The Busy Body

22539000_1625142317538422_1922857777296597990_oPeople, in a singular sense, can change. According to centuries of written narrative, however, people collectively tend not to. No matter the time or place in human history, we have our tropes. There is always the young couple deeply in love, but forced apart by a more powerful exterior force. There is always the selfish, wealthy old man who takes advantage of the less fortunate. There is always the lustful idiot. Crucially, in-between it all, there is also always the Marplot.

The Red Masquers’ production of Susanna Centlivre’s The Busy Body, a farcical comedy originally penned in the 1700s, is a fun, breezy take on a generally under-looked play. Any production of a classic runs the risk of feeling stuffy, but thanks to some free-flowing performances and John E. Lane Jr.’s almost casual sense of direction, The Busy Body is able to be both accessible and occasionally even prescient in its comedy.

Like a lot of similar works, we follow two young couples whose love is restricted by their society; there are also a ton of characters and motivations to keep in mind at any given moment. There is Sir George (Nathaniel Yost), who sets the play’s tone by waxing poetic to Charles (Evan W. Saunders) about his visible erection. These men are fairly stupid, unflappably earnest, and desperately horny for Miranda (Amy Dick) and Isabinda (Sadie Crow) respectively.

Miranda is crafty, and spends the play’s opening act inventing a second persona to attract Sir George intellectually as well as physically. There is a plot reason for this, but in reality the entire purpose for her to do this is to create situations in which we laugh at George, because he is, like I said, fairly stupid.

Isabinda, meanwhile, is about to be married off to an anonymous Spanish merchant because her father happened to enjoy a trip there. Sadie Crow’s performance here is the most complete interpretation of matured teenage angst. When explaining her situation to others, she adopts this detesting thousand yard stare and shudders at the potential reality of the forced marriage, the Spanish merchant, and the very idea of Spain as an entity itself; the word “Spain” is not spoken so much as it is expelled from her like a sickness.

These four are not the most original protagonists, but Centlivre’s satire is built on wit that’s as blunt as a hammer, to the point of genre deconstruction. The play’s antagonists are two Seussian rich, old white men literally named Sir Gripe (Jay Keenan) and Sir Jealous Traffick (Nathan Freshwater). Gripe has no other intentions than to be the richest and most powerful individual in the play, and therefore has little to nothing in terms of complexity. As played by Jay Keenan, he is also one of the best parts of this production. Keenan imbues the character with an inexhaustible smarmy energy that breaths a lot of energy into scenes that are too dense with plot otherwise. He leans almost entirely into the character’s shrewdness, and we therefore never see the him as physically imposing to Miranda, which lightens up scenes that would otherwise significantly darken the play’s tone.

Jealous Traffick, meanwhile, is a more imposing figure, and his psychotic determination to maintain his daughter’s sexual purity are a grim if hilarious reminder of the effects of sexual repression. I quite liked Nathan Freshwater’s take on the character, who plays Jealous Traffick like a devout social conservative who has never reflected on his beliefs until this very moment in which he’s being challenged, like a sheltered kid during his first week in a college dorm or a far-right radio talk show host.

Tim Colbert’s bubbly, well-intentioned Marplot is The Busy Body’s greatest character. He is the titular busy body, and creates an endless amount of chaos via his need to help. Marplot, despite being utterly and infuriatingly hapless, is so warmhearted and abused that it’s hard not to root for him through each and every awful mistake he makes. He is the play’s weird little brother, and, sure, a little Marplot goes a long way, but The Busy Body would be painfully straightforward without him.

Like many of the more classically-minded farces, The Busy Body inevitably gets buried under its own plot. This is an area where Red Masquers’ production favorably compares to other restoration era shows. The intent isn’t so much to slavishly devote itself to period detail or to dynamically reinterpret its source material, but instead to extract as much of the play’s inherent sense of fun through performances that are big and goofy, but also smart. There are a lot of ways to interpret these characters, and the cast never makes choices that take away from the show’s inherent playfulness.

That said, there’s little in the way of extra flavor. Stage design is as minimal as humanly possible, and the play is paced rather quickly for its density. The Busy Body is good at what it does, but what you see is what you get, too. Theatergoers new to the era might have some trouble keeping up without a Wikipedia article at the ready during intermission, but seasoned veterans will enjoy a production that thoroughly understands what makes Centlivre’s comedy work.

They Busy Body runs at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theatre through November 12. Tickets and more information can be found 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.

