“The Gun Show (Can we talk about this?)” at Quantum Theatre

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While there are several guns conjured to the imagination in EM Lewis’s one-person play The Gun Show (Can we talk about this?), the most frightening moment of the play (for me, at least) doesn’t involve any weapons at all. That moment comes when Andrew William Smith – my colleague at the CMU School of Drama, whom I know to be a reasonable, rational, calm human being – becomes red-faced with fury as he channels conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s incoherent and illogical rage at the prospect of even the most minor regulation on guns.

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Andrew William Smith. Photo by Sarah Schreck, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

That can’t be an easy place for Smith to go. But then there’s nothing easy about this play, which relates five “stories” from the playwright’s own experience with guns, three of which are relatively benign, and two of which are harrowing (no further spoilers here, you are safe to read on). Lewis – who grew up in rural Oregon, and still lives on her family farm – has a lifelong relationship with guns, gun culture, and gun owners, a relationship that was complicated by a tragic event that occurred sixteen years ago and eventually led to the writing of this play. As such, Lewis occupies a fairly unusual position in the conversation on guns: she has lived – and deeply gets – both sides of the debate.

Her doubled understanding of how people feel about guns is mirrored in the play’s structure: Lewis is both on stage – played by Smith – and also in the audience at every performance, observing him narrate her story and silently reacting to its telling. Her presence not only raises the emotional stakes of the play, but also instantiates her primary purpose: in a very real sense, what Lewis has staged here is a dialogue with herself, one that models the kind of nuanced and complicated dialogue she hopes her stories might inspire.

Those stories are compelling, and she heightens their theatricality by peppering her script with cheeky moments of ironic self-awareness. Director Sheila McKenna takes advantage of such metatheatrical moments to provide comedic relief, and under her direction Smith shapes a performance that plays in multiple registers, from light banter with the audience to an intense recreation of a traumatic memory. He also brings equal conviction to each of the script’s shifting and contradictory stances towards guns: it’s clear that he aims to avoid putting his actorly finger on the scale in favor of one side over the other.

A challenge for this play, however, is that it can’t avoid making some assumptions about its audience. For example, at one point Lewis accuses “city dwellers” (like those of us in the Pittsburgh audience?) of being indifferent to the needs of people in rural communities who need guns because they can’t count on law enforcement for protection. Implicit here is a slippery-slope argument that any desire to see some regulation on guns is a desire to make all gun ownership illegal, and as an “urbanite” myself I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of resentment at what felt, to me, like a straw-man setup. Moreover, while the play’s main premise is that conversation has become impossible because of extreme and hardened positions on both sides, that’s something of a false equivalency: despite Jones’s paranoia and the NRA’s propaganda, those who wish to enact common-sense gun regulations do not occupy the same kind of extreme position as those who equate any regulation whatsoever with tyranny and fascism.

Nonetheless, because Lewis’s personal history illuminates many facets, pro and con, of gun culture and gun ownership, her play opens what may be new perspectives and new ways of looking at the problem to people coming from all points on the spectrum. Among the loaded questions she provokes are: Who is really endangered by guns? What is the relationship between guns and security? How do we define “safety”? A talkback after each performance invites audience members to consider those and other questions: the dialogue begins.

“The Tempest” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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A couple of decades ago my then-colleague Jan Hagens introduced me to a genre categorization that was new to me: the “drama of reconciliation.” His primary focus was German drama, but he also placed in this category a number of Shakespearean plays – including most of the so-called “problem plays” – that refused to sit neatly within the genres of tragedy, comedy, and tragicomedy. In particular he pointed out that the two oddest of Shakespeare’s plays – A Winter’s Tale  and The Tempest – suddenly make new sense when you think of them as dramas of reconciliation; they each map the challenges (and to a certain extent the sheer impossibility) of moving beyond grievance and harm to atonement and forgiveness.

I don’t know whether Marya Sea Kaminski has ever heard of this genre category, but it’s clear from her adaptation of The Tempest  that she understands that reconciliation is at the heart of the play’s dramatic journey. Kaminski – who also directs this engaging production – has framed Shakespeare’s plot as the chemotherapy-induced fever-dream of a dying Prospero, whose fantasy of revenge against estranged family and friends slowly transforms into something that approaches forgiveness.

The production opens with an extended silent scene set in a cancer ward. Prospero (a regal and commanding Tamara Tunie), lies weak and irritated in a hospital bed. People visit her – a nurse, an orderly, a doctor, bustling self-involved friends (and, we later learn, sibling) who bring flowers and hastily depart, a children’s choir, her daughter with her new love – and all the while, projected on a monumental cliff-like structure behind the hospital walls, a time-lapse video of the city outside pulses day into night into day into night. Although we don’t know who all these people are, the scene makes clear that for Prospero – as for any of us – illness and hospitalization bring both a bewildering sense of suspension of time and a galling loss of status and respect.

