“The Current War” at Quantum Theatre

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Here’s a partial list of things I didn’t know about the development of electricity before seeing the the opening night of The Current War at Westinghouse Park:

  • that Thomas Edison tested a gazillion different materials before finding one that would work as a filament in the light bulb he invented;
  • that it was George Westinghouse – and not Nikola Tesla – who was Edison’s primary rival in the battle over AC vs. DC current;
  • that Edison was a prideful, bitter bastard with a tendency to take credit for his employees’ work and to cut off his nose to spite his face;
  • that, in contrast, Westinghouse was a positively enlightened capitalist, whose generosity toward his employees was matched by his rapacious acquisition of his rivals’ patents; and
  • that both of those dudes could sing.

Okay, that last item is obviously not historical fact, but rather a byproduct of their representation by actors Daniel Krell (Edison) and Billy Mason (Westinghouse) in Pittsburgh native Michael Mitnick’s musical about their rivalry. And to my mind, it’s never a bad thing to have reminders, when confronted with “historical facts,” that there is always license taken in their presentation. 

L to R: Daniel Krell and Billy Mason. Photo by Heather Mull Photography, Courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The license taken here – by both Mitnick and the Quantum creative team led by director Tome’ Cousin – is cheeky and provocative, particularly for a viewer like myself, whose previous understanding of the history of the development of electricity was primarily shaped by regular elementary school field trips to the adulatory shrine that Edison’s friend Henry Ford established in his honor at Greenfield Village outside Detroit. There, Edison comes off much as he does in the song Mitnick gives to his assistant Francis Upton (Quinn Patrick Shannon) – as a “God among men” and not, as this musical would have it, as the grudge-bearing cynic who would electrocute any number of mammals in his quest to convince people of the dangers of alternating current.

All this is to say that for this viewer, The Current War is as much about the representation of history – that is, about how history is framed, whose side it takes, and where it locates its central conflicts – as it is about history itself.

In Mitnick’s telling of the story, Edison is an anti-hero protagonist, and the musical manages the neat trick of getting you to sympathize with Edison’s anger and frustration at Westinghouse while also feeling abhorred by his tactics. With a bit of historiographic sleight of hand, Mitnick gives the anti-death-penalty Edison way more credit for the invention of the electric chair than is properly his due, which (for this dog-lover, at least) is probably appropriate pay-back for the many pooches (and other mammals) Edison and his team sacrificed on the altar of his egocentric crusade to discredit Westinghouse and his AC system. 

Indeed, this production does not want you to forget that the primary victims of this “current war” walked on four legs: Tony Ferrieri’s scenic design prominently features a wall of burlap panel curtains that depict, in addition to portraits of the two inventors and images of their inventions, a  dog, a horse, a gorilla, and an elephant. But fear not, Dear Reader: no real animals are harmed in this production. All of the non-humans that get zapped to death are represented by puppets (cleverly designed by Nick Lehane). Moreover, in an astute casting move, Cousin uses characters played by Jerreme Rodriguez to link together Edison’s animal and human victims of electrocution. Rodriguez plays, in turn, a young boy whose dog is sacrificed in the first scene; the gorilla who is “Westinghoused” in a demonstration of the dangers of alternating current; and William Kemmler, the first man to be executed in an electric chair. This embodied dot-connecting not only adds a touch of irony to the proceedings, but also effectively calls attention to the callousness of Edison’s ambition.

Mitnick’s account is far kinder to Westinghouse than it is to Edison: Westinghouse is generous where Edison is petty; forgiving where Edison is begrudging; humble and modest where Edison is egotistical and prideful. Was Westinghouse in fact such a saint among the robber-barons? It’s not clear that any of us can ever know. At one point Westinghouse mentions to his wife Marguerite (Melessie Clark) that he wants to have all of his papers and letters destroyed. The historical Westinghouse’s archive, including photographs, were in fact burned at his request after his death – which, of course, means that the license to represent his history is broad indeed.

