On Stage and Upcoming…

What will you do, now that football season is over?

Well, there’s an embarrassment of performance riches in town right now. Where to begin?

Perhaps with Five, a dance performance by the Conservatory of Dance at Point Park. This is a world premiere of original modern dance choreography by Rubén Graciani and Kiesha Lalama that features a stunningly athletic ensemble of dancers from Point Park University. For reasons that will be clear to those of you who see the piece, I’m in no position to review it, but having seen it “from the inside,” so to speak, I can highly recommend it. Just enjoy the vibrant, mesmerizing choreography and don’t think too hard about whether or not you can figure out a coherent story (it is dance, after all, and not theater!)

Or if your football jonesing is better sated with musical theater, you’ve got choices! There’s the Broadway touring show of Cabaret at the Benedum – I saw this production on Broadway two years ago and loved it. The Pittsburgh Public Theater just opened Guys and Dolls, and the professional company of Pittsburgh Musical Theater will be opening a (G-rated) live version of Saturday Night Fever at the Byham (both of which I’ll be seeing and blogging about later this week).  Looking for something racier than a G-rating? The CMU School of Drama’s got The Full Monty, under the direction of Patrick Wilson, opening February 18 and running just two weeks. Rumor has it tickets are selling fast…you won’t see me writing about a CMU production on this blog (sorry, but I’ve made it a policy not to review our own shows) but I find that our students rarely disappoint.

Don’t like musicals? Not interested in young men doing striptease? Some Brighter Distance has another week left in its run at City Theatre, and it’s followed, beginning February 17, with Sister’s Easter Catechism, the latest in that popular series. You might also want to catch Mary Rawson’s superb performance in Quantum’s one-woman show Ciara before it closes on February 14.

If your taste runs to the experimental and off-the wall, the New Hazlett’s CSA Performance Series is presenting a one-night performance “A Brand New World: Kill the Artist” on Feb. 11 which sounds mighty interesting, and is making me wish I had one of Hermione Grainger’s time-turners so that I could be two places at once that evening.

Looking further ahead, there are a few shows coming up that I’m marking in my calendar way in advance. I’m nerdily excited about the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater’s early March production Miss Julie, Clarissa, and Johnwhich is an adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, a play I adore. Also coming in March: Mark C. Thompson’s new work, Kimono, at Off The Wall in Carnegie. And then there’s the barebones production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, at the New Hazlett, and Annie Baker’s play The Flick, which has stirred lots of buzz, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse – both of these open in April. I can hardly wait.

Rumor has it, too, that Bricolage is working on a super-secret new project for early summer…but until they spill the beans on that show, their next big thing will be their annual B.U.S.

I’ve got my tickets, do you have yours?

 

“Some Brighter Distance” at City Theatre

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Keith Reddin’s Some Brighter Distance (in a world premiere at City Theatre, under Tracy Brigden’s direction) tells the story of German rocket engineer Arthur Rudolph (Jonathan Tindle), who, along with physicist Wernher von Braun (David Whalen) and a contingent of other German scientists, surrendered to the US at the end of WWII in order to bargain his scientific expertise for his safety. Rudolph and the other scientists were allowed into the US under a program dubbed “Operation Paperclip,” which required they first be investigated and cleared of any material involvement in the Nazi regime. They came to play an important role in Cold War history: once here, the German engineers worked for NASA in designing and developing the rockets that made the US the first country to land a man on the moon.

But history is complicated, Reddin’s play argues, and the story of Rudolph’s life reveals how morally muddled the scientific advances of the twentieth century were. All of the German scientists who surrendered to the Allies in 1945 were members of the Nazi Party (they would not have been permitted to work otherwise), so the question for US investigators just after the war hinged on determining the extent to which their involvement in Nazi activities was “material.” But those investigators had strong incentive to whitewash any evidence they uncovered, as they did not want the German advances in weaponry and space technology falling into the hands of the Soviets at the beginning of the Cold War. So although Mittelwerk, the underground site in Germany where Rudolph worked on developing rocket weapons for the German military, exploited slave labor from the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp, any evidence that Rudolph and his scientific colleagues might have committed war crimes seems to have been swept under the rug in those early postwar days, in order to facilitate their recruitment into US efforts to win the Cold War.