Then it starts to snow, and in a moment of theatrical magic, Prospero steps through her hospital window and into the world of The Tempest, where she has mighty powers and full control over the fates of the people to whose ministrations and whims she had to submit as a hospital patient. The narcissistic frenemy visitors become the Queen and two courtiers who had banished Prospero and Miranda to the island, the supportive nurse becomes Ariel, the good doctor is Gonzalo, the cheeky orderly is Caliban, and other hospital staff and visitors fill out the roles of Stefano, Trinculo, and Ferdinand. And although we never learn the precise reasons why Prospero bears such ill will toward the three visitors who become her sibling Tonio and estranged friends Alonso and Sebastian, the betrayal story in Shakespeare’s play becomes an fitting proxy for the myriad physical and emotional betrayals that accompany a cancer diagnosis.

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Tamara Tunie as Prospero; photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Kaminski’s adaptation of the text to fit this framework is agile and subtle – the play has been trimmed substantially, but the spine of the plot remains, and you’d be hard pressed to identify what has been lost without the original text right in front of you. Moreover, her interpolation of lines that refer to Prospero’s illness – and keep the thread of the prologue scene present – are interwoven so seamlessly that you might be fooled that they were part of the original. Other changes pull to the fore Prospero’s dawning understanding that it is time to let go of her rage and move on and accentuate her recognition, toward the end of her life, that nobody’s perfect. For example, when Shakespeare’s Prospero decides to forgive, he says he will give up has magic and drown his book; Kaminski’s Prospero declares “I’ll drown my harsh revenge.” Likewise, where Shakespeare’s Prospero ends the play with “As you from crimes would pardon’d be,/ Let your indulgence set me free,” Kaminski’s Prospero admonishes “As from mistakes you’d pardoned be/ Let your compassion set me free.”

L.B. Morse creates a mythical environment with the scenic and projection design, and there are a number of stunning visual moments, among them a scene towards the end of the play in which Prospero, shimmering gold against a backdrop of pale blues, purples, and glowing filaments of white, conjures her last bit of magic. Andre Pluess’s soundscape  uses windchimes and xylophones to create an atmosphere of enchantment and mystery that is complemented by Nicole Pearce’s often otherworldly lighting palette.

I should probably mention at this point that no roles in this production are played by actors who identify as male. In addition to Tunie, who brings a magnetic physical presence to the stage, the thirteen-plus member cast includes particularly strong performances from Jamie Agnello and Bethany Caputo as the comic characters Trinculo and Stephano; Shammen McCune and Janelle Velasquez as the island “natives” Caliban and Ariel; and Deena Aziz (Queen Alonso), Laurie Klatscher (Gonzalo), Aryana Sedarati (Sebastian), and Rami Margron (Tonio) as the objects of Prospero’s revenge and eventual reconciliation.

While it was great to see these actors have a chance to dive into roles they might never otherwise have a chance to play, I’m still chewing on the effect of this casting. Much as I’d like to be able to say that it cracked open a new way of looking at the play, in truth it was the framing story of Prospero’s illness and the way that frame isolated the difficult and complicated acts of forgiveness and reconciliation that most resonated for me. As Prospero’s maltreatment of Caliban demonstrates, none of us are pure. We all harm others even as we find ourselves the victims of harm. How do we process those harms, reconcile, let go, move on? I find myself mulling Kaminski’s final couplet: “As from mistakes you’d pardoned be/ Let your compassion set me free.”

“Where did we sit on the bus?” at City Theatre

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Playwright/poet/performer Brian Quijada has hope for the future.

That’s not an easy orientation to maintain these days, particularly for someone who belongs – like Quijada himself – to the unjustly maligned community of people who are, or once were, undocumented migrants from Latin America. Yet paradoxically, it’s his own experience growing up the son of illegal immigrants from El Salvador that gives him hope for his yet-to-be-conceived mixed-race child.

The story Quijada tells in Where did we sit on the bus? is framed as the personal history he might tell that child one day, and if he ever does, he will certainly rank as one of the coolest dads in the kindergarten carpool. Quijada is also a master “looper,” and he starts off by laying down some vocal beats, layering on ukelele licks and vocal harmony, and then looping the result, controlling the volume and mix with his cell phone as he steps away from his tech-laden table. This magically self-generated music underscores a performance in which he weaves energetic hiphop poetry into the narrative of his life from birth (literally, he starts his story in the womb!) to the present moment.

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Brian Quijada in “Where did we sit on the bus?”; photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Quijada is a charismatic performer with a winning smile and a sly sense of humor: in the course of telling his story he also impersonates the major figures in his life, giving them voices that gently poke fun at stereotypes, Latinx and other. For example, his third grade teacher, who fails to come up with an answer to his innocent query about where brown people like him sat on segregated buses in the Jim Crow South, is a dead ringer for Roz from Monsters, Inc.; his dad, who IRL does not sound like Antonio Banderas, sounds like…Antonio Banderas (or maybe Ricardo Montalbán). Director Chay Yew makes dynamic use of the mostly empty stage space, with Diane D. Fairchild’s lighting design helping to integrate the diverse modes of storytelling by seamlessly shifting the visual world as Quijada’s text slides from hiphop lyricism to prose to song and dance.

