A Christmas Carol

christmascarol-banner_origEverything about The Steel City Shakespeare Center’s (SCSC) production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol surprised me.  This was my first SCSC performance and I have to admit, I kind of want to go back today and watch the show again. For weeks I had been imagining what a show performed at the Troy Hill, V.F.W. would look like. I also wondered how a production company can carry out a play, with an extensive list of parts, using the concept of extreme casting. I was dreaming up all sorts of ideas, only to have each and every one proved wrong by the charm and cleverness of this production.

Walking into the performance space was somewhat startling.  The room was severely lacking in holiday decor.  I expected, at the very least, mock-Victorian wreaths or garland.  The walls were bare; not even red and green colored construction paper chains or Christmas lights taped to the wall.  I looked around the room again.  There is no scenery displayed; no painted plywood or drop cloths hanging from the ceiling, to assist the audience with their transport into 19th century London. The space is basically unaltered.  Standard hall chairs, metal with vinyl seats, are lined neatly in rows.  By four o’clock a handful of families began to trickle in. These young children carried ziplock baggies of candy and filled the rows beside me.  I took note; there are no screens for quick costume changes, no visible props and a roomful of young children eating candy.  I began to think this could end very bad.

In the time before the show began, I had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Mykita, actor and Director of Audience Development. Michael shared a bit SCSC’s A Christmas Carol history, now in its’ third season.  A Christmas Carol was initially a struggle to adapt from novella to stage-worthy interpretation.  Mykita and Artistic Director, Jeffrey Chips, spent a great deal of time working the story into a format ready for performing.  This season, director Jessica Schiermeister, desired to keep as much of the original story text as possible, so Mykita revealed, ‘the actors will narrate Dickens, then simply step into character as needed’.  Interesting concept, but I wondered, how was this really going to play out.  I hate to admit, I was skeptical.

With a cast comprised of 5 actors depicting all of the characters, there is no scenery, no costume changes, no stage, lighting, intermission or big musical numbers; this could not have been an easy task to execute.  Michael Mykita, cast as Scrooge, Sebastian Midence plays the roles of Bob Cratchit, the Ghost of Jacob Marley, Young Scrooge, Ignorance & Man with Bundle, David Loehr, cast as Fred, Fezziwig, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Peter Cratchit and Old Joe.  Susana Garcia Barragan playing the parts of Charity Lady, Little Boy Singing, Tiny Tim, Fred’s Wife, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  Last, Sandee Rollins, appearing as Charity Lady, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Mrs. Cratchit, Belle, Want, Laundress, and Christmas Morning Child. What SCSC provides cannot be compared to any other production of A Christmas Carol.  Through the most simple arrangements, SCSC has created an intimate experience of refined storytelling. Throughout the performance, I watched intently as the actors interacted, almost singularly using tone of voice and facial expressions to distinguish their characters.  This enchanting rendition is not the awkward challenge I expected but a moment of magic.   As the cast narrates Dickens, and continually reconstruct their enactments stepping in and out of multiple roles, I expected to be bored. I also figured the children in the audience, some appearing to be as young as 3 or 4 years old, would fidget or be noisy, but this was far from what materialized.

The cast was engaging, energetic and completely enveloped in character.  I was engrossed in the time and place of the story. Watching Mykita as Scrooge transform from bitter miser into a compassionate and gentle fellow is endearing.  Midence, as the ghost of Jacob Marley is a part I may forever associate with the role. Loehr, as the Ghost of Christmas Present is captivating but it is his representation of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, which is most notable. Barragan, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, shrouds herself in a long black cape, (one of the few props used in telling the tale) keeping her face hidden by a hood.  This menacing portrayal is striking in comparison to the times when she leads the audience in unembellished yet sweet and brief sing-a-longs. Her depiction of Tiny Tim, with a wooden crutch propped under her arm, is an impressive gage to the scope of her ability.   Rollins’s delivery of narration is most mesmeric. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, she maneuvers across the floor with a brilliant model of an astral figure by her side, flowing white and truly dreamlike, another of the few props used, easily evoking fear and grief from Scrooge.

