“The Scottsboro Boys” at the REP Professional Theatre Company

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The case of the Scottsboro Boys is one of the most disturbing and distressing miscarriages of justice in US history: in 1931, law enforcement officers in Scottsboro, Alabama, pulled nine young black men from a Memphis-bound locomotive after learning of an altercation between the black men and a group of white men hoboing on the same train. Two white women also on the train then falsely accused the black men of having raped them, presumably to avoid being arrested for prostitution. The series of trials that ensued over the next half decade, during which the black defendants were systematically and repeatedly denied due process, resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision establishing a defendant’s right to a competent defense. Yet despite multiple appeals five of the nine young men were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to harsh prison sentences.

The Cast of The Scottsboro Boys 3

L to R: Lamont Walker II, LaTrea Rembert, Steven Etienne, Tru Verret-Fleming, Ivy Fox, Marc Moritz, Tony Lorich II, Jared Smith, Scott Kelley, Joseph Fedore, Jonathan Blake Flemings. Photo by John Altdorfer, courtesy the REP.

Given the history it tells, you might expect that the musical The Scottsboro Boys would be no easy thing to experience. That’s both true and not true. True because the musical confronts a difficult history of racism through a form – minstrelsy – that’s guaranteed to make perceptive viewers squirm with discomfort and, perhaps, some dismay. Not true because the REP’s energetic production, sensitively adapted from Susan Stroman’s original staging by director Tome Cousin, is thrillingly performed.

The telling of the story is framed, throughout, as a minstrel show, featuring the standard characters Mr. Interlocutor (Marc Moritz – the only white actor in the ensemble), who serves as a kind of director or master of ceremonies, and Mr. Bones (Billy Mason) and Mr. Tambo (JR Whittington), the joking clowns. But unlike traditional minstrel performances, which trafficked in stereotypical and degrading portrayals of African Americans, here the tables are turned and the mockery is aimed at racist Southern whites, with black actors caricaturing white “types.” This produces some complicated effects. On the positive side, it not only puts the power of representation in the hands of the black characters, but also allows the production to find humor in and produce entertainment out of what is otherwise an unrelentingly depressing story. Yet because Mr. Interlocutor is white, and because he often seems to be commanding the other characters to do parts of the minstrel show against their will, the form of the musical also replicates the very power dynamic it seeks to expose and condemn in its content: in other words, throughout much of the musical the black characters seem – like the historical figures they represent – at the mercy of a white “master.”

The Cast of The Scottsboro Boys 1

L to R: Steven Etienne, Billy Mason, Lamont Walker II, LaTrea Rembert, Tru Verret-Fleming, Scott Kelley, Jonathan Blake Flemings, J.R. Whittington. Photo John Altdorfer, courtesy The REP.

As such, several of the “minstrel acts” can produce some dizzying cognitive dissonance. Take, for example, the musical number “Electric Chair”: is it okay to be entertained at the sight of three young black men spasmodically tap dancing the nightmare of execution by electric chair? What if they dance as beautifully and virtuosically as actors Joseph Fedore, Steven Etienne and Scott Kelley do – does that make the fact that their characters seem to be doing so at the behest of two “white guards” (played by Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo) and one actual white man (Mr. Interlocutor) any easier to swallow?

Likewise, when the minstrel players depict the civil rights lawyer from New York who took up the Scottsboro boys’ defense as a “carpetbagger,” it’s clearly meant to show that Southern racism extended to Jews as well as blacks, and that the discrediting of the defense counsel by means of xenophobic caricature was a factor in the gross miscarriage of justice perpetrated against the Scottsboro nine. But does knowing that make it any easier to listen to one black man, parodying a Southern white Attorney General, menacingly counsel another black man, dolled up as a dimwitted white woman, about the perils of taking “Jew money”?

Four days after seeing the show on opening night, I’m still chewing on these, and other, contradictions and complications in the musical. I think that’s a good thing. The Scottsboro Boys takes the matter of representation seriously, challenging its audience to face some ugly and discomfiting truths not just about the historical event it depicts, but also about the impossibility of representing racism and prejudice without reanimating their effects and reproducing their power to wound.

Lamont Walker II as Ruby in “Never Too Late”; photo courtesy Tome Cousin.

But those are all thoughts that came largely after seeing the production, which is so theatrically satisfying, and which moves at such a swift pace, that there is little opportunity to reflect in the moment. In concept and staging the REP version of the musical is modeled largely on the original Stroman-directed production, but with imaginative modifications that give the production its own originality and vitality. Britton Mauk’s scenic design features a large backdrop stretched on a wooden frame, like a trampoline on edge, with “The Scottsboro Boys” stenciled across it like the advertisement for a vaudeville show. The stage is further framed by a set of large wooden beams on posts, as in an enormous barn or wooden warehouse, on which long lengths of rope are draped – a reminder of the ever-present threat of the lynch mob. The bare wooden stage gets transformed into the various locales needed for the scenes – train, jail cell, courtroom – by the clever rearrangement of chairs, which also serve to create the traditional minstrel-show semi-circle for the framing numbers. Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design works magic on this set, utterly transforming the color and texture of the backdrop from scene to scene (at one point, I could have sworn it was made of marble) and creating bold contrasts between the theatrical minstrel acts and the more somber historical scenes. Costumes, by K.J. Gilmer, vividly establish the characters, and are used effectively to demarcate the “minstrels” from the historical characters they portray.