Some Brighter

Jonathan Tindle as Arthur Rudolph. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The play begins near the end of Rudolph’s life, in 1984: Rudolph has been summoned to Washington to be interviewed by Robert Davis (LeRoy McClain) of the Office of Special Investigations, which has uncovered evidence that he directly supervised the use of slave labor while scientific head of operations at Mittelwerk. Rudolph is offered a deal: if he renounces his US citizenship and leaves the country, he can keep his pension and benefits and escape further prosecution. The play then hops back in history to paint a picture of a life that seems to have been pretty much full of similar non-choices: he joins the Nazi Party in the 1930s because not to do so would make it impossible to work; he marries his wife, the long-suffering Marta (Elizabeth Rich) because she seems to be the only woman who can connect with his lack of emotional intelligence; he accepts Von Braun’s invitation to join the German military rocket weaponry team because there is no other work available; and he cagily crafts his war history for a conciliatory US Army investigator, Major Turner (Matthew Stocke), in order to finagle his emigration from Germany. The cumulative effect is of a man who has been the object rather than the subject of history, and it’s one that is underlined by Tindle’s Mr. Magoo-like interpretation of the role and Robert C.T. Steele’s appropriately frumpy costuming. Tindle’s Rudolph is a man who can see a path to landing on the moon but is curiously shortsighted about virtually everything else around him.

Reddin shows his mastery of craft in the structuring of the play – time shifts around his central character as the story flashes back and forth between 1984 and a series of milestones in Rudolph’s personal and professional life. Director Tracy Brigden uses her staging to highlight this structure: Tindle never leaves the stage, and often remains at its center, while the rest of the actors glide in and out around him. The effect is the theatrical equivalent of cinematic cuts, and it not only keeps the action fluid but also echoes one of the play’s primary cultural references, Fritz Lang’s 1929 silent film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon). Gianni Downs’s set – a backdrop wall of white file boxes symbolizing the weight of history and documentation about to crash down on Rudolph’s life – not only frames the story aptly, but also serves as a screen for Jordan Harrison’s canny projection design, which helps ground each scene in time, place, and cultural moment.

The play’s story is absorbing, but its payoff is elusive. This is partly because its central dilemma feels both diffuse and overly familiar. We’ve seen the play about the scientist who capitulates to authority in order to save his skin and advance his field (Brecht may have written it first, in Galileo Galilei, but there are other examples, too). We’re also familiar with the stories of Nazi collaborators who managed to hide their culpability, escape investigation, and live out happy, thriving lives in the postwar era. That the US government would conveniently overlook a German rocket scientist’s wartime record in order to keep him from working for the USSR at the start of the Cold War will neither surprise nor shock cynical 21st century American viewers, and while there is black humor in Rudolph’s Catch-22 situation, I don’t think the play intends to be a comedy, even in the Keseyian mode (I realize I just jumped from one 20th-century American black humorist to another, but I trust you followed me there).

Particularly puzzling is the lack of psychological and moral depth we find in Rudolph, who seems mainly to express the kinds of excuses any of us might trot out to rationalize not bucking authority – variants on the familiar “I was just following orders.” That’s good food for thought, and I did find myself digging into my own conscience to wonder if I would have the moral courage to resist and risk my own life and comfort, if faced with similar non-choices. But as the play points out, Rudolph did not merely turn a blind eye to atrocities, which is bad enough, but something many of us might be able to imagine ourselves doing in extreme circumstances as well; evidence suggests he actively gave orders for the torture and murder of concentration camp prisoners. Some Brighter Distance seems to want to garner audience sympathy for a man who, when all is said and done, remains steadfast in his insistence that the ends have justified the means, and that the achievement of grand intellectual ambition, no matter the cost, is the best purpose of a life. That’s a tough order.

“Chickens in the Yard” – Hatch Arts Collective, produced by Quantum Theatre

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The Pittsburgh abode that is the setting of Paul Kruse’s new play Chickens in the Yard is home to a new sort of extended, nontraditional family: sixty-something year-old Joyce (Laurie Klatscher), a doobie-smoking, new age hip urban farmer, lives there with her adult son John (Joseph McGranaghan), his partner Tom (Alec Silberblatt), and four chickens, the last of which gets introduced to their flock in parallel with the arrival of Tom’s teenaged sister Abby (Siovhan Christensen) from their family farm near Latrobe. Tom’s been estranged from his religious, homophobic family for over a dozen years; Abby’s arrival, ostensibly to visit local colleges, triggers a reflection on how families are made and unmade that ripples across all four characters.

