Love’s Labor’s Won

23435043_10155257750121859_3773208933795964793_nDirectors and theatre companies have been adapting and tweaking the works of William Shakespeare for centuries. Alterations run the gamut from changing the setting and characters genders to modernizing the language. Sometimes the core story has morphed, for example, Romeo & Juliet begat West Side Story. Imagine if you could take a story concept and write it in the style of Shakespeare. Elizabethan English, in verse form with iambic pentameter rhyming schemes and his typical comedy conventions; the buffoon, the snooty royal, women dressed as men and missed identities. Theatre, just as the Bard would have written it.

Shakespeare’s Loves Labors Lost, first published in 1598, ends with the death of the King of France, leaving the other characters future in limbo. It has long been surmised that a sequel had been written by the Bard, but alas it has never been found. Scott Kaisers’ Love’s Labor’s Won could be that sequel, set near the end of World War I, just as the armistice is about to be signed. Thematically, it asks the question “Will love survive the brutal war?”

Many of the characters from Lost make the transition to Won. For a memory refresh, they are Ferdinand (Christopher J. Essex), the King of Navarre, the country in the center of the conflict and about to be divided. He has taken a three-year oath of celibacy and sobriety, encouraging his friends to do the same. Princess Isabelle of France (Kennedy McMann) arrives on the scene and causes that oath to fly out the window. She is a no-nonsense talented politician. She has lost her father in the war and also her purpose. Her position keeps her silenced, but she is just waiting to leap in and save the day.

Dumaine (Chase Del Rey) who is not the cleverest of the bunch. Decorum is not his thing but affection towards his crush Kathrine is, along with his other desire- for wealth. Kathrine (Myha’la Herrold) is Isabelle’s closest friend. She is beautiful and graceful, yet possesses and inner strength. She views Dumaine as a money hunger hypocrite but she loves him anyway.

Berowne (Christian Strange) is the ambitious class clown of the group all the while searching for a sense of stability in a war-torn world. His love Rosaline (Aubyn Heglie) who can verbally joust with the best of men. A woman of action, she calls Berowne a fool when he professes his love for her.

Longaville (Kyle Decker) has been locked up in the Embassy’s dungeon for being a spy. Of all the characters, he has the greatest sense of and respect for humanity. He has also signed up for the oath but has found a loophole, by proclaiming his love, Maria (Eleanor Pearson) is a goddess. Maria is calm and collected, but ultimately brokers the deal to finalize the armistice and restore all their relationships.

Costard (Jordan Plutzer) is the foot soldier, wounded in battle and worse for wear. With a bad eye and a bad leg on his left side, he always seems to be searching for the right direction. He adds the comic relief to what would otherwise be very sad times. Rayquila Durham plays the jazzy Jacquenetta, his love interest.

The playwright, Scott Kaiser, has written several books on Shakespeare and another play Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues. He clearly knows and understands the Bards writing style and conventions. He has created a very watchable and enjoyable play. Some of the rhymes are a bit over the top, but hey why not. Perhaps the double entendre is a bit overdone at times. The characters have depth and complexity with the ultimate outcome of the story in doubt until the very end.

CMU has a well-deserved reputation for recruiting top talent. That talent with a master director really shines in this production delivering rich well-crafted performances. The university posts no cast bios, so it’s a guess as to their path to CMU, past experience or whether they are undergraduates or grad students. Regardless you can see bright futures for them as actors. Two standouts are Jordan Plutzer’ Costard for his comedic skills and timing along with Rayquila Durham’s as Jaquenetta for her exquisite singing voice.

The Scenic Design by Fiona Rhodes looks as if a grand marble staircase was lifted from one of Pittsburgh’s old mansions, or perhaps the Carnegie Museum. The single set design conveys the essence of a country on hold in wartime. The intersecting point of the character’s lives. Priceless works of art, initially secured and sequestered have come unwrapped as the war raged on, just as relationships have come undone over time. Kudo’s to the painting artists and crew.

Natalie Burton’s costumes convey the almost post great war era. Men in their uniforms, although not always military, and women with that soft flowing radiance that leads into the era of the flapper. In the opening scene, Costard’s uniform tells you everything about the time and place of the play, before the first word is spoken.

Anthony Stultz’s score and Sound Design for Jaquenetta’s songs at the close of Act II nicely and understatedly foreshadow the world of post-war France.

Leaving the theatre and thinking about were these young actors and designer’s careers would take them, we overheard two young women walking behind in animated conversation.  “The men were stupid and stubborn, but the women, they ended the war”.  A fitting sentiment for these times.

Carnegie Mellon University Drama’s production of Love’s Labor’s Won at the Phillip Chosky Theater, Purnell Center for the Arts has a performance on Saturday, November the 18th at 8 pm. Performances resume after Thanksgiving, November 28th through December 3rd. For tickets visit http://drama.cmu.edu/box-office/loves-labors-won/

Thank you to CMU Drama for the complimentary tickets.

You on the Moors Now

WebMOORSIt is an interesting phenomenon when the storytelling trends currently dominating the television and film landscapes creep up in the theatre world.

Every new project announced nowadays, whether it’s for the big or small screen, seems to be either a reboot of a previously successful property or some sort of crossover event that brings together fan favorite characters for an epic adventure. This year alone, we’ve seen the first installment in the third incarnation of the Spider-Man film franchise and, later this week, the Justice League will assemble for the first time in a live action movie.

