“Orphans” (playing at Aftershock Theater)

I’m not in the habit of compiling “10 best” lists each year – it’s not in my DNA to have “favorites” of anything (makes choosing online security questions a challenge!). But if I were to be compiling such a list for 2018, right now the marvelous production of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans (an Actors’ Equity Association Members Project, playing at a new venue, Aftershock Theater) would be at the very top of my list.

Ingrid Sonnichsen directs this play, with assistance from actor (and former head of acting at the New School for Drama) Cotter Smith, who trained the stellar ensemble in Stanislavski’s “Active Analysis,” a technique relatively new to the United States, and from fight director Randy Kovitz. Their teamwork has paid off in a production that is dynamic, mesmerizing, and moving.

The play centers, as its title suggests, on a set of orphans. Max Pavel plays older brother Treat, a street thief who has a hair-trigger temper and little compunction about using violence to enforce his will, including against his younger brother, Phillip, played by Dylan Marquis Meyers. Phillip seems, at first, to be a simpleton – he spends his days watching TV or shut in a dark closet, and his speech is peppered with slogans from commercials and brand names. Unable to perform the simplest of life tasks – he can’t read or tie his own shoes, and doesn’t go outside for fear of allergy attacks – Phillip is wholly dependent on his older brother for support and protection. Treat keeps them afloat by mugging people for their wallets and jewelry. When, at a bar one evening, he meets Harold (Ken Bolden), a particularly promising mark, Treat decides to bring him back to their house and hold him for ransom. But in Harold – an orphan himself – Treat and Phillip get much more than they bargained for.

I’m not going to go much further into the plot of the play, because I don’t want to spoil its unexpected turns. In any case, while the play is very good, what makes this production worth seeing is the electrifying work of the three actors. Pavel plays Treat as a tightly coiled spring, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation, and while in the play’s beginning he seems tough and invulnerable, as it evolves we come to see that his lashing out is that of a wounded and cornered animal. Ken Bolden makes precise and compelling choices in his depiction of the mysterious Harold, whose back story and motivations are only hinted at in the course of the play. This is the kind of character writing that could feel infuriating (I’m often suspicious of writers who create enigmatic characters for the sake of building suspense), but in Bolden’s hands Harold becomes a character whose unusual mixture of dark secrets, magnanimous generosity, and effete aestheticism combine into a believable whole. As Phillip, Meyers gives a performance that is downright thrilling. He physicalizes Phillip’s stunted development with shoulders hunched and slanted and arms akimbo, bouncing off the walls, furniture, and stairs of the house like a caged primate, and his vocal work brings the history of his character into relief as well: his cadence and accent take their cues from the old black-and-white gangster and mobster movies Phillip watches incessantly on TV (one of which plays in the background of a late scene in the play, to underscore the point (sound design by Shannon Knapp)). Meyers’ emotional reserves are deep, and he brings poignancy and depth to Phillip’s awakening to the wider world and his eventual crushing realization that his brother has essentially imprisoned him in ignorance.

The production is housed in a new venue, a former Slovenian social hall in Lawrenceville that is currently being renovated by Aftershock Theater as an arts/culture space. Set designer Hank Bullington has taken advantage of the fact that the building itself is still under renovation and used the features of the space – which include a stairway on the upstage wall to the upper level of the building, visible through open framing – to form the architecture of the Philadelphia house in which the two brothers live. Crumbling wallpapered plaster and exposed lathe – which are so well integrated into the space that they appear to be part of the ongoing renovation! – give the impression of a home that has deteriorated over time; Bullington has filled that home with a scattering of old furniture that might once have had value or been purchased by a parent with taste. Lighting designer Paige Borak creates a surprising range of moods and looks, given the severe constraints imposed by the lack of infrastructure in the space. The costume design, by Rikkilee Rose, is subtle and sophisticated, with good attention to the kinds of small details that help sell a scene – for example, between the first and second act, not only the quality but also the fit of Treat’s clothing gets finer, signaling his change in self-awareness as well as his change in status.

I’d like to write more about this wonderful production, but I have to hit the road for Philadelphia, where I’m going to see Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, so I’m posting in a bit of a rush this morning. Orphans plays through June 23 – put it on your list.

“King Hedley II” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

Ah, Pittsburgh! Hometown of August Wilson, and place of many rains….

