“The Elixir of Love” – Resonance Works/Pittsburgh

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l to r: Kevin Glavin & Lindsay Ohse, photo Alisa Garin, courtesy Resonance Works

l to r: Kevin Glavin & Lindsay Ohse, photo Alisa Garin, courtesy Resonance Works

Fun!

Now, that’s probably one of the last words you expect to see with regard to a genre that has as stuffy a reputation as opera. But the production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amor (The Elixir of Love) by the relatively new Resonance Works company may present you with the opportunity to have the most fun at an opera you will ever have.

The libretto tells a standard rom-com story: boy loves girl who doesn’t love him back until she thinks he’s stopped adoring her, at which point she does everything she can to make him jealous and win him back. Here, Nemorino (Christopher Lucier) is the penniless, dimwitted, hapless sad sack who pines for the rich, gorgeous and sparklingly intelligent Adina (Lindsay Ohse). When a stallion of a sergeant, Belcore (Patrick McNally) struts into town and sets his sights on Adina, Nemorino gets desperate and spends his last penny on what he thinks is an elixir of love from a traveling charlatan, Dr. Dulcamara (Kevin Glavin). The elixir is really just cheap booze, so Dulcamara tells Nemorino that it will be a full day before it takes effect, which gives him plenty of time to clear out of town before Nemorino figures out he’s been conned. Drunkenly confident that the love potion will make him irresistible to Adina tomorrow, Nemorino stops caring about how she feels about him today, which upsets her enough to goad him into jealousy by agreeing to marry Belcore. They set their wedding date for the next week, which likewise doesn’t bother Nemorino and makes Adina even more furious. But when the regiment is called back to war, Belcore pressures Adina into marrying him that evening, and sends Nemorino into despair. He signs up for the army in order to get the money to buy more love potion; when Adina realizes what he has done she buys out his contract and admits she loves him. Meanwhile, Nemorino’s rich uncle has died and left him the wealthiest man in town, so Dulcamara can claim not only that his love potion worked, but that it also had the power to make a poor man rich.

Stage director Andrew Nienaber has cleverly set the opera in a 1950s nightclub called “Adina’s Cabaret.” A portion of the audience members sit at café tables (light snacks provided, cash bar in the lobby), the orchestra is arranged like a big band, and the ensemble, dressed in black and white, double as the cabaret’s waiters and waitresses. There is a small stage with a microphone, but otherwise the nightclub setting is the set. The majority of the action takes place in, around, and at the tables. The result is utterly, fabulously engaging: the energetic young cast swirls among the tables, interacting and flirting with members of the audience, and using not only music and voice but also body language and facial expression to create vivid, playful characters. The updated setting (the original opera is set in Adina’s vineyard) has the added bonus of making the class difference between Nemorino and Adina easy to signal: here, he’s a lowly, barely literate janitor in the nightclub she owns and runs. The iconographic contrast between his gray, shapeless coveralls and her va-va-voom tight red dress underscores the social distance between them, and Lucier and Ohse skillfully build on the costuming choice to create distinct opposites who will eventually attract (he’s soft and sweet, she’s sharp and acerbic). Ohse, in particular, is as gifted an actor as she is a vocalist, conveying clearly her character’s often conflicted emotions and feelings when she thinks Nemorino may have actually stopped adoring her.

l to r: Patrick McNally and Christopher Lucier, photo Alisa Garin, courtesy Resonance Works

l to r: Patrick McNally and Christopher Lucier, photo Alisa Garin, courtesy Resonance Works

Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner has assembled a terrific ensemble of musicians. Ohse has a gorgeously clear soprano voice, and even super up close her singing seems almost effortless. McNally and Lucier sing powerfully as the rival lovers, but the show stealer is Kevin Galvin as Dr. Dulcamara. On top of a commanding voice he has a marvelous comic sensibility: his program bio claims that he’s been named “the funniest man in opera” and his performance here gives ample support for that designation. The orchestra plays Donizetti’s lively and fast-paced music with precision and flair, and even in the small space Sellner keeps the orchestral volume in balance with the vocal performers.

A number of playful touches raise the production’s fun factor: the subtitles, for example, peppered with slang words like “cojones,” and many of the props, like the Wigle Whiskey bottle that contains the elixir. But above all, it’s our immersion in the action that makes the evening such a delight.

