“In the Heat of the Night” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

Tags

One could only wish that a play based on a 1965 novel and 1967 film about intransigent racism among nativist whites in the South would feel like a musty museum piece. Indeed, I’ll confess that five or six years ago I myself likely would have wondered how relevant a play like In the Heat of the Night was to what many of us considered the “post-racial” Obama era. Alas, in the wake of all that’s happened in the past half-decade, including – especially – the dismaying influence of Nazis and clan members in our political arena, Matt Pelfrey’s stage adaptation of this civil-rights-era-defining book and film speaks all too depressingly to our present moment.

Pelfrey’s play takes the main premise of John Ball’s mystery novel but adds a final plot twist that spectators familiar with either the book or film will not expect. The setting is a small town in Alabama, in 1962. Sam Wood (Jonathan Visser), a police officer, has found the body of a wealthy local real estate developer, Charles Tatum (Brett Sullivan Santry) in the middle of the street; he appears to be the victim of a homicide. Police Chief Gillespie (Daniel Pivovar) orders Wood and fellow police officer Pete (Tal Kroser) to be on the lookout for vagrants and strangers as primary suspects; Wood finds such a stranger in Virgil Tibbs (Kevin H. Moore), a well-dressed black man waiting for a train at the local station. Turns out, to the surprise of the openly racist cops, that Tibbs is a police officer himself, a detective from California, no less, who specializes in solving homicides. When the dead man’s close friend, local bigwig Endicott (Arthur Peden) discovers this, he uses his connections to get Tibbs loaned to the local police force until the case is solved, resulting in predictable tensions between a white community convinced of its racial superiority and the hotshot black detective who is accustomed to being addressed as Mr. Tibbs.

Heat

L to R: Kevin H. Moore, Johathan Visser, Adam Seligson. Photo by Chris Chapman, courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

Director Monteze Freeland stages the play in a manner that recalls the cinematic quick cut: very short scenes are linked together with film noir-inflected jazz music that helps sweep the action along (sound design is by Wayne Gaines), and even though cast members play multiple roles and have many off-stage costume changes (clothes by Cheryl El-Walker), the transitions are tight and smoothly choreographed. The plot of the play has some confusing gaps and elisions – for example, the relationship between Endicott and Tatum’s daughter (Jenny Malarkey) is unclear, and the plot thread involving accusations that Wood has raped and impregnated the teenaged Noreen Purdy (also played by Malarkey) is hard to follow – but the otherwise highly engaging story gets you on its ride and keeps you there to the end. Standout performances in this cast include Visser as Wood, the cop who is most changed by Tibbs’s presence on the force; Peden, playing the fastidious Endicott and (nearly unrecognizably) the gravel-voiced town mayor as well; and Pivovar, as the grumpy and beset-upon police chief.

Caution: the “N-word” gets thrown around a lot in the dialogue of this play, along with the word “boy”; indeed, even Oberst (Adam Seligson), a lowlife who’s been thrown in jail on flimsy charges and who might be exonerated by Tibbs’s investigation, doesn’t hesitate to call him “boy” to his face. Likewise, in defiance of any expectation of alliance among “others,” the town Jew Kaufman (also played by Seligson) physically attacks Tibbs with no compunction whatsoever. The play dives deep into representing a world and town in which whites unashamedly and unapologetically rank themselves above blacks, even when they themselves are inferior to Tibbs on every metric – less educated, less wealthy, less intelligent, less morally upright, and (particularly in the case of the white trash Purdy (Brett Sullivan Santry), his daughter Noreen, and her boyfriend Ralph (Seligson again)) far less socially valuable to society.

Freeland has clearly created a safe space for his mostly white cast to embody this ugly racial animus, and as a result they do so with conviction, which is crucial to the play’s driving energy. The crime has to be solved, but the suspense of the play derives less from “whodunit?” than from whether Tibbs will manage to get out of town unscathed, and for that, you need to believe that this town is populated by people who really do fear losing their power and social status to (what they see as) black and brown intruders. If this sounds familiar to you from the current debate over DACA or the Charlottesville rally last summer, well … I think that’s the point.

“A Devil Inside” at The REP Professional Theatre Company

Tags

“None of us is very far from the murderer who skulks his way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.” So opines Carl (Philip Winters), a Russian Lit professor. And he should know: he fills his journals with thoughts of killing the nondescript Brad (Michael Fuller), an appliance repairman he barely knows, simply because he finds him unbearably dull. But unlike Roskolnikov, Carl would never act on that impulse. Or would he?

Philip Winters (Carl) & Hayley Nielsen (Caitlin)

L to R: Philip Winters & Hayley Nielsen. Photo John Altdorfer, courtesy The REP.

That each of us has a ‘devil inside’ is the subject of David Lindsay-Abaire’s frenzied black comedy, which combines the outrageous blood-shedding of a Martin McDonough play (think Lieutenant of Inishmore) with the farcical energy of a Joe Orton comedy, packing these into a whodunit plot that leaves none of its characters innocent or unscathed in the end.

Lindsay-Abaire concocts the story of this play by dropping a series of Easter Eggs along a convoluted path, each of which explodes spectacularly at some point in the last ten or fifteen minutes of the play. This is the kind of play that makes alert and attentive audience members feel smart, as clues dropped in early scenes lead to “ah-ha!” moments later in the play; forget which character told which story from their personal history (as, I’ll confess, I did at one point) and you’ll fall behind. Their stories nest inside each other like an intricately carved Russian Matryoshka doll (one of which also makes an appearance in the course of the play), interlocking in a series of coincidences that center on a fourteen-year-old mystery for which each of the characters has a tiny piece of the puzzle.

