Forced Entertainment: “Tomorrow’s Parties” and “Real Magic” (Warhol Performance Series at the New Hazlett Theatre)

Two performance works this week by the British company Forced Entertainment opened the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh’s exceedingly timely series, “Strange Times: Earth in the Age of the Human.” Forced Entertainment is a company known for  work that deliberately breaks with many of the conventions of theatre, such as the expectation for entertainment, or for character development, or for narrative pleasure and closure in a theatrical performance. Their work instead explores questions about what is being negotiated when a performer stands in front of an audience. Postdramatic in approach, Forced Entertainment’s performances often revolve around repetition; they traffic in awkwardness and cultivate a quality of makeshiftness and lack of polish; they often are built like a strange game, with rules and constraints that must be absolutely followed, and which lend their pieces a highly formal integrity and structure. Moreover, although the performances are often deeply absurd and weird, there is a fundamental realness to what is happening on stage. Actors might stand on stage with fake grimaces pasted on their faces, or wear inexplicable costumes or hideously ugly wigs, but that artifice will be contrasted with a realism of actor presence that points up the immanence of the moment of performance. In other words: in their work, what is happening in the moment is what is happening in the moment. Forced Entertainment’s work is bracing because it is operating on multiple levels, speaking to, and denying, our desire to be lulled and entertained, challenging us to be bored or confounded, and using form as well as content to comment on contemporary social and existential predicaments.

In Tomorrow’s Parties (the first of the two pieces they brought to Pittsburgh)  the setup is deceptively simple. Two performers—Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall—step onto a small makeshift platform made out of a couple of stacked shipping pallets. They are framed by a string of multicolored carnival lights, and dressed in everyday clothing. They stand matter-of-factly and speak directly to the audience.

“In the future,” Lowdon begins, and what follows is a series of speculations—ranging from whimsical to dire, and traded back and forth between Lowdon and Marshall—on possible futures. Their affect is low-key and conversational, more like they are telling us casually of New Year’s resolutions (as in, “in the future, I will exercise more”) than performing a story. Yet the effect is mesmerizing, transporting even—at times the performers evoke a future with such mundane detail that it almost feels as if you are dreaming it. Some of the futures described are optimistic and hopeful, others are dystopic and bleak; some take flights of fancy into the sublime, and others descend into the downright silly. In places the back and forth even plays out a pointed, if rather subdued, gender battle. Marshall imagines that in the future, there will be no men, just women and a sperm bank. Lowdon counters with a future that has few men, all of whom can let themselves go physically because they are in demand, and an overabundance of women, whose social roles depend on their age and attractiveness. Marshall parries with a future in which there are no human men, but aliens, who are “just like human men, but superior to them in every way possible.” Lowdon one-ups her with a future that has no people at all. The jockeying between the two performers is sly, but never overtly hostile or aggressive; they float their speculations with the calm demeanor of someone settled in for a long day of fishing, casting out scenarios, letting them play out for a bit, and then reeling them back and casting in another direction.

At its most provocative, Tomorrow’s Parties delivers a charge of recognition that a dystopian future it describes is actually already here — as, for example, when Lowdon describes a future in which “people won’t encounter animals at all, except in zoos” or when Marshall suggests that “it will be just like now” and then proceeds to describe what can only be categorized as a fully dystopian set of circumstances. At its most poignant and harrowing, Tomorrow’s Parties delivers a stinging indictment of our present time from the perspective of the future, imagining that people will look back on our times with moral outrage at our unsustainable depletion of the earth’s resources, and will think about our times “always with anger.” And at its most political, Tomorrow’s Parties makes trenchant observations about our current social and economic priorities, using one scenario to draw a line from our current loyalty to brands and products into a future in which corporations are more important than churches or nations, and another scenario to pillory those who see climate change as unproblematic because the sun will eventually swallow the earth. Shimmering between anticipation and despair, these speculations about the future are simultaneously unsettling and comforting, offering hope by virtue of the sheer number of options these performers can conjure. Quiet, funny, incisive, and haunting, Tomorrow’s Parties is an apposite opening sally for a series that asks “will we survive ourselves?”

L to R: Jerry Killick, Claire Marshall, and Richard Lowdon.

