“Enter the Imaginarium” from Bricolage Production Company & ScareHouse

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Enter the Imaginarium is Bricolage’s newest immersive theater endeavor, and it’s a departure in certain ways from their previous forays into the genre. For one thing, although there’s a rich story woven into the experience, Enter the Imaginarium is less a performance than a hybrid between immersive theater and “escape room.”

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“What’s an escape room?”, you may ask? Good question. I myself learned everything I know about escape rooms from one of the other participants, a self-professed escape room junkie, about five minutes before we entered the “Imaginarium.” They’re quite a thing nowadays, and apparently there are several in the Pittsburgh area. Most of them, she explained, involve being trapped in a room and having to puzzle your way out within a certain limited amount of time; in the more gruesome versions, the stakes might be raised by the presence of a zombie or other monstrous creature whose freedom to attack you is increased every few minutes you fail to effect your escape.

Thankfully, Enter the Imaginarium presents a kinder, gentler scenario, one that is more theatrically stimulating than it is horrifying. The creative team (Bricolage’s Jeffrey Carpenter & Tami Dixon, in collaboration with Jarrod DiGiorgi, Andrew Paul, Rod Schwartz, and ScareHouse’s Scott Simmons and Wayne Simmons) has taken over a former underage nightclub in Harmar, just behind Target; in that space they’ve built a series of intricately curated chambers chock full of strange, cultish objects that hide clues and keys and puzzle pieces you’re required to find, decode, gather, and reassemble in order to make your way out of the space (the rich scenic design is by Tony Ferrieri, with assistance from Hank Bullington). Teamwork is of the essence in working your way through the maze of rooms – the space is designed such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a person to navigate its puzzle-cum-scavenger-hunt alone. Hence part of the challenge – and pleasure – of participating in this immersive adventure lies in making common cause with complete strangers.

The “performance” here depends less on a cast of live performers (as in Bricolage’s previous immersive encounters) than on an elaborate scenic infrastructure and on disembodied voices that offer clues, guidance, encouragement, and mockery throughout the hour or so you’re caught in the room (sound design by Zach Beattie-Brown). I got the feeling from my veteran escape room co-participant that the time pressure usually makes participants feel nervous and anxious about getting out in time; I wouldn’t say that Enter the Imaginarium raised my blood pressure in such a way, but it did spark my curiosity and engage me, and the rest of the participants I entered and escaped with, in a lot of collective head-scratching, seeking, questioning, and deciphering. And where I suspect that most “escape rooms” would not reward a repeat visit (once you know how to solve the puzzle, there wouldn’t be any challenge in going back), because the story behind Enter the Imaginarium presents a mystery that is hard to solve while you’re also engaged in finding keys to locks and trying to remember what you saw in previous rooms, it very well might reward a return to crack the narrative as well.

“Wig Out!” at The REP (Pittsburgh Playhouse)

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Pardon me while I gush.

There’s a lot to love about director Tomé Cousin’s richly realized production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2008 play Wig Out!, which centers on love and conflict among drag queens in New York. If you’ve seen the film Paris Is Burning (a poster of which figures prominently in the set) you know something about the “House Ball” culture that developed within the African-American and Latin-American trans community in the late eighties. Almost thirty years later, that scene is still going strong, and Wig Out! brings us into that world with charm, humor, and extravagant flamboyance.

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L to R: Amber Jones, Connor McCanlus, Jared Smith, Freddy Miyares, Jordon Bolden, Justin Lonesome, LaTrea Rembert, Arica Jackson, Jordan Phillips, Jerreme Rodriguez, & Krista Antonacci. Photo courtesy Tomé Cousin.

McCraney’s story focuses on tensions within The House of Light, a family composed of house mother Rey-Rey (the convincingly matriarchal Jordan Phillips), father Lucian (Jerreme Rodriguez), daughters Ms. Nina (Justin Lonesome) and Venus (Freddy Miyares) and son Deity (LaTrea Rembert). An invitation to a “Cinderella Ball” from Serena (Connor McCanlus, delightfully weird), mother of the rival House of Di’Abolique, threatens the stability of the family, as the domineering Lucian seeks to undermine Rey-Rey’s power within the House. Complicating matters further, Ms. Nina is distracted by a new love interest, Eric (Jordon Bolden), whose relationship to trans culture is ambivalent at best, and somewhat phobic at worst.