The mystery in question involves the murder, in the Poconos, of the 400-lb father of Gene Slater (Cav O’Leary) and husband of Mrs. Slater (Terry Wickline). For unexplained reasons, his feet were chopped from his body; Mrs. Slater has waited until Gene reached his twenty-first birthday to reveal the fact that his father had been murdered and gift him the jar containing his dad’s enormous feet. Gene, however, is more interested in nailing daredevil skateboard tricks and flirting with Caitlin (Hayley Nielsen), who, in turn, is in love with both Russian Literature and her Russian Lit professor, Carl. Meanwhile, Carl has become obsessed with thoughts of murdering the excruciatingly uninteresting one-footed Brad, who is putting up the mysterious Lily (Daina Michelle Griffiths), an artist who has a strange fascination with feet as well as secretive reasons for having returned to the Lower East Side setting for the play. (Feet – both attached and unattached – are a theme in this play, as are dogs, Russia, and devils). Inconveniently – or perhaps conveniently – the city’s municipal services are all on strike, so not only do wild dogs run amok in the accumulating garbage on the city streets, but there are no police to intervene as the characters begin to machinate against each other in all sorts of impulsive ways. Given that the whole trick of the play lies in how it unwinds the reasons behind those machinations, I won’t give any more of the plot away.

David Lindsay-Abaire is an accomplished playwright, but this is one of his earlier works, and it shows. Crazily complicated as the plot is, the dialogue struggles to be funny, and in places the dark threatens to overwhelm the comedy. Moreover, wild as the play’s shenanigans are, the sum total of its parts is conspicuously unsatisfying; when you get to the end, you’re left with the strong feeling that (to steal from Gertrude Stein) there’s no “there there.”

Nevertheless, director Kim Martin does a fine job of drawing out laughs through bold strokes in the staging, and her cast commits to a broad, farcical playing style that serves the outrageousness of the play’s premise well. Particularly excellent in that commitment are Nielsen, as the Anna Karenina-wannabe coed; Winters, as the irascible professor; and Fuller, whose Brad morphs from beige to crazed in the course of the play. The scenic design, by Tucker Topel, solves the problem of the play’s multiple locales with ingenious efficiency, allowing the action to move at a clip without a need for anyone to ever move a stick of furniture. I could wish that every young director I know might see this production just to learn from its swift transitions, which derive much of their effect from Andrew David Ostrowski’s on-the-money lighting design and Steve Shapiro’s sharp sound design.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

Tags

Over two thousand years of comedic tradition (the twenty-one extant comedies of Roman playwright Plautus, no less!) feed into the plot of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Plus, it draws on the talents of an A-list of twentieth-century Broadway theater creators, including Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and Jerome Robbins, not to mention its writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Add in the unerring comedic instincts of director/choreographer Ted Pappas and actor Jimmy Kieffer (as the wily and desperate slave Pseudolus) and the cartoonish scenic and costume designs (James Noone and Martha Bromelmeier, reprising a design by Tony Walton), and you have a show that is virtually guaranteed to make you laugh.

PPT Forum_110

The Company (Jimmy Kieffer as Pseudolus, Center). Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

I’m not going to bother to go into the plot of this musical, because it’s the plot of nearly every comedy you’ve ever seen all rolled into one: indeed, one way to describe this musical would be to say that it takes up all the familiar character types and farcical situations of comedy and commedia dell’arte, adds the spirit of the American musical theater song and dance idiom, shakes vigorously, and produces a frothy cocktail of merriment and confusion.

The Public’s production is beautifully executed, anchored by Kieffer (who did a similarly disarming turn as the servant in A Servant to Two Masters) and augmented by delightfully zany performances from a cast that includes Gavan Pamer as the anxious (and aptly named) Hysterium, Jeff Howell as the procurer Marcus Lycus, Ruth Gotschall as the harridan Domina, Stephen DeRosa as her browbeaten husband Senex, Allan Snyder as the braggart soldier Miles Gloriosus, and James Fitzgerald as the daffy elderly Erronius. Rounding out the cast are the comic lovers Jamen Nanthakumar (Hero) and silver-voiced Mary Elizabeth Drake (Philia); three agile Proteans (Jonathan Blake Flemings, Andrew Pace, and Mark Tinkey) who serve as all of the supernumeraries needed for the action, and a bevy of scantily-clad courtesans who bump and grind their way through the story (these are, in alphabetical order: Elyse Collier, Brooke Lacy, Stephanie Maloney, Jessica Walker, Andrea Weinzierl, and Monica Woods).

Every aspect of the production is top notch, from the first-rate acting and singing, to the sure-handed staging and choreography, to the impressive scenic design (which got a round of applause at the reveal the night I saw the show), to the bright, character-defining lighting (Kirk Bookman), to the crisp and crystally clear orchestra (under F. Wade Russo’s direction, with sound design by Zach Moore). So: if all you want to know is whether this staple of the American musical theater canon is well produced, you should probably stop reading here. Seriously, just look at the picture below and stop.

