Looking forward to…(November 2019)

Dear Readers! Much to look forward to in November in the Pittsburgh culture scene!

To begin with, we have four productions opening at the CMU School of Drama in the next few weeks – all but one of which are new works by students in our program. the dance floor, the hospital room, and the kitchen table is a new work by grad director Bonnie Gabel that unearths queer history and solidarity through interviews of survivors of the AIDS crisis; it opens this coming week, and tickets are free. The following week sees the opening of our production of Liz Duffy Adams’ comedy Or, directed by Kim Weild, as well as the premiere of three new plays by grad dramatic writing students Brandy Carie, Ty Greenwood, and Hallie McPherson in our annual New Works Festival, hosted at City Theatre. The week after – on Nov. 20, to be precise – we open Compensation, a new play by director/writer Hannah Manikowski that explores the ethics and entanglements of surrogacy. Meanwhile, our friends down the road at the University of Pittsburgh are producing one of my favorite plays of the last 5 years, The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, directed by Kelly Trumbull (and opening on Nov. 14); and the Conservatory program at Point Park will open Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing on Nov. 8. I won’t be writing on this blog about any of that student work, per my non-conflict-of-interest policy, but I’m looking forward to seeing it nonetheless.

In the realm of work that I’m looking forward to sharing with you in these “pages,” there is Shakespeare’s Will, Vern Thiessen’s poetic and modern one-woman play (featuring Sheila McKenna) that gives voice to Anne Hathaway, the enigmatic wife of William Shakespeare. Quantum Theatre is producing the play at the West Homestead United Methodist Church, beginning Nov. 8. Also opening soon are  School Girls: or the African Mean Girls Play, a new play by Jocelyn Bioh at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and One Night in Miamia new work by Kemp Powers about Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown at City Theatre – both of these productions begin previews this week and open on Nov. 15. And – so exciting! – barebones productions will open Clare Barron’s fantastic play Dance Nation on Nov. 22.

Off the Wall productions in Carnegie is premiering – one weekend only, Nov. 8-9! – a new one-man-show by Alec Silberblatt, The Mon Valley Medium, in which Silberblatt plays Mack, a lonely yinzer telling the story of the murder of a young girl and the effect it has on the community.  Silberblatt describes it as a dark and funny play that is set in the backyard of a Pittsburgh home and written and performed completely in the yinzer dialect. This sounds like my kind of thing, but I fear I won’t be able to see it, as it conflicts with my participation in the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh’s concert William Shakespeare: If Music Be the Food of Love(performances on Nov. 9 at 7:30 and Nov. 10 at 4:00).

Another one-man-show I’ll regret missing because of a scheduling conflict – but you shouldn’t! – is the award-winning Rhapsody in Blacka play written and performed by  Leland Gantt, McKeesport native. Gantt notes that “This play addresses the psycho-emotional effects of racism on a young black man growing up and living in America. Through harrowing, incredible, and often hilarious stories from my own life Rhapsody in Black relates the journey from realization to acceptance to transcendence, and aspires to spark a conversation we have been ducking for a long time.” The show will perform one night only, November 15, at the August Wilson Center.

So much happening! What have I left out? Tell me in the comments below.

See you at the theater!

“The World As We Know It (by 6 women of a certain age” at CorningWorks

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What do women “of a certain age” have to tell us about the world?

A great deal, it turns out, although – when told through the medium of dance, as in the CorningWorks dance assemblage The World As We Know It – obliquely and with circumspection. These women aren’t giving their hard-earned knowledge of the world away.

The piece consists of six solo dance performances knitted together by interludes featuring the entire ensemble. Less overtly thematic and narrative than much of Corning’s previous work, the pieces, taken both individually and collectively, nonetheless explore familiar territory for her: gender roles and expectations, social pressures on women, and women’s lack of access to social and economic power. The ironic costuming underscores the evening’s political edge: when the “tribe” of women come together in the interludes, they are dressed in oversized pastel-colored men’s suits that make them look like children playing dressup; but as the interludes build to a final tableau around a “boardroom table,” it becomes clear that in reality the suits are nothing but an empty signifier of patriarchal power, a silly marker of status.

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Beth Corning; Photo by Frank Walsh, courtesy CorningWorks.

Each solo dance is expressive in a different way of women’s embodied desire, yearning, and pain, building on a shared  movement vocabulary to capture and convey the weight of lived female experience. Five of the six dancers are “of a certain age,” and they seem to move from a place deep in muscle memory; what they know of the world is communicated more through small, subtle, and secret gestures than through flamboyant athleticism.

