“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.

“Chimerica” at Quantum Theatre

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The spine of the story in Lucy Kirkwood’s award-winning 2013 play Chimerica is relatively simple: an American photographer who captured the iconic image of an unknown man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 comes to believe, 23 years later, that “tank man” is alive and living in New York, and the photographer embarks on a hunt to find him so that he can tell his story. But nothing is simple when it comes to China – and particularly US relations with China, particularly as China emerged as an economic juggernaut in the late 20th century – and Kirkwood’s ambitious play seeks to capture, through the multiple tendrils attached to that spine of a story, the complicated and sometimes contradictory forces that have shaped lives and fortunes both in China and the US over the past three decades.

The play’s action is set primarily in the fall of 2012, when Obama was running for re-election, a context that feels important in retrospect because of the demonization of China in the 2016 election cycle – that is, hindsight allows us to see how the benefits reaped by China from economic globalization in the early aughts created the conditions for a populist-nationalist backlash here in the US. But the setting is important for another reason as well, as it sets up a dynamic on both the macro and the micro level of American arrogance and naiveté when it comes to foreign relations. On the macro level we see both politicians largely turning a blind eye to what is happening in China, and corporations blundering their way into an economy they can barely begin to comprehend. As one character, the market analyst Tessa (Alison Weisgall) observes, cultural incompetency was a prime reason that many Western conglomerates initially failed in their attempts to introduce their products and services to the Chinese consumer; the ones that succeeded, like KFC, craftily adapted to Chinese customs and expectations (by, for example, adding congee to the breakfast menu).

On the micro level, we see our protagonist, photographer Joe (Kyle Haden), leave all manner of collateral damage in the wake of his single-minded and obsessive pursuit to find the subject of his most famous shot. Although he speaks Mandarin, was witness to the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and has not only visited China multiple times but also made friends in the country, he is curiously blind to both its socio-cultural expectations and the dangers faced by its citizens: he fails to live up to a promise he makes to his friend Zhang Lin (Hansel Tan) to make contact with his nephew Benny (Tobias C. Wong) who is going to school in New York; he thoughtlessly puts Zhang Lin in danger by texting him a potentially compromising photo; and his actions inadvertently result in the deportation of Chinese refugees living illegally in the US. One explanation for this heedlessness might be that the character of Joe is just a careless and self-absorbed asshole, but I suspect that Kirkwood intends us to understand this carelessness and self-absorption thematically, as a stand-in for the way the US exercises a blindly arrogant foreign policy.

Another thread pulled by the play involves the risks of snuggling up with a partner you don’t fully understand. This is highlighted by a long presentation that Tessa gives to the financial company for which she has prepared a market analysis, in which she warns about the dangers of extending credit and mortgages to 1.3 billion people who are unversed in the workings of a credit and debit economy; it’s also evident when newspaper managing editor Frank (John Shepard) explains that he can no longer support Joe and his writing partner Mel’s (Jason McCune) investigation into the whereabouts of the tank man because the paper is about to be purchased by a conglomerate with financial backing from (you guessed it) China. Yet another of the play’s interests centers on the environmental impact of China’s economic boom: a running theme in the play is the terrible air pollution in Beijing, which is so noxious that residents must wear masks outdoors, yet is officially “disappeared” by governmental air quality reports with fictitiously low numbers.

Ariel Xiu (foreground), Tobias C. Wong (foreground), Hansel Tan. Photo by Jason Snyder, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The play’s emotional core is occupied by the character of Zhang Lin, who, as a young man (played by Tobias C. Wong), participated in the Tiananmen protests with his young wife (played by Ariel Xiu), who became a victim of its violence. In 2012 he is an English teacher who occupies his free time sitting on his couch and numbing his memories of those traumatic days with alcohol. But the untimely death of a neighbor (Mimi Jong) from smog-induced emphysema kindles him into renewed political activism, with predictable consequences: the China of 2012 is no more open to citizen protest and criticism than the China of 1989. Hansel Tan does a terrific job of conveying the conflicting desires that tear at the heart of this character: the anguish and anger that pulls him toward action and the fear that holds him back; the idealism that drives him to speak out and the cynicism that enables him to accept his fate. While Joe’s actions drive the story of the play forward, Zhang Lin is its hero, and Tan shapes the contours of the character’s quiet heroism with precision and clarity.

