The Carols

nbfjksd,Carnegie Stage has a hit in the making on its hands with the Christmas musical The Carols which had its Western Pennsylvania premiere on Thursday in Carnegie. The show was commissioned by Philadelphia’s 1812 theatre company and first premiered there in December of 2016.  The book and lyrics were written by 1812’s Artistic director Jennifer Childs with music composed by Pittsburgh’s Monica Stephenson.

The Carols is set in the small town of Picatinny, NJ shortly after the United States officially entered World War II. It’s Christmastime and the town longs for their loved ones to return from battle.  The VFW Post is empty, manned only by the three Carol sisters, Lily, Rose, and Sylvia, who work with Miss Betty (Jill Keating), a grumpy middle-aged woman who appears to be the wartime keeper of the Post along Teddy (Nick Stamatakis), the resident silent pianist.

Rose (Mandie Russak) is the boy crazy “dumb blonde” with a problem pronouncing words with silent letters, so “ghosts” to her are “gee-hosts.” Sylvia (Kate Queen-Toole) is the ambitious career girl who absolutely and gushingly adores Eleanor Roosevelt. Lily (Moira Quigley), the youngest, is the girl next door, the least hip of the trio, but she loves to use modern slang. She manages the story flow and serves as narrator.

The girls feel it is their patriotic duty to stage the annual production of A Christmas Carol even if it means doing so without male actors.  Betty, who mysteriously wants no part of this Christmas Carol effort argues to “just cancel the darn thing.”  After much debate, the girls conclude that the show must go on.

Audition posters go up which catch the eye of Mel (Leon S. Zionts), a too-old for combat and out-of-work Borscht Belt stand-up comic who is looking for a gig on the way his to Florida for the winter.

Without Betty’s help, the girls, Mel and Teddy, begin to craft their own version of Dickens’ classic tale as they bring their hopes for the future to the deconstructed classic.

Mel recognizes Betty as a famous burlesque and vaudeville performer. He was a patron of those arts as a young man when he was honing his comedic skills. To a young Mel’s eyes, Betty Bell was unforgettable. Betty has a revelation and comes around to join the show. Rose sends a perfumed note to the local military base inviting any boys who might be in town to come to the play. Sylvia asks her hero Eleanor Roosevelt to attend, and Lily holds it together in spite of her concerns for the future.  The show goes on, much to the delight of the audience.

If this sounds typical of the contrived plot of many Christmas shows, well, you are correct. The play may be the thing, but in the case of The Carols, it’s really about the skill of the director and the singing, dancing and acting talents of the ensemble cast that make it a fun-filled laugh-out-loud show to watch and enjoy.

Director Robyne Parish recently directed the well-received production of Violet for Front Porch Theatricals this past summer. In The Carols, she has drawn upon some of our regions most talented actors. Jill Keating has extensive acting experience and is a thirty-three-year member of Equity. Her portrayal of Betty is at first unsympathetic. In the number where she warms to the idea of playing Scrooge, she presents a fantastic transformation in demeanor both physically and vocally as Betty comes to appreciate her Burlesque past. Some period accurate costumes for her might be helpful, but her performance is stellar which, makes the costume oddity superfluous.

The three sisters’ characters as written are as thick as greasepaint. Parish has humanized them, reminding us that we all know and love someone who is just like them. All three young women are rising stars to watch in the Pittsburgh theatre scene.

In the intimate setting of Carnegie Stage, Russak’s Rose is a joy to watch. Her smile lights up the sage at the most opportune moments.  Her facial expressions, delivery, and physical comedy skills are top-notch.

Quigley’s Lily is most real of the characters as she wonders what will happen to her as she gets left behind in Picatinny when Rose and Sylvia leave to pursue their dreams. Lily and Mel have a fun tap dance number as they cement their friendship and kindred spirit.

Zionts as Mel is perfect, just the right mix of an opportunist Catskill comic, adoring fan, and all around funny guy and tap dancer. His butchered rendition of Dickens’s story is hilarious. Zionts and Keating have great chemistry as two old performers, a little past their prime. Their energy is magical to watch.

The brilliance of Parish’s casting shines in the vocal talents of the actors. With Nick Stamatakis in addition to playing Teddy serving admirably as musical director, the trio of Rose, Sylvia, and Lily is pitch perfect. Their harmonies in the acapella songs are stunningly and surprisingly beautiful. Jill Keating’s choreography is superbly subtle, not over the top Mamma Mia style, but the perfect finishing touch for this trio of talented voices.

Any shortcomings in the plot are more than made up by this talented ensemble of actors under Parish’s and Stamatakis’ direction.  For a laugh-out-loud evening of theatre that will leave you smiling and marveling at the talent in Pittsburgh, The Carols is a must-see show. Carnegie Stage – start a tradition, save the set and book all these actors for next Christmas season, you have a hit on your hands. Pittsburgh Producers – find another show for these three talented young actresses can work together.

The Carols at Carnegie Stage has performances on December 8th, 9th, 14th, 15th, 16th at 8 pm, December 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th  at 3 pm. For tickets click here.

Thanks to the Carnegie Stage for the complimentary tickets.