I have never seen a performance like SCSC’s A Christmas Carol before.  When the show ended I walked outside and was utterly surprised by the arrival of evening. I had simply been swept up into the story and lost all track of time. I can speak highly of this show, but want to confirm the talent of this cast and crew will attract audience members of all ages.  The children in the audience Saturday sat transfixed, not making a peep. I felt comforted by the voices of the cast and feel I heard not just the words of Dicken’s but the message of A Christmas Carol for the first time.  This act certainly brought a calm to the chaos that often accompanies me during this time of year.

A Christmas Carol  runs December 15, 16, and 17th at various locations. For more information click here.

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad

sinbad-banner_origFor all that’s been said about the appeal of the heroic epic, one of the genre’s least appreciated aspects is that its protagonists are malleable. Joseph Campbell’s infinitely referenced literary analysis, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, is so quotable because its narrative roadmap is so familiar: reluctant protagonist experiences a call to action after a brush in with the fantastic, is faced with a task that challenges his strength or intellect, and then leaves the situation with some reward he can bestow upon others. The heroic epic is objectively satisfying structurally, and allows for practically any kind of protagonist or tone; it’s a story made as easily into comedy as drama.

Enter Steel City Shakespeare’s production of The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, which I caught this past Sunday. The show began at 4 pm, and was located at the Fineview Overlook at the corner of Catoma and Lanark, which features a gorgeous overlook of downtown Pittsburgh. The locale is warm and neighborly, a perfect fit for a creative team that is nothing if not friendly. It is not the dangerous landscape painted in the original text, One Thousand And One Nights, but in this production you’d never know it.

Like Steel City Shakespeare other productions, Sinbad is an all-ages theatric retelling of a literary classic that fills the gaps left by its modest budget with homemade whimsy. The actors read passages as they act, emulating everything from traumatic shipwrecks to fatal acts of violence in the midst of the fable’s well-worn prose. When some kind of monster or figure of myth enters the story, the crew uses homemade puppets, elaborate costumes, household tools and other familiar trappings to get the point across.

Tracey D. Turner as Old Sinbad
Tracey D. Turner as Old Sinbad

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad has us follow the elderly Sinbad (Tracy D. Turner), a man of enormous wealth who has lived the most insane life humanly imaginable. We get to know about his various adventures as the show switches to the perspective of the young Sinbad (Isaiah Christian): the time he accidentally was granted kinghood over an island full of satanic demons; the time he stumbled onto a society in which all spouses are buried alive with their deceased loved ones; the time he crash landed onto an island where everyone was nude and the only source of food reduced men to madness. When a younger, poorer man (Sebastian Midence) also named Sinbad visits his castle, our protagonist can’t resist the opportunity to grant the man some of his wealth in exchange for his listening to each of his seven voyages.

Steel City Shakespeare’s earnest, ‘anything goes!’ approach to storytelling gives the production a Wes Anderson-patchwork aesthetic, which is its best asset. Despite the original folk tales being quite literally ancient, the nature of Steel City Shakespeare’s work means the text never comes across as staid, academic or predictable. Those unfamiliar with the stories of Sinbad will find themselves genuinely surprised at how weird and off-kilter the tales can be, and those already in the know will find themselves waiting with anticipation for Steel City Shakespeare’s next dynamic interpretation.

Sinbad a balancing act that works thanks to the production team’s ingenuity and attitude. As a result, however, retellings of voyages that feature little in the way of ridiculous fantasy feel meager in comparison to their more over-the-top counterparts. So much of the fun of Steel City Shakespeare’s Sinbad comes from its colorful visuals, and while the cast are active readers who clearly enjoy sinking into their characters, the inconsistency of energy from scene to scene proves to be a limiting factor.

Sebastian Midence as Birdman
Sebastian Midence as Birdman

The production I attended didn’t feature much in the way of audience interaction or improvisation due in large part to the rainy weather that had us sat under a tent, and I wonder how much that element may have changed the energy of the show. Switching from Turner to Christian to portray Sinbad works as a framing device, and I like the way the cast is constantly switching from one bit part to another, but I kept wanting the show to take things even further. I was delighted to watch Midence’s sudden transformation into an indignant man-bird replete with huge blue wings in one scene, and there was something distinctly funny in watching the cast go from well-meaning neighbors to mass murderers during the fourth voyage. Earlier on, however, the cast mimics insanity as they feast on poisoned food – everyone commits to the moment, sure, but there’s just not enough happening visually there to really capture the moment.