In addition to Moritz, Mason, and Whittington, Cousin has assembled a stupendously talented group of young actors to play the Scottsboro nine. Tru Verret-Fleming is powerful as Haywood Patterson, the central character in the story, a man of deep principles who pays a steep price for his unwillingness to lie. Playing the other eight “boys” are Steven Etienne, Joseph Fedore, Jonathan Blake Flemings, Scott Kelley, Tony Lorrich II, LaTrea Rembert, Jared Smith, and Lamont Walker II. All are gifted, athletic dancers, and they execute the exuberant choreography with precision and flair, especially in the spectacular dance number that opens the show and in the vigorously complex “Never too Late.” Vocally, the men of the ensemble meld together beautifully, particularly in “Commencing in Chattanooga” and in the heartwrenching “Southern Days,” which is also the number in the show that most pointedly offers agency to the “boys”/minstrel players/actors.

The emotional heart of the show beats in the person of Ivy Fox, who bears silent witness to the men’s trials and tribulations with an intensity and yearning that is almost palpable. Fox exerts a magnetic pull each time she appears, and the frame story she represents – which becomes clear in the final, emotionally eloquent moment of the play – not only sets the Scottsboro Boys case into further historical perspective, but also connects that case, and its racist legacy, to more recent examples of police violence against black men. The play’s ending offers a sobering reminder that the civil rights movement that was borne, in part, out of the Scottsboro miscarriage of justice still has far too much work to do.

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Ivy Fox as The Lady; photo courtesy Tome Cousin.

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“six a breast” at CorningWorks

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In one of the vignettes in Corning Works’ new dance theater piece six a breast, dancer Sally Rousse twists and contorts her arms and legs on and around a trapeze-like swing hanging low to the ground. “Sorry!” she occasionally blurts out, in a vaguely familiar, business-like tone. Twist, contort, swing, “Sorry!” What is it that is so familiar about this scenario? And then, with her last “Sorry!”, the penny drops: she mashes the clear plexiglass seat of the swing against her breast, and the connection between her tortured contortions and the awkward discomfort of the annual mammogram (in which, my dear young and/or non-female readers, the boobies get squeezed between two plexiglass plates, often accompanied by brisk, unconvincing apologies from the tech whose job it is to make that squeeze as tight as possible) pings into place.

Leave it to dancer/choreographer Beth Corning to find such an off-kilter way to capture the indignities not just of a medical diagnostic ritual, but also a host of other (mostly mundane) tortures and torments women find themselves subject to. Makeup, domestic chores, body and skin care routines, and social expectations that women be nice, nurturing, and perpetually sublimate their rage – all these and more are grist for Corning’s dance mill, which takes the absurd and turns it into a series of sublime meditations on gender roles.

In addition to the exquisitely elegant Rousse, Corning is also joined on stage by collaborator Laurie Van Wieren. The three performers bring personality and idiosyncracy to the piece, like a female set of Marx Brothers or Stooges. Corning is the smart-ass clown; Van Wieren plays the befuddled, clumsy member of the trio; while Rousse is the dignified “straight man.” Some Corning performances are more theater than dance; not this one. Rousse’s virtuosity in ballet is on full display, and in places – particularly, in a vignette that might be subtitled “spinning her wheels,” – the beauty of her line and posture is breathtaking.

The evening is structured as a series of skits or circus acts, some solo, and some featuring two or three performers. Each skit captures facets of the female experience with wit and irony, sometimes in ways it’s difficult to put your finger on. For example, in one, Rousse traverses the stage with a basket full of eggshells; she tosses them on the floor in front of her and walks tiptoe on them. The metaphor here is clearly “walking on eggshells,” yet her mood is not one of anxiety, but pleasure, and when Corning – cleaning up behind her – steps on one of the shells herself, there’s a sense of wicked pleasure in the act. The image conveys something complicated about our relationship to these absurdities – perhaps that we’re so comfortable with what’s expected of us that we begin to fail to see how absurd the situation is.

Cleaning is a running theme throughout the performance – Corning materializes a wad of paper towels out of tiny purse to mop up spilled water in one of the early skits, and then later, in a perceptive commentary on the way women are socialized to be near-constantly vigilant about the cleanliness of their space, Van Wieren picks up a bit of schmutz from the floor mid-dance. (I’m willing to bet there wasn’t a woman in the audience who didn’t nod in recognition at both of these gestures; I’m certainly guilty as charged). Another running gag takes up the mystery of how to properly fold a fitted sheet (hint: it requires either magic, or seduction). The tension between our “domestic” and our “non-domesticated” selves is also a repeated theme, captured perhaps most vividly in a dance in which Corning’s body seems split between a barefooted “madonna” and a high-heeled “whore,” weighed down by jangling pots, pans, and babies beneath a transparent hooped skirt.

The costumes, designed by Corning and Lindsey Peck Scherloum, are stunning – all white, mostly transparent, and endlessly inventive in shape and texture. The monochrome white of the costumes beautifully supports the sublime-ridiculous mood of the danced vignettes. But with the final vignette – a presentation of Beckett’s one-act play Come and Go – we suddenly get color, as the performers come on in long coats of mustard, deep purple, and bright red, with elaborate matching hats covering all but their mouths. The visual image Corning achieves with the costuming of this final piece is striking; but even more remarkable is Corning’s simple but powerful staging. She has an intuitive understanding of how to fill out the pauses in Beckett’s work, and the result is a wry take on the way women use gossip and information to jostle for power among their frenemies. The final image of the night – of three women joined in the knowledge of having betrayed each other – feels like an apt, if bittersweet, coda to the evening’s reflections on the female experience.

“Big Fish” at Front Porch Theatricals

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What do you get when a teller of tall tales has a Gradgrind for a son?

You get the conflict that is at the heart of Big Fish, which began as a novel by Daniel Wallace, was adapted into a film by John August, and then turned into a musical by August and composer/librettist Andrew Lippa. It’s a conflict that feels familiar even to those of us whose fathers weren’t fabulists, because at heart it’s about the unbridgeable gulf between parents and children. Much as we yearn to know our parents, they will always have had lives and dreams and memories and secrets we can’t access.