Under Karla Boos’s direction, the many threads of the play are tied together by an ensemble of actors playing multiple roles in episodic scenes that show how interconnected we are by the forces of globalization. Brian Kim plays the dual roles of Zhang Lin’s brother, who is made vulnerable by Zhang Lin’s political activism, and Wang Pengsi, an undocumented refugee in New York, whose life is upended by Joe’s meddling inquiries. Elena Alexandratos and John Michnya play both a senator and her aide and two high-level internet execs, in both cases representing the compromisable agents whose decisions have direct impact on individuals like Zhang Lin. Mei Lu Barnam and Mimi Jong play multiple characters in both New York and Beijing, including a refugee sex worker and her boss, and the young beneficiary and older victim of China’s economic boom; here, too, the dual casting helps connect the dots between macro socio-economic forces and their micro effects on individuals. Jong also provides beautiful musical accompaniment to many of the scenes both vocally and on traditional instruments.

At times this is a play that feels like it’s got more balls in the air than it can successfully juggle, as it tries to map out how parties with good intentions – like journalists, activists, and politicians – come to betray the people and causes they believe they serve. It’s certainly a play that – despite its grounding in an image that has come to symbolize the power of a single person to stand up to the force of the state – in the end seems pessimistic about the use of peaceful protest and activism to dismantle systems of power and oppression. Indeed, the story told by Chimerica stands rather as a warning about our complacency with those very systems, which are designed, like tanks, to crush whatever stands in their path: we can’t always count on there being principled heroes at the wheel who refuse to do so.

“Oscar & Walt” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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I don’t envy the challenge Kinetic Theatre Company has in marketing the new play Oscar & WaltAt first glance, it’s a rather hard sell, particularly in our current WSYWAT moment. The play consists of ninety minutes of conversation between two White nineteenth-century poets, the elderly Walt Whitman and a young Oscar Wilde, inspired by a real life meeting between the two that took place in early 1882 at Whitman’s residence in Camden, New Jersey. It’s the sort of play in which, on the surface at least, nothing much seems to really happen: Wilde arrives, they talk, they imbibe a bit, they talk some more, they are interrupted repeatedly by Whitman’s sister-in-law Louisa, and then Wilde departs to give a lecture in Philadelphia. I’ll confess it’s the sort of play that – if described to me as I just described it to you – I’d likely put in the mental basket labeled “not my cup of tea.”

And, it turns out, I’d have been wrong.

Playwright Donald Steven Olson’s imagined version of the encounter between the two men is both engaging and enlightening. He begins with the historical fact that Wilde was a fan of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and spins out from that a queer historical version of their meeting that dances around Wilde’s desire to meet the poet who wrote openly and frankly about what Wilde would later refer to as the “love that dare not speak its name.” What Olson gives us, in other words, is a meeting between two men who share a sexual orientation but have decidedly different orientations toward their sexuality. His Wilde – played with delicious circumspection by Nick Giedris – is not yet the confident, arrogant litterateur he will in time become, but rather an insecure and sexually inexperienced young man who hides behind the shield of his Aesthetic sensibility. In contrast, Olson’s Whitman – brought to vivid life by the luxuriantly bearded Sam Tsoutsouvas – is gruff, plainspoken, and bluntly sensual. 

