In the Company of Oscar Wilde

Company-of-Oscar-WildeThe thing we seem to forget about legendary creative radicals like Oscar Wilde is that they were, in a word, radicals. Oscar Wilde may have been a student of literary history, but his work was prescient. To Wilde, society was a solved puzzle box of obvious illusions masking desires that were even more obvious. He may have been inspired by the great authors who came before him, but he wasn’t the kind of artist who often looked back.

PICT’s In the Company of Oscar Wilde takes, in a very literal sense, exactly the opposite approach to storytelling. At the play’s open, two high society women (Marsha Mayhak and Karen Baum) approach the stage and commiserate about the party they’re attending and the men within it. Two of these men (Martin Giles and James Fitzgerald) enter mid-conversation and strike up a discussion about Oscar Wilde with the women, who have primarily only heard rumors about him.

This, I feel, is an unfortunate framing device for a story. I do not want the entirety of a narrative to be expressed by a pair of men interrupting women at a party to explain things to them; I also don’t want the women to express gratitude in return, because even a fantasy demands some context in reality when put onstage. I could very well be wrong, but if I remember correctly, there is at least one “well, actually…” moment early on that drives the point home.

I digress. All four participants begin speaking about Wilde’s life and written works at length – or, to be more precise, they begin to quote him directly ad nauseum. We learn Wilde’s real-life biography via these people, and nothing more, because they do not exist to be known. They are flesh-vessels of Wilde’s timeline, vague shadows of nineteenth century caricature energetically performing dozens of the man’s one liners before disappearing off into the ether.

They’re effective at being that, to be fair, as I learned a thing or two about Wilde I didn’t know before I entered the theater. I’m a fan of Wilde but I’m no expert, and some of In the Company’s greatest insights come from a dramatic reading of his diary, which was written while he was imprisoned for (more or less) his love affair with another man. When I call this moment a dramatic reading, I mean it literally: Alan Stanford, who both directs the show and acts as its contextual narrator, offers up insights and quotes from Wilde’s life his four protagonists cannot, in this case by simply reading Wilde’s diary to us. Stanford’s voice is effective, one I’d gladly sit with it in the context of an audiobook, but his narrative technique here reveals a lot about the show in general, too.

In the Company is an elaborate act of hero worship. It does not exist to explicate Wilde’s illustrious career – it just wants you to know the rough outline of it. There is a somewhat odd scene in which the well-loved Lady Bracknell (Ingrid Sonnichsen), a human brick wall of indecipherable high society judgement written for The Importance of Being Earnest, relieves the play of its reality by generating a corporeal form and reciting the dialogue from her most beloved scene in its entirety.  This sort of ‘fictional guest star’ role is exclusive to Bracknell, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. It’s no surprise that Stanford would refrain from fan fiction-ing new lines for the character, but she is the only of Oscar’s creations we get to see for ourselves. While I suppose it’s a particular kind of delightful to get a Bracknell-for-Bracknell’s-sake scene, as an isolated moment it’s jarring, and begs an obvious question: why don’t more of Wilde’s characters make an appearance? I don’t necessarily need to see Dorian Gray walk onstage and be a sociopath to everyone for a few minutes, but there are a lot of Wilde characters worth reading who are rarely read or studied. If there was ever a place to explore Wilde’s lesser-known work, this would seem to be it.

In the Company of Oscar Wilde is fine for newcomers or diehards with an unquenchable thirst for any and all things Wilde, but as it stands the show doesn’t engage in conversation with the author it is inspired by so much as embody the echo of his voice. It’s rather like a cover band of a group that broke up decades ago; your relationship with it will almost certainly be dictated by your pre-established relationship with its progenitor. In either case, you will at least have a few extra quips in your back pocket the next time a man at a party begins explaining things about your favorite author to you.

In the Company of Oscar Wilde has unfortunately already closed but you can check out what PICT is up to hereCompany-of-Oscar-Wilde

Romeo and Juliet

rj-431x500In the close quarters of Little Italy, old New York is an appropriate volatile and steamy backdrop for the feuding families and young love in PICT Classic Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, playing through Nov. 4 at the Fred Rogers Studio, WQED.

Like “fair Verona”, there’s little room for a Capulet not to bump into a Montague on a hot day, igniting a knife fight. The subtext in Alan Stanford’s production is that these families may be, you know “families”–perhaps immigrants who moved from Italy and Sicily to find their way through whatever means in America.

The concepts plays well, especially on Jonmichael Bohach’s versatile and multi-purpose set, which spans the room’s width and height. His scenic elements conjure the streets of New York, an outdoor cafe, the play’s interior settings, and even the infrastructure of an elevated train–heard once as a critical climax of street violence erupt.

As the show opens, Stanford welcomes the audience and segues nicely into the prologue, describing the story of his own production, one he contends “everyone should watch now and again–especially if you have children.” His cast of 17 reminds us of the urgency at every turn. These outstanding artists comprise a solid and entertaining crew.

“Two households both alike in dignity.” The hot headed young people on the steamy streets of downtown Manhattan bite their thumbs and rough each other up. Even the women get into the action as they try to quell the violence.

Adrianne Knapp’s Juliet captures the innocence and yearning of a girl dreaming of true love and womanhood. She’s idealist yet dreamy–absolutely the smart Juliet of Shakespeare’s play and, here, savvy in the times her story is now set. Knapp is versatile and shifts her thoughts and moods thoroughly as she considers her options at every turn.

Her Romeo is sweet-faced Dylan Marquis Meyers, every bit the fickle and eager teen. He conveys a resolve that overshadows his tears upon his banishment. Meyers is both endearing and engaging. His smart Romeo is strong in his resolve and a fine match for Knapp.

The couple is sweet, lovely and empathic as they are not unlike kids through the ages, experiencing first loves that are powerful, hurtful and full of anticipated joy. By the play’s end they have grown up and take their fates into their own hands, recognizing what they cannot change and resigned to how their community and family have essentially turned against them.