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L to R: Justin Lonesome, Jordon Bolden, and Freddy Miyares, photo courtesy Tomé Cousin

The play is very funny and raunchy, in places outrageously so. It’s also gorgeously theatrical, made so primarily by the framing device of “The Fates Three,” played by the massively talented trio of Krista Antonacci, Arica Jackson, and Amber Jones. These three vocal powerhouses serve as chorus-with-attitude, providing both spoken and sung commentary on the action and elevating the story into a mythic realm. They sing mostly a cappella, and the effect is downright stunning, especially when their clear, pure voices contrast with the recorded house music that accompanies the show’s dance numbers (the excellent sound design & musical arrangements are by Steve Shapiro; Jane Howell is the musical director).

Costumes, by Robert C.T. Steele, are fabulous in ways that defy description. This is a play about drag queens, after all, and Steele gives these girls the wigs and robes and heels they need to strut their stuff. Steele particularly outdoes himself in the play’s two big dance-production numbers, a dream sequence in the first act in which McCanlus plays some kind of strange, hermaphroditic Japanese figure, and the big competitive vogue number of the second act, which features, among other eye-popping outfits, a Tina Turner-esque ensemble for Ms. Nina, and crazy glow-in-the-dark wigs and green laser gloves for Serena and her dance partner Loki (Jared Smith).

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(Foreground) L to R: Arica Jackson, Amber Jones, Justin Lonesome, Krista Antonacci, & Jordon Bolden. Photo Courtesy Tomé Cousin

Cousin’s sharply observed choreography takes the show to additional heights, and the cast brings athleticism and precision to the dance numbers. Rembert & Rodriguez have memorably agile solo turns in the first act, and in the second Freddy Miyares – who is acidly delightful as the attitude-ful Nuyorican Venus – busts out some jaw-droppingly limber hip-hop moves in the “real boy” category, and then does a mean Marilyn Monroe impression a few minutes later to boot.

Scenic and lighting design by Britton Mauk and Andrew Ostrowski add to the play’s raucous energy: the set is visually chaotic, in a way that’s just right for this production, with an upstage wall dominated by an image of a face that blends together masculine and feminine features. Ostrowski’s lights pop and pulse with the music, and a disco ball hovering over the action allows him to transform the space into a big ole’ house party in the blink of an eye.

As fun as this play is, it’s got some serious messages at its heart. Indulge me here for a moment. While the conflict at the heart of the play doesn’t seem very momentous from an objective point of view – when it comes to it, we’re talking about dominance in a dance competition – within the world of the play, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Oversized emotions predominate, and that’s as it should be, for aside from Eric, every character in the play is already putting on a persona, acting out what is inside to a more or less ostentatious degree. Their showiness is both an exemplification of the performative nature of gender, and a destabilization of the idea that identity itself is something fixed and immutable. When Ms. Nina morphs into Wilson (her given name) to please Eric, she becomes a different person (as does Venus, when she dances in the Ball as a “real boy”). Lonesome’s portrayal of Ms. Nina is subtle and acute – he fleshes out the person behind the stereotype, and offers a dimensioned character who defies easy categorization. Rodriguez does the opposite with the character of Lucian, whose embodiment of Puerto Rican machismo embraces stereotype to the point of parody. His masculinity is just as much a drag performance as Ms. Nina’s and Venus’s and Rey-Rey’s, and together all these performances of identity expose the extent to which what we think of as “real men” and “real women” are largely social fictions.

The play shrewdly refuses to position any of these personas as either “real” or an “act,” because, as Eric (who claims he “likes men”) quickly learns, that old-fashioned binary thinking just doesn’t apply. Jordon Bolden’s understated portrayal of (the at times rather confused) Eric (in a certain way, he’s the “straight man” in the play) offers audience members who may not yet be comfortable with so much ambiguity a way “in” to the play’s world. And like Eric, once they’re in, they may find its seductive, glitzy pull impossible to resist.

“Remains” (CorningWorks)

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Beth Corning’s Remains is short – barely an hour long – but the themes it explores are oversized, and linger. The one-woman dance piece is an elegaic homage to the people in her life who have gone – and, by empathetic extension, to those we’ve lost in our own lives.

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Beth Corning. Photo Frank Walsh.

Britton Mauk’s scenic design looks a lot like my attic: a wall of cardboard boxes forming an upstage backdrop, their contents seemingly strewn all around the audience space. Christmas lights, books, shirts, pillows, bric-a brac: all those things that get collected in a life, treasures stored, only to become the junk we have to deal with when the original owner is gone. Anyone who’s had to clean out the family home after grandparents or parents have aged out or passed away will recognize the sinking feeling of nostalgia, regret, and emptiness such detritus stirs.