L to R: Jerry Killick, Claire Marshall, and Richard Lowdon in Forced Entertainment’s REAL MAGIC.

Real Magic, the second work, explores existential dilemmas of a different sort. Once again, the stage elements are simple and limited: a square of green astroturf is framed by a semi-circle of vertical fluorescent lights; in the center of the astroturf is a microphone on a stand, and next to it, a chair. A few costumes are strewn upstage, at the base of the lights; three rectangles of cardboard lay face down on the floor in a pile. In this piece, Lowdon and Marshall are joined by Jerry Killick, and the three performers take the stage to the sound of canned applause and a repeating loop of the kind of upbeat, vamping music you might hear between circus acts or as the accompaniment to a whacky television game show. And what ensues is, indeed, a ludicrous game show-cum-mindreading act: Lowdon sits and ties on a blindfold; Killick, acting in the role of game show host, ascertains that they are all strangers, and have never met before; and then Killick instructs Lowdon to try to guess the word that Marshall is thinking of. Marshall – dressed in a big yellow chicken suit – displays the word CARAVAN on a piece of cardboard. Lowdon guesses: “Electricity?” “Hole?” “Money?” “No,” Killick cries, “that’s three chances, you’re out. Let’s swap.”

And that set of events, repeated but with variations, makes up the performance. The performers trade roles, the word on the cardboard changes from CARAVAN to ALGEBRA to SAUSAGE, the soundtrack changes from applause, to laughter, to the ticking of a countdown clock, to a mournful violin solo and back again; and the performers change and exchange clothes, donning and doffing chicken suits as the scenario endlessly loops. What doesn’t change is the basic structure of the task or the outcome of the game; the host always sets up the game and explains the rules, the thinker always holds up a cardboard sign with one of the three words, and the guesser always guesses the same three wrong words.

Even so, the game changes every time it is repeated. In one iteration, the stakes feel deadly serious and the tone is quiet and intense; in another, the performers are silly and flippant, breezing through the routine without much care for the consequences. At times the host is encouraging and positive; at others, the host becomes menacing and severe. The guesser is sometimes hopeful, sometimes nervous, sometimes confident, sometimes terrified. As the performance progresses, the game starts to become frenzied and chaotic; then exhaustion sets in, and something akin to despair. Occasionally they interrupt the routine to “do the dance,” a slow approximation of a chicken dance.

There are shades of No Exit to this scenario, a feeling that these three people are trapped in some kind of awful purgatory, doomed to execute the same set of tasks for eternity. And yet, the performers’ investment in each iteration has the odd effect of giving you hope that they’ll “get it right” even after it becomes clear, many repetitions in, that the pattern will never be broken. Indeed, the company makes fun of its own commitment to the rule it has established for the performance: in one instance, Killick cheats and shows Lowdon the word he’s supposed to guess. “Sometimes the answer is right in front of you,” Marshall intones, as the host, “Just look and you will find.” But – astonishingly, maddeningly – Lowdon still comes up with the wrong three guesses. And – perhaps just as surprisingly – despite their exhaustion with the pattern, the other two don’t choose to simply lie and tell him that one of his guesses is correct. What’s more, no one in the audience ever shouts out the correct answer. We’re all complicit in this frustrating game of guaranteed failure.

That dynamic – in which all three feel beholden to rules that trap them in patterns they are desperate to break – beautifully captures the double-bind in which we all seem to be caught, unable to escape the political and existential patterns in which we’re trapped, even when the answers are right in front of our collective noses, and doomed to failure because the game is impossible to begin with. At the same time, Real Magic also seems to be commenting on our enthrallment with, and to, spectacle, and on the distractive, hamster-wheel effect spectacle has on our attention. Real Magic is a riveting, disturbing, delightful, and completely ridiculous show that scratches at uncomfortable existential itches, and ends with an elegaic gesture toward the need to dance on, inventing ever new strategies, even knowing that we will probably never really “get it right.”

“Lungs” at Off The Wall Productions at Carnegie Stage

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What’s the best way any given individual can take action to mitigate climate change? Recycle? Drive an electric car? Buy energy efficient appliances? Insulate and use less heating and cooling? Stop flying? Buy organic and local? Use public transportation? Pee in the shower and turn off the faucet while brushing teeth?

