Your Presence is Requested at Bricolage’s First Annual Micro-immersive Fundraiser

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Dear Reader, I’ll be there … I may even be in costume! Won’t you join me?

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Get your ticket today

Bazaar is the first of its kind and if you’ve ever participated in a Bricolage production, you should expect nothing less than an astounding sensory experience.

Indulge in local libations from Pennsylvania Pure Distilleries, Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka and BLY Silver Rum. Feed your inner child with a delightful array of festival food. Tantalize the senses in a collection of mini immersive stations, each one designed by different performers, artists, and designers. 

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 Visit the Bricolage website to learn more. If for any reason you aren’t able to attend, please consider making a donation to Bricolage. Pittsburgh is lucky to have such an intrepid production company at its fingertips, and I’m excited to see what more they have in store.
 
Here is the Facebook event page, make sure to RSVP after you buy your ticket. Hope to see you there! 
 
PS: For you adventurous theater-goers, costumes are encouraged. Run with it!

“Stupid Fucking Bird” at 12 Peers Theater

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Playwright Aaron Posner gets something that few American directors and actors do: Anton Chekhov’s plays are funny.Not smiling-wryly funny, or inwardly-groaning funny, but actually-get-you-to-burst-out-laughing funny. They’re chock full of comic situations, oddball characters, and ridiculous turns of events; the problem is that most American interpretations of Chekhov, seduced by the psychological depth in his plays, treat them as melodrama rather than satire (a relatively recent exception to that tendency was PICT’s 2012 production of Three Sisters, directed by Harriet Power). But Posner isn’t fooled by all that theatrical realism, and in Stupid Fucking Bird, his “sort of” adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull,he not only translates Chekhov’s comedy into an idiom we can chuckle at, but also threads a commentary on the relationship of artists and their audience that highlights the gulf between the meaning artists seek to convey and the messages audiences receive.

Posner’s theatrical world roughly echoes Chekhov’s in terms of plot and characters (although most of the character names have been de-Russified), but onto that he has layered a metatheatrical conceit: the actor/characters regularly address the audience directly, as people who are aware that they are characters in a play. This fourth-wall breaking brings a giddy energy to the play, especially because it’s rather haphazardly deployed. At some points it seems as if we are being addressed by the characters themselves – like when the suicidal playwright Con (Chris Cattell) encourages us to imagine a new kind of theater, one completely unlike the play we are watching right now – but at other points it feels like we are being addressed by the actors – as when Matt Henderson tells Cattell that he shouldn’t expect the audience to respond to a direct request for advice, because “they know you’re fictional,” and Cattell looks at us desperately and pleads “If only I had some friend in the audience.”

Stupid Fucking Bird has a lot of complicated moving parts, sliding as it does between and among Chekhov’sThe Seagull,Posner’s adaptation of The Seagull as Stupid Fucking Bird, the play-within-the-play called Here We Are that Con presents to his mother Emma (Maura Underwood) and her lover Trigorin (Stefan Lingenfelter), and Posner’s many and varied metatheatrical asides. Director Vince Ventura has added his own layer of complexity in the form of choreographed moments of reflection and in sound and lighting cues that pull the play out of the real and into a heightened theatricality during some of its more “meta” moments and that look and feel very much like the kind of thing Con would stage as part of his own attempts to remake the art of theater (more metatheatricality!)

This is some of the strongest work I’ve seen 12 Peers Theater produce to date. Cattell grounds the production with his nuanced characterization of Con; the characters who orbit around his absurd existential despair include Sarah Chelli’s ebullient – and later bat-shit crazy – Nina, Underwood’s regally narcissistic Emma Arkadina, Henderson’s neurotic sadsack Dev, and Sara Ashley Fisher’s gothically depressed Mash. Lingenfelter is likeable (perhaps rather too much so) as the genius writer Trigorin, and David Maslow plays a baffled and existentially-challenged Dr. Sorn.

“Gloria” at Hatch Arts Collective

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If you’ve ever worked at a job in which you were underpaid to have your skills and talents demoralizingly underutilized, then the magazine publishing office in which the first act of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play Gloria takes place may be both painfully and hilariously familiar to you. It’s the kind of place that recruits smart young idealistic college grads dreaming of glamorous jobs in publishing, only to plop them in a cubicle and task them with answering the phone, restocking the printer with paper, and scheduling their bosses’ lunch dates.

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L to R: Moira Quigley, Sami Ma, Dylan T. Jackson, Max Pavel. Photo courtesy Hatch Arts Collective.

