“Pantagleize” at Quantum Theatre

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Revolutions are tricky business. As we’ve seen in recent years, in the example of the Arab Spring, the Syrian conflict, and even recent events in the Ukraine, revolutions inspire hope and optimism. Yet when their aims get muddied, their motives become sullied by realpolitik, and they devolve into chaos, violence, and endless bouts of recrimination and revenge, they also engender confusion, cynicism, and despair. A revolution shines light on the oppressiveness of totalitarian regimes and provokes our individual sympathy for the people who suffer under those regimes; at the same time, it often also reveals the complicity of our own national foreign policy in keeping those regimes in power in the name of regional stability. Contradictions abound, and it’s often nigh impossible to figure out, in a given context, who the “good” and “bad” guys are, especially when there are many ideologically opposed factions working together temporarily to topple an unpopular dictator. Moreover, revolutions in other places – or even close to home, in the form of “Occupy,” for example – raise uncomfortable questions about the extent to which our own freedoms and democratic institutions are under threat from repressive forces that are imperceptibly eroding what we consider basic rights. Pantagleize – Jay Ball’s smart adaptation of Michel de Ghelderode’s 1929 play of the same name – is a deeply cynical, outrageously comic, and highly provocative play about such challenges and contradictions of democratic revolutions.

Ghelderode’s original play — which he labeled a “farce to make you sad” – deployed vaudeville and clowning to express his deep cynicism about the limits of idealism and the contradictions inherent in any attempt to overturn a brutal dictatorship and establish democracy in its place. His play is windy and wordy, very much of its time and place, and something of a difficult slog for the modern reader of drama (it’s rarely produced). But the essential conundrum it poses regarding the challenges of the revolutionary impulse is perhaps more pressing now than at any other time in history. Happily, playwright Jay Ball has reimagined and adapted Ghelderode’s play into an idiom and style that concisely and wittily exposes the realities of power, politics, and militarism in the modern world, while still retaining the clowning and absurdism that marked Ghelderode’s original work.

In Ball’s adaptation, Pantagleize (Randy Kovitz) is a past-his-prime hippie poet (loosely based on the beat poet Allen Ginsburg) who has been invited to some vague eastern European country (loosely based on Czechoslovakia) to reign for a day as “King of May” during the annual May Day celebration. A former cultural revolutionary himself, Pantagleize has, by his own admission, “outgrown his capacity for outrage”; lacking both interest in and knowledge of his host country’s repressive political situation, he’s come for fun, booze, and sex. His accommodating driver, Baboosh (Abdiel Vivancos), takes him to a bar, liquors him up, and introduces him to his circle of friends, all of whom (unbeknownst to Pantagleize) are proto-revolutionaries, just waiting for the right moment to rise up against the ruthless dictatorship of El Prezidente (Tony Bingham). Shortly thereafter, the drunk, unwitting Pantagleize precipitates that moment by inadvertently shouting out the revolutionary catchphrase as part of his “coronation speech,” and all hell breaks loose. The revolution is disorganized and chaotic; Pantagleize bungles his way through the various tasks assigned to him; an accident-prone secret policeman named Krip (the hilariously rubber-jointed Weston Blakesley) shadows the group of conspirators using a wild variety of disguises; the regime cracks down with ruthless cruelty on the revolutionaries; and they, for their part, lose sight of the aims of their revolution and devolve into ideological infighting about what system they will put in place of the dictatorship when the revolution is won. If you’ve paid any attention to the international news in the last decade the conclusion of this hapless revolution will not come as a surprise. What may surprise you, though, is (a) how much comedy this excellent ensemble wrings from their serious clowning within the situation, and (b) how much your laughter sticks in your throat in the end.

Director Jed Harris has guided the creative team into wild and wonderful performance territory, blending slapstick, commedia dell’arte, farce, satire, mockery, and verbal irony in generous amounts to fabricate a world that is at once ridiculous and terrifying. The “Absurdistan” atmosphere is set from the moment you walk in the door, as you are scrutinized by a hostile border guard before your ticket is stamped to allow you entry into the performance space. Scene designer Tony Ferrieri has deftly transformed the setting – an abandoned mailing facility – into the kind of bleak, bureaucratic, characterless space familiar to anyone who has ever traveled behind the iron curtain (or been detained by customs in any US airport). Windows serve as projection screens on which suitably low-tech projections (by Kevin Ramser) flicker, and they are put to particularly good use in an ingeniously devised long-distance video conference between the Prezidente and his buddies-in-oppression Augusto Pinochet, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin, and (brace yourself) Margaret Thatcher (all played by the versatile and comically adroit Tony Bingham). Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound (a snippet of which you get in the youtube video above) helps lend authenticity to the show’s behind-the-iron-curtain “vibe.” Likewise, Susan Tsu’s costumes capture spot-on the strangely “off” quality of pre-1989 Eastern-bloc clothing, which seemed somehow stuck in the seventies, and the variety and originality of costumes in this production adds immeasurably to its comic punch. Inhabiting those costumes is an ensemble of some of the most comically resourceful actors I’ve seen on a Pittsburgh stage, including (in addition to those already mentioned in this post) Lisa Ann Goldsmith as the revolutionary ringleader Rachel, Sam Turich as the gruff but loveable Pest, Erika Strasburg as Blanka, and Max Pavel, Kimberly Parker Green, and Alex Knell in multiple roles. The ensemble works adeptly in an insanely out-there comic register, except (fittingly) for Kovitz, who, as the straight-man foil to all the madness, serves in the end as a register of our own dismay and horror, and a reminder of the moral and social danger of losing our capacity for outrage.