Those two went hand-in-hand this past Saturday at the performance of King Hedley II I attended, which has been staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre in the backyard of August Wilson’s childhood home, on Bedford Street in the Hill District. We were all deeply absorbed in the story, when – drip drop – the storm began to blow in, umbrellas emerged from under seats, and Wali Jamal, playing Elmore, interrupted the scene, apologized for ending the show early, and sent us all scurrying for cover.

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L to R: Etta Cox and Wali Jamal

This was disappointing, as the production up until that moment had been so engaging that the threat of rain hadn’t even registered. The authenticity lent by its setting – you can’t get any more “real” for the set! – was enhanced by the actors’ relaxed playing style. Overall, the production gives you the impression of peering over a fence into the backyard and watching these folks as they go about their business, and despite the fact that the plot revs slowly and inexorably toward a melodramatic tragedy (even those who don’t know the play will feel a sense of dread building in the first half), the action has a sense of realness and groundedness in history. That this production follows on last year’s Seven Guitars in the same backyard – and picks up on that play’s characters, four decades later – only reinforces that sensation of historical authenticity.

Mark Clayton Southers, Monteze Freeland, and Dennis Robinson Jr. have co-directed a marvelous cast that includes not only Jamal – who apparently earns, with this role, the distinction of being the only actor to appear in every single play of the August Wilson Cycle (this according to Chris Rawson, who should know these things!) – but also Rico Parker as King, Sam Lothard as Mister, Sala Udin as Stool Pigeon/Canewell, Etta Cox as Ruby, and Dominique Briggs as Tonya. Special props to sound designer Mark Whitehead, whose soundscape is so cleverly integrated with the ambient urban environmental noise that it is hard to tease out which sounds are “real” and which belong only to the world of the play.

I won’t have a chance to see King Hedley IIagain before it closes, but I hope you do. There’s no other place in the world where this play could feel so steeped in, and sedimented with, the history of its place, its writer, and its fictional characters. It closes this weekend – rain, rain, stay away!

“Pigeon [III1/2]” at Birch Swinger Ensemble

There’s an exercise I’ll occasionally use in class, to help students think more expansively or differently about the world of a play we have read: “Create a scene that is missing from this play.” It’s an exercise that’s playful, fun, and a little naughty (because it wrests control of the play from its original author); it’s also an exercise that frequently yields new insights into the original play.

Jeremy Lesifko-Bremer’s new play Pigeon [III1/2] indulges in that exercise on a larger scale. His “missing scene” runs ninety minutes long, and fills the two-year gap between Acts 3 and 4 of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The action of Lesifko-Bremer’s play is roughly the same as what is described through exposition in the final act of Chekhov’s play: Nina arrives in Moscow to become Trigorin’s lover, she pursues an acting career, she gets pregnant, loses the baby, and meanwhile, back at the country house, Masha marries the schoolteacher Semion even though she’s really in love with the playwright Konstantin, who in turn remains infatuated with Nina. But in Lesifko-Bremer’s telling, the characters are rebooted for the 21st century: in particular, Trigorin is an urban hipster (sans tattoos) and Konstantin is in the process of transitioning to become Constance (though she’s still in love with Nina).

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Jeremy Lesifko-Bremer as Boryz Trigorin in “Pigeon [III1/2]”. Photo courtesy Birch Swinger Ensemble.

Although not required, a pre-show brush-up on The Seagull might be a good idea, especially if you want to get all of the theatrical in-jokes woven into the script. Intertextual references abound, and there’s a good deal of playful self-referentiality, starting with Constance’s instruction to us to “nod with your knowings and ac-knowledge-ments” and culminating in Nina’s excitement over having been cast in a play that “takes place in a two year gap between the acts of a classic play.”

The languid, pause-filled dialogue has a Chekhovian quality, but for much of the play it also seems to mimic the overblown style of Konstantin’s mocked and much-derided play-within-a-play in The Seagull. Pigeon [III1/2] appears to draw, in style and substance, on other modern playwrights as well, including Pirandello, Genet, and Sartre, and its declarative dialogue and low-affect, hypernaturalistic acting style are reminiscent of the work of postmodern playwright and director Richard Maxwell.

Pigeon [III1/2] is the inaugural production of Birch Swinger Ensemble, which describes itself as a “nano-theatre company.” I’ve never heard that term before, but I surmise that it means they are producing plays with a very small team on a very tiny budget: certainly everyone in the cast did double or triple duty on this production. In addition to writing the play, Jeremy Lesifko-Bremer directed, produced, and played the role of Boryz Trigorin. Michelle Lesifko-Bremer played Nina, and served as co-producer and assistant director. Jon David, who played the schoolteacher Semion, also designed the set and props and served as the stage manager; Andrew Yankes played Constance and served as the production assistant; Emily Naples, who played Masha, was marketing director and makeup artist; and Jane Hyland, who did movement and consultation on sets and costumes, also played the voice of Irina.

