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.

Boundless

20933841_1520003164724181_4169740321440382889_oBefore the sensational sensuousness of Boundless even begins, a sort of breathless anticipation imbued the spacious yet cloistered theatre at New Hazlett Theatre. The dancers, pacing about with frantic delicateness, could be sensed in the wings and un the fibers and nerves of the skeleton of the stage. Nearly inexplicably, their ineffable yet unshakeable elation to enact the evocative and narratorial movement that unfolded throughout the dance performance was palpable in such a way that it prefaced the show with profound prescience. The kinetic energy that surged before the show even began was characteristic of the unique performances throughout the show.

Boundless, produced by Texture Ballet with the collaborative efforts and insights of visiting choreographer Robert Poe—The Big Muddy Dance luminary and COCA mainstay—was put forth as a collection of dance pieces meant to challenge the conceptions of bodily conventions and expectations. As a viewer who is constantly in awe and somewhat befuddled by the majestic physical power demonstrated by dancers—particularly ballet performers—any dance staging I watch or review appears to me as a challenge to conventions of physicality. Boundless, unlike other choreographed pieces I have seen as of late, began with very little introductory verbal or spatial explanation or deconstruction. Instead, the show commenced, with melancholically vibrant accompanying music swelling into the bones of the sparsely accented stage and the dancers engaging in complex yet not distracting beautiful “entanglements” with another. Entanglements is perhaps the best way to describe the movements and physical interactions that unfold on stage. While the dancers were astonishingly talented, conducting their bodies with unreal poise and outstanding muscle precision, they encountered one another on a stage with a certain degree of entangling.  The physical movements of the dancers, seamless and exquisite, perfectly syncopated with the musical accompaniment to evoke the entanglements that we most often find ourselves ensnared in—emotional memories; fleeting thoughts that seemingly come without provocation and redirect our entire day or train of focus; echoes of past feelings for lovers or haunting spasms of old physical touches. Boundless is extraordinary in executing choreography that achingly and eerily captures the entangles we find ourselves often unable put words to.

In addition, Associate Artistic Director Kelsey Bartman’s new ballet was presented to Max Richter’s “Infra” music. Both Bartman and Poe—friends from performances past—channeled the unique, physique-esque space of the New Hazlett Theatre and the sensuous elocution of the memories and emotions that often are trapped in our subconscious.

Boundless has unfortunately closed but you can find out more about Texture Contemporary Ballet on their website.

Six a Breast: The Absurd Life of Women

sabLuckily for us, Beth Corning’s moved to Pittsburgh in 2003 to serving as Artistic Director of Dance Alloy. In 2010, she launched (to critical acclaim) CORNINGWORKS as a vehicle for “seasoned” performers and artists over 40. Her Glue Factory Project was an outgrowth of that mission.

Her latest work, Six A Breast, is a brilliantly executed exploration of what she finds as “ridiculous” about being a woman. The performance is a series of very short scenes that chart expectations that shape a women’s experiences on her journey through life. Those expectations are driven by our societal & cultural norms and some are self-imposed. Upon reflection, many are ridiculous, some absurd. Corning says: “Six A Breast encapsulates the lunacy of all our lives, no matter the gender, but women . . . they got the “mother lode” backward and in heels.”

Corning uses a style familiar to those of us of a certain age, that of the quick “Laugh In” vignette, we grew up watching. Early MTV, Sesame Street and today’s” viral” videos share that short attention span style. In Six A Breast it is not so much choppy quick cuts but a flow or a progression through the chronologic milestones of a woman’s life. The scenes are illusions, not in your face representations, of sex, childbirth, manners, behaviors and the conundrums that women face.

The stories are told mostly in dance by three female characters, performed by Beth Corning, Sally Rousse, and Laurie Van Wieren. Each is unique in appearance, mood, and behavior, but all will remind you of someone in your life.

The last scene, with the three ladies all seated together on a bench, deliver Samuel Beckett’s one-hundred- twenty-seven word most perfect play, Come and Go, in near darkness.sab2
Corning and Costume Designer Lindsey Peck Scherloum clad the women in white, in the style of “the uniform of the day” appropriate to each vignette. This with the exception of the last scene, which is “in living color”.

The production design is a stark black stage with minimal props helping to create the illusion. Iain Court’s pure white lighting design bathes and sculpts the women with nuanced yet dramatic subtlety.

Corning and Recording Engineer Greg Reierson have created a developed a perfectly matched score so tightly integrated that it’s hard to imagine which idea came first; the story, the choreography or the music.

Let us not forget this is a Dance Theatre piece, and choreography is front and center in the journey. There are snippets and longer form styles and genres of dance, each again perfectly applied to that phase of life’s journey.

You will laugh, cry, gasp and applaud these women as the present the absurd life of women. At the end of the opening nights performance, following the bows, the audience didn’t want to leave, sitting quietly and reflecting on what they had just seen.

Mothers, take your daughters to see Six A Breast. Women, if your partner is one of those unfortunate creatures, a man, take him with you. Regardless of who you go with, and do go with someone, this show will spark interesting conversations on the way home.

