“Wild With Happy” at City Theatre

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Wild With Happy is a seriously funny play. I mean that quite literally: what else could it be, given that it’s a comedy about a man grieving the death of his mother?

For the most part, that counterintuitive combination of the serious and the funny works quite well, thanks mainly to the work’s playful structure and its ostentatious and outrageous characters. The play opens with a rather sober Gil (Corey Jones), explaining his aversion to religious ceremonies and churches, in a monologue that is suddenly interrupted by a flashback in which he relives the time his mother Adelaide (C. Kelly Wright) brought him back to Sunday services to “get themselves some Jesus” and were greeted (in his memory, at least) by a charismatic, disco-dancing Church Elder (Monteze Freeland) who traumatizes the young “limp-wristed” Gil by knocking Adelaide flat on the floor with the Holy Spirit. The moment, handled with flair by director Reginald Douglas, is technicolor and outsized, and sets the tone for a production that likewise shifts zanily in structure and mood from the earnest to the ridiculous at the drop of a hat.

L to R: Corey Jones, Jason Shavers, and Monteze Freeland (as Mo); photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

Or perhaps I should say at the drop of a shoe, for Gil’s mother was a big believer in magic, fairytales, and the Cinderella promise that if you have faith in your dreams, they really will one day come true, and the play’s main trajectory traces Gil’s journey from cynical, eye-rolling rejection of his mother’s romantic fantasizing to a sweet moment of sentiment straight out of her favorite fairy tale. Along the way, Gil needs to deal with his guilt over not having spent enough time with his “onliest” mother during her final illness, as well as with his despair over the shambles into which both his professional life and his love life have fallen.

Accompanying Gil on that journey are his best friend, the gender-ambiguous makeup artist Mo, and his domineering, tackily-dressed and -bewigged Aunt Glo (played by Freeland and Wright), along with Terry (Jason Shavers), the funeral director Gil manages to seduce while deciding what to do with his mother’s remains. Mo and Glo are the two characters playwright Colman Domingo clearly had the most fun writing, and Freeland and Wright make those characters effervesce. Freeland is wondrously inventive as the sashaying, attitude-ful Mo, a character who appears to be all exuberant surface and no depth – until the poignant, fleeting moment when Freeland lets us see the core of hurt and regret Mo uses all that attitude to cover up. Wright brings Energizer Bunny-like momentum to her personification of Glo, who seems to barely stop talking to take a breath and who gets some of the best gags in the play, including a recurrent water-drinking lazzi that is one of the more impressive bits of physical comedy I’ve seen in some time.

L to R: Corey Jones and C. Kelly Wright (as Aunt Glo); photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

The laughter these two characters provoke helps compensate for the play’s rather spongy plot: at an hour and forty-five minutes, the intermissionless play starts to feel draggy about two-thirds of the way through, and the play’s ending, while utterly irresistible, isn’t fully earned. Moreover, strong as Domingo is in fleshing out his comic characters, Gil and Terry, his two “straight” men, often feel described rather than embodied. For example, at one point Terry tells Gil that he finds him “strange but beautiful”; Jones’s beauty is self-evident, but there’s not much that’s strange about his behavior, especially in comparison to the idiosyncratic Mo. Although I found Jones both believable and compelling in the role of Gil, I wonder if the script might have been better served by an interpretation that leaned in more heavily to the stereotype of the flamboyant gay peacock. That is: Jones’ and Shaver’s “straight men” are perhaps a tad too straight for the world of the play.

The costuming, by Karen Perry, adds its own sly humor to the play’s mix of serious comedy: in particular, Aunt Glo’s repertoire of velour-plus-gold-sneaker combos, her assortment of wigs, and her seemingly bottomless purses and fanny packs become running jokes throughout the play. Tony Ferrieri’s set establishes a fitting cartoonish outlandishness, with a faux marble platform and huge red curtain that glow under black lites; the curtains pull back to reveal a shallow playing space that transforms into the funeral home, Adelaide’s apartment, and a hotel room, while the set also cleverly pops out elements that serve as a park bench or automobiles. Zachary Beattie-Brown’s sound design draws on Motown/disco hits like “Best of My Love” to create an upbeat, toe-tapping soundscape whose tone and lyrics both fit the theme of the play, and Andrew David Ostrowski’s lights masterfully shift the mood and atmosphere from realism to fantasy and back again.

“Collaborators” at Quantum Theatre

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There’s a diabolically funny moment in the first act of Collaborators: Josef Stalin (played with demonic relish by Martin Giles), having summoned playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (Tony Bingham) to his secret office to work on a play glorifying Stalin’s life, shoos Bulgakov away from the typewriter and starts merrily pounding away at the keys. The moment is funny because we don’t expect a figure like Stalin to find such joy in writing a play; the moment is diabolical because it encourages us to see one of history’s most monstrous autocrats as human, likable, and perhaps even a little bit charming.

Collaborators

L to R: Martin Giles, Tony Bingham, Dana Hardy

That’s a dangerous slippery slope, as the remainder of the play reveals. For Bulgakov, too, is disarmed by the dictator’s enthusiasm for ghostwriting his play, and as his artistic “collaboration” with Stalin develops, he is drawn further and further down that slope into tragic collusion with a political regime he has devoted his entire life and work to resisting.

