The Wizard of Oz

wooIf you are parents or grandparents of preschoolers, and love theatre, a suitable show to introduce them to the magic of theatre isn’t always easy to find.

Gemini Children’s Theater has the perfect solution to introduce the kiddos to both live theatre and the Wizard of Oz. Their production, with an original musical adaptation for children by company founders Dennis Palko and Lani Cataldi, captures Dorothy’s (Savanah Bruno) adventure in a preschooler-friendly style.  Dorothy sets out on the familiar yellow brick road, with her beloved pup Toto (Quincy Sauter). She meets the Scarecrow (Darrin Mosley, Jr.) Tin Man (Bogdan Haiko) and the Cowardly Lion (Bob Colbert). They accompany her to find the Wizard and ask for the things they need; a brain, a heart, some courage and a way home.

Palko and Cataldi along with Director June Beighley show their skill and experience in crafting a child-friendly production. It is not too loud, not too scary and it is very interactive. The lead actors play not only their characters but serve as “helpers” to keep the children in the audience engaged. Several times, just as the kids in the audience are on the edge of fidgety, the actors call them up on stage to help move the story along.  The actors teach them movement and marching with magic scarves that each child receives upon arrival at the theatre along with poppies to cast a spell. Excess energy is burned off, and when the children return to their seats, they are ready to absorb a new character and situation. This approach works superbly well over the two-hour runtime, avoiding any meltdowns in the audience. The munchkins, flying monkeys, students, citizens and crabby trees are played both by children and adults further engage the young audience and perhaps sparking interest in participating on stage in the future. (Gemini offers classes for children interested in theatre.)

Bruno’s Dorothy approaches her adventure out of kindness and friendship, without fear. She yearns to get home, yet helps others along her way. Mosley’s Scarecrow takes advantage of his dance and theatre training at Slippery Rock with expressive movement and gestures. Haiko’s Tin Man is perfect. In an interesting twist, he channels a bit of C3PO from Star Wars, who was somewhat inspired by the Tin Man. The audience loved Colbert’s Cowardly Lion, the tough guy in search of courage. Carina Iannarelli as the Wicked Witch and Emily Palma as Auntie Em and Glinda (the good witch) are excellent in their portrayals.

26910225_1708740829188710_6605773551841023666_oLani Cataldi has written new songs and lyrics for the production and serves as Musical Director for the production as well. While I confess I didn’t leave the theatre humming a tune from the show, the score and songs integrate very well into the flow of the story and serve as another means to engage the young audience. Gemini’s production is different than the MGM musical extravaganza, but no one seemed to mind.

The Wizard of Oz is an elaborate show to stage with many characters and locations. Dennis Palko’s set design is efficient and beautifully executed. Jill Jeffery’s costumes fit the bill perfectly, bright and colorful without overwhelming the characters. June Beighley’s imaginative direction seamlessly integrates it all together along with the audience interaction.

After the show, the entire cast is available to sign autographs in the lobby which is a nice touch for the kids. Space for the autographs is provided in the program. Gemini Children’s Theatre has been around for twenty plus years; they have the children’s theatre thing figured out. There new modern home at the Father Ryan Arts Center is the perfect intimate venue for their work.

If you have preschool kids or grandkids, Gemini Children’s Theater production of The Wizard of Oz is the perfect opportunity to introduce them to the magic of live theatre and spur their creativity and imagination.

The Wizard of Oz, by the Gemini Children’s Theatre at the Ryan Arts & Culture Center in McKees Rocks. Performances are at 1 pm and 3:30 pm on Saturdays and Sundays now through  February 4th.

For tickets visit https://geminitheatercompany.thundertix.com/events/111239

Thanks to the Gemini Theater Company for the complimentary tickets.

Photos from Gemini Children’s Theater

Sex Werque

25443090_1158464754284171_7776300173192766636_nThere’s a certain banality to a stripper undressing at home after a shift.  It’s still stripping, but it’s just the bane of every working soul at that point: the slow unlacing of the stilettos and the rolling up of the leggings to be used again.  A negligee for a little warmth and a tumbler of bourbon.

“I’m always really touched when they value the emotional labor I’m putting in,” says Moriah Ella Mason in her one-woman show: Sex Werque at Carnegie Stage.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says.  “Everyone is a fill-in for someone who is not there…the club is a fill-in for me too.”

Understanding the vanity of the strip club for both parties involved: the spectators and the strippers; you’re left with a qualification that is both surreal and disjointed as to ‘what a strip club’s for?’

As Mason defines it, a place of “intense, unrealistic attention…A place entirely free from real love.”

“I’m at work and I’m not your girlfriend.  So if you want to act like my boyfriend, you need to pay me.”

The value, in question, fulfills a need.   A condolence for something missing.  And this show attempts to reconcile a justification for brilliant, bodily tribute to the female form with the damaged burden which surrounds it: patriarchy.

