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.

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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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.

And don’t forget to sign up for our email blasts here. 

Violet

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Front Porch Theatricals’ heavenly production of Violet has a lot of baggage.

Johnmichael Bohach’s rustic, minimalist scenic design is primarily comprised of suitcases, chests, and duffel bags that the actors sit, sleep, and sing on. This concept is not only incredibly creative and whimsical, but it also artfully realizes the themes of travel and identity that are central to the musical.

This show is the explosive kickoff to Front Porch’s summer season, which is being billed as “Journeys & Tall Tales”. Despite premiering Off-Broadway a little more than 20 years ago, the musical probably didn’t register on most people’s radars until it transferred to Broadway from a one-night production at New York City Center in 2014.

Both outings received widespread acclaim including the Drama Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical and a slew of Tony Award nominations. By bringing together an exceptional group of artists all at the tops of their game in this production (which also marks Violet’s Pittsburgh premiere) Front Porch has cemented its reputation as Pittsburgh’s finest producer of musical theatre and the show’s legacy as one of musical theatre’s purest hidden gems.

Bus Ride 4Violet, set during the late summer of 1964, takes you on a wild ride with a disfigured young woman of the same name as she journeys via Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma to seek a life-changing miracle from a TV evangelist. Twelve years before, an incident with a wayward ax blade leaves her with a horrible scar on her face and a broken relationship with her father (Jonathan Visser).

The extended trip introduces her to a host of diverse people and places including a hilariously talkative old lady (Becki Toth) and two handsome soldiers, Flick (Lamont Walker II) and Monty (Daniel Mayhak).

Both men take a keen interest in Violet as her fiery personality and dark past unfold. As an African-American living in a difficult time in history, Flick understands the constant pain Violet suffers always being harshly judged at face value. Monty learns from Violet that he does not have to rely on his machismo and playboy antics to make real connections with people.

Magazine Beauty

When Violet finally reaches Tulsa, her steadfast faith in God is tested. She learns lessons that cannot be summed up by old clichés about beauty. Her truest journey begins at the show’s end. For the first time, it’s one entirely on her own terms with no clear destination.

I know I commended writers Jeanine Tesori (music, also responsible for Fun Home) and Brian Crawley (book/lyrics, also responsible for A Little Princess) for not saddling their skillful adaptation of Doris Betts’ short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” with tired platitudes defining the “true” meaning of beauty, but I’m going to employ a few now. Like most clichés, these are just true.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, in this case, that’s director Robyne Parrish. She deftly navigates Violet through its recurring flashback scenes while ensuring that each moment has equal visual and emotional impact.

At absolutely no fault of Walker, Mayhak or their extraordinary voices, the love triangle their characters are entangled in with Violet just doesn’t work.

Parrish allows that part of the story to shine and illuminates what emerges as the heart of the piece, the resentment festering between Violet and her late father. At my performance, you could hear a pin drop during the sequence where they sing “Look at Me” and “That’s What I Could Do”.

Healing Meeting 3

Two women play Violet, one as an adult (Elizabeth Boyke) and the other at the time of the accident (Samantha Lucas). Like the many actresses before them who took on this role, including Sutton Foster, their raw and passionate performances subvert the idea of beauty being only skin deep. Without the help of complicated makeup effects, they must create the image of Violet’s mutilation in the minds of the audience as sharply as it exists in her own.

Boyke is nothing short of a force of nature seamlessly pivoting from tremendous hope to profound despair as her character’s fickle fate plays out. Lucas’ haunting presence and command over an array of complex affects prove that she is perfectly cast as a girl wise beyond her years. Violet is disgusted by her appearance and lets everyone know it, but the work of these two great talents make it impossible to look away.

Violet’s “imaginary” scar is also brought to life during the show through the reactions of the people she encounters on her trek. The hard working ensemble of Violet is more than up to the task of making themselves look good while making Violet feel bad. Erich Lascek and Gena Sims lead the gospel number “Raise Me Up”, which stopped the show multiple times over its nearly seven-minute runtime.

At the end of this Violet’s intermission-less two hour run time, you’ll find that your heart has an invisible, deep, and permanent scar that matches the one on Violet’s face. Don’t make the same mistake she does. Don’t convince yourself that your heart is now broken or ugly because, as the preacher teaches her, a scar means that you’re healed.

