“Choir Boy” at The Rep Professional Theatre Company


Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2013 play Choir Boy is set in the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys, a (fictional) elite all-black private boarding school with a strict code of honor to go with its equally rigid dress code. “Snitching” is strictly prohibited, as the code demands that young men step up to own their transgressions voluntarily. So when Pharus (Tru Verret-Fleming), the newly-appointed leader of the school’s choir, is verbally harassed by another student, Bobby (Justin Lonesome) for being a “sissy,” he’s honor-bound not to report to the headmaster, even though the harassment disrupted the school’s commencement ceremony and threatened to undermine the headmaster’s fundraising efforts with the school’s board.

Jeff Howell, Tru Verrett-Fleming, and Jason Shavers. Photo by Jeff Swensen.

Jeff Howell, Tru Verrett-Fleming, and Jason Shavers. Photo by Jeff Swensen.

That’s the initial conflict of the play, and from there it tentacles out to encompass a range of complicating tensions among the students themselves and between the students and their teachers. One of those tensions is class conflict: McCraney’s fictional school (like many real ones) makes a commitment to giving financial aid to needy students, so the boys we see come from a range of geographic and socio-economic backgrounds. There’s the Southern-born, athletically gifted Anthony (Lamont Walker II), whose parents can’t even afford the school supplies. There’s the religiously devout David (Mel Holley), on the road to becoming a pastor and dependent on good grades to keep his scholarship. There’s Pharus’s tormentor, the street-wise Bobby (Justin Lonesome), nephew of the headmaster and son of a member of the board (the only character in the play not on scholarship). And there’s Junior (LaTrea Rembert), a cultural outsider from Jamaica who’s found his niche as hanger-on to Bobby. Although all of the boys have high stakes in their education, they differ in the sacrifices they’ve had to make to get it, and this brews resentment among them. Another tension stems from the students’ disconnect from their history: Bobby’s use of “the n-word” enrages their new (white) teacher, Mr. Pendleton (Jeff Howell), who marched beside MLK Jr. and “lost too many good friends behind that word.” Yet another tension comes from the headmaster’s desire to put on a good front for his board and funders by keeping problems hidden. But the play’s biggest tension has to do with attitudes toward sexuality. Pharus is in a transparent closet: everyone knows he is gay, yet it remains an unspoken “secret” among the students and faculty alike (the headmaster repeatedly warns him about his “wrist,” and his roommate, Anthony, is fully aware of Pharus’s interest in his body). Bobby’s enmity toward Pharus stems from undisguised homophobia, and the shame he is able to associate with homosexuality ends up having devastating consequences in unexpected quarters.

The story is told not only in dialogue but also, beautifully, through music. The vibrant, youthful cast forms a masterful a capella gospel quintet, and they bring energy, passion, and charisma to the musical numbers. Director Tomé Cousin has set the songs to dynamic choreography, and the music and dance really make the play zing. Lindsey B. Mayer’s clever scenic design tucks dorm beds and showers behind paneled walls, allowing for quick transitions between scenes and plenty of open space for the movement. The costumes, by Michael Montgomery, have an authentic vibe of boarding school culture, down to the colorfully striped ties and socks (the only customizable clothing item allowed?).

While the ensemble does a terrific job of bringing the boarding school dynamic to life, there are some aspects of the play that don’t fully gel. For one thing, although the play is set in the present day, it feels at times like the characters still live, attitudinally at least, in the 1970s. The headmaster is “shocked” to learn of sexual activity among the boys in his school, and Mr. Pendleton introduces his method of teaching (he tells the boys he’ll teach them to think critically rather than just feed them knowledge) as if it’s a newly discovered pedagogical method. And among the students, only Anthony has the kind of “live and let live” comfort with homosexuality that – according to most polls – is prevalent among high school students today. In addition, at times the central interest of the play is hard to pinpoint – between the headmaster’s concern over the future of the school, Pharus’s conflict with Bobby, and Mr. Pendleton’s desire to intervene in the boys’ education it can get a little difficult to discern the play’s primary narrative thread. Our best clue comes from the row of portraits of black leaders hovering above the scene: for in the end, the play seems to argue that in their quest to groom the next generation of African-American leaders, private schools like Drew need to find a way of supporting, nurturing, and providing role models for their queer and transgender students as well.