There’s never a moment without movement in this show.  It encapsulates all the embodiments of a body’s mood: frenetic pacing, shaking, dancing, and even stillness worked up to create dramatic, stunning silences.  This is a study of the body, as Mason is never not on display steadily building up the crowd with her performative moves meant to arouse.  But they exist with a certain distance not allowing them to be tantalizing, but rather investigated: the ‘sexy’ becomes ‘what is seen as sexy?’.  She gives numbers to the routine, building up to a point where she’s gyrating each of her butt’s cheeks counting off their position in the routine: “13…14…13…14…13, 13, 13…14.”

She offers her routine, but with the stream-of-consciousness in her head it becomes a lesson in how the sausage is made, how the magician creates their illusion.

The brilliant scoring by a percussionist and sound machine player J.F. Winkles and cellist Eric Weidenhof offer a sleek barroom jazz that transforms with electronic mutability into a soundscape which mesmerizes from mise en scène towards wildness as the story gains emotion.  With the slings and arrows of Mason’s affirmations and decimations; come the palpable flavor of harmonies leading simultaneously to both promise and away into chaos.

The Video Design and Projections given by Liz Barentine provide a gracious supplementation to the singular perspective of Mason.  On screen, as interludes between Mason’s stories, are sections of interviews with other strippers.  You never see their faces, only hear their words and are thrown a montage of their body engaged either casually sitting around for the interview or showing off a focus of their own routines.  The largeness of a singular breast on screen, or the pan across an arm or a leg gives a focus to the body that takes away from the fantasy.  It separates the assumptions one makes about a person from simply seeing their face.  It concentrates on the way they have broken down their body into its parts and further gains insight into this strange alien perception of objectification.  You hear these women speak about their experiences, logic and understanding of both the queer motivations of men and a testament towards their identity as strippers.  This is work.  They are workers doing a job.  But the job (despite assumptions) is not to be an object, but to be a person for someone: a stand-in for what somebody needs.

Ella-P004A great theme of this show is that there are two identities which define men at a strip club: “one who is actively looking for humanity versus another who is looking for an object…junk food versus a real meal.”  Mason describes her experience of sometimes essentially being “a therapist with my boobs out.”

She unveils a certain vulnerability that men have with going to the strip club as a rite of passage for a Bachelor Party. The unique treat to be able to sit and talk with a man during a paid-for private lap dance rather than perform a perfunctory, ill-received demonstration of what this act of sexual gratuitousness should be:

“Masculinity is a trap,” she says, “And [some] people want to get what they paid for, even if they didn’t want that thing in the first place.”

It’s within this scheme of absurdity that her mission arises.  A magically provocative set of questions.  She asks the audience to ask her, “Why are you doing this?”  To various people, she answers: College Debt.  The Need to be Seen.  Nymphomania.  Loneliness.

None of these answers are simply true; maybe aspects, but not wholly.  The real answer is ambiguous and layered, because it’s work.  She will not have a simple back story, because there are many facets for her being this affirmative performer: money, a need not to feel ugly, to dress femme, to own herself.

“I laid back, spreading my legs and letting a strange man stare at my pussy.  It’s ridiculous.  It’s ridiculous that this is my job.”

Mason is no longer a stripper.  And for the sake of not spoiling, I won’t tell you why.  I will say that at the crux of her decision is a moment where the boundary between fantasy and reality gets betrayed.  In this cultural moment where consent is being defined and refined, the elements of sexuality are being put to question.  Mason pulls the audience into her show, asking us to take part in saying things to our audience neighbors.  Saying them in a sexy way, to a stranger.  Then engaging a stranger in a handshake, with full eye contact for 10 seconds.  “Great” she says, “you now have what it takes to be a stripper.”

It’s not just the dance, but the psychology of what it takes to fulfill the fantasy for lost, lonely people looking for connection.  She’s at once a human defying objectivity by having a mission and a personality, but abreast in a world where the identity of the body is betrayed by the limits of ill-gotten objectification.

It’s about identity, and the needs therein.  And how someone can share themselves by being a human and by being with someone for a moment, fulfilling a human need.  And ideally, transcending what misogyny makes a woman’s sexuality into a thing.

Sex Werque runs at Carnegie Stage through January 21 for tickets and more information click here.

Photos by Heather Mull.

Pittsburgh Opera’s Benjamin Taylor Takes “The Long Walk”

HeaderFor the third offering of its current season, Pittsburgh Opera will present another local premiere of a contemporary work, The Long Walk, beginning Saturday evening, January 20, at the CAPA Theater. With music by composer Jeremy Howard Beck and a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, the opera is adapted from Brian Castner’s critically acclaimed, autobiographical book of the same title. The opera explores a soldier’s return from Iraq, where he served as an officer in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit, and his struggle with “the Crazy” that gnaws at his brain as he tries to re-adapt to family and civilian life. Opera Saratoga premiered the work in the summer of 2015. Castner’s emotional story is said to tell the tale with a “brutal honesty” that carries over to its operatic treatment.