On the other side of the genre and content spectrum from those blockbusters, Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre Company presents a surprisingly physical and universally stunning production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s play You on the Moors Now

Backhaus’s script operates as a reboot/sequel to some of the 19th century’s greatest novels that have since become staples of high school syllabi around the world. The play opens as the worlds of Jo March (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women), Jane Eyre (the titular character in Charlotte Brontë’s novel), Catherine “Cathy” Earnshaw (from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights), and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) collide during pivotal moments in all their lives. They have each received marriage proposals from their respective love interests and, to their surprise, they’ve all said no. Now, they are all left with an even bigger and more difficult question to answer: What’s next?

Julia Small (Elizabeth Bennett), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), Aenya Ulke (Jane Eyre), & Shannon Donovan (Jo March)
Julia Small (Elizabeth Bennett), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), Aenya Ulke (Jane Eyre), & Shannon Donovan (Jo March)

Their decisions to abandon their homes and families and strike out on their own have disastrous effects for the people in their lives. It’s definitely a four way tie for who handles this the most poorly between the young women’s jilted suitors Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, and Mr. Darcy. With the help of some colorful supporting characters from each of the novels, the men hunt down our heroines. Their search leads them into the mysterious world of the moors where Jo, Jane, Cathy, and Lizzie have set up camp.

An all out battle of the sexes ensues between the gendered factions. It takes disfigurement and death on both sides to bring the conflict to an end. Even though it’s not until ten years after the end of the war that we meet our characters again, it’s clear that those who survived are still dealing with the pain of their psychological scars. In one way or another, our four heroines find peace within themselves and with the choices they’ve made in their lives.

Bryan Gannon (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Evan Wormald (Mr. Rochester) & Micah Stanek (Heathcliff)
Bryan Gannon (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Evan Wormald (Mr. Rochester) & Micah Stanek (Heathcliff)

I’m sorry to be purposely vague on the plot details of You on the Moors Now, but I think the best way to experience the show is knowing as little as possible. There are tons of twists, turns, and Easter eggs for fans of the books. But, if you’re like me and you got stuck reading Ernest Hemingway and Aldous Huxley in high school instead of Alcott, Austen, and the Brontë sisters, you’ll love getting to know these bright, quirky young women and easily identify with their struggle for independence

While I maintain that on paper this play sounds like a television or movie pitch waiting to happen, I credit director Sheila McKenna with employing thrilling movement and combat sequences to give the piece an impact that only theatre can achieve. As the play skillfully subverts our expectations and perceptions of these classic characters, she along with dance captain Meghan Halley and fight captain Shannon Donovan raise the stakes of what could be considered by an especially cynical viewer as simply feminist fan fiction. The way that the opening line dance and the fight scene that ends Act II echo each other is truly poetic.

It is a story 100% by and about women that is truly feminist for the way it establishes women and men as equally fearsome adversaries on the battlefield and equally able to make and learn from their mistakes.

Unfortunately, for all of their talents, McKenna, Halley, and Donovan are not able to rescue the production from its tidy and tedious ending in the play’s third act. That task is left to the show’s designers Tucker Topel (sets), Terra Marie Skirtich (costumes), and Heather Edney (lights), whose work was a beauty to behold for the entire show but definitely shone brightest in its final moments.

Meghan Halley (Nelly Dean, Beth, Jane Bennett) & Adam Rossi (Joseph, Marmee)
Meghan Halley (Nelly Dean, Beth, Jane Bennett) & Adam Rossi (Joseph, Marmee)

The actors literally wore their characters’ emotions on the sleeves in outfits that looked like they were ripped from the runway of a 19th century-inspired Urban Outfitters collection. You’ll truly feel like you’re in the world of a book with the walls painted to resemble scorched parchment pages and where you can be transported from deep in the woods to high in the stars in an instant.

It will be hard to witness a more energetic and charismatic ensemble than the one featured in this production. They are led by the aforementioned Ms. Donovan (Jo), Julia Small (Lizzie), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), and Aenya Ulke (Jane), who all combine the classic elegance and strength that made these characters iconic with a modern wit that makes these worlds worth revisiting today.

Their bond is indestructible and sweet (without being sappy) as in the scenes where Cathy hilariously bemoans her sister-less state and her three friends reassure her that she’s never without a sister as long as they’re around. Point Park’s You on the Moors Now makes sisters of all this revisionist riff. Regardless of age, gender, or era, we’re all just fighting to be heard and have our dreams respected.

You on the Moors Now runs through November 19 and from November 30 through December 3rd. For more information, click here.

Photos by John Altdorfer

Parade

Parade-PosterPainful stories and shameful histories benefit from the illumination of dramatization. While the audience views past events in almost real time, we are required to look and perhaps to learn.

Parade is more than worthy of your attention for these reasons and the stellar performances of a largely student cast at University of Pittsburgh Stages. You’ll be part of an event that echoes many recent events, conversations, and controversies from the last century with today’s societal and political overtones. This Parade production plays all its cards handsomely to tell a difficult true story beautifully as a well-crafted tragedy should.

It’s Atlanta, 1913, just 50 years after the Civil War. The first images are a soldier coming home from that war then we see his older self as Confederate Memorial Day is observed with a parade and festivities. In this distinctly Southern setting, 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan is found murdered the following day in the Atlanta factory where Leo Frank, a Brooklyn-born Jew married to a Lucille, a Georgia native, is supervisor. Frank is deemed a most likely suspect.