I Won’t Be in on Monday

22221868_1114709611993019_4043785944263293857_nThere is no introduction to the colloquially titled I Won’t be in on Monday. There is no perfunctory schpiel prefacing the performance concerning donors or future shows or money that is needed. That is not to say that these prefaces do not have their place, as calls to endorse the arts and small theatres are absolutely tantamount to the continuation of performances as fine as these. But Anne Stockton’s dislodging and immersive one woman show needs to be framed in precisely those conditions—dislodging and immersive. As the audience ambles into the packed theatre, there is a stark solidarity to the stage that, somewhat incongruously, fills the space with its haunting, bareboned quality. The singular chair facing the crowd, austere and perplexing, manages to command more space than the audience can thoroughly reconcile with or acknowledge. To have interrupted the experience of walking into and settling oneself in such an environment would have been a disservice to the show.

And so I Won’t be in… commenced with no interruption nor introduction, simply the play’s writer, sole star, and creative laborer, Anne Stockton, emerging onto the stage with strident force, seating herself in the eerily commanding lone chair on stage. The play, which unfolds as a dialogue that we as the audience are privy to only one side of (Stockton’s Nikki’s responses, diatribes, soliloquies and asides), is an interrogation of a vivacious woman in regards to expensive rings that have been stolen from the company with which she is employed. This is perhaps the most rudimentary exposition of the one woman show. What I Won’t be in… is at its most visceral level is an active disassembling of a woman’s tangled, multidimensional psyche as the façade she has constructed for herself and others is eroded throughout the play’s unconventional action. As Nikki converses with the unseen police officers, the audience begins to comprehend the meticulously sutured fragments of self that Nikki has very purposefully patched and woven together—she is a new employee and in love with her job and her very understanding employer; she met a new, extraordinarily wealthy, spontaneous and passionate man at a casino who she is in love with and has been living with; her life is a little unceremonious but ultimately fulfilling and coherent; she is absolutely befuddled as to how the rings could have been taken and where they could possibly be; etc., etc.

But as Nikki’s conversation with the detectives progresses, we are exposed to the fractured membranes of her inner self—she is heavily medicated; her relationship with her new lover (revealed through phone conversations) is crumbling without her even fully recognizing it; she is codependent on her mother; she is apt to switch her affections and her outlandish plan to fly out of the country (her reason, presumably, why she “won’t be in on Monday”) to the detective conducting her interrogation; she perhaps has more involvement with the disappearance of the jewelry than even she allows herself to be aware of. From a script standpoint, the play is nearly flawless, and Stockton’s progression from a self-possessed yet visibly unbalanced woman is extraordinarily subtle. By the time the play’s somewhat double entendre, titular meaning is actualized, the audience has connected to Nikki in a way that makes the conclusion even more complicatedly heart-wrenching. Stockton’s performance is resilient and unwavering, even though at times some of the technical aspects break down a bit. What is most transcendent about the show is Stockton’s ability to radically transform the experience of speaking to an audience into one in which she simply exists as her own microcosm on stage. That is to say, the audience never once feels as though they are an audience during I Won’t be in… Rather, Stockton simultaneously consumes and is completely absorbed into the theatrical space she inhabits, allowing the play to become something not just to be observed, but to be lived.

I Won’t be in… is a fantastic chapter in off the WALL’s stalwart legacy in presenting feminist-minded pieces. While at times the play veers on harmful or ghettoizing tropes for women—particularly women suffering from particular mental health issues—the play ultimately portrays a robust, flawed, and complexly damaged woman who is not defined by her gender or her psychosis. Both Stockton and off the WALL challenged the conventions of female representation in the show.

I Won’t be in on Monday has unfortunately closed already but you can follow off the WALL up to New York City in February. More details here. 

off the WALL Opens 2017-2018 Season with I Won’t Be in on Monday

22221868_1114709611993019_4043785944263293857_nProvocation. Undaunting steadfastness. Ruthless, feckless talent. Unwaveringly, emboldened authenticity.

These are descriptors which cling to one’s thoughts when one considers the works and mission of innovative theatre Pittsburgh theatre company, Off the WALL productions. Fiercely committed to not only supporting but rapaciously pursuing the cleverest, most scintillating, and quintessentially groundbreaking feminist pieces of dramaturge, Off the Wall is a theatre company which prides itself on an unwavering commitment to portraying the equality and complexity of human experiences. To date, the company’s productions have explored the viscera of fractious, cobwebbed relationships (Lungs); the rueful and joyful experience of a woman learning excavating her deepest self in a one-woman-show (Mother Lode); the agonizing and labyrinth-esque unending process of accepting and bestowing love amidst the myriad vexations of existing as a woman (Tunnel Vision); and a one-woman physical memoir of life as a stripper Sex Werque. While every unique and vivaciously performed piece is characterized by either a distinctly feminine voice/perspective, or an indomitable female character (particularly notable in the company’s fascinating season-project of staging a collection of one-woman shows), the shows are not necessarily feminist manifestos or creeds translated into theatrical productions. Rather, off the WALL is responsible for theatre that highlights and emphasizes the everyday woman and the extraordinariness of the banal or everyday in a way that challenges the viewer to reconceive of entire worlds through a feminist-minded lens.