But first there’s satiric comic hay to be made out of the vicissitudes of working as an artist under the autocratic Soviet regime. It’s 1938, and Bulgakov, a dissident sharing a cramped and cold Moscow apartment with his wife Yelena and three others, has spent a career seeing his work fall in and out of the graces of the Soviet leadership. So large looms Stalin’s power over his psyche that he suffers a recurrent nightmare – staged with glorious Keystone Kops anticness at the start of the show – in which Stalin bursts out of a cupboard, chases him around the stage, and threatens to kill him with his own typewriter. But Stalin doesn’t only wield psychic power over Bulgakov: the secret police also have the authority to shut down his newest play, which they don’t hesitate to use as leverage to coerce Bulgakov into doing their bidding.

That may not sound like a comic premise, but playwright John Hodge offers plenty of laughs through his sharp, ironic dialogue and darkly wry situations. Hodge, a British writer who is best known for writing the screenplay for Trainspotting, seems to have a Russian sense of humor, one that dredges the comical out of the depths of despair, and director Jed Harris stages that comedy with a deft touch, masterfully managing a tonal shift over the course of the play from nimble satire to a laughter that sticks in your throat in the end. The play’s sound design (Joe Pino) and costumes (Susan Tsu) aid in establishing a world that is simultaneously a bit topsy-turvy and high-stakes serious; Narelle Sissons’s set, in which nearly all of the cupboards are bare, provides the versatile space for Harris’s animated staging.

Harris has assembled a top-notch group of actors to flesh out this comedy, including John Shepard, priceless as a lascivious doctor; Jonathan Visser, dolorous as Grigory, a writer whose work has been banned; and Dana Hardy, who centers the play’s emotional heart as Yelena. Martin Giles plays Stalin with a comic abandon that slides eerily into menace at the end of the play, and Ken Bolden’s Vladimir, of the secret police, caroms schizophrenically between merciless intimidator and enthusiastic aesthete. But the center of the play is Bulgakov, and Tony Bingham is brilliant in the role. He manages the tricky feat of making his Bulgakov seem like a real person and yet still rendering him big and broad enough to inhabit the expansive comedy of the play. His sympathetic and subtle portrayal of the character helps us to see how readily anyone – even one of us – could be manipulated into becoming what we hate: his Bulgakov is like the frog in slowly boiling water that doesn’t feel how hot it’s getting until it’s too late.

There’s a warning in Bulgakov’s fate for all of us, especially in light of the creeping, inexorable normalization of not only extreme alt-right ideologies, but also the dismantling of democratic norms, hidden behind a smokescreen of fake news and twittered distractions. Collaborators opened the day after missile strikes against a Syrian airbase magically made the current occupant of the White House – a person who has boasted of sexually abusing women and who misrepresents the truth in seven out of ten statements – appear decisive and “presidential.” The water keeps getting hotter, and it may soon be too late to hop out. That may not be very funny, but, by its end – and in the best of ways – neither is Collaborators.

“What’s Missing” at CorningWorks

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I probably failed to fully comprehend what Corning Works’ new dance work, What’s Missing, is about.

But that’s okay, because – as a disembodied voice repeatedly reminds us, in what is simultaneously a conjuration and conjugation of absence – what you see is imperfect, what they do is imperfect, we are flawed, we will fail to see, we are all wrong, and this performance will fail to resolve.

L to R: Beth Corning & Donald Byrd

What’s Missing may, in fact, be the most clear-eyed, and most despairing, artistic response to last year’s election that I’ve seen to date. How do you make meaning in a world of alternative facts and near constant disinformation? Co-choreographers and performers Donald Byrd and Beth Corning’s answer is a kind of resigned anxiety, expressed in hands coming to frantic, fluttering life on their own, in dance sequences that hesitate, stutter, and shrug, and in the fragmentation of the audience’s perception.

The piece is a series of solos and duets structured by the repetition of a thematic movement sequence in which the two performers come together on a white bench, join hands, connect, disconnect, spoon on the floor, and break apart. Each time this sequence is presented, the bench is placed in a different place on the all-white stage, which means that audience members sitting on three sides of the space have a different perspective on the movement each time (and also have a different view than others in the audience). Ushers encourage you to split apart from the person you’ve attended the performance with, the better to be able to compare perspectives after the show. Both of these are ideas that work better in theory than in practice: it wasn’t hard to extrapolate what the movement looked like from another person’s point of view, and if there were small differences in detail from repetition to repetition, my suspicion is that it would have been difficult for most spectators to recall and compare them with their companions in any case. Nonetheless, the bigger question the staging choice begs – the question of how it is that we can all be looking at the same thing and yet seeing it in very different ways – is clearly a politically urgent one, and Corning’s interest in finding a dance metaphor to pose it is a laudable one.

What’s perhaps most striking about this piece, however, is its decision to confront the world of alternative facts with what feels like an anti-response. “This performance will not change anything,” the voice says, robbing art of one of its presumed functions. In its exploration of the contours of the rabbit hole down which we have collectively tumbled, What’s Missing seems to propose that we are in a moment in which art must retreat from meaning in order to make sense of the world.

“The Guard” at City Theatre

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What is the value of a work of art? What is it to the person who views it in a museum? To the person who is charged with its safety and security? And – perhaps most importantly (?) – to the person who made it in the first place?

Those are questions at the heart of Jessica Dickey’s evocative new play The Guard, in which Rembrandt’s painting Aristotle with a Bust of Homer becomes a kind of magic portal that telescopes us back in time, first to Rembrandt’s studio, as he begins work on the painting, and then to Homer, reflecting on the role of poetry in capturing and recording human experience.

L to R: Melinda Helfrich, Andrew May, Stephen James Anthony, and Billy Hepfinger. Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover, Courtesy City Theatre

The receding structure of the play is captured metaphorically in Narelle Sissons’s spare but elegant set, in which frames are nested within frames, and where the action unfolds on what looks like a canvas that has been peeled away from its frame, in a gesture that draws us into the work while simultaneously disconnecting the work from its status as a finished product.