Quijada’s narrative is one that not only traces his evolving sense of what it means to be the son of Latinx immigrants, but also documents his evolution as a politically aware hiphop artist.  He traces his love of dancing and his early obsession with Michael Jackson (comically illustrated with a couple of extremely nimble dance sequences), his awakening to the erasure of Latinx people from the history of the civil rights movement, his teenaged anxiety and confusion about assimilating into a mostly white and Jewish high school, the challenges he faced getting his parents to accept his chosen career in the arts, and his discovery of his love for spoken word performance. Along the way, he points out the microaggressions and stereotyping that tripped him up at regular intervals: strangers who marveled at how well he spoke English, for example, or teachers who mangled his last name. Yet his story is primarily an uplifting one, a story that expresses pride in his family and their hard-won success, and while Quijada offers apposite criticism of the xenophobia of the present political powers-that-be, he also celebrates the spirit of welcome and inclusivity – emblematized by the “give me your tired, your poor” message inscribed on the Statue of Liberty – that he sees as America’s potential and promise for the generation to which his child will belong.

Hope indeed.

“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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There probably isn’t a soul in America who could not sing along to at least one song written by the extraordinarily prolific Irving Berlin. He was – as readers of this blog must already know – the immigrant who wrote “God Bless America”; the Jew who composed “White Christmas”; the cantor’s son who paid homage to his era’s popular music in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He also wrote the lyrics and music to another twelve hundred or so other songs during a life that lasted over a century.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin; Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Berlin’s story is a classic tale of the American Dream, and Hershey Felder – who truly is, as his bio quotes, “in a category all his own” – may be the ideal person to tell that tale. Felder brings a triple threat of talent to this one-man bio-play: he is a fantastically accomplished pianist, a superb vocalist with a smooth and plummy baritone voice, and a persuasive performer who channels Berlin with a winning combination of sincerity and self-effacing humor.  Along the way, Felder also busts out some credible imitations of some of the most recognizable voices in American music history, including Ethel Merman and Elvis Presley.

The show is essentially a first-person narrative that tracks Berlin’s rise from Lower East Side poverty to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood success through a combination of talent, pluck, hard work, and preternatural business savvy. We learn, among other things, that Berlin was self-taught and never learned to read or write music; that he left home at the age of twelve to support himself after his father died; that he used the profits from writing songs for the Ziegfeld follies to purchase back the rights to all of his previous songs, a move that kept him solvent during the Great Depression; and that he composed “White Christmas” while homesick at a Beverly Hillls poolside. There are almost a hundred years of such anecdotes, and Felder has selected some of the juiciest and most poignant to share. Several moments of Berlin’s life – the death of his first wife and of his first child, for example – elicited audible gasps of dismay from the audience; others – like the anecdote about how he managed to convince his WWI Army commander to let him sleep in – prompted waves of laughter.

The narrative is punctuated throughout with songs from the Berlin repertoire, sung by Felder accompanying himself virtuosically at the piano; many of the songs are well-known, but Felder has also sprinkled some of Berlin’s lesser-known work into the mix. Having just helped teach a class on the history of American Musical Theater at CMU, I thought I knew a few things about Berlin, but there were surprise tidbits of information from his biography along the way even for the musical theater expert who came to see the show with me. Projections of old black and white photographs into a large picture frame on the wall of Berlin’s “apartment” help make the history he lived through feel specific and present, and as the show progresses Felder uses subtle changes in costuming, posture, and voice to signal Berlin’s aging.

At the beginning of the performance, the audience is “cast” as a group of carolers who come annually to sing at Berlin’s door and whom he invites in to hear his story. It’s a rather awkward premise that I didn’t fully buy, but it provides a rationale for invitations to the audience to sing along later in the performance to some of Berlin’s best known tunes, including “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” and “Always.” If one purpose of this love letter to Irving Berlin is to remind us of his oversized influence on American popular music, the fact that a contemporary audience needs little prompting or cueing to croon several of his tunes from memory is evidence of the point made. Moreover, it’s an endearing and moving testament to Berlin’s legacy that his songs – most of which were written more than half a century ago – can continue to bring a group of strangers together in communal harmony.

“A Christmas Carol” at Off the WALL productions

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Actor Mark Coffin has a good story to tell, and the twinkle in his eye and sly smile on his face signal just how much he relishes sharing it. The story is, of course, Dickens’s familiar tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and his transformation from (sorry, can’t resist) scrooge-iness to benevolence after being haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. ‘Tis the season for staging that story, and if you’re looking for a fresh reboot, Coffin’s one-man show – playing for one more week at Off the WALL in Carnegie – has you covered.