Yet there is also plenty of agility and dexterity woven into each solo. The show opens with “In medias res,” Li Chiao-Ping’s acrobatic pas de deux with a table, which is set to text constellated around the syllable “be.” In the second solo, Mauriah Kraker’s “the quiet,” dancer Simone Ferro seems to shed her skin like a frantic butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Women’s domestic matters find exploration in the next three solos: Endalyn Taylor pulls forward moments of physical and emotional crisis in “Is All,” a piece choreographed by Sarah Hook that I took to be a meditation on postpartum existential despair; Charlotte Adams emerges nude from a bathtub in “Imagining Ketchikan (Canciones del Corazon),” rendering visible the joy and pleasure that a mature body continues to be able to both produce and feel; and Beth Corning reprises, from her 2016 piece Remains, a scene around a dinner table that evokes the generations of family whose endearing habits and irritating idiosyncrasies have been lost to time. The final solo, Heidi Latsky’s “Unfinished,” is danced with brio by Jillian Hollis; a redhead like Corning, Hollis seems to stand in both for Corning’s younger self and for the future of the dance form, a future that will carry forward, in bodies at all stages of life, the insights and wisdom earned by artists like Adams, Chiao-Ping, Corning, Ferro, and Taylor.

“Not Medea” at off the WALL Productions

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The character of Medea from Greek mythology is often evoked as a shorthand for bad mothering. She was, after all, the woman who killed her children as part of her revenge against Jason, the husband who betrayed her and left her for another woman.

But Medea’s story, like motherhood itself, is complicated: from Medea’s point of view, Jason’s abandonment leaves her young sons with no future, so to kill them is to spare them a fate that she sees as worse than death. By her rather twisted logic, the murder of her children is an act of maternal love.

The complicated logic of maternal love – its fierceness, its rages, its tenderness, and its resentments – is at the heart of Allison Gregory’s new play Not Medea, which interweaves Euripides’ version of the Medea legend with the story of a Woman (Drew Leigh Willliams) who has her own parenting tragedy to cope with.

The conceit of Gregory’s play is that the Woman has come to the theater to see a production of Medea, taking a rare night off from a weekend in which she has sole custody of her very young daughter, Alcyon. She arrives late, because of babysitter issues, and after some initial nattering at the rest of the audience she is drawn, through some unexplained device, into the play Medea itself, as the title character, where her own experiences as a mother who has made regrettable parenting decisions get juxtaposed, mirrored, and compared with Medea’s. What follows is something of a therapy session for the Woman – Gregory uses the Medea material to allow the Woman to make sense of, and come to terms with, the loss of her adopted daughter, Electra, who died in an accident that stemmed from one of those everyday moments of inattention that any parent might have.

Williams is engaging as both the Woman and as Medea, and her emotional journey through anguish, guilt, self-recrimination, and rationalization is moving and thought-provoking, as are the parallels drawn by the play between Medea’s anger at Jason and the Woman’s bitterness toward her own ex (also named Jason), who has also left her for another woman. But the play struggles to gel into coherence. To begin with, the fiction that the Woman is an audience member feels like a forced contrivance that raises more questions than the play agrees to answer. The Woman shifts back and forth between interacting with the Chorus (Elizabeth Boyke) and Jason (Allan Snyder) as if she were Medea in the world of the play-within-the-play Medea, and interacting with us, the audience, as if she were a modern human being in our world. During those latter interactions the Chorus/Boyke is often part of the scene, but it’s unclear what or who she represents in those moments – that is, she doesn’t seem to have a status as an “actor” in the world in which the Woman is an audience member, which muddies the distinction Gregory seems to want to establish between the fictional “real world” and the play-within-a-play. It’s also never clear what happens to draw the Woman into the world of Medea – one minute she’s futzing with her umbrella and the next she’s suddenly intoning lines from Euripides. The fact that she’s given both of her children names from Greek mythology is a bit too clever by half; the fact that she’s left her remaining daughter home alone, in what amounts to an act of criminal child negligence (the photo she shows us is of a child under the age of five!) beggars belief, particularly given the circumstances of her other daughter’s fatal accident.

The play is at its best where it uses the Medea myth to deconstruct contemporary myths of motherhood and offer an honest and unflinching account of what women lose when they become mothers – things like sleep, time, freedom, and autonomy – and of the taboo resentments women may harbor against the creatures who have robbed them of those things. That is to say: both Medea and the Woman have reasons for being “bad mothers,” reasons that the play makes both comprehensible and fully relatable.

“Project Amelia” at Bricolage Production Company

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Do you know where your data is?

I sure don’t. But I’ve been thinking about my data – and the companies that mine it – a lot since I journeyed through Bricolage’s newest immersive experience, “Project Amelia,” which uses the fictive launch of breakthrough artificial intelligence technology to open thorny ethical questions about privacy and data rights.

Before participating in “Project Amelia,” you are invited by “Aura’s” marketing director Bo Brunfeld (Carrie Tongarm) to fill out a survey about yourself and your thoughts about technology. Your answers (may or may not) determine how you are interpellated into the corporate event around which the evening’s action swirls. Before entering the space, you are equipped with a phone and a bracelet, both of which allow your data to be collected and tracked during the evening; these also assign you an identity – you might be cast as a board member or investor, as a VIP friend of one of the company’s principles, as a member of the press, or any one of a number of other roles. A short video orients each subgroup of audience members to its goals and objectives; as in the real world, who you are here determines not only what you are tasked with doing, but also what you know and don’t know.

