“The Giver” at Prime Stage Theatre

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Gray rectangular panels hang like opaque windows on the back wall of the stage. They are mirrored by gray rectangular panels on the black floor, and gray rectangular tables and benches that furnish the spaces in which the characters – dressed in blocky tunics the same shade of light gray – live their gray, square lives.

Giver and Jonas

L to R: Ken Lutz and Will Sendera

This is what “Sameness” looks like, as effectively imagined by set designer Johnmichael Bohach and costume designer Kim Brown: colorless, rectilinear, rule-bound. Based on Lois Lowry’s popular and award-winning novel, The Giver (adapted by Eric Coble) presents a utopian Community in which social harmony is engineered through the radical abolishment of competition and choice. Children are taken from their birth mothers to be raised by adults unrelated to them; at twelve, they are assigned to a profession selected by a committee of elders. The same rules apply equally to all, and the same benefits accrue to all, eliminating the differentials in wealth and possession that lead to social conflict. People are equal and without material wants. It’s a harmonious and placid world.

But as we all know, every utopia is also a dystopia. Here, it falls to young Jonas (Will Sendera) to discover the disturbing foundation on which his peaceful and conflict-free life is based. Jonas can “see beyond” – which means that he can see color where the rest of the people around him can only see shades of black and white (an effect achieved cleverly through J.R. Shaw’s pinpoint lighting design). Instead of receiving a normal career assignment at the age of twelve like his peers, Jonas is chosen to be the “Receiver” of the Community’s memories, and sent to train with the current holder of that office, the Giver (Ken Lutz). In the process of receiving that treasure store of memories, Jonas comes to realize what “Sameness” has cost his community, and takes action to force it into change.

I’ll confess I haven’t read Lowry’s novel, so I’m not in a position to judge how faithfully Coble’s adaptation hews to the original. The story the play tells is clear and direct, building suspense through the first act about what, precisely, Jonas will do with the heavy responsibility he’s been given (at intermission, a young boy in front of me exclaimed to his dad: “this is a real cliffhanger!”) The theatrical challenges posed by Coble’s script are handled deftly by Prime Stage’s director, Melissa Hill Grande, and her design team. Video designer Joe Spinogatti and sound designer Angela Baughman vividly enliven the memories the Giver imparts to Jonas in images projected on the rectangular screens and sound effects that immerse us in the memory with him – the sound of wind and snow, of a horse’s gallop, of laughter and music at a birthday party. Bohach also nicely contrasts the straight-edged, monochromatic world of the community with the Giver’s curve- and color-filled apartment, which intrudes from behind the screens in a metaphorical foreshadowing of the play’s ending.

In addition to Sendera and Lutz, the cast includes Ricardo Vila-Roger as the Father, Zanna Fredland as the Mother, Micah Primack and Grace Vensel as Jonas’s friends Asher and Fiona, Gina Preciado as Larissa, Naomi Grodin as the Chief Elder, and the charismatic – and truly adorable – Sadie Primack as Jonas’s little sister Lily. The ensemble gives persuasive performances all around, making clear, strong choices to show that a life of passionless contentment may be comfortable, but it is hardly really living.

“The Lion” at City Theatre

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“What makes a lion a lion?”

That’s one of those silly riddles an adult might tease a child with, keeping the answer a secret in order to string the child along.

It’s also the question at the heart of Benjamin Scheuer’s solo performance work The Lion, where it first appears in the context of a nursery song that Scheuer remembers his father having made up to entertain his three young sons. But the song never provides the answer to that riddle, and when Scheuer’s father suddenly dies and leaves thirteen-year-old Benjamin to take on the role of man of the house, he takes that answer – along with all the other wisdom, advice, and support he might have provided to his sons – with him. In fact, he also leaves behind a great deal of mystery, as Scheuer discovers – like so many of us who lose our parents before we really get to know them as adults – that his father was a very different person to his children than he was to his friends and colleagues.

