“Daddy Long Legs” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater


“Jane Eyre meets Beauty and the Beast meets My Fair Lady meets You’ve Got Mail.”

That’s what I imagine the pitch might be for the enjoyably predictable – yet also oddly idiosyncratic – meet-cute plot of the musical Daddy Long Legs.

From Jane Eyre it takes an orphaned and exploited protagonist who uses education and determination to make her way up the social and economic ladder in a patriarchal world; from Beauty and the Beast it takes a heroine who loves books and stories, and whose intelligence and wit bewitch, and eventually reform, a wealthy but socially inept man; from My Fair Lady it takes the theme of a benefactor who takes an interest in educating and transforming an impoverished girl and then falls in love with her; and from You’ve Got Mail it takes the plot contrivance of an epistolary romance in which a woman thinks she is corresponding with a man she has never met, but is actually writing letters to a man she already knows.

L to R: Allan Snyder and Danielle Bowen. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Pubic Theater

Of course, the musical doesn’t really take these plot elements directly from any of those predecessors, since its actual source is the 1912 novel Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, an early twentieth-century novelist you’ve probably never heard of (well – I hadn’t) who was also a suffragist and social activist. Nevertheless, the romcom-mashup plot trajectory’s destination is evident from almost the moment the musical begins – and yet there are plenty of unexpected surprises along the way.

Let’s start with the rather awkward premise of the love story: Jerusha (Danielle Bowen) has been gifted a college education by an anonymous and mysterious benefactor she nicknames “Daddy Long Legs” (because the only glimpse she has of him, a lanky shadow, reminds her of a spider). His gift comes with a few strings attached, among them that she is to write to him regularly of her progress, but never to expect a response, or to know his true identity. Her letters are so lively, charming, and intimate that he begins to take an interest in her, and – because he happens to be  her college roommate’s uncle – he contrives to meet her in person without her knowing who he is. Over the next four years of college she continues to write to “Daddy,” as she calls him, about the details of her life, including her ongoing impressions of the rather attractive Uncle Jervis (Allan Snyder), never realizing that she is in fact corresponding directly with Jervis, who, in turn, uses his power as “Daddy Long Legs” to keep her from spending time with potential romantic rivals.

That’s a pretty creepy setup, and it’s to the musical’s credit that it doesn’t pretend that there’s anything okay about Jervis’s subterfuge. In fact, his distress and guilt over his prolonged failure to reveal his secret is one of the main conflicts of the play: several times he begins to write to Jerusha to explain what’s going on, only to find some flimsy rationalization for his cowardly inability to fess up. Meanwhile, Jerusha is completely oblivious to the fact that she’s even in a romantic comedy at all. In a welcome and refreshing twist on the genre, her focus is on her education and future professional career: she’s spending her time reading voraciously, writing a novel, and becoming politically aware and active, all the while believing that her correspondence is with a man old enough to be her grandfather – which, it’s true, only adds to the weirdness of the play’s inevitable resolution, but at the very least, her achievement of career success (she gets a lucrative publishing contract) goes some way to mitigate the humiliation that she feels – and that we feel, on her behalf – on learning that she has essentially been duped.

It also helps that director Ted Pappas and actor Allan Snyder make clear, through the staging and character interpretation, that Jervis is not a mean and deceptive man, but rather a fearful and socially awkward one; the play makes him grovel quite a bit for Jerusha’s forgiveness and also gives her ample opportunity to lay out for him, and for us, all of the ways he has betrayed her trust. The humiliation goes both ways, in other words, and when the inevitable resolution occurs, we have at the very least seen all of the damage laid bare.

You may have noticed that I’ve only mentioned two characters, which is another unusual thing about this musical: there are no others. Snyder and Bowen – both of whom are on stage and singing nearly non-stop for almost two and a half hours – are excellent, as is the production overall. Snyder’s voice is a pleasant tenor that handsomely suits the character of Jervis, and he brings a fine comic sensibility to the role. Bowen has an gloriously easy, silvery voice that effortlessly floats above the three-piece orchestra, and she is utterly winning as the plucky, intelligent Jerusha. Michael Schweikardt’s two-level set ingeniously secrets props and costumes in benches and cupboards so that Pappas can keep the action moving seamlessly forward even as the action shifts from an orphanage to a college to a farm to a several other locales. 1912 was a lovely era for clothes (think Alice Paul and the suffragettes) and costume designer Gabriel Berry replicates the era beautifully, with some particularly fun hats for Jerusha.

The fact that there are only two characters means that the book and lyrics can spend a lot more time exploring their thoughts and feelings and giving them more psychological and emotional complexity than you’d normally expect from a musical comedy. That, along with Jerusha’s pointed refusal to let her ambitions be limited by her gender, may be what most lifts the work above the romcom conventions it so pleasurably weaves together, and what allows it, in the end, to pay something of an homage to novelist Jean Webster’s first-wave feminism.