More specifically, the scene is a group office (cannily designed by Katy Fetrow) staffed by three editorial assistants – Dean (Max Pavel), Kendra (Sami Ma), and Ani (Moira Quigley) – who occupy the bottom rung of the office hierarchy along with a college-aged intern, Miles (Dylan T. Jackson), whom the three assistants freely boss around because he’s the only person below them on the pecking order. As Miles has figured out over his six weeks with the magazine, everyone in this toxic environment is deeply unhappy: Dean is a failed memoirist with a budding alcohol addiction; the nakedly ambitious Kendra bitterly resents having been assigned to an editor who won’t give her any writing assignments; and Ani is drifting aimlessly in a job she seems to have fallen into by accident (she majored in neuroscience).

None of these three seem to have much actual work to do, which is a big part of the problem; instead, they spend most of their time scrabbling for status within the office hierarchy by sabotaging each other and engaging in verbal and psychological warfare. They are joined in their misery by Lorin (Ricardo Vila-Roger), the almost-40-year-old “head fact checker” who works down the hall and who declares, in a moment of existential despair, that working for this magazine “just sucks your soul out of you and leaves you with your dreams gone,” and by the sad-sack introverted and socially-awkward Gloria (Erika Cuenca), a fifteen-year veteran with the firm who works in “copy” (whatever that is) and who, the evening before, had thrown a big and expensively catered housewarming party for herself – to which noone in the office except Dean came.

It’s the kind of place where, as that saying goes about academe, the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

Except when suddenly they’re not.

Dear Reader, forgive me a small digression. I’m not going to spoil the most unexpected moment in this play by giving away what happens, and if you are someone who would prefer to experience the surprise that the playwright has prepared for you, then for the love of all that is holy, when you receive the email that Hatch Arts Collective will send you with information about how to find the performance space in the cavernous and user-unfriendly Nova Place, DO NOT scroll down to the end, as I (unfortunately) did, and read the “sensitive content” warning. I’m here to assure you that you’ll be fine without that warning – and that you’ll have a superior experience of the play for having ignored it.

Suffice it to say that these office workers are subjected to a traumatizing event. The second act of the play opens a few months later, when the characters are coping, in the only way they seem to know how, with the aftereffects of that trauma: that is, they are writing about it and trying to make a profit off of it, some more successfully than others. Where the first act is (mostly) a brilliant comic skewer of office politics, the second is a cynical dissection of the way the media industry churns tragedy into profit and the way victims of trauma can be revictimized through the stories that do (and don’t) catch hold in the public imagination.

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Ricardo Vila-Roger as Lorin. Photo courtesy Hatch Arts Collective.

You might guess from my description that it kind of feels like there are two plays here, which is a challenge director Adil Mansoor addresses through both staging choices and sound cues (by Eben Hoffer) that “ghost” the first act into the second, and thereby not only tie the two halves together, but also theatricalize the psychological chaos with which the characters must cope. Mansoor introduces what is, in essence, a new theatrical vocabulary partway into the second act as a signal that everything has changed and that the world has shifted in strange and unpredictable ways around the characters. It’s a bold and laudable directorial choice, but in several moments it’s either distracting (as when the scene changes behind Nan (Erika Cuenca) as she describes her experience to her fellow publishing exec Sasha (Moira Quigley)) or confounding (as with the difficult-to-parse final sound cue), rather than evocative.

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Mansoor has nevertheless directed with a sure hand and coaxed marvelous performances from his ensemble. Ma is sharp and wickedly funny as Kendra, the “tiger daughter” who spends most of the first act deftly and acerbically dissecting the flaws and foibles of her co-workers. Pavel – who is right now ranking among my favorite local actors – brings an edgy sensitivity to his portrayal of Dean, the character who has the biggest emotional journey in the play, and a pitchperfect, laidback-but-patronizing irritability to his characterization of the IT dude in the final scene of the play. Cuenca steps into new territory in her portrayal of the social outcast Gloria in the first act and is satisfyingly ice-queen-y as Nan in the second. Vila-Roger lands the play’s emotional punch in the final scene, as we see his character quietly and gently trying to “figure out how to be” after a few years in an emotional wilderness. Quigley and Jackson each play multiple characters with clear and precisely observed differentiation. Quigley shifts agilely from the youngish, unperturbable Ani to the dismissively confident, at-the-top-of-her-game publishing exec Sasha to the very young and emotionally labile TV studio assistant Callie. Jackson’s performance – as the confident but soft spoken intern Miles in the first act, the chatty and politically woke barista Shawn in the second scene, and the newly crowned master of mediatainment Rashaad in the third – may be the most protean of all, and he sells the moment in which Miles realizes what’s happening in the first act with unforgettable clarity.