Edward tells Young Will his own story

L to R: Billy Hartung and Mario Williams. Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

The dad in question here is Edward Bloom, played with charisma and verve by Billy Hartung. His habit of telling unbelievable stories drives his son Will (Matt Calvert) nuts, partly because Will prefers reality to fantasy, and partly because he finds his father’s egocentrism grating. The musical opens on the eve of Will’s wedding to Josephine (Hope Anthony), with Will begging Edward not to ruin his wedding by spinning crazy yarns. But what also nags at Will is the feeling that his father is hiding something behind his stories and that he will never get at the truth – a feeling brought into sharp focus when Edward confesses to Will that he is dying of cancer. Will’s quest to discover the truth behind the stories brings him to the realization that his father has, in fact, been a hero of his life’s story, as the opening number insists – just in a much more quiet manner than his father made himself out to be.

Under Spencer Whale’s confident direction, the Front Porch Theatricals production of the musical imaginatively realizes the hero’s journey that Edward has fabricated upon the scaffold of his past. The scene design (Gianni Downs) establishes the setting of the play as a kind of attic of the mind, where tokens of memory are stored, and in the opening number of the musical we are cleverly introduced to the “real-life” versions of the near-mythical characters who later appear in Edward’s “big fish” stories: the girl in the water (Alex Manalo) whom he transforms into a mermaid; the taller-than-average gentleman (Henri Fitzmaurice) who will find his way into the tale as Karl the Giant; and the dark-haired lady (Missy Moreno) who gets transmogrified into a witch. When these characters later return we can readily see how all it took was just a little seasoning, just a tiny willingness to sprinkle some fancy onto memory, for Edward to turn them into larger than life figures.

Edward and the Giant Closeup

L to R: Billy Hartung and Henri Fitzmaurice. Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

Billy Hartung is winning in the role of Edward, as easy in his skin in the role of the elder Edward as he is playing Edward as a teenaged kid. He exudes an infectious joy for life that wins us over to his penchant for fabulism. Yet to the production’s credit, Calvert also garners our sympathy for son Will’s perspective: it would be damned hard to have a dad who constantly spun outrageous tales, especially if you tended to be as literal-minded as Will grows to be. As Sandra Bloom, Edward’s wife, Kristiann Menotiades is warm and appealing, and she does a particularly delightful turn as the teenaged version of the character in the comic number “Little Lamb from Alabama.”

Choreographer Mara Newbery Greer establishes a swirling choreographic vocabulary for the production, sweeping characters and story lines on and off the stage with a fluidity that perfectly serves the mood and energy of the play. The small ensemble is terrific, and they populate the action of the play with a variety of lively and vividly realized characters: Jason Swauger plays the wily circus master/werewolf Amos Calloway; Elizabeth Boyke is Jenny Hill, Edward’s childhood sweetheart; Stanley Graham and Matt Augustyniak are Don and Zacky Price, Edward’s high-school buddies; and Marlo Williams plays Will as a young boy. Standout moments in the show include Missy Moreno’s solo in “The Witch” and Henri Fitzmaurice’s stomp dance on stilts in “Out There on the Road.”

Witch Tells How it will End

L to R: Henri Fitzmaurice, Hope Anthony, Matt Calvert, Kristin Menotiades, Matt Augustyniak, Elizabeth Boyke, Jason Swauger, Alex Manalo, and Missy Moreno. Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

The Broadway production of this musical got a lot of buzz for its over-the-top production numbers and special effects (and budget, as well); Whale’s pared-down version of the show, in contrast, generates its magic through resourceful theatrical solutions, like the use of a wheeled ladder to send Edward flying out of a cannonball. I’m a fan of that kind of simplicity, especially because it allows us to use our imaginations to summon the fantasy into existence just as Edward used his to invent it in the first place. We’re thus drawn more deeply not only into Edward’s imaginative world, but also into the emotional conflict at the center of the story, where the real payoff of any theatrical experience lies. In the end, it’s not the special effects and magic tricks of this musical that have moved us, but the discovery of a shared joy between father and son.

“Red Hills” at Quantum Theatre

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L to R: Patrick J. Ssenjovu and Scott Parkinson

The Quantum production of Red Hills is a skillfully realized production of a problematic play about a very compelling and timely subject.

Let’s go backwards through that thought, and start with the compellingness and timeliness of its subject. Red Hills takes its two main characters and its audience to present-day Rwanda, to a remote area on the border with Uganda where, in 1994, the teenaged American David (Scott Parkinson) and Rwandan God’s Blessing (Patrick J. Ssenjovu) were traumatized by the violence of the early days of the Hutu genocide against the Tutsi. A few years later, David worked out his trauma by writing a best-selling memoir about this experience, and in the intervening decades he has become a world-renowned expert on the subject of “forgiveness” and the various forms it takes in the wake of crimes both personal and public. God’s Blessing, having survived the harrowing genocide, now gives tours of Rwanda that showcase the sites memorializing the massacre of his people; as a citizen of a country that has found it necessary to re-incorporate war criminals into society, he has his own hard-won (and deeply personal) experience of coping with unforgivable atrocities. The play’s main interest is in the human need to expiate guilt and to beg and receive forgiveness; it’s also interested in exploring what it takes to forgive someone else’s transgression. This is all really fertile territory for exploration, and to the play’s credit, even though one of its characters is an “expert” in the subject, in the end you are left with more questions than answers about whether forgiveness and the expiation of guilt are ever truly achievable.

Getting to that end, however, requires rather a good deal of patience with playwright Sean Christopher Lewis’s dishonest (and frankly irritating) manipulation of narrative suspense. The play’s action begins when David, having received a letter from God’s Blessing accusing him of having failed to write the truth in his book, travels to Rwanda to find out what, precisely, he had gotten wrong. God’s Blessing meets David at the airport, and it immediately becomes evident that there is something in the two men’s past that they are both not talking about. What also quickly becomes clear is that there is no character-driven reason for them create a verbal black hole around the secret they are keeping from us – after all, David has written a book about the ordeal they experienced together, and God’s Blessing makes a living telling white people about the genocide.

