“Spamilton: an American Parody” at Pittsburgh CLO

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It takes a deep love of a subject to parody it successfully, and Gerard Alessandrini, creator of Spamilton: an American Parody as well as the previous hit sendup Forbidden Broadway, clearly loves Broadway musicals. If you’ve seen Forbidden Broadway, Spamilton’s setup will be familiar – one piano, small cast playing multiple parts, and nonstop spoofing of the tunes, characters, and plots from current (and past) Broadway musicals. And although, as the title and visual branding make clear, the focus of the satire here is on Hamilton, as with Forbidden Broadway Alessandrini grinds the entire industry of musical theatre through his mockery machine.

The loose plot centers on the efforts of “Lin-Manuel Miranda” (T.J. Newton, oddly a dead ringer for the real guy) to shake up Broadway with his new style of musical. He recruits actors “Leslie Odom, Jr.” (Tru Verret-Fleming), “Daveed Diggs” (LaTrea Rembert), the guy who plays George Washington (Justin Lonesome), and a Leading Lady to play all three sisters (the fabulous Erin Ramirez). Dressed in signature Hamilton base costumes – tight white pants, cream-colored vests, shiny knee-high boots, a doo-rag for Washington and big hair for Diggs – the fantastically gifted ensemble busts out many of the signature dance moves from the show as well, but with enough exaggeration and comment to render them a little silly (the choreography, by director Gerry McIntyre, gets the balance between imitation and mockery just right). A prime target for Alessandrini’s satire is the crazy popularity and obscene success of Hamilton, reaching its apotheosis in the song “I wanna be in the film when it happens,” which imagines a slew of (nearly all white) Hollywood stars vying for the chance to board the Hamilton gravy train. Miranda’s success in getting a role on Mary Poppins also gets skewered, à la “Mickey Mouse has his eyes on me.” Even Hamilton’s branding gets roped into the parody, with the trademark star prominently displayed on the back pockets of the ensemble’s pants.

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L to R: T.J. Newton, Erin Ramirez, Tru Verret-Fleming, Justin Lonesome, LaTrea Rembert. Photo by Matt Polk, courtesy Pittsburgh CLO.

Music director Fred Barton has shaped the myriad styles of music from the range of shows featured with precision and clarity. Pianist Nick Stamatakis plays through the demanding score with flair, and at one point even has a surprise solo number that brings down the house (I won’t spoil it for you). The five members of the ensemble are all so good they probably ought to be cast in Hamilton itself, and they bring the right combination of sheer talent and self-aware mockery to the task of sending it up. Verret-Fleming, Lonesome, Newton, and Rembert are already familiar to Pittsburgh audiences, and they shine here as vocalists, actors, and dancers as they have in previous productions; Rembert, in particular, steps into his own in this show, with a confident and charismatic turn as “Daveed Diggs.” As the only woman in the cast – a joke in its own right, given the gender politics of Hamilton – newcomer Ramirez takes on more roles than any one else in the ensemble, and her vocal flexibility is extraordinary. In addition to switching back and forth between the vocal stylings of Renee Goldsberry, Philippa Soo, and Jasmine Jones all in the same song – with puppets, no less (“Look Around”) – she also gives credible impersonations of Bernadette Peters, Liza Minelli, Julie Andrews, and Barbra Streisand. Yes, it’s that kind of parody.

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L to R: Justin Lonesome, Erin Ramirez, and Tru Verret-Fleming. Photo by Matt Polk, courtesy Pittsburgh CLO.

Honestly, dear Reader, I’m trying to remember the last time I laughed as exuberantly in the theatre as I did at Spamilton. Alessandrini is an astute observer of the foibles and flaws of the commercial theatre industry, and he has a genius for weaving those observations into lyrics that surprise and delight. Particularly hilarious are his criticisms of Hamilton itself, encapsulated in lines like “The lyrics go by so fast and you’re in the abyss/ Can you believe you paid eight hundred bucks for this?” or in the moment when Ramirez steps out as “Eliza” and sings, in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Cries,” how she will “make you cry!…just when you think I can’t rinse more tears out of you, I’ll tell you about…the orphanage.”

Spamilton also nails a slew of other Broadway musicals, including (but in no way limited to) Book of Mormon, Wicked, The King and I, The Lion King, Willy Wonka, Harry Potter, Phantom of the Opera, Alladin, and a whole medley’s worth of Sondheim musicals (the extended dig at Sondheim’s music may have been my favorite moment in the show). It’s all a little dizzying to remember; the show clicks along about as fast as Hamilton itself, and much of the fun lies in the way it chews up and spits out new musical victims as it barrels along. At seventy minutes, it’s exactly the length it needs to be, although – and this is such a rarity – at the point where it appeared to be coming to a close with “Eliza’s” final number, I was having so much fun that I really didn’t want it to end.

