“A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem” at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre

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A huge Afro comb stands teeth-down upstage right, its handle worked in a Black Power fist; a wide stone basin nestled in a carved round base rests in front of it; and a monumental African mask with intricate braids looks down from above. Welcome to the “Harlem” of adaptor/director Justin Emeka’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Harlem, a playfully imagined world (scenic design by Anka Lupes) that gathers together elements of the African Diaspora across both time and space to tell the familiar story from Shakespeare’s play. Here, the young lovers chase each other in contemporary street fashion wear, the mechanicals show up in the uniforms of New York City sanitation workers, delivery drivers, store managers, and security guards, while Titania (Portia), Oberon (Keith Lee Grant), and the fairies (Chrisala M. Brown, Kelsey Robinson, Calina Womack, and Hope Anthony) wear colorful African/ Afro-Carribean dresses and tunics (costumes are by Demeatria Boccella). Puck (the excellent Jaris Owens), all in red, is also Eshu, the Yoruba trickster god, while the Duke and Hippolyta seem to have time-travelled from a 1920s Harlem nightclub. The sonic world offers a similar sampler box of African diasporic music, ranging from percussion on the djembe and berimbau (performed masterfully by Akinlana Lowman) to beat-boxing and hip-hop.

Jaris Owens as Puck/Eshu. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theatre.

Playful, as well, is Emeka’s approach to adapting Shakespeare’s story. The transposition of the mechanicals into a group of New York workers is inspired, and the fantastic group of actors who make up the comically underprepared players – E. Mani Cadet as Quince, Andre G. Brown as Bottom, Brian Starks as Snug, Harry J. Hawkins IV as Flute, Marshall Weir Mabry IV as Snout, and Richard McBride as Starveling – has excellent chemistry and timing. Moreover, Emeka’s adaptation not only celebrates Harlem as an “African melting pot,” but it also centers queer love: Hermia (Saige Smith) is here in love with (female) Lysandra (Amara Granderson) instead of Demetrius (Brenden Peifer); these latter two have their ardor redirected toward Helena (June Alvilda Almonte) by way of a magic flower, which has them madly twerking, posing, and doing various TikTok-inspired moves to win her affection. 

L to R: Brian Starks, Richard McBride, Harry J. Hawkins IV, Andre G. Brown, Marshall Weir Mabry IV. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theatre

At times, however, I could have wished that this adaptation paused the playfulness a bit to consider how its choices weave intersectional oppression into a plot that already hinges on patriarchal power and domination. (Remember: the original is a comedy that begins with a scene in which the Duke is making preparations to marry Hippolyta, who is his prisoner of war.) When Hermia’s father refuses to consider Lysandra a suitable match and says he would prefer to see Hermia die than marry a woman, we are no longer in the realm of mere patriarchal obstinacy (as in the original) but rather in a world of violent homophobia. Yet the production blows past this, as it later blows past the fact that Oberon has drugged Titania and made her engage in intimacy with another character without her full consent. Some attention to the serious undertones of this play might have allowed our laughter to stick a bit in our throats and reminded us that many injustices – homophobia, transphobia, misogyny – follow us even into spaces of joy.

Emeka’s adaptation leans instead into magic and lightness. He’s helped by Lupes’s set, which has a bunch of surprising transformations up its sleeve; by Zach Moore’s lovely and at times psychedelic projection design; and by Chrisala M. Brown’s vibrant, African- and Afro-Brazilian-inspired choreography. At the end of the play, when the entire cast, dressed in white, fills the stage to celebrate the plot’s happy resolution in dance, it’s not only an exuberant and infectious affirmation of Black joy, but also a rejoicing in the abundance of African diasporic forms that have shaped Black identity in this country. 

“What the Constitution Means to Me” at City Theatre

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How often do you think about what the US Constitution means to you? I’m willing to bet that you don’t give it a lot of thought on a daily basis; I certainly don’t. But Heidi Schreck is here to warn that it would behoove all of us to think about it more, because many of its presumed protections are extremely fragile.

Of course, that’s not going to come as news to anyone who was awake last summer when the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision and essentially deprived millions of their right to make essential reproductive health care decisions. Schreck’s play – which premiered in 2017 –is clear-eyed about the tenuousness of rights that exist only by dint of Supreme Court decisions. Her description of the Constitution’s many inadequacies, particularly with regard to the protection of women’s rights, was alarming back then (I saw the original production on Broadway in the summer of 2019); now, it’s enraging. 

Tami Dixon as Heidi; photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

In What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck (played here by Tami Dixon) takes us back to when she was a fifteen-year-old who traveled around the country competing for college scholarship money by giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion Halls (the scenic design, by Sasha Schwartz, may transport you back to a Legion or Shriners event of your past, if you’re of a certain age). The show is, on one hand, a master class in understanding the Constitution as a document: not only does Schreck get deep into the weeds on a couple of key amendments, but she also explains the difference between the “negative rights” enshrined in the US Constitution – which protect us from things the government might do to us, like illegal search and seizure – and the many many “positive rights” that are missing, such as a right to health care, education, or gender equality (the fifty year old Equal Rights Amendment has still not passed!) But it is also deeply personal and insistently political. As part of the competition, the contestants were required to “draw a personal connection between their own lives and the great document”; while the teen Heidi found this part of the contest difficult, the adult Heidi is able to connect the dots between the Constitution’s failure to recognize women as full citizens and the domestic violence and sexual abuse suffered by four generations of her female ancestors. Also personal for her (as for many of us) is the (now partially voided) constitutional right to privacy that Justice William O. Douglas carved out of the 9th amendment, in the 1965 Griswold decision that legalized birth control, and that was later used to protect a woman’s right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term in Roe v. Wade