Mark Coffin. Photo courtesy Off the WALL productions

Coffin has pared Dickens’s novel down to ninety captivating minutes of deceptively simple yarnspinning. He slips between the narratorial voice of the author and the large cast of characters with fluidity and ease, using a different timbre and accent for each character – an effect reminiscent of listening to Jim Dale narrate the audiobooks of the Harry Potter series (which, in my humble opinion, is one of the great joys in life). Director Heidi Mueller Smith has given Coffin just enough to do to keep the stage picture active, but not so much that it detracts from his main business of bringing Dickens’s world vividly to life. Their co-adaptation, which revels at times in the baroque word choice and sentence structure of the Victorian era, doesn’t need much else to set it firmly in that world, and scenic designer Adrienne Fischer leaves most of the world building to our imagination. A backdrop that sketches out the gesture of a cityscape serves as a surface on and against which projection designer Jessie Sedon and lighting designer Madeleine Steineck throw images and color to establish both the workaday world of Scrooge’s pennypinching and the spooky aura of his life-altering haunted night; sound and music designer Ryan McMasters fleshes out the atmosphere with sounds of knocks, rattling chains, strange creaks and groans, and other cues that suggest the creepy goings-on of the spirit world.

Coffin’s performance is confident and winsome, and even if you think you alreadly know this story from other stage or film adaptations, you may find there are some surprises in details pulled from the novel. Moreover, Coffin’s one-man performance lends the tale a comforting bedtime-story aspect that perfectly suits its fable-like ending. I usually find Scrooge’s transformation too miraculous to be believed, but here – framed as it is as a tale from a world similar to, but not quite exactly like, our own – I was far more ready to indulge in the wishful thinking that a moral awakening on the part of our present-day Scrooges might also be in the realm of possibility.

“Sweat” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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I’ve expressed in previous posts my impression that certain recent plays – among them, Hir and The Humans – seemed to have taken on new meaning and impact in the wake of the 2016 election. I’m going to add to that list Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat, which is currently running at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in an engaging and compelling production directed by Justin Emeka.  

Sweat – which Wall Street Journal columnist Terry Teachout deemed “the play that explains Trump’s win” in an article published a week after the presidential election – focuses on a group of union workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, whose jobs at a steel tubing plant evaporate after the factory owners move a large portion of their production to Mexico. The play mostly takes place at the workers’ favorite bar, and it shifts in time between 2008, when two of its characters have recently been released from jail and returned to a city devastated by economic collapse and rampant addiction, and 2000, when, in the wake of losing their high-paying manufacturing jobs and pensions to economic forces they lack the wherewithal to understand, they lash out violently and with unintended consequences.

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L to R: Amy Landis and Jerreme Rodriguez. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

We all know much of this story now.  Teachout is correct, the current occupant of the White House seems to have gotten there by ginning up the resentments and rages of people like Nottage’s characters, people who are correct to be angry about all of the ways corporate America has broken its compact with communities in which generations of workers have created wealth for industry owners, but who are also pointing their anger at all the wrong targets – immigrants, in particular.

And here’s where this play feels like it is a different play now than when Nottage originally premiered it, in 2015. Then, it was a mostly (although not wholly) sympathetic portrait of people who were being left behind by globalization, whose pain was not being recognized and whose frustrations weren’t being taken seriously. Now, however – although you’d have to be a monster not to feel any compassion for the people on whose stories Nottage based her play (and I like to think I am no monster) – two years of watching those folks froth and swoon over the nationalist, racist, and anti-democratic bile that streams from their chosen leader’s Twitter account makes characters based on them – sad and misfortunate as their fates may be – pretty unsympathetic.

I think this play remains important nonetheless because of the way it pulls together the many threads that turned union workers into Trump voters. To begin with, there’s their dearth of education and information: at the beginning of the play, one of the workers, Tracey (Amy Landis) not only has no idea what NAFTA is, but is also proudly resistant to acquiring knowledge, and in a more subtle touch, we see bartender Stan (Tony Bingham) perpetually switching the TV from news to sports, the preferred media diet for his customers. Then there’s the steady erosion of both union loyalty and union power, the first hinted at in a throwaway line by 21-year-old Jason (Patrick Cannon), when he complains about the amount of money the union pulls from each paycheck, and the second made manifest by the ineffectiveness of a strike at another plant, where union workers have been locked out for ninety-three weeks and replaced by lower paid “temps” who are looking more and more permanent. These combine, paradoxically, in an oblivious sense of entitlement among the characters as well as an utter lack of understanding of the larger social and economic forces that are rendering traditional union tactics obsolete and ineffective: the characters both believe that the mill owners “owe” them the job security and high wages their parents and grandparents unionized and fought hard to secure and also take the union and its benefits for granted.

In places, Sweat feels like it is overexplaining its subject; this, too, may be an artifact of the spotlight the election shone on communities like Reading. The play is at its best where it gestures, without full explanation, toward connected social challenges. When Jason – who has joined the Aryan brotherhood in prison and sports a tattooed swastika on his cheek – visits his mother Tracey in 2008, she’s clearly strung out, and her passing mention that she takes drugs for her back pain is more than enough to link the hollowing out of the manufacturing sector to the opioid epidemic. Likewise, even though the African-American Chris (Ananias J. Dixon) is more of a bystander than an active participant in the assault that sends him and Jason to jail, he gets a longer sentence – that, too, is a given circumstance of our current social system that Nottage leaves for us to fill in on our own. Moreover, while I could wish that the play gave a more sympathetic insight into the circumstances and forces that might prompt Latinx workers to cross a picket line for economic opportunity – and that it did not make its only Latinx character, Oscar (the excellent Jerreme Rodriguez), the scab – the play’s depiction of the way immigrants from Central and South America have been scapegoated by both displaced workers and the politicians who want to misdirect those workers’ rage rings depressingly true – and presciently reveals much about Trump’s win in the deindustrialized heartland.