The Lion

Benjamin Scheuer in ‘The Lion’

The personal journey Scheuer recounts through song and narration is a powerful one. Scheuer’s had a life rocked by misfortune: the tragedy of losing his father was followed up by a diagnosis of stage IV Hodgkins Lymphoma a decade later. But as painful and wrenching as his life has been, Scheuer recounts his autobiographical tale with a dryness and distance that keeps it from falling into sentimental tear-jerking. He’s wry and funny and self-aware to a perfect degree, so that even as, for example, he recalls his thirteen-year-old self’s devastation at the fact that his father died while he was on a band trip, after he had argued with his dad and refused to speak to him for a week, his adult self reassures us that he knows he didn’t cause his father to die. The theatricality of Scheuer’s presentation of his story is buttressed by Neil Patel’s deceptively simple set, which has an embossed upstage wall that comes to vivid life under Ben Stanton’s ingenious lighting design. As Scheuer moves through his story and from one guitar to another, the lighting makes it feel as if the stage is in a constant state of transformation around Scheuer.

The seventy-minute performance strings together a series of original songs that span a wide variety of styles, from children’s song to folk to ballad to rock, with Scheuer accompanying himself on one of the six guitars scattered around the stage. Music, Scheuer tells us, was his father’s primary gift to him, and he has honored the giver in the nurturing of that gift. Scheuer’s voice is smooth and lovely, and his guitar technique is masterful, whether he is plucking out complicated, delicate melodies or using the guitar primarily as a rhythm instrument. The beauty of Scheuer’s music is matched by the poetry of his lyrics, which contain unexpected gems. For example, although he had long avoided confronting his feelings about his father’s death, an urban misfortune triggers reconciliation: “Someone stole your old guitar/ and unlocked hidden tears/ It helped me start to face my fear/ Build a bridge before you fully disappear.” I don’t really have the words to describe how terrific Scheuer’s music is, so I’ll just cheat and embed a video here.

Scheuer eventually figures out for himself what makes a lion a lion – and sings a showstopping, triumphant song about it – but he’ll never know what his father’s real answer to that riddle was. And therein lies the poignancy of this gorgeous and moving musical: we can never really fill in the gaps our fathers leave behind, and those unanswered questions may be the ones that come to define us.

“Cock” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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The title of this play is a bit of a red herring. I suppose it’s meant to refer to what’s “between” John (Thomas Constantine Moore) and his two lovers – his boyfriend of many years, “M,” played by Ethan Hova, and the woman he’s recently met and fallen in love with, “W,” played by Erika Strasburg – but the play is not nearly as racy and rough, in language or attitude, as the word “cock” would conjure for the American imagination. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing: it’s a nice surprise to find that the play eschews in-yer-face explicitness, but unfortunately its title also risks turning off audience members who would otherwise be charmed and taken in by this smart, complicated, and riveting play about the complexities of coupling in a “post-identity politics” age.

Cock is, in fact, only very tangentially about what hangs between the legs of three of its four characters. More centrally, it’s about a young man’s struggle to make sense of who he is by trying to figure out what he wants from a relationship, both physically and emotionally. John is a strange character to place at the center of a drama, because unlike most dramatic characters – who are defined in terms of “what they want” and “the obstacles that keep them from getting what they want” – John seems immobilized by an incapacity to define his desires. He’s a gay man who suddenly finds himself in a sexual relationship with a woman, and his inability to choose between M and W becomes not only an existential crisis for him, but also a condemnation of the kind of identity-politics that insists on categorizing and pigeonholing people in terms of sexuality and sexual preference.

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Thomas Constantine Moore as John. Photo courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

The play has a deliberately disorienting structure and style: playwright Mike Bartlett notes that it should be staged as if it were taking place in a cockfighting arena, and Johnmichael Bohach’s set offers a credible replica. A low wall encircles a floor covered in sawdust; distressed corrugated metal panels form the walls behind the audience risers, which surround the playing space, with bench seats up close for spectators who want to get intimate with the action. The space is otherwise devoid of all furniture and props, and the playing style it demands takes inspiration from the likes of director Ivo van Hove – that is, spare, stark, stripped to the essentials. A character says he’s going to sit down and then doesn’t; objects get mentioned, but they are neither seen nor mimed; W moans as John fingers her, but Moore is not even touching Strasburg. All that busy work of pretending and faking and imitating and indicating is abandoned as the actors focus on the presence of the thoughts and emotions expressed by the text. It’s thrilling and captivating.