Remaining performances are September 7th to 10th at the New Hazlett Theatre on Pittsburgh’s North Side as follows:

Thursday at 8 pm includes the 7:15 pm pre-performance Bare Arms series How to Say “No”: with Joy with Christiane Dolores

Friday at 8 pm with the 7:15 pm pre-performance Bare Arms series No, You Take Out the Garbage; the art of negotiation & delegation with Jen Saffron and post-performance informal cast talk-­‐back

Saturday at 8 pm includes the 7:15 pm pre-performance Bare Arms series On Beauty, the Good, Bad, Ugly guest Artist TBA

Sunday 2 pm with “pay-what-you-can admission” available only at the door, regular reserved tickets are available online.

For tickets visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3023829

Thanks to Corningworks for complimentary press tickets.

A Space to Subvert: The New Hazlett Theater’s Community Supported Art Fall Season

10402045_10153426093016115_825396057528686509_nTheater is essential for its immediate nature, and for its ability to exist suddenly and without warning by people left out of pop-cultural conversations. For a few of my friends, the theater is something different, a fun but limited part of their media diet; for the rest, the theater is that place where they do Hamlet over and over again, so why bother?

The New Hazlett Theater’s CSA (Community Supported Art) program, in many ways, is a rebuttal to that interpretation of the form. Their upcoming season, which begins on October 26th, contains the 5 most disparate shows I’ve seen performed at a single theater. All of them play with expectation, and all of them feature stories you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. It is, in other words, a very active space.

“The thing I most enjoy about this program is that it isn’t static. We don’t believe that it can be,” says Bill Rodgers, CSA’s Director of Programming. “The CSA can give artists a launch pad of sorts. It can provide an opportunity for seasoned individuals to experiment.”

In other words, this is a program in which fresh voices are given an opportunity and a budget to bring their work to life, and artists with known-work under their belts are able to take risks and push boundaries. It’s a breeding ground for new thoughts.

BetweenUsandGrace-620x443The program’s first show, Between Us and Grace (October 27th), explores a space familiar to most all creative hopefuls: the open mic. Starring show writer Clare Drobot alongside local singer-songwriter Nathan Zoob, the play follows Stella, a 17 year-old songwriter who is increasingly in contrast with her religious hometown upbringing. It’s a coming of age story in which music intersects with narrative, though Drobot is quick to point out that the play not a musical: “I promise, no jazz hands,” she asserts in one promotional video.

Drobot’s narrative of redefining faith, while personal, will depict a struggle most anyone can relate to. Between Us and Grace will be directed by Anya Martin and will be performed on October 26th.

Presence-620x443CSA’s second show, the concert/visual-theater mashup, Presence, is more indicative of the program’s playful relationship with convention. Performed and created by saxophonist John Petrucelli, Presence will utilize a jazz quintet, a string quartet, electronic music and a lighting director to create a musically and thematically complex space to exist within.

The music is being composed alongside the show’s visuals, and is a unique amalgam of both influence and musical philosophy. “[The show will] merge natural sounds, urban acoustic sounds and voices,” said Petrucelli.

The roots of the show are on some fundamental levels at odds, and Petrucelli was quick to point out in conversation that bridging the strict nature of classical composition versus the more organic form favored by jazz musicians is in itself a difficult task. However, this fundamental conflict has opened up Petrucelli’s creative palate to some new spaces.

When asked what a jazz newbie could get out of a performance like this versus a seasoned veteran, Petrucelli’s answer was clear: the chance to exist in a “totally immersive space.” Presence will be performed on December 7th.

ApartFromMe-620x443Apart From Me, CSA’s third show, is another heavily experimental piece striving to immerse and provoke its audience to reflect. Created and performed by H. Gene Thompson, Arvid Tomayko and Ru Emmons, the show will use physical performance, wearable sculptures and a dynamic soundscape to explore the rift between the individual versus society versus the self. The group’s outfits will activate various parts of the environment as they perform, which in turn will create sounds and additional visuals.

The show won’t be a straightforward dance piece that follows a clear narrative, but will instead use abstractions to explore the way in which our social spaces have themselves become fairly abstract. Cell phone use, for example, is probably our most popularly discussed social moray. We’ve all heard the phrase “you’re always on your damn phone” from an uncle or two, or a hundred, and even those of us who religiously spend the day staring at a screen generally have some scruples about social media obsession. But what’s to be done about it? Tomayko had an answer:

“We’re using iPhone sensor technology to connect people in a creative space with each other, rather than with their phones.” Apart From Me will be performed February 8th.

BuersKiss-620x443CSA’s fourth show, Büer’s Kiss, written and created by local cartoonist Carl Antonowicz, is a dynamic live production of medieval-set graphic novel storytelling. More than a live reading, the show is slated to feature multiple voice actors, live foley effects and projections of its panels. The show follows a woman named Felicia who contracts a fictional disease similar to leprosy and is forced to live with other sufferers in a secluded island away from a society that reviles her. It is the culmination of years of medieval research on Antonowicz’s part, who draws his fable in a strikingly dark pop-art style. Büer’s Kiss will be performed April 12th.

Escape-Velocity-620x443Escape Velocity, the final show of the season by Double Blind Productions, features a dynamic, almost ‘choose your own adventure’-style narrative in which tarot cards drawn by audience participants will actively shape the outcome of the plot. The show will follow a circus, and will deal with themes of fate vs. choice. It will be performed on May 31st.