“Bright Star” at Front Porch Theatricals

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The mission of Front Porch Theatricals is to present high quality productions of hidden gems from the musical theater world – shows that may not have achieved great fame or longevity on Broadway but that deliver an emotional and theatrical punch nonetheless. With Bright Star, the  top-notch artists they have engaged at every level certainly deliver on that mission, although whether or not the musical itself deserves more acclaim than it has received to date may be a matter of the viewer’s tolerance for melodramatic sentiment.

The music and story were written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell; Martin wrote the book and Brickell supplied the lyrics. Their collaboration on the musical grew out of an earlier collaboration on a bluegrass album, and the music for Bright Star is squarely in that musical idiom, tightly played by a small orchestra under the direction of Douglas Levine and featuring the bluegrass trio of Marina Pendleton (fiddle), Bryce Rabideau (mandolin), and Jim Scott (banjo), each of whom gets a moment to showcase their formidable talents during a musical interlude leading into the second act.

The catchy, toe-tapping music is the show’s best feature; the songs are woven in close harmonies that eloquently capture the vibe of the early twentieth century South in which the story takes place. A cast of sixteen vocal powerhouses pulls those tight harmonies into focus with a gorgeous lushness, helmed by stellar performances from leading players Erin Lindsay Krom, Jerreme Rodriguez, Miller Kraps, and Marnie Quick as the two pairs of lovers around which the story is structured.

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Bright Star’s plot bounces back and forth between 1945, when Billy Cane (Kraps), an aspiring young writer, returns to North Carolina after serving in WWII, and 1923, when Alice Murphy (Krom), a young woman chafing under restrictive Bible Belt social norms in a small town in North Carolina, falls in love with Jimmy Ray (Rodriguez), son of the powerful and corrupt Mayor Dobbs (a menacing Darrel R. Whitney). She gets pregnant, the mayor takes the baby boy away to have it adopted out, she eventually becomes the hard-biting editor of the literary journal to which Billy submits his stories, and if you’re anything like me at this point in the plot you’ve already figured out where it’s headed. In order to get to its tidy resolution, the musical depends on all sort of coinkydinks and plot contrivances; one is best off not thinking too hard about it, as the musical’s charm relies wholly on an audience content with just going along for the ride.

Director Nick Mitchell and choreographer Mara Newberry Greer have skillfully crafted the staging such that the scene seems to be perpetually in motion; repeated patterns of movement in transitions and in the choreography link disparate moments of the play and keep the two time periods distinct. The costumes, by Anthony James Sirk, also draw a vivid distinction between the 1920s and the 1940s, and make it possible for both eras to play out on Jonmichael Bohach’s mobile and flexible scenic design. Overall, the creative team has made a lot of strong choices that serve the storytelling well; however, the decision to void the South of African-Americans (the ensemble is all-white with the exception of one Asian-American actor) is both puzzling and regrettable.

While you might expect a work by Steve Martin to have a bit more comic edge and satire – or to do more sending up of its subject – this musical demands to be played without irony, and the cast does a great job of serving up the corn straight. Kraps gives Billy an utterly believable aw-shucks-golly-gee-whillikers innocence and enthusiasm; Quick is sweet and amiable in her yearning for his affection; Whitney all but twirls a mustache in the role of the villainous mayor; Rodriguez is dashing and chivalrous as the privileged mayor’s son; and Krom adroitly limns both the prim and proper editor who would have excised that last adverb from this sentence, and the free-spirited young woman who lets down her hair with the most interesting boy in town.

Predictable as the plot of this musical is, its emotional climax still delivers a real punch, thanks largely to the genuine feeling the ensemble breathes into the action. The play’s soaring, uplifting hymn at the end, “At Long Last,” is delivered with a passionate optimism that will leave even the most cynical audience member feeling like all is right with the world.

“We Are Among Us” at City Theatre

Stephen Belber’s new play We Are Among Us pries open the lid on what one of its characters describes as “a really fucked up situation.” In other words, the US involvement in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to write much about this play without spoiling some of the reveals that make it rewarding. Khadija (Nilanjana Bose) is a 22-year-old refugee from Afghanistan who lives in La Jolla, California, and works at Whole Foods. Both of her parents were victims of the violence brought by the US invasion of her country: her mother was accidentally killed by a US tank, and her father’s body was found in an unmarked grave a few weeks after enduring a brutal interrogation at the hands of US soldiers who suspected him of having allowed the Taliban to use his property as a base from which to launch a deadly mortar attack on American troops. One of those soldiers is now running for mayor of a major US city, and Shar (Jo Mei), a freelance reporter, is investigating whether the soldiers had tortured him to death and covered it up. She contacts Laura (Lisa Velten Smith), who had been stationed with those soldiers as a private contractor and overheard the interrogation, to dig into the matter; it’s clear that Laura knows more than she has previously admitted, and her refusal to talk about the incident piques the curiosity of her son Beau (Eric Wiegand), who starts doing some investigating of his own. Meanwhile, Laura’s conscience has been pricked enough that she visits Taylor (Kyle Haden), one of the soldiers and her former lover, to try to find out what really happened behind the closed doors of the interrogation room.

