The Audience

LLTC_TheAudience-300x268There is a sort of unintentional impracticality to presenting a dramaturgical narrative that focuses on the heavily romanticized (and even fetishized, to some extent) monarchical dynasty of the United Kingdom. More specifically, a narrative focusing on the emblematically stodgy and seemingly cantankerous Queen Elizabeth II seems like an almost esoteric subject, ossified by her crusty austerity and connection to the monolithic, pristine regime. Theatrical or cinematic pieces—like, say, The King’s Speech—while masterfully crafted, bear traces of being out of touch, particularly in intensely heated socio-political climates. Chronicling and dramatizing nuances and details of a royal family so entrenched in traditions steeped in Victorian sensibilities seems superfluously fey.

Allison Cahill as Queen Elizabeth II and Eric Mathews as the Archbishop
Allison Cahill as Queen Elizabeth II and Eric Mathews as the Archbishop

And yet, in Little Lake Theatre’s recent production of The Audience—originally penned by Peter Morgan, with, appropriately, Helen Mirren as the envisioned Elizabeth II—the inherent austerity and stodginess of the British monarchical family is upstaged by the exquisitely sensitive construction of characters and plot, and artful commitments to the archetypal, historicized figures that lead the very dialogue-centric action of the play. The Audience is a play that thrives on the intimacies and intricacies of private conversations and self-introspection manifested through intensive interactions and distorted self-perceptions. Thus, the play is one which relies heavily on the elemental design of the stage and the impassioned immersion of the actors to their characters. In terms of setting, Little Lake is a theatre—that houses a company who wisely and meticulously selects productions that behoove the innovatively in-the-round structure of the company’s space—that commands attention through its circular structure and unique seating. To complement this, the actual set design for The Audience, while minimalist, is appropriate and befitting for the degree of inwardness that dictates the story.

The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Allison Cahill (seated) as Queen Elizabeth II, (standing: left to right) Rick Bryant as Tony Blair, David Hoffman as Gordon Brown, Eric Mathews as Winston Churchill, Joe Macerelli as John Major, Patricia Cena Fuchel as Margaret Thatcher, Bracken Burns as Anthony Eden, Joe Eberle as Harold Wilson, and Nate Butler as David Cameron
The Queen and her Prime Ministers: Allison Cahill (seated) as Queen Elizabeth II, (standing: left to right) Rick Bryant as Tony Blair, David Hoffman as Gordon Brown, Eric Mathews as Winston Churchill, Joe Macerelli as John Major, Patricia Cena Fuchel as Margaret Thatcher, Bracken Burns as Anthony Eden, Joe Eberle as Harold Wilson, and Nate Butler as David Cameron

As an audience, we are visually connected throughout most of the play to Queen Elizabeth II’s “office” (and/or bedchambers), which is the center of not only Elizabeth’s professional and intimate dialogues with various members of British government and parliament, but is also the externalization of her memories, fears, anguishes and need for composure. In addition to the smartly structured stage, the performance of Allison Cahill as Elizabeth is the appropriate balance of muted self-awareness, quieted rage at the anticipatory nature of her queenly demureness, and sly snarkiness. Cahill manages to fill the space and manipulate it to be an extension of her performance. More specifically, Cahill introduces the cracks in Elizabeth’s demeanor with the right amount of suddenness to convey the difficulty of Elizabeth’s aura. Additionally, the array of actors ensembled to play the various Prime Ministers and other dignitaries—like Thatcher, Blair and others—channel the proper characteristics to pique, endear or vex Elizabeth at various moments in time and personal development, all of which Cahill presents masterfully. While the stage movements and accents could be a bit clunky, the eloquence of the portrayal of the complexities of Elizabeth exceeded expectations.

Though the play is moored by the seeming irrelevance of British monarchy in a time of furious politics and international relations, Little Lakes thoughtful presentation elevates the play a well-done examination of human interactions and introspections. The Audience carries on Little Lake’s tradition of sensitively crafted theatrical pieces that defy expectations.

The Audience plays on the Little Lake stage through August 26. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of James Orr.

Go Back for Murder

gbfmThe Summer Company presents Agatha Christie’s Go Back for Murder, an unusual take on the traditional murder mystery. What could be more exciting than family secrets, intrigue, suspense, romance and seduction?

The story begins as a young English woman from Canada, Carla Crale (Rebekah Hukill), returns to England, to try and discover the truth behind her father’s death. Her mother died in prison following her conviction for poisoning her husband, Carla’s father.  When Carla turned of age, she was given a letter her mother wrote to her, proclaiming her innocence, which sent Carla on her quest to find the truth.

Carla enlists the help of a young solicitor, Justin Fogg (Grant Jones), who was at her mother’s trial, in order to help her locate some of the people who were present when her father died. This, over the objections of her boorish fiancée Jeff Rodgers (Nathaniel Yost).

In the first act, which is set in 1962, Carla meets with those present on the day of her father’s death at Alderbury House on the south coast of England. Each is asked to ‘go back’ to the day of her father’s death in order to recount their version of the events.