Eco-virtuous as all those actions may be, their net effect, even multiplied across the many billions of people living with the resources to make those choices, would be virtually nil compared to the one choice that would truly make a difference if taken collectively by a majority of inhabitants of the Earth: not having a child (interested in reading more about this? Try here and here).

But what does it mean, for an average couple, to take the planet under consideration in their family planning?

That’s pretty much the premise from which Duncan Macmillan’s extraordinarily smart and timely play Lungs takes off. A young-ish couple has reached that point in their relationship when baby-making is in the cards. But these two – a nameless man and woman – are the kind of high-information, self-reflective people who want to do what’s rational, right, and moral, even as they feel the irrational urge to do what generations of humans before them have done without much reflection at all. She (played by Sarah Silk) is a Ph.D. student, an overthinker and overanalyzer who is initially thrown completely off balance by her boyfriend’s suggestion that they even discuss the possibility of having a baby together, and almost immediately brings up the ecological implications: “they say if you really care about the planet then don’t have children.” He (played by Alec Silberblatt) shares her concerns, but also sees a responsibility for “good people” like themselves to reproduce, lest the genes of responsible and caring persons like themselves not survive. Their (often quite absurdly funny) back-and-forth on the decision touches on many of the arguments and rationalizations that are brought forth whenever people think about their individual actions in the face of the enormous problem of climate change – like, for example, the argument that if the only people who stop reproducing are the altruistic ones, then the world will fill with selfish people, or the argument that not having a child might mean not bringing into the world the genius who could invent a technical solution to the problem.

Off The Wall/Carnegie Stage presents "Lungs"

L to R: Alec Silberblatt & Sarah Silk. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Off the Wall Productions

What’s brilliant about this play is the way it puts our human tendency to rationalize and justify decisions on display and opens that tendency to both sympathy and scrutiny. As “He” puts it: “everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing.” At the same time, the play vividly makes clear that our current ecological predicament is a direct consequence of that tendency to rationalize. Multiply the kinds of individual justifications we see the man and woman making by 10 billion (the projected population in 2050), and you have a planet that will no longer be able to sustain human life.

Lungs is not only or even mostly about climate change, however – at its core, it’s a play about the relationship between the man and the woman, and about how they miscommunicate and misread each other and yet still find what they need in each other. Macmillan’s portrait of the couple feels honest and fresh, and his dialogue is sharp and often surprising. His play is also unconventionally challenging to stage: he specifies that it should be played on a completely bare stage, with no lighting or sound cues to indicate scene transitions, and although the action shifts forward in time and takes place in several locales, the script gives no clear indication where and when those shifts occur. The Off the Wall production cheats on the “bare stage” parameter a tiny bit: Adrienne Fischer’s set is a pair of oval platforms covered in bright green shag carpet, which is bordered by a set of fluorescent lights canopying like the branches of a tree over the playing space. But otherwise the play is presented in accordance with the playwright’s insructions, without furniture, props, or mime. Rising magnificently to those challenges, director Spencer Whale does a beautiful job of choreographing the action to tell the story with precision and lucidity.

This kind of spare storytelling is a gift to talented actors, and Silberblatt and Silk are superb beyond description as the man and woman. These may, in fact, be two of the finest performances I’ve seen in Pittsburgh this year – and if you didn’t make it out to Carnegie to see this play, you missed out on a highlight of 2016 (although you still have time, if you don’t have plans for tonight!!). Not only do Silk and Silberblatt bring the relationship between the man and woman into crystal clear focus and flesh out their characters’ needs and vulnerabilities with empathy, sensitivity, and wit, but they also give us two people to whom those of us who like to think we are “doing right” (and isn’t that all of us?) can utterly relate. In so doing, they give us pause to consider all the ways in which our own individual actions – as justifiable and rationalizable as they may be – will collectively bequeath the children we can’t seem to stop having a world they won’t want – or be able – to live in.

“The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” at Quantum Theatre

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Imagine what life would be like if you could see the shapes and contours and colors of things, but your brain could not organize those shapes and contours and colors into recognizable objects and people. Your vision would be in perfect order, but you would be effectively blind, incapable of making sense of the lines and patterns that make up the visual field.