Violet runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 28th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

perksPrime Stage Theater’s adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a sincere, though sickly-sweet interpretation of the Young Adult Literature phenomenon. To enter the New Hazlett Theater and revisit this oft-remembered, rarely revisited story is to yet again come of age and recall that high school is, generally speaking, really crappy but also really important.

Charlie (Peter Joseph Kelly Stamerra), who is alternately stoic and desperate, is a lonely high school freshman who’s had a tough life. He divides his time between being ridiculed by his peers, struggling with his mental health, obsessing over any of the half-dozen awful tragedies he’s experienced, and generating phrases people will want to get tattooed on themselves in his journal. He is, in other words, the Alpha and the Omega of YAL protagonists. Your ability to enjoy the play will likely hinge on your capacity to enjoy Charlie.

Wallflower is not a play about journaling and wallowing, however, and the story’s pace picks up significantly once Charlie strikes up a friendship with the extroverted, scene-stealing Patrick (Logan Shiller) and Sam (Julia Zoratto), an adventurous young woman intent on pushing Charlie out of his comfort zone who Charlie immediately falls in love with to no one’s surprise.

More heavily influenced by the film than the original novel, Wallflower director Jeffrey M. Cordell’s adaptation is too direct with its drama and too flippant with its supporting cast and sub-plot to quite capture what made the original work so compelling.

Stephen Chbosky’s original script is a comprehensive course on how delicately a writer must balance a plot built on nostalgia, teen drama, and abuse. This is partially because Chbosky’s bittersweet-ness is less perfectly balanced than it is nearly imbalanced; for every awkward first kiss or pot brownie there are two ham-fisted quotes about what being alive feels like. To be fair, many would argue that’s part of the novel’s/film’s authenticity.

Prime Stage Theater’s work, which utilizes Hailey Rohn’s script, is by contrast too eager to orbit the story around the big moments (think the famous (infamous?) bridge sequence), and turn what was awkward yet complex into something melodramatic yet sincere.

To dismiss Wallflower as overdramatic would be unfair, because when it hits those heavier, more intimate moments, I did find myself consulting with my inner teenager the same way as I did watching the film. Stamerra possesses that very necessary contained desperation inherent to his character, and he really nails the whole ‘ahhhhh did I say the wrong thing???’-ness of his character. On that note, Shiller’s Patrick is full of the posi-vibed buoyancy one would expect, and Zoratto’s Sam has a palpable subdued confidence. Many quiet moments pass between these three that are as vulnerable as you’d ever want.

Unfortunately, the play’s various explosions – be they sequences where silhouettes of lost loved ones or abusers loom over the cast, or moments of sudden violence – too closely stick to the film’s aesthetic, and can feel a little bloodless. Scenes in which Charlie narrates his journal entries feel almost unnecessary the way they’re sped past, and important characters like Charlie’s sister’s boyfriend Derek (Connor Bahr) and the well-meaning English teacher Mr. Anderson (John Feightner) are played too broadly and are too peripheral to justify the stage time they do manage to get.

The supporting cast often interacts with Charlie as they adjust the objects on set, which is a fun twist, but that and the dramatic use of silhouettes in lieu of flashbacks make up most of The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s theatric adjustments. The ingredients for a great adaptation are all here, but too much focus on recapturing the magic of a less intimate medium make the play feel more like a greatest hits of its progenitor than an out and out creative success.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 14. For tickets and more information click here. 

Special thanks to Prime Stage for complimentary press tickets.

What’s Missing?

unknownWhat’s Missing is a show premised on imperfection, incompletion, dissatisfaction. The disembodied, mellifluous voice we hear as the two somber dancers begin their very calculated, yet very impassioned, tactile choreography. Over and over again, the disembodied voice urges that nothing will be gained from this show—you will receive no great knowledge, no imbalance will be perfected, nothing will feel complete. The same disorder you approached the show from will be no easier to grapple with upon leaving. In fact, it may be worse to deal with, compounded by your frustration at the show’s conclusion or the strictly choreographed chaos that transpires within the show.  What’s Missing both taunts and tantalizes the viewer with the prospect of the unresolved, the unannounced, the indescribable, and the just out of reach.