The scenic design pulls us, like the play itself, into a consideration of what a work of art is before it has been framed and hung on a museum wall and made sacred. Museum guard Henry (Andrew May) and his colleague Jonny (Billy Hepfinger) are charged with maintaining a secure and safe environment for the valuable paintings under their care; they have a detailed regimen of inspections and rules, chief among which is the prohibition against touching the art. When a new guard, Dodger (Stephen James Anthony) comes in for his training, he’s itching to have someone touch the famous Rembrandt, both out of a desire to change the way people interact with art and out of an instinct that it might offer them some kind of emotional release or grounding. When he finally convinces Henry and museum visitor Madeline (Melinda Helfrich) to touch the painting with him, the gesture is transformative indeed: they are catapulted into the 17th century and transformed into Rembrandt, his mistress, and his son.

There, not only is the canvas not yet sacred, it’s the object of a good deal of disdain. The contrast between our contemporary reverance for Art-with-a-capital-A and the artist’s rough treatment of the materials of his trade couldn’t be more starkly drawn: Rembrandt despises the work he’s been commissioned to produce and comes close to taking a dump on the canvas.

And yet at both the site of production and the site of reception there is the sense that whether or not one has physical contact with the material object of art, its meaning always remains elusively and maddeningly just out of reach. Rembrandt can’t put his finger on the why of what he does any more than we can; or, as we see in the scene that follows, than Homer could.

That failure, that gap between what we strive to convey and understand and what we can convey and understand, is a quality not just of art, but also of loss and grief. Here, too, the scenic design offers a visual metaphor: with each shift in time and place, another element of the scene design falls or is pulled away. Both Madeline and Henry are dealing with the discombobulations of grief (she over the recent death of her grandmother, he over the imminent demise of his husband, Simon (Raphael Nash Thompson)). Both of them feel themselves to have failed the people they have loved and lost in profound ways. But isn’t it precisely this failure, in the end, that drives the desire to make art and to capture the human experience in some material form?

Tracy Brigden echoes the spare and elegant sensibility of the scenic design in her direction of the play, and she honors the play’s interest in the gulfs that yawn between us, and between us and the works of art we create to try to bridge that gap, by letting the action unfold without attempting to explain or frame what playwright Dickey leaves enigmatic. The excellent cast brings sensitivity and a light touch to their handling of character – May, in particular, captures the hovering disembodiedness that characterizes a person not-coping with caring for a dying loved one with delicate insight. The magic of this play is a quiet one, unfolding in the connections we make between the strivings of the artists whose work has communicated to us across centuries and of the people who find solace, inspiration, and mystery in their work.

“Daddy Long Legs” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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“Jane Eyre meets Beauty and the Beast meets My Fair Lady meets You’ve Got Mail.”

That’s what I imagine the pitch might be for the enjoyably predictable – yet also oddly idiosyncratic – meet-cute plot of the musical Daddy Long Legs.

From Jane Eyre it takes an orphaned and exploited protagonist who uses education and determination to make her way up the social and economic ladder in a patriarchal world; from Beauty and the Beast it takes a heroine who loves books and stories, and whose intelligence and wit bewitch, and eventually reform, a wealthy but socially inept man; from My Fair Lady it takes the theme of a benefactor who takes an interest in educating and transforming an impoverished girl and then falls in love with her; and from You’ve Got Mail it takes the plot contrivance of an epistolary romance in which a woman thinks she is corresponding with a man she has never met, but is actually writing letters to a man she already knows.

L to R: Allan Snyder and Danielle Bowen. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Pubic Theater

Of course, the musical doesn’t really take these plot elements directly from any of those predecessors, since its actual source is the 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, an early twentieth-century novelist you’ve probably never heard of (well – I hadn’t) who was also a suffragist and social activist. Nevertheless, the romcom-mashup plot trajectory’s destination is evident from almost the moment the musical begins – and yet there are plenty of unexpected surprises along the way.

Let’s start with the rather awkward premise of the love story: Jerusha (Danielle Bowen) has been gifted a college education by an anonymous and mysterious benefactor she nicknames “Daddy Long Legs” (because the only glimpse she has of him, a lanky shadow, reminds her of a spider). His gift comes with a few strings attached, among them that she is to write to him regularly of her progress, but never to expect a response, or to know his true identity. Her letters are so lively, charming, and intimate that he begins to take an interest in her, and – because he happens to be  her college roommate’s uncle – he contrives to meet her in person without her knowing who he is. Over the next four years of college she continues to write to “Daddy,” as she calls him, about the details of her life, including her ongoing impressions of the rather attractive Uncle Jervis (Allan Snyder), never realizing that she is in fact corresponding directly with Jervis, who, in turn, uses his power as “Daddy Long Legs” to keep her from spending time with potential romantic rivals.

That’s a pretty creepy setup, and it’s to the musical’s credit that it doesn’t pretend that there’s anything okay about Jervis’s subterfuge. In fact, his distress and guilt over his prolonged failure to reveal his secret is one of the main conflicts of the play: several times he begins to write to Jerusha to explain what’s going on, only to find some flimsy rationalization for his cowardly inability to fess up. Meanwhile, Jerusha is completely oblivious to the fact that she’s even in a romantic comedy at all. In a welcome and refreshing twist on the genre, her focus is on her education and future professional career: she’s spending her time reading voraciously, writing a novel, and becoming politically aware and active, all the while believing that her correspondence is with a man old enough to be her grandfather – which, it’s true, only adds to the weirdness of the play’s inevitable resolution, but at the very least, her achievement of career success (she gets a lucrative publishing contract) goes some way to mitigate the humiliation that she feels – and that we feel, on her behalf – on learning that she has essentially been duped.