"Chickens in the Yard"

L to R: Joseph McGranaghan, Alec Silberblatt, Laurie Klatscher, Siovhan Christensen

As in Kruse’s earlier play Walldogs, the story in Chickens in the Yard is fragmented between the characters, presented via a series of relationship snapshots loosely gathered around a theme. The play has a meandering center of interest: like a hen pecking randomly about a barnyard, its focus shifts between Tom and John’s conflict over whether to marry, Joyce’s sometimes tetchy relationship with her now-deceased husband, and Abby’s search for independence and agency, which makes it difficult to pin down precisely what the play is about. Nonetheless, Kruse has written well-defined characters whose personal longings feel palpable, particularly in the hands of this very capable cast.

Those longings are beautifully underscored by a haunting musical soundscape performed live by Morgan Erina and Ginger Brooks Takahashi. In particular, Erina’s wistful, breathy vocals elevate the play and free it from the constraints of real time, triggering shifts into spaces of memory and subconscious. Britton Mauk’s wood-slatted set evokes, without overly replicating, a yard and a coop, and Director Adil Mansoor uses that stage space fluidly to take us from scene to scene. There are nice directorial touches as the actors shift back and forth between their characters and (surprisingly credible) chickens clucking and skittering underfoot, chickens who mirror, in their own reluctance to assimilate a new member into their flock, the difficulties the play’s humans face in creating “flocks” of their own.

Chickens in the Yard is the inaugural production of a new initiative at Quantum Theatre, the Gerri Kay New Voices Program, which is paying success forward through support and mentorship of developing artists — yet another reason Pittsburgh is a fabulous place to make and see theatre.

“Small Engine Repair” at barebones productions

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You know you’re in for a pretty testosterone-driven experience the minute you lay eyes on Patrick Jordan’s detail-perfect set for John Pollono’s superbly crafted and wickedly witty play Small Engine Repair. The grungy, cheaply paneled shop where Jordan’s character, Frank, fixes engines and motors of various sorts has pegboards hung with fan belts lining the walls, an ancient computer on a visibly dirty counter, a door smudged with greasy pawprints leading offstage to a bathroom, shelves crammed with tools, equipment, solvents, and rags, and a beat-up old fridge full of lite beer. It’s the kind of old-fashioned grease monkey spot that signals loud and clear that this is a guy’s space.

Barebones Productions presents "Small Engine Repair."

L to R: Brendan Griffin (Swaino), Patrick Jordan (Frank), and Gabe King (Packie). Photo courtesy barebones productions.

And the guys we encounter in this space are guy’s guys, to boot. Frank, a thirty-something single dad, is a solid type: he’s owned this business since 1998, when he left high school to raise the daughter conceived in a high school hookup. He’s sent duplicitous text messages to two of his lifelong buddies to get them to meet him after hours at his shop for what seems, at first, to be an intervention in a years-long feud between them. First to arrive is Packie (Gabe King), a small, unemployed Irishman who still lives with his grandmother; next comes Swaino (Brendan Griffin), a big strutter who fancies himself a real ladies’ man.

They start to drink – Frank’s marked the occasion with the purchase of a very expensive bottle of scotch – and banter, alternating between aggressive verbal pokes and crude sexual posturing. These guys are vulgar, and their attitudes toward women and gays are deeply offensive. Swaino, in particular, sees women purely in terms of their sexual use-value: he brags that he only goes to bed with young and inexperienced women because older women have already had too many bad sexual experiences. “So you want to be their first bad one?” retorts Frank – who, as the father of a teenaged daughter, is keenly sensitive to whiffs of sexual predation. “Yeah,” Swaino answers, after a beat. But though much of the humor is either misogynistic or homophobic, you’d have to be a real stick-in-the-mud not to find Pollono’s dialogue sizzlingly funny, mainly because the characters ring so authentically true as the kind of frustrated and rancorous types who would vote for Donald Trump.

Enter Chad (Casey Cott), a preppy college frat boy who seems doused in eau d’entitlement. In most ways, he couldn’t be more different from the three older men – not only is he on track to take his place among the one percent, but, unlike Frank, Packie, and Swaino, who were demeaned and abused by alcoholic fathers, he actually sees his dad, a prominent lawyer, as a protector and role model. But he, too, knows the guy-world code, and even though the combination of his class and youth precipitates some awkward moments, he quickly establishes connections through the universally safe guy-topics of sports and women.