Also cheeky is Mitnick’s treatment of history in musical terms. For example, he gives us a jaunty, cheerful song about the first time Edison “Westinghoused” a horse, as well as a show-stopping vaudevillian song-and-dance number that tells the sorry tale of how William Kemmler murdered his wife with a hatchet in a drunken rage. The ensemble captures the mood and spirit of such numbers with zippy panache, superbly accompanied by musical director Douglas Levine on keyboard and Simon Cummings on cello. One humorous duet unexpectedly skewers sanctimonious Christians whose charity will not extend to the convicted criminal Kemmler. These musical style choices are, of course, fun and catchy and entertaining; but they’re also kind of subversive, calling attention to the Mitnick’s deliberate shaping of how the history will be perceived. 

In other words, you may think that The Current War aims to elucidate the history of two rival inventors of the Industrial Age. But at nearly every level, this is a musical that will probably have you questioning how we know what we know about the past, and thinking about who has had the power and the privilege to tell those stories.  

“Amm(i)gone” presented by Theatre Offensive (guest post by Rebecca Hodge)

Dear Reader, I have invited dramaturg Rebecca Hodge to be a “guest” on my blog and post her review of Amm(i)gone, which live-streamed on March 20, 2021.

It is difficult to have open, authentic conversations. Especially if it happens to be with a parent who is ideologically opposed to you. Amm(i)gone, created and performed by Adil Mansoor, is one of those conversations, between the queer artist and his highly religious Muslim mother. 

The production, presented by the Theatre Offensive, defies easy genre identification. Amm(i)gone is simultaneously documentary, monologue, education, and journey. It is immensely personal and yet hits universal truths about humanity.

Mansoor explains that initially he set out to make an adaptation of Antigone, but that early into the process he realized this was not the right direction for his work. Instead, the piece uses Antigone as a framework to explore Mansoor’s relationship with his mother. Most notably, it borrows many themes from the ancient Greek play, especially family and religion, but with one notable shift: the addition of queerness.

Mansoor tells us about how his mother raised him and his siblings alone for most of their life, in a post-9/11 world. He describes that close relationship along with her turn to religion after divorcing her husband, tracing it forward into his adulthood. Over that time, they started to drift away from one another. But the true breaking point comes when she discovers his queerness after a Google search. Page after page flashes up on the screen, proclaiming Mansoor as a queer artist.

That moment irrevocably changed their relationship. Mansoor explains how she started constantly praying for him, distancing herself from his present self to ensure a proper afterlife. This piece is what came after that shift. Mansoor and his mother work together in an attempt to reconnect and apologize, using Antigone as a jumping off point, a conversation starter.

In short, Amm(i)gone is a conversation between Mansoor, his mother, and the audience. Much of the piece is audio recordings and transcripts from those actual conversations between mother and son. Then, the conversation with the audience is where the virtual modality really gets to shine. Mansoor speaks straight into the camera, effortlessly capturing a feeling of welcome and intimacy. We feel like he’s speaking right to us, even though the audience is scattered all over the world. He translates Urdu to us, explains facets of Muslim culture, tells us the basic story of Antigone.

His work welcoming us is supported by the work of the design space. When first entering the live performance, we are met with music and a voice teaching us common phrases in Urdu. Aaron Landgraf’s sound design follows us through the journey, keeping the experience heightened with music and warmth. The media design by Bleue Liverpool is rich in warm tones and textured fabrics, integrating embroidery that evokes a sense of home and comfort.

Amm(i)gone is a work in progress and makes no attempts to hide that fact. Indeed, that process is a key facet of the work in performance, at least at this point. In many ways, the process is the performance. Mansoor’s recorded conversations with his mother make up most of the runtime. Mansoor’s discussion with us, the audience, takes up almost everything else. Then, finally, clips from the Juliette Binoche production of Antigone are overlaid with commentary from the mother/son duo. This multilayered conversation is Amm(i)gone: the process of creating a theatre piece based on Antigone, between mother and son.