It also helps that director Ted Pappas and actor Allan Snyder make clear, through the staging and character interpretation, that Jervis is not a mean and deceptive man, but rather a fearful and socially awkward one; the play makes him grovel quite a bit for Jerusha’s forgiveness and also gives her ample opportunity to lay out for him, and for us, all of the ways he has betrayed her trust. The humiliation goes both ways, in other words, and when the inevitable resolution occurs, we have at the very least seen all of the damage laid bare.

You may have noticed that I’ve only mentioned two characters, which is another unusual thing about this musical: there are no others. Snyder and Bowen – both of whom are on stage and singing nearly non-stop for almost two and a half hours – are excellent, as is the production overall. Snyder’s voice is a pleasant tenor that handsomely suits the character of Jervis, and he brings a fine comic sensibility to the role. Bowen has an gloriously easy, silvery voice that effortlessly floats above the three-piece orchestra, and she is utterly winning as the plucky, intelligent Jerusha. Michael Schweikardt’s two-level set ingeniously secrets props and costumes in benches and cupboards so that Pappas can keep the action moving seamlessly forward even as the action shifts from an orphanage to a college to a farm to a several other locales. 1912 was a lovely era for clothes (think Alice Paul and the suffragettes) and costume designer Gabriel Berry replicates the era beautifully, with some particularly fun hats for Jerusha.

The fact that there are only two characters means that the book and lyrics can spend a lot more time exploring their thoughts and feelings and giving them more psychological and emotional complexity than you’d normally expect from a musical comedy. That, along with Jerusha’s pointed refusal to let her ambitions be limited by her gender, may be what most lifts the work above the romcom conventions it so pleasurably weaves together, and what allows it, in the end, to pay something of an homage to novelist Jean Webster’s first-wave feminism.

What’s on: February

Dearest readers, February’s a short, busy month here in the ‘Burgh, and many worthy performances will happen that I’ll either not be able to catch, because of other commitments, or not get to write about. And some I will write about, but perhaps not right away. Here’s what’s on my radar screen:

This week, Hiawatha Project opens the new play JH: Mechanics of a Legend at the August Wilson center. The play, which situates the legend of John Henry within a cyclical repetition of the institutional mechanics of slavery, is written and directed by Anya Martin, and developed by its talented, local cast (which includes Monteze Freeland as John Henry and Delana Flowers as Polly Ann).  JH is an inventive weaving-together of history, myth, movement, and song. Opening night is February 9; you can find tickets and more information here.

This weekend is also the only weekend this month you can catch The Pink Unicorn at Off the Wall productions in Carnegie – a new play by Elise Forier Edie about a Christian conservative widow coming to terms with the news that her teenager is genderqueer. Directed by Ingrid Sonnichsen, this one-woman show features the formidable Amy Landis as the mother. Opens Thursday, plays through Sunday.

I won’t be catching that because my weekend will be taken up with the Bach Choir’s performance of Randall Thompson’s Requiem, a piece you’ve probably never heard of but will be ever-so-grateful to come to know. The Requiem is a one-hour, dual-choir, complex and gorgeous a cappella piece; playing at the downtown First Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Also opening this month is Alumni Theatre Company’s original production “A World Without Us,” a show that highlights the rich contribution young urban artists can and do make to their community. The show runs February 17-18 at Peirce Studio, and more information on that is at the Alumni Theatre Company website.

A few shows are up and running: in addition to The Royale, which I posted about yesterday and which you really shouldn’t miss, there’s Woody’s Order at the Pittsburgh REP (a one woman show, by Ann Talman, about her relationship with her disabled brother Woody) and Twelfth Night at the Public.

Lastly – but certainly not leastly! – you should be making plans now to come on over to my stomping grounds here at CMU to catch the run of Ragtime, directed by Tome Cousins, and featuring the musical theater students of the School of Drama – opens February 23, running for two weekends. We also have an adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II opening on February 22 and running for one weekend. (I don’t review our shows, but I don’t mind using this blog to let you all know what’s happening here!)

 

 

 

 

“The Royale” at City Theatre

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My last post described Kristoffer Diaz’s 2010 play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity as one of the smartest and most insightful plays about race in the US that I’d seen. Marco Ramirez’s 2013 play The Royale – which, perhaps not coincidentally, also sets its action among professional fighters – earns the same distinction. Readers, you know I’m not in the business of ranking, so don’t even ask; there’s plenty of room in the category, and in our current political climate, plays like these, that shine a light on the stubborn persistence of racism and xenophobia, are as urgently essential as ever.

The Royale is an exquisitely crafted gem of a play that is set in the first decade of the 20th century and takes as its subject the strivings of an African-American boxer, Jay “The Sport” Jackson, to claim the title of heavyweight champion from its current (white) defender. He’s a skilled and experienced fighter who is almost guaranteed to win the fight, and his audacity (yes, I choose that word quite pointedly) in challenging the champion threatens to unleash a backlash of violent white retaliation against black people across the country.

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L to R: Bernard Gilbert (Fish), Tim Edward Rhoze (Wynton), Desean Kevin Terry (Jay) and Andrew William Smith (Max). Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

The threat of such violence and retribution starts to hang heavy on Jackson when his sister Nina comes to beg him to call off the fight, out of fear for her own safety and that of her family and community. At this point we’re placed squarely in the midst of the anguish that must have beset all of the African-American “firsts” who broke racial barriers and risked kindling uncertain repercussions. For Jackson, moreover, the struggle is deeply personal; his ambition to be a highly visible symbol and role model of black success is spurred by memories of his sister disfiguring herself in an attempt to conform to standards of white beauty.