“The Winter’s Tale” at Quantum Theatre (in collaboration with Chatham Baroque and Attack Theatre)

The new adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale into a baroque opera by Karla Boos of Quantum Theatre, Patty Halverson, Scott Pauley, and Andrew Fouts of Chatham Baroque, and Michelle de la Reza and Peter Kope of Attack Theater is one of the most impressive and remarkable collaborative achievements I’ve seen here in Pittsburgh. To create this work, the team collaged together a grab bag of music from baroque composers (primarily Handel, Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, and Lully) and condensed Shakespeare’s text to fit the structure and meter of the music. The result is a captivating – if not in every aspect wholly successful – mashup of a contemporary sensibility with a baroque-operatic one.

The story of The Winter’s Tale lends itself readily to operatic treatment. It’s a tale of jealousy, loss, and redemption: Sicilian King Leontes (David Newman), suspecting his wife Hermione (Raquel Winnica Young) of having committed adultery with his best friend Polixenes (Robert Frankenberry), orders his man Camillo (Shannon Kessler Dooley) to murder Polixenes. Camillo – recognizing that Leontes’ jealousy is lunatic, warns Polixenes instead, and flees with him back to Bohemia. Leontes interprets their flight as confirmation of Polixenes’ guilt, and imprisons Hermione, who gives birth to a daughter in jail. Her woman, Paulina (Gail Novak Mosites) brings the baby to Leontes in hopes that seeing his daughter will bring him to his senses, but instead he commands Paulina’s husband Antigonus (Eugene Perry) to take the infant and abandon it in some far off place. Leontes puts Hermione on trial, and an oracle arrives proclaiming her innocence; but news of the death of their son, Mamilius, causes Hermione to collapse in grief. She is carried out, and soon after Paulina returns to announce that Hermione is dead. Meanwhile, Antigonus has delivered the baby to the shores of Bohemia, where he abandons her with a bag of gold before being torn apart by a bear. The baby is found by a Shepherdess (Katy Williams) and her son (Cosmo Clemens); they raise the girl, Perdita (Rebecca Belczyk) as part of their family, and  she grows up to capture the heart of the Bohemian Prince Florizel (Dan Kempson) son of – quel coincidence! – Polixenes. When Polixenes rejects Perdita as a future daughter-in-law, Camillo advises them to elope to Sicily; Polixenes, the Shepherdess, and her son follow, and in the end not only is Leontes reunited with his long-lost daughter, but Hermione is also brought “back to life” by a trick on the part of Paulina.

Most of this story is clearly told in this ambitious production despite the fact that only a fraction of Shakespeare’s original text is conveyed in the libretto. There are a couple of places where excisions make the narrative a little hard to follow – in particular, toward the end, the explanation of how Perdita’s true identity was revealed to her father is not only confusing, but also overwhelmed by being set to the most familiar music of the evening, Vivaldi’s Spring. Susan Tsu’s magnificently rich and detailed costumes play a major role in keeping the storytelling clear; they are the primary means by which the production establishes the when and the where of the play on Tony Ferrieri’s sparse set, which, in its poverty of elements, is reminiscent of the historical reconstruction of a baroque stage from films like Amadeus or Molière. Indeed, the scenic design serves primarily as a surface for Joseph Seamans’ witty, playful, and engaging projections, which sometimes function to establish the scene (as in a wonderful, Monty Python-esque moment in which two-dimensional images of the ocean and a ship are layered and animated in a way that replicates the use of moving cutout two-dimensional flats for special effects on the baroque stage) and sometimes serve as a choreographic partner to the four superb modern dancers (Kaitlin Dann, Dane Toney, Anthony Williams, and Ashley Williams) who weave continually through the action. The projections also provide a strong element of whimsy: when singers poke their heads through the curtain, they become the animated center of projected flowers or roccoco decorative elements, and during the love scene grotesquely enormous flowers provide a clever visual pun on the association of flowers with female sexuality.