PNWF 2017: Program B

PNWF LOGOThe 27th annual Pittsburgh New Works Festival (PNWF) Program B offers is a mixed bag of theatrics.  On stage, three world premiere one act plays, produced by local theater troupes.  I reviewed the line up beforehand on PNWF’s website and just knew my dramatic pallet would be well attended to.  

Program B features The Heritage Players, longtime PNWF contributors, the artists collaborative, Cup-A-Jo Productions, and The Duquesne University Red Masquers, the oldest amateur theater company in Pittsburgh.  Each company, with their own unique cast, offers a dramatic illustration of the playwright’s characters, a time and place showcased in their new works; gently breathing life into the story.  

exitFirst up for review, Exit Strategy by Fairbanks, Alaska playwright Tom Moran, is produced and directed by Jay Breckenridge and Nicole Zalek of Pittsburgh’s South Hills troupe The Heritage Players. Love dating?  Hate dating?  Either Way, Exit Strategy offers insight on improving your date worthiness, navigating the desires and intents of the opposite sex and being true to yourself.  This one act consists of a simple set; a high top bar table and a couple of glasses.  Lead character Sean, played by Connor McNelis, experiences a series of dates, each one propelling him to tweak his ‘style’.  His dates played by Nicole Zeak, Elena Falgione and Renee Rabenold help McNelis deliver Moran’s dialogue, which is ordinary and familiar, often fast paced and 100% natural.  Sean’s evolution of self- awareness is comedic, mainly because it’s an honest representation.  The dialogue keeps the audience engaged and Sean’s attempts to improve his dating skills are anything but cliche. The end offers a pleasant surprise, sometimes a happy ending is the icing on the cake.

finalThe second play, All Sales Final, by New York City playwright John Yarbrough, is presented by Cup-A-Jo Productions and performed by a seasoned cast of actors.  The play takes a subject typically considered delicate, sacred and often sensitive and introduces financial exploitation and the callousness of greed through the absurdity of a ponzi scheme and characters with questionable personal boundaries. The comic relief flourishes from actors Mark Yochum, as Mr. Festerberger and Megan May cast as Mrs. Wilkinson.   All Sales Final has a lot of ‘one liners’ that seemed to challenge the cast into keeping a straight face.  I enjoyed seeing the actors reactions to each other as much as I enjoyed watching them perform.  Director, Nick Mitchell’s stage direction requires the cast utilize the whole stage and is high energized, both appropriate and appreciated.  Produced by Joanna Lowe for Cup- A- Jo Productions, together Mitchell and Lowe present a cast who brings Yarbrough’s one act melodrama, a rendition of a price tag on life to the stage with passion.  

sparrowsProgram B’s  final performance, The Sparrows, written by Pennsylvanian playwright Evan W. Saunders and presented by The Duquesne University Red Masquers.  An introspective plot offering a brief examination into the memory of Will, played by Ian Brady.  Will struggles to accept a memory or the way the event actually occurred. The memory includes Holly, played by Angela Trovato, and he relives a moment in time, playing out many different angles and possible outcomes.  Holly sometimes shows compassion, other times frustration and boredom all while Will remains reticent. This one act is an interesting perspective and constructs a somewhat surreal reflection on life.  The dialogue is repetitive but with each imagined scenario the actors deliver in a different manner. I really enjoyed The Sparrows being placed at the end of the series.   I enjoyed the sentimentality Saunders created with a visit down memory lane.  

Remaining true to their mission and style, Carnegie Stage, once again hosts the month long PNWF.  Always a hospitable staff, beverages, ample parking, accessible location to tri county roadways and ample restaurants and bars within a few short blocks from the theater and innovative and unique theater experience with every visit.  PNWF is a great opportunity for the theatrically adventurous audience, writers, and performers to explore Pittsburgh’s theater community.

For tickets and more information about the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, click hereStay tuned for more coverage of the festival coming soon!

Duquesne Red Masquers’ Ambitious 105th Season

105Pittsburgh’s oldest amateur theatre company, The Duquesne Red Masquers has quite the ambitious upcoming 105th season. Orphie and the Book of Heroes, The Busy Body, Macbeth and Equus would be a challenge for any professionally staffed company let alone a university company. Nathaniel Yost, Red Masquers’ President says “This upcoming season is going to be fantastic!”

The Red Masquers’ roots go back to the late 1800s. The company provides an opportunity for students to learn about and participate in theater regardless of their major, background or experience.