Dressed in a long white coat, pale pants, and white shoes (costume by Sonya Berlovitz), Corning introduces the departed: her father, her mother, the large extended family around the dinner table, a lover, her childhood self. In a series of short vignettes, we see how patterns of movement define a person’s essence, how they change over time, what gets lost and what remains. Iain Court’s lighting schema is dark – rectangles of light define playing spaces, echoing the shapes of the boxes and tables, and Corning often moves in and out of the light, appearing and disappearing like the ghosts she dances with. Corning conjures objects from among the boxes, and imbues them with the spirits of the dead. In a particularly poignant scene, a jacket allows her one last embrace from her father.

Phrases projected on the wall of boxes offer touchpoints for reflection: “There never seemed enough of you to go around”; “How did it get so late so soon?” At times the sentiment felt a bit too on-the-nose – this work has less of the mystery and metaphor that I usually find most compelling in Corning’s work. But I can’t think of another local artist who is so intrepidly and bravely taking on the subject of aging and offering audiences the opportunity to linger a while – to remain, as it were – with the losses that inevitably come as we grow older.

“Seven Guitars” at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

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Only in Pittsburgh.

Only here could a small, scrappy theater company stage a production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars in the very setting he had in mind when he wrote the play: the backyard of his childhood home on Bedford Ave. in the Hill district.

That home has sat tragically abandoned and decaying for decades. But rather recently, a local group, spearheaded by Wilson’s nephew Paul Ellis, began rehabilitating it and transforming it into the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, a center for artists and performers.

And, for just one more weekend, it plays a starring role in Mark Clayton Southers’s surehanded interpretation of the play. That’s not to downplay the achievement of the very fine ensemble who bring to life the story of the violent end of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (played by the charming and charismatic Jonathan Berry), but rather to acknowledge how much this production gains from its setting: knowing that people may very well have had conversations and conflicts much like those depicted in the play on this very spot raises the stakes of its issues in a deeply satisfying and provocative manner.

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Scene from SEVEN GUITARS. Photo by Chris Chapman, courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever found the play’s representation of structural racism and the ways in which the deck is stacked against black men to be quite so resonant. After a summer in which social media has provided incontrovertible evidence of the danger of driving, selling CD’s, or doing practically anything “while black,” the complaints voiced in Seven Guitars by Floyd and his bandmates Canewell (Kevin Brown) and Red Carter (Leslie Ezra Smith) about their maltreatment by the justice system need no additional emphasis for us to see where they fit on a nearly direct line from slavery to the present day. It’s almost as if ghosts have returned to bear witness to what the deteriorated condition of the house provides an apt metaphor for: the depressing fact that the dynamic depicted in the play seems likewise to have deteriorated over the last sixty years.

I fear that last sentence may lead you to believe that this play is nothing but a downer. Not so! The play is very funny, and the cast excels at bringing out the humor in the dialogue and situations. Brown and Smith, in particular, make nice comic hay out of their characters’ tendency to perseverate on a topic, and Teri Bridget is wry and sardonic as the world-weary Louise. Rounding out the case are Wali Jamal as the impassioned and somewhat off-kilter King Hedley, Ty Barrow as Floyd’s love interest, Vera, and Jamilah Chanie, seductive and coy as Louise’s young niece Ruby.

The production overall is very good; there are (perhaps unavoidable) flaws that get in the way of its being transcendant. Long transitions between scenes turn what is already a very long and talky play into an extremely long one (the evening I attended, it was almost midnight when the cast took their bows); the sound system is rather glitchy; there are some sightline challenges; and – my biggest beef – the handling of props and musical instruments is generally unconvincing. The relationships between characters – the meat of this drama – is, in contrast, utterly genuine, and the ensemble does a beautiful job of conveying the rhythms and idioms of Wilson’s dialogue.

Chickens scratching the straw-covered dirt add to the realism of the otherwise appropriately minimal set for the play, which is made more immersively real by the sounds of roosters and voices coming from a neighboring yard (sound design by Mark Whitehead). The period music and Cheryl El Walker’s costuming ground the play in the late 1940s; Xavier Pierce’s lighting design contributes mystery and depth, particularly once the sun goes down and pitches the action under a darkened Pittsburgh sky.

“Peribáñez” at Quantum Theatre

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High cages of chicken wire surround two large round platforms on either side of an open space, forming a barbell shape from a bird’s eye view. Or might they be the scales of justice? Either interpretation could be plausible, given the main narrative themes of Lope de Vega’s 17th-century drama Peribáñez (co-directed here by my colleague Megan Monaghan Rivas and her husband, Tlaloc Rivas). For the play presents us with a macho world of rooster-ish men jostling over the most-prized hen, and offers reassurance that, in a just world, right will prevail over might.