As Mansoor and his mother watch the first scene, she points out how Antigone’s sister is right to fight against her attempts to defy the edict, that she clearly is showing love by trying to prevent Antigone from certain death. He points out how much he loves the stage transition, the way it portrays the changing of time as Antigone decides she must defy the edict to ensure her brother’s passage to the afterlife.

This moment shows the heart of Amm(i)gone: it’s a conversation between mother and son about love, religion, and theatre. But where the real emotional pang comes is in the words Mansoor can’t say to his mother, sharing only with us. His queerness, the gap between him and his mother, still exists. They have yet to reconcile fully, and she is still constantly praying for him.

“Antigone has already decided she’s going to die,” he explains. “She shows her love and care in the afterlife. And that’s what my mom is doing too. She’s trying to care for me in the afterlife. But can we care for each other here, now, while we’re alive?”

The emotion is constantly genuine, especially in the little details. Mansoor gets visibly emotional at moments, and as an audience member it’s difficult not to feel the same way. Perhaps the most intense moment is in a small specific: he tells how he wishes he could tell his mother how his partner is a tea expert. “He would make you the perfect chai,” he says, smiling through tears.

Amm(i)gone is an unfinished conversation. The audience’s desire for resolution between mother and son is one that Mansoor can’t fulfill yet. But that in-progress feeling elevates Amm(i)gone. There’s always a conversation we have yet to finish, and if nothing else, Mansoor’s discussions with his mother can inspire all of us to try to start talking again.

– Rebecca Hodge

“The Woman Hater” and “The Belle’s Stratagem” at Red Bull Theater

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One of the few silver linings of this past year has been online access to “live” theater from far-flung places. There was, early on, the stunning adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull by the Aukland Theatre Company in New Zealand (still streaming, watch it here); then, over the summer, the weekly releases of archived performances from the National Theatre in London and the regular “drops” from Joshua Gelb of his experiments in Theatre in Quarantine; on top of that, there has been livestreamed and prerecorded work from all over the US, some of it – like the Fake Friends production of Circle Jerk – aiming to chart new aesthetic territory in our brave new world of socially distanced performance.

But nothing to date has tickled my nerdy heart quite like Red Bull Theater in New York, which, in the last month, has livestreamed the works of two of my favorite female writers from the eighteenth century (and yes, dear Reader, I have favorite writers from the eighteenth century, because that’s the kind of nerd I am): The Woman Hater by Fanny Burney, and, this week, The Belle’s Stratagem by Hannah Cowley.

Red Bull Theater’s mission is to “bring rarely seen classic plays to dynamic new life for contemporary audiences” – they are accomplishing that goal in the present moment through a series of “Live Benefit Readings” that engage terrific US actors from around the country to lift little-known plays off the page and into the imagination. I’m no huge fan of Zoom readings, but the reading of The Woman Hater was one of the best I’ve seen in the last year. Under director Everett Quinton’s guidance, the cast infused the reading with energy and wit, making specific and inspired character choices that elevated Burney’s satirically comic dialogue into heights of absurdity. One of the things you have to love about Burney’s writing is that it offers plum comic roles for female actors: a highlight of the show was Veanne Cox’s hilarious portrayal of the addled female savante Lady Smatter, whose brain is so crammed with ideas lifted from other people’s writing that she can’t keep anything straight, and whose hats kept overtopping themselves in an echo of her thought patterns (delightful costuming was by Sara Jean Tosetti). Jenne Vath and Cherie Corinne Rice also brought their comic talents to multiple roles each in the show. Visual designer David M. Barber enlivened the familiar “Zoom” format by devising a way to superimpose the actors’ boxes onto a series of unified “scenic design” backgrounds, so that they appeared to be in the same visual space (and at times even seemed to be talking to each other rather than at their cameras). While I’ve been a Fanny Burney fan for several decades, this play was new to me, and it was a delight to be introduced to it by such a fine ensemble of artists. Unfortunately, it only streamed for a week at the end of January, and has now “disappeared.”