Resident Artist Benjamin Taylor, baritone, will sing the leading role of Brian, and earlier this week shared some thoughts with us about his career and his part in the upcoming production.  It’s always interesting to learn from young singers how they began their pursuit of operatic careers.

“I’ve been enamored with music since I was a child,” Mr. Taylor shared. “I sang in choirs and also played in metal bands throughout middle and high school.  I got into opera when I did a program in Rome for six weeks, and saw Verdi’s Rigoletto for the first time. Rigoletto’s aria ‘Cortigianni vil razza dannata’ moved me so much that I changed my plans of doing choral work to becoming an opera singer.”

Former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War, Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)
Former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War, Brian Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)

His studies and experience to date are quite impressive. He has a Master’s of Music degree from Boston University, where he also earned his Performer’s Certificate from Boston University’s Opera Institute. His performances with the Institute included roles in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Così fan tutte, La Tragédie de Carmen, Angels in America, and other works.

For the past three summers Mr. Taylor has been a Gerdine Young Artist, and Richard Gaddes Festival Artist with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where he sang roles in The Barber of Seville, Shalimar the Clown, Madama Butterfly, and covered roles in La Bohème, Ariadne auf Naxos, The Trial and other operas. In 2016, he sang the role of Marcello in La Bohème with Crested Butte Festival, and Yamadori (Madama Butterfly) in Berkshire Opera’s inaugural season. He received his Bachelor’s of the Arts at Morgan State University, where he sang with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) and her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)
Jessie Castner (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Leah de Gruyl) and her husband Brian (Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Ben Taylor)

“There are a lot of wonderful challenges in this role for me,” Mr. Taylor added regarding the upcoming performances of The Long Walk. “This is the biggest role I have ever sung, as well as the hardest musically. One major hurdle is that I’m running in multiple scenes and singing at the same time. Being that I don’t run for exercise – or enjoyment – I had to learn to love it, at least for a few months!” Sustaining the breath control and tone production so necessary in opera, while involved in vigorous physical action is, indeed, no easy task.

“I have a lot of family members who have served in almost every branch of the military, and just as many friends that have served as well. One of my best friends served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he deals with his own ‘long walk.’ Doing this piece is special to me because I am able to have a glimpse of what Brian and my friend experienced after coming back from the war and empathize with them on some level.”

Since past seasons have proved that the company’s Resident Artist productions are frequently very impressive highlights of the winter months, Pittsburgh Opera’s The  Long Walk  should prove a worthy presentation of the work’s first local hearing.

Joining Mr. Taylor in the cast will be Resident Artists Leah de Gruyl, Eric Ferring, Shannon Jennings, Ashley Fabian and others. Glenn Lewis will conduct for the production, directed by Frances Rabalais and designed by Kathryn Fetrow.

For tickets, full cast and production details, educational resources and much more, please visit Pittsburgh Opera.

David Bachman Photography

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

ILUVYOU-FB-HeaderI Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change boasts the second longest off-Broadway run of a musical in history, bested only by The Fantastiks, with just over 5,000 performances from 1996-2008. Its creators, Joe DiPietro (book and lyrics) and Jimmy Roberts (music), have prolific careers, with Joe DiPietro in particular going on to win Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and Outer Critics Circle Awards. DiPietro’s Broadway credits alone include Nice Work If You Can Get It, Tony Award-winning Memphis, All Shook Up, and Living on Love.

And yet, despite all of the cachet attached to I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and its creators, I do not like this show.

I Love You has been translated into multiple languages; it has been performed all over the world and in every state in the USA. There is a reason for this. It’s easy. It’s easy to produce, requiring a minimum of four actors, minimal sets, and minimal orchestra. It’s easy for the audience to digest, depending on well-worn tropes for every moment of storytelling. Its portrayal of the mating habits of the basic heterosexual is unimaginative, trite, even stereotypical. It says nothing new on the subject; it neither challenges nor illuminates.

Also, for a show lauded as a “celebration of…that contemporary conundrum known as ‘the relationship,’” I Love You ignores all non-cis orientations, except as a brief joke in one of the vignettes. Is LGBTQ content required for a show about modern, romantic relationships? No. Writers must be personally passionate about what they write, and not every show has to include a representation of every person. However, to not include even an acknowledgment of LGBTQ relationships seems the opposite of “contemporary” at best, and intentionally blind to the real world at worst.

So, there you have it. I don’t like this show. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand its appeal or appreciate it as a vehicle for showcasing performers. With that in mind, let’s look at Comtra Theatre’s production of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, which opened Friday, January 5, 2017.