Schreck employs a digressive storytelling technique that allows her to make connections across space and time and between major historical events and intimate personal history. It’s an approach that eminently suits a project aimed at illuminating how something as abstract as the US Constitution comes to have personal meaning and import; it’s also an approach that allows her to take her audience on an emotional journey that includes a good deal of levity and even LOL humor in addition to anger and grief. Dixon, an experienced hand at such storytelling, is the ideal amanuensis for Schreck – it’s hard to think of another local actor who would be so right for the role – and she is particularly great at shading the range of ire Schreck expresses, from ironic simmer to steely outrage. And while there’s always something odd when an actor plays another actor playing themselves, Dixon’s straightforwardness and connectedness to the text allows us to see the Heidi in her as much as we see her as Heidi.

L to R: Tami Dixon and Ken Bolden. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

I’ve been writing up to this point as if this is a one-person show, but in fact it includes two other performers. Ken Bolden plays Mike Iveson, who serves at the beginning of the show as the “older white man” Legionnaire judge of the speech competition (looking scarily accurate to type, courtesy of Richard Parsakian’s dead-on costuming), and whose job later in the performance is to provide “positive male energy” on stage, when he offers his own story of growing into his queer identity. 

The other performer is a high-school student who comes on stage in the second part of the show to debate against Dixon on the proposition “The Constitution ought to be abolished.” Depending on the night you see the show, this will either be Fox Chapel Area High School sophomore Swati Mylarappa, or North Allegheny Senior High School senior Lamees Yasir, both of whom are poised, whip-smart, experienced debaters. A flip of the coin determines which side of the argument Dixon will take, and which will be taken by the student; at the end of the debate, a member of the audience is selected to determine which argument “wins.” Both times I saw this show – on Broadway and here at City Theatre – I was simultaneously impressed by the skill and self-possession of the teenaged debater and frustrated by the binary “win/lose” constraints of the debate format. Neither choice – to keep what Schreck has demonstrated to be a deeply flawed constitution, or to abolish it and put our rights at the mercy of the chaos monkeys who are currently holding the strings of power – seems like a good option. 

But it raises the question: what does the Constitution mean to me? To any of us? And along with that question comes the even more pressing one: to whom have we delegated the power to interpret it, change it, and possibly even abolish it? That’s a question that has become even more urgent – and frightening – in the last two years, making the stakes of Schreck’s work feel very high indeed.

“A Christmas Story” at The Pittsburgh Public Theater

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The Pittsburgh Public Theater – or, as artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski likes to say, your Pittsburgh Public Theater – has a couple of bright shiny gifts for the community this holiday season.

The first comes all wrapped in a bow and offers little in the way of surprise for most people, but much in the way of comforting nostalgia. I’m talking about the stage version of A Christmas Story, that chestnut of a film that’s been staple-viewing for those who celebrate Christmas – and a cultural point of reference even for those who don’t – since it first came out in 1983. 

If you’ve never seen the film, or haven’t seen it in a while: it’s the one about a boy named Ralphie who desperately wants an “official Red Ryder Carbine action, 200 shot, range model air rifle with a compass and a thing that tells time built right into the stock” for Christmas. A request to which all adults everywhere have the same response: “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

Philip Grecian’s script (written in 2000) hews closely to the film’s story: if you’re jones-ing for the frozen-tongue-on-a-lamppost, the Christmas tree haggle, and the battle over the leg lamp, he’s got you covered. The production, under Michael Berresse’s tight choreographic direction, captures the delicate balance of nostalgia and cynicism with which the narrator – adult Ralph (John Shepard) – looks back on his childhood, and, in particular, on his parents. Tim McGeever plays the hapless Old Man who is in constant war with both the next-door neighbor’s dogs and a malfunctioning furnace, and who has a flair for inventing curse words. Jamie Agnello is the long-suffering Mother who has untapped intellectual potential and whose talents are wasted cooking meatloaf five nights a week. As parents tend to do, both loom large in Ralph’s memory, and McGeever and Agnello finesse the tricky task of embodying the comic dimensions they assume in his remembrance while also letting us see the adult motivations and experiences that would have been invisible to him as a child. They’re also really fantastic in a couple of bravura comic lazzis that showcase the lengths married couples will go to avoid direct confrontation.

L to R: Tim McGeever, Jamie Agnello, and Sebastian Madoni. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Sebastian Madoni brings a talent for physical comedy and a knack for comic timing to the role of young Ralphie Parker, and he’s joined in the “kid’s world” of the play by nine other fine young talents: Colin Bozick (who gets consistent laughs as Flick, with his complaint about his sore arm), Will Chambers (Randy), Suraya Love Collins (Ester Jane Alberry), Eamonn McElfresh (taking delight as the bully Scut Farkas), Zora Rose (Helen Weathers), Charlie Julian Still (Schwartz), and Jude Ziggy Glover, Adjoa Opoku-Dakwa, and Nikolai Zevchak (Ensemble). 