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L to R: Kevin Glavin, Katy Williams, & Ian McEuen. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

That condition – called visual agnosia – is the subject of the title story from the late Oliver Sacks’s collection of accounts of neurological disorders, and also the focus of a chamber opera based on that book. The story is of a musician and professor of music, Dr. P., who “loses touch with the concrete world” and starts making the kinds of mistakes that one would make if one could not distinguish one object from another – like reaching for his wife’s head when trying to grab his hat. Sacks’s achievement with his writing lies not just in his fascinating and detailed accounts of the strange neuropsychological conditions that he’s encountered in his career, but also in his empathetic and wholistic approach to his patients as people. In his writing, he tries both to imagine his way into his patients’ lives, and to see them defined not by their deficits, but by the qualities that continue to make their lives rich and full despite their disorders.

The operatic version of the tale aims for the same effect, and the Quantum production, under Karla Boos’s direction, does an even better job of putting us into Dr. P.’s shoes than Sacks’s prose account. A good deal of the credit for that goes to projection designer Joe Seamans, who effectively uses visual imagery to help us see what Dr. P. sees (or, at times, fails to see), and whose projection design expands and contracts the boundaries of the small space, providing a visual analogue to Dr. P’s confused perception of the world. But it’s in the hands of the terrifically gifted cast – Ian McEuen as Sacks, Katy Williams as Mrs. P., and the magnificent Kevin Glavin as Dr. P. – to convey the capaciousness of character that inspired Sacks in this case and to show us that a devastating loss of neurological function can be both a curse and a gift. Dr. P. copes with his inability to make sense of the world visually by relying on his “inner music” to keep him oriented among the objects and people he can no longer distinguish visually, and Glavin embodies this aspect of the character beautifully, embodying a man who takes happy, innocent refuge in the both the abstract thinking still available to him and in his continued musical ability as he hums, in a childlike manner, while walking home or taking his tea.

The opera itself is, like Sacks’s tale, concise and economical – just seventy minutes long, with none of the repetition of lyrics typical of an opera libretto. The forward energy of the tale is underlined by the music, which often has an insistent, driving beat under the vocal line, giving the action a sense of both urgency and suspense. The space – a converted storefront on Highland Avenue in East Liberty – is likewise compact, with a spare set by Britton Mauk serving mainly as a backdrop for Seamans’s projections; conductor Andres Cladera and his small orchestra overlap with the set (they share a piano!), and, as always, Claderas masterfully balances the sound of the orchestra and the actors’ voices.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat makes an operatic argument for the potential of music as neurological therapy, and concludes with Sacks’s typical embrace of disability as a different kind of ability. The patient asks Sacks to tell him what is wrong with him, and Sacks – no Dr. House – replies that he can’t tell him what’s wrong, but he can say what he finds right. “You are a wonderful musician, and music is your life…. Music has been the center, now make it the whole, of your life.”

Holiday treats!

Because I’ve been in rehearsals this past week for the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh‘s performance of Handel’s Messiah – which has just one more performance, today at 4 pm, in direct competition with the Steelers (oh, my! I know what I would choose…) – and because the School of Drama’s PLAYGROUND Festival of Independent Student Work happens next weekend, I’m going to either come late to, or miss altogether, a number of exciting productions and events around town. You, Dear Reader, may have a more free schedule; why not take an evening out and treat yourself to some theater, music, or dance?

For example, this weekend Off The Wall productions in Carnegie opened a production of Duncan Macmillan’s play Lungs, which is a play I really love: it’s about a man and a woman grappling with the eco-ethical implications of bringing a child into the world. It’s funny, smart, theatrically challenging (the playwright dictates that the play be performed without set or props, and the script gives no indication of where one scene ends and a new one begins, or where time has jumped forward, although the time span of the story encompasses a couple of decades or more), and urgently necessary. I won’t have a chance to see it until mid-December, but you shouldn’t wait, particularly if you are interested in seeing theater that attempts to wrap its arms around the issue of climate change.

Also recently opened is Quantum Theatre’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, a chamber opera based on a book about intriguing neurological disorders by Oliver Sacks. I’m looking forward to seeing this show later this evening, intrigued to see how Sacks’s nonfiction work has been turned into an evening of opera.  And next week Tamara Tunie will return to Pittsburgh to perform an evening of song, Legends from the ‘Burgh ,at City Theatre.

