“Walldogs” – Hatch Arts Collective

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

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

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

“Noises Off” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hope and Gravity” at City Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

“Candida” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater and “Blithe Spirit” at PICT Classic Theatre

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The productions of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida (at the Pittsburgh Public Theater) and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (at PICT Classic Theatre) have a good deal in common: both plays are twentieth-century British comedies that dig humor out of marital relations and shine some light (more brightly in the Shaw, less so in the Coward) on male chauvinism, and both productions faithfully reproduce the period and style of the playwright and his era. In both plays, too, the main conflict involves misplaced jealousy and suspicion. For audience members who love comedies of verbal wit that revolve around misunderstandings and misreadings, there is a veritable embarrassment of British-classic-comic riches in town at the present moment.

l to r: Gretchen Egolf and Jared McGuire; photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

l to r: Gretchen Egolf and Jared McGuire; photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

In Candida the Reverend James Morell (David Whalen), a successful, self-satisfied pastor, is put out of sorts upon discovering that the younger Eugene Marchbanks (Jared McGuire) has fallen in love with his wife Candida (Gretchen Egolf). Morell is a political idealist, a Christian Socialist who not only spends most of his waking hours preaching in favor of political and social equality, but also practices it at home, insisting that both he and his wife do their share of dishwashing and lampblacking and other domestic chores. Marchbanks is romantic idealist, a young blueblood poet who believes that Candida deserves better than Morell, and that she is debased by doing petty housework. In the end, Candida is forced to choose between the two men; before he has her do so, the proto-feminist Shaw gives her a nice sharp speech in which she makes clear that both men have misunderstood who she is and what she wants. In the end, she chooses and simultaneously rescues the “weaker” of the two men – her husband – driving home the play’s parody of conventional comedy (in which the husband inevitably rescues his weaker wife from the dangers of straying).

l to r: Daina Michelle Griffith and Mary Rawson; photo Suellen Fitzsimmons

l to r: Daina Michelle Griffith and Mary Rawson; photo Suellen Fitzsimmons

In Blithe Spirit Charles (Dan Rodden), a wealthy novelist, invites Madame Arcati (Mary Rawson) to conduct a séance at his house for the purposes of research for his next novel. His wife Ruth (Daina Michelle Griffith) and friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Jim FitzGerald and Lissa Brennan) are deeply skeptical but gamely participate; the séance takes an unexpected turn and brings Charles’s first wife Elvira (Vera Varlamov) back as a ghost. She is only visible and audible to Charles, which triggers all sorts of farcical misunderstandings as Ruth mistakes his answers to Elvira as insults to her. Once Ruth is convinced that Charles is, in fact, seeing the ghost of his first wife, she becomes jealous and convinced that Elvira is trying to kill Charles to have him back; but Elvira’s plans backfire unexpectedly. Since part of the fun of the play is its third act plot twist, I won’t give away more of the story, except to say that by play’s end the house is more full of spirits (blithe or otherwise) than a living human can bear.

Readers who are fond of stiff-upper-lip British comedy and only wish to know whether these two plays are well-performed by their casts (they are, and in particular Daina Michelle Griffith is in high comic form as the rather miffed Ruth in Blithe Spirit), well-designed (yep: in particular, both productions have stunning, detailed interior sets, and the room in Blithe Spirit has a comic life of its own (hint: keep an eye on the painting)), and witty and entertaining (they are), can and should stop reading this post here, buy tickets, and enjoy the shows.

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In the rest of this post – because I’m not writing for a newspaper, and so I can do this – I want to discourse briefly on why it is that, despite their high quality, both productions left me feeling, quite frankly, disappointed, irritated, and more than a tiny bit insulted. In a nutshell: both productions entertain, to be sure, but they do so by occupying the safest middle ground imaginable. These are museum pieces; they seem more like films, frozen in time, than theater, meant for a present, and present-day, audience. If I may be permitted to borrow a term from Brecht, to my mind both productions exemplify “culinary” theater, a term he never clearly defines but which I’ve always taken to mean: theater that, like a good culinary meal, is expensive, beautifully prepared, in good taste, easily digested, and quickly passes right through you. In both cases, I left the theater wondering why: why did I just see that? why was this play included in the season? why were there no directorial, design, or performance risks taken to make the material fresh, new, relevant?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that every production of a classic play be approached with a “concept,” or be made “topical” and “relevant” for today’s audience. I am all for doing a play as written, in period, honoring the playwright’s intentions. But that doesn’t mean it has to be merely a safe reproduction of whatever the director imagines the original was. I offer PICT’s terrific production of Three Sisters a couple of summers ago as an example of a true-to-period, non-“concept” production that found something new and true to say with and through the play: director Harriet Powers not only found innovative ways to make the play the LOL-comedy it’s meant to be, but also filled the silences in Chekhov’s text with action that enriched and heightened its tensions. Surely there are equally piercing insights to be discovered and revealed even in old die-hards like Candida and Blithe Spirit?

“Well,” you might rightly challenge, “what would you suggest be done with a play like Candida or Blithe Spirit to make them less ‘safe’ and more ‘risky’?”  I don’t have an answer to that question, specifically, because the answer could only emerge from deep exploration of the play with an ensemble. But in reply to that challenge, I would point to the risks, small and large, that I’ve seen taken with classic plays, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. Mabou Mines’ Doll’s House, in which the male characters were played by little people, and the female characters by unusually tall women. Joanne Akalaitis’s production of Schiller’s Maria Stuart, in which a heightened acting style brought the text alive in surprising and enchanting ways (and if you know the play, you know what an achievement that is!) Closer to home and more recent to memory: Conall Morrison’s drag production of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest at PICT a few years ago, Quantum’s Twelfth Night, the above-mentioned Three Sisters, and even CMU’s last three Shakespearean productions (Romeo & Juliet, Richard III, and Midsummer Night’s Dream). I’m not sure all of these would be considered “successes” by all viewers, but the risks taken made them all worth experiencing — and the fact that I can recall all of these without looking up notes or previous reviews means that they were, to some degree, unforgettable.

Which is, alas, not a label I can confidently attach to either of these two — otherwise wholly unobjectionable — productions.

“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.

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