L to R: Nick Giedris and Sam Tsoutsouvas. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

Olson presents them as opposites in many other ways, too: Wilde is British, classically educated, a child of privilege, formal in manners, and a rising star, where Whitman is American, self-taught, self-made, casual in affect, and near the end of his career. What they have in common, besides a gift for writing and attraction to other men, is vanity. Their meeting begins inauspiciously, with a kind of pissing contest to establish their bona fides and level of fame. But it gradually morphs into a conversation that provides empathetic insight into what might have made each of these men tick. They share stories about their childhoods and families, divulge personal information, compare favorite poets, gossip about the competition, and talk about the challenges they each face as writers and public figures. Sounds a bit like a first date, right? There’s certainly an undercurrent of flirtatious tension throughout that I suspect is deliberate: after all, the internet offers plenty of speculation that Whitman and Wilde may have done quite a bit more than just talk at their actual meeting (go ahead, search it; I’ll wait). 

The Kinetic Theatre ensemble gives the characters depth and complexity. As Louisa – the sister-in-law who takes care of Whitman – Lisa Ann Goldsmith is the epitome of warm practicality while also punctuating the action with moments of comic relief. Tsoutsouvas brings a twinkle-in-the-eye canniness to his portrayal of Whitman, while also providing much of the production’s gravitas and pathos. His poignant recollection of the horrors he witnessed as a Civil War nurse – and his evocation of the PTSD he suffered in its wake – is particularly moving, as is his nostalgia for the energy and vigor of his youth. Giedris has a skittish energy that may be at odds with the historical Wilde’s reputation for loucheness but also feels right for this occasion of a fanboy meeting his literary hero, and it’s intriguing to imagine a version of Wilde who had not yet perfected his camp persona and still had chinks in the armor, whether or not that’s historically true to life.

“The Chief” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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I moved to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2007. This means, as far as I can tell, that I have had six opportunities before now to see a production of The Chief, the one-man show about Steelers’ owner Art Rooney written by Rob Zellers and Gene Collier. At least two of those opportunities came with invitations to write about the show on this very blog; I declined both, out of a suspicion that – as someone who is neither native Pittsburgher nor football follower, let alone Steelers fan (hold your ire, please!) – I would likely not be the right audience for the experience on offer. But I wasn’t about to miss the re-opening of the Pittsburgh Public Theater after the pandemic shutdown, so when the opening night announcement landed in my inbox, I figured it was time to say “yes.” 

Alas, I’m here to report that my instinct was correct. The Chief is as good as anything you’ll get in the category of hagiographic tributes to beloved local heroes, and in his first outing in the role of “the chief” actor Philip Winters is convincing and charismatic. As the saying goes, if you like this sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing you are going to like, and Winters had the opening night audience, many of whom were decked out in black and gold, solidly in the palm of his hand as he walked us through Rooney’s journey from impoverished Irish street fighter to wealthy, powerful owner of a Super Bowl-winning NFL team. That I wasn’t similarly won over has a lot to do with my indifference both to sports and to self-congratulatory stories about the good ole’ days when white men settled disputes with fisticuffs, won fortunes through deceptive practices at the racetrack, regarded their wives as saints and heaped disdain on the rest of the female sex, and accumulated power in and through the old boys’ network. But I appreciated, nonetheless, the insight that Zellers and Collier’s script provides both into the cultural history of Pittsburgh and the rabid fandom of Steeler Nation: for example, I had no idea that before Pittsburgh became a football town in the mid 70s, it was a place where the home team had been roundly reviled for almost four decades. And now, thanks to this show, I actually know what people are talking about when they say the words “immaculate reception.”

Philip Winters in The Chief; photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

If you’ve seen The Chief before – and it was clear that many in the audience had, perhaps multiple times! – you will be pleased to learn that this “all new” production has some fancy tricks up its sleeve. Britton Wayne Mauk’s scenic design places a pared-down version of Rooney’s 1976 office on a turntable, with audience on all four sides; the floor, which looks to be part astroturf, has faint yard lines painted on it, while above is a kind of jumbotron ring on which media designer Sean Byrum Leo projects images of the people, places, and events that Rooney refers to throughout the monologue. The effect is to give the impression that we are in both his office and a sports stadium at the same time. This doesn’t fully solve the problem of establishing who we, as audience, are to Rooney as he speaks, but it does create both intimacy for the actor and a sense of community among the audience. Director Kyle Haden mainly uses the turntable to give a four-part structure to the long monologue (and to provide moments for Winters to get a sip of water); the lighting and sound design (Minjoo Kim and Germán Martínez) animate those transitions and also help underscore the story visually and sonically. Both the office set and Alethia R. Moore-Del Monaco’s costumes firmly ground the play’s action in 1976, while the projections, many of which are styled to look like they are being “painted” on the screen, offer a more modern vibe to the proceedings.