Parade follows Leo’s experience from that May holiday to the terror of imprisonment through the false accusations born of community hysteria during his trial. After the eventual commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment by the Georgia governor, there is a crowning horrific irony. Local men take Frank from the jail and lynch him by hanging in nearby Marietta, Mary’s hometown. No spoilers here. The historic case shed light nationally to Anti-Semitism and fueled the founding of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). It also ignited a more active Ku Klux Klan.

Director Robert Frankenberry is known as a versatile singer-actor, conductor, arranger, and lecturer in music theater at Pitt Theatre Arts. Frankenberry stages this 1998 musical imaginatively, adroitly moving his 28 actors efficiently on Gianni Downs’ lovely two-level set and even into the audience. A high frame for projected elements–ranging from the hills of Georgia to sensationalistic trial headlines–fills the space below the proscenium arch.

Roger Zahab conducts the University Symphony Orchestra of 31 instrumentalists in Tony Award winner Don Sebesky’s full orchestration. This version of the score was heard only once before for the 2015 Manhattan Concert Production’s Parade In Concert, conducted by the composer.

Jason Robert Brown’s score is indeed American flavored with some Southern spice (even a touch of Stephen Foster), replete with some lively patriotic percussion. At the Nov. 10 preview some cellos were missing, while Frankenberry told us he filled in for the guitarist.

Alfred Uhry’s script covers the timeline of Frank’s dilemma, trial, and death. The mystery of Mary’s murder gets muddled as theories about the crime are magnified by gossip and supposition. The writers believed in Frank’s innocence, but while Parade reinforces that belief, there’s no escaping that feeling that you are in the South. With the opening and closing number “The Old Red Hills of Home”, it’s all there: post-Reconstruction pride and ancestors who fought for “The Cause”.  The odd juxtaposition of New Yorker Leo and Georgian Lucille represents the ongoing tension between the Southerns and “the other”.

Dan Mayhak as Leo and Brittany Bara as Lucille create the heart of the story, bringing nuance and chemistry to their depiction of a devoted couple who likely took one another and Frank’s position for granted prior to this disaster. Their soaring and emotional duets are highlights of the production.

Dan Mayhak shines as Leo, traversing the deep layers of Frank’s discomfiture throughout, his work ethic, and his Jewish roots. Mayhak, a fourth year Pitt student recently seen in Front Porch’s Violet and Pitt’s Hair, is capable of playing Leo’s veiled emotion and subtext. His wonderfully sung numbers include “Leo’s Statement: It’s Hard to Speak My Heart”. During the vaudevillian “Factory Girls / Come Up to My Office” we see Leo’s possible “other side” when he leaves his trial defendant’s chair to participate in the incriminating number.

Brittany Bara is alternately subtle and passionate as Leo’s wife Lucille. Devoted but eventually weary of taunts around town, Lucille is steadfast and practical. This second-year performance pedagogy MFA candidate’s performance reflects her professional scope. Bara’s vocal performance is outstanding with “You don’t know this man” beautifully poignant and complex.

Tru Verret-Fleming, a pro seen most recently in the Scottsboro Boys at the Point Park’s REP Company, turns in a superb debut performance at PItt as Jim Conley, the pencil factory janitor (aka “sweeper”) who is led to further incriminate Frank. Verret-Fleming has the charisma to sell a number or spin a yarn, particularly when depicting what’s it’s physically like to be part of a chain gang (“Blues: Feel the Rain Fall”) or sealing Frank’s fate with his accounts of assisting the supervisor in his factory interactions.

While these performances would shine in a professional production, the wonderful thing is that this is true of all the lead performers in Parade. They undoubtedly support and inspire the mainly student cast.

Stand outs in other leading roles include Rachelmae Pulliam as Mary’s mother and Sally Slayton, the governor’s wife. Her lullaby-like “My daughter will forgive you” is heart-wrenching. Mature and polished, Alex Knapp is the savvy prosecuting attorney who carves his political path as he deviously manages the case, plotting with the governor and sneering in the courtroom.

As Governor Slayton, Zev Woskoff navigates the ramifications of his character’s pursuit of both political success and the truth. Dr. William Banks brings operatic chops to the role of the factory’s nightwatchman, Newt Lee. Tyler Prah as Frankie Epps (who fancies then mourns for Mary), Emily Cooper as Mary Phagan, and Davis Weaver as the returning young soldier who opens the show all provide strong performances and moments.

The cast is authentically costumed by KJ Gilmer. Hannah Blume’s movement coaching includes same snappy tap and dance steps. Meghan Bressler employs the Randall’s lighting range, illuminating the actors wherever they go. Zach Brown’s sound is fairly balanced and will likely work out any challenges over the run.

For a closer look at the production elements, Pitt has a wonderful online collection that provides audience https://pitt.libguides.com/2017-18mainstage/parade

The deep themes and controversial history of the Frank case and lynching deserve a closer look. You can read more about the musical’s history in a 2016 Playbill story Think You Know Parade? Think Again. And The Tuskegee Institute Archives reveal the staggering number of lynching not only the South, but throughout the US, 1877-1968.

Parade is onstage at the University of Pittsburgh Stages through Nov. 19 with performances Wed.-Sat. at 8 pm and Sun. at 2 pm. Tickets range from $12-$25.