It’s here the play takes a sudden dark and violent turn, one that is all the more surprising because the center of the conflict turns out to be an issue that strikes at the heart of the group’s socially-sanctioned guy-world misogyny. Dear readers, you know I do my best to avoid spoiling a good surprise, so forgive me if I skirt around the play’s thrilling plot twist by saying merely that its explosive contact point is located precisely where white male privilege intersects class entitlement. The play’s unsettling resolution brilliantly exposes the social and economic fissures that divide Cambridge from “Manch-Vegas,” painting a vivid portrait of that demographic of non-college-educated, underemployed working class white men who were recently found to have the highest rates of despair among US citizens.

Even at its darkest moments, Small Engine Repair is an ingeniously funny play, splendidly performed here, under Rich Keitel’s precise direction, by a dynamite cast. Patrick Jordan adds layers of complexity to Frank, a goodhearted, essentially sweet guy with massive (and, we come to see, justifiable) anger management issues. Gabe King brings a fierce, twitchy intelligence to Packie, a character who, in another life, might have been the kid who dazzled his peers in an undergraduate philosophy seminar. As Swaino, Brendan Griffin is a big bold rooster of a man, the kind of smartass cocky guy women regret getting drunk with. And Casey Cott subtly captures Chad’s combination of personal confidence and situational discomfort as he feels his way into Frank, Packie, and Swaino’s macho, working-class world.

"Small Engine Repair"

L to R: Gabe King, Patrick Jordan, Casey Cott, and Brendan Griffin. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

“Sunset Baby” at City Theatre

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Fatherhood is “complicated,” Kenyatta Shakur (Keith Randolph Smith) confesses to a video camera at the beginning of Dominique Morisseau’s new play Sunset Baby. We don’t know it at the moment, but his confession isn’t for us; it’s for his daughter, Nina (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), from whom he has been estranged most of her life. He’s racked with guilt over his failure as a father, and has come seeking reconnection, of sorts: he’s heard that Nina’s recently deceased mother left her a clutch of unmailed love letters she had written to him while he was serving time as a political prisoner in the 1980s, and he wants quite desperately to see them. Nina, for her part, has long past closed the door on Kenyatta: she has never forgiven him for choosing the black liberation movement over his family, for abandoning her mother to poverty and crack addiction and her to a scramble for survival. By rights, Nina ought have been a rising leader of the black community; instead, she dresses like a hooker and runs a drug and theft hustle with her boyfriend Damon (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a man who, according to Morisseau’s character description, “in another life, could be a helluva scholar…”

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L to R: Joniece Abbott-Pratt & J. Alphonse Nicholson as Nina & Damon. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover.

The play is an examination of lost potential on many levels. Kenyatta claims that he left his family in order to protect them: when the movement was infiltrated by informers, he tells Nina, “love became a liability.” Yet tragically, the revolution for which he sacrificed them foundered on the shoals of the eighties crack epidemic. Kenyatta tells Nina that he named her after vocalist Nina Simone, “because she was our rebel music. You were going to be our revolution,” but Nina and Damon represent a generation of potential laid waste by drugs, poverty, and lack of opportunity. Damon tries to justify their criminal behavior as a form of social activism – he claims that he and Nina represent “social dynamite” and that their off-the-books economic activity represents a rebellion against the “totem pole social structure that keeps the social junk at the bottom” – but in reality he isn’t a whole lot different than the “social junk” he derides. He can be abusive and controlling toward Nina, and he’s got a young son of his own that he’s already half abandoned, repeating the cycle of absentee fatherhood, of “life being run by child support,” for another generation.

Morisseau’s writing crackles with energy, and under Jade King Carroll’s direction the fine cast dives into it with brio. Smith centers the play as a man who, having been forced to put his emotional life aside, has lost his capacity to be vulnerable and let his daughter in. As Nina, Abbott-Pratt gives glimpses of the vulnerable child aching under her character’s tough exterior; we’re privy to the effort it takes Nina to keep her lifetime of walls up and guarded. And J. Alphonse Nicholson is superb as the canny, street-wise, but at times unexpectedly desperate and needy Damon.