Before the show actually begins, the audience is involved in a sort of Q&A, participatory round circle. Guided by Beth Corning—the infinitely talented and established choreographer, dancer, and artistic director of the Corningworks Company—the audience views a series of images projected before them, the most striking of a girl in what appears to be a ravished household. The images are stark and disconcerting, perhaps because of their starkness. The audience is asked to not only remark upon them, but close their eyes, and listen to a fellow audience member describe a given picture so they might envision it without seeing it. This exercise seemed odd, until the radical sensorial juxtaposition that occurred with the transition from the picture-based Q&A to the choreographed performance. Nearly somnambulant in quality, the opening “scene” begins with Corning and her fellow dancer and co-creator of the show, Donald Byrd, dancing and rhythmically syncopating their motions on what appears to be a park-bench. Given their physical reactions and expressions, they seem to be in some dream, some beautiful physical recitation of a repressed memory or repressed interaction or relationship. There is a push-and-pull, with one of them ending up at a disadvantage, always craven, with rapturously evocative, subtle choreography and legerdemains, for intimacy and

Nearly somnambulant in quality, the opening “scene” begins with Corning and her fellow dancer and co-creator of the show, Donald Byrd, dancing and rhythmically syncopating their motions on what appears to be a park-bench. Given their physical reactions and expressions, they seem to be in some dream, some beautiful physical recitation of a repressed memory or repressed interaction or relationship. There is a push-and-pull, with one of them ending up at a disadvantage, always craven, with rapturously evocative, subtle choreography and legerdemains, for intimacy and acknowledgment from the other. This is the show’s strength, and this interlude will serve as the punctuation for the piece. It is repeated at various intervals and caesuras throughout the show, at four different corners of the stage, giving different audience members different vantage points. The utilization and manipulation of space and dimensionality in correlation with emotionality through physical movement is perhaps what makes What’s Missing so illuminatingly transcendent.

The show’s narrative, or non-narrative, as it were, is equally compelling. “Told” in various “acts,” the show investigates through movement and performance, various types of physical and cognitive fragmentation and dissolution. Throughout the show, both Corning and Byrd oscillate in terms of who is in control, in a certain sense, and through this odd equilibrium of power in each vignette, the audience establishes and understands a sort of psychological and physiological interdependency and linking that gives the show a curious, ethereal quality. The pinnacle of this was Donald Byrd’s mini-performance in which he acted out the demands barked out by Corning. The result was something oddly biological—as if the audience was becoming intertwined with not only the deconstructed neurological processes that lead to bodily movement, but also the emotions and memories that are attached to certain bodily movements or dances or physical reactions. This type of nuanced deconstruction is what gives What’s Missing a fascinating edge over other choreographed pieces. There is a distinct yet delicate balance between emotions, memory, physicality, purposefulness and futility that produces a series of choreographed vignettes that render the audience blissfully restless.

And restlessness is the desired result for the show. As the narrators (at times Corning, at times Byrd) dulcetly and hauntingly remind the audience from offstage, there can be no resolution, particularly from an audience ravenously seeking out solution.  What’s Missing, through exquisite and achingly human choreography and bodily narrative, articulates the disappointment and struggle to possess space, one’s bodily autonomy, and the attention of another individual. It is the most gratifying futility.

Special thanks to Corningworks for complimentary press tickets.

This review was based on the March 29, 2017 performance. For more information about Corningworks, click here. 

1984

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Prime Stage Theatre’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1949 classic, 1984, is ambitiously loyal to its original text.  It attempts to extrapolate the inner story of one man inside of a paranoia machine, and does so with many attributes reminiscent of the original if only lacking a bit of the fervor.

It is the story of Winston Smith, a forlorn citizen in a world made up of enemies; or a world where every area of the world is under surveillance.  Government agents have the right to surreptitiously stalk and hunt and arrest any citizen on a whim.  Neighbors are forced by fear of their own unannounced imprisonment to all work as deputy spies against one another.  Everyone is scared of everyone.