What makes this play most disquieting is the way it captures the social, psychological, and physical toll taken by the near-constant background simmering of white resentment, a resentment that seems to perpetually bubble up and boil over in response to black achievement. I doubt I need to connect the dots any further to persuade you of the play’s near-breathtaking timeliness to our present moment, but if you’re feeling masochistic and need convincing, just visit any news story about the new administration, and you’ll find the ugly evidence of contemporary white rage and resentment over the Obama presidency plastered all over the comments section (you might want to pour yourself a stiff drink first).

Back to the play. Director Stuart Carden’s staging is meticulous and dynamic, and he brings a vivid theatricality to the action through sound, movement, and lighting. Instead of choreographing conventional fight scenes, Carden has the actors face front, in stark rectangles of light; when one character strikes, the other reacts to the invisible blow with precise and near-magical timing. A steady “score” of body percussion and vocalization from other members of the ensemble punctuates the action and gives it a musical drive and urgency. It also has the dual effect of filling in the aural landscape without the need of piped-in crowd sounds and of laying down a rhythm track that mimics the rhythms of a boxing match. By heightening the artifice and theatricality of the boxing matches, Carden shifts our focus away from the potential violence of the fight and toward the characters’ thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and ambitions, expressed as taunts to each other and through their own self-patter and self-encouragement.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design is impressively spare and minimalist – he’s transformed the mainstage space at City Theatre into a thrust arena, with audience on three sides of a square boxing platform and a balcony along the upstage wall that Carden uses to good effect in several moments of the play. Scene transitions are effected smoothly by ensemble members Siddiq Saunderson and Tony II Lorich, who raise and lower a chandelier and punching bag by way of ropes and pulleys to swiftly and iconically transform the arena into a luxe hotel room or dingy gym (these two also join the rest of the ensemble in providing percussive movement/sound effects from the sidelines). K. J. Gilmer’s period costumes are acutely observed, and the attention to detail in the clothing is superb.

The ensemble is excellent, with several performers new to Pittsburgh. Desean Kevin Terry brings depth and subtlety to his performance as the cocky and self-confident Jay, and his anguish as he battles his conscience (in the form of his sister, played powerfully by Bria Walker) is palpable. I only wish that those of us seated in the stage left audience bank saw less of his back, as his face is beautifully expressive. Bernard Gilbert, as Jay’s young protégé, Fish, Tim Edward Rhoze, as his trainer Wynton, and Andrew William Smith, as the white promoter Max also deliver strong and firmly grounded performances, building a believable emotional world within the heightened universe of the text and staging.

The Royale is one of those plays that lingers: its combination of confident theatricality and brutally honest emotion is fresh and bracing, and the warning it brings from history of the dangers we face when a subset of white people begin to feel aggrieved is chillingly disconcerting.

“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at barebones productions

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I had the good fortune to see Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in its original New York production at Second Stage about 7 years ago, and it’s been one of my favorite new plays ever since. Its nomination for a Pulitzer Prize was well deserved: it is one of the most pointed and most acerbically funny plays to date about race relations in the United States, capturing, like almost no other play I can think of, the complexities of “brownness” in our socio-cultural landscape with acuity, sensitivity, and a fully appropriate measure of anger.

The play is set in the world of professional wrestling, more specifically in a fictional organization called THE Wrestling, where our hero, Macedonia “Mace” Guerra, has the rather thankless job of being the guy who has to lose the match – and lose it well – in order to make the champ look good. As Mace tells it – and we are given every reason to believe him – he does all the heavy lifting, selling all the holds and throws with skill and precision, while his opponent, the charismatic Chad Deity, gets all the credit, fame, and money.

Javon Johnson as Chad Deity

Javon Johnson as Chad Deity

But Mace loves his job nonetheless – it’s the fulfillment of a childhood dream, after all – and he takes some perverse pride in knowing that wrestling depends on guys like him to do the crappy grunt work that generates wild profits up the food chain. The fact that Mace is a brown man – his family is originally from Puerto Rico – makes the world of THE Wrestling an immediately recognizable microcosm for US economic relations generally, which likewise fully depend on the millions of brown people, many undocumented, who do the “heavy lifting” in all sorts of unattractive, underpaid yet indispensable jobs (think agricultural harvesting, meat processing, landscaping, house and office cleaning, call center support…the list is long).

While Mace has a justified chip on his shoulder about his status within the world of THE Wrestling, he doesn’t complain to his boss, THE Wrestling owner Everett K Olson (“EKO”): Mace fully gets that what sells in the world of professional wrestling is a kind of showmanship and simplified jingoism that he can’t muster, and that his colleague – the extremely muscular, winning-smile-possessing, super-charismatic, good-on-the-mic Chad Deity – has in spades.

The play thus makes trenchant observations about our complicity in the systems that oppress us. Mace describes professional wrestling as “the most uniquely profound artistic expression of the ideals of the United States” because “in wrestling, you can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking.” Mace’s own participation in the system that keeps him down isn’t limited to the wrestling ring. He tells us repeatedly how he doesn’t speak out against false stereotypes and background racism; in fact, his journey through the play involves his getting to the point where he’s fed up enough to finally insist on telling his story and making visible the complexity of his identity.