L to R: Kaitlin Dann, Katy Williams, Anthony Williams, Dane Toney, Rebecca Belczyk, Robert Frankenberry, Dan Kempson, Shannon Kessler Dooley, and Ashley Williams

L to R: Kaitlin Dann, Katy Williams, Anthony Williams, Dane Toney, Rebecca Belczyk, Robert Frankenberry, Dan Kempson, Shannon Kessler Dooley, and Ashley Williams

These delightful visual elements – the costumes, the projections, and the choreography – go a long way toward ameliorating the inertia that threatens when the libretto becomes repetitive, as librettos in operas tend to do. And there is a lot of repetition of lyrics here, which is perfectly understandable from the point of view of the structure of song, but a little baffling when you consider how much more of Shakespeare’s language might have been included if the collaborators had felt themselves a bit less beholden to the song structure’s demand for repetition.

Of course, opera is not only (or, as I keep learning, even mainly) about storytelling; it’s first and foremost a musical art, and on that score (pun intended) The Winter’s Tale has a lot to offer. All of the members of the ensemble deliver strong vocal performances, and a number of them are outstanding actors as well. In particular, Newman is intense and fiery as Leontes, and Katy Williams and Cosmo Clemens are charismatic as the Shepherdess and Clown. Countertenor Andrey Nemzer has a couple of showstopping moments as the rogue Autolycus who dupes the peasants, and Belczyk and Kempson are charming as the young lovers. Under the sensitive direction of Andres Cladera, the music is beautifully performed by a small orchestra featuring the three members of Chatham Baroque (Halverson on Viola da Gamba, Fouts on Violin, and Pauley on Theorbo) along with seven other masterful musicians playing historically appropriate instruments.

“Beckett & Beyond” at CorningWorks


At one point in Beth Corning’s new dance theater piece, Beckett & Beyond, the three dancers – Corning, Yvan Auzely, and Francoise Fournier – gazelle around the space, lifting their hands rhythmically in unison. It’s a joyous, transcendent moment of flow; they’ve captured something, together, that links them in shared purpose and accomplishment. And then, just like that, it’s gone: the energy dissipates, the gestures don’t match, the flow has slipped their grasp, and what felt triumphant now feels like a hollow echo. The dancers find themselves back in their own little mundane worlds, with only the memory of that instant of flow to drive them on.

In many ways that moment is a microcosm for the structure of Corning’s piece, which – taking inspiration from two short plays by Samuel Beckett – juxtaposes the tedium of repetitive action and non-action with electrifying flashes of insight and connection. And wouldn’t most of us agree that this is essentially what life is all about? That is: fleeting moments of blissful, in-the-moment connectedness (or mastery, or sheer joy) that punctuate long stretches of striving for, and either failing to achieve or losing grasp of, those moments?

Yvan Auzely

Yvan Auzely

Beckett & Beyond opens with Beckett’s “Act Without Words II,” a piece that involves two large sacks and a “goad” (a long stick). The goad prods the first sack, and a dancer (Fournier) emerges – she is depressive, slow, a physical and psychological mess. She sighs, prays, takes a pill, dresses, picks up the two sacks, attempts to drag them off stage, gets about a step along, stops, undresses, takes another pill, prays, sighs, and gets back into her sack. The goad prods the other sack, and another dancer (Auzely) emerges – he is energetic, precise, and efficient, and he goes through his rather more complicated preparatory regime before picking up both sacks and dragging them a step or two, reversing his actions, and getting back in the sack. Another goad, the first dancer reappears, repeats her actions – and so it would go, we must realize, ad infinitum. The goad will get longer and longer, the two sack-inhabitants will never know of each other’s existence, the dragging of the sacks will never end, and the Sisyphean nature of existence is comically laid bare.

Riffing on this opening, the original choreographic movement that follows presents a bittersweet take on the question “what happens between life and death?” Dressed in costumes reminiscent of the clowns in Waiting for Godot, the three dancers build small vignettes and variations on that theme. Images recur: the red rope that tethers Corning to an unseen master becomes an enormous cat’s cradle for Auzely’s acrobatic solo, and also (in a rather haunting and resonant sequence) a clothesline on which Fournier hangs clothes that signal past lives, clothes which she “births” from under her enormous Beckettian overcoat. The dancers collide, connect, and disperse, and in the process they find those all-too-evanescent instances of aliveness that slip out of reach the moment they try to hold them.

