“Smart Blonde” at City Theatre

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Willy Holtzman’s play Smart Blonde (in its world premiere at City Theatre) is a surprising amuse-bouche of a play: like an intricately prepared appetizer, it tantalizes but also teases, giving you something to savor but also leaving you wanting just a bit more. The play presents a biographical sketch of the film and theater actress Judy Holliday, née Judy Tuvim, whose Marxist-Jewish upbringing (and lifelong relationships) made her vulnerable to the scrutiny of the McCarthy hearings, and who built her theatrical and film career playing “dumb blondes” (even though she herself was possessed of extraordinary intelligence). If you’re of a certain age, or a classical Hollywood film buff, you might have seen her as the vapid Billie Dawn, her signature role, in the film version of Born Yesterday; as writer Ruth Gordon observes in the play, “It takes a smart woman to play dumb.”

The play opens in a recording studio in 1964, with Holliday (Andréa Burns) recording an album of songs she has co-written with her collaborator (and lover) Gerry Mulligan. As she begins to rehearse while waiting for Mulligan to arrive, the scene flashes back to her youth, and then hops forward in irregular intervals to present short vignettes tracing her early cabaret act, her debut on Broadway, her move to Hollywood and a career in film, her testimony in front of Congress after coming under suspicion as a Communist, and her film comeback thanks to the intervention of producer Harry Cohn. Along the way we see some details of her personal life – struggles with family expectations, friendships with prominent Jewish performers and writers like Leonard Bernstein and Garson Kanin, marriage to musician David Oppenheim, motherhood, divorce, and, finally, romance and artistic collaboration with the jazz composer Gerry Mulligan.

Jonathan Brody (as studio side man Bernie Leighton) and Andréa Burns (Judy Holliday); photo courtesy City Theatre

Jonathan Brody (as studio side man Bernie Leighton) and Andréa Burns (Judy Holliday); photo courtesy City Theatre

Holtzman moves the story along at a brisk pace, pausing just long enough to give us a glimpse of some of the major milestones in Holliday’s career and personal life (the show runs eighty minutes without intermission). The flashbacks shift fluidly into each other, thanks to quick costume changes and skillful choreography on the part of actors Jonathan Brody and Adam Heller, who play the roles of all of the other figures in Holliday’s life. This was a little disconcerting at the beginning – I’ll confess at first I had a a bit of trouble keeping up – but because the whole is structured as a collage of all these short scenes the fast tempo feels absolutely right for the play. Heller and Brody perform some magical sleights-of-body in disappearing as one character and reappearing as another, even at times making the transformation right in front of us with the grab of a prop or costume piece, and they vividly establish the myriad of idiosyncratic personalities who made up Holliday’s artistic, professional, and personal circle. It’s been said of Holliday that one of her greatest gifts was her ability to shift mood quickly and easily from comic to serious; the massively talented Burns demonstrates a similar gift in her performance of Holliday, displaying, in one moment, the actress’s formidable intellect and seriousness of purpose, and, in the next, her ability to self-mock and assume the persona of a dimwit. She has an enormous smile that brings oodles of charm and charisma to the role, and when she sings – and thankfully, she sings a great deal in this show – she has a voice like honey, smooth, sweet, and easy. I could have listened to her all night. Burns does most of her songs solo, but in a few of the numbers she is joined by Brody and Heller, who are accomplished vocalists themselves (and Brody does double duty in the show as an impressively adept piano accompanist).

Tony Ferrieri’s set design rather ingeniously serves as both a realistic recording studio and every other space needed for the flashbacked scenes – the recording studio-specific elements seem to disappear and reappear as needed, due in no small part to Ann Wrightson’s effective lighting design. Robert C.T. Steele’s period specific costumes are simple enough to be donned and doffed quickly, but iconic enough to help us keep track of the many characters who come and go in Holliday’s life.

The fact that these personalities are so lightly sketched – and that we’re not sure we even fully know Holliday herself at play’s end – is, in the end, one of the strengths of Smart Blonde: it opens the door just a crack onto a subject who seems infinitely more interesting than would first appear.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” at barebones productions

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Quick: what’s the first thing you think of when you hear the title of this play? I’m willing to bet it’s the iconic (and much parodied) moment when Stanley starts yelling “Stella! Stella!”