PPT Forum_065

Front row, L to R: Elyse Collier, Jessica Walker, Andrea Weinzierl, Brooke Lacy, Monica Woods. Back row, L to R: Andrew Pace, Allan Snyder, and Mark Tinkey. Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

 

Because, alas, I’m sorry to say that I am going to be that killjoy viewer who – while I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the show, or that I didn’t laugh – found it really hard to fully board its train. It is, after all, a musical comedy whose sexual and racial politics are fifty (if not two thousand) years behind the times. While I know that much of the intention is to satirize and send up the attitudes and behaviors that the characters display, nonetheless it’s pretty hard not to see little more than a replication and reification of patriarchal scopic regimes in (to take the most glaring example) the Vegas-showgirl costumes and high-kick, butt-waggle dance moves of the long-limbed courtesans as they strut their stuff for sale. Funny Thing… reveals its retrograde gender politics in other places as well: in the overwhelmingly more negative “comic” traits ascribed to the female characters than the male characters; in lyrics in which we are invited to snicker at Philia, who is dumber than a doornail but “happy to be lovely,” or at the idea that Miles Gloriosus has “no time to lose” because there are “women to abuse”; and in the uncritical uptake of the play’s tired use of cross-dressing and homophobia to generate laughs.

Equally egregious is the lack of diversity in casting: there are only three non-white actors in the nineteen-member ensemble, only one of whom (Nanthakumar) has a prominent speaking and singing role. I appreciate that artistic director Ted Pappas, in his last year at the Public, might wish to indulge in a trip down memory lane. But the lack of diversity on stage, coupled with the show’s treatment of women as literally nothing other than objects of male desire, reads, to this viewer at least, less like nostalgia and more like a head-in-the-sand retreat from our present socio-political moment.

“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” at City Theatre

Tags

On the other end of the spectrum from Rules of Seconds is the one-person show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, by James Lecesne. Where the former features a spectacularly aggressive display of alpha-male peacocking, the latter centers on the story of a gentle teenager who, given the chance, would adorn himself with peacock feathers and flutter through the school hallways kicking up his custom rainbow platform sneakers. Yet the two plays share a central conflict: in both, a person who is deemed insufficiently masculine is targeted for violence by a bully who has abrogated to himself the privilege of defining what it takes to be a “real man”. I guess the investigation of toxic masculinity is simply in the air nowadays (gee, I wonder why?).

But I begin to digress. Or do I? In The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Chuck Desantis (Keith Randolph Smith), a former detective in a small town on the New Jersey shore, relates the details of a life-transforming crime that occurred a decade ago. The victim was fourteen-year-old Leonard Pelkey, a genderqueer young man described by his aunt/adopted mother Ellen as “TOO MUCH.” Leonard was an iconoclast of a kid, one for whom flamboyant expression of his unique individuality was both an existential and political necessity. Ellen’s friend, Mrs. T, tells Desantis that she tried to warn Leonard to tone down his self-expression, but he insisted that “if he wasn’t himself the terrorists would win.” If that doesn’t sound like someone taking on the patriarchy, I don’t know what does.

180123_CityTheatre_LeonardPelkey_001_preview

Keith Randolph Smith as Chuck Desantis. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

As Desantis recounts the story of his investigation – from the first moment Ellen bustled into the police station to report Leonard missing to the resolution of the trial that convicts Leonard’s killer of a hate crime – he steps in and out of the roles of the various people in the community whose lives Leonard brightened during his short life among them. There’s Ellen herself, the strong-willed, chatterbox owner of a hair salon, who took Leonard under her wing as a kindred creative spirit. There’s Phoebe, Ellen’s somewhat introverted teenaged daughter, resentful of Leonard’s intrusion in her life but also envious of his courage and freedom. There’s the twee British director of the local theater and dance school, who recalls not ever having “met a child who can express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands” as Leonard could. There’s the German clock repairman, who saw, in Leonard, a chance to atone for the emotional damage he inflicted on his own gender-non-conforming son. There’s the pack-a-day-voiced, redheaded Mrs. T, whom Leonard convinced, along with all of Ellen’s other salon customers, to invest in a little black dress, on the theory that having such a dress would conjure the occasion to wear it. There’s the Italian mob-wife Gloria, who helps Desantis crack the case. And, last but certainly not least, there’s the crew of teenaged boys who took it on themselves to police Leonard’s masculinity through daily harassment and intimidation.

You’d think, from my description of all of these characters, that I saw them all on stage; but in fact, they are all brought to life by Smith, who shapeshifts into these and another half-dozen or so characters with vivid precision and empathy. Even the murderer gets a portrayal that allows us to see him as a fully fleshed out human being. Smith’s embodiment of the female characters that orbited Leonard’s charismatic star is particularly impressive, and although many of the characters are quirky, none are sent up as caricatures. What emerges is a portrait of a community coming to terms with, and learning to respect and value, difference in their midst.

180123_CityTheatre_LeonardPelkey_031_preview

Keith Randolph Smith as Chuck Desantis. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The action takes place in Desantis’s basement, a space convincingly evoked by Britton Mauk’s well-observed scenic design (although a puzzling flaw in the play is that it provides no discernible  motivation for its basement setting, nor for our “presence” as audience in Desantis’s basement). Isabella Byrd’s lighting design brings Leonard’s “brightness” into the space, particularly when colored lights embedded in the set make it glow like the rainbow of his homemade sneakers.

While the story Desantis tells has a fatal outcome for Leonard, the overall tone of the show is joyful and celebratory.  Lecesne’s writing plants comedy in unexpected corners of the play’s world, and director Laura Savia threads the play’s sentiment lightly through its humor. While we never see more of Leonard than a blurred photograph and some personal items he left behind, the production makes him shine absolutely brightly in the imagination, and his fiercely stubborn and gloriously defiant insistence on being true to himself might serve as inspiration for change for audiences, just as it did in the town he left behind.