It’s also, at first, rather confusing. This is a play that demands a little patience. The first section of the play offers glimpses, in snapshot-style, of John’s relationship with M, hopscotching forward in time; the second section fills in the gaps with John’s intervening relationship with W. Nicholas Erickson’s sound design provides buzzing bells and static-y radio to help jump-cut all these moments together, but the first two sections are hard to put together.

The payoff comes with the third section, when the warring lovers spar over John at a dinner party, to which M has invited his father, “F” (Sam Tsoutsouvas), as reinforcement. From this point on, metaphorically, John is the weakest bird in the cockfighting arena, pecked at from all sides by the other characters, all of whom have much more clearly defined wants and needs. At the same time, he’s also the “prize” the other birds are fighting over. That fight is both entertaining and horrifying. As M, Hova neatly treads the line between charmingly catty and manipulatively abusive; Strasburg wears an equally sharp set of spurs as the direct, winning, shoot-from-the-hip W. Director Andrew Paul is unafraid of letting his actors and audience stew in cringingly awkward moments: for example, when M and W finally realize that John has not yet chosen one of them over the other, there is a long, awful silence in which Thomas Constantine Moore masterfully embodies the anguish of his indecision, his face a grimace of shame, embarrassment, and self-disgust.

That anguished silence was, for me, the biggest takeaway from the play; in the end, although John finally makes a choice, it’s a paralyzing one – and one that reveals the universality of the contours of abusive relationships, no matter the gender of the abuser and victim. Although John’s waffling initiated the contest, he’s its ultimate victim: his bedraggled, scarred, and bloodied carcass is what gets left behind in the sawdust.

“Tru” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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Truman Capote was a strange and interesting man. I have memories of seeing him on television, when I was a kid, memories mainly of the nasally voice, the lisp, the fey affect, and above all, the superior, dismissive tone that seemed to infuse his every word and gesture. My younger self found him both fascinating and repellant – his wit and charisma were thrilling, while his malicious, cutting disdain felt toadish and icky.

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Eddie Korbich as Truman Capote. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

That Truman, alas, is not much on view in Jay Presson Allen’s 1989 one-man bio-play Tru. Instead, we get a much gentler version of the man, fussing about his recent fall from grace among his wealthy patrons after he published a story à clef about them in Esquire magazine in late 1975. He natters anecdote after anecdote about the many famous and infamous people he’s had the good fortune to cross paths with as he drinks his way to terms with his new status as a persona non grata.

Eddie Korbich does a good imitation of Truman Capote, but it’s not an uncannily great one; the simper and the giggle and the skip may all be true to form, but the edge of arrogance and condescension is missing. Instead, he gives us the genial, flamboyant, gay-comedian version of the man.

Making Korbich’s job infinitely tougher is the question of why we should care about Truman Capote and his social ostracism in the first place. I can see why this play might have won a Tony Award in 1989, just five years after Capote’s death, when he was still in the cultural memory and – let’s not forget – open discussions of homosexuality were still relatively rare on stage (that would have been a year before Angels in America premiered at the Taper!). I’m hard pressed, however, to see what makes this play compelling to a present-day audience, other than as a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

I get that the Public needs its annual “one-hander” to fill out the season with a production that’s easy on the budget. But I’m willing to bet artistic director Ted Pappas could find solo-performer scripts that speak more pithily to the present moment. May I suggest a perusal of the Kilroys list?

“The Last Match” at City Theatre

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Back and forth, back and forth go the volleys between defending champion Tim Porter and his challenger, Sergei Sergeyev, at the US Open. And so, too, go our loyalties between the two men, as they unspool for us the thoughts, fears, and memories zipping through their heads in the midst of their high-stakes match.

On its surface, Anna Ziegler’s play The Last Match is a character study, of two highly competitive superathletes and of the two women they love. And as character studies go, it’s an appealing one: American tennis star Tim (Danny Binstock) has the easy confidence and entitlement of a man who’s been a lifelong winner. He seems in possession of a completely charmed life: beautiful wife Mallory (Daina Michelle Griffith), newborn son, walls of trophies, millions of adoring fans. So naturally, when the play opens, we’re quickly aligned with Russian underdog Sergei (the winsome, trickster-ish JD Taylor), a young hothead who has scrabbled and fought his way to the top ranks. Sergei’s past is darker than Tim’s: where Tim rose to the heights of tennis with the full support of a loving middle-class family, Sergei left his working-class home at a young age, a decision that led to his success at tennis but irrevocably estranged him from his family. Now the only person in Sergei’s life is his fiancé Galina (Robin Abramson), a tough, take-no-prisoners Russian compatriot who has ambition to burn.