“Grounded” at City Theatre

George Brant’s new one-woman play Grounded, is, on one level, the story of a fighter pilot whose job has changed drastically. The Pilot (Kelly McAndrew), tells us she was born to be “in the blue” at the controls of an F16 fighter jet, dropping bombs on unseen targets and accelerating away before the shells explode. She’s a member of an elite class of warrior, the kind of “top gun” familiar from the movie of the same name, and she’s in possession of all the high self-esteem and sense of superiority to which membership in that class entitles her. So when pregnancy “grounds” her and eventually leads to a reassignment piloting unmanned aerial vehicles from a trailer outside Las Vegas, a crisis of identity ensues. Is she still a warrior if instead of dominating the sky from the cockpit of one of the world’s fastest planes, she stares at a computer screen and manipulates a joystick for twelve hours a day? Is it really combat if she is never in any kind of danger? And, most fundamentally: what is it to be a soldier who comes “home from the war” to have dinner with her family every evening?

Her personal conflict is only one level of this compelling play, however. For on another level, Grounded is a story about what it means to wage war at a distance: for the soldiers who wage it, for the people in faraway lands who are targets of it, and, by implication, for all of us noncombatants here at home for whom this distant war is (dare I say?) so “comfortably” distant we can almost forget it touches us at all. The play both underscores and collapses that distance, as The Pilot finds herself at first bored and irritated by the monotony of her task and by her sense of detachment from the action, and then exhilarated and shot through with adrenaline when, via drone, she finally attacks and destroys a “target” (a group of “military-age males”). Now she’s a “god” of the sky, identifying the guilty and executing them on the spot, and her hubris implicates us, the noncombatant audience, as “gods” too (after all, we – as taxpayers, as citizens of the US – are collectively responsible for the existence and deployment of drones, whether we as individuals support their use or not). But such dissociation is not healthy for the soldier who must maintain it: targeting enemies as a bureaucratic “nine-to-five” job starts to play psychological havoc on the The Pilot as she struggles to maintain boundaries between her military work and her civilian life on a daily basis. The play’s final plot turn is a tad hard to swallow – involving, it turns out, a senior officer “testing” her ability to follow orders even though he has observed that she is breaking down under stress – but overall its insights into the psychological, ethical, and social implications of war-by-proxy are keenly and astutely observed, and make for a riveting hour of theater.

Kelly McAndrew as The Pilot. Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

Kelly McAndrew as The Pilot. Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

Kelly McAndrew is perfectly cast as the Pilot – she wears the persona of the tough, self-congratulatory elite soldier like a second skin, skillfully peeling it back on occasion to reveal the layers of complexity that make up the character. Brant has woven a lot of humor into this otherwise serious play, and in her delivery McAndrew expertly brings out the comedy. The play is in the round, which is always worrisome for an audience member, but director Jenn Thompson has staged the action so that you never feel like you’ve missed something, even when McAndrew has her back to you. Anne Mundell’s simple, spare set also serves as a screen to Larry Shea’s apposite projection design, which demonstrates at once how strangely mystifying and utterly tedious war-via-computer screen must be. The images – gray, repetitive, and often shot through with what look like signal distortions and white noise – help highlight the enormous discrepancy between what it must be to fly an F16 bomber in an expansive blue sky and what it is to be delimited in one’s field of vision by the lens of a camera embedded in the belly of a drone. They also help underline one of the play’s side points, which is that there are eyes everywhere nowadays, each with their own “gods” (of national security, of commerce, of local policing) behind them, and that we reassure ourselves of being “comfortably” distant from the consequences of war at our own great peril.

“By the way, meet Vera Stark” (REP Professional Theatre Company)

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Who were the African American actors who played the roles of mammies and shuffling servants in Hollywood films of the thirties and forties? What were their attitudes toward the stereotyped roles they played, and what kind of agency or resistance could they assert within a production system that afforded very limited opportunities to non-white performers? These are the historical questions that undergird Lynn Nottage’s intriguing (but unfortunately not wholly successful) By the way, meet Vera Stark, a play about a “Negro” Hollywood actress coping with the endemic racism and myopia of both the film industry and the US film audience in the mid- to late twentieth century.

l to r: Kelly Trumbull and Maria Becoates-Bey; photo Jeff Swensen

l to r: Kelly Trumbull and Maria Becoates-Bey; photo Jeff Swensen

The play is set in three time periods, 1933, 1973, and 2003, allowing for a historical-anthropological perspective on the history of racism and stereotyping in both the film industry and popular culture at large. The first half, set in 1933, introduces us to Vera Stark (Maria Becoates-Bey) and her ambitions to break into Hollywood film. Her day job is as a housemaid to the film star Gloria Mitchell (Kelly Trumbull), “America’s Sweetie-Pie,” although it is clear from the very beginning that they have a friendship that long predates their present economic arrangement (they grew up together in Brooklyn, and in addition to tidying the house Vera also helps Gloria rehearse for her upcoming screen test and offers sartorial advice). Gloria is auditioning for the leading role in a new film about the antebellum south, and Vera has her eye on the part of Tilly, the slave maid. It’s the kind of demeaning role she has sworn she would never play, but after several futile years trying to get her foot in the door in the film industry, she sees this as her best chance at approximating the stardom that Gloria – who personifies blonde innocence on screen, if not in real life – has achieved with seemingly little effort. The first act fleshes out the challenges facing African-American performers along with some of the solutions they employ to overcome those challenges, in the characters of Vera’s roommate Lottie (Bria Walker), who has gained weight in order to be more easily cast as a “mammy”; her other roommate Anna Mae (Corinne Scott), whose light skin allows her to pass as Brazilian; and Leroy Barksdale (Tru Verret-Fleming), a musician who argues that black performers should produce their own art rather than put themselves at the mercy of the Hollywood studios. Rounding out the conflict are the film’s director, the voluble Russian Maxmillian von Oster (played with verve by Andy Kirtland) and the studio producer, Fredrick Slasvick (Jeff Howell), who balks at the director’s plans to make the film an “authentic” story about a brothel in the south because depictions of prostitution and intimacy between the races both violate the Hays Code.