I asked Yost how they picked their choices for such a challenging season. “The Red Masquers, as part of a university theater program, has several missions to fill. The group presents plays from a wide spectrum of historical eras, styles, and types of drama. We try to choose plays that will be incorporated into class offerings in the semester that the works are being presented. We are also committed to developing and promoting new works of art, and we usually produce one world premiere a season. This year’s season was selected to showcase our talented seniors and alumni, as well as, co-ordinate with The National Conference of 18th Century Women Writers that will be hosted by Duquesne University.”

dasfefeOpening this season is Orphie and the Book of Heroes! a new musical by Duquesne alumnus Christopher Dimond.  Orphie was commissioned for and premiered at the Kennedy Center. This will be only the fourth production of the new musical. Jill Jeffrey who is Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Gemini Children’s Theatre directs. The musical follows the story of a young girl in Ancient Greece, who is obsessed with the stories that her guardian Homer has told her. She longs, though, to hear a story about a hero like her, a Great Girl Hero. When Homer is taken from her, Orphie sets out on a quest to rescue him from the Underworld, and discovers that the hero she’s been looking for might be closer than she thought. This one-act musical is filled with humor, unexpected character twists, and fun mash-ups of Greek Culture and our modern world. Orphie and the Book of Heroes is an entertaining musical for all ages.

Next is The Busy Body directed by John E. Lane, Jr., Director of Duquesne University’s Theatre Arts program.  Susanna Centlivre’s play is a fast-paced comedy with a good measure of wit. It is a laugh-out-loud, one-of-a-kind, social satire about people who can’t mind their own business. The Busy Body comes from one of the great female playwrights of the 18th century and is simply one of the most successful comedies of intrigue from its time.

The Busy Body, will be offered for The National Conference of 18th Century Women Writers.

The Red Masquers will produce One Acts for Charity. This is a group of one act plays directed and performed by the students of the university. The money donated during these shows benefits a local charity that will be revealed at a later date.

The second semester starts off with Shakespeare’s Macbeth which is directed by Duquesne senior Dora Farona! The “Scottish play” is a classical masterpiece of the macabre. Macbeth transforms as he resists and gives way to his ambitious urges, which lead him to be tempted into committing heinous acts. It is a dark and bloody show, filled with rage, grief, and an unquenchable thirst for power.

Macbeth will be the senior thesis project for several of the Theater Arts majors, Director Dora Farona, actor Nathaniel Yost (Macbeth), and Sound Designer, Anna Cunningham.

Following Macbeth, is Equus written by Peter Shaffer and directed by Justin Sines who also Serves as Technical Director of the Genesius Theatre at Duquesne and who also directs for Pittsburgh’s Summer Company. This stage show, which won winner 1975 Tony Award for Best Play, tells the story of a psychiatrist who attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses.

Equus rounds out the season as a thought-provoking, modern play that challenges young scholars about both social structures and the nature of passion.

Finally, the Red Masquers close off their season with Premieres XLI! Premieres offers a time for any current student or faculty member to see their work on stage. After the plays are chosen by the directors, productions will begin with a collaborative process between the actors, directors, and writers. This will be directed and performed by students of the university.

The Red Masquers have a jam-packed season, everyone is invited to come enjoy some interesting theatre.

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

All productions are at the Genesius Theatre on the Duquesne University campus.

How I Learned to Drive

Drive Small Posters (5)[2]Sexual abuse and the way women are often negatively sexualized once they experience the onset of puberty is a subject that has been at the forefront in recent news headlines; making the overarching metaphor in How I Learned to Drive, a play written by Paula Vogel and directed by Justin Sines, perfectly timed to bring about awareness and discussion about the issue.

On a simple set featuring large archway made out of wire fencing with various street signs  attached to the top and sides, the audience is introduced to one of the main characters, Li’l Bit, played by Fiona Montgomery, who is growing up in the mid-60s and early 70s. Also present in the performance space is an unmoving, upholstered seat with a back that serves as the seat of a car for the majority of the play, and two identical, backless seats located in close proximity on either side.

Learning how to drive portrayed as a metaphor for learning about sexual boundaries and sexual abuse is clear early on in the performance, making the length of the 90 minute piece perhaps a bit unnecessary.DSC_0296

The inappropriate sexual nature of the relationship among family members that has been passed down through generations is made apparent immediately, as Li’l Bit explains that everyone in her family has a nickname that relates to a part of a person’s genitalia. Her grandfather’s nickname is, “Big Pappa,” while her uncle’s name is, “Uncle Peck;” both obvious metaphors.