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Aura CEO Don DeClaire (Tim McGeever) is captured in silhouette during the product launch keynote. Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company.

The immersive world – stunningly realized by Bricolage collaborators Jeffrey Carpenter, Jorge Cousineau, Tami Dixon, Micha Gorelick, Olivia O’Connor, Michael Warren Skirpan, and a small army of architectural consultants, designers, and engineers – resembles a slick, Silicon Valley-esque tech environment, complete with a sly in-house “Museum of Failures” and a “Sandbox” full of intriguing new interactive AI technology that represents the leading edge of the fictional company “Aura’s” product lineup. The big announcement of the evening is the company’s game-changing breakthrough in AI – a lifelike humanoid machine named Amelia (Jocelyn Wrzosek) that is not only capable of performing intricate physical tasks, but also able to parse through the wealth of a person’s data to assess how to best to assist them in times of psychological or emotional need. Amelia is also, we are promised, able to handle that data in an ethical and responsible manner.

Or is it? The evening’s adventure begins when a disgruntled former scientist on the project (Courtney C. Jenkins) interrupts the product launch with some inflammatory accusations. From that point on, the subsequent action seems largely in the hands of audience-participants: there are seven unique trajectories for the action, and the evening’s resolution depends wholly on the choices members of each audience subgroup make in response to the requests and hints they receive from the characters, all of whom need help either procuring or suppressing damning information.

Imagine a cross between a CYOA video game, a scavenger hunt, an escape room, and a hands-on science museum, and you have something of the vibe of “Project Amelia.” It’s both chaotic and energizing, and you may find yourself swept up in – and distracted by – the search for answers and documents. Yet as “Amelia” proves to be in fact much less stable and trustworthy than promised, the fictive “product launch” also comes to offer a sobering warning about our not-too-distant future. For when the action ends and the security personnel usher you toward the exits, you are suddenly made aware that not only have they been keeping dibs on you in person, but that also the electronic devices you were assigned at the beginning of the evening have been collecting your data all along. Bricolage ethically offers you the option to either erase it or let them keep it for future research.

The rest of your data? That’s still out there – somewhere – and someone is using it. Do you trust them? Should you?

“Cambodian Rock Band” at City Theatre

Lauren Yee’s new play Cambodian Rock Band is one of the most-produced plays in the 2019-20 American theater season; Yee herself is the second-most produced playwright this year. That’s welcome news, not only because it is evidence that the American theater is making more space for works by women and writers of color, but also because it demonstrates a recognition that regional theater audiences are hungry for stories that explore an expanded diversity of lives and experiences.

Cambodian Rock Band revisits a history that too many of us probably know too little about: the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to1979. In Yee’s play (directed here by Marti Lyons), Cambodian-American Neary (Aja Wiltshire) works in Phnom Penh for an NGO that is retroactively attempting to bring Khmer Rouge war criminals to justice. Her specific target is Duch (pronounced “Doik”), the notorious head of an interrogation and torture site from which only 7 of some 20,000 prisoners escaped with their lives. At the play’s begin, Neary has recently unearthed evidence that an eighth detainee survived, and she is about to launch a search for that person when her father Chum (Greg Watanabe) unexpectedly comes to visit her in Cambodia after thirty years living in the US. Neary is devastated to learn that the new survivor she has discovered is, in fact, her father, who has built a wall of secrecy around his past. Through flashback he reluctantly unspools the story of how his carefree youth as a member of the Cyclos, a fledgling rock band, was upended by Pol Pot’s seizure of power; in the process he also lays bare the trauma, guilt, and shame that has hitherto kept him from sharing his past with his family

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L to R: Christopher Thomas Pow, Aja Wiltshire, Greg Watanabe. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Cambodian Rock Band is a hybrid of rock concert and theater – the set looks like the stage for a rock concert, with prominent lighting trusses framing a space that is mostly empty save for an elevated drum cage and a keyboard platform (scenic design is by Yu Shibagaki). Music – some of it written by Dengue Fever, and some taken from the archive of Cambodian rock music of the 1970s – both frames the beginning and end of the play and punctuates the action at key moments, serving at some points to comment on the story and at others to highlight the vivacity of culture and energy lost to the Khmer Rouge genocide. The psychedelic/surf-rock style band consists of Eileen Doan (keyboard), Peter Sipla (drums), Christopher Thomas Pow (lead guitar) in addition to Watanabe (bass) and Wiltshire (lead vocals); they click together terrifically as a rock ensemble, and Wiltshire has an amazing voice that rises above the music with a smooth, gorgeous, bell-like clarity.  The plot of the play itself has two distinct threads: one is the story of the father-daughter relationship healed through the revelation of his past, and the other the story of Chum’s ordeal as Duch’s prisoner. The latter is more successful in terms of theatrical storytelling than the former, which feels too much like a melodramatic device meant to hook audiences into a “universal” relationship. The whole is narrated by Duch (played charismatically by Albert Park), a choice that serves to humanize a monster and invite us to consider how readily systems of power make devils out of ordinary humans. Additional characters from Chum’s past and Neary’s present are played by Doan, Sipla, and Pow.