Gloria isn’t a perfect play, but the Hatch Arts Collective production is commendable, with professional-level production values and ensemble work that rival any of the larger and (presumably) much better-funded theatrical enterprises in town. The space, a repurposed storefront, is transformed not only by Fetrow’s mobile set and clever special effects but also by John A. Mitchell’s lighting design, which helps pull the play into a psychological space at key moments in the second act. Alexis Carrie’s costume designs key exquisitely to the characters, establishing subtle but precise distinctions between them on the multiple axes of gender, race, age, and social status, and Eben Hoffer’s sound design brings both the external and internal trauma of the play to vivid life.

In Memoriam — Gabe D’Abruzzo

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I have spent this past week heartsick at the loss of Gabe D’Abruzzo, who died this past Monday in a drowning accident in New Jersey.

I first met Gabe in 2012, when I joined the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh, for which he was the insanely talented accompanist. Gabe was a master pianist who could sight-read virtually anything, and for whom it seemed no piece of music was too difficult. Allegro runs of thirty-second notes with key changes every other bar? No sweat. Play a 2/4 rhythm in one hand against a 6/8 rhythm on the other? Bring it on. Take on the jarring, dissonant accompaniment to modern compositions with unexpected chord configurations and multiple tempo changes? Piece of cake. And no matter how devilishly difficult the score, Gabe made it all look effortless and easy, as if his fingers were merely a conduit to the keyboard for the notes on the page.

In so many ways, Gabe was part of the glue of the Bach Choir – he helped teach us all, by both example and through occasional observations and notes, how to be better musicians, and through his virtuoso musicianship he incentivized us all to rise to his level of excellence. Gabe was a musician in every fiber of his being. Although he never told me so directly, I believe he had perfect pitch – at the very least, he often amazed us all by being able to determine that, for example, the bass section had sung an E flat instead of an E in a given measure (something he’d somehow managed to hear while playing accompaniment on a grand piano). I remember vividly one time we didn’t have a tenor soloist in rehearsal, and when none of the choir members felt confident enough to sight-read the solo, Gabe volunteered to sing it himself, and proceeded to play the piano score and sight-sing the vocal line (much to the shame and embarrassment of us mere mortals in the choir) with a clear tenor that rivalled anyone in the choir. Gabe also had a compendious memory for music – at times we would encounter a melody or chord progression that seemed vaguely familiar, and suddenly Gabe would bust out a bar or two of the classical or popular music it resembled from his internal music Rolodex. He was, in short, the definition of a prodigious talent.

I came to know Gabe more closely a few years ago when my daughters began singing with the Fox Chapel Area High School choirs – he also served as their accompanist, and after hearing him play my oldest daughter arranged to take piano lessons from him. Gabe was as brilliant a teacher as he was a musician, inspiring his students to take on challenges they didn’t know they were ready for and generous in his sharing of both technical skill and musical theory.

The last time I saw Gabe, it was at a “Summer Sing” held by the Bach Choir. We were singing the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, which begins with something like fifteen minutes of a wickedly challenging and absolutely gorgeous piano solo. I had listened to the piece on youtube earlier in the day before rehearsal and had been impressed by the difficulty of the piano concerto that starts the piece. Because the purpose of the summer sing is primarily to give vocalists a chance to try out new music, I had assumed that we would only be singing the choral part when we gathered together. But to all our surprise, Gabe played the first half of the piece, and he didn’t merely play it – he performed it, stunningly, breathtakingly, masterfully. Five minutes in, I wished I had realized what was about to happen and pulled out my phone to get a recording, because not only was his performance vastly superior to the youtube version I had heard earlier that day, but it was also a little surreal to be present as this musical genius – in shorts and flip flops – absolutely slayed the Choral Fantasy for an audience of a hundred volunteer singers in the chapel of Rodef Shalom. It was a gift I wanted to share with others somehow.

Now I wish I had taken that video because it was the last I would ever hear Gabe play.

We will miss you, Gabe; we will miss your humor, your grace, your genius, and, above all, the music you brought into our lives.

Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music” (at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia)

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Taylor Mac with music director/arranger Matt Ray. Image credit: Ves Pitts.

It’s taken me over two weeks to get around to writing about experiencing Taylor Mac’s glorious, epic, mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting, eye-popping, inspiring, utterly magnificent 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

Why?

Sheer cowardice. The show was so complex, so full, so LONG (24 hours, divided over two weekends of 12 hours each – for which we twice made a round trip pilgrimage to Philadelphia), with so much information, so many diverse and complicated moments – beautiful moments, provocative moments, funny moments, poignant moments, breathtaking moments, squirm-inducing moments – that I have feared myself not wholly up to the task of capturing it in writing; a task made even more complicated by the fact that (silly me) I (twice!) forgot to bring any paper, and so what few notes I have from the twenty-four hour performance are scribbled – mostly unintelligibly – on scraps torn from receipts, on the margin of my ticket, and on little green bits of paper scavenged from the floor of the theater after Mac had the audience make confetti out of a list of members of Congress.