Then there are the holiday offerings! If you’re in the mood for holiday music, in addition to the Bach Choir Messiah today, there’s also the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh/Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Highmark Holiday Pops Concert – the orchestra’s second concert since its strike was settled. Pittsburgh CLO presents A Musical Christmas Carol December 9-23; and of course, there’s The Nutcracker at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre through the end of the month. And if yinz’re in the mood for a little holiday spoofing, Bricolage Production Company’s got you covered with Pittsburgh-inflected takes on holiday classics in its Midnight Radio: Holiday Spectacular, playing through December 17.

“Three Days in the Country” at Kinetic Theatre Company

Three Days in the Country opens in a languid mood. The scene is a bright day in the Russian countryside, circa 1850: a trio of elders sits at a table playing hearts, while a well-dressed woman lounges on a settee absentmindedly leafing through a book. A gentleman visitor – an old friend, clearly, from his familiar manner – vies for her attention with some teasing, sophisticated witticisms. The local doctor arrives, summoned to check in on one of the estate’s peasants. A child runs through, chased by his tutor; the business of the estate hums in the background. But underneath that languid air is a restless energy, a restiveness fueled by boredom and monotony, by the existential dis-ease of privilege, and by the sharp, unexpected sting of desire.

If you think this sounds like the opening to a Chekhov play, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark – except that Three Days in the Country: an unfaithful version is a modern script, by Patrick Marber, based on a play written by Ivan Turgenev in 1850, a decade before Chekhov was born. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I could only wish that we had translations of Chekhov that are as good as Marber’s adaptation of Turgenev, because then we might really get why Russians consider Chekhov to be one of their great comic playwrights. Dare I say that Marber has out-Chekhoved Chekhov with this very funny and piercingly poignant play? In any case, he creates a similar world, and under Andrew Paul’s sensitive direction, the thirteen-member ensemble at Kinetic Theatre Company brings it exquisitely to life, rendering the existential angst of Turgenev’s 19th-century Russian tale simultaneously ludicrous and heartwrenching.

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Leo Marks & Nike Doukas. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company

The plot centers on unrequited love: Natalya Arkady (Nike Doukas), the middle-aged mistress of the estate, has fallen in love with Belyaev (Adam Haas Hunter), a young man from Moscow who has recently begun tutoring her son Kolya (Will Sendera). Her seventeen-year-old ward, Vera (Katie Wieland), is also in love with Belyaev, as is the flirtatious housemaid, Katya (Erika Strasburg), who spurns her fiancé Matvey (Andrew William Miller) for the more dashing tutor. Gentleman visitor Rakitin (Leo Marks), meanwhile, has been in love with Natalya since the day he and best friend Arkady (David Whalen) caught sight of her on a Moscow street; Arkady claimed Natalya for his bride, and Rakitin has hovered at the edges of their marriage ever since, unable to tear himself from the object of his burning desire. Complicating things further, an elderly rich neighbor Bolshintsov (Larry John Meyers) has his eye on young Vera, and sends Dr. Shpigelsky (Sam Tsoutsouvas) to negotiate for her hand; Shpigelsky, for his part, seeks the hand of Lizaveta (Helena Ruoti), companion to Arkady’s mother Anna (Susie McGregor-Laine), who, along with the German tutor Schaaf (David Crawford), is in the minority of characters in the play who aren’t involved in an unbalanced love affair.

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L to R: Nike Doukas, Katie Wieland, and Adam Haas Hunter. Photo Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre Company.

This isn’t really a play that involves a great deal of plot, however; the interest here is in character, and in the way characters express their needs, their wants, their disappointments, and their anguishes. Often those expressions involve a dark humor, as when the despondent Rakitin, plucking a raspberry from a basket, implores “Be poisoned. Take me. Do it now.” Marks builds a beautiful performance in the character of Rakitin, who is arguably the most tragic character of the bunch; for most of the play, his awareness of the hopelessness of his yearning for Natalya comes through in biting, self-deprecating flippancy, but in the second act he wears his soul on his sleeve in a bravura display of pain and anguish that reveals the beating heart beneath his world-weary cynicism.