In the second act, the action slips seamlessly from 1948, the year in which the murder actually occurred and 1962. Justin and Carla successfully manage a semi-reconstruction at the murder scene with all the witnesses. Together they uncover the various inconsistencies in testimonies and the drama arrives at the disturbing truth.

The story is interesting in its own right as we follow the plots twists and turns on the way to discovering the real truth about Carla’s father’s murder. What really makes the Summer Company’s production of Go Back for Murder is the casting. The eleven characters are portrayed by a great group local Pittsburgh area actors young and old.  The older seasoned actors make the difference, but none of the ensemble should be discounted in terms of their abilities.

It is Susan McGregor-Laine as Mrs. Williams, the former governess for Angela, Mrs. Crale’s half-sister, that really steals the show. It’s not just her lines that draw frequent laughter but her years of experience that create a fully realized portrayal of her character. The nuances, gestures, and movements are perfectly timed with her delivery.

Phillip and Meredith Blake, two gentlemen who have known Carla since she was a youngster are perfectly played by Jay Keenan and Mark Yochum. They capture the bond of two elderly brothers who seem share everything but know nothing about each other. It was quite the pleasure to watch these two “dance” around all the shenanigans that were happening at Alderbury back in 1948.

There is an interesting production twist which was executed quite well. Grant Jones plays both the younger attorney Justin Fogg and Carla’s Crale’s father Amayas. Rebekah Hukill plays both Carla and her mother Caroline. During the first act, it’s the contemporary Justin and Carla. In the second act, they bounce back and forth from ’48 to ’62 fairly seamlessly thanks to some costume magic.  I was less impressed with their performance in Act One than Two, both seeming to be more at ease in their 1948 characters.

Nora Lee plays the physically scarred Angela Warren, the younger half sibling of Caroline. She transitions from the worldly older Angela to the bratty schoolgirl with the shift of a pony tail and a change of gait.

The cast is rounded out by Ron Silver Waruszewski as the Lurch-like butler, Juliette Mariani as Amyas’ mistress Lady Melksham and Nathaniel Yost as Carla’s briefly seen fiancée Jeff Rogers.

Jill Jeffery has secured some very elegant costumes including some fabulous fur collared coats perfect for the plays time of year and cold drafty offices and houses.

Director John Lane Jr’s., one of the founders of the Summer Company, has an extensive resume directing ensemble dramas and uses all the tricks he’s learned to create an engaging and enjoyable evening of theatre. He also does double duty as set designer finding clever ways to fit all the locales and actors on the cozy Genesius stage. Though one criticism would be Dale Hess’ lighting design which seemed to often leave actors faces just outside of their light.

The Summer Company’s production of Go Back for Murder is an entertaining evening of theatre with a company of wonderful actors in a comfortable setting that should not be missed.

Go Back for Murder with performances August 19th – 27th at the Genesius Theater on the campus of Duquesne University, adjacent to the Mary Pappert School of Music

Tickets at the door or online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3041661

Thanks to the Summer Company for the complementary tickets.

Billy Elliot

f67fb6ad296f2fb7ed2598f303489535Keystone Performing Arts Academy presents Billy Elliot the Musical based on the 2000 film by the same name. The music is by Elton John, and the book and lyrics are by Lee Hall, who also wrote the film’s screenplay. The musical opened in 2005 in London followed by a Broadway run that won ten Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The story is set against the turbulent background of the 1984-85 miners’ strike in the northern mining village of Easington, England.  You can easily see how this story could occur in any small mining or manufacturing town in the States. Billy (Blaise Meanor) is a motherless pre-teen boy beginning to grow up and searching for his calling.

As is so often the custom in small rural communities, the son is expected to follow in his father Jackie’s (J. Alex Noble) footsteps and become a miner like his brother Tony (Chris Morris), and his father’s father before him.

In hopes for a different future for Billy, the family scrapes together 50 pence per week for him to go to the boxing class at the union hall. It becomes obvious during the lessons from miner and obnoxious boxing instructor George (Cody Sweet) that boxing is not going to be Billy’s calling.

After the boxing class, Billy is assigned to pass the hall keys on to the leader of a dance class, the exuberant and frustrated Mrs. Wilkinson (Chelsea Bartel). Billy lingers a bit and finds himself connecting with the music and its ability to cause him to “dance”.

With some persuasion from Mrs. Wilkerson, Billy decides to secretly join the class (secretly since his family would never understand) as “boxing is for lads, not ballet”. At home, his grandmother (Cynthia Dougherty) reveals her abusive relationship with her dead husband.  She too loved to dance, which was her mental escape from the abuse.

Billy confides his dance class attendance to his friend Michael (Sam O’Neill), who is happy to listen while he dresses up in his sister’s clothing , a pastime he can explain away very simply: “Me Dad does it all the time.” Free expression, is after all, Michael’s theme.

His dancing secret isn’t kept for long, and anger erupts when Billy’s father discovers that his son has been frittering away his hard won 50 pence on ballet instead of boxing. Mrs. Wilkinson believes in Billy’s innate talent and makes a secret offer of free lessons to prepare Billy  for an audition for the Royal Ballet School.