But one of those notes gives me heart: “Perfectionism is for assholes,” judy (this is Taylor Mac’s preferred gender pronoun) says several times during the show, whenever judy fucks up or forgets a lyric (which is actually surprisingly rare, given…); and in that spirit, forgiving myself in advance for what is sure to contain failure, I shall forge ahead.

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Taylor Mac (Decade 2) with knitters in background.

Where to start?

With the first, opening moment of audience communion, as we all sang (or was it hummed?) “Amazing Grace” to a middle-aged woman pulled from the audience, who stood on stage awkwardly at first, as one does when one has been conscripted into participation, but then miraculously relaxed and opened her arms wide in an uplifted embrace of the song, the spirit, and the audience’s energy?

With Mac’s clear-sighted rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” towards the end of the first hour, a rendition that pointedly positioned the song as an instantiation of homophobia and the use of queer-shaming to “other” one’s enemy?

With judy’s reminiscences of fraternity drinking parties and the kinky goings-on in New York’s gay club scene as part of the time-tesseract enfolded into the third decade, which revolved around drinking songs from the turn of the 19th century?

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Decade 3 (drinking songs)

Or shall I skip ahead a few decades (and a few hours) to judy’s brilliant defamiliarization of “Johnny Comes Marching Home,” a song normally played as a happy march, but here sung as a ballad of loss, yearning, and the toll of war?

You can see my challenge here: we’re not even past the Civil War and already both my capacity for memory and powers of description are taxed.

The show, which Mac describes as a “subjective take on history” that spends 24 hours asking (but not answering) the question “how do we build ourselves when we are tearing ourselves apart?”, is a history from the perspective of the outsider, the marginalized, the female, the non-white, and, especially, the queer, told through a combination of song, commentary, and spectacle. Each decade of history gets roughly an hour of performance time, and many of the decades have a theme or narrative, beginning with the “core values” of this country in the first decade (1776-1786) – which include “hating Congress” and “making things,” which is why there’s a group of knitters on stage – and moving through the early feminist movement (1786-1796), the drinking songs (of course! the country is in its twenties from 1796-1806!), and into a three decade/hour long imagined “heteronormative jukebox narrative about colonization” that Mac dreams will be a Broadway musical and then an Oscar-winning film, but which gets derailed by a queer Native American character’s refusal to go along with her role in the story, and during which, for an hour, we are blindfolded.

And so on, and so on, decade by decade, up to 2006-2016, right on our historical doorstep.

Highlights include a “smackdown” between Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster for the title of “Father of American Song” (1846-56); a version of the Mikado set on Mars, with Mac playing one of the male characters (I think it was the Lord High Executioner? forgive me, at this point we were in the 11th hour), because playing a female character would be “an appropriation of my appropriation” (1876-86); a balloon party in the audience, to the tune of “Happy Days are Here Again,” celebrating the end of WWI (1916-26); Mac-as-Jackie Kennedy, descending from the flies on airplane wings (1956-66); a Cold War “battle” of enormous inflated penises from the US and USSR (was that the 60s? 70s? I don’t remember now) that ends, predictably enough, in (ahem) mutual deflation; a festive, celebratory funeral for Judy Garland – played by a game young woman from the audience who was borne on the shoulders of four equally game young men as they processed through the orchestra level and out the theater – during which costume designer Machine Dazzle and “Dandy Minion” artistic director Timothy White Eagle paid deadpan homage dressed as popcorn-munching Dorothys from The Wizard of Oz; an extended moment when we all sang “The People Have the Power,” over and over again, willing it to be true; and an insanely beautiful, enormous cloth vagina that started as a set piece and ended as a beautiful dress (2006-16, natch). (If you want a blow by blow description of the show from someone who seemed to have taken notes, go here and read Chloe Veltman’s account of the October 2016 24-hr performance).

 

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Decade 4 – in background, L to R: Machine Dazzle (exiting) & Dandy Minions

With each decade comes a new costume, as well. Machine Dazzle, the mad-genius costume designer-creator, is as much a part of the performance as his creations – he struts on during the transitions to transform Mac into a new look for each decade, in costumes that capture elements of the decade in warped, wild, and wonderful ways. Lucky for both of us, Mac does not discourage the audience from taking photographs, so I don’t have to describe them, I can just sprinkle images throughout this post (apologies for the picture quality – we were seated in the back of the house and I was using a new device). Among my favorites were the enormous balloon concoction that greeted our eyes when we removed our blindfolds in the mid-19th century, and the strange “soft-serve ice cream cone” outfit Mac war during the hour in which judy sang songs from the Depression about hunger, poverty, and need.