The scenic design by Tim Mackabee appears, at first glance, like a reboot of the set for the PPT’s recent production of Raisin in the Sun, but have faith in that big proscenium bow: there are hidden gifts in store! Among those is a fabulous department store “Santa House,” complete with a tube slide. Moreover, at many moments the production shifts into scenes of fantasy, as when, for example, Ralphie imagines how owning a BB gun might allow him to save his family from bandits. Playful and cheeky sound, projection, and lighting design (Sartje Pickett, Bryce C. Cutler, and Robert Aguilar) elevate these sequences into a quasi-cinematic realm and remind us that this production, like the film, refuses to take itself too seriously. A highlight comes when Ralphie daydreams the rapturous reception that his “theme” about the air rifle might receive from his teacher, Miss Shields (Hope M. Anthony): a sweep of romantic violin music and a firework display of “A+’s” culminate in a tableau that figures Ralphie as a mini-Shakespeare (the excellent costuming is by Venise St. Pierre).

L to R: Hope M. Anthony & Sebastian Madoni. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The nudge-nudge wink-wink fun of the production even extends into the audience; on opening night, there were costumes on our side of the proscenium as well, including at least one person in pink bunny footie pajamas. That’s all to say: if you are so inclined, it’s likely you will not be alone if you attend in festive attire.

But there is more to celebrate than just the holidays at the PPT! The second gift, announced on the opening night of A Christmas Story, is a new initiative: “Theater for All.” The PPT is embracing radical hospitality to offer a raft of free tickets to each of its productions, beginning in January of 2023. About a month before each opening, free tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone in the community. More details available here

“The Wanderers” at City Theatre

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“Be careful what you wish for” might be the phrase that best captures the sentiment at the core of Anna Ziegler’s new play The Wanderers, which depicts the quiet dissolution of two marriages as a result of a yearning for something – some vague, undefined thing – more. And – because this is a play about both religious and secular Jews, and the title is an overt reference to the forty years’ that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness – I should probably add “and accept what is bashert.”

L to R: Moira Quigley and Nick Lehane. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City theatre.

Schmuli (Nick Lehane) and Esther (Moira Quigley) belong to the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community; their marriage, in the early 1970s, is an arranged one that is troubled from the start by Esther’s small rebellions against the rules and traditions that circumscribe what she is allowed to do and be. When she floats the idea of using birth control so that she can pursue other interests besides raising children, the otherwise gentle and meek Schmuli allows the Rebbe to impose a punishment so severe that it forces Esther to take their newborn son and divorce herself from both Schmuli and the religious community.

Secular Jew Abe (Jed Resnick) and bi-racial Black-Jewish Sophie (Allison Strickland) have known each other since childhood – both were raised by mothers who left the Hasidic community and who remained close friends on the ‘outside.’ In 2015 their marriage is tested when Abe, who is an award-winning novelist, gets a fan message from famous movie star Julia Cheever (Sarah Goeke) and embarks on a secret text and email flirtation with her. His correspondence with Julia opens up wounds in himself and in his marriage that aren’t readily healed.

L to R: Jed Resnick and Allison Strickland. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Ziegler cuts up these two marriage stories and assembles them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The writing craft here is admirable: she organically spools out the relationship between the two couples in a way that doesn’t feel like an artificial construction of suspense or mystery but rather serves as a means of carefully building up the layers of legacy, loss, and betrayals of trust that spur the characters’ desires. And because Ziegler assembles the puzzle with such finesse, the piece that changes the picture toward the end of the play has a surprising and devastating effect.

This being a play about Jewish agon, it’s also quite funny. Abe is the self-castigating neurotic type (think Woody Allen before we all hated him), and Resnick fleshes out the stereotype with wry sensitivity. The other characters have their flashes of humor and quirk as well, in particular Esther, whom Quigley gives a stubborn but good-natured need to question everything. Lehane brings humanity and warmth to his portrayal of the pious, rule-bound Schmuli, and Strickland and Goeke layer subtle complexities into the characters of Sophie and Julia. 

Layers and layering are echoed in the production’s design and directing. The spare scenic design, by Anne Mundell, evokes the stone lattice of an Islamic temple, with a balcony above that director Colette Robert uses to suture together both time and space. Particularly effective is her staging of the scenes of text and email conversation between Abe and Julia: jettisoning the usual “eyes forward” stage convention for such exchanges, she lets the characters speak directly to each other, often in the same space, capturing, in their eye contact and emotional connection, the kind of intense feeling of direct communication we often feel when engaged in an extended text message exchange. Mindy Eshelman’s costuming also picks up the theme of complex layers as a way of connecting the characters across the generational and cultural divide: the ritually prescribed formal layers of dress of the Hasidic characters are echoed and contrasted by the casual and schlumpy layered look favored by the hipster secular characters.

All those layers invite you to think about what they are intended to hide or protect, and about all the externalities that lead people to feel restless, bored, dissatisfied, and discontented, because there is some “more” to be had “somewhere out there”. In the end, as both couples come closer to understanding that what’s on the outside may be neither the source of, nor the solution to, their dissatisfaction, it becomes increasingly clear that, more often that not, happiness is wanting what you already have. 

Or, as Esther puts it: “let us feel how fortunate we are.” Accept what is bashert, and you can stop wandering in the wilderness.