All in all, this was a solid community theater production. Comtra expanded the basic cast requirement to include ten hardworking amateur performers. Some minor unevenness in skill levels in both acting and singing was noticeable among the cast, but nothing that unbalanced the production as a whole.

There were particularly strong female singers in the company, with Samantha Christou, Veronica Mortier, and Shelly Schuster leading the ensemble with that clear, bright, sharp-edged, musical-theater soprano that is so pleasing to the ear.  Veronica Mortier was particularly notable for her technical mastery and consistency. Samantha Christou had some beautiful high notes. Also of note, Joe Moeller’s quiet tenor was responsible for one of the high points of the production, with his tender, understated performance of “Shouldn’t I Be Less in Love with You” in Act II.

I had mixed feelings about the directing of this production. Director Johnny Gallagher did a good job of moving the actors around the stage and creating interesting stage pictures in a proscenium configuration. Unfortunately, the stage was set up in a three-quarter thrust configuration, not proscenium. Since the staging often did not take this into account,  the audience members on the two sides of the thrust stage often missed important moments of the show. In addition, the thrust configuration for the performance in and of itself was disappointing to me, since the theater is set up as a permanent theater-in-the-round. I wish Mr. Gallagher would have embraced the in-the-round challenge when staging this show.

Conductor Matt Brown competently helmed the musical end of the production. The singers were well supported by Mr. Brown on keyboards and Shawn Bliss on violin and mini harp. A second highlight of the production was Mr. Bliss’s violin solo moment during the entr’acte of Act II.

I had a lot of issues with the lighting and the sound. The lighting just wasn’t right. Most of the instruments focused directly down on the actors’ heads, resulting in the actors’ faces being almost constantly in shadow. Likewise, the attempt at area miking was not successful. The few times a microphone actually picked up a performer’s voice, it was disruptive and definitely not needed. The multitude of costumes used in the production seemed to have been supplied mostly by the actors themselves, so, good on you, actors. And I wish the program would have acknowledged the scenic artist for the show, since the painting on the rehearsal boxes used as primary set pieces and the stenciling on the pizza boxes used in “He Called Me”was nicely done and deserve commendation.

If I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change seems like a show for you, Comtra Theatre’s production runs weekends through January 20, 2017. You can find out more at www.comtratheatre.org.

A Lyrical Christmas Carol

23155182_308054963011222_6533525378661195855_oWhen presenting a show as widely known and frequently told as A Lyrical Christmas Carol, it becomes important for a production company to breathe fresh life into the show, or at least to be excellent storytellers. Pittsburgh Musical Theater did not put a modern twist on the classic story or rely on an eye-popping gimmick to make their show stand out. Instead, they told the story in the best way possible; by giving a wonderful performance.

I got to see the Holly Cast perform last week (the other cast being the Ivy one, naturally), just in time for Christmas. I had never seen the lyrical version of the show, but it turned out that this simply meant lots more song and dance. I have to say, the cast of this show is made up of very talented singers. Although sometimes it seemed like a song was inserted in a scene without much need or reason, every song was well performed. I enjoyed each song, which were mostly Christmas classics, but I especially enjoyed the dancing. Whether it was a group number with the characters waltzing around the stage or a solo ballet piece, the cast never failed to entertain during the songs. Kudos to choreographer Jerreme Rodriguez for providing a delightful show.

I was impressed that such a large cast, mostly made of children and teens, were able to be so precise and consistent. Clearly these players all have a passion for the theater, and it came through in their performances. I was also impressed at the transformation some of these young actors and actresses went through. Until the intermission when I got a chance to look at the photos of all the actors, I didn’t realize that there were only two adult actors in the cast. It was hard for me to believe that some of the characters were being played by people so young, as they really sold the ages of their characters. Most notable were Nino Masciola as Mr. Fezziwig, Matty Thornton as Fred, and Jeramie Welch as Jacob Marley, whose portrayal of the famous ghost showed a talent beyond his years.

And I must mention Scrooge himself, Brady David Patsy. The physical work he put into the character combined with his wide range of emotions made him a delight to watch in every scene. I especially enjoyed a moment of improv on his part when Brecken Farrell (hilariously playing the light-hearted Mr. Cratchit) knocked over a set piece and Patsy insisted, in character, that he set it back up before he continued with the scene.

I want to take a moment to point out that these actors and dancers all had a very small space to work with, considering the number of people that were constantly coming and going on stage. I never noticed anyone bumping into each other, and all the set changes flowed smoothly throughout the evening. This was clearly the result of a great working relationship between director Lisa Elliott, the actors, and the set crew. Despite being a small set, the scenery was exactly what you’d expect for this type of show, and the show included lots of fun atmospheric delights, such as fire effects made from lights, snow that actually fell from the ceiling, and ghostly magic like entrances through a wall.