“HIR” at barebones productions

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It’s obvious to anyone who has been awake and breathing over the last two years that the 2016 election represented a watershed before-and-after moment in American politics and culture. Ways of thinking about our cultural moment that felt insightful and true before November 2016 came to have a different resonance after the anti-progressive backlash of the election and the subsequent resurgence of racist, mysogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic sentiments and activism that came in its wake.

It seems to me that several works that were written in the first fifteen years of this century have had their thematic and emotional content utterly changed by the assertion of white male grievance and privilege that the current presidency represents. For example, Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop which received an excellent production at City Theatre in 2014– is one that I often think about in this regard. That play, which imagines Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, ends with an emotionally powerful media montage of the history of the civil rights movement after King’s assasination, culminating – when the play was originally produced – with images from Barack Obama’s historic election to the presidency. The message conveyed was one of pride-swelling hope and optimism, a tribute to King’s legacy that said: “look how far we’ve come.” Today, any production of that play would have to include media coverage of the expressions of racism and white supremacy we saw at Trump campaign rallies and in Charlottesville and elsewhere, rendering its ending a depressing chronicle of Patriarchal White America’s Revenge and a dispiriting reminder of how little progress really has been made in extending equal rights and opportunities to all.

Taylor Mac’s play HIR is another play whose message and mood felt very different before 2016 than it does today. In the play, middle-aged mother Paige (here played by Helena Ruoti) has been awakened to her own oppression by two major changes in her life: first, her domineering, physically and emotionally abusive husband Arnold (Douglas Rees) has suffered a debilitating stroke which has rendered him passive and childlike; and second, her teenaged child Max (Liam Ezra Dickinson) has transitioned from female to male. Max, whose preferred gender pronouns are ze and hir, has also transitioned from public school to homeschooling, where ze has taken on the task of tutoring Paige in feminist and queer theory. This, in turn, has led Paige to rebel ostentatiously against everything she associates with patriarchal oppression and particularly to upend all of the norms, rules, and patterns Arnold formerly imposed on the household. The play’s crises are set in motion when older brother Isaac (Tad Cooley) returns home from deployment in Iraq to find his mother in charge, the house in complete disarray, and his humiliated and emasculated father dottering around the house in garish makeup, a clown wig, and a woman’s nightgown.

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L to R: Tad Cooley, Douglas Rees, and Helena Ruoti. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

When I saw this play in its original production at Signature Theatre in 2015, it seemed to be flipping a joyful middle finger at a white male power structure that it figured – in the person of Arnold, particularly, but also in the person of Isaac – as irrelevant. “You are done,” the play clearly crowed; “we queers and feminists are the future.” Now, in the wake of both the 2016 election and recent studies concluding, rightly or wrongly, that the election was, above all, an outpouring of rural America’s fury over its perception that coastal elites hold the white working-class in contempt, the play comes across more as an example of the kind of smug liberal disdain that supposedly led the country’s Isaacs and Arnolds to respond with fawning admiration to the current president’s gloating misogyny and racism. When Isaac slinks out of the house in disgrace and shame at the end of the play, the taste is sour rather than sweet; hindsight tells us he’ll soon be putting on a red baseball cap and voting his vengeance on Paige, Max, and all they represent.

It’s hard for me to assess the extent to which it’s the changed socio-political climate alone that has altered how this play signifies, or the difference in production choices made by director Patrick Jordan and his cast – or, putting the two together, the extent to which the changed socio-political climate impacted the production choices Jordan and ensemble made. Whatever the reason, the barebones’ production seems a wholly different play than the one I saw previously, despite nearly identical scenic and costume designs.

The most significant of the differences is in the intepretation of Paige. In the 2015 Signature production, Kristine Nielsen played Paige as a daffy, addle-brained bird, flitting and floating on a giddy cloud of triumph over her escape from her cage of ideological oppression. Her performance was light and nimble, and she only allowed the character’s rancor to nibble at the edges at key moments of the play. Ruoti’s Paige, in contrast, is far more tuned-in, angry, and bitter, a choice that is fully understandable in light of the changed world we now inhabit. But it’s a choice that has the side effect of making her seem scolding, preachy, and superior – precisely the sort of lefty posturing that those on the other side of the culture wars find so infuriating. At the same time, Cooley and Rees offer much more sympathetic and likeable renderings of Isaac and Arnold than their 2015 counterparts, such that they start to appear tragic rather than irrelevant – or, perhaps better put, tragic in their irrelevancy.