Newly packaged, The Chief still punches all the right crowd-pleasing buttons for its intended Steeler-loving audience. The show runs through November 7 at the O’Reilly Theater.

“the other shoe” by CorningWorks at the New Hazlett Theater

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If you can take a work of art as an indicator of its creators’ state of mind, then it’s clear from the other shoe that Beth Corning and her collaborator Kay Cummings are frustrated, angry, and perhaps more than a little bit bitter. The source of their frustration? In part it’s the usual suspects that haunt nearly all women who have survived more than a couple of decades into adulthood – that is, if I must name them, patriarchal power and misogyny – but, even more, it seems to be the tenor of cultural conversations, particularly among those who occupy the ideological left. “I don’t feel like dialogue because it’s too hard to get people to think differently, they’re all just yelling at each other,” Cummings complains early in the show. “Not many of us are really interested in listening. We just want a bubble that agrees with us.”

Beth Corning, The Other Shoe. Photo by Frank Walsh, courtesy CorningWorks.

The “other shoe” of the show’s title may refer to that other side of the conversation no one is listening to; or, in a sideways sort of way, it may refer to the lack of “if-the-shoe-were-on-the-other-foot” empathy that such a refusal to listen implies. It may also refer to the cloud of anxiety and apprehension we’ve all been living under, which is literalized by scenic designer Stephanie Mayer Staley with a cloud of white shoes hovering like a flock of birds above the stage. 

Corning and Cummings perform in black and white costumes on a black and white stage, a clear nod to their perception that there seems to be no grey middle for compromise and dialogue (costumes by artist Kristin McLain). A prime target of their frustration seems to stem from finding themselves, as white women, labeled “privileged” despite being lifelong victims of harassment, discrimination, and oppression. This is, of course, dangerous water to wade into, and they know it: the directors note states simply: “If by chance you don’t agree with what is being presented…well that’s the point.”

Corning invited choreographers Donald Byrd, Martha Clarke, Li Chiao-Ping, and Max Stone to stage solo dances in addition to the pieces she created; the result is a series of disconnected vignettes (mostly danced by Corning) interspersed with spoken text and song (mostly delivered by Cummings). What seems to unite the dances with each other, and the text, is an overall mood of dispiritedness and despair. The final image offers a glimmer of hope in its serene acceptance of the inevitability of change, but the show’s ending also reminds us that we never know when that other shoe will drop. 

“Live From the Edge” created and performed by UNIVERSES at City Theatre

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Seven virtuosic performers from the company UNIVERSES are in town at City Theatre with  Live From the Edgea production that might best be described as a “highlight reel” of their unique brand of musical storytelling. Using nothing but the human body as an instrument, the ensemble generates an astonishing richness of harmony, melody, and rhythm as they deliver songs that blend and juxtapose the musical vernaculars of the spiritual, gospel, jazz, hiphop, Spanish bolero, Portuguese fado, beatboxing, salsa, and the blues, with the occasional nod to Motown and the American musical. Interspersed with the songs are spoken word poems, often underscored by an complex bed of vocal effects, that showcase the group’s origins in the New York slam poetry scene of the late 20th century.