Going along with the set dressing, the costumes for this show were phenomenal! Costume designer Annabel Lorence really know what she was doing with this show. Even down to the most minor characters, everyone was dressed in full Victorian garb. Without that visual on every character, something would definitely have been missing from the show. It was easy to feel a part of the story when you were being drawn in from all aspects of the production.

In fact, I have only one complaint at all about the show, and that is the sound levels. Clearly, there was some kind of issues with some of the microphones, but it was opening night and those things happen. Aside from some random interference from time to time, the live band often drowned out the characters. The band surely didn’t need any microphones to enhance their volume, but if that was deemed necessary the levels of the speakers should have been turned up. I often couldn’t hear the narrator at all when the band was playing behind him.

Despite the sound issues, I loved this show and had a wonderful time at it! And it was all topped off by the greatest curtain call I may have ever seen. I can’t possibly describe it in a way that does it proper justice, so I hope everyone got out to see it in person before it ended. You know it was a successful show when you find yourself acting out the curtain call song and dance with your friend days later! Congrats on the truly festive holiday show, PMT, and God bless us every one!

A Lyrical Christmas Carol has already closed, but you can check out what else Pittsburgh Musical Theater has for us this season by clicking here. 

The Nutcracker

892c573686ce7c4ce7a9c8b4b9053750c09f3afdThe Nutcracker is an annual choreography performance put on by Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School’s dance department. Dancers from second grade up to twelfth appeared in this rendition for the weekend-long event.

Based on the 1816 novel by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and the music composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker is about a young girl named Clara who is gifted a nutcracker at her family’s Christmas Eve party by her magical godfather, Drosselmeyer. That night, she dreams of a heroic nutcracker soldier defending her from an army of mice. Then, Clara and the nutcracker embark on a journey through a magical land of snow and sweets until she wakes up, still holding the nutcracker that was given to her.

In any sort of choreography, the dancers have to be disciplined in order to perfect the techniques and balancing required to perform this advanced level of dancing. They have to learn how to keep going despite any costuming difficulties, or if they were to fall, trip, and so on. Dance performances are not only about the footwork but also about the facial expressions. It is almost like acting — they have to exaggerate their facials in order to portray emotion (especially since there are no speaking parts) — all the while keeping a bright smile on their faces.

These dancers did just that. They depicted immense amounts of discipline as they effortlessly performed the routines with poise and a grin. From what my eyes could see, I did not see a single mistake made by the dancers. And if there was one, they covered it up so well that I thought it to be part of the dance. Both the Center and dance department did astonishing work at training these students/dancers.

The strength these dancers behold is unimaginable. They require so much arm strength in order to pick and toss each other up. One of my favorite duos has to be the Scottish Macaroons (Olivia Tarchick and Jacob Butterfield). They executed multiple tosses and holding while Tarchick held poses and swung around in Butterfield’s arms as he held her high up. The grand applause they received from the audience was deserved.

There was one major variation to this performance than from most versions that I have seen. When Clara (Jocelyn Scullion) and Fritz (Josh Lyda) are fighting over the nutcracker, instead of one of the arms breaking off, the head snaps off. But then, Drosselmeyer (Rosh Raines) magically fixes the broken gift. In most renditions, the arm breaks off and is “fixed” by giving the arm a makeshift sling. Then while Clara dreams that night, the nutcracker appears with the sling on (which, later on, his arm magically heals).

For as old as The Nutcracker is (the first performance being in 1892), it is said that the sugar plum fairy dance is one of the more difficult numbers in the production. Macy Minear, who played the Sugar Plum Fairy, made that number seem effortless. Even whenever the ribbon from one of her pointe shoes came loose, she continued on as if nothing ever happened. Minear remained ongoing as she danced, not allowing the ribbon to get in the way.

Along with the older form of The Nutcracker, we see an original version of the Mouse King (Jacob Butterfield) that is not shown quite often in performances. In the book, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the Mouse King is depicted as having seven heads. Then, when Butterfield came out on stage at the Center, there was the gigantic mask with seven little mouse faces forming a circle around the wearer’s head, and a crown on top. Typically, the Mouse King is shown in performances with only one normal head.

A fun fact about the Mainstage Theater stage at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center is that it is twice the size of the Byham Theater’s. At the beginning of the show, only a small portion of the stage was available as they had a wintery backdrop closing off the rest. After small groups walked from one side to the other, mimicking families on the way to the Christmas Eve party, the backdrop became transparent, thus revealing the rest of the stage. This showed us two maids (Paige Mathieson and Alexandra Trimber) preparing for the guests to arrive as they twirled and dusted about.

Although The Nutcracker is over, tickets are on sale for the next upcoming musical, The Great Gatsby. You can see this at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, Pennsylvania from February 16-18 and 23-25. Tickets range from $15 and $20 and can be purchased online at lincolnparkarts.org.