At the same time, Chad Deity is also really smart on the ways everything is coopted for the sake of profit. As Diaz portrays it, the world of professional wrestling traffics shamelessly in stereotype and caricature. When Mace brings his new friend, an Indian-American named Vigneshwar Paduar (“VP”), to join the THE Wrestling lineup, VP wants to create a character that plays on India’s role in the global economy and highlights his own global savviness – “put me in a suit, and I’m talking about outsourcing tech jobs … They’ll hate me.” But EKO immediately seizes on the idea to make VP a Muslim fundamentalist instead, erasing, in the process, not only the difference between an Indian-American and a Middle-Eastern terrorist, but also lumping together various Latin nationalities (he creates a villainous sidekick “Mexican” character for Mace with the name Che Chavez Castro – for EKO, all brownness seems interchangeable). EKO smells money in the xenophobic anti-Muslimism to be provoked by VP’s character, and even when VP, as “The Fundamentalist,” risks his new job by expressing his genuine outrage in a promo for the fight, EKO embraces it as a way to whip fans into an even greater frenzy – he promptly promotes VP to champion so that he can stage a pay-per-view fight in which Chad Deity will win back his gold belt and symbolically serve up a humiliating defeat to Islamic terrorists on behalf of America.

The stereotypes here go in all directions: the characters that Mace and VP defeat in the ring – a series of variously cowed opponents, all played by Jared Bajoras – are nothing but hollow symbols of white Americans, and Chad Deity himself is a caricature of a bling-obsessed, strutting black man. These stereotypes might tell us something about the racism and xenophobia of the professional wrestling audience, but it’s hard to know how much of that viewing audience watches with a degree (or two or three) of irony – everyone knows that the fights are fully staged and that the characters are deliberately exaggerated, after all. I actually think there’s something else going on here, something to do with the way professional wrestling simplifies conflict and allows viewers to identify with, and against, clear heros and villains. In other words, the play not only exposes and complicates stereotypes, but also lays bare the way such stereotypes, and the entertainments in which they are embedded, indulge a desire to not have to think too hard. We need stories like Mace’s and VP’s to counter such simplifying and dangerously divisive narratives.

The barebones production, staged in the gym at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty, gets many things right. The scenic design is spot on: a professional-grade wrestling ring dominates the space, ringed in the back by a set of video screens that display the wrestlers’ “elaborate entrances” as well as footage of WWF matches and live video feeds throughout the show. Girders placed at angles upstage of the ring, and lit in a variety of bright concert hues by Andy Ostrowski, replicate the gaudy, macho vibe of professional wrestling. The use of video is also quite excellent – the elaborate entrance videos co-produced by Trey Duplain and Sean Starr are shot like professional music videos, and the live feed adds a fun dimension to the play’s commentary on entertainment’s role in perpetuating stereotypes and false narratives. The costumes are also terrific, from EKO’s expensive tailored suit to the comically silly get-ups that VP, Mace, and their generic white American opponents don in the ring. Chad Deity is a play that needs a lot of really slick spectacle, and on that front, barebones delivers.

On other fronts, however, it disappoints. The whole play suffers from a lack of pace – it ought to run like a train on fire – and the choice to depend on the audience to stand in aurally for the wrestling crowd is a wrong one. There are no cues in the dialogue or staging to let us know when we’re supposed to start cheering or booing (or whether we are to do one or the other), and the script would be better served by a robust sound design that gives us the impression we’re in the arena, rather than asking theater audiences – many of whom may be experiencing the world of wrestling for the first time through this play – to serve that function.

The play could also have used more oomph in general from its cast. Javon Johnson is charismatic and winning as Chad Deity, and Patrick Jordan – while probably about ten years too young for the role – is in his comfort zone as the hard-ass boss EKO. But as in the world of THE Wrestling, neither of them is tasked with the heavy lifting – that job falls to Gil Perez-Abraham, as Mace, and Nick Slade, as VP. Mace needs a bit more wattage than Perez-Abraham provides; he seems to have found the character’s sarcasm and wit but not his charm. As VP, Slade gives us a lot of anger and umbrage but none of the character’s intellectual nimbleness. In addition, he has the wrong physique to serve the comedy of the play, which depends, in part, on the implausibility of the wrestling scenario EKO plans to make bank on – that is, of a weak-looking “Muslim” unexpectedly taking down a massive opponent with a single kick. The script calls for him to be tall and lanky – he’s supposed to have never wrestled before – but he’s almost as physically imposing as Chad Deity.

The barebones team deserves great credit nevertheless for taking on such an ambitious project, and I suspect that audience members who didn’t have previous exposure to it were less disappointed than I with the pace and the character interpretation. And even if the production didn’t live up to my expectations, I’m still grateful that barebones brought this fabulous play to Pittsburgh – we’ve had to wait a long time (seven years!) for someone to have the chutzpah and dedication to give it a go.

Forced Entertainment: “Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Real Magic” (Warhol Performance Series at the New Hazlett Theatre)

Two performance works this week by the British company Forced Entertainment opened the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh’s exceedingly timely series, “Strange Times: Earth in the Age of the Human.” Forced Entertainment is a company known for  work that deliberately breaks with many of the conventions of theatre, such as the expectation for entertainment, or for character development, or for narrative pleasure and closure in a theatrical performance. Their work instead explores questions about what is being negotiated when a performer stands in front of an audience. Postdramatic in approach, Forced Entertainment’s performances often revolve around repetition; they traffic in awkwardness and cultivate a quality of makeshiftness and lack of polish; they often are built like a strange game, with rules and constraints that must be absolutely followed, and which lend their pieces a highly formal integrity and structure. Moreover, although the performances are often deeply absurd and weird, there is a fundamental realness to what is happening on stage. Actors might stand on stage with fake grimaces pasted on their faces, or wear inexplicable costumes or hideously ugly wigs, but that artifice will be contrasted with a realism of actor presence that points up the immanence of the moment of performance. In other words: in their work, what is happening in the moment is what is happening in the moment. Forced Entertainment’s work is bracing because it is operating on multiple levels, speaking to, and denying, our desire to be lulled and entertained, challenging us to be bored or confounded, and using form as well as content to comment on contemporary social and existential predicaments.