Live From the Edge doesn’t have a set narrative, but it does have a clear aim: to bring forth “the sights and sounds of folks [they’ve] met along the way.” Among those, on the day I saw the show, were New Yorkers “walking to survive” in the 1970s, a man grappling with suicidal despair, the inhabitants of a thin-walled apartment building bearing witness to domestic violence, the denizens of an imagined jazz club, the worshippers at a celebratory church service, and a woman plaintively seeking an answer to the question “why do men die?” The extended sets of poetry and song weave a rich tapestry of the human experience, with a particular focus on the pain, oppression, striving, and yearning of people from the global majority. One poignant set makes visible the humanity of men who have been incarcerated; another grieves the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

The poetry and lyrics are incisive and evocative, but what supercharges this work is the intricate and mesmerizing music. At times a solo voice sends chills down your spine – Mildred Ruiz-Sapp’s powerful, husky alto in particular – and at other times the group sings in tight harmonies that are downright sublime. Many of the numbers evolve from one style of music to another, or slip from spoken word poetry into song and back again. In some cases the group uses voice, breath, and vocal or physical beat to create a sonic atmosphere that brings an entire scene to life, as, for example, when they conjure the tense conditions of a crowded apartment block in “Walls So Thin.” The range of acoustic effects produced by these seven performers – who include Chris Mansa, Asia Mark, Nate John Mark, Nsangou Njikam, and Sophia Ramos in addition to UNIVERSES co-founders Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp – is nothing short of magical, and frankly defy my powers of description. So, once again, I’m going to cheat – here’s a video amuse-bouche of an earlier iteration of the work:

Your mileage, when you go to see this show, will vary: Sapp promised at the close that each performance will be unique, responding to the state of the world each day with different material. And be ready: they like a lively, responsive audience, so shed your inhibitions and bring your most audience-participatory self. 

“Chris Capehart, Journey of the Master” at Liberty Magic

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Did you know that Pittsburgh is home to what many consider to be one of the most prestigious and professional magic venues in the country?

That would be Liberty Magic, a tiny venue on Liberty Ave that reopened just last week with the highly entertaining and utterly delightful “Journey of the Master” by Chris Capehart, one of the country’s top close-up magicians.

The title of this show sums it up: Capehart is, as he confidently reminds his audience again and again, a “master magician” who can “do this stuff all day long,” and he structures his delivery of various sleight-of-hand illusions around the narrative of his evolution from tyro to seasoned professional. Each set of illusions represents another step on his developmental journey, beginning with card and coin tricks, and ending with a series of illusions that I’m still thinking about in wonder, several days after seeing the performance. 

L to R: unknown audience member & Chris Capehart. Photo Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, courtesty PCT.

Capehart began his career as a street performer, and he brings a street performer’s charisma and vibe into the intimate setting at Liberty Magic, with a constant, witty patter that swings between wry self-aggrandizement (“this is so simple, so simple!”) and goodnatured digs at his audience. More than perhaps any other form of performance, magic is about manipulating and directing a viewer’s attention, and as masterful as Capehart is at creating close-up illusions, he is equally if not more masterful at managing the psychology of his audience. In particular, he plays like a cat might play with a mouse with the viewer’s natural craving to figure out how his magic is done. For example, he opens the show with an old chestnut: poking a knife through a deck of cards. He then invites a member of the audience to try to do the same – and if you’re the kind of viewer who likes to suss out the trick, you might smugly notice that he seems to be covering a specific spot on the deck of cards with his thumb, making it impossible for the audience member to replicate the trick. But just as you’re congratulating yourself for having seen through the smoke and mirrors, Capehart ups the ante, and makes something happen that seems actually, really, magical (no spoilers here!)  This is a repeated pattern in the show – Capehart bounces back and forth between performing what might seem an “obvious trick,” and conjuring the unbelievable, keeping his audience in a state of happy disequilibrium. 

All of Capehart’s magic, I should add, is happening in full light and close quarters: this is not your Las Vegas-style laser-and-fog type magic show. Which makes it all the more of a mindfuck, for example, when Capehart manages to levitate a table and then invites a member of the audience to come on stage and hold on to it. At such short distance, you’d be able to see fishing wire or magnets, so: ????

Cat 1, Mouse 0.

