“A Man of No Importance” at Front Porch Theatricals

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“Love who you love who you love.” That’s a repeated lyric in the musical A Man of No Importance, and if it brings to mind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love,” I suspect it’s hardly a coincidence. Both constitute anthems of acceptance for the multitude of ways the human heart expresses its desire, and both figure as responses to homophobic violence. 

Miranda made his plea for the equality of all love in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016; in A Man of No Importance, which is set in 1964, the sentiment is expressed by Alfie Burns (Allan Snyder), a Dublin bus driver with a passion for poetry and theater, particularly the poetry and theater of Oscar Wilde, and who spends his free time directing an amateur theatrical troupe, the St. Imelda’s Players, which rehearses in the local church social hall. He lives with his sister, Lily (Becki Toth), who has put her own romantic life on hold while waiting for him to find a wife. Unfortunately she is blind to all the signs that her wait is going to be a lifelong one: Alfie cooks, he enjoys foreign food, he carries around a little book of poetry and recites verses to his bus passengers, and he spends his evenings at home with her, mooning after his co-worker, the handsome and athletic Robbie (David Toole). When a new passenger, the young and lovely Miss Rice (Clementine Wurzbach), boards his bus one morning, Alfie decides to tackle Wilde’s Salome and recruit her and Robbie to play the roles of Salome and John the Baptist. Lily hopes that his interest in Miss Price is more than merely theatrical; we quickly realize that he harbors hopes that Robbie might share both his love of theater and the “love that dare not say its name.”

L to R: David Toole and Allan Snyder. Photo courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

For a musical based on a 1994 film about a closeted homosexual in 1964 Ireland, A Man of No Importance feels surprisingly fresh and timely. The book, by playwright Terrence McNally, is structured as something of a flashback – the musical begins just after the troupe’s production of Salome has been cancelled due to its “salacious” content, and then rewinds to tell the story of the events leading up to that cancellation – and that structure achieves a bit of theatrical sleight-of-hand, making you think, at first, that the focus of the musical will be the repressive forces that shut down free artistic expression. But then – as now – those same forces also seek to put limits on the expression of love and desire; then – as now – the performing arts offer space for pushing against those limits and telling stories that open hearts and minds.

The team of Lynn Ahrens and Pittsburgh native Stephen Flaherty wrote the lyrics and music, which are steeped in the vernacular of Celtic session music. Many of the numbers open with a haunting solo Irish flute (George Hoydich), and the orchestra, led by Deana Muro, jams with the lively vibe of a Ceilidh. The large ensemble is packed with talent, with particularly strong vocal performances by Snyder, Toth, and Wurzbach, and an impressive vocal and physical performance by Toole, who pretty much parkours all over the stage in the musical’s most recognizable tune, the showstopper “The Streets of Dublin.” Snyder is a genial presence in the leading role, conveying Alfie’s suppressed yearning and pain with quiet subtlety; Toole is charismatic as the Dublin man about town; and Toth brings depth to a character who seems, at first, to fit the caricature of a provincial Irish spinster. With the help of scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach, director Robyne Parrish makes use of simple elements – a handful of umbrellas, large wooden spindles of varying dimensions, some chairs, a platform, a curtain, and a piano – to swiftly shift the scene from church hall to bus to kitchen to street. 

Eleven additional ensemble members populate the world of the play with many more characters, all drawn with clarity and verve; these are the bus passengers, pub denizens, music-lovers, and troupe members whose condemnation Alfie most fears, and whose acceptance forms the core message of the play. It’s a hopeful message, in the end: a message of the power of art to make the world a more welcome place for all.

“The Garbologists” at City Theatre and “Misery” at barebones productions

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This past week, your Tatler had a chance to see The Garbologists at City Theatre and Misery at barebones productions. Both feature finely honed performances, inventive scenic designs, and fantastic sound design; each is also, in its own way, about an odd couple. The similarities end there.

In Lindsay Joelle’s new play The Garbologists, the mismatch is between veteran sanitation worker Danny (Jason Babinsky) and rookie Marlowe (Bria Walker), who has been assigned to Danny’s truck for training. He’s a chatty extrovert who’s not good with boundaries; she’s a taciturn loner with high walls. He’s an open book – transparent about the difficulties in his personal life, which include a TRO filed against him by his ex-wife and their conflict over custody of their son – while she is something of a mystery – an Ivy-league graduate who has opted for a career in sanitation. As he teaches her the tricks of the trade, he begins to chip away at her armor, and by play’s end each has come to trust the other with their most painful confidences.

The play is mostly a light comedy, although it pulls on some sober threads. Chief among these is  the transience of existence, and of the ways our garbage becomes a marker for loss. Danny is an expert at “reading” the trash left out for them to pick up: he can tell the difference between a normal pile of garbage, and one that signals someone has died, moved, or been evicted. His years in the service make him insouciant about what those latter piles mean to the people who dragged them out to the curb; Marlowe, on the other hand, keenly feels the weight of the discards and the unknown stories behind them. In the world of the play, his job becomes teaching her not only how to follow the “house rules” of the job, but also how to let go and move on. 

L to R: Jason Babinsky and Bria Walker. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The snazzy production features a moving cab of a garbage truck, complete with lights, and not one but two “back ends,” one of which even has a clever working mechanism to scrape the garbage from the hopper into the truck (scenic design by Narelle Sissons); the excellent sound design by Karin Graybash fills out the illusion of a garbage truck in action. Although for the most part Joelle’s characters come across more like types than fully fleshed out human beings, under Monteze Freeland’s direction Babinsky and Walker connect genially and take their characters on a believable journey from friction to friendship.