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L to R: Liam Ezra Dickinson, Helena Ruoti, and Tad Cooley. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

In the end, however, it’s Max whose precarious position ought most to compel our attention and sympathy. Dickinson plays Max with a dead-on combination of know-it-all eye-rolling teen sarcasm and deep, barely hidden insecurity. Max’s mutually exclusive desires – to usher in an egalitarian queer future, and to be fully welcomed and accepted into the fraternity of white masculinity, with all the access to power and privilege that comes with it – make hir the character whose internal conflict most eloquently captures the prize that is at stake, both within the world of the play and in our socio-political arena.

“Nomad Motel” at City Theatre

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Gianni Downs’s apropos “split screen” set for Carla Ching’s new play Nomad Motel – confidently directed here by Los Angeles-based director Bart DeLorenzo – adeptly and precisely encapsulates both its form and content. On stage right, occupying a little over half of the width of the stage, is the large living room/kitchen of an upscale contemporary suburban home, with dove-grey walls, laminate wood floors, a granite kitchen countertop, and four large skylights in a cathedral ceiling. It’s a space strangely devoid of furniture, however: the room is nearly empty save for a handful of mismatched chairs, a sleeping bag on the floor, and a desk in one corner, loaded with electronic equipment and surrounded by electric guitars and speakers. Stage left is a dingy motel room, with a low ceiling, stained mustard-colored walls, and a mottled linoleum floor. Here, the space is so crammed with personal items – most of them stacked in plastic tubs – that there is hardly space to move.

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L to R: Christopher Larkin, Katie Lynn Esswein, Nelson Lee. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

On stage, only a thin wall separates these two otherwise diametrically opposed spaces, just as, in the world of the play, the characters who occupy them experience widely different yet intersecting trajectories. The occupant of the spare but expensive home is Mason (Christopher Larkin), a 17-year-old from China living alone in Southern California; his wealthy widowed father James (Nelson Lee) has “parachuted” Mason alone into the US in order to send him to high school so that he can eventually gain admittance to an Ivy League college. On the other side of the “shared” wall is Alix (Katie Lynn Esswein), also 17, who is living motel room to motel room with her mother Fiona (Lisa Velten Smith) and two younger brothers. Not too long ago, this family lived in a house that was probably very much like Mason’s, but divorce and a rough economy has rendered them homeless and in financially desperate straits. Alix, too, has dreams of going to an elite university – she has her sights set on studying landscape architecture at Cooper Union – but her unstable family situation makes it tough for her to attend school regularly, let alone get good grades.

These two teens are thrown together for a school project – something to do with Shakespeare – and not only do parallels between their lives become evident, but their crises also start to converge. At play’s beginning, both have been shoved prematurely into adult independence: Mason lives alone, with virtually no supervision, and has to cope both with the practicalities of life and with loneliness, while Alix must support her family both financially and emotionally, as Fiona helplessly flails about looking for a way out of their predicament. By intermission, both of these teens believe they’ve been abandoned by their parents: James has fallen off the radar and stopped calling or sending money, and Fiona has parked her sons with a friend and moved a few hours away to take a job, leaving Alix to beg for shelter from her ex-boyfriend, Oscar (Shahine Ezell), who, it turns out, has himself been kicked out of foster care and is now squatting in an abandoned convenience store.

Mason and Alix eventually join forces and become an odd couple of sorts – conveniently, each has something the other needs (Mason has a roof over his head, stuff to sell to generate income, and can help Alix bring up her GPA; Alix can cook and knows how to write a killer college essay) – and, predictably enough, their friendship eventually morphs into a romance, one that is – also predictably enough – interrupted by the sudden reappearance of James. In the play’s final moments, a wounded bird that Mason sets free serves as a neon-lit metaphor for both Alix and Mason’s journey from damaged to whole: Mason finds the courage to break free of his father’s expectations and pursue his dream of becoming a composer, and Alix comes to have faith in her own potential and not give up on her ambitions.