A magnetic performance by Watanabe grounds the emotional center of this production. In the early scenes, Watanabe leans in to playing Chum as something of a one-dimensional caricature, with a stilted accent, a seeming lack of emotional depth, and a cheerful but clueless penchant for bulldozing into his daughter’s life. As the play proceeds, that one-dimensionality is revealed to be a defense mechanism erected to protect him, and his family, from the trauma of his past. The younger Chum is just as optimistic as his future self, but with a far more rich and complicated psychology and a greater degree of vulnerability and openness. Watanabe masterfully measures out the emotional progression of his character, such that by play’s end, the elderly Chum has a depth and poignancy that is both wholly unexpected and fully justified.

I started this post by noting that the popularity of this play demonstrates that there are audiences for a diversity of stories; I left the production at City Theater thinking a lot about how Chum’s experience is likely duplicated by that of so many present-day asylum seekers, who may – if they are lucky enough to establish new lives in a country of refuge – also choose to seal the experiences and ordeals from which they are fleeing behind a wall of silence – a silence that in turn might be reinforced by linguistic barriers and cultural taboos. Works like Cambodian Rock Band don’t just expose audiences to a diversity of stories; they also serve to magnify our empathy so that we can begin to imagine the depth beneath the surface of others who have chosen – or been compelled – to wall off their suffering in order to create better futures for themselves and their families. We live in times when such empathy is direly in need.

 

“A Few Good Men” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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Ah, if only we could take a trip back in time, to an era when the surfacing of facts that pointed to misuse of authority by those in power could actually topple the mighty, and when we could imagine that judges were more interested in justice and honor than in propping up a corrupt but pragmatically useful status quo.

That’s the time Aaron Sorkin’s 1989 play A Few Good Men transports us back to for a couple of blissfully wishful hours. I don’t know whether the play’s revival at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre is meant to leave us hopeful (that such times might come again) or despairing (that we have lost our innocence forever). Certainly, it shoots a very of-the-moment question across the bow: how has it come to pass that this depiction of truth defeating venality could feel like such a quaint fantasy?

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Burke Moses as Jessup. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

You may be familiar with the film version of Sorkin’s courtroom drama. If you aren’t – and I myself wasn’t – the conventionality of the plot is such that a quick summary will hardly spoil it; indeed, part of the deliciousness of watching this play lies in knowing that the narcissistic and callously self-righteous base commander Lt. Col. Jessup (Burke Moses, gloriously detestable in the role) will get his commeupance in the end at the hands of the rookie navy lawyers Galloway (Alison Weisgall), Kaffee (Doug Harris), and Weinberg (J. Alex Noble). The story revolves around the case of two marines, Dawson (Ryan Patrick Kearney) and Downey (Michael Patrick Trimm), who have been accused of murdering a member of their squadron. Galloway suspects – correctly, it turns out – that the two men had been ordered by a superior officer to carry out a “code red” (a form of hazing used to informally discipline marines who are failing to toe the line), and she manages to have their case moved from Guantanamo Bay, where they are stationed, to Washington D.C. so that they can have a proper trial. She also wants to defend them, but the assignment is given instead to Kaffee, a charming bad-boy Harvard law grad more interested in excelling at softball than defending clients. His forté is the well-negotiated plea bargain, but Dawson and Downey insist on mounting a defense of their innocence in court-martial, forcing the inexperienced trio to go up against the much more savvy and politically deft prosecutor Jack Ross (Kyle Haden).

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L to R: Doug Harris, Alison Weisgall, and Malic Williams. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Sorkin crafts his plot to build maximum tension over whether or not our three legal Davids will slay their Goliath: the depiction of the trial is interrupted by flashbacks to the events surrounding the killing as well as by scenes showing the defense team attempting (mostly unsuccessfully) to collect evidence of the commanding officer’s coverup of his complicity, so that we, as audience, become increasingly invested in the desire to see him brought to justice. Under the agile direction of Marya Sea Kaminski, the enormous ensemble makes that tension electric: as sure as I was that the underdogs would win in the end, I still felt mounting anxiety, as the trial progressed, that our legal heroes might not be clever or crafty enough to nail the villain.

I was also acutely aware – in ways that perhaps the original audience might not have been – of the gender politics of Sorkin’s setup. Nineteen characters appear on stage in this production; only one of those, Galloway, is female, and I imagine that the scene in which Jessup attempts to put her in her place through crude sexual “humor” must have played very differently in 1989 than it does today. Yet another fantasy this production allows us to indulge is that a woman might be able to keep her composure and muster a dignified retort after being subjected to such a Trumpian mode of humiliating sexual harassment: Weisgall’s resolute and unflappable Galloway made me believe it actually could be done.