And since you’re the kind of person who would be reading this blog, I’m also ready to give odds that in your mind’s ear you’re hearing Marlon Brando doing the yelling. In fact, such is the iconicity of Brando’s interpretation of the role, that it’s likely even people who’ve never seen the film version of the play in full (not you, of course, dear reader) will almost instantly make that association, from having seen trailers or spoofs. And those who have seen the film – especially those, like you and me, theater buffs that we are, who’ve seen it multiple times – will also be unable to think of Streetcar and not conjure Vivien Leigh’s complex portrait of the desperate (and desperately manipulative) Blanche DuBois.

All this is to begin my thoughts on barebones production of A Streetcar Named Desire by acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the room. That’s not to say that barebones director Melissa Martin’s interpretation of the play necessarily invites such comparisons, only that it’s nearly impossible to assess any production of Streetcar without thinking about how it echoes, and is haunted by, its legendary predecessor. For unless a director decides to impose a radical “concept” on the play (which is, thankfully, not the case here), there’s not a lot of wiggle room to find novel ways to stage many of Tennessee Williams’s scenes, and in fact some of the more notorious moments (for example, when Stella comes down to Stanley after he’s hit her, and he buries his face in her belly) are explicitly spelled out in Williams’s stage directions.

Nonetheless, even though there aren’t many innovations in the staging here, there is much that is fresh and stimulating in barebones production’s interpretation of the play, partly due to the intelligence and insight of its leading actors, and partly due to the cultural moment in which we now live. Let me start with that second thought first. The play’s central male character viciously beats his wife, and she comes back to him. I can’t tell you what audiences in 1947 might have thought or understood about that; I wasn’t there. But in 2014, with a spate of recent high profile domestic violence incidents, there’s enough cultural awareness to recognize Stella’s enthrallment to Stanley as a symptom of abuse, and not (merely) as a response to his sexual charisma. Blanche’s dismay at Stella’s return to Stanley, then, comes across not so much as a prudish uptightness (as it tends to in the film) as a legitimate distress over her sister’s situation. This new light is cast on the play mainly by our shift in perspective – there’s nothing I can point to on stage that specifically calls attention to our current thinking about domestic abuse, other than perhaps the fact that Patrick Jordan’s Stanley seems less to feel remorse over having hurt his wife than to feel frantic over the possible loss of his prized possession. But one thing the production does do, in relation to contemporary understandings of gender violence, is complicate the moment in which Stanley takes Blanche (Tami Dixon) by force in the penultimate scene. In a very modern twist on what constitutes rape, Blanche seems, for a moment, to respond to his overture, but it’s clear from her subsequent struggle that he does not have her positive consent. That she is then not believed when she later tells Stella (Jenna C. Johnson) what Stanley has done – and is silenced by being shunted off to an insane asylum – only allows the play’s ending to shine an even brighter light on the historical sedimentation of rape culture.

Moreover, the way our current cultural moment frames this play’s depiction of gender violence made me realize how much Williams’s play stands as an exploration of the limits and contours of masculinity (despite the fact that here, as always, the central figure of interest is Blanche. I’ll get to her in a bit, I promise!). Williams exposes, on the one hand – in Stanley, in particular – the extent to which normative, “successful” masculinity seems predicated on cleaving off anything associated with femininity, so that all that’s left is the action-oriented, aggressive, anger-fueled “animal” that so disgusts the (putatively) refined and sensitive Blanche. But as brutish as he may be, Stanley’s perfection of alpha male behavior works to his advantage in Williams’s bipolar gender world: even the other men in the play defer to him and scramble to smooth his ruffled feathers. (It’s as if Williams was as fascinated, and puzzled, by the appeal and charisma of the alpha male as most women are.) Jordan plays this up: there’s not much of a soft side to his Stanley, and even when he embraces Stella it feels a bit menacing and possessive. But the play also offers alternative models of masculine identity, in the examples of Blanche’s first husband (the homosexual Alan) and Mitch (sensitively played by Jeff Carpenter), her suitor, whose status as a caretaker for a dying mother at home aligns him with traditionally “feminine” qualities like nurturing. In his capacity for empathy and caring, Mitch actually has more to offer a woman than the emotionally illiterate Stanley, yet in the end, it’s Stanley who is the reproductive winner. Carpenter’s interpretation of Mitch underscores the extent to which Mitch is fueled by a quiet desperation that matches, if not exceeds, Blanche’s more overt neediness. At play’s end, we may feel more for Mitch’s loss than for Stella’s (or Blanche’s); such is the powerful and confused yearning Carpenter infuses into the role.