Last Match

JD Taylor as Sergei Sergeyev, Robin Abramson as Galina. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover.

The play’s narrative framework is the tennis match that brings the two athletes together. As they “play” game after game (indicated, thankfully, by minimally sketched slow motion movement), we’re brought into their headspaces and given a peek into what drives them, what keeps them in the game and motivated, and what has the capacity to disarm them, both physically and psychologically. The script has the actors shifting quickly from telling us what they are thinking and feeling to showing us moments from the past, and director Tracy Brigden stages these shifts fluidly on Narelle Sissons’s minimalist set, which gestures at a tennis court with its astroturf surface and glossy blue scoreboard but readily doubles as a café or park as the scene requires. The pared down look of the production carries over into Susan Tsu’s costumes – brightly colored tennis togs for the men, sharp iconic pieces for the women – and into Ann G. Wrightson’s clean, spare lighting design. Joe Pino’s sound design helps the imagination fill in what the set leaves out, situating us smack dab in the middle of the court with “pocks” of racket against ball and “whooshes” of ball through air.

The Last Match provides illuminating insight into the mindset of tennis champions. But to my mind the real accomplishment of this play lies in the way it skillfully shifts your sympathy from character to character: you may begin, as I did, rooting for the underdog Sergei, but part way through you may find yourself wanting Tim to win, and then back to Sergei again, until by play’s end you really don’t want either of these guys to win or lose. Tim starts out seeming like the kind of cocky braggart you want to get his comeuppance, but he becomes increasingly sympathetic as he reveals that his life has not been nearly as smooth sailing as it appears from a distance. Sergei, likewise, has moments of narcissistic assholery that make him less of an appealing underdog. Consequently, I left the theatre thinking less about the characters than about all the ways framing narratives shape our alliances, both to the good and the bad. A mentor of mine once attributed the political potency of theatre, film, and television to the fact that it’s hard to hate someone after you’ve empathized with their story. That’s the good. The bad is that it can be too easy to acclimate yourself to someone who figures out ways of framing assuaging narratives (I’m thinking here of what slowly seems to be happening among the Republican establishment vis-à-vis their once-reviled nominee; I’m also thinking of the piquant German comedic film Er ist wieder da, or Look Who’s Back).

In the end, The Last Match cleverly confronts our desire to take sides and root for “our” team or champion, leaving us, championless, to ponder how readily that desire can be manufactured and manipulated.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at barebones productions

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a timely play in this political season in which citizens seem to be aware, more than at any other time in personal memory, that the system is rigged. Indeed, where better to investigate the means through which the powerful few define and shape the material and existential conditions of the powerless many than in a loony bin, where those in authority not only shape the physical conditions of existence, but also define and determine what constitutes psychological and emotional “normality”?

Cuckoo's Baseball photo by Lou Stein

L to R: Maurice Redwood, Billy Jenkins, Kim Parker Green, Randy Kovitz, Nick Lehane, Patrick Jordan, Leandro Cano, Michael Lane Sullivan (partly hidden), Dave Mansueto, and Mark Tierno. Photo by Lou Stein, courtesy barebones productions.

Based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name, Dale Wasserman’s 1963 theatrical adaptation tells the story of the hell-raising, anti-authoritarian R. P. McMurphy (Patrick Jordan), a convicted felon who has feigned madness in order to serve the remaining eight months of his prison term in a mental hospital instead of doing hard labor. McMurphy lands in a ward ruled over by the calmly sadistic Nurse Ratched (Kim Parker Green), who maintains her authority via a system of disciplining surveillance, psychological manipulation, and internalized fear that would put Michel Foucault in a state of awe.