When corresponding with Virginia Wall Gruenert, Executive Artistic Director for off the WALL and frequent onstage presence for the shows, the aim of the company’s upcoming season and the fascinating new show I Won’t Be in on Monday is to carry on this exhilarating tradition of presenting pieces with multidimensional and robust women. As Gruenert explains, I Won’t be in… “tells the story of a troubled yet optimistic woman with dreams (delusions?) of a better life. She is strong and vulnerable at the same time. She is hopeful. She is real.” To rely on the perhaps trite adage, the female lead of I Won’t Be in… encompasses multitudes, but maybe not in the way that demands people directly interact with a feminist narrative. Rather, her complexities and the vicissitudes of her selfhood in the face of a curious circumstance are astoundingly feminist in their own right. This is to say, the play’s plot—a high-powered financial worker (Nikki) is interrogated by a detective after the disappearance of very expensive rings—and the clever snark that courses through it, embody a feminism that should be apparent in the everyday. I Won’t Be in… capitalizes upon and carries on off the WALL’s strident commitment to narratives in which seemingly irrelevant or aberrant occurrences nestled within the mundane act as a catalyst for larger thought or dialogues, specifically thoughts and dialogues pertaining to women and female voices. Directed by Austin Pendleton, who has worked extensively as an Off-Broadway director as well as in film and television, I Won’t Be in… is written by Anne Stockton, whose creative candor and relationship with off the WALL ensures a production which will immerse viewers in a theatrical reconceptualization of feminine voice and experientiality.

In Gruenert’s own words, I Won’t Be In… and plays of that ilk epitomize and carry on the company’s mission of heading “forward, forward, forward, with no looking back…to many, it’s controversial to us, it’s the right thing to do.” Indeed, many of off the WALL’s productions have raised obdurate eyebrows, particularly Ella Mason’s aforementioned one-woman show Sex Werque chronicling the performer’s stint as a stripper. The show, which Gruenert eloquently describes, captures the “emotional and economic forces; the movement vocabulary; the masks; and the moments of authentic connection” that are involved in the very complicated and emotional line of work. The show perhaps best typifies the company’s mission—a piece that does not put experience or gender on a hierarchy, but portrays a human experience in its most raw and intimate fashion (and elevates the female voice throughout). However, the show was not without pushback (and some sensational rebuttal from the show’s stupendous defenders). But perhaps, in a time as dishearteningly draconian as our current socio-political climate, provocation and pushback in theatre are absolutely necessary for fundamental progress and change. As Gruenert notes, the disparity in female and male-authored dramaturgical pieces are staggering. The Theatre Communications Group indicated that of the 1,946 productions from the 411 theatre members in the group, the male-to-female author ratio was 63-26. Thus, off the WALL’s dedication to “recognizing, respecting, and honoring the female voice in American theater” is of the utmost importance. Given their recent ICWP 50/50 Applause Award, off the WALL is continuing their monumental efforts in both the theatrical realm and the realm of social attentiveness.

I Won’t Be in on Monday opens at Carnegie Stage on October 12. For tickets and more information, click here. 

4.48 Psychosis

17523703_1389815077723503_6902056036399418031_n4.48 Psychosis opened 4.21.17 at Carnegie Stage.  The black box theater is the perfect space to host an experience which invites the audience inside the mind of someone mentally ill.  The play is a dramatized confession oozing sadness, confusion, anger, lust, fear and desperation, presented as a stream of consciousness narrative. Director Robyne Parrish quickly absorbs the audience into a position of bystander by amalgamating the private and personal pain of emotional illness with the public’s reproach to victims through an intricate portrayal of agony.  With a cast of 3, each playing one dynamic part of a scarred psyche, none of whom are named, lead many people to assume 4.48 Psychosis is a first hand account of playwright Sarah Kane’s plummet toward suicide. This show is not for someone who could easily be triggered by a theatrical execution of mental illness, or representation and discussion of symptoms such as self- harm and suicide. Written by British playwright Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis is often interpreted as an actual account of her intimate relationship with her own mental illness.

Off The Wall Productions at Carnegie Stage presents "4.48 Psychosis" by Sarah Kane; directed by Robyn Parrish; choreographed by Moriah Ella Mason; starring Siovhan Christensen, Erika Cuenca, and Tammy Tsai. Running April 21-30, 2017. For more information, go to www.insideoffthewall.com

off the WALL Productions have cast Erika Cuenca as the lead/ego, and supporting actors, Tammy Tsai as the superego and Siovhan Christensen as the id.  Cuenca recites the raw and unapologetic dialogue with sincere professionalism.  At times I found her stage presence conflicting with her character;  she wasn’t accurately disheveled, and consistently delivered her lines with confidence.  None of these traits spoiled the role but produced moments when I wondered how comfortable she is imitating someone with a severe emotional disease.  Regardless, the majority of her performance steadily portrays a horrified and frightened victim of derangement.  