L to R: Sheila McKenna and Davis Whalen. photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

The trajectory of the plot of Misery goes in the opposite direction, from friendliness to (way beyond) friction. Here the “odd couple” is a romance novelist named Paul Sheldon (David Whalen), and his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Sheila McKenna). Paul wakes in her home after he has been in an incapacitating car accident, and he is grateful at first for the seemingly daffy and kind Good Samaritan’s aid and nursing. But it quickly becomes clear that she is a deranged psychopath who is keeping him prisoner, and who has no qualms about tormenting him to keep him in line. When she discovers that in the final installment of his series he has killed off her beloved protagonist, Misery Chastain, she forces him to write a sequel that brings the character back to life; he does so with the understanding that writing the novel may be the only way to save his own life. You may already know this story: it’s adapted by William Goldman from the 1987 Stephen King novel, and was made into a film (also scripted by Goldman) in 1990.

Reader, I’ll be honest: I approached this production with trepidation. I don’t love horror, and I worried that Misery would be too graphically violent for my taste. But though there are moments of physical assault, the play is primarily a psychological thriller, and it’s a beautifully crafted one to boot. Goldman’s writing is tight and suspenseful, and he creates a cat and mouse dynamic between Annie and Paul that keeps you on the edge of your seat. 

The barebones production, directed by Patrick Jordan, is both chillingly suspenseful and shockingly funny. Scenic design by Tony Ferrieri and sound design by Matthew Nielson contribute mightily to the suspense: Ferrieri’s rotating set comes alive during a couple of heartpounding scenes in which Paul escapes from his room in a wheelchair to explore the rest of Annie’s twee little house, and Nielson’s ominous music ratchets up the tension as Paul frantically tries to get back to his room before Annie returns. Steve Tolan’s special effects take credit for much of the comedy: the gore on view is frankly awful, but also (as in so many horror films) so outrageous that it shades into humor. 

Whalen and McKenna are well-matched and work beautifully together to intensify the stakes of their conflict. Both actors give their characters a sly intelligence that fuels not only their conflict but also the suspense over its outcome, and while it seems that Paul, the accomplished novelist, should have the upper hand over the provincial and unsophisticated Annie, McKenna plays Annie as a woman who is far cannier than she lets on. For a good deal of the play, Whalen is trapped in a bed – no easy task for an actor – and he uses the immobilization to good effect in conveying Paul’s pain, helplessness, and growing terror. His first attempt to get out of bed is excruciating to watch; equally excruciating is witnessing his realization that Annie is more diabolical than she appears (and this is a realization he, and we, come to repeatedly). As Annie, McKenna gives a whole new spin on crazy, shifting with jarring dispatch from adoring reader to punitive torturer to solicitous caregiver, and the more of Annie’s twisted obsession she reveals, the creepier she gets. 

Harrowing as the scenario of Misery may be, the production is a downright thrill to watch, with a cathartic ending that won’t surprise anyone, and that may be all the more sweet now that we, too, have all been released from our own long covid-captivity.

Looking forward to…

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Your Tatler has had a pretty busy spring, as local theatres – and she – emerge from the long pandemic winter. And there’s more coming up! Here are some of the performances I have on my calendar; you should try to catch them, too. As far as I know, all of the below have strong COVID precautions in place (vaccination proof and masks required).

Yesterday, the CMU School of Drama opened its production of the musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. I was able to see this show on Broadway when it featured CMU alum Denee Benton – it’s a raucously entertaining show, and the snippets of rehearsal I’ve seen on campus make me excited to see our production, which was directed by Tome’ Cousin and music directed by Rick Edinger (both colleagues of mine in the department). Also opening at CMU next week is another musical by the same writer, Dave Malloy: Preludes, which is about a turbulent period in the life of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. In addition, the annual CMU New Works series also begins later this week, featuring Vice Wheels by Malique Guinn, The Real Girls by Beth Ann Powers, and 차’nt  by Trà Nguyễn, directed by B. Kleymeyer and Jasmine Roth. Yinz know my policy on writing about student work (I don’t), so: ‘nuff said. You can find information on schedule and tickets for all of these performances here.

Busy week at work, amiright? But there’s more! The Pittsburgh Public Theatre opened its production of Murder on the Orient Express this past weekend as well. I’m not going to have a chance to see this production until very late in its run, and because of that am unlikely to blog about it, but it looks like it will be a lot of fun, with its cast featuring the local talent of James FitzGerald, Martin Giles, Catherine Growl, Amy Landis, Jason McCune, Lenora Nemetz, Caroline Nicolian, Helena Ruoti, Alec Silberblatt, Saige Smith, Ricardo Vila-Roger, and David Whalen. Marya Sea Kaminski has directed.

Also coming up next weekend is the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh’s Monster: Frankenstein Re-Imagined at the Oaks Theatre in Oakmont. This concert is a truly singular event: the original 1931 film Frankenstein, featuring Boris Karloff as the monster, is scored with a 1970s funk and rhythm and blues score that is performed by the choir and a five piece band led by bassist Paul Thompson. The music – arranged and written by artistic director Thomas W. Douglas and CMU Drama alum Jaron Crawford – promises to turn the film into a completely new – and unrepeatable – experience; this is the kind of event you’ll hear about later and wish you hadn’t missed. So don’t: you have two chances to see it, on April 23 and 24; use the code BCPALTO21 for a discount.