I wanted to enjoy this play much more than I did, primarily because the situation of its two primary characters is both unusual and compelling. But Ching, who has done a good deal of writing for television, seems to have been unable to shed the conventions of the small screen here, and in both form and style Nomad Motel feels more like episodic television than theater. Structurally, the play depends a great deal on bouncing from one location to another in a manner that often feels sluggish and awkward. In particular, the final series of scenes, in which two conversations are happening simultaneously – one downstairs in the living room and the other upstairs in a bedroom – seem written for the quick cut of the camera rather than for the live stage, where one pair of silent actors are visibly not doing anything while the other pair is talking. Stylistically, the play aims for realism, but it’s the realism of a TV sitcom, in which we’re asked to overlook a whole host of rank implausibilities. Some of these implausible moments belong to the script itself: for example, at one point Fiona, who has been hastily packing up her family’s belongings so that she can vacate the motel room before the manager duns her for the rent, insists that Alix take the car keys, and then grabs just two of the many boxes lying about and rushes out the door, apparently never to return. How is she transporting the boxes, if she has just given her daughter the car? And why would she leave behind all of her other belongings? Other implausibilities are exacerbated by the production’s design choices, as when Alix – who is possessed of neither a sewing machine nor, as far as we are told, mad drapery skills – somehow ingeniously fashions a skirt, complete with elastic and shirring at the top, out of one of Mason’s shirts (likewise, a skirt she had earlier rigged out of Oscar’s old hoodie appeared equally impossible, given her circumstances).

In other words, in both play and production the maker’s hand is very much in evidence, making much of the plot and action seem overly contrived, particularly as the parallels between Mason and Alix, and between James and Fiona, start to line up as if on either side of a split screen themselves. As a result, despite the fact that the characters’ situations are based in fascinating and stage-worthy real-life predicaments, the play feels too neatly wrought to adequately capture their messy and unpredictable reality.

“A New Brain” at Front Porch Theatricals

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You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of William Finn’s 1998 quirky, feel-good musical A New Brain. The autobiographical tale, based on Finn’s own experience surviving a risky operation to correct an arteriovenous malformation in the brain, began life as a series of songs, written in the aftermath of Finn’s illness, that were then threaded together in collaboration with James Lapine to form a story; the musical had a relatively brief run Off-Broadway in 1998 and has been staged relatively sporadically since, most recently in 2015, as a concert performance at New York City Center.

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L to R: Becki Toth, Jeremy Spoljarick, Lauren Maria Medina, Pierre Mballa, John Wascavage, Brady D. Patsy, Meredith Kate Doyle, and David Ieong.

The show’s origins help explain why, despite the energy and complexity of the music, it has had such low visibility; as Ben Brantley wrote in his 1998 review, the musical as a whole has a “spliced-together feeling,” in which the songs don’t really fully coalesce into a coherent book musical. Nonetheless, Front Porch Theatricals’ fine production, directed by Conor McCanlus, highlights the strengths of the material to create a captivating evening of theater.

John Wascavage plays songwriter Gordon Michael Schwinn, who feels he is wasting his talent writing – or failing to write – songs for a children’s theater show hosted by a frog puppet named Mr. Bungee (Matthew J. Rush). He suffers what at first appears to be a stroke in the midst of a business lunch with his agent Rhoda (Meredith Kate Doyle); at the hospital he learns that his condition is genetic, and that he’ll need to undergo major, risky brain surgery to correct it. His mother Mimi (Becki Toth) arrives, full of Jewish motherly insistence that she will make everything all right, and his dashing, WASP-ish boyfriend Roger (Jeremy Spoljarick) is summoned from his sailing vacation to join him at his side. These characters and their concerns swirl around him, but the majority of the action takes place inside Gordon’s head, as he worries, reflects, and hallucinates in the lead up and aftermath to his operation.

McCanlus stages most of the play as a kind of hallucinatory dream, which is an excellent choice given the disjunctive nature of the songs – there is virtually no spoken dialogue, and the songs themselves stand more as ruminations on a theme than drivers of plot (and often have lyrics that don’t fully make logical sense, much like a dream). McCanlus uses ensemble movement skillfully to populate Gordon’s interior consciousness on stage, with swirls and groupings that evoke the feeling of a dream’s disorganized chaos. And although the subject matter is heavy with existential angst – Gordon is grappling both with his fear of death and his despair over having wasted his talent and failed to leave any significant work behind – McCanlus keeps the mood light and sly, emphasizing moments of irony and self-deprecation. Top among those is a scene in which Gordon’s boyfriend Roger appears in his daydream, parodically kitted out by costume designer Natalie Burton in a billowy white shirt unbuttoned to the navel (à la Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), to sing his love-song-that-is-not-a-love-song “Sailing.”