Now that I’ve experienced it, I want all my opera to come in surround sound.

“Parallel Lives” (CorningWorks, at the New Hazlett Theater)

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Parallel lines are defined as two lines in a plane that do not meet. They can be infinitesimally close to each other, but the defining condition of parallelism is that they extend into infinity, in both directions, without ever touching. Parallel Lives, a new dance piece created and performed by Beth Corning in collaboration with Arthur Aviles, takes this condition of parallelism and applies it as a metaphor for human (dis)connection in the digital age. The choreography uses movement, props, visual projections, music, and human voice to explore how technology, in connecting us with others at a distance, seems also to foster an inability, or lack of desire, to reach out and touch those who may be as close as the other side of a shared wall.

Beth Corning and Arthur Aviles in "Parallel Lives"

Beth Corning and Arthur Aviles in “Parallel Lives”

Like much of Corning’s work, the piece does not aim for narrative clarity; Corning’s strength as a storyteller and choreographer lies in her deployment of ambiguous and multivalent metaphor. Two people inhabit spaces separated by a thin wall of scrim – his space is in front, hers in back. Are they neighbors? Friends separated by a great distance? Total strangers? Lovers? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Their lives are parallel, not just spatially but also in terms of their activity. As the piece begins, each is doing something (he is watching a football game on television, she is folding laundry) while also addictively staying “connected,” in a perpetual multitasking frenzy of texting, selfie-taking, email-checking, web-surfing, and tweeting. Their spaces are marked by parallel stamps of consumer-culture’s anonymizing influence: both have iphones and Macbooks, personality-less gray furniture from Ikea, and identical white coffee cups. As the piece progresses, they unwittingly trade spaces, awaken momentarily from their digital stupor, make an attempt at something resembling real intersection and interconnection, and eventually wind up back alone in their parallel spaces, reabsorbed in their screens and windows. Was it all a dream or fantasy? Or have their devices led them to prefer the digital relationship’s physical solitude over the hazards and uncertainties that accompany making physical and emotional connections in the flesh? Again, we don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.

Corning’s skilled choreography and performance is marked by her trademark sense of whimsy and humor and her ability to craft evocative and powerful stage images: for example, one image in particular that stays with me is Corning, lying on a table, intimately curled up with her laptop (an image that says alot about how many of us feel about our computers!). But Arthur Aviles is the real revelation in this piece. The 51-year-old dancer brings a lovely, gorgeous eloquence to the movement; there’s deep experience in his body. His work here proves Corning’s point, in forming “The Glue Factory Project,” that mature dancers have new things to bring to dance, even if their bodies are less strong and supple than in their youth (although Aviles himself seems not to have lost much athleticism or flexibility with age). Another highlight of Parallel Lives is the projection art (Akiko Katani) and projection design (Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh), which dances along with Aviles and Corning on the screens, providing a two-dimensional visual counterpoint to, and commentary on, the choreography’s three-dimensionality. At times the projections can be taken for digital information zooming through the air; at others, they are an abstraction of a video game; at others, simply parallel lines traversing the space; and, in the end, rain, or static, or the daily white noise that keeps us from really communicating with others. Like the dance itself, the projections are purposefully sketchy and ambiguous, inviting a ruminating exploration rather than a definitive answer.

The piece has some flaws. The opening section of the dance, which establishes the two characters’ obsession with, and addiction to, their various screens and devices, is overly long and grows tiresome; as uninteresting as it is to be in the company of someone who will not stop using their smartphone, it’s even less interesting to watch two performers do the same for too long. Moreover, the rules governing use of the human voice in the work are confusing and unclear: in some moments a dancer may speak, and in the following mime speaking; or mime singing in one scene and then sing aloud in another. This literal miming is jarring and unfortunate in a work that otherwise makes powerful use of the body to express in more abstract ways. For once Corning and Aviles start really dancing (to a terrific selection of music ranging from pop tunes to classical), their exploration of how connection can be “so close and yet so far away” is both stirring and thought-provoking.

“Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” at PICT

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There is an inherent contradiction between the abstract ideals that motivate a nation to send soldiers to war, and the concrete realities that confront those soldiers once they are engaged in battle. The former are often lofty and noble, calling forth heroic impulses from people inspired by the notion of sacrifice for a great and worthy cause; but are they enough to sustain a soldier’s courage and willingness to fight when faced with the brutal and nightmarish circumstances of the battlefield, and with the imminent reality of having to make that sacrifice?

That opposition – between the abstraction of war as a geopolitical tool and the reality of war in the trenches – is in many ways the guiding structural principle of Frank McGuiness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Set in Ireland and France in 1916, the play tells the story of a small group of eight Protestant Irish soldiers who volunteer to fight with the British in WWI and end up on the front lines on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Sons of Ulster opens with an elderly Kenneth Pyper (Martin Giles) summoning the ghosts of his younger self (Raife Baker) and his fallen comrades (played by Jason McCune, Ciaran Byrne, Byron Anthony, Justin R. G. Holcomb, Dylan Marquis Myers, Jonathan Visser, and Tony Bingham); we then see those characters relive their past, in a series of scenes that incrementally reveal more and more not only about each individual, but also about their relationships to each other and to the political and religious conflicts of Northern Ireland. United as these men are by geographical origin and a common enemy, there’s a good deal of diversity and conflict among them, which the play handles with a surprising amount of wit. One does not expect a play about World War I to be quite as funny as this play is in places, and the PICT ensemble brings out the humor with deftness and ease. That said, the play is serious at its core: in examining the plight of these ordinary men facing extraordinary challenges, it interrogates and excavates assumptions about men and masculinity, about what it is to ask men to fight and to die, and about how these men feel about themselves and their comrades.

L to R: Dylan Marquis Meyers, Raife Baker, Justin R. G. Holcomb, and Jason McCune; photos Sueellen Fitzsimmons

L to R: Dylan Marquis Meyers, Raife Baker, Justin R. G. Holcomb, and Jason McCune; photos Suellen Fitzsimmons

As the play progresses, we gain deeper insight into the characters’ minds and hearts: we see not only the desperate rationalizations they cling to in order to make sense of their imminent deaths, but also their growing cynicism and despair. We don’t see any battle scenes staged; instead, the drama focuses on the men’s conflicts (both internal and interpersonal), on their fears and insecurities, and on the abstract (religious, political, aesthetic, and moral) ideals and principles that guide them and inspire them. As such, the play is often moving between registers of the mundane and real – for example, when characters play practical jokes on each other or cope with fatigue, cold, and bone-chilling fear – and registers of the abstract and ideal – as when they try to articulate their relationship to god or wax lyrical about their loyalty to the Unionist cause. The design of PICT’s production successfully underscores this structural opposition between the abstract and the concrete by pitting hyperdetailed realism in the costuming (Joan Markert) and props against a gestural and nonrepresentational set (Johnmichael Bohach), in which corrugated metal panels painted with flags (of Britain and (what I think is) Ulster) and stylized crosses stand for the larger forces at work in the character’s lives. The performances are not always as successful in making this opposition work, however: while the cast is uniformly excellent in the scenes that are most firmly grounded in realism – and digs very deep to give us the opportunity to bear witness to the psychological toll inflicted by the war – the lyrical flights taken by the script often feel writerly and border on cliché. Particularly in the third section, which is scenically the least naturalistic in its presentation of four simultaneously occuring events, nearly every character has a monologue that serves as a kind of aria, expressing some deeply held belief or idea or secret, and these monologues, in exceeding the eloquence of the character, come across as authorly at best, and platitudinous at worst. In this otherwise very fine production of a very compelling play, director Matt Torney has crafted the play’s powerful emotional journey with skill, but still needs to find the right tonal register for McGuinness’s quasi-operatic flights into idealism.

The Pajama Men at City Theatre

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Squirreled away in a desk drawer, I have a three-dimensional puzzle made up of about twenty notched wooden pieces that, when properly fitted together, make up a perfect sphere. I haven’t solved this puzzle in years, but my memory is that there is a magical moment in the process when enough pieces are in the right place that the way forward suddenly starts to make perfect sense: the puzzle’s logic, so to speak, reveals itself.