In other words, the only evident reason for them to withhold information from each other is that the playwright needs to withhold information from the audience in order to build suspense and intrigue. Thus what follows is a series of feints and misdirections and red herrings. Among other things, we are encouraged to surmise that God’s Blessing has summoned David to Rwanda to force him to confront and confess some horrific crime David perpetrated and suppressed (David does have to cop to a misdeed, but it’s of a very different magnitude and quality than we are led to expect); we are made to worry that God’s Blessing might be kidnapping David (he isn’t), or that he will reveal to David some past atrocity that David didn’t know about (he doesn’t); and we are given the impression, until nearly the end of the play, that David’s sweetheart Mary (Ava Kepple), who had been with the two boys on the excursion-in-the-past-whose-trauma-forms-the-mystery-at-the-heart-of-the-plot, lives somewhere in Rwanda and could, but won’t, be visited by David on this trip (she doesn’t; in point of fact she’s dead).

Making this pussyfooting all the more galling is that the encounter between the two men is specifically framed – both within the plot and on a metatheatrical level – as an instance of “gacaca,” a kind of local tribunal which has, since the genocide, become the Rwandan version of “truth and reconciliation” commissions. In the play, God’s Blessing tells David they are having their own gacaca, and we, the audience, are expressly cast as the “village” of witnesses to their private tribunal. But a gacaca is a process in which perpetrators and victims confront each other openly and speak of atrocities straightforwardly and candidly; withholding information from the village/audience, as Lewis does to gin up suspense, is anathema to both the spirit and the purpose of these tribunals.

Director Katie Pearl’s sharp production might well convince you to overlook these issues, however. The play is structured as a series of narratives within narratives, shifting back and forth between the present moment in the theater, the reunion in Rwanda, and the original 1994 event that David memorialized in his book, and Pearl handles these shifts in register with precision, clarity, and – frequently – touches of much-needed humor. Metatheatrical framing also works to shape your experience of the play: when you check in at the table outside the Recycling Building on 32nd Street in Lawrenceville, you’re given a choice of attending either a lecture by an award-winning author or a tour of Rwanda, and, depending on your selection, you get either a bit of David’s philosophy, perspective, and background, or God’s Blessing’s. My suspicion is that your impression of whose “journey” this play traces might be influenced by the choice you make at this moment, although having only attended once, it’s hard for me to gauge. (I chose David’s lecture, because the ticket was blue (yes, still smarting from November!), and sent my companion to the red-ticketed Rwanda tour; as far as we can tell, he seemed to have much the same experience of the play that I did. You should read Chris Rawson’s review in the PG if you want the impressions of someone who attended twice to get a sense of whether the choice significantly alters your understanding of the story).

At the end of each of their prologues to the play, David and God’s Blessing invite us to travel with them to Rwanda. They yank down the plastic curtains separating the two audiences from the playing space and escort us, with handshakes and greetings, into a large open-air hangar. Inside, the stylized set by Deb O evokes a desolate outback: a vast corrugated steel wall serves as backdrop to a massive concrete platform that has mounds of red sand piled up in front of it; on the platform sit a couple of junked and abandoned vehicles and some banks of grass; another junked car sits half-buried in the sand in front of the platform, with a door and front wheel missing. It’s a landscape that conjures not only the waste and destruction left behind by war, but also the poverty and dispiritedness.

Pearl uses this landscape as an opportunity to dispense with the rules of the real world and heighten the theatricality of the storytelling. It’s a right choice: this is a world that logic has abandoned. So, as their journey begins, God’s Blessing takes David into the countryside in one of the obviously undriveable cars, with a conscripted audience member at the wheel, nodding and shaking his head on cue, and at times, David steps out of the moving car to talk to God’s Blessing or to us. Todd Brown’s lighting design elegantly shifts the action and mood from present to past and from real to memory, and both the corrugated rear wall and the car doors serve as projection screens for Joe Seamans’ haunting projections. The use of projection to bring the absent Mary into the scene is particularly effective – she flickers and wavers in and out of static like a memory that doesn’t want to come fully into focus, helping to underline the gulf of time that separates the present-day men from their younger selves and emphasizing the way events get distorted and fractured in our minds over the years.

Scott Parkinson brings nuance and subtlety to his portrayal of David, who is the more fully fleshed-out character in the play (and, I fear, cause for further dismay – why does the white character seem so much more dimensional than the African character?). And though Lewis gives us less information about God’s Blessing, the marvelous Patrick J. Ssenjovu fills the void with a palpable and moving sense of his character’s loss, of his anguish over past events that continue to eat away at his soul, and of his neverending struggle not only to forgive, but, even more crucially, to be forgiven.

“The Liar” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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Liar - Photo 3

L to R: Patrick Halley as Cliton and Ethan Saks as Dorante in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR Photo Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

In an age when our leaders play loose with the facts
What a lark to return to a play from the past
That takes joy in exposing the fibs of a liar
And does so while setting our laughter a-fire.

Ethan Saks plays Dorante, a great teller of fables
On whom pert Clarice and Lucrece turn the tables
(Erika Strasburg’s the former, Sarah Silk is the latter,
and all three young acteurs knocked the socks off your Tatler).

Erika Strasburg as Clarice and Sarah Silk as Lucrece in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

He’s also “come-upped” by Geronte, his dear dad,
and Alcippe, an old friend, whom he makes very sad
When they catch him out on a lie that’s truly whopping –
And this leads to a moment – at least – of lie stopping.