Tsai, remains stoic through her sobering representation as superego and doctor. Charged with guiding the ego toward healing, teetering between the superego and a sound and grounded medical professional Tsai delivers the disarrayed and disturbed mind most accurately.  As doctor, she asks her patient, “Have you made any plans?”  The ego responds, “Take an overdose, slash my wrists then hang myself.”  Tsai matter factly states, “That won’t work”,  seamlessly blending her role as superego and psychiatrist both cold and isolating.   448-206

Each character is dressed simply in white and this costume design suits Christensen, the id, most appropriately.  She is simply just there; aloof, mercilessly depicting the need for desire, love, and lust.  Like the audience, the id is merely along for the ride through an unhinged mind. She does not flinch when ego screams, “Fuck you for rejecting me by never being there.  Fuck you for making me feel like shit about myself”.  Christensen’s id unintentionally taunts ego with a natural femininity and moves like a dancer. 

4.48 Psychosis is an exhibition of art. The exchange of dialogue between the psyche is intentionally desperate and charged with self-doubt and self-loathing. It is the cold and calculated approach to treatment, specifically pharmacology that instigates anxiety in me, as a witness and audience member.  After admittance into a hospital, and yielding to medication, Cuenca, Tsai and Christensen adapt their roles to include uncontrollable physical restlessness, pacing, twitching, shaking, anxiety, panic, and paranoia.  This is hard to watch.  I was compelled to glance away; to momentarily divert my senses, stealing a minute to process what I was seeing and hearing. It may be cliche to say this production of 4.48 Psychosis is ‘edgy’, but it is.  It is moving and troubling and thought provoking.  In the typical manner of off the WALL Productions, 4.48 Psychosis challenges my way of thinking and exposes me to ideas I would not necessarily choose to explore.  This is a theatrical embodiment of madness and an attempt to drive awareness.  The play is sad and disturbing.  It will make you uncomfortable.  It will challenge your perceptions and force you to reevaluate your ideas of mental illness and treatment.  I purposely left out a  synopsis of the play because it is Kane’s poetically scripted chain of experiences, voiced through the talented and driven cast, that will entice theater goes to Carnegie Stage to be a witness to Kane’s final outreach through art.  

4.48 Psychosis runs at Carnegie Stage through April 30th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Special thanks to off the WALL Productions for complimentary press tickets.

Photos courtesy of off the WALL’s website here. 

The Pink Unicorn

scaled_256Elise Forier Edie’s The Pink Unicorn at off the WALL invites us into the home of a woman named Trish. The stage is a cozy southern kitchen, modestly furnished with a Martha Stewart-ian color palette and sensible, inoffensive decorations. We are unsurprised to hear Stampede, a local country band, setting the mood.

Trish enters. She’d like to tell us a story about her daughter; specifically, the story of her daughter’s coming out. After an opening scene of down-home hospitality delivered in a classic southern drawl, we are unsurprised to find that Trish is less than comfortable with her daughter’s proclamation of identity.

The reason we are unsurprised is that we have some preconceived notions about Trish, about her cultural identity, and by extension how she might feel about others. When her daughter, Joline, a passionate 14-year-old high school student who owns a Tarantula named Beetlejuice and dresses “militantly” in black, comes out of the closet, we have a pretty good idea of how Trish is going to feel.

The Pink Unicorn, a one woman show directed by Ingrid Sonnichsen, is about a woman comfortable in her straight white womanhood stumbling into the leadership of a pro-LGBTQ social justice movement after an anti-gay celebration breaks out at her church. Forced to choose between her daughter and the pre-defined social mores of the world around her, Trish does her best to stand up for what she doesn’t understand and barely believes in.

This is a pointed play; or, rather, a very definite point taking the shape of a play, an anecdotal essay written as a one woman show. The Pink Unicorn’s intended audience and the thesis of its persuasive argument are far from obscure, which makes its supporting points an object of fascination for me.

This is a play about gay rights from the perspective of a straight, “traditional” woman who is open enough to dodge the label of closed-minded, and it is entirely her experience we are concerned with, not the voices of the oppressed. I found myself waxing and waning in regards to Trish, and I say that to the play’s credit. When confronted with her daughter’s identity, her immediate instinct is not of joy or fear, but violence. “I wanted to beat her until she started acting right, I really did,” she says. Trish is no ideal ally, but she is also vulnerable and honest, which is made apparent thanks to Edie’s careful, occasionally blunt prose.

Yet, the play doesn’t put Trish into a box. There is a particularly beautiful moment in the play in which Trish, in an attempt to intellectualize her daughter’s experience, comes up with a time when she didn’t feel gendered.

“There was a time in my life where if you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would’ve told you a big brother,” she says. “I remember feeling so strong, watching my arm muscles bunch when I climbed a tree, and shucking off my shirt in the middle of a hot summer day…and a kind of go-to-hell freedom I felt when I took off that label girl and put on that label big brother.”

It’s this moment, as well as her palpable love and acceptance of her daughter, that leads us to believe her when Trish begins collaborating with the ACLU to protest an instance of discrimination at Joline’s school.

Amy Landis plays Trish with a sensible straightforwardness befitting the character, and I was impressed with the humanity she unearthed in the play’s most divisive moments. It is thanks to this performance, often brimming with parental love, that will leave audience members on either side of this struggle sitting comfortably in their seats throughout the story – though a few may still shift uncomfortably now and then.