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Nilanjana Bose. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

That’s the play’s set up, but as the truth about the fate of Khadija’s father’s death unspools, in both private conversation and public media, the situation doesn’t get resolved. Rather the opposite occurs: the moral quandaries become stickier, the gray areas get murkier, the difference between perpetrator and victim becomes harder and harder to distinguish, the lines between right and wrong get blurrier, in short: the entire situation becomes even more fucked up.

Under Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s direction the ensemble presents the story with nuance and sensitivity. Bose, in particular, captures in her avoidance of eye contact with others the anguish and ambivalence her character feels over reliving the past – it’s an eloquent choice that not only signals her discomfort but also speaks to the vast cultural gulf she must traverse as an Afghan woman living in the US.

The strength of this play lies in the way its moral complexity implicates everyone in its world in both good and bad – while all of its characters produce compelling arguments to justify their actions, none of them has clean hands. It takes a while for the play to build the foundation on which to show that strength, however, and the drama feels a bit flat and directionless until it reaches about the halfway point. That’s about the point at which Belber lands one of the play’s best scenes, in which the hyper-eloqent Taylor confronts Shar about the value and purpose of the muck she is attempting to rake up – it’s one of those scenes in which two characters are on polar opposite sides of an issue, and yet each is convincingly in the right.

From that moment on, any notion that we might be occupying a universe in which there are clearcut choices between right and wrong quickly recedes, and suddenly the odd angles of Narelle Sissons’ scenic design, combined with Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design, which transform the color of the set seemingly at will, all start to make sense. Nothing is what it seems in Belber’s world of moral relativism, and much as we may wish for it, Belber bravely resists the temptation to provide a neat resolution to the conundrum he has concocted.

“King Lear” at Quantum Theatre

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Not going to bury the lead on this one: Quantum Theatre’s production of King Lear is a production you don’t want to miss, so check the weather for the rest of the week, get yourself a ticket for what looks like a dry night, and hope that the weather gods are on your side.

Quantum’s marketing slogan for this season is “theater that moves you,” and Lear delivers on all of the meanings of that phrase. Let’s start with the most prosaic: it’s actually going to make you move, first and foremost to the fabulous site of the former Carrie Blast Furnace, which I’m willing to venture will be a new discovery for more than a few of you dear Readers. Monumental, massive, and stunning in its decay, the Carrie Furnace is a place that is uniquely Pittsburgh, testifying both to the ambitions and achievements of the city’s past leaders and to the transience of its once-powerful steel industry.

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Jeffrey Carpenter as Lear, at the Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark Site, courtesy of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

In other words, it’s a perfect backdrop for the story of Lear, who likewise finds his power and status hollowed out over the course of the action. Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri puts the crumbling infrastructure of the former steelworks to breathtakingly beautiful use in telling Lear’s story. The first act uses the gargantuan architecture of iron pipes, stairways, and platforms as part of the set, with a throne fashioned out of a cairn of flat stones in the foreground lending the production a mythic Stonehenge-meets-Steampunk vibe. For the second act, you have to move again, this time on a quarter-mile journey through the site’s desolate landscape – along a path lined with paper lanterns – to a pastoral ring on the periphery that is enclosed with corrugated steel walls. Here, Ferrieri and lighting designer C. Todd Brown make the ghosts of Pittsburgh’s industrial past stand in for Lear’s diminished sovereignty: the brightly-lit furnace looms majestically behind the audience seating while three enormous shrouded steel monoliths stand silent sentry in the background of the action on stage.

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L to R: Dana Hardy, Connor McCanlus, Catherine Gowl, Jeffrey Carpenter, Ken Bolden, Lissa Brennan, Monteze Freeland, and Michaelangelo Turner; at the Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark Site, courtesy of Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The long trek from the site of the first act to the site of the second is no mere gimmick – it echoes the trajectory of the action. Act one of this version of the play – which has been judiciously edited by James Kincaid and Julian Markels – ends with Lear, Kent, Gloucester, and Edgar all having been cast out into the wilderness and headed toward Dover. Act two draws them, and us, to Dover for the play’s tragic resolution. Their journey is our journey, and it felt right to have to walk a distance in the dark through a strange and disorienting terrain as a way of marking the passage of time in the play’s action.