The third movement consists of Rockaby, another short play by Beckett featuring a “prematurely old” woman, a rocking chair, and the woman’s recorded voice. The repetitive text, which represents the woman’s internal monologue as she reaches the end of her life, here takes on the quality of a bedtime story for a child refusing to fall asleep, and the woman’s insistence on “more” after each long pause links her end-of-life refusal to obey the command “time she stopped” to the toddler’s desire for more time in the day. Rockaby demands the kind of patience not every audience member can muster (a teenager behind me in the audience on opening night could be heard to protest “No!” after the third or fourth time she cried out “more”), but it also rewards that patience with a heightened awareness of our own ticking clock, and of our own experience of – and use of – the time we are given.

There is sadness here, but also a wry humor – Corning invites her audience to ponder how little of life we really live without getting sentimental or new age-y about it. The Beckettian humor is underlined by Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s whimsical set, which is arrayed with cartoon-like white clouds that are reminiscent of the surrealistic landscapes of René Magritte. Iain Court’s lighting design establishes a variety of moods and textures, from playful to sombre to eerie, and, as always, Corning has set the work to terrific music (by MaryEllen Childs, Kronos Quartet, and Meredith Monk). The cleverly comical postscript to the piece – in which the first act is reprised, with a pair of young dancers (Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson) in the sacks – hammers home both how unique Corning’s vision is, and how much the maturity and experience of her company’s “over-forty” dancers add to the work. For while the younger dancers are fine performers in their own right, it was also clear that they are merely at the very beginning of the long, difficult, and Sisyphean journey that has produced the depth, richness, and complexity in the performances given by Auzely, Fournier, and Corning herself.

“The Country House” at the REP (Pittsburgh Playhouse)


The house in the title of Donald Margulies’ 2014 play is the Berkshire abode of famed stage and screen actress Anna Patterson (Cary Anne Spear), who has returned for a summer stint playing the title role in Mrs. Warren’s Profession at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It’s the scene of a poignant reunion: a year ago, Anna’s daughter Kathy, also a famed actress and film star, died of cancer right in the living room, and her family has now gathered to mark the anniversary. There’s her sad-sack brother Elliot (David Cabot), a failed actor and wannabe playwright; her husband Walter (Christopher Josephs), a successful film producer; and her daughter Susie (Maggie Carr), home for the summer from Yale. And – to spice up the mix a bit – there are also a couple of unexpected guests: Walter has brought along his new, rather too young girlfriend Nell (Marie Elena O’Brien), an aspiring film actress he met at a Starbucks in LA, and Anna has invited an old family friend – and now major TV heartthrob – Michael Astor (Paul Anthony Reynolds) to bunk with them while he waits for his rented apartment to be cleared of pesticide fumes.

l to r: David Cabot & Cary Ann Spear. Photo: Jeff Swensen

l to r: David Cabot & Cary Ann Spear. Photo: Jeff Swensen

What ensues in this house full of “theater people” involves shared memories, attempted seductions, confessions, accusations, recriminations, and rather overly candid appraisals of personality flaws. If this sounds to you a little like the setup you’d find in a Chekhov play, you’d not be far off the mark: in fact, many times during the performance I was reminded of both The Seagull and Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. All three take place in a “country house” sedimented with significance for the characters, all three have a depressive central character (here, it’s Eliot) whose awful new play is read aloud and duly dismissed, and all three mix comedy and pathos to probe their characters’ dreams, regrets, and fantasies.

But Margulies is not quite Chekhov: The Country House feels meandering and low-stakes, and it’s hard to feel a strong connection to these characters or their problems. In particular, Eliot – modeled, presumably, on the mom-obsessed-failed-playwright Konstantin of The Seagull – is a singularly unsympathetic loser, in whom we never see any sign of the qualities that might have made him successful (or even likeable). Cabot finds moments of self-deprecating comedy to play to good effect, but the character is so overladen with self-pity that as audience we may too readily agree with Anna’s brutally unkind assessment of her only living child: “You’re not interesting.”

Under John Amplas’s direction the ensemble does a good job of conveying the play’s often biting humor. Carr is particularly compelling and bracing as the college-aged Susie, who came to the house expecting close family time to mark the anniversary of her mother’s death and instead must cope with both her resentment against her father’s new girlfriend and her long-nurtured crush on Michael (who, it turns out, was also her mother’s ex-lover). The set, designed by Michael Thomas Essad, feels – suitably – like a character in the play itself, its well-worn furniture and framed posters and playbills conjuring the many decades of life now irrecoverably past for these characters. Likewise, Steve Shapiro’s sound design seems yet another character, especially as his simulated weather helps drive the momentum of the scene. But the fine design and solid performances can only do so much to energize this verbally witty but otherwise lackluster script.