The strike, meanwhile, is getting more and more heated. There are pitched battles between the police and the miners that split friends and spur Tony Elliot to take the law into his own hands as he raids his father’s toolbox for a weapon to use against the police.

Billy’s father unexpectedly stumbles upon him dancing.  Mr. Elliot, moved by Billy’s dance heads off to see Mrs. Wilkinson and find out more about the audition for the ballet school. He is determined to create a better life for Billy outside of the mine even if means becoming a scab to earn money in order to pay for the audition and tuition.

Tony and the strikers agree to pool together what little money they have to help Billy go to London to audition. Additional money offered from the mining company itself is unwelcome but it provides the resources to send Billy and his father to the audition in London.

The principal characters in this production with the exception of Blaise Meanor’s Billy and Sam O’Neill’s Michael are not very likable. Under Chris Saunders direction, pretty much everyone else comes across as angry, almost yelling their lines. Anger is an appropriate reaction for a community struggling with the lack of food and money resulting from a long labor strike. However, anger alone does not create empathy between audience and characters. There also needs to be conveyed a sense of hopelessness and frustration amongst the villagers. There also needs to be a shared connection with the audience; “gosh this could happen to me”.

Meanor is a 14-year-old student at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School with a nice developing voice. He is not a fabulous dancer, but neither is Billy. “Both” have inherent talent that needs to be nurtured and developed.

O’Neill’s as Billy’s cross-dressing fun loving best friend offers a charming and refreshing break from the others characters’ anger. The line “Me Dad does it all the time” drew a nice tension breaking laugh from the audience. O’Neill was campy but subtle and a breath of fresh air despite his character’s struggle to fit in with the community.

Cynthia Dougherty’s revealing performance of Grandma’s Song was unfortunately marred by microphone disappearance on this night.

Credit goes to the entire cast for their efforts in trying to master the Geordie northern English dialect.

Musical Director Carolyn Violi did a nice job handling the score when the sound system cooperated. There were no visible musicians or credited players.

To be compelling this production requires that all characters and the audience feel Billy’s newly discovered passion for dance.  That passion serves to inspire his family and community and changes Billy’s life forever.

For me, this production lacks the “heart, humor and passion” that has generated a legion of fans for Billy Elliot the Musical.

Billy Elliott the Musical presented by Keystone State Music Theatre August 17th and 18th at 8:00 pm at the Rotary Amphitheater in Cranberry Township Community Park (111 Ernie Mashuda Dr., Cranberry Township, PA 16066) 

Unfortunately, Billy Elliot has already closed.

Thanks to Keystone Performing Arts Academy for the complementary tickets.

Little Shop of Horrors

20451726_1486317781414549_2142172775752597892_oHorror and comedy mix well. Laughter and terror are base emotions, but both require a degree of nuance to actually work. A comedy with stilted rhythm is unsettling; horror without subtlety is hilarious. Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors wasn’t the first horror comedy ever produced, but it was the first to intrinsically understand that a bad horror film is often a great comedy.

The Comtra Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors, a new production based on the musical adaptation (written by Howard Ashman with music by Alan Menken) from 1982, is an energetic wellspring of fun horror motifs. The story goes like this: Seymour (Robby Yoho), a put-upon florist who purchases an unknown breed of plant from a stranger, is surprised to find that his new ‘discovery’ is eye-catching enough to attract dozens of new customers to the floral shop where he works. He is more surprised to learn that the plant’s only source of sustenance is fresh human blood.

The larger the plant grows, the more of a local celebrity Seymour becomes, and the more human sacrifice the plant demands. Once it becomes clear the plant can no longer sustain itself on pinpricks alone, Seymour faces a difficult choice: how far will he go to maintain his sudden success?

Comtra’s production is acted, directed and produced almost entirely by students from nearby high schools. The theater has produced other high school shows in the past, including four other works helmed by Little Shop of Horror’s director, Jocelyn Kavanagh, a senior at Seneca Valley Senior High.

As someone who grew up watching almost a half dozen art programs be bled dry by lack of funding or interest, Comtra’s latest production is an easy example of how much good art programs actually do. This is a coordinated production. It’s ambitious, even, in its performances and set design. There’s this bizarre instinct out there to dismiss high school students as somehow unable to make anything resonant without extensive guidance, and Little Shop of Horror’s cast and crew – happily – have proven the sentiment ridiculous.

This musical is a particularly smart choice for a young production. Little Shop of Horrors is sharp-edged enough to feel a little dangerous, but without going beyond the pale. Characters in it possess complexity. There’s Orin, a psychotic dentist who gets high on both the pain of his patients and the extremely potent laughing gas he gives himself before operations. This character is played by Matt Kraynik, who plays many characters of interest in the play. He has a natural comedic instinct and embodies his characters easily. Audrey, who is sweet hearted and an unfortunate victim of abuse, is something of a cartoon-y damsel in distress in the source material, but Emma Hackworth takes her seriously as a human being. In this production, Audrey is not a passive victim of circumstance, but a woman who is self-destructive and desperate. That is a good choice.