What’s on: February

Dearest readers, February’s a short, busy month here in the ‘Burgh, and many worthy performances will happen that I’ll either not be able to catch, because of other commitments, or not get to write about. And some I will write about, but perhaps not right away. Here’s what’s on my radar screen:

This week, Hiawatha Project opens the new play JH: Mechanics of a Legend at the August Wilson center. The play, which situates the legend of John Henry within a cyclical repetition of the institutional mechanics of slavery, is written and directed by Anya Martin, and developed by its talented, local cast (which includes Monteze Freeland as John Henry and Delana Flowers as Polly Ann).  JH is an inventive weaving-together of history, myth, movement, and song. Opening night is February 9; you can find tickets and more information here.

This weekend is also the only weekend this month you can catch The Pink Unicorn at Off the Wall productions in Carnegie – a new play by Elise Forier Edie about a Christian conservative widow coming to terms with the news that her teenager is genderqueer. Directed by Ingrid Sonnichsen, this one-woman show features the formidable Amy Landis as the mother. Opens Thursday, plays through Sunday.

I won’t be catching that because my weekend will be taken up with the Bach Choir’s performance of Randall Thompson’s Requiem, a piece you’ve probably never heard of but will be ever-so-grateful to come to know. The Requiem is a one-hour, dual-choir, complex and gorgeous a cappella piece; playing at the downtown First Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

Also opening this month is Alumni Theatre Company’s original production “A World Without Us,” a show that highlights the rich contribution young urban artists can and do make to their community. The show runs February 17-18 at Peirce Studio, and more information on that is at the Alumni Theatre Company website.

A few shows are up and running: in addition to The Royale, which I posted about yesterday and which you really shouldn’t miss, there’s Woody’s Order at the Pittsburgh REP (a one woman show, by Ann Talman, about her relationship with her disabled brother Woody) and Twelfth Night at the Public.

Lastly – but certainly not leastly! – you should be making plans now to come on over to my stomping grounds here at CMU to catch the run of Ragtime, directed by Tome Cousins, and featuring the musical theater students of the School of Drama – opens February 23, running for two weekends. We also have an adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II opening on February 22 and running for one weekend. (I don’t review our shows, but I don’t mind using this blog to let you all know what’s happening here!)





“The Royale” at City Theatre


My last post described Kristoffer Diaz’s 2010 play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity as one of the smartest and most insightful plays about race in the US that I’d seen. Marco Ramirez’s 2013 play The Royale – which, perhaps not coincidentally, also sets its action among professional fighters – earns the same distinction. Readers, you know I’m not in the business of ranking, so don’t even ask; there’s plenty of room in the category, and in our current political climate, plays like these, that shine a light on the stubborn persistence of racism and xenophobia, are as urgently essential as ever.

The Royale is an exquisitely crafted gem of a play that is set in the first decade of the 20th century and takes as its subject the strivings of an African-American boxer, Jay “The Sport” Jackson, to claim the title of heavyweight champion from its current (white) defender. He’s a skilled and experienced fighter who is almost guaranteed to win the fight, and his audacity (yes, I choose that word quite pointedly) in challenging the champion threatens to unleash a backlash of violent white retaliation against black people across the country.


L to R: Bernard Gilbert (Fish), Tim Edward Rhoze (Wynton), Desean Kevin Terry (Jay) and Andrew William Smith (Max). Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

The threat of such violence and retribution starts to hang heavy on Jackson when his sister Nina comes to beg him to call off the fight, out of fear for her own safety and that of her family and community. At this point we’re placed squarely in the midst of the anguish that must have beset all of the African-American “firsts” who broke racial barriers and risked kindling uncertain repercussions. For Jackson, moreover, the struggle is deeply personal; his ambition to be a highly visible symbol and role model of black success is spurred by memories of his sister disfiguring herself in an attempt to conform to standards of white beauty.

What makes this play most disquieting is the way it captures the social, psychological, and physical toll taken by the near-constant background simmering of white resentment, a resentment that seems to perpetually bubble up and boil over in response to black achievement. I doubt I need to connect the dots any further to persuade you of the play’s near-breathtaking timeliness to our present moment, but if you’re feeling masochistic and need convincing, just visit any news story about the new administration, and you’ll find the ugly evidence of contemporary white rage and resentment over the Obama presidency plastered all over the comments section (you might want to pour yourself a stiff drink first).

Back to the play. Director Stuart Carden’s staging is meticulous and dynamic, and he brings a vivid theatricality to the action through sound, movement, and lighting. Instead of choreographing conventional fight scenes, Carden has the actors face front, in stark rectangles of light; when one character strikes, the other reacts to the invisible blow with precise and near-magical timing. A steady “score” of body percussion and vocalization from other members of the ensemble punctuates the action and gives it a musical drive and urgency. It also has the dual effect of filling in the aural landscape without the need of piped-in crowd sounds and of laying down a rhythm track that mimics the rhythms of a boxing match. By heightening the artifice and theatricality of the boxing matches, Carden shifts our focus away from the potential violence of the fight and toward the characters’ thoughts, feelings, anxieties, and ambitions, expressed as taunts to each other and through their own self-patter and self-encouragement.

Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design is impressively spare and minimalist – he’s transformed the mainstage space at City Theatre into a thrust arena, with audience on three sides of a square boxing platform and a balcony along the upstage wall that Carden uses to good effect in several moments of the play. Scene transitions are effected smoothly by ensemble members Siddiq Saunderson and Tony II Lorich, who raise and lower a chandelier and punching bag by way of ropes and pulleys to swiftly and iconically transform the arena into a luxe hotel room or dingy gym (these two also join the rest of the ensemble in providing percussive movement/sound effects from the sidelines). K. J. Gilmer’s period costumes are acutely observed, and the attention to detail in the clothing is superb.

The ensemble is excellent, with several performers new to Pittsburgh. Desean Kevin Terry brings depth and subtlety to his performance as the cocky and self-confident Jay, and his anguish as he battles his conscience (in the form of his sister, played powerfully by Bria Walker) is palpable. I only wish that those of us seated in the stage left audience bank saw less of his back, as his face is beautifully expressive. Bernard Gilbert, as Jay’s young protégé, Fish, Tim Edward Rhoze, as his trainer Wynton, and Andrew William Smith, as the white promoter Max also deliver strong and firmly grounded performances, building a believable emotional world within the heightened universe of the text and staging.

The Royale is one of those plays that lingers: its combination of confident theatricality and brutally honest emotion is fresh and bracing, and the warning it brings from history of the dangers we face when a subset of white people begin to feel aggrieved is chillingly disconcerting.

“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” at barebones productions


I had the good fortune to see Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in its original New York production at Second Stage about 7 years ago, and it’s been one of my favorite new plays ever since. Its nomination for a Pulitzer Prize was well deserved: it is one of the most pointed and most acerbically funny plays to date about race relations in the United States, capturing, like almost no other play I can think of, the complexities of “brownness” in our socio-cultural landscape with acuity, sensitivity, and a fully appropriate measure of anger.

The play is set in the world of professional wrestling, more specifically in a fictional organization called THE Wrestling, where our hero, Macedonia “Mace” Guerra, has the rather thankless job of being the guy who has to lose the match – and lose it well – in order to make the champ look good. As Mace tells it – and we are given every reason to believe him – he does all the heavy lifting, selling all the holds and throws with skill and precision, while his opponent, the charismatic Chad Deity, gets all the credit, fame, and money.

Javon Johnson as Chad Deity

Javon Johnson as Chad Deity

But Mace loves his job nonetheless – it’s the fulfillment of a childhood dream, after all – and he takes some perverse pride in knowing that wrestling depends on guys like him to do the crappy grunt work that generates wild profits up the food chain. The fact that Mace is a brown man – his family is originally from Puerto Rico – makes the world of THE Wrestling an immediately recognizable microcosm for US economic relations generally, which likewise fully depend on the millions of brown people, many undocumented, who do the “heavy lifting” in all sorts of unattractive, underpaid yet indispensable jobs (think agricultural harvesting, meat processing, landscaping, house and office cleaning, call center support…the list is long).

While Mace has a justified chip on his shoulder about his status within the world of THE Wrestling, he doesn’t complain to his boss, THE Wrestling owner Everett K Olson (“EKO”): Mace fully gets that what sells in the world of professional wrestling is a kind of showmanship and simplified jingoism that he can’t muster, and that his colleague – the extremely muscular, winning-smile-possessing, super-charismatic, good-on-the-mic Chad Deity – has in spades.

The play thus makes trenchant observations about our complicity in the systems that oppress us. Mace describes professional wrestling as “the most uniquely profound artistic expression of the ideals of the United States” because “in wrestling, you can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking.” Mace’s own participation in the system that keeps him down isn’t limited to the wrestling ring. He tells us repeatedly how he doesn’t speak out against false stereotypes and background racism; in fact, his journey through the play involves his getting to the point where he’s fed up enough to finally insist on telling his story and making visible the complexity of his identity.

At the same time, Chad Deity is also really smart on the ways everything is coopted for the sake of profit. As Diaz portrays it, the world of professional wrestling traffics shamelessly in stereotype and caricature. When Mace brings his new friend, an Indian-American named Vigneshwar Paduar (“VP”), to join the THE Wrestling lineup, VP wants to create a character that plays on India’s role in the global economy and highlights his own global savviness – “put me in a suit, and I’m talking about outsourcing tech jobs … They’ll hate me.” But EKO immediately seizes on the idea to make VP a Muslim fundamentalist instead, erasing, in the process, not only the difference between an Indian-American and a Middle-Eastern terrorist, but also lumping together various Latin nationalities (he creates a villainous sidekick “Mexican” character for Mace with the name Che Chavez Castro – for EKO, all brownness seems interchangeable). EKO smells money in the xenophobic anti-Muslimism to be provoked by VP’s character, and even when VP, as “The Fundamentalist,” risks his new job by expressing his genuine outrage in a promo for the fight, EKO embraces it as a way to whip fans into an even greater frenzy – he promptly promotes VP to champion so that he can stage a pay-per-view fight in which Chad Deity will win back his gold belt and symbolically serve up a humiliating defeat to Islamic terrorists on behalf of America.

The stereotypes here go in all directions: the characters that Mace and VP defeat in the ring – a series of variously cowed opponents, all played by Jared Bajoras – are nothing but hollow symbols of white Americans, and Chad Deity himself is a caricature of a bling-obsessed, strutting black man. These stereotypes might tell us something about the racism and xenophobia of the professional wrestling audience, but it’s hard to know how much of that viewing audience watches with a degree (or two or three) of irony – everyone knows that the fights are fully staged and that the characters are deliberately exaggerated, after all. I actually think there’s something else going on here, something to do with the way professional wrestling simplifies conflict and allows viewers to identify with, and against, clear heros and villains. In other words, the play not only exposes and complicates stereotypes, but also lays bare the way such stereotypes, and the entertainments in which they are embedded, indulge a desire to not have to think too hard. We need stories like Mace’s and VP’s to counter such simplifying and dangerously divisive narratives.

The barebones production, staged in the gym at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty, gets many things right. The scenic design is spot on: a professional-grade wrestling ring dominates the space, ringed in the back by a set of video screens that display the wrestlers’ “elaborate entrances” as well as footage of WWF matches and live video feeds throughout the show. Girders placed at angles upstage of the ring, and lit in a variety of bright concert hues by Andy Ostrowski, replicate the gaudy, macho vibe of professional wrestling. The use of video is also quite excellent – the elaborate entrance videos co-produced by Trey Duplain and Sean Starr are shot like professional music videos, and the live feed adds a fun dimension to the play’s commentary on entertainment’s role in perpetuating stereotypes and false narratives. The costumes are also terrific, from EKO’s expensive tailored suit to the comically silly get-ups that VP, Mace, and their generic white American opponents don in the ring. Chad Deity is a play that needs a lot of really slick spectacle, and on that front, barebones delivers.

On other fronts, however, it disappoints. The whole play suffers from a lack of pace – it ought to run like a train on fire – and the choice to depend on the audience to stand in aurally for the wrestling crowd is a wrong one. There are no cues in the dialogue or staging to let us know when we’re supposed to start cheering or booing (or whether we are to do one or the other), and the script would be better served by a robust sound design that gives us the impression we’re in the arena, rather than asking theater audiences – many of whom may be experiencing the world of wrestling for the first time through this play – to serve that function.

The play could also have used more oomph in general from its cast. Javon Johnson is charismatic and winning as Chad Deity, and Patrick Jordan – while probably about ten years too young for the role – is in his comfort zone as the hard-ass boss EKO. But as in the world of THE Wrestling, neither of them is tasked with the heavy lifting – that job falls to Gil Perez-Abraham, as Mace, and Nick Slade, as VP. Mace needs a bit more wattage than Perez-Abraham provides; he seems to have found the character’s sarcasm and wit but not his charm. As VP, Slade gives us a lot of anger and umbrage but none of the character’s intellectual nimbleness. In addition, he has the wrong physique to serve the comedy of the play, which depends, in part, on the implausibility of the wrestling scenario EKO plans to make bank on – that is, of a weak-looking “Muslim” unexpectedly taking down a massive opponent with a single kick. The script calls for him to be tall and lanky – he’s supposed to have never wrestled before – but he’s almost as physically imposing as Chad Deity.

The barebones team deserves great credit nevertheless for taking on such an ambitious project, and I suspect that audience members who didn’t have previous exposure to it were less disappointed than I with the pace and the character interpretation. And even if the production didn’t live up to my expectations, I’m still grateful that barebones brought this fabulous play to Pittsburgh – we’ve had to wait a long time (seven years!) for someone to have the chutzpah and dedication to give it a go.

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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.