The play’s full title in Spanish is Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña (Peribáñez and the Commander of Ocaña), and its plot centers on the attempts of the aristocratic Commander (Mike Mihm) to tear the beautiful peasant Casilda (Isabel Pask) by hook or by crook from her beloved husband, the farmer Pedro Ibáñez (Siddiq Saunderson). The play sets up this conflict to demonstrate that high status and wealth do not necessarily go hand in hand with honor. For Lope de Vega’s original audience, this probably felt like a bracing claim for equality in a class-stratified society; in twenty-first century America, we’re more accustomed to rooting for the underdog.

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L to R: Mike Mihm, Siddiq Saunderson, and Freddy Miyares.

Indeed, in many ways Lope de Vega’s form of tragicomedy anticipates the “happy ending” plot trajectory of a Hollywood action film. As in his more well-known play, Fuenteovejuna, in Peribáñez de Vega creates a dramatic world in which justice sees past the droit de seigneur and validates the rights of the powerless to fight back against the corrupted and arrogant powerful. And as in Fuenteovejuna, here, too, the rights of women are an issue. In Peribáñez, de Vega casts a gimlet eye on the patriarchal objectification and victimization of women and features a strong female character who makes a forceful claim for her social and sexual autonomy. It’s an attitude that feels distinctly contemporary, even where the play’s elevated language and formal configurations of class and status root it in a bygone era.

Quantum has chosen a bucolic outdoor location in Frick Park for the production, which has the advantage of underlining the pastoral setting in which the play’s action takes place, but the disadvantage of challenging the actors to compete with the buzz of cicadas, helicopters, and Beechwood Ave. traffic. It’s probably a good thing that this is a play of big passions, for the acoustics leave little room for emotional nuance. Translator/adaptor Tanya Ronder has rendered the play into an English that feels just formal enough to suggest geographical and temporal distance, but not so stilted as to be unspeakable by a modern tongue. The cast settles rather comfortably into this elevated language; in particular, Ethan Saks, playing the King, and Don DiGiulio and Freddy Miyares, playing servants to the Commander, find a natural ease and connection with the linguistic formality.

Big passions deserve big costumes, and Samantha Pollock’s costume design does much of the heavy lifting in establishing the status and occupation of the play’s many and varied characters, all of them played by just ten actors. The aristocratic costumes, in particular, are impressively lavish. But the costumes and Britton Mauk’s scenery seem to belong to different theatrical worlds; as much as I admired the quality of both designs, it was hard to see how the opulent realism of the clothes belonged to, and in, the metaphorical abstraction of the set. Music – composed and performed by members of the cast – grounds the play’s action in rural Spain, and acoustic instrumentation is used to good effect to demarcate the play’s frequent asides.

The young, multicultural ensemble conveys the play’s warring emotions with clarity and intensity. With its mix of the tragic and the comic, and its focus on a sympathetic, underdog hero fighting against a powerful and wealthy villain, this 16th-century play feels surprisingly modern and almost cinematic in its appeal.

“Driftless” from hatch arts collective

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Those of us living in Southwest Pennsylvania are surrounded by what Josh Fox has dubbed “Gasland.” Chances are, if you live in or around Pittsburgh, there is a hydraulic fracturing site within twenty miles of your home (don’t believe me? Check out this map). All that drilling is keeping the region’s unemployment rate and energy costs low – but at what cost?

That’s the question at the heart of Paul Kruse’s heartfelt and ambitious new play Driftless. The story centers on a young couple, Sierra (Siovhan Christensen) and Collin (Alec Silberblatt), who have recently moved into a new home built within spitting distance of a fracking site. Collin is a blue collar yinzer who works for one of the drilling companies; Sierra is – like her mother, Mary Anne (Tammy Tsai) – a nurse. Collin is dismissive of environmental concerns around fracking: there might be some truth to the claims made in Fox’s documentary, he concedes, but any environmental impacts are due to carelessness – his company does things right. But when Sierra suffers a miscarriage, she begins to harbor doubt about the cleanliness of their water, and what she learns from having their water sent for testing tears their family apart.