“Rules of Seconds” at barebones productions

Tags

I’ve come to expect that a barebones production will involve, at some level, an investigation of masculinity. Barebones’ artistic director Patrick Jordan seems drawn to plays that feature hyper-masculine characters – a character type he clearly revels in playing – yet, to his great credit, his productions are uncannily adept at shining a light on the absurdity and toxicity of hyper-masculinity, even as they offer a sympathetic peek into the inner drives and external pressures that shape men’s behavior. The work Jordan produces consistently manages to tap into, and expose for scrutiny, the dysfunctional patterns of white male thought and behavior that, among other things, have created an economic and social system hostile to gender and racial equality and elected a racist and misogynist to the U.S. presidency.

Jordan finds an artistic kindred spirit in playwright John Pollono, whose play Small Engine Repair he produced in 2015 (and which I described at the time as “testosterone fueled”). Pollono’s new play, Rules of Seconds, uses the Brechtian technique of historicization to offer a deconstruction of the absurd rules and codes of conduct that establish and maintain white male privilege at the cost of social sanity and equity. Set in mid-nineteenth century Boston, the play depicts a world in which life is governed by an arcane (and archaic) code of honor, encapsulated in a set of rules known as the “code duello.” The reciting of these rules, by the delightfully deadpan Jack Erdie, punctuates and structures the plot of the play, which centers on a conflict between alpha-male Walter Brown (Cotter Smith), the “most dangerous man” in Boston, and the Leeds family. Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds (Connor McCanlus), an OCD sufferer, has inadvertently offended Brown’s honor, resulting in a challenge to a duel. The sensitive and meek “Wings” enlists the help of his estranged brother, James (Patrick Jordan), a well-known and previously “successful” duelist, to find a way around the ordeal; but it turns out that Brown is merely using the code of honor as a smokescreen to exact revenge against their mother, Martha (Robin Walsh), for an incident in the distant past, so Brown stubbornly insists that “Wings” meet him on the dueling ground.

Alternately wry and outrageous in tone, the play pushes a number of contemporary hot buttons. Chief among those is the way power and wealth make entitled monsters of white men. Brown – who humiliates Martha in a particularly cruel way – might have seemed a caricature of a man two years ago, but after Trump and Weinstein and #MeToo he seems all too depressingly real. The confounding manner through which the white working class has been convinced to direct its rage and frustration against people of color instead of against the 1% who are profiting off of their misery also finds expression in this play, along with the ways toxically masculine “codes” of behavior intersect with racism, homophobia, and gender inequality.

Melissa Martin has directed the production with bold strokes, often quoting film and television references to drive home the point about the pervasiveness of “masculine honor” as a cultural trope. Musical references to Westerns, as well as a loud “door slam” sound effect reminiscent of the iconic “dun-dun” from Law and Order, gesture away from the world of the play to remind us of how eagerly and avidly we consume representations of strongmen and bullies (sound design is by Dave Bjornson). The production takes a while to hit its stride, however: the first act struggles to find the right “mustache-twirling” melodramatic tone, and while it has solid comedic moments, it’s not until the second act that the ensemble embraces the absurdity and outrageousness that the play’s comedy demands and starts to shade – in a good way – into the cartoonish. It’s there, in the second act, that we get a wonderfully genre-busting moment between working-class characters Stillman (Wali Jamal) and Hollander (Dave Mansueto), probing the limits of masculinity in a mutual fantasy of homosocial desire, as well as some forceful and highly satisfying pushback against the white male order of things by the play’s minority and female characters, Albert Chang (Donald Chang), Carranza (Micky Miller), and Hannah Leary (Nancy McNulty).

After two hours codifying, cataloguing, and satirizing the structures of male power, playwright Pollono gives a woman the last word. I’ll read that as a concession that the future is female – or at least, that it’s long past time to change both the rulers and the rules. Until then, we can all look to barebones to continue to pry back the curtains on toxic masculinity and help us understand what we’re fighting against.

“Love Love Love” at Kinetic Theatre Company

Tags

Kinetic Theatre closes its production season with a deceptive confection of a play. Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love might best be described as an generational comedy wrapped around a family tragedy, a bitter pill delivered in a spoonful of comedic honey.

The target of Bartlett’s biting satire is the baby boom generation, and more specifically that set of boomers who hit college age in the late sixties and early seventies, raised Generation X while they rode the wave of eighties prosperity, and are just now hitting retirement age. This is the same set of folks whose transition from counterculturalists to middle-class homeowners was the subject of the late 1980s TV series thirtysomething. But unlike that show, Bartlett is less interested in the struggles of the baby boomers themselves than in the effect they have had on the generation that came after them.

L to R: Ethan Saks, Mindy Woodhead, Aviana Glover, and Darren Weller in Kinetic Theatre’s U.S. regional premiere production of Mike Bartlett’s LOVE, LOVE, LOVE. Photo by Rocky Raco.

The play hopscotches from 1967 to 1989 to 2010 (a time travel achieved adroitly through Johnmichael Bohach’s ingenious scenic design and Abby Stroot’s spot-on costumes), showing three snapshots in the evolution of Kenneth (Darren Weller) and Sandra (Mindy Woodhead) from freewheeling, doped-up hippies to self-absorbed, alcohol-addicted parents and finally to smug, self-satisfied retirees. Meanwhile, their children Rosie (Aviana Glover) and Jamie (Ethan Saks) devolve from smart teens with loads of potential (she’s a talented violinist; he’s a math nerd) to adults who have failed to fully launch.

