mark Yochum. They capture the bond of two elderly brothers who seem share everything but know nothing about each other. It was quite the pleasure to watch these two “dance” around all the shenanigans that were happening at Alderbury back in 1948.

There is an interesting production twist which was executed quite well. Grant Jones plays both the younger attorney Justin Fogg and Carla’s Crale’s father Amayas. Rebekah Hukill plays both Carla and her mother Caroline. During the first act, it’s the contemporary Justin and Carla. In the second act, they bounce back and forth from ’48 to ’62 fairly seamlessly thanks to some costume magic.  I was less impressed with their performance in Act One than Two, both seeming to be more at ease in their 1948 characters.

Nora Lee plays the physically scarred Angela Warren, the younger half sibling of Caroline. She transitions from the worldly older Angela to the bratty schoolgirl with the shift of a pony tail and a change of gait.

The cast is rounded out by Ron Silver Waruszewski as the Lurch-like butler, Juliette Mariani as Amyas’ mistress Lady Melksham and Nathaniel Yost as Carla’s briefly seen fiancée Jeff Rogers.

Jill Jeffery has secured some very elegant costumes including some fabulous fur collared coats perfect for the plays time of year and cold drafty offices and houses.

Director John Lane Jr’s., one of the founders of the Summer Company, has an extensive resume directing ensemble dramas and uses all the tricks he’s learned to create an engaging and enjoyable evening of theatre. He also does double duty as set designer finding clever ways to fit all the locales and actors on the cozy Genesius stage. Though one criticism would be Dale Hess’ lighting design which seemed to often leave actors faces just outside of their light.

The Summer Company’s production of Go Back for Murder is an entertaining evening of theatre with a company of wonderful actors in a comfortable setting that should not be missed.

Go Back for Murder with performances August 19th – 27th at the Genesius Theater on the campus of Duquesne University, adjacent to the Mary Pappert School of Music

Tickets at the door or online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3041661

Thanks to the Summer Company for the complementary tickets.

Clue: The Musical

18813343_1366720196752718_7747244441950438655_nClue: The Musical is an interactive musical is based on the popular board game of the same name.

The plot revolves around solving the murder of Mr. Boddy at his mansion that is occupied by several possible suspects; Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet, Mrs. White, Colonel Mustard and Mr. Green.

At the start of the show, several audience members are called up to the stage to draw from three stacks of very large cards. Within each stack, a card represents one of six suspects, six locations and six murder weapons. During the selection process neither the cast, selectors from the audience or the audience members sees the cards chosen. They are placed in a sealed envelope which is prominently displayed on stage prior to the mystery beginning.

Clue9Mr. Boddy gives clues to the audience to help solve the mystery of “his murder” which they can note on a form provided, with pencil, in the program.

Once the deed finally takes place, a hard-nosed female detective shows up to unravel the mystery and mayhem. Even after the culprit confesses, a surprise twist awaits.

The Summer Company was established in 1993 as a creative outlet for people working in, studying or just generally enamored with theatre. This production of Clue puts their talents to good use.

Despite Clue being rather unfunny and fairly “punny”, the direction of Justin Sines brought a lot of laughs on opening night. This says a lot about the quality of the glistening performances of the cast as well since the Genesius Theatre’s air conditioning system was one character that didn’t show up for this performance.

Notable standout Nathaniel Yost is Mr. Boddy. Yost is a senior at Duquesne University who majors in the interesting combination of Theatre Arts and Theology. He has nearly a dozen shows to his credit, which is evident in the quality of his very watchable performance and comfortable stage presence.

Clue4Pittsburgh native and first time Summer Company actor Tonilyn Longo Jackson plays Mrs. Peacock. Her varied experience as an actor, director and musician bring life and a touch of zany to Mrs. Peacock’s character.

Unfortunately, Jill Jeffrey, as the overcoat wearing Detective, doesn’t set foot on stage during the first half of the show. Jeffery is another example of where a background of diverse theatrical experiences really shows. Her Detective is a funny rhyming, game quoting machine, sort of a hybrid between Peter Falk’s maddeningly inquisitive Colombo and Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau. When she is on stage Clue comes alive.

The rest of the cast has some strong voices and nice comedic skills.  Musical Director and Accompanist Brian Buckley mans the piano from up center and is never out of the action. He also has a vital cameo role in the show.

Clue6Costumes by Jill Jeffery fit the show perfectly, Mr. Boddy’s smoking jacket and Mr. Plum’s purple jacket are nice touches. Jeffery’s choices bring the one-dimensional game characters to life visually.

Though the lighting seemed a bit off on opening night, with lights and actors trying to find each other.

John E. Lane Jr.’s set design is a nicely rendered and well executed three-dimensional game board world in the cozy and modern Genesius Theatre.

For an evening of light entertainment that showcases the depth and experience of Pittsburgh’s local theatrical community, Summer Company’s Clue is well worth your time. The ensemble and crew had fun which translated to an enjoyable evening for the audience.

Clue: The Musical by the Summer Company. Directed by Justin Sines at the new Genesius Theater on the campus of Duquesne University. Performances run June 15th through the 25th

Tickets: $15 general admission, $10 seniors, $5 students available at the Box Office or online at http://www.thesummercompany.com/purchase-tickets

Note: The Genesius Theatre is located in the heart of campus adjacent to the main parking garage. Take the garage elevator to the 7th floor street level exit on the south side of the garage, the theatre is directly across Locust Street.