Kiss Me, Kate

21764740_10155741717919464_1515833096864313073_nPoint Park University brings a delightful mix of Cole Porter and William Shakespeare to their final season at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland with the backstage musical Kiss Me, Kate.

Winner of the first-ever Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949, Kiss Me, Kate takes place during the production of a musical version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.  Tensions mount when the egotistical leading man, director, and producer Fred Graham (Jeremy Spoljarick) is forced to play opposite with his ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (Katie Weinstein). As much as they hate each other, they still appear to be in love.

One could initially fault that notion, as Graham, has more than his eyes on Lois Lane (Hailie Lucille). She, however, is “So in Love” with her gambling boyfriend Bill Calhoun (Kurt Kemper). Lilli is also engaged to General Harrison Howell (Pierre Mballa) who promises to take her away from all the fame and adoration that comes from a life as a famous actress in theatre and the movies.

Bill is late to the rehearsal, as he has been out gambling and lost ten grand. In order to leave the game, Bill signs a marker in Fred’s name for the balance due! Just before the opening curtain of opening night, two loveable gangsters (Kevin Gilmond and Beau Bradshaw) show up in Fred Graham’s dressing room to collect the dough.

The Company of Kiss Me, KateWhile this is going on, “the show must go on”. Taming of the Shrew is an old story. The oldest unpleasant daughter (Lilli Vanessi) must marry before the sweet younger sibling (Lois Lane) can wed.  This musical Shrew shares the same similarity as Romeo and Juliet does to West Side Story.

Kiss Me, Kate is the winning combination the irreverent humor of two brilliant writers: Cole Porter and William Shakespeare. As with any Porter musical, the show’s tunes send you home humming and include the “So In Love,” “Wunderbar,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “Too Darn Hot,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “I Hate Men,” “Always True to You (In My Fashion)” and “Another Op’nin, Another Show.”

Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein seemed to be in a bit of a competition in their day, each creating shows with the newest techniques. R&H developed the integrated musical, Oklahoma. where the songs were actually connected to the script. Kiss Me, Kate was Porter’s response. It proved to be so popular that it won the first Tony Award for best musical and was the only Porter show to run for over one thousand performances in its first presentation on Broadway.

Katie Weinstein (Lilli) & Jeremy Spoljarick (Fred)
Katie Weinstein (Lilli) & Jeremy Spoljarick (Fred)

The real story here, however, is this production by the Conservatory Theatre of Point Park University. It is practically perfect in every way. If you went into the Rockwell Theatre thinking you were going to see a college level production with mostly undergraduates, that conception goes out the window within the first couple of numbers. This is first-class musical theatre in every way. Point Park has fact-based a reputation for producing “triple threats” actors who can brilliantly act, sing and dance.

This show only further reinforces that reputation. Lucille, Weinstein, Kemper, and Spoljarick have strong voices and can belt with the best hitting and sustaining those high notes. Lucille’s Lois Lane shows off her dancing skills as well in the fun numbers “Tom, Dick or Harry” and “Always True to You in My Fashion”. There isn’t a single number that the four leads perform that leaves you feeling it could be any better than this. A special kudo to Jordan McMillan who plays Lois Lane’s assistant Hattie, she gets the signature “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” number and delivers to the cheers of the audience. Mel Holley’s vocals and Gabe Reed Saxophone skills in “Too Darn Hot” put the second act opener over the top. Just when you think it can’t get any better or funnier, the two gangsters, who have developed their own love of theatre, deliver a comedy gem in “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”.

Kurt Kemper (Bill) & Hailie Lucille (Lois)
Kurt Kemper (Bill) & Hailie Lucille (Lois)

Director and Choreographer Zeva Barzell has executed a brilliantly crafted unified production that really brings the skills and talents of her cast to the forefront. The entire ensemble of singers and dancers cannot go without mention, each had a fully develop and realized character, no one was lost or just going through the motions here. Musical Director Camille Rolla brought out the best in the singers as well as ten other musicians in the on-stage pit.

I mentioned a “unified production” early where all the elements of design fit seamlessly into and support the director’s vision. Barzell shows off the skills of Pittsburgh’s designers. Johnmichael Bohach has created a multilayered set, beautifully detailed in the theatre’s backstage area and suitably stylized for the Taming of the Shrew scenes. Bohach has a very long list of design credits and you can see why. Andrew David Ostrowski reprises his role as Pittsburgh’s busiest Lighting Designer enhancing Bohach’s design and sculpting the dancers with light. Steve Shapiro helms Sound Design for his eighth season which settled into a nearly invisible mix and a very realistic siren sound accompanying the General’s arrival.  This show has a lot of costumes as characters have their streetwear, rehearsal clothes- and Shrew costumes. Veteran Point Park Costume Designer Cathleen-Crocker Perry misses no detail in any character’s costumes, the women’s gowns are gorgeous and the state of undress in “Too Darn Hot” conveys the double entendre beautifully. Kudos as well to the Stage Managers and run-crew, opening night as spot on.

Point Park moves its theatre companies downtown to their new Pittsburgh Playhouse adjacent to our Cultural District next season. Kiss Me, Kate is on par, perhaps better than anything you might choose see down the street at another theatre. The Playhouse will be a welcome and well-earned addition to our world class cultural scene downtown.

Point Park University Conservatory Company’s production of Kiss Me, Kate, runs now through October 29th at the Rockwell Theatre at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. For tickets click here. 