Don’t Miss: Bach Choir of Pittsburgh – KINGS

Next week – Nov. 12 & 13 – the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh opens its “Full House” season – music inspired by the face cards found in a standard deck of playing cards – with a presentation of coronation music under the title KINGS.

The music is gorgeous – on the program are Handel’s “Coronation Anthems” and Mozart’s “Coronation Mass.” The choir will be accompanied by Warren Davidson and the Academy Chamber Orchestra, and the venue – First Presbyterian Church downtown – is acoustically perfect for the occasion.

You can purchase tickets and get more information here. Use the discount code ALT22 for 5% off.

“I am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams” at Resonance Works, and “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre

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Two productions that opened in town this weekend offer timely and poignant reminders of the toll placed on human souls and psyches by racism and racist policies.

Resonance Works’ new opera I am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams centers on the plight of Rosa (mezzo soprano Maria Dominique Lopez), an undocumented woman who has been arrested after a protest she organized turned violent and resulted in the death of a firefighter. She has been assigned a pro bono attorney, Singa (soprano Helen Zhibing Huang), and as Singa attempts to help Rosa craft her defense strategy, the opera – with music by Jorge Sosa and libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs – traces the similarities and differences between the two women’s experiences as first generation immigrants to the US.

L to R: Maria Dominique Lopez and Helen Zhibing Huang. Photo by Alisa Innocenti, courtesy Resonance Works.

The similarities between the two women’s journeys are developed in flashbacks that feature two young performers, Elizabeth Rosales (playing the young Rosa) and Chengxi Tao (as young Singa). We see how both families fled danger; how both girls carried the trauma of the violence they escaped into their experience of migration; and how both have been impacted by their racial and cultural “outsider” status in the US. But where Singa “fought to stay and used the law,” Rosa has found that in her fight to stay, the “law used me”: Singa managed to leverage her status as a “model minority” to obtain documentation, a degree, and a prestigious job, conferring on her a privilege that Rosa can only dream of. And now that dream is threatened: not only is it likely that Rosa will be deported because of this arrest, but her daughter Sol (Gabriella Hernandez) – a US citizen by birth – will be left with no one to care for her.

Chengxi Tao. Photo by Alisa Innocenti, courtesy Resonance Works.

The opera pulls its audience into empathy with both women’s struggles, through both text and music. Conductor Maria Sellner leads the sizable orchestra with sensitivity, and the minimalist design (scenery by Sasha Schwartz, costumes by Damian Dominguez, lights by Annmarie Duggan, and sound by Kristian Tchetchko) serves the opera’s straightforward storytelling. Lopez and Huang are powerful singers, and although much of the action is static, they create a vivid emotional journey through the modulation of voice and feeling. Rosales and Tao are excellent as well, delivering authentic and understated performances as fearful children, and their singing is strong and clear. Soprano Natalie Polito plays an array of antagonists – a gangster, Singa’s mother, a Trumpian prosecutor – with nuance, and a large chorus of young performers from the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus – all of whom have excellent stage presence – establishes visually what’s really at stake in this story: our investment in the future that is represented by the next generation. 

E. Faye Butler. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Public Theatre

A Raisin in the Sun, in a new production at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, also traces the intergenerational effects of racism and racist policies. A classic by Lorraine Hansberry, it tells the story of the Younger family: mother Lena (E. Faye Butler), her son Walter Lee (Rico Parker) and daughter Beneatha (Hope M. Anthony), Walter Lee’s wife Ruth (Dedra D. Woods) and son Travis (Tose Adewumi/Ty Gilliam). It’s the early 1950s, and all of these family members are crammed into a small two-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s South Side, where they are barely scraping by with income from domestic work and chauffeuring. Hope comes in the form of a large insurance check that Walter Lee wants to use to establish himself as an entrepreneur (he hopes to open a liquor store with friends); but Lena and Ruth dream of moving into a better home, and Beneatha aspires to become a doctor. The play’s essential conflict derives from Lena’s decision about how to use the money: she puts a down payment on a house in a white neighborhood, which spins off a series of actions and reactions.

Although it is very much of its time – and the PPT production, to its credit, does a great job of recreating details of a 1950s mode of living, down to an old-fashioned match striker mounted on the vintage gas stove and an electrical outlet at the base of a lighting fixture – A Raisin in the Sun is a play about several topics still relevant today: colorism, real estate redlining, the impact of the legacy of slavery on intergenerational wealth, microaggressions, and the intersections of class and race. But what may most resonate with viewers is Hansberry’s insightful depiction of the competing pressures and insults that racism inflicts on the human psyche and soul, particularly through Walter Lee’s tormented conflict over how best to be the “man of the family.”

Director Timothy McCuen Piggee embraces the realism of this play, even choosing to have the characters cook and eat real food on stage (there is a working sink and stove in the kitchen). The family’s apartment, as designed by Jennifer J. Zeyl, is a riot of clashing floral patterns, and there are flowers everywhere else, too: on the plates, on most of Alethia R. Moore-Del Monaco’s period-accurate costumes, and on gift boxes and a hat that plays a role toward the end of the play. I suppose that this motif stems from Lena’s stated desire for a “patch of grass where I could grow a few flowers”; in any case, it establishes her as a person who has done all she can to create an environment of beauty in an otherwise dingy setting. The ensemble, which is uniformly strong, also includes Brenden Peifer as the lighter-skinned, upper-class George Murchison and Kevis Hillocks as the Nigerian-born Joseph Asagai (both of whom are vying for Beneatha’s affections), Samual S. Lothard as the hapless Bobo, who is also caught up in the swindle that nearly destroys Walter Lee, and Ken Bolden as Mr. Lindner, the nervous representative of the “welcoming committee” that seeks to keep the Younger family from moving into their new home.