The pleasure in A New Brain derives primarily from the music rather than the story, and in that department this production delivers. Music Director Deana Muro magically conducts a nearly flawless live orchestra from below the floor, and the vocal talent in this production is some of the best I’ve seen on a Pittsburgh stage. Wascavage is excellent as Gordon, with a clear tenor and a terrific ability to sell both the wit and the emotional content of his songs. Spoljarick’s gorgeously rounded, plummy baritone is a standout in the cast, and his rendition of “Sailing” is swoon-worthy. Becki Toth once again proves herself to be one of the best musical comedy singers in town, belting out the huge ballad “Throw it Out!” one moment and then silkily caressing the devastatingly sad torch song “Music Still Plays On” the next, her deep alto inviting you to melt into the music. Drew Leigh Williams, who plays Lisa, a homeless woman, is another vocal powerhouse in the cast, knocking her big number “Change” out of the ballpark. The terrifically talented ensemble also includes the wry Brady D. Patsy as the “nice” nurse Richard, Mei Lu Barnum as the Waitress, Lauren Maria Medina as the “mean” nurse, Nancy D., Pierre Mballa as Dr. Jafar Berensteiner, and David Ieong as the Minister.

“The Forest of Everywhere” at Bricolage Production Company

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An enormous storm has torn through the world, carrying animals from far-flung places and depositing them here in Pittsburgh, in the “Forest of Everywhere.” They’re lonely, confused, feeling out of place, and in need of kind and welcoming explorers to come listen to their stories, play with them, and help them feel at home again.

That’s the back story to Bricolage’s gently enchanting “Forest of Everywhere,” an immersive, sensory-friendly theatrical experience for children of all ages and abilities that conveys the message, on the level of both form and content, that no one should ever feel out of place because they are different.

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You enter the Forest after spending a few moments inside the hollow of an enormous paper mache tree, where an alpaca named Simon (Renee Rabenold) and a forest ranger (Dave JM Bielewicz) explain how you can help the new inhabitants of the forest adjust to their new homes, and ask you to take an oath promising to be kind and helpful before entering the space. The slumbering tree wakes up long enough to grant you access to the forest – through a tunnel of what appear to be shimmering stars – where you find an inviting interior playground, filled with little rooms and tunnels that belong to the different animal-characters (all represented by puppets) who seek new friends.

There’s a donkey, named “Don Key” (Parag S. Gohel) who likes to dance, and gets you to help him find his groove again. There’s Esther, an ostrich (Missy Moreno), whose entire bling-filled dressing room has been blown to Pittsburgh with her; she’ll invite you to dress up in her feather boas and beads and to invent a new song with her. There’s a crocodile, Sobi (Tal Kroser), who lives in a moss-covered hut, and who will share stories with you. Hops the Bunny (Kelsey Robinson) doesn’t speak at all, but her tunnel is perhaps the most soothing and centering space of all – filled with objects of all different textures to touch and sort, and with tubes of scents to sniff, it’s the kind of place just bout any of us would want to retreat to when life gets too stressful. A Prince (Grayson Rumsey) escorts you out through a hidden passage when you are ready to leave, and gives you the opportunity to conjure a gift from a magical fountain before you depart.

The sound (Sarah Pickett, Chris Evans, and David Gotwald) and lighting (K. Jenna Ferree) create a soothing, calm ambience that helps transform Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s cardboard trees and ingenious huts, caverns, and rooms into an enticing and inviting play-space. The space is set up precisely to accommodate young children, or children on the autism spectrum, whose attention span, ability to focus, or tolerance of high stimulation make traditional theater inaccessible – kids can roam, interact, play, and be as involved or uninvolved as they choose. Charged with helping the animals who’ve been displaced find ways of “being themselves” in this space, the children are free to do the same. Last year I had the chance to “playtest” an earlier iteration of the show, when it premiered as part of the Children’s Festival; at that time, I was invited to regress a bit and participate as if I were a child, age and personality of my choosing. I opted to be an inquisitive, unruly, and easily distractible child, and had quite a bit of fun unleashing my id and exploring the various activities as if I were a five-year-old. This year, I attended as an adult, and although the Bricolage team encourages adults to attend sans children, in truth its target audience remains the under-ten set, and the full experience isn’t really available to those of us who have lost our ability to think magically the way children do (or who aren’t comfortable pretending to be a child among real children).

So I asked my two young friends, Murray and Alice, to share their thoughts about the “Forest of Everywhere.” Here’s what they said:

What did you like most about the Forest?