Stanford supports Shakespeare’s lesson: feuds and misunderstanding over even the least important things can take our time and take lives. Adults too often shut out the pain of young people with tragic results. Romeo and Julietremains a timeless journey through family dynamics, parental posturing, pride, and stubbornness.

Martin Giles swaggers and asserts machismo as Lord Capulet, running the household and eventually steamrolling Juliet to marry Count Paris. He’s boisterous and one of the flames that ignite the ongoing conflicts. You sense he was likely on his good behavior when the Prince called him in while muttering about the Montagues on the way out. However he displays wisdom when he tells Tybalt not to cause a scene when Romeo crashes his party. There are important business and agreements on the street and there’s no time to disrupt them with petty arguments.

His nemesis Montague is Matthew J. Rush, who plays Romeo’s father as less impulsive, balancing the hot Capulets.

Shammen McCune is Juliet’s determined mother, a solid presence in any production, including as Jocasta in PICT’s Oedipus. She journeys from calculating in her plans her daughter’s courtship to Paris to frustrated angry as Juliet defies her father’s order to marry. McCune carves a classic figure, perhaps someone who moved from Italy for a new life in America to be ruled by family protocols and patriarchy. In this setting, Juliet’s life would not have been much better, but Lady Capulet at least has the security her husband dictates.

It’s Lamar K. Cheston as Romeo’s friend Benvolio who takes the reins as a young man perhaps wise beyond his years. Cheston, most recently seen as in the title role of Henry V at Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks and at PICT in Oedipus, brings thoughtful choices to a character that if often less integral than in this production. He keeps things together when all others are awry and he reports on the misdeeds of the streets. Cheston is a strong and focused young player from whom we may expect much. In this sequel to this Italian-American story, we see him as the >consigliere advising Montague.

PICT vets Karen Baum and James FitzGerald are the Nurse and Friar Laurence, confidants of the young lovers, but forces who contribute to their downfall. Their good intentions fail, of course. Baum draws a nurse who is practical, knows her place and has some fun with the comic bit. Moreover, she looks out for her girl and provides structure in the unstable Capulet household. A delightful jewel in every cast, Baum brings authentic care and wisdom to the unpredictable sea of fighting and family dynamics. Her nurse is spot on.

Likewise, FitzGerald’s stalwart Friar is essential alongside Romeo. Bringing depth and craft to every performance, FitzGerald is always wonderful to watch and a joy for listening to the poetry of this play.

Art Peden debuts at PICT as the Prince, presiding over the neighborhood more as moderator than ruler. He brings focus and reason and is an artist we’ll look forward to following here. Jonathan Visser, always compelling, is Paris, here an attentive and mature courtier.

The fiery Tybalt is Daniel Pivovar, insisting on the brawl. Alec Silberblatt is a drunken Mercutio–taking his bawdy tales and gestures to the max.

The always charming Matt Henderson is Sampson and Pete, drawing giggles as he wrestles with lists and street bullies. Eric Freitas portrays both Friar John and Abram in his first PICT appearance. The strong women of the neighborhood, Sarah Carleton and Sandi Oshaben apt support, evening jumping into the fray as needed. Christopher Collier appears as Gregory and the Apothecary in his first PICT outing.

Aside from bawdy bits, this is a wonderful “first Shakespeare” for all ages. Mercutio’s gestures are no less than what we see daily in media or on the street, so don’t hesitate to bring some young people to this engaging classic–and to talk about the show before and after.

PICT Classic Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet runs at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio through November 4. For tickets and more information click here. 

PICT Teaches Romeo and Juliet Lessons in the Neighborhood

rj-431x500When a door opens to create new productions in a historic spaces, creative opportunities are revealed. Now, PICT Classic Theatere brings classic stories to two of Pittsburgh’s most storied settings–the Fred Rogers Studio of WQED-TV in Oakland and The Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze.

This season, Artistic Director Alan Stanford leads as key storyteller to stage classics that fill an important niche in our regional arts menu. He will direct both Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Oct. 20-Nov. 4, and his own adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, April 5-28, in the studio where Mister Rogers was produced. Between adventures in production at WQED, the company takes up residence at the Frick Art & Historical Center for a week of Oscar Wilde programming, Dec. 6-10, in the museum’s lovely and intimate theater.

While many Pittsburghers already relate to the Rogers’ Studio as home of  “The Land of Make Believe,” PICT will bring it’s own versions of imagined stories to life.

Stanford considers the space one of the best block theaters in the city. Equipped for versatile television production, the studio will accommodate a 160-seat audience configuration.

PICT’s 100th production, this R&J takes a modern approach in playing out the timely themes Shakespeare explored via two teens whose affections cross the lines of feuding families. As this play is set in Italy, Stanford moves the action stateside to an Italian-American community suggesting New York’s Little Italy in the 1930s.

“You could set this play anywhere in the world at any time,” says Stanford. “The important point about the play that is true and has been true for over 400 years is that it’s a play about the damage that families and their feuds can do to their children.”

Stanford usually produces one Shakespeare play each season and he realizes the popularity of Romeo and Juliet might cloud the audience’s’ view of its importance for revisiting the play and often.  “This is one everyone should watch now and again–especially if you have children,” he says.

He points to the prologue’s clear foreshadowing: “Two households both alike in dignity. Shakespeare tells you that the two protagonists die and that they are not superior to one another.”  

Stanford is excited about the young pair he is directing in the title roles. Adrianne Knapp is Juliet and Dylan Meyers is her Romeo.

The meddling Nurse and Friar Laurence are played by PICT regulars Karen Baum and James FitzGerald. Art Peden is Prince of the turbulent neighborhood.

Cast in the Capulet house are: Martin Giles, Lord Capulet; Shammen McCune, Lady Capulet; Daniel Pivovar, Tybalt; Jonathan Visser, Paris; and Christopher Collier, Gregory. Portraying some of Romeo’s friends on the Montague side are: Alec Silberblatt, Mercutio; and Lamar K. Cheston, Benvolio. Rounding out the cast of 15 are: Matt Henderson, Sampson/Peter; Eric Freitas, Friar John/Abram; and Sarah Carleton, Girl 1.