Photos by John Altdorfer

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

The Matchmaker

22221720_10155166726051859_7469565685554816557_nCarnegie Mellon University (CMU) School of Drama 2017- 2018 Season opens with Thornton Wilder’s classic comedy The Matchmaker.  One of  America’s favorite farces, The Matchmaker experienced many adaptations before becoming a success on Broadway and eventually taking credit for the wildly popular mid- century musical, Hello Dolly!  

Set in 1880’s Yonkers, NY, The Matchmaker is the story of Dolly Levi, a marriage- broker and friend to Horace Vandergelder’s late wife. Vandergelder, a wealthy shop owner has arranged for his niece, Ermengarde, to relocate to the city in hope of separating her from Ambrose Kemper, an artist she has fallen in love with.  As final preparations are made to get Ermengarde on a train, Vandergelder receives a visit from Dolly, whose services he has secured for himself.  Dolly overhears Ermengarde and Ambrose discussing their dilemma and secretly agrees to help them.  Vandergelder reveals to Dolly his plans to propose to New York widow, Mrs. Irene Malloy.  Dolly interjects, telling Vangergelder she has found him the perfect wife, in an attempt to delay his marriage proposal. Meanwhile, Vandergelder’s employees, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, upon learning their boss is leaving them in charge of the store, decide to have an adventure in New York City.  From start to finish, ridiculousness ensues as the gregarious, outspoken and nosy Dolly meanders her way into the life of every character, attempting to help all find love and prosperity, including herself.  

The performance is a splendid orchestration of absurdity. Each character under Dolly’s spell, falling prey to her matchmaking antics and easily swept up by her zany schemes. The Matchmaker, in typical farcical fashion, is fast paced, physical comedy which highlights Anthony McKay’s direction especially during the cafe scenes which is finely tuned chaos.  

Chantelle Guido, cast as Dolly Levi, is charming. Guido flawlessly delivers her lines but it is her cherubic face rendering a sly and manipulative personality, that really sets her apart; her smirks and sideways glances speak almost as much as the delivery of her dialogue.   William Brosnahan, cast as Horace Vandergelder, has a strong and confident command of his voice.  Despite makeup, and wardrobe, at the beginning of the performance I struggled to see past his apparent young age.  By the time he finished masterfully executing Vandergelder’s monologue in Act 1, I felt completely different.  Kevin William Paul and Scott Kennedy, playing the parts of Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, have some of the best energy on the stage.  Both are cast to play the naive and innocent type. Paul as Cornelius, the older of the 2 shop clerks, and initiator of mischief and adventure is daringly handsome and engaging.  Tucker as Barnaby is Cornelius’ side kick who portrays a cute and innocent boy with perfection. Together Paul and Tucker create a memorable team.    

The whole cast is polished and professional, as well as the scenery and lighting.  I didn’t expect anything less knowing the caliber of the artists the university graduates.  I love the way the cast engaged with the audience, taking as many cues from the applause as the audience took from the dramatic irony and comedic timing.  This level of engagement was not something I was expecting and it was surprising. The Matchmaker is a strong opening production by gifted students, just one step away from stardom.  

The Matchmaker runs at CMU’s Philip Chosky Theater through October 14. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Orphie and the Book of Heroes

oatbohPittsburgh’s oldest amateur theatre company, The Duquesne Red Masquers opens its 105th season with Orphie and the Book of Heroes. This season’s selection of shows co-ordinates with The National Conference of 18th Century Women Writers that will be hosted by Duquesne University, and what better way to kick off the season than a girl-empowering musical by Duquesne alumnus Christopher Dimond?  The playwright wanted to focus on a teenage girl in ancient Greece since there are little or no female heroes in ancient Greek mythology.

The musical follows the story of Orphie (Samantha Espiritu), a spunky young girl who is obsessed with the stories that her guardian Homer (Max Begler) has told her. She longs, though, to hear a story about a Great Girl Hero.  Orphie has to put her own powers to the test when Homer is taken from her by the god of the dead and riches, the sinister song-and-dance man Hades (Grant Shadrach Jones).

The quest to rescue Homer takes her from the heights of Mt. Olympus to the depths of the underworld. As the journey progresses, she realizes that the girl hero she’s been looking for is closer than she thought.

Orphie and the Book of Heroes offers fun mash-ups of Greek Culture and our modern world filled with humor and unexpected character twists, geared for a preteen audience. Not only does it strive to empower young girls by example, it makes classical Greek mythology fun.

This is the fourth production of Orphie and the Book of Heroes. It was originally commissioned for and premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2014. One of Dimond’s goals was to create a “producible” musical for family audiences. Productions of Greek mythology conjure up grand adventures on an epic and inherently expensive scale beyond the resources of many theatre groups. The production is intended to be colorful yet simplistic in its design and presentation.

Director Jill Jeffrey (Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Gemini Children’s Theatre) succeeds in creating an intimate epic on the Genesius Theatre stage with a slightly larger number of actors than Kennedy Center, still with many playing double or triple roles. Standouts go to Samantha Espiritu’s energetic and enchanted Orphie, Grant Shadrach Jones’ evil Hades and Max Begler, channeling a younger John Stewart, as Homer. Typical of Red Masquers productions, the cast and crew come from a variety of majors, not just theatre arts. Choreographer Katheryn Hess does a nice job of scaling the choreography to the scene design and performance space, engaging but not over done.