Director Andrew Paul skillfully knits together the play’s comedy and its pathos, finding the humor in its darker moments, and the seriousness in its lighter ones. A comic high point comes in the beginning of the second act, when the misanthropic doctor surprises Lizaveta with a marriage proposal, and then proceeds to catalogue his many character flaws. Masterful with their comic timing, Tsoutsouvas and Ruoti manage to convey the tender desolation at the core of their characters while giving the audience one laugh after another.

Lovely moments of erotic tension bloom throughout the play as well. Those raspberries, disappointingly not poisonous for Rakitin, feature prominently in a charged moment of flirtation between Belyaev and Katya (as does a plum, in a later scene). As Belyaev, Hunter brings a self-assured, cocky energy to the stage: he’s the young interloper who has sexual charisma to burn, and he clearly enjoys using it to throw all of the women around him off balance. But it’s a testament to the psychological complexity of Marber’s script, and to Hunter’s realization of the character, that Belyaev also seems oblivious of his own seductive powers. At one point Rakitin asks him “are you a bumbler or an assassin?” and the answer, in the end, seems to be: both. Certainly he has a nearly fatal effect on Natalya and Vera, the two women who have fallen hardest for his charms. Doukas and Wieland are nuanced in these roles, making themselves painfully open and vulnerable to their characters’ desire; the confusion and humiliation they each experience has a raw and shattering effect, and in the end it’s their losses, along with Rakitin’s, that linger.

All this yearning and pining and self-denial takes place on Narelle Sissons’ evocative set, a square, spare boardwalk tufted with dune grass that floats, island-like, in the middle of the audience, and underscores the isolation of the characters who populate the world of the play. The abstraction of the set is countered by Kim Brown’s costumes, which ground the play in temporal and geographic specificity, and seem to profuse patterns and flowers and paisleys as if the characters were animals displaying their mating plumage.

But it’s a mating dance that goes tragicomically awry, not least because these complex, beautifully realized characters are so deeply wrapped in themselves, they’re incapable of the generosity that constitutes real love. And so the play leaves us with lingering, sad-funny insights about the vicissitudes of love and loneliness, like the one expressed by Lizabeta when she turns down the doctor’s offer of marriage: “I can live with my unhappiness,” she says. “I don’t want to live with yours.”

“Between Riverside & Crazy” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

Stephen Adley Guirgis is arguably the American theater’s finest, and funniest, chronicler of the strivers, scammers, and wheeler-dealers who make up the working and underclass of New York City, and of the violence (both psychological and physical) that shapes and limits their lives. His previously best-known plays to date – Jesus Hopped the A Train and The Motherfucker with the Hat – depict the struggles of their young minority protagonists to rescue and redeem lives mired in the morasses of structural racism and social dysfunction. Both of those plays put the human propensity for self-delusion under scrutiny – the gap between how characters see themselves, and how they appear to the rest of their world, fuels both the comedy of the play and its pathos.

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L to R: Eugene Lee and Alejandro Hernandez. Photo Pittsburgh Public Theater

Between Riverside and Crazy, the play that won Guirgis the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, dwells in similar territory, although here the protagonist, Pops (Eugene Lee), is an older man, a retired cop living in a palatial rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. He’s a complicated character: smart, generous, and gently honorable on the one hand, and harboring a deep-set resentment and rage on the other. Pops has a right to his grievances: eight years before the start of the play’s action, Pops, a black man, was shot by a rookie white cop outside an after-hours bar; Pops is still holding out for a better settlement from the city and for official acknowledgment of the racism that motivated the shooting. In addition, his wife has also recently died, sending Pops into an alcohol-fueled emotional funk, and in the months since her death his son Junior (Bryant Bentley) has invited some doubtful types to move into the apartment, among them his ditsy girlfriend Lulu (Christina Nieves) and his ex-con, recovering addict buddy Oswaldo (Alejandro Hernandez). Their presence – and the drugs and stolen merchandise and chaos they’ve brought with them – has provoked Pops’s landlord to threaten to terminate his priceless lease and evict him from the apartment.