The nearly three-hour production gains steam as it goes; indeed, it’s in the second act that the actors seem to really hit their stride. There, both Parker and Butler bring the anguish of the play’s central betrayal fully into their bodies, and it’s in these remarkable and devastating moments that the production transcends its realism and vividly tallies both the psychic and the physical price that racism exacts from its victims.

“Idaspe” at Quantum Theatre (in collaboration with Chatham Baroque)

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In her note recounting the genesis of the partnership between Quantum Theatre and Chatham Baroque that resulted in the first staging of the Baroque opera Idaspe since 1730, Quantum artistic director Karla Boos explains that she originally set out to produce Vivaldi’s Bajazet after hearing Vivica Genaux’s recording of an aria supposedly from that opera called “Qual Guerriero in campo armato.” It turns out, however, that this aria was actually composed by Riccardo Broschi for his opera Idaspe, and was originally sung by Broschi’s brother, the celebrity castrato singer Farinelli; Vivaldi “borrowed” the aria for Bajazet. Where Bajazet is merely “obscure,” Idaspe was all but lost to time (only a manuscript version of the score existed); its resurrection has been a pandemic era labor of love between director-writer Claire van Kampen and Chatham Baroque’s Andrew Fouts, Patricia Halverson, and Scott Pauley.

From a musical perspective alone, it was an effort well worth making. The production of Idaspe at the Byham (this week only, until October 15) offers an experience of musicianship that is sublime. Soprano Vivica Genaux plays Dario, the role originally written for Farinelli, who was famous for both his vocal range (he could apparently dive down to an F below middle C and soar up to two octaves above middle C) and his vocal agility. Genaux is more than up to the challenge: her performances of “Qual Guerriero” (which closes the opera’s first act) and the equally challenging “Ombra fedele anch’io” showcase her breathtaking virtuosity and her vocal athleticism. She floats atop the orchestra on a complex – dare I say baroque? – and rapid line of melismas, trills, and ornamentations, and seems to be all of the instruments in turn, from violin to cello to flute, all the while also building and conveying the emotional arc of the scenes in which these arias appear, in both cases scenes of anguish, loss, and despair. 

Vivica Genaux as Dario. Photo by Jason Snyder, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The rest of the vocalists in the cast are equally impressive. Countertenor John Holiday, who plays Idaspe, has a clear, ringing voice with incredible range; at one point he sings a gorgeous aria to his beloved Berenice while lying on his side, and the moment is as heartbreaking in its emotional effect as it is astonishing for the technical ability he displays. Soprano Pascale Beaudin reaches heights of delicate and lilting lyricism as Berenice; mezzo soprano Zoie Reams brings a warm, plummy voice and a commanding stage presence to her portrayal of Dario’s love interest Mandane. Tenor Karim Sulayman, who plays Artaserse, the oppressive Boss of the Persians, sings two love arias with a passion and sensitivity that melt your soul; he has a sweet, velvety voice that belies his character’s hard exterior. Countertenor Wei En Chan and mezzo soprano Shannon Delijani bring their splendid, clear, and technically adept voices into the mix as Ircano and Arbace, loyal followers to Dario and Artaserse, respectively: Chan in particular has a dazzling aria in the first act that shows off his incredible vocal range as well as his acting chops.

Under Daniel Nesta Curtis’s conducting, the Chatham Baroque orchestra is at the top of its game: the music is clean and precise, and you can hear every layer of the intricate, delicate music. The balance of voices and instruments is masterful, integrating the vocal lines and the instrumental lines into a harmonious whole. If you have never understood what is exciting and special about baroque music, you will after experiencing this production: the musicians here capture the full range of melodic lines and emotional moods of the genre. 

L to R: Pascale Beaudin and Karim Sulayman. Photo by Narelle Sissons.

The production is also visually arresting. Narelle Sissons’s contemporary, abstract scenic design is complemented by Ilona Somogyi’s stylish, 60s-adjacent costuming; both glow under the jewel tones of Mary Ellen Stebbins’s lighting design. Choreographer Antonia Franceschi keeps the world of the opera alive with movement, often setting staccato modern dance against the baroque music in an intriguing and effective juxtaposition. The dancers sometimes function as characters within the scene; at other times it’s as if they are an embodiment of the singing character’s imagination, dancing out their deepest desires or darkest fears. Some of the dancers are also gymnasts and acrobats – one spectacular scene even features two of the dancers performing on aerial silks.

You may have noticed that I have not written anything yet about this opera’s story. I’m not sure I can. The plot mainly revolves around Dario and Idaspe and their attempts to free Mandane and Berenice from Artaserse, who has kidnapped them. But the story is convoluted and hard to follow. There is a whole complex back story that gets delivered in a quick flash of a supertitle; then, before we’ve even fully captured Dario and Idaspe’s names, they take on assumed names, both of which start with the letter “A,” in order to cross into the enemy’s territory, so right off the bat we’re perplexed by character names; and on top of that there are two other characters whose names also start with “A,” so that’s an added cognitive load; and then, as the story develops, the characters’ motives and alliances seem to shift suddenly and without explanation, while the characters’ actions also produce weird and inexplicable reactions. In addition, the production itself seems determined to keep its audience from getting much of the story: there is no plot synopsis provided in the program and large chunks of the text go untranslated in the supertitles, including the entirety of some of the recitatives, where opera normally delivers much of its plot development. As a result, the story is confusing and lacking in coherence, and while the design elements and choreography add visual interest to the world of the opera, they primarily function to further complicate rather than streamline its storytelling.