The cast clearly enjoyed performing. However, theatre pieces aimed at children and preteens are best enjoyed when they make up a large portion of the audience. Their enthusiasm and excitement is contagious for both actors and audience. That would have helped put this production of Orphie and the Book of Heroes over the top.

Orphie and the Book of Heroes is playing at the Genesius Theatre on the campus of Duquesne University from September 29th – October 15th with performances Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sunday matinees at 2 pm.

Tickets can be purchased at http://www.duqredmasquers.com/purchase-tickets

Note: Parking can be a tad expensive on Penguin home game nights.

Thanks to the Red Masquers for the complimentary tickets.

The Scottsboro Boys

20863574_10155638855594464_1555720063175253618_oAs we began to write The Scottsboro Boys, it was immediately apparent why it was so important to tell their story.  Behind the headlines, the spectacle, the ongoing trials, the histrionics of politicians and lawyers was the story of nine young African American boys, determined to prove that they mattered…

–Composer, John Kander

Black lives matter.  Let’s consider also that the immensity of any individual life has to be looked at directly to show how and why—to enable a life to sing.  Pittsburgh Playhouse’s production of The Scottsboro Boys traps you into looking with its first breath, it opens on the silent chorus: an African-American woman, beginning to hyperventilate.

From the start, this is a violent twist of emotions.  It rings with the insanity of a culture whose proud integrity has been entirely and hypocritically forsaken.  It brings us to face nine individuals who are smacked suddenly with the fake virtue of a fiction called Justice and the humor of nonsense as horror.

The bitter irony of displaying this trial as a minstrel mimics the level of absurdity existent in Alabama’s justice system in 1931—Everything is a righteous farce.  Everybody is a clown.

Ivy Fox as The lady
Ivy Fox as The lady

We get to see this reflected in the eyes of that silent muse; the one woman chorus, Ivy Fox’s Lady.  Her silent acting does something for this show that manages it, conducts it.  It’s a powerful and strange tool, to have an emoting chorus who says almost nothing and yet says absolutely everything with her emanating presence.

Welcome to this world, a psychotic other dimension led by superstar showmen Billy Mason and Jr Whittington as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.  These hosts are exceptionally powerful guides through the odyssey.  They fill ironic roles: the minstrelsy, fools.  Mason’s side-eye as he performs the tasks of Sheriff WhiteMan or Whittington’s haphazardness in his role as lawyer Johnny Walker; they are a strew of characters, diving into a critically injured American psyche that is in denial until satire can see it.  And they both lead sensationally.

Susan Stroman, the original Director and choreographer, remarks,

Typically minstrelsy uses white actors to portray African Americans in ways that are negative and disrespectful.  But we asked ourselves, ‘What if it were a group of African Americans playing white people?’  It would allow these nine actors to play white women, white prison guards, white sheriffs, white judges: it would allow them to play parts they would otherwise never play.

21457457_10155695876934464_8669559662130794580_oThis power gives credence to a performance like Joseph Fedore’s Eugene Williams, a 13-year-old boy who was sentenced to death for a crime he doesn’t even understand; tap dancing a song about the electric chair as he suffers the terror of having persistent nightmares about it.  The twisted and beautiful take on a holocaust moment where a terrified teenage boy and two corpses (Steven Etienne and Scott Kelly) can suddenly breakout into truly whimsical movement reflects a splendid, musical softness within such a deep, destitute lostness:

Hey little boy

look over there

that’s what they call

an eleca-tric chair

Or perhaps the same minstrelsy is reflected in performances like Jared Smith and Lamont Walker II’s as two Alabama ladies who accuse the Scottsboro Nine of a false rape.  So there are two of the Scottsboro Nine, then also playing their villainous false victims: what a quandary.  This preys upon the mercy for rape victims and satisfies the salvation of one at the expense of the many others who, with this false testimony, did not matter.  How to perform this on stage and yet still execute the joke of the substance, the sickness?

It’s done camp, with panache and with diva flare.  Charles Weems plays the hoot of his Victoria Price, the hammed up damsel in distress, playing on the rich cream of a woman’s successful acting causing nine men to be imprisoned and tortured for nothing.  The haunt of her success story is the catastrophe of these innocent men.  Or Walker II’s Ruby Bates, who within her song “Never Too Late” attempts to retract her testimony only to be met with a justice system who refuses her repentance.  Oh, how Lamont Walker II plays this woman up!  He brings her fully fledged, over-the-top to a place which takes the drag of it to a new level: he divas this woman, this false, redemptive victim into her breach into the mythology of the story: women are victims too.  It’s society that’s not real, that allows for this breach of trust.  And it’s a sorrowful farce, that rape culture can immediate the dramatic purging of nine black men, but the reality is we live in a cruel world with no clear answers and no promise of true justice.  So what do you do?  You sing.

21367051_10155695876799464_1080342176479291535_oThe entire ensemble carries so much precision and talent.  This show truly empowers in a creepy, disturbing way.  It irks to the point of inspiration.  It compels by getting under your skin.  Director and Choreographer Tomé Cousin leaves not a second of this two-hour show untapped for its active involvement with the audience.  It is so well-played, well-cast and harrowing.

I give special credence to Lighting Designer Andrew David Ostrowski whose seamless touchings of the characters provides a wealth of world within the limited stage frame.  The set was absolutely stunning within its minimal capacity, in that with almost nothing it does nothing but provide.  The brilliance of the chair set pieces, which construct and deconstruct so many levels of staging, show the capacity for a musical to be simple and so contained.  I loved those damn chairs.

