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.

12 Peers Presents Pittsburgh Plays in First Installment of Mythburgh

21752367_1973464016000784_6131844286900303418_nWhile I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, I moved away as a teenager and only moved back to Pittsburgh-proper this year after a long interregnum. My relationship with the city kind of feels like that aunt you see every other Thanksgiving – somewhat familiar and you know you’re related, but it’s a little awkward as you’re lacking on shared experiences and knowing each other’s nuances.

Given this, I was wondering just how much of an outsider I’d feel like at 12 Peers Theater’s inaugural production of their new Mythburgh series that focuses on Pittsburgh-specific stories. My concerns eased as soon as I walked into the Brillobox. This is the first play I’ve seen in a bar, and there was something immediately relaxing about the setting. People were warmly mingling, and there was the usual din of bar chatter, nothing to indicate this was about to become a theatrical space beyond the regular performance antics of people with alcohol. There was no territoriality in staking out your assigned bingo-like seat number or squeezing past knees to claim a vacant spot as the space was mostly stand-rooming only, another theatrical first for me.

It was easy to gloss over the simple, makeshift stage with two chairs and a small table nestled in front of three towering windows separated by panels of Dr. Seuss-inspired red polka dot wallpaper. In a delightful surprise turn, director Nick Mitchell chose to stage the first play, Brian Edward’s Close Encounters of the Yinzer Kind or Super Bowl Forty, not on the stage but at a ledge-like table jutting out from a side wall, an appropriate choice given the play’s focus is two Southside locals sharing a story in a bar.

In another thoughtful directorial decision, Mitchell has the play start in media res. There was no formal announcement or sign the play was commencing, so most people missed the actual opening as twin brothers Donny (Joe York) and Melvin (Hank Fodor) lumber into the bar and order beer. They shout to be heard, and the gathered crowd gradually quieted in the collective realization this must be the play starting. York and Fodor are well-cast. They believably convey the casual ease between brothers that allows you to call each other jagoffs while still finishing each other’s sentences. They dominate the space both physically, bushy beards and shirts straining over their XXL heft, and verbally, locals who flick off the play’s attendee occupying their table with a casual “Get the fuck outta here.” Edward as a Pittsburgh native clearly has an ear for regional tones that he captures in the brothers’ speech, and also liberally peppers his work with local references from Primanti Brothers and PennDOT to Giant Eagle and CoGo’s.

Edward’s narrative comfortably vacillates between the broader story of the twin brothers, their shared 26-year tenure with PennDOT on the 4 am deer removal shift, and the specific story they share, which takes place at their house during Super Bowl XL. Edward wisely realizes he doesn’t even need to mention for this audience that the Steelers creamed the Seahawks, but for Donny and Melvin, the game is memorably interrupted by the arrival of an extraterrestrial visitor.

The supernatural carries over to the second play, Molly Rice’s Swami Matt and the Ghost Kiss. In the break between Close Encounters and Swami Matt, fortuneteller’s assistant Stella (played by Moira Quigley) circulated the room, chatting up attendees as she cracked her gum. While Rice draws Stella’s character a bit one-dimensionally, director Rusty Thelin helps Quigley hits that note well. Quigley elicits easy laughter as she memorably squeezes the accordion at key moments. Her croptop with the lipstick kiss print is hard to forget, a literal visual imprint of the love she’s seeking and a foreshadowing of the play’s ending where she hits on, then leaves with, the bartender.

The play ends up being a hybrid of improvisation and the scripted, and it’s abundantly more successful in its scripted portion. In the first two sequences, fortuneteller Swami Matt (played by Matt Henderson) visibly struggles with improvisation. The woman next to me was the first called on-stage when the fortuneteller conjures a reference to the “fighting Quakers” (the woman’s school mascot) from a slip of paper Stella hands him. Swami Matt closes each session with a rushed utterance of “Okay thanks,” and there’s palpable relief in those words.

In the third and final sequence, which is clearly all scripted, Henderson is better able to find his stride once he can focus on form over content creation. It’s a Groundhog Day narrative where Swami Matt gets the same name and is forced to retell the same story each night. As the story progresses, the emotion valence deepens. Although Henderson struggles to make it fully believable, you realize it’s not a mythical tale. This is a veiled story about Matt himself.

This past May, I ran my first marathon, and I was surprised to find the Pittsburgh marathon was as much about Pittsburgh as the running. There was something unexpectedly powerful and pride-inducing in running past Pittsburgh landmarks and across the city’s bridges, a heightened awareness that you’re part of something bigger. Similarly, Mythburgh connects you to our city, engendering pride and reminding us as we look around and laugh together that we’re more similar than different, a comforting reminder in a world that can feel divisive as you scroll your newsfeed. We not only get it – pierogies, chipped ham and Steeler nation – it’s part of us.

There will be 2 more installments of 12 Peer’s Mythburgh presented at Brillobox October 22 and November 19. Tickets to Mythburgh are always Name Your Own Price but you can find out more here. 

The New In The Mythical: 12 Peers Theater’s Latest Season To Seek Unity In Discord

Artistic director Vince Ventura and Literary Manager Matt Henderson of 12 Peers Theater do not want you to feel as if you’re on familiar ground once you leave their upcoming shows. While we were speaking about the theater’s newest productions, Ventura asked if I was familiar with any of the plays being put on; I was not.

“Good,” he laughed, “we don’t want to do anything you’ve seen in Pittsburgh.”