1984 holds a lot of very relevant themes that should be explored more.  The main focus of this story is to expand on an idea that history is merely the story of the victors, and how nefarious that idea might be in an information age.  This is a story that ties the insidious pull of propaganda, the neuroses of a surveillance state, the anxiety of a police state and the challenging eventuality of what could be the inevitable progression of nationalism as a belief structure.  It is a book that foretells of a civilized society becoming an entire prison-like world filled with lies and terror.

Prime Stage’s adaptation has done a fine job achieving certain aspects of the original: the storyline is barely changed, the leads fit their character types, the world is somewhat surreal, sterile, ominous and oppressive.

1984 is a horror story.  It’s about a man living under the oppressive circumstance of an all-controlling fascist government, yes.  But it’s also so much richer in horror than simply that.  It’s horror in the details.  1984 explores how a futuristic fascism could, as it’s said in the play, “narrow the range of thought.”

It’s an entire world that is creepy, overarching, dim, and terrifying.

My favorite aspect of this show was the video design, which I suppose are attributed to Artistic Director Wayne Brinda.  These contain uniform images dotting the landscape of what seemed to be droll, oppressive institutional walls, as well as creative uses of CCTV-style display.  For a show that really deals in a story that accurately predicted a kind of futurism, I feel that this aspect was handled in a very strong manner.  It was captured perhaps best in what was the climactic moment of the show: a truly agonizing physical assault.  To hear Winston scream in unrelenting terror captured exactly what this story is: an unflinching, freakishly frightening nightmare.

Justin Fortunato’s Winston comes off as an awkward, bumbly Englishman.  He’s squeamish, cautious and his anxiety shines through his stolid mannerism.  I was irked by watching the actor, thinking how little I’d like to be his character.  He delivered in sturdily displaying his hidden well of apprehension.

This is a surreal, horror story.  I can’t say that enough.  Prime Stage does eventually achieve the mood that I believe makes the book what it is: riveting, institutional terror.  However, they don’t get to this point of swollen emotional piercing until the third act.

When they do get there though, what an amazing job of reflecting the horror of torture and interrogation.  My god.  Combining imagery of relevant torture iconography (Abu Ghraib, anyone) with the insanity of a power who doesn’t offer solutions: What do you want me to do?  How can I do it, if I don’t know what it is!  The last leg of the play ends on a great note.  Not a high note.  But a note that carries with it the right weight of troubledness.  (Though the use of modern music in both the scene changes and for the last bit of the play are pretty awful and don’t fit with the loyal adaptation at all.  I literally cringed at the last lights out from the tacky use of a certain song).

One place that delivers rather well is the linguistic conversation had by Michael Lane Sullivan’s Syme.  I always understood this character as a weaselly intellectual sort, with a nuanced ignorance in decimating the exact thing that made him intelligent: the breadth of language.  Sullivan’s ability to play this part with the candor of confidence, not too annoying and not not annoying; but just annoying enough.  (I guess “double-plus un-annoying”?)  It’s a well-realized character.

Another stand-out is Samantha Camp’s Parsons, who does a good job of taking a robotic, creepy churchliness to a monstrously sterile level.  She reminded me of an HR lady on a strict diet of amphetamines and fake news

This production does utilize many of the original details and the script fully utilizes the prose from the original.  The problem is it’s a bit boring.  There’s a great attention to detail, but not the detail’s detail.  This story contains the aggravating encapsulation of an intelligent man repressing by necessity all of his human instincts and surviving within survival mode amongst a seemingly mundane, or inconspicuous set of factors.  It’s a boring outside world (save for the people disappearing every so often, and the routine projections of forced, constructed violence (more to come on that)).  We see the inner man in an outer world in the book of 1984.  In the stage play, we see this strange outer world but don’t get as much of a sense of the true arc of suspense, recoiled reaction, and ghastly, disturbed awe that creates such an emotional arc for Winston.  There are great hints of it, sure.  But not the impact of a world so turned on its head, it’s impossible to be sane.

I’m mostly conflicted about the direction.  In some regards, I really appreciated the choreography and the staging.  The “Two Minutes of Hate”, for instance, is a surreal episode where the government employees are forced to watch a speech by a terrorist (who was previously known as a revolutionary for the state, a la Trotsky or someone of his ilk), and then they are watched and rated for how fiercely they deject and boo the screen on which he talks.  The book characterizes this episode so well, I personally recall the vitriol in detail.  It’s such a captivating moment to be captured.  To quote the novel:

People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen…

A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp….