PICT’s seasons continues on the East End moving from Shakespeare to writers Oscar Wilde and Charlotte Bronte as the company moves to Point Breeze and back to Oakland.

At the Frick for “Wilde at the Frick”, PICT presents a week-long exploration of Oscar Wilde and varied aspects of his life and works. Stanford loves the Center’s ambiance and its popular cafe, saying, “Afternoon tea is one of the secrets of Pittsburgh!”

On the work to be done, “I’ve been an Oscar Wilde fan all of my life. Oscar was majestic with language.” Stanford points out that while audiences enjoy many of Wilde’s works as English comedies, that “he really wrote a lot of Irish satires about the English.”

Stanford’s describes the dramatist as “a philosopher” who, like Dickens, wrote “brilliant articles” on the unjust imprisonment of children and social issues.

The play In the Company of Oscar Wilde has its US premiere with just five performances beginning on  Dec. 6. Crafted from Wilde’s words and writing, the dramatic piece draws a portrait of the brilliant writer who created some of the most enduring plays of the Edwardian era and a man who was imprisoned for homosexuality around his affair with a younger man, Bosie Douglas.

On Dec. 10 only, the company presents a rare dramatic evening about Wilde’s third trial based on the scarce documentation of the events as reconstructed by the writer’s grandson Merlin Holland. PICT describes the program as: “A recreation of the final cross-examination of Wilde by Sir William Carson at the famous trial of the Marquis of Queensbury, a dramatic exchange that cost Oscar his freedom and reputation.” A post-show discussion follows.

Coincidently, the Frick’s current exhibit is “Undressed”, on the history of undergarments, and open at times coinciding with some PICT events. Consult The Frick website for details.

For families and all ages, the company also performs two of Wilde’s beloved fairy tales, The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, written for his two sons. The one-hour program takes place only on Sat., Dec. 9 at 2 pm, with tickets at just $10.

PICT returns to the Rogers Studio for Jane Eyre, April 5-28, with the adaptation Stanford originally wrote on commission for the Gate Theatre in Dublin. An audience favorite at companies including the Guthrie Theater, the story of a governess and the secrets that haunt her beloved and his family.  

Stanford expects to share more news from PICT as the season continues. Watch for updates and visit the website to guarantee tickets as seating capacities for these intimate and compelling events: http://www.picttheatre.org.

Sive

Sive-cut-pdf-pdf

The cut-away of an Irish cottage that serves as a set for PICT’s production of John B. Keane’s Sive (pronounced sigh-ve), looks a quaint place, if sparse and threadbare, but it will house a destructive tableau of hungry, grasping poverty.  What befalls because of it prompts Nanna Glavin’s (Sharon Brady) bitter comment, “Women must pay for all happiness.”  And it certainly is the women who must suffer the most for even the few scraps of comfort left to them.

The play takes place in County Kerry, a southern region of Ireland, in the 1950’s at the home of Mike Glavin (Michael Fuller).  He lives there with his wife, Mena (Karen Baum), his mother, Nanna, and his young niece, Sive (Cassidy Adkins).  Mike and Mena scrape together a meager living while Sive goes to school at the local convent, but they are presented with a chance to escape their poverty when the local matchmaker, Thomasheen Sean Rua (James Fitzgerald) sneaks in to tell Mena that an elderly farmer with money to burn wants to marry Sive, and will even pay to have her instead of demanding the usual dowry from the family.

James FitzGerald, Karen Baum - SIVE

James Fitzgerald as Thomasheen and Karen Baum as Mena

To Mena’s initial credit, she scoffs at the match, but the lure of money proves too much of an enticement.  Fitzgerald as Thomasheen, under Alan Stanford’s most commanding direction, plies and plies at Mena, at first keeping his distance, letting the idea sink in, then moving in ever closer as she succumbs to his persuasion.  He even leans over to whisper in her ear, the image of a serpent charming her with temptation.  When she is finally convinced, he closes the distance to clasp her hand, and it seems the devil’s bargain is struck.  Thomasheen continues to hover about the cottage like a dirty vulture, overseeing his work in order to get his cut of the bargain.

But it is not easy work convincing the rest of the family.  Mike vehemently rejects the match when Mena first brings it up, leaping from the table and pacing the small space between the door and the table like a caged animal.  He comes around doubtfully, just as hungry for money (an image made literal as he dumps his day’s profit on his dinner plate) as his wife, although his qualms never go away.  Sive is left to flounder with the increasing pressure from her family.  She tries to protest the marriage quietly, ignoring Thomasheen and her intended fiancée, Sean Dota (Charles David Richards) when they come to call and telling Mena she cannot go through with it, but she can do little to truly defend herself.

Michael Fuller, James FitzGerald - SIVE

Michael  Fuller as Mike Glavin and James Fitzgerald as Thomasheen

In fact, though the play is named for her, it is not Sive’s play.  She stands out from the other characters in her clean, fresh appearance against their dirty and ragged clothing, but she seems a creature apart.  The satchel of books she carries instead of water or farm equipment reinforces this.  She is not often on the stage, but her name is thrown about constantly.  Really, it is Mena and Thomasheen’s play.  They dominate the stage as they plot to marry off Sive and lift themselves out of abject poverty.  It is also a play about all the events that transpired before Sive was born, including her mother giving in to youthful passion and having Sive out of wedlock.  Sive’s marriage is as much a punishment for what her mother did as it is a means to an end, even though the girl has not made any error herself.

It would be easy to hate Mena if Baum had not played her with so much humanity.  She criticizes and snaps at anyone and everyone in the house at a moment’s notice, but she is also a woman frustrated with living side by side her critical mother-in-law who wastes no chance to remind Mena how unwelcome she has been since Mike brought her home.  She has lived a life of constant labor with nothing to show for it and could not afford to wait for a better husband when she was young.  In spite of that, there is still some warmth and even poetry buried deep down inside of her.  She only wants the means to live, instead of constantly surviving.

