“An Accident” at Off the Wall Productions (Carnegie Stage)

A moment of inattention – that’s all it has taken to catapult Libby (Amy Landis) and Anton (Ken Bolden) into the circumstances of Lydia Stryk’s 2010 play An Accident. Libby now lies paralyzed and comatose in a hospital bed; Anton keeps vigil, guilt-ridden and self-hating, by her side. When she finally wakes, the play traces the long, slow process of their mutual healing and reconciliation to the vagaries of existence.


Ken Bolden and Amy Landis in AN ACCIDENT. Photo courtesy Off the Wall Productions.

There are a number of well-worn paths Stryk might have explored from this premise. For example, this could have been a play about characters finding spiritual solace or religious redemption; or a play about the legal wrangling that ensues over who is at fault for the accident; or a play about a woman waging an underdog fight against the corporate insurance industry. Instead, and thankfully, Stryk offers a more original exploration of the agony of recovery – both physical and psychological – from an unexpected and life-changing event. Based partly on her own experience recovering from a hit-and-run accident, Stryk’s play allows her to come to terms with her own emotional journey as well as stage a fictional confrontation with the person who hit her.

An Accident is a quiet and intense play, one that provokes discomfort more by dint of its focus on things we’d all rather not think too hard about (how awful would it be to suddenly have your life hijacked by an accident?) than by showy dramatic conflict. Landis makes Libby’s mental anguish and corporeal pain palpable, but she doesn’t indulge in a pity party – her dry and sardonic tone keeps the character appealing, and her emotional journey as she copes with what the accident has robbed her of rings genuine and authentic. Bolden’s Anton seems to suffer in some ways even more than Libby; his life, too, is irretrievably altered when he accidentally runs her over, and his sense of helplessness and despair at having been the source of such grievous harm is heartbreaking to witness and easy to commiserate with.

Director Linda Haston paces the eighty-minute play beautifully; while we don’t know for certain how much real time the action covers, it’s clear that the evolution of both Libby’s ability to function and Libby and Anton’s relationship are excruciatingly slow, painful, and rocky. The passage of time is indicated by the periodic arrival of a nurse (Hilary Caldwell), whose murmured ministrations seem aimed not only to give support to Libby, the character, but also to Landis, who must remain immobilized throughout a good portion of the action.

By play’s end, Libby is finally able to walk away, released from the suspension of time, and life, that her accident has precipitated; but it’s clear that neither she nor Anton will ever find full escape from what a split second of distraction has done to them both.

“The River” at Quantum Theatre

The central metaphor of Jez Butterworth’s The River is crystallized in a story told by its nameless male character (played by Andrew William Smith) about catching his very first sea trout at the age of seven. Narrating the story in the present tense, he describes hooking the fish – “my heart is beating in my cheeks, and my knees are thrumming like pneumatic drills” – reeling it in, picking it up and holding it in his hands, and then – suddenly, inexplicably, and without realizing what is happening – losing it. He is both devastated and thrilled: “I never, ever forgot that feeling.”


Daina Michelle Griffith and Andrew William Smith, photo courtesy Quantum Theatre

It’s a feeling the man can’t describe in words, but he seems compelled to try to recapture it, and those attempts have shifted, in his adult life, from the realm of fishing to the realm of love. As the play opens, the man has brought his new girlfriend, played with humor and aplomb by the excellent Daina Michelle Griffith, to his isolated cabin by the river to share his passion for fly-fishing. He’s trying to reel her in, too, and throughout the first scene you can’t help but feel a tinge of menace in the air – perhaps it’s the setup (man alone with woman out in the deep dark woods), or the fact that he whips out an enormous hunting knife to get a splinter out of her finger?

But this play’s violence, if you can call it that, is of a much subtler sort. The first scene ends with the reading of a Ted Hughes poem – soliciting a grunt of disgust from the woman, for reasons left unexplained – and a blackout; in the next scene, the man is on the phone with the police, frantically reporting his girlfriend missing, when in she walks – except that the person who walks in the door is a different woman (played by Siovhan Christensen, in some of the best work I’ve seen her do). Is this a previous girlfriend, or one who came later? If this woman was an earlier catch, what happened to her? And if she’s a later conquest, what happened to Griffiths’ character?