Of all the site-specific Quantum productions I’ve seen over the years, this may be the one that has best married site to play and integrated all of the design elements into an eloquent world. Echoing the aesthetic of the set, Susan Tsu’s elaborately layered costumes pull from both the medieval world and the protective clothing of the early twentieth-century steelworker. Handknit cowls and belted leather jerkins are accessorized by protective goggles, hardhats, and welder’s masks, effectively ghosting the spirit of Pittsburgh’s former grandeur into Lear’s loss of his dominion. The costuming coup de grace, however, is a massive, detailed topographical map of England that serves as Lear’s cape in the opening scene, replete with such features as the mountains of Cumbria and the white cliffs of Dover. Steve Shapiro’s ominous, rumbling sound design seamlessly integrates the soundscape of the surrounding area into the production, such that there are times when the crescendo and decrescendo of a passing freight train seems to be coming from the surrounding speakers rather than the nearby tracks. As the sun sets, Brown’s lighting gives added depth and dimension to the complicated architecture of the site and effectively establishes both the frenzy of the storm in the first act and the placidity of the pastoral setting in the second.

This production of Lear won’t just make you physically move; it is also extraordinarily moving, thanks largely to Jeffrey Carpenter’s nuanced and sensitive handling of the main role. Shakespeare gives Lear a lot of ranting and raving to do in this play – the guy is betrayed and then gaslit by his thankless, greedy daughters, after all – but Carpenter gives Lear’s anger and madness modulation and shape, punctuating big outbursts of rage with moments of quiet tenderness and baffled self-reflection. In the first act, Lear’s primary relationship is with the Fool, played with cheeky bravado by a southern-accented Tami Dixon in longjohns and a hardhat. In the second act, that place is taken by his banished daughter Cordelia (Catherine Gowl), and the scene in which he struggles to recognize her when they finally meet again is exquisitely poignant, importing a modern understanding of the confusion of dementia into Shakespeare’s depiction of “madness.”

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Jeffrey Carpenter and Catherine Gowl. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

Also deeply stirring is Connor McCanlus’s portrayal of Edgar, who is framed as a would-be patricide by his half-brother Edmund (a role given unexpected complexity and depth by Joseph McGranaghan). McCanlus’s Edgar first appears as a louche child of privilege, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette and oblivious to his brother’s power-hungry machinations. His decision to feign madness after Edmund’s plot succeeds shows him to be a coward at heart, and as the play proceeds from there, McCanlus beautifully tracks Edgar’s slow and uneven evolution into the courageous son who finally comes to avenge the wrong done to his father Gloucester (Ken Bolden) and himself.

As Lear’s fiercely loyal counselor Kent, the magnificent and majestic Monteze Freeland anchors the play’s moral center while also keeping the storytelling on track with crystal clear delivery of much of the play’s exposition. Rounding out the strong ensemble are Lissa Brennan as Goneril, Dana Hardy as Regan, Jessie Wray Goodman as Oswald, and Michaelangelo Turner as the good Duke Albany.

Director Risher Reddick, who is new to the Pittsburgh theater scene, has shaped the story of the play with lucidity: so clear are the actors’ intentions and actions that shortly after the play begins, you no longer feel that you are listening to Shakespearean language (which may well be the highest praise one can heap on a production of a Shakespeare play). Riddick has added songs that frame and contextualize the action, and has used staging adeptly to establish character status and effect transitions between the many locales called for by the story. A few of the staging choices are more puzzling than enlightening – for example, I wasn’t sure what to make of the group of welding-masked people warming themselves by a fire in the storm scene – but overall his directorial choices serve to bring the heart of this tragedy to the fore through vivid stage pictures and a strong emphasis on the emotional journeys of the characters.

So stirring and captivating are the final scenes of this production that when the (ahem) “atmospheric mist” started to fall midway through the second act on the night I saw the show, guess what? No one in the audience moved.

“Indecent” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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Apologies, dear reader – the end of the semester and its attendant demands on my time have made me dilatory in my blogging; nearly a week has passed since I saw the Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s very fine production of Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, and I am only now finding the bandwidth to write about it.

Indecent is a rich and complicated piece of theatrical writing that uses the history of another play, Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, to tell the story of Eastern European Jewish aspirations and persecutions in the early twentieth century. Its sweep is simultaneously intimate and vast, using a narrow focus on a Yiddish theater troupe to illuminate the historical pressures that buffetted Jewish and queer artists and immigrants in both Europe and the United States.