The audience watches as the play’s timeline jumps back and forth, guided by driving instructor, voiced by Colleen Garrison, who utilizes driving instructions for a manual car to indicate a shift forward or backward in time. The nonlinear timeline provides a glimpse into the inappropriate nature of Li’l Bit’s relationship with uncle Peck and the sexual abuse he inflicts on her from an early age, how it affects her throughout her teenage years and the lasting affect it has on her as a young adult.DSC_0402

While driving directions allow the audience to perceive the timeline has changed and provides further depth to the main metaphor, if the secondary characters had not often announced that there was a change in the year, I would not have necessarily picked up on the fact that Li’l Bit’s age shifts during the performance. Li’l Bit is often distressed, as she should be considering the circumstances, and Montgomery does a good job of making this apparent to the audience through her expressions. However,  Montgomery unfortunately makes almost no alterations in Li’l Bit’s mannerisms or tone of speech to indicate that the character’s age has changed, rendering the performance flat.

Uncle Peck, played by Michael Makar, is definitely the antagonist in the play, and the fact that his character does not come across as obviously creepy or perverse provides further comment on the relationship between victims of sexual abuse and those abusing them. Often times, the people that prey on others fly under the radar and come across as unassuming and harmless. Uncle Peck grooms Li’l Bit her entire life, skews sexual boundaries, makes her believe that what he is doing is not wrong and is able to accomplish this under the guise of a caring and loving family member.DSC_0484

While this point is well taken by the way that the character is portrayed in the performance, at the close of the play I found myself wishing that Makar had made me more uneasy and uncomfortable as the plot progressed. The way that Makar depicts the character of uncle Peck made him seem one dimensional and stiff. Uncle Peck is supposed to be leading two different lives, one in which he is a loving and devoted husband, and one in which he is a sexual predator. Had Makar made uncle Peck come across as a more sly and sneaky, I think the character would seemed more dynamic and realistic.

The play ends with Li’l Bit preparing to go for a drive by herself, however, although she does this on her own, she follows the driving instructions taught by her uncle Peck. As she adjusts the rearview mirror, Makar sits in the back seat indicating to the audience the lifelong affect sexual abuse has, and will have, on Li’l Bit’s life, and the cyclical nature of this behavior.

Special thanks to Duquesne Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. How I Learned to Drive runs through November 13 at Duquesne Genesius Theater. For tickets and more information, visit duqredmasquers.com.

Photos courtesy of Dale Hess.

Avenue Q

AVQ Small Poster%2FProgram Cover (1)It should be noted, in all fairness as a spectator, that I walked into The Red Masquers production of Avenue Q with a profoundly intense ardor for the quirky—at times aberrant—musical.  Ardor may be putting it lightly, even—on various iterations of my iPod and iTunes, “The Internet is For Porn,” “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada,” “If You Were Gay,” and “Schadenfreude” were all featured in my top fifteen most frequently played tracks, each with well over 500 plays.  Based on the book by Jeff Whitty, with lyrics and music by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, Avenue Q was released as on Off-Broadway production in 2003, and was heralded as a bizarre triumph, blending the aged, acerbic snark and crass disillusionment of 90s sitcoms with the puppet sensibility and sly innocence of Sesame Street. My first stumbling upon the play as a 14 year old, peculiarly enough, was through my father, whose students had burnt him the soundtrack in order to convey the ennui of the post graduate Gen Xers—those who found themselves over-talented, over-educated, over-preoccupied with themselves, and distinctly underemployed and under-stimulated.  I listened to the soundtrack in the car with my father religiously, strangely bonding over the perverse cleverness of the lyrics, the strange appeal of the hyper-sexual, obscene monsters, and the nuances of the caricatures portrayed by both the wily monsters and plucky humans alike.  Avenue Q impacted me in a particularly unique way, as months prior the musical object of my obsessive affection had been Rent. Q was a hyper-realistic Rent on a come down from a bender.IMG_6893