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The songs themselves – 246 in all – are sung with their original lyrics; it’s Taylor Mac’s ingenious interpretations of the songs – which have been brilliantly arranged by composer/music director/onstage performer Matt Ray – that provide irony, subtext, and commentary on the era from which they have been drawn. John Torres’s indescribably stunning lighting design also does a lot of the work framing and alienating the songs – his hybrid concert/theatrical lighting finds the pitch-perfect look and emotional resonance for every moment of the show. Between songs, Mac fills in the details of history, points out contradictions, draws connections between history and the present day, drops pithy observations like “heteronormative and colonial are the same thing,” tells stories, cajoles and teases the audience, directs judy’s cohort of 25 or so mostly genderqueer and often quite scantily clad “Dandy Minions” to interact with the audience and bring in props, food, merriment, and mayhem, and recruits (or conscripts) members of the audience to the stage.

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Decade 10 (1866-76): “Family Dinner” – during this decade, about two dozen members of the audience were invited onstage to join in a “nonpolitical family Thanksgiving dinner” (hah!) while the rest of the audience enjoyed a boxed meal of roasted vegetables and orzo at their seats.

Audience participation is pretty much unavoidable in this performance – not everyone is pulled onstage (thank god), but everyone is invited to sing along, stand, engage with their neighbor, pepper the performers with ping pong balls, blow up balloons and toss them about, tear up paper, smell flowers, move seats, engage in competitions, and drink beer and eat food that is passed out by the Dandy Minions and the audience members they recruit to help them.

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Decade 11 (1876-86): Martian Mikado. Taylor Mac in gold headdress; background and to his left: audience members.

Much as the content of Mac’s performance was stimulating and provocative, it was actually this formal aspect – the audience engagement and the chaotic, open, and dialogic nature of both the performance and the space, in which, over the course of many hours, a community was joyfully and magically formed among strangers – that made 24-Decade such an impactful experience. My friend and colleague Jill Dolan has written passionately and lucidly about theater as a space of “utopian performance,” that is, as a space where people can congregate to engage in shared meaning-making and imagine into existence, even if in a fleeting or incomplete way, a better world. The experience of being in Taylor Mac’s audience was, above all, that – Mac and judy’s splendidly talented collaborators put us in the history judy sought to queer, made us active in the contestation of that history, and in so doing gave us the opportunity to share in making new meanings, through shared astonishment, joy, hilarity, grief, anger, and exhaustion.

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Decade 15 (1916-26) “Happy Days are Here Again” balloon party, with guest performer Martha Graham Cracker (center stage, on floating pink flamingo).

I’m just sorry you missed it, dear Reader. If you are within striking distance of this remarkable performance at some time in the future, find a way to see it. Invite me – I’ll go again! In the meantime, I leave you with a link to this article by C. J. Boyd about the show that captures, much better than I could, the way 24-Decade engages a queer futurity . . . and, to whet your envy, images from the final 9 hours of the performance . . .

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Decade 17 (1936-46): Mac as WW2 bomber plane; in background, Machine Dazzle with Mt. Rushmore headdress.

 

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Decade 18 (1946-56): “Pretty Woman” – white flight to the suburbs (picket fence shawl, 3D-glasses headdress, inflatable white poodle)

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Decade 19 (1956-66): the elaborate entrance of Jackie Kennedy!

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Decade 20 – Disco Era (1966-76): Mac in the audience (just before we are to act the part of his childhood homophobic bullies by pummeling him with ping pong balls).

 

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Mac & some of the Dandy Minions (Decade 20)

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Decade 21 : US “vs.” USSR

 

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Decade 22 (1976-86): AIDS crisis (note cassette-tape dress & death-trio headdress)

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Decade 23 (1986-96): Mac invites lesbians in the audience to the stage & sings an hour-long tribute to the radical lesbian feminist community.

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Final curtain call (Mac in center, in “vagina dress”). Photo Narelle Sissons.

“The Clearing” at Bricolage Production Company

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The gerund noun of the title of Bricolage’s new immersive encounter – The Clearing  – is deliberately ambiguous. It’s both the (noun) space you enter and explore and the (gerund verb) activity you engage in as part of the performance.

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The Clearing – photo Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company

Taking place in the same environment the team created for their sensory-friendly children’s show The Forest of Everywherethe adult-oriented The Clearing takes advantage of the soothing, meditative quality of the space to provide an opportunity for introspection and mental attic-airing. Bricolage has done some light repurposing of the space, turning it into a quietly otherwordly environment that feels strange and mood-altering: you’re not, so to speak, in Kansas anymore. But you are in a place where, through small encounters with both the magical world and the actors who inhabit it, you may find yourself inching closer towards mental clarity.

What’s on offer here is a small journey into your own relationship to fear, worry, anxiety, truth, lies, and betrayal – which means that (as with each of the immersive works Bricolage has created to date) your experience will be unique, personal, idiosyncratic, and quite possibly – as was my case – uncannily refreshing.