If it is clear that Trish, although largely born out of a stereotype of the likable everywoman confused by gender fluidity, cannot be reduced to her stereotype, it is less clear if the characters in her story can be afforded the same consideration. There is a woman at Trish’s church who spurs on the school protest, but according to Trish, this woman is really just a series of fat jokes on human legs. And Trish’s voice deepens an octave when speaking as her, her voice hoarse and out of breath for comedic effect.

Moments like these aren’t exactly few and far between. What we know about many of the LGBTQ characters of the play is, basically, that they walk around bein’ gay. Even Trish’s daughter is a kind of mystery. Yes, we are told Joline is scrappy and stands up for everyone else and wears black and shaves her head. But these are implications of a personality. As it stands, she’s a perfect imagistic vessel for an LGBTQ hero, but whatever else she is remains unexamined.

It’s this reliance on stereotypes that remove the play from the people it intends to defend. While we may cheer on Trish at her valiant attempts at inclusion, the fact of the matter is that in the real world not everyone oppressed has a Trish. The reality for many in the LGBTQ community is that they did not have a parental figure who spent hours on Wikipedia learning about gender fluidity and who recalled a time when they were open to a non-binary view of self.

Still, The Pink Unicorn doesn’t seem to directly address people who identify with Trish’s daughter. It instead is interested in speaking to people who feel the exact opposite. As a tool for cultural reform, I can see the legitimacy of this play as a conversation starter between a child and their parent who are about to, or have had, the “big talk,” or for a couple anxious theater-goers unprepared to come to terms with a world that’s changing faster than ever.

I would also be remiss to not repeat that there are moments of beauty here. Trish is a character with some big thoughts, and the tension between her instincts as a loving mother and as a social conservative are well illustrated. At its best, the play feels like a warm escape, but its broad characterization and uncomplicated narrative may hold it back from being the bridge-making unifier it clearly intends to be.

The Pink Unicorn at Carnegie Stage has unfortunately closed but you can catch it again starting May 18th. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets.

Lungs

scaled_256Some lines from Robert Frost’s 1914 “Home Burial” came to me Friday night while watching off the WALL’s production of Duncan McMillan’s Lungs:  “You that dug with your own hand – how could you? – his little grave?” Dramatic works about failed pregnancies are at least one hundred years old. Some of the more famous works on this matter include Juno, Alfie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Cider House Rules. Lungs revisits much of this same territory without adding much new in terms of commentary or approach to the subject matter.

Lungs also implements some unique staging: there are what look like two small putting greens elevated at different levels with a long stretch of lights running up the center of the stage. There are no props and no changes in the scenery in the play even though the actors are meant to be in many different locations. The play also starts (and concludes) with very unusual interpretive dancing. Ten minutes into the play I was wondering if this Richard Wilson nostalgic staging was going to be so distracting that the entire play would be inaccessible, only to discovered that Richard Wilson in fact did stage design during a London version of Lungs.

I also have no idea why the play is called Lungs except that the work is about a couple worried about what “carbon footprint” bringing a child into the world would create. I wish that there’d maybe been the sound of lungs at some point in the background of the play or something more than an inference that provided an idea to the play’s title.

It might sound like I’m about to lambast Lungs. I’m not. This play is a very emotionally effective play despite having a few noticeable shortcomings and this effectiveness is nothing short of a testament of McMillan’s sensitive and natural dialogue and some top notch acting.

Photo courtesy of off the WALL
Photo courtesy of off the WALL

The play features two characters, a boyfriend (Alec Silberblatt) and his girlfriend (Sarah Silk). I’ve been following Sarah Silk’s career since I used to watch her prodigious acting as a high schooler at Shady Side Academy. Last I’d heard, Silk was studying acting at the legendary Actors Center Conservatory (now the Actors Center) and I am so very glad that Silk is back in Pittsburgh. Her range has grown immeasurably as an actress and I wouldn’t be lying if I said that Sarah Silk is almost too good at the neurotic, eventually heartbroken female lead in Lungs. Silk’s ability to show sorrow mixed with longing and love with an occasionally dose of humor keeps the audience hanging on for more through the 100 minute, no intermission Lungs. Silberblatt gives an emotional and praiseworthy performance as well, but Lungs asks more out of its female performer and Silk responds by giving us our very own modern Madam Bovary.

The play’s plot is fairly simple, and I will do my best to give readers who might be interested in attending the show an idea of the play’s story without any spoilers. The couple contemplates having a child with special care taken to the environmental damage that can be created by bringing a human being into the world. Unfortunately, the couple encounters some hardships, which comprises the main drama of the play. There were some belly laughs during the beginning due to how the characters argue with each other, but I couldn’t find much humor in the play and I think that laughter were mostly the result of the audience growing accustomed to the performance and its character. The play carries the audience from light laughter, though, to intellectual weight to real emotional drama and tension. Does the play follow a similar arch to many other dramatic works? Yes, it does. But somehow, feeling like I’ve seen the whole thing before does not slow the evening down because the dialogue is honest and the characters (by which I mean actors) are so tremendously brave in their performances. I should also mention that Lungs uses an interesting technique throughout the play to fast forward through what might be conceived the boring moments of the couple’s story. Sometimes this technique works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The novelty and the way in which this narrative technique highlights certain elements of the storytelling in Lungs.