Karen Baum, Sharon Brady - SIVE

Karen Baum as Mena and  Sharon Brady as Nanna Glavin

Thomasheen is harder to forgive.  The roguishness that Fitzgerald brings to the role can be alluring, and he is not without his own misfortune, but his single-mindedness to sell Sive into a marriage she does not want just to save himself is appalling.  He bends and bows to seem subservient, but he is the one with all the strings in hand and he will pull them to whatever end to keep control.  Thomasheen is a man who makes his living off of the suffering of women, and yet he scorns the roving tinkers Pats Babcock and Cathalawn (Martin Giles and J. Alex Noble, respectively) as beggars.

Alan Stanford makes a timely choice in performing Sive, as we stare down a new healthcare plan that threatens millions struggling with poverty in the U.S. and a president whose policies at large target women and minorities who already have to fight daily for their very existence.  It has long been government policy that “Women must pay for all happiness,” in some way or another.  Sive may take place in 1950’s Ireland, but it could easily be set in present day America, and it is a frightening to think what may happen to our own country if we ignore the little people hurting right now.

Sive runs through May 20th at the Union Project on North Negley Avenue in Highland Park and ticket information can be found here.

Oedipus Rex

oedipus-cutAlan Stanford’s new adaption of the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex is a modern day masterpiece.

Sometimes you just know within the first few minutes that this is really going to be good. That first inclination comes not from the play itself, but from that initial exposure to the actors, setting, and direction. Admittedly, you know the story written by Sophocles some twenty-five hundred years ago has to be pretty compelling to have held up over the long haul.

Chances are, you are aware of the main story, much of which transpires before the play actually begins. Queen Jocasta of Thebes has just given birth to a beautiful baby boy. Her husband King Laius learns from the oracles that he is doomed to die at the hand of his son. That doesn’t really leave the King a lot of options, either kill the baby boy now or be killed by him later.  The King figures he might as well nip this in the bud and after injuring the child’s feet he orders his servant to take the baby to the mountains and leave him there to die.  Instead, the servant gives the child to a shepherd who names him Oedipus (Greek for swollen feet).

Justin Wade Wilson as Oedipus, Shammen McCune as Jocasta
Justin Wade Wilson as Oedipus, Shammen McCune as Jocasta

The servant takes the boy to his home country of Corinth, where he gives the child to the barren Queen and King of Corinth and the child is raised as their son. He becomes the handsome, educated and articulate Oedipus. He learns from another oracle that he is destined to kill his father and mate with his mother, which horrifies him. He doesn’t realize he is adopted, and because he wishes his parents no harm he leaves Corinth.  While on his travels he gets into a scuffle with another group and in a fit anger of kills some men. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, one of the men was King Laius and the first portion of the oracle’s prophecy has come to pass.

Our play begins with Oedipus arriving in Thebes as the city is under siege by the Sphinx. Oedipus solves the riddles of the Sphinx and as his reward is given the kingship of Thebes and the hand of Queen Jocasta (his biological mother) in marriage. None of the main characters know this, which sets the stage for the resulting drama.

If you have seen Oedipus or read one of the literal translations from the original Greek, it’s pretty difficult to get through the long speeches and endless choruses.

In this production Director Alan Stanford has adapted the original to a more modern style of speaking yet still retains the timeless sense of the original. Stanford has created an Oedipus Rex for our time. This adaptation and production serve to reinforce Sophocles’ reminder that humanities flaws haunt us generation after generation. Corruption is self-delusion that leads to the belief that only one person has all the answers to cure our ills.

Oedipus is not an inherently flawed or bad fellow, he doesn’t yet know he murdered his father or married his mother.  After all, he’s the hero that saved Thebes from the curse of the Sphinx.  Once rumors of the truth come out, his human failings take hold.

Karen Baum as The Sphinx
Karen Baum as The Sphinx

The Union Projects’ performance space is long and linear, with audiences on either side. Stanford’s staging has he townspeople on one end of the stage with the castle and ruling people on the other. The action flows back and forth like March Madness. Madness it is as, Oedipus and the townspeople come to grips with the conundrum of Oedipus’ lineage, the oracle’s prophecy and what it means for them.

PICT’s cast is a mix of veteran actors with prolific resumes and those early their careers.

Twenty nine year old Penn State alum Justin Wade Wilson’s powerful performance as Oedipus presents both a likeable and admirable leader as he saves Thebes. He skillfully transitions to a much darker and intriguing Oedipus as he searches for the truth that when revealed will bring his ultimate downfall.

Pittsburgh’s Shammen McCune is Queen Jocasta. Watch her performance closely as her initial meeting with Oedipus turn into romantic love. Through the course of the play she beautifully portrays the realization of horror; she has married her son, born him children and yet still loves him as both a son and husband.

Central to moving the story forward is the blind prophet Tiresius played by Pittsburgh’s James Fitzgerald. Tiresius is, against his own objections, the first to tell Oedipus that he killed his father and married his mother, facts that Oedipus refuses to believe.  Fitzgerald’s strong performance is pivotal in unleashing the carnage to follow.

Johnny Lee Davenport plays Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon. Davenport has the perfectly imposing stage presence to counter Wilson’s Oedipus. There is quite an interesting bit of clever stage direction as Oedipus demands Creon be executed for supposedly attempting to undermine him.

Shammen McCune as Jocasta
Shammen McCune as Jocasta

Stanford’s Oedipus Rex is set in North Africa. Set design by Johnmichael Bohach is simple in form and nearly monochromatic in color, conveying a sense of warmth, royalty and the bloodshed ahead. Michael Montgomery’s costume design relays the African theme with a touch of Egyptian motif. The actors transition between chorus members and main characters with their costumes effectively supporting their dual roles.

Almeda Beynon’s Sound Design underscore the tension and drama very effectively, subtlety appearing ghostlike as needed and disappearing just as subtlety. Her compositions serve to give the mind a pause and as a means to gather your thoughts as an audience member.