Hopscotching temporally between past, present, and future, and geographically between southwestern Pennsylvania and the sands of Minnesota, the play connects dots between the geological events that left extractable resources in various parts of the world and the environmental and health impacts that result from our exploitation of those resources, both now and in the past. Sierra’s father, Randall (Ken Bolden), is an ex-coal miner who suffered from black lung disease; Bolden also plays James Schneider, a professor suffering from respiratory problems as a result of frack sand harvesting near his home in Minnesota. The two houses showcased in the play exemplify the choices and hazards posed to homeowners who discover that they’re sitting atop a valuable resource, as in both cases mining and drilling are both sources of income and disease. If we consider the Earth as our “home,” the play’s focus on the ways in which our collective thirst for energy renders the characters’ homes unlivable makes for a potent analogy.

Kruse also uses analogy to prompt reflection on our economic addiction to fossil fuels. Collin is a recovering heroin addict, and his efforts to remain clean highlight the challenges we’d collectively face in weaning our economy and society from fossil fuel consumption.

At times the writing feels heavy-handed, as when, in the second act, Bolden and Tsai, playing St. Peter and St. Barbara, hammer us with facts about addiction and the process of fracking. And the plot has some loose ends: specifically, Kruse seems to have lost interest in the family story of the priest (Trevor Butler) when we return for the second act.

The play calls for nice touches of magic realism, which director Adil Mansoor handles with flair, with the help of sound and movement designer slowdanger and a captivating lighting design by Kathryn A. Devlin. Scene designer Michelle Carello rightly makes water a primary element of the set:  working faucets in the two kitchens call attention to the centrality of water to the functioning of our homes and lives, and make present for us what is at stake when the purity of our water is threatened.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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Take three inventive actors, trunks full of costumes, and a well-known story from the Sherlock Holmes canon, season liberally with Monty Python-esque humor, lace with a good dose of metatheatrical self-parody, whip it all into an energetic concoction of not-quite horror and suspense, and what have you got? The zany, playful, and at times downright silly Kinetic Theatre Company production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, currently running at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

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L to R: James FitzGerald, Connor McCanlus, and David Whalen. Photo courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

The script, by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, roughly traces the contours of the Arthur Conan Doyle tale – there’s the mystery of whether or not a demonic hound is stalking the moors, chasing to their deaths successive generations of Baskerville heirs (all played by Connor McCanlus), solved, in nearly proper deductive fashion, by the “world’s greatest detective,” Sherlock Holmes (David Whalen). But not before Dr. Watson (James FitzGerald) – who’s hardly the brightest bulb on the tree – repeatedly mucks things up through a combination of carelessness, inattention, and downright befuddlement.

The three actors populate the stage with a dizzying array of colorful be-wigged, be-bearded, and be-hatted characters who zip on and off stage with frenetic energy; at times, they also play themselves (or some version of themselves) spooked by theatrical superstition and egging each other on. It’s all a bit chaotic, and it’s hard to see much connection between the play’s metatheatrical scenes and the Sherlock Holmes story, but there’s no point in being a killjoy and trying to find method in the madness. Director Andrew Paul proves himself an observant student of the Flying Circus, staging all matter of verbal and visual gag with deadpan seriousness, and his ensemble is fully up to the task. Whalen offers a nudge-nudge wink-wink parody of his own self-absorbed Sherlock, and also plays multiple other roles, including an eye-patched villain, the villain’s Spanish (or is it Italian?) wife, a mysterious bearded butler, and the butler’s daffy wife. McCanlus is suitably goofy as the “Canadian” Henry Baskerville (who speaks, unaccountably, with a Minnesota twang), and FitzGerald’s Dr. Watson is delightfully batty.

Horror is promised at the beginning of this show, but if you want to be scared, you’re in for a disappointment; if you’re looking for a couple of hours of frothy fun, Hound of the Baskervilles won’t let you down.

Looking forward to…

I’ve taken a bit of a vacation from blogging the last few weeks, but the hiatus is about to come to an end! Lots of exciting stuff coming up, some of which I’ll have a chance to see and write about, others I thought I’d share with you, dear Readers, even though I won’t have a chance to write about them.

So, here’s what I’m looking forward to in the next few weeks…if I’ve missed something important, let me know in the comments!

Kinetic Theatre opens Hound of the Baskervilles tonight at 8 pm – it runs until August 7 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre downtown. David Whalen will return to Pittsburgh to reprise his Sherlock Holmes, with James FitzGerald and Connor McCanlus rounding out the cast. Director Andrew Paul promises hilarity; I can’t wait.

