“Detroit” at 12 Peers Theater

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Set not in Detroit itself, but in one of those cookie-cutter model-home communities that once housed vibrant family-friendly communities on the outskirts of cities like it, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit opens as Mary (Alyssa Herron), a paralegal, and her husband Ben (Brett Sullivan Santry), a recently laid-off loan officer, host a barbecue dinner for their new neighbors, Sharon (Sara Fisher) and Kenny (John Feightner). Mary and Ben are solidly “normal” strivers toward the American Dream: they’ve got the recognizable accoutrements and trappings of proper consumerist life – discount patio set, aspirational taste in food, a mortgage on one of those starter homes with some deferred maintenance issues – along with all the nervous anxiety and bickering that comes with the stress of Ben’s layoff. Sharon and Kenny, on the other hand, exist on the margins of that dream. Just released from rehab for major substance abuse, they’ve moved into Kenny’s deceased aunt’s house and are trying to reboot their lives as sober citizens. Their physical, emotional, and psychological incursion into Ben and Mary’s carefully contained lives not only reveals the fissures and cracks in Ben and Mary’s relationship, but also pokes through the threadbare patches in the fabric of early twenty-first century American society.

I’m being deliberately cagey in describing what happens in the play because it has a number of plot twists it would be unfair to give away. Suffice it to say that Ben and Mary’s relatively blinkered experience of life has them at a disadvantage: they can’t even begin to compass the way Sharon and Kenny – who describe themselves as “white trash” – encounter and cope with the world. The two couples inhabit completely different universes: Ben and Mary are holding desperately onto the piece of the pie they’ve managed to slice off, whereas Sharon and Kenny have nothing at all, which means they have nothing to lose. Their abandon, their lack of heed and their impulsive hedonism are scary – but also seductive and, as it turns out, radically subversive.

The 12 Peers ensemble is good at capturing the mayhem of many of the script’s moments, showing how even small stressors can set off manic responses. But they have more difficulty capturing its dangerous edginess. Fisher and Feightner’s Sharon and Kenny seem too affable and middle class; it’s hard to see in them people who have lived most of their lives on the fringes and in a criminal and drug underworld. As Mary, Herron is suitably tightly wound, but it’s Santry who stands out in the cast as the anxious, self-defeating Ben. James Jamison’s set evocatively conjures the small backyards of the kind of starter home my own grandparents purchased in the fifties (just outside of Detroit, no less!), making the final scene a poignant one for those of us who have seen how such neighborhoods have changed over the decades. But the production design could have used better planning for its multiple scene changes, all of which involved overly lengthy blackouts to allow for a clumsy shifting of props and scenery.

“Midsummer” at City Theatre

In the middle of the midsummer night’s romp through Edinburgh that makes up the action of David Greig’s new comedy Midsummer (a play with songs), the two main characters – Helena (Carey Van Driest) and Bob (Randy Redd) find themselves in the “chill room” of a fetish club, tightly bound – and then suddenly left to their own devices – by a Japanese rope bondage artist. The tighter the bonds, Helena says she’s been told, the freer one’s mind becomes, physical constraint producing, in that zen-koan-like way, an abandonment of inhibition.

That scene encompasses in many ways the central dynamic of the play’s story. Helena and Bob are two lonely people who, at thirty-five, are smack between spring and fall themselves, and who find themselves tightly bound into the lives they’ve built thus far. Bob, who once aspired to write poetry and busk romantically around Europe, is a petty criminal (he fences stolen merchandise). Helena is a successful divorce lawyer who – at the cost of her self-esteem and happiness – has armored herself against the possibility of becoming one of her own clients. On Midsummer’s Eve they meet at a bar, get drunk, have sex, and part ways, only to serendipitously meet up again after both have had the kind of morning that brings the depressing realization that (as Bob puts it, on taking existential stock of his life to date) “this is it.” The bonds of life suddenly feel very tight indeed, prompting Bob to throw caution to the wind and take a wild leap. He proposes to Helena that she help him spend the extravagant amount of ill-gotten cash he’s supposed to be keeping safe for his thuggish boss, and they embark on a romp through Edinburgh that brings them not only to that emblematic sojourn in the “chill room,” but also, after a number of false starts and stops, to a fresh beginning to the second half of their lives.