I’m far from the most experienced theatergoer at PGH in the Round, but I think I’ve seen enough shows to be an authority on technical difficulties. For an audience, a play is not the script or its intent. A play is what happens in front of us, and nothing else. There was a moment during Little Shop of Horrors where Yoho’s Seymour must throw an object at some distance into the plant’s giant head. He misses, and Tyler Mortier, who plays the plant, begins heckling Yoho’s aim. I’ve seen too many shows where some important part of a character’s wardrobe is accidentally flung off in a fight scene, or an important piece of the set is shattered, or a pair of pants fall completely off of an actor without any mention from a panicked cast. All of these examples are real, and I remember them for a specific reason. Left unacknowledged, an audience leaves a show remembering these moments as funny, awkward things that happened to the people in the play. Own it, and suddenly the event is part of the play’s narrative.

This incident was a small part of the show, but it’s a nutshell moment for the cast and crew. Comtra’s Little Shop of Horrors is a showcase for young talent. Mel Welles, an actor in the original film, said that Little Shop of Horrors’ success was based in large part because it was “a love project.” The same joy in creativity is present here. The Comtra Theatre has enabled its team to stretch their creative muscles, and they will be better equipped to pursue work in and beyond theater as a result. It is good that the venue exists; spaces like it deserve celebration.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at Comtra Theatre through August 19. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Million Dollar Quartet

20664445_10154837815581696_2542258192457373764_nThere are two kinds of jukebox musicals in the world.

In one type, the songs originally performed by an established musical act are incorporated into that person or group’s biography. Examples of these highly marketable, live docudramas include Jersey Boys and the upcoming Pittsburgh CLO production, On Your Feet!. The second is the jukebox musical that channels the spirit of the artist(s) whose songs it repurposes to fit a completely original and/or zany narrative. Examples of these highly marketable, unabashed spectacles include Rock of Ages and recently closed Pittsburgh CLO production, Mamma Mia!.

Pittsburgh CLO’s current production, Million Dollar Quartet, is the best of both worlds: captivating and dazzling. It doesn’t transition as smoothly into a sing-a-long encore or succeed fully at humanizing its subjects as other jukebox musicals do, but this production is remarkable because of the inhuman talents of its multi-hyphenate ensemble,

Before I get to them, though, I have to call out the stars whose names appear above the title: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Originally conceived and directed by Floyd Mutrux and co-written by Mutrux and Colin Escott, Million Dollar Quartet is a living time capsule of the fateful night of December 4, 1956 when those icons played together at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. The man who brought them all there that cold evening, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, is also responsible for kick starting each of their illustrious careers and narrating this show.

Quartet opens with a thrilling rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” and, to my surprise, the two hours that follow feature real stakes, genuine conflict, and solid laughs.

Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_MILLION_DOLLAR_QUARTET._Photo_by_Matt_PolkPhillips must decide by the end of the day whether he wants to fold his independent record label into the juggernaut label RCA. If he does, he’ll get the chance to collaborate with Elvis again after selling Presley’s contract to RCA to save Sun from financial ruin, but he also risks losing the authority to take the creative risks that put him and his artists on the map. He teases the presence of Presley to coax the other members of the quartet to participate in the impromptu jam session.

One by one, the men and Elvis’s girlfriend Dyanne (Zurin Villanueva, too skilled a vocalist for this show not to be titled Million Dollar Quintet) trickle in—their swaggering approaches to the studio and live musical exploits inside it are framed by Derek McLane’s intimately detailed set. Up and coming pianist and showman Lewis spars with bitter guitarist Perkins about the prospects of launching/relaunching their careers. Presley laments his status as an in-demand musician being forced to cross over into the film industry while Cash positions himself to take his music to the next level.

Whenever the going gets too tough, they break into another rip roaring standard of that era including everything from  “Folsom Prison Blues” to “Hound Dog” to “See You Later, Alligator”.

Christopher Ryan Grant prevents the clunky flashback scenes sprinkled throughout the show from stopping it cold. His Sam Phillips is a complex portrait of a person trying to survive in the recording business, blending the sharpness of a shrewd business man and the sensitivity of an earnest music lover.

Phillips’s cavalcade of stars is portrayed by another cavalcade of stars who shoot past cartoonish imitation and land on an uncanny embodiment of the quartet that can only be explained by reincarnation.

Cast_of_Pittsburgh_CLOs_MILLION_DOLLAR_QUARTET._Photo_Matt_PolkMartin Kaye may not have taken home a Tony Award for his performance as Jerry Lee Lewis, like original star Levi Kreis did, but it’s clear that Kaye has played this part around the world for over five years because there are few people on the planet who can do what he does. He is a lightning rod of energy with great balls of fire coming out his fingers and smoke coming out of his ears. James Snyder has proven his abilities as a professional dreamboat and hip swiveler in Broadway shows like Cry-Baby and If/Then, but it’s still jaw dropping to witness how effortlessly he harnesses Elvis Presley’s virility and charisma into every move he makes.

As Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins respectively, Derek Keeling and Billy Finn’s musicality shines through in their subtle renderings of the quartet’s least flashy members. Keeling’s low notes pierce through your soul even as they rumble the floor beneath you. The palpable passion in Finn’s rockabilly crooning reveal his desperation to reclaim his former glory

I credit director David Ruttura and musical director James Cunningham in equal measure for putting together a musical that I went into having no intentions on enjoying. I now have to admit that it was just about pitch perfect in every way.

I am living proof that you don’t need to know every lyric to these songs or every detail about these people’s lives to get the most out of this snapshot of rock ‘n’ roll history. You only need to marvel at how history always finds a way of repeating itself.

Million Dollar Quartet runs at the Benedum Center through August 13, for tickets and more information, click here. 

Photos courtesy of Matt Polk.

Mamma Mia

20292706_10154800983161696_6800590976824145690_nAny fairly seasoned or routine theatre-goer has a certain expectation for crowd makeup at certain shows. The niche, hyper-baroque, perhaps one person piece—the crowd is replete with art majors, the wandering scraggly dude wearing overalls with nothing underneath as a form of expression. Edgy musicals, potentially featuring puppets or Andrew Jackson will have crowds stacked with the more avant-garde choir nerd who discovered themselves in college. And then, there’s the crowd that flocks to Mamma Mia!  Typically, overly giddy hordes of folks who rocked out—with various manifestations of their groove things shaking—to the sex-laced disco/pop hits of ABBA in their bedazzled prime in the 70s flock to see Mamma Mia! The Pittsburgh CLO’s recent production of Mamma Mia! was in no way an exception, as the Benedum was filled to the breaking point with ebullient, giddy beyond compare, dressed-to-the-nines,  ready to practically claw their way on stage to follow the musical journey set to ABBA’s greatest hits.

Lori Hammel, Sally Ann Triplett, and Michelle Dawson
Lori Hammel, Sally Ann Triplett, and Michelle Dawson

And indeed, a massive factor in the success and excitement that goes with witnessing Mamma Mia! on stage is the enthrallment of the crowd and the participatory element that feeds the actors rapture conducting their performances. The story is simple and enjoyable convoluted: Sophie, a beautiful young girl about to wed the love of her life, mails out three wedding invitations to three men, one of whom she assumes to be her father based on her pillaging her mother’s old diary. As the wedding preparations reach a frenetic pace, and her unwitting mother’s eccentric friends (and also, importantly, former band mates) descend upon the scene, the twists and turns of Sophie’s mother’s relationships with the three men—and the truth behind Sophie’s real father—is divulged and unravels, moments up to the “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”  There is nothing particularly emotionally wrenching or complex in the characters’ interactions, nor does the plot demand a great deal of attention from the audience. Thus the songs, the exquisite grandiosity of the stage direction and choreography, and the pure performative spectacle of the show can command the rapt audience’s full attention.

Ryan Vona and Erika Henningsen
Ryan Vona and Erika Henningsen

Resounding critical applause should be given to the all those in charge of and involved in the choreography of the show.  Beyond flawless and matching the pacing and throbbing, feverishness emotions of each song, the choreography and the supporting cast of dancers were—and this is a characterization I hesitate using—utterly transcendent. The stage motion and dance accompaniments were so spot on, so spirited, and so technically precise that they would have awed perhaps the more skeptical audience member (and there were certainly several fourteen year old boys who needed convincing). While the younger members of the cast certainly held their own—as well as the pleasantly caricatured men playing the three potential dads—the spotlight, as it is meant to, was claimed gloriously by the three women playing Donna (Sophie’s mother) and her two best friends/former band mates, Tanya and Rosie. While the characters are certainly archetypal, veteran stage and screen actresses Lori Hammel (Rosie), Sally Ann Triplett (Donna) and Michelle Dawson (Tanya) were every bit as luminescent as they could have been. And most importantly, they had the utterly wild and thrilled audience in the palms of their hand, thus making CLO’s production of Mamma Mia the ultimate, incredibly fun guilty pleasure delight that it was intended to be.

Mamma Mia has unfortunately already closed but there’s still more fun from the Pittsburgh CLO this summer, for more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Archie Carpenter.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play

Mr. Burns Image12 Peers’ production of Mr. Burns reminds me how theatre is actually a sickness: an uncontrollable urge for group chemistry to elucidate collaboration, values and to define social archetypes.   It’s a phenomenon that spans cultures for a reason; a desperate need to create Culture and expose the excitement of live spectacle, meaning, and catharsis.  Lessons come from theatre, so we see it evolve within this play from a distinct form of mythology, a past that is our present.  The shared experience is a communal and biological drug, such that trauma can be translated into release.