Strong performances all around make the storytelling rich and juicy. Rounding out the main roles in the play are Jason McCune and Ken Bolden as Kendrick and Stone, the enablers to Jessup’s authoritarian corruption, and Cotter Smith as Markinson, one of the “few good men” in the scenario, who makes the ultimate sacrifice to achieve justice. The role of the court-martial judge rotates between Rocky Bleier, Larry Richert, and Monteze Freeland. Kaminski has also enlisted several serving members of the armed forces into the ensemble, and she uses muster drills and chants effectively to punctuate the scenes and lend authenticity to the production’s portrayal of military etiquette and discipline. The combination of Ryan Howell’s open, flexible scenic design and Joe Spinogatti’s scene title projections allow Kaminski to stage nimble transitions between scenes and keep the action moving at a gripping pace.

Like a Proustian madeleine, Sorkin’s snappy banter may conjure nostalgia for the idealism of his popular TV show The West Wing; that is, for a time when the terms “government” and “service” went together naturally. In retrospect, this play – like so many cultural artifacts from the eighties and nineties – feels prescient, particularly in the way it taps into the strategies alpha males use to maintain their grip on power. In today’s context Jessup’s smug misogyny, in combination with his contempt for people like the Ivy-educated Kaffee and the Jew Weinberg, puts him into a very familiar category, and when the elites he despises manage to hoist him on his own petard it feels more than a little like a dream come true.

“True West” at barebones productions

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Some theater thrills because it resonates with the Zeitgeist; some thrills because the performances are so juicy and riveting you’re just jazzed to be on the ride.

The barebones production of Sam Shepard’s classic True West falls into that latter category. I’m not sure what the play itself has to say about our present moment – although the role of Lee, as a character study in alpha-male narcissism, invites comparisons to a certain leader-who-shall-not-be-named – but the production is a glorious tour de force for its two main actors, Patrick Jordan and Gabriel King.

True West depicts a battle between two brothers: Lee (Jordan), the elder, is an itinerant and mentally unstable alcoholic who burgles houses for a living; Austin (King), the younger, is a milquetoasty conformist with a wife and kids, a house in the Northern California suburbs, and a budding career as a screenwriter. The conflict has already been set in motion when the play begins: Lee has dropped in unexpectedly on Austin, who is working on a career-defining spec script while housesitting for their vacationing mother at her home near Los Angeles. Lee’s resentment of his younger brother’s Ivy-league education and apparently successful career is palpable and menacing; Austin, in turn, is warily treading on eggshells in response to his volatile older brother’s unpredictability. The main conflict in the play comes when Lee manages (via a gamble on the golf course) to sell a screenplay idea to Saul (Randy Kovitz), the Hollywood producer who has been working with Austin on his film project; Lee’s unexpected success – and Saul’s insistence that Austin drop his own project and write Lee’s movie instead – leads to the unraveling of a whole new set of resentments and insecurities and to the chaotic destruction of the interior of their mother’s home.

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L to R: Gabriel King and Patrick Jordan. Photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

As a writer, Shepard made a career out of depicting the yearnings and disappointments and deep rages of a certain class and type of American male; as an actor and director, this has been Jordan’s subject of interest, too, and he seems to have been born to play the role of Lee. In Jordan’s hands, Lee’s unkemptness and lack of boundaries seem, at times, studied and deliberate – even his muttonchop of a beard hints that this is a man who crafts his menace. Jordan’s interpretation of the role perceptively captures a truth about narcissism and other personality disorders: it’s never clear whether his Lee is truly out of control or only appearing to be so as a means of manipulating others by keeping them off balance. In other words, his Lee is either crazy, or crazy like a fox (now who else have we heard that said about?), and his charismatic effect on others – Austin, in particular, but also Saul, and, in the plays’ final moments, their mother (Heidi Mueller Smith), is both bewildering and unpredictable.

In many ways, King has the tougher challenge with the character Austin, whose journey in the play is more of a reach: by play’s end, Austin has realized the emptiness of his existence and decided to test his own skills living in the desert as his brother has been doing. King skillfully builds the groundwork for that transformation by keeping their past relationship present in the action: we see little hints, throughout, that Austin once practically worshipped Lee and saw him as the kind of free-spirited rebel he couldn’t bring himself to be. Alcohol unleashes Austin’s inner Lee, and King plays the reversal in roles between the two men with hilarious and frightening abandon.

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L to R: Gabriel King and Patrick Jordan. Photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

Under Jordan’s direction, the production leans into the play’s excess to brilliant comic effect. Both Jordan and King revel in the play’s unleashing of testosterone and its descent into Bacchanalian physical abandon: much beer is drunk, sprayed, spilled, and splashed, both a typewriter and a golf club are violently destroyed, cabinets and drawers full of kitchen supplies are flung heedlessly to the floor, and obscene amounts of toast are consumed (Tony Ferrieri’s detail-rich 1970s kitchen takes a lot of abuse in this play). At the same time, the production also dives deeply and intelligently into the play’s complicated psychological and family dynamics. At one point in the play, Lee describes a chase scene in the movie he wants to write: “The one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.” That’s also an apt description for the relationship between the two brothers, each of whom is chasing after something in the other’s life, and neither of whom has any real idea of where they are going. In this acute and perceptive production, Jordan and King limn that dynamic masterfully, giving two of the best performances you’ll see on stage this year.