“The Light in the Piazza” at Front Porch Theatricals


You can pretty much sum up the theme of Light in the Piazza in three words: amore e matrimonio. The plot – taken from a 1960 novella of the same title, by Elizabeth Spencer – revolves around the romance that springs up between Clara (Lindsay Bayer), a young American woman travelling in Italy with her mother Margaret (Becki Toth), and Fabrizio (Joshua Grosso), a young Italian man living in Florence. It’s love at first sight when he spots her one fine day sightseeing in the piazza, but Margaret seems overprotectively antagonistic toward his romantic overtures. She reveals (rather late in the plot, for my taste) the reason behind her opposition: Clara is mentally disabled, the result of a horse accident in her youth. But Fabrizio (who, apparently, does not speak English well enough to perceive that Clara has the intellectual and psychological capacity of a twelve year old) stubbornly persists in his courting of Clara, with some help from his father Signor Naccarelli (Jeff Howell), who turns the Italian charm on Margaret. By the end of the first act, Fabrizio has managed a secret assignation in Clara’s bedroom, where he proposes marriage. Margaret – who has attempted, and failed, to reveal Clara’s hidden disability to Signor Naccarelli – now whisks Clara off to Rome. But Clara’s ensuing depression provokes a change of heart on the part of mama, and they return to Florence, where Clara and Fabrizio prepare for their nuptials. There’s yet another minor hiccup on the road to matrimonial bliss, having to do with the respective age of bride and groom, but that obstacle is readily overcome through Margaret’s determination to secure her daughter’s happiness, and the play ends as the two young lovers stand ready to take their vows in front of the altar.

l to r: Cynthia Harding, Jeffrey Howell, Joshua Grosso, Becki Toth & Lindsay Bayer. Photo by Martha Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

l to r: Cynthia Harding, Jeffrey Howell, Joshua Grosso, Becki Toth & Lindsay Bayer. Photo by Martha Smith, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

If you are to take this musical on its own terms, it’s probably best not to think too too hard about what attracts these two young lovers to each other. Lacking a common language, they have no means of actually getting to know each other: their relationship is based solely on physical attraction (underscored by the moment, signalled beautifully by Grosso, when Fabrizio first sees Clara and is immediately enchanted by her). Add to that the fact that poor Fabrizio is unaware that he’s marrying a child in a woman’s body and there’s something kind of icky about the whole premise. So let’s just not go down that rabbit hole. The play’s true emotional center, in any case, lies with Margaret, whose own marriage is a loveless one, and who comes to realize that she needs to give her daughter a chance at her own life, even if it may bring her pain. “Love’s a fake/ love’s a fable” she sings in the final number, but “if you find in the world…that someone knows you/ love…if you can.” Toth is truly terrific as Margaret, conveying the range of emotions of a woman who is at once cynically realistic about her daughter’s condition and also feels pain and guilt over the accident that caused it. The psychological complexity of her character’s journey more than compensates for the lack of credibility in the lovers’ story.

The direction, by Stephen Santa, makes elegant use of Bryce Cutler’s set, which consists of an array of frames, four of which move on wheels to serve as walls, doors, alleyways, and windows. This scenic design – which references the play’s emphasis on image, and (perhaps unwittingly) on surface over depth – not only allows for fluid transitions between scenes but also, with the aid of Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design, cleanly establishes the play’s many different locations. Costumes by Kim Brown firmly establish the play in its 1950s timeframe. Adam Guettel’s score is unusual – more like an operatic score than a musical score – and while it’s unlikely anyone will go home singing the tunes, the music’s lushness and sophistication is gorgeously compelling. The cast is uniformly strong. Bayer brings the right combination of innocence and curiosity to the childlike Clara, although it was hard to see much evidence of the character’s mental disability in her performance. Grosso inhabits the role of the young, inexperienced, lovestruck Italian youth with conviction, and his vocal performance may leave audiences wishing Guettel had written a few more songs for Fabrizio. Howell does a lovely job channeling his inner Italian patriarch, and Patrick Cannon gives a fine comic turn as Fabrizio’s philandering brother Giuseppe. Rounding out the talented ensemble are Antonia Botti-Lodovico as Giuseppe’s wife, Cynthia Harding as Signora Naccarelli, and Richard Kenzie as Clara’s father.

