“For the Tree to Drop” at PICT Classic Theatre


Henry (Justin Lonesome), a slave who has attempted to escape to freedom one too many times, is dead, hanged from a tree by Edgar (David Whalen), the plantation owner who claims him as his property. Henry’s sister, Estella (Siovhan Christensen), keeps vigil under that tree, doing what she can to provide his body dignity in death. Upon this Antigone-inspired premise, Lissa Brennan’s new play For the Tree to Drop builds an existentialist drama that explores the webs of power in which antebellum slaves (and their owners) were caught.

I use the word “existentialist” deliberately in that last sentence, for as much as the play explores the power dynamic between the slave owner and slave, and between the free and the unfree, my own attention while watching was most drawn by its scrutiny of the strange apparent lack of difference between life and death, for slave and slave owner alike. This is most pointedly brought out in the two characters who are seemingly peripheral to the central conflict, Theenie (Linda Haston), a house slave, and Clarinda (Karen Baum), Edgar’s wife. Neither of these women is free to have a purpose; both merely bide time with meaningless, coerced occupation. They are, metaphorically at least, no more alive than Henry, an idea that’s driven home by his energetic presence on stage throughout the play. Meanwhile, Estella has her own awakening to the difference between what it is to be merely alive and what it is to live, as she discovers a real purpose for her labor in digging the grave that will (she hopes) be the final resting place for Henry’s corpse.

l to r: Karen Baum, Justin Lonesome, Siovhan Christensen. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons

l to r: Karen Baum, Justin Lonesome, Siovhan Christensen. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons

Brennan’s writing has a beautiful lyricism, and she makes use of vivid and precise imagery to evoke her characters’ strivings and yearnings. There is powerful poetry at work here, and the very fine actors do it justice. But even at a short sixty-five minutes, the play, with its repetitive structure, begins to feel taxing at the end. It’s a play in which not much happens – a woman digs a grave, others come to talk to her about what she is doing and why she is doing it – and at times it felt like we, too, were suspended. Moreover, rich in its excavation of the moral nightmare of slavery as this play is, I don’t think Brennan takes full advantage of one of her story points: she uses Henry and Estella’s parentage as a secret to be revealed, but as an audience relatively well-versed in the sexual freedoms taken by slaveowning men in history (like, for example, Thomas Jefferson) we are way ahead of her, and the characters’ reluctance to reveal the secret comes off as a red herring. It would be far more provocative if the play were to spill that information at the start and then add Edgar’s own existential dilemma into the mix. After all, a man who could treat his only living son with such utter disregard for the value of his existence must not really know the difference between merely having a life and truly living, either.

Director Alan Stanford has staged the play in the Cultural Trust’s downtown studio space; his pared-down production puts focus on the actors and the words, with vivid projections (by Jessi Sedon-Essad) and haunting sound (Steven Shapiro) that not only mirror and complement the poignancy of Brennan’s text but also elevate the production as a whole to a level of theatricality that feels very right for the play.


“Prussia: 1866″ at The REP Professional Theatre Company


In Gab Cody’s new play Prussia:1866 Mariska von Klamp (Laura Lee Brautigam), the young wife of the older novelist and statesman Heinrich von Klamp (the marvelously muttonchopped Philip Winters) is having an affair with Heinrich’s young private student Fritz (Friedrich Nietszche, that is! played by Drew Palajsa), whom Heinrich believes is in love with his assistant Rosemary (Gab Cody), a bluestocking (well, actually, blue-bloomers) feminist who has hitched her hopes for women’s advancement on Heinrich’s influence in a future united Germany. Rosemary, whose ideas of women’s advancement extends to a rejection of marriage – which she sees as a state of enslavement for women – is in fact torn between her attachment to Heinrich and a budding romance with an American Delegate (Sam Turich), who wants to bring her to America to help lead the women’s movement there. In an effort to get Mariska to leave her husband, Fritz pretends to woo Rosemary, which rouses Heinrich’s jealousy, which later makes the American Delegate suspicious and … sound confusing? Throw in a pious maid (Hayley Nielsen) and a long lost Viennese poetess (Mary Rawson) and you’ve got all the ingredients for a lovely confection of a farce.


L to R: Philip Winters, Sam Turich, Laura Lee Brautigam, and Gab Cody


Prussia: 1866 touches on some serious issues – early feminism, religiously grounded antipathies, budding German nationalism, the opposition of rational thinking and sensual appetites, and, in passing, some sort of Nietszchean nihilism – but for the most part it just revels in Dionysian silliness. Kim Martin has directed her comically gifted cast in an energetic production that hums along for the most part like a well-oiled machine, with doors flying open and slamming shut at precisely the speed and frequency the genre demands. Cody’s characters are sharply delineated, and she gives them wonderful moments of both physical slapstick and verbal wit, all of which the cast pulls off with virtuosity and flair. The play’s rhythm is quite delightful, too, building in the second act to an almost orgiastic frenzy until the bell for breakfast throws cold water on these sober Germans’ passions.