“Gem of the Ocean” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

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A couple of weeks ago The New Yorker featured an article by Kelefa Sanneh about the work of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, the founder of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University.  Sanneh describes how Kendi came to realize that his embrace of the notion of black self-reliance – “a doctrine that urged black people to overcome the legacy of racism by working hard and doing well” – was itself “shamefully racist, because it blamed black people for their own failures.” Kendi argues that, in fact, “the idea of black underachievement lends support for anti-black policies, which in turn help perpetuate [racist] conditions.”

I was thinking a lot about that article while watching the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company production of Gem of the Ocean, directed by Andrea Frye. Set in 1904, Gem of the Ocean begins the history traced in the ten plays that make up August Wilson’s “American Century Cycle,” telling the story of African-Americans who have migrated north during Reconstruction and find themselves confronted with new forms of racism and discrimination in Pittsburgh. The play’s villain, Caesar Wilks (played with canny charisma by Wali Jamal), is the local sheriff, who has assumed to himself the right and privilege to police black behavior in the Hill District and hold his community to the strictest standards of behavior and virtue, without regard for context or extenuating circumstances. When he gets whiff of one of his neighbors stepping over the bright line of the law, he shoots first and asks questions never.

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Wali Jamal as Caesar Wilks. Photo by J.L. Martello/ 18ricco, courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

One of the burning questions the play poses is: what causes a man like Caesar to antagonize and (frankly) betray his own community in such manner? An easy answer might see in Caesar a reboot of the plantation foreman in a new guise. Kendi, however, would likely see in him an “assimilationist,” a person who – like black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois – believes that the black community’s path to assimilation and equality lies in virtuous comportment and strict adherence to the letter of the law. Kendi argues that this is itself a form of racism, because it perpetuates the idea that there is something inherently wrong with people of color that must be “fixed” or “improved” in accordance with external – that is, white hegemonic – standards or expectations. As Kendi notes, however, the thing that is truly wrong is “racism, and the country’s failure to confront and defeat it.”

Jamal’s interpretation of the role opens the door to these thoughts – although Caesar could easily be played as a mustache-twirling melodramatic villain, Jamal brings conviction to his assertions of righteous law-abidance and also allows us to see how much of that conviction is due to internalized racism rather than a sycophantic desire to please the city’s white powers-that-be. Jamal’s interpretation of his role is but one of the many aspects of the play that make it feel particularly timely for our present moment. There is also its flight into magical realism, in which the shamanistic Aunt Ester (Chrystal Bates) sends Citizen Barlow (Jonathan Berry) on a hallucinatory trip to the City of Bones. That harrowing scene – in which the horrors of the Atlantic Passage are recreated for Citizen by the three former slaves Ester, Solly Two Kings (Kevin Brown), and Eli (Les Howard), along with Ester’s protegé Black Mary (Candace Walker) – connects the dots between the treatment of Africans in slavery and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans through the discriminatory legal, social, and economic framework of Reconstruction. It doesn’t take much for an audience member to do a little further dot-connecting to see how the play points forward to what Michelle Alexander has described as the “redesign” of the racial caste system in the form of the mass endangerment, incarceration, and brutalization of African-Americans at the hands of the contemporary criminal justice system.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre has sited the play at 1839 Wylie Avenue, an empty lot now and also during Wilson’s lifetime; scenic designer Diane Melchitzky has engineered an impressive structure to serve as Aunt Ester’s “sanctuary” for her community, a place where troubled individuals come to have their souls washed. While the set doesn’t quite achieve the serendipitous magic (or acoustics) that August Wilson’s childhood backyard at 1727 Bedford Avenue brought to the company’s previous productions of Seven Guitars and King Hedley II – both of which are set in similar Hill District backyards and needed little else to create that spine-shivering sense of watching art mapped onto lived history – there is something otherworldly and enchanting in seeing Wilson’s fictional house, with its historically-rich characters and conflicts, conjured into existence on the very site he dreamed it. Pittsburgh – with its mills, rivers, bridges, and  specific neighborhoods and geography – is very much a character in the play, and the view past Aunt Ester’s living room onto the Mon River and the South Side invites the audience to imagine not only how the characters’ conflicts intersect with the city’s troubled past, but also how its present continues to grapple with the legacy of slavery that Wilson so penetratingly inscribed throughout his decade-by-decade exploration of the African-American experience.

“Fun Home” at Front Porch Theatricals

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There are three knockout moments in Front Porch Theatrical’s production of Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical musical Fun Home.

The first comes when “Medium Alison” (Nuala Cleary – playing Bechdel as a college student) gets seduced by Joan (Essence Stiggers) just after coming out to both herself and her family – the two actors capture the tense, sweet, and excruciatingly awkward dance of emotions between two people navigating that spark of desire and attraction deftly and with sly humor, and you can almost feel the charged chemistry between them.