“Orphans” (playing at Aftershock Theater)

I’m not in the habit of compiling “10 best” lists each year – it’s not in my DNA to have “favorites” of anything (makes choosing online security questions a challenge!). But if I were to be compiling such a list for 2018, right now the marvelous production of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans (an Actors’ Equity Association Members Project, playing at a new venue, Aftershock Theater) would be at the very top of my list.

Ingrid Sonnichsen directs this play, with assistance from actor (and former head of acting at the New School for Drama) Cotter Smith, who trained the stellar ensemble in Stanislavski’s “Active Analysis,” a technique relatively new to the United States, and from fight director Randy Kovitz. Their teamwork has paid off in a production that is dynamic, mesmerizing, and moving.

The play centers, as its title suggests, on a set of orphans. Max Pavel plays older brother Treat, a street thief who has a hair-trigger temper and little compunction about using violence to enforce his will, including against his younger brother, Phillip, played by Dylan Marquis Meyers. Phillip seems, at first, to be a simpleton – he spends his days watching TV or shut in a dark closet, and his speech is peppered with slogans from commercials and brand names. Unable to perform the simplest of life tasks – he can’t read or tie his own shoes, and doesn’t go outside for fear of allergy attacks – Phillip is wholly dependent on his older brother for support and protection. Treat keeps them afloat by mugging people for their wallets and jewelry. When, at a bar one evening, he meets Harold (Ken Bolden), a particularly promising mark, Treat decides to bring him back to their house and hold him for ransom. But in Harold – an orphan himself – Treat and Phillip get much more than they bargained for.

I’m not going to go much further into the plot of the play, because I don’t want to spoil its unexpected turns. In any case, while the play is very good, what makes this production worth seeing is the electrifying work of the three actors. Pavel plays Treat as a tightly coiled spring, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation, and while in the play’s beginning he seems tough and invulnerable, as it evolves we come to see that his lashing out is that of a wounded and cornered animal. Ken Bolden makes precise and compelling choices in his depiction of the mysterious Harold, whose back story and motivations are only hinted at in the course of the play. This is the kind of character writing that could feel infuriating (I’m often suspicious of writers who create enigmatic characters for the sake of building suspense), but in Bolden’s hands Harold becomes a character whose unusual mixture of dark secrets, magnanimous generosity, and effete aestheticism combine into a believable whole. As Phillip, Meyers gives a performance that is downright thrilling. He physicalizes Phillip’s stunted development with shoulders hunched and slanted and arms akimbo, bouncing off the walls, furniture, and stairs of the house like a caged primate, and his vocal work brings the history of his character into relief as well: his cadence and accent take their cues from the old black-and-white gangster and mobster movies Phillip watches incessantly on TV (one of which plays in the background of a late scene in the play, to underscore the point (sound design by Shannon Knapp)). Meyers’ emotional reserves are deep, and he brings poignancy and depth to Phillip’s awakening to the wider world and his eventual crushing realization that his brother has essentially imprisoned him in ignorance.

The production is housed in a new venue, a former Slovenian social hall in Lawrenceville that is currently being renovated by Aftershock Theater as an arts/culture space. Set designer Hank Bullington has taken advantage of the fact that the building itself is still under renovation and used the features of the space – which include a stairway on the upstage wall to the upper level of the building, visible through open framing – to form the architecture of the Philadelphia house in which the two brothers live. Crumbling wallpapered plaster and exposed lathe – which are so well integrated into the space that they appear to be part of the ongoing renovation! – give the impression of a home that has deteriorated over time; Bullington has filled that home with a scattering of old furniture that might once have had value or been purchased by a parent with taste. Lighting designer Paige Borak creates a surprising range of moods and looks, given the severe constraints imposed by the lack of infrastructure in the space. The costume design, by Rikkilee Rose, is subtle and sophisticated, with good attention to the kinds of small details that help sell a scene – for example, between the first and second act, not only the quality but also the fit of Treat’s clothing gets finer, signaling his change in self-awareness as well as his change in status.

I’d like to write more about this wonderful production, but I have to hit the road for Philadelphia, where I’m going to see Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, so I’m posting in a bit of a rush this morning. Orphans plays through June 23 – put it on your list.

“King Hedley II” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

Ah, Pittsburgh! Hometown of August Wilson, and place of many rains….

Those two went hand-in-hand this past Saturday at the performance of King Hedley II I attended, which has been staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre in the backyard of August Wilson’s childhood home, on Bedford Street in the Hill District. We were all deeply absorbed in the story, when – drip drop – the storm began to blow in, umbrellas emerged from under seats, and Wali Jamal, playing Elmore, interrupted the scene, apologized for ending the show early, and sent us all scurrying for cover.