Special thanks to the Summer Company for the complementary tickets.

Photos courtesy of Dale Hess and Bruce Story-Camp

The Consorts

C1Somewhere in the second act of The Consorts, which is currently in production by The Summer Company at Duquesne University’s The Genesius Theater, I fell in love with the play. The exact moment was when Thomas Cranmer (played by John Yost) referenced Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon because both works revolve around alternative narratives. While Rashomon is based on multiple retellings by various characters of the same event, The Consorts spends its time drifting in and out of reality.

And though it may seem confusing that a character based on the 16th century leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury would reference a 20th century Japanese filmmaker, there is a line in Rashomon that very coincidentally also happens to be the theme of The Consorts: “Dead men tell no tales.” The dead man (or soon to be dead) in The Consorts is Thomas Cranmer and the play is the tale of his final night on Earth as he awaits execution for his heretical acts. The Consorts serves as the emotional catharsis of Cranmer, who very much knows that he will not be alive much longer and that his tale telling days are drastically numbered.

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John Yost as Thomas Cranmer

The Consorts breaks the fourth wall, references events that will not occur for many years, and has moments where it does not clearly distinguish if Thomas Cramer is awake or dreaming. There are a few other things that make The Consorts rather daunting as well. The play takes place in 16th century England and both the playwright, Tim Ruppert, and John Yost make mention of the play’s difficulty in the playbill.The genius of The Consorts is that none of this matters. The audience believes the play because everything that occurs is true to the heart of the main character. The engine of the play is our faith that we’ll eventually understand everything — at the very least we await whatever resolution Thomas Cranmer reaches about life before he is set on fire.

The Genesius Theater was introduced last year to Duquesne University. The theater is small seats up to 130 members and structured so that the seats wrap around three sides of the stage. It’s a very intimate venue for good performances, and maybe a little too close for comfort for not-so-good performances. On the night I attended, there were more than one or two empty seats in the house. I figured The Consorts would be hard to attract an audience because the lure of a play about 16th century England is not the type of stuff that tends to pull in a crowd. But the audience, the play’s setting, the playwright’s warning about the difficult of the work… there were so many things conspiring to work against The Consorts that I almost wanted to like the play just because I perceived it as an underdog.

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Nathaniel Yost (left) and John Yost (right)

The play opens with a solitary candle being lit to reveal a chamber with two men. A bit like the alarm clock in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day, the candle will be a useful device, unmistakably setting apart the various fragments of Cranmer’s world of perception. The two men are Thomas Cranmer and an errand boy, Nicholas Woodson (Nathaniel Yost). Following a line of long established characters that can be traced to at the very least a stock figure in late Renaissance theater, Woodson acts as the bumbling counterpart to Cranmer’s seriousness and at least once falls over with his pants down. Woodson provides Cranmer with parchment, a bottle of ink, and a quill pen: the material to write Cranmer’s final recantation. In the course of trying to write this recantation, Cranmer is visited by the ghosts of Katherine of Aragon (Jill Jeffrey) and Anne Boelyn (Colleen Garrison). Both women want desperately to win the attention of Cranmer.

Ruppert’s play is only the ground on which the film walks, however. The real gift of The Consorts is in the strength of the actors’ performances. Nathaniel Yost is the real life son of John Yost. I have seen many plays over the years, but I have not once seen a play where parent and child perform with one another. While this relationship is not something that one would be alert to by simply watching, learning this fact from the playbill shortly before the play began made the piece infinitely more interesting. While John Yost’s ability to convincingly shift between several intense emotions during the play is the bread and butter of the performance, Nathaniel Yost’s humor and brevity as Woodson provide the perfect soundboard against which his father can succeed so much in his portrayal of Cranmer.

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Jill Jeffrey and Colleen Garrison

There is a moment in the play where Anne Boelyn emerges from the darkened corners of Cranmer’s mind eating the meager remains of Cranmer’s last meal. Boelyn’s mouth is full and while a Queen of England, Boelyn lacks the grace to avoid talking while eating. It’s a very silly moment, English royalty making conversation with the cheeks of a chipmunk. Ruppert in the playbill refers to the tone of The Consorts as “fantastical tragedy with a dusting of comedy” and that’s exactly what audiences can expect. Colleen Garrison and Jill Jeffrey did well with the handling of their performances by neither stealing the light from John Yost nor failing to provide the impression of the tortured women that Henry VIII’s executed wives must have held. Not even when she shows a ribbon where her ghost’s head was reattached does Colleen Garrison make you snicker. And that’s very much a compliment with someone tasked with performing the role of a beheaded 16th century Queen.

There are a few times in The Consorts where the play uses lighting and sound effects. The technical staging at The Genesius Theatre is just as small but cozy as the venue’s seating. There are a few rain based effects during the play. (And I admit, I might be partial to effects trying to recreate lightning and rain to the extent that I would probably be okay if every play included these things.) There’s also a moment in the play where strobe lighting is used. Much like recreating dead, beheaded queens, strobe lighting is one of those things that if you can get through it without snickering, it’s been done correctly.

The Consorts runs through Sunday June 12 at the Genesius Theatre at Dusqesne University. For tickets and more information click here.

Special thanks to The Summer Company for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Justin Sines.