Still available – for just two more days! – is the Red Bull Benefit Reading of Hannah Cowley’s 1790 play The Belle’s Stratagem (in an adaptation by Davis McCallum). This is a play I’m deeply familiar with – I’ve researched it, written about it, and taught it in class for many years – but until now I’ve never heard it read or seen it produced. The play tells the story of a young heiress, Letitia Hardy (Lilli Cooper), who has been betrothed since childhood to the rakish Doricourt (Santino Fontana). When they first meet again as adults, she senses his indifference, and comes up with a complicated scheme to win his heart before they are married. Where the production of The Woman Hater embraced the original’s positioning in eighteenth-century England, here director Gaye Taylor Upchurch leans into a modernizing impulse: the characters wear modern dress, the accents are American and quite colloquial, the mannerisms are fully of the here and now – there’s even the occasional anachronistic word thrown in to the dialogue. This juxtaposition of old and new gives the play a welcome freshness and accessibility, and also brings additional moments of irony and humor to the story – while I’d hardly suggest that Cowley’s plot is one that has strong resonances with today, the play’s depiction of women’s limited agency, its positioning of gender as a coerced performance, and its portrayal of a world in which women are generally at the mercy of patriarchal structures of power continue to resonate and justify the modern approach (#metoo, anyone?). 

As with The Woman Hater, unified “backdrops” help lend the illusion that the actors (who are Zooming in from all over the country) are occupying the same space. In addition to the charismatic Fontana and Cooper, there are excellent performances by Chauncy Thomas playing the jealous husband Sir George Touchwood, Heather Alicia Simms as the worldly Mrs. Racket, and Mark Bedard as the predatory Courtall. A recording of the livestream is available until 7 pm on Friday, February 26 – I’ve waited years for a production of this play to be in my vicinity, so if protofeminist theater from the eighteenth century is your jam (and really, Dear Reader, why wouldn’t it be?) take advantage of this opportunity to see it brought to life by a fine ensemble of actors.

“Boléro” at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

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“Sexy.” “Sinuous.” “Celebratory.” 

Those are some of the words I can barely decipher from the scrap of paper I was scribbling on as I refused to tear my eyes from the spellbinding, mesmerizing, breath-catching Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performance of Boléro.

The performance took place this past weekend in the Great Sculpture Hall of the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History, where audience members were placed at a safe social distance from each other on the balcony above as dancers took over the white rectangular space below. Choreographer (and recently appointed PBT artistic director) Susan Jaffe made good use of our aerial viewpoint with an emphasis on horizontal movement and angular lines that had the dancers and their limbs spreading out as much as they spread up. Clad by designer Janet Marie Groom in monotone colors – red for the women, black for the men – the performers moved fluidly across the space, slinking, spinning, and pairing with such athletic grace and flow that I might be forgiven if at times it seemed to me that they were skating on ice rather than dancing on marble. Flesh-toned masks lent the impression that these dancers had been rendered mouthless and mute, making the expressive power of their bodies all the more potent and visceral. Indeed, I felt an almost physical shock the first time two dancers partnered (masked) cheek to (masked) cheek – such has been my psychological conditioning over the last year regarding physical intimacy.

Hannah Carter and Lucius Kirst with PBT Company Dancers. Photo by Kelly Perkovich, courtesy PBT

Boléro is a relatively short piece of music, but it’s one that builds in intensity and drive as instrumental voices layer on top of each other and as the key repeatedly modulates above an insistent driving rhythm. It’s a musical composition that feels like it mimics both a heartbeat and the rushing of blood through one’s veins. Jaffe’s choreography likewise built in intensity and drive, moving from solo to paired to ensemble sequences and drawing from the vernacular of modern and folk dance as well as ballet to layer fresh physical tones and moods as the music added new timbres and colors. A line of ensemble members formed an attentive border on three sides of the space and echoed, in slow motion, gestures generated by the soloists and couples in the middle; members of the ensemble moved from the margin to the center as the dance progressed, modulating previous movement phrases and building new ones. As the music writhed its way toward its climactic, dissonant clash, the dancers brought their individual sequences together to create an explosive invocation of the pulse of life. 

Grace Rookstool with PBT Company Dancers. Photo by Kelly Perkovich, courtesy PBT.