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L to R: Etta Cox and Wali Jamal

This was disappointing, as the production up until that moment had been so engaging that the threat of rain hadn’t even registered. The authenticity lent by its setting – you can’t get any more “real” for the set! – was enhanced by the actors’ relaxed playing style. Overall, the production gives you the impression of peering over a fence into the backyard and watching these folks as they go about their business, and despite the fact that the plot revs slowly and inexorably toward a melodramatic tragedy (even those who don’t know the play will feel a sense of dread building in the first half), the action has a sense of realness and groundedness in history. That this production follows on last year’s Seven Guitars in the same backyard – and picks up on that play’s characters, four decades later – only reinforces that sensation of historical authenticity.

Mark Clayton Southers, Monteze Freeland, and Dennis Robinson Jr. have co-directed a marvelous cast that includes not only Jamal – who apparently earns, with this role, the distinction of being the only actor to appear in every single play of the August Wilson Cycle (this according to Chris Rawson, who should know these things!) – but also Rico Parker as King, Sam Lothard as Mister, Sala Udin as Stool Pigeon/Canewell, Etta Cox as Ruby, and Dominique Briggs as Tonya. Special props to sound designer Mark Whitehead, whose soundscape is so cleverly integrated with the ambient urban environmental noise that it is hard to tease out which sounds are “real” and which belong only to the world of the play.

I won’t have a chance to see King Hedley IIagain before it closes, but I hope you do. There’s no other place in the world where this play could feel so steeped in, and sedimented with, the history of its place, its writer, and its fictional characters. It closes this weekend – rain, rain, stay away!

“Pigeon [III1/2]” at Birch Swinger Ensemble

There’s an exercise I’ll occasionally use in class, to help students think more expansively or differently about the world of a play we have read: “Create a scene that is missing from this play.” It’s an exercise that’s playful, fun, and a little naughty (because it wrests control of the play from its original author); it’s also an exercise that frequently yields new insights into the original play.

Jeremy Lesifko-Bremer’s new play Pigeon [III1/2] indulges in that exercise on a larger scale. His “missing scene” runs ninety minutes long, and fills the two-year gap between Acts 3 and 4 of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The action of Lesifko-Bremer’s play is roughly the same as what is described through exposition in the final act of Chekhov’s play: Nina arrives in Moscow to become Trigorin’s lover, she pursues an acting career, she gets pregnant, loses the baby, and meanwhile, back at the country house, Masha marries the schoolteacher Semion even though she’s really in love with the playwright Konstantin, who in turn remains infatuated with Nina. But in Lesifko-Bremer’s telling, the characters are rebooted for the 21st century: in particular, Trigorin is an urban hipster (sans tattoos) and Konstantin is in the process of transitioning to become Constance (though she’s still in love with Nina).

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Jeremy Lesifko-Bremer as Boryz Trigorin in “Pigeon [III1/2]”. Photo courtesy Birch Swinger Ensemble.

Although not required, a pre-show brush-up on The Seagull might be a good idea, especially if you want to get all of the theatrical in-jokes woven into the script. Intertextual references abound, and there’s a good deal of playful self-referentiality, starting with Constance’s instruction to us to “nod with your knowings and ac-knowledge-ments” and culminating in Nina’s excitement over having been cast in a play that “takes place in a two year gap between the acts of a classic play.”

The languid, pause-filled dialogue has a Chekhovian quality, but for much of the play it also seems to mimic the overblown style of Konstantin’s mocked and much-derided play-within-a-play in The Seagull. Pigeon [III1/2] appears to draw, in style and substance, on other modern playwrights as well, including Pirandello, Genet, and Sartre, and its declarative dialogue and low-affect, hypernaturalistic acting style are reminiscent of the work of postmodern playwright and director Richard Maxwell.

Pigeon [III1/2] is the inaugural production of Birch Swinger Ensemble, which describes itself as a “nano-theatre company.” I’ve never heard that term before, but I surmise that it means they are producing plays with a very small team on a very tiny budget: certainly everyone in the cast did double or triple duty on this production. In addition to writing the play, Jeremy Lesifko-Bremer directed, produced, and played the role of Boryz Trigorin. Michelle Lesifko-Bremer played Nina, and served as co-producer and assistant director. Jon David, who played the schoolteacher Semion, also designed the set and props and served as the stage manager; Andrew Yankes played Constance and served as the production assistant; Emily Naples, who played Masha, was marketing director and makeup artist; and Jane Hyland, who did movement and consultation on sets and costumes, also played the voice of Irina.

“HIR” at barebones productions

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It’s obvious to anyone who has been awake and breathing over the last two years that the 2016 election represented a watershed before-and-after moment in American politics and culture. Ways of thinking about our cultural moment that felt insightful and true before November 2016 came to have a different resonance after the anti-progressive backlash of the election and the subsequent resurgence of racist, mysogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic sentiments and activism that came in its wake.