But wait, there’s more! Creator-performer Adil Mansoor opens Amm(i)gone at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater on April 22 as well. In this one-person show, co-directed by Lyam Gabel, Mansoor uses Sophocles’ Antigone to navigate his relationship with his mother after coming out as a queer person. I saw this production online during the pandemic, and am looking forward to seeing the IRL version; you can read more about it in Rachel Hodge’s beautifully written “guest-post”  from the spring of 2021.

Looking a bit further into the future: City Theatre will present the world premiere of Lindsay Joelle’s new play The Garbologists, opening on May 6 (previews begin April 30). This play is an unconventional buddy comedy that follows two sanitations workers in the cab of a nineteen-ton garbage truck in New York City; tasked with picking up what the world has discarded, they learn that some things are easier to toss than others. The production is directed by Monteze Freeland and features performers Jason Babinsky and Bria Walker. Attack Theatre brings back Some Assembly Required on May 12-15, a performance that involves its audience in the creation of its choreography. PICT will open a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame that same weekend. And Front Porch Theatricals is back in business after a two-year hiatus, and will open A Man of No Importance on May 20. 

Feels so good to be back experiencing live performance again. Mask up and join me!

“Papa” at the New Hazlett Theatre, and “People of Pittsburgh: The Alchemist of Sharpsburg” by RealTime Interventions (at City Theatre)

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This week saw the opening of two original works that each tell the story of an ordinary person in inventive ways.

As part of its CSA series, the New Hazlett presented Papa, a new play written and performed by Bailey Lee and co-created by director Coleman Ray Clark. Papa tells the story of Lee’s grandfather, “papa” (played by Arnold Y. Kim) who immigrated to McKeesport from China in 1950, when he was a teenager, and of her father, who died when Lee herself was a teenager. The family story here will feel familiar to many whose progenitors came to the US in the first half of the 20th century: there is xenophobia and an inadvertent name change by immigration authorities at the port of entry, there is the conflict between preservation of culture and assimilation, and there is the climb up the socioeconomic ladder through hard work and education that has characterized the experience of so many immigrants, especially those who were able to enter the US during the postwar boom years. Lee’s family history is also a story of biracial identity: both her papa and her father married white women (both the grandmother and the mother are played by Frances Dell Bendert), and the blond-haired, green-eyed Lee has a much deeper connection to her Chinese heritage than her outward appearance might signal. 

The play is structured episodically and jumps around in time from the present day to select moments in the past; Lee functions as a narrator throughout, but also steps into the action to play a customer at her great-grandfather’s Chinese restaurant, her own father as a young man, and herself at various ages of her own life. The work also experiments playfully with different approaches to telling its story. At times it suddenly becomes a musical, complete with jazz-hand choreography; there is also a comic “clash of the Chinese zodiac animals” dance that helps to establish the family dynamic between Lee, her mother, and her papa, a moment of slam poetry, and even some unexpected puppetry. One particularly well-crafted episode comes when Lee is asked at an audition to reveal a bit more about herself: she goes deep into her relationship with her father, and also into her own insecurities and guilt over that relationship. Using the audition as a pretext for such a vulnerable soliloquy is a clever choice, particularly because it allows for a bit of cynicism from the auditioners to cut comically through her solipsism.

Lee seems aware of the danger of getting mired in sentiment, and for the most part she successfully treads the line between sweet and treacly. Frequently she brings in a sour note to add unexpected humor and bite, as when she offers a metatheatrical ending in which she gifts the play itself to her papa. He protests that his life is really not interesting enough to be turned into a play, and in a way he’s right: nothing he’s done or experienced has been particularly unusual or dramatic. But Lee’s theatrical love letter to him and to her family is heartwarming and sincere, and prompts reflection on the ways we all are shaped by the journeys made by the people who made us.

The inventive folks at RealTime Interventions take a very different, and delightfully unusual, approach to telling the story of a real person in their new work People of Pittsburgh: The Alchemist of Sharpsburg. This is the first in what will be a series of “theatrical portraits celebrating extraordinary, ordinary Pittsburghers”; here, the subject of the portrait is Candra, the manager of Games Unlimited in Squirrel Hill, who is not only a game aficionado (as his profession might suggest) but also a lifelong seeker of spiritual knowledge and insight. Like Lee’s papa, his life story is also not a particularly unusual or dramatic one (with the exception of some very high weirdness involving occult phenomena), but RealTime’s theatricalization of his biography cleverly turns content into form by rendering his story as a “choose your own adventure” (CYOA) role-play game (RPG).

I’m going to pause for a moment and confess something: I’m not someone who indulges in games very often (my use of the acronyms above is a brazen imposture). As an adolescent in the 70s I was mystified by Dungeons and Dragons (and by its popularity among the boys I knew); I’ve never understood or been drawn into any video games; and it’s only on rare occasions that I’ll get pulled into a game, usually when visiting family for holidays. So I was a little hesitant when I first saw the description of The Alchemist of Sharpsburg; I worried that it would be too “insider” to gamers, and that I wouldn’t be the audience for this show. I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Indeed, even my theatre-going partner – who I would venture to say actively dislikes most games – was thoroughly engaged and charmed by this unique evening of theater.

L to R: Rusty Thelin and Lydia Gibson. Photo courtesy RealTime Interventions.