To me, this scene has lasted within my head for the last seventeen years since I first picked up this book.  The sheer animosity and vivid nature of the scene strikes me like the chaos in an auditorium during an air raid.

What this production lacked was the hysteria.  We saw the characters from the show lob words of hate, stamp their feet.  Even the moment when one of the workers throws a shoe at the telescreen happens.  But I think this moment lacked the visceral nature of Orwell’s intention.  I think the power of it comes from the madness.  It wasn’t really brutal, it was just a little tense.  Orwell wanted to show an emotional outlet in a deranged, mindwashed people.  I think Prime Stage only gets a glimpse at the surface.  I was craving a theatricality that was much more severe.

The same could be said for Winston and Julia’s relationship.  Jessie Wray Goodman’s Julia looks the part of Winston’s counterpart.  Orwell described her as young, pretty and sexless.  Goodman does a great job of approaching the part with a pent-up air, a shrunken tenacity.  She looks like someone who would obsess over a uniform, and this makes her reveal all the lovelier.  When they are finally allowed a life together, her contentedness and excitability is mousy and comes in small, gleeful gestures.  She plays this character well.

And yet, there was an issue with their arc too.  What makes Winston and her relationship so lovely is that it comes after a long, turbid set of doubts and reveals.  I know that prose is much different than a stage play, but the difference between saying “I love you” versus receiving the note and poring over its authenticity in a context where any sort of conviviality could easily be a trap set by a sociopathic compatriot….it just spells a different kind of inner turmoil, a slushy force of trusting in a distrustful environment.

I’m nitpicking.  I apologize.  But there’s something to the swish and sway of the neurotic Winston in Orwell’s 1984 that gets to the modern reader.  It’s a reason why it’s regarded as probably the most influential modern novel.  It is still cited constantly by people using its terms, its themes and the probably cheaply, overused (and ironic, therefore) “Orwellian.”  It’s because this story really gets inside the head of a paranoid person in fear of surveillance.

All said, 1984 is a cool trek through a classic.  It falls short in reaching some of the ecstatic buzz of both terror and overwhelming relief I believe the original achieves, though it does get the point of the original novel across sincerely.  I believe this show was made with an earnest enthusiasm for the content and sums up the book nicely, including even the wracked fear and anxiety of its meat.  And it’s testament to a future that, especially at this particular time, seems all the most relevant.  Read it.  See it.  Whatever.  Know it.

Ignorance isn’t Strength, comrade.

For ticketing information visit Prime Stage Theatre’s website here.

New Hazlett’s Community Supported Art Series Begins Third Season

logoThe New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series is distinguishing itself as a unique and innovative performance series for artists in the Pittsburgh area. The series is named after the Community Supported Agriculture model, which is a method for consumers to buy food directly from farmers. The New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series appears on the outside to be quite like a regular subscription series, the series does a substantial job in nourishing groundbreaking and innovative artists in the Pittsburgh area.

The CSA’s Director of Programming, Bill Rodgers is a jack of all trades who has a variety of skills to help artists create strong performance pieces. Rodgers was able to pinpoint some of the exact ways that the CSA series stands out from other theatrical offerings in the Pittsburgh area. For one, the CSA offers emerging artists more incubation and feedback than other venues. The CSA series is also a strong venue choice for individuals who desire a venue for a work that is beginning to gain momentum.

A third unique factor is that the New Hazlett’s CSA series offers a unique educational component. Not only do artists at the New Hazlett have the opportunity to engage with previous alumni from the series to refine work, the program also offers a Friday matinee geared towards high school students. The CSA aims to present high school students with exposure to the theater that falls outside traditional theatrical offerings.

With its initial season in 2013, the CSA series has continuously expanded with increased opportunities and resources available for the various performers in the program. The artists for the CSA’s 2016/2017 season were selected from a particularly competitive screening process. After an artist submits work to the New Hazlett, a panel of anonymous artists who have performed at the space and represent a variety of artistic fields meet to discuss which works should ultimately be chosen to be produced at the CSA. Each year there are new issues and problems that arise at the New Hazlett, but the New Hazlett’s staff continues to find new and better ways to help artists create more refined performances.