Audiences craving the bold and unique in their storytelling are bound to find New Hazlett’s Community Supported Art season to challenge their perception of theater, and open their eyes to some new voices who will shape the stage for years to come.

For tickets and more information, check out the New Hazlett’s website here

Big Fish

big fishThere is a reason we tell each other stories that go beyond a recollection of the facts. We like to think we’re our own historians, and sometimes we are, but we don’t make myths as a matter of record. The stories we make into legends capture something about who we are that our receipts never could.

Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Big Fish is about a man whose realities and fantasies may as well be one in the same. We follow Edward Bloom (Billy Hartung), a traveling salesman who lives his life like it’s the lost epilogue to Homer’s The Odyssey. He comes home after a trip to tell his son Will (Mario Williams) the story of how he taught a man how to fish via dancing – specifically, by using the fabled Alabama Stomp. We flash back to that moment, with Edward patiently hearing out a fisherman afraid for his starving family, and a song begins. The music soars as Edward tap dances entire schools of fish into the sky, and his dumbfounded companion, in awe, begins to stomp along as the waters rage around them and fish hail down onto the earth.

Missy Moreno, Stanley Graham, Matthew Augustyniak, Kristiann Menotiades, Billy Hartung, Hope Anthony
Missy Moreno, Stanley Graham, Matthew Augustyniak, Kristiann Menotiades, Billy Hartung, Hope Anthony

“If you give a man a fish,” Edward tells his son, “he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man the Alabama Stomp, you feed his soul!”

The man, the fish, and the music fade, and there is a beat of silence. Will immediately asks, “what the hell does that mean?”

This is the push and pull of Big Fish: idealism vs. realism. Decades go by, and Will (now played by Matt Calvert) is a reporter engaged to be married to a fellow journalist, Josephine (Hope Anthony). Will meets with Edward before the wedding and practically begs him not to tell any stories or give any toasts. All it takes is this conversation to give us an enormous amount of context for their relationship. For Edward, the world seems to naturally orbit him, and it puts his head in the clouds; Will’s feet are planted firmly in the ground, and he’s still waiting for his father to come down to his level. The question is: are either of these men capable of meeting in the middle?

Front Porch’s production is as emphatic in its energy as its lead character. Big Fish is a series of explosive revelries and fantastic characters, and the potential for the show to become bittersweet is swept away by its sheer joy for life.

Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Mario Williams as Young Will Bloom
Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Mario Williams as Young Will Bloom

Just like the characters onstage,  we the audience are yanked into Edward’s orbit. Billy Hartung’s performance isn’t exuberant, but his ability to take in the magic of his world as a matter, of course, can be invigorating. There’s a moment in this where he is shot out of a cannon by a werewolf onto the college campus Sandra (Kristiann Menotiades), his future wife, is attending – there’s, uh, a lot going on there, but it makes sense in context, I promise – and when he lands he gets almost immediately to flirting with her. Why not?

The show is directed by Spencer Whale, who seems keen on imbuing the slice of life portions of the musical with as much character as its colorful fantasies. The cast is as effective musically as they are dramatically, and there are some memorable moments: Kristiann Monotiades leads a fun number during a dance audition that shifts suddenly into a slow-motion meet cute, and I was struck by her ability to be simultaneously intimate and energetic. Elizabeth Boyke’s Jenny Hill is, at first, a one-note object of affection for Edward, but she becomes much more return during the play’s final moments, and in just one scene is able to remind us of the difficult humanity of the narrative through her performance alone.

Big Fish is a musical with a purpose, and so it is the best kind of musical. Newcomers to the genre uniformly pose the same question after their first show: “but why did it have to be a musical?” Screenwriter John August and musician Andrew Lippa’s original work blends fantasy and musicality so easily with the juxtaposition between theater and dance, that it begs the opposite question: is there any reason why this shouldn’t be a musical?

Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades as Sandra Bloom
Billy Hartung as Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades as Sandra Bloom

The world itself also deserves praise. Gianni Downs’ set design is rustic, yet vibrant, and complements Big Fish‘s elevated Americana really well. Even with the show’s aesthetically patchwork quality, it never descends into ‘indie-film of the moment’ design. It’s got a sense of handcrafted wonder to it, but at the same time feels like it’s built on sturdier stuff, both literally and artistically.

There are a few flies in the soup, though, especially in the larger narrative of the show. We learn almost immediately in the first act that Will is about to have a child. Considering how Edward and Will are such obvious foils for one another as father and son, the narrative instinct to make Will’s child a vessel for whatever lesson Will is going to learn is jarring in how direct it is. For as much joy the show builds, that’s just too saccharine of a plot point to hit the mark, and it’s made doubly frustrating by the fact that it already has a pretty great framing device in Edward’s penchant for skipping stones.

That said, Big Fish‘s conclusion is well earned. Will demands a certain amount of party-pooping by nature of his character, but Matt Calvert allows us to believe in his ability to change and grow. By the time we’re in the middle of one more new story from Edward, we’re already so won over that we’re willing to follow him just about anywhere.

Front Porch’s latest pulses with the heartbeat of the form, and is an easy recommendation to most any kind of audience.

Big Fish runs at the New Hazlett Theater through August 27. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Martha D. Smith

Avenue Q

19453131_1691923564168439_4645815066624068545_oImagine if Sesame Street was for adults. This is the premise of Avenue Q, a place where puppets are friends, Monsters are good and life lessons are learned.