Who or what is to blame? The comedy of the play lays the fault at the feet of the “Me” generation, which – as Bartlett wants us to see it – managed, as it aged, to shed its countercultural rebellion but not its self-absorption. Where the play is funniest is where it reveals the hypocrisies of the generation whose desire for self-actualization brought us all sorts of positive social changes (the sexual revolution, civil rights, women’s rights, etc.) but who also managed to parent a bunch of kids who couldn’t tie their own shoes or do their own laundry and for whom – as Jia Tolentino put it in this week’s New Yorker – self-actualization “was a mandate to be undermined.” Bartlett is sharp and stinging in his portrayal of Kenneth and Sandra as so wrapped up in “disappointment” over their slide into middle-class conventionality that they are blithely indifferent to their children’s aspirations and needs, and he makes a trenchant connection between the “Me” generation’s navel-gazing and the socio-economic fact that thirtysomethings in the 2010s are drowning in student debt while their parents cash in on paid-off homes and a lifetime of retirement savings.

Director Andrew Paul and his excellent cast keep that comedic generational critique front and center throughout. But strip away the dates, and the play could also be seen as a tragic tale of a narcissistic substance abuser (Sandra) and the toxic effect she has on all who love her. An emotional Tasmanian Devil, Sandra splits Kenneth from his older brother Henry (also played by Saks) in the first scene, destroys her marriage and causes lasting psychological damage to her children in the second, and gaslights Rosie when she confronts her in the third. There’s nothing very funny about that story; indeed, in several spots the play takes an unexpected detour into poignancy.

Paradoxically, much of the production’s comic punch emerges out of the cast’s commitment to leaning in to that pain and confusion and giving this family’s dysfunction emotional weight. Woodhead is masterful as Sandra, keeping her just on the bright edge of crazy throughout, and the havoc she casts about her is believable, and – in consequence – often quite hilarious. Weller, on the other hand, has got the vibe of the cool dude – and, later, cool dad – down pat. He’s a guy who rolls with the times, and you could imagine that if he had been born a decade later he might have been socialized to be a more caring parent; as it is, he surfs (like so many baby boom fathers) on his own domestic incompetence. Neither Woodhead nor Weller is very convincing as a nineteen year-old in the first scene, but that’s probably an unmeetable challenge posed by the play: there aren’t many actors who can span the age range demanded for these characters without the help of film special effects. Glover and Saks, on the other hand, have an easier range to fill, making comic hay out of their characters as teens and really blooming as the adult Rosie and Jamie in the third scene. Saks, in particular, deftly captures the deflated introversion of the adult Gen-X underachiever who can’t manage to focus his energies or his life (there’s a hint that both Kenneth and Jamie suffer from an attention-deficit disorder, an ailment that seems not to have hindered members of Kenneth’s generation in the way it has held back their children).

So which is it: comedy or tragedy? The play ends with the parents back in a bubble of love that their children can’t penetrate. It’s a happy ending for the erstwhile hippies, I suppose, but a rather dire warning for the future.

“The Humans” at Pittsburgh Public Theatre

If you’ve read your Freud, you know that in German, the word we translate as “uncanny” is unheimlich, a word that derives from heimlich, which usually means “secret, furtive,” but which also has an older meaning of “belonging to the home, familiar, friendly, home-like.” These two meanings are actually related, through the dark fact that what “belongs to the home” is also often something that must be concealed or hidden within the domestic space – a secret or a dangerous impulse. As such, Freud explains, the unheimlich, or uncanny, is not the opposite of the heimlich (as the “un” would signify), but instead closely bound up with it: for something to be uncanny, it must not only be a little strange and mysterious, but also, on some level, deeply familiar.

Family, and the deeply familiar, are the subjects of Stephen Karam’s 2015 play The Humans. As are the secrets, dread, and fear associated with the uncanny. On one level, the play is a hyperrealistic portrait of a family dynamic, precisely observed. The action takes place at Thanksgiving dinner: Brigid (Valeri Mudek) and her boyfriend Rich (Arash Mokhtar) are in the process of moving into a spacious (by NYC standards) duplex apartment in Chinatown, an apartment scenic designer Michael Schweikhardt has rendered just bland enough to feel weird. Although the moving truck has not yet delivered their stuff, they have invited Brigid’s family to celebrate the holiday with them. It’s a slightly depressing affair, with paper and plastic utensils and folding table and chairs (which establishes, as Rich jokingly observes, a very low bar for future celebrations), and an air of unease hangs over the evening from the moment the action opens. That unease is amplified by a vague hint of supernatural menace in the apartment itself, which seems, from the get-go, at war with the family’s peace. The upstairs neighbor produces improbably loud thuds overhead that make the characters leap out of their skin; mysterious figures appear and then evaporate in the courtyard outside the window; lightbulbs suddenly go out, one by one; the plumbing and trash compactor intrude loudly on the family’s dinner; and pots and pans suddenly fall off the counters – the sound design, by Zach Moore, turns the apartment into an expressive seventh character in the play. As a result, on another level, the play invokes all the familiar tropes of a horror story, and although nothing terrifying actually takes place – indeed, very little takes place at all in this play – the horror genre’s sense of suspense and trepidation hovers over the action.