As long as we’re just seeing things from Pops’s point of view, it’s hard not to sympathize with him. But a visit from his former partner, Audrey (Dawn McGee) and her new fiancé, Lieutenant Caro (Drew Stone) starts to cast doubt about how honest Pops has been with himself, and others, about the events that have brought him to this impasse. Is he the victim of insidious racism, as he claims, or of his own self-destructive behaviors? Is his refusal to accept the city’s settlement an assertion of his pride, as a black man, or is it rather a stubborn expression of petulant wound-licking?

Giurgis isn’t interested in settling those questions, but rather in keeping the paradoxes of Pops’s character perpetually in play. Actor Eugene Lee is sharp and cantankerous in the role, and he brings compelling insight into the complexities of Pops’s psyche. The rest of the cast is also quite fine, populating the world of the play with characters who are almost equally contradictory and unpredictable, and under Pamela Berlin’s direction they flesh out a believable world of damaged and desperate characters.

But I’ll be honest, dear Readers, much as I was intrigued by Guirgis’s characters, and much as I love his delightfully funny and sharply observed dialogue, the play as a whole just didn’t fully add up for me, and once again I find myself in the unenviable position of disagreeing with the Pulitzer Prize committee. I found the trajectory of the second act, in particular, muddy and unfocused, and to get to its resolution some of the characters – in particular Caro and Audrey – seem to make decisions that beggar belief. Moreover, as contradictory as Pops’s character is, his transformation at the end of the play seems to come out of nowhere, and the ending feels spurious. In terms of coherence of plot and a satisfying resolution, I think The Motherfucker with the Hat is by far a stronger play, and I can only imagine that the reason this play won the Pulitzer instead of that one is that the committee could not bestow its award on a play with an unprintable title.

Nevertheless, the Public’s production of this play is impeccable, so I’ll repeat here what I wrote the last time my tastes did not align with critical and popular opinion, which is: as a firm believer that more art – even if it’s not the art I love best – is better than less or no art, and that we should support our local artmakers as they enrich our lives with what they do, I encourage you to see this show and make your own assessment.  Come back and comment, too.

A warning from (theater) history… (#Trumpwurst)

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#Trumpwurst. Image by Sara Figal

“…throughout history, how many great scenes have we not seen conducted on the stage of the world with – or, what is even worse, by – a Hanswurst? How often have the greatest men, men born to be the protective spirits of a throne and the benefactors of whole nations and eras, been forced to see all their wisdom and valor thwarted by some whimsical prank by a Hanswurst or by those people who, even if they do not wear his jacket and yellow hose, still embody his character? How often does the complication in both kinds of tragicomedy arise merely from some stupid, mischievous piece of work on Hanswurst’s part that spoils the plans of sensible people before they can suspect anything?”   — Christoph Martin Wieland,  The History of Agathon (1767) Vol 4: 5.

“Feeding the Dragon” at City Theatre

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“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a library…”

So begins Sharon Washington’s one-woman play Feeding the Dragon, an enchanting recollection of her formative years in the early 1970s when her family occupied an apartment on the top floor of the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library, courtesy of her father’s job as the librarian’s 24/7 custodian.

Part memoir, part social history, Washington’s tale echoes the New York city childhood depicted in novels like E. L. Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. Like the protagonists in those novels, hers was a childhood marked by independence and a sense of security within a tight-knit neighborhood. And like the museum in Konigsburg’s tale, the library was Washington’s own personal playground after hours, its walled-in roof a safe place to hopscotch or learn to ride a bike, its grand staircase the perfect setting for staging plays with her best friend.

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Sharon Washington, photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

But Washington’s coming-of-age story plays out against the background of the civil rights movement, and she registers with acuity the social gymnastics she had to master as a minority scholarship student in a selective private school: “I perfected my code-switching skills on my own. Early, and fast.” Moreover, the adult Washington, looking back on the era, deftly illuminates aspects of her parents’ experience that her younger self had either been prevented from perceiving, or would have been unable to comprehend. So, for example, she recalls a road trip with her father to South Carolina when he had difficulty finding a gas station that would allow her to use the restroom. As a child she only understands that the toilet she has to use is disgustingly dirty, and she is puzzled by her dad’s haste to move on; it’s only in retrospect that she realizes her father was shielding her from the reality of the Jim Crow South.