The multiple layers of storytelling make Indecent as difficult to describe as it is rewarding to experience. As the play opens, Lemml, aka Lou (Maury Ginsberg), the stage manager, introduces us to the troupe of actors and musicians who will play the many roles in both Vogel’s play and Asch’s play-within-the-play. There are the group’s founders, Vera (Laurie Klatscher) and Otto (Robert Zukerman), who play the elders; Halina (Meg Pryor) and Mendel (Ricardo Vila-Roger), actors “in their prime,” who play the cynical and scarred characters; and the ingenues, Chana (Emily Daly) and Avram (Robert Tendy), who play the idealists and lovers. Rounding out the troupe are three stellar Klezmer musicians – Nelly (Erikka Walsh) on violin, Mira (Janice Coppola) on clarinet, and Moriz (Spiff Wiegane) on accordion.

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Maury Ginsburg (with ensemble). Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The story they have come to tell is the story of a play that most of us have never heard of:  God of Vengeance was both one of the most successful Yiddish plays of the early twentieth century and also one of its most controversial. That play tells the story of a young girl who falls in love with one of the prostitutes working in her father’s brothel, and its emotional climax comes when the two women share a kiss in the rain. In Vogel’s telling of the story, the play raised hackles in 1906 in Asch’s small hometown of Lodz, Poland, but was embraced by the more sophisticated and broad-minded audiences of Berlin a couple of years later. A decade of successful touring on the Yiddish theater circuit of Eastern Europe followed; in the early twenties the troupe then brought the play to New York City, to play in a Yiddish house in the East Village. It was only when the play was translated into English and moved to Broadway in the early 1920s that its subject matter became contentious: the production was shut down on opening night and the producer and actors were arrested on charges of indecency.

For Vogel’s fictional troupe, the closing of the New York production eventually becomes a death sentence: the players return to Poland, where they perform the play in increasingly difficult circumstances in the years leading up to World War II. They are eventually imprisoned in the Lodz Jewish ghetto, where they put on the play in secret to audiences who might reward their performance with a scrap of food, and where they are rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the death camps.

Woven around and through this story are individual stories of migration, assimilation, artistic freedom, censorship, linguistic competency, and (in)tolerance. Asch moves to America but never learns to speak English; this has calamitous consequences when he agrees to allow changes to the English translation of his play which he cannot understand. Meanwhile, Lemml tries and fails to fully assimilate: he gets nicknamed “Lou” and tries to master English, but never manages to speak well enough not to be ridiculed. For Lemml, America is not a free country; it’s a country that censors art and humiliates people who don’t yet belong. In the troupe itself, two of the women are lovers, and they play the lovers in God of Vengeance, which makes the charge of obscenity doubly threatening. And the threats to artistic freedom don’t only come from without – the Jewish community itself is shown to be morally outraged by the play’s depiction of queer love, as Jewish leaders seek to position Jews as a model minority.

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Opening scene. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The Pittsburgh Public Theater production of the play is gorgeous. Narelle Sissons’s deceptively spare set comes alive under Michael Klaers’s breathtaking lighting design, and Devon Painter’s clothing grounds the action in the era while also providing some whimsy in the musical interludes. Sound and projections, by Zach Moore, anchor the play in time, space, and linguistic world. Director Risa Brainin shapes the complicated back and forth between different times and spaces – and between “real life” and the “play-within-the-play” – with clarity, and she uses silence to good emotional effect, as, for example, when she has the starving players take a long moment to savor the bread Lemml has managed to scrounge for them.

Brainin’s direction also underscores connections between the play’s concerns and our current moment, highlighting the challenges of coming to the US as a refugee as well as the continued threat of antisemitic violence. One scene that is particularly resonant comes when Asch, who has been to Europe and seen the violence of the pogroms, tells his wife that “it’s coming here.” Her response – “It won’t happen here; we’re safe here” – rings devastatingly hollow in light of the massacre here in our own city last October.

As the play ends, we see the scene that a New York judge deemed “indecent” – two women embrace in the rain. It’s a beautiful and tender moment, and one that drives home the bitter irony and ludicrous hypocrisy hinted at by the play’s title, which asks: what really constitutes the world’s indecencies?

“The Burdens” at City Theatre

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Words, such tricky things! So vital to our survival as social creatures, yet so easily mis-fired or mis-taken, particularly when they are zinging back and forth between two phones, subjected to the evils of autocorrect and deprived of the saving grace of vocal inflection.