FEMME

23800303_2089092071312824_9089249469029343903_oFemininity is rarely allowed to exist or function outside of intentional or unintentional archetypes. Since so much of the conception of femininity coincides with the process of othering or making women into The Other, it is inevitable that femininity slides into ghettoized realms. The Nymph. The All-Giving Mother. The Domestic Goddess. The Mad Woman. The Frigid Bitch. The Soccer Mom. The list is endless, each installment diluting characteristics and complexities of women and femininity into reproducible and digestible tropes to reduce their selfhood. Often this process of reducing femininity and women to archetypes is so insidious that it is often internalized and recreated by women or feminine entities in an attempt to bestow power, but ultimately sublimating the feminine radiance and narrative that could be achievable or attainable.

In their most recent creative endeavor, the members of the unconventional dramatic collective folkLAB—a community and self-sustained theatre group aimed at putting forth an eclectic array of performance pieces in three-week intensives that focus on unifying themes of race, gender, sexuality, spirituality etc.—challenge the imbedded conventions and archetypes of femininity that often have a deleterious impact on the strength of female voice, identity and autonomous narrative. The piece, evocatively and assertively titled FEMME, is a forty-five minute exploration into the types of archetypes of femininity that are definable and strikingly recognizable to individuals fairly well versed in folk lore and themes of mythological narratives. FEMME—starring the outstandingly committed and invigoratingly promising Asia Bey, Paige Borak, Abigail Lis-Perlis and Kelsey Robinson—is, on a cursory level, a piece centering around a feminine-mystique bildungsroman in which a young bean sprout escapes the earthly realm to a mythic, feminine-fueled cosmic utopia (of sorts) after overwhelming feelings of rejection from her verdant earthly family.

The play, which utilizes the unique space in Bloomfield’s Glitterbox theatre to move through the story’s elements in a way which involves the audience (who, at the beginning of the piece, are told they are about to embark on their cosmic “birthing” process that will conclude with their violent, sanguine expulsion from a womb), tracks the bean sprout as she meets three feminine forces—a vegetative spirit; a neurotic story teller; and a sensuous mother spirit. As the bean sprout—whose womanly physical growth is remarked upon at each stage of her journey—goes through her “birth” journey that the audience was presumably intended to partake in (and the “surprise” element of her arrival is played with deftness by the women), she challenges the trenchant expectations that each character has for their feminine archetype.

This is the real power of FEMME’s takeaway—the challenging and deconstruction of imbedded feminine archetypes for the sake of elevating female identities. While the nontraditional uses of space and defying of theatrical conventions of dramaturge (that is, the interactive opening and the idea of the play “upended” by the bean sprout’s arrival) were certainly compelling and well executed (which takes a lot for me to say, as such toying with space often make me uncomfortable to the point of spoiling the experience), FEMME was most profound in its relentless dismantling of feminine archetypes that were initially presented in the narrative as being “truly feminine” or deeply meaningful. As the bean sprout interacts with the first guide on her spiritual/symbolic birth journey, the vegetative feminine spirit, she questions who that spirit truly is and what her journey and worldly pains were. She challenges her to remember her own body and growth instead of focusing only on the individuals she is meant to elevate. When she meets the story teller, who spends her time meticulously taking notes on every individual she meets to document their life, the bean sprout challenges her to revisit and retell her own story (which, without revealing too much, is perhaps one of the more haunting moments of inventive storytelling I’ve seen in quite some time). Finally, when the bean sprout meets the sensuous mother spirit, the two engage in what it truly means to be born, to have one’s dimensions and selfhood ascertained (and if that is even should be an achievable thing at all).

The play culminates in a gorgeous combination of physical performance and dance, and the company capitalizes on the brevity of the play to strengthen the audience’s lasting impression. folkLAB promises an outstanding output if their creative ventures match the uniqueness and luminousness of the FEMME.

FEMME has unfortunately already closed but you can find out more about Folklab here. 

Amahl and the Night Visitors

23509011_1502775556458378_1922291248159416369_o“What brings you joy?” asks Resonance Works | Pittsburgh board of directors president Rob Frankenberry.

There is certainly joy in listening to live classical music. There is joy in the artistry of skilled musicians. There is joy in the unadorned sound of classical instruments. There is joy in well-honed voices filling a space with the arias and choruses of an opera. The Resonance Works’ production of Amahl and the Night Visitors provides many opportunities for joy, along with unfortunate moments of disappointment and sadness.

The evening was divided into two acts. The first act featured a trio of orchestral works, scored for a small chamber group that consisted of (if I counted correctly) 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, and 1 bass as the core group.

The core ensemble was joined by oboists Stephanie Tobin and David Fitzpatrick for Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon by Handel. I found the oboe duets delightful, played with both precision and aplomb. Arrival is a fun piece, though I prefer a slightly faster tempo, to emphasize the celebratory and de-emphasize the ceremonial aspect of the piece.