As this play begins, we are given traumatized strangers.  They all have stories, survivors of a looming, severe apocalypse.  Their pasts are reflected in the subtle hints and subtext; big reveals between the distractions of dialogue, really.  A great power this text imbues is its subtext.  It’s a treat actually, the guessing game, trying to figure out the lines-between of a character like Gayle Pazerski’s Jenny.  A great deal of the first act is just straight-up talking about a Simpsons episode.  But it’s so clearly a shiny, little cat toy.  Nostalgia is a bit of a painkiller, lightly treating symptoms.  You’re seeing this a bit in other actors, like Cassidy Adkins’ Maria or Joe York’s Matt.  But with Pazerski, there’s something about the other narrative that’s not revealed.  There are certain moments of stock, silent horror that comes down to looks.

The brilliance of this play is that it’s aggressively esoteric.  It won’t have the same effect 20 years from now when seasons 1-10 of the Simpsons don’t hit home to our millennial sensibilities, as they’re wont to do now.  When you are introduced to these characters, you can easily place yourself within them trying desperately to grapple the latent utopian feel when television characters’ conflicts were the brunt of thought and conversation.  It’s what people talk about these days, as if these fictional characters were their actual friends.

mr burns production photoI strongly encourage people to check out 12 Peers’ Facebook page and look at the profiles and questionnaires of each actor in the show. These actors have become aware of their characters’ pasts.  It reminds me of the research done with Uta Hagen’s process, where the character-on-stage is more fully realized by the actor making choices about said character’s necessary past.  There is a healthy amount of investigation that these actors have compiled for themselves, and the brilliance of Mr Burns is it only reveals so much.  The audience is allowed to answer for themselves what holocaust these players have gone through.

Another stand-out is Everett Lowe’s Gibson.  He powerfully exacts an exhausted person with a booming strength being tested to its limits.  We get glimpses of where he’s been.  But not so much that we know him.  He tethers the line well between imposing and comforting, setting up the dichotomy that is between architects of a new civilization coming from those who had survived the apocalypse.  Kudos to the actor for pulling off this duality.

The acts are divided between “Now”, “7 Years Later” and “75 Years Later”.  It’s the evolution of what the accumulated memories of a specific Simpsons episode come to mean culturally.

What Mr Burns epitomizes so well is the burn of claustrophobia; cabin fever.  It plays with the apocalyptic fears we obsess with as a culture and puts them into play.  Post-electric: how do we mythologize?

That Third Act, the “75 Years Later”; that’s got to be earned.  How do you even get a remote idea of what life might be like, “post-electric”, when it comes to 75 years later?

Probably the most interesting arc of the show belongs to Brittany Tague, who also shows her talent as the show’s choreographer.  Her character Colleen goes from shell-shocked stranger to company manager within a new economy built on compiling culture.  To allow this frame to materialize in what becomes a Greek tragedy/opera, built upon the vestiges of what elements from the 90’s can be remembered, allows a very grave part of the brain to be tickled.  What we illusorily imagine to be warm satire can be easily contrived as hollow or obsolete relics.  Think of the Parthenon’s white columns having the same white shade as a mausoleum.  It’s as if the culture it was created for is dead.  That’s exactly what it is: dead.  And yet we still have the relic.

What’s created 75 years later, is a testament to human need; using “The Simpsons” as a crude vehicle to get there.  I liked this production.  I would have liked it more with no stage lights and only “post-electric” scenic design; but that’s a nit-picky request, I know.  Still, I believe that the 3rd Act is earned.  It’s well-choreographed, well-sung and well-performed.  It left me with the sticky-sweet feel of a deep, non-superficial future that has its own sense of the past.  Rather than Futurama, it’s built into the new tribalism with a new set of Gods: an elegant regression.  I thought the drama of it was nauseous in the best way possible, turning my childish nostalgia into the effective tragedy of memory.  Vince Ventura did a great job as director and the singing was surprising for the limiting capabilities of the University of Pittsburgh’s black box.  Still, a stand out performance by Sara Ashley Fisher as Bart Simpson; as well as the whole ensemble.  The surprise of the sharp choreography shows a serious texture and is well-rehearsed.  It shows the intimacy this cast must have had with one another, which is important to the whole Das Boot of the entire concept.

This play plays on two very important features of today’s culture: the need for great comedy and the fear of the end.  It’s perfect in that regard, and this is a very decent, swelling performance.  Cromulent, as it needs to be.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs at the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh through August 20. For tickets and more information, click here

Rumors

20232030_10154616136341976_1839936879485858061_oNeil Simon’s Rumors rumbles with all the kinetic energy of a whodunit but happily ignores the bullet points from the genre’s rulebook. This isn’t a play where the shock and awe come from the dramatic reveal of a criminal’s identity, but rather from the absurdity inherent in trying to conceal a criminal.

The play begins at the house of the Deputy Mayor of New York, who is throwing an anniversary party with his wife. We see another married couple, Ken and Chris Gorman (Mike Crosby and Stacy DiPasquale respectively), in a state of panic. The Deputy Mayor is in a bedroom passed out and bleeding from a gunshot wound to the ear. His wife is nowhere to be found. Although the Gormans are alarmed for their friend’s safety, concerns turn immediately to his political image. Ken is the Deputy Mayor’s lawyer, and his career is likewise in jeopardy if something disturbing has happened.