Matt Schatz’s new play The Burdens makes devilish comic hay out of such miscommunications. The play centers on Jane and Mordy Berman, adult siblings living on separate coasts – she in their hometown in Southern New Jersey, he in Los Angeles – who “talk,” like most Millenials, primarily through their thumbs. Older sibling Jane (Catherine LeFrere) is a put-together lawyer, married with three kids and a fourth on the way; Mordy (Ben Rosenblatt) is a wannabe musician, a man-child who slouches around in a dirty t-shirt and eats Lucky Charms out of the box (Madison Hack’s costuming here is rich with well-observed detail, down to his awkwardly mashed “bedhead” of hair). While Mordy’s doing his Peter Pan routine in California, Jane’s coping with the burden of dealing with aging relatives – specifically, their mean-spirited centenarian grandfather Zad Zad, whose care is draining their mother’s savings, and their mother herself, whose slide into poverty is a source of anxiety and dismay.

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L to R: Ben Rosenblatt & Catherine LeFrere. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

A slip of the thumb, a substitute of an “i” for an “o” and the word “dies” for “does,” and the pair suddenly find themselves joking – or are they? – about hastening Zad Zad’s inevitable demise. The plan, once hatched (well, sort of), brings them together in unexpected ways, until by play’s end, they are actually talking the old-fashioned way, IRL, with all of the nuance and sensitivity face-to-face communication enables.

Along the way, we see how the burdens of family history have shaped these two, along the lines of that old truism from the 2000-year-old man: “We mock the things we are to be!” We also see how IRL communication has never been a guarantee against misfires, either. The play’s title refers to one such misunderstanding: as kids, they used to go to a restaurant where the owner misheard their surname as “Burden,” and in response, Jane and Mordy had imagined into existence WASP-ish superhero alter-identities to go along with the mistaken moniker. Even the nickname Zad Zad is a linguistic mistake, a childish substitute for the Yiddish “Zaide.”

You may worry that a play in which nearly all of the communication is digital might involve too little emotion and engagement between the characters. Yet it’s the juxtaposition between the flatness of SMS communication and the richness of human experience beyond the screen that is both theme and comic drive behind the play, and the production captures that on several dimensions, including Britton Mauk’s set, which abstractly presents a world in which two dimensions are visually extended into three. Director Marc Masterson likewise gives his actors plenty to do to establish character and communicate with feeling even though they are ostensibly separated by thousands of miles and limited to 140 characters – they are for the most part unfettered by the realism of typing on a phone, free to engage in other activities (and use their voices and bodies to express what their messages don’t) as they send and receive communications. LeFrere and Rosenblatt are engaging and believable as siblings and their comic timing is spot-on; Rosenblatt also makes for a credible aspiring singer-songwriter, accompanying himself on guitar and electric keyboard as he croons a few of his character’s tunes.

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L to R: Catherine LeFrere and Ben Rosenblatt. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Schatz’s dialogue is clever and zippy, and he deftly replicates the pitfalls and frustrations of modern digital communication; one of my favorite moments comes when Mordy’s congratulatory text to his sister on the news that she’s pregnant gets autocorrected to “Mazel gov!” (Been there.) Schatz also insightfully captures the way texting sometimes licenses people to communicate things they might not say in face-to-face conversation: at one point, Jane and Mordy get into a no-holds-barred argument over SMS that ought to be relationship ending. But the sibling relationship is resilient, and their shared past helps them move beyond such momentary cruelties. In the end, that’s also where the play leaves us – with the reminder that much as family burdens test and try us, with enough humor, generosity, and grace, we can carry them lightly.

“My Traveling Song” by Hiawatha Project

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Gentle, comforting, and playful, Hiawatha Project’s new play My Traveling Song is a whimsical exploration of the relationship between children and the people who care for them and keep them safe. (Readers may be interested to know that I serve on the advisory board of Hiawatha Project, but I was not involved in the development of this production).

The 45-minute performance, which was created collaboratively by an all-female team of designers and performers and directed by Anya Martin, centers on a mother (Monica Stephenson), her child (Heather Irwin), and a mischievous, impish character (played by Shani Banerjee) who introduces chaos into the mother’s attempts to help her daughter go to sleep. Mother and child embark on a journey of sorts, one that involves discovery, moments of magic, and a bit of danger in the form of a sudden thunderstorm. Eventually the journey ends – as such journeys are wont to do – with a return to the comforts of home.

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L to R: Monica Stephenson and Heather Irwin. Photo by Renee Rosensteel, courtesy Hiawatha Project.

The action takes place in a space that feels charmed and fairytale-like. Scenic designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley has transformed Carnegie Stage into a cozy, immersive, blue-green world dominated by a large tree made of paper. Audience members sit in little “pods” – some on large cushions on the floor, others in the seats – that allow for parents and young ones to snuggle while they watch the show (blankets are also provided).