There’s also Cliton, Dorante’s servant, whose quirk
Is compulsion to always be truthful, which works
Against him in wooing the maid Isabelle
(He blurts out the truth, and she gives him hell).

Isabelle has a twin, the priggish Sabine;
Philiste yearns for her, even though she’s quite mean.
(You must look below for the names of these actors,
Their phonemes won’t fit anapestic tetrameter!)

David Ives’ “translaptation” is a clever mashup game
Of modern and classic; Andrew Paul’s done the same
With souped-up Vivaldi behind the transitions,
Sly trendy shout-outs, and old/new appositions.

Kim Brown’s witty costumes take everyday Gap wear
Add lace and a cape and voila! we are there
In 1643, where fops fight in duel-ery
(albeit with 20th-c. light saber tomfoolery).

Ethan Saks as Dorante and Charlie Murphy as Alcippe in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

Do I tax with my rhyme? I’m no Ives, I confess
His vocab’s prolific, he pairs with finesse
words like “cuff,” “love”, and “Pont-neuf,” and quite unexpectedly
invents new expressions – for instance: “lace-ectomy.”

I love plays in verse when they’re done really well
And the Kinetic production is just nonpareil.
The acting’s pitch-perfect, the staging’s sublime
Go see this rare show, you’ll have a great time!

David Ives’ The Liar, adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille; directed by Andrew Paul. In addition to Saks, Strasburg, and Silk, the first-rate ensemble includes Sam Tsoutsouvas as Geronte; Patrick Halley as Cliton; John Michnya as Philiste, Alcippe’s friend; Julianne Avolio as Isabelle/Sabine; and the unsurpassable Charlie Francis Murphy as Alcippe. The versatile scene design is by Gianni Downs; Angela Baughman’s sound design provides modern mashup not only for the transitions but also for a gloriously antic duelling scene (staged by fight choreographer Michael Petyak). Lighting, by Cat Wilson, and props, by Johnmichael Bohach, also play prominent roles in generating the production’s comedy.

“Sweeny Todd” at Pittsburgh Festival Opera

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Anna Singer and Andrew Cummings. Photo Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera

I’ve been a fan of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ever since I had the great good fortune to see the original Broadway production back in the late 1970s. I’ll never forget the way the loud shriek of the whistle at the beginning of the musical made me literally jump in my seat, nor how the tumbling of bodies from Sweeny’s barber chair into the chute that connected his tonsorium to Mrs. Lovett’s gruesome bake shop made me gape in astonishment. That’s a hard memory to compete against, I’ll admit; the show was over-the-top spectacular, using copious amounts of spurting blood, trap doors, and the whole panoply of special effects available to a big Broadway musical production to achieve its black comic effect.

The Pittsburgh Festival Opera lacks the resources to recreate the original musical’s spectacle; nevertheless, it has produced a very fine chamber version of this whackily macabre show. Its pared-down rendition puts focus on the music and vocal performers, which I suppose is one difference between a production of this work as opera as opposed to musical theater. But this is by no means a “park and bark” rendition of the play. Director Tomé Cousin, a dancer and choreographer by training, has a keen eye for dynamic stage pictures and precise movement vocabulary, and he brings the story to vivid life through inventive and fluid staging that moves the action from scene to scene and location to location through a quick rearrangement of a few chairs on Hank Bullington’s spare set. Making a virtue out of necessity, Cousin finds clever solutions for actions that would otherwise require costly and complicated props and stage machinery to carry off. Thus, for example, in lieu of blood rigs, he has Sweeny’s victims spray a handful of red rose petal over their chests, and a simple but effective bit of group choreography establishes the workings of the barber chair contraption without any need for chutes and trapdoors. Bob Steineck’s atmospheric lighting design and Bullington’s projections work well in tandem to establish scenic mood, tone, and location and add visual dimension to the play, and the fine orchestra – conducted by Douglas Levine – provides a myriad of sound effects in addition to the rich and often dissonant music.

Cousin has also done an admirable job of coaching his performers into a clear and committed physical and emotional realization of character. From the opening instant of the show – when ensemble members Bill Townsend and Robert Gerold sashay from the wings to place white chairs on the empty stage – to its final, tragic moments, the principals and ensemble members alike use their bodies almost as much as their voices to convey the tale of Sweeny Todd.

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Andrew Cummings as Sweeny Todd. Photo by Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera

Andrew Cummings is physically suited for the role of Sweeny Todd – tall, bald, with wild, crazed eyes, he looms menacingly over the rest of the cast. His Todd mostly broods and seethes with resentment over the injustices he’s suffered, but he also finds the lighter moments that allow us to see the man inside the monster (albeit a man with a very sick sense of humor). Cummings’ baritone voice is smooth and velvety, and he shifts easily from an operatic register to a more lyrical voice for a number like “Pretty Women.”

Anna Singer embodies the cheerful bustle and loopiness of Mrs. Lovett with verve, and she adds depth to the role, giving us occasional glimpses of her character’s emotional neediness. On opening night she had some rough moments, particularly with her first number “The Worst Pies in London,” which demands tricky shifts between vocal registers. Nevertheless, her comic timing is adroit, and she hits her stride with the  showstopper “Have a Little Priest,” arguably the funniest song about cannibalism ever written. (This number, however, was one of the many moments in the show that I wished the production had dispensed with supertitles, as the text gave away all of the jokes before the performers had a chance to sing them).

Top notch performances are also delivered by Adam Cioffari as Judge Turpin and Robert Frankenberry as the Beadle Bamford – both deliciously villainous in the villain roles – and Adam Hollick and April Amante as the lovers Anthony Hope and Johanna Barker. With his clear tenor voice and confident stage presence, John Teresi is utterly engaging as Tobias Ragg, the “boy” Mrs. Lovett adopts after Sweeny kills his master, Signor Pirelli, a character performed superbly by the remarkable tenor Thomas Cilluffo. Lesley Baird shines in the small but significant role of the Beggar Woman – hidden behind a mess of blond hair, she communicates the madness of a destroyed woman with a frantic energy and a powerful mezzo-soprano voice.