The setup is this: after a short introduction to establish some ground rules and explain (to the few in the audience who have been hiding under a game-rock for the last five decades) what a Dungeons and Dragons-type role play game is, performer-writer Rusty Thelin dons a hood and assumes the role of Game Master, casting us (the audience) in the role of Candra, whose life then unspools as a kind of quest in the manner of DND or Hero Quest. Thelin narrates the events of Candra’s life, starting from his early childhood, in the second-person mode of the Game Master (e.g., “you head over to your neighbor’s house with your mother…”). Meanwhile, performer Lydia Gibson reads Candra’s own words, as captured through interviews and conversations, and represents his thoughts and feelings about those events. At times, volunteers from the audience come onto the stage to embody and represent scenes from Candra’s life; at regular intervals, Thelin, as Game Master, asks the audience to vote, with double-sided paddles, on where the story will go next (this is the CYOA part). There are also obstacles that pop up, which need to be overcome (or not) through the roll of a large 16-sided die; this, too, brings an audience member onto the stage, and others in the audience can reduce the number that needs to be rolled by giving up a token that represents a sword. As Candra (that is, “we”) gains more understanding and experience through the game-journey, he/we “level up” (apparently there is some complicated math involved in the die-rolling as the levels get higher to which more experienced players in the audience were keenly attuned; Rusty assured us he was doing the calculations in his head). The chance and randomness built into the play’s structure mirrors its content: as in life, paths bifurcate or are blocked, foreclosing some options and channeling the journey towards others.

As you might imagine from my description here, the audience interaction in this production is plentiful, but be not afraid! It’s also low-key, informal, and completely voluntary. Indeed, one of the charms of this piece is that it quickly achieves the vibe of something more akin to an after-school RPG club than a theater. One of the rules established at the beginning of the performance was to “Ask questions,” and to my surprise, people in the audience did, not only about the game itself, but also about some of the ideas and themes raised in the course of telling Candra’s story. Chief among those is the power of stories to shape and transform people. The draw of role-play games is the draw of all storytelling, including and especially the storytelling of live performance: it’s the chance to engage imaginatively with someone else’s adventure, live their truth, and empathize with their joys, pains, dreams, and disappointments. RealTime’s alchemical experimentation with theatrical form is, in the end, not only about Candra’s extraodinary ordinary life; it’s also about the transformative power of story.

“Plano” at Quantum Theatre

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I’m not really sure how to write about Will Arbery’s mystifying yet utterly engaging (and strangely funny) play Plano. It’s the kind of play – and, under Adil Mansoor’s smart and surehanded direction, the kind of production – that rapidly sweeps you into an off-kilter, reality-adjacent world, one in which time operates by a different set of rules, characters divide and separate, and family curses manifest in the form of slug invasions and faceless ghosts. 

The play centers on three sisters: Anne, the oldest (Lisa Velten Smith), Genevieve, the middle (Julianne Avolio), and Isabel, the youngest (Moira Quigley). They live somewhere near Dallas; Plano, where all the “big-haired boob ladies live,” is not far away, and is a site that is both magnetic and repulsive in the world of the play. Anne is a professor who meets and marries Juan, whom she calls John (Jerreme Rodriguez); Genevieve is a sculptor, married to Steve, who is/was a cultural arbiter in Dallas (Tim McGeever); Isabel does charity work and is a pious Catholic. The sisters have a mother, Mary (Carey Ann Spear), and an absent father who looms in their psyches; unbeknownst to them, they are also haunted by a faceless ghost (taylor knight). 

L to R: Lisa Velten Smith, Moira Quigly, and Julianne Avolio. Photo Jason Snyder, courtesy Quantum Theatre

Many “normal” things happen in this play: Anne has a baby; Steve and Genevieve divorce; Isabel moves to Chicago, becomes ill, and returns to Dallas; John/Juan spends most of his time in Plano frequenting gay bars. But none of these form the spine of narrative or plot; instead, they mostly serve as anchors that tether the play’s uncanny weirdness to recognizable life-events. And the weirdness gets very weird indeed, particularly where the men are involved: both Steve and John/Juan have multiple versions of themselves inhabiting the world of the play, and at one point the three sisters beat Steve to death (in a gloriously comic bit of fight choreography staged by Randy Kovitz), only to have him come back to life again and again. The faceless ghost – who is silently reading Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle at the opening of the play – is an omnipresent male presence, one that also multiplies into a palpable threat to the sisters and their mother near the end of the play.

A key to what Arbery’s up to with this play comes when Anne floats her theory that “lives have form . . . but the form disintegrates, and every moment either multiplies or disappears. . . . we’re ghosts of ourselves, like we’re dying and coming back . . . and when we come back, we’re a little warped, a little stranger, and there’s no way out, we’re trapped in a disintegrating loop.” In the world of this play, “having a family is a haunting,” the past and present are always coeval and in constant conversation, and the scars of childhood never heal. That’s probably true of real life, too; but in real life we work to put the past behind us so that we can experience time as linear and progressing forward. The loopy logic of Arbery’s world proposes that “real life” orientation toward both time and the past to be a necessary fiction.

Here’s where I’d like to write a paragraph that gives you some sense of what I think Plano is “about.” I’m hesitant to do so, because, as the kids say, “your mileage may vary.” But let’s try this: if Plano were a bottle of wine, I might describe it as having undertones of concern about toxic masculinity and abusive relationships, with strong hints of childhood trauma and perhaps sexual abuse; an aroma of the way we tend to replicate our childhood family dynamics in our adult relationships; some dark notes of impostor syndrome and gaslighting; all of which are overtopped by a bright, dry finish of antic, absurd comedy.