Midsummer is a love story bound up with a midlife crisis story, and where the former makes it sweet, it’s the latter that lends it some weight and import. Greig’s characters have a likeable imperfection: their bumpy emotional and psychological battle against midlife stuckness gives a lot of vicarious pleasure. The play is narrated in flashback, and it becomes clear about halfway through that this is a story they’ve honed for retelling as they’ve continued journeying together through life. Normally I am not a big fan of plays that involve a lot of third person telling, but Greig uses the device to good effect, snapping briskly back and forth between the narration and the action, and often using the narration not just to tell what happened but also to give us a hilarious peek into the inner workings of a character’s mind. In addition, as the title announces, this is a “play with songs.” It’s not a musical – rather, the performance of songs works like a framework around and through the action, as Helena and Bob recount the story of their first weekend together in a kind of acoustic show-and-sing street performance. Redd and Van Driest, who have excellent chemistry as the oddly matched couple, accompany themselves on guitar, mandolin, and tambourine as they sing Gordon McIntyre’s congenial indie-folk songs, the lyrics of which often comment poetically and resonantly with their actions and feelings.

Randy Redd and Carey Van Driest in MIDSUMMER

Randy Redd and Carey Van Driest in MIDSUMMER

Narelle Sissons’ set consists of a small low platform bordered by an upstage wall of objects affixed to a house-shaped frame: a stained-glass window, a statue of an angel, a desk, a bed frame, guitar cases, and other items too numerous to list. The angel conjures the fairies of Shakespeare’s play, which serves as a distant structural model to Midsummer (both plays involve a movement from the rational to the irrational, where love is found); the rest of the objects are items accrued as the pair of about-to-be-lovers visit various locales around the city. Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design makes these objects glow and vibrate with color, allowing the set to morph and change as the characters ambulate from wine bar to apartment to parking garage to park bench to nightclub to restaurant to cathedral stairs and on and on. Director Tracy Brigden has staged the play fluidly: new locales are established quickly with a chair or stool and a shift of lights, allowing the play to move with the kind of “madcapness” that the plot demands. This nimbleness of the staging goes far to make up for the one weakness of the script, which is that, as entertaining as it is, it is overly long, and feels like it has two or three endings. That’s a quibble; the real ending, when it does come, brings the story around full circle in a charmingly satisfying way.

“Dance of Death” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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August Strindberg had an (in)famously torturous relationship with women, and he is often thought of as one of theatre history’s great misogynists. Certainly, his portrayal of women in some of his naturalist plays – as in, for example, his rather meanspirited portrait of the haughty and hysterical aristocratic Julie in Miss Julie – accord with records, in his diaries, of his own experience of women as a source of sexual and psychological torment. But his works can also be read (perhaps only in retrospect) as evidence of his insight into the ways in which traditional gender roles impacted relations between the sexes and – in particular – created the conditions for terribly unhappy marriages.

This is certainly the case with his compelling, ahead-of-its-time, and infrequently produced Dance of Death (which he wrote in 1900). The story here is of Edgar (Sam Tsoutsouvas), a military captain stationed on a remote island, and Alice (Helena Ruoti), his wife of twenty-five years. When she was still young and attractive, Alice gave up what she believed was a thriving career as an actress to marry Edgar, and she holds that sacrifice – as well as their social and geographic isolation – against him. He, for his part, is a misanthropist who considers himself superior to everyone else (including his wife). Their relationship has been a long-running game of cat and mouse, each constantly maneuvering to be the cat instead of the mouse. As in the Tom and Jerry cartoon that comparison may conjure, Edgar and Alice are also utterly dependent on one another: their endlessly looping battle – punctuated by moments of tenderness and concern – gives their lives structure and meaning. When Alice’s cousin (and former lover) Kurt (Mark D. Staley) is stationed on the island as the garrison’s new quarantine officer, he sparks desires and jealousies that dangerously raise the stakes of their battle.

