“Seven Guitars” at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

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Only in Pittsburgh.

Only here could a small, scrappy theater company stage a production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars in the very setting he had in mind when he wrote the play: the backyard of his childhood home on Bedford Ave. in the Hill district.

That home has sat tragically abandoned and decaying for decades. But rather recently, a local group, spearheaded by Wilson’s nephew Paul Ellis, began rehabilitating it and transforming it into the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, a center for artists and performers.

And, for just one more weekend, it plays a starring role in Mark Clayton Southers’s surehanded interpretation of the play. That’s not to downplay the achievement of the very fine ensemble who bring to life the story of the violent end of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (played by the charming and charismatic Jonathan Berry), but rather to acknowledge how much this production gains from its setting: knowing that people may very well have had conversations and conflicts much like those depicted in the play on this very spot raises the stakes of its issues in a deeply satisfying and provocative manner.

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Scene from SEVEN GUITARS. Photo by Chris Chapman, courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever found the play’s representation of structural racism and the ways in which the deck is stacked against black men to be quite so resonant. After a summer in which social media has provided incontrovertible evidence of the danger of driving, selling CD’s, or doing practically anything “while black,” the complaints voiced in Seven Guitars by Floyd and his bandmates Canewell (Kevin Brown) and Red Carter (Leslie Ezra Smith) about their maltreatment by the justice system need no additional emphasis for us to see where they fit on a nearly direct line from slavery to the present day. It’s almost as if ghosts have returned to bear witness to what the deteriorated condition of the house provides an apt metaphor for: the depressing fact that the dynamic depicted in the play seems likewise to have deteriorated over the last sixty years.

I fear that last sentence may lead you to believe that this play is nothing but a downer. Not so! The play is very funny, and the cast excels at bringing out the humor in the dialogue and situations. Brown and Smith, in particular, make nice comic hay out of their characters’ tendency to perseverate on a topic, and Teri Bridget is wry and sardonic as the world-weary Louise. Rounding out the case are Wali Jamal as the impassioned and somewhat off-kilter King Hedley, Ty Barrow as Floyd’s love interest, Vera, and Jamilah Chanie, seductive and coy as Louise’s young niece Ruby.

The production overall is very good; there are (perhaps unavoidable) flaws that get in the way of its being transcendant. Long transitions between scenes turn what is already a very long and talky play into an extremely long one (the evening I attended, it was almost midnight when the cast took their bows); the sound system is rather glitchy; there are some sightline challenges; and – my biggest beef – the handling of props and musical instruments is generally unconvincing. The relationships between characters – the meat of this drama – is, in contrast, utterly genuine, and the ensemble does a beautiful job of conveying the rhythms and idioms of Wilson’s dialogue.

Chickens scratching the straw-covered dirt add to the realism of the otherwise appropriately minimal set for the play, which is made more immersively real by the sounds of roosters and voices coming from a neighboring yard (sound design by Mark Whitehead). The period music and Cheryl El Walker’s costuming ground the play in the late 1940s; Xavier Pierce’s lighting design contributes mystery and depth, particularly once the sun goes down and pitches the action under a darkened Pittsburgh sky.

“Peribáñez” at Quantum Theatre

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High cages of chicken wire surround two large round platforms on either side of an open space, forming a barbell shape from a bird’s eye view. Or might they be the scales of justice? Either interpretation could be plausible, given the main narrative themes of Lope de Vega’s 17th-century drama Peribáñez (co-directed here by my colleague Megan Monaghan Rivas and her husband, Tlaloc Rivas). For the play presents us with a macho world of rooster-ish men jostling over the most-prized hen, and offers reassurance that, in a just world, right will prevail over might.

The play’s full title in Spanish is Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña (Peribáñez and the Commander of Ocaña), and its plot centers on the attempts of the aristocratic Commander (Mike Mihm) to tear the beautiful peasant Casilda (Isabel Pask) by hook or by crook from her beloved husband, the farmer Pedro Ibáñez (Siddiq Saunderson). The play sets up this conflict to demonstrate that high status and wealth do not necessarily go hand in hand with honor. For Lope de Vega’s original audience, this probably felt like a bracing claim for equality in a class-stratified society; in twenty-first century America, we’re more accustomed to rooting for the underdog.

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L to R: Mike Mihm, Siddiq Saunderson, and Freddy Miyares.

