The Hard Problem

21640869_10154903688452997_3654990160686137979_o“Tell me where is fancy bred, Or in the heart, or in the head?”

-William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Master playwright Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at Quantum Theatre should move to the top of playgoers’ must-see shows list through November 19.

Cognitive vitality reverberates in spaces of the Energy Innovation Center where Quantum presents the second production of its 27th season. Artistic Director Karla Boos has again matched content to setting, creating another intriguing experience for her audience on the edge of the Hill District, overlooking Downtown Pittsburgh. A revived education and technical center, the venue is well matched for this regional debut. The views are a bonus, so jump in for a few dynamic hours with another top-notch Quantum ensemble, this time directed by rising American director Rachel M. Stevens.

In Stoppard’s tradition of intellectual plays like Arcadia, The Hard Problem (premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2015) awakens drowsy thought processes in another stellar Quantum production through this third Stoppard script for the company and one that any theater fan should see.

It’s notable that this Stoppard play has a strong woman at its core. Hilary operates in a workplace that may feel familiar as gender dynamics and competition plays out. Hilary Matthews, a bright young psychologist, is at the heart of the action. Her curiosity about her work and life choices arouse empathy for don’t we all ask the same kind of questions? She is lured to work at the leading Krohl Institute for Brain Science not only livelihood but the “the hard problem”: how do we justify consciousness if humans are truly composed of matter and chemical reactions. If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness?

Alex Spieth is superbly engaging as Hilary who is nursing a private sorrow and a troubling question at work, where psychology and biology meet. She’s natural and open. We are never fearful for her–more apt to cheer her on. She prays and researches, ultimately asking if science and faith coexist? How does altruism coexist with egoism? What is stronger and which motivates an individual? Stoppard explores it all, so fasten your seatbelt for a ride through all those things that fill our brains with wonder, questions, and–dare we say it–emotion. You’ll take the questions from his adroit dialogue with you, just as Hillary does.

Hilary’s pursuit of the answers puts her at odds with her supervisors and mentor as she explores options in both research and relationships. Steven’s describes it as “the journey to find where our hearts live beyond our brain”, as she says she identifies with Hilary’s “twinkling optimism about the way the world functions.” This becomes the very source of Hilary’s challenges at work, as it inherently may be for many women.

Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s smart scenic design envelopes the audience. A cluttered, winding path loaded with the stuff of life, work, and attics lead to a three-quarters playing space. Our amassed consciousness is physicalized off stage while the stage area is a clean, crisp clinical setting enhanced by clever projected silhouette and formulas. Making one’s way to and from the theater playing area and banked seats, it’s impossible to avoid discarded objects like an antique adding machine, old lamps, and stacks of boxes filled with only God knows what.

On stage, lighting by Andrew Ostrowski and intriguing projections bring the mostly white and metal set elements to life. Pulsing shadows of the characters suggest the heartbeats and synergies of life. Projected code runs across on the floor at moments, adding to the movement and color that make the effects themselves something to ponder.

Stevens places every character on stage and within the audience from lights ups through final curtain, balancing the clinical setting with this reassuring touch. As actors watch from the edge of the action, their detached observation provides both a stronger connection both among the ensemble members and the audiences. Stevens guides each character’s journey through Stoppard’s rich dialogue, their motivations resonating within this exciting new venue and into a greater societal context.

Spike is Hilary’s tutor and lover. They mess around and talk a lot about Hilary’s work and the workplace politics. While Spike catches her praying at bedtime, their disagreement about the existence of God sheds some light on Hilary’s faith. She admits she’s praying for a miracle.

As Spike, Andrew William Smith displays an appealing versatility in his second Quantum appearance. He’s sweetly supportive as a charming lover who throws on Hilary’s robe, but progresses to tipsy cad at work celebrations. He’s passionate about Hilary on several levels but grows jealous of her success.

Ken Bolden is Leo, burdened with hiring, supervision, along with his research. He brings Hilary and tries to look out for her even though some research missteps. Bolden delivers another substantive and thoughtful Quantum performance, revealing that Leo has a bigger heart than his first scene might suggest.