Suddenly, additional party guests arrive, one couple after another. The Gorman’s have a mission: restore the Deputy Mayor’s health, find out what’s going on, and ensure no one at the party ever learns what happened. You won’t be surprised to hear this is impossible. The second couple to arrive, Lenny and Claire Ganz (Dan Krack and Alexandra Swartz), uncover the ruse almost immediately but share the Gormans’ concerns and agree to help conceal the truth. Which is when the third couple arrives.

Apple Hill Playhouse’s latest is a series of complex comedic errors, with each newly produced falsehood giving way to more and more absurd untruths. Although Rumors is a play that deals primarily in speedy, crackling dialogue, director Stephen Toth takes an equal interest in its physicality. Actors desperately spin new characters, plots, and motivations into their hastily assembled lies like Looney Tunes characters plugging the holes of a sinking ship with their fingers. To watch Rumors is to watch one neurotic upper class egotist after another reach their mental boiling point. There is, of course, some mean spirited pleasure to be had in that.

On the whole, the production is a breezy experience. Although the Gormans’ narratives are knotty, Rumors itself never strays from its goal: watching its cast crack under pressure. We become interested in the group dynamics quickly, and it’s fun to discover what happens when some characters are absent. What will Lenny, who is sarcastic and aggressive, do to keep Cookie (Stacy DiPasquale), a cooking show host who is literally unable to take life in stride, off his tracks? How will Claire and Chris, who resent being dragged into all this, handle a sudden knock at the door?

There is one real mark against the show, and it happens once all of the characters begin participating in the same scene.  Smaller moments of conversation reveal a smooth, if manic, chemistry amongst the cast. Larger moments, in which every character appears to be reacting as much as possible regardless of their cohorts’ levels of energy, almost as if in a vacuum, make the cast resemble an unfinished connect-the-dots puzzle. For a show that’s built around a series of outbursts and raucous surprises, this rigid adherence to hitting the exact beat by beat nature of the script instead of allowing the characters to dynamically react to one another detracts from the production.

Still, there are some great instance of nuanced comedy in this. Dan Krack and Alexandra Swartz’s portrayals of the Ganz’s, the most self-aware characters in the play, are particularly hard to resist. A monologue performed by Krack that occurs late in the play is so pitch perfect in its delirious energy that I could actually feel the crowd’s captivation with him.

Apple Hill’s latest is a fun night at the theater. For those of us feeling stressed out each day as the headlines fly past, Rumors’ honest dishonesty is a welcome distraction.

Rumors runs that the Apple Hill Playhouse through August 5. For tickets and more information, click here. 

Avenue Q

19453131_1691923564168439_4645815066624068545_oImagine if Sesame Street was for adults. This is the premise of Avenue Q, a place where puppets are friends, Monsters are good and life lessons are learned.

The show tells the story of Princeton, who is a young man just out of college. He is looking for an affordable apartment landing on Avenue Q, since he can’t afford a place on A through P.

Since many of the characters are portrayed, (in the spirit of Sesame Street), by puppets, the audience is required to look past the puppet and actor as separate entities and meld them into one character.

In this production, the puppets stylistically mimic their actor/puppeteers both in look and expressions. Usually, within a few minutes, the actor and puppet merge into one being in the eyes of the audience.

As originally written, Avenue Q is a coming-of-age parable that deals with the transition to adulthood in a racially and ethnically diverse starter neighborhood. The writers saw it as a semi-autobiographical story of their early lives. For the Alumni Theatre Company, Director Halle Danner has adapted the show “to bring meaning and relevance to the performance from the perspective of young Black Americans.”

Her vision incorporates major changes, the most obvious being the characters are now all black. Five short videos have been added that serve as transition between scenes and serve to tie the characters back to their growing up black experiences. Several songs have been cut and two younger characters have been added along with a few other tweaks.

Since Avenue Q won the Tony for Best Musical in 2004, the script has become a bit dated. Donner’s changes serve to modernize the story as well as to remind us that even though Avenue Q is cute and funny “the struggle is real.”

The core story remains intact; Princeton does find a place on Avenue Q to rent from the building’s superintendent Gary Coleman. In the building lives Kate Monster an aspiring teacher with a dream to build a special school for monsters and to find companionship in life. Princeton is a bit aimless as he tries to find his purpose in life. Roommates Nicky and Rod work through their friendship as Rod discovers he is gay, a fact everyone else already suspects. Christmas Eve searches for a job as a counselor that will put her two Masters Degrees to good use, while her new husband Brian just looks for a job. Lucy finds God and regains her virginity. Eventually it all works out “For Now”.

Shae Wafford as Princeton
Shae Wofford as Princeton

The experience these young actors have had at The Alumni Theatre Company, their academic training (many are CAPA students or recent graduates) and previous roles provide them with a remarkable comfort level on stage.