l to r: Jeff Howell, Maria Becoates-Bey, Andy Kirtland; Photo Jeff Swensen

l to r: Jeff Howell, Maria Becoates-Bey, Andy Kirtland; Photo Jeff Swensen

The second act leaps forward to 2003; the film in question, The Belle of New Orleans, is now a beloved classic that not only cemented Gloria’s status as a star in the Hollywood firmament but also launched Vera’s (more erratic) film career. The scene is a panel of academics trying to answer the question of “What happened to Vera Stark?”; three film historians (played by Scott, Walker, and Verret-Fleming) bring different perspectives to bear on that question, using as primary evidence footage from the last interview Vera gave in 1973 on a TV talk show. We see that interview live, and much fun is had on the part of both costume designer Don DiFonso and actors Jeff Howell (playing Brad Donovan, the fey talk show host) and Andy Kirtland (playing a Mick Jagger-like British rock star) sending up the fashions and affectations of the seventies. Between the evidence provided by the thirty-year old interview and the jargony analysis offered by the modern scholars it becomes clear that what Vera Stark did, and what she represented, is open to vastly different interpretations, depending on the needs and identity of interpreter: where, for example, the film scholars see her as offering a kind of Brechtian critique in her playing of the slave maid, Vera herself sees the role as one that has not only delimited and defined her as an actress but also continues to foreclose real conversation about racism in the film industry (and about the rest of her own, more politically progressive, career).

My description of the play here is too serious to do justice to the play’s own approach to its subject, which is deliberately lighthearted and comic. Problematically, however, much of its comedy derives from caricature. This works better in the first half, where the caricatured depiction of Hollywood “types” (the boozy lead actress, the greedy producer, the demanding auteur foreign director, the golddigging starlet, the ambitious musician, etc) prompts reflection on the power of stereotype to shape social interactions and sheds light on how and why black actors rationalized playing stereotyped characters (like the “mammy”) in film. We see Vera, Lottie, and Anna Mae quite self-consciously don and doff a variety of roles in response to the white characters’ expectations. If this is black experience in the everyday world, the play seems to suggest, then perhaps playing to racist expectations in film represented something of a “real” representation of black experience. That said, the production struggles with the shifts in tone that a self-conscious portrayal of stereotype and caricature requires, so that at times it stops feeling like the characters are playing caricatures and rather simply are caricatures, which is problematic in a play ostensibly about the dangers of stereotypes. The second half of the play succumbs even more deeply to the temptation of parody: the sendup of the seventies and the mockery of academic-ese and militant political correctness feel like a diversion to hide the lack of a real conflict, and the main question resolved (having to do with the “real” relationship between Gloria and Vera) is one that alert audience members would have already figured out in the first act. The serious story that should be of interest – the tragic fate of a talented actress thwarted by systemic racism in both society and the film industry – is overshadowed by a frivolous pissing contest among (hardly credible) Ph.D.s.

Director Tomé Cousin has assembled a talented ensemble of actors, and even though occasionally they struggle to find the right tone and register, in general they bring a lot of good comic energy and timing to the material. The fun is enhanced by Don DiFonso’s (sometimes over-the top) costumes, Britton Mauk’s scene design, which carves out a number of nudge-nudge-wink-wink era-appropriate locations in the small studio space, and the sound and lights (Steve Shapiro and Andrew David Ostrowski), which surehandedly zap us from 30s Hollywood to 70s TV-land. The live action is enhanced by an impressive video design by Jessi Sedon-Essad, which successfully mimics several different eras in film history and provides a vivid visual reminder of the campy, overblown stereotypes in which the classical Hollywood film industry trafficked.

“Tribes” at City Theatre

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Nina Raine’s play Tribes builds on the premise that a family is like a tribe, an intensely loyal, often contentious group of people who share a language, rules, rituals, customs, and sense of humor. Families can be quite insular, and, like tribes everywhere, suspicious of the customs, rites, and values of other tribes. So what happens, her play asks, when one member of a family, beloved as he may be, is not only profoundly different, but also begins to let that difference set him apart from the tribe?

(L-R) Tad Cooley, Amanda Kearns Credit: Mark Garvin

(L-R) Tad Cooley, Amanda Kearns
Credit: Mark Garvin

Billy (Tad Cooley) is deaf, and has been from birth. The other members of his family are not only not deaf, but hyper-invested in language and communication. Conversation is both art and weapon in this tribe, with verbal nuance communicated as much through tone of voice as through the content of the words themselves. Billy’s mother Beth (Laurie Klatscher) patiently taught him to both lipread and speak as a child, so he can pick up on most of what people say if he can see them, but the irony, satire, and humor conveyed by vocal tone and volume are lost to him. He’s never really “in” on the conversation. Moreover, his father Christopher (John Judd) took an early stance against Billy’s learning sign language, out of his conviction that sign language would make Billy’s deafness his identity and separate him from his family and their values and culture. As a result, Billy occupies an in-between space, neither fully part of his own “tribe’s” world nor fully integrated into the mainstream deaf community.