“All you can do,” I scribbled, before bursting into elated applause at the end of the piece. What did I mean by that? I think I felt, in that moment, as full as I’ve felt since lockdown began. This gift of dance, in a real space – where hearts beat together as audience and artists occupied not just the same physical space but the same emotional space – was a celebration of all we can do as humans to be in this world together, even when we have to do all we can to keep our distance from one another. 

Update: If you missed this performance, you will have a chance to see it streamed for free between April 5-11; sign up for notification here.

“It’s a good day”

And Van Jones from CNN – a brave man who allows himself to be emotional on national broadcast – is here to tell you why:

“Wild” [Streaming] at Quantum Theatre

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This past summer, my colleague Kyle Haden and I led a small “think tank” at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama aimed at exploring the landscape of live performance in the age of Covid-19. The research questions we posed to the student participants in the course were relatively straightforward: what’s “out there” in the world of remote and digital live performance, what’s working well, why does it work well when it does, and what tools and techniques need to be mastered in order to make compelling and captivating live performance for remote or socially distanced performers and audiences?

After viewing dozens of online performances and experiments, our students compiled a digital “white paper” of the results of their research, which ranged from recommendations regarding content and rehearsal strategies to a deep dive into available recording and streaming platforms to an imagined “Covid” season for many of our local theaters. You’re welcome to view the results of their work, but the TL;DR take-home of our collective survey of the summer landscape was something that will now likely seem all too obvious: the most successful live-streamed (or pre-recorded and streamed) projects had two things in common. First, they were delivered in relatively short segments (thirty minutes was the sweet spot; forty-five the outer limit). And second, they achieved a logical and necessary integration between form and content; that is, the works that were most satisfying to experience were works that contained within their world an explanation as to why the audience member might be viewing them on a screen.

The example we all kept pointing to as the bar-setter was a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull directed by Eleanor Bishop, a CMU Drama directing alum, and produced by the Auckland Theatre Company (and recently made available again in four 30-minute segments for viewing – which I highly recommend!) Back in the early summer, at a time when many theater companies and performers were attempting to replicate the experience of live theater by putting actors into dialogue with each other across Zoom boxes – and asking us viewers to suspend our disbelief and imagine that the characters were occupying the same physical space – Bishop’s adaptation accepted Zoom as a governing condition of the characters’ pandemic-bound lives, and forged Chekhovian comedy and pathos out of their (and our) current given circumstances. What made Bishop’s reboot compelling was that the video capture of live dialogue and action made sense in the world of the play; it was not haunted, as so many online reproductions of plays have been, by the IRL theatrical conditions we can no longer enjoy.

With its new production of Mike Bartlett’s play Wild, the collaborative team at Quantum Theatre has crafted a similarly successful integration of form and content. The setting for the play is a Moscow hotel room where Andrew (Chris Cattell) – a fictionalized Edward Snowden – has taken refuge after he has released damaging information showing that the US government has been spying on its own citizens. Two mysterious agents, who may or may not belong to an organization affiliated with a Julian Assange-esque man that Andrew seeks to be connected with, visit his room: a British Woman (played by Lydia Gibson), and an American Man (played by Wali Jamal). The hotel room (designed with a keen eye for Soviet-holdover detail by Kelsey Garrett) bristles with hidden Russian surveillance cameras that provide us with multiple views into the cat-and-mouse game that these two play with Andrew as they try to recruit him to trust – and eventually join – them. As such, the answer to the question, “why are we watching this on a screen?” is clear and logical: because “we” are cast in the role of some nameless Russian agent monitoring what unfolds in this claustrophobic space.