This production through Stanford’s direction and adaptation brings to audiences a timeless Oedipus Rex, a modern take on the human condition. This is a powerful and yet entertaining classic drama full of conspiracy theories, distrust, intrigue and, yes, love.

Oedipus Rex by PICT Classic Theatre at the Union Project in Highland Park playing now through April 3rd. Tickets at picttheattre.org or by calling 412-561-6000

Thanks to PICT for the complementary tickets. Photos courtesy of Suellen Fitzsimmons.

The Lion in Winter

Lion-Final-WebIt’s well into the holiday season and there’s a chance you’ve either had or will have a tense family dinner. No matter your family situation, you’re probably not going have as tense a Christmas as King Henry II and his family. In James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, Henry, his wife, his sons, and his mistress all gather round for a fun holiday of constant manipulation and harsh betrayals. PICT Classic Theatre opened their new production in the appropriately castle-like Union Project in Highland Park, and they invite you to spend a tense holiday with a family that will most likely make yours seem better.

Henry and his wife, Eleanor, have quite the estranged marriage (he imprisoned her). But he invites her back to the castle on Christmas for some verbal sparring and to reveal his plans for his heirs. The eldest son, Richard, is a bold warrior and his mother’s favorite. The youngest, John, is weak and childish, yet is his father’s first pick. The middle son, Geoffrey, is very clever but feels ignored by both parents (middle children, right?). Also over for the holidays is the new young King of France, Phillip, and his half-sister Alais, who is betrothed to a son but is Henry’s lover. It’s a complicated situation as parents, children, and lovers try to deduce if there is any real love between them and who is just a pawn in the political game.

Alan Stanford and Cary Anne Spear head things as Henry and Eleanor, capturing the utter contempt but also admiration the two have for each other. As the most senior members of the family the two are experts at “the game” they play, and the actors create characters that relish in the manipulation and putting on of “scenes’. Henry and Eleanor are very clever, and as such have some of the more biting lines in Goldman’s genuinely funny script. The history between them is fascinating: they both claim to have never loved the other, yet their love of the game suggests there may be affection there somewhere, even if they wouldn’t admit it. If a married couple could be called “Frenemies”, it would probably be Henry and Eleanor.

Their sons are more easily broken. Tony Bingham’s Richard is physically intimidating and hotheaded, more prone to angry shouting than his brothers. Matt Henderson’s John is an annoying little twerp, but his childlike reactions bring a lot of humor to what could otherwise be ultra-heavy scenes. Gregory Johnstone as Geoffrey is the best thinker, no doubt inherited from his parents, but is ironically overlooked by them. Geoffrey has an air of smarm that masks some real hurt and, like everyone else, his breaking point can be reached. Karen Baum and Dylan Marquis Meyers play Alais and Phillip as strong young people who are still probably in over their heads, new players in a cruel game.

PICT places its audiences in the castle with just a few simple touches. The set features a giant table in the center that serves to be whatever furniture the character’s need. A downed chandelier serves as a rack for characters to hang their crowns or jewelry off of when they’ve retired to their “rooms”. The audience sits on either side of the big table, and John Shepard’s direction has made it so no action or facial expression is missed out on depending on where you’re sitting. Costumes are just elaborate enough to suggest royalty without weighing down the actors or distracting from the story.

If you’re unwilling to sit through your holiday dinner and argue about whatever horrible politics with your family, why not go see The Lion in Winter and watch horrible politics unfold in front of you? The royal family is probably funnier than yours anyway. It’s another solid production from PICT, so I would recommend seeing it before the real winter hits.

Pittsburgh Irish-Classic Theatre’s production of The Lion in Winter runs at the Union Project in Highland Park through December 17. For tickets and more information click here.

Special thanks to PICT for complimentary press tickets.

The Merchant of Venice

Merchant-Final-WebSometimes romantic, occasionally funny, and always unsettling, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice makes audiences squirm. The play mirrors not only the historic anti-Semitism of the late 1500s but an ongoing reality.

PICT deserves kudos for staging such a thoughtful and timely production of Merchant, a less frequently programmed Shakespeare play as this work has been put on trial itself due to anti-Semitic characters and the perceived stereotyping of Jewish characters. Consider this play in the context of its historical origins, but remember that it is Shakespeare’s timeless and keen observation of human nature that makes his works resonate through time.

Thus, Artistic Director Alan Stanford has chosen to stage this complex “comedy” (as it’s categorized in the First Folio but also regarded as one the “problem plays”) in the 1930s. The setting foreshadows the rise of the Third Reich in Germany and Fascism in Italy. Stanford’s “Venice” could be anywhere, a choice providing even more relevance to this sometimes misunderstood text in November 2016.

The titular merchant Antonio is in debt after losing ships and cargo to storms at sea. His resultant contract with moneylender Shylock is rather gruesomely drawn up: the Jewish debtor requires that Antonio give “a pound of flesh” if he reneges on the loan. Even Antonio chuckles at such a ridiculous condition. But when he can’t pay up, Shylock takes the merchant to court. Add in three mysterious boxes at the lovely bachelorette Portia’s estate Belmont, numerous colorful suitors who include Antonio’s friend Bassanio, Shylock’s daughter Jessica running away with her beloved Lorenzo, and a renown courtroom scene. Smart cross-dressing enables Portia and lady-in-waiting Nerissa to pose as legal experts in court to help Bassanio’s friend, shades of the forest in As You Like It.

Gershwin pre-show tunes set up the period and casual elegance. Stanford’s cast is costumed accurately and attractively from head to toe by Michael Montgomery. They are like 1930s movie stars on Johnmichael Bohach’s clean and practical Bauhaus-inspired set and the style suits the characters’ ultimately careless natures in this version.

Bohach excels in creating appealing details and practical choices for diverse settings at PICT and other area theaters. The elevated stage in the center of the Union Project’s Great Hall has an attractive floor suggesting stone diagonally set with dark wood accents that are  replicated as stage and furniture trim. Low, sophisticated furniture pieces are outfitted with flat ivory cushions and bolsters. Seating on either side of the rectangular stage, the audience readily can focus on the actors and the text. Keith A. Truax’s unintrusive lighting also perhaps intentionally sheds more light on the audience in this production.