Watching The Pajama Men’s current show at City Theatre is a little like solving that puzzle (although way easier and light-years more entertaining!). What starts out as an odd standup routine quickly morphs into a series of little scenes, each with a set of seemingly unrelated characters in disparate times and places, but as the two performers rapidly jump-cut from scene to scene the connection of each of these parts to the whole all at once comes into view, and the story – which up until that moment was like a pile of mysteriously shaped puzzle pieces – makes perfect, albeit weird and absurd, sense.

It’s a story of a beast that ravages a village, and a king who drinks of an immortality potion to slay the beast, and a wizardly henchman named Leopold with a hunchback and a goofy Igoresque B-movie accent, and a couple of frenemy Southern gals, one of whom may or may not have lost an arm, and two macho policemen, and a pair of insecure teenagers, and what I can only describe as a spoof on “the world’s most interesting man” and his motorcycle…everything comes in twos in this 70-minute show, which is aptly titled “Just the Two of Each of Us.” All of the characters are conjured by the writer-performers Shenoa Allen and Mark Chavez, and I use the word “conjured” deliberately here: wearing only pajamas, and using only a pair of chairs as props, Allen and Chavez weave pee-in-your-pants funny theatrical magic with nothing but their insanely versatile voices and bodies (and some help from Kevin Hume, who provides musical accompanimment from a keyboard upstage). Their humor ranges from groan-inducing so-bad-they’re-good puns to astonishing feats of physical comedy, with just about every level of silly and inspired bit of tomfoolery and utter zaniness you can imagine in between. It’s pretty hard to describe just how bizarre and delightful this pair of performers is, so I’ll end this post with a link to a video of a performance from 2009, and urge you to catch them live while they’re in town. You won’t regret it.

“Parade” – Front Porch Theatricals at the New Hazlett Theater

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Parade tells the difficult but compelling, “ripped-from-the-headlines of 1915” story of Leo Frank, the only known Jew to fall victim to a Southern lynch mob. A native New Yorker, Frank had moved to Atlanta to become superintendent of his uncle’s pencil factory, which employed local teenaged girls at low wages. One of those girls, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan, was found murdered in the factory’s basement on Confederate Memorial Day (an occasion marked by a celebratory parade, hence the play’s title). Suspicion quickly fell on Frank, the last person to see her alive, and the local prosecutor, eager to secure a conviction, railroaded him by coercing witnesses into giving false evidence. Frank spent two years on death row unsuccessfully appealing his case before the Georgia Governor, John Slaton, reviewed the trial and evidence and commuted his sentence to life in prison. Outraged by this turn of events, a group of twenty-eight prominent Atlanta citizens, banded together as the “Knights of Mary Phagan,” stormed the prison where Frank was being held, kidnapped him, drove him seven hours to a location outside Marietta, near Phagan’s home, and hung him from the branch of a tree.

L to R: Joe Jackson, Jesse Manocherian

L to R: Joe Jackson, Jesse Manocherian

The musical Parade takes this historical event and frames it in the larger context of a host of post-Reconstruction cultural, social, and economic tensions. In the play’s opening number, a young Confederate soldier woos his girl before heading off to defend Southern white rural values; the opening song, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” speaks of his intention to fight for “a way of life that’s pure” and “the truth that must endure.” The song’s final stanza is sung by the now much older soldier, returned defeated from the war, nostalgic for “the treasures we held dear” and longing to “sing Dixie again.” Into this bucolic idyll of conservative Southern values intrudes the nebbishy northern Jew Leo Frank, to whom the South seems “like a foreign land/ I didn’t understand/That being Southern’s not just being in the South.” His cultural difference is so pronounced that even though his skin is white, he is as much if not more a racialized Other than the African-American characters (whose own “belonging” to Southern culture hinges on their acquiescence to its racist restrictions). Frank not only represents a geographic and religious Other, he also represents the encroachment of industrialization on the rural South, and with it the imposition of time cards and a miserly accounting for every penny spent in contrast to the South’s self-mythification as a place of ease and generosity. The play thus frames Frank’s conviction for Phagan’s murder as the consequence of the need for a new scapegoat in response to social and economic upheaval. This may or may not be historically accurate, but it allows the play to open questions of how and why certain “Others” in history make for convenient devils, which are questions that seem never to lose their relevance (the racial profiling in Ferguson just the most recent case in point).