Point Park graduate Shae Wofford plays Princeton with a bright-eyed enthusiasm of a young man about to start a new job, in a new town, in a new apartment. Woodford is a funny guy whose portrayal is delightful to watch. He is also quite adept at manipulating the puppet character.

Katherine Logan creates a loveable Kate Monster. She and her puppet both have “million dollar” smiles, that’s very helpful as she works through her relationship with the erratic and sometimes unfathomable “guy”  behaviors of Princeton. Logan is the best at mastering the dual aspect of visible puppeteer and character. She also has one of the best singing voices of the cast.

Katherine Logan as Kate Monster
Katherine Logan as Kate Monster

James Perry does double duty as booth Trekkie Monster and Nicky, Rod’s roommate. Both characters are inherently compassionate. I thought Perry’s portrayal as Trekkie missed the opportunity to be over the top funny in the very cheeky The Internet is for Porn song. Perhaps his Trekkie costume was a bit limiting.

Rod is played with a perfect sense of uptight identity confusion by Amaru Williams.

Grace Ransome nails the role of Gary Coleman and she was a wonderful surprise, she is a soon to be high school freshman. She plays Gary with a wisdom unexpected for a person her age. Look for her to do more great things in the future. Her voice is quite mature and here expressions spot on for the character.

Gracie as Gary Coleman and James Perry as
Grace Ransome as Gary Coleman and James Perry as Nicky

Shakara Wright plays the character referred to in the original production as “Lucy the Slut” here shortened to just Lucy. She explores the use of her gifts to manipulate Princeton to her pleasure advantage, of which he is mostly clueless. Wright is a senior acting major at Point Park with a good sense of comedic timing which is evident in the multiple characters she portrays.

Rounding out the cast of acting veterans are Shakirah Stephens and Lyn Star as the couple Christmas Eve and Brian. Christmas Eve has Brian’s number and knows how to dial it.

The puppets are a key element of Avenue Q. Pittsburgh’s own Puppet Master Cheryl Capezzuti has done a nice job of capturing the actors’ faces in the puppets and served as puppeteer coach.

Shakara Wright as Lucy
Shakara Wright as Lucy

The orchestra under the direction of Camille Rolla is top notch. The Sound Design by Brendan Elder is just plain too loud, a pet peeve of mine in intimate venues like the New Hazlett Theater.

Staycee Pearls imaginative choreography is subtle and not overpowering and the cast performs it well.

Katelynn Fynaardt’s well executed set design captures the Avenue Q neighborhood vibe. A large billboard hangs over the apartment building and serves double duty as a place for the new video elements of this production.

Director Donner says “Avenue Q is about twenty-something’s finding purpose in life. That couldn’t be more relevant to us. Yet the show’s casual attitude of “just relax” and let life happen to you and it will all work out is very much a viewpoint created through the lens of white privilege.”

In the original conceptualization of Avenue Q, the racial, ethnic and gender mix of the characters serves to point out to the carefully taught racism that we all carry to different degrees. Donner’s change to all black characters inherently changes the show’s message regarding becoming aware of your own personal prejudices and possible racism.  Her Avenue Q morphs into a more of a sanitized look into the lives of young blacks as they transition to adulthood.

Projection Designer Adam Paul’s five well produced Sesame Street style videos were written by several cast members and Bridgett Perdue. They provide insight into what it is like to grow up black. While those video segments were fun, entertaining and enlightening, they definitely altered the shows pacing and energy flow which, I felt was a negative.

The Director and ATC founder Hallie Donner has done a terrific job honing the young cast’s performances. Her ability to rethink the show’s focus to provide the black perspective is admirable in its intent, but in doing so, it alters the balance of what has made Avenue Q work so beautifully.

The first time I saw Avenue Q it taught me a valuable lesson I carry with me every day. This production offered me insight.

The Alumni Theatre Company’ production of Avenue Q is located at the New Hazlett Theatre in the North Side with performances on July 29th at 8pm and the  30th at 7pm. For tickets visit https://www.artful.ly/store/events/11504  

Photos courtesy of the Alumni Theatre Company’s Facebook page.

Show Tune Saturday Night

FullSizeRenderThe last Saturday night of the month, the Pittsburgh CLO presents Show Tune Saturday Night at the Cabaret in Theatre Square. It was conceived by the Mark Fleischer, the Producing Director at the CLO, as a combination meet and greet for people in the area interested in musical theatre and as an open mic performance space for actors and singers to show off their talent. Fleischer also serves as MC.

Performances are a unique blend of amateurs, semi-professionals ad equity actors who are accompanied “Downtown” Katie Brown, an unflappable keyboardist who truly can play anything. Admission is free and there is cover or minimum. Libations are available at the bar.

If you want to come show your stuff bring your sheet music and your voice. I was pleasantly surprised, you might be as well! Every night is a different show to enjoy.Mark Fleischer

Mark Fleischer, MC , at the Cabaret in Theatre Square

 Show Tune Saturday Night at the CLO Cabaret in Theatre Square, admission is free. The fun begins a bit after 10p.m. and wraps around midnight. The next Show Tune Saturday is July 30, for more information, click here.