I saw Sunset Baby and August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on consecutive nights this past weekend, and it’s hard to resist, in closing, drawing some connections between these two plays. Both orbit around the love and suffering tied up in objects bequeathed from one generation to the next; both trace the legacy of systemic, structural disenfranchisement on African-American families; both are interested in how trauma, and particularly the trauma of an absented father, has intergenerational effects; and both provide insight into the role the justice system and imprisonment have played in perpetuating the cycle of absent fathers in the black community and preventing generations of African-Americans from realizing their full potential. Wilson did not live to extend his portrayal of African-American experience into the twenty-first century; with this play, Dominique Morisseau appears to have picked up the baton and carried it forward to our current decade.

“The Piano Lesson” – Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, at the August Wilson Center

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In August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson – the fourth play in his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle – the stubborn legacy of slavery is both literally and figuratively embedded in an heirloom piano engraved with portraits of the Charles family’s enslaved ancestors. The story of the piano is the story of intergenerational trauma: the piano is haunted by the spirits of the great-grandmother and grandfather who had been traded away from their husband and father by a white slaveowner in exchange for it. It’s also a vessel for the ghost of Boy Charles, who was burned to death in a boxcar by a lynch mob after he stole the piano from that former slaveholder’s plantation. The piano’s intricate carvings make it valuable, not just to the family, as an heirloom and repository of their history, but also to white antique hunters.

Enter Boy Willie (Wali Jamal), the thirty-year old son of Boy Charles, recently returned to Pittsburgh after having spent a few years in jail in Mississippi. He’s come north with his friend Lymon (Monteze Freeland) and a truckload of watermelons. His plan is to sell the watermelons, and the piano, and use the money to return to Mississippi and purchase farmland from the heirs of the plantation master who once owned both the piano and his ancestors. Boy Willie’s sister, Berniece (Karla C. Payne) refuses to sell the piano, however; too much of her family’s blood and sorrow are bound up in it. There, in a nutshell, is the central conflict of the play: Berniece values the piano as a literal embodiment of the labor and suffering of her family in the past, and Boy Willie wants to shed the past and build on his family’s legacy to create capital and wealth for his family’s future. There are other stakeholders in this drama, too, including Doaker Charles (Kevin Brown) and Wining Boy (Garbie Dukes), brothers to Boy Charles (and uncles to Berniece and Boy Willie), who helped liberate the piano thirteen years earlier and still feel the guilt of their brother’s death. There is also the newly ordained pastor, Avery (Edwin Lee Gibson), who would like to yank Berniece from wallowing in the past and convince her to build a future with him. And then there’s the ghost of Sutter, the recently deceased plantation owner, come to Pittsburgh to join all the other ancestral spirits who scare the bejeesus out of Berniece’s poor young daughter Maretha (Nia Woodson/Trysta Miri Lei Fields) every time she sits down to practice Für Elise.

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L to R: Edwin Lee Gibson and Karla C. Payne

Like the other plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, The Piano Lesson steeps us in a moment in African-American history (here, it’s the 1930s) to provide a window into the historically specific effects of institutionalized racism at different moments in the twentieth century. Striking about this play, in particular, is how immediate the legacy of slavery remains for the Charles family, seventy years after the end of the Civil War. Their family’s physical enslavement has ended, but they remain psychically and emotionally bound up with their ancestors’ enslavement (and with the whites who enslaved them): there are many ghosts, both black and white, that need exorcizing in this play. In the end, the piano – symbol of the very many ways institutionalized racism exploited and terrorized African-Americans from slavery on – refuses to budge from the Charles home, just as the history of slavery and its violent aftermath stubbornly continue to determine the family’s social and economic fate.

The play is in production at the newly reopened August Wilson Center, in a co-production by the Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Theatre Company and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Under Mark Clayton Southers’ direction, the ensemble brings the rhythm and lyrics of Wilson’s language vividly to life. But at nearly three hours, the play starts to drag towards the end, and the final scene, in which Avery attempts to banish Sutter’s ghost from the home, is so muddled in its staging that some members of the audience mistakenly thought it was supposed to be funny. Nonetheless, it’s a cause for celebration that the beautiful August Wilson Center is open once again and highlighting Wilson’s important contribution to the American theater: his canny insights into all of the ways American society has structurally disadvantaged African-Americans remain sadly all too relevant and resonant today.