The production, directed by Pittsburgh native Benjamin Shaw, tells this story with energy and flair. The scenic design (Gianni Downs) is spare, putting focus on the performers, and Shaw and choreographer Zeva Barzell make dynamic use of movement and dance to keep the play visually interesting. Kenneth Chu’s beautifully crafted costumes do the heavy lifting of not only steeping us in the time and place of the action but also deftly orienting us to the characters’ class and social status. Deana Muro directs the music with a sure hand, and there are some knockout performances in the show. Particular showstoppers include Joe Jackson’s unscrupulous, scoop-happy reporter in the number “Real Big News”; Justin Lonesome’s “testifyin’” song “That’s What He Said”; and the duet between Lonesome and the young standout Arica Jackson, “Rumblin’ and a Rollin.’” Jesse Manocherian is convincing as the neurotic, money-obsessed, hypochondriacal Leo Frank (oh, the stereotypes!), but his best musical number is “Come Up to My Office,” a wonderful fantasia in which he steps into the skin of the slick, rapacious predator his Southern persecutors have painted him to be. It is, in fact, in these last two numbers mentioned that Parade as a whole is at its best, capturing the complexity of race relations and exploring how pernicious and damaging our assumptions and stereotypes about others can be.

“Tamara” at Quantum

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It’s 1927. You’re in fascist Italy, in the splendid – one might even say, decadent! – villa of the famous poet and war hero Gabriele d’Annunzio (Fermin Suàrez), awaiting the arrival of Polish artiste and bohème supreme Tamara de Lempicka (Megan MacKenzie Lawrence), who is hoping to obtain a commission to paint d’Annunzio’s portrait. You’ve somehow found your way into the oratorio, a music room eclectically decorated with Persian rugs, masks, taxidermied animals, and (of all things) a large coffin. The talented musician Luisa (Robin Abramson) plays piano while the pious, pretty ballerina Carlotta (Cathryn Dylan) practices the dance she hopes will earn her d’Annunzio’s recommendation to Diaghilev, when – ta da! – Tamara arrives. Carlotta takes an instant dislike to her, and storms in tears from the room. Why is she crying? Only one way to find out – follow her! And quickly, because this girl is booking. You follow her down the stairs, into her dainty little bedroom among the servant’s quarters, where you witness not only her subterfuge (the crying is put on, an attention-getting ruse) but also a very revealing moment of intimacy between her and Aëlis, the manager of the household. And if – as happened to me – you are the only member of the audience who acted on that impulse to dash out of the oratorio after Carlotta, then, as the evening progresses, you’ll have the delicious feeling of knowing something about her that no one else knows! Until, that is, you gossip that information away during the intermission, over dinner, in exchange for being filled in on what happened in the oratorio after you and Carlotta left…

That scenario gives just an amouse-bouche of the lively and intriguing immersive theatrical experience offered by Quantum’s production of Tamara (directed with flair by John Shepard). While there is drama aplenty here, Tamara is not a play in the traditional sense, because any given member of the audience can only see and witness part of it: the characters’ interactions with each other play out simultaneously in many different rooms and, as a result, each audience member necessarily only gets a partial and contingent understanding of what happens over the course of the evening. What you get from the experience depends on how you choose to “do” the production: you can remain in one room, as in a traditional theater, and wait for various bits of the action to flow past; you can follow one character through the evening and get a full sense of his or her trajectory through the evening’s happenings; or you can simply follow your curiosity as it arises, and run off after whoever seems most intriguing at any given moment. Getting the whole gestalt requires comparing notes with others, which makes for easy conversation with the strangers you sit with at the gourmet dinner served during intermission, and has the added bonus of turning an evening at the theater into an unexpectedly social occasion.

L to R: Robert Turano (Finzi), Cathryn Dylan (Carlotta), Robin Abramson (Luisa), Ethan Hova (Dante), Ken Bolden (de Spiga), Megan MacKenzie Lawrence (Tamara), Fermin Suárez (d'Annunzio), and Tammy Tsai (Aëlis). Photo Heather Mull.

