You on the Moors Now

WebMOORSIt is an interesting phenomenon when the storytelling trends currently dominating the television and film landscapes creep up in the theatre world.

Every new project announced nowadays, whether it’s for the big or small screen, seems to be either a reboot of a previously successful property or some sort of crossover event that brings together fan favorite characters for an epic adventure. This year alone, we’ve seen the first installment in the third incarnation of the Spider-Man film franchise and, later this week, the Justice League will assemble for the first time in a live action movie.

On the other side of the genre and content spectrum from those blockbusters, Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre Company presents a surprisingly physical and universally stunning production of Jaclyn Backhaus’s play You on the Moors Now

Backhaus’s script operates as a reboot/sequel to some of the 19th century’s greatest novels that have since become staples of high school syllabi around the world. The play opens as the worlds of Jo March (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women), Jane Eyre (the titular character in Charlotte Brontë’s novel), Catherine “Cathy” Earnshaw (from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights), and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) collide during pivotal moments in all their lives. They have each received marriage proposals from their respective love interests and, to their surprise, they’ve all said no. Now, they are all left with an even bigger and more difficult question to answer: What’s next?

Julia Small (Elizabeth Bennett), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), Aenya Ulke (Jane Eyre), & Shannon Donovan (Jo March)
Julia Small (Elizabeth Bennett), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), Aenya Ulke (Jane Eyre), & Shannon Donovan (Jo March)

Their decisions to abandon their homes and families and strike out on their own have disastrous effects for the people in their lives. It’s definitely a four way tie for who handles this the most poorly between the young women’s jilted suitors Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, and Mr. Darcy. With the help of some colorful supporting characters from each of the novels, the men hunt down our heroines. Their search leads them into the mysterious world of the moors where Jo, Jane, Cathy, and Lizzie have set up camp.

An all out battle of the sexes ensues between the gendered factions. It takes disfigurement and death on both sides to bring the conflict to an end. Even though it’s not until ten years after the end of the war that we meet our characters again, it’s clear that those who survived are still dealing with the pain of their psychological scars. In one way or another, our four heroines find peace within themselves and with the choices they’ve made in their lives.

Bryan Gannon (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Evan Wormald (Mr. Rochester) & Micah Stanek (Heathcliff)
Bryan Gannon (Fitzwilliam Darcy), Evan Wormald (Mr. Rochester) & Micah Stanek (Heathcliff)

I’m sorry to be purposely vague on the plot details of You on the Moors Now, but I think the best way to experience the show is knowing as little as possible. There are tons of twists, turns, and Easter eggs for fans of the books. But, if you’re like me and you got stuck reading Ernest Hemingway and Aldous Huxley in high school instead of Alcott, Austen, and the Brontë sisters, you’ll love getting to know these bright, quirky young women and easily identify with their struggle for independence

While I maintain that on paper this play sounds like a television or movie pitch waiting to happen, I credit director Sheila McKenna with employing thrilling movement and combat sequences to give the piece an impact that only theatre can achieve. As the play skillfully subverts our expectations and perceptions of these classic characters, she along with dance captain Meghan Halley and fight captain Shannon Donovan raise the stakes of what could be considered by an especially cynical viewer as simply feminist fan fiction. The way that the opening line dance and the fight scene that ends Act II echo each other is truly poetic.

It is a story 100% by and about women that is truly feminist for the way it establishes women and men as equally fearsome adversaries on the battlefield and equally able to make and learn from their mistakes.

Unfortunately, for all of their talents, McKenna, Halley, and Donovan are not able to rescue the production from its tidy and tedious ending in the play’s third act. That task is left to the show’s designers Tucker Topel (sets), Terra Marie Skirtich (costumes), and Heather Edney (lights), whose work was a beauty to behold for the entire show but definitely shone brightest in its final moments.

Meghan Halley (Nelly Dean, Beth, Jane Bennett) & Adam Rossi (Joseph, Marmee)
Meghan Halley (Nelly Dean, Beth, Jane Bennett) & Adam Rossi (Joseph, Marmee)

The actors literally wore their characters’ emotions on the sleeves in outfits that looked like they were ripped from the runway of a 19th century-inspired Urban Outfitters collection. You’ll truly feel like you’re in the world of a book with the walls painted to resemble scorched parchment pages and where you can be transported from deep in the woods to high in the stars in an instant.

It will be hard to witness a more energetic and charismatic ensemble than the one featured in this production. They are led by the aforementioned Ms. Donovan (Jo), Julia Small (Lizzie), Madeline Watkins (Cathy), and Aenya Ulke (Jane), who all combine the classic elegance and strength that made these characters iconic with a modern wit that makes these worlds worth revisiting today.

Their bond is indestructible and sweet (without being sappy) as in the scenes where Cathy hilariously bemoans her sister-less state and her three friends reassure her that she’s never without a sister as long as they’re around. Point Park’s You on the Moors Now makes sisters of all this revisionist riff. Regardless of age, gender, or era, we’re all just fighting to be heard and have our dreams respected.

You on the Moors Now runs through November 19 and from November 30 through December 3rd. For more information, click here.

Photos by John Altdorfer

Point Park Gets to Work on Another Eight Shows at the Pittsburgh Playhouse

11391480_10153367774739464_1509896223937134191_nSummer may be ending, but things are about to heat up at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.

The home of Point Park University theatre— The REP Professional Theatre Company and the Conservatory Theatre Company—is about to welcome eight exciting new productions into its hallowed halls for its 2017-2018 season. Artistic Director Ron Lindblom confirms that the amount of enjoyment the audience receives from the high-quality productions is equal to the educational benefits that the student cast and crew members receive.

“The Conservatory is geared towards training young artists and these classics really give the students the opportunity to get the training they need,” he said. It’s a win/win situation for anyone who steps foot in one of Point Park’s theatre spaces with the only variable being the shows in question that are chosen.