The show tells the story of Princeton, who is a young man just out of college. He is looking for an affordable apartment landing on Avenue Q, since he can’t afford a place on A through P.

Since many of the characters are portrayed, (in the spirit of Sesame Street), by puppets, the audience is required to look past the puppet and actor as separate entities and meld them into one character.

In this production, the puppets stylistically mimic their actor/puppeteers both in look and expressions. Usually, within a few minutes, the actor and puppet merge into one being in the eyes of the audience.

As originally written, Avenue Q is a coming-of-age parable that deals with the transition to adulthood in a racially and ethnically diverse starter neighborhood. The writers saw it as a semi-autobiographical story of their early lives. For the Alumni Theatre Company, Director Halle Danner has adapted the show “to bring meaning and relevance to the performance from the perspective of young Black Americans.”

Her vision incorporates major changes, the most obvious being the characters are now all black. Five short videos have been added that serve as transition between scenes and serve to tie the characters back to their growing up black experiences. Several songs have been cut and two younger characters have been added along with a few other tweaks.

Since Avenue Q won the Tony for Best Musical in 2004, the script has become a bit dated. Donner’s changes serve to modernize the story as well as to remind us that even though Avenue Q is cute and funny “the struggle is real.”

The core story remains intact; Princeton does find a place on Avenue Q to rent from the building’s superintendent Gary Coleman. In the building lives Kate Monster an aspiring teacher with a dream to build a special school for monsters and to find companionship in life. Princeton is a bit aimless as he tries to find his purpose in life. Roommates Nicky and Rod work through their friendship as Rod discovers he is gay, a fact everyone else already suspects. Christmas Eve searches for a job as a counselor that will put her two Masters Degrees to good use, while her new husband Brian just looks for a job. Lucy finds God and regains her virginity. Eventually it all works out “For Now”.

Shae Wafford as Princeton
Shae Wofford as Princeton

The experience these young actors have had at The Alumni Theatre Company, their academic training (many are CAPA students or recent graduates) and previous roles provide them with a remarkable comfort level on stage.

Point Park graduate Shae Wofford plays Princeton with a bright-eyed enthusiasm of a young man about to start a new job, in a new town, in a new apartment. Woodford is a funny guy whose portrayal is delightful to watch. He is also quite adept at manipulating the puppet character.

Katherine Logan creates a loveable Kate Monster. She and her puppet both have “million dollar” smiles, that’s very helpful as she works through her relationship with the erratic and sometimes unfathomable “guy”  behaviors of Princeton. Logan is the best at mastering the dual aspect of visible puppeteer and character. She also has one of the best singing voices of the cast.

Katherine Logan as Kate Monster
Katherine Logan as Kate Monster

James Perry does double duty as booth Trekkie Monster and Nicky, Rod’s roommate. Both characters are inherently compassionate. I thought Perry’s portrayal as Trekkie missed the opportunity to be over the top funny in the very cheeky The Internet is for Porn song. Perhaps his Trekkie costume was a bit limiting.

Rod is played with a perfect sense of uptight identity confusion by Amaru Williams.

Grace Ransome nails the role of Gary Coleman and she was a wonderful surprise, she is a soon to be high school freshman. She plays Gary with a wisdom unexpected for a person her age. Look for her to do more great things in the future. Her voice is quite mature and here expressions spot on for the character.

Gracie as Gary Coleman and James Perry as
Grace Ransome as Gary Coleman and James Perry as Nicky

Shakara Wright plays the character referred to in the original production as “Lucy the Slut” here shortened to just Lucy. She explores the use of her gifts to manipulate Princeton to her pleasure advantage, of which he is mostly clueless. Wright is a senior acting major at Point Park with a good sense of comedic timing which is evident in the multiple characters she portrays.

Rounding out the cast of acting veterans are Shakirah Stephens and Lyn Star as the couple Christmas Eve and Brian. Christmas Eve has Brian’s number and knows how to dial it.

The puppets are a key element of Avenue Q. Pittsburgh’s own Puppet Master Cheryl Capezzuti has done a nice job of capturing the actors’ faces in the puppets and served as puppeteer coach.

Shakara Wright as Lucy
Shakara Wright as Lucy

The orchestra under the direction of Camille Rolla is top notch. The Sound Design by Brendan Elder is just plain too loud, a pet peeve of mine in intimate venues like the New Hazlett Theater.

Staycee Pearls imaginative choreography is subtle and not overpowering and the cast performs it well.

Katelynn Fynaardt’s well executed set design captures the Avenue Q neighborhood vibe. A large billboard hangs over the apartment building and serves double duty as a place for the new video elements of this production.

Director Donner says “Avenue Q is about twenty-something’s finding purpose in life. That couldn’t be more relevant to us. Yet the show’s casual attitude of “just relax” and let life happen to you and it will all work out is very much a viewpoint created through the lens of white privilege.”

In the original conceptualization of Avenue Q, the racial, ethnic and gender mix of the characters serves to point out to the carefully taught racism that we all carry to different degrees. Donner’s change to all black characters inherently changes the show’s message regarding becoming aware of your own personal prejudices and possible racism.  Her Avenue Q morphs into a more of a sanitized look into the lives of young blacks as they transition to adulthood.