When the play opens, all of the adult children have moved back into the parental home, and tensions are high. Billy is home from university; his older sister Ruth (Robin Abramson) is going nowhere with her ambitions to be an opera singer; his older brother Daniel (Alex Hoeffler) has recently been dumped by his girlfriend and has vague intellectual ambitions that manifest themselves in jargony nonsense he calls his “thesis.”  At a fundraiser for a deaf charity Billy meets Sylvia (Amanda Kearns), who was born hearing to deaf parents, but is herself now gradually losing her ability to hear. Sylvia cannot lipread, so Billy begins to learn to sign, and his newfound ability to communicate richly with Sylvia through sign language reveals to him how impoverished his relationship with his family has been.  A series of crises small and large ensues  (I don’t want to give too much of the plot away) that reveal how dependent and interdependent the members of this family’s “tribe” are on each other.

(L-R) Laurie Klatscher, Tad Cooley, John Judd, Robin Abramson, Alex Hoeffler Credit: Mark Garvin

(L-R) Laurie Klatscher, Tad Cooley, John Judd, Robin Abramson, Alex Hoeffler
Credit: Mark Garvin

The production at City Theatre is visually stunning: Narelle Sissons’s set archly captures the art- and language-rich environment Billy’s family inhabits (books are everywhere), and Mike Tutaj’s sound and media projections link the world of signs and the world of aurality in ways that give us pause to reflect on how much information comes to us through our ears. Tad Cooley is utterly convincing as the deaf Billy, and Amanda Kearns’s Sylvia is as good at calling the other characters on their bullshit as she is at evoking our heartfelt sympathy for the panic and sadness she feels as her ability to hear disappears. Klatscher, Judd, Abramson, and Hoeffler fill out this ensemble with strong, believable performances, although at times the storytelling takes a backseat to pace: in places, it’s hard to keep up with what is happening emotionally and psychologically within the scene. Even when it’s hard to follow, that emotional and psychological complexity is one of the play’s strengths. Unfortunately, the production ends on a sentimental note that doesn’t feel quite true to what has come before; director Stuart Carden seems to have shied away from what might have been a more ambiguous and less “happy” ending.

Tribes does a particularly good job of revealing the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that operates around people with disabilities, and in particular of examining how the deaf community (which, as Sylvia observes, itself feels exclusive and insular from the inside) forges a politics of identity around deafness and signing.  Christopher’s fears about how the ability to sign might impact his son are not unfounded, but at the same time he deludes himself that because Billy can read their lips and answer as if he has heard, he fits in seamlessly with the rest of the family. Some of the most poignant and memorable moments in the play are those in which we see the family habit of steamrollering past Billy’s need for inclusion; they love him, of course, and they think they hold him in their collective embrace, but they are perpetually unaware of how much of the family’s life and culture is unavailable to him. As a result, Tribes offers much to consider about how parents and siblings pattern their lives when one child has fallen, to borrow Andrew Solomon’s title, “far from the tree.”

“An Iliad” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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“Can you see it, can you?” the Poet (the magnificent Teagle F. Bougere) implores us.  “Do you see?” A wandering troubador, he wants to conjure for us a complete and fulsome picture of the Trojan War; but he has nothing but words to paint its horrific and pathetic scenes. Words, and his body and his voice.  It helps that some of the words are those of the great ancient poet Homer, as translated by Robert Fagles; it may help even more that the rest of those words are firmly in a contemporary idiom, allowing us to see the connections between (for example) the fury that propels the ancient Greek soldier in battle to engage in a “BLUR OF KILLS” and the road rage we feel at the asshole who cuts us off on the freeway.

Teagle F. Bougere as the Poet. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Teagle F. Bougere as the Poet. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

An Iliad (written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, and directed by Jesse Berger, currently at the Public) begins with the Poet’s invocation to the Muses from Homer’s poem, and establishes its subject right off the bat:

RAGE! Goddess, Sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls […] What drove them to fight with such a fury?

The story that follows doesn’t provide an adequate answer to that question, which is part of the play’s (and, I’d guess, The Iliad’s) point. There is no “adequate” answer to account for war, for the long history of war (more on that below), or for the deep, awful, terrifying fury that undergirds the worst of human behavior. In the case of the Trojan War, what drove them to fight are a series of stupid and hubristic motives, or as the play puts it: “pride, honor, jealousy…Aphrodite…some game or other, an apple […] it doesn’t matter. […] It’s always something, isn’t it?” Instead of answering the question of what drives men to fury, the play explores, on the one hand, the nature of fury itself, and, on the other, its uselessness, futility, destructiveness, and utter wastefulness. In Peterson & O’Hare’s hands, The Iliad is a story of men “addicted to rage” who garner our sympathy precisely because they are so trapped by the circumstances their anger and pride have landed them in.

We all know the story of the Trojan War – brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus led the Greek armies to Troy to bring back Menelaus’s wife Helen, who was seduced away by Paris, yadda yadda –  so, like Greek audiences of ancient tragedy, our attention is captured less by the story’s content than how it is told. Here, the telling is everything it needs to be: mesmerizing, captivating, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking. The effectiveness of this production derives nearly equally from the writing – which, as mentioned above, moves fluidly between the high diction of verse poetry (sometimes in Greek) and the casual diction of modern speech, with a variety of gradations in between – and from Bougere’s performance, which modulates between invocation, incantation, direct address storytelling, and full embodiment of character, all with exceptional finesse and virtuosity. Not to get all professorial on yinz, but I think Bougere’s performance is what Brecht had in mind when he named the type of theater he aimed to create the “epic” theater: it’s a performance of epic storytelling, in the Homeric mode, that alternates between showing and telling to allow us to experience not only what each of the characters thinks and feels but also the storyteller’s opinions and feelings about them. What has been mistranslated as “alienation effect” is in full force here, yet it’s anything but “alienating” because the multiple layers of performance Bougere makes visible draw us closer in, engaging us both emotionally (who cannot be touched by the image of Hector’s infant son, laughing as a Greek soldier heaves him over the battlements because he thinks it is his father playing a game?) and intellectually (there is no escaping the play’s invitation to think critically about humanity’s propensity for war).