Also this weekend – and this weekend only – is the inaugural production of the Entertainment Consortium Inc. African American Conservatory: Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, which is a hardhitting, moving, and timely play about the ways the conflict in war-torn Congo has impacted civilians, and in particular women, who are the victims of indiscriminate sexual violence (and then cast out from their families because they are considered “ruined”). It’s playing at the August Wilson Center on Sunday at 4; I’m sorry that I won’t be able to catch this production, as I’m an admirer of the play.

Another production I’m going to miss, but wish I could see, is the Alumni Theater Company’s upcoming presentation of Green Day’s musical, American Idiot, July 29-31 at the New Hazlett Theater. They tell me it’ll be rock meets Afro-punk. Looks cool: here’s a link to their trailer: https://youtu.be/-kfLmZWGcSo

Quantum Theatre begins its new season with the US Premiere of Lope de Vega’s play Peribañez, in Mellon Park. The play traces the efforts of a peasant couple to preserve their marriage in the face of a local Commander’s lust for the young wife. Lope de Vega could justifiably be called the Spanish Shakespeare; the production, directed by my colleague Megan Monaghan Rivas and Tlaloc Rivas, features a number of CMU students as well as local professional actors. It opens Aug. 5 and runs through the end of August.

Also opening that weekend is the 12 Peers Theatre production of Conor McPherson’s The Birds, directed by Vince Ventura. Based on the same story as the Hitchcock film, the play takes a different look at the toll taken when birds mass against humanity. It runs Aug. 4-21 at the Studio Theatre in the Cathedral of Learning.

Pittsburgh Playwrights will stage August Wilson’s play Seven Guitars in the backyard of August Wilson’s home in the Hill District – how insanely cool is that?! The production will be directed by Mark Clayton Southers, opens Aug. 5, and plays through Aug. 28 (thanks to Dina Fulmer for letting me know that I left this off the list – I hadn’t meant to!).

Two new works open the second week of August: Hatch Arts Collective’s Driftless (Aug 11- 14) – a new play about the impacts of fracking on our community – and Off the Wall’s Mother Lode (Aug 12-14) – Virginia Wall Gruenert’s new play about mother-daughter relationships.

September brings the opening of new seasons at City Theatre and the Pittsburgh Public Theater. City starts things off with a production of Hand to God, a show I’m very much looking forward to – it was a big hit on Broadway, telling the story of a blasphemous puppet that has hijacked the hand of a Christian teen. Opens September 22. The Public opens its season with The Fantasticks, a show I think I last saw in 1980 – which makes sense, as this musical has the distinction of having been the longest running musical ever. The run begins on September 29, and lasts through the end of October.

But I won’t be at the Public on September 29 (I’ll see the show another day), because that’s the evening of DRAMA QUEENS! at CMU – an event I helped to plan, and have been looking forward to for the last year and a half. My colleague Kristina Straub and I invited three of the foremost feminist performance artists of the 80s – Holly Hughes, Deb Margolin, and Carmelita Tropicana – to come to CMU to participate in a celebration of feminist performance. We also asked each of them to invite an artist whose work they wanted to showcase. Hughes invited Erin Markey; Margolin invited Desiree Burch; and Tropicana invited Dynasty Handbag. All six of these amazing artists will perform short “samplers” of their work on September 29, at 6:30 pm in the Rauh Studio Theater, in the CMU Purnell Center for the Arts. Tickets will be free, and the event is open to the public. If this is your kind of thing (and really, why wouldn’t it be?), mark it on your calendar now and call for tickets at the School of Drama box office after Labor Day.

See yinz at the theater!

“Venus in Fur” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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Where do I begin in singing my praises of the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s enormously satisfying production of David Ives’s Venus in Fur?

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Whitney Maris Brown as Vanda. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

I might as well begin with the play itself, which is a provocative and canny – and rather sexy, I might add – work about erotic desire, power and manipulation. The story revolves around an audition for a fictional new play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 quasi-pornographic novel Venus in Furs, which explored the dimensions of what later came to be called masochistic desire (after its author). As Ives’s play opens, director/playwright Thomas (Christian Conn) is about to leave after a long day of not finding the perfect actress to play the lead role of “Wanda von Dunayev,” his play’s reluctant dominatrix, when in barges a young actress, Vanda (Whitney Maris Brown), begging for a chance to audition even though she’s hours late for her scheduled time. She won’t take no for an answer, and Ives soon has her bewitching Thomas in a cat-and-mouse game that niftily maps the dynamic of the humiliating audition process onto the masochistic desire for degradation that is at the heart of both Sacher-Masoch’s novel and Thomas’s play.