“A Servant to Two Masters” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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The Commedia dell’arte world is not a particularly three dimensional one. Characters don’t have much psychological complexity: Pantalone, for example, cares mainly about money, the Dottore is a pompous pedant, and the zanni, or servants, are motivated solely by the desire for food and fear of their masters.

L to R: Daina Michelle Griffith (Smeraldina) and Jimmy Kieffer (Truffaldino)

L to R: Daina Michelle Griffith (Smeraldina) and Jimmy Kieffer (Truffaldino)

So it seems absolutely right that what first greets you when you take your seat at the O’Reilly for the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters is a set (designed by James Noone) that looks like an enlarged black and white comic strip rendering of an Italian city street. And it feels even more right when that set revolves at the beginning of the play to reveal characters dressed in a sixties’ riot of polka dots and paisleys in pink, lime, orange, green, and lavender (costumes by Amy Clark). The effect is that of an animated cartoon: a perfect world for this play, whose characters have the kind of antic behavior and oversized, disconnected emotions most of us would associate with the Cartoon Network.

The title character of the play is Truffaldino (Jimmy Kieffer), who becomes servant to two masters when his first master, Beatrice (Jessica Wortham) – traveling incognito as her brother, Federigo – fails to provide him with lunch in a timely manner, and he opportunistically seizes on an offer of employment from Florindo (David Whalen), in hopes of making a little more money and getting a quicker meal. Unbeknownst to Truffaldino, Florindo is actually Beatrice’s lover, on the lam because he had killed her brother Federigo in a duel over Beatrice’s honor. Beatrice has come to Venice in disguise in order to collect on the money owed by Pantaloon (Bill Buell) to her brother as dowry for marrying Clarice (Erin Lindsey Krom). Beatrice doesn’t know that Florindo has also arrived in Venice, and Florindo doesn’t know that she is there posing as Federigo, and because Truffaldino has a stake in keeping his “two masters” from running into each other, they don’t realize that they are both staying at the same inn.

Complicating matters even further, having heard that Federigo had perished in the duel, Clarice has just become engaged to her sweetheart, the hotheaded “Italian Stallion” Silvio (Patrick Cannon) (son of Pantaloon’s good friend, the pedantic Dr. Lombardi (Scott Robertson)), so the unexpected resurrection of the dead “Federigo” also throws a monkey wrench in their romantic plans. Whew! Needless to say, the knots of intrigue all get unravelled by the end of the play, but not before Truffaldino creates all manner of comic confusion as he attempts to deliver letters and money and messages he’s been told to give “to his master” – and unpack two identical trunks and serve two elaborate dinners – all while keeping either of them from knowing that he is working for both at the same time.

L to R: Erin Lindsey Krom (Clarice) and Patrick Cannon (Silvio)

L to R: Erin Lindsey Krom (Clarice) and Patrick Cannon (Silvio)

Lee Hall’s 1999 adaptation of this eighteenth-century play is fresh and modern, and although director Ted Pappas has set the production in 1965, many of Truffaldino’s observations about the plight of the working classes – for example, the need to work twice as hard for half the benefits – resonate pointedly in our current era of economic downsizing. But although there are nuggets of social criticism scattered here and there – including an applause-gathering feminist rant on the part of Clarice’s maid, the saucy Smeraldina (Daina Michelle Griffiths) – the production is largely a romp, and a pleasurably fun one at that. Clark’s brightly colored costumes establish the character types with pizzazz – the lavender take on the traditional French maid’s uniform is a particularly lovely touch – and Pappas carries the cartoon-energy established by the set and costume design through to every aspect of the show, including the sound design (Zach Moore), which uses Loony Tunes sound effects to heighten the play’s slapstick. The terrific cast fully captures the spirit of commedia zaniness, which is not an easy thing to do, demanding, as it does, a certain abandon of dignity and embrace of the outer edges of human expression (the term zany, in fact, derives from the antic energy of the zanni, or servants, of this theatrical genre). As the clown servant Truffaldino, Kieffer commands the comic action, and one of his lazzi – a bit that involves the rather, er, intricate folding of a letter – is one of the most masterful bits of stage comedy I’ve seen. The loose-limbed Cannon and pert Krom are also standouts as the lovers Silvio and Clarice, their amped-up emotional range in total sync with the clashing colors of their clothes.