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L to R: Jordan Speranzo, Elise Mark, Kasey Cwynar-Foye, Robert Frankenberry, Bill Townsend, Andrew Cummings, Lori Carrau, Alex Longnecker, and Maggie Burr. Photo Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera

The ensemble work in this production is particularly impressive: not only do members of the chorus vividly populate the world of the play with a variety of idiosyncratic characters, but they also often serve to effect seamless scene transitions, as in the moment in the second act when they transform, with a few spasms of heads and bodies,  into inmates of an insane asylum. Rachel Wyatt’s eloquent costume design helps both unify the ensemble and give individuality to each of its members.

Throughout, Cousin also places ensemble members on stage to bear silent witness to the action: they watch with prurient fascination as the Judge schemes to marry his ward or Sweeny plots his revenge. While the production doesn’t give any explanation for their presence in these scenes, I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise that there’s a commentary here on the human propensity to see evil and chaos as entertaining. That is, by having us watch others placidly observe as Victorian London devours its own, this production warns us about how seductive – and catastrophic – it can be to sit back and watch as calamity unfolds.

“The Christians” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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Your Tatler encountered a lot of religion this past weekend – indeed, far more than she, as a secular humanist, is wont to do. And all of it was on our local stages: there was the irreverent and impious An Act of God at the Public on Thursday, the reverent and affirmative A Gathering of Sons at Pittsburgh Festival Opera on Friday, and finally, on Saturday, Lucas Hnath’s intelligent and deeply captivating play The Christians.

L to R: David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre

In many ways both An Act of God and The Christians address a similar fundamental problem at the root of all religion, which is that the texts that purport to contain God’s will must be read and interpreted by humans, who inevitably impose and project their own needs and wants and agendas into their interpretations. So who can really know what God wants? An Act of God cheekily tries to answer that question by imagining what message God might want to deliver to humanity in the 21st century were he to take form and visit us; The Christians tackles that question via the pastor of a modern American megachurch who has suddenly begun to doubt whether his evangelical faith has correctly interpreted the Bible’s teachings about the afterlife. And while The Christians is far more respectful in its depiction of Christians than An Act of God is in its representation of the deity, in the end it’s also far more devastating in its demonstration of the shaky foundations on which faith is built.

The whole of Hnath’s play takes place in the sanctuary of the megachurch that Pastor Paul (David Whalen) has devoted his life and work to building, and which scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach convincingly evokes with the sparest of architectural gestures: a large modern cross hanging above a raised, blue-carpeted dais, with a cross-shaped podium for the pastor and a semi-circle of seats on the floor of the stage for the audience, which takes on the role of the congregation. Screens on either side of the cross display misty images of sunrises, clouds, and nature (projections by Joe Spinogatti), along with quotes from the Bible and subtitles for Pastor Paul’s opening sermon, in which he makes a surprise announcement: after a confab with God while doing his business on the toilet, the good pastor has realized that he has been misinterpreting the Bible all these years. He has come to understand that there is, in fact, no hell; that God is all-forgiving and will admit all, believers and nonbelievers alike, to heaven; and that henceforth “we are no longer a congregation that believes in hell.”

Paul’s announcement has both immediate and far-reaching consequences, for him and for his church. The immediate fallout comes when his associate pastor Joshua (Joshua Elijah Reese) pushes back against this doctrinal shift and leaves the church, taking a handful of congregants with him. As time goes on, more and more members of the church take issue with the new doctrine, especially as the rift becomes complicated by issues of power, politics, and money, and in the end Pastor Paul is left with little more than his own increasing doubts.

Under Andrew Paul’s sensitive direction, Kinetic Theatre’s production has a magnetic energy, drawing in even those (like myself) who might instinctually distance themselves from squabbles over theological doctrine. The top-notch cast does an exceptional job of making all of the characters warm and likable, in particular David Whalen, who rightly avoids the temptation to portray Paul as unctuous and self-serving (the potential is there in the character). Whalen’s Paul comes across as kind and sincere, the kind of man you can imagine would inspire trust and deep respect among his congregants, and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, seems a genuine partnership. As Elizabeth, Mindy Woodhead morphs fascinatingly from what at first appears to be a smiling dummy into a fiercely intelligent doctrinal sparring partner. Reese brings conviction and passion to the role of Joshua, a man whose conversion to Christianity saved him from a life of both spiritual and material poverty, and Gayle Pazerski (as Jenny, one of his congregants) and Robert Haley (as Church Elder Jay) both bring a quiet urgency to their characters’ spiritual and emotional claims. Hnath unconventionally calls for microphones to be used for all of the dialogue, even during intimate scenes, and the cast makes good use of this device, which paradoxically allows for a more naturalistic mode of speaking even as it adds a layer of performativity to the character’s speech. At times the mics give the impression that we are listening in to their unvarnished thoughts; at others, they serve to reinforce the essential debate-like nature of the play.

The play itself does several things quite beautifully. To begin with, it takes seriously, and gives insight into, the kinds of exegetical questions with which Christians have to grapple as part of their belief system, and shows that faith is likely never as blind as it might appear to non-believers. In addition, the play is astonishingly fair-handed, allowing all sides of the dispute equal weight. In the beginning, it seems that Pastor Paul, as the spiritual and intellectual leader of the congregation, will have the upper hand, but his vision of an all-forgiving God is challenged not only by Joshua, but also  by the relatively naïve congregant Jenny, who challenges him, among other things, to explain how Hitler could possibly be in heaven. There are no straw arguments here, no ridiculing of belief: in fact – and especially given the rhetorical environment of our current political moment – what may be most refreshing about the arguments presented in this play is the deep respect with which the characters treat each other, even as they are feeling themselves compelled to reject a way of thinking as anathema.

