“The Liar” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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L to R: Patrick Halley as Cliton and Ethan Saks as Dorante in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR Photo Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

In an age when our leaders play loose with the facts
What a lark to return to a play from the past
That takes joy in exposing the fibs of a liar
And does so while setting our laughter a-fire.

Ethan Saks plays Dorante, a great teller of fables
On whom pert Clarice and Lucrece turn the tables
(Erika Strasburg’s the former, Sarah Silk is the latter,
and all three young acteurs knocked the socks off your Tatler).

Erika Strasburg as Clarice and Sarah Silk as Lucrece in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

He’s also “come-upped” by Geronte, his dear dad,
and Alcippe, an old friend, whom he makes very sad
When they catch him out on a lie that’s truly whopping –
And this leads to a moment – at least – of lie stopping.

There’s also Cliton, Dorante’s servant, whose quirk
Is compulsion to always be truthful, which works
Against him in wooing the maid Isabelle
(He blurts out the truth, and she gives him hell).

Isabelle has a twin, the priggish Sabine;
Philiste yearns for her, even though she’s quite mean.
(You must look below for the names of these actors,
Their phonemes won’t fit anapestic tetrameter!)

David Ives’ “translaptation” is a clever mashup game
Of modern and classic; Andrew Paul’s done the same
With souped-up Vivaldi behind the transitions,
Sly trendy shout-outs, and old/new appositions.

Kim Brown’s witty costumes take everyday Gap wear
Add lace and a cape and voila! we are there
In 1643, where fops fight in duel-ery
(albeit with 20th-c. light saber tomfoolery).

Ethan Saks as Dorante and Charlie Murphy as Alcippe in Kinetic Theatre’s THE LIAR. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

Do I tax with my rhyme? I’m no Ives, I confess
His vocab’s prolific, he pairs with finesse
words like “cuff,” “love”, and “Pont-neuf,” and quite unexpectedly
invents new expressions – for instance: “lace-ectomy.”

I love plays in verse when they’re done really well
And the Kinetic production is just nonpareil.
The acting’s pitch-perfect, the staging’s sublime
Go see this rare show, you’ll have a great time!

David Ives’ The Liar, adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille; directed by Andrew Paul. In addition to Saks, Strasburg, and Silk, the first-rate ensemble includes Sam Tsoutsouvas as Geronte; Patrick Halley as Cliton; John Michnya as Philiste, Alcippe’s friend; Julianne Avolio as Isabelle/Sabine; and the unsurpassable Charlie Francis Murphy as Alcippe. The versatile scene design is by Gianni Downs; Angela Baughman’s sound design provides modern mashup not only for the transitions but also for a gloriously antic duelling scene (staged by fight choreographer Michael Petyak). Lighting, by Cat Wilson, and props, by Johnmichael Bohach, also play prominent roles in generating the production’s comedy.

“Sweeny Todd” at Pittsburgh Festival Opera

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Anna Singer and Andrew Cummings. Photo Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera

I’ve been a fan of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street ever since I had the great good fortune to see the original Broadway production back in the late 1970s. I’ll never forget the way the loud shriek of the whistle at the beginning of the musical made me literally jump in my seat, nor how the tumbling of bodies from Sweeny’s barber chair into the chute that connected his tonsorium to Mrs. Lovett’s gruesome bake shop made me gape in astonishment. That’s a hard memory to compete against, I’ll admit; the show was over-the-top spectacular, using copious amounts of spurting blood, trap doors, and the whole panoply of special effects available to a big Broadway musical production to achieve its black comic effect.

The Pittsburgh Festival Opera lacks the resources to recreate the original musical’s spectacle; nevertheless, it has produced a very fine chamber version of this whackily macabre show. Its pared-down rendition puts focus on the music and vocal performers, which I suppose is one difference between a production of this work as opera as opposed to musical theater. But this is by no means a “park and bark” rendition of the play. Director Tomé Cousin, a dancer and choreographer by training, has a keen eye for dynamic stage pictures and precise movement vocabulary, and he brings the story to vivid life through inventive and fluid staging that moves the action from scene to scene and location to location through a quick rearrangement of a few chairs on Hank Bullington’s spare set. Making a virtue out of necessity, Cousin finds clever solutions for actions that would otherwise require costly and complicated props and stage machinery to carry off. Thus, for example, in lieu of blood rigs, he has Sweeny’s victims spray a handful of red rose petal over their chests, and a simple but effective bit of group choreography establishes the workings of the barber chair contraption without any need for chutes and trapdoors. Bob Steineck’s atmospheric lighting design and Bullington’s projections work well in tandem to establish scenic mood, tone, and location and add visual dimension to the play, and the fine orchestra – conducted by Douglas Levine – provides a myriad of sound effects in addition to the rich and often dissonant music.

Cousin has also done an admirable job of coaching his performers into a clear and committed physical and emotional realization of character. From the opening instant of the show – when ensemble members Bill Townsend and Robert Gerold sashay from the wings to place white chairs on the empty stage – to its final, tragic moments, the principals and ensemble members alike use their bodies almost as much as their voices to convey the tale of Sweeny Todd.