The play’s ambiguous temporal structure heightens the vague sense of dread that gnaws at the edges of the action – similar moments of doubt, unease, and distrust crop up between the man and each of the women, and the pattern of repetition makes clear that the man’s need for the thrill of the chase has turned him into what most women would recognize as a charming but sociopathic liar and serial philanderer. He gives each woman his heart – both figuratively and literally – in the same moment telling each that she is the first and only to receive that gift, and directing her to the box under the bed where she will find the evidence that she is just one of many.

The play feels, mood-wise, more like it’s about a serial killer, a feeling underlined by the way Andrew William Smith’s very fine performance alternates between a solicitous sweetness and a creepy hyperintensity. That vaguely foreboding feeling is enhanced by K. Jenna Ferree’s atmospheric lighting design, which subtly shifts into an eerie gloam as the action proceeds.The off-kilter mystery of the play is also captured by Britton Mauk’s set, which appends a cozy and inviting rustic-modern cabin to the boathouse at the Aspinwall Riverfront Park. Glimpses of the Allegheny River can be seen through the cabin’s windows, while a water-filled channel in the floor of the set brings the river inside, creating an ever-present reminder of the central role the river played in the man’s psychic history. The mini-river also presents an awkward physical obstacle to the actors for much of the play, and although it is visually arresting, as a scenic metaphor it feels a little heavy-handed.

Director Adil Mansoor smartly resists the temptation to resolve the ambiguity of this play for his audience, trusting, for the most part, in the text (although towards the end of the play, he takes some interpretive license with his use of the mini-river that I felt put too much of a finger of sympathy for the man on the narrative scale). Overall, and to his credit, the production maintains a creepy edge of suspense that feels right for this play about a man angling, again and again, for what he’s lost before.

“Diary of a Madman” and “Poe’s Last Night” at the New Hazlett Theater


What’s the difference between fantasy and madness?

That’s the larger question broached by the (perhaps serendipitous) pairing of one-man shows at the New Hazlett Theater, which explore the musings of Edgar Allen Poe in his last hours, on the one hand, and the ravings of the paranoid-schizophrenic subject of Gogol’s short story “Diary of a Madman,” on the other.


David Crawford as Edgar Allen Poe.

The evening begins with David Crawford’s Poe’s Last Night, in which Crawford portrays the poet as he attempts to escape from three mysterious assailants on what appears to be his last night of existence. Are these three men real, or just figments of his imagination? Crawford never answers the question, preferring instead to remain in the same realm of mystery in which Poe often dwelled as a storyteller and poet. Crawford’s absorbing monologue interweaves stories from Poe’s autobiography with excerpts from his poetry and prose, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and – the evening at its most chilling – “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Crawford’s embodiment of Poe is quietly compelling, and his interpretations of Poe’s works are spellbinding – his rendition of “The Raven” may be one of the most spine-tingling I’ve ever heard. He reels his audience slowly into the heart of Poe’s anguish, and offers thought-provoking insight into the personal conflicts and resentments that may have provided the fuel for Poe’s stories of revenge and dread.


Jon Hayden as Poprishchin

With Diary of a Madman, the eighty-minute piece that follows, Jon Hayden presents an oddly fitting parable for our present day. Poprishchin, the “hero” of Gogol’s story, is a frustrated lowly civil servant whose resentment of the myriad ways the system is rigged against him drives him to madness; he first begins to imagine that he can hear dogs converse and eventually fantasizes that he is the unrecognized King of Spain. Gaseous whiffs of current-day Trumpkinism bubble up, not only in the functionary’s seething anger toward the status quo, but also in the now-too-familiar passive-voice rhetorical manner by way of which he conjures “fact” out of thin air: “it is said that in England a fish put its head out of water and said a word or two in such an extraordinary language that learned men have been puzzling over them for three years, and have not succeeded in interpreting them yet. I also read in the paper of two cows who entered a shop and asked for a pound of tea.”