None of that would be legible, however, in less capable hands. The play’s pace, as dictated by the playwright, is insanely fast, and under Mansoor’s direction the ensemble of actors masterfully embodies the emotional specificity of each moment, shifting at lightning speed from beat to beat, with full commitment to each turn, no matter how absurd. Together they establish a quasi-cartoonish tone that also, miraculously, cracks open regularly to hold space for moments of heartbreaking poignancy. One memorable example comes toward the end of the play, when the insecure Anne asks their mother Mary to describe one remarkable thing about each sister. Mary manages to only dredge up lame accomplishments from Genevieve and Isabel’s childhoods, which is awkwardly hilarious. But then she is obviously stymied when it comes to Anne, and Velten Smith’s crestfallen reaction gate-crashes the play’s absurdity with the depth and reality of her character’s hidden wounds. 

Such is the emotional rollercoaster of Plano: with its breakneck pace and hairpin shifts in direction, it leaves you a bit breathless and dizzy, and maybe even – as the play itself loops back in upon itself in the final moment – ready and eager to strap in for another go at the ride. 

“Happily Ever After” by CorningWorks (at The SPACE Upstairs)

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If you are familiar with Beth Corning’s sensibility, then you probably don’t need to be told that the title to this piece is ironic; irony is, after all, her stock in trade. The subject of Happily Ever After is the nightmare inside the fairytale of heteronormative romance – namely, the gender roles and expectations that shore up and enable cycles of domestic violence. The dynamic of abuse, and the way that cultural definitions of gender and gender roles help establish the psychological patterns of both abusers and victims, is investigated here through roughly a dozen evocative dance vignettes.

Dress installation by Beth Corning and Cindi Kubu. Photo Wendy Arons

The piece is prefaced by an invitation to explore and “listen to” a group of Victorian bridal gowns hanging on the far end of the playing space. The dresses are exquisite symbols of an old-fashioned vision of feminine beauty and frailty and poise, and they carry the fairytale promise of matrimonial bliss in their lace and satin and tuile and silk. Yet each dress has a dark story to tell, and you have to get very close to each individual one in order to distinguish its voice from the rest. The intimacy engendered is important: the accounts you hear are of women at their most vulnerable and frightened, of women who survived abuse and for whom the dream embodied by the dress became a nightmare from which they barely escaped with their lives. 

The performance then opens with a scene that chillingly translates those stories into an embodied metaphor: Corning, sitting on a ladder among the dresses, “sews” her own fingers together, treating her own body like an object and dispassionately immobilizing and trapping her hand in much the same way that both the women’s voices are trapped in the dresses, and the women themselves were trapped in their marriages. 

More metaphor and variation on the theme follow: in the second number, dancers Jillian Hollis, Catherine Meredith, and Endalyn Taylor Outlaw each dance a duet with a white shirt that stands in for the complexities of a woman’s relationship to an abuser. As they interact with it, the shirt becomes, in turn (and among other things you may find in it): a seducer, a bandage, a baby, an embrace, a threat, a comfort, a strangler, a binding, and the simple object of the domestic labor of laundry.

Dionysios Tsaftaridis. Photo Frank Walsh, courtesy corningworks.

The third piece brings in dancer Dionysios Tsaftaridis, whose presence allows the choreography to explore the double-sided coin of passion and violence that often characterizes abusive relationships. Dressed in a tie and suit, he also represents a modern-day version of the fairy tale prince who, shaped by toxic notions of masculinity, needs women to be victims in order to take his place in the story as a rescuer. This dance drives home the cyclical nature of abuse and victimization; in a later solo, Tsaftaridis masterfully layers complexity into the portrait of the abuser, revealing him as both dangerously in thrall to and tormented by his power to inflict pain.

The subsequent dances vary in energy and dynamism, some athletic and expansive, others soulful and introspective. All find ways of expressing multiple aspects of the physical and psychical damage women endure, in relationships that are both recognizably abusive and in those that “merely” replicate everyday patriarchal norms. In one of my favorite pieces of the evening, Hollis, Meredith, and Outlaw don bright red dresses and, along with Tsaftaridis, engage in a sort of stylized ballroom dance – set to baroque harpsichord music – that gradually devolves into barely contained enmity and discord. The body language and facial expressions on the dancers pitch-perfectly convey the way violence and resentments seethe below the surface of relationships, and the dance as a whole shows how much harm might be hidden by the social pressure to keep up appearances in polite society. 

At a little over an hour, the performance is fairly short, but Corning manages to cover a poignant range of experience and perspective in a tight frame. The dance movements are punctuated by segments of fairytales that remind us of the tropes that govern so much of our imagining of heteronormative “romance” (and do so much damage to the psyches of both girls and boys). A brief silent segment in which the dancers draw images of domesticity on the back wall also produces one of the most heartbreaking laughs of the evening, when Outlaw, after adding a “Stop” sign to her picture of a suburban street, begins to exit and then suddenly runs back and adds the word “Please.” That funny-not funny “please” says everything you need to know about internalized oppression.

As always, Corning also brings a beautiful and eclectic range of music to her choreography, often juxtaposing music, text, and dance to produce unexpected associations. A notable example comes when Hollis entangles and disentangles herself in an enormous bridal veil against a sonic landscape consisting of the Spanish guitar piece “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” underneath a woman’s voice offering a nervous, rapid-fire account of psychological abuse: the soothing nature of the guitar becomes a musical manifestation of gaslighting, threatening to erase the reality of what we are seeing and hearing. 

The evening ends with another such juxtaposition – a moment of potential comedy that is immediately undercut with sober statistics about domestic violence. A scene that starts out with a vibe of playful competition ends with a stage full of broken, maimed bodies that the dancers fruitlessly seek to somehow make whole: there is no happily ever after to this story, just a nightmare of shattered lives.  

