Our Town

OurTown-Poster-WebThornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Our Town, marks the opening of the mainstage season for University of Pittsburgh Stages in the newly renovated Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Our Town is a deceptively easy play to produce, famously requiring a minimal set and easily understood dialogue. But don’t let the surface simplicity fool you; this is a production that to be fully realized requires nuanced acting, a firm control of pacing, and obsessive attention to detail.

The problem starts with the director’s note, which focused on the casting choices for the show, explaining casting was not based on “physical appearance,” but instead on “who seemed to inhabit the character in an interesting and/or compelling way.”  The director’s note went on to explain how the casting affected the interpretation of character and dialogue. All well and good, but the result of this self-conscious emphasis on the casting was to draw focus away from the play itself and onto the actors, not the story. In practice, director Ricardo Vila-Roger seems to have attempted to create a production that allowed for racial diversity and gender equity. Commendable goals, and I applaud the attempt, but he “over-corrected” sometimes from my perspective.

He was most successful at building an ethnically diverse acting company, who worked well as an ensemble, giving committed, balanced performances. In fact, I think this production was more successful at providing a racially diverse cast than most of the productions I’ve seen in Pittsburgh in recent years. Kudos for that! What I didn’t like was the inauthentic use of Spanish for some of the Webbs’ dialogue. To my admittedly limited ears, it didn’t sound like any of the actors were actually native Spanish speakers; the accents were off, and so the addition of Spanish in the play didn’t seem organic. I didn’t mind the idea, but the execution was clumsy, which took away from the performances in the end.

Mr. Vila-Roger was less successful in his decisions around gender in the casting. He did not cast traditionally with the gender of the actor matching the gender of the character in all cases. Nor did he use gender-neutral casting to fill the roles, where actors don’t necessarily play characters that match their own gender. Instead, he cast several females as male characters, and then changed all of those characters to females. (Side note: he did not cast any males as female characters.) For me, this just didn’t work. It created too many anachronistic moments that simply did not mesh with the period dialogue of the play. This was especially egregious in the case of “Editor Webb” — Mr. Webb in the original script. The decision was made to play “Editor Webb” as a female character, leaving us in the audience to reconcile the idea that an openly lesbian couple would be married and have children in 1901 small town New Hampshire. While it’s a nice thought, it stretches the bounds of verisimilitude past the breaking point. It takes you out of the play too much. Not to mention that Editor Webb’s dialogue, particularly that between him/herself and George before and during the wedding simply didn’t work with a female Editor Webb. The dialogue, written in the 1930’s about the early 1900’s, wasn’t built for that kind of a stretch.

Let me be clear, I have no problem with actors of any gender playing characters of any gender. There is a long history of this practice, and it works quite well. But this changing of the character’s gender to match the actor’s gender seems almost regressive, as though women can’t play male roles. And, ultimately it takes the audience out of the world of the play.

In the end, by focusing the audience so much on his casting, by trying to be everything to everybody, and by trying to make an early twentieth century play fit the model of a twenty-first-century ideal, the director created a tortuous framework that distracted the audience from the simple meditation on ordinary life and death that is Our Town.

Despite all of these concerns, I commend Mr. Vila-Roger on this production, because it does what good university theater should do – it experiments with the form; it reimagines traditions; it allows a space for both professional and casual theater practitioners to expand the limits of their work.

This production of Our Town was a pleasant, university level production with good production values. I especially liked the directorial/design choice made at the end of the play when Emily’s ghost returns to her past to visit her family, and we see the colors and details of the world that Emily missed in life (you’ll have to see it to understand what I mean). The show was moving, bringing several audience members to tears in the third act. And best of all, the actors were emotionally brave and committed to their performances.

Our Town is playing at The Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre on the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus, through October 15, 2017.  For tickets, call 412-624-7529 or visit www.play.pitt.edu

Finding New Solutions in Old Problems: Pitt Stages’ Upcoming Season

10547577_925614320797878_2778221222100940625_nFor an extraordinary variety of reasons better cataloged elsewhere, it is a confusing time to be a young person in America. Thanks to a blame game-y media environment, one needs only type in the phrase “Millenials Are Killing” into Google’s search bar to admire our various war crimes against chain restaurants and department stores (or whatever). This generational hostility has created a kind of disinterest in what Millennials actually feel about the world around them to older generations – which is what makes college theater a more important space than it has been in a long time.

The University of Pittsburgh’s Theater program features an unusual amount of agency for its student body. Besides playing host to a series of shows that are entirely student run, the program also allows its students to have a say in what mainstage shows, which are typically directed by theater professors, will end up making the cut. This season features an eclectic mix of classics with a twist and unconventional works by contemporary writers, and will likely be an opportunity to hear young voices in a raw creative setting.