Hayden presents his protagonist’s descent into madness with energy and (pardon the pun) commitment. His is the more fully produced of the two monologues, and while the set offers a useful grounding in the world of the play, upstage banners that display the diary in full are a choice that ought to be reconsidered. Although the text itself is too distant to be read, the dates and relative lengths of each diary entry are easily legible, and it’s hard to resist looking ahead and thinking about how much distance there is to the end, instead of remaining immersed in the present moment of the action. Director Prodan Dimov may well have made this choice deliberately, to provoke temporal dissonance in his viewers as a way of mirroring his subject’s psychological breakdown, but I fear the real effect produced by this scenic choice is more like impatience than insanity. Given the genius of Gogol’s text, that’s a regrettable effect.

“The Fantasticks” at Pittsburgh Public Theater


In May of 1960, when The Fantasticks first opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson gave it a mixed review, calling it a “dainty masque” and noting that the “uncomplicated orchestrations are captivating and the acting is charming” but that the “story is slight” and the play’s second act fails to “sustain the delightful tone of the first.” His conclusion: “Perhaps The Fantasticks is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures.”

Atkinson was talking about the length of the play, of course, and not the length of the run. Nevertheless, in one sense he could not have been more wrong: The Fantasticks went on to have the longest run of any musical ever – it played continually at the Sullivan Street Playhouse for 42 years, until January of 2002, with regular updates to the cast that included many actors who have gone on to become household names (among them: Jerry Orbach, F. Murray Abraham, Kristin Chenoweth, and Liza Minelli). The play’s appeal to audiences seems to have continued to mystify critics, however. In 1980 Times critic Alvin Klein confessed that he was resistant to its charms and mused that the reason for the play’s endurance might be its “combination of artifice and intimacy; a pseudosophisticated style for very sentimental and simple tastes.”

Director Ted Pappas has fond memories of listening to this show as a young boy and finding it a “gateway to a magic world.” I, too, recall seeing this show as a teenager, in the late 1970s, at a dinner theater in Detroit; my acting teacher played El Gallo, and I remember being captivated and delighted by the metatheatricality of the play and the way the cast brought the story to life with minimal props and set. It seemed, at the time, fresh and exciting.

Pappas’s reboot of the musical is very fine, but whether or not you’ll find The Fantasticks magical and delightful may very well depend on how susceptible you are to a trip down memory lane. The show’s presentational, theatrical style feels very much of its era, and without the novelty of style that the original brought to the stage over a half century ago, the musical’s liteness becomes all the more evident. Nevertheless, for audience members who seek a bit of droll entertainment, The Fantasticks offers a lovely opportunity to indulge in some sweet nostalgia.


Josh Powell as El Gallo. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater #ThePublicPGH

The musical presents a little fairy tale, loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s play Les Romanesques (and bearing similarities to both Romeo and Juliet and the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play of Midsummer Night’s Dream). Two young lovers are separated by a wall that they think their fathers have built to keep them apart; but in actuality the dads, deploying Dr. Spock-methods of reverse-psychology, are pretending to be enemies in order to encourage their children to “rebel” against them and fall in love. The plan has so far worked, and the fathers seal the deal by contracting with a shady character named El Gallo (Josh Powell) to arrange an opportunity for the boy to heroically and romantically rescue the girl from (a staged) abduction.

Act One ends on this happily-ever-after note; Act Two offers the cynical counterpoint to that romantic fantasy, showing the discontent and disillusionment that follow after two people precipitously fall in love. Now the lovers are sent on journeys that involve despair, desperation, and torture, only to finally reunite in the end – wiser, and more ready to take on the ups and downs of a relationship.