“I liked the bunny cave. There was a tunnel where Hops can sleep in. She doesn’t talk. She did a movement that showed you where she sleeps. She has things you can smell. She likes to smell them too.”

“I discovered a yellow foam hole, that when you pushed it, it felt good on your hand. I liked the slide, but you had to do a dance to slide on the slide.”

“I liked the part where we met Shushy. I had a lot of questions. Why is she snoring? Why won’t the door open? Why is there a speaker? The crocodile told stories, how Shushy became a real live tree.”

Who did you like helping?

“I spent a lot of time with Donkey, I helped him a lot.”

“I helped the bird.”

How would you describe it to a friend?

“It’s this crazy forest with all these people you need to help!”

“There are people but they have puppets, and I don’t know how they do it but they make it look like the puppets are really talking!”

Do you think other kids would like it?

“Yes! It was a lot of fun!”

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at Throughline Theatre Company

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Polymathic comedian Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile might best be described as a love letter to creativity and to the creative energies that birthed both the joys and the horrors of the twentieth century.  The conceit of the play is a chance meeting at a Parisian café, the Lapin Agile (“Nimble Rabbit”), in 1904 between Albert Einstein (Steve Gottschalk) and Pablo Picasso (Nico Bernstein), both at the time in their twenties. The main action of the play is debate – Einstein and Picasso converse and argue about what constitutes talent, genius, and creativity, and whether art or science will be more valuable or useful to the coming century. Hindsight tells us, of course, that both of these men will introduce revolutionary innovations, and in the end the play celebrates the joys, pleasures, and importance of creative energy to both the individual and society.

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L to R: Steve Gottschalk, Nico Bernstein, Jenine Peirce. Photo by Kate Hagerty, courtesy Throughline Theatre Company.

Other characters in the play revolve around these two geniuses – there is the café owner, Freddy (here cross-cast as a woman, Jenine Peirce), who is rather simple, but who occasionally has a brilliant insight; her girlfriend Germaine (Lee Lytle), a waitress at the café who is also having an affair with Picasso; Gaston (Patrick Connor), an elderly patron with a tiny bladder and an obsession with sex; Suzanne (Hannah Brizzi), a Picasso-groupie who gets upset when he forgets that he slept with her; Sagot (Samantha A. Camp), a savvy art dealer; Schmendiman (Chris Duvall), an American with a lot of silly get-rich-quick ideas; the Countess (Sarah McPartland), Einstein’s girlfriend; and a time-traveling Visitor in blue suede shoes (guess who?), played with a Tennessee drawl by Stephen Ray.

Squint a bit and it’s not hard to imagine many of these characters having been cleaved off of characters Martin has successfully played himself in his long film career, in particular Gaston and Freddy – who both have something of Inspector Clouseau’s “idiot savant” vibe – and Schmendiman – whose wide-eyed belief in his own ability to sell a crazy invention evokes the sheet music salesman in Pennies from Heaven.

Strong performances by Bernstein and Gottschalk anchored the play’s central debate, and the Throughline Theatre Company production, directed by Daniel Freeman, garnered a lot of laughs, particularly from the many metatheatrical references sprinkled throughout the play. The simple set (Rob Hockenberry) served the needs of the production well, and lighting designer Paige Borak and sound designer Shannon Knapp brought in special effects that elevated the action out of its naturalistic setting as the play required.

“Byhalia, Mississippi” at Carnegie Stage

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The dilemma at the heart of Evan Linder’s play Byhalia, Mississippiis a knotty one: what should a man do when his wife gives birth to a child that is visibly – by virtue of its race – not his own?

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Brandon Meeks and Erika Cuenca. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Carnegie Stage.

If your Netflix habits are anything like mine, you might recall that this was also a central plot conflict of an episode of Call the Midwife. There, to the astonishment of the midwives, an elderly white husband – who both doted on his wife and also desperately wanted to be a father – simply accepted a black baby as his own with nary a blink of an eye. Here, Jim (Brandon Meeks) flies immediately into a nearly incoherent rage, first falsely accusing his best friend Karl (Lamar K. Cheston) of being the father, and then moving out of the house before his wife Laurel (Erika Cuenca) can bring the baby home from the hospital. But Jim’s fury about the infidelity is, as Laurel pleadingly points out, more than a bit hypocritical: he, too, had had an extramarital affair in the months before Laurel cheated on him, and she had forgiven him that betrayal. Why is he unable to do the same for her?