In places, I wondered a bit about Peterson and O’Hare’s inclusion of modern references – at the beginning, for example, as the Poet begins to recite the famous “catalogue of ships” from The Iliad, he interrupts himself and offers instead an analogous list of place-names from the US. If you take this, and other modern allusions in the play, as mere dot-connecting, it seems heavy-handed; we don’t really need to have the connections between the horrors of war in ancient Greece and the horrors of war in the 21st century pointed out to us. But as a strategy for making us see the mind-numbing enormity of what war involves, in a way that replicates Homer’s catalogue of ships and similarly requires us to compass both the macro and the micro, it is quite effective. Toward the end of the play, for example, the Poet suddenly stops telling us the story of Achilles’ humiliation of Hector’s body and launches into a chronological listing of wars since the Trojan War. The list is long, encompassing over three thousand years of human conflict, and he delivers it in an emotionless deadpan. Its length — its tediousness – is its purpose: he’s recited at least twenty wars before he gets to what we recognize as the middle ages, and you might think, when he announces World War I, that we’re almost done, but a surprisingly long list is still to come. The impact of this list goes beyond merely connecting Homer’s poem to modern conflicts: it compels us to acknowledge and bear witness to war’s status as an enduring and permanent feature of the human condition, and to reflect, with the Poet, on why it has been so.

“A Steady Rain” (barebones productions)

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Keith Huff’s play A Steady Rain (playing through March 2 at The New Hazlett Theater, produced by barebones productions) is, on one level, a play about a friendship tested by extreme circumstances. Denny (Patrick Jordan) and Joey (David Whalen), best friends since childhood, have, as adults, long been partners on one of Chicago’s toughest police beats; they know each other intimately and cover each other’s backs in ways large and small. Though on the surface they seem to be likeable men, they both have ugly flaws: the Italian family man Denny imagines himself a chivalric defender of women and the weak, but his “protection” takes some shady forms (i.e., shaking down and/or exploiting drug dealers and prostitutes); in addition, he’s got anger-management issues (deriving in part from his conviction that his a victim of reverse racism) and substance-abuse problems. Joey, an Irish bachelor, has a drinking problem that Denny is convinced he can solve by finding a woman to occupy the space in Joey’s life that booze has taken over; Joey is also, it turns out, an opportunist who can be tempted into moral gray territory by the right incentive. The play’s plot turns on a series of unsettling events provoked, initially, by Denny’s corrupt involvement in the underworld, and culminates in their being pitted against each other by police internal investigators over their incompatible versions of how and why they responded as they did to a domestic disturbance call that has disastrous consequences.

To say more about the plot would give away some of the pleasure of watching the play, which depends to a certain extent on surprise and suspense. But on another level, what this play is really about is unreliable narration, and the deeper and more satisfying pleasure it provides is that of puzzling through the various layers of storytelling to try to locate something that resembles a truth and a moral center in the play. For the two men do not only differ in their account of the botched response to the domestic disturbance call that brings the crisis in their friendship to a head; they also differ in their perspective on all of the events leading up to that moment, waffling between self-serving rationalization of their own (often shameful) thoughts and actions, generous and loyal defense of their partner’s decisions and point of view, and, depending on the emotional moment, more or less veiled criticism of the same. The complexity and contradictoriness of these characters is rich and rewarding: their feelings about each other, and about the harrowing situation they’ve been catapulted into, are complicated and capricious, allowing us to see the full range of the good, the bad, and the ugly in these men. Although at times the story feels like something you’d see on Law and Order or Chicago Fire, Huff’s characters are far more intricate and difficult, and the dilemmas they have created for themselves present no clearcut solution, for them or for us.

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Whalen and Jordan are in excellent form in this production, fleshing out the characters with a warmth and sympathy that allows us to see, from their perspective, how very right they are at the same time that we see, from our own, how completely wrong they have been. It’s important to a play like this, in which competing truths battle to be heard, that each actor fights for his character’s point of view no matter how low or monstrous that character is revealed to be; it’s what lets the play leave the proper uneasy aftertaste in our mouths. Whalen and Jordan make it hard for us not to find something to like in both of these men, even as we find much to detest in them both, and they masterfully trade our sympathies back and forth over the course of the play. Melissa Martin’s direction is understated and lean, keeping the emotional heat at an appropriate simmer, although towards the end of the play there’s a moment of (in my opinion) overboil into high melodrama (which, to be fair, is probably an irresistible feature of the writing). The lighting design by Andrew David Ostrowski adds dimension to the spare, cool set, marking boundaries and pathways on the floor that isolate or join the two friends as required, and Dave Bjornson’s subtle sound design effectively sets the mood and shifts the atmospheric register from scene to scene.

“Underneath the Lintel” at 12 Peers Theater

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A Baedeker’s Travel Guide is returned to a Dutch library 113 years overdue. The librarian who finds the volume in the returned book slot – a fussy, rule-bound man if ever there was one – is, at first, only astonished by the audacity of the person who returned it surreptitiously to the slot instead of facing the consequences at the front desk! But as he digs into the files to find out who to dun for the “fine of his life,” The Librarian (for we do not know him by any other moniker) begins to unravel a mystery about another man’s life that quickly has profound effects on his own, sending him on a journey around the world, out of his comfort zone, and into a realm of physical and existential agitation he never could have imagined experiencing.