I could appreciate the biting humor and musical flare of Q at 14, but the scathing realism of the musical fiasco was lost on me in a way that now, as a 25 year old barista with a Master’s Degree, is achingly funny given my current position.  And perhaps so much of the triumph of the production of Avenue Q—because the source material was incredibly familiar and nearly impossible to spoil—was the stupendous efficaciousness and vibrancy of the multi-talented cast.  Set appropriately on a minimalist stage, the cast delivered each song, each demoralizing joke with a certain dead-on-the-inside hutzpah that is completely apropos for the play.  It is first necessary to sing the praises of the cast responsible for portraying the “real humans” in the ensemble—Angela Griffo as Christmas Eve, Nate Yost as Brian and Mikayla Gilmer as Gary Coleman.  It is no small feat to act side by side to the purposefully exaggerated stage theatrics of actors doubling as puppeteers, but the crew of “real folks” pull it off beautifully.  Yost brings his usual bombastic versatility to the spirited but underappreciated wannabe standup comedian; Griffo tackles the, at times, problematically stereotypical “Asian wife” Christmas Eve, with harmonic splendor and steadfastness through the more uncomfortably caricatured moments of the character; and Gilmer is utterly electric as the show’s inexplicable omniscient celebrity/landlord, Gary Coleman.IMG_6870

But there is much to be said too, as one would presume, about the flawless performances of the “monster” ensemble.  While the finer manipulations of the puppets jabberwocking were sometimes evident, the translation of human to puppet emotions and physicality were nearly impeccable across the board.   Moreover, the musical prowess and resounding enthusiasm of the cast is palpable—and the enthusiasm holds up in even the more taxing numbers, like the uproarious “You Can Be As Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Making Love)” (which accomplished miracles of puppet coitus that I am still daunted to imagine in normal intercourse).  Each “monster” or human puppet—Princeton/Rod, Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, Nicky/Trekkie Monster, Bad Idea Bears 1 & 2, Mrs. Thisletwat and Ricky (lplayed respectively by Daniel Watts, Sienna Dalessandro, Hayden Lounsbury, Bandon Anderson and Katheryn Hess, Izzy Tarcson—is animated with such poise and pizzazz, and impressive ability to often switch between distinctly different puppet roles, that to enumerate their skills would be a two page review unto itself.  A standout of gruff proportions is unquestionably Hayden Lounsbury, bringing the masturbation-addled Trekkie Monster and oblivious desire-object and supportive straight best friend Nicky to life with such distinctly eccentric flair that does justice to both very unique characters.IMG_6882

The poignant, yet savagely funny moments of Avenue Q ring true even more agonizingly in this stage iteration—the forlornness of closeted Republican Rod’s pining for his roommate Nicky (in a fantastic take on the Bert and Ernie relationship) is brilliant; the despondency of the question of what do you do with a BA in English is iridescently brutal.  There are moments, though, that in a re-watching may have been better altered given current social climates, like the tricky, if not brusquely funny “Everyone Is A Little Bit Racist.”  That being said, the production is worth partaking in regardless of any foreknowledge of the play.  After all, what else are you going to do with your liberal arts education?

Special thanks to the Duquesne University Red Masquers for complimentary press tickets. Avenue Q runs at the Genesius Theatre through October 9th. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Photo credit: Morgan Paterniti

Collegiate Preview 2016

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College campuses throughout the city are springing back to life with students moving into their dorms, buying books and preparing for another semester of learning. With schools gearing up for fall term we want to make sure our readers are in the know when it comes to Pittsburgh’s collegiate  stage productions. Our first ever Collegiate Preview covers the four major universities and what they have to offer audiences the 2016-2017 season.

Point Park’s upcoming Conservatory season includes The Who’s Tommy, The Sea, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical, Big Love, Sweet Charity, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the Most Popular American Play You’ve Never Seen. Plus some some surprises from the REP and the Conservatory Dance Company. Read more about what the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s 2016-2017 season has for us here.

The University of Pittsburgh Stages’ 2016-2017 season brings us a nice mix of classic musicals and modern plays. Pitt’s upcoming season includes Intimate Apparel, Hair, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Baltimore, and Peter and the Starcatcher. Click here to see what we’re in for this school year!

Carnegie Mellon University’s subscription series includes The Playboy of the Western WorldThe RoverRagtime, and The Three Musketeers.  Plus bonus Director Series and New Work Series! Check out what CMU will be bringing us here.

Duquense Univeristy’s Red Masquers has big plans this season starting with Avenue Q, How I Learned to Drive, Rust, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Proof, and True West. Finishing off the school year with a weekend of One Acts for Charity. Click here to find out more!

Follow along with our Collegiate adventures on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtag #PITRUniversity!