The play’s title helps provide the answer: Byhalia is a tiny town, one in which the baby’s race advertises loud and clear to everyone Jim has known his whole life that he has been cuckolded. The central question the play poses is: does Jim have it in him to forgive Laurel this public humiliation?

The story is told here in realistic fashion – the set (by designer Adrienne Fischer) authentically recreates the living room/kitchen area of a small, low-rent home, the kind of place that might have been built in the 70s and untouched since. A couch propped on cinder blocks and an old Lazyboy recliner signal Jim and Laurel’s current economic status, but the dialogue makes clear that they are both college-educated (she’s a school teacher, he played sports at Ole Miss), and you suspect that they’ve both moved down the socio-economic ladder a notch from their upbringing. As the play begins, Laurel’s mother Celeste (Virginia Wall Gruenert) has been visiting, overstaying her welcome while waiting for the baby to arrive. She’s a cantankerous, censorious woman, and when she comes back after the baby is born, her first instinct is to command Laurel to give the baby up for adoption rather than try to raise it herself in Byhalia. Also adamantly opposed to Laurel’s raising the baby in town is Ayesha (Hope Anthony), the wife of the baby’s father – like Jim, she, too, feels publicly humiliated by the baby’s existence. But Laurel stubbornly holds firm that the “plan” she has made – to raise a family with Jim – is the plan she’ll follow, even if it takes years to come to fruition.

Byhalia, Mississippi is a play that would sit comfortably among the offerings on the Lifetime channel – it has a soap opera quality to its conflicts and its (at times overwritten) dialogue, and the structure of the play is more televisual than theatrical. Moreover, its predictable ending felt, oddly enough, far less realistic or plausible than the resolution of that Call the Midwife episode, in which, as much as the husband’s willingness to be blind to his wife’s infidelity beggared belief, it at least remained consistent with his most deeply held desires. In Linder’s play, the characters’ flip flops feel thinly motivated and improbable. Nevertheless, director Ingrid Sonnichsen finds a core of authenticity for each character despite the script’s implausibilities, and the ensemble makes vivid their characters convoluted and painful paths towards offering  – and accepting – forgiveness.

“The White Chip” at City Theatre

What does it take to overcome an addiction to alcohol? Many people find success through the twelve-step model, which requires, among other things, that addicts surrender to a higher power. But what do people do who, for one reason or another, find it impossible to believe in a higher power?

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L to R: Daina Michelle Griffith, Kyle Cameron, and Daniel Krell. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

That’s one question, among many regarding the difficult road to recovery, that Sean Daniels’ autobiographical play answers. The “white chip” of the title refers to the first plastic sobriety medallion a person receives at an AA meeting upon declaring an intention to stop drinking. Daniels (played engagingly by Kyle Cameron) finds himself the recipient of plenty of these, as rehabilitation attempt after rehabilitation attempt fails to help him say “no” to booze.

The play is written as a combination of first-person narration and brief scenes of dialogue, with side commentary tossed in regularly by Daina Michelle Griffith and Daniel Krell, who alternate between tallying up the “pro’s” and “con’s” of drinking and stepping into the roles of the many colleagues, friends, relatives, and lovers impacted by Daniels’ love affair with alcohol. The tone of the writing is playfully self-aware, consisting mostly of direct address to the audience that is laced with a good deal of sardonic self-criticism. The three actors capture that tone with a casual confidence, establishing an easy comic rapport with each other and the audience. The playful tone is underscored by Leon Rothenberg’s whimsical sound design, which punctuates the action at apropos moments with comic sound effects – doorbells, chimes, trumpets, and choirs of angels – that help keep the story light even when the subject matter turns dark.

I’m often skeptical about plays that depend heavily on narration, but this one really works. Director Sheryl Kaller has shaped the action with a keen sense of timing and pace, and she handles the shifts between narration and microscenes with panache. Robert C. T. Steele’s costumes help keep the action flowing, as iconic articles of clothing help to quickly and efficiently establish new characters, and Hank Bullington’s bi-level set simultaneously supports and makes fun of the inherent didacticism of any play about recovery, featuring chalkboards on multiple levels that allow the actors to trace (and at times erase) the “lessons” learned along the road to recovery.

It helps the comic energy of the play that the story Daniels has to tell is one that has a happy ending – his perspective as a storyteller is fully inflected by the fact that he managed to find a way to get sober, stay sober, and rebuild the life that alcohol destroyed. That his way did not involve succumbing to a higher power may be the most sobering insight he has to offer, as it points to the ways addiction-recovery programs may fail to serve those who like their solutions evidence-based.