That’s as much of a “plot summary” I would want to give about Glen Berger’s play Underneath the Lintel (12 Peers Theater, at Pittsburgh Playwrights) without spoiling its charming and thought-provoking effect, which depends to a certain extent on taking a journey into the unknown with its solitary main character. Structured as an eighty-minute lecture-presentation by the Librarian (Randy Kovitz) to an imagined audience (us) brought to the venue for “An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences” (whatever that is), the play traces, in retrospect, the discoveries he makes as he follows the trail of mysterious clues left by the patron who originally checked out the Baedeker. What the “evidences” eventually point to test the limits of belief and require a leap of faith which the rational, reality-based Librarian may or may not be fully prepared to take (and he is understanding of our skepticism if we are not prepared to take that leap, either). As the Librarian gets further and further from his safe, insular existence, parallels between his own life and that of the figure he suspects to be his mystery patron start to emerge: both are risk-averse, opting for comfortable, small lives; both hesitate to make a brave and bold choice at a decisive moment; and in both cases, the cowardly choice eventually results in a lonely, anonymous, unmoored life. Searching for the borrower of the book forces the Librarian not only to confront past mistakes, but to open himself to adventure, to the hazards of chance, and to the terrifying, exhilirating scope of existence – along with the awful, inescapable fact of its finiteness.

Advertising materials for the show describe it as “an existential detective story,” and that’s an apt description, but you shouldn’t let the word “existential” scare you off.  Kovitz’s Librarian is endearing and believable as a naïve provincial propelled by curiosity into both the wider world and the deepest of inquiries, and he wrings a lot of comedy out of the character’s pedantry and fuddy-duddiness. Moreover, by infusing an almost child-like quality into the character, Kovitz keeps the discoveries fresh and avoids letting the more philosophical sections of the play get too heavy, which is certainly a risk in the material. There are a lot of “big questions” posed by the play – of the “why are we here?” variety – but Kovitz’s Everyman diffidence and innocence helps give us the courage to open ourselves to those questions, even if the answers are as elusive as the man for whom the Librarian continues to search.

 

Your Tatler has been a busy audience member and blogger this past week: four shows and posts in the space of five days! Looking ahead on the calendar, there’s the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh’s “French Kiss” concert on February 14th & 16th, which features Requiems by Fauré and Duruflé, exquisitely beautiful music: don’t miss it! And barebones is opening A Steady Rain, which I hope I’ll be able to catch early in its run (and blog about here).

“Madagascar” at Quantum Theatre

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When I am not writing for this blog, I’ve been spending most of my time these last few months translating G. E. Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy, a series of 101 essays on theater, drama, and dramatic criticism published in the late eighteenth century. This collection of essays reads a lot like a bunch of blog posts; often Lessing gets stuck on a subject for weeks at a time, and adds more thoughts about the same subject every few days. This past week I’ve been working on Essay #48 (yes, they are numbered), dated October 13, 1767, in which Lessing, as part of what ends up being a 14-essay-long diatribe on the myriad deficits he finds in Voltaire’s adaptation of Maffei’s tragedy Merope (stay with me, there’s a point here) brings in Diderot as ammunition for his attack, and offers his reader a lengthy quote from Diderot’s 1758 treatise De la poésie dramatique (On Dramatic Poetry) that argues against the practice among playwrights of hiding information about characters from the audience.  Here’s an excerpt of what Diderot says about what constitutes the “interest” in a play:

I am far from thinking with the majority of critics who have written about the art of dramatic writing that the dénouement must be hidden from the spectator. […] Everything must be clear for the spectator. He is the confidante for every one of the characters, he knows everything that occurs and everything that has already occurred, and there are a hundred moments where one cannot do better than to tell him straight out what has yet to occur. […] For every one occasion in which it is beneficial to hide an important incident from the spectator until it comes to pass, there are always ten or more in which the interest demands the exact opposite. – By keeping the secret the poet treats me to an instant of surprise; by confiding it, he would have exposed me to prolonged anxiety! […] Indeed, I would almost argue that a subject that needs such concealments is a thankless subject, and that a plot that has recourse to them is not as good as one that could have dispensed with them. Nothing really dynamic will come from them. (291-3)

I realized, as I was working on translating this passage, that in general I agree with Diderot – as did Euripides, and Shakespeare, and Brecht, and a whole host of other masterful playwrights. Unless the play (or, in our day, film) falls into the “suspense” genre (e.g. the whodunnit) I side with Diderot and Lessing in finding tedious and irritating dramatic writing that withholds information from the audience and traffics in secrets merely for the sake of springing a surprise.

What does all this have to do with J. T. Rogers’ Madagascar? (You were probably worrying that I had mistitled this post, weren’t you?) Well, as Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; and as my fellow Pittsburgh theater aficionado Chris Rawson once said, “No rule is sacred.” Madagascar is laden with secrets and mysteries (the former of which, as one of the characters in the play observes, are answers waiting to be revealed, while the latter are simply mysteries), and its whole effect depends on the withholding, and drop-by-drop revealing, of information by the characters to the audience. But instead of being tedious and irritating, the play mesmerizes, probably because what lies at its heart is not merely secrets, but a real mystery, a puzzle about human experience that the play can only pose, but not answer. I began this post with a long digression about Lessing & Diderot because I’m always interested in the serendipitous ways my experience of art and scholarship can collide; in this case, just as I was musing in my scholarly life about my aesthetic affinities with the ideas of writers dead for over 250 years, I encountered a play that undermined the categorical assessment with which I thought I was in agreement.  Live and learn.