Next was Dances Sacrée et Profane by Debussy, featuring the talented harpist, Marissa Knaub Avon. This piece is dreamy, almost meditative – until it’s not. Then the harp explodes with rhythm and aggression, only to be brought back into line by a gentle, repeating motif. The harp can’t be completely tamed though, and the piece ends with a final, good-natured thunk.

Rounding out the first half of the evening was Vivaldi’s Bassoon concerto in E minor, featuring Andrew Genemans on bassoon, with Uliana Kozhevnikova on harpsichord. I’m far from an expert, but Mr. Genemans is a rock star on that bassoon! He was facile, quick, and a master at both the high and low registers of the instrument. It was just fun to watch and listen to him play.

Keeping everyone on track throughout both acts was conductor and artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner. Maestra Sellner has a light, masterful touch, creating a very balanced sound throughout the evening.

But that’s where most of the good news ends. Disappointingly, the second half of the evening, the performance of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, was not quite as successful as the first.

The singing was universally good. Ivy Walz (Mother), Andrew Maughan (King Kaspar), Andrew Adelsberger (King Melchior), and Jonathan Stuckey (King Balthazar) all gave strong vocal performances, ably supported by the Resonance Chamber Orchestra. The Slippery Rock University Chamber Singers sounded great as the chorus of shepherds; they had a nice blend and their diction was spot on. Eighth grader Liam McCarthy’s thin soprano (Amahl) didn’t fare quite as well as the rest of the cast in the unforgiving Charity Randall Theater, though he acquitted himself nicely, making it through a big role with some very tricky vocal moments.

Despite some really fine vocal performances, the production as a whole didn’t work.
It came down to the fact that this production is neither fish nor fowl: it is neither a concert version of the show, nor is it a fully-realized production – which is a real shame, because I think stage director Craig Joseph had a solid germ of a concept.

He tried to place the show within the context of a circus, which had the potential to be a wild, mysterious, magical take on the story. Unfortunately, the concept was never fully realized, and the result was a mish-mash of elements that added up to confusion, instead of a unified vision. There wasn’t enough set to create a sense of place, time, mood, anything. The set pieces that were onstage were off-concept. The costuming was spotty at best, and the chorus looked like they pulled items from their own closets or raided a thrift store. Lighting design was minimal and clunky. You can do minimal and still have high quality production values; this show didn’t meet that mark.

Resonance Works habitually has the orchestra on stage, in full view, often intertwined with the staging space of the show. I really like this; it makes the connection between singer and musician even stronger, and fits the model for the company. However, in the case of Amahl, this meant there wasn’t enough room on stage for the full ensemble, which was just awkward. This lack of space also didn’t help with staging, which tended to be too static anyway. And, while I appreciate the enthusiasm and pluck of the chorus, I cannot approve the decision to forgo the use of professional dancers to perform the dance done for the Kings by the Shepherds. What resulted was far too amateurish for this fine company, and the production would have been better served by cutting the dance interlude all together.

Amahl and the Night Visitors runs this weekend only, through Sunday, December 17, 2017. You can find out more about Resonance Works and purchase tickets at www.resonanceworks.org.

That Time of the Year

toyWe are at the Lamp Theatre in Irwin for the final dress rehearsal and a preview of Split Stages production of That Time of the Year which begins its two-day run tonight. Split Stage Productions co-owners Rob Jessup and Nate Newell, who produced last season’s production of Cabaret, have teamed with Director Matt Mlynarski in this musical revue featuring 25 all-original Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s songs.

The songs, with lyrics by the ASCAP award-winning team of Laurence Holzman & Felicia Needleman, and music by seven different composers, range from group numbers, that highlight the joys and anxieties of the holiday season, to ballads about the meaning behind both holidays.

The show has a cast of five community theatre veterans; Victoria Buchtan, Megan Lloyd Harding, Brittany Teague, Zakk Manella, and Josh Reardon with music direction by Andrew DeBroeck. That Time of the Year’s songs range from rock to blues, and jazz, with an opportunity for the cast to show off their voices in their best cabaret/show tune style.

The challenge for any theatre company, particularly a relatively new one, is to find a show that isn’t already produced in the area or isn’t a Christmas cliché. Those “visions of sugar plum dancing in their heads” always don’t reflect the reality of our modern holiday season.

In That Time of the Year, Holzman & Needleman’s songs include Angelo Rosenbaum with Reardon as Angelo. Buchtan has a raunchy Stay Home Tonight as Mrs. Claus who has other plans for Santa Christmas Eve. Other titles include Rock ‘n’ Roll Hanukkah (Mannella & Reardon), Little Colored Lights (Tague), Mama’s Latkes (Harding), People with Obligations, Calypso Christmas, They All Come Home (Harding), Wong Ho’s China Garden, Miracles Can Happen, and That Time of Year. You can see this is no White Christmas!