As Blanche, Dixon accomplishes the difficult but necessary feat of winning our empathy, if not our approval. On the page, Blanche can come off as self-serving and narcissistic; when I teach this play in class, students often read Blanche as a crazy emotional terrorist who does nothing but lie and manipulate to get her way. What they miss is what a really good actress can bring to the role, that is, the embodiment and internalization of all the past wounds and traumas that generate and justify her (self-) deceptions. Dixon’s Blanche is just vulnerable enough to make us feel her pain, and able to slip the mask on and off easily enough to make us pity her groundlessness; while we recognize what a toxic person she is, we can’t really hate her for it. When I read the play, I don’t want Blanche to win the battle; it’s a credit to Dixon’s terrific, nuanced performance in the role that here, a small part of me kind of hoped Blanche might win.

Having spent more time than I budgeted to write these thoughts, I have to wrap this post up, but before I do, I need to mention one last, tremendously successful aspect of the show: the music. Joe Gruschecky and John Gresh provide live musical accompaniment (on guitar and piano) in a corner of the stage decked out like the kind of bar you might imagine Stanley hanging out in with his poker buddies. Not only is the music fabulous in and of itself, it is also extremely effective in transporting us into the sonic world of New Orleans, and it beautifully serves Williams’s script (which, if I remember correctly, calls for us to hear the sounds of music from a local bar wafting through the night from time to time).

“Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at Prime Stage Theatre Co.

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Halloween “season” has brought the usual overload of candy into my life; it’s also put a slate of appropriately-themed plays into local theaters. Just as the psychological thriller The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs closes at Off the Wall, Prime Stage Theatre Co. opens its production of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in Bruce Hall’s new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short novel.

Prime Stage is a theater company that aims to bring literature to life on stage, and its target audience seems to be the young adult reader who may have been assigned a classic work as part of the school curriculum. It’s to be expected that their theatrical adaptations will thus hew fairly closely to the original work in both form and content. But slavish fidelity to the original is, thankfully, not part of their mission, and adaptor Hall has made some changes to the story that help give it theatrical interest and punch. (I’m going to assume, dear reader, you know the book – if not, back to sixth grade you go!). In particular, Hall has given Dr. Jekyll (Andrew Miller) a love interest in the form of Diana Carew (Katie Oxman), daughter of Sir Danvers Carew (John E. Reilly), the man Hyde murders. The story is told not from the point of view of the lawyer Seth Utterson (John Feightner) as in Stevenson’s novel, but rather with more sympathy for Jekyll’s plight (we see early in the play that his experiment has gone awry on his other experimental subject, a brown mouse) and with more focus on his hubristic and mistaken abuse of scientific knowledge (in other words, more closely aligning with Jekyll’s narrative at the end of the original book). That, along with some other slightly contemporary spins on the plot – for example, the use of a newspaper boy to cast into the past our own modern-day media frenzying, or Utterson’s veiled hints that he suspects Hyde to be Jekyll’s lover – makes the play feel fresh despite the familiarity of the story.

Under the direction of Michael McKelvey, the cast tells the story with simplicity and clarity. Karl E. Jacobson’s set, in which Jekyll’s house seems to be coming apart at the seams in parallel with its owner, allows for quick and seamless transitions between scenes situated in many different places in the city, and the fluid flow of the action helps maintain the play’s forward motion. Andrew Miller embodies the Jekyll/Hyde opposition with dexterity, and he brings enough arrogance to his portrayal of Dr. Jekyll that we can see just what part of his personality the brutal Hyde stems from. John E. Reilly captures our compassion with his representation of Carew, a man no longer in full control of his intellect, and Katie Oxman is solid as the smart, confident Diana, a woman who holds her own in the company of intelligent and better-educated men. Rounding out the major figures in the story are Feightner as a puzzled and worried Utterson, Garrett Storm as Jekyll’s righteous old friend and colleague Lanyon, and Adrianne Knapp as Jekyll’s saucy housekeeper Pauline. Together with Will Sendera, Tonya Lynn, and Anthony Gullikson in supporting roles, the ensemble fulfills Prime Stage’s mission, giving new life to Stevenson’s classic horror story about hidden evils and secret selves.

“The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs” at Off the Wall Theater

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Houses in dreams are rich in meaning, often symbolizing the human psyche. When you dream of a house with a lot of empty rooms, for example, it might represent untapped potential; one with secret, hidden rooms might point to an aspect of self that has been repressed, locked up, shunted aside.