Upstairs, L to R: Courtney Balan, Charlotte Booker, Cecelia Riddett, J. Tucker Smith, Valeri Mudek; Downstairs: Arash Mokhtar

That feels right, because this is a family for whom the world has become a strangely and unexpectedly insecure and scary place. Brigid’s dad Erik (J. Tucker Smith) and mom Deirdre (Charlotte Booker) live in Scranton, where they have both been steadily employed for their entire adult lives in traditional middle-class jobs – he as a maintenance worker for a Catholic private school, she as an office manager. But their economic and psychological security is under threat now that they are shouldering the financial and emotional burdens of caring for Erik’s aging mother, Momo (Cecelia Riddett), who is in an advanced stage of dementia. Irish Catholic stoics who believe in overcoming adversity through hard work, Erik and Deirdre are riding a sea of apprehension over the precarious outcome a lifetime of hard work has yielded. Money is a concern for Brigid, too, an aspiring composer/musician with a mountain of student debt who gets paid under the table for restaurant work so that she can continue to collect unemployment benefits. Her older sister Aimee (Courtney Balan) faces an equally uncertain future: she has just broken up with her long-term girlfriend, and a chronic medical condition not only has undermined her chances at a partnership with her law firm, but also, she fears, may impede her chances of ever finding a new romantic partner. They are, in short, a family battling insecurity and fear on many fronts: fear of poverty, fear of death, fear of illness, fear of failure, and fear of being unloved and unwanted.

Playwright Stephen Karam has a keen ear for the passive-aggressive rhythms and flows of a family gathering, and his dialogue masterfully captures the simmering tensions, the little digs, the petty triumphs, the barely hidden resentments, and the teasing and button pushing that make family get-togethers so challenging, as well as the love, loyalty, and generous acceptance that make them so treasured. The timing of the Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s production could truly not be more apropos, and though the play often gives opportunity to laugh at this family dynamic, it also paints a picture that is probably rather uncomfortably close to home for many viewers who may be simultaneously looking forward to and dreading their own upcoming reunion with family for the holidays.

Director Pamela Berlin skillfully balances the realism in the acting against a quasi-supernatural setting to evince a creepy sense that the menace in this world is simultaneously within and without. The cast is excellent, utterly believable as a family accustomed to sharing one toilet (and the smells that go with it). Smith and Booker are particularly fine as the patriarch and matriarch. Smith is understated in his expression of Erik’s bewildered anxiety, his body language eloquently conveying a man who is restless with worry. Booker plays Deirdre with a broad accent (Scranton by way of Minnesota, best as I could determine), and though she is kindness personified, her Deirdre has a bit of hard toughness that serves her well when her daughters mock her.

The title of the play gets an oblique and glancing explanation when Rich enthusiastically tells Deirdre about his favorite comic book, in which alien monsters are frightened by stories about humans. Does Karam mean to suggest that humans are the monsters in our world too? Certainly, fear and anxiety were driving emotions that brought us the disaster that is currently occupying the White House, and in his perceptive snapshot of a family coping with those fears, Karam seems to have captured the disquieting “return of the repressed” (to borrow yet another explanation from Freud for the uncanny) that found expression in last year’s election.

“The Old Man and the Old Moon” at City Theatre

Tags

I’d be hard pressed to identify a favorite from among the many moments of sheer theatrical magic in PigPen Theatre Company’s The Old Man and The Old Moon. Would it be that early, audible-gasp-invoking episode in the story when the Old Man (Ryan Melia) first climbs to the top of a ladder with a bucket of light to refill the moon (an effect achieved by ensemble member Curtis Gillen, with a large flashlight and, as best I could determine, a piece of paperboard), accompanied by the amplified sound of liquid pouring into a bucket, courtesy of ensemble member Arya Shahi? The sudden shift in scale as a monstrous, bony, shadow-puppet fish circles ominously around the tiny shadow of the old man sinking into the watery depths, just before the fish devours him? The delightful transformation of a wall of glass bottles into a xylophone? The flight of the glowing, water-gallon-bottle dirigible? The excited panting of the bleach-bottle-and-mophead dog (lovingly animated by Dan Weschler)? The flapping of the shoe-last fish?

L to R, front: Curtis Gillen, Dan Weschler (with puppet dog), Ryan Melia, Matt Nuernberger, Ben Ferguson; back: Arya Shahi and Alex Falberg. Photo courtesy City Theatre.

Moreover, the magic doesn’t only reside in those scenic elements of the show – the inventively cobbled-together puppets and props (by scene designer Lydia Fine), the captivating lighting (Bart Cortright) and the imaginative sound design (Mikhail Fiksel). It’s also in the music and story, which were collaboratively devised and written by the seven members of the PigPen Theatre Company: Alex Falberg, Ben Ferguson, and Matt Nuernberger, in addition to Gillen, Melia, Shahi, and Weschler. Full disclosure: these actors were among the first students I ever taught in the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, and I’ve been a fan of their DIY approach to storytelling ever since they were inspired by the 2007 Pittsburgh Festival of Firsts – and in particular, by the company The Suitcase Royale – to begin experimenting with a combination of music, narrative, dialogue, simple shadow puppetry, and rough-and-ready scenic and lighting elements to tell simple but captivating stories. In the intervening years, the “PigPen boys” (as those of us in the School of Drama continue to fondly call them) have not only refined and honed their methods, but also brought more depth and richness to the stories they tell.

The Old Man and the Old Moon had an earlier incarnation back in their student days, as a much shorter folktale about an old man who abandons his job filling the moon with light to go on a journey to find his lost wife. The current version, developed with director Stuart Carden (also a CMU alum), takes the spine of that story and weaves around it ideas and insights that seem wise beyond these young men’s years. The result is a slyly funny and surprisingly poignant story about the far end of life, when duty and obligation have settled in where passion once reigned, and when habit, routine, and the long span of time have dimmed the memory of youthful promises. It’s also a story about the enchanting power of stories themselves: about how stories, and memories, can bring lost promises and destinies back to life.