Lydia Gibson in WILD, photo by Heather Mull Photography, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

This conceit works exceedingly well: it serves not only to ratchet up the tension of the play but also to lend it an aesthetically compelling and moody visual style (Hannah Kerman’s lighting design produces an effect that makes color seem like it’s almost black-and-white). Director Sam Turich uses both camera angle and actor movement to keep the visual field dynamic, and part of the fun of the production lies in playing the game of figuring out how he and production director Hank Bullington have managed to pull off the show’s technical tricks. I’ll confess that I steered more attention than I probably should have into trying to figure out a) whether the actors were in the same room together (they were: Gibson and Cattell are a couple in real life who can safely be in close proximity to each other, while Jamal maintains a safe social distance from his scene partners throughout), and b) where all of the hidden cameras are (I think I found about half).

The choice to set this play into a situation of surveillance also helped to add frisson to a script that does not fully congeal, at least not for me. Too much of the narrative suspense revolves around the withheld mystery of the two visitors’ identities and agendas, and some of the events (for example, a scene in which the Woman offers to “prove” that she’s trustworthy) require us to accept at face value that a man who could hack the US national security system is otherwise a hapless dupe.

Yet toward the end, when the Woman smugly observes that the information that Andrew has leaked to the American public has been met with a “big shrug,” the play’s sociopolitical stakes suddenly and strikingly rear into view. We’re reminded of Andrew’s real-life model, Edward Snowden; of the enormous (and in his mind heroic) personal sacrifice he made in his attempt to call attention to our government’s surveillance overreach; and of how rapidly outrage over that revelation seems to have faded from public consciousness.

Wild suggests in the end that our capacity for outrage and shock has been numbed by disinformation and distraction. The next two weeks may test that proposition. Let’s hope we don’t get there. Vote.

Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein” at City Theatre’s Drive-In at Hazelwood Green

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Mary Shelley is said to have invented the genre of science fiction with Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, a novel she wrote in response to a competition proposed by Lord Byron during a cold summer she and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley spent at Byron’s villa on Lake Geneva. Her novel combines elements from the epistolary novel, the gothic romance, and the ghost story to extrapolate the impact of her protagonist Dr. Frankenstein’s quest to use his scientific knowledge to bring dead matter to life.

Chicago-based arts collective Manual Cinema has likewise invented its own genre of performance, blending handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, and live actors and music to create complex and multilayered stories that take place simultaneously on stage and screen. When this company normally performs its work, a team of artists and musicians create a mixed-media experience live before an audience, using vintage overhead projectors, puppets, actors, live feed cameras, and a roving music ensemble (an event, I imagine, somewhat akin to the “live radio play” of Bricolage’s Midnight Radio series, but an order of magnitude or two above that in cognitive complexity). Alas, patrons at City Theatre’s Drive-In will need to imagine what that genre-bending experience is like from the less layered – but no less emotionally and aesthetically satisfying – pre-recorded version of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein on screen at Hazelwood Green until October 17.

If you have ever read Shelley’s novel – and if you haven’t, Reader, you should! – you know that one of its primary conflicts revolves around Frankenstein’s revulsion over, and subsequent abandonment of, his Creature, and also that a large segment of the novel sympathetically offers insight into the Creature’s anguish at having been left to fend for himself by his maker. There are obvious religious and existential motifs at work here, but what Manual Cinema’s adaptation leans into is the connection between the story and Mary Shelley’s own biological and artistic creations. The film begins with an extended prologue that shows the birth and death of Shelley’s infant daughter Clara, and it’s this loss that frames and haunts the story of Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein, making her novel at once a working-out of the burden of responsibility she may have felt at losing her infant, and a substitute child itself for the grieving artist-mother. The fact that the same actor (Sarah Fornace) plays both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein underscores the bind this adaptation seeks to forge between these two creators who are tormented by what they have brought into the world.

While this biographical framing adds fresh depth and poignancy to the story of Frankenstein and his Creature, what makes it spellbinding is the magical means through which Manual Cinema tells the story. Haunting, dream-like scenes flow seamlessly back and forth between two-dimensional silhouette paper cutouts, live actors in shadow play, live actors on film, and three-dimensional puppets, all accompanied by perfectly timed live music performed on the stage next to the projection screen (the musicians are Peter Ferry, Jason Gresl, Deirdre Huckabay, and Erica Miller).