Student-Run Red Masquers to Push Boundaries in Upcoming Season

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Red Masquers, Duquesne University’s theater program and Pittsburgh’s longest running amateur theater begins a new season this fall with a host of new productions. Besides several brand new student productions, the theater will be putting on several notable contemporary plays, from the vivaciously punk musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to the eminently likable How I Learned to Drive. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Michael Makar, co-president of Red Masquers about the team’s hopes and goals for the coming year, which, in Makar’s own words, are remarkably ambitious: “This will be the best season we’ve ever done.”

The theater’s season opens with Avenue Q, directed by Jake Wadsworth, on September 29th and until October 16th. This is a particularly interesting choice for a university theater to perform, considering the play is primarily about a character completely unsure of how to tackle the complexities of the world with his college degree; this author can only hope the play’s opening song, “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” will literally contain a few tips.

But don’t let this potentially meta comedy fool you, because even here the theater will be forced to push itself. Avenue Q famously makes the use of puppets which are operated by unconcealed actors and puppeteers, posing a unique challenge for the cast.

Masquers will follow up Avenue Q with How I Learned to Drive (November 3rd to the 13th), a play simultaneously charming and kind of horrifying. Although I would make the claim that Paula Vogel’s work is best experienced knowing as little as possible going in, it’s no spoiler to say that the play’s heavy reliance on minimalism and subtle emotional storytelling will prove another interesting, potentially wonderful challenge for director Justin Sines and his cast and crew.

The second-half of the season promises a few surprises, most notably one named Rust, and original play written by F.J. Hartland and directed by Lara Oxenreiter. Hartland is a local writer, director and critic of note. His plays have been performed in a wide variety of Pittsburgh theaters, and the well-liked director has been reviewed well in recent years.

“[Hartland] is a local legend,” said Makar. “We’re very excited.”

As for what Rust actually is, it seems Hartland, for now, is keeping things fairly close to the chest. Generally speaking, the play will be comedic, and utilize about 10 characters. What the play is ultimately about, however, remains a mystery. It will be performed from February 16th to the 26th.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is up next. Directed by Jill Jeffery, this production may potentially sharpen an already a politically pointed musical that utilizes punk music and dark humor to retell the story of one of our most infamous leaders.

“One reason Jill picked [the play] is the political relevancy [by] waiting until after the elections to do it.” And he may not be wrong: in an election year all-too focused on populism and the presumably basic skill of maintaining honesty in leadership, the challenging, brute-force approach to political storytelling in the play may indeed be more relevant than ever. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will be performed from March 15th to the 19th, with at least one yet to be announced midnight show.

Proof, a play about a mathematician struggling with mental disease and her father’s legacy, will open on March 30th and run until April 9th. A play as dense in emotional complexity is this demands an empathetic director, and Makar is more than confident in director Nancy Bach’s ability to put on a production that is genuinely sensitive to the realities of its emotionally belabored characters, citing her past dramatic performances as evidence. “She is a master of heartbreak. She played Linda [Loman] in Death of a Salesman and gave a tear jerking performance…I don’t have much in common with a mid-50’s wife of a salesman, but I understood everything happening to her…I could feel what she was feeling.”

The last mainstage production will be of True West, which will be put on Makar himself, who described the essence of the play simply: “two brothers spiral into desolation. That’s really it. The whole play…it’s mostly a psychological battle. One brother’s a vagrant, one’s a screenwriter. They start to become more of the same person, and [It gets] hard to separate who they are and what they want.”

Makar’s goals for the play are to focus on the realism of the play by “moving in and out of menace effectively” and by closely examining what he describes as the play’s most central theme: “desolation consumes creation.”

True West will run from April 26th to the 30th.

Besides these mainstage productions, the student-run theater will also be putting on a Christmas Cabaret on December 9th and 10th, as well as Premiers on November 30th until December 3rd, which is a series of student-written and directed works over 4 nights that focus on specific themes and metaphors through sometimes unconventional means – Makar listed a play about racism in which three actors played ducks as a highlight from last year’s production. There will also be a series of established plays directed and performed by students called One Acts for Charity on May 4th to the 16th.

When I asked Makar how he feels generally about the upcoming season, he told me, “We have a scale we’ve never had…With how much we’re stepping it up and how much variety and inventiveness we’re employing, I’m confident this is the best season Red Masquers has ever done.”

Audiences can experience the Red Masquers’ upcoming season themselves starting September 29th. For tickets and more information about the Red Masquers’ adventures, click here.

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Check out the rest of our Collegiate Preview and follow along with our Collegiate adventures on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with the hashtag #PITRUniversity!