But with music this beautiful and this transporting, maybe you don’t need to care whether or not you understand the story. I’m as much a narrative junkie as any one I know, but on opening night there were times when I happily gave up trying to make sense of the action and simply surrendered to its transcendentally glorious music. 

“Clyde’s” at City Theatre

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Nothing in Lynn Nottage’s play Clyde’s is only what it first appears to be. While on the surface it’s a play about a diner in a truck stop somewhere near Reading, PA, that establishment is not merely a way station for hungry drivers but also a liminal space – a limbo, if you will – for its employees, all of whom have felony convictions and prison records. Likewise, the sandwiches they make for their clientele are not mere sustenance but stand-ins for artistic expression and self-actualization, and the practice of making sandwiches a means of disciplining a kind of Zen present-mindedness. Indeed, the play itself is at once both a light comedy about misfits, and a thinly veiled allegory of redemption, in which angels and devils battle over possession of the hearts and minds of the once-fallen.

L to R: Khalil Kain and Latonia Phipps. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The two chief antagonists are the saintly Montrellous (Khalil Kain), a kind of culinary kung fu master of the art of sandwich-making, and his boss, the cartoonishly villainous Clyde (Latonia Phipps), who heaps all manner of abuse on her employees, for reasons largely unexplained (except that she’s, y’know, the devil incarnate). Clyde is the only employer in the area who will hire ex-cons, which gives her masochistic power over her line cooks. These, it turns out, are all Good People who have made Bad Choices, and who seem to have been doomed to suffer for a spell in the purgatory of Clyde’s kitchen. Tish (Saige Smith) is a single mother who did time after robbing a pharmacy for prescription medicine for her disabled child (and nabbing some Oxycodone and Adderall to sell on the side). Rafael (Jerreme Rodriguez) got hopped up on drugs and shot a bank employee in the face while committing armed robbery with a BB gun because he wanted to buy his girlfriend a King Charles Spaniel. And the newest employee, Jason (Patrick Cannon), regrets both the rage-induced assault that landed him in prison, and the white supremacist tattoos he obtained while behind bars.

L to R: Saige Smith, Jerreme Rodriguez, and Patrick Cannon. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

If that last character sounds familiar, it’s because he represents a link to Nottage’s 2015 play Sweat, in which the character Jason attacks Oscar (a Latino worker who crossed a picket line to take work in the local mill) and in the ensuing melee winds up giving a traumatic brain injury to bartender Stan. When the Pittsburgh Public Theater produced that play in 2018, Cannon embodied the role of Jason with a sullen intensity; the continuity of casting here helps to flesh out the broader world of the play for those of us who had the opportunity to see the earlier production (which also featured Clyde’s director, Monteze Freeland, as Jason’s parole officer). But while the actor is the same, both the personality and the facial tattoos have undergone a confusing change: this Jason is far sweeter and more pliant than the character in the earlier play (and the prominent swastika on his cheek has shrunk significantly). The shift in genre from tragedy to comedy requires that Jason be redeemable – and Cannon threads the needle of Jason’s remorse and guilt with finesse – but it’s nonetheless a little hard to square this character’s about-face into meek submission with his cocksure past “self.” 

Rodriguez, who was also in the PPT production of Sweat, playing Oscar with a quiet dignity, is here a tightly wound spring as Rafael; it’s not hard to believe that this is a man who is holding on to his newly-won sobriety with every fiber of his being. Smith’s Tish is feisty and fierce, and together they form a spiky foil to Kain’s soft-spoken Montrellous, to whom they are eager acolytes. For Montrellous, making a perfect sandwich is an expression of love – he says at one point that the sandwich represents strength, freedom, victory, and redemption – and as a Sensei of the Sandwich he is prone to offering aphoristic insights like “overcomplication obscures truth” in relation to both seasonings and life. While at times this sage philosophizing threatens to get heavyhanded, the play is also at its best when it self-consciously makes fun of its own indulgence in the “Ah, Grasshopper” trope.

Sandwiches also stand in for an aspiration that is anathema to Clyde’s dark view of the world. The four line cooks spend much of the play inventing recipes for their dream sandwich and testing those recipes out, but Clyde will neither taste their offerings of enlightenment nor put them on the menu. The comedy of this play inheres in both its snappy dialogue and in the fact that it puts its finger on the scale in favor of hope: in the end, the cooks come together to create a sandwich that is their ticket out of purgatory. Whether Clyde is able to see the light is a question that the play leaves unresolved.

“Jitney” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

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Dear Readers, we are gifted yet again with a staging of an August Wilson play in the backyard of his boyhood home. First it was Seven Guitars, then King Hedley II – both of which used the (at the time) long-neglected structure as a backdrop to the action, which lent the productions an only-in-Pittsburgh historical authenticity. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of Jitney is the first to be produced at the newly-renovated and just-grand-opened August Wilson House, which has space indoors for cultural programming and a beautifully landscaped yard for outdoor events and performances. But the polish on the house takes nothing away from the aura of “realness” that marked previous productions in the space, and like its predecessors, Jitney feels like it transports you back in time on the very spot where you sit.