L to R: Robert Turano (Finzi), Cathryn Dylan (Carlotta), Robin Abramson (Luisa), Ethan Hova (Dante), Ken Bolden (de Spiga), Megan MacKenzie Lawrence (Tamara), Fermin Suárez (d’Annunzio), and Tammy Tsai (Aëlis). Photo Heather Mull.

The story that plays out is operatic in its complexity, and the performers work in a heightened register that suits the baroque quality of the play, if not always the intimate settings of the rooms. There are many many intrigues and secrets – romantic, politicial, financial, you name it – and at the end of the evening it’s unlikely you’ll have fully understood each and every one, but that’s okay: Tamara doesn’t aim at handing you a fully realized story, it wants to take you on a tantalizing journey. The actors rise beautifully to the many difficult challenges this play poses, not least among which is the devilish issue of timing (characters in one room may be unexpectedly interrupted by the early arrival of a character coming from another scene that ended early, or – worse – made to improvise while waiting for the arrival of a character delayed). The logistical precision on display makes visible the excellent work of those members of the theater ensemble whose efforts are usually most lauded when least visible: the stage manager (Caitlin Roper, assisted by Spencer Whale), production manager (RJ Romeo) and house manager (Arran Harland). Pei-Chi Su’s period- and class-specific costumes get all sorts of important details pitch perfect, from Aëlis’s wrinkly pre-nylon stockings to Tamara’s tight finger wave. But perhaps the main star of the evening is Rodef Shalom Synagogue, which has been utterly and convincingly transformed into a luxurious, labyrinthine villa by scene designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley, and which not only has the appropriate scale and grandeur for the production, but also allows the play’s thematic concerns – in particular its exploration of what it means to be an outsider, a foreigner, or a Jew in xenophobic times – resonate in unexpected and serendipitous ways.

“Walldogs” – Hatch Arts Collective

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Walldogs, a new play by Paul Kruse, begins after its end, with the erasure of the “writing on the wall” left behind by those who left their marks in the past. We don’t yet know it, but what we are witnessing is, in fact, the erasure of the residue of the play’s previous performance; at play’s end, what is left on the wall will be erased at the beginning of the next performance, in a circular pattern of creation and destruction. It’s an apt metaphor for theater in general (which, however, rarely leaves any such material traces to be erased) and particularly for this short play, which is interested in exploring why people write and draw on walls, even knowing their work will likely be impermanent.

The play interweaves several stories across time and space. In one, an early twentieth century ad painter – a “walldog” – convinces a rural woman to allow him to paint a Campbell’s soup ad on the side of her barn (and finds himself drawn to her in the process); in another, a stressed-out event planner commissions a low-key, methodical urban artist to create a mural for a big fundraiser on a very compressed timeline; in a third, a teenaged stoner graffiti artist offers friendship and kindness to a dorky Jewish boy whose mother has recently died; and the fourth retells, in a kind of hallucinatory dream-state fashion, the biblical story of the mysterious writing on the wall that Daniel interpreted as foretelling the destruction of King Belshazzar and the Babylonian kingdom. All of the characters are played by two actors, Mallory Fuccella and Parag S. Gohel, who both bring great charm and facility to their realization of the various roles, hitting all the laugh lines in Kruse’s often very witty dialogue. Gohel makes the stereotype of the introspective urban artist ring true, and he is particularly likeable and sincere as the young mourning teen. Fuccella gives the requisite sweetness to the slightly daffy teen graffiti artist, and is pitch-perfect as the nervous and overamped event planner. Fuccella and Gohel make their character transitions the old-school way, through change in posture, voice, and body language, with only a minimum of prop, costume, and lighting help, and the continuity of actor presence between the various stories helps link them both visually and thematically.

Hatch Arts Collective is a relatively new enterprise (they are in their second year of existence), and in this production director Adil Mansoor has made the smart choice to embrace and make a virtue of the company’s poverty of resources. The scene design is simple and spare, foregrounding the play’s “third character,” the wall, and the costume and lighting design are equally pared down. The minimal production values suit the scale of the play itself, which has more of the virtues of a collection of short stories, unified by theme, than that of the novel, with its unifying story or conflict. And like a collection of short stories, Walldogs does not, ultimately, say anything definitive or particularly profound about what it means to leave one’s mark behind on a wall, but rather uses its thematic focus to let us peek briefly into the lives of those who do.