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“My Traveling Song” audience. Photo by Renee Rosensteel, courtesy Hiawatha Project.

A number of special effect “surprises” hidden in the set make for moments of theatrical magic: wind chimes suddenly sound when the audience makes a big “SHHHHH!” sound, for example, or boxes placed in front of us on the floor spontaneously light up from the inside and invite us to explore and play with the tempting substance inside, or clouds and leaves suddenly descend from overhead.  At the performance I attended, both young children and their adult minders were captivated by the show’s many moments of interactivity: playing with goopy sand, catching imaginary raindrops as they fell from an umbrella, and blowing hard to create a “wind” that could rouse the sleeping mother and daughter.

Video projections by Jess Medenbach make the show’s climactic rainstorm as well as other key moments come alive, and lighting and sound effects by Heather Graff and Liza Barley enhance the enchanting quality of the stage world. Nearly all of the dialogue is sung, with live musical accompaniment by Stephenson on the guitar and Banerjee on violin and xylophone; the songs are simple but catchy, and all three performers have lovely, easy voices that sooth and welcome.

While the primary audience for the play is the under-ten set, adults will also find much to connect with here, in particular the moments in which the show captures the frustrations and trials of parenting – for example, when the mother finds it impossible to disengage herself from her sleeping child without waking her up, or when the child blithely makes messes for her mother to clean up. And those who are still children – or are still in touch with their inner child – will be charmed by the show’s invitation to play, sing along, and go on a theatrical journey that (unlike most fairytales and children’s stories) doesn’t require leaving mom behind to have some fun and adventure.

“Proof” at Pittsburgh Classic Players

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I don’t know if I would classify David Auburn’s play Proof – which had its first production in 2000, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 – a “classic”: it’s a bit young to have earned that distinction. But it is a very well-written drama about family, loyalty, trust, love, and mental fragility (all staples of classic drama), so I suppose it makes sense that a company that calls itself Pittsburgh Classic Players would be drawn to produce it.

The action of the play is set on the back porch of the Chicago home of mathemetician Robert (David Maslow), recently deceased, and his equally mathematically-gifted daughter Catherine (Harper York). Robert had been a genius superstar in his field as a young adult, but fell victim to mental illness in his later years; for the past four years, Catherine has been tending to him full-time while he became increasingly disconnected from reality. Now he’s gone, and she’s not only at loose ends about what comes next, but also fearful that she may have inherited his madness along with his math genius.

Also at the house is the genial Hal (Christopher Cattell), one of Robert’s former students, who is sorting through the 103 identical notebooks filled with nonsensical scribblings that Robert left behind, on the chance that in a lucid moment Robert might have cracked some knotty math problem.

The play’s fourth character is Catherine’s older sister, Claire (Alison Weisgall), in town for their father’s funeral. Less mathematically gifted than Catherine, she is proportionately more socially ept and financially secure. She has her own concerns about Catherine’s psychological well-being, and wants Catherine to move back to New York with her so that she can keep a closer eye on her.

The play is a cross between a family drama, a psychological suspense story, and a romance. The first act traces the conflict between the sisters over Catherine’s future as well as a budding attraction between Hal and Catherine; the second examines the fallout when both Hal and Claire refuse to believe Catherine’s assertion that she is the author of a groundbreaking mathematical proof that Hal finds in one of Robert’s desk drawers (in a notebook identical to the ones Robert used). This betrayal of trust breaks Catherine, sending her into a days-long depressive episode that vindicates Claire’s conviction that she can’t take care of herself.

Much of the play’s impact derives from the subtle way Auburn destabilizes our perception of Catherine’s psychological stability: it’s hard to know whose assessment to trust from moment to moment. We only get brief flashes of Catherine’s fragility, and York’s strong and stable physicality as an actor throws additional doubt on Claire’s characterization of her sister as weak and unstable. Weisgall is excellent at conveying the walking on eggshells apprehension that characterizes being around someone who is “bughouse” (Robert’s name for his illness), and as the action unspools her character looks less and less like Catherine’s antagonist and more and more like the one person who really understands how much support Catherine needs.

Jonathan Visser has directed the production with an actor’s attention to the relationships and conflicts between the characters. The production design is spare but serviceable; an echo-y room makes some of the dialogue difficult to hear, but the story is otherwise crafted with clarity and cogency. The play’s primary themes, revolving around the question of what constitutes “proof” in the realms of love, family, and the inner workings of the mind, ring through with resonance.

“Brave Space” by Chicago-based Aloft Circus Arts (at Iron City Circus Arts on the South Side)

The intimate and mesmerizing Brave Space is a circus performance unlike any other you may have experienced.