This was an amazing, aggravating, horrifying and explosively powerful show.  I just wish it didn’t feel so relevant too.  I’ve never seen a tragedy so comedically charged, ironic and desperate; and so beautiful and horrifying as this.

The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland through September 24. For tickets and more information click here

Photos by John Altdorfer.

Collegiate Preview 2017

Collegiate LogoIt’s THAT time of year again ladies and gentleman! Time to settle back into your daily routine of books and classes for some of you, which means, rehearsals are starting soon! If you’ve been with us for a while, you’ll remember our first annual Collegiate Preview from 2016 but if you’re just joining us, welcome to the second annual Collegiate Preview 2017! We’ve got the inside scoop on our old friends at Pittsburgh’s four major universities, plus a check-in with our new friends at Carlow University!

Duquesne University’s student-run Red Masquer’s open their 105th season with Orphie and the Book of Heroes, followed by The Busy Body and some One Acts for Charity this fall, then starting the Spring semester with Macbeth and Equus just to finish it off with a weekend of new plays with Premieres XLI! Find out more in George’s article here. 

The 2017-2018 Subscription series at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama includes The Matchmaker,  Love’s Labor’s Won, The Drowsy Chaperone, and A Bright Room Called Day. Don’t forget to check out their Director’s and New Works series throughout the school year. For more information on what CMU Drama will be bringing to the table, check out Robyne’s article here. 

We’ve got 8 shows for you from the Pittsburgh Playhouse, home to Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre Company and their professional company The REP. Season offerings include The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss Me, Kate, Uncle Vanya, 42nd Street, You On the Moors Now,  The House of Bernarda Alba,  Gift of the Maji, and A Devil InsideClick here for Brian’s article about their upcoming season.

The University of Pittsburgh Stages brings us a clever mixture of musicals and straight plays in their 2017-2018 season. With classics like Little Shop of Horrors and Parade, to Our Town and Marie Antoinette hitting the stage this year, you’ll be sure to see the season closer Recoil, an original play written and directed by Cynthia Croot. Don’t forget to come back for their Student Lab shows too! Check out Mark’s article here for more details on what Pitt Stages has for us.

Last, but certainly not least, our new friends at Carlow University are presenting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead this October. Be sure to check out Carlow alum Ringa’s piece about their theatre department here. 

Follow along with our Collegiate adventures on our Facebook, Twitterand Instagram with the hashtag #PITRUniversity! Sign up for our email list while you’re at it!

CMU Drama Pulls Out All the Stops this 2017-2018 Season

With the announcement of the 2017-2018 season, the CMU drama department is brimming with excitement about special guest artists in the line-up. The season will boast a Tony-Nominated Guest Director, as well as a Guest Director from the highly acclaimed Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Professor Peter Cooke AM Ph.D., head of the School of Drama at CMU said of the impending season, “I think what we’ve come to again is a season that is very exciting and very socially aware. It’s got strong political underpinnings, joy, drama and great music.” When asked what she looks most forward to on a personal level, Erin Scott, Communications Coordinator said, “For me, every new season is exciting because I love to see how inventive and brave our students are in their work. The fearlessness with which they approach their visions is inspiring to me.”

Ranked as one of the world’s top theatrical training Conservatory’s, Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama is expected to produce the finest theatrical and learning experiences for both students and patrons alike. By exposing students to professional artists who currently work in the field, CMU continues to provide immersive experiences that not only build skill set but create connections and inspire future endeavors. “The school’s conservatory program within the university is one that prepares students intellectually, artistically and practically to be leaders in their chosen professions, whether on stage, in film, television, or within the expanding realm of new media.” – CMU School of Drama. Faculty member Jed Allen Harris said of the season, “It’s a wonderfully diverse season that should both entertain and challenge the school and its audience. This season, as always is designed to provide a valuable and enriching experience for our students. I feel that the student directed productions for the upcoming season will especially provide a wide variety of performative challenges for the actors and designers.”

The School of Drama presents three different series in the season: the Subscription series, the Director series, and the New Work series. The productions in the Subscription Series are all directed, choreographed, and musically directed by professionals. The sets, lights, and costumes are all designed and created by the School of Drama.

Season-Background-images-4The Subscriber Series will open Oct. 5-14 with Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, directed by faculty member Anthony McKay. The play’s most famous adaptation is the renowned musical Hello Dolly.  Turn back the clock to 1880s Manhattan. In a bustling world of cobblestone streets and horse-drawn buggies, Yonkers natives mingle with stylish New Yorkers in search of love and adventure, each one getting more than they bargained for. The Matchmaker is a charming, poignant farce about risk and reward —and, of course, a meddling matchmaker. Director Anthony McKay described the piece thematically in this way: “…the play is a warm humorous exploration of money. What’s it’s real value and what place should it have in our lives? Given our current president, his preoccupation with money and his measuring everything by it, the play seems exceptionally timely.” He added, “…it’s also a rollicking farce of mistaken identities, disguises and narrow escapes accompanied by the clip clop of horses pulling handsome cabs through 1880’s Manhattan. It’s a romantic piece that takes place on that special day, that hopefully happens to us all, when we go a little bit mad, fall in love and, like it or not, have the adventure of our lives.”  When asked why he chose the play to direct, “Peter Cooke,, wanted to do a farce. First, to expose the students to as many comedic styles as possible, but also because he’s always looking for balance in the season and the next show Love Labor’s Won while light hearted has some dramatic threads to it. I had a couple of farces to choose from but when The Matchmaker was offered, I seized on it. I love Wilder’s tolerant view of humanity as well as his humor. Vandergelder’s mirroring Trump’s values gave the play extra relevance. The action takes place in the1880’s but it is a universal story: it happened then, it’s happening now, it will happen in the future. I love the play’s innocence, its love of humanity and, in among all its frolics, its poignancy–watching fools, from two centuries ago who turn out to be very much like us, trying to figure the whole thing out.”