“Noises Off” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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Noises Off (by playwright Michael Frayn, now playing at the Public) is a silly play about a silly play. Or, more accurately: it’s a silly play about the silly things that occur when a group of people tries to put on a silly play. In writing that, I use the word “silly” with its etymological sedimentation in mind: the word comes from the Old English “seely,” which meant happy, blissful, or blessed, and there is something blessed and blissful indeed to be made to laugh in the way a well-made farce can make you laugh, or, in this case, the way a silly farce about a farce can give you opportunity to escape in laughter.

The opening scene of Noises Off depicts the final rehearsal of the world premiere of a (fictional) new play called Nothing On at a regional theater in Weston-Super-Mare, UK. The actors have had only two weeks to rehearse this complicated farce, with its myriad doors and identical boxes and plates of sardines and (this being a British sex farce) nudge-nudge-wink-wink euphemisms for sex and a blond bombshell running around in hot pink lingerie and heels. It’s midnight before opening night, and things are not going swimmingly. Dotty (Helena Ruoti), the actress who plays Mrs. Clackett, a housemaid, can’t keep her props straight; Frederick (Preston Dyar), the actor who plays the tax-evading homeowner Philip Brent, is in a fragile emotional state, having just been left by his wife; everyone has to keep an eye on Selsdon (Ralph Redpath) to make sure he doesn’t hit the bottle and forget his entrance; Tim (Scott Cote), the tech director and understudy, hasn’t slept in forty eight hours and can’t keep up with all of the technical issues arising onset; and the offstage amours among the company are complicating the onstage business. The director, Lloyd Dallas (Michael MacCauley) is pretty much at the end of his rope, and just wants to get the show opened so he can move on to more prestigious pastures.

Upstairs: Garret Long. Downstairs (l to r): Noah Plomgren, Laura Woyasz, Helena Ruoti, Preston Dyar, Karen Baum. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Upstairs: Garret Long. Downstairs (l to r): Noah Plomgren, Laura Woyasz, Helena Ruoti, Preston Dyar, Karen Baum. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The opening act of Noises Off is the setup, giving us a glimpse of what Act One of Nothing On ought to look like if the actors can pull all the tenuous threads together and make the show work. In the second act, we’re backstage, a month later, and the show is on tour. They haven’t pulled the threads together; in fact, the entire enterprise has begun to go off the rails. Garry Lejeune (Noah Plomgren), the actor who plays a real estate agent in the play, and Dottie are having a furious lover’s quarrel because the possessive Garry believes Dottie is cheating on him with Frederick; Lloyd has returned to the tour, not to visit the show but to have a weekend in bed with Brooke (Laura Woyasz), the blond bimbo; Poppy (Karen Baum), the stage manager, thinks Lloyd has returned to spend the weekend with her; and on top of it all Selsdon has access to booze. Hilarious chaos ensues backstage as the members of the company, led by the busybody Belinda (Garret Long), try to cope with the various acts of sabotage and violence Garry and Dottie inflict on each other and on Frederick and Brooke, all of which have hilarious effects on the action onstage that we can hear and imagine, but not fully see. The third act, two months later, reveals the effects of several weeks of such in-cast infighting, from the audience’s point of view. By this point there is virtually “nothing on” stage anymore at all; the train is fully derailed, and now it is the backstage shenanigans we are left to imagine from their residual tumultuous effects onstage.

As might be guessed from my description, Noises Off is not an easy play to pull off – it requires actors who are good enough to do a farce really well in which they play actors unable to do a farce at all. With the exception of Brooke, who was obviously cast on the couch, none of the actors in the play-within-the-play are particularly bad actors; they just suffer from the lethal combination of being underprepared and overinvolved with each other. A good production of this play (and the Public’s is a good one) takes care to let us see that although the characters they play in Nothing On are types, the actors who play them are real people with real (if ridiculous and overblown) problems and frustrations. Their charm and appeal comes from having all of the traits that lead us to form stereotypes about actors (and directors, and stage managers) without being stereotypes themselves. What’s also hard about this play is that it requires a great deal of physical comedy and timing on the part of the cast to show how tricky physical comedy and timing are (in the example of missed cues and mislaid props in the play within the play). The cast is miraculously adroit with the door-slamming farce bits, and in particular Plomgren and Woyasz provide moments of brilliant and hilarious physical comedy. Director Don Stephenson, who has directed this play before, has shaped the overall story with a good eye, so that even though we are essentially seeing the same scene three times, each repetition has its own arc and climax, and its own comic energy.