Vinny Anand’s Amal is a super smart and well-off yuppie careerist who breaks into the institute in spite of Leo’s thoughtless job interview in the men’s room. He’s fairly ruthless and pays dearly when Jerry calls him on unethical behavior.

Co-workers Julia and Ursula are a couple, providing a rare glimpse of domestic stability and loyalty. Daina Michelle Griffith returns to Quantum as Ursula with a strong and nuanced performance. As onsite Pilates instructor Julia, Fredi Bernstein, injects physical energy to balances all that thinking especially when Hilary join her for a workout and shares a secret.

As the talented young researcher Bo, Claire Hsu draws a strong portrait of an ambitious team member who has a lot to learn.

Randy Kovitz as the institute’s head Jerry operates fiercely in support of his business and personal success while he has a softer scene with his young daughter Cathy, portrayed by Grace Vensel, a 7th-grade student at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. She’s already a pro. Her focused and thoughtful performance is lovely as she observes, questions, and mirrors Hilary’s curious smarts.

At the play’s end, a resilient and hopeful Hilary exits through that lighted pathway of clutter. Then the audience follows. And we think her miracle may indeed happen.

Read more about director Rachel M. Stevens in our pre-production interview. You might want to visit the Energy Innovation Center online or just be surprised when you arrive at 1435 Bedford Avenue, Pittsburgh (15219) where this is ample free parking in the Center’s lot.

The Hard Problem runs through November 19, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm. For details on plays, venues, special events, and tickets, visit Quantum Theatre at quantumtheatre.com

Fall Preview 2017

Fall Logo

A Letter from the Editor,

Our dear readers, we’ve made it through another summer season! After 40 reviews and 14 features this summer, we’re ready to dig out our sweaters, put on the kettle and continue to keep you up to date with everything local theater. We’ve got some pretty big things coming up for us in the next three months and we can’t wait to share it with you! In addition to everything in this Preview, we’ll also be giving you the scoop on Bricolage Production Company’s latest Immersive Encounter Dodo , The Pittsburgh Playwrights upcoming season, checking in with off the WALL, and  giving you Part 3 of our coverage of the Pittsburgh New Works Festival.

There is plenty to keep us busy this fall and we don’t want you to miss a thing! We would love to hear from our readers and follow along with your autumn theater adventures so keep in touch with us on our FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Email List and by using the hashtag #FallwithPITR.

If your theater or business would like to feature any advertising on the website for any of the upcoming content this busy season, don’t forget to reserve your spot well in advance! Please don’t hesitate to contact us at about rates and packages at info@pghintheround.com.

Here’s to looking forward to another busy Fall season,

Mara E. Nadolski
Editor in Chief, Pittsburgh in the Round


 

Let’s start off with our Top 5 productions we’re looking forward to this Fall!

quiet#5: All Quiet on the Western Front – Prime Stage: Prime Stage Theatre is known for their productions of shows adapted from literature and this season opener holds true to their nature. Prime Stage honors veterans and those serving our country by partnering with Soldiers and Sailors Hall for this US premiere of the classic World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque. All Quiet on the Western Front opens at the New Hazlett Theatre November 4.

Tickets and more information can be found here. 

rj-431x500#4: Romeo and Juliet – PICT Classic Theatre: After bringing us productions of Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice in previous seasons, PICT is taking on one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies this season with their 100th show! The classic tale of two star-crossed lovers and their clashing families comes to life in a new location at the famous Fred Rogers Studio at WQED in Oakland. PICT has chosen the 1930’s in New York’s Little Italy as the setting for this rendition of Romeo and Juliet which officially opens Saturday, October 21st. For tickets and more information click here. 