Ives’s writing is alternatingly funny, terrifying, and exhilirating. Vanda is playing for higher stakes than just the lead in Thomas’s play, and her manipulation of both the situation and him is dazzlingly delightful. There is fantasy here: a fantasy of revenge and comeuppance, but also one that, harking back to Greek tragedy, speaks a warning to all who would provoke the gods with their presumption of superior knowledge.

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Christian Conn & Whitney Maris Brown. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The role of Vanda is a plum one for an actress. The character is wily, confident, and wickedly intelligent, and the actress playing her has to be able to whip back and forth between the 21st century Vanda, who seems to be blustering her way into an audition, and the sophisticated, aristocratic 19th-century Wanda of the play within the play for which she is auditioning. In addition, Vanda plays a number of other ruses as she uses Thomas’s Wanda to slip through his defenses. The superb, chameleon-like Whitney Maris Brown shifts between the various registers that the role demands with a seemingly effortless spontaneity, and her acumen as an actor shines through in her character’s lightning-quick intelligence. Conn is equally sharp as Thomas, and he brings heart and soul to a character that might easily fall into stereotype. Together, these two actors make the stage crackle with an almost electric charge.

The production’s design deserves praise as well. David M. Barber’s set reproduces the kind of all-purpose room one might rent from an old school or YMCA to use as a rehearsal studio, a little dingy and downscale, with nice details like a small note above the door lock that you might imagine reminds users to turn out the lights upon leaving. Tilly Grimes’s well-curated costumes allow Brown to utterly transform herself from leather-clad modern sex diva to demure nineteenth-century lady in the blink of an eye. Zach Moore’s sound design brings the ominous threat of a storm into the space, and Peter West’s lighting design adds in the frisson of magic that hovers at the edges of the play.

Readers, I’m aware I was a little hard on Tru, the Public’s last production. But with Venus in Fur the theater caps off what has otherwise been a really successful season with an edgy gem of a play, one that has it all: humor, suspense, brilliant dialogue, intriguing characters, outstanding performances, and a cheeky, mischievous take on the dynamics of power and sex. Hail Aphrodite!

“The Spitfire Grill” at Front Porch Theatricals

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Wouldn’t it be “GREAT” to turn back the clock to that happy era when “we all” lived in neighborly small towns with thriving businesses on “Main Street,” men worked “real,” well-paying jobs at the local quarry or mill, their wives made sure their shirts were laundered when they needed them and their dinner was ready when they got home, and “everyone” was just so much better off?

That’s not just a question animating a dishearteningly large proportion of the American electorate this year. It’s also one that threads, rather uneasily, through the center of James Valcq and Fred Alley’s The Spitfire Gril, a musical that debuted in 2001 and was based on a 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff.

Set in fictional Gilead, Wisconsin – a town that, having depleted both its local quarry and its forests of all their valuable resources, now has little satisfying or gainful employment to offer to its residents – the musical is alternatingly cynical and sentimental about the mythical “lost America” the town represents. The plot revolves around a scheme to raffle off the town diner that elderly owner Hannah (Terry Wickline) has been trying to sell for a decade. The idea is that her Spitfire Grill will go to the person who writes the best essay describing why they should win it. The ad that hometown girl Shelby (Erin Lindsey Krom) and ex-con newcomer Percy (Lindsay Bayer) write to publicize the raffle describes Gilead accurately, but in terms that bathe it in a nostalgic-aspirational Norman Rockwell-esque glow: “Have you ever dreamed of a town so small they roll the sidewalks up? …. Here’s a chance to win a grill … the customers who eat here are people that you know.” To Hannah’s surprise, the response to the ad is overwhelming: thousands of essays pour in from people all over the country grasping at that very dream.

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L to R: Erin Lindsey Krom (Shelby Thorpe), Terry Wickline (Hannah Ferguson) and Lindsay Bayer (Percy Talbott) singing “Come Alive Again.” Photo by Martha D. Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

The musical doesn’t quite know what to do with the nostalgic impulse it has dredged up by way of this plot device, however. On the one hand, it seems to want to win our sympathy for these retrograde dreams of pastoral bliss: the desire for a simpler, less harried, more connected life expressed in the essays Hannah receives is one that it’s hard not to relate to. Moreover, the rousing central ballad of the first act, “Diggin Stone,” invites us to align ourselves with the frustrations Caleb (Matthew J. Rush) feels after having been left behind by his town’s economic decline (a laid-off foreman from the quarry, he’s trying to eke out a living selling real estate “till the quarry’s open again”). “Where are the days when a man could lift his head/ Proud of the ways he’s earned his daily bread?” he croons with agonizing resentment.