Here’s where I should send fair warning: if you’re the type who would rather not be roped in as an audience participant, choose seating in the back row. But don’t let the fear of getting called on stage keep you from catching his act before it leaves town at the end of the month. He’s a master, he’ll definitely fool you, and you’d be a fool to miss out on his journey.

“Kalopsia The Musical” at the New Hazlett Theater

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Dear Reader, for this post I’m doing something a little different. Instead of offering my own reflections on the new musical Kalopsia, which opened last week, I’m going to offer you the thoughts of one of the artists who helped bring it to life. My CMU colleague Tomé Cousin, who directed the show, generously carved time out of his busy schedule to reflect on the work. What follows is an edited excerpt of our conversation.

Tatler: If somebody asked me: “what is this play about?” I think I would say: it’s about a young black man, Byrd, and his struggle to have his whole self accepted by family, by friends, and by community – and in particular I feel like it poses the question: what does it mean for him to “get his mind right” and what does that cost him? How would you answer that question?

Tomé Cousin: To me it’s all kind of converged together in a way, it’s the idea of a young black person, and then we’re going to put the gay element on on top of it – the idea that everything they do has to be better than it is. Everything is converging at the same time, the expectations of his mother, his family, his religion, his social life – he’s told that he’s wrong, so he has to get everything right; he knows this and he lives in his head, so even though that’s not what people are saying to him, that’s what he’s hearing. They’re just saying: you’re different, you have to change, you have to do something that’s not you, but for him it means: my mind is wrong so I have to get my mind right. It’s a weird psychology game thing, because everyone’s pointing fingers at him saying: “do something right,” but he’s hearing: “get your mind right.” I think Byrd  is always trying to blend in in a certain way, but he can’t, so he escapes to this fantasy world where he’s going to be the star, he’s going to be the main thing who is always “right.” And then, in particular speaking to the black gay male experience, if there’s a young person – we’re talking like a kid now – and  they have this fantasy world or this flamboyancy about them, it’s encouraged to downplay that and get rid of it, so that’s going to quash that happiness, and then when you’re in school, especially if you have a school where they have no arts program, it gets more compressed. So you’re encouraged not to be that way, and it is a form of trauma, it causes a trauma without you even knowing that it’s happening, and there’s no escaping it. So you find yourself hiding or secretly doing things like drawing or painting, because there’s no outlet for it. 

But is that homophobia, or is there also a message of: “you’re not going to be able to succeed in the world if you’re this way” – or is it both? 

It’s both. There’s the homophobia part of it, and also the black race part of it. Because the parents or the adults want to be protective of the child, the black male in particular, who is going to grow up in this dangerous environment. You can’t have any cracks or show any flamboyance, you can’t show who you really are, you have to stay in a little box. 

One of the terms that comes up a lot in the play is “black excellence.” How does that theme of the play resonate with you? 

I’m a result of the the civil rights movement: that fight was just for me to walk in the room.  I’m the epitome of the representation of Martin Luther King’s dream. The idea that you should judge me from the content of my character not the color of my skin, I still think that way, that’s how I see the world. I think Monteze is a couple generations removed from that, so there’s a generational thing here. I went to this school in Baltimore, it was called the Dr. Ralph Young School for Boys, and Dr. Ralph Young, he was very unique – he was a physician and a spiritual guide if you will, a counsel to both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, so he had these two opposite points of view, and this man was right in the middle and he negotiated between the two of them. So I went to this school where you dealt with both philosophies and how to deal with problems and handle yourself in all these different ways, where we were called the “new talented tenth.” And I brought that to this production, trying to understand and negotiate between Larry [who keeps talking about black excellence] and Byrd [who keeps screwing up from Larry’s point of view]. I really understand what Larry is saying, and I kind of understand where Byrd’s coming from, but I think part of what Monteze is doing is pushing back against that idea of black excellence and showing that it is something that is oppressive for people who are marginalized within the community, like Byrd. 

There is a huge range of musical styles in this play – can you talk a little bit about how that range contributes to the storytelling? Are there any specific moments where the musical style and the storytelling converge in a particularly effective way for you? 