OurTown-Poster-WebFirst up at the University of Pittsburgh Theater’s fall season is Our Town. Originally written by Thornton Wilder, Our Town is primarily about the complexities of small town life in early 1900’s America. However, Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama isn’t your average slice of life Americana. Rather, it is a dark, complex reflection on life and death. The play is a working definition of minimalism in theater, featuring performances that, on the whole, are voice-less, and an omniscient narrator who directly addresses his audience.

Despite its familiar old-school trappings, director Ricardo Vila-Roger stressed to me that Pitt’s production would be immediate, and prescient.

“[Our Town]…is possibly even more important today, in that everyone is kind of rushing to get to the next thing,” Vila-Roger said. “Our main character [doesn’t realize] all she’s missed because she’s not paying attention to what’s in front of her. It’s the same today with cell phones.”

The production will also, unlike Wilder’s original production, feature a diverse cast.  “We’re telling the story of a lot of people, not just one kind of person. If I’m going to create a town on stage, I’m going to create the town I’d want to live in.”

Our Town will run from October 5th to the 15th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Parade-PosterNext up is Parade, a musical based on a true story that was originally written by Alfred Uhry with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, this time directed by Rob Frankenberry. Of all the shows in Pitt’s upcoming season, Parade is easily the story that most encapsulates contemporary social discourse. Our main character is Leo Frank, a Jewish American accused of murder whose wildly unethical trial was a keystone moment in the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, as well as an inciting action in the reformation of the KKK.

The musical, set in 1913, follows several characters of some historical import, including an opportunistic journalist who capitalized on the event, a jury fueled by the distrust of outsiders, and the hapless man at the trial’s center.

Vila-Roger described the musical as “important, and very difficult,” It is also a potential moment for reflection for its audience and cast. “The music is beautiful, and I think the message – good Lord – is so important right now.”

Parade will be performed from November 9th through the 19th at the Charity Randall Theatre.

Besides Pitt’s mainstage shows, the theater also produces Student Lab shows, which are almost entirely directed and produced by students. The first student lab show is [title of show], an extraordinarily meta musical that is about its own creation and execution. Originally written by Jeff Bowen, [title of show] is quite literally a work in progress, beginning with the cast – all playing themselves in the show’s initial production – discussing what the opening of their new show should sound like as they’re performing their initial brainstorm. Pitt’s production will be directed by Alex Ditmar and will run from October 18th through the 22nd at the Henry Heymann theater.

Next comes Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck!, directed by Chloe Torrence and originally written by Jay Torrence. The play is a fictionalized retelling of a real tragedy that befell the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1918 when a train collided with the circus’ caravan, resulting in many of the performers’ dwellings being set ablaze. More than 80 lives were lost, and over a hundred more were injured. Roustabout, however, focuses on the colorful lives of those affected, and seeks to extract something more from the senseless accident. It will run from November 15th through the 19th at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre.

Those looking for more originality and thematic complexity in their night at the theater will find that there’s plenty more to discover in Pitt’s Student Lab Show’s upcoming productions. There’s The Lifeboat is Sinking, a Shel Silverstein one act comedy about a woman who forces her husband to imagine their bed is a sinking ship and the boat’s dead weight his mother. The show will premiere alongside a production of An Oblation, a short one act written by the ever-inventive Taylor Mac, which is a comedy about two women who catalogue the deaths of friends and acquaintances at their own version of the last supper. Ann Amundson will direct both. Then, there is Victory on Mrs. Dandywine’s Island, written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Zev Woskoff, which is an Oscar Wilde-style spoof of high society. All three of these shows will be performed simultaneously on January 31st to February 4th at the Henry Heymann Theatre.

Pitt’s final Student Lab show will show will be Suddenly Last Summer, an underappreciated Tennesse Williams drama about a woman whose mental instability hides a dark family secret. It will be directed by Nic Bernstein and will run from April 11th through the 15th at the Henry Heymann Theater.

Meanwhile, the remaining Mainstage Productions will be a mix of the classic and contemporary, continuing with a production of Howard Ashman’s well-revered musical adaptation of the B-Movie cult classic, Little Shop of Horrors. The show will be performed on February 8th through the 18th at the Charity Randall Theatre and be directed by Reginald Douglas. This will be followed by a production of Upton Sinclair’s Marie Antoinette, directed by LeMil Eiland and running from February 15th to the 25th. The mainstage’s final production will be an original play written and directed by Cynthia Croot named Recoil. It will run from April 5th to the 15th.

At its best, university theater is a space in which people can essentially attend a show to see what’s next in American drama, and the University of Pittsburgh’s upcoming season has the potential to be particularly potent.

For tickets and more information about the University of Pittsburgh’s upcoming season, click here.