It seems to me that several works that were written in the first fifteen years of this century have had their thematic and emotional content utterly changed by the assertion of white male grievance and privilege that the current presidency represents. For example, Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop which received an excellent production at City Theatre in 2014– is one that I often think about in this regard. That play, which imagines Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, ends with an emotionally powerful media montage of the history of the civil rights movement after King’s assasination, culminating – when the play was originally produced – with images from Barack Obama’s historic election to the presidency. The message conveyed was one of pride-swelling hope and optimism, a tribute to King’s legacy that said: “look how far we’ve come.” Today, any production of that play would have to include media coverage of the expressions of racism and white supremacy we saw at Trump campaign rallies and in Charlottesville and elsewhere, rendering its ending a depressing chronicle of Patriarchal White America’s Revenge and a dispiriting reminder of how little progress really has been made in extending equal rights and opportunities to all.

Taylor Mac’s play HIR is another play whose message and mood felt very different before 2016 than it does today. In the play, middle-aged mother Paige (here played by Helena Ruoti) has been awakened to her own oppression by two major changes in her life: first, her domineering, physically and emotionally abusive husband Arnold (Douglas Rees) has suffered a debilitating stroke which has rendered him passive and childlike; and second, her teenaged child Max (Liam Ezra Dickinson) has transitioned from female to male. Max, whose preferred gender pronouns are ze and hir, has also transitioned from public school to homeschooling, where ze has taken on the task of tutoring Paige in feminist and queer theory. This, in turn, has led Paige to rebel ostentatiously against everything she associates with patriarchal oppression and particularly to upend all of the norms, rules, and patterns Arnold formerly imposed on the household. The play’s crises are set in motion when older brother Isaac (Tad Cooley) returns home from deployment in Iraq to find his mother in charge, the house in complete disarray, and his humiliated and emasculated father dottering around the house in garish makeup, a clown wig, and a woman’s nightgown.

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L to R: Tad Cooley, Douglas Rees, and Helena Ruoti. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

When I saw this play in its original production at Signature Theatre in 2015, it seemed to be flipping a joyful middle finger at a white male power structure that it figured – in the person of Arnold, particularly, but also in the person of Isaac – as irrelevant. “You are done,” the play clearly crowed; “we queers and feminists are the future.” Now, in the wake of both the 2016 election and recent studies concluding, rightly or wrongly, that the election was, above all, an outpouring of rural America’s fury over its perception that coastal elites hold the white working-class in contempt, the play comes across more as an example of the kind of smug liberal disdain that supposedly led the country’s Isaacs and Arnolds to respond with fawning admiration to the current president’s gloating misogyny and racism. When Isaac slinks out of the house in disgrace and shame at the end of the play, the taste is sour rather than sweet; hindsight tells us he’ll soon be putting on a red baseball cap and voting his vengeance on Paige, Max, and all they represent.

It’s hard for me to assess the extent to which it’s the changed socio-political climate alone that has altered how this play signifies, or the difference in production choices made by director Patrick Jordan and his cast – or, putting the two together, the extent to which the changed socio-political climate impacted the production choices Jordan and ensemble made. Whatever the reason, the barebones’ production seems a wholly different play than the one I saw previously, despite nearly identical scenic and costume designs.

The most significant of the differences is in the intepretation of Paige. In the 2015 Signature production, Kristine Nielsen played Paige as a daffy, addle-brained bird, flitting and floating on a giddy cloud of triumph over her escape from her cage of ideological oppression. Her performance was light and nimble, and she only allowed the character’s rancor to nibble at the edges at key moments of the play. Ruoti’s Paige, in contrast, is far more tuned-in, angry, and bitter, a choice that is fully understandable in light of the changed world we now inhabit. But it’s a choice that has the side effect of making her seem scolding, preachy, and superior – precisely the sort of lefty posturing that those on the other side of the culture wars find so infuriating. At the same time, Cooley and Rees offer much more sympathetic and likeable renderings of Isaac and Arnold than their 2015 counterparts, such that they start to appear tragic rather than irrelevant – or, perhaps better put, tragic in their irrelevancy.

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L to R: Liam Ezra Dickinson, Helena Ruoti, and Tad Cooley. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

In the end, however, it’s Max whose precarious position ought most to compel our attention and sympathy. Dickinson plays Max with a dead-on combination of know-it-all eye-rolling teen sarcasm and deep, barely hidden insecurity. Max’s mutually exclusive desires – to usher in an egalitarian queer future, and to be fully welcomed and accepted into the fraternity of white masculinity, with all the access to power and privilege that comes with it – make hir the character whose internal conflict most eloquently captures the prize that is at stake, both within the world of the play and in our socio-political arena.