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Andrew Cummings as Sweeny Todd. Photo by Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera

Andrew Cummings is physically suited for the role of Sweeny Todd – tall, bald, with wild, crazed eyes, he looms menacingly over the rest of the cast. His Todd mostly broods and seethes with resentment over the injustices he’s suffered, but he also finds the lighter moments that allow us to see the man inside the monster (albeit a man with a very sick sense of humor). Cummings’ baritone voice is smooth and velvety, and he shifts easily from an operatic register to a more lyrical voice for a number like “Pretty Women.”

Anna Singer embodies the cheerful bustle and loopiness of Mrs. Lovett with verve, and she adds depth to the role, giving us occasional glimpses of her character’s emotional neediness. On opening night she had some rough moments, particularly with her first number “The Worst Pies in London,” which demands tricky shifts between vocal registers. Nevertheless, her comic timing is adroit, and she hits her stride with the  showstopper “Have a Little Priest,” arguably the funniest song about cannibalism ever written. (This number, however, was one of the many moments in the show that I wished the production had dispensed with supertitles, as the text gave away all of the jokes before the performers had a chance to sing them).

Top notch performances are also delivered by Adam Cioffari as Judge Turpin and Robert Frankenberry as the Beadle Bamford – both deliciously villainous in the villain roles – and Adam Hollick and April Amante as the lovers Anthony Hope and Johanna Barker. With his clear tenor voice and confident stage presence, John Teresi is utterly engaging as Tobias Ragg, the “boy” Mrs. Lovett adopts after Sweeny kills his master, Signor Pirelli, a character performed superbly by the remarkable tenor Thomas Cilluffo. Lesley Baird shines in the small but significant role of the Beggar Woman – hidden behind a mess of blond hair, she communicates the madness of a destroyed woman with a frantic energy and a powerful mezzo-soprano voice.

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L to R: Jordan Speranzo, Elise Mark, Kasey Cwynar-Foye, Robert Frankenberry, Bill Townsend, Andrew Cummings, Lori Carrau, Alex Longnecker, and Maggie Burr. Photo Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera

The ensemble work in this production is particularly impressive: not only do members of the chorus vividly populate the world of the play with a variety of idiosyncratic characters, but they also often serve to effect seamless scene transitions, as in the moment in the second act when they transform, with a few spasms of heads and bodies,  into inmates of an insane asylum. Rachel Wyatt’s eloquent costume design helps both unify the ensemble and give individuality to each of its members.

Throughout, Cousin also places ensemble members on stage to bear silent witness to the action: they watch with prurient fascination as the Judge schemes to marry his ward or Sweeny plots his revenge. While the production doesn’t give any explanation for their presence in these scenes, I’m going to go out on a limb and surmise that there’s a commentary here on the human propensity to see evil and chaos as entertaining. That is, by having us watch others placidly observe as Victorian London devours its own, this production warns us about how seductive – and catastrophic – it can be to sit back and watch as calamity unfolds.

“The Christians” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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Your Tatler encountered a lot of religion this past weekend – indeed, far more than she, as a secular humanist, is wont to do. And all of it was on our local stages: there was the irreverent and impious An Act of God at the Public on Thursday, the reverent and affirmative A Gathering of Sons at Pittsburgh Festival Opera on Friday, and finally, on Saturday, Lucas Hnath’s intelligent and deeply captivating play The Christians.

L to R: David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre

In many ways both An Act of God and The Christians address a similar fundamental problem at the root of all religion, which is that the texts that purport to contain God’s will must be read and interpreted by humans, who inevitably impose and project their own needs and wants and agendas into their interpretations. So who can really know what God wants? An Act of God cheekily tries to answer that question by imagining what message God might want to deliver to humanity in the 21st century were he to take form and visit us; The Christians tackles that question via the pastor of a modern American megachurch who has suddenly begun to doubt whether his evangelical faith has correctly interpreted the Bible’s teachings about the afterlife. And while The Christians is far more respectful in its depiction of Christians than An Act of God is in its representation of the deity, in the end it’s also far more devastating in its demonstration of the shaky foundations on which faith is built.

The whole of Hnath’s play takes place in the sanctuary of the megachurch that Pastor Paul (David Whalen) has devoted his life and work to building, and which scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach convincingly evokes with the sparest of architectural gestures: a large modern cross hanging above a raised, blue-carpeted dais, with a cross-shaped podium for the pastor and a semi-circle of seats on the floor of the stage for the audience, which takes on the role of the congregation. Screens on either side of the cross display misty images of sunrises, clouds, and nature (projections by Joe Spinogatti), along with quotes from the Bible and subtitles for Pastor Paul’s opening sermon, in which he makes a surprise announcement: after a confab with God while doing his business on the toilet, the good pastor has realized that he has been misinterpreting the Bible all these years. He has come to understand that there is, in fact, no hell; that God is all-forgiving and will admit all, believers and nonbelievers alike, to heaven; and that henceforth “we are no longer a congregation that believes in hell.”

Paul’s announcement has both immediate and far-reaching consequences, for him and for his church. The immediate fallout comes when his associate pastor Joshua (Joshua Elijah Reese) pushes back against this doctrinal shift and leaves the church, taking a handful of congregants with him. As time goes on, more and more members of the church take issue with the new doctrine, especially as the rift becomes complicated by issues of power, politics, and money, and in the end Pastor Paul is left with little more than his own increasing doubts.

Under Andrew Paul’s sensitive direction, Kinetic Theatre’s production has a magnetic energy, drawing in even those (like myself) who might instinctually distance themselves from squabbles over theological doctrine. The top-notch cast does an exceptional job of making all of the characters warm and likable, in particular David Whalen, who rightly avoids the temptation to portray Paul as unctuous and self-serving (the potential is there in the character). Whalen’s Paul comes across as kind and sincere, the kind of man you can imagine would inspire trust and deep respect among his congregants, and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, seems a genuine partnership. As Elizabeth, Mindy Woodhead morphs fascinatingly from what at first appears to be a smiling dummy into a fiercely intelligent doctrinal sparring partner. Reese brings conviction and passion to the role of Joshua, a man whose conversion to Christianity saved him from a life of both spiritual and material poverty, and Gayle Pazerski (as Jenny, one of his congregants) and Robert Haley (as Church Elder Jay) both bring a quiet urgency to their characters’ spiritual and emotional claims. Hnath unconventionally calls for microphones to be used for all of the dialogue, even during intimate scenes, and the cast makes good use of this device, which paradoxically allows for a more naturalistic mode of speaking even as it adds a layer of performativity to the character’s speech. At times the mics give the impression that we are listening in to their unvarnished thoughts; at others, they serve to reinforce the essential debate-like nature of the play.

The play itself does several things quite beautifully. To begin with, it takes seriously, and gives insight into, the kinds of exegetical questions with which Christians have to grapple as part of their belief system, and shows that faith is likely never as blind as it might appear to non-believers. In addition, the play is astonishingly fair-handed, allowing all sides of the dispute equal weight. In the beginning, it seems that Pastor Paul, as the spiritual and intellectual leader of the congregation, will have the upper hand, but his vision of an all-forgiving God is challenged not only by Joshua, but also  by the relatively naïve congregant Jenny, who challenges him, among other things, to explain how Hitler could possibly be in heaven. There are no straw arguments here, no ridiculing of belief: in fact – and especially given the rhetorical environment of our current political moment – what may be most refreshing about the arguments presented in this play is the deep respect with which the characters treat each other, even as they are feeling themselves compelled to reject a way of thinking as anathema.

Yet another thing this play does beautifully is to explore the barriers to opening oneself to doubt and change. For Elizabeth, the prospect of changing belief systems raises the possibility that her future self will look back and consider her present self stupid and ignorant; this idea is so repellent to her that she cannot even consider such radical change. Joshua, on the other hand, would like nothing more than to accept Paul’s vision of an afterlife that only contains heaven, if only it could provide him the same solace and moral guidance that present doctrine does.

But much as this play succeeds in giving equal time and space to contradictory arguments and diverging points of view, in the end what it really accomplishes is a trenchant deconstruction of the relationship between faith, organized religion, and morality. What Pastor Paul discovers is that, convincing as his argument may be for an all-forgiving God, the fear of spending an eternity in hell is a much stronger motivator of expressions of faith such as tithing and church membership; for, as Jenny innocently points out, if everyone is saved no matter whether or what they believe, what’s the purpose of belonging to a church? What sets apart the faithful, if the faithless are saved as well? If God doesn’t punish sin, why be good?

The real chicken-and-egg question behind these queries, of course, is: does the church serve the belief system, or is it the belief system that serves the church? That’s a question the play leaves us to ponder, just as it leaves Paul and Elizabeth in a terrible yet wonderful state of radical uncertainty.

“A Gathering of Sons” at Pittsburgh Festival Opera

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The new opera A Gathering of Sons, which is having its world premiere at Pittsburgh Festival Opera under the direction of Mark Clayton-Southers, addresses one of the most pressing issues of our current moment: the tragedy of police violence against African-American men.

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Terriq White as Victor, photo by Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The opera begins with such a moment of violence: Lockdown (Robert Gerold), a white police officer, commands Victor (Terriq White), a young black man, to run and then cold-heartedly shoots him in the back. He takes from Victor a small black bag of “magic,” which Victor warns him will be his ruin. The scene is witnessed by a chorus of spirits that include the ghost of Victor’s deceased father (Leslie Howard) and a multi-generational group of Sons who were also victims of white violence; they appeal to four chthonic figures representing the earth, sky, water, and blood to intervene on behalf of the family and the community and put an end to the cycle of violence.

As Victor lays dying, his brother City (Miles Wilson-Toliver) and his wife Violet (Adrianna M. Cleveland) welcome their new son Freedom into the world; in an observant passage of musical pairing, Victor’s mother Victoria (Denise Sheffey-Powell) joins her wails of mourning to Violet’s cries of labor. In the meantime, the magic Lockdown has stolen begins to work against him, and the spirits that promised to intervene in the first scene torment him mercilessly. When City – who is also a police officer – learns that it was Lockdown who killed his brother, he sets out to seek vengeance; but in the end he resists the temptation to kill Lockdown and arrests him instead. Back in the bosom of his family, City almost loses his newborn son Freedom to cardiac arrest, but the spirits convince Freedom to return to his body, and the opera ends with Victor’s funeral procession and a choral affirmation of faith.

The work is at its best when it takes imaginative flight, as when Lockdown’s gun magically transforms into “Glock” (Kevin Maynor), a menacing figure dressed all in black who turns against him. And in places, librettist Tameka Cage Conley ventures into provocative territory, especially towards the end of the opera, where the spirit of the newborn baby rejects life, not wishing to be born into a world where the color of his skin puts him at risk of an early death. But much of the libretto is overly literal and on-the-nose, with Manichean characters that lack complexity and depth, and in many places the production would have been wise to heed the old theatrical adage “show, don’t tell” and make some judicious edits.

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L to R: Leslie Howard and Denise Sheffey-Powell. Photo Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Dwayne Fulton’s music draws mostly on a jazz idiom, with some gospel, some blues, and a hint of a rock beat from time to time. Robert Frankenberry, who also orchestrated the music, conducts the small orchestra with panache, and there are many superb performances among the very large cast. Denise Sheffey-Powell does a lovely job of conveying, through song, the grief and anguish of a mother who has lost her youngest son, and Adrianna M. Cleveland brings a clear, lyrical soprano to the role of Violet. Robert Gerold is strikingly good, both vocally and as an actor, in the (somewhat thankless) role of the villainous cop, and Charlene Canty’s powerful and luminous voice shines in the role of the Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing. Kevin Maynor, who personifies the gun “Glock,” has a fabulous presence and a beautiful voice, but unfortunately his lyrics are nearly impossible to understand. By far the standout in the cast is Miles Wilson-Toliver, who combines a gorgeous baritone voice with compelling charisma in the role of City.

The opera touches a lot of sensitive nerves, including the simmering anger and resentment justifiably held by the black community against both institutional racism in general and police brutality against black men in particular, and it provides some cathartic vengeance in the scene in which Lockdown gets his brutal, tortuous comeuppance at the hands of beings more powerful than he. But A Gathering of Sons seems less interested in exploring solutions or proposing political actions to address police violence than in reinforcing faith in a higher justice. I’ll be honest, that didn’t feel very satisfying to me, especially on the very day Philando Castile’s murderer was acquitted of all charges. Yet the opera’s invocation of patience and endurance clearly resonated with many members of the audience, who responded positively and warmly to the opera’s final – and quite beautiful – choral affirmation of the power of healing through unity and through connection to a higher spirit.

“An Act of God” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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The sly and insightful humor of David Javerbaum’s An Act of God stems primarily from a niftily canny bit of reverse-engineering, summed up by God’s line late in the play (sorry, I’m going to spoil this for you): “I made mankind in my image – and I’m an asshole, all right?”

Marcus Stevens as God. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Javerbaum’s God is, like so many of the humans he modeled after himself, a self-serving, petty, jealous, power-hungry, nasty, judgmental, self-righteous jerk, with wrath management issues to boot. He’s also chatty, confiding, and charismatically charming, as you’d expect a God to be. And as played by Marcus Stevens, he’s unabashedly Jewish, highly sardonic, a little bit fey, and utterly hilarious.

The conceit of the play is that God has come to the O’Reilly Theatre and taken form in the body of actor Marcus Stevens in order to bring a new set of laws to replace the original ten commandments, which God feels have run their course. He’s brought with him a couple of archangels, Gabriel (John Shepard), who stands ready “on Bible” to provide textual evidence, and Michael (Tim McGeever), whose job is to read the minds of members of the audience and pass their questions on to God. As he goes through the new commandments one by one, God gives perfectly logical explanations for why he’s jettisoning the old commandment for the new, brings in Bible passages for support and de- (or re-)constructs them, and fields Michael’s increasingly combative questions.

The new commandments all reflect the frustration a progressive might imagine God would feel at the way humans have (mis)interpreted and (mis)used religion and faith to mistreat each other. So, for example, one of the first new commandments is “Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate.” This is clearly a God who’s more than a little fed up with humanity. At the same time, he’s omniscient and all-powerful and doesn’t much like to be second-guessed, either – hence, he reserves a special place downstairs for humanists, doubters, and evolutionary biologists.

Javerbaum was a head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and the writing here is pitched, like that show, at an audience of intelligent, well-educated, progressive skeptics. A smattering of the humor involves groan-inducing puns (for example, riffing on Don McLean’s American Pie, God claims that “today the mosaic (law) dies”). But the majority of the comedy comes from a combination of surprise juxtaposition of ideas in the writing and Stevens’s masterful comic timing and versatile delivery. Stevens cascades through an astonishing range of tones and facial expressions as his God shifts in mood from warm and confiding to snarky and sardonic to pissed off and vengeful, with infinite shadings in between. Shepard and McGeever are divine as his “wingmen” (see what I did there?) – Shepard’s Gabriel seems full of gravitas, but he can’t keep from cracking up over some of the more ridiculous passages in the sacred text from which he intones, and McGeever’s Michael finds it impossible not to challenge God with all of the inconsistencies and injustices he has baked into his creation.

Director Ted Pappas beefs up the humor with sound and lighting effects that appropriately “meta” the comedy – drum riffs for the terrible puns and deep red glows to underscore God’s moments of rage (sound by Zach Moore, lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski). Michael Schweikardt’s heaven is a gay 80s modernist paradise, with a white couch and glass-and-chrome side table that would fit in nicely on the set of Dallas and a background that presents a camp version of the celestial gates, complete with bright clouds and a gauzy white curtain. Valerie M. Webster’s white and blue costuming – complete with wings for the angels – rounds out the sleek and slightly kitschy look. Together the set and costumes deftly complement Javerbaum’s astute and irreverent take on religion.

Oh, and did I mention it ends with a show tune?

John Shepard, Marcus Stevens, and Tim McGeever. Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

 

“Thom Pain (based on nothing)” at 12 Peers Theater

Playwright Will Eno wants you to think about how you are spending the precious moments of your life.

The question is: do you want to spend any of them watching his play, Thom Pain (based on nothing)?

That’s not me being snarky; it’s a question posed pointedly in the play, by an obviously scripted metatheatrical gesture within the first few minutes of this postmodern-existentialist one-man show, in which a “plant” in the audience (here, director Vince Ventura) abruptly walks out. “You know, you might be better off if you had gone with your heart and left, like our friend, now departed, who just left with his heart,” Thom (played with dexterity by Matt Henderson) advises.

And it’s a question that comes back around, again in a rather pointed way, when Thom “volunteers” a hapless audience member to join him on stage and directs her to stand behind him, holding a glass of water. He leaves her there without further instruction for the remainder of the show, only, in the end, to shame her: “I thought you would have left by now.”

These are both clever moves in a metatheatrical, cerebral sort of way, but they’re both more awkward than dexterous in the execution. I suppose we’re meant to feel that we are not exercising our freedom to leave and to use our time in the “brave and true and reckless” ways Thom claims we would if we knew we only had one day to live. But of course the reality of the situation is that if the show were in fact to succeed in prompting a real audience member to walk out, then it would be, by most measures of theatrical success, a failure. Conversely, its failure to drive us out of the theater says less about its success in getting us to reflect on the meaning of our lives than it does on the social pressures that keep us from being rude to hard-working actors.

Henderson’s task in this show is just that – hard – as the roughly hour-long monologue slips and slides between memories of a traumatic experience from his childhood (involving an electrocuted dog and an attack by bees), an account of a recently ended love affair (which he ended before he could be dumped), and countless self-interruptions to muse on the fragility of existence or to praise us for our patience and indulgence as we sit listening to his story. Henderson is at his best with the material when he handles it with a light touch, and his rapport with the audience is confident and wry. His comic timing is also very fine, and his lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone add to both the humor and depth of the piece.

But Eno’s dank, sad-sack character is a heavy lift, and I suspect you need a very different sense of humor than mine to find the comedy in this writing. I’ll confess right here, I’m one of those folks who’s never understood what’s funny about Waiting for Godot, either, and this play is clearly aimed at those who do. Eno’s excavation of existentialist angst is deadpan, knowing, and post-modernly “meta” in the way it reflects upon itself as it writes itself, and as the saying goes, if you like that sort of thing, then this is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to like.

But me? I’m perseverating on that poor member of the audience, who, on the evening I saw it, tried to exercise her free will by initially refusing to come on stage, but was dragged up nonetheless, only to be upbraided later for obediently playing along.

Mr. Eno’s intentions might be to get us to reflect on the absurdity, capriciousness, and fleetingness of life, but the bigger lesson I took home was: don’t sit in the front row.

“Violet” at Front Porch Theatricals

Suitcases!

That’s the first thing you see when you walk into the Front Porch Theatricals production of Violet. They fill a wall of shelves along the upstage wall of the space, and are also tucked underneath the platform on which the eight-piece orchestra plays. And as the musical progresses, suitcases of varying shapes, sizes, and colors serve not only as backdrop but also as props and furniture, becoming bus seats, card tables, the counter of a café, a bed, and even a candy tray.

It’s an apt choice of object for this play, which is set in 1964 and is about a young woman, Violet (Elizabeth Boyke), who embarks on bus journey from North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma with the purpose of imploring a televangelist faith healer to work a miracle and heal a horrific scar on her face. She’s got a lot of emotional and psychological baggage that she’s carrying with her on this journey in addition to the little yellow valise that holds her belongings: the scar, a result of an accident involving her father’s axe, has made her a social pariah in her small town, and has left her with mixed feelings towards her recently deceased father (played by Jonathan Visser), as well. But the two soldiers she befriends on the long bus journey – a white corporal named Monty (Daniel Mayhak) and a black sergeant named Flick (Lamont Walker II) – see past her scar, and their desire for her becomes a catalyst for her to jettison that baggage and heal from the inside out.

L to R: Missy Moreno, David Leong, Becki Toth, Gena Sims, Elizabeth Boyke, Erich Lascek, Corwin Stoddard, Daniel Pivovar. Photo Jonmichael Bohach, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

The story is actually a bit more complicated than that, and on many levels it doesn’t fully make sense. The compression of time in the play makes many of its developments perplexing, because there doesn’t seem to be quite enough room for the characters to evolve properly over the course of the play. Moreover, contradictions that might make for more complex characters in a drama or short story – where dialogue could help develop psychological depth – become simply puzzling in the shorthand world of the musical. So, for example, we see Violet and Flick fall in-love-at-first-sight, but then the fact of racial difference rears its ugly head, and she ends up sleeping with Monty. Then Monty, who claims repeatedly that he’s only interested in quick hookups with women, suddenly has a change of heart and ends up proposing marriage to her, with seeming sincerity. But in the end– after a confusing sequence in which she thinks her face has been fixed – Violet rejects Monty to be with Flick, even though she seemed, in earlier scenes, to have closed the door on that relationship. Add to this the mysterious evaporation, in the musical’s final moments, of the threat of racist violence that hovered over earlier hints of romance between Flick and Violet, and this viewer was left wondering whether librettist Brian Crawley was attempting some miracles of his own in order to achieve his desired resolution.

But this is, after all, first and foremost a musical, so it’s probably bad form to demand too much detail or realism from the plot. In the matters that really count, the musical shines. The music – composed by Jeanine Tesori, of Fun Home fame – is glorious, ranging from folk to bluegrass to pop-rock to gospel, with a few anthems and ballads in between, and under Deana Muro’s agile music direction, the cast and orchestra bring it home.

Boyke is steely and tough as Violet, with a clear voice and big emotional and vocal range, embodying both the cynicism of a woman who has spent most of her life enduring rejection and the naïve hope of a child who needs, more than anything, to believe that miracles are real. Walker is charismatic and magnetic as Flick, and he possesses a gorgeously smooth tenor voice that brings down the house in the ballad “Let it Sing.” As Monty, Daniel Mayhak plays the entitled handsome white boy with humor and charm, and he produces a lovely bit of humor when he channels his inner Pavarotti to woo Violet.

L to R: Elizabeth Boyke and Lamont Walker II. Photo by Jonmichael Bohach, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

The three main characters are supported by an ensemble that is uniformly excellent. Deserving special mention are Missy Moreno, who brings a big voice and drop-dead presence to a blues number in the Memphis club scene, and Gena Sims, who knocks a gospel solo out of the ballpark in the delightfully over-the-top televangelist service. Equally terrific are Becki Toth as the old lady on the bus; Erich Lascek as the shaking-with-the-spirit, snake-oily Preacher; David Leong as his gatekeeping assistant; and Samantha Lucas and Jonathan Visser as the wide-eyed young Violet and her guilt-ridden father.

The versatile orchestra effortlessly shifts between musical styles, and the musicians – who are visible throughout the performance – are almost as much fun to watch as the cast as they bob and sway to the beat; during the showstopping gospel number “Raise Me Up” Keyboardist Tim Tucker’s hands seem to take on a life of their own, dancing across the keys with utter abandon.

An unruly sound system at times undermines the beautiful vocal work of the cast; the microphone levels are all over the place, making some voices suffer distortion while others are barely audible. But this is the one weakness in an otherwise technically strong production. Annemarie Duggan’s nimble lighting design transforms Jonmichael Bohach’s minimalist, suitcase-centered scenic design into a number of convincing locales, including a steamy blues club and the interior of a megachurch. Director Robyne Parrish has staged the action with flair, taking good advantage of the flexibility of the scene and lighting design to make smooth, flowing transitions from moment to moment, and in many places she manages to achieve the impression that the cast is twice its size. That effect is enhanced by Kim Brown’s splendid costumes, which not only ground the play in its mid-1960s time period but also help create the illusion that the world of the play is populated by a vast panoply of characters.

In the end, that full world of characters comes together, baggage-free at last, to affirm what Violet has learned on her journey: “If I show you the darkness I hold inside/Will you bring me to light?” It’s a final, rousing, pop-rock anthem that reminds us there really are no miracles that will heal us. Sometimes we just have to let go and move on.

“Ironbound” at City Theatre

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Anne Mundell’s set for City Theatre’s production of Ironbound (a new play by Martyna Majok) consists of a tall, rusting steel bridge support set atop a graffiti-covered concrete base and surrounded by mounds of detritus and trash. This monumental girder, which looms over the desolate New Jersey bus stop where all of the action of the play takes place, writes the economic and infrastructural woes of the Rust Belt in visual shorthand, creating both a fitting metaphor and a suitably bleak setting for its protagonist Darja’s own disintegrating social and economic situation.