This production has the potential to capture the warmth and humor of America’s multi-faith holiday season. As presented, it is just another yet different cliché for the holidays.

That Time of The Year plays Friday and Saturday, December 15th and 16th at 8 pm with a 2 pm matinee on Saturday.  For tickets click here. 

Thanks to Split Stage for the sneak peek at final dress Thursday.

The Gift of the Maji

WebMAGI  The Gift of the Magi was adapted by Jon Jory from a 1905 short story by O. Henry. Logically enough given the genre of origin, the play is fairly short and condensed. The narrative traces newlyweds Della and Jim Young on their quest to purchase Christmas gifts for each other in spite of their tight finances. True, the paltry amounts they have to purchase gifts with are laughably outdated. After all, Della’s hard-saved $1.87 will not even score you a Starbucks coffee these days. Sadly, the harsh realities of financial hardship are nonetheless just as palpably relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. In fact, Jim (Josh Mooiweer) has been forced to accept a one-third pay cut at work. The company positions itself as benevolent, opting for a pay cut over a layoff. As Della (Becky Brown) finds, there is little joy in managing the home economics of subsistence living as Jim lines his worn shoes with borrowed newspaper from a coworker each day, literally limping along.

Despite the economic distress of the Youngs, the play’s tone is far more cheery than depressing. This is largely due to two factors: the holiday setting and the freshly minted newlyweds. Before the play, carolers dressed in period costume sing. The live music is an unexpected delight given the recorded, speaker-fed music that precedes most plays. There’s genuine joy and spreading cheer as rising song warmly fills the theater, and you slide effortlessly into the holiday spirit without even realizing it.

Lighting designer Antonio Colaruotolo enhances the holiday mood with an understated, abstract snowflake pattern illuminated on the red curtain behind the carolers. In addition, the holiday spirit literally frames the stage as pine garlands interwoven with white lights and red ribbon trace the proscenium. When the curtain rises, it’s a Victorian tableau reminiscent of a Nutcracker performance. Actors in period costumes spring into action singing “The 12 Days of Christmas” and dancing. Costume designer Joan Markert unifies the ensemble with costumes that complement without competing or being overly busy.

We learn that according to Della’s diary, newlyweds Jim and Della Young have only been married for 171 days. They clearly live to and love to please each other, always finding a positive spin for their sacrifices and troubles. With the play’s youthful eagerness and heartwarming exuberance, it’s well-suited for a college production, making it a perfect fit for Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse. Brown and Mooiweer, both Point Park University students, radiate undaunted youth and exude a vibrancy that keeps the play from delving headlong into the darker elements that cloud it. Fast forward ten years, and Jim and Della may be bitter and worn-down. However, at this moment in time, there is a fresh and hopeful optimism about them that’s appropriately captured by Brown and Mooiweer who are occupying a similar space in life – the world of boundless future possibilities that college represents.

Della is one of three daughters all united by D names, and we get a glimpse into her roads not taken as we meet her sisters. The narrator (Somerset Young) informs us Donna Marie (Cara Quigley) went to Utah determined to marry well and achieved that goal. While Quigley’s appearance is brief, she exudes a bold, space-filling presence fitting for the expansive western prairie as her jacket’s fringe sways rhythmically.

While Della’s other sister Dot (Emily Stoken) is only a train ride away, Dot’s life is a world away from Della’s. When the disheveled Della arrives at her door, the posh and polished Dot rings a tinkling bell for her housemaid to bring hot water. Stoken is appropriately restrained and reserved as befits Dot’s character. The living spaces of the two sisters stand in stark contrast. Dot’s stately and sparkingly well-appointed Christmas tree towers over Della’s Charlie Brown-like tree that Jim charitably deems “most original.” When Della reminds Dot she too married for love, Dot immediately dispels that romantic notion, flatly and transparently stating she married for position. O. Henry’s is a world of binaries. One can be poor and in love or well-situated without love. The appeal of cash flow is not lost on Della, at least subconsciously, as she hastily departs from her sister’s house. Brown lets herself display the nuanced tensions of Della’s dilemma – love for her sister versus wanting to put distance between herself and her sister’s opulence before she can question her own fate, now sealed by marriage.

There’s a dual sadness and sweetness to the play’s ending as the young couple sacrifice for each other’s happiness, raising obvious questions about fiscal responsibility in light of economic plight. However, thanks to Penelope Lindblom’s careful direction, she disables easy, snap judgments about the young couple’s fiscal decisions. After all, the desire to please and delight those we love is as natural as the holiday spirit the play easily conjures.

The Gift of the Magi is playing at the Pittsburgh Playhouse through December 17th. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.