The dragon of the title is both the coal-fired furnace in the library’s basement that her father must keep constantly stoked, and the alcoholism that shapes her childhood and rives her family. Like Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion, which played last season at City Theatre, Washington’s engrossing and moving play provokes rumination on how hard it is to know our parents, especially our fathers – and perhaps most of all for those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies.

Washington is a generous and engaging storyteller who slips in and out of the many characters she deploys in the service of her story with ease and conviction. Her performance is made even more spellbinding by the production elements incorporated under Maria Mileaf’s direction, in particular by Lindsay Jones’s sound design and Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting. Jones’s original music lifts the story into its fairy tale dimension with fantastical touches like strums of a harp at key moments of discovery, or a chorus of angels heralding young Sharon’s attempts to squeeze a diamond out of a piece of coal. Wrightson’s ingenious lighting design transforms the upstage wall of window panes as the mood and setting requires, using an array of colors to achieve such effects as the earth tones of a stained glass window, the cobalt of a midnight sky, and the deep red of the furnace’s fire. Wrightson also makes the bookshelves of Tony Ferrieri’s eloquent set glow, giving the entire space an ethereal luminescence befitting both the play’s fairy tale mood and the “king’s daughter” whose tale it is to tell.

“Night of the Living Dead N’At” at Bricolage Production Company

A horde of brainless villains have emerged out of nowhere, spreading fear and loathing as they savagely attack everything we hold dear in their quest to destroy Life As We Know It.

No, that’s not a description of the avid supporters of the candidate you’re voting against in ten days – accurate though that description may very well seem, no matter which side you’re on, judging from the internet comments sections I seem unable to tear myself from (Readers, do you have a remedy for this addiction, other than November 9?!?).

Rather, and almost as terrifyingly (!), it’s the premise for Carnegie Mellon alum George Romero’s 1968 classic horror film Night of the Living Dead (a film I may be one of the few people in Pittsburgh not to have ever seen (sorry, I’m not a horror film fan)). And that film, in turn, is the inspiration for Bricolage Production Company’s newest installation of Midnight Radio, a 1940s-stye live performance (and send-up) of radio drama.

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Adapted and directed by Tami Dixon, Night of the Living Dead N’At dubs live dialogue and sound effects onto scenes and stills from Romero’s film that are projected behind voice actors as they spoof the living, the undead, and the about-to-be-dead. Jason McCune, Sheila McKenna, Wali Jamal, and Sean Sears scurry from mic to mic as they create, for our “aural pleasure,” a multitude of characters, including an upper-class socialite (McKenna), a gruff sheriff (McCune), a squeaky-voiced lieutenant (Sears), and a take-charge man of action (Jamal). They also give life to the film’s mob of growling, snarling zombies, accompanied by a select group of patrons who are invited to join in the teeth-gnashing from a special “Zombie Porch.” In addition, the cast creates a dizzying array of sound effects with precision and flair, and a big part of the fun of Midnight Radio lies in seeing the inventive and low-tech ways Dixon and company create the illusion that you are hearing gunshots, fire, footsteps, wind…you name it, they can make it seem real.

Musical director Deana Muro and musical guests Cello Fury provide eerily suspenseful background music to the action, and Cello Fury also takes center stage during the interlude with their original brand of cello rock (if you’ve never heard this local trio of Simon Cummings, Ben Muñoz, and Nicole Myers, this is as good an opportunity as any to introduce yourself to their unique and exciting sound).

Thematically, Night of the Living Dead N’At offers a trenchant distillation of what many of us have been feeling during this crazy election year, playfully inviting us to project our “us” vs. “them” anxieties onto the film’s zombie apocalypse. It’s cathartic to see the world purged of existential threat in such an outrageously goofy way. But what’s truly soul-raising about both the Midnight Radio format and Bricolage’s overall approach to making theater is the way it counters that very divisiveness by building community out of strangers. I can think of no other theater, or theater experience, that can so consistently be counted on to make audience members feel like “part of the family,” that so easily and effortlessly breaks through the fourth wall and invites the audience “in,” and that so generously encourages us to join together in laughter and self recognition. That’s a truly welcome feeling in a Halloween season that feels so much scarier than usual.