The visual storytelling is lyrical and poetic, condensing exquisitely rendered sequences of images into a powerful emotional punch. You might find yourself puzzling, as I did, over how some of the effects were achieved, particularly where the image blends live actors and shadow puppets. At the same time, I’ll confess that part of me was also relieved that I could focus on the gorgeous and eloquent filmed “product” without the lure of wanting to also watch the “process.” Let’s hope that in some Covid-19-free future the ‘burgh will have a chance to host this ingenious collective of artists so that we can witness their technical wizardry live; in the meantime, this film version of Frankenstein is an October treat that’s not to be missed.

“Drive in Arts Festival” at City Theatre

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Dear Reader!

It’s been far too many months since your trusty Tatler sent those two words to your email inbox!

We all know what’s to blame for that sad state of affairs: the last time I had the great good fortune to attend a live performance here in the ‘burgh was the opening night of Cry it Out at City Theatre – in early March, a week before the pandemic cancelled life as we once knew it – and since then (like, no doubt, most of you) what live performance I’ve been able to “attend” has primarily been streamed through my laptop screen.

But I’m here to tell you that honest-to-god live, three-dimensional, humans-sharing-the-same-general-space performance is back (!), thanks to City Theatre’s plucky efforts to find a safe way to put audiences in front of artists once again.

This past weekend saw the opening of the “Drive-In Arts Festival” in Hazelwood. Imagine a mashup between an open air music festival and a drive-in movie and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the setup in the parking lot of Mill 19 at Hazelwood Green. When you pull into the lot, attendants direct you to park in a carefully staggered arrangement that affords each vehicle a view of both a small stage and an adjacent large screen. You tune your car radio to a designated frequency, and the live performance on stage is piped into your car as you watch the performance on stage, screen, or both. Applause and affirmation – in the form of flashing lights and honking horns – is strongly encouraged; jumper cables are on hand to help out those whose enthusiasms exceed their vehicle battery life.

A wide range of programming is on offer, some of it more readily adaptable to the spectators-in-cars scenario than others. Friday night was an evening of “epic comedy” presented by the Drinking Partners, featuring comedians Samantha Bentley, Marcus Cox, Brittany Alexis, and Ed Bailey, all of whom had some great material but seemed (understandably) a bit thrown off balance when their jokes were greeted with loud horn honks in lieu of laughter and applause (a couple of them wove the weirdness of the honking into their routine).

I’d imagine that musicians – especially those who have experience performing in studio without audience feedback – would find the prospect of playing to rows of cars a bit less off-putting. Certainly, the programming on Saturday and Sunday night supported that assumption. Saturday evening gave us a high-energy, politically charged set of original music and poetry by artist/activists A’Leighsha, Said, Jasiri X, Nairobi, and Vic Muthama of 1Hood Media. Sunday brought together, for the first time in six months, three small ensembles from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: a string quartet playing two pieces by Mozart; a string quintet performing the gorgeous “Tango Suite” by Astor Piazzolla; and a flute ensemble playing pieces by Grieg, Mendelssohn, Fauré, and Rimsky Korsakov. The classical music was bookended by sensual dance videos featuring James Gilmer, Pearlann Porter, and slowdanger, and by a series of solo dance performances by Texture Ballet members Alexandra Tiso, Madeline Kendall, Katie Miller, Rachel Harman, and Kelsey Bartman.

Watching live performance from inside a car is close-but-no-rubber-cookie to being at an actual live event; I could wish that City Theatre made provision to allocate a section of the parking lot in front of the stage to properly masked and socially-distanced patrons sitting on blankets or folding chairs, who could react with human noise to the performance. This might also make it possible for prospective audience members who don’t own or have access to a vehicle to enjoy the festival. That said, while it’s not exactly encouraged, many patrons (your Tatler included) are bringing folding chairs, donning their masks, and enjoying the show al fresco. Pro tip: arrive early (before 7) if you want a spot in the first couple of rows, and bring a picnic to occupy the extra time.

The festival continues, with additional offerings of a range of music, until the end of the month.