“Androcles and the Lion” and “Espæce” – Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts

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The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts finished in a blaze of glory this past week with two final theatrical performances – Androcles and the Lion by the Danish Teatret Gruppe 38 and Carte Blanche, and Espæce, by French choreographer/scenographer Aurélien Bory and his Compagnie 111.

Androkles og løven. Carte Blanche og Gruppe 38.
Foto: Bo Amstrup

Storyteller Bodil Alling of Teatret Gruppe 38

Androcles and the Lion– which has one more day of performance – is children’s theater that is equally enchanting for adults. Audience members recline in hammocks arranged in concentric circles around a central platform; above is a white cloth hung like the ceiling of a circus tent. Before the performance begins, the space is filled with calming sounds of chimes, birds, bells, dripping water – it’s a soothing atmosphere, made to feel a charmingly otherworldly by the presence of men wearing baskets on their heads with glowing orbs of fruit. As actress Bodil Alling draws us into the familiar fable of Androcles and the lion, the orb-wearing men station themselves at old-fashioned overhead projectors and use water, colored glass, patterns, stencils, and other objects to illustrate scenes from the story on the tent above. Sound effects – produced on equally low-tech devices – fill out the aural landscape. The combination of Alling’s low, lilting voice and the handcrafted media and sound design produces a captivating effect, one that I imagine is as appealing to real children as it was to the child in me.  I could have lain there for hours, being swept along in the slipstream of this troupe’s beguiling storytelling.

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Espæce – which ran, alas, for just two days – joins In the Tunnel at the top of my list of favorites from this year’s Festival. The title, which is a made-up word that combines the French words for “species” and “space,” stems from a novel by Georges Perec, Espèces d’Espaces (Species of Spaces) – which Bory describes as a work that “writes space” and explores what is around and inside “emptiness.” Taking inspiration from Perec, Bory’s mesmerizing and utterly magical production explores the inner and outer contours of “emptiness” through movement, music, sound, and an ingeniously engineered scenographic element.

The performance begins with a line of performers in front of what turns out to be a deceptively monolithic large dark gray wall. An instruction is projected above them: “Read.” They pull books out of their pockets, and begin to form words by bending and folding the books into letters against the wall, eventually forming the sentence, “To live is to pass from one space to another while doing your very best not to bump yourself ” – a quote from Perec. What then follows is a series of choreographic explorations of “passing from one space to another”: the production as a whole is built, kind of like a symphony, of smaller movements, each of which has its own rhythm, tempo, mood, and tone, and which together form a whole that transcends the parts. Or maybe a better metaphor would be a necklace made of unique and beautifully crafted beads, each one topping the last in exquisite craft, forming a piece of jewelry that defies wholistic description. You’ve probably guessed where this is heading – I’m not even going to be able to begin to give you a sense of the whole of this production, not only because its whole is hard to compass in words, but also because there were so many revelatory, gasp-worthy moments that I was reluctant to tear my eyes from the stage to take notes (!).

Central to Espæce’s theatrical wizardry is that huge wall. It looms dully upstage during the first movement, in which three performers begin a slow back and forth journey hanging from swaying pipes, creating a complicated and hypnotizing pattern of movement through the space. Then soprano Claire Lefilliâtre begins singing a haunting, gorgeous Schubert Lied and the enormous wall suddenly begins to move, at first seeming to tilt back and forth, as if in response to an earthquake, and then rumbling forward to swallow up the performers one by one like an gigantic steamroller. Stéphane Ley’s cunning sound design rumbles and echos to produce an illusion of weight and menace in the wall; the performers’ meticulously timed and placed movement creates the effect that the wall is tilting on edge or flattening them to the floor. And as the piece transitions from this movement into the next, the wall becomes not just a scenic element but an integral component of the choreography – it begins to fold and move, shaping not only the space but also the human performers’ kinetic interaction with each other and with their surroundings.

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The wall morphs and changes unceasingly, revealing new aspects of itself with each new “bead” on that necklace; meanwhile, the performers find their way in, through, between, up, and over the wall’s ever-reconfiguring facets. At one point, the choreographic action pauses for an extended mimed story, told by actor Olivier Martin-Salvan in gibberish-German, about a young boy whose mother sends him by train to safety during wartime; at other points, dancer Cochise Le Berre and contortionist Katell Le Brenn each engage in impressive physical lazzi while reading their books, and acrobat Guilhem Benoit shimmies up the wall with gravity-defying ease. Then the wall comes back to life, spinning, snaking, winding – often seemingly of its own accord, thanks to Arno Veyrat’s adroit lighting design, which keeps the technicians hidden in shadow – until finally it disappears, leaving behind a photosensitive screen on which the final images and messages of the performance are projected using light and shadow.