“Paradise Blue” at City Theatre

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Set in 1949, Dominique Morisseau’s 2015 play Paradise Blue is part of her “Detroit Cycle,” a trilogy of tragedies about the Detroit Black community. Chronologically the first in the cycle, Paradise Blue looks back at what was perhaps the most hopeful of the three eras she explores – the other two plays, Detroit 67 and Skeleton Crew are set, respectively, on the eve of the 1967 race riots and at the start of the 2008 Great Recession. But here, as in the other two works, hope and opportunity function primarily as a means to expose the deep structural racism that overdetermines her characters’ dreams and aspirations, no matter their talent, drive, ambition, or determination.

The story of Paradise Blue centers on the Paradise Club, a jazz joint in the center of Paradise Valley, which, with an adjacent neighborhood called Black Bottom, formed a thriving Black community in Detroit in the first half of the twentieth century. The club’s owner is Blue (Rafael Jordan), a jazz trumpet player who inherited the storied venue from his father, Clyde Sr., who was likewise a gifted musician. Both were cursed with what their jazz pianist friend Corn (Wali Jamal) describes as “the cost of bein’ colored and gifted. Brilliant and second class. Make you insane.” As the play opens, the restless, emotionally labile Blue is considering selling his land to the City of Detroit, which – under its new mayor, Albert Cobo – is buying Black-owned property in order to “get rid of the blight in the city” (Paradise Valley and Black Bottom were, in fact, purchased by the city and bulldozed to make room for I-375 in the late 1950s). This is unwelcome news to the club’s percussionist Sam (Monteze Freeland, in a standout performance) as well as to Blue’s girlfriend Pumpkin (Melva Graham); both understand immediately the negative domino effect that such a sale would have, not only on the neighborhood, but also, and especially, on their own lives. Into this scenario steps the mysterious Silver (Eunice Woods), a woman with cash, sex appeal, and a murky background. She too has her sights set on buying the club, and seems ready to charm – or ruthlessly manipulate – her way to her goals. Her intrusion into this small community brings about unexpected changes, primarily in Corn and Pumpkin, the two characters who have arranged their wellbeing principally around their capacity to “go-along.”

Rafael Jordan as Blue. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

In the City Theatre production, directed by Kent Gash, there is also a sixth character: Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s set, which pulsates with Blue’s demons through Jason Lynch’s moody lighting design as well as through some startling special effects. The world of 1949 Detroit is masterfully evoked in Susan Tsu’s precisely observed costume design, and original music by Theron Brown gives a taste of mid-century motown jazz. 

We don’t, unfortunately, hear nearly enough music in this play; but I suspect that’s intentional. Music is what sustains these characters; music “opens up the gates of heaven.” But here, as in the other two plays of the cycle, Morisseau seems more interested in exploring the systemic forces that keep those gates closed. Important as music is to her characters, her stories are as often about the way history has silenced their music as they are about its power to lift them up.

SITI Company’s “The Medium” at City Theatre

“We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backward to the future.” 

That’s a quote from Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 punnily titled book of graphics-plus-aphorisms The Medium is the Massage (the accompanying image prominently features a rear-view mirror with a silhouette of a horse-drawn stagecoach). 

It’s also a quote that aptly captures the strange time-machine effect of SITI Company’s production The Mediumwhich is a theatrical exploration of McLuhan’s work that director Anne Bogart and the company first developed and staged in 1993, and which has been revived at City Theatre as part of SITI Company’s final season tour. Back then – almost thirty years ago – McLuhan’s ideas were already prescient about the role television had played in shaping human identity and cognition, and its collage of text and dance was taken by New York Times critic Ben Brantley to be a demonstration (among other things) of the “ways in which we have become technology’s slaves in the 20-some years since McLuhan was on the best-seller lists.” In 2022, such a perspective feels quaintly innocent – could any of us have imagined, then, the extent of our present entanglement with our devices? – and, as such, The Medium seems itself to be a rear-view mirror that refracts and reflects our current moment.

L to R: Ellen Lauren and Will Bond. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy of City Theatre

Will Bond plays Marshall McLuhan as a kind of vaudevillian showman-barker whose “pitch” consists of spliced together epigrammatic (and now-iconic) ideas from McLuhan’s oeuvre: “The medium is the massage”; “We no longer partake in the drama of alienation, but are in the ecstasy of communication”; “You can’t go home again”; “Are we having fun yet?” The lanky, loose-limbed Bond is a veritable shape-shifter, morphing in the course of the action from confident raconteur to frail invalid, at one point even folding himself into a space that seems impossibly small for such a tall man. With a zap of a tv remote control he is catapulted into a funhouse-mirror world of mediated representation, in which the other four performers – Gian-Murray Gianino, Ellen Lauren, Violeta Picayo, and Stephen Duff Webber – layer quotes from his writing onto familiar TV tropes made strange through an elaborate and precise shared movement vocabulary. Text and gestures repeat, gaining new valence with new context: aphorisms that are hopeful in one moment feel dire in the next, rosy predictions resurface as warnings, and the “problem of the absolute absence of reality” finds expression in bewildering contradictions. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the work of SITI company, it’s probably useful for you to know that company members train deeply in two systems of movement: “Viewpoints” training, which is a philosophy of movement and staging that Anne Bogart developed out of a method originated by modern dance choreographer Mary Overlie; and the Suzuki Method, which is a highly disciplined physical training regime, developed by director Tadashi Suzuki, that builds the actor’s control of breath, energy, and center of gravity with the aim of using the body to expand the performer’s creative range. The Medium was one of the first pieces to emerge out of this intertwined training, and as such it represents a valuable glimpse into the company’s creative roots, a kind of embodied “time capsule” that has been reopened on the occasion of their final season together. While only Bond and Lauren were in the earlier iteration of the show, all of the members of the current ensemble are company veterans, and they supercharge the kinetic choreography with an energy, presence, and connected precision that showcases SITI Company’s unique and impactful theatricality. 