James FitzGerald as Shylock
James FitzGerald as Shylock

The space represents the dressing room at a men’s club, posh residences, a courtroom, and more. The pace might benefit from some tightening between scenes, including a reduction in  furniture moving that only sometimes clearly defines scene settings.

As Shylock, James FitzGerald brings the nuance and strength audiences have come to expect of this versatile actor. His Shylock is a savvy businessman, professional and thorough. He is certainly guarded, undoubtedly having managed to build a career in the early 20th century despite implied and overt discrimination. His heartbreak at his only child Jessica’s elopement is palpable and the loss of his late wife Leah’s ring seems genuinely more important than the money Jessica takes with her. Fitzgerald conveys the conflicts within Shylock about family, financial security, and reputation. It’s believable to attribute his determined revenge on merchant Antonio as wrought from the pain of his personal losses.

Martin Giles’s Antonio is debonair and detached. He’s that cool, sometimes troubled friend who always gets by. A top actor to catch in town, Giles is a bit James Mason, mustached with something else under that dashing surface. His Antonio is an enigmatic presence and seems more interested in the mix of his cocktail than the legalities that could ruin him.

Gayle Pazerski is a smart and cool Portia, a woman of means trapped in her late father’s terms for her inheritance. Pazerski draws Portia as a 20th century woman who can play the game and win, subtly setting up Bassanio’s courtship. Well-spoken and a lovely blonde in this production, Pazerski is alluring but not as charming as one could choose to play this cross-dressing heroine. Her “quality of mercy” was more matter-of-fact than a thoughtfully passionate argument, but was effective as delivered directly to Shylock center stage.

Friend and waiting lady Nerissa is portrayed by Karen Baum, a PICT regular whose spunky comic flair and priceless expressions always reflect fierce motivation. Baum delightfully supports Pazerski’s every move as her devotion brings more depth to Nerissa. Her male legal clerk is spot on via her deepened voice and boyish attitude.

Fredi Bernstein nurtures the conflicting emotions of Shylock’s daughter Jessica. Warm in her scenes with the clown Gobo and uncertain in a new environment at Portia’s Belmont, her Jessica  tries hard to fit in. Bernstein draws on much the little Shakespeare provides, sadly pointing up the irony in “on such a night as this” with Lorenzo.

Bassanio as played by Luke Halfery is a young gent learning the ropes. Certainly smart, Halfery’s Bassanio seems less experienced than his desired Portia. He drops Bassanio’s privileged air when he wins her with infectious delight when he gets the girl. As Lorenzo, Michael Steven Brewer solidly builds a case for winning Jessica. His almost businesslike demeanor suggests Lorenzo is may indeed be an opportunistic lover.

Jonathan Visser is the brash, sometimes inebriated Gratiano, contrasting with the other young men in perhaps class and education. Visser shines in his energy and attention to the essence of Gratiano as an eager-to-please, attentive, but unpolished guy. Impetuous and outspoken, Gratiano benefits from Visser’s height and physical attitude, implying he could act even more inappropriately if given the chance.

Connor McCanlus creates a warm and light Launcelot Gobo, the clownish servant in Shylock’s household. The Elizabethan clown may be challenging when time traveling and McCanlus handles it well. With a Chaplinesque approach that suits this period, McCanlus aptly plies Gobo’s  words for sweet effect in scenes with his blind father and Jessica.

Ken Bolden delivers a triple play, showing off his range and lovely voice as Portia’s Spanish suitor Arragon, Old Gobo, and the Duke of Venice as courtroom judge. Bolden’s comic edge is delightful with his handlebar mustache and straw hat at Belmont, tottering as an elder, and sharp and suave in pinstriped suit at court. In court, Bolden and FitzGerald’s intense eye-to-eye discourse is memorable for the textual agility they bring.

James FitzGerald, Martin Giles, Luke Halferty
James FitzGerald, Martin Giles, Luke Halferty

Parag Gohel courts Portia as the dashing Morocco, determined to win, then ambivalent at his loss. As Shylock’s adviser Tubal, Gohel cuts a contrasting style with Orthodox garb and forelocks. Carolyn Jerz as maid Stephania, Portia’s maid, and Simon Colker and Justin Bees are Salanio and Salerio provide support all around.

The themes of ethics, loyalty, and judicial wisdom resound in another memorable production that sets PICT apart as the city’s keeper of the classics. Merchant again raises more questions than answers. Stanford resists telling the audience what to think. In his director’s note, Stanford asks some essential questions, including: “Do we by our own behavior, teach others to treat us as badly as we treat them?”

Ample manipulation includes not only Shylock’s pound of flesh requirement but the  ring trick Portia and Nerissa play on their spouses. Bad behavior includes Gratiano’s inappropriate outbursts in court (in the script) and grabbing Shylock’s yarmulke from his head as the observant Jew leaves the courtroom (director’s addition). That Gratiano wears a sort of brown shirt isn’t lost on us given what happens next in Europe.

PICT’s production supposes is that these self-indulgent folks will next be asked to follow the wave of Fascism or suffer the consequences. Love feels bittersweet and Antonio’s rescue seems a legal card trick motivated less by friendship than power. Most get out of this story safely with some resources intact–even Jessica. The production suggests that only Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity might save him.

Jessica is the last on stage. The reality set in that that the court says she will still inherit Shylock’s remaining assets. The clown escorts her off. As usual, Shylock is the absent one. We can only imagine the moneylender’s fate.

PICT stages The Merchant of Venice, the second production of its 19th season and the second at its new home The Union Project, 801 North Negley Ave (15206), through Sat., Nov. 19. Consult the calendar for dates and prices.

Thank you to PICT for opening night tickets to cover the production.

Photos: Keith A Traux

A New Day for PICT Classic Theatre at the Union Project

web-banner-2It’s a new day and a new venue for PICT Classic Theatre.

“If you want immediacy, you have to change,” says Artistic and Executive Director Alan Stanford.