“A New Kind of Fallout” at Opera Theater of Pittsburgh

Readers who have taken the time to google my web bio on the CMU Drama website will know that I have, for several years, taken a particular interest in finding, researching, and promoting theater and performance that deals with ecological issues. So I was particularly pleased when I learned that playwright Tammy Ryan had been commissioned by Opera Theater of Pittsburgh to write an eco-opera about the work and impact of Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking 1962 book, Silent Spring. Ryan’s collaboration with composer Gilda Lyons, A New Kind of Fallout, premiered this past week, under the direction of Opera Theater’s artistic director Jonathan Eaton. And it is (for me, at least) a new kind of opera, one that makes forceful connections between the ecological (non)decisions made by policymakers, corporate interests, and indifferent consumers a half century ago (which we now condemn with hindsight) and those we are collectively making in the present moment.

The opera tells the story of an ordinary middle class woman, Alice Front, at two stages in her life. Older Alice (Daphne Alderson) is in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. As she considers the poison coursing through her body that’s meant to save her, she flashes back fifty years, to a time when she first became aware of the toxic side effects of chemicals meant to make life “better.” We then see Young Alice (Lara Lynn Cottrill), in 1962, pregnant with her first child. She has been galvanized by Rachel Carson’s serialized writing in The New Yorker about the ecological and human health dangers posed by the widespread use of DDT as a pesticide, and wants to do something to stop it. Her husband, Jack (Christopher Scott), is an advertising executive at Better Life Chemicals, a company that manufactures the “miracle compound” Carson pinpointed as a poison to fish and birds. His job is to sell the public on the safety of this compound to humans – a job made complicated by Alice’s growing conviction that what is being sprayed on her home and yard will have the same harmful effects on the child growing inside of her as it does on baby chicks who “die in their shells.” When Alice is caught outdoors by surprise during aerial spraying of pesticide, she decides to take the company to court. She loses, but in the process her husband joins her side, and in the end, as the Older Alice succumbs to cancer, Young Alice prepares to bring their baby into the world.

l to r: Lara Lynn Cottrill and Christopher Scott

l to r: Lara Lynn Cottrill and Christopher Scott. Opera Theater SummerFest photo by Patti Brahim.

Ryan uses this family-conflict plot to showcase Carson’s insight into the interconnectedness of all life on earth and to remind us that the battles Carson fought have by no means ended: they have merely shifted ground. After reading Carson’s warning that “man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself,” Young Alice sees clearly that whatever we do to the earth, we do to ourselves, and she makes the kinds of connections that those of us who are living here, in Pittsburgh, on interconnected waterways downstream from potentially poisonous hydraulic fracking sites, ought to be making too. “If it’s happening there, what’s happening here?” she sings, adding, later, “we’re all involved, whether we like it or not.” The jingles dreamed up by her husband and his pals to market their “miracle compound” share a sunny, blinding-to-the-consequences doublespeak with those Range Resources billboards we see all over town, particularly with regards to their emphasis on the economic benefits their “product” promises to bring to the community. By highlighting how utterly misleading and disingenuous those rhetorical strategies were fifty years ago, the opera urges a skepticism toward contemporary corporate claims to acting in the public’s best interest.

The production of the opera had a few odd quirks – notably, for a work that has biological processes as a central theme, Young Alice has one of the most unnatural pregnancies in history, progressing from having-just-discovered-she-is-pregnant to about-to-pop in a matter of days (at least, according to the supertitles). And if you did not take time to read the program, it was difficult to figure out the function of three figures representing The Earth, Science, and The Word (played by Fé Avouglan, Emily Jensen, and Victoria Fox). Small issues aside, Eaton made a number of production choices that gave added potency to the libretto. In particular, Chuck Beard’s projection design – which featured, in key moments, archival images depicting ads marketing DDT as well as photos demonstrating people blithely allowing themselves and their children to be fogged with it – underscored how easily we can be lulled into a false sense of safety. Confronted with such images, I wondered what my future grandchildren will think in fifty years when they see “historical” photos of those huge tanker trucks carrying contaminated fracking water off to be “disposed of” – will they think, as I did, “how could they not have suspected they were poisoning themselves?” (It would, however, have been great had Beard been given a larger canvas to work with, given the role these images played in the storytelling).