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Espaece was one of those revelatory theatrical experiences that bust open the possibilities of what can be done in live performance and demonstrate why the International Festival of Firsts is such a gift to the city’s artists and audiences – every four years or so we have the opportunity to be inspired and challenged by creative genius from around the world. Congratulations and kudos are due to curator Karla Boos and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust for having pulled together such a marvelous slate of performances, events, and installations.

And in case you missed it, here’s a little teaser of Espæce to make you wish you hadn’t:

“Pipeline” at City Theatre

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In 2007, the first year I lived in Pittsburgh, my two children attended Pittsburgh Minadeo Elementary School in Squirrel Hill. My youngest was in kindergarten that year, and – for reasons I no longer remember – one morning during the first week of school I was sitting in the hallway outside of her classroom waiting to meet with her teacher. As I sat there, I could hear another teacher in a hallway around the corner, leading a line of students and haranguing one of kids in her charge.

“Antoine!”, she scolded in a voice loud enough to ring through both hallways, “You keep that up and I’m going to send you right back to kindergarten. You’re acting like you don’t belong in first grade. I’m going to send you back to kindergarten where you belong.  You go stand over there and think about your behavior and whether you are acting like a child who deserves to be in the first grade now. Mrs. Thomas, I think you need to take Antoine back into your kindergarten classroom right now, he’s not ready for first grade.”

As the line of kids turned the corner, my suspicions were confirmed: the kid she was singling out for this humiliating and psychologically degrading treatment was a little black boy, and his facial expression was a heartbreaking mixture of shame, embarrassment, and angry defiance. I have no idea what “infraction” prompted this teacher’s verbal abuse, but her message rang loud and clear, not just to the boy but to every person within hearing range, including all of the other (black, white, Asian, Latinx, and other) children passing by in that busy hallway:  this boy – this African-American child – is already behind, and he doesn’t deserve the opportunity you enjoy.

Fast forward eleven years, and today that child could very well have grown to be Omari (Carter Redwood), the struggling teenager at the center of Dominique Morrisseau’s new play PipelineOmari is a good, smart kid, but he carries a coil of anger and resentment like a spring ready to pop at any moment. In this he’s no different from the disaffected African-American teens who jump each other in class at the under-resourced urban school where his mother Nya (Nambi E. Kelley) and her colleague Laurie (Sheila McKenna) teach, but Nya and her ex-husband Xavier (Khalil Kain), in an attempt to get Omari away from that violence, have taken him out of public school and sent him to a mostly-white private boarding school that – presumably – feeds into the privileged pipeline towards success. Yet for Omari – as for his girlfriend Jasmine (Krystal Rivera) – the boarding school is an even more stressful environment, one in which they both must constantly not only monitor their behavior but also cope with a near-constant stream of microaggressions.

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L to R: Krystal Rivera and Carter Redwood. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The play is, on one level, about all the ways our current education system fails kids like Omari, Jasmine, and the young boy I saw at Minadeo that day: it’s about the self-esteem-destroying messages, both subtle and overt, that teachers send to students; about the disproportionate punishments meted out to minority students in comparison to white students; and about the ways teachers and administrators perpetuate a racial hierarchy even as they purportedly seek to level the playing field. It is, in short, about the implicit bias and racism that informs every level of every interaction, even where you least expect it: did I mention that the teacher who berated little Antoine at Minadeo was herself African-American?

The play is also – and more compellingly – about what’s going on inside the heads of kids like Omari when they act out, and about the ways a black male child’s status as an “endangered species” shapes and pressures his interactions with family, friends, and society at large. Omari’s roiling emotional state stems not only from his perception that he is expected to “represent” his race at school, but also from the pressure exerted by his mother’s (fully justified) anxiety that he will fall into that other pipeline – the school-to-prison pipeline – or, worse, become another Black Lives Matter statistic.

That anxiety is a thread that jags and spikes like an electric current running through the play. Morisseau gives it lyrical expression in the form of a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “We Real Cool,” that Nya assigns to her high school class for analysis. The poem’s final lines – “We die soon” – catapult Nya into a state of dread and panic over her son’s future, mainly because she recognizes how helpless she is to protect him from the institutional and structural racism that systematically takes promising individuals, robs them of dignity, drive, and aspiration, and spits them out as victims of the criminal justice system. She wants him to toe the line, behave, swallow his pride, obey his teachers even when he perceives that they are baiting him, and pretend that he does not have to fight daily for his right to exist, because she worries that a slip could cost him his life; what she doesn’t grasp is that the effort he must exert to do those things is precisely what puts him in danger of lashing out and getting branded – like little Antoine – a person who doesn’t deserve to be here.

The City Theatre production, directed by Reginald Douglas, has a number of things going for it. Carter Redwood is excellent as Omari, giving a performance that feels nuanced and grounded and that embraces the complicated nature of the character’s inner turmoil; you believe that this is a kid who could either go on to do great things in the “success pipeline,” or get screwed – either by the system or by his own exhaustion and resentment – and end up in the “school to prison pipeline.” Sheila McKenna is a force to be reckoned with as the veteran teacher Laurie, and Gabriel Lawrence, as the public school security guard Dun, has a bravuro monologue late in the play in which he brings in additional perspective on the black male experience to round out the picture of what Omari is dealing with.