The whole is underscored by an appropriate, and often comically rendered, selection of classic Italian romantic tunes, one of which you’ll even get to sing along to as the show draws to a close. How fun is that?

“Midnight Radio: George Orwell’s 1984” at Bricolage Production Company

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Looking to get a real scare this Halloween season? Skip the haunted house. Hands down, the most truly chill-inducing thing in town right now has got to be Bricolage’s Midnight Radio version of George Orwell’s 1984.

1984 Art Installation by R.B. Scott, photo courtesy Bricolage

1984 Art Installation by R.B. Scott, photo courtesy Bricolage

Midnight Radio, for the uninitiated, presents a theatricalized live radio broadcast circa 1940. Actors stand at microphones, reading from scripts in hand, and they not only vocally enact the story for an imagined radio audience, but also (with the help of a trio of musicians) create all of the music and foley sound effects for the “broadcast.” The stage is chock full of props and clever doodads for creating the needed sounds: for example, a set of glasses to clink together to create the sound of a busy restaurant, or small cardboard boxes to muffle voices and make them sound distant. This all creates a delightful interplay between the audio illusions that we see created before our eyes and the effect we imagine those illusions would have on (imaginary) listeners tuned in to the broadcast at home or in their cars.

Midnight Radio is now in its seventh season, and one might worry that the format could have started to lose some of its charm and appeal. But happily that is not the case. The material Bricolage chooses to “broadcast” continues to be fresh and inventive, and with 1984 the company has pushed the boundaries of the form even further by greatly downplaying the parodic element that dominated most of the earlier Midnight Radio plays.

Alan Lyddiard’s 2009 theatrical adaptation is a highly streamlined (and not wholly faithful) retelling of Orwell’s dystopian tale about a totalitarian regime that derives its power from a combination of constant surveillance over the populace and total control over the circulation of information. Winston Smith (Brett Goodnack) works at a bureaucratic job under the watchful eye of Big Brother; his work involves mastering doublespeak in order to create propaganda for the Ministry. But he has not fully drunk the koolaid – he has suspicions that the “truths” broadcast regularly through Ministry telescreens are nothing but doublespeak fabrications. He meets Julia (Sara Williams), who seems a loyal subject of the regime, but who is likewise harboring rebellious thoughts and feelings. They fall in love (a crime in itself), and seek out O’Brien (Paul Guggenheimer), a man Winston believes is part of a resistance movement against the Ministry. But Winston and Julia are caught – betrayed by the very men they thought they could trust – and themselves forced, through physical and psychological torture, to betray not only each other, but also their own most deeply held beliefs and feelings.

Could such a society really exist? I suppose one need only look at North Korea to find affirmative evidence. But the scarier prospect is that such control over information, and such constant surveillance, may already have crept up around those of us who don’t live under totalitarian regimes. We’ve already seen egregious incidences of doublespeak (“USA Patriot Act,” anyone?) and massive government surveillance (NSA phone record collecting, anyone?). The nightmare possibility 1984 raises – thirty-one years after the date in which the novel was set – is that we could slippery-slope-slide into the state it predicted (of being rather unsubtly manipulated through misinformation and constantly under observation) through our eager embrace of those very technologies that promise to offer access to a wide diversity of information and connect us socially in non-coercive ways. The play’s implied suggestion that, in the wrong hands, our two-way screens might be used to police thought and behavior in brutally effective ways should induce a shudder of horror in thoughtful viewers.

Director Jeffrey Carpenter has assembled a terrific cast to bring this world to life. Goodnack is phenomenal as Winston – in particular, given the radio play constraints, the emotional intensity he brings to the some of the more wrenching scenes is breathtaking. Sean Sears and John Michnya also use their prodigious vocal talents to breath life into a slew of supporting roles, and the cast is backed by excellent musical accompaniment from Jason Coll (keyboards), Kira Bokalders (clarinet), and Will Teegarden (cello).

“The Evening” (Richard Maxwell/New York City Players, presented by the Warhol Museum)

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The action of Richard Maxwell’s The Evening takes place in a small, cramped, and rather downscale bar somewhere in middle America. There’s a nondescript table with two chairs, both facing out towards the audience; a counter with a couple of generic barstools; a high-def TV tuned (volume on mute) to a football game; and, in one corner, a drum set and mic stands for a live band.