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Nuala Cleary as Medium Alison Bechdel and Essence Stiggers as Joan, Photo by Greg Messmer, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

The second is when “Small Alison” (the extremely talented young Livia Rocco, playing Bechdel as a pre-teen) sings “Ring of Keys,” a showstopper that conveys her dawning identification with a butch lesbian delivery driver who has just walked into a local diner. Rocco connects beautifully with the lyrics of the song, conjuring both the unseen woman who is the object of her admiration and Small Allison’s dumbstruck wonder that there is someone else in the world who is like her “in a certain way.”

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L to R: Daniel Frontz as John Bechdel, Eammon McElfresh as Christian Bechdel, Daniel Krell as Bruce Bechdel, and Livia Rocco as Small Alison Bechdel. Photo by Greg Messmer, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

And the third happens in the number “Telephone Wire,” in which Alison (Drew Leigh Williams, playing Bechdel as an adult) relives the memory of her last opportunity to have a conversation with her father, Bruce (Daniel Krell), who committed suicide shortly after that visit home from college. She had just come out to her parents and then learned from her mother that he himself was a closeted homosexual; the song is an anguished expression of loss and regret over words left unspoken, stories unshared, feelings unvoiced, and secrets taken to the grave. For those of us of a certain age who were raised by similarly silent, stoic fathers, such regret is poignantly familiar, and Williams traverses the whole range of complicated emotions their stubborn secrets provoke, from anger to bewilderment to deep yearning for a truth that will never out.

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Drew Leigh Williams as Alison Bechdel and Daniel Krell as Bruce Bechdel. Photo by Greg Messmer, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

Those three moments also form the emotional spine of Fun Home, which traces the real Alison Bechdel’s attempts to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her family history and make sense of her father’s life and death for the graphic memoir she published in 2006. The musical starts and ends at her drafting table, bouncing back and forth between the present day, her childhood, and her college years as she conjures memories of her relationship with her father and uncovers clues to the gay identity he repressed (and also regularly expressed, with a series of men represented by Tristan A. Hernandez).

The conceit here is that “Alison” is writing and illustrating the novel on which the musical was based, and the scenes that unfold are panels in her developing story. But the graphic novel’s capacity to use visual shortcuts to move quickly across time and space doesn’t translate readily to a theatrical space, where it takes time and labor to shift a scene from an elaborately furnished living room to, say, a funeral home showroom or a New York studio apartment; a major challenge presented by this musical is the logistics of scene transitions. Director Spencer Whale has proven himself adept at managing swift, strikingly choreographed transitions in the past – his production of Big Fish with the same company is a memorable example – but here he is hampered by a set that has too many ideas and too many moving parts. Scenic designer Britton Mauk seems to be working with the concept that the world of the play becomes more real the further Alison gets in her work on the memoir: in the opening scene, for example, a desk stands in for her mother’s piano, and her mother Helen (Cynthia Dougherty) mimes playing on its surface; the next time we see the interior of her childhood home, a real baby grand piano suddenly appears on stage. I found this concept more distracting than illuminating, both because it adds an additional layer of complication to an already complicated play and also because it makes for a proliferation of different degrees of non-, quasi-, and hyperrealistic furniture that must be hauled on and off by both cast members and stagehands (I can only imagine how crowded it must be backstage).

The “fun home” of the title is the Bechdel family nickname for the funeral home which is one of Bruce’s sources of income. Small Alison and her brothers Christian (Eamonn McElfresh) and John (Daniel Frontz) actually do have “fun” there, too: a comic highlight of the production is a scene in which the three siblings invent an irreverent commercial advertising their services, boasting, among other things, that their mourners are “so satisfied/ they like…our formaldehyde!” The three young cast members nail the comedy of the scene with mischievous exuberance and energetic choreography; momentarily stealing the show, they are a testament to the wisdom of the adage about the danger of sharing a stage with children or animals.

But even in its lightest moments, the secrets that Bechdel’s father took to his grave haunt the edges of this musical; Alison’s happy memories are continually juxtaposed with recollections of his volatile temper, demanding perfectionism, and verbal and emotional abuse. Fun Home is, in many ways, about the toll homophobia – and in particular, internalized homophobia – exacted on Bechdel’s father, on his marriage, and on his family; it’s about the self-hatred that closed him off to his daughter and made him into an enduring mystery to her. But it’s also – as the three emotional high points of the musical demonstrate – a musical about social and personal change over time, as the shameful “family secrets” of one generation become a point of pride and identity for the next.

“Looking for Violeta” at Quantum Theatre

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Does the name Violeta Parra ring a bell? If it does, it’s likely because of Joan Baez’s cover of her most famous song, Gracias a la vidaIf it doesn’t, well, you’re not alone – her polymathic legacy as a musician, composer, poet, lyricist, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, painter, and textile artist has largely been overshadowed by that of her more famous older brother, the Chilean “anti-poet” Nicanor Parra.