Carole Frechette’s chamber play The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs (at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie) takes up this latter idea and hangs it, like a shimmering cloth, on the skeleton of the Bluebeard legend. In the play, Grace, a Cinderella-like beauty with “sky-blue eyes,” has captured the heart of a modern day prince, the fabulously rich Henry. Henry lives in a superbly appointed mansion with twenty-eight rooms, and he ensconces Grace in her new digs with the freedom to “spread her wings” everywhere in the house except one, small room at the top of a hidden staircase down a narrow hallway. This, of course, is the only room that captures her interest and curiosity, and the playwright depends on our collective memory of the Bluebeard story to set up expectations about what Grace will find when she defies her husband’s wishes – expectations that are subverted and twisted in ways that it would be unfair for me to reveal here. That said, the play itself drops plenty of hints about how we are to interpret what she finds: when talking to her sister Anne, Grace describes the house as “like the human mind…ninety percent unoccupied,” an assessment that Henry echoes a few lines later. Like nineteenth-century gothic novels, Frechette’s play uses creepy supernatural elements as a means of figuring psychological wounds, and she allows those elements to materialize in order to make palpable how powerful hidden and damaged aspects of the psyche can be.

Under Ingrid Sonnichsen’s direction, the fine ensemble – Daina Michelle Griffith, Ken Bolden, Brooke Lerner, Sharon Brady, and Amy Landis – tells the story with a good mixture of tension and suspense, and with just the right amount of humor mixed in. Each character appears, at first, rather one-dimensional, but as the play unfolds the inner complexity of each character also gets unveiled. The cast parcels out these revelations much the same way the play metes out its secrets, producing a compelling and intriguing bit of theater.

“Future Ten 11″ at Future Tenant

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Future Tenant is currently offering a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical tidbits with its 11th annual festival of ten-minute plays, “Future Ten 11.” Five emerging directors – Alex Frantz, Joe Hill, Kevin Karol, Justin Sines, and Michael Young – have directed the work of ten emerging playwrights, utilizing a cast of eighteen emerging performers. And while not every one of the short plays presented is fully realized, the “emergingness” on display is promising.

There’s impressive risk-taking and experimentation in many of the pieces chosen for this festival. Two of the short plays – “Proposition 324” by Tina L. Bubonovich and “The Weird Sisters” by Adam Esquenazi Douglas – play cheekily with mashup, colliding together zombies and civil rights, in the first case, and Macbeth and Wicked, in the second. Jo Morello pulls off a mashup of a different sort in “Talkback,” which imagines Shakespeare at a modern day audience talkback, with characters speaking in an iambic pentameter that alternates between High Elizabethan and classic Dr. Seuss. Both “First Rites,” by Joanna Piucci, and “The Writer,” by Chip Bolcik, take on existential questions, albeit in very different ways – the former imagines the journey to existence as one dogged by uncertainty and chance, whereas the latter takes a more metatheatrical view of what it is to exist, in a vein reminiscent of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.

The comic highlights of the festival include Drew Davis’s “Greener Grass,” an irreverent, “Wild West” version of the “tables-turned” murder plot; “Panacea,” by Jack J. Berry, which takes a sly poke at the commercialization of anxiety and its remedies; “If We Knew Then,” by Matt Stabile, in which a couple tests their compatibility via a computerized questionnaire, with predictable (and then unpredictable) results; and “Savage Lands,” by Timothy Ruppert, which wryly reveals the timelessness of sibling rivalry. The evening also showcases several very fine comic performances, in particular Leon Schwendener and Siddiq Saunderson as office co-workers dealing with bathroom shyness in Shane Murphy’s “Pee Buddies,” and Moira Quigley, Sarah Pidgeon, and Katie Kerr as the perky TV spokespeople in “Panacea.”

Festival organizers have invited audience members to vote for a play to receive the designation “best in show,” which will be announced at the Nov. 2 closing performance. It’s not for me to second guess what the collective will choose, but I’ll be sure to post the winner here when I find out.

“Macbeth” at PICT Classic Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

“Outside Mullingar” at City Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Glass Menagerie” at Pittsburgh Public Theater

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

Fisher Neal as Tom; photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Fisher Neal as Tom; photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

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

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

Young Playwrights Festival at City Theatre

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

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

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

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

“Souvenir” at The REP Professional Theatre Company

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

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

Jeff Howell & Jill Keating; photo Jeff Swensen

Jeff Howell & Jill Keating; photo Jeff Swensen

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

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