Cottrill gave a bravura performance as Young Alice – she has a powerful soprano voice that rose to heights of shiver-inducing passion. Alderson’s gorgeous alto made a beautiful counterpoint, especially in duets with Cottrill. The remainder of the ensemble was equally excellent, especially Avouglan, Jensen, and Fox as the three choral figures, Scott as the husband, and Desiree Soteres as the wife of one of Scott’s colleagues. As an admitted non-expert, I found Gilda Lyons’ score compelling and moving, and I took great pleasure in the variety of musical styles and motifs she mobilized for the storytelling; I will have to leave it to writers with more expertise in music to provide a more nuanced assessment.

“Sharon’s Grave” at PICT Classic Theatre


Note: this is a post about a preview performance.

The beating heart of John B. Keane’s play Sharon’s Grave is a mythical story of his own devising. Told to us by the mentally challenged Neelus Conlee (Alec Silberblatt), it explains how a deep hole in a seacliff in southwestern Ireland came to be known as “Sharon’s grave.” The story goes something like this: in ancient times, the beautiful and beloved Sharon was lured to and toppled into the hole by her jealous handmaid, the ugly, deformed Siofra. But at the last moment, Sharon grabbed hold of Siofra and dragged her along to her death. Ever since, their cries and screams can be heard emanating from the hole – by Neelus, at any rate – and legend says that their cries that will only be silenced when they are each delivered a lover – a handsome and devoted one for Sharon, and an ugly evil one for Siofra.

Keane’s play interweaves that legend with two other stories that are more readily connected to everyday reality, but have enough in common with Neelus’s fairy tale to deserve a mythical-poetic treatment. On one hand there is the quietly budding romance between a traveling thatcher, Peadar Minogue (Byron Anthony) and Neelus’s sister Trassie (Karen Baum). On the other, there is the family feud between Trassie and her congenitally misshapen, exceedingly self-centered cousin Dinzie (James FitzGerald). Dinzie is waiting for Trassie’s father Donal to die so that he can take over their farm, believing that possession of a landholding will help him snare the wife he so desperately desires. When Donal does die, Dinzie machinates to have Neelus declared dangerous so that he can be sent away to an institution, as a way of forcing Trassie out of her home. But, as it turns out, the only danger Neelus poses is to Dinzie himself, and Keane’s interwoven fairy tale ends precisely as Neelus always so fervently believed it would.

l to r: James FitzGerald and Karen Baum

l to r: James FitzGerald and Karen Baum

The play is beautifully written, with a poetry in the language that allows it to take flight and make large and transcendent conflicts out of the characters’ relatively small individual struggles. But the tonal register of Aoife Spillane-Hinks’s direction is uneven; it doesn’t feel as if all of the characters are inhabiting the same theatrical world. FitzGerald gives an intense and shudder-inducing performance as the emotionally unhinged Dinzie, but his fairy-tale villain feels a bit oversized against the more subdued performances of Baum and Anthony as the shy lovers. And their relative realism makes some of the events of the play hard to swallow, particularly in the second act, when Trassie seems to have forgotten that her cousin is out to have her brother committed and agrees to have him examined by the eccentric quack healer (Martin Giles) that Dinzie has sent. I might have found this believable in a fairy-tale world, but in the fairly realistic realm inhabited by Trassie and Peadar the scene defied my attempts to suspend disbelief. As the play moved toward its (rather predictable) resolution, I found myself wishing that Hinks had allowed the beating heart of the title’s tale to circulate more of a mythical-magical element into every aspect of the production.

“Sherlock’s Last Case” at Kinetic Theatre Company


I’ll admit, dearest readers, that I was a bit worried during the first twenty minutes or so of Sherlock’s Last Case. Not so much because the title made me anxious for Sherlock Holmes’s fate (although that is an anxiety you are expected to entertain as part of the play), but more because the play starts out looking like the kind of creaky drawing-room whodunit that’s generally a wee bit too lite for my tastes. But the play – written by Charles Marowitz in the late eighties – is all about misdirection, and director Andrew Paul follows Marowitz’s lead by regularly pulling the rug out from under his audience’s expectations. By somewhere in the middle of the first act, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a play that refuses to take itself too seriously, deriving as much fun from mocking its own genre as it does from its plot turns.