Yet another thing this play does beautifully is to explore the barriers to opening oneself to doubt and change. For Elizabeth, the prospect of changing belief systems raises the possibility that her future self will look back and consider her present self stupid and ignorant; this idea is so repellent to her that she cannot even consider such radical change. Joshua, on the other hand, would like nothing more than to accept Paul’s vision of an afterlife that only contains heaven, if only it could provide him the same solace and moral guidance that present doctrine does.

But much as this play succeeds in giving equal time and space to contradictory arguments and diverging points of view, in the end what it really accomplishes is a trenchant deconstruction of the relationship between faith, organized religion, and morality. What Pastor Paul discovers is that, convincing as his argument may be for an all-forgiving God, the fear of spending an eternity in hell is a much stronger motivator of expressions of faith such as tithing and church membership; for, as Jenny innocently points out, if everyone is saved no matter whether or what they believe, what’s the purpose of belonging to a church? What sets apart the faithful, if the faithless are saved as well? If God doesn’t punish sin, why be good?

The real chicken-and-egg question behind these queries, of course, is: does the church serve the belief system, or is it the belief system that serves the church? That’s a question the play leaves us to ponder, just as it leaves Paul and Elizabeth in a terrible yet wonderful state of radical uncertainty.

“A Gathering of Sons” at Pittsburgh Festival Opera

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The new opera A Gathering of Sons, which is having its world premiere at Pittsburgh Festival Opera under the direction of Mark Clayton-Southers, addresses one of the most pressing issues of our current moment: the tragedy of police violence against African-American men.

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Terriq White as Victor, photo by Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The opera begins with such a moment of violence: Lockdown (Robert Gerold), a white police officer, commands Victor (Terriq White), a young black man, to run and then cold-heartedly shoots him in the back. He takes from Victor a small black bag of “magic,” which Victor warns him will be his ruin. The scene is witnessed by a chorus of spirits that include the ghost of Victor’s deceased father (Leslie Howard) and a multi-generational group of Sons who were also victims of white violence; they appeal to four chthonic figures representing the earth, sky, water, and blood to intervene on behalf of the family and the community and put an end to the cycle of violence.

As Victor lays dying, his brother City (Miles Wilson-Toliver) and his wife Violet (Adrianna M. Cleveland) welcome their new son Freedom into the world; in an observant passage of musical pairing, Victor’s mother Victoria (Denise Sheffey-Powell) joins her wails of mourning to Violet’s cries of labor. In the meantime, the magic Lockdown has stolen begins to work against him, and the spirits that promised to intervene in the first scene torment him mercilessly. When City – who is also a police officer – learns that it was Lockdown who killed his brother, he sets out to seek vengeance; but in the end he resists the temptation to kill Lockdown and arrests him instead. Back in the bosom of his family, City almost loses his newborn son Freedom to cardiac arrest, but the spirits convince Freedom to return to his body, and the opera ends with Victor’s funeral procession and a choral affirmation of faith.

The work is at its best when it takes imaginative flight, as when Lockdown’s gun magically transforms into “Glock” (Kevin Maynor), a menacing figure dressed all in black who turns against him. And in places, librettist Tameka Cage Conley ventures into provocative territory, especially towards the end of the opera, where the spirit of the newborn baby rejects life, not wishing to be born into a world where the color of his skin puts him at risk of an early death. But much of the libretto is overly literal and on-the-nose, with Manichean characters that lack complexity and depth, and in many places the production would have been wise to heed the old theatrical adage “show, don’t tell” and make some judicious edits.

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L to R: Leslie Howard and Denise Sheffey-Powell. Photo Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Dwayne Fulton’s music draws mostly on a jazz idiom, with some gospel, some blues, and a hint of a rock beat from time to time. Robert Frankenberry, who also orchestrated the music, conducts the small orchestra with panache, and there are many superb performances among the very large cast. Denise Sheffey-Powell does a lovely job of conveying, through song, the grief and anguish of a mother who has lost her youngest son, and Adrianna M. Cleveland brings a clear, lyrical soprano to the role of Violet. Robert Gerold is strikingly good, both vocally and as an actor, in the (somewhat thankless) role of the villainous cop, and Charlene Canty’s powerful and luminous voice shines in the role of the Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing. Kevin Maynor, who personifies the gun “Glock,” has a fabulous presence and a beautiful voice, but unfortunately his lyrics are nearly impossible to understand. By far the standout in the cast is Miles Wilson-Toliver, who combines a gorgeous baritone voice with compelling charisma in the role of City.

The opera touches a lot of sensitive nerves, including the simmering anger and resentment justifiably held by the black community against both institutional racism in general and police brutality against black men in particular, and it provides some cathartic vengeance in the scene in which Lockdown gets his brutal, tortuous comeuppance at the hands of beings more powerful than he. But A Gathering of Sons seems less interested in exploring solutions or proposing political actions to address police violence than in reinforcing faith in a higher justice. I’ll be honest, that didn’t feel very satisfying to me, especially on the very day Philando Castile’s murderer was acquitted of all charges. Yet the opera’s invocation of patience and endurance clearly resonated with many members of the audience, who responded positively and warmly to the opera’s final – and quite beautiful – choral affirmation of the power of healing through unity and through connection to a higher spirit.

“An Act of God” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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The sly and insightful humor of David Javerbaum’s An Act of God stems primarily from a niftily canny bit of reverse-engineering, summed up by God’s line late in the play (sorry, I’m going to spoil this for you): “I made mankind in my image – and I’m an asshole, all right?”