There is a fable in Sinbad in which the eponymous hero finds the Old Man of the Sea, who straps his legs to Sinbad with the grip of a boa constrictor around his neck. The Old Man rides Sinbad like a tricycle, ordering him around and cackling about it for days and weeks – which means we get a passage in which Sinbad reveals that the Old Man was frequently relieving himself during the trip. It’s an odd passage in the original text, and not particularly exciting. Steel City Shakespeare’s production, which features an adorable puppet operated on Christian’s back, elevates what may have otherwise been a strange, awkwardly paced aside in the larger story. Steel City Shakespeare’s embrace of playfulness makes it a highlight, in fact. By contrast, a story revolving around a giant who cooks Sinbad’s crew alive and then eats them seems almost barebones. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare that is making a story with that much gore into a scene easily presentable to a family, but until gaps like these are bridged the show won’t feel as cohesive as it needs to.

Steel City Shakespeare’s The Seven Voyages of Sinbad is literary epic as theatric playground, and I love that about it. I just think it could use an extra swing set or two.

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad runs at the Fineview Overlook through October 15. For more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of John T. Beck.

Artist Spotlight: Jeffrey Chips

unnamed (1)Jeffery Chips is trying to be it all: husband, father, theater director, and day-job-worker. He said, referring to the old idiom of burning the candle at both ends, that he had actually located a third end to burn. He started Steel City Shakespeare Center (SCSC) in 2012 with the intention of creating a space for actors to gather, workshop and audition. It wasn’t until two years after its founding that Chips pursued producing plays under the SCSC banner.

SCSC specializes in a kind of performance that Chips characterizes as “extreme casting”. Their productions are bare-bones in style, utilizing a small cast to convey many characters. The actor’s work with minimal sets, lighting and sound production, instead relying on the strength of their skill set to create the atmosphere. Chips noted that a production like this challenges the audience to use their imagination—to play along with what is happening on stage. For example, in SCSC’s production of Twelfth Night featured Chips playing two characters getting in a fist fight with each other.

The company is still finalizing the details of its 2017 season; though Chips was able to give some insight into what Pittsburgh audiences can expect. Theater, he said, can be an agent to counteract our culture’s current state of isolation and polarization. “Let’s all come together and share stories as a means of uniting.” When pressed about whether a dead white guy, such as Shakespeare, is really the platform to achieve those goals, he noted that he too struggles with that concept, but ultimately Shakespeare can speak to a multitude of experiences. His company, he said, has also produced non-Shakespeare, albeit white and British-centric plays such as last year’s Pride and Prejudice. The production was Steel City’s Shakespeare’s most successful show to date.

One source of support that has been crucial to Steel City Shakespeare’s growth is their partnership with New Sun Rising. New Sun Rising is a project out of Millvale, PA dedicated to supporting local artists and entrepreneurs. SCSC has received mentoring in the fields of development and visioning. NSR also happens to be Pittsburgh in the Round’s fiscal sponsor.

A longtime lover of theater, Chips has found it challenging to balance all the life roles that he has taken on. After completing his graduate degree in Shakespeare and Performance and training at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, he returned to Pittsburgh and performed in a few local productions. When those shows completed he said to himself, “Is this it?”.   The answer he came to was a resounding no.  To Chips, people are told that once they have children, they are to “get serious.” He believes though, that children benefit from seeing their parents thrive.

What helps Chips thrive is heading SCSC. When in production, he has packed weekdays where he runs lines while driving to and from his job, eats dinner with his family every night and then goes off to rehearsal. Often, after rehearsal, his work continues back at home where he then focuses on selling ad space in the program or he types up his notes for actors.  Relaying a conversation he had recently with Jim Warren, Artistic Director of the American Shakespeare Center, Chips told me that Warren said, “You have to make a decision that will help you down the road. Keep moving and keep building that momentum.”

He trusts that his hard work will pay off one day, and he will hopefully not have to juggle his artistic life with his day job. Chips also pointed out that his wife wouldn’t mind him pitching in more with the laundry and dishes as well. Pittsburgh is the right place, he said, to be in the arts, but he also has some feedback for his peers: “ The arts community needs to challenge itself and say— we are worthy of earning more.”

To stay up to date with all the fun happening at the Steel City Shakespeare Center, check out their website here. 

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