“Hope and Gravity” at City Theatre

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There’s a distinctive pleasure that derives from stories told out of sequence. I think that pleasure has something to do with the fact that a non-linear structure allows the writer to indulge in coincidence, which is usually considered “bad” plotting in a narrative that moves forward sequentially from the beginning: the intersection of two characters’ trajectories in a forward moving narrative often feels contrived, but when the narrative begins at the end (or, in the case of Michael Hollinger’s thoughtful and charming new play Hope and Gravity, in the middle), the ways in which a single event connects a group of strangers feel necessary, as the ending depends on the events that lead to it. So, as readers or viewers, we get to delight in the jigsaw puzzle of coincidence without feeling like the writer is simply manipulating fate to bring the story to a resolution.

(L-R) John Feltch as Douglas, Rebecca Harris as Tanya; Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

(L-R) John Feltch as Douglas, Rebecca Harris as Tanya
Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

But I get ahead of myself (or maybe behind myself – I feel like I started this post in the middle, too!). Hope and Gravity (currently at City Theater, in an excellent production directed by Tracy Brigden), interweaves the stories of nine characters whose lives intersect with an inexplicable and tragic elevator accident. The play begins on the morning after the accident, as two graduate students of poetry, Jill (Robin Abramson) and Steve (Federico Rodriguez) are delayed in getting to class by an elevator undergoing a safety inspection. They are stuck in the elevator with Marty (John Feltch), the elevator repairman, and Peter (Daniel Krell), whom Marty recognizes as his dentist, and who has a vexed relationship with the truth. This meeting of strangers, stopping on random floors as they are impatient to be elsewhere, serves as a metaphor for the play itself, which moves randomly back and forth through time and among characters whose lives collide as they are busy doing other things (if you study the program closely, which I didn’t until I sat down to write this post, you’ll see that the play begins with Scene 6, then jumps to 2, then 4, and so on, ending with the accident that is pivotal to the play). The connections between the characters sometimes feel a teeny bit pat (for example, Marty’s wife, Nan (Rebecca Harris), is a nurse in the same school where Steve’s fiancé, Barb, is a secretary to Hal, the Vice Principal, whose wife, Tanya, dies in the elevator accident), a feeling reinforced by the fact that most of the actors play two roles (Abramson plays Barb, Krell plays Hal, Harris is also Tanya, and Feltch is Douglas, Jill and Steve’s professor of poetry). But these interconnections avoid feeling contrived, mainly because we’ve already experienced fate’s hand dealt in the first scene, so that the subsequent presentation of the backstory comes across as causal – that is, those connections are the dominoes that needed to have fallen in order for the play to begin on floor six in the first place, so to speak. Moreover, Hope and Gravity seems, in this respect, a play particularly suited for a town like Pittsburgh, where it seems unusually likely to run into your hairstylist at the ballet, or to find yourself sitting one row back from your kid’s soccer coach at the Pirates’ game, or to hear that your colleague has just rented your best friend’s mother’s house. In such a context, it doesn’t feel farfetched at all when, in the penultimate scene of the play, Steve realizes that the man he is buying a house from is the elevator repairman he met years earlier and marvels at what a small world it is, indeed.

The smallness of the world is only one interest of this play, however. It also dwells, with much wit and comic insight, on the dreams and aspirations of its nine characters, and on the ways their hopes keep them busy and aloft while gravity does its work on them and others. This is a play that will tickle your funnybone as you watch it and give you plenty to chew on philosophically over drinks after. The cast is terrific, and the production design (sets Anne Mundell, costumes Robert C. T. Steele, lighting Andrew David Ostrowski, music Eric Shimelonis, and sound Joe Pino) deserves special mention, as it whisks us seamlessly and almost magically from scene to scene, actors and space transforming almost instantaneously as the pieces of the story’s puzzle come together.

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