The music reflects a total black experience; there’s a full range of musical styles that moves the characters into some kind of action. There’s a key song in the middle that I found very interesting, and it was the most challenging one to deal with. The character Gerald has a moment where he’s giving Byrd the philosophy of “kalopsia,” it’s done in this kind of rap pseudo-mantra kind of thing that doesn’t have any kind of meter to it, and I found that to be really interesting – that is, Gerald, the pothead, is the one who can actually explain it, and he takes a moment and explains it to the audience and then takes a bow, he’s very proud of it! I found that to be completely opposite of, say, the gospel number later on that the mother sings; I think those are the two polar opposites of the whole musical, where the mother has this very honest moment and she’s actually teaching Hakeem, the boyfriend, how to pray, and she realizes in the song that she has this wish that she’s never said to her son. In fact, that’s where I started her emotional journey, we started there and went backwards, I felt that was a very vulnerable moment for her to have with the son and the boyfriend. 

Another great moment is the father’s blues song, Sam Lothard did such a beautiful job with it.

Yeah, that one is – I would say like a Blues/ R&B, it’s very Luther Vandross-y.

Vandross is a great reference, because that song does feel very much like a kind of seduction/ love song, but it’s a father singing “forgive me” to his son – it’s a very clever musical choice for the moment. So, last question: what was the most gratifying thing for you, working on this production? 

Working with Monteze and Tru and James. I’ve never had that experience, ever, working with with a whole black team, and then, in particular, those three. I’ve known them since they were young, so just to see them have grown up, and for them to consider me like a mentor to them – that is something that I’ve just started to take on in the last few years. That was the most rewarding part of it, and then to see it come alive on the stage, just to enjoy Monteze’s play! He wrote a musical – musicals are hard, you know, and he wrote this, he’s been working on it and he’s part of it, part of it is from his life and part of it is not, so to blend that all together, that was the best part of it for me. 

Kalopsia The Musical (Book and Lyrics by Monteze Freeland, Music and Lyrics by Michael Meketa III, directed by Tome’ Cousin and choreographed by James W. Manning) is at the New Hazlett Theater through Oct. 17.

Tomé Cousin is also currently directing Little Children Dream of God for Point Park University, which will open on Nov. 3.

“An Odyssey” at Quantum Theatre

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Imagine, if you will, one of those old-fashioned TV game shows with two doors. Behind Door Number One is the Odysseus we all know from the Homerian epic: valiant hero, master strategizer, savvy trickster, and luckless victim of the gods’ perverse whims. 

Behind Door Number Two? Well, that’s the bedraggled guy (a long-haired and magnificently bearded Sam Turich) who washes up on the shores of Phaeacia and gets cajoled by a bored and restless Princess Nausicaa (Erika Strasburg) into recounting the details of where he’s been for the past decade. It’s a story he’s very reluctant to tell, because (spoiler alert!) he’s done a lot of things no person would be proud to boast about, let alone carry home to his long-suffering wife Penelope (Catherine Growl). For as Jay Ball’s wittily resistant retelling of the Homeric epic observes, The Odyssey can pretty much be boiled down to a story of a group of armed White men repeatedly landing in places inhabited by people who don’t resemble them in looks or customs. And, well: we all know how that story really goes.

Erika Strasburg as Nausicaa. Photo by Heather Mull, Courtesy Quantum Theatre

In Ball’s version – aptly named An Odyssey – Odysseus is not only an ur-Colonizer who invades foreign lands, destroys everything of value to the native inhabitants, and leaves them traumatized, he’s also the quintessential Mediocre Man, overconfident and overcompensated because the sociopolitical world has been designed expressly to give people like him free pass after free pass. How the Mediocre Man behind Door Number Two might have become the hero behind Door Number One is the question at the heart of Ball’s exceptionally satisfying adaptation. 