The show starts with a “floof” of white parachute fabric in the air (I think “floof” is a technical term for this company, which already tells you something about their vibe and aesthetic). That “floof” is the signal to the audience to enter the space and surround the pool of fabric that has now settled on the floor. Slowly, figures begin to move under the fabric, creating shapes that are amorphous at first, but which gradually take form as the beginnings of a tent, with a set of trapeze poles in the center.

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Sarah Tapper. Photo by Nancy Behall, courtesy Aloft Circus Arts.

A figure emerges on top of the trapeze bar; other members of the ensemble steady an eight-foot-high vertical pole in front of her and she steps on to it. She’s no more than 10 feet from the nearest audience member – we can see in her effort just how crazy-hard it is to balance on the tip of a pole, and we can also see the collective concentration and attention of the other six members of the ensemble, who are all focusing intently on her, and breathing with her, as she steps from pole to pole while they hold them upright. At some point, she falls, is caught, and lovingly embraced by her co-performers. The lyrics in the background chant “You are safe,” and – risky as the maneuver we’ve just seen actually was, it’s clear that she wassafe – to fail, to fall, to risk, to try – in this space of communitas and care.

That first pole-walking act (performed by Sarah Tapper) sets the tone and quality of the hour of circus routines that follow, which include juggling (Tapper), hula hooping (Natalie Abell), a Cyr wheel act (Hayley Larson and Zoe Sheppard), pole acrobatics (Heather Dart), a duo trapeze routine (Rachel Webberman and Hayley Larson), and aerial “rope” work with an unusual pair of multi-stranded ropes (Linnea Ridolfi, Zoe Sheppard, and others). All of this takes place inside a tent that the audience helps to build, right after Tapper concludes her pole-walking number. With coaching from the performers and from creator/director Shayna Swanson (who controls the haunting music, and the moody lighting, from an iPad strapped to her forearm), audience members lift the silk, slide inside the parachute bubble, and sit on the floor to watch the rest of the circus.

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L to R: Linnea Ridolfi and Zoe Sheppard. Photo by Nancy Behall, courtesy Aloft Circus Arts.

Everything the performers do from this point on is extremely up close and personal, and they interact with each other and with the audience with a generosity and openness that makes everyone in the tent feel present, welcome, and included (out of necessity!). At times, audience members are asked to help out – I was handed a couple of hula hoops to hold at one point; others were conscripted to hold up poles or help tie back ropes. At others, they are nudged to move or change positions: for the trapeze act, for example, we were urged to lie on our backs, which made the aerial trapeze work simultaneously more thrilling (if one of the performers were to fall, we were, in a sense, her living “mat”) and more relaxing (the recumbent position eliminated neck strain).

Where most circus performances seek to dazzle with superhuman feats of credibility-defying agility and power and flexibility and daring, Brave Space has an altogether different allure: this is a circus without ostentation and showiness, one in which the performers seem interested in creating and sharing an experience of precarity, courage, and other-directedness rather than simply wowing an audience. Indeed, at the end of a few of the routines the audience forgot to applaud – not because we were unimpressed, but rather because the performers finished with such humility and calm that applause felt out of place; it would have been like applauding someone who had just humbly handed you a gift they had carefully crafted just for you.

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Duo Trapeze Act: Rachel Webberman & Hayley Larson. Photo by Nancy Behall, courtesy Aloft Circus Arts.

Consequently, as remarkable as the circus artistry here is – and it is skillful, daring, agile, innovative, and breathtakingly beautiful to boot – what sets Brave Space apart, and makes it magical, is the care the performers take of each other and of their audience. They allow themselves to be vulnerable – to each other, to the risks of their craft, to their audience’s judgment – and they invite the audience to share in that vulnerability. I was utterly enthralled watching these seven women – women who didn’t seem superhuman at all, but mere mortals just like me – take risks, be strong, and hold and carry and catch each other, but what most stuck with me after the show was the serene way they made eye contact and smiled at each other, and at us, throughout the performance. These were smiles that seemed to hold the secret to forging a space of care and connection, and I left with the impression that these artists wished nothing more than to share that secret with all those of us who had come together to build that little magic tent with them.

“Brave Space” at Iron City Circus Arts

If yinz’re looking for a unique – dare I say ONE OF A KIND – way to spend your Saturday evening, you’ve got 40 minutes to get down to the South Side and catch the second performance of Brave Space by the Chicago-based Aloft Circus Arts, on tour here in the ‘burgh. Intimate circus like you’ve never seen it.  I’ll put up a longer post about it tomorrow, but since they’re here just for just one day, I wanted to get the word out.

Stop reading and go – it’s at Iron City Circus Arts, 21st & Mary on the South Side. Second show starts at 9:00 pm.