The production is skillfully executed, and enormous fun, but the play could use a little continued reworking. Its central and most serious conflict resides in Rosemary, whose ambitions for women’s equality and advancement are at odds with her lustful feelings toward the American who has made seducing her part of his diplomatic mission. The setup is familiar, and we expect her to give up her politics and dreams for love (not only because the genre demands a tidy ending in the form of neatly paired, age-appropriate coupledoms, but also because we’ve all seen that movie with Katherine Hepburn or Sandra Bullock). Cody seems to want to offer a different ending to this familiar (and not-so-feminist) scenario, but the somewhat muddled ending of the play makes it difficult to parse what, precisely, her Rosemary really wanted – and really got – in the end. That aside, Cody possesses one of the finest comic sensibilities in the Pittsburgh theater scene – if you missed her Alchemist’s Lab last year you really missed out! – and Prussia:1866 demonstrates her comic genius in high form.

“Mr. Joy” at City Theatre and “Brahman/i” at Quantum Theatre



There are two very compelling, thought-provoking, assumption-challenging one-person plays in town right now; because of my own busy schedule, I had (what turned out to be) the great good luck to see them both in one day, and they’ve been bouncing fruitfully off each other in my head ever since. So it seems appropriate and natural to write about them both in one post.

Mr. Joy is the third play by Daniel Beaty to premiere at City Theatre, and it is concerned with the same set of issues he addressed in Through the Night, his previous one-man show: the attitudes and structures that perpetuate the cycle of poverty and violence in which too many young black men are trapped. As in that play, one actor – here, the mightily talented Tangela Large – embodies a diverse set of characters, and as in that play the various characters are embroidered together into a tapestry of community that has both tender junctures of support and hot flashpoints of anger.

Tangela Large in MR. JOY

Tangela Large in MR. JOY

A vicious attack on Mr. Joy, the Chinese proprietor of a shoe-repair shop in Harlem, is the hub from which a series of interconnected monologues radiate, each adding a perspective to the ongoing, always thorny conversation about race, class, privilege, and opportunity in contemporary society. Pairs of shoes lined up along the front of the stage stand for the customers Mr. Joy has served; they are both a tribute to his impact on the community and symbols for the wide range and mixture of people whose stories are told here. Beaty’s characters include Clarissa, a young HIV-positive African-American girl taken on as an assistant by Mr. Joy, who found in him a surrogate grandfather and mentor; Bessie, her grandmother, who organizes other grandmothers to combat gang violence; John Lee, Mr. Joy’s son, and Clifford, John Lee’s African-American boss, both of whom have risen far above their ghetto origins and barely conceal their own class and race prejudices against their former neighbors; Ashes, Clifford’s transgender daughter, rejected by her father but treasured by her Harlem neighbors; and DeShawn, a young black man torn between doing what is right and doing what he thinks he needs to do to survive.

Beaty’s form of storytelling relies less on plot than on collage effect; he pastes together monologue, song, and poetry to capture our empathy for a variety of (often conflicting) points of view. Part of Beaty’s skill as a theatermaker inheres in the way he casts his audience as interlocutor – each character hails us into a different subject position, and at times we “become” a character in the play itself – as, for example, when DeShawn addresses us as Dre, his homeboy just released from prison, or when the homeless artist James speaks to us, toward the end of the play, as if we were DeShawn. This positioning functions to counter the distancing effect of the play’s purposeful theatricality – it draws us into the world of the play not only as activated listeners and witnesses but also, at times, as its victims and perpetrators. The play thereby demands that we attend – and attend differently – to each of its varied characters’ pains, joys, fears, and frustrations, and in so doing offers an opportunity to walk a few blocks in their shoes.

That’s also what we get from Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Brahman/i: a one-hijra stand-up comedy show. For Quantum Theatre’s production, set designer Britton Mauk has convincingly transformed the Garfield Community Center into a popup “Temple of Comedy” (drinks and snacks come with the ticket), where the headliner is Brahman, aka Brahmani (Sanjiv Jhaveri), an intersex person who has chosen not to choose. In contrast to Large, who plays nine different characters of different ages, races, and genders, Jhaveri only plays one character in this show, but it is a character who transforms before our eyes, from man, to woman, to “hijra” (the Hindi word for an intersex person).

Sanjiv Jhaveri as Brahman in BRAHMAN/I; photo Heather Mull

Sanjiv Jhaveri as Brahman in BRAHMAN/I; photo Heather Mull

Personal pronouns are not going to be my friends in the following, so bear with me. Brahman/i recounts, in an at times knee-slappingly hilarious standup routine, the ways in which his/her sexual ambiguity became the source of anguish and confusion in adolescence, and how myths and fables from her/his Indian heritage, imparted by a sympathetic but bossy Auntie, did – and didn’t – help her/him understand how he/she fits in. Like Mr. Joy, Brahman/i invites us to spend time, and empathize deeply, with someone who has been marginalized by otherness. The standup comedy framework makes room for the playwright and character to anticipate and coopt the audience’s potential antipathy towards the character’s atypical sexual status; as in any standup routine, Brahman/i turns a lot of the jokes on him/herself. The self-deprecating humor has the desired effect, winning us over to Brahman/i’s side. Brahman/i also aims the humor at those near and dear, in comic imitations of friends and family, putting on the Indian accent and mannerisms that are, as she/he archly notes, reliably sure to get a laugh out of American audiences. But the comedy is arguably at its best when Kapil widens the lens and pulls into focus those aspects of cultural heritage that straightjacket sexual status and gender identity into the confines of what is socially convenient. For example, tear-inducing riffs on the sex temples of Khajuharo and on the role of the hijras in the Ramayana reveal both the longevity and silliness of many of our cultural assumptions about sexual identity and sexual expression – as Brahman/i cannily observes, apropos those temples of love: some ancient artist actually took the time and care to carve all that sexual expression in stone!