Projection Designer Adam Paul’s five well produced Sesame Street style videos were written by several cast members and Bridgett Perdue. They provide insight into what it is like to grow up black. While those video segments were fun, entertaining and enlightening, they definitely altered the shows pacing and energy flow which, I felt was a negative.

The Director and ATC founder Hallie Donner has done a terrific job honing the young cast’s performances. Her ability to rethink the show’s focus to provide the black perspective is admirable in its intent, but in doing so, it alters the balance of what has made Avenue Q work so beautifully.

The first time I saw Avenue Q it taught me a valuable lesson I carry with me every day. This production offered me insight.

The Alumni Theatre Company’ production of Avenue Q is located at the New Hazlett Theatre in the North Side with performances on July 29th at 8pm and the  30th at 7pm. For tickets visit https://www.artful.ly/store/events/11504  

Photos courtesy of the Alumni Theatre Company’s Facebook page.

Resounding Sound

5d4-5133-copy-2_origI didn’t know much about Texture Contemporary Ballet’s Resounding Sound before arriving at the New Hazlett Theater. I was a fill in for another writer that had fallen ill, so I only really knew the time and the place. I walked into the theater to take my seat and I was automatically intrigued. The stage was level with the ground the seats were cascaded like bleachers, knowing that was here to see a contemporary ballet performance I was thrilled, I would be able to see everything!

The show starts and the band (for lack of better words, it was simply a vocal artist accompanied by guitar) is highlighted above the stage and begins to sing, and the dancers come out and I’m instantaneously thrilled. When I was a performer myself, we had this joke that we always wanted to give our best performance especially in ensemble numbers, to truly let our personality shine through because a critic that came to review a show we had previously performed said that they were “blown away by the 3rd ensemble member from the right”. Fast forward 11 years later and I found my very own 3rd ensemble member from the right, a dance student from Point Park University named DaMond Garner. I can’t explain how or why he was so captivating, but he demanded my attention from the first second that he stepped onto the stage and I was happy to give it to him. Upon exit my girlfriend said the same thing to me, she was mesmerized. (Thank you for such a great show, DaMond)

The show itself was a unique experience for me. The band, Sacramento-based musicians, Justin Edward Keim and Vincent Randazzo, were singing songs that I was unfamiliar with but loved, very reminiscent of a John Mayer singing his own version of Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane. The dancers turned these songs into love stories that revolved around the theme “A Twist of Fate”. The performance was short, only lasting about 45 minutes with no breaks or intermissions, but they took us on such a beautiful journey in that little bit of time.

The choreography was elegant and beautiful. At times I thought the dancers were out of sync and then they came back together instantly, which honestly is genius when you consider that they were telling stories about love. Perfectly imperfect is what I would call the work that Artistic Director and Dancer Alan Obuzor prepared for Resounding Sound. If you are familiar with the work of Mia Michaels, I would highly recommend you attend anything that he has to offer to the stage in the future. Along with Assistant Artistic Director Kelsey Bartman, he delivered an extremely original and passionate performance.

Overall, I truly feel like they can separate the band from the dancing each can stand on their own as a great show.  This was an absolutely beautiful performance from Texture Contemporary Ballet, which is in their 7th season, and now that I’m aware of what they do and how well they do it I am looking forward to what they have to deliver to us next. They will return to the New Hazlett Theater September 29 – October 1 2017 for Boundless. Can’t wait to see you all there.

For more information on Texture Contemporary Ballet, check out their website here. 

The Christians

KINETIC CHRISTIANS LARGE SQUAREKinetic Theater’s production of  Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is a terrific drama, but it’s heavily philosophical and thus necessitates a commitment towards an open, curious mind.

At first, I was locked into my seat thinking that I had been tricked into a sermon.  There’s a giant, looming cross suspended over the platform.  A choir comes out to sing.  A bunch of clean-cut church-leader types infiltrate the audience, begin shaking hands…then David Whalen’s Pastor Paul begins talking.

There’s that infinite vagueness of religious verse:

Because you have rejected this message,
relied on oppression
and depended on deceit,
this sin will become for you
like a high wall, cracked and bulging,
that collapses suddenly, in an instant.

That’s Isaiah 30, 12:13.  It’s imperative to theme of this play.  At first, not so clear.  You’re stewing in the sermon, not realizing the moral is marinating.  A religious question is but the scent for a main course which centers around the flawed humanity of conviction.

Director Andrew Paul describes where the motivation of this play originates:

“Hnath [the writer]’s goal was to write a play that opened with a sermon that a non-Christian could listen to and think, “well, maybe this preacher’s got a point.” ….He just wanted to get a decent number of audience members past certain assumptions about Christianity and hear what the characters are trying to communicate.”

David Whalen (center) and company
David Whalen (center) and company

So, this play dives into a difficulty of religion: its questions.  Whalen’s Pastor very much holds the kind, familiar but invariably patriarchal and commanding figure of a charming, friendly pulpit-monger: the storyteller, the guide, the man with a crystal connection to the Almighty in his heart. The part is Oxfords and khakis, with an always-smile and a discomfiting familiarity to the microphone always being two inches from his wise and prattling mouth.  Whalen carries this main character through the flight of his struggle.  It’s a blossoming affirmation.  We get to see the benevolent arrogance of a man blossom, then begin to torture itself to death.  He carries the tone of a man bred to lead led to the natural test of a religion’s vanity: the taboo of its inevitable doubts.

Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that this play centers around this pastor deciding that “hell” is a misinterpretation of the Bible.  The fear of hell, as postulated in the play, is an invention.  The reality Pastor Paul concedes is that god’s blessing bestows security onto and into everyone.  What a gip for the true-blue practicing Christians, eh?

What we then see is the unwinding of this man’s foundation.  His congregation splits and it’s kinda like the movie High Noon, but at the altar.  The man who conceives of a radical, new and challenging truth is shunned until he’s facing his doom completely alone.

Joshua Elijah Reese, David Whalen, & choi
Joshua Elijah Reese, David Whalen, & choir

The emotional power of this cast is outrageous.  Let’s start with Joshua Elijah Reese’s Associate Pastor Joshua.  A tightly-wound, normally restrained character who with his first lines begins to crack into a too-impassioned zealot.  We see the edges break, and Reese’s ability to show the exaggeration of this animated, emotionally vigorous man become begrudgingly distrustful.  We see a birth of his fundamentalism on stage, and it’s scary.  His conviction becomes a barb in a collection of facial tics:  reaction to the incredulous.  It’s awkward and it’s hairy.  But it’s real.  The emotion comes from a place of truth.  That’s what you end up watching—how disturbed this actor can make this character.

Same goes Robert Haley’s Church Elder Jay.  A man so self-possessed and clean-cut for life he boxes up with confrontation.  A hard-shelled animal encasing a soft-hearted man who knows better than to rock the boat.  I loved seeing the subtlety in this actor’s reactions.  He bites into silence with a clean, soundless gulp.  His nervousness has animation and it fed this character so much grave understanding and easily inferred meanings.

A realness too exists in Gayle Pazerski’s congregant Jenny.  Jenny comes alive with each question she asks, popping a new aspect of her character’s fortitude out with a terribly defensive logic.  Her curiosity is masochistic, because it dissolves one truth for another and thus her foundation quakes.   She becomes more emotionally wracked but stronger with each painful discovery and Pazerski trembles the level that a rational damning would do to her conviction.  She betrays some kind of human trust for dogma, but in so doing loses chunk by chunk bits of her trust in humanity.  Watching Pazerski’s portrayal of a harrowed woman come out of her troubles only to find existential doubt waiting in the road is pathetic. But somehow, she fiercely overcomes (sorry, spoiler).

David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead
David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead

What’s scary about this play is how innocuous the setting seems.  A church appeals as a refuge, particularly to the Christians.  But it comes with a contract: one that demands a certain tableau of assignations; such as, you accept Jesus.  But what if…that’s an option?  The whole system of consequence crumbles.

What is the weight of sin without consequence?

Mindy Woodhead’s Elizabeth is the Pastor’s Wife.  This part kills.  Man, she covers so much emotional ground.  So much power swept into the affirmative, once again, conviction of this self-strong woman disabling a broken skeptic with her righteous will.

I focus on the actors because that’s what this play delivers.  Woodhead’s performance brings up a staggering swell of emotional and self-righteous appeal.  This is a play about doubt and conviction.  But sometimes that it includes the conviction of doubt.

Besides the content and besides the subject matter, this play delves into a greatly human inquiry as to what drives us and how unrelenting is that need for absolute trust.  And with a 2000-year-old text filled with seeming metaphors that may or may not be literal, the fight ends up being two dogmas fighting it out in a ring.

The emotional fall-out should be illegal.  It’s the kind of grudge-making that begins wars.

Watch that match burn.  Watch serious people begin to fall apart and begin to become their true destined selves.

The Christians by Kinetic Theatre plays at the New Hazlett Theater through July 2nd. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Special thanks to Kinetic Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Rocky Raco.  

Love, Ethics, and Religion: Kinetic Theatre’s Season Lineup

11066705_363701277174275_7381434187525949191_nKinetic Theatre announces 2017 season – three exciting Pittsburgh premieres: Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, David Ives’ hilarious adaptation of Corneille’s The Liar, and Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love. Full summer casting announced: David Whalen and Joshua Elijah Reese star in The Christians, Ethan Saks, Erika Strasburg, & Sam Tsoutsouvas lead the ensemble cast in The Liar.

The Kinetic Theatre Company’s Executive Producing Director Andrew Paul has lined up three thought provoking, engaging, and, more importantly “very real” dramas that question relationships, religion, and ethics for the Pittsburgh area that are sure to leave theater goers deep in thought and maybe leave their sensibilities exhausted.  Paul is beckoning audiences to:  “come on down: this is your life!” A bit of realism for everyone.

Paul is back in Pittsburgh this year once again to leave theater goers entertained but questioning “who they are” and how they fit into the worlds he has chosen to explore. According to Kinetic Theatre’s press release: “the mission of Kinetic Theatre Co. is three-fold: to explore the issues facing our diverse and rapidly changing world through the language of theatre, to value text, both classic and contemporary, as our primary source of inspiration, and to honor, value, and respectfully compensate the artist.”

Rife with experienced and highly successful actors, Paul’s works this year will most definitely have audiences questioning their core beliefs. Not shying away from topics steeped in debates, Mr. Paul is very careful to remain loyal to his supportive Pittsburgh fan base by presenting them with tales that provide a spin on traditionalist thinking.