Both the novel and the play wrap a parable about the insidious abuse of power by those in charge around a potent critique of the institutional treatment of the mentally ill. Kesey based his novel on his own experience of working as a night orderly in a mental institution, and the cruel, medically suspect practices his novel exposed – overmedication, psychological and emotional abuse, electroshock therapy, and lobotomy – were later used as part of the rationalization for closing down mental hospitals and deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. That might, in hindsight, have been the wrong lesson to draw: for the acutes and chronics in Kesey’s fictional ward, the institution itself is not the problem but rather the fact that it puts them at the mercy of someone who wields power with no oversight, and whose only motivation is to retain that power. The play’s emotional punch comes from our dread about the foregone outcome of the clash between the cocky McMurphy – who is so confident he can best the system that he bets all he’s got on himself – and Ratched, who holds cards he doesn’t even know exist.

Cuckoo’s Nest is above all interested in how psychological manipulation helps those in power maintain the status quo. We see this most potently played out in a devastating confrontation between Nurse Ratched and Billy Bibbit, a young man so terrified of his mother’s disapproval that he’s rendered virtually speechless by a debilitating stutter (played with heartbreaking sensitivity by the superb Nick Lehane). When Billy, having finally lost his virginity to a prostitute McMurphy has sneaked into the ward, suddenly finds himself able to defy Nurse Ratched with fluid confidence, she instantly reduces him back to a stuttering cower by reminding him of how disappointed his mother will be when she hears of his behavior. Ratched’s use of her superior insight into the inmates’ neuroses and psychoses to keep them in a state of subjection to her will is a vivid illustration of the principle that knowledge equals power.

The play’s interest in the effect of psychological manipulation extends into the political sphere, as well. Unlike the film version starring Jack Nicholson, in which we don’t discover that the giant, silent Chief Bromden (the imposing Leandro Cano) can speak until well into the story, Wasserman’s play follows the novel’s lead in positioning the Chief as a narrator, interlacing his experience of disenfranchisement as a Native American at the mercy of dominant white culture with the mental patients’ subjugation to the power structure of the mental ward. Thus the play also functions to dissect the ways the system uses the internalization of racism to oppress people of color. The enormous Chief repeatedly expresses the belief that he’s not “big enough” to fight back, his vision of himself having been shaped by white culture’s marginalization of his people and his history. It’s up to McMurphy to help Chief realize the mental and physical strength that goes with his size; in many ways, although it’s McMurphy who sets the action of the play in motion and drives it forward, the character who has the most transformative journey is the Chief.

The barebones production is compelling and gripping. Director Melissa Martin has assembled a huge and talented cast to populate Tony Ferrieri’s eerily imposing mental ward, which, with its forced-perspective foreshortening, realizes in architectural form the equivalent to Ratched’s discombobulating menace. Barbed wire along the upper rails of the house pens the audience in the space as well, suggesting our own imprisonment in a system clearly rigged in favor of those who already hold power. Costumes by Angela Vesco complement Ferrieri’s disorienting set, with blinding white sixties-era uniforms for the institution staff and a range of pajama-like outfits for the patients that render them childlike and vulnerable. Parker Green brings a steely coldness to Ratched, offering a crystalline surface off of which Jordan can bounce his feisty, antic McMurphy.  In addition to Cano and Lehane, standout performances in the ensemble include Randy Kovitz, urbane and fidgety as Harding, a voluntary inmate dealing with repressed homosexuality; Michael Lane Sullivan, squinting and disconnected as Martini, a hallucinating schizophrenic; and Dave Mansuelo as the bomb-obsessed Scanlon.

“The Flick” at the THE REP

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I’ve had a copy of Annie Baker’s 2011 play The Flick sitting on my bookshelf for about half a year, but when I heard that the REP would be producing this play as part of their season, I decided to hold off reading it so that I could experience it first on stage rather than on the page.

I’m so glad I did. The REP’s production of Baker’s keenly observed play about three underpaid workers at a run-down single-screen movie house swept me off guard from its very first moment, when the barely articulate Sam explains the nature of the task at hand – sweeping up after the feature – to his new co-worker Avery with hypernaturalistic shorthand:

“We call this the walkthrough? …. Pretty simple. … You just … uh…”

That line is followed by a long silence in which the two men awkwardly begin to clean the floors of the theater between the rows of seats. And while that may not sound like a very riveting opening to a play, it is in fact totally captivating. For it’s as if we, the audience, are behind the projection screen, looking out from “movie world” into the bank of seats in the “real world,” eavesdropping in on the private, casual, and nondescript conversations of people who think they are unobserved.