Jhaveri is commanding and charming as Brahman/i, and he works the room like a real-deal standup comedian. The play has a lot of excellent material, and it takes the audience on what turns out, in the end, to be an unexpected – and unexpectedly moving – journey, offering us insight into a subjectivity many of us may never have realized was “out there” to occupy. But it is about twenty to thirty minutes too long; the show would achieve a more forceful emotional payoff if Kapil subjected her material to some judicious editing.

It should be pretty obvious at this point how serendipitous and complementary these two performances are, especially seen back to back. In both, a single performer deliberately and transparently shows us what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin, and in so doing invites us to imagine ourselves there, too. In both, as audience members, we are given an active role to play in the performer’s presentation of self; we are there not only to witness, but to give the characters they assume space to come into existence. Both make it impossible for us to deny sympathy and concern for the marginalized others the solo performers so carefully embody, and both challenge and inspire us to continue to see through their eyes outside the theater as well.

“Or,” at Off the Wall Productions


The (not particularly attention-grabbing) title of Liz Duffy Adams’s 2010 play “Or,” refers to the vibrant and complicated state of sexual, intellectual, and political ambiguity in which its main character, the 17th-century playwright Aphra Behn, dwelled. (It’s also a bit of a jest on her tendency to hedge her bets with the titles of her works). Best known for her authorship of the short novel Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave (1688) and the play The Rover, or, the Banish’d Cavaliers (1677) – her most-revived work in the modern day – Behn was one of England’s first professional female writers, famously lauded by Virginia Woolf for having earned women “the right to speak their minds.” Behn is also a figure cloaked in a fog of historical mystery: before she started writing professionally, she is known to have worked as a spy in Holland for Charles II during the early years of the Restoration, a job that plunged her into deep debt and may have landed her in debtors’ prison upon her return to London in 1666. But other details of her private life and personal history are maddeningly obscured, mostly by Behn herself; she comes to us through history, as her biographer Janet Todd has noted, as an “unending combination of masks.”

That historical uncertainty leaves room for Adams to play with reckless abandon in the sandbox of Behn’s life, taking up real historical characters like Nell Gwynn (one of England’s early actresses), King Charles II, Lady Mary Davenant (the widowed manager of The Duke’s Company), and William Scot (one of Behn’s fellow spies in Antwerp) and weaving them into a good old-fashioned door-slamming farce. We’re in London, 1670, and Behn (Erika Cuenca) is under the gun to finish a play by morning for the Duke’s Company, but she finds herself distracted by the seductive Nell Gwynn (Robin Abramson). Their budding flirtation is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Scot (Ethan Hova), who has intelligence of a plot against the King’s life he wants to bargain for his safe return to England. Scot’s also here to release a bad case of pent-up desire for Behn, who (in this play, at least) was his comrade-in-arms in more ways than one. The King himself (also played by Hova) turns up wanting a turn in her bed, too (he’s Behn’s lover and patron), so there’s a lot of hiding in cupboards and closets and, because Abramson and Hova play multiple characters, much hilarity with quick costume changes and unexpected entrances. Behn’s evening is spent trying to keep these ex-, current, and future sexual partners apart – with mixed success – while also putting the finishing touches on the play that will launch her career.

L to r: Ethan Hova, Erika Cuenca, Robin Abramson

L to r: Ethan Hova, Erika Cuenca, Robin Abramson

Duffy’s writing is witty and spirited, at once a comic celebration of openness and an earnest valorization of the space “in-between” as the space of human creativity and generosity. The play’s queer gender politics suggest parallels between the Restoration – a time marked by sexual libertinism and cultural revolution – and the modern day, but without heavy-handed dot-connecting. Indeed, one of the play’s strengths is its mixing of 16th-century verse with modern vernacular; the weaving of time periods into each other feels fresh and smart and easy. With farce, timing is everything, and director John Shephard has his ensemble in and out of closets and bedrooms (and dresses and cloaks) with delightful rapidity. Clever metatheatrical moments (like the sound cues that ding each time one of Behn’s play titles is mentioned in passing) keep the tone ironic and knowing, an attitude very much in keeping with Restoration comedy, which frequently called attention to its own theatricality and – particularly in Behn’s case – to the author’s often precarious relationship with her audience.

“Smart Blonde” at City Theatre


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Streetcar Named Desire” at barebones productions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Future Ten 11″ at Future Tenant


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

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

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

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

“Macbeth” at PICT Classic Theatre


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

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

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

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

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


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