Resonant as McLuhan’s philosophy remains to our current entwinement with media as message, some aspects of this time capsule feel very frozen in its original moment, in ways that may make some viewers uncomfortable. Chief among these is the makeup of the ensemble: the mostly white, cis-gendered cast is, ironically, itself a medium that replicates and reifies the norming of whiteness and gender binaries inherent in the TV stereotypes that the piece seeks to make strange. While McLuhan’s imagined media landscape may well have been devoid of both people of color and people who don’t fit into binary gender categories, such exclusion is jarring in the context of current conversations in the field about representation.

One could fault the SITI company for not rethinking and reworking The Medium to rectify what looks, in retrospect, to be a lack of awareness of its own mediation of race and gender. Or one could admire the courage that it takes to faithfully recreate a piece that time has made “retrograde” and “flawed” in this respect, and to allow it to sit in such awkward juxtaposition against our present expectations. Just as The Medium tesseracts McLuhan into the 1990s as a way of showing us its contemporary moment through a rear-view mirror, so does the historical performance also fold itself forward to today, to reveal, perhaps, its own complicity in a system of mediated representation that, as McLuhan put it, “works over and saturates and molds and transforms.”  Such is the provocative complexity of this time-machine of a show: you’re never sure when you stand.

“The Tipping Point” at CorningWorks

The question Beth Corning poses on her marketing material for her new production The Tipping Point is: “what would it take for YOU to leave home?” This is a question I myself have often mused upon, partly because of my own family’s history: would I, like my Jewish grandparents and great-grandparents, have seen the writing on the wall and fled persecution in Eastern Europe – or would I have remained, like so many Jews did, until it was too late to escape? What does it take to recognize the “tipping point,” and will I know it when I see it, if it happens during my lifetime?

Photo by Frank Walsh

But it turns out that this isn’t really the central question around which The Tipping Point revolves. Only a brief segment of this potent new piece addresses that question head on, when Corning presents a solo dance in which she juxtaposes shrugs of indecision, attempts to maintain equilibrium, and a primal scream of rage against an avalanche of text that makes clear how fragile and endangered our democracy and freedoms are. Rather, The Tipping Point casts its audience members as people who have already been forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in another land, and it gives them experience of how utterly harrowing such a dislocation would be.

The piece is structured in two parts. One part is a dance theater performance that depicts the experience of re-settled refugees through a layering of text, movement, sound, and documentary video and images. The ensemble is made up of thirteen performers representing a diversity of race, gender identity, body type, age, and ability; they are joined by a family of five from Syria, who appear, at first, to be members of the audience, and who begin the performance by courageously testifying and bearing witness to their own experience of dislocation and migration. In the course of the piece, they are carried and pulled by the dancers into the middle of the performance, where they seem (deliberately) “out of place” within the maelstrom of choreography around them.

The family’s hesitant and uncertain status as “non-performers” in contrast to the company of dancers mirrors (or foreshadows) the second, immersive part of the piece, in which audience members are made to feel uncertain, hesitant, and “out of place” as they both literally and figuratively step into the shoes of a refugee and embark on a journey of dislocation. The two parts echo each other in other ways, too: elements of the first part (a perilous sea journey, separation of loved ones, dispossession of valuables) are woven into the experience of the second (or vice versa – your ticket time will determine which part you experience first), such that the immersive experience either recalls or is refracted through the danced interpretation. 

I’ll confess at this point that I’m working hard to avoid spoilers here; much of the impact of an immersive theatrical experience depends on entering fully into its world without preconceptions, and I would hate to ruin anyone’s experience of this production by giving the details away. I will say that what this production impactfully achieves is to make vividly clear that there is no human being on this earth who is prepared to weather the shock of displacement that is the fate of a refugee; and that even though my own “journey” was wholly fictional, two days later I’m still jostling with its losses and betrayals. 

Key here is the way the production underlines how aid and grift – or charity and hostility – work hand in hand to shape the refugee experience. Co-director Gab Cody has crafted an unsettling socio-bureaucratic environment, in which the way you are treated by the “volunteers” who “process” you and hustle you along the journey is neither deliberately cruel nor genuinely kind. They continually give with one hand and take with the other, offering frequently contradictory information and making it nearly impossible to figure out the rules. At any given moment, you don’t know if you’re being helped or ripped off, advised or misled. And it’s that state of helpless uncertainty that gives a microcosmic sense of how traumatic and disorienting such journeys must really be. Moreover, the transactional “benevolence” of the “volunteers” ensures that by the time you reach the final destination, you realize that the most anyone seeking asylum can hope for is refuge. That is: refuge, not welcome, and certainly not without cost.

“An Untitled Play by Justin Timberlake” at City Theatre (co-produced by Pittsburgh CLO)

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Here’s a sentence I don’t think I ever imagined I would write in my life: In Matt Schatz’s musical comedy An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlakethe protagonist is a dramaturg named Beth, whose attempts to get a “serious” new play into the season of a fictional New York theater company come into conflict with the artistic director’s plan to produce a yet-to-be-written work by Justin Timberlake.