Now the 19-year-old company moves from the University of Pittsburgh in Oakland to the Union Project in Highland Park, “a mile away is East Liberty, Stanford notes.

It was a rainy day when Stanford first came to Pittsburgh on a tour of Waiting for Godot 10 years ago, but he loved the city immediately.

“Pittsburgh has a wonderful history. You can feel it.” As he’s taking PICT into its second decade, “the city is changing, it’s growing. It’s like a bud that’s ready to burst.”

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PICT’s Artistic and Executive Director, Alan Stanford

Finding a new venue opened new production approaches for Stanford. “When you walk into a theater space the space must inform the audience about itself. When someone is cooking dinner, the first sensation must be in the nose. It whets your appetite.”

Stanford found such just a space and is taking PICT’s “Classics in the Raw” season of five plays to the Union Project’s Great Hall at 801 North Negley Ave (15206).

In a new partnership with PICT, the Union Project builds on its success as an active community venue and space that already engages some 20,000 individuals annually. The Great Hall is an intimate venue with the natural acoustic advantages of a former church worship space. While there’s a reverent vibe similar to PICT’s longtime former spaces in the University of Pittsburgh’s Stephen Foster Memorial, the Union Project seems more woody and resonant–and is even more intimate than the Charity Randall and Henry Heymann Theatres.

Photo courtesy of the Union Project's Facebook page
Photo courtesy of the Union Project’s Facebook page

Stanford calls the Great Hall (pictured above) “a perfect theatre space.” An alley-style stage will place audience members closer than ever to the company members of Pittsburgh’s leading classical company.

“This is a classic theater format, says Stanford. “Plays have been done like this much longer than on the proscenium stage. The format is much more ancient. The action takes place in a central alley with the actors playing to one another instead of 15-35 feet from the stage. Many UK theaters use this style.”

What does that look like at the Union Project? Picture two banks of audience members, facing the central “lane” and one another. Ticket buyers can select seats in four to five rows on either side of the stage area, as shown on the PICT website. The capacity of around 160 seats will vary with each production, more akin to the former Henry Heymann Theatre at Pitt. (True PICT fans may want to secure seats before the reviews for this season as PICT is known for delivering strong productions and acting that garner critical praise.)

“Classic theatre, in its purest sense, is exquisite actors telling enduring stories,” the actor-director states in the season announcement emphasizing how the Union Project fuels the actor-audience connection.

“Our job isn’t to just to entertain–and we hope we do–but that we give the audience the opportunity to examine the play in a fresh way,” Stanford says.“The fact that we are doing five very different plays is going stretch us.”

However, PICT audiences expect “stretching”. The company has never shied away from the rich language of the Irish masters, Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and even David Mamet since its first season in 1997.

Stanford, who will direct most of the productions and acts in one, says “I’ve promised to build PICT as a company-based theatre. As much as possible, we use Pittsburgh talent.

“One of the beauties of Pittsburgh Theater is that all the companies have their niches. We aren’t in competition but we complement one another.”

Thus, you won’t likely find these classic plays elsewhere in town this season, only at the Union Project where PICT opens its 19th season of “Classics in the Raw” on September 1 and running through May 20. Themes of self-discovery and identity ripple through the five scripts.

Shirley-Final-WebShirley Valentine by Willy Russell, September 1- 17, showcases the versatile artistry of Karen Baum who was recently seen in Russell’s two-person jewel, Educating Rita. This time she goes solo as Shirley, a disillusioned housewife who is transformed after a life-changing adventure on a Greek island. Alan Stanford directs this season opener. Delightfully inspiring, Shirley is indeed a valentine to every woman and a one-person show filled with humor and the power of being true to oneself.Merchant-Final-Web

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, November 3-19, moves the action to the 1930’s when Jewish moneylender Shylock demands a pound of flesh as a loan repayment. At times misunderstood and always one of the Bard’s best-known plays, Merchant tells interesting and provocative stories of business, loyalty, and love. PICT favorites James FitzGerald as Shylock and Gayle Pazerski as Portia lead the cast in what director Stanford calls “a chamber play.” The audience, seating almost like jurors, may indeed expect to hear timeless words anew.

Lion-Final-WebThe Lion in Winter by James Goldman, December 1-17, invites play-goers to come home to a royally dysfunctional family, led by Stanford himself as King Henry II of England with John Shepard directing. A contemporary classic about a throne up for grabs, an imprisoned queen, and three ambitious sons, Goldman’s play provides some delightfully witty arguments and outrageous maneuvers by the residents of Chinon Castle. Stanford calls the play both beautiful and biting; PICT promises to deliver “just in time for the peace and goodwill that the holiday season brings.”

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, March 23-April 8, may be the oldest play in the season, but Stanford considers his “a Oedipus-Final-notextworld premiere version. I’m doing my trick of reinventing it.” Fate and the tragic wheel will turn in that what Stanford describers as “a play about hubris” . A diverse cast including many Pittsburgh actors is featured  Resonant with lessons from the human story, Oedipus should be part of every theatre-goer’s collective experience.

Sive by John B. Keane (Sharon’s Grave), May 4-20, brings Keane work back to Sive-Final-text-02PICT. This story was inspired by the real hardships and choices of those struggling mid-century County Kerry where the play was first produced. (The title character’s name is the English version of an Irish name meaning “sweet” and rhymes with “hive). Sive is a young woman who might save her family from poverty by marrying an old man, but she loves another. Her story may be derived from ageless tales of star-crossed lovers, but echoes with the true dilemmas of women across cultures.

Appropriately, Stanford conjures the wisdom of a great Irish playwright when discussing PICT’s new season and venue. When George Bernard Shaw wrote his Saint Joan for Sybil Thorndike, he inscribed the script to “Saint Sybil” from Saint Bernard and observed:

“We must always change. Change is everything in the theater.”

Taking personal inspiration from the classics and embracing the possibilities change creates, Stanford concurs: “I’m an old man in a hurry!”