Marcus Stevens as God. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Javerbaum’s God is, like so many of the humans he modeled after himself, a self-serving, petty, jealous, power-hungry, nasty, judgmental, self-righteous jerk, with wrath management issues to boot. He’s also chatty, confiding, and charismatically charming, as you’d expect a God to be. And as played by Marcus Stevens, he’s unabashedly Jewish, highly sardonic, a little bit fey, and utterly hilarious.

The conceit of the play is that God has come to the O’Reilly Theatre and taken form in the body of actor Marcus Stevens in order to bring a new set of laws to replace the original ten commandments, which God feels have run their course. He’s brought with him a couple of archangels, Gabriel (John Shepard), who stands ready “on Bible” to provide textual evidence, and Michael (Tim McGeever), whose job is to read the minds of members of the audience and pass their questions on to God. As he goes through the new commandments one by one, God gives perfectly logical explanations for why he’s jettisoning the old commandment for the new, brings in Bible passages for support and de- (or re-)constructs them, and fields Michael’s increasingly combative questions.

The new commandments all reflect the frustration a progressive might imagine God would feel at the way humans have (mis)interpreted and (mis)used religion and faith to mistreat each other. So, for example, one of the first new commandments is “Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate.” This is clearly a God who’s more than a little fed up with humanity. At the same time, he’s omniscient and all-powerful and doesn’t much like to be second-guessed, either – hence, he reserves a special place downstairs for humanists, doubters, and evolutionary biologists.

Javerbaum was a head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and the writing here is pitched, like that show, at an audience of intelligent, well-educated, progressive skeptics. A smattering of the humor involves groan-inducing puns (for example, riffing on Don McLean’s American Pie, God claims that “today the mosaic (law) dies”). But the majority of the comedy comes from a combination of surprise juxtaposition of ideas in the writing and Stevens’s masterful comic timing and versatile delivery. Stevens cascades through an astonishing range of tones and facial expressions as his God shifts in mood from warm and confiding to snarky and sardonic to pissed off and vengeful, with infinite shadings in between. Shepard and McGeever are divine as his “wingmen” (see what I did there?) – Shepard’s Gabriel seems full of gravitas, but he can’t keep from cracking up over some of the more ridiculous passages in the sacred text from which he intones, and McGeever’s Michael finds it impossible not to challenge God with all of the inconsistencies and injustices he has baked into his creation.

Director Ted Pappas beefs up the humor with sound and lighting effects that appropriately “meta” the comedy – drum riffs for the terrible puns and deep red glows to underscore God’s moments of rage (sound by Zach Moore, lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski). Michael Schweikardt’s heaven is a gay 80s modernist paradise, with a white couch and glass-and-chrome side table that would fit in nicely on the set of Dallas and a background that presents a camp version of the celestial gates, complete with bright clouds and a gauzy white curtain. Valerie M. Webster’s white and blue costuming – complete with wings for the angels – rounds out the sleek and slightly kitschy look. Together the set and costumes deftly complement Javerbaum’s astute and irreverent take on religion.

Oh, and did I mention it ends with a show tune?

John Shepard, Marcus Stevens, and Tim McGeever. Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

 

“Thom Pain (based on nothing)” at 12 Peers Theater

Playwright Will Eno wants you to think about how you are spending the precious moments of your life.

The question is: do you want to spend any of them watching his play, Thom Pain (based on nothing)?

That’s not me being snarky; it’s a question posed pointedly in the play, by an obviously scripted metatheatrical gesture within the first few minutes of this postmodern-existentialist one-man show, in which a “plant” in the audience (here, director Vince Ventura) abruptly walks out. “You know, you might be better off if you had gone with your heart and left, like our friend, now departed, who just left with his heart,” Thom (played with dexterity by Matt Henderson) advises.

And it’s a question that comes back around, again in a rather pointed way, when Thom “volunteers” a hapless audience member to join him on stage and directs her to stand behind him, holding a glass of water. He leaves her there without further instruction for the remainder of the show, only, in the end, to shame her: “I thought you would have left by now.”

These are both clever moves in a metatheatrical, cerebral sort of way, but they’re both more awkward than dexterous in the execution. I suppose we’re meant to feel that we are not exercising our freedom to leave and to use our time in the “brave and true and reckless” ways Thom claims we would if we knew we only had one day to live. But of course the reality of the situation is that if the show were in fact to succeed in prompting a real audience member to walk out, then it would be, by most measures of theatrical success, a failure. Conversely, its failure to drive us out of the theater says less about its success in getting us to reflect on the meaning of our lives than it does on the social pressures that keep us from being rude to hard-working actors.

Henderson’s task in this show is just that – hard – as the roughly hour-long monologue slips and slides between memories of a traumatic experience from his childhood (involving an electrocuted dog and an attack by bees), an account of a recently ended love affair (which he ended before he could be dumped), and countless self-interruptions to muse on the fragility of existence or to praise us for our patience and indulgence as we sit listening to his story. Henderson is at his best with the material when he handles it with a light touch, and his rapport with the audience is confident and wry. His comic timing is also very fine, and his lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone add to both the humor and depth of the piece.

But Eno’s dank, sad-sack character is a heavy lift, and I suspect you need a very different sense of humor than mine to find the comedy in this writing. I’ll confess right here, I’m one of those folks who’s never understood what’s funny about Waiting for Godot, either, and this play is clearly aimed at those who do. Eno’s excavation of existentialist angst is deadpan, knowing, and post-modernly “meta” in the way it reflects upon itself as it writes itself, and as the saying goes, if you like that sort of thing, then this is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to like.

But me? I’m perseverating on that poor member of the audience, who, on the evening I saw it, tried to exercise her free will by initially refusing to come on stage, but was dragged up nonetheless, only to be upbraided later for obediently playing along.

Mr. Eno’s intentions might be to get us to reflect on the absurdity, capriciousness, and fleetingness of life, but the bigger lesson I took home was: don’t sit in the front row.