Director Mark Clayton Southers has gathered together an ensemble of actors who seem to understand the characters who populate the late 1970s Hill District deep in their bones. Jitney is (somewhat like Two Trains Running) a play in which the characters – drivers for what I have come to realize was a proto-Uber service – spend a great deal of time gossiping and getting on each other’s nerves. The car service station that is the setting for the action is a place of downtime: it’s where the drivers relax and kibitz while waiting for their next customers, and it’s a credit to both Southers’s direction and the actors’ insight into their roles that all that downtime never taxes your patience. On the contrary, much of it is pretty damn funny. Mike Traylor is brilliant and hilarious as the alcoholic Fielding – he doesn’t play “drunk” but embodies the kind of person who is a functioning drunk (and you see the difference vividly in a scene in which the young Philmore (Boykin Anthony) is, in contrast, incapacitatedly in his cups). Les Howard must have studied every grumpy old man in existence in preparation to play Turnbo, to whom he gives a stubborn righteousness and comical blindness to his own contradictions. He’s a constant meddler, which Howard physicalizes through a repeated lazzi that involves turning over his chair cushions. As the mellow, live-and-let-live Doub, Chuck Timbers provides a perfect foil to Howard’s testy Turnbo, and they give off a pitch-perfect old-married-couple vibe when they bicker about whether to trust Fielding with a loan of $4, or debate whether Lena Horne is prettier than Sara Vaughn, or get het up in some other likewise massively low-stakes disagreement. 

L to R: Kevin Brown, Dionysus Akeem, and Elexa Hammer. Photo by Mark Clayton Southers, courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

A lot of the humor in this play stems from its generational conflict, and this is also the source of the play’s more serious concerns. Turnbo gets his panties most in a twist over his disapproval of Youngblood (played by Dionysus Akeem the evening I saw the show; regularly played by Richard McBride), a young Vietnam Vet whose motives and actions are opaque to Turnbo. Youngblood is equally mystified by Turnbo’s interest in his affairs, and he bristles at Turnbo’s scolding and schooling. The manager of the station, Becker (Sala Udin at most performances, but played by Kevin Brown the night I attended) is a rule-bound member of the older generation who, twenty years previously, washed his hands of his son Booster (Jonathan Berry, powerfully vulnerable in the role) after Booster went to jail for killing his girlfriend. Booster’s release from prison, and his attempt to heal the rift with his father, forms the spine of pathos in this play, but the threat of change that hangs over the whole neighborhood (as it always seems to be in Wilson’s work, the city is about to bulldoze the block) creates an atmosphere in general of both comic and tragic tension between the younger generation – represented by Youngblood, Philmore, the numbers-runner Shealy (Roosevelt Watts), and Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena (Elexa Hammer) – and their elders. It’s a tension that is crystallized in the play’s two primary real estate transactions: Youngblood is using the money he earns, along with his GI benefits, to buy a house out in Penn Hills, while Becker and the old fogies make plans to squat in their location and refuse to let the city board up their block.

The production has many strengths in addition to the fine realization of character and character relationships by the actors. Cheryl El-Walker’s costumes feel authentic not only to the period but also to the social and generational status of each of the characters – in particular, Youngblood and Rena are recognizably living in a different sartorial era than the older men. The set design (Southers, doing double duty), has details of authenticity that go beyond its placement at 1727 Bedford Ave in the Lower Hill. The furnishings include a hideous orange couch with mismatched cushions and an old cushioned armchair, both of which swallow up poor Turnbo every time he sits (and he sits a lot!). There are also nice realist touches in the vintage payphone, fridge, calendar, and assorted magazines that Turnbo browses through when he’s not sticking his nose in other people’s business. The production has a few weaknesses, too: chief among these is the difficulty in hearing the dialogue, as the actors are in constant competition with cicadas, sirens, airplanes, fireworks (!), and other city sounds. Perhaps there is a philanthropist among my readership who might help the PPTCo beef up its sound equipment?

A placard on the upstage wall lists the jitney rates to various parts of town – ranging from $2 for the Hill, to $7.50 for the airport – and as you look at the familiar destinations – Giant Eagle, Penn Hills, Point Breeze, East Liberty – you realize that these have meaning here that they wouldn’t have if the play were staged in, say, Chicago or Detroit. As someone who is not native to the ‘burgh, I love that seeing these plays here – and especially here, at the August Wilson House – makes them come alive in a way that they never could before I moved here, and that Pittsburghers have the great good fortune to experience them in a special and intimate way because we know this place (and some of you, my dear Readers, may even have known the city as it was then). What the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is doing in the August Wilson House yard feels like a magic time travel trick, and it’s one that couldn’t be achieved anywhere else in the world.

“Grand Hotel, The Musical” at Front Porch Theatricals

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The story formula for Grand Hotel, The Musical is a familiar (dare I say cliché?) one: the titular site brings together a set of characters who all have pressing problems in their personal or professional lives, with the plot unfolding as their paths intersect. Set in Berlin, in 1928, the characters’ dilemmas can feel distant; the musical’s origin, in 1989, makes some of its gender and race representation seem dated as well. Yet the ambitious Front Porch Theatricals’ production, helmed by Scott P. Calhoon (director), Douglas Levine (music director), and Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique (choreographers) is a fresh, energetic, and engaging showcase of local talent.