Other performances, however, still hadn’t fully gelled by opening night – in particular, Kelley brings an ostentation to her performance of Nya that makes it feel like the character is in a different play – and the production struggles to clearly demarcate the realistic playing style demanded by most of the play from the more heightened scenes of lyricism that punctuate the action and open the play out beyond the world of its characters. In many of the realistic scenes, the directorial hand seems too much in evidence – as, for example, when Xavier trods downstage to speak with his back to his ex-wife, or Nya smokes with a gesture that feels theatrical and stagy – giving them a stylized quality that, in turn, lessens the impact and punch of the heightened theatricality of the non-realistic scenes

Technical elements of the production are quite fine, nonetheless: the original music, by the local 1Hood Academy, is terrific, setting a youthful and edgy tone and energy for the play, and Adam Thompson’s media design enlivens the space with images and text that raise the stakes of the action for both the characters and the audience – including, at one throat-catching moment, images of Trayvon Martin, Antwone Rose, and other young men whose promise may likely have been thwarted by our education system long before they fell victim to the racist assumptions of a man with a gun.

Where is the space for such young men to relax, screw up, take lessons from failure? In the end, that’s all Omari wants – for the world to be fair, for his mother to let him chill on occasion, and for the chance to make mistakes and live to learn from them.

Midnight Radio: “Frankenstein” at Bricolage Production Company

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We all know the story of Frankenstein, right? Mad scientist toils away in a castle on a remote hilltop, stitching together a monster out of parts scavenged from corpses, which he brings to life on a rainy night by harnessing electricity from a bolt of lightning and then unleashes on an unsuspecting world with an triumphant cry of “It’s ALIVE!  Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Sort of like this? —

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Um….Wrong!

Mary Shelley’s novel – which I happened to just re-read because it’s the 200th anniversary of its publication and I’m that kind of dork – is way more complex and interesting and subtle than the film bastardization that cemented that castle/lightning/evil scientist scenario into the popular imagination. Her original is a story of creative ambition gone too far, of existential despair, of the human tendency to label the unfamiliar and the Other “monstrous,” of the costs of social isolation and of the outcast’s desperate craving for society, and – perhaps most of all – it’s a story that raises prescient questions about the ethical responsibility of a creative person for the work he or she releases into the world, especially given the impossibility of predicting its effects on the future.

Tami Dixon’s adaptation of the novel into a 1940s-style radio play for Bricolage’s Midnight Radio series leans into that last aspect of Shelley’s novel; in a brilliant touch, Dixon weaves Shelley herself into the narrative, both at the beginning of the show – when Mary Shelley interrupts the iconic “castle/lightning/evil scientist mwahahah” tableau and pushes back, appalled, at the “monster” her own story has become in the hands of Hollywood producers – and then later, as her own narrative progresses and she realizes that the characters she has created seem to take on a life of their own, making decisions she wishes they would not make and reacting to crises in ways she finds herself powerless to prevent. The novelist’s helplessness in the face of the narrative drive of the story she has set in motion parallels and mirrors Victor Frankenstein’s powerlessness to rewind the tragedy he unspooled when he gave life to his “creation”: in both cases, the urge to create results in work that takes on an unpredictable life of its own. The parallel also allows Dixon to pay homage to the power of the creative impulse – for Shelley, as for Frankenstein, the compulsion to create overwhelms a rational consideration of the consequences of their creativity. Creative ambition, for both Dixon’s Shelley and Shelley’s Frankenstein, is a cursed blessing.

Aside from the addition of Shelley, Dixon’s adaptation hews tightly to the original story, in which – I know I don’t need to remind you – the brilliant young Victor Frankenstein, having created life from death, recoils from his creation and abandons it to wander lonely and friendless in a hostile world; eventually, the creature takes revenge on his creator for this abandonment by murdering most of his friends and family. The genius of Shelley’s novel lies in the way both antagonists lay claim to our sympathy: Frankenstein’s anguished ethical morass and the creature’s existential despair are equally relatable.

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Cotter Smith, in Frankenstein

Under Jeffrey Carpenter’s insightful direction, Cotter Smith and Brett Goodnack rise to Shelley’s challenge as the creature and the scientist. Smith’s creature is a gentle soul reluctantly pulled to commit monstrous acts by repeated, crushing rejections of his attempts to find companionship; in Smith’s hands, the link between the disappointment of the creature’s all-too-human desires and his all-too-horrific actions becomes poignantly clear (and – it has to be said – gave pause in a week in which several humans expressed their rage over what they perceived to be thwarted desires in comparably monstrous ways). Goodnack is magnificent as Frankenstein, conveying his anxiety, despair, rage, and remorse with a commitment and abandonment that makes the play feel far more fully produced than the “radio play” format would suggest. (I felt the same way about Goodnack’s 2015 performance in 1984, where he likewise brought an astonishing range of emotional lability and intensity to his vocal performance).