Those familiar with his work formerly as founder and artistic director of PICT (Pittsburgh Irish  Classical Theatre) know him for his production of “risky” works, and, although he is no longer with PICT, it hasn’t stifled his willingness to move to the “next level” in challenging the sensibilities of his audiences.  He is single handedly providing Pittsburgh with theater worth seeing, adding to the tried and true knowledge that Pittsburgh is “someplace special” with “someplace thoughtful.”

When looking at the three plays he will be producing and directing, I found Paul to be a fearless producer and director who is not afraid to pull the proverbial plug on traditional beliefs, and Pittsburgh audiences should applaud his selections.Meeting with Mr. Paul in person, it was easy to sense the excitement and anticipation for Kinetic’s upcoming season and, as always, Pittsburgh in the Round will be paying close attention to these upcoming performances.

KINETIC CHRISTIANS LARGE SQUAREIn his first production The Christians, Paul is producing Lucas Hnath’s very timely, relevant, an unapologetic look at faith in America and challenge of understanding people’s belief systems. The Christians is a play loosely based on the life or Pastor Rob Bell who built a megachurch in Michigan. The play explores Bell’s – in this case named Pastor Paul (played by native Pittsburgher and fan favorite David Whalen) – disruptive life and his subsequent firing from his congregation because of his antithetical preaching. “Pastor Paul has spent 20 years successfully growing his church from a modest storefront to a gleaming megachurch, but he no longer believes in Hell; he (unrealistically) feels that his congregation will be happy to hear what he has to say. In a homily one Sunday morning that rocks the spiritual world of his congregation, which backfires and brings the congregation to its spiritual knees.”

Add to the drama is his troubled relationship with his Associate Pastor Joshua (played by another beloved Pittsburgher, Joshua Elija Reese) who feigns his proclamation and the church elders and congregation. This revelation rocks the foundations of the beliefs of his flock, which in turn is intended to disrupt the foundations of the audiences’ beliefs.  This timely feature explores an attack on the very Catholic and conservative belief that, according to Paul, if there is no hell, what motivation do we have in this life to obtain a pathway to heaven?

Paul utilizes the role of the “chorus” in this play, which is actually the congregation’s choir, providing background to the action taking place in the lives of Pastor Paul and his family, along with Associate Pastor Elijah’s battle for the souls of the believers. Additionally, as in most church services, Paul has all of his principles speaking the play using handheld microphones to present the very real feel of a church service.

The Christians is running June 16 through July 2, 2017 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Shore.

KINETIC LIAR LARGE SQUAREKinetic Theatre’s second offering is The Liar, a David Ives comic production based on Corneille’s The Liar. According to Paul, The Liar is “a sparkling urban romance as fresh as the day Pierre Corneille wrote it, brilliantly adapted for today by All In the Timing’s David Ives. Paris, 1643.” In The Liar – which puts a modernist spin on a French classic – Dorante (Ethan Saks) is a charming young man newly arrived in the capital, and he has but a single flaw: he cannot tell the truth. In quick succession, he meets Cliton (Patrick Halley), a manservant who cannot tell a lie, and falls in love with Clarice (Erika Strasburg), a charming young woman whom he, unfortunately, mistakes for her friend Lucrece.

The entire play is replete with misunderstandings and a series of breathtakingly intricate lies and springs one of the Western world’s greatest comedies.  Even when it serves no discernible purpose, Dorante compulsively and ceaselessly makes false statements.  This sublimely funny adaptation, written in rhymed iambic pentameter, is packed full of verbal ingenuity and has thrilled audiences in New York and across the country. CMU Drama alums Ethan Saks and Erika Strasburg play Dorante, the title character, and Clarice, the object of his affections, with Kinetic associate artist Sam Tsoutsouvas as Dorante’s clueless father, Geronte. Sumptuous scenery by Gianni Downs and costumes by Kim Brown make this a visual feast to match Ives’ hilarious text.

The Liar runs from July 13 through July 30, 2017 at the Henry Heymann Theater on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

KINETIC LOVE LARGE SQUAREWith religion and ethics having been explored, Kinetic Theatre’s third and final production this year is Mike Bartlett’s comedy Love, Love, Love. The show serves basically as an indictment on the “baby boomer” generation. This offering, divided up into three acts, explores the lives of a couple who meet and marry in the era of the Beatles – 1967 – the years of drugs, sex, and rock and roll – to their lives in typical suburbia in 1990 raising two children who are antagonist to their parents, to the final scene which takes place in 2011 when their ungrateful daughter shows up and demands that her parents buy her a house because they “owe her a life” that they didn’t provide her growing up. The main characters advance from the ages of 19 to 64. Love, Love, Love, states New York Times critic Ben Brantley in his rave review of the play’s American Premiere last November at the Roundabout Theatre Company,pulls you along through the decades with galloping satirical wit as Bartlett’s heat-seeking intelligence locates telling and authentic emotional detail.”

Love, Love Love has yet to be cast, but knowing how much talented actors are attracted to Paul’s ironic and satirical style, it certainly will be replete with branded thespians who are more than prepared to entertain.

Love, Love, Love runs from November 30 through December 13 at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

For tickets and more information about Kinetic Theatre Company click here.