In Tomorrow’s Parties (the first of the two pieces they brought to Pittsburgh)  the setup is deceptively simple. Two performers—Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall—step onto a small makeshift platform made out of a couple of stacked shipping pallets. They are framed by a string of multicolored carnival lights, and dressed in everyday clothing. They stand matter-of-factly and speak directly to the audience.

“In the future,” Lowdon begins, and what follows is a series of speculations—ranging from whimsical to dire, and traded back and forth between Lowdon and Marshall—on possible futures. Their affect is low-key and conversational, more like they are telling us casually of New Year’s resolutions (as in, “in the future, I will exercise more”) than performing a story. Yet the effect is mesmerizing, transporting even—at times the performers evoke a future with such mundane detail that it almost feels as if you are dreaming it. Some of the futures described are optimistic and hopeful, others are dystopic and bleak; some take flights of fancy into the sublime, and others descend into the downright silly. In places the back and forth even plays out a pointed, if rather subdued, gender battle. Marshall imagines that in the future, there will be no men, just women and a sperm bank. Lowdon counters with a future that has few men, all of whom can let themselves go physically because they are in demand, and an overabundance of women, whose social roles depend on their age and attractiveness. Marshall parries with a future in which there are no human men, but aliens, who are “just like human men, but superior to them in every way possible.” Lowdon one-ups her with a future that has no people at all. The jockeying between the two performers is sly, but never overtly hostile or aggressive; they float their speculations with the calm demeanor of someone settled in for a long day of fishing, casting out scenarios, letting them play out for a bit, and then reeling them back and casting in another direction.

At its most provocative, Tomorrow’s Parties delivers a charge of recognition that a dystopian future it describes is actually already here — as, for example, when Lowdon describes a future in which “people won’t encounter animals at all, except in zoos” or when Marshall suggests that “it will be just like now” and then proceeds to describe what can only be categorized as a fully dystopian set of circumstances. At its most poignant and harrowing, Tomorrow’s Parties delivers a stinging indictment of our present time from the perspective of the future, imagining that people will look back on our times with moral outrage at our unsustainable depletion of the earth’s resources, and will think about our times “always with anger.” And at its most political, Tomorrow’s Parties makes trenchant observations about our current social and economic priorities, using one scenario to draw a line from our current loyalty to brands and products into a future in which corporations are more important than churches or nations, and another scenario to pillory those who see climate change as unproblematic because the sun will eventually swallow the earth. Shimmering between anticipation and despair, these speculations about the future are simultaneously unsettling and comforting, offering hope by virtue of the sheer number of options these performers can conjure. Quiet, funny, incisive, and haunting, Tomorrow’s Parties is an apposite opening sally for a series that asks “will we survive ourselves?”

L to R: Jerry Killick, Claire Marshall, and Richard Lowdon.

L to R: Jerry Killick, Claire Marshall, and Richard Lowdon in Forced Entertainment’s REAL MAGIC.

Real Magic, the second work, explores existential dilemmas of a different sort. Once again, the stage elements are simple and limited: a square of green astroturf is framed by a semi-circle of vertical fluorescent lights; in the center of the astroturf is a microphone on a stand, and next to it, a chair. A few costumes are strewn upstage, at the base of the lights; three rectangles of cardboard lay face down on the floor in a pile. In this piece, Lowdon and Marshall are joined by Jerry Killick, and the three performers take the stage to the sound of canned applause and a repeating loop of the kind of upbeat, vamping music you might hear between circus acts or as the accompaniment to a whacky television game show. And what ensues is, indeed, a ludicrous game show-cum-mindreading act: Lowdon sits and ties on a blindfold; Killick, acting in the role of game show host, ascertains that they are all strangers, and have never met before; and then Killick instructs Lowdon to try to guess the word that Marshall is thinking of. Marshall – dressed in a big yellow chicken suit – displays the word CARAVAN on a piece of cardboard. Lowdon guesses: “Electricity?” “Hole?” “Money?” “No,” Killick cries, “that’s three chances, you’re out. Let’s swap.”

And that set of events, repeated but with variations, makes up the performance. The performers trade roles, the word on the cardboard changes from CARAVAN to ALGEBRA to SAUSAGE, the soundtrack changes from applause, to laughter, to the ticking of a countdown clock, to a mournful violin solo and back again; and the performers change and exchange clothes, donning and doffing chicken suits as the scenario endlessly loops. What doesn’t change is the basic structure of the task or the outcome of the game; the host always sets up the game and explains the rules, the thinker always holds up a cardboard sign with one of the three words, and the guesser always guesses the same three wrong words.

Even so, the game changes every time it is repeated. In one iteration, the stakes feel deadly serious and the tone is quiet and intense; in another, the performers are silly and flippant, breezing through the routine without much care for the consequences. At times the host is encouraging and positive; at others, the host becomes menacing and severe. The guesser is sometimes hopeful, sometimes nervous, sometimes confident, sometimes terrified. As the performance progresses, the game starts to become frenzied and chaotic; then exhaustion sets in, and something akin to despair. Occasionally they interrupt the routine to “do the dance,” a slow approximation of a chicken dance.