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Brett Goodnack as Victor Frankenstein

Rounding out the cast of characters with superb vocal performances are Jamie Agnello, playing a bewildered and justifiably pissed-off Mary Shelley; Parag S. Gohel, as Frankenstein’s chum Clerval; and Maura Underwood, as Frankenstein’s fiancé Elizabeth. As in previous Midnight Radio productions, all of the actors produce sound effects using a variety of cleverly devised props and objects, incuding, in this instance, an appositely chosen “Operation” game board. Satirical ads – for things like “Electricity!” and “Surgery!” – punctuate the action, providing levity in the form of ironic commentary. Musical Director Deana Muro and Sound Engineer Brendan Kepple augment the foley sound effects produced by the actors with a soundscape that evokes an authentic radio studio. And Cello Fury is the musical guest, providing accompaniment and underscoring to the action as well as a rousing “intermission” number that showcases their unique marriage of classical instrumentation with pop-rock rhythms.

“Larger Than Life” at Bricolage Production Company (Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts)

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“How are you?”

I’ve heard that question many times since this past Saturday. I imagine you, my Dear Reader, have as well. The honest answer, if you live here in the ‘burgh and possess a heart and soul, ranges from broken-hearted to shaken to devastated to terrified to furious to anxiety-riddled to hopelessly depressed.

As I picked up my laptop to write this post this evening, it felt “wrong” to jump right in to writing about theater in the wake of the tragedy that just hit our city. At the very least, I feel the need to take the writerly equivalent of a moment of silence – to reach out across the space that separates you from me and check in.

How are you?

“Okay” is the best I’ve been able to muster in the last four days. I hope you, too, are okay.

How do you move from tragedy to work? Saturday was also the closing night of the limited-run engagement of the Tel-Aviv theater company Hanut31’s co-production of Larger than Life with our own Bricolage Production Company. I had tickets to the show; I anticipated that they would cancel in light of the massacre in Squirrel Hill. But following the long tradition of theater companies since time immemorial, the show went on.

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Moment of tribute at Bricolage 10/27/18

Before the performance began, the casts of both Frankenstein and Karate Man Patrick Kim  came on stage to take time to honor and memorialize the victims of the shooting.  Shahar Marom, the director of the Israeli company, thanked the audience for being there. He noted that eleven Jewish voices had been silenced by antisemitic violence earlier in the day; in choosing to share their art with us, the Israelis were refusing to allow their voices to be silenced as well.

“But we need your help,” he continued, apologetically.   “This is a comedy.”

Oof.

Then musical guests Cello Fury played “Silence,” a beautiful, haunting elegy that left both performers and audience members weeping. When the song finished, the cast of Frankenstein – still sniffling and drying their eyes – showed us exactly how you move from tragedy into work: they took their emotional turmoil and with brave force of will channeled it into performing a snippet version of the show.

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Brett Goodnack as Victor Frankenstein

You’ll hear more about Frankenstein later this week after I see the full-length production; but based on the short version presented as part of this double-header, I’m recommending that you snap up a ticket – the cast is strong and the story hews much closer to the original novel than most film or theater versions, making this an unusual take on a “familiar” tale.

As for Karate Man Patrick Kim – Marom was right, it is a comedy, and a very funny one at that. “Patrick Kim” is the hero of a series of pulp-fiction novels published in Israel in the late twentieth century – he’s a James Bond-like figure with mad karate skills played, in this version, with ironic relish by actor and clown extraordinaire Noam Rubinstein. The plot of the play is a chaotic, silly, and satirical sendup of a Cold War drama – something to do with an American scientist who has been kidnapped by Russians who plan to turn him into a spy by transplanting a Russian brain into his head – which can also be read as a pointed commentary on present-day international power and politics.

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L to R: Nadia Kucher and Noam Rubinstein, photo Yair Meyuhas

The format is a radio play, like Bricolage’s Midnight Radio, but the ensemble of Hanut31 takes a slightly different approach: instead of having all members of the cast produce sound effects, here sound artist Sharon Gabay takes near sole responsibility for producing the soundscape, leaving the actors to focus on character and vocal work. Gabay uses both digital sampling and physical objects to create sound, and in his hands the objects become part of the visual irony and humor of the play itself – for example, in one scene “Patrick Kim” is seduced by a beautiful French agent (played by Nadia Kucher); the subsequent “sex scene” is figured both aurally and visually by Gabay sucking on an orange and devouring a banana.

Moreover, where in a Midnight Radio production the fiction of being in an old-fashioned radio studio is so fully realized that you could close your eyes and feel as if you had not missed anything of the play itself, Karate Man Patrick Kim derives much of its comedy from the actors’ facial expressions and body language (in addition to Gabay’s clever deployment of objects). Actor Noa Becker – who also wrote the script – is particularly fine in this regard, her eyes expressive of a hilarious range of mocking commentary.

The ensemble performs with dynamic energy and deadpan panache, and while all three performers are terrific, Kucher in particular astonishes with the range and versatility of her voice. She sings like a tenor in one moment, and in the next she produces a beautiful coloratura soprano; she goes from rasping like a chain-smoker from Texas to crooning in French like Edith Piaf; and she seems to be able to speak (or fake speaking) four or five languages. To give you a little taste of both her talents and the vibe of the show as a whole, I leave you with a short video of the Hebrew version: