“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?

“The Current War” at Quantum Theatre

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Here’s a partial list of things I didn’t know about the development of electricity before seeing the the opening night of The Current War at Westinghouse Park:

  • that Thomas Edison tested a gazillion different materials before finding one that would work as a filament in the light bulb he invented;
  • that it was George Westinghouse – and not Nikola Tesla – who was Edison’s primary rival in the battle over AC vs. DC current;
  • that Edison was a prideful, bitter bastard with a tendency to take credit for his employees’ work and to cut off his nose to spite his face;
  • that, in contrast, Westinghouse was a positively enlightened capitalist, whose generosity toward his employees was matched by his rapacious acquisition of his rivals’ patents; and
  • that both of those dudes could sing.

Okay, that last item is obviously not historical fact, but rather a byproduct of their representation by actors Daniel Krell (Edison) and Billy Mason (Westinghouse) in Pittsburgh native Michael Mitnick’s musical about their rivalry. And to my mind, it’s never a bad thing to have reminders, when confronted with “historical facts,” that there is always license taken in their presentation. 

L to R: Daniel Krell and Billy Mason. Photo by Heather Mull Photography, Courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The license taken here – by both Mitnick and the Quantum creative team led by director Tome’ Cousin – is cheeky and provocative, particularly for a viewer like myself, whose previous understanding of the history of the development of electricity was primarily shaped by regular elementary school field trips to the adulatory shrine that Edison’s friend Henry Ford established in his honor at Greenfield Village outside Detroit. There, Edison comes off much as he does in the song Mitnick gives to his assistant Francis Upton (Quinn Patrick Shannon) – as a “God among men” and not, as this musical would have it, as the grudge-bearing cynic who would electrocute any number of mammals in his quest to convince people of the dangers of alternating current.

All this is to say that for this viewer, The Current War is as much about the representation of history – that is, about how history is framed, whose side it takes, and where it locates its central conflicts – as it is about history itself.

In Mitnick’s telling of the story, Edison is an anti-hero protagonist, and the musical manages the neat trick of getting you to sympathize with Edison’s anger and frustration at Westinghouse while also feeling abhorred by his tactics. With a bit of historiographic sleight of hand, Mitnick gives the anti-death-penalty Edison way more credit for the invention of the electric chair than is properly his due, which (for this dog-lover, at least) is probably appropriate pay-back for the many pooches (and other mammals) Edison and his team sacrificed on the altar of his egocentric crusade to discredit Westinghouse and his AC system. 

Indeed, this production does not want you to forget that the primary victims of this “current war” walked on four legs: Tony Ferrieri’s scenic design prominently features a wall of burlap panel curtains that depict, in addition to portraits of the two inventors and images of their inventions, a  dog, a horse, a gorilla, and an elephant. But fear not, Dear Reader: no real animals are harmed in this production. All of the non-humans that get zapped to death are represented by puppets (cleverly designed by Nick Lehane). Moreover, in an astute casting move, Cousin uses characters played by Jerreme Rodriguez to link together Edison’s animal and human victims of electrocution. Rodriguez plays, in turn, a young boy whose dog is sacrificed in the first scene; the gorilla who is “Westinghoused” in a demonstration of the dangers of alternating current; and William Kemmler, the first man to be executed in an electric chair. This embodied dot-connecting not only adds a touch of irony to the proceedings, but also effectively calls attention to the callousness of Edison’s ambition.

Mitnick’s account is far kinder to Westinghouse than it is to Edison: Westinghouse is generous where Edison is petty; forgiving where Edison is begrudging; humble and modest where Edison is egotistical and prideful. Was Westinghouse in fact such a saint among the robber-barons? It’s not clear that any of us can ever know. At one point Westinghouse mentions to his wife Marguerite (Melessie Clark) that he wants to have all of his papers and letters destroyed. The historical Westinghouse’s archive, including photographs, were in fact burned at his request after his death – which, of course, means that the license to represent his history is broad indeed.

Also cheeky is Mitnick’s treatment of history in musical terms. For example, he gives us a jaunty, cheerful song about the first time Edison “Westinghoused” a horse, as well as a show-stopping vaudevillian song-and-dance number that tells the sorry tale of how William Kemmler murdered his wife with a hatchet in a drunken rage. The ensemble captures the mood and spirit of such numbers with zippy panache, superbly accompanied by musical director Douglas Levine on keyboard and Simon Cummings on cello. One humorous duet unexpectedly skewers sanctimonious Christians whose charity will not extend to the convicted criminal Kemmler. These musical style choices are, of course, fun and catchy and entertaining; but they’re also kind of subversive, calling attention to Mitnick’s deliberate shaping of how the history will be perceived. 

In other words, you may think that The Current War aims to elucidate the history of two rival inventors of the Industrial Age. But at nearly every level, this is a musical that will probably have you questioning how we know what we know about the past, and thinking about who has had the power and the privilege to tell those stories.  

“Amm(i)gone” presented by Theatre Offensive (guest post by Rebecca Hodge)

Dear Reader, I have invited dramaturg Rebecca Hodge to be a “guest” on my blog and post her review of Amm(i)gone, which live-streamed on March 20, 2021.

It is difficult to have open, authentic conversations. Especially if it happens to be with a parent who is ideologically opposed to you. Amm(i)gone, created and performed by Adil Mansoor, is one of those conversations, between the queer artist and his highly religious Muslim mother. 

The production, presented by the Theatre Offensive, defies easy genre identification. Amm(i)gone is simultaneously documentary, monologue, education, and journey. It is immensely personal and yet hits universal truths about humanity.

Mansoor explains that initially he set out to make an adaptation of Antigone, but that early into the process he realized this was not the right direction for his work. Instead, the piece uses Antigone as a framework to explore Mansoor’s relationship with his mother. Most notably, it borrows many themes from the ancient Greek play, especially family and religion, but with one notable shift: the addition of queerness.

Mansoor tells us about how his mother raised him and his siblings alone for most of their life, in a post-9/11 world. He describes that close relationship along with her turn to religion after divorcing her husband, tracing it forward into his adulthood. Over that time, they started to drift away from one another. But the true breaking point comes when she discovers his queerness after a Google search. Page after page flashes up on the screen, proclaiming Mansoor as a queer artist.

That moment irrevocably changed their relationship. Mansoor explains how she started constantly praying for him, distancing herself from his present self to ensure a proper afterlife. This piece is what came after that shift. Mansoor and his mother work together in an attempt to reconnect and apologize, using Antigone as a jumping off point, a conversation starter.

In short, Amm(i)gone is a conversation between Mansoor, his mother, and the audience. Much of the piece is audio recordings and transcripts from those actual conversations between mother and son. Then, the conversation with the audience is where the virtual modality really gets to shine. Mansoor speaks straight into the camera, effortlessly capturing a feeling of welcome and intimacy. We feel like he’s speaking right to us, even though the audience is scattered all over the world. He translates Urdu to us, explains facets of Muslim culture, tells us the basic story of Antigone.

His work welcoming us is supported by the work of the design space. When first entering the live performance, we are met with music and a voice teaching us common phrases in Urdu. Aaron Landgraf’s sound design follows us through the journey, keeping the experience heightened with music and warmth. The media design by Bleue Liverpool is rich in warm tones and textured fabrics, integrating embroidery that evokes a sense of home and comfort.

Amm(i)gone is a work in progress and makes no attempts to hide that fact. Indeed, that process is a key facet of the work in performance, at least at this point. In many ways, the process is the performance. Mansoor’s recorded conversations with his mother make up most of the runtime. Mansoor’s discussion with us, the audience, takes up almost everything else. Then, finally, clips from the Juliette Binoche production of Antigone are overlaid with commentary from the mother/son duo. This multilayered conversation is Amm(i)gone: the process of creating a theatre piece based on Antigone, between mother and son.

As Mansoor and his mother watch the first scene, she points out how Antigone’s sister is right to fight against her attempts to defy the edict, that she clearly is showing love by trying to prevent Antigone from certain death. He points out how much he loves the stage transition, the way it portrays the changing of time as Antigone decides she must defy the edict to ensure her brother’s passage to the afterlife.

This moment shows the heart of Amm(i)gone: it’s a conversation between mother and son about love, religion, and theatre. But where the real emotional pang comes is in the words Mansoor can’t say to his mother, sharing only with us. His queerness, the gap between him and his mother, still exists. They have yet to reconcile fully, and she is still constantly praying for him.

“Antigone has already decided she’s going to die,” he explains. “She shows her love and care in the afterlife. And that’s what my mom is doing too. She’s trying to care for me in the afterlife. But can we care for each other here, now, while we’re alive?”

The emotion is constantly genuine, especially in the little details. Mansoor gets visibly emotional at moments, and as an audience member it’s difficult not to feel the same way. Perhaps the most intense moment is in a small specific: he tells how he wishes he could tell his mother how his partner is a tea expert. “He would make you the perfect chai,” he says, smiling through tears.

Amm(i)gone is an unfinished conversation. The audience’s desire for resolution between mother and son is one that Mansoor can’t fulfill yet. But that in-progress feeling elevates Amm(i)gone. There’s always a conversation we have yet to finish, and if nothing else, Mansoor’s discussions with his mother can inspire all of us to try to start talking again.

– Rebecca Hodge

“The Woman Hater” and “The Belle’s Stratagem” at Red Bull Theater

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One of the few silver linings of this past year has been online access to “live” theater from far-flung places. There was, early on, the stunning adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull by the Aukland Theatre Company in New Zealand (still streaming, watch it here); then, over the summer, the weekly releases of archived performances from the National Theatre in London and the regular “drops” from Joshua Gelb of his experiments in Theatre in Quarantine; on top of that, there has been livestreamed and prerecorded work from all over the US, some of it – like the Fake Friends production of Circle Jerk – aiming to chart new aesthetic territory in our brave new world of socially distanced performance.

But nothing to date has tickled my nerdy heart quite like Red Bull Theater in New York, which, in the last month, has livestreamed the works of two of my favorite female writers from the eighteenth century (and yes, dear Reader, I have favorite writers from the eighteenth century, because that’s the kind of nerd I am): The Woman Hater by Fanny Burney, and, this week, The Belle’s Stratagem by Hannah Cowley.

Red Bull Theater’s mission is to “bring rarely seen classic plays to dynamic new life for contemporary audiences” – they are accomplishing that goal in the present moment through a series of “Live Benefit Readings” that engage terrific US actors from around the country to lift little-known plays off the page and into the imagination. I’m no huge fan of Zoom readings, but the reading of The Woman Hater was one of the best I’ve seen in the last year. Under director Everett Quinton’s guidance, the cast infused the reading with energy and wit, making specific and inspired character choices that elevated Burney’s satirically comic dialogue into heights of absurdity. One of the things you have to love about Burney’s writing is that it offers plum comic roles for female actors: a highlight of the show was Veanne Cox’s hilarious portrayal of the addled female savante Lady Smatter, whose brain is so crammed with ideas lifted from other people’s writing that she can’t keep anything straight, and whose hats kept overtopping themselves in an echo of her thought patterns (delightful costuming was by Sara Jean Tosetti). Jenne Vath and Cherie Corinne Rice also brought their comic talents to multiple roles each in the show. Visual designer David M. Barber enlivened the familiar “Zoom” format by devising a way to superimpose the actors’ boxes onto a series of unified “scenic design” backgrounds, so that they appeared to be in the same visual space (and at times even seemed to be talking to each other rather than at their cameras). While I’ve been a Fanny Burney fan for several decades, this play was new to me, and it was a delight to be introduced to it by such a fine ensemble of artists. Unfortunately, it only streamed for a week at the end of January, and has now “disappeared.”

Still available – for just two more days! – is the Red Bull Benefit Reading of Hannah Cowley’s 1790 play The Belle’s Stratagem (in an adaptation by Davis McCallum). This is a play I’m deeply familiar with – I’ve researched it, written about it, and taught it in class for many years – but until now I’ve never heard it read or seen it produced. The play tells the story of a young heiress, Letitia Hardy (Lilli Cooper), who has been betrothed since childhood to the rakish Doricourt (Santino Fontana). When they first meet again as adults, she senses his indifference, and comes up with a complicated scheme to win his heart before they are married. Where the production of The Woman Hater embraced the original’s positioning in eighteenth-century England, here director Gaye Taylor Upchurch leans into a modernizing impulse: the characters wear modern dress, the accents are American and quite colloquial, the mannerisms are fully of the here and now – there’s even the occasional anachronistic word thrown in to the dialogue. This juxtaposition of old and new gives the play a welcome freshness and accessibility, and also brings additional moments of irony and humor to the story – while I’d hardly suggest that Cowley’s plot is one that has strong resonances with today, the play’s depiction of women’s limited agency, its positioning of gender as a coerced performance, and its portrayal of a world in which women are generally at the mercy of patriarchal structures of power continue to resonate and justify the modern approach (#metoo, anyone?). 

As with The Woman Hater, unified “backdrops” help lend the illusion that the actors (who are Zooming in from all over the country) are occupying the same space. In addition to the charismatic Fontana and Cooper, there are excellent performances by Chauncy Thomas playing the jealous husband Sir George Touchwood, Heather Alicia Simms as the worldly Mrs. Racket, and Mark Bedard as the predatory Courtall. A recording of the livestream is available until 7 pm on Friday, February 26 – I’ve waited years for a production of this play to be in my vicinity, so if protofeminist theater from the eighteenth century is your jam (and really, Dear Reader, why wouldn’t it be?) take advantage of this opportunity to see it brought to life by a fine ensemble of actors.

“Boléro” at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

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“Sexy.” “Sinuous.” “Celebratory.” 

Those are some of the words I can barely decipher from the scrap of paper I was scribbling on as I refused to tear my eyes from the spellbinding, mesmerizing, breath-catching Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performance of Boléro.

The performance took place this past weekend in the Great Sculpture Hall of the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History, where audience members were placed at a safe social distance from each other on the balcony above as dancers took over the white rectangular space below. Choreographer (and recently appointed PBT artistic director) Susan Jaffe made good use of our aerial viewpoint with an emphasis on horizontal movement and angular lines that had the dancers and their limbs spreading out as much as they spread up. Clad by designer Janet Marie Groom in monotone colors – red for the women, black for the men – the performers moved fluidly across the space, slinking, spinning, and pairing with such athletic grace and flow that I might be forgiven if at times it seemed to me that they were skating on ice rather than dancing on marble. Flesh-toned masks lent the impression that these dancers had been rendered mouthless and mute, making the expressive power of their bodies all the more potent and visceral. Indeed, I felt an almost physical shock the first time two dancers partnered (masked) cheek to (masked) cheek – such has been my psychological conditioning over the last year regarding physical intimacy.

Hannah Carter and Lucius Kirst with PBT Company Dancers. Photo by Kelly Perkovich, courtesy PBT

Boléro is a relatively short piece of music, but it’s one that builds in intensity and drive as instrumental voices layer on top of each other and as the key repeatedly modulates above an insistent driving rhythm. It’s a musical composition that feels like it mimics both a heartbeat and the rushing of blood through one’s veins. Jaffe’s choreography likewise built in intensity and drive, moving from solo to paired to ensemble sequences and drawing from the vernacular of modern and folk dance as well as ballet to layer fresh physical tones and moods as the music added new timbres and colors. A line of ensemble members formed an attentive border on three sides of the space and echoed, in slow motion, gestures generated by the soloists and couples in the middle; members of the ensemble moved from the margin to the center as the dance progressed, modulating previous movement phrases and building new ones. As the music writhed its way toward its climactic, dissonant clash, the dancers brought their individual sequences together to create an explosive invocation of the pulse of life. 

Grace Rookstool with PBT Company Dancers. Photo by Kelly Perkovich, courtesy PBT.

“All you can do,” I scribbled, before bursting into elated applause at the end of the piece. What did I mean by that? I think I felt, in that moment, as full as I’ve felt since lockdown began. This gift of dance, in a real space – where hearts beat together as audience and artists occupied not just the same physical space but the same emotional space – was a celebration of all we can do as humans to be in this world together, even when we have to do all we can to keep our distance from one another. 

Update: If you missed this performance, you will have a chance to see it streamed for free between April 5-11; sign up for notification here.

“It’s a good day”

And Van Jones from CNN – a brave man who allows himself to be emotional on national broadcast – is here to tell you why:

“Wild” [Streaming] at Quantum Theatre

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This past summer, my colleague Kyle Haden and I led a small “think tank” at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama aimed at exploring the landscape of live performance in the age of Covid-19. The research questions we posed to the student participants in the course were relatively straightforward: what’s “out there” in the world of remote and digital live performance, what’s working well, why does it work well when it does, and what tools and techniques need to be mastered in order to make compelling and captivating live performance for remote or socially distanced performers and audiences?

After viewing dozens of online performances and experiments, our students compiled a digital “white paper” of the results of their research, which ranged from recommendations regarding content and rehearsal strategies to a deep dive into available recording and streaming platforms to an imagined “Covid” season for many of our local theaters. You’re welcome to view the results of their work, but the TL;DR take-home of our collective survey of the summer landscape was something that will now likely seem all too obvious: the most successful live-streamed (or pre-recorded and streamed) projects had two things in common. First, they were delivered in relatively short segments (thirty minutes was the sweet spot; forty-five the outer limit). And second, they achieved a logical and necessary integration between form and content; that is, the works that were most satisfying to experience were works that contained within their world an explanation as to why the audience member might be viewing them on a screen.

The example we all kept pointing to as the bar-setter was a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull directed by Eleanor Bishop, a CMU Drama directing alum, and produced by the Auckland Theatre Company (and recently made available again in four 30-minute segments for viewing – which I highly recommend!) Back in the early summer, at a time when many theater companies and performers were attempting to replicate the experience of live theater by putting actors into dialogue with each other across Zoom boxes – and asking us viewers to suspend our disbelief and imagine that the characters were occupying the same physical space – Bishop’s adaptation accepted Zoom as a governing condition of the characters’ pandemic-bound lives, and forged Chekhovian comedy and pathos out of their (and our) current given circumstances. What made Bishop’s reboot compelling was that the video capture of live dialogue and action made sense in the world of the play; it was not haunted, as so many online reproductions of plays have been, by the IRL theatrical conditions we can no longer enjoy.

With its new production of Mike Bartlett’s play Wild, the collaborative team at Quantum Theatre has crafted a similarly successful integration of form and content. The setting for the play is a Moscow hotel room where Andrew (Chris Cattell) – a fictionalized Edward Snowden – has taken refuge after he has released damaging information showing that the US government has been spying on its own citizens. Two mysterious agents, who may or may not belong to an organization affiliated with a Julian Assange-esque man that Andrew seeks to be connected with, visit his room: a British Woman (played by Lydia Gibson), and an American Man (played by Wali Jamal). The hotel room (designed with a keen eye for Soviet-holdover detail by Kelsey Garrett) bristles with hidden Russian surveillance cameras that provide us with multiple views into the cat-and-mouse game that these two play with Andrew as they try to recruit him to trust – and eventually join – them. As such, the answer to the question, “why are we watching this on a screen?” is clear and logical: because “we” are cast in the role of some nameless Russian agent monitoring what unfolds in this claustrophobic space.

Lydia Gibson in WILD, photo by Heather Mull Photography, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

This conceit works exceedingly well: it serves not only to ratchet up the tension of the play but also to lend it an aesthetically compelling and moody visual style (Hannah Kerman’s lighting design produces an effect that makes color seem like it’s almost black-and-white). Director Sam Turich uses both camera angle and actor movement to keep the visual field dynamic, and part of the fun of the production lies in playing the game of figuring out how he and production director Hank Bullington have managed to pull off the show’s technical tricks. I’ll confess that I steered more attention than I probably should have into trying to figure out a) whether the actors were in the same room together (they were: Gibson and Cattell are a couple in real life who can safely be in close proximity to each other, while Jamal maintains a safe social distance from his scene partners throughout), and b) where all of the hidden cameras are (I think I found about half).

The choice to set this play into a situation of surveillance also helped to add frisson to a script that does not fully congeal, at least not for me. Too much of the narrative suspense revolves around the withheld mystery of the two visitors’ identities and agendas, and some of the events (for example, a scene in which the Woman offers to “prove” that she’s trustworthy) require us to accept at face value that a man who could hack the US national security system is otherwise a hapless dupe.

Yet toward the end, when the Woman smugly observes that the information that Andrew has leaked to the American public has been met with a “big shrug,” the play’s sociopolitical stakes suddenly and strikingly rear into view. We’re reminded of Andrew’s real-life model, Edward Snowden; of the enormous (and in his mind heroic) personal sacrifice he made in his attempt to call attention to our government’s surveillance overreach; and of how rapidly outrage over that revelation seems to have faded from public consciousness.

Wild suggests in the end that our capacity for outrage and shock has been numbed by disinformation and distraction. The next two weeks may test that proposition. Let’s hope we don’t get there. Vote.

Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” at City Theatre’s Drive-In at Hazelwood Green

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Mary Shelley is said to have invented the genre of science fiction with Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, a novel she wrote in response to a competition proposed by Lord Byron during a cold summer she and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley spent at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Her novel combines elements from the epistolary novel, the gothic romance, and the ghost story to extrapolate the impact of her protagonist Dr. Frankenstein’s quest to use his scientific knowledge to bring dead matter to life.

Chicago-based arts collective Manual Cinema has likewise invented its own genre of performance, blending handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and live actors and music to create complex and multilayered stories that take place simultaneously on stage and screen. When this company normally performs its work, a team of artists and musicians create a mixed-media experience live before an audience, using vintage overhead projectors, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, and a roving music ensemble (an event, I imagine, somewhat akin to the “live radio play” of Bricolage’s Midnight Radio series, but an order of magnitude or two above that in cognitive complexity). Alas, patrons at City Theatre’s Drive-In will need to imagine what that genre-bending experience is like from the less layered – but no less emotionally and aesthetically satisfying – pre-recorded version of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein on screen at Hazelwood Green until October 17.

If you have ever read Shelley’s novel – and if you haven’t, Reader, you should! – you know that one of its primary conflicts revolves around Frankenstein’s revulsion over, and subsequent abandonment of, his Creature, and also that a large segment of the novel sympathetically offers insight into the Creature’s anguish at having been left to fend for himself by his maker. There are obvious religious and existential motifs at work here, but what Manual Cinema’s adaptation leans into is the connection between the story and Mary Shelley’s own biological and artistic creations. The film begins with an extended prologue that shows the birth and death of Shelley’s infant daughter Clara, and it’s this loss that frames and haunts the story of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein, making her novel at once a working-out of the burden of responsibility she may have felt at losing her infant, and a substitute child itself for the grieving artist-mother. The fact that the same actor (Sarah Fornace) plays both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein underscores the bind this adaptation seeks to forge between these two creators who are tormented by what they have brought into the world.

While this biographical framing adds fresh depth and poignancy to the story of Frankenstein and his Creature, what makes it spellbinding is the magical means through which Manual Cinema tells the story. Haunting, dream-like scenes flow seamlessly back and forth between two-dimensional silhouette paper cutouts, live actors in shadow play, live actors on film, and three-dimensional puppets, all accompanied by perfectly timed live music performed on the stage next to the projection screen (the musicians are Peter Ferry, Jason Gresl, Deirdre Huckabay, and Erica Miller).

The visual storytelling is lyrical and poetic, condensing exquisitely rendered sequences of images into a powerful emotional punch. You might find yourself puzzling, as I did, over how some of the effects were achieved, particularly where the image blends live actors and shadow puppets. At the same time, I’ll confess that part of me was also relieved that I could focus on the gorgeous and eloquent filmed “product” without the lure of wanting to also watch the “process.” Let’s hope that in some Covid-19-free future the ‘burgh will have a chance to host this ingenious collective of artists so that we can witness their technical wizardry live; in the meantime, this film version of Frankenstein is an October treat that’s not to be missed.