The protagonist – of a musical comedy – is a dramaturg? That may well be the theater-nerd equivalent of “You had me at hello.” (And if that’s the case for you, you might as well stop reading here).

Still with me? Let’s go over the premise again. Dramaturg/literary manager Beth (Julianne Avolio) is a theater idealist who is sustained by the mantra “do good work, do good plays.” When she discovers a play by the relatively unknown El Yamasaki Brooks (Lara Hayhurst) that she thinks has both social import and theatrical promise, she makes it her mission to convince her artistic director boss, the narcissistic Todd-Michael Smyth (Craig MacDonald) to agree to produce it. She convinces him to let her pitch the project to rising-star director Liz Cohen (Melessie Clark), who initially finds both the play, and Beth, alluring, and eagerly signs on. But complications ensue when Smyth returns from Los Angeles with the opportunity to premiere a new work by Justin Timberlake; to Beth’s surprise and dismay, Liz proves cynically ready to join Smyth in hitching her wagon to Timberlake’s celebrity star. 

L to R: Melessie Clark, Craig MacDonald, Julianne Avolio. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Schatz is a writer whom I’ve described in a previous post as someone who makes “devilish comic hay” with language; I’ll double down on that assessment here. I imagine him in front of his laptop with an imp on each shoulder egging him on to further and further heights of delirious linguistic brio. How do you not fall in love with a lyricist who manages, within the first few lines of a musical, to have a character sing that she’s “a transplanted Floridian” on her way to a “Le Pain Quotidien”? It only gets better from there, and it would be meanspirited of me to spoil for you the LOL surprise of some of Schatz’s rhymes; I’ll just say, you gotta give serious props to a guy who can seamlessly work in a rhyme to “Shakespeare” in a rap song titled “Starstruck Starfucker” (more on this in a moment).

Schatz’s music is vibrant and energetic, with a mostly pop-rock feel; I could wish in this moment that I was sufficiently versant in the JT oeuvre to be able to tell you whether there are musical call-outs in the score that match the wit of the lyrics. Alas, I am the kind of boomer who finds that all of the pop tenors I’ve heard on the radio since the mid 1990s sound interchangeable; if Schatz scattered Timberlake- or NSYNC-related musical easter eggs throughout the show, I missed them. Under Douglas Levine’s musical direction the hidden five-piece band is tight and the vocalists shine; excellently balanced sound (Zachary Beattie-Brown) lets you hear every word with crystal clarity.

Comic as the action and subject matter of Untitled are, Schatz manages to work in some sharp digs against the dysfunctional world of the nonprofit theater, and in particular he paints an eerily accurate picture of its power dynamics. I can think of several artistic directors who might have been the inspiration for the psychologically manipulative Smyth; ditto directors who, like Liz, are quick to shift their sails to catch the prevailing winds and who might, like her, justify their self-serving game-playing by claiming that “lying is our business.” The dramaturg who sees herself as a “modestly paid, hardly noticed, quiet person that could make a difference” also rings familiar, as does the anxious and despondent playwright at the bottom of the ladder. Schatz keenly observes how this system tends to absorb and coopt its idealistic young; even the principled Beth finds it hard to resist when Timberlake (Hayhurst, again, drolly caricaturing some of his signature NSYNC looks and moves) arrives and dials up the celebrity charm wattage on her. 

Director Reginald Douglas has pulled together an ensemble that mines hilarity out of these power dynamics. As MacDonald, Smyth’s body language oozes white male privilege and the kind of “hey I’m one of the good guys” informality and unguardedness that so often characterizes charismatic but codependent leaders. Clark rides the rollercoaster of Liz’s flipflopping objectives with panache – costume designer Dominique Fawn Hill helps out by giving her a wig to match each new outfit, mood, and alliance – and she expresses the rage of women everywhere with her powerhouse delivery of the song “Would You Ever Have Said That?” Hayhurst gives the character El Yamasaki Brooks a neurotic unpredictability that both exploits and defies the stereotype of the “serious writer,” and her sendup of JT is pretty pitch-perfect. But it’s Avolio who carries the show with her nuanced and self-aware portrayal of the mission-driven (and somewhat out of her depth) Beth. Many of the funniest lyrics in the libretto are hers to sing, and it’s not just the clarity of her voice, but also the clarity of intention she brings to each thought that gets the lyrical wit to land just right. A highlight is her rendition of “Starstruck Starfucker,” the rapid-fire, expletive-laden rap number Beth sings to vent her anger over Liz and Todd-Michael’s embrace of the Timberlake project. Not only does Avolio manage to navigate its myriad tongue-twisters without incident (try saying the title alone five times fast and see where that gets you), but she also crafts the emotional arc and fury of the song with brilliant precision. I’d see the show a second time just to ride that wave with her again.

Schatz developed this sympathetic portrait of the work a dramaturg does “behind the scenes of the behind the scenes” over many years, receiving feedback and input from many collaborators along the way, including (you guessed it) dramaturgs. In particular, here in Pittsburgh Untitled benefited from the wisdom and insight of Olivia O’Connor, the Manager of New Work Development at Pittsburgh CLO, and Clare Drobot, co-Artistic Director of City Theatre. While I imagine they both had a grand time poking a bit of fun at their own profession, they are also artists who share Beth’s serious commitment to “do good work, do good plays.” Lofty as that sounds, sometimes it can be achieved through light-hearted comedy. With Untitled, I’d say it’s mission accomplished.