“Macbeth” at PICT Classic Theatre


Macbeth is a dark play – it may, perhaps, be one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, at least in terms of its pessimistic view of how morally corrupting the ambition for power can be. Its sinister atmosphere is conjured by the weird sisters at the very beginning of the play, when they chant “fair is foul and foul is fair” – a deeply cynical line that aptly encapsulates the murkiness of the play’s moral landscape.

L to R: Erin Whitcomb, Cassidy Adkins, Lily Davis, Justin R. G. Holcomb, and David Whalen; photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons, courtesy PICT Classic Theatre

L to R: Erin Whitcomb, Cassidy Adkins, Lily Davis, Justin R. G. Holcomb, and David Whalen; photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons, courtesy PICT Classic Theatre

The world of Macbeth on stage at PICT Classic Theatre is likewise a dark one. Dark brown is the reigning tone in this world: the costumes are brown, headdresses are brown, and the set consists of steps and plinths and crags in a range of shades of brown. Occasionally the upstage cyc glows with color, and there are flashes of white and red in the costuming (in particular, among the witches), but for the most part the scenic world is very somber, a place of deep shadows and fog, a kind of perpetual evening. It’s quite stunningly lit by Cat Wilson, but at times the scene felt a little too dark – a few more lumens on the actors’ faces would have made telling the (similarly dressed) characters apart a bit easier. Overall, however, the gloomy color palette and sinister atmospheric lighting is an astute choice, given that the play opens with the rout of King Duncan’s enemies (a battle from which Macbeth emerges a hero) and ends with Macbeth’s head on a spike. In other words, this production doesn’t try to frame the story in terms of a kingdom plunged from light into darkness (a tempting misread of the play’s mythical structure), but rather in terms of an already dark and bloody kingdom, full of treachery and mistrust, descending into even darker times. Duncan may have been a “good” king, but his power also rested on murdering his enemies, and at play’s end Malcolm’s return to power will be purchased with blood as well. The dark mood of this play derives as much from the fact that it is but one episode in a longer cycle of tyrannic bloodshed as from its insight into the psychology of ambition, and the design scheme’s dark and monochromatic tone underscores the cyclical nature of power and violence.

Director Alan Stanford has made some smart and effective choices in the interpretation and staging of the text. In particular, he’s found inventive ways to make the witches weird and magical. They seem to emerge out of the scenery at the beginning of the play and then melt back into it when they “disappear into the air,” using their brown cloaks to reveal and hide themselves, and their chanting of those all-too-familiar incantations is nicely defamiliarized by unusual rhythms and stresses. Moreover, the theatricality of their final scene, with Hecate, is particularly lovely: they form a series of small tableaux to represent the three conjured apparitions, using their bright red gloves to create and accentuate elements like the blood and the crown. Stanford also seems to have put a good deal of emphasis on ensemble work in the production; it feels less like a play about Macbeth himself than about the world of Macbeth. That’s not to take away from David Whalen’s very intelligent and nuanced performance in the leading role, but rather to give credit to the other many excellent members of the ensemble who give this production its “wicked” Game of Thrones-like vibe, in particular Patrick Jordan (hard to recognize – in a good way – as Macduff), Martin Giles (as the porter, the comic relief in the play), and Karen Baum (as a scarily flexible Hecate).

“Outside Mullingar” at City Theatre


Regular readers of this blog will likely find it unsurprising to learn that I am a Jane Austen fan. There’s a special pleasure involved in reading Austen’s writing, and it has little to do with her plots. Austen aficionados like myself love reading her novels for the acerbically observed characters, the sharp and ironic narrative voice, the witty twists in detail in her writing (which reward rereadings in a way that plot twists rarely do), and the palpable tension she creates between her characters’ reserved social selves and their yearning, dreaming, desiring private selves.

John Shanley’s play Outside Mullingar (currently playing at City Theatre) affords a pleasure very much akin to reading an Austen novel. Like those novels, the plot is conventional – one might even say predictable, if not for the fact that familiarity with contemporary Irish drama has trained many of us to anticipate an unexpectedly macabre or black ending from “Irish plays” – and where the play delights and surprises is in its idiosyncratic characters and in its gleefully candid language. Outside Mullingar tells the story of two neighboring Irish farm families whose proximity to each other has given rise to a style of speaking that allows them, as Shanley notes, “to say awful things to each other. With charm.” On one farm live the Reillys – elderly Tony (Noble Shropshire) and his middle-aged son Anthony (Ron Menzel), who assumes he will inherit the farm when his father kicks the bucket (Tony’s waffling on this matter is one of the play’s many conflicts). On the other, the Muldoons – aging mother Aoife (Mary Rawson) and her adult daughter Rosemary (Megan Byrne), whose ownership of a parcel of land that cuts the Reillys off from the road represents a sore point in the two families’ history. All four are, in their individual ways, hardened pragmatists, resigned (in what seems like a very rural Irish way) to the idea that happiness is for other people. There does not seem, at first, to be much room for the frivolities of romance in their world, but it eventually blooms, and it’s the way Shanley has rendered the love story that most reminds me of Austen, in particular of her knack for bringing us to feel the pulsing, beating heart beneath what looks like a closed and hardened façade. For Rosemary is much like a modern-day Anne Elliot (from Persuasion): well past the bloom of youth, she’s been carrying the torch for the oblivious Anthony for years, and the pentupness of her desire is excruciating not only to her, but to us as well.

L to R: Megan Byrne and Ron Menzel. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

L to R: Megan Byrne and Ron Menzel. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

There is, however, much about this play (and especially this production) that is (dare I say it?) better than Austen. For one thing, Shanley’s writing is far more direct and, as a result, much much more laugh-out-loud (as opposed to smirk-and-grin) funny. Moreover, the bluntness of the characters also allows for oblique expression of a great deal of deeply felt passion, and the ensemble does a masterful job of conveying how these characters’ hardbitten candor masks roiling subterranean emotional turmoil. Rawson and Shropshire are not only acerbically funny as the stubbornly fatalist Aoife and Tony, they also bring tender dimension to their portrayals of two people who have little to look forward to and much to look back upon. Menzel is poignantly verklemmt in his interpretation of Anthony, a man so afraid of having his heart broken that he has become a stranger to his deepest longing, and Byrne is absolutely brilliant as the tough-on-the-outside, desperate-on-the-inside Rosemary, making lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone that rock us from glee to despair. I’ll confess, dear reader, that at moments in the final scene it was hard to discern whether I was laughing so hard that I was crying, or whether that laughter was coming through my tears.

There are places where the writing veers into the sentimental – in particular, in the play’s second section, during the “deathbed” scene between Tony and Anthony – and a less discerning director might have allowed such moments to turn unbearably maudlin. But Tracy Brigden (who, in case you missed the news, was recently named a finalist for the 2014 Zelda Fichandler Award) keeps the spikes on so that the action doesn’t get mired in treacle, and the final section of the play – which delivers the romantic goods, so to speak – bristles with an unexpected and hilariously delightful thorniness.

“The Glass Menagerie” at Pittsburgh Public Theater


Tennessee Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie is, on the surface at least, a simple play. It tells a small story, the story of the broken and desperate family the narrator, Tom Wingfield (Fisher Neal) abandoned to pursue adventure in the Merchant Marines and an eventual career as a writer. Tom opens the play by telling us it’s a memory play, and being a memory play it is “dimly lighted, sentimental, and NOT REALISTIC,” and therein lies the complexity within Glass Menagerie’s deceptive simplicity. For the trick to a good production of this play – and the one at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre falls squarely into that category – lies in finding a style for representing memory, one that keeps in view not only the events as remembered by Tom, infused and informed by his guilty conscience over having left his overbearing mother and fragile sister to their own devices, but also the reality of the characters themselves, distinct from his memory somehow, so that we in the audience don’t fall into the trap of only seeing the other characters as Tom remembers them. That is to say, we need to be able to experience his mother Amanda (Lynne Wintersteller) and sister Laura (Cathryn Wake) as simultaneously the two-dimensional characters his memory has reconstructed in an attempt to rationalize and justify his escape from them, and as the three-dimensional figures who continue to haunt him and demand his attention and care.

Fisher Neal as Tom; photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Fisher Neal as Tom; photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

It’s not easy to pin down exactly how the creative team, under Pam Berlin’s intelligent direction, has achieved this delicate needle-threading. It starts with Michael Schweikardt’s terrific set, in which the period-specific Wingfield living room is backdropped by a two-dimensional cityscape silkscreened (or painted? I spent much of intermission trying to figure out just how this scenic feature was made!) on a seamless screen, which in turn is framed by silhouette cutouts of fire escapes. What is memory, if not simultaneously as sketchy as that backdrop and as perfectly detailed as that living room? Rui Rita’s lighting design makes Schweikardt’s canvas glow with the requisite “dim” and “sentimental” lighting and allows for a fluidity between scenes that matches the way memory elides over gaps, catching just the highlights. And the costuming, likewise, offers a glimpse into the way memory allows us to caricaturize the people and events from our past, particularly when Amanda breezes into the living room in a dress from her youth that can only represent Tom’s meanspirited, vengeful reconstruction of what she might actually have worn. By creating a world that is simultaneously detail-rich in some of its elements and sketchily cartooned in others, the designers provide space for Williams’ rich and psychologically intricate story.

In telling that story, the ensemble of four actors (the cast is rounded out by Jordan Whalen as the ambitious, fumblefooted Gentleman Caller) makes subtle but effective shifts in stylistic register throughout the play. As the “present-day” narrating Tom Wingfield, Neal plays it straight and understated. But when we’re in his memory, he’s just enough overblown to make clear that this is “NOT REALISTIC” but rather a re-creation: his past self, as remembered, is not always one of which he seems particularly proud. And though his memory may wish to exonerate him, it fails to do so completely, for while at times we see his mother as the nagging busybody from his memory who makes it impossible for him to enjoy a meal or a cigarette, at others Wintersteller’s emotional authenticity resists his memory’s judgment and demands that we recognize and sympathize with where she is coming from, as a single mother burdened with worry about her daughter’s future. Likewise, Wake’s portrayal of Laura reveals not only the loneliness and despair that Tom remembers, but also an inner strength and peace that seem to elude Tom’s perception. The result is a production that reveals Williams’ play in all its glorious psychological complexity, as we witness not only the tragedy of Laura’s heartbreaking insecurity and Amanda’s deep disappointment and sense of failure, but also Tom’s enduring feelings of conflict and guilt not just for having escaped, but also for his less-than-generous portrayal of the loved ones he left behind.

Young Playwrights Festival at City Theatre


This year’s Young Playwrights Festival at City Theatre featured six short plays on a range of subjects, many of unexpected maturity and sophistication given the age range of the writers. The plays, selected from over three hundred submitted by local middle and high school students, were directed by Steven Wilson and performed with great sensitivity and energy by a cast of eight local actors.

Perhaps most notable about the festival was the stylistic and thematic variety of work on display. The writing ranged from realist drama on one end (exemplified by both Michelle Do’s “Cologne,” which tells the story of a soldier stationed in Afghanistan whose wife loses her memory in an accident, and Casey Zadinski’s “The Cellar,” in which two teens find connection and solidarity in their shared experience of domestic violence) to fanciful parody on the other (a category into which I would put both Weston Custer’s Twilight Zone takeoff “Attack of the Psycho Geese from Outer Space!” and Drew Praskovich’s biting deconstruction of Barbie world in “Dream House”). In between, there is Joseph Bornes’s “Bat Boy,” which tells a kind of fairy tale of a teen who gets a magic bat from his grandfather that not only cements their relationship but also helps repair a broken friendship, and Michael Kelly’s “Conflict,” a work that might best be described as “hyperreal” or “metareal” insofar as it both instantiates and focuses on the challenges faced by the writer who seeks to make his writing “real.”

Wilson’s direction was keenly attuned to these stylistic differences, and he and the creative team found a distinct stage language and look for each of the six plays. The costume, lighting and sound design (Hannah Prochaska, Regina Tvaruzek, and Steve Shapiro) were particularly effective in setting the mood, tone, and energy for each of the works, especially given the necessary simplicity of the set. And the performers demonstrated an admirable versatility as they dove into roles that ranged from the serious to the downright silly; especially memorable in the latter respect were Ross Kobelak and Jackie Baker as vain, daffy Ken and Barbie dolls in “Dream House,” and Matt Henderson as a child with an overactive imagination in “Attack of the Psycho Geese…”.

If these talented young writers are representative of the future of dramatic writing, then, dear reader, we have much to look forward to as they continue to hone their craft.

“Souvenir” at The REP Professional Theatre Company


One of the more bizarre true stories from the annals of performance history concerns the case of the “opera diva” Florence Foster Jenkins. Born in Wilkes-Barre, PA in 1868, Jenkins embarked on a singing career in her forties after inheriting a fortune from her father. She quickly became infamous among a devoted following for her utter lack of musical ability – she not only sang off-pitch and without any regard to rhythm, but also had a voice described by Brooks Peters as sounding like “the shrill caw of an aging turkey buzzard.” Yet for nearly thirty years she gave a series of immensely popular, and highly profitable, performances, culminating in a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall from which nearly 2,000 fans were turned away.

The question of how the worst coloratura soprano in history could sustain the illusion that she was bestowing beautiful music on an admiring public is a fascinating one, and it is explored with humor, charm and poignancy in Stephen Temperley’s two person play Souvenir. Temperley gives the job of speculating about both Jenkins’ appeal and her sanity to her longtime accompanist, Cosme McMoon (Jeff Howell), whose own bafflement over her capacity for self-delusion eventually yields to a recognition of her genuine gift for making herself and others happy through her “musical” performances. The play traces the late stages of Jenkins’ (Jill Keating) career in flashback, beginning when McMoon is first engaged to accompany her at one of her private concerts in the ballroom of New York’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, and ending with her final famous public event at Carnegie Hall. In between, the play offers plenty of hilarity (mainly in the form of Jenkins’ god-awful singing, but also by way of McMoon’s sharp ability to tell her the truth in a way that allows her to hear what she wants to hear) in addition to moments of sober reflection about what constitutes talent. As a light and sympathetic portrait of one of American music history’s odder personalities, the play is extremely entertaining, but it does not dig very deep into the complexities and mysteries of its subject. In particular, it forgoes the opportunity to explore the extent to which the historical Jenkins might have consciously and performatively molded her career and image with the help of her manager (and lover), the British actor St. Clair Bayfield (who does not appear as a character in the play). That is, the play stacks the deck in favor of the verdict that she was a deluded lunatic, skirting any possibility that she might have (also?) been a savvy, early example of what today we’d call a “performance artist.”

Jeff Howell & Jill Keating; photo Jeff Swensen

Jeff Howell & Jill Keating; photo Jeff Swensen

Director Tomé Cousin has set the play in the intimate Studio space at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, a smart choice that allows the actors to work with more precision and nuance than they could in a larger venue. Although both characters lean a bit towards stereotype (he’s the underachieving closeted homosexual artist, she’s the daffy narcissistic rich lady), Howell and Keating resist the temptation to play it broad, giving us genuine, idiosyncratic humans rather than mere types. Keating is sweet and endearing as Jenkins, and she masterfully achieves the difficult feat of singing excruciatingly badly while conveying total conviction that she is knocking it out of the ballpark. Howell not only shines as a comic actor in his portrayal of the fey and sometimes catty McMoon, but as a vocalist and pianist as well. The fabulous costuming, by Cathleen Crocker-Perry, adds an historically-appropriate outrageous touch, particularly in the second act, when we get a mini-version of Jenkins’ famous last concert, in which she changed outfits for every song.

“The Elixir of Love” – Resonance Works/Pittsburgh


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

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


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, doubles 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, ca. 1830) 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 Milnthorp, 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)


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


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


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


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.


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