The Public’s production of the play is a solid one, with a cast that brings a bright and chipper energy to their performances. Daniel Krell and Gavan Pamer make a suitable pairing as the fathers, jovial and scheming without becoming overly cute. Josh Powell has a gorgeous baritone and a charismatic allure as the narrator/abductor, and Tony Bingham and Noble Shropshire suitably ham things up as the hired players who prod the lovers along on their journey to love and back again. As the two lovers, Mary Elizabeth Drake and Jamen Nanthakumar are sweetly winning, and Jason Shavers plays The Mute with dry irony. The cast is accompanied by a really excellent four-piece orchestra, comprised of Marissa Knaub Avon on harp, Justin Bendel on bass, and R. J. Heid on percussion, and led by Douglas Levine, who also plays the piano.

“Hand to God” at City Theatre

Robert Askins’ Hand to God ran for nearly a year on Broadway, and it’s easy to see why. Funny, irreverent, and downright raunchy, it delivers a riotous (and smugly satisfying) send up of flyover country and its pious hypocrisies.

The setting is a basement classroom in a church “somewhere in Texas where the country meets the city”; recently widowed Margery (Lisa Velten Smith) is running a puppetry workshop for a group of the congregation’s teens, which includes her son Jason (Nick LaMedica), his secret crush Jessica (Maggie Carr), and local troublemaker Timothy (Michael Greer). The puppets are intended to be used to create a show promoting Christian values, but Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, has taken on a life of its own, and starts diabolically expressing Jason’s deepest and darkest “id”-sprung thoughts and desires, wreaking havoc on Jason’s relationship to his mother and his community. Meanwhile, Margery is battling demons of her own: psychologically unmoored by the loss of her husband, she, too, gives in to the urgings of her id and violates social taboos, in ways that are both shocking and outrageously funny.


L to R: Tim McGeever, Lisa Velten Smith, and Nick LaMedica. Photo by Justin Merriman.

Askins’ dialogue is sharp and cutting, and the interplay between Jason and his possessed hand is irresistibly funny. Nick LaMedica is a magician with the hand puppet, and the rapid-fire comedic interplay between Jason and Tyrone is sheer genius, not only on the level of dialogue, but also as physical comedy (Tyrone’s physicality – which relies on the manipulation of his arms by way of a couple of small sticks – gives a whole new meaning to the word “slapstick”). Carr is equally deft with a puppet, and the second act puppet coitus scene may well be the funniest bit of physical comedy I’ve seen all year (yes: puppet sex. Do you need another reason to see this show?).

Lisa Velten Smith pulls out the stops in her embodiment of Margery, a housewife with decades of bottled-up rage, frustration, and desire. A bit like Jason/Tyrone, she too finds herself possessed by demons in the course of the play, and at times her body takes over her mind to delicious comic effect – as, for example, in an unforgettable silent tantrum that sends her long limbs flying in all directions. Both mother and son reveal the psychological toll levied by social repression, especially repression of the religious variety.

Amusing as all these characters are, Askins doesn’t give us a lot of room to empathize with them; they seem more to be objects of our mockery than subjects we are invited to care about. The exception is Pastor Greg, who, as embodied by Tim McGeever, comes across as genuinely kind, honest, and moral; he’s a man who has flaws, for sure, but hypocrisy is not chief among them. Of the surprises this play offers, then, the most welcome may be that in Pastor Greg it generally eschews the stereotype of the janus-faced clergyman.

The play is extremely enjoyable, but overall the story feels unfocused and unresolved: what starts out as a gratifying condemnation of religious hypocrisy fizzles into an Oedipal drama in the end. As such, Hand to God is a little bit like having chocolate chip cookies for dinner – pleasurable, transgressive, and wickedly fun, but not a really fully satisfying meal.

“Enter the Imaginarium” from Bricolage Production Company & ScareHouse


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


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

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

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

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


Pardon me while I gush.

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Remains” (CorningWorks)


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


Beth Corning. Photo Frank Walsh.

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

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

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

“Seven Guitars” at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre


Only in Pittsburgh.

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

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

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

7 Guitars

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

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

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

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

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

“Peribáñez” at Quantum Theatre


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

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


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

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

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

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

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