There are shades of No Exit to this scenario, a feeling that these three people are trapped in some kind of awful purgatory, doomed to execute the same set of tasks for eternity. And yet, the performers’ investment in each iteration has the odd effect of giving you hope that they’ll “get it right” even after it becomes clear, many repetitions in, that the pattern will never be broken. Indeed, the company makes fun of its own commitment to the rule it has established for the performance: in one instance, Killick cheats and shows Lowdon the word he’s supposed to guess. “Sometimes the answer is right in front of you,” Marshall intones, as the host, “Just look and you will find.” But – astonishingly, maddeningly – Lowdon still comes up with the wrong three guesses. And – perhaps just as surprisingly – despite their exhaustion with the pattern, the other two don’t choose to simply lie and tell him that one of his guesses is correct. What’s more, no one in the audience ever shouts out the correct answer. We’re all complicit in this frustrating game of guaranteed failure.

That dynamic – in which all three feel beholden to rules that trap them in patterns they are desperate to break – beautifully captures the double-bind in which we all seem to be caught, unable to escape the political and existential patterns in which we’re trapped, even when the answers are right in front of our collective noses, and doomed to failure because the game is impossible to begin with. At the same time, Real Magic also seems to be commenting on our enthrallment with, and to, spectacle, and on the distractive, hamster-wheel effect spectacle has on our attention. Real Magic is a riveting, disturbing, delightful, and completely ridiculous show that scratches at uncomfortable existential itches, and ends with an elegaic gesture toward the need to dance on, inventing ever new strategies, even knowing that we will probably never really “get it right.”

“Lungs” at Off The Wall Productions at Carnegie Stage

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What’s the best way any given individual can take action to mitigate climate change? Recycle? Drive an electric car? Buy energy efficient appliances? Insulate and use less heating and cooling? Stop flying? Buy organic and local? Use public transportation? Pee in the shower and turn off the faucet while brushing teeth?

Eco-virtuous as all those actions may be, their net effect, even multiplied across the many billions of people living with the resources to make those choices, would be virtually nil compared to the one choice that would truly make a difference if taken collectively by a majority of inhabitants of the Earth: not having a child (interested in reading more about this? Try here and here).

But what does it mean, for an average couple, to take the planet under consideration in their family planning?

That’s pretty much the premise from which Duncan Macmillan’s extraordinarily smart and timely play Lungs takes off. A young-ish couple has reached that point in their relationship when baby-making is in the cards. But these two – a nameless man and woman – are the kind of high-information, self-reflective people who want to do what’s rational, right, and moral, even as they feel the irrational urge to do what generations of humans before them have done without much reflection at all. She (played by Sarah Silk) is a Ph.D. student, an overthinker and overanalyzer who is initially thrown completely off balance by her boyfriend’s suggestion that they even discuss the possibility of having a baby together, and almost immediately brings up the ecological implications: “they say if you really care about the planet then don’t have children.” He (played by Alec Silberblatt) shares her concerns, but also sees a responsibility for “good people” like themselves to reproduce, lest the genes of responsible and caring persons like themselves not survive. Their (often quite absurdly funny) back-and-forth on the decision touches on many of the arguments and rationalizations that are brought forth whenever people think about their individual actions in the face of the enormous problem of climate change – like, for example, the argument that if the only people who stop reproducing are the altruistic ones, then the world will fill with selfish people, or the argument that not having a child might mean not bringing into the world the genius who could invent a technical solution to the problem.

Off The Wall/Carnegie Stage presents "Lungs"

L to R: Alec Silberblatt & Sarah Silk. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Off the Wall Productions

What’s brilliant about this play is the way it puts our human tendency to rationalize and justify decisions on display and opens that tendency to both sympathy and scrutiny. As “He” puts it: “everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing.” At the same time, the play vividly makes clear that our current ecological predicament is a direct consequence of that tendency to rationalize. Multiply the kinds of individual justifications we see the man and woman making by 10 billion (the projected population in 2050), and you have a planet that will no longer be able to sustain human life.

Lungs is not only or even mostly about climate change, however – at its core, it’s a play about the relationship between the man and the woman, and about how they miscommunicate and misread each other and yet still find what they need in each other. Macmillan’s portrait of the couple feels honest and fresh, and his dialogue is sharp and often surprising. His play is also unconventionally challenging to stage: he specifies that it should be played on a completely bare stage, with no lighting or sound cues to indicate scene transitions, and although the action shifts forward in time and takes place in several locales, the script gives no clear indication where and when those shifts occur. The Off the Wall production cheats on the “bare stage” parameter a tiny bit: Adrienne Fischer’s set is a pair of oval platforms covered in bright green shag carpet, which is bordered by a set of fluorescent lights canopying like the branches of a tree over the playing space. But otherwise the play is presented in accordance with the playwright’s insructions, without furniture, props, or mime. Rising magnificently to those challenges, director Spencer Whale does a beautiful job of choreographing the action to tell the story with precision and lucidity.

This kind of spare storytelling is a gift to talented actors, and Silberblatt and Silk are superb beyond description as the man and woman. These may, in fact, be two of the finest performances I’ve seen in Pittsburgh this year – and if you didn’t make it out to Carnegie to see this play, you missed out on a highlight of 2016 (although you still have time, if you don’t have plans for tonight!!). Not only do Silk and Silberblatt bring the relationship between the man and woman into crystal clear focus and flesh out their characters’ needs and vulnerabilities with empathy, sensitivity, and wit, but they also give us two people to whom those of us who like to think we are “doing right” (and isn’t that all of us?) can utterly relate. In so doing, they give us pause to consider all the ways in which our own individual actions – as justifiable and rationalizable as they may be – will collectively bequeath the children we can’t seem to stop having a world they won’t want – or be able – to live in.