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5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Summer: 2017 Edition

Our 2017 Summer Musical Preview features a mixed bag of musicals from the interactive Clue, the zany Spamalot to three “serious” musicals exploring life’s purpose; Avenue Q, Pippin and Big Fish.

18766423_1366720196752718_7747244441950438655_oDo you like board games? Then Clue is for you! This interactive musical is based on the popular game of the same name. The plot revolves around solving the murder of Mr. Brody at a mansion that is occupied by several possible suspects.

The audience deduces the solution from clues given throughout the performance. The audience chooses from 216 possibilities incorporating the potential murderers, weapons and rooms! Only one hard-nosed female detective is qualified to unravel the merry mayhem. Even after the culprit confesses, a surprise twist awaits.

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 here.

spamalotIf Stage 62’s rollicking production of Peter and the Starcatcher is any indication of their ability to do comedy, then their take on Monty Python’s Spamalot is bound to be a hysterical funfest. Spamalot borrows from, well honestly it actually rips off, Monty Python and the Holy Grail transforming the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable into a classic Broadway musical. Of course there are showgirls, knights, cows and fabulous French people. Did I mention the killer rabbits?

Spamalot presented by Stage 62. Performances Thursday to Saturday, Jul. 20th to 22nd and 27th to 29th at 8 p.m., Sunday Matinees on July 23rd and 30th at 2 p.m.

Laugh until it hurts at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, PA

Tickets:  Adults: $20, Students/Seniors: $15 available here.

pippinThe Tony Award winning Pippin is the story of a young prince and heir to the throne, who is searching for his own “corner of the sky” as told by a traveling troupe of actors led by the cunning and charming Leading Player. After he returns from college, Pippin searches for a fulfilling purpose in life. The Leading Player encourages Pippin to experiment: dabble in bloody battles, go for licentious and lusty sexual entanglements, and try out savvy political maneuvers. Despite his adventures, Pippin discovers that finding one’s life significance is really way more complicated than he thought. There are as many interpretations as to the shows meaning, as there are productions. Watch and see if you can figure it out.

Carnegie Mellon alumni Stephen Schwartz wrote the now classic show tunes originally while at CMU as a student production. Rumor has it not one word or note from the original CMU production made it to the Broadway version!

Pippin is in residence the Theatre Factory in Trafford, PA with performances July 7th through 23rd at 8 p.m. and Sunday the 17th and 23rd at 2 p.m.

Tickets: Adults $18, Seniors & Students $16, visit www.theatrefactory.com or call 412-374-9200

ave qImagine if Sesame Street was for adults. This is the premise of Avenue Q, a place where puppets are friends, Monsters are good and life lessons are learned. Avenue Q is the winner of three Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. The show tells the story of Princeton, a lad just out of college who moves to a sketchy apartment way out on Avenue Q.

Instead of “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1” and “One of These Things is Not Like the Other”, Avenue Q serves up “We’re all a Little Bit Racist”, “The Internet is for Porn”, “It Sucks to be Me”, and I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”. Princeton and his newfound Avenue Q friends, all who grew up as unique people; searching for jobs, dates and their ever-elusive purpose in life.

The Alumni Theater Company is comprised of all Black performers.  Like most musicals, Avenue Q was not written by or for Black people. According to Alumni Founding Director Hallie Donner  “The cast and creative team are working together to bring meaning and relevance to this performance from the perspective of young Black Americans.”

Donner says “Avenue Q is about twenty-something’s finding purpose in life. That couldn’t be more relevant to us. Yet the show’s casual attitude of “just relax” and let life happen to you and it will all work out is very much a viewpoint created through the lens of white privilege.  We look forward to challenging audiences with our take on this theme.”

The Alumni Theatre Company’ production of Avenue Q is located at the New Hazlett Theatre in the North Side with performances on July 28th, 29th, and 30th. For tickets visit https://www.artful.ly/store/events/11504  

big fishFront Porch Theatricals is excited to put Big Fish in the directing hands of Pittsburgh native Spencer Whale, a vibrant young storyteller and Cornell University graduate.

Big Fish is a magnificent whopper of a tale that centers on Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who lives life to its fullest… and then some! Edward tells incredible, larger-than-life stories that thrill everyone around him. His adult son, Will, is no longer amused by his father’s fantastical tales and insists on a rational rather than an exaggerated account of his father’s life. When Edward’s health declines and Will learns that he and his wife, Josephine, will have a son of their own, Will decides to find out his father’s “true” life story, once and for all.

Big Fish is a heartfelt, powerful, and truly magical musical about fathers, sons, and the stories that we use to define our identities.  Big Fish is a show that’s richer, funnier and BIGGER than life itself.

This will be Whales’s return to musical theatre in Pittsburgh after he won a Gene Kelly Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role when he was a student at North Hills High School before he attended Cornell University. Billy Hartung plays Edward Bloom and Kristiann Menotiades is his wife Sandra.

Big Fish by Front Porch Theatricals at the new Hazlett Theatre on the North Side. Performances run August 18th to 27th. Tickets: Adults: $30 online; $35 at the door; Students, Groups and Artists; $24 and are on sale now on ShowClix! https://www.showclix.com/event/big-fish

It looks like we are in for an interesting Summer Musical season again this year! Enjoy.

We would love to hear from our readers and follow along with your theater adventures so keep in touch with us on our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram using the hashtag #SummerwithPITR.

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