Baker’s hyperrealistic dialogue and action – peppered with long pauses in which the characters, having nothing to say to each other, say nothing – offers a perceptive glimpse into the lives of three precisely imagined wage slaves in the service economy. It’s difficult to pinpoint, in a “this is the story” kind of way, what The Flick is “about,” because there’s no strong central conflict; rather, The Flick is a play that puts under scrutiny characters who are, among other things, mainly determinedly engaged in conflict avoidance. And under Robert A. Miller’s sensitive direction, the terrific ensemble of the REP production brings those characters brilliantly to life.

The Flick

L to R: John Steffenauer, Sarah Silk, Saladin White II. Photo: Jeff Swensen.

Sam is a thirty-five year old white dude who is still living in his parents’ attic; he’s the type who would have barely graduated high school and then spent his twenties partying to heavy metal while not finishing community college. When Avery later asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, he takes a longish pause before pointing out “I am grown up … that’s like the most depressing thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Sam’s quiet desperation is masterfully captured by actor John Steffenauer, who physicalizes the role with a guarded mask of a face, a choked, croaking voice and the slump-shouldered, half-awake, shuffly walk of a person who’s molded his body to the confines of his dead-end job. Sam seems slow of both thought and speech – not stupid, necessarily, just not quick with words – and Steffenauer fills the character’s hesitancy with a groping yearning that is both touching and comic.

Steffenauer’s powerful and understated performance is counterbalanced by Saladin White II as Avery, the new hire, and Sarah Silk as Rose, the projectionist. Like Steffenauer, both White and Silk underplay, giving the script’s pauses and hesitations their full due and allowing the stillness between lines to dampen “actorly” affect. White’s Avery is physically verklemmt, but he’s the most verbally ept of the group; son of a professor of semiotics and linguistics, Avery’s a movie buff with an aficionado’s capacious memory, and White modulates skillfully between Avery’s cocky confidence when the subject is film-related, and his stuttering insecurity when it comes to normal social interactions. Silk is fabulous as Rose, playing her with a vivacious insouciance that feels both studied and careless: Rose is a gal who’s always a little “on,” but Silk is firmly in the hypernaturalistic performance style of the play even as she plays with and “performs” for Sam and Avery.

The Flick 2

Sarah Silk and Saladin White II. Photo: Jeff Swensen.

The question of realness and performance is one that the play slyly dances around; at one point Avery tells Rose that his depression stems from his belief that “everyone is acting out some like stereotype” and later Rose accuses Sam of “performing,” both of which jar us into remembering that these are actors acting in front of us, even though, with all the pauses and half lines and inarticulate thoughts, it kind of feels like we are watching “real people.” You might think for a moment that this is a kind of cinematic performance transplanted to the stage, but then Sam quotes a few clichéd movie lines and calls attention to the artifice of cinema as well. And while the dialogue and acting style are ultra-quotidian, the play draws on all sorts of theatrical conventions – blackouts, recorded music, scene changes, etc – that keep it from seeming either “real” or “cinematic.” Baker’s play is at once compellingly realistic and provocatively theatrical.

Scene designer Dick Block has filled the small space of the studio theater with a very credible reproduction of a movie theater that hasn’t seen better days in a really long time. Small details in the set – like the handful of missing tiles on the mosaic panels, and the grime on the upstage walls – make all the difference. Details are also eloquent in Michael Montgomery’s costumes; indeed, you might glean practically everything you need to know about the three characters from their hair alone (Sam has a near-permanent case of hat head, Avery wears his hair cropped control-freak neat, and Rose, the most uninhibited of the bunch, sports a wild and unruly tangle of long dark curls dyed bright green on the ends). Sound designer Steve Shapiro threads scenes together with themes from old films, underscoring the disconnect and disjuncture between the cinematic “real” (which so often provides life with a soundtrack) and the theatrical “real” of the play’s many silences and pauses.