Lungs is not for younger viewers. Lungs is also not for those who might find the play’s subject matter a bitter overwrought. Sure, Lungs may not be as blindingly memorable as theater classics like After the Fall or Long Day’s Journey but it is an incredibly moving play. If you measure the success of a play by the amount of thoughts and emotions the work can create in an audience then don’t miss Lungs because the play is an unquestionable success.

Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets. Lungs runs at Carnegie Stage through Saturday December 17th. For tickets and more information click here.

Winter Preview 2016

Snowflake 6
A letter from the Editor

To our beloved readers,

The countdown has begun; there are just 21 days left until the first day of Winter and we have put together a preview sure to prepare you for a holiday season of new and exciting theater experiences. Even though things start to slow down in the winter, there are plenty of things to keep you entertained during the cold, dark evenings as Pittsburgh’s warm theater community invites you to step in from out of the cold and catch a show. There is plenty of holiday themed fun and even a few new plays to choose from this Winter season!

Beyond this preview, stay tuned for continuous coverage of Pittsburgh theater. We will be checking in with local companies, some new to the scene and some seasoned veterans. We will also continue to introduce you to the people that make up Pittsburgh’s vibrant theater community through our artists spotlight series.

On a business related note, we are officially a legal entity (LLC) recognized by the government (AKA the IRS, OMG!). Remember, if you would like to sponsor the site or purchase advertisements on the site, contact info@pghintheround.com.

Again, we want to thank those of you that have and continue to support us through your donations to our previous fundraising campaign, your engagement with us, and simply being readers. Most importantly, we want to thank you for supporting local theaters and companies and helping the arts grow and thrive in Pittsburgh.

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 #WinterwithPITR.

Happy holidays from all of us here at Pittsburgh in the Round, now get out there and enjoy some theater!

Mara E. Nadolski

 


Let’s start off with the Top 5 shows we’re looking forward to this winter!

#5 – Eugene Onegin by Undercroft Opera: Usually sung in French, 10 year oldOneginPoster Undercroft Opera will be presenting this Tchaikovsky masterpiece in Russian as a concert. Originally premiering in Moscow in 1879, this story of unrequited love and regrets was last produced in Pittsburgh by the Pittsburgh Opera in 2009. Undercroft, a company known for giving performers “opera-tunities”, brings many opera veterans to the stage in this one night only event. Last seen in the Pittsburgh Savoyards’ production of Gianni Schicchi,  Eugene Onegin will bring Ian Greenlaw and Katie Manukyan together on the stage once again. For tickets and more information, check out Undercroft’s website here. 

#4 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Cup-a-Jo Productions: On the heels of their innovative 404501_10150601331240797_648691161_nproduction of Titus AndronicusCup-a-Jo brings us another twist on an old classic. A not-so-fun night of drinks with new colleagues turns dark and disastrous in the late Edward Albee’s absurdist drama. Starring company founder Joanna Lowe and Brett Sullivan Santry, Cup-a-Jo will drag us into an immersive universe complete with signature live music and of course, cocktails. Literally set within a living room, this production will give audiences “ultimate uncomfortable voyeuristic experience” says Lowe. Dates and more details to come, but for more information about Cup-a-Jo, click here.

#3 – The Lion in Winter by PICT Classic Theatre: The classic Christmas tale of King Lion-Final-WebHenry II and his dysfunctional family weaves through politics, conspiracies, and ruthlessness. The cast includes Pittsburgh favorites like Karen Baum and Tony Bingham, even PICT’s Artistic Director Alan Standford graces the stage as Henry himself in the company’s third production in their new space at the Union Project in Highland Park. As always, PICT is “committed to the creation of high-quality, professional thought-provoking theatre of substance” and we’re confident this production will be no different. The Lion in Winter begins previews Thursday December 1, for tickets and more information click here. 

#2 – Lungs by off the WALL: In the second production of their Mainstage scaled_256series, off the WALL brings us more of the quick-witted dramas the company is known for with Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs. On a mostly bare set, no costume changes, and little accoutrements, Sarah Silk and Alec Silberblatt will force audiences to focus on the important themes of the text, rather than superfluous theatrics in this production. This two person drama takes us on a ride over the course of a relationship as they battle with questions about their families, their aspirations and each other. Opening December 2 at Carnegie Stage. For tickets and more information, click here. 

#1 – The Royale by City Theatre: City Theatre continues to uphold its mission YT17-Feature-The-Royaleto be Pittsburgh’s home for new plays with their January premiere of The Royale. Known for writing and producing television shows like Sons of Anarchy and Orange is the New Black, Marco Ramirez’s Broadway debut play The Royale is inspired by the true story of turn of the century boxer Jack Johnson. DeSean Terry plays Jay “The Sport”Jackson in this drama about fighting more than just the other person in the ring. Jackson has eyes on the heavyweight championship but with the racial tension of 1905 that might be easier said than done. The Royale runs on City Theatre’s Mainstage January 21 – February 12. For tickets and more information, click here.

While we’ve got you, check out our Top 5 Musicals you don’t want to miss here!