“Cry It Out” at City Theatre

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There are likely as many ways to relate to Molly Smith Metzler’s play Cry It Out as there are ways to react as a parent – and particularly as a mother – to the birth of one’s first child.

The play revolves around the unlikely friendship that blossoms between Lina (Julianne Avolio) and Jessie (Sarah Goeke), two women who have little in common other than the fence that separates their backyards and the fact that both are pretty much homebound with newborns. Lina works an entry-level job in hospital administration; Jessie is a lawyer on track to become partner at a Manhattan law firm. But although class divides these two women, the stir-crazy isolation of new motherhood pulls them together for coffee and contact. Tethered via video baby monitors to the young tyrants who now dominate their time and attention, Lina and Jessie snatch precious moments of sane conversation in the narrow zone of Jessie’s backyard that remains in signal range of each of their nurseries.

Cry It Out 1

L to R: Julianne Avolio and Sarah Goeke. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

I love this device as a metaphor for the play’s interest in exploring the emotional tug-of-war between the autonomous “pre-baby” self and the on-demand “post-baby” one that early motherhood pitches many women into: hungry as they are for adult conversation, and exhausted and irritated as they are by the nonstop demands of infant care, neither of the women can, nor wishes to, resist the pull of her baby’s need for her. Thus the women soon find they have another thing in common: both are reluctant to return to work and leave baby in the care of others when their maternity leave is over (although here, importantly, class and privilege overdetermine both the choice of whether to go back to work and the practical ramifications of finding suitable child care arrangements).

The intrusion into this cozy friendship comes in the form of Mitchell (Tim McGeever), a neighbor from the wealthy enclave sited on the hill above who thinks there is something deeply wrong with his own wife, Adrienne (Rebecca Hirota), who has also recently had a baby and is withdrawn and isolated. It turns out, however, that she is not suffering from anything but frustration and anger: unlike Jessie and Lina, Adrienne wants nothing more than to get back to her career and her creative life after having a baby, and she is chafing under social expectations that she sacrifice her time and energy wholly to motherhood.

Metzler is exploring uncharted dramatic territory here: I cannot think of another play that trains a keen and sympathetic eye on the nether zone of identity shift that new parenthood represents. She seems particularly attuned to the way becoming a parent can shift one’s expectations and reorient priorities, bringing a character like Jessie, for example, to the realization that she’d rather stay at home with her child than return to her career. Such unexpected transformations are the stuff of poignant drama, and Goeke makes palpable her character’s dawning recognition of her changed desires and needs. Metzler is particularly good on the details of the mother/baby bond: at one point Jessie describes her baby taking a pause from nursing “just to flirt, really,” a line that struck such a chord of recognition that I swear I started to feel the tingly sensation of a milk letdown, even though it’s been over sixteen years since I last nursed a baby.  Yet I could have wished that the play did not stack the deck quite so much against Adrienne’s reaction to becoming a mother: I suspect I am not the only audience member who can relate most to her attitude (I, too, was quite ready to get back to work that I loved after too many months cooped up with a baby!), and I found it off-putting that she comes off as so cold, strident, self-involved, overly privileged, and a bit off her rocker.

Nevertheless, Metzler’s writing is both funny and touching, and the City Theatre production, under Kim Weild’s unfussy direction, captures the wide and sometimes unexpected range of emotions that flare up as the characters navigate their own personal journeys into that new identity of parenthood, journeys that are directly or indirectly shaped by class, family dynamics, and social pressures (the latter three represented visually in Anne Mundell’s striking scenic design by the row of lit houses looking down on the action from above). In particular, Julianne Avolio gives a brilliant performance as Lina: by turns tough, acerbic, generous, and vulnerable, she traverses an emotional arc that is in the end both brave and quite moving. While all of the characters in the play are torn between a life of work outside the home and the need to care for a child within, for Lina – the character with the least privilege and the least choice – that conflict is particularly acute. In limning both the differences and similarities between Lina and the other three characters, Metzler shows herself once again to be an astute observer of class divisions and reminds us how utterly imbricated the personal is with the political.