The Flick is one of those rare works that manages to be hilariously funny even as it’s breaking your heart. Director Miller lets the play unfold with a pace and mood that allows both its comedy and tenderness to flower; often, one or the other of these blooms in the awkward silences that settle between characters unsure about what to say next. The characters’ uncertain, cautious, and at times passive-aggressive hesitation to engage each other captures a truth about the modern social contract; its optimistic ending – dare I say its Hollywood happy ending? – indulges a sweet hope that dead-ends are not always what they seem.

“Laws of Attraction” by Attack Theatre

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Some laws beg to be defied. Take the law of gravity, for instance: how thrilling is it to imagine floating free of the pull of gravity?

Attack Theatre’s new dance work Laws of Attraction plays fast and loose with gravity as well as with several other principles that govern the physical world. The piece, which had its origins in a dance/science residency at the Winchester Thurston School, playfully puts dancers’ bodies in conversation with the mechanics of motion.

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L to R: Dane Toney, Kaitlin Dann, Ashley Williams, and Anthony Williams.

The space is a former auto body shop – bringing yet another connotation of “mechanics” to mind – with old chairs arranged sculpturally along one wall, a pile of cardboard boxes in one back corner, a large net of rope hanging on the upstage wall in the other corner, and a pile of musical instruments on a platform to the side. It’s a big playground for the five dancers, one of whom – Attack veteran Dane Toney – opens the piece by hoverboarding onto the stage and pushing around a table full of typewriters, on which he types a screenplay about a married couple that drifts apart and eventually reconciles, a framing narrative for the dance that offers a romantic take on the notion of “laws of attraction.”

The intersection between scientific principles and interpersonal relationships is a running theme in the work. So, for example, the choreography investigates magnetism both as a quality of attraction between a magnet and a metal surface, and as a mysterious chemistry between two strangers at a “Cocktails and Canvas” event. Ditto with the principle of fulcrums and balances, explored movingly on a seesaw that unexpectedly emerges from under the pile of boxes. The large rope helps animate oscillation (as the screenplay couple are themselves unsure of their relationship) and a ladder is mobilized in the examination of leverage. Clichéd phrases are wittily overliteralized, as when, after a dance set in which the performers fall and get up repeatedly, we hear, in voiceover: “You’re exhausting me; I’m tired of all these ups and downs.”

Hoverboards make several appearances in this work: they allow the dancers to glide around the room fluidly, like electrons in an atom, zinging through space without colliding. One of the best uses of the hoverboards in this work comes at the top of the second act, when the dancers use the hoverboards to indicate a Venetian canal filled with fish and then rats, followed by a tour de force pas de deux on hoverboard between Toney and Ashley Williams that tests Toney’s center of balance as he keeps the hoverboard moving while lifting and spinning Williams in a Latin-inspired dance.

When not on the hoverboards, the dancers display the signature Attack Theatre soft athleticism, absorbing and releasing energy like gently wound springs. The music ranges from recorded classical, pop, and jazz music to live acoustically-enhanced percussion and keyboard played by musician and artist Ian Green, who also produces a painting of the “Cocktails and Canvas” scene as the dancers enact it.

Mike Papinchak’s vibrant lights transform the space from scene to scene and make areas of the open space pop with saturated color, a saturation that is echoed in the hints of cobalt blue that peek out underneath the black and gray of Yu Su’s futuristic-oriented costumes.

In addition to Williams and Toney, dancers Kaitlin Dunn, Nile Alicia Ruff, and Anthony Williams helped co-invent this playful exploration of laws of attraction both physical and emotional. They bend and fold their bodies into cubes and balls, stiffen into planks, leap up walls, catapult through space, suspend horizontally in defiance of both gravity and logic, and balance and counterbalance each other in a graceful, athletic, and visually and aurally provocative evening of dance.

“The Master Builder” at Quantum Theatre

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You take the elevator to the ninth floor of the Allegheny Center and enter into a vast, empty concrete space with floor to ceiling windows and a 360 degree view that encompasses downtown Pittsburgh and its surrounding neighborhoods. Walking around the room, past small tableaus of midcentury furniture illuminated like museum objects in squares of bright light, you see the history of twentieth century urban architecture spilling out below you. And as dusk falls and you take your seat, the city lights up to form a backdrop that, at first glance, seems completely a propos.