In the mood for something a little more festive? Claire rounded up the Top 5 Holiday shows for you here.

Throughline Theatre Company has gotten a new Artistic Director! Meet Sean Sears here.

Speaking of new things, check out one of Pittsburgh’s newest theater companies, Jumping Jack Theater.

Curious about something a little more than theater? Check out Jason’s articles featuring slowdanger and The Space Upstairs.

Even Attack Theatre is loosening some screws in their upcoming show Unbolted.

We’ve been pretty busy this fall too! In case you missed anything, here are some highlights of the last three months:

Between Riverside and Crazy at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

Three Days in the Country by Kinetic Theatre

The Music Man by Stage 62

12 Angry Men by the McKeesport Little Theater

How I Learned to Drive by the Duquense Red Masquers

Salome by the Pittsburgh Opera

To Kill a Mockingbird by Prime Stage Theatre

Giselle by the Pittsburgh Ballet

Barefoot in the Park by The Theatre Factory

Prometheus Bound: A Puppet Tragedy at the Irman Freeman Center for Imagination

Pride and Prejudice by Steel City Shakespeare

Trial by Jury & Gianni Schicchi by the Pittsburgh Savoyards

The River by Quantum Theatre

The Toxic Avenger at the Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret

 

An Accident

Poster-FINAL-web522Step into this bad dream: a debilitating pedestrian accident. In An Accident, Lydia Stryk draws on her own accident experience to place both in an injured woman’s hospital room. This unsettling dramatic juxtaposition allows both the inner thoughts and conversations of two people who sometimes never meet in such circumstances.

An Accident ultimately provides a rare dialogue about things that matter. Questions get asked aloud, fears and dreams are shared, and regret and hope mingle. The characters wonder what they might do differently if they’d known this would happen. This is an evening of fine, focused acting, so do try to see this production as off the WALL productions begins its second decade.

Upon entering the theater and before the lights go down, the audience sees Libby (Amy Landis) is trapped in her hospital bed. We don’t know how long she’s been there or when “it” happened.

Anton (Ken Bolden) is sitting in her room at lights up, coming to the hospital sometime after hitting her with his car. The details of the incident roll out over the action with less emphasis placed on time span and more on how Libby and Anton are connected through something horrific.

Landis delivers a multi-dimensioned performance over the course of her character’s journey, much of it with barely lifting a hand. Landis’ early Libby–before she can move anything but her eyes and expression–is a tall order for any actor. It’s always most difficult to do the least and Landis draw us in immediately to Libby’s dilemma using her facial facilities to reach us without any other movement. Most certainly medicated, Libby moves from cloudy awakening to recognition that she may or may not walk or dance again to regaining a sharp, sassy, and determined personality aptly crafted by Landis. She’s always curious about Anton and asks him questions throughout the play.

It seems Anton regularly comes to the hospital, making it his environment as well as hers. She at first calls him “the jerk who ruined my life” then becomes somewhat dependent on his presence as she remembers no one else in her life. He admits guilt: “I did this to you, this terrible unforgivable thing” even as he become dependent on Libby in his life.

Bolden has the advantage of mobility but at first his Anton is also frozen, unable to take his hands out of his pockets whether sitting in Libby’s room or the bench. Anton’s journey mirrors Libby’s in some ways but the tension and appreciation between the two is a fascinating dance. We wondered if we would show up as Anton does in this situation and keep returning. We also realize that there would be no play if Libby had sent him packing when she woke up. It’s a rare set-up, but Stryk well chooses how to explore the characters’ questions and emotions.

One of our region’s venerable actors, Bolden delivers a wonderfully nuanced and multi-layered characterization, bringing a sympathetic humanity to Anton. Bolden convey’s Anton’s tentative involvement expertly while sharing his own disappointments in moments. He speaks of his daughter, but that relationship seems awkward, too. Anton moves from tentative curiosity to determined committed. There’s a warmth and shift as Bolden conveys Anton’s embrace of the role of healer.  Anton is someone we don’t dislike; it’s hard not to give him credit for showing up and sticking by Libby, albeit painful and awkward, as when Libby offers Anton cherries from a nurse’s garden. He returns even after Libby (rightfully) lashes out at him. Bolden is expert in capturing the ongoing conflicts in Anton–guilt, loneliness, hope, and frustration.

Nurse (Hilary Caldwell) comes and goes to adjust the bed, move pillows, and provide other support as hospital nurses do. Caldwell is efficient, as a good nurse should be. We aren’t distracted by Libby having conversations with her or other characters such as doctors  coming in to look at medical charts or discuss procedures. We learn of Libby’s medical prognosis and recovery in other ways, keeping the story focused on her interaction with Anton.

As Libby’s privacy is already compromised by living in a hospital gown, it’s not so surprising when she asks Anton for some physical affection in another touching but oddly private moment when we can’t leave Libby’s room.

We wonder who will be the more empowered survivor of this journey. His response when Libby finally leaves the room represents a caregiver’s’ loss of purpose and the reality that we are really only left with ourselves.