L to R: Larry John Meyers, Helena Ruoti, Melinda Helfrich; photo by Heather Mull, Courtesy Quantum Theatre

L to R: Larry John Meyers, Helena Ruoti, Melinda Helfrich; photo by Heather Mull, Courtesy Quantum Theatre

Madagascar is structured as a series of overlapping, interconnecting monologues, in which three characters, located in the same elegantly appointed hotel room in Rome but at different times, relate their perspective on, and version of, a shared history. Occupying the room “now” is Nathan (Larry John Myers), an academic economist whose friendship with a more charismatic and brilliant (and now deceased) economist named Arthur Doyle has pulled him tightly into the orbit of Doyle’s family. “A few days ago” the room holds June (Melinda Helfrich), Arthur’s grown daughter, who had moved to Rome a few years earlier to start her life anew, and who leads tours of the city’s monuments and ruins for visiting Americans. Lillian (Helena Ruoti), June’s mother, speaks to us from the same room “five years ago,” as she eagerly awaits a rendez-vous with her son Gideon, whom she has not seen in six months. Gradually, the three monologues converge on Gideon’s mysterious, sudden disappearance and on the three characters’ feelings of guilt, regret, anguish, and bewilderment as they scour the past for clues, hints, and signs that might explain what happened. Memory being what it is (and the mysterious workings of memory is a key theme of the play), that scouring dredges up both more and less than the characters want. The play feels like a puzzle you have to piece together as new information emerges; it rewards paying close attention (and indeed, there were moments when I realized I hadn’t paid close enough attention to something a character said, and felt behind in putting the story together!) But the “interest” here lies not just in putting together the puzzle of the story (by midway, the relationships between the characters are pretty clear) but also in plumbing, with the characters, the mystery of what makes people do the things they do and change in the ways they change. Economics doesn’t have the answer, as Nathan’s feeble attempts at social-scientific explanation make clear, and often no amount of reinvestigating the past can clarify a true mystery, either, as June’s futile searching proves. What we don’t know and can’t ever know is pretty much what this play is about, which makes Rogers’s “withholding” approach work for the subject.

As much as I liked the inter-nested monologues, which kept me puzzled and engaged, when I think back on the play the situation itself actually does not hold a great deal of “interest,” involving as it does a family of great wealth in which the spoiled son rejects his inherited privilege and chucks it all to do service in Africa. The play’s Russian-doll-like structure is really what makes it tick, and the Quantum ensemble does a very good job of keeping all three threads alive and energetic: the acting is superbly concentrated and present. Sheila McKenna directs with an understated hand, keeping the play at the right level of simmer to maintain the mystery without overplaying its stakes. And I must not end a post about a Quantum show without mentioning the venue, a former bank lobby in the Carlyle Building downtown, in which marble columns evoke the Roman ruins that play such a key role in the characters’ memories, and white draping obscures the room’s past in a manner akin to the way memory – in both the play and real life – leaves so much of the past obscured and impossible to reconjure.

“Heads” at the REP Professional Theatre Company

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I walked out of EM Lewis’s new play Heads on Sunday thinking a lot about courage. First and foremost: about the courage it would take to face, in real life, what her characters face. Violently abducted by Iraqi terrorists at gunpoint, four ordinary people (a British embassy worker and two journalists and an engineer from the US) are bound, gagged, blindfolded, stripped of everything but their clothes, beaten, and tossed into tiny windowless underground cells to…wait. For food, for a chance to go to the bathroom, for rescue (they hope), but most likely for further beatings and eventual death at the hands of their captors. It’s so horrible to imagine that my mind doesn’t even want to begin to go there, which brings me to another kind of courage: the courage it takes for a writer like Lewis to create a play that requires imagining the alternately mundane and terrifying minute-to-minute details of what it would be like to be in that situation and to craft in words and dialogue and action the utter despair and hopelessness and terror that none of us ever want to imagine having to feel. And then there is the courage it takes for the actors to occupy this physical and psychological space, and for the director and creative team to create the conditions in which the whole nightmare feels palpable and real to the audience. Heads is also a play that takes some courage to watch, as it forces us to experience, with the characters, a hell that has unfortunately been all too real for far too many (the play draws from a number of headline-garnering abductions, including the capture and eventual beheading of the journalist Daniel Pearl).

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L to R: James Fitzgerald, Diana Ifft, Patrick Cannon, & Tony Bingham. Photo: Jeff Swensen

The play focuses mainly on the experiences of the hostages themselves. Michael Apres (Tony Bingham), a network journalist, and Jack Velazquez (Patrick Cannon), a freelance photographer, have been taken from their convoy, in an attack that they think has left friends and fixers dead. In another part of the same compound, Caroline Conway (Diana Ifft), abducted during her morning commute to the Embassy, is shoved, bound and gagged, into a cell already occupied by American engineer Harold Wolfe (James Fitzgerald), who is in his seventh month of captivity. The reactions of the different personalities to the horror of captivity is the main subject of the play; what action there is serves mainly to reinforce their (and our) feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. Lewis wisely follows the example of the ancient Greeks and locates all of the violence off-stage; we hear, but never see, the captors, and only see the results of their brutality, not the bruality itself. They are much more menacing and scary as a result. Projections above the stage are used to give some context, to provide a sense of why these terrorists do what they do (we see, for example, innocent children, and weeping old women), but if they were intended to make me consider “the other side” they did not really have the desired effect on me. On reflection, I suppose, there is a logic to abducting and killing civilians in response to the death of civilians, but in the moment of experiencing the play, as I felt for the characters’ plight, there was little that could justify the captors’ actions or humanize them for me. More effective were projections showing what the terrorists were filming for the outside world (the hostages, blindfolded at gunpoint, forced to make statements), as these connected the fictional world inside the cells to the real-life events we have all seen on the evening news.