The action of Richard Maxwell’s The Evening (also) takes place – if we are attentive to the clue bound up in the name of one of his characters, Beatrice – in some kind of afterlife, à la Dante’s Inferno or Purgatorio. Although there’s not a single object in the world of the play that is not a real object you might find in the real world, this also doesn’t quite feel like a real space; despite its hyperquotidianness, the set has a quality of detachment from the real, as if it is floating beside, or outside, the real world.

That’s because the action of Richard Maxwell’s The Evening (really) takes place in a theater. The supports for the wall flats are fully visible to the audience, as are the edges of the white scrim that surrounds the small set. We’re not watching anything that aspires to presents what looks like a “real story.” Indeed, the play is impossible to describe in terms of story or theme because it doesn’t really tell a story, at least not in any conventional manner. Instead, it expands theater’s engagement with the “real” by unmaking the conventions of realism. There’s no attempt to whisk the audience into another world. What we see on stage is, well: what is happening, on stage. The characters are what they are – characters invented by author Maxwell – and all they demand of us for a brief ninety minute duration time is our attentiveness to their presence, to what is happening in the moment to, among, and between them.

L to R: Brian Mendes, Cammisa Buerhaus, and Jim Fletcher

L to R: Brian Mendes, Cammisa Buerhaus, and Jim Fletcher

The play is divided in three parts. In the first section, performer Cammisa Buerhaus sits at the table and reads, from Maxwell’s journal, his account of being with his dying father in his final days. It’s a register of helplessness in the face of finality, an account of the disorientation and discombobulation experienced by both Maxwell and his father, as the father’s hold on life slips away. Speaking Maxwell’s words, Buerhaus describes a sensation “of being unwritten and without form;” we hover, with him (through her), in that space beside everyday life into which the dying of a loved one, and the grief that follows, catapults us.

And then she stands up, and without any change in posture, affect, or vocal quality she becomes Beatrice, bartender and sometime prostitute. She turns on the TV; the house lights go down. Okay, you think: here’s the play. But, well, not really. Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) enters the bar with an extra large pizza, he takes out a huge slice and munches it down. He’s followed on by Asi (Brian Mendes), a has-been prizefighter. Jim is Asi’s manager; Beatrice may be Asi’s girlfriend or ex-lover; she also seems to have been involved with Jim. She wants to escape, to Istanbul, and this desire forms the play’s slim narrative trajectory. But “desire” is a word that’s too psychologizing, and “narrative trajectory” is a category that doesn’t apply to Maxwell’s writing. Beatrice, Cosmo, and Asi are, first and foremost, characters in a play, types being deployed and explored by a writer; what happens to them, and what they want and think and feel, seems largely immaterial. While “unwritten and without form” is the diametric opposite of the tightly scripted and highly formal action that unfolds in the second part of the play, it also paradoxically describes the quality of Maxwell’s dialogue, which seems to serve more as a scaffolding to support the character’s presence on stage than as a conveyor of meaning, emotion, or action.

That’s not to say things don’t happen during this middle part – much happens, much of it far more “real” than the actions we normally see on a theatrical stage. The characters drink beer and do jello shots. A band comes on (James Moore, Andie Springer, and David Zuckerman, mirroring the gender triangle on stage) and they play music (also written by Maxwell) that sometimes almost drowns out the dialogue, just as such bands sometimes do in such small spaces. The characters repeat themselves, they utter banalities, and they don’t seem to really listen to each other. Jim and Asi get into a physical fight, and Beatrice gets weirdly, intimately pancaked between them. Asi gives himself an injection with a hypodermic needle. And, in a fabulous, LOL moment towards the end of this second segment, Beatrice shoots the two men, precipitating what I can only describe (without giving too much away) as the very realest of imaginable effects.

With the third section, the play moves into pure performance art. Stagehands arrive to strip away the walls, the band instruments, the chairs, the table, the stools, the bar, and the carpet until finally only Beatrice is left wandering a fog-filled void. A woman freed at last from the trap of her life? A dreamer wandering in the world of her dreams? A lost soul in purgatory? A character in search of her author? Do we need to pin it down? Like an evocative painting or a moving piece of music, the play’s beautiful and satisfying final image exceeds the capacity of language to describe its utterly haunting and resonant effect.

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