Linda Haston’s direction is indeed accurate as she and scenic designer Adrienne Fischer uses the broad playing space to advantage. Things are kept simple and practical, suggesting how things must be in a hospital room.  Things only move when Libby’s recovery allows for it. And there’s a precious window through which Libby watches non-hospital bound people carry on while she’s bedridden. Outside she sees the bench from which Anton shares some of his thoughts and sometimes watches her window until the light is dimmed.

The pace requires our care and attention, as in when we are indeed the patient in recovery or the guest trying to do the right thing when visiting the hospital. The playwright has discussed how accidents change us. These unexpected happenings–whether minor or life-threatening–take an immeasurable toll on lives and futures.

Bob Steineck’s lighting is just right for the two main spaces of the action as well the pre-curtain setting that brings us in into Libby’s room. Costumes by Kara Sinclair are spot on (including hospital fashions and Anton’s nerdish teacher wardrobe) and Kim Crawford’s props include the essential items for a long-term private room stay.

Certainly anyone who’s recently been in these situations may find the story uncomfortable, but it seems most audience members would relate to this part of life and how such circumstances indeed strip us to simply care for and listen to one another. Some commented how they exactly understood Anton’s reaction when left alone in Libby’s room.

The intimate 96-seat venue, Carnegie Stage, is home of year-round off the WALL productions and a myriad of events near the convenient dining and free parking (after 5 pm) in Carnegie. Now that the I-76 exit for Carnegie has been reopened, it’s easy to check out off the WALL and the vibrant arts and social scene in a small town with a main street.

Thank you to off the wall for a pair of complementary opening night tickets.

An Accident by Lydia Stryk runs through Sat., Oct. 29. For tickets and more information, click here.

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

13924936_1163379360367077_6947173493795849123_nOnce again, off the WALL Productions and Carnegie Stage have succeeded in showcasing a performance unlike any other.  This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, a one- woman show created and performed by Heidi Nagle, written by Nagle, Matt Butoryak and Virginia Wall Gruenert. This show, an hour long sketch comedy act, is a different kind of show for me. As I filed into my seat I was surprised by how full the theater was.  I have seen some pretty incredible performances at this venue and Thursday was the first time I’ve ever seen the seats filled.  The majority of people in the audience were young- late twenties, maybe early 30’s, which I love. A youthful audience makes me anticipate a show full of life.

As the stage lights dimmed the projection screen illuminated and we, the audience are suddenly at the bar, having a beer. Everything looks a little blurry, kinda sideways and swaying; Ha! We are drunk, no it’s Heidi Nagle.  Then, Tech Crew member, Jenna Campbell insists Heidi hurries to the theater.   We follow Heidi and Jenna down Main Street from Riley’s Pour House to Carnegie Stage. We stop in route to pet a cute dog, converse with a pervert, and pause on the bridge, overlooking the creek, and contemplate the jump down. Each time Heidi stops to mingle with various characters the audience cheers and laughs hysterically. I’m liking the use of mixed media and I think it’s a clever idea to film yourself stumbling drunkenly down Main Street, with an audience tagging along.  It was funny when Nagle became so easily distracted by a cute puppy and when the creepy man in the car made reference to ‘Pokeballs’.

Once we ‘arrived’ at the theater we find out we are there for a viewing of Jurassic Park. Yes, I do mean the 1993 Steven Spielberg block buster film starring Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum. Nagle pulls up a chair in front of the screen, the film begins. She adds commentary and everyone in the audience laughs.  She pops herself popcorn, the DVD skips and Nagle fills us in on what we missed; the audience laughs again. Nagle finally decides to stop playing the movie until the DVD player is fixed, henceforth the Interstitial Interviews begin. As the audience around me snorts with laughter I begin to wonder what I missed, did the joke go right over my head?  Am I too old to ‘get it’?  Then it hits me, the audience are Nagle’s friends, acquaintances and people familiar with her style of comedy, writing and quite possibly her background and this must be why everyone finds these stories so damn hysterical.  I am not part of their circle therefore I am feeling a little lost.

Sometimes the interviews are funnier than the sketches that follow.  I knew I was out of my element before the performance even began but by the time Nagle took her final bow and the audience was applauding uproariously, I had only one thought running through my head- what was that?

I admit I don’t love sketch comedy, generally speaking, but there have been times I’ve fallen to the floor from laughing so hard.  Thursday night, not so much one of those floor hitting moments.  All was not lost, the sketch with Billy the Puppet, Nagle telling us about her mom chaperoning her school trip to see Les Miserables on Broadway and the skit about hipsters were entertaining.

I’m disappointed I didn’t ‘get’ much of what was happening or find what everyone else was laughing uncontrollably over as funny.  The meaning of the title, This Is Why We can’t Have Nice Things, never came into focus for me either. Though sketch comedy isn’t necessarily my cup of tea, I think we can all appreciate it when something other than just a play is brought to the stage.

Special thanks to off the WALL for complimentary press tickets. Unfortunately, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things had its final performance last night. For more information about off the WALL Productions and what’s happening at Carnegie Stage, click here.

 

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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“Through an abstract exploration into the human psyche, familial embarrassments, and velociraptors this one woman show journeys into the universal (first world problem) of why we can’t have nice things. Join us as we find out if sketch comedy shows like this are part of the problem.”