The production is harrowing, which is to say that it is very good. Britton Mauk has designed a space that feels cramped and implacably solid even though there are no walls to demarcate the cells, and the steel grid that forms the ceiling adds to the atmosphere of menace. Steve Shapiro’s sound makes the captors terrifyingly present, which is crucial to the play’s effect. Bingham, Cannon, Ifft, and Fitzgerald are utterly believable in their handling of the fear, despair, boredom, irritation, anger, and the rest of the range of emotions the situation puts them through, and I cannot but admire the courage it must take to enter the world of this play for a two week run.

“Company” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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How to describe Steven Sondheim & George Furth’s 1970 musical Company? It belongs to the category of theater that eschews narrative progression in favor of an episodic exploration of issues and themes, and that tries thereby to capture the Zeitgeist of a certain moment in time. In the case of Company, the issue is, superficially at least, marriage: Robert (Jim Stanek), a just turned 35-year-old bachelor, is the only one among his company of friends who has not married and settled down, and this occasions a midlife crisis not only for “Bobby” (as his friends call him), but also for his married pals, who oscillate between envying his single lifestyle, and pitying it. Of course, marriage is not really what this play is about: marriage is, as the closing song “Being Alive” makes clear, merely a synecdoche for entering a fully adult, fully “alive” existence, which necessarily requires compromising, accommodating, sharing, and changing in response to another person’s needs and desires; in other words, maturing out of the narcissism of childhood and into the much less gratifying state of adulthood. For Bobby, this transition is simultaneously desirable and unattainable: he says he wants to find a woman to marry, but (as his three concurrent girlfriends sing in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”) his actions are consistently those of the kind of self-involved jerk who reels women in only to push them away when commitment threatens: “So single and attentive and attractive a man/ Is everything a person could wish,/ But turning off a person is the act of a man/Who likes to pull the hooks out of fish.” The play circles around Bobby’s dilemma from a number of angles, expressing, in lively, catchy tunes, the fear of taking the marriage plunge (“Getting Married Today,” my favorite moment of the show, sung with beautiful comic timing by the excellent Courtney Balan), the mixed feelings of husbands towards wives and towards the way marriage has changed and tamed them (“Sorry-Grateful”), the bewildering, overwhelming, exhilirating possibilities for romance in New York City (“Another Hundred People”), mixed feelings post-one-night-stand (“Barcelona”), the yearning for an impossible “perfect” woman (“Someone is Waiting”), and, of course, the challenges of compromising to maintain a relationship (“Marry Me a Little” and “Being Alive”).

Cast of COMPANY. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater

Cast of COMPANY. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater

I suspect that if I had seen this musical in my twenties, I would not only have found little to identify with in it, but also have been offended by its treatment of the female characters, who are types ranging from the nagging-bossy wife to the stick-up-her-ass-killjoy wife to the crazy-neurotic-needy wife to the on-her-third-husband-and-we-can-all-see-why wife; with the girlfriends falling into categories like airhead stewardess and tough mouthy punk rocker. And I haven’t changed so much that the female characters don’t offend (they do), but I found myself interested in unexpected ways in how this play presents a decidedly masculine perspective on what marriage is and how it shapes and defines a life. In particular, the song “Sorry-Grateful,” resonated with me in ways it never would have resonated with my younger, single self, and I was surprised by how much the show prompted me to reflect on what being alive (in the musical’s terminology) is really about.

That said – and to dwell, sideways-like, on the treatment of women in the play a bit longer – there’s a missed opportunity in the Public’s production, which sets the period of this piece as “Now” and updates the material in a manner akin to refinishing your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them. Alas, no number of Ikea carpets or cell phones on stage can obscure the material’s 70s “feel,” which is nowhere more apparent than in the “Feminine Mystique” anthem “The Ladies Who Lunch.” As much as I liked many of the design elements (in particular, Larry Shea’s projection design, which gives visual presence and punch to the libretto’s adoration of New York City), I found myself wishing that director Ted Pappas had chosen to stage this musical as a period piece instead of generically shifting it into the twenty-first century. Because although the fears and neuroses and anxieties about marriage and commitment that beset “Bobby-bubby” may be timeless (and I don’t know if they are), this musical really isn’t: its era – marked by, among many other things, the height of second-wave feminism, the early years of birth control and the sexual revolution for both men and women, Stonewall, and women’s first opportunities for admission to Ivy-league institutions and professional careers, which gave them the choice not to settle for charming players like Bobby – makes the story make sense, at least from a historical-sociological perspective, and allows us to see why Furth and Sondheim portray women as Freud did, as mysterious “dark continents” (or – pretty much the equivalent – as cartoonish stereotypes). Looked at from that perspective, Company is not just about marriage, or even about marriage as synecdoche for personal maturation; it’s about finding a mate in an era when rules and expectations have suddenly changed, for men as well as women, and about negotiating in those uncharted waters. But we have to be able to imagine those waters as still-uncharted in order to gain that perspective; by setting the play in the present day, the production unduly narrows its scope and keeps us from experiencing how vividly Sondheim and Furth captured the sexual-revolution Geist of that Zeit.

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