Paul and company have gone to great lengths (including some sleight-of-hand in the program) to keep Marowitz’s plot twists a surprise, so I won’t spoil any of it for readers who have not yet seen the production. Suffice it to say that Holmes’s “last case” gives a prominent role to Dr. Watson, played here with virtuosity by Simon Bradbury. The casting of David Whalen in the role of Sherlock Holmes lends this production an added frisson of intertextual metacommentary for Pittsburgh theater insiders (who will recall that Whalen previously played Holmes in two productions with PICT in the very same venue). Rounding out the cast are Weston Blakesley as a befuddled cockney Inspector LeStrade, Susie McGregor-Laine as Holmes’s Scottish housekeeper, and Joanna Strapp as the mysterious visitor who sets the machinery of the plot in motion.

Johnmichael Bohach’s scene design helps set the self-referential tone of the play with oversized framed newspaper headlines that comically highlight the ridiculously convoluted cases Holmes has already solved (and provide satiric context for the ridiculously convoluted manner in which he ends up, er, overcoming the challenges of the case at hand). Like the production itself, Kim Brown’s Victorian costumes start off somewhere in the realm of historical realism and get gradually campier as the play itself does. Topping off the fun are Steve Tolin’s ingenious special effects, involving, at various points, massively foaming potions, exploding skeletons, and projectiles of fake blood.

Looking forward to…


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It’s been a while since I posted about theater – that’s cuz there hasn’t been all that much happening in town (at least, not much that I’ve been invited to!) Gypsy is opening this weekend at CLO, but, alas, I will miss it because of travel. As I look at my calendar I see several other things coming up – if you’re reading this, and in Pittsburgh this summer, put them on your calendar, too!

Next weekend, PICT Classic Theatre is opening Sharon’s Grave, by Irish playwright John B. Keane. It’s a play I’m not familiar with, but the publicity materials promise “a great Irish yarn about love, legends, and the land.” It will run July 16 – August 1.

Also next weekend – and next weekend only! – a new company called Lamplighter Productions will be bringing to the Maker Theater on Ellsworth in Shadyside their original, collaboratively created work How to be a GoodPerson(TM), a “radically inclusive” theater piece that explores the question of how to distinguish the genuine and important from the artificial and trivial in a world filled with information “noise.” This theater company has adopted the ethos of radical hospitality innovated by Mixed Blood Theatre of Minneapolis: tickets to this production are free of charge, but reservations are necessary. I should add, in the spirit of full disclosure, that two of the collaborators on this production are current students at the CMU School of Drama (Jordan Sucher & Vanessa Frank). They are mounting short runs here in Pittsburgh & in New York this summer.

Also coming up: Front Porth Theatrical’s Light in the Piazza, opening the weekend of August 21, and Quantum Theatre’s baroque opera interpretation of The Winter’s Taleproduced in collaboration with Chatham Baroque and Attack Theatre and opening September 21.

Is there something else I ought to have on my calendar this summer? Let me know…I’m streaming way too many movies on Netflix lately!!

PQ15 – #8

And there’s more!

I had forgotten that I had, on my phone, video of one of the more playful exhibits. The Russian exhibition, entitled “Meyerhold’s Dream,” lured the visitor in with a striking intervention into the hallway outside. Check this out:

Inside, an enormous man – Meyerhold – sleeping & breathing (& “dreaming”) – it’s his back that has burst through the wall:

This exhibit won the Gold Medal for Best PQ15 Publication – the book that accompanied this exhibit used a comic strip approach to deal with foundational ideas about scenography in a humorous and playful way. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any online images of this book, which was very clever and engaging.

I also wanted to share some photos of the CMU student performance of an original work, “Enfantine,” which told the story of childhood trauma in a mythical-poetic way, with puppets & masks carefully transported from Pittsburgh to Prague! The creative team behind this performance included Zoe Clayton, Olivia Hern, Rachel Abrams, Danielle Kling-Joseph, Abby Botnick, Anna Rosati, Rebecca Liu, and Keith Kelly.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to video of that performance:

And here are some selected images (all photos by Susan Tsu):


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