I shan’t give the answer to that question away, because it’s the unexpected twist in a production that asks you to think in a twisty way about who tells certain stories and why they need those stories to tell certain truths. What I will say is that An Odyssey demands that its actors juggle many complicated and shifting motivations for their characters, and they do so with great finesse. Turich, for example, is constantly maneuvering between the frat-boy-bravado of the Odysseus who is, in the understated words of his most loyal soldier Gryllus (Shammen McCune), “kind of a dick,” and the older man who regretfully confesses that his main talent in life has been to “drift.” Strasburg likewise adroitly ping-pongs back and forth between being Odysseus’s harshest critic and his most eager booster. 

Director Jed Allen Harris always seems most in his comfort zone when he can mix and match theatrical styles and tones, and Ball’s script gives him ample room to move from the serious to the satirical to the playful and silly to the tragic. The production offers comedy in several registers, including slapstick stage fights (choreographed by Randy Kovitz) and a couple of bawdy audio jokes (in Joe Pino’s terrific sound design). It also has moments of poignant tragedy, particularly in the reenactment of Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus, the Cyclops, which takes on added resonance as a story of brutal colonization through the casting of Sam Lothard, a Black actor, as the victim of the Greeks’ violent xenophobic “othering.” Lothard ends this scene with a poignant and heartbreaking plea for justice, and then remarkably returns to the stage a few minutes later in a high comic turn as an asthmatic and double-entendre-spouting Hermes. Such is the affective whiplash Harris delights to serve up.

L to R: Erika Strasburg, Sam Lothard, and Sam Turich. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The rest of the ensemble skillfully exploits their playing of multiple characters to deepen the “resistance” of this adaptation to its original source. Growl connects the (otherwise wildly divergent) roles of Penelope and Circe in their shared desire to be cherished: when, as Circe, she sings “give me a reason to love you; I just wanna be a woman,” it’s readily apparent that Penelope might sing the same refrain but for different reasons. McCune establishes a bittersweet arc as both Nausicaa’s loyal servant, and as the soldier Gryllus, who comes to renounce the cruelty of human nature and choose a state in which she “hurts no one.” And Nancy McNulty and Grace Vensel round out the ensemble by playing multiple characters with both serious commitment and comic aplomb (McNulty has fantastic moments as an overeager warrior in service to both Nausicaa and Odysseus, and the young Vensel is particularly delightful as Odysseus’s deceased mother in Hades, who misses her dogs more than her son).

The production’s design is likewise a happy mixture of the serious and the playful. Scenic designer Narelle Sissons has transformed the ice rink in Schenley Park into a sea of masts connected by rope, many of which are draped with laundry in a shoutout to the original “Nausicaa” episode from The Odyssey. The design is also animated by the addition of inflated plastic flowers, blue tarps, outdoor lounge chairs, a luggage cart that serves as Odysseus’s ship, and – serendipitously on the evening I saw the show – by the wind itself. (Nature clearly has a role to play in this outdoor production; on opening night, in addition to some well-timed breezes, we were also the beneficiaries of a gorgeous sunset that enhanced the lighting design). The aesthetic of the scenic design is, like the play itself, at once grand and DIY, and Harris takes advantage of the elements provided in the design to produce a number of delightful theatrical moments (the transformation of the tarp into a giant wave garnered a round of applause on opening night). Mindy Eshelman’s costumes similarly straddle the serious and the cartoonish, with clothes that do double duty to simultaneously call up Ancient Greece and the 21st century. Costume jokes abound, including Hermes’ appearance as a UPS delivery man, and Eshelman’s use of a tarp to turn the Sirens into a three-headed “wave” is downright ingenious. Designers Joe Pino and C. Todd Brown create sound- and lightscapes that precisely calibrate the mood and tone of the production as it shifts registers from the serious to the silly. 

The production ends with the grandest shift of all: after Odysseus recounts the version of his story that earns him passage back to Ithaca courtesy of Princess Nausicaa’s father King Alcinous, he takes us with him, leading us out of the rink and up the hill to a skeptical Penelope. Who, in fact, has finally returned? The hero behind Door Number One, or that jerk behind Door Number Two?