Rebecca Harris in “Ironbound.” Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

For Darja (Rebecca Harris), this dreary, blighted spot is a place of refuge: she returns to this underpass again and again in moments of crisis and indecision. Like her, it’s seen better days (it once was the bus stop for a thriving factory), and like her, it sits overlooked at the margins. Lit in a murky and muted gloom by Andrew David Ostrowski, the eloquent scene design hems the character in, overshadowing her with the louring desolation of poverty.

Majok’s play hopscotches through time as it stitches together the tattered quilt that is Darja’s life as a Polish immigrant in the United States. In the opening scene, we find her at a crossroads in her current relationship with her live-in boyfriend Tommy (Rod Brogan), a postal worker who has been sleeping with the rich Montclair lady whose house Darja cleans. A subsequent scene finds her at the same bus stop, but two decades earlier, shortly after her immigration to New Jersey, waiting with her Polish husband, Maks (JD Taylor), for a bus home from the factory where both eke out a living. Maks wants a piece of the American dream: he aspires to become a blues musician and seeks to convince a reluctant Darja to move with him to Chicago to pursue that dream. And in a third moment in time, she’s just left her abusive second husband and is briefly befriended by Vic (Erik Martin), a suburban high school student who styles himself as a hiphop gangsta and deals weed to curry favor with his buddies.

The threads of anxiety that connect all these moments are twofold. To begin with, there’s economic insecurity – represented by the factory, just down the road from the bus stop, that once provided stable employment for Darja, Maks, and Darja’s second husband, and which now sits shuttered and abandoned, a rebuke to working class dreams of upward mobility. Connected to that economic insecurity is the fate of her son, Alex, whom we never see but who is the focus of her near-constant worry and care. Like the rusted tower of steel that backgrounds the action, Alex – who has disappeared with her car before the action begins, and who, we infer, has either mental health issues, a drug abuse problem, or some combination of the two – looms large in her mental landscape, a part of the infrastructure of her life that is also, and equally, beyond repair.

Darja struggles to articulate these thoughts and feelings, however, and is often reduced  to simplifying what are clearly roiling emotions because of her incomplete command of English. Harris is superb as Darja, masterfully conveying the complexity and frustration of a character who has way more going on inside than she can properly express. Darja is something of a closed book, and while cultural difference surely has something to do with that, in Harris’s hands Darja’s inarticulateness functions as both an impediment and a shield – it both keeps her from opening out to others and protects her from the consequences of intimacy. At the same time, life experience has made Darja wary and defensive: the steady devaluing of her labor has brought her to conceive all of her relationships in purely transactional terms, so that, by the end of the play, any feelings and emotions she might have for Tommy take a backseat to the material gain she can extract from him.

L to R: JD Taylor and Rebecca Harris. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Tracy Brigden has directed the first-rate cast with a keen eye for character detail. Both Harris and Taylor – who is charming and sly as Maks – observe with studied precision the physicality of the EFL speaker: they are tense, tight, and forced when speaking English, and loose, relaxed, and free when they allow themselves to slip into Polish (Don Wadsworth provided the dialect coaching for the convincing accents). Rod Brogan is mulish but sympathetic as the philandering boyfriend Tommy, and Erik Martin is delightfully funny and surprisingly sweet as the wannabe badboy Vic.

An insert in the program advertising “World Refugee Day Pittsburgh” suggests that City Theatre wants to lean in to the play’s depiction of the immigrant experience, and certainly playwright Martyna Majok gives us opportunity and incentive to empathize with Darja and Maks’s struggle to master the English language, find employment in a shrinking job market, and chase that elusive dream of American-style success. But strip away the Polish accent, and Darja’s story could be that of any woman struggling to survive as a single mother in an economic system that puts so little value on people. With all the handwringing in the last election over the anxieties and frustrations expressed by white working class men, Majok’s play (which was first commissioned in 2013) affords a sympathetic look into the precarious lives of those working class women who labor, seemingly invisibly, in the background of our economy.

“The Pink Unicorn” – Off The Wall Productions at Carnegie Stage

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If only all gender non-binary kids in conservative small towns had moms like Trisha, the protagonist/narrator of Elise Forier Edie’s 2013 one-woman play, The Pink Unicorn. When Trisha’s daughter, Jo, cuts her hair short and requests to be addressed as “they” instead of “she,” Trisha’s first reaction is not to kick her daughter out of the house or send her to conversion therapy, but to open a web browser and google terms like “genderqueer” and “LGBTQ.” Her second reaction is to seek advice for dealing with this unexpected development from Pastor Dick, the spiritual leader of her church, but when he announces his intention to fight against a decision to allow homosexuals to be ordained within the USA Presbyterian Church, she surprises herself and her community by becoming a local activist for gay rights.

Amy Landis, photo Off the Wall

What ensues is a funny and endearing account of a battle on the frontlines of the culture wars, one that reveals both the breathtaking hypocrisy of religious rhetoric and the hope-inspiring transformations that can be achieved when people have the courage to take a stand at the local level. Indeed, although this play focuses on a mother’s outrage over the local school’s treatment of its genderqueer students, its bigger message about the power of people to effect change through committed activism, even when they represent a minority view in a homogenous community, is one that is all the more urgent in our current political environment.