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Hayley Nielsen and John Shepard. Photo by John Altdorfer, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

Halvard Solness (John Shepard), the “master builder” of the play’s title, is a visionary who once specialized in designing and building towers and churches; now, he’s at the height of his career and can pick and choose the homebuilding projects he’ll deign to grace with his genius. He’s also discovered, in late middle age, that his thoughts sometimes uncannily manifest themselves into reality: he merely needs to imagine, for example, that his apprentice Ragnar Brovik’s (Thomas Constantine Moore) desirable young fiancée Kaja (Kelley Trumbull) will become his employee and pliant lover and – poof! – it’s done, without his seeming to have done anything to make it happen. With Ragnar’s fiancée in his thrall, Halvard can keep the younger man from becoming his competition for new business and maintain his position as high-handed ruler of his little self-built fiefdom.

If you know anything about tragedy, you know this is a man who is ripe for a fall. But this being an Ibsen play, there’s a lot of back story to excavate along the way. Halvard’s fame and success, it turns out, rose Phoenix-like out of the ashes of his wife Aline’s childhood home, which burned down in a fire over a decade earlier and left him with a large plot of land to build his architectural legacy upon. But that fire also led to the deaths of his two young children, and turned Aline (Catherine Moore) into a walking ghost. Now at the zenith of his career, Halvard is paranoid about being overtaken by the next generation and, consequently, fatally susceptible to psychological input that shores up his narcissistic and overweening ambition.

That input comes in the form of Hilda Wangel (Hayley Nielsen), a young woman who had developed a romantic fantasy about Halvard at the age of twelve and who now suddenly appears to collect on a promise she claims he made to her when she was a child. Hilda dredges up memories, as figures from our pasts tend to do, and in conjuring his past self she wills Halvard into behaving like the man she has idealistically fantasized him to be (readers familiar with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler will see a ready parallel to Hedda’s idealization of Eilert Lovborg – and here, the man’s failure to fulfill the woman’s expectation is also part of the equation). In Halvard’s reaction to Hilda’s dreams of him we witness the complexity of a great man’s great ambitions, and in his shattered family we see the detritus that accumulates in the wake of such ambitions.

The Master Builder is a complicated play, and the Quantum production refuses to make firm decisions about many of the questions the play raises. Is Halvard going a little nuts, as his wife and the doctor suspect, or is he merely caught up in the image of himself that Hilda reflects back to him? Is the play primarily an exploration of character psychology, as the acting style would suggest, or does it want to operate on the level of symbol and allegory, with its textual references to birds and towers and castles? Is this a story of generational comeuppance, or one about past chickens coming home to roost, or the tragedy of a hubristic man? I’m not sure that the production choice to leave the play’s ambiguity on these points unresolved is problematic, but I suspect my own puzzlement about what is at stake contributed to the fact that, when Halvard falls from his own building at the end of the play, I found it difficult to care one way or another about his demise.

Director Martin Giles juxtaposes the formal 19th-century prose of the text with a casual and modern sensibility in the acting, producing a strange clash that shouldn’t work, but really does. Imagine a fashion-forward person who pairs polka dots with plaids and pulls it off, and you’ve got the idea. Giles sets the play in the postwar era, and his staging echoes the formalism of the architecture and furniture design of the era, all clean lines, precise arrangements, and open spaces. Those eloquent objects artfully arranged around the room (Tony Ferrieri gets credit for the carefully curated midcentury modern pieces) are smoothly wheeled in during intermissions to serve as set pieces, giving the impression of a space that lacks clear boundaries between outside and inside, much like Halvard’s mind in the play. Alex Stevens’s lighting design – gamely overcoming the challenge of a very low ceiling – underscores the cool formality of the staging, while Richard Parsakian’s costumes trap characters in several stages of the trajectory to modernity, from Aline’s stiffly formal and almost Victorian mourning garb to Hilda’s late 1950s dungarees.

A lot of psychological depth is mined from this play by the acting ensemble, especially by John Shepard, who finds nuance and surprise at every turn and does a terrific job in a role for which he’s not well suited physically (he has too friendly a natural demeanor for the formidable and quixotic Halvard). But as much as I liked both the setting for the play and the directorial approach, they also seemed at odds with each other: the twinkling city and its evocation of the dreams and accomplishments of master builders past and present felt too large and distant a landscape for the psychological crisis that seemed to be the focus of the production.

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