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PICT Classic Theatre opens its 2016-17 season with Shirley Valentine, previewing Sept. 1 and 2, opening night Sat., Sept. 3, and running through Sept. 17. Each production of the PICT season has a three-week run with on post-show Q&A session, a pre-show lecture, and a post-show Irish Nightcap (consult the calendar).

Options for five-show subscriptions (opening nights, standard, and young adult for ages 19-30) and a flexible  pass (for 4 to 14 tickets) are on sale. Also available are single tickets ranging generally from $15 for audience members age 18 and under) or $25 (for age 19-30) to $45 or $50 (depending on day/date of performance). A senior ticket is offered at $35 for those age 65 and over for select shows, as are a family four-pack, group rates and student matinees.

Tickets may be purchased online or call the box office at 412-561-6000. See the PICT website for all details and view a seating chart when you select dates and tickets.

Two Tales of Terror

2E14A3B3F-B1B4-515B-57DFBC1885C2FFA5The Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater (PICT) is currently showing “Two Tales of Terror,” an excellently executed adaptation of the famous Edgar Allen Poe stories, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher. Adapted for the stage by Alan Stanford, the performance utilized minimal actors, props, or set pieces…however, vibrant and vivid imagery continued to flow through the reels of my imagination throughout the entire show. In the first segment of the 85 minute show, I found that the actor, Justin Lonesome, telling us story of The Tell-Tale Heart had such clear and apparent intention. Drawing the audience in through specific and captivating blocking and a manipulation of the voice that you might hear in your nightmares, I felt myself on the edge of my seat despite the fact I know very well how the story goes. I felt more like I was being told a story one on one, rather than seeing a performance in a room full of people.

The Fall of the House of Usher was the second segment of my night of terror. This adaptation of Mr. Poe’s work introduced us to three characters. Usher himself, portrayed by Jonathan Visser, was just as I had imagined him, looking like royalty. The uptight saunter Visser gave the character may seem like small detail, but this was one of my favorite parts of the show. The way in which the narrator and Usher’s sister Madeline (James Fitzgerald and Karen Baum), used their movement to bring not only words to life, but imagery and props as well.

Also, absolutely fabulous job on the makeup and costume design, especially in the House of Usher. Usher and his delusional sister look truly gaunt, truly terrifying, truly how Poe would have wanted them to look. I would have to say my favorite part of the show was the revival of Madeline, in which there was a flash of lightning, then darkness, and then as the lights rose, Madeline appeared covered in blood!. I jumped, but in a good way! Working beautifully with the movement of the actors and flow of the words throughout the whole show, I felt the lighting offered a heavy contribution to the creepy, haunted-house feeling of the show.

If you are faint of nerve or prone to nightmares, this may not be the show for you, but for those of us who enjoy a good ghost story, or a gnarly horror movie…. This is a must see!

Special thanks to PICT Classic Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Two Tales of Terror runs through Friday May 20th at the Henry Heymann Theatre. For tickets and more information, click here.

*Please note, the performance that was reviewed was a preview.

PICT Conjures Poe’s Terror for Final Bows at Pitt before next Season at Union Project

2E14A3B3F-B1B4-515B-57DFBC1885C2FFA5Terror. Alan Stanford, artistic and executive director of PICT Classic Theatre, admits he loves the genre and that he read Edgar Allan Poe under the covers as a child. Didn’t we all?

But nothing may seem more terrifying than having to move. In spite of that upcoming reality for his company, Stanford chose to have his players take a final bow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Henry Heymann Theatre with Two Tales of Terror from Poe. PICT will next perform at the Union Project, its new venue for its 2016-17 season.

A farewell double bill of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher will run May 5-20 at Pitt.

Stanford finds the genre irresistible and has a small cast of favorites acting the text in a “slo-mo” style similar to his PICT directorial debut, Oscar Wilde’s Salome in 2008. Featured PICT company members are Justin Lonesome, Jonathan Visser, and Karen Baum.

And staging one more show at Pitt was also irresistible after PICT fans rallied to keep the company running after an extremely rough spot last year.

“I wanted to give our patrons something to come and see and thank them,” Stanford says, crediting a large number of small donations in helping the company while thanking University of Pittsburgh Theatre Arts for making one final production of a classic in the Stephen Foster Memorial possible.

“Poe is a classic American writer,” says Stanford. “He actually laid down the ground rules for American gothic–before the word ‘terror’. There’s something about it built into our genome.”

Stanford quotes Alfred Hitchcock: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it,” observing that Poe’s storytelling is fueled by the writer’s vivid imagination.

“His writing plays on the imagination,” Stanford shares on the PICT website. “He is one of the early exponents of the art of terror rather than horror. He achieves this not by the use of the gruesome, but by provoking the deep fears that lie within us all…His sense of implied evil is matchless.”

“Poe used the form of the short story and compacted his tales of terror into concise and evocative prose,” said Stanford in the PICT announcement of his project. “Many have been filmed, but the process has often distorted the original tale.” He aims to present the stories as close to the original storyline.

Stanford credits Poe’s use of language in The Fall of House of Usher and heightening the text and its effect on readers or, in this case, listeners.

“Purple Prose is very rich prose,” he says. All three actors will present his adaptation of the first-person story. One actor will perform Poe’s actual text of The Tell-Tale Heart. And these two stories told by unnamed narrators in PICT’s production aim to have audience members go home and sleep with the lights on.

And there’s nothing like Poe’s onomatopoeia. (You’ll even find his name in the word.) His poems The Raven and The Bells make vivid use words to animate suspense.

But audiences should indeed expect paranoia, murder, impending doom and insanity, all promised in PICT’s Tales, told in the intimate Heymann Theatre.

There’s nothing louder than the incessant beating of the heart in Poe’s story when reading with the flashlight on when everyone in the house is asleep. PICT promises to conjure that late night beating heart, which might just be your own!

Two Tales of Terror runs May 5 through 20 at the Henry Heymann Theatre, Forbes Ave., Oakland (15260). Tickets are available on the website or by calling PICT at 412-561-6000.