Indeed, in many ways Lope de Vega’s form of tragicomedy anticipates the “happy ending” plot trajectory of a Hollywood action film. As in his more well-known play, Fuenteovejuna, in Peribáñez de Vega creates a dramatic world in which justice sees past the droit de seigneur and validates the rights of the powerless to fight back against the corrupted and arrogant powerful. And as in Fuenteovejuna, here, too, the rights of women are an issue. In Peribáñez, de Vega casts a gimlet eye on the patriarchal objectification and victimization of women and features a strong female character who makes a forceful claim for her social and sexual autonomy. It’s an attitude that feels distinctly contemporary, even where the play’s elevated language and formal configurations of class and status root it in a bygone era.

Quantum has chosen a bucolic outdoor location in Frick Park for the production, which has the advantage of underlining the pastoral setting in which the play’s action takes place, but the disadvantage of challenging the actors to compete with the buzz of cicadas, helicopters, and Beechwood Ave. traffic. It’s probably a good thing that this is a play of big passions, for the acoustics leave little room for emotional nuance. Translator/adaptor Tanya Ronder has rendered the play into an English that feels just formal enough to suggest geographical and temporal distance, but not so stilted as to be unspeakable by a modern tongue. The cast settles rather comfortably into this elevated language; in particular, Ethan Saks, playing the King, and Don DiGiulio and Freddy Miyares, playing servants to the Commander, find a natural ease and connection with the linguistic formality.

Big passions deserve big costumes, and Samantha Pollock’s costume design does much of the heavy lifting in establishing the status and occupation of the play’s many and varied characters, all of them played by just ten actors. The aristocratic costumes, in particular, are impressively lavish. But the costumes and Britton Mauk’s scenery seem to belong to different theatrical worlds; as much as I admired the quality of both designs, it was hard to see how the opulent realism of the clothes belonged to, and in, the metaphorical abstraction of the set. Music – composed and performed by members of the cast – grounds the play’s action in rural Spain, and acoustic instrumentation is used to good effect to demarcate the play’s frequent asides.

The young, multicultural ensemble conveys the play’s warring emotions with clarity and intensity. With its mix of the tragic and the comic, and its focus on a sympathetic, underdog hero fighting against a powerful and wealthy villain, this 16th-century play feels surprisingly modern and almost cinematic in its appeal.

“Driftless” from hatch arts collective

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Those of us living in Southwest Pennsylvania are surrounded by what Josh Fox has dubbed “Gasland.” Chances are, if you live in or around Pittsburgh, there is a hydraulic fracturing site within twenty miles of your home (don’t believe me? Check out this map). All that drilling is keeping the region’s unemployment rate and energy costs low – but at what cost?

That’s the question at the heart of Paul Kruse’s heartfelt and ambitious new play Driftless. The story centers on a young couple, Sierra (Siovhan Christensen) and Collin (Alec Silberblatt), who have recently moved into a new home built within spitting distance of a fracking site. Collin is a blue collar yinzer who works for one of the drilling companies; Sierra is – like her mother, Mary Anne (Tammy Tsai) – a nurse. Collin is dismissive of environmental concerns around fracking: there might be some truth to the claims made in Fox’s documentary, he concedes, but any environmental impacts are due to carelessness – his company does things right. But when Sierra suffers a miscarriage, she begins to harbor doubt about the cleanliness of their water, and what she learns from having their water sent for testing tears their family apart.

Hopscotching temporally between past, present, and future, and geographically between southwestern Pennsylvania and the sands of Minnesota, the play connects dots between the geological events that left extractable resources in various parts of the world and the environmental and health impacts that result from our exploitation of those resources, both now and in the past. Sierra’s father, Randall (Ken Bolden), is an ex-coal miner who suffered from black lung disease; Bolden also plays James Schneider, a professor suffering from respiratory problems as a result of frack sand harvesting near his home in Minnesota. The two houses showcased in the play exemplify the choices and hazards posed to homeowners who discover that they’re sitting atop a valuable resource, as in both cases mining and drilling are both sources of income and disease. If we consider the Earth as our “home,” the play’s focus on the ways in which our collective thirst for energy renders the characters’ homes unlivable makes for a potent analogy.

Kruse also uses analogy to prompt reflection on our economic addiction to fossil fuels. Collin is a recovering heroin addict, and his efforts to remain clean highlight the challenges we’d collectively face in weaning our economy and society from fossil fuel consumption.

At times the writing feels heavy-handed, as when, in the second act, Bolden and Tsai, playing St. Peter and St. Barbara, hammer us with facts about addiction and the process of fracking. And the plot has some loose ends: specifically, Kruse seems to have lost interest in the family story of the priest (Trevor Butler) when we return for the second act.

The play calls for nice touches of magic realism, which director Adil Mansoor handles with flair, with the help of sound and movement designer slowdanger and a captivating lighting design by Kathryn A. Devlin. Scene designer Michelle Carello rightly makes water a primary element of the set:  working faucets in the two kitchens call attention to the centrality of water to the functioning of our homes and lives, and make present for us what is at stake when the purity of our water is threatened.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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Take three inventive actors, trunks full of costumes, and a well-known story from the Sherlock Holmes canon, season liberally with Monty Python-esque humor, lace with a good dose of metatheatrical self-parody, whip it all into an energetic concoction of not-quite horror and suspense, and what have you got? The zany, playful, and at times downright silly Kinetic Theatre Company production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, currently running at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

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L to R: James FitzGerald, Connor McCanlus, and David Whalen. Photo courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

The script, by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, roughly traces the contours of the Arthur Conan Doyle tale – there’s the mystery of whether or not a demonic hound is stalking the moors, chasing to their deaths successive generations of Baskerville heirs (all played by Connor McCanlus), solved, in nearly proper deductive fashion, by the “world’s greatest detective,” Sherlock Holmes (David Whalen). But not before Dr. Watson (James FitzGerald) – who’s hardly the brightest bulb on the tree – repeatedly mucks things up through a combination of carelessness, inattention, and downright befuddlement.

The three actors populate the stage with a dizzying array of colorful be-wigged, be-bearded, and be-hatted characters who zip on and off stage with frenetic energy; at times, they also play themselves (or some version of themselves) spooked by theatrical superstition and egging each other on. It’s all a bit chaotic, and it’s hard to see much connection between the play’s metatheatrical scenes and the Sherlock Holmes story, but there’s no point in being a killjoy and trying to find method in the madness. Director Andrew Paul proves himself an observant student of the Flying Circus, staging all matter of verbal and visual gag with deadpan seriousness, and his ensemble is fully up to the task. Whalen offers a nudge-nudge wink-wink parody of his own self-absorbed Sherlock, and also plays multiple other roles, including an eye-patched villain, the villain’s Spanish (or is it Italian?) wife, a mysterious bearded butler, and the butler’s daffy wife. McCanlus is suitably goofy as the “Canadian” Henry Baskerville (who speaks, unaccountably, with a Minnesota twang), and FitzGerald’s Dr. Watson is delightfully batty.

Horror is promised at the beginning of this show, but if you want to be scared, you’re in for a disappointment; if you’re looking for a couple of hours of frothy fun, Hound of the Baskervilles won’t let you down.

Looking forward to…

I’ve taken a bit of a vacation from blogging the last few weeks, but the hiatus is about to come to an end! Lots of exciting stuff coming up, some of which I’ll have a chance to see and write about, others I thought I’d share with you, dear Readers, even though I won’t have a chance to write about them.

So, here’s what I’m looking forward to in the next few weeks…if I’ve missed something important, let me know in the comments!

Kinetic Theatre opens Hound of the Baskervilles tonight at 8 pm – it runs until August 7 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre downtown. David Whalen will return to Pittsburgh to reprise his Sherlock Holmes, with James FitzGerald and Connor McCanlus rounding out the cast. Director Andrew Paul promises hilarity; I can’t wait.

Also this weekend – and this weekend only – is the inaugural production of the Entertainment Consortium Inc. African American Conservatory: Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, which is a hardhitting, moving, and timely play about the ways the conflict in war-torn Congo has impacted civilians, and in particular women, who are the victims of indiscriminate sexual violence (and then cast out from their families because they are considered “ruined”). It’s playing at the August Wilson Center on Sunday at 4; I’m sorry that I won’t be able to catch this production, as I’m an admirer of the play.

Another production I’m going to miss, but wish I could see, is the Alumni Theater Company’s upcoming presentation of Green Day’s musical, American Idiot, July 29-31 at the New Hazlett Theater. They tell me it’ll be rock meets Afro-punk. Looks cool: here’s a link to their trailer: https://youtu.be/-kfLmZWGcSo

Quantum Theatre begins its new season with the US Premiere of Lope de Vega’s play Peribañez, in Mellon Park. The play traces the efforts of a peasant couple to preserve their marriage in the face of a local Commander’s lust for the young wife. Lope de Vega could justifiably be called the Spanish Shakespeare; the production, directed by my colleague Megan Monaghan Rivas and Tlaloc Rivas, features a number of CMU students as well as local professional actors. It opens Aug. 5 and runs through the end of August.

Also opening that weekend is the 12 Peers Theatre production of Conor McPherson’s The Birds, directed by Vince Ventura. Based on the same story as the Hitchcock film, the play takes a different look at the toll taken when birds mass against humanity. It runs Aug. 4-21 at the Studio Theatre in the Cathedral of Learning.

Pittsburgh Playwrights will stage August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars in the backyard of August Wilson’s home in the Hill District – how insanely cool is that?! The production will be directed by Mark Clayton Southers, opens Aug. 5, and plays through Aug. 28 (thanks to Dina Fulmer for letting me know that I left this off the list – I hadn’t meant to!).

Two new works open the second week of August: Hatch Arts Collective’s Driftless (Aug 11- 14) – a new play about the impacts of fracking on our community – and Off the Wall’s Mother Lode (Aug 12-14) – Virginia Wall Gruenert’s new play about mother-daughter relationships.

September brings the opening of new seasons at City Theatre and the Pittsburgh Public Theater. City starts things off with a production of Hand to God, a show I’m very much looking forward to – it was a big hit on Broadway, telling the story of a blasphemous puppet that has hijacked the hand of a Christian teen. Opens September 22. The Public opens its season with The Fantasticks, a show I think I last saw in 1980 – which makes sense, as this musical has the distinction of having been the longest running musical ever. The run begins on September 29, and lasts through the end of October.

But I won’t be at the Public on September 29 (I’ll see the show another day), because that’s the evening of DRAMA QUEENS! at CMU – an event I helped to plan, and have been looking forward to for the last year and a half. My colleague Kristina Straub and I invited three of the foremost feminist performance artists of the 80s – Holly Hughes, Deb Margolin, and Carmelita Tropicana – to come to CMU to participate in a celebration of feminist performance. We also asked each of them to invite an artist whose work they wanted to showcase. Hughes invited Erin Markey; Margolin invited Desiree Burch; and Tropicana invited Dynasty Handbag. All six of these amazing artists will perform short “samplers” of their work on September 29, at 6:30 pm in the Rauh Studio Theater, in the CMU Purnell Center for the Arts. Tickets will be free, and the event is open to the public. If this is your kind of thing (and really, why wouldn’t it be?), mark it on your calendar now and call for tickets at the School of Drama box office after Labor Day.

See yinz at the theater!

“Venus in Fur” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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Where do I begin in singing my praises of the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s enormously satisfying production of David Ives’s Venus in Fur?

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Whitney Maris Brown as Vanda. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

I might as well begin with the play itself, which is a provocative and canny – and rather sexy, I might add – work about erotic desire, power and manipulation. The story revolves around an audition for a fictional new play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 quasi-pornographic novel Venus in Furs, which explored the dimensions of what later came to be called masochistic desire (after its author). As Ives’s play opens, director/playwright Thomas (Christian Conn) is about to leave after a long day of not finding the perfect actress to play the lead role of “Wanda von Dunayev,” his play’s reluctant dominatrix, when in barges a young actress, Vanda (Whitney Maris Brown), begging for a chance to audition even though she’s hours late for her scheduled time. She won’t take no for an answer, and Ives soon has her bewitching Thomas in a cat-and-mouse game that niftily maps the dynamic of the humiliating audition process onto the masochistic desire for degradation that is at the heart of both Sacher-Masoch’s novel and Thomas’s play.

Ives’s writing is alternatingly funny, terrifying, and exhilirating. Vanda is playing for higher stakes than just the lead in Thomas’s play, and her manipulation of both the situation and him is dazzlingly delightful. There is fantasy here: a fantasy of revenge and comeuppance, but also one that, harking back to Greek tragedy, speaks a warning to all who would provoke the gods with their presumption of superior knowledge.

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Christian Conn & Whitney Maris Brown. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The role of Vanda is a plum one for an actress. The character is wily, confident, and wickedly intelligent, and the actress playing her has to be able to whip back and forth between the 21st century Vanda, who seems to be blustering her way into an audition, and the sophisticated, aristocratic 19th-century Wanda of the play within the play for which she is auditioning. In addition, Vanda plays a number of other ruses as she uses Thomas’s Wanda to slip through his defenses. The superb, chameleon-like Whitney Maris Brown shifts between the various registers that the role demands with a seemingly effortless spontaneity, and her acumen as an actor shines through in her character’s lightning-quick intelligence. Conn is equally sharp as Thomas, and he brings heart and soul to a character that might easily fall into stereotype. Together, these two actors make the stage crackle with an almost electric charge.

The production’s design deserves praise as well. David M. Barber’s set reproduces the kind of all-purpose room one might rent from an old school or YMCA to use as a rehearsal studio, a little dingy and downscale, with nice details like a small note above the door lock that you might imagine reminds users to turn out the lights upon leaving. Tilly Grimes’s well-curated costumes allow Brown to utterly transform herself from leather-clad modern sex diva to demure nineteenth-century lady in the blink of an eye. Zach Moore’s sound design brings the ominous threat of a storm into the space, and Peter West’s lighting design adds in the frisson of magic that hovers at the edges of the play.

Readers, I’m aware I was a little hard on Tru, the Public’s last production. But with Venus in Fur the theater caps off what has otherwise been a really successful season with an edgy gem of a play, one that has it all: humor, suspense, brilliant dialogue, intriguing characters, outstanding performances, and a cheeky, mischievous take on the dynamics of power and sex. Hail Aphrodite!

“The Spitfire Grill” at Front Porch Theatricals

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Wouldn’t it be “GREAT” to turn back the clock to that happy era when “we all” lived in neighborly small towns with thriving businesses on “Main Street,” men worked “real,” well-paying jobs at the local quarry or mill, their wives made sure their shirts were laundered when they needed them and their dinner was ready when they got home, and “everyone” was just so much better off?

That’s not just a question animating a dishearteningly large proportion of the American electorate this year. It’s also one that threads, rather uneasily, through the center of James Valcq and Fred Alley’s The Spitfire Gril, a musical that debuted in 2001 and was based on a 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff.

Set in fictional Gilead, Wisconsin – a town that, having depleted both its local quarry and its forests of all their valuable resources, now has little satisfying or gainful employment to offer to its residents – the musical is alternatingly cynical and sentimental about the mythical “lost America” the town represents. The plot revolves around a scheme to raffle off the town diner that elderly owner Hannah (Terry Wickline) has been trying to sell for a decade. The idea is that her Spitfire Grill will go to the person who writes the best essay describing why they should win it. The ad that hometown girl Shelby (Erin Lindsey Krom) and ex-con newcomer Percy (Lindsay Bayer) write to publicize the raffle describes Gilead accurately, but in terms that bathe it in a nostalgic-aspirational Norman Rockwell-esque glow: “Have you ever dreamed of a town so small they roll the sidewalks up? …. Here’s a chance to win a grill … the customers who eat here are people that you know.” To Hannah’s surprise, the response to the ad is overwhelming: thousands of essays pour in from people all over the country grasping at that very dream.

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L to R: Erin Lindsey Krom (Shelby Thorpe), Terry Wickline (Hannah Ferguson) and Lindsay Bayer (Percy Talbott) singing “Come Alive Again.” Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

The musical doesn’t quite know what to do with the nostalgic impulse it has dredged up by way of this plot device, however. On the one hand, it seems to want to win our sympathy for these retrograde dreams of pastoral bliss: the desire for a simpler, less harried, more connected life expressed in the essays Hannah receives is one that it’s hard not to relate to. Moreover, the rousing central ballad of the first act, “Diggin Stone,” invites us to align ourselves with the frustrations Caleb (Matthew J. Rush) feels after having been left behind by his town’s economic decline (a laid-off foreman from the quarry, he’s trying to eke out a living selling real estate “till the quarry’s open again”). “Where are the days when a man could lift his head/ Proud of the ways he’s earned his daily bread?” he croons with agonizing resentment.

But careful where you hang your hat: as it continues, the song starts to sound like a potential anthem for disaffected voters ready to believe that their problems will be solved by a huge wall around the country. Among Caleb’s complaints:  “…Then hard times come to town/ Shake your hand and set you down/ Set you up to watch you fall/… You stand back up and get knocked down/ Watch as a stranger takes your town/ You suck it in and you swallow lies/ Something deep in your belly dies….”  Youtube bears me out on this one: when I searched for a recording of the song so that I could quote the lyrics, its algorithm spit out, at the top of the list of related videos, an interview with Jon Stewart about the current presidential race in which he queries, in response to such complaints: “When was America great? … And who took your country away from you?”

So although this musical was written over a decade and a half ago, long before the great recession, it seems very much a musical for and of our current moment, albeit with a much more ambiguous critical stance than it might have taken had it been written more recently. The play’s politics feel a bit like beads of mercury, sliding away from any attempt to pin them down. For example, the nostalgia of “Diggin’ Stone” is countered by the fact that the drunk, bullying Caleb is the least likable character in the story, which encourages us to cast something of a gimlet eye on his grievances. Moreover, the dark underbelly of the patriarchal utopia that he and the raffle entrants yearn for is sliced open when Percy reveals her back story of rape and assault at the hands of an abusive stepfather. Clearly, the musical wants to point out that “everyone” was not better off in that mythical “great America” that never was. But although The Spitfire Grill has several potentially incisive and critical insights to offer into the absurdity and irreality of sentimentalizing and nostalgizing the past, the imperative of a redemptive happy ending means that faith in small-town virtues – if not the patriarchal order – must nevertheless be reconfirmed in its final moments.

The musical’s gender politics also give with one hand while taking with the other. Long stretches of the play pass the “Bechdel test” – there are three main female characters, they talk to each other, and, for most of the play, not about men. It’s refreshing to see a musical that takes a positive look at intergenerational friendship between women and pays homage to women’s ingenuity, strength, and fortitude. But then, for reasons that are unclear, there must be conventional heterosexual wooing: the sheriff, Joe (Clay Singer) falls for Percy and finds, in her, a motivation to stay in Gilead (but in order for him to make his obligatorily awkward proposal, the heretofore rather butch Percy has to doll herself up in a floral dress. What’s up with that?). I have a similar beef with the hetero coupling in Wicked – it feels like a bone tossed to the musical comedy dogs, completely inessential to what would otherwise be a fully satisfying story about female friendship. (For a brief few minutes during the first act, I thought that the romance might blossom between Percy and Shelby; alas, we’ve yet to see that romantic plot in a musical.)

Director Rachel M. Stevens makes an effort to call attention to the “not-greatness” of Gilead (and the “great again America” it can’t help but symbolize for a modern audience) by keeping Hannah’s son Eli (Michael Petrucci), a homeless Vietnam War vet, a constant and haunting presence on the stage from the very beginning of the play. It’s a laudable impulse. But because we don’t really learn his story until near the end of the play, the significance of this figure doesn’t quite have the intended impact.

Some aspects of the production are more successful than others. Music director Deana Muro leads a unseen, first-rate ensemble of five musicians who capture a range of vernacular music styles with dexterity and panache. Among the cast, Bayer, Krom, and Singer are particularly strong, demonstrating impressive vocal and emotional range. As the nosy, gossipy Effy Krayneck, the reliable Becki Toth builds an easy rapport with the audience and provides consistent comic relief. Andrew David Ostrowski’s saturated lights help evoke the autumn colors that are the town’s signature draw, but on opening night, shaky follow spot cues were a distraction. As was Lindsey B. Mayer’s incoherent scene design, in which putty-colored exterior siding on moving panels form the interior walls of the restaurant. The slatted wall behind the diner kitchen looks more like the wall of a barn than that of an eating establishment, and the row of old windows at the back of the stage seem a superfluous afterthought. Equally incoherent was Stevens’s seemingly arbitrary use of real props for some actions, and mime for others. I’m not sure what kind of theatrical world we’re in when a character can light and smoke a real (herbal) cigarette but has to pour invisible coffee from a real pot into a real cup and chop invisible vegetables with a real knife.

Those distractions aside, the storytelling here is clear and compelling, and the fact that I found so much to think and write about (this is one of my longest posts in a while!) is a sign that this musical got under my skin. Perhaps not only in ways I find agreeable; but, in my humble opinion, any art that gets the neurons firing at such a high volume is well worth the price of admission.

“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.

Cock

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.

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