Love’s Labor’s Won, a sequel to Shakespeare’s Loves’ Labors Lost will follow Season-Background-images-3Nov. 16-Dec. 2. The piece has been written and will be directed by Scott Kaiser, the director of company development at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “I imagined the outbreak of a European war that separates the lovers, not for just a year, but for four years of hardship,” Kaiser said about his piece. “I imagined that each of these lovers suffers a terrible loss, that the crucible of war changes them all, irrevocably. Then, as the fighting subsides, I imagined the couples coming together again, in Paris, for a much-delayed reunion. Will their relationships survive?” The play ends abruptly with the death of the King of France, crushing the romantic endeavors of four young couples. Will their love survive? And, if so, how? Love’s Labor’s Won answers these unresolved questions. After four turbulent years, the lovers meet again in Paris at the signing of an armistice that will end the bloody European War that separated them. The couples soon discover that war has drastically changed their love. But can their love alter the course of the war?

Season-Background-images-5The Drowsy Chaperone, Feb. 22-March 3, will be choreographed and directed by Tony Award-nominated guest director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, with music direction by Thomas Douglas. “When Peter Cooke invited me to CMU to direct and choreograph the show, I jete-ed at the opportunity,” said Milgrom Dodge. “What fun to find the next generation of talent who can keep this genre alive. I look forward to working with the talented students to create our unique production.” Imagine being in the audience awaiting a new Cole Porter show, or one by the Gershwins… Entertainments that transport the hum-drum details of daily life to plotted tales of love in crisis—tales involving gangsters, show people, millionaires, servants and tap dancing. Well, that’s exactly what happens in The Drowsy Chaperone.

The 2017-2018 season will close with Tony Kushner’s timely play, A BrightSeason-Background-images-2 Room Called Day, April 12-28, directed by faculty member Jed Allen Harris who said, “I love plays that concern themselves with questions of politics and art in a theatrical manner.” In this play, you will find yourself in Berlin, 1932 during the twilight months of the Weimar Republic. While fascist forces move to seize control of the government, a group of communists, artists and intellectuals gather to trade stories and drown their fears. Tony Kushner’s poetic and incendiary play follows these women and men as they strive to preserve a world that is tearing apart. In A Bright Room Called Day, the demons of the past are the prophets of the future.

The Director Series, named for Hollywood producer John Wells, a 1979 graduate of CMU’s Drama School, provides students within The John Wells Directing Program with the opportunity to direct and mount plays. This year they will direct the following productions:

  • How to Put on a Sock, adapted from Franz Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, adapted and directed by Fellow Rachel Karp. November 1-3.
  • Medea/Shulie, written and directed by Fellow Sara Lyons. November 29-December 2.
  • Alkestis by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson, directed by Fellow Philip Gates. February 21-23.
  • The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Jennifer Wise, directed by Fellow Stephen Eckert. April 25-28.
  • Smitten devised and directed by Jack Dentinger. February 21-23.
  • I’m Sure I’ll Figure It Out written and directed by Burke Louis. March 21-23.
  • Stumpy Legs Too Short by Katja Brunner, directed by Bronwyn Donohue. April 25-27.
  • Teaching Yourself How to Die Fast, an original film written and directed by Grace McCarthy. Screening Date TBA.

The CMU Drama Department describes the New Works Series as “…the cauldron in which new ideas, concepts and performance practices are presented to our audiences by the next generation of dramatic writers.” The series will take place Nov. 15-18, April 25-29 and is, as yet, TBD. Writers to be showcased are: Gillian Beth Durkee, Ryan Hudak, Lauren Wimmer, Jordan Barsky, HyoJeong Choi and Anderson Cook.

Perhaps a lesser known or unsung highlight of the Drama Department, well worth noting, is the Dramaturgy Program, which will host talkbacks with the audience, casts and crews throughout the season on Tuesday evenings, directly following performances. These informative discussions will cover play background, research and story line development. The dramaturgs also are available to discuss the plays with classes, student groups and public organizations. Interested parties can contact Wendy Arons, dramaturgy option coordinator, at warons@andrew.cmu.edu to schedule a session with a dramaturg.

The CMU season is bursting with delicious possibility.  One wonders just how the school will pull off such a monumental procession of intense and inspiring work. It is this dedication to artistic excellence that keeps CMU at the top of the game.

For package options or to place a subscription order, call the box office at 412-268-2407 between noon and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Special discounts are available to all Carnegie Mellon alumni. All Subscriber Series performances are at 8 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 2 and 8 p.m. on Saturdays   in CMU’s Purnell Center for the Arts. For more information about the School of Drama, visit www.drama.cmu.edu.

**Play descriptions were taken mainly from the CMU school of Drama website.