The opening number, “The Grand Parade,” introduces us to the primary persons of interest. There’s Baron Felix von Gaigern (Scott Pearson), a womanizing aristocrat deeply in debt to an unsavory creditor, who needs money – fast! – to save his skin. There’s Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Daina Michelle Griffith), a prima ballerina on her final tour, who is facing not only financial difficulties but also a fear that she has aged out of her profession; she’s accompanied by her assistant Raffaela (Kristin Conrad), who is secretly in love with her. There’s General Director Preysing (Daniel Krell), a by-the-book businessman who is on the verge of bankruptcy and waiting for news that his company will be saved by a merger offer from Boston. There’s Otto Klingelein (Jason Swauger), a Jew (and former bookkeeper to Preysing), who has a fatal illness and has decided to live life to the fullest in his dying weeks. And there’s Flaemmchen (Betsy Miller, who ups the wattage every time she enters the stage), a typist and aspiring film starlet who is also, distressingly, late with her period. 

The cast of Grand Hotel. Photo by Deana Muro, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

There seem to be a million other people parading onto the small New Hazlett stage as well, including our narrator, the mysterious and moody Colonel Doctor Otternschlag (played by Patrick Mizzoni on opening night); a silent dancing couple (Grant Braden and Mikaela Kapeluck); a pair of jazz entertainers from the US, both named Jimmy (Matthew Diston and Malcolm McGraw); the front desk clerk Erik (Sam Marzella), who is worried about his wife in labor and is harrassed by his boss, the Concierge (Jeremy Spoljarick); and a bevy of bellhops, maids, and other hangers-on. A count of names in the program indicates that there are, in fact, twenty-eight performers in the ensemble, but between the swirl of choreography and a panoply of costume changes the production gives the impression that the cast is many times that size.

Twenty-eight is still a big ensemble for a small company like Front Porch, and it’s a testament to the production team to have pulled together so much local talent. The production is marked by strong vocal work by both principles and chorus; while it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself humming any of the songs as you head out the door (it’s not really that type of score), there are some standout numbers, including Swauger’s rendition of “Table With a View,” Miller’s “Girl in the Mirror,” Pearson’s “Love Can’t Happen,” and Griffith’s “Bonjour Amour.” Herman and Verastique have also created a lot of energetic choreography, and the ensemble is up to the challenge. Four numbers in particular deserve mention – “Maybe My Baby Loves Me,” featuring Diston, McGraw, and Miller; “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” featuring Pearson and Swauger along with a showstopping number, “The Grand Charleston H-A-P-P-Y,” that features nearly the entire cast; and a beautiful pas-de-deux between Braden and Kapeluck after the song “Roses at the Station.”

Jonmichael Bohach’s scenic design has a spare simplicity that gives ample space for song and dance and supports the smooth flow of the action. He indicates the grandeur of the lobby’s hotel primarily through faux-marble on the floor and on columns bordering the stage; a staircase takes up much of center stage, and the orchestra is set up on a platform above the playing space as if it’s the hotel’s resident big band. The main set pieces are a big round fringed sofa (which does double duty as a bed in a bedroom scene) and a stand with an old-fashioned rotary phone that serves as the hotel reception desk; most of the scenes are efficiently established with the use of straight-backed chairs that flow in and out as part of the choreography, sometimes to quasi-magical effect (a particularly lovely example is when the scene quickly establishes a ladies’ washroom with a horizontal pole between two stools and then subsequently transitions to a mens’ washroom with a subtle change of personnel and orientation). Valerie Webster’s costumes and Nicole Pagano’s wigs not only ground the action in its time and place, but also serve to underscore the impression that this is a world populated by a city full of people – many of the ensemble members seem to have a new look for each number. 

L to R: Betsy Miller and Jason Swauger. Photo by Deana Muro, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

Formulaic as the story may be, the performers do an excellent job of adding dimension to characters who could easily devolve into stereotype. The principles all take care to offer glimpses of their characters’ vulnerabilities and contradictions; particularly fine in this regard are Krell as the uptight Prussian who gets his first taste of vice and is on a downward slide from there, Swauger as the disheveled but philosophical invalid, and Miller, whose magnificent rendition of “Girl in the Mirror” ranges poignantly through a full spectrum of emotions, from high to low and back again. Miller also occupies the storyline that feels most resonant and relevant to a contemporary audience: not only are there hints that Flaemmchen might be looking to terminate her pregnancy (an option that seems to be abruptly, and weirdly, foreclosed with the play’s resolution), but she is also a victim of #metoo predation, and Miller takes us deep into the ick and awfulness of that abuse.

Other thematic threads in the play feel more stretched: there’s a recurrent suggestion of class resentment among the scullery workers and bellhops (“Some Have, Some Have Not”), and a vague gesturing at anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism. But these are all things we are told rather than shown in the world of the play – none of them are really central to its primary conflicts. 

Rather, the overarching driver of conflict in this musical (and maybe its most potent reminder that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose) is the need of its two primary White male characters to maintain their status, wealth, and privilege – and their readiness to engage in immoral and criminal behavior in fulfillment of that need. The fact that, in the end, neither actually succeeds is either the story’s most fantastical element – or its most subversive and hopeful one.