But careful where you hang your hat: as it continues, the song starts to sound like a potential anthem for disaffected voters ready to believe that their problems will be solved by a huge wall around the country. Among Caleb’s complaints:  “…Then hard times come to town/ Shake your hand and set you down/ Set you up to watch you fall/… You stand back up and get knocked down/ Watch as a stranger takes your town/ You suck it in and you swallow lies/ Something deep in your belly dies….”  Youtube bears me out on this one: when I searched for a recording of the song so that I could quote the lyrics, its algorithm spit out, at the top of the list of related videos, an interview with Jon Stewart about the current presidential race in which he queries, in response to such complaints: “When was America great? … And who took your country away from you?”

So although this musical was written over a decade and a half ago, long before the great recession, it seems very much a musical for and of our current moment, albeit with a much more ambiguous critical stance than it might have taken had it been written more recently. The play’s politics feel a bit like beads of mercury, sliding away from any attempt to pin them down. For example, the nostalgia of “Diggin’ Stone” is countered by the fact that the drunk, bullying Caleb is the least likable character in the story, which encourages us to cast something of a gimlet eye on his grievances. Moreover, the dark underbelly of the patriarchal utopia that he and the raffle entrants yearn for is sliced open when Percy reveals her back story of rape and assault at the hands of an abusive stepfather. Clearly, the musical wants to point out that “everyone” was not better off in that mythical “great America” that never was. But although The Spitfire Grill has several potentially incisive and critical insights to offer into the absurdity and irreality of sentimentalizing and nostalgizing the past, the imperative of a redemptive happy ending means that faith in small-town virtues – if not the patriarchal order – must nevertheless be reconfirmed in its final moments.

The musical’s gender politics also give with one hand while taking with the other. Long stretches of the play pass the “Bechdel test” – there are three main female characters, they talk to each other, and, for most of the play, not about men. It’s refreshing to see a musical that takes a positive look at intergenerational friendship between women and pays homage to women’s ingenuity, strength, and fortitude. But then, for reasons that are unclear, there must be conventional heterosexual wooing: the sheriff, Joe (Clay Singer) falls for Percy and finds, in her, a motivation to stay in Gilead (but in order for him to make his obligatorily awkward proposal, the heretofore rather butch Percy has to doll herself up in a floral dress. What’s up with that?). I have a similar beef with the hetero coupling in Wicked – it feels like a bone tossed to the musical comedy dogs, completely inessential to what would otherwise be a fully satisfying story about female friendship. (For a brief few minutes during the first act, I thought that the romance might blossom between Percy and Shelby; alas, we’ve yet to see that romantic plot in a musical.)

Director Rachel M. Stevens makes an effort to call attention to the “not-greatness” of Gilead (and the “great again America” it can’t help but symbolize for a modern audience) by keeping Hannah’s son Eli (Michael Petrucci), a homeless Vietnam War vet, a constant and haunting presence on the stage from the very beginning of the play. It’s a laudable impulse. But because we don’t really learn his story until near the end of the play, the significance of this figure doesn’t quite have the intended impact.

Some aspects of the production are more successful than others. Music director Deana Muro leads a unseen, first-rate ensemble of five musicians who capture a range of vernacular music styles with dexterity and panache. Among the cast, Bayer, Krom, and Singer are particularly strong, demonstrating impressive vocal and emotional range. As the nosy, gossipy Effy Krayneck, the reliable Becki Toth builds an easy rapport with the audience and provides consistent comic relief. Andrew David Ostrowski’s saturated lights help evoke the autumn colors that are the town’s signature draw, but on opening night, shaky follow spot cues were a distraction. As was Lindsey B. Mayer’s incoherent scene design, in which putty-colored exterior siding on moving panels form the interior walls of the restaurant. The slatted wall behind the diner kitchen looks more like the wall of a barn than that of an eating establishment, and the row of old windows at the back of the stage seem a superfluous afterthought. Equally incoherent was Stevens’s seemingly arbitrary use of real props for some actions, and mime for others. I’m not sure what kind of theatrical world we’re in when a character can light and smoke a real (herbal) cigarette but has to pour invisible coffee from a real pot into a real cup and chop invisible vegetables with a real knife.

Those distractions aside, the storytelling here is clear and compelling, and the fact that I found so much to think and write about (this is one of my longest posts in a while!) is a sign that this musical got under my skin. Perhaps not only in ways I find agreeable; but, in my humble opinion, any art that gets the neurons firing at such a high volume is well worth the price of admission.