Trisha is the kind of character it would be all too easy to caricature or patronize, but both Edie’s script and Amy Landis’s beautifully nuanced performance wisely choose to pull us deeply into her point of view instead. Ingrid Sonnichsen directs with a deft comic touch, and has made choices for the setting and context that enhance our feeling of connection with Trisha. Instead of staging the play as a formal presentation, as the script seems to encourage, Sonnichsen invites us into Trisha’s kitchen, where she tells us her story while she folds her laundry and bakes up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Landis is warm and winning as Trisha, roping us in with an endearing southern graciousness, and her chatty friendliness opens us to her perspective.

That’s important, because although we might be tempted to feel smugly superior to Trisha, her journey is one that is only possible because she has the humility to distance herself from such self-righteous certainty, and spending time with her provides a gentle nudge to be skeptical of our own pieties. Paradoxically, the very characteristics that make her a person so alienating to urban progressives – her Christian values and Southern etiquette – are also what make it possible for her to let difference into her personal sphere in a more than superficial way. Quick as she is to stereotype people who don’t conform to cis-gender norms, once her habits of hospitality and charity bring them into her orbit she comes to see past stereotype and love and value them for the people they are. At the same time, her predisposition to sketch the other people in her life with broad caricaturing brushstrokes also complicates our response to her: that is, her tendency to paint mocking and dismissive portraits of gays and lesbians – the very people she is ostensibly trying to defend – provokes cognitive dissonance (in both the character and us).

The play and Landis are both at their funniest when they offer comic insight into the gulf between the ideological right and left. For example, at one point in the narrative Trisha recalls discovering that the ACLU – an organization that she had always been told was doing Satan’s work – was actually dedicated to helping people, like her daughter, who have had their civil rights violated. “Who knew?!?” Landis demands, looking straight at us with deadpan bewilderment. It’s that willingness to step out of her comfort zone and into the unknown that makes Trisha such a model for citizen-activism, and her story such a rich and rewarding journey.

“Falstaff” at Resonance Works

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Resonance Works artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner writes that the mission of the small company she founded here in Pittsburgh four years ago is to “showcase outstanding professional artists from Pittsburgh and beyond.” That’s a mission well-fulfilled this past weekend, which brought together an ensemble of world-class vocal and instrumental musicians to perform Verdi’s Falstaff at the Charity Randall Theater in the Cathedral of Learning.

Benjamin Bloomfield as Falstaff, photo courtesy Resonance Works

The talent showcased in the production included some performers new to Pittsburgh. Baritone Benjamin Bloomfield brought both a suitably large presence and a grand, mellifluous lustre to his interpretation of Falstaff as a longhaired king of the road, and baritone Joshua Jeremiah was a vocal standout among the cast in the role of Ford, the wealthy husband Falstaff seeks to cuckold. Also new to our stages was soprano Natalie Polito, who sang the role of Nanetta with sweetness and clarity. In addition, the production brought back to town (after too long an absence) the gifted tenor Joseph Gaines, who was delightful as the priggish, uptight Dr. Caius, and featured as well a number of artists whose work has electrified Pittsburgh audiences in previous Resonance Works productions, including sopranos Kara Cornell and Amelia D’Arcy and tenor Christopher Lucier.

Together the orchestra and vocalists rendered Verdi’s complicated music with precision and control, and at times the singers, who sharply enunciated their consonants and tightly rolled their Italianate “r’s,” seemed as much a part of the percussion section of the orchestra as they were characters in the story. I mean that as high praise – the coordination and interweaving of voice and orchestra constituted a primary pleasure of this production. But part of what contributed to our perception of that blending was a pair of awkwardly positioned astroturf-covered boxes, meant to represent hedges, behind which too much of the action was hidden from view, making the production more a pleasure for the ears than for the eyes. Indeed, stage director Stephanie Havey seemed stymied by the challenges presented by Gianni Downs’s ill-conceived scenic design. Aside from a few moments of inventive staging in the second act that captured the commedia dell’arte spirit of the world of the play with comic lazzi and slo-mo tumbling, the staging was generally vague and confusing, with scene changes occuring in the middle of songs, movement patterns that lacked motivation and choreographic specificity, and a space that, in several scenes, seemed simply overcrowded and muddled.

The storytelling was clear nevertheless, thanks to strong acting as well as singing on the part of the entire cast, with particularly lucid and humorous characterizations from Benjamin Robinson and Matthew Scollin as Falstaff’s henchmen, and from Gaines, Jeremiah, and Bloomfield as Caius, Ford, and Falstaff. The production didn’t have to do much to encourage us to see contemporary resonance in Falstaff’s misogyny, mendacity, and moneygrubbing, and the opera’s ending – an astonishingly complex multipart fugue that Verdi wrote to prove his critics wrong – brought down the house with its reminder (one proved all too true in the last couple of days with the chaotic news from Washington) that “Tutto nel mondo è burla” – “All the world is folly.”