However familiar (or not) the works onstage are, the circumstances and themes at the heart of 12 Peers’ upcoming season are deeply culturally relevant. Their independently produced podcast, Modern Myths, produced a full audio play in July titled “The Curse of Atreus,” a Jim Knable-penned play that remixes the titular Greek myth with a conflict between a white police officer, a black mechanic and her son, whom the police officer suspects is a car thief, feels as if its pulled from the headlines.

“When I select plays for the podcast series, I’m always looking at two things: I want the play to have some sort of mythical aspect to it, and to also have contemporary relevance. When I read [The Curse of Atreus] I knew it had to be in the series,” said Henderson.

The podcast, which will continue to produce new material in 2017, also focuses on the works of women and people of color, a distribution of voices that is somewhat uncommon in the world of audio drama.

Fans of the show can look forward to “Ink Trap,” an original work by Pittsburgh-based playwright Clare Drobot sometime this year, and the release of “The Far Travelers” by Sharon Dilworth sometime in 2018.

Like the theater itself, the podcast is an eclectic mix of new voices and ideas interlaced with the familiar in the service of cultural commentary. But eclectic doesn’t do well to describe the 12 Peers lineup, or at least, not exactly. All four upcoming shows skirt a series of parallels: absurdism to combat grim societal issues, shows never before premiered in Pittsburgh that are familiar somehow, shows that find the personal in impersonality.

12 Peers’ unconventional season begins with Mythburgh, the most ambitious project of the bunch. A series of original, contemporary stories that pay homage to the mythos of the city, Mythburgh will play like a live sitcom; the stories will be influenced by audience participation, and will be replete with recurring characters and subplots.

Even more than that, many of the characters will be played by local actors, whose characters will have their own, real social media accounts, continuing the story between shows.

“I wanted to find a project that could really use artists from Pittsburgh in a specific way. I want use the actors’ personas in the actual show…[and] focus on the actual identities of the people involved,” said Henderson.

In terms of plot, the show will feature a deep focus on Pittsburgh’s individuality as a city and culture. “These stories are epic and extremely Pittsburgh. [They are] stories about local myths, inspiring local stories, stories about communities coming together.”

The show will feature a name your own price structure, and debuts at Brillo Box in the east end.

12 Peers’ second show, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), written by Will Eno and directed by Ventura, premiers June 1st at The University of Pittsburgh Studio Theatre. Contrasting Mythburg’s sense of togetherness, Thom Paine is a manic one man show that reflect on moments of struggle big and small, and how those struggles inform who we are as individuals.

“I think Tom Paine is about how we mythologize those moments in our lives…that moment when you stop being a child when you realize that the iron is hot. Those are defining moments, they happen to us over and over,” Ventura elaborated.

Partially a response to a sense of mass confusion and anxiety following the 2016 Presidential Election, for the plays sense of “…fear, and of being overwhelmed.” Henderson, who will be performing, plays the eponymous Thom Pain as he dives deep into his personal psyche, filled with sudden interjections of memory, to come to terms with the shift from childhood to adulthood.

Conversely to Thom Paine’s inner turmoil, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, is about how we mythologize the events around us. Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Ventura, Mr. Burns is a dramatically weird retelling of the Cape Feare episodes of the long-running series The Simpsons (you know – the one where sideshow Bob plays Robert DeNiro).

Mr. Burns is the most complicated show 12 Peers has ever produced. Featuring an eight person cast, Mr. Burns utilizes music, elaborate costume design, mask work, action sequences and nuclear fallout. While the show will indeed feature real-life Simpsons-people, but Ventura and Henderson assured me that the story and characters we see in the first act may not entirely resemble what we see in the third.

Theatergoers and Simpsons fans that are creative-bent can look forward to attending Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play on August 3rd to the 20th at the University of Pittsburgh Studio Theatre.

If Thom Paine and Mr. Burns are indirect responses to a divisive cultural landscape, 12 Peers’ season-closer, “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” a one man show written by Nassim Soleimanpour, is the theaters’ most direct political response.

“There’s something to be said, without over-politicizing the play…the questions it raises about manipulation, acquiescence and cultural hegemony rule by consent…these are huge themes within White Rabbit Red Rabbit.”

To discuss the play’s plot at length would be to miss the point – even the actors aren’t clued in on the script before they walk onstage. Henderson, who has performed the play in the past, explains:

“It’s the only show I’ve ever done where I felt like I was in the audience when I

was in the show. I kept wanting to turn the page and see what happens next, but it was weird because I was doing it. It’s trippy for the performer. Part of the fun for the audience is seeing them experience this all for the first time and having no clue.”

This atypical approach to storytelling not only imbues the show with a sense of discovery, but disarms the performer in such a way that they reveal something deeper about themselves in the process. Ventura told me about a time when an actor who had recently survived a car crash had brought a sense of renewed celebration of life to the script. “Every actor inevitably brings something personal to the script because you’re performing immediately.”

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit will be a benefit show for 12 Peers, and will be performed on March 27. Tickets will be 25$.

The play is a fitting season closer, as it encompasses the two themes that are the spirit of 12 Peers’ 2017 season.

“Community, and stories,” Ventura said. “What stories are we telling our community, and what are they telling us?”

This theater-as-community mentality carries through to the show’s ticket prices. Mainstage shows performed on Sunday nights, as well as a  special Monday night performance of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, are name-your-own-price.

For more information about 12 Peers, click here.