Attack Theatre's presentation of "Assemble This" at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh. © Martha Rial 2/17/2010

#3: Some Assembly Required – Attack Theatre: In their 23rd season opener, Attack Theatre will be performing another round of original performances in their second production of Some Assembly Required. In this unique series, dancers tow the line between dancing, visual art, music, and even a bit of improv. This show requires input from the audience as to where the performance will go next, thus creating unique  performances with each show. Some Assembly Required opens at Contemporary Craft in the Strip District September 21. Tickets and more information can be found here.

DODO-1-880x420#2: Dodo – Bricolage Production Company: Bricolage’s latest immersive theatre adventure partners with the Carnegie Nexus initiative to bring us a sensory-based experience that brings together art and science while exploring public spaces. Held in the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History in Oakland, adventurers will embark on an experience that navigates through behind-the-scenes areas normally off limits to traditional museum visitors! Adventures being October 13 – find more information here. 

21055136_10155550641940797_7827704986490740316_o#1: Unhinged – Cup-a-Jo Productions: On the heels of their production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf inside an actual home, Fringe Festival veterans Cup-a-Jo brings us a new undertaking with Unhinged. Part haunted house, part immersive experience, the highly experimental project promises to have something for everyone. Unhinged starts performances October 13 in an empty bowling alley in Etna. Cup-a-Jo advises we keep a close eye on their Facebook page for ticket links and performance updates.

Next stop on your Fall Preview tour is 5 Musicals You Don’t Want to Miss This Fall, click here to learn more!

Mark Clayton Southers brings a little history into the mix with his one-act play The Homestead Strike of 1892 in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the clash between steelworkers and mill owners, opening September 15. Find out more in Yvonne’s article here. 

The New Hazlett Theatre will be starting up their 4th Community Supported Art Performance Series on October 26! See what they’re up to this season here. 

The Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Artistic Director Ted Pappas will be starting his final season there this year. Yvonne sat down with him to get the scoop on what he’s envisioning this season! Click here to read more!

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks is at it again this year with Henry V, find out more about their 13th season here. 

Quantum Theatre may be in the middle of their run of Red Hills but how much do you know about Rachel Stevens, the director of their next production The Hard Problem? Check out our latest installment of our Artist Spotlight series here. 

See what else the Steel City has to offer this year with a few season previews of City Theatre from Brian, the Pittsburgh Opera from George, and the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center from our High School Correspondent Emily!

The Pittsburgh New Works Festival is already in full swing, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this year’s preview with Part 3 coming soon!

In case you missed it, check out our 2017 Collegiate Preview too!

We were pretty busy this summer, you might have missed a show or two. Don’t worry, here are some highlights from Summer 2017:

Annie at the Paliside Playhouse

Big Fish by Front Porch Theatricals

Cloud 9  by Throughline Theatre Company

Little Shop of Horrors at Comtra Theatre

Mr. Burns by 12 Peers Theater

Spamalot at Stage  62

Avenue Q by the Alumni Theatre Company

The Liar  by Kinetic Theatre

Seussical the Musical at the Apple Hill Playhouse

Pippin at The Theatre Factory

One Man, Two Guvnors at Little Lake Theatre

Sweeney Todd by the Pittsburgh Festival Opera

Artist Spotlight: Rachel M. Stevens

6-2It’s only Tom Stoppard and the question of the root of human consciousness, but rising American director Rachel M. Stevens eagerly takes on The Hard Problem for Quantum Theater. The Wallingford, PA, native puts her life and theater chops to work at a point in her career trajectory that seems just right. Her journey is taking her between New York and Pittsburgh and Stevens is enjoying the ride.

Growing up in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Steven became fascinated with theater from first playing “make believe” with her brother and following his path through school plays (debuting as Gretel in The Sound of Music at age 5) to college and grad school.

“I come from a very tight, small supportive family,” says Stevens. “My grandparents lived down the street from us–me, my brother Marcus and mother and myself. When my brother was seven he asked for a little sister” and she became his “biggest fan”.

Her commitment for further study in theater was confirmed when she came to Pittsburgh to see his work at Point Park University and she wound up in the MFA program in musical theater. Stevens was initially on stage in school and college projects, but the concept of directing clicked for her.  

“I always wanted to be in charge of how the time machine was built and our environments…I loved creating concepts that elevated the storytelling.” She went on to earn her MFA in New York at the Actors Theater Drama School at Pace University.

The show her brother was working on at PPU was the musical Floyd Collins at PPU, which Stevens would herself stage in Pittsburgh along with The Spitfire Grill for Front Porch Theatricals’ 2016 season.

“It was a great experience. I loved the company’s family,” she says, likening the close-knit company to the appeal of her early theater experiences.

Front Porch fell between her earliest regional stints as an assistant director at City Theatre and for two world premieres–most recently, the Broadway hit musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 as well as The Bandstand, a new musical debuted at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey.

“Stoppard’s hard to resist,” Stevens confirms. “Arcadia was one of the most mesmerizing experiences I’ve had in the theater.”

And Quantum is a truly comfortable match for Stevens. The Hard Problem is the stuff of which Artistic Director Karla Boos has built Quantum with its production history distinctively characterized by choices of plays and venues vary significantly from those of other regional companies.

“My relationship with Karla is fairly new, “ says Stevens, but “we are very kindred spirits.”

Stevens was still awaiting final word on the venue for this Stoppard play when we spoke to her in early August and the location is still to be announced as this story is posted. But the mystery for her creative team adds to the anticipation of yet another unforgettable audience experience for Quantum fans.

Quantum describes the play as: “Bristling with intellectual energy and wit…exploring the complexities of consciousness, and the nature of belief.”

The Hard Problem had its premiere at London’s National Theatre in 2015, and Quantum presents its regional premiere.

Stoppard introduces Hilary, a young neuroscientist who questions the source of consciousness at the same time she’s working through some personal sadness and loss. She and her colleagues raise all the hard questions that will keep audiences members’ own brain cells working through Stoppard’s adroit dialogue gymnastics. Like Arcadia, this script promises to awaken those drowsy thought processes to consider the questions of science through characters whose lives represent the human experience while they consider technology’s role in understanding the mind.  

Stevens considers it “the journey to find where our hearts live beyond our brain,” noting that she identifies with Hilary’s “twinkling optimism about the way the world functions.”

As rehearsals begin on September 26, Stevens has prepared through her intuitive process–reading and rereading the text while alternately her personal work with production conferences and her own wedding to PPU alumnus Joey Scarillo in Pittsburgh in late August. She’s made the shift from wedding to production planning with a design team of colleagues she knows that includes Stephanie Mayer-Staley, scenic designer via Point Park University, and Andrew Ostrowski, the lighting designer who also lit her wedding.

Regarding her found space venue, “starting from scratch is scary,” Steven admits. But she’s up for the challenge. This director’s own journey on the location of this production is like that of Quantum audiences–surprise us and we won’t mind a bit as Stevens aims to “make this play soar off the page.”

She describes it as “finding where the audience’s heartbeat is in the play…I don’t think there is another company that can do that.”

Sure, Stoppard’s writing can seem dense, but she works to ‘distill it down the gorgeousness of the language.” Steven seriously admits, “I try not try to think about it too much.”

To get there, she describes her process as reading the text “like a story” about six times to date, “writing questions, underlining things”. She then asks “What is the scene really about?” and “What does the character really want?” And “what is the journey EACH of these characters is on?” As she begins working with her cast, they’ll travel to “find where their hearts really are.”

Quantum Theatre’s The Hard Problem continues its 2017-18 season, Oct. 27 to Nov. 19 on the 5th Floor of the Energy Innovation Center at 1435 Bedford Ave. Red Hills, runs through Sept. 10. Pittsburgher Gab Cody’s Inside Passage has its world premiere, March 2-25. For details on plays, venues, special events, and tickets, the Quantum Theatre, quantumtheatre.com.

Design team for The Hard Problem:

Stephanie Mayer-Staley, Scenic Design
Andrew Ostrowski, Lighting Design
Angela Vesco, Costume Design
Joe Spinogatti, Projection Design