The fable begins when the Old Man’s wife (Alex Falberg) heeds a call of adventure that only she can hear, and sets off on a boat alone to the west. Distraught by her disappearance, the Old Man follows after her, leaving the moon to slowly leak out its light in his absence. His quest takes him on a journey full of quirky characters and unexpected encounters, none of which I’ll spoil for you here; suffice it to say that, as in any hero’s journey, the challenges he encounters are ultimately transformative. The story is told through a combination of narration (Matt Nuernberger), movement, acting, puppetry, foley effects, and song, with members of the ensemble providing all of the live music accompaniment on an impressive array of instruments, including, at any given moment, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, piano, violin, drum, accordion, hammer dulcimer, and homemade xylophone. The story is set in a vaguely Northern-Anglo-coastal locale – could be northern England, or Ireland, or Nova Scotia – and the music is appropriately Celtic in derivation, with driving rhythms and earthy harmonies that blend and intertwine the seven voices to create a sonic landscape that invokes the “once upon a time” world of folklore and fantasy.

L to R: Curtis Gillen (bass), Dan Weschler (accordion), Arya Shahi (drum), Alex Falberg (banjo), Matt Nuernberger (guitar), Ben Ferguson (guitar), and Ryan Melia (violin). Photo courtesy City Theatre.

The craft on display here is exquisite – the PigPen actors are fine musicians and vocalists (they also perform regularly in clubs as a band) and they slip in and out of character with quick, decisive strokes. Much of the delight of The Old Man and the Old Moon as theater comes from the speed and dispatch with which they metamorphose the space and shuffle the story right before your eyes: the aesthetic is not one of seamless perfection, but of a DIY, show-the-wires playfulness. Hence, we see all the unmasked walls of the City Theatre space exposed behind the wooden platforms that make up the set, and the entire grid is visible, with homemade lighting instruments hanging seemingly willy-nilly from the ceiling. Costumes, likewise, are gestural rather than exhaustive in detail: a tie here, a scarf there conjures a new character into being; in one scene, bowler hats and black jackets transform Falberg and Shahi into a pair of Jules Verne-like engineer-explorers. Ships form instantly with a rearrangement of bodies; a shop door materializes out of three planks of wood; umbrellas turn into cannons and swords; ominous amplified groans establish the belly of the fish where the Old Man meets up with a legendary seafarer (Ben Ferguson) – through their ingenious manipulation of objects and materials the PigPen boys summon a joyful spirit of make believe and infect the audience with childlike delight and wonder at what the imagination can conjure.

Ben Ferguson (guitar); Arya Shahi (puppeteer).

But as charming as the wizardry of their puppetry and sound effects are, the real source of enchantment in The Old Man and the Old Moon comes from its keen insight into the human heart. A quiet pause toward the end of the play, when the wife smiles with knowing satisfaction at the Old Man’s recall of his promise to take her on an adventure, says everything you need to know about the deep affection that holds a couple together over a lifetime. That may be the show’s most magical moment of all.

“The Hard Problem” at Quantum Theatre

British playwright Tom Stoppard has built a career writing plays about ideas. His first play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was an existentialist comedy, in which two minor characters from Hamlet take center stage and obsess over (what we know to be their imminent) death. His 1993 masterpiece Arcadia takes on the subjects of chaos, chance, the second law of thermodynamics, and the nature of evidence and truth in our understanding of history. Other of his plays – like Jumpers, Travesties, and The Invention of Love – also weave scientific, philosophical, historiographical, mathematical, and psychological ideas and allusions into dense (and sometimes quite comic) meditations on the meaning of life, the existence of a higher being or order to our lives, and the role played by chance and coincidence.

The Hard Problem may be Stoppard’s headiest play to date, with the pun absolutely intended. The central intellectual question here is the “hard problem” of the title: how do you explain consciousness? Scientific materialists seek explanations for mental activity in the physical workings of the brain: according to this position, all behavior, thought, decision-making, and ethical reflection are evolutionarily determined and stem from chemical and electrical signalling in the brain. This model works well to explain many cognitive functions, such as reactions to pain stimuli or to psychological stressors: the brain is like an enormous computer, processing inputs in complicated but essentially predictable ways.

The materialist approach has a more difficult time explaining our ability to think about our thoughts and behavior, however. This is a question that has dogged scientists since the mid-1990s: if thought and behavior happen on the level of molecules and chemicals, why doesn’t our cognitive processing go on without any self-reflection at all (as we presume it does in most insects and animals)?

Alex Spieth as Hilary. Photo by John Altdorfer, courtesy Quantum Theatre

In The Hard Problem, Spike (Andrew William Smith), a young up-and-coming professor, embodies the first of these two positions: he’s Darwin, Mendel, Crick and Watson, adamant in his conviction that there is no problem or question that cannot and will not find concrete scientific explanation in the material world. Hilary (Alex Spieth), a psychology student, is unconvinced: materialism’s failure to explain emotions like sorrow leads her to wonder if there might be some explanation beyond the measurable world – like, for example, God.

The play drops us in medias res as Spike and Hilary argue about the “prisoner’s dilemma” in Hilary’s apartment, after Spike has given her a ride home. He’s agreed to help coach her for a big job interview at the Krohl Institute for Brain Research, but of course he has familiar ulterior motives for his seemingly altruistic act, and consequently the question of what constitutes altruism – as in: is there any such thing as true selflessness, or do all acts of altruism stem from self-interest? – is another running theme throughout the play. The ideas come fast and furious as the scene moves from Hilary’s apartment (where, after she sleeps with Spike, he discovers her praying) to the Krohl Institute (where she successfully competes against math genius Amal (Vinny Anand) for a job in a psychology lab run by Leo (Ken Bolden)), to the upscale dining room of hedge fund squillionaire Jerry Krohl (Randy Kovitz) and his adopted daughter Cathy (Grace Vensel). In between, Hilary serendipitously reconnects with Julia (Fredi Bernstein), an old pal from high school who teaches Pilates at the Krohl and also happens to be the girlfriend of another Krohl scientist, Ursula (Dana Michelle Griffith). Along the way, in addition to the problem of consciousness and the question of what constitutes altruism, the play also ranges over the mystery of coincidence and the challenges of predicting human behavior, as well as game theory, quantification of risk, ethics, morality, and sexual politics in the workplace.

Stoppard being the writer he is, many of these ideas are woven together: his worlds are carefully constructed to work in mysterious ways. He draws wry connections, for example, between the human mind and hedge funds: no one in the play can explain how those work, either. Likewise, the supposedly “rational” stock market managed by complex computer algorithms can suddenly appear to be mysteriously irrational and fail to “compute.” Some things, he seems to believe, will always elude human understanding. Stoppard also drops ideas and themes like Easter eggs: the “prisoner’s dilemma” that is the subject of the first scene’s argument returns later, when Hilary chooses to take the fall for a research mistake made by her colleague Bo (Claire Hsu); and coincidence (a favorite Stoppard element) is both the subject of inquiry (Cathy asks Jerry to define it in their first scene) and a driver of the plot (not only does Hilary bump into Julia at the Krohl, but Cathy turns out to be Hilary’s biological child, a “coincidence” the play takes no pains to hide, and the production even less).

Still, it’s a lot of information to take on board, and many of director Rachel Stevens’s choices layer an additional set of concepts onto this idea-heavy play. Characters watch from positions around the playing space as scenes unfold on stage, and the dramaturgical function of their presence as witnesses is unclear. Is it to signal that the characters are like us? Are we meant to understand that the scene in front of us is a kind of psychological experiment that the other characters are watching play out? Or are they giving theatrical form to the notion of self-reflexivity – that is, in watching their own play, do the characters stand in for the way the mind reflects on itself? If I thought long and hard enough, I might come up with another half dozen ways to interpret this choice; unfortunately, the production doesn’t offer many clues as to which might have been the director’s intent.

Similarly, the transitions between scenes, while admirably fluid, either contain perplexing narrative content – for example, characters laugh and giggle as they put together the Krohl dining room – or unnecessarily underline themes and ideas that are already heavily present – as when the lighting design (Andrew David Ostrowski) throws a red glow on Hilary’s chest, to signify that she is more “heart than head,” or the media design (Joe Spinogatti) projects a brain scan or uterine ultrasound on the floor. Stevens also begins the play – and then occasionally punctuates it – with moments in which Hilary pauses and takes a Deep Significant Breath, adding yet another underexplained narrative thread to a play that already threatens us with information overload.

Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s scenic design whisks various pieces of lab/office furniture into place on wheels and then adroitly transforms them to establish the various locales needed for the play’s action – bedroom, hotel room, dining room, living room, as well as office and lab. The lines are clean and modern. Upstage of the playing space is a maze of clutter through which audience members must traverse to reach their seats, filled with boxes, mementos, household items, sports equipment, and other remnants, all piled up willy nilly. Both the objects themselves and the labyrinthine path through them evoke an attic of the mind, the vast storehouse from which a sense of self and history emerges. That’s a nifty idea in and of itself, but one that’s only tenuously connected to the concerns of the play (identity and memory are not primary thematic threads), and when Hilary disappears into that space at the end of the play, after having decided to abandon science for philosophy (where, to my mind, she’d been dwelling all along!), it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to read the movement as a retreat into the subconscious, a trip down memory lane, or something else.

Like I said, this is a heady play. So skip the wine at the lobby bar and opt for coffee instead: you’ll need it to keep up.

“DODO” at Bricolage Production Company

Tags

dodo-20171011-0550

Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company.

What is lost when something disappears, as the dodo did just around three centuries ago?

The National Self Preservation Society wants you to be thinking about that question, on both the macro and the micro level. You can apply to be a “donor,” and if your application is accepted, you’ll be invited to enter through a secret portal of the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History after closing hours, where you will be guided on a journey through hidden spaces that will prompt you to ponder the fates not only of lost species, but of lost artists, lost languages, lost songs and poems, and lost ways of life as well.

dodo-20171011-0376

Center: Michael McBurney, surrounded by “donors.” Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company.

Indeed, you may find yourself at times musing about the eventual fate of the human race; or about how a museum of the future might represent our species; or about what evidence of our existence humanity might leave in the geological record for a future species to discover in a few billion years. You might discover yourself reflecting on what you, personally, will leave behind. You will almost certainly be caught up in childlike wonder and delight at the opportunity to explore the suddenly mysterious museum space after dark. And at some point in your journey, you will be asked to leave something behind: a donation towards the collective goal, if not of self-preservation, at least of self-memorialization.

Your experience will be different from mine, of course; each donor takes an individual journey, just as we do in life, although – as in life – we all wind up in the same place in the end. That place (and if you pay close attention to the signs you will understand that DODO refers to something other than an extinct wingless bird!) is one in which you may experience something akin to a rebirth of consciousness. It’s also a place from which you may be awakened not only to a recognition of all the ways – good and bad – humans leave their impact on world, but also to a spectacular and deeply humbling reminder that no matter what happens, the Earth’s beauty will surely outlast us.