L to R: Sam Tsoutsouvas and Helena Ruoti.

L to R: Sam Tsoutsouvas and Helena Ruoti.

You’d be correct if you are thinking right now that this sounds a lot like the setup and subject of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee was undoubtedly influenced by Strindberg’s exploration of the psychological complexity of married life when he wrote that play, and Conor McPherson’s excellent translation makes the comparison between Albee and his predecessor readily apparent. The language here is sharp and direct, shifting from bleak despair to dry humor in a manner that feels extremely contemporary and fresh. And while we can see some of Strindberg’s much-vaunted misogynism in his characterization of Alice – she can be a bit of a strident harpy, she’s duplicitous, and she uses her sexual allure to try to ensnare Kurt  – it is also clear that the play is interested in revealing how deeply trapped all three characters are by Victorian sexual morality and gender roles. Imprisoned by their marriage (quite literally – their home is a former military prison!), Alice and Edgar are like caged animals, ready to attack any perceived weakness in the other, but also terrified of being left to endure captivity on their own.

The detritus of past grievances that haunt this couple is metaphorized in Narelle Sissons’ set, which surrounds the audience with what feels like several attics full of assorted furniture and antiquated objects strewn and hung and piled about, much of it shrouded in plastic that glows in Cindy Limauro’s haunting lighting design. Audience seating, which surrounds the small living room in which the action plays out, is hard to distinguish from the furniture in the set, giving the impression that we are guests who have been invited in, only to be awkwardly subjected to witnessing this private war. Director Andrew Paul has made a smart choice in staging this play in such intimate proximity to the audience: any greater distance and it would be too easy for the action’s heat to dissipate before it reaches the audience. Attired in Julianne D’Errico’s beautiful period-specific costumes, which tellingly signal the class and status difference between the aging, downwardly mobile Edgar and the younger and much higher status Kurt, Tsoutsouvas, Ruoti, and Staley do a marvelous job of generating that heat, and their handling of the characters’ contradictory and unpredictable shifts in emotion and state of mind is adroit and spellbinding.

“All The Names” at Quantum Theater

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José Saramago’s All the Names is a mysterious and haunting novel. The story revolves around Senhor José, a timid, middle-aged, low-level civil servant in the densely bureaucratic “Central Registry” of an unidentified city. Senhor José’s life is transformed when, having taken the uncharacteristically bold step of borrowing some of the registry cards to use for his after hours hobby creating scrapbooks of the lives of celebrities, he chances upon the card of an unknown woman and – for reasons he cannot explain, even to himself – becomes obsessed with tracking her down and finding out as much information as he can about her. His quest is a quiet one, but saturated with anxiety and suspense, as he surprises himself with the extraordinary measures he is willing to take in pursuit of his goal. In its attention to the mundane details of the lives of unimportant people, the novel has echoes of Georges Perec (whose Life: A User’s Manual was a world-altering book for me some twenty-five years ago); in its tragicomical-ironic take on the ways bureaucracy and regulations order and shape how we perceive and experience life, the novel invites comparisons with Kafka. But Saramago’s writing is not readily captured by such comparisons. His lyrical writing –translated into English with a touch of genious by Margaret Jull Costa – has a quiet tension that irresistibly pulls you into Senhor José’s mindscape as he grapples with his own self-doubts and self-recriminations about venturing beyond the tight circumscriptions of his tiny life.

The novel has very little dialogue, and much of the dialogue that does occur is in Senhor José’s head, as he speaks to himself (or, in a section in which he seems to be hallucinating with fever, to an apparition in his ceiling). The challenge facing Quantum Theater’s creative team was to find a theatrical solution for showing what the novel tells. I can’t tell you whether the production successfully captures the details of Saramago’s story for an audience member unfamiliar with the book, but it certainly captures the emotional and psychological experience of reading the novel. Structured as a journey into and through captivatingly designed spaces and installations (crafted by designers Narelle Sissons & Barbara Luderowski and lit by Cindy Limauro) in the original Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, Quantum’s All the Names pulls us deeper and deeper into Senhor José’s meek – yet in its own way heroic – journey. Immersed in a haunting soundscape (composed and created by Sarah Pickett and Christopher M. Evans) that helps reproduce the novel’s uncanny atmosphere of apprehension and suspense, we burrow with him into the labyrinthine terrors of the Central Registry’s endless files of the dead; we face, with him, the dreadful power of the Registrar’s authority; and we quietly despair with him over the outcome of his inquiry.

L to R: Mark Conway Thompson and James Fitzgerald as Senhor José in ALL THE NAMES

L to R: Mark Conway Thompson and James Fitzgerald as Senhor José in ALL THE NAMES

In place of the novel’s narration of the thoughts running through Senhor José’s head, director Karla Boos has doubled the character. It’s an shrewd solution, one that theatricalizes and makes visible Senhor José’s unending push-me-pull-you interior dialogue. James Fitzgerald plays the “main” Senhor José as the frightened, deferential clerk; Mark Conway Thompson is the impish double who eggs his more timid self on to break the rules and set off on his irregular and unsanctioned investigation. As the Registrar who fills Senhor José’s heart with trepidation, Cameron Knight is imposing and authoritative, yet he imbues the role with enough sympathy that the character’s transition into something of an ally does not come as a surprise in the end. Bridget Connors rounds out the cast with a grounded and moving performance as the godmother of the woman Senhor José seeks.

The production is a hybrid of performance and installation – that is, some rooms along the journey do not include performers and are meant to be experienced as art installation spaces that speak narratively and/or thematically to the story. Some of these installations work better than others: the initial immersion into the world of the play, for example, in a room in which audience members are invited to write their names on chalkboard covered walls and are given an overview of the Central Registry’s bureaucratic structure (via Joseph Seamans’ clever media design), is very effective, and sets the mood and atmosphere of the rest of the play beautifully. But an installation later in the play that involves entering and then exiting a room crisscrossed with string and paper feels like a moment of disconnect or interruption – it is so different in both mood and aesthetic from the scenes before and after that its function within the whole is hard to compass. And later, in the installation that makes up the play’s cemetery scene, one of the scenic elements is so delightful and distracting in its novelty and charm that, despite the presence of performers helping to move the story forward, it is hard to stay focused on what the scene is about.

But those are minor quibbles about a work that otherwise compellingly achieves the admirable feat of translating a very interior, novelistic experience into a thought-provoking and mesmerizing theatrical journey.

“Oblivion” at City Theatre

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Carly Mensch’s perceptive new comedy Oblivion begins with a parent-teen standoff: mom Pam (Lisa Velten Smith) and dad Dixon (Quentin Maré) have caught their 16-year-old daughter Julie (Julia Warner) in a lie. She’s told them she spent the weekend on a college tour; they know (as parents do) that she didn’t. In true progressive-hipster fashion, they insist that it doesn’t matter to them where she really did spend her weekend; what matters here is that she’s being untruthful, that she’s showing a lack of integrity. They are the kind of liberal, openminded, freerange parents who have candid conversations about sex and drugs with their daughter. What could she possibly feel she needs to hide from them?

At this point, if you’re like me, you’re already way ahead of the next plot reveal, so I’m not going to hide it. Julie was at a church retreat, with her good friend the budding filmmaker Bernard (Christopher Larkin), and, of course, this is the one thing she could do that would rock Pam and Dixon’s resolutely secular world. Julie is one of those super smart, hyper articulate, master buttonpusher teenagers who knows how to make an endrun around adult sophisms, and her sudden embrace of religion precipitates a crisis of faith of sorts in her mother, as well, as Pam grapples with the contradiction between her self-avowed liberal openmindedness and her utter disdain for people of faith. Julie’s spiritual seeking, and the fact that she felt the need to keep it secret from Pam and Dixon, has a domino effect on the whole family. As the play proceeds, all four characters become unmoored, each coming face to face with their own personal form of oblivion.

l to r: Christopher Larkin as “Bernard”, Julia Warner as “Julie”, Lisa Velten Smith as “Pam” and Quentin Maré as “Dixon” – photo by Kristi Jan Hoover

l to r: Christopher Larkin as “Bernard”, Julia Warner as “Julie”, Lisa Velten Smith as “Pam” and Quentin Maré as “Dixon” – photo by Kristi Jan Hoover

Mensch’s writing is near pitch-perfect on the parent-teen dynamic in the play, and she is a sharp satirist of lefty hipsterdom. Gianni Downs’ scenic design cleverly gives a boost to that satire with a backdrop of large shelves showcasing the kind of artfully displayed found objects one associates with an imagined Williamsburg abode, only to later reveal those objects as props and set pieces in the course of the play. Director Stuart Carden has given the play a fluid staging that is punctuated, during scene changes, by projection designer Jordan Harrison’s sumptuous black and white film footage of the engimatic movie Bernard is shooting throughout the play, footage that clearly signals his unspoken and unrequited adoration of Julie. Warner and Larkin are utterly convincing as the play’s teenagers, clumsily navigating their way towards a future adult identity and trying on ideas and ideologies along the way. Maré is smart and funny as Dixon, giving the character a kind of daft self-awareness that yields to something much more honest as the play winds to a close. But it’s Velten Smith – a newcomer to Pittsburgh – who anchors this production with an emotionally and intellectually complex performance that any mother of a teen (or, for that matter, any teen daughter!) will recognize as the real deal.

“At Once there Was a House” by CorningWorks and “Endless Lawns” at the REP

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Beth Corning describes her new dance piece At Once There Was a House as “a zany theatrical ride exploring the question of ‘whatever happened to DICK & JANE?’” I’m not sure that description aptly describes the work she has created. While I have no doubt that the insular vision of ideal American family life represented in those old grade school reading primers was the original impetus behind the piece, the work presented at the New Haxzlett this weekend (a revamped and enlarged version of a piece she originally created a decade ago) seems less interested in answering that particular question than in opening new questions about how occluded our interior lives can be, not just to others, but also to ourselves.

At Once There Was A House features six performers – four professional dancers (Corning herself, Michelle de la Reza of Attack Theater, Tamar Rachelle Tolentino of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Yoav Kaddar, head of dance at WVU) along with actor John Gresh and musician Jackie Dempsey. Although not all six move with equal grace and skill, each performer brings enormous charm, charisma and energy to the work; Dempsey, in particular, is a sly and engaging actor who connects winningly with the audience. The six performers present characters who appear to have gathered for a high school reunion (variously named “Jane” and “Dick”), and the piece proceeds as a series of vignettes that exposes their inner yearnings, anxieties, and strivings.

Beth Corning & John Gresh

Beth Corning & John Gresh

As in previous works, Corning demonstrates a sure eye here for the metaphorical image that captures ineffable and complex inner states – the unstable picket fence in an early moment, for example, or the lyrical disjuncture between an intimate pas de deux and a mundane description of a typical morning’s breakfast taken from Don DeLillo’s novel The Body Artist. But the vignettes felt more tenuously held together in this piece than in some of Corning’s previous works; the story logic was much more disjointed and dreamlike. At some times, that dream felt like a nightmare – the vignette in the middle of the piece featured a house on fire center stage, for example – and at others, like a strange moment out of a Keystone Cops film (Gresh runs around the stage chased by a mat of artificial grass in one of the more absurd moments of the evening). And as with any dream, what it was “about” felt enigmatic and elusive, touching on issues of identity, loss, aging, and the impossibility (and, perhaps, undesirability) of recapturing the past.

The collision of the past into the present is also a central thematic concern of Anthony McKay’s new play Endless Lawns, which is getting its world premiere at The REP under the direction of Gregory Lehane. The title refers to the landscaping challenge presented by “High Chimneys,” the glamorous Connecticut estate on which twins Torch and Flo Gregson (Laurie Klatcher and Cary Anne Spear), daughters of a wealthy film star, grew up. As a teen Ray (Jason McCune) had a summer job mowing the estate’s endless lawns and watched from atop his riding lawnmower as the girls entertained elite beaus like Torch’s boyfriend Graham (Mark Staley), the son of her father’s lawyer. Now Ray is the manager of the local Kmart, and Torch is his employee and girlfriend – the sisters, having been disinherited by their alcoholic and abusive father, are barely clinging to the socioeconomic ladder they once proudly stood atop. The play’s conflict is set in motion when Graham – also no longer a member of the New England aristocracy – suddenly returns after a thirty year absence and upends Torch’s hard-earned equilibrium.

Jason McCune and Laurie Klatscher; photo Jeff Swensen

Jason McCune and Laurie Klatscher; photo Jeff Swensen

McKay tells a story that has comic and tragic turns, and Lehane and the ensemble make the smart choice to keep the dialogue and tone light and lifted and let the tragic moments take care of themselves. The ensemble is terrific, in particular Laurie Klatscher, whose Torch starts the play as a woman who seems to have come to contented terms with the crappy hand she’s been dealt and then, after being suddenly reminded again of all she’s lost over the past thirty years, finds her priorities and dreams realigned by end of play. It’s a complicated, rewarding emotional journey, and Klatscher shows us every nuance of it.

Like Corning, McKay offers an opportunity to reflect on the many ways we “can’t go home again”- both literally and figuratively – in his theatrical exploration of a pair of sisters who can neither live the life their childhood promised nor fully escape it.

“Elemeno Pea” at City Theatre

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My thirteen-year-old daughter went to see Cinderella this weekend, which she liked very much, with one qualm: “I don’t think I ever realized,” she said to me after I picked her up at the mall, “when I was a little kid watching the animated version, that they get married after just barely knowing each other for a few hours. I mean, he’s really rich and she’s got nothing, so you can see why she would do it, but – how’s that really gonna work out?”

That question – how does that class mobility thing really work out? – is at the heart of Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea, a sharply observed comedy about the unacknowledged barriers between the haves and the have-nots that make such Cinderella moves especially tricky to pull off.

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L to R: Ariel Woodiwiss, Kimberly Parker Green, and Robin Abramson

The play takes place in the living room of the guest house of a ridiculously amazing Martha’s Vineyard estate (stunningly designed by Tony Ferrieri) owned by Peter and Michaela Kell, a fabulously rich couple whose fortune comes mainly by way of Peter’s father’s success in advertising. Simone (Robin Abramson), Michaela’s obscenely well-compensated personal assistant, has invited her older sister Devon (Ariel Woodiwiss) for a post-Labor Day weekend on the beach. It’s the first time Devon – whose own recent trajectory has been one of downward mobility, having gone from a supervisor at a social work agency to alley coordinator at Olive Garden – has seen Simone in her new gig, and she’s understandably both agog at the wealth on display and a bit befuddled by her sister’s relationship to it. Their vacation is interrupted by the unexpected return of Michaela (Kimberly Parker Green), who has been unceremoniously dumped from her husband’s Jaguar on the way to the ferry off the island. It’s not all “happily ever after” in this castle, after all: Michaela, who comes from the same kind of scruffy upstate New York suburban background as Simone and Devon, has only the most tenuous of holds on her rung on the aristocratic ladder, and, as it turns out, she has made some terrible miscalculations about how to maintain what little security and status she has. Now she is – in the words of Peter’s friend/Simone’s boyfriend, the über-facile and ultra-wealthy Ethan (Anthony Comis) – “O-U-T out,” and as she moves through this personal crisis we see, in a series of wittily written scenes, how both Simone and Devon’s assessment of her changes.

Metzler is interested in how class and status sediment into stereotype, so for much of the play she gives us characters who seem closer to caricatures than real people. It’s a clever choice that works well, because it both allows us to see each character through the others’ preconceived ideas and expectations and makes room for each character to break stereotype in unanticipated ways. Moreover, although some of the stereotypes feel at times a bit pat – in particular, both the entitled Ethan and the Puerto Rican handyman Jos-B (Tony Chiroldes) skirt dangerously close to being quotations of real people – the City Theatre cast infuses enough heart into each character to lend real poignancy to the play’s outcome. Parker Green and Woodiwiss have the furthest to take their characters, and they do so masterfully – both reveal unexpected honesty and warmth as the play winds to a close and Abramson’s blinkered Simone heads off to a Cinderella future that looks to end a lot like Michaela’s.

“How I Learned What I Learned” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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How I Learned What I Learned is August Wilson’s last play, one that he performed himself in 2003 in Seattle, a couple of years before he died. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man in the Hill District, structured as a loose collection of stories, some delivered in a blunt, direct, and at times expletive-laden manner, others told with flights of lyricism that capture Wilson’s poetic aspirations and achievements. Over the course of about two hours we hear about Wilson’s first kiss, his financial struggles, and his early love affairs, as well as about the rich cultural life in the Hill midcentury and the many and various forms racism took (and continues to take). The individual stories are beautifully crafted, showcasing Wilson’s skill as a storyteller in top form. But their organization as a whole feels haphazard, and as a result the performance leaves an overall impression of being caught in the company of a beloved uncle who’s holding court entertaining the young’uns with tales of the old days. Jetlagged as I was after my return from Zurich I found this a bit taxing, but my theater companion was captivated and enthralled, so I don’t know whether my reaction to the structural formlessness of the script was due to my fatigue or its meandering. (I have a vague recollection of having been told that Wilson never finished this script, and a little googling seems to confirm that no “final” version of the text was ever nailed down, so it would be unfair to take Wilson to task on a play he was never able to finish in any case).

Eugene Lee as August Wilson in "How I Learned What I Learned." Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Eugene Lee as August Wilson in “How I Learned What I Learned.” Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Eugene Lee is absolutely terrific as that “beloved uncle,” bringing the right touches of irony, cynicism, anger, and sentimental nostalgia at all the right moments. How I Learned What I Learned is both a funny play that will get you to laugh at yourself and a serious one that demands reflection on how race impacts us all. Lee’s dry “seen-it-all, done-it-all” delivery makes room for that reflection and invites us to share his (that is, Wilson’s) umbrage at the ways in which the color of his skin predetermined so much of his experience.

David Gallo has designed a gorgeous set that refers simultaneously to the detritus of Wilson’s (and Pittsburgh’s) history (in the bits and pieces strewn in the dirt beneath the stage on which Lee stands) and to the stories Wilson crafted from that history (in the hundreds of pieces of paper hanging as backdrop to the stage). Projected scene titles are cleverly “typewritten” onto those pieces of paper, perpetually reminding us that writing is a form of making and remaking, a labor of imprinting ideas onto the world. Writing – storytelling – was the labor to which August Wilson devoted his life, so that – one must presume he hoped – there would come a time when others would no longer need to learn what he learned. Funny as it is, the play is also a sober reminder of how much labor remains to be done in that respect.

“For the Tree to Drop” at PICT Classic Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Prussia: 1866″ at The REP Professional Theatre Company

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

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

 

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

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

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