WebPosterBOYSKicking things off for Point Park’s season is a critically-acclaimed musical, authored by one of musical theatre’s most prolific and iconic writing teams. Making its Pittsburgh premiere, The Scottsboro Boys with music and lyrics by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb tells the dramatic true story of nine African-American teenagers falsely accused of sexually assaulting two white women on a train riding through Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The media circus and infamous series of trials that followed were plagued by extreme prejudice against the defendants and unfair judicial practices. If you’re expecting the fun conventions of musical theatre to make the dark subject matter more palatable, you’re out of luck here.

As they did with shows like Cabaret, Chicago, and Curtains, Kander and Ebb have brilliantly framed this tragic narrative in a distinct and unique theatrical style. Rather than using vaudeville or golden age musical comedy as its structure, The Scottsboro Boys is built as a minstrel show. In the early 19th century, these performances featured mostly white actors in blackface mocking African-Americans. In Kander and Ebb’s musical, originally directed on Broadway by Susan Stroman, the tropes of the minstrel show are employed to underline the countless injustices that ruined the lives of the titular characters. Lindblom laments that he finds “great relevance” for a story about black men being discriminated against in the legal system in the headlines of the modern world. Fortunately, this production is being helmed by Tomè Cousin whose frequent collaboration with Stroman makes him “perfect” director for this piece. The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Rauh Theatre from September 8-24.

Thankfully for patrons looking for musicals that provide some level of escapism, there are productions of Kiss Me, Kate and 42nd Street in the pipeline following The Scottsboro Boys.

WebPosterKATEBoth are “backstage musicals” that tell stories of two troubled theatre productions. Original Tony Award-winning Best Musical Kiss Me, Kate—featuring a classic score by Cole Porter and a book by Sam and Bella Spewack—introduces us to divorced couple Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi who are co-starring in a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Although it’s clear that love still lingers between them, they simply cannot stand each other. They’re surrounded by a host of wacky characters, including a pair of gangsters with a bone to pick with Fred, who prove against all comedic odds that the show must go on. Kiss Me, Kate runs at the Rockwell Theatre from October 20-29.

WebPoster42Wide-eyed ingenue Peggy Sawyer is the heroine of the tap-tastic musical 42nd Street. The only thing bigger than her dreams of stardom are the show’s numerous dance breaks supplied by Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s score. Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book is the tale as old as time in show business of what happens when an inexperienced understudy takes over for a seasoned star. What happens is musical theatre magic that has been enchanting audiences since legendary director Gower Champion’s original 1980 Broadway production. 42nd Street also plays the Rockwell Theatre from March 16-25.

As usual, Point Park offers as much variety in genre, setting, and subject matter in their play selections for the season as they do in their musical selections. Whether contemporary or classic, the scripts illuminate points of views of a diverse group of characters.

WebPosterMOORSIn the case of Jaclyn Backhaus’ You on the Moors Now, playing at the Studio Theater from November 10-December 3, those characters are rather well known. Jane Eyre, Lizzy Bennet. Cathy Earnshaw, and Jo March are no longer just well-established fixtures of high school English class syllabi. Backhaus imagines the four 19th century literary leading ladies running away together and comparing notes on what their experiences in life have taught them. The women exist in a sort of timeless state where modern references and profanity are fair game for their epic girl talk session.

WebPosterALBAThe five women in Frederico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba would most likely also benefit from a vacation from their dissatisfying lives. They are all sisters who spend their time dreaming of getting out of their mother’s house and truly experiencing life. Their routine is broken by the appearance of town hunk Pepe el Romano and his flirtation with the family’s eldest sister. Desire under the Bernarda Alba’s roof proves to be a dangerous thing that sets the stage for a frank look at the ways in which members of the opposite sex relate. The House of Bernarda Alba plays at the Rauh Theater from February 23-March 11.

WebPosterDEVILRussian literature served as the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s black comedy A Devil Inside. This gory romp sees Gene receiving far more than just cake on his 21st birthday. His mother finally reveals the truth behind his father’s death—he was murdered!—and insists that it is Gene’s duty to avenge him. He’s simultaneously disturbed by the request and distracted by his infatuation with Caitlin, who lusts after her Russian literature professor who lusts after the blood of his nemesis. For the non-squeamish, A Devil Inside runs at the Studio Theater from February 2-18.

The final two shows are either adaptations or translations of well-known works and living, breathing proof that theatre is an ageless, universal language.

WebPosterMAGIThe Gift of the Magi, adapted by Jon Jory, opens at the Rauh Theatre just in time for the holiday season. From December 8-17, you can learn the valuable lesson at the center of the story of Della and Jim Young. They are a young couple struggling to make end’s meet, but who are still determined to make Christmas special for one another by purchasing the perfect gifts. As with most stories set around that time of year, the true meaning of the season is explored to touching effect.

WebPosterVANYALast but not least is Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya playing from April 6-15 at the Rauh Theater. It’s an example of one of Chekhov’s estate dramas that features as much unrequited love as you can fit on a single stage. The enchanting Yelena is the object of two men’s affections. Unfortunately, they are crippled by profound existential crises exacerbated by the facts that she’s married and the estate, on which Vanya, one of the men, lives, is about to be sold. It’s all in a day’s work for a Chekhov character.

Along with The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss Me, Kate, and A Devil Inside, one performance of Uncle Vanya will be followed by a lecture in a completely new series called Freud on Forbes. Representatives from the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center will take audience members into the writers’ brains armed only with the text of the script. These talks are sure to take your post-show conversations with friends to the next level. And that’s fitting because Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse 2017-2018 season of shows seeks to do the same thing for theatre.

For tickets and more information on the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s upcoming season, click here.