The New Hazlett’s 2016 to 2017 season plans to introduce five new works, which aim to tackle a variety of issues and assume a variety of forms. The performance pieces lined up by the New Hazlett theater this season include the following:Cole-620x400

Midnight in Molina, October 20, 2016

This work is by Cole Hoyer-Winfield, a graphic artist and storyteller whose works combine exposure to the midwest and Brazil. The piece implements hand-drawn projections, shadow puppetry, and live music to depict a mystical world. Asked to describe this work, which is slated for a final production meeting later this month, Rodgers called it “whimsical and poetic.”Tameka-and-Jason-620x400

Redemption Sons, December 8, 2016

This work was created by Doctors Tameka Cage Conley and Jason Mendez, who in addition to being gifted storytellers have also achieved post-doctoral educations. Inspired by the African American and Latino/Hispanic experience, this work is focused on how to pass along cultural experiences to children who are growing up in the increasingly chaotic environment of the United States.An-and-Julie-620x400

A Love Supreme, February 16, 2017

Named after the quintessential jazz album by John Coltrane, this work is the combination of two artistic talents. Anqwenique Wingfield is a vocalist and composer who has performed opera, classical music, jazz, and soul. Julie Mallis is a visual artist who practices in mostly new media, printmaking, and “happening” style events. A combination of jazz and soul, this work explores the work of pioneering African American women in classical music in addition to exploring themes like love, death, and womanhood. Rodgers calls this work “revelatory” in its use projection mapping and audience interaction to explore the world of music performers.Lindsay-620x400

Over Exposed, April 6, 2017

This dance piece was created by Lindsay Fisher, a Butler County native who has substantial experience dancing for professional New York City dance companies. A refined and advanced dance piece, this work revolves around doubt, insecurities, and the small victories of life.Montez-620x400

Kalposia, June 1, 2017

Monteze Freeland’s Kalposia is an exciting theater and musical piece based on the author’s own experience of being diagnosed by a doctor as retarded when the author was twenty five years old. This engaging work addresses several ideas includes the labels that are placed on individuals by health organizations and the surrounding society. Stressing the alumni and network based atmosphere of the New Hazlett CSA, Monteze Freeland is an accomplished performer and appeared in a season two production of the CSA series.

As someone who is interested in unique and vibrant theater, I certainly am excited about the works that are coming to this year’s CSA series at the New Hazlett Theater.

For tickets and more information, check out their website here. Photos courtesy of the New Hazlett’s website.

Check out the rest of our 2016 Fall Preview here! Follow along with our autumn adventures with the hashtag #FallwithPITR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!

Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins

“Floyd Collins, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), is based on the real life story of a true American Dreamer.  In 1925 Kentucky, chasing dreams of fame and fortune, Floyd searches for a spectacular cave to turn into a tourist attraction. Tragically, Floyd becomes the attraction when he is trapped 200 feet below ground.  Alone but for sporadic contact with his younger brother and a reporter, Floyd fights for his sanity and life as a desperate rescue effort intensifies and America’s first media circus explodes above him.  Reporters and gawkers from across the country descend, fueling hysteria and manipulating a breathless nation.  This haunting musical boasts a distinguished score as memorable as it is engaging, and tells the transcendent tale of a true American dreamer.”

Floyd Collins

Floyd Collins

“Floyd Collins, with music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), is based on the real life story of a true American Dreamer.  In 1925 Kentucky, chasing dreams of fame and fortune, Floyd searches for a spectacular cave to turn into a tourist attraction. Tragically, Floyd becomes the attraction when he is trapped 200 feet below ground.  Alone but for sporadic contact with his younger brother and a reporter, Floyd fights for his sanity and life as a desperate rescue effort intensifies and America’s first media circus explodes above him.  Reporters and gawkers from across the country descend, fueling hysteria and manipulating a breathless nation.  This haunting musical boasts a distinguished score as memorable as it is engaging, and tells the transcendent tale of a true American dreamer.”