Quantum Theatre’s folk opera Looking for Violeta seeks to redress that overshadowing, through a musical “investigation” into Violeta Parra’s life and art. The investigator is Nicanor (Eugene Perry), who opens the opera in search of his sister Violeta (Carolina Loyola-Garcia) – she seems to have died, although that was a little unclear at the beginning – and who then sets the action rewinding back to their childhood and hopscotching through key episodes of her life up to the moment of her suicide by gunshot.

Quantum Theatre presents the world premiere "Looking for Violeta" August 2-25, 2019, at Frick Park Bowling Greens.

L to R: Emily Pinkerton (guitarrón), Ryan Socrates (drums), Carolina Loyola-Garcia, and Jon Bañuelos (guitar). Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The action takes place in a festive tent in Frick Park that has a small playing area in front of a multi-level stage of rough-hewn wood that has space for the band as well as the performers. The upstage tent walls are covered in curtains that feature appliquéd figures of musicians and dancers done in a naive, folk-art style; hanging above, and off to the sides, are props and costume pieces ready to be deployed in the show (scenic design is by Tucker Topel; costumes are by Marissa Miskanin). Clearly, we’re in Brechtian storytelling mode here: the design is presentationally theatrical, with no aspirations of creating the illusion that we are anywhere but in a place of showing and telling.

Would that the script were similarly Brechtian and depicted its story with his customary directness and specificity. I’d love to be able to say that I came away from Looking for Violeta with a firm grasp of who Parra was as a person and artist. But writer Maria-José Galleguillos seems to have prioritized meter and rhyme over storytelling; the script is laden with clunky, forced rhymes in the recitatives (“…houses made of tin/ to see them you’ll need a gin”) that get in the way of the narrative clarity such sections ought to provide. You get the broad outline of Parra’s life, but the details that would provide insight into her story are elusive. Moments crash up without sufficient context or build: we see her get into, and fall out of, several relationships with men (all played with smoldering intensity by Jerreme Rodriguez), but we aren’t shown why she fell in love with them or why the relationship fell apart. Ditto with her music and art: we see several episodes showing that she has begun working in a new form of art or writing – or has developed a new passion for collecting folk songs – but nothing that clues us into why or how she was inspired to pursue these interests. In short: over and over, we see the result of something in her life without understanding its cause or origin (in one extremely confusing section we even learn that her baby has died, but the previous episodes had included no mention of her having had a child).

Quantum Theatre presents the world premiere "Looking for Violeta" August 2-25, 2019, at Frick Park Bowling Greens.

L to R: Emily Pinkerton, Jerreme Rodriguez, Kesley Robinson, Carolina Loyola-Garcia, Jon Bañuelos. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

Director Karla Boos provides staging and scene titles to fill in the gaps in the narrative, but these efforts, too, are often more poetic and imagistic than narratively clear. For example, late in the play there’s a scene in which Violeta dances violently with one of the men in her life – there’s drama here, but what is it meant to represent? domestic abuse? a fight? a seduction? This dance is followed by her dropping suddenly to the floor, and we’re told (via song) that she has attempted suicide. How the dance (or the event it metaphorically represents) prompted the suicide attempt is unexplained. Equally mystifying is an earlier scene in which she seems to force one of her boyfriends to learn to play her music by repeatedly abusing and humiliating him – who he is, and why he must keep practicing the flute, and why she keeps throwing her shoe at him, are all unspecified. The fact that members of the ensemble (in addition to Rodriguez, supporting parts are played by Kelsey Robinson, Raquel Winnica Young, and Emily Pinkerton) play multiple roles doesn’t help: although scene titles establish waypoints in her life (“The People’s Music”; “Fame”), information about character identity is often buried in song lyrics that fly by too fast to fully grok, and the bits of costumes actors don and doff merely indicate that they have changed character, without making clear who the new character is.

Where Looking for Violeta shines is in its showcasing of South American and Latinx music through the work of composer/musician Emily Pinkerton. Her score is a mix of traditional South American melodies and original compositions, with styles ranging from Chilean folk music to flamenco to mariachi to Andean flute melodies, and it features prominently the twenty-five string guitarrón and the lute-like charango, two instruments rarely heard outside of South America (and both of which Pinkerton plays with gorgeous technique). The band – Jon Bañuelos on guitar, Erik Lawrence on winds, Jose Layo Puentes on acoustic bass, and Ryan Socrates on percussion – captures the style and mood of her complex rhythms and melodies with effortless fluidity (music direction is by Daniel Nesta Curtis).

While Looking for Violeta didn’t really deliver on its promise to bring Parra’s life and work into focus, it did have the salubrious effect of piquing my curiosity – there were enough tantalizing hints about Parra’s accomplishments to send me down a nice little rabbit hole of internet research over the last couple of days. She really was an amazing, multi-talented, and extraordinarily complicated human being, and definitely worthy of an artistic homage. There’s good potential in this folk opera, but for the time being audiences would be wise to bone up on her story ahead of time to get the most out of its fractured storytelling.