“Jitney” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

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Dear Readers, we are gifted yet again with a staging of an August Wilson play in the backyard of his boyhood home. First it was Seven Guitars, then King Hedley II – both of which used the (at the time) long-neglected structure as a backdrop to the action, which lent the productions an only-in-Pittsburgh historical authenticity. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of Jitney is the first to be produced at the newly-renovated and just-grand-opened August Wilson House, which has space indoors for cultural programming and a beautifully landscaped yard for outdoor events and performances. But the polish on the house takes nothing away from the aura of “realness” that marked previous productions in the space, and like its predecessors, Jitney feels like it transports you back in time on the very spot where you sit.

Director Mark Clayton Southers has gathered together an ensemble of actors who seem to understand the characters who populate the late 1970s Hill District deep in their bones. Jitney is (somewhat like Two Trains Running) a play in which the characters – drivers for what I have come to realize was a proto-Uber service – spend a great deal of time gossiping and getting on each other’s nerves. The car service station that is the setting for the action is a place of downtime: it’s where the drivers relax and kibitz while waiting for their next customers, and it’s a credit to both Southers’s direction and the actors’ insight into their roles that all that downtime never taxes your patience. On the contrary, much of it is pretty damn funny. Mike Traylor is brilliant and hilarious as the alcoholic Fielding – he doesn’t play “drunk” but embodies the kind of person who is a functioning drunk (and you see the difference vividly in a scene in which the young Philmore (Boykin Anthony) is, in contrast, incapacitatedly in his cups). Les Howard must have studied every grumpy old man in existence in preparation to play Turnbo, to whom he gives a stubborn righteousness and comical blindness to his own contradictions. He’s a constant meddler, which Howard physicalizes through a repeated lazzi that involves turning over his chair cushions. As the mellow, live-and-let-live Doub, Chuck Timbers provides a perfect foil to Howard’s testy Turnbo, and they give off a pitch-perfect old-married-couple vibe when they bicker about whether to trust Fielding with a loan of $4, or debate whether Lena Horne is prettier than Sara Vaughn, or get het up in some other likewise massively low-stakes disagreement. 

L to R: Kevin Brown, Dionysus Akeem, and Elexa Hammer. Photo by Mark Clayton Southers, courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

A lot of the humor in this play stems from its generational conflict, and this is also the source of the play’s more serious concerns. Turnbo gets his panties most in a twist over his disapproval of Youngblood (played by Dionysus Akeem the evening I saw the show; regularly played by Richard McBride), a young Vietnam Vet whose motives and actions are opaque to Turnbo. Youngblood is equally mystified by Turnbo’s interest in his affairs, and he bristles at Turnbo’s scolding and schooling. The manager of the station, Becker (Sala Udin at most performances, but played by Kevin Brown the night I attended) is a rule-bound member of the older generation who, twenty years previously, washed his hands of his son Booster (Jonathan Berry, powerfully vulnerable in the role) after Booster went to jail for killing his girlfriend. Booster’s release from prison, and his attempt to heal the rift with his father, forms the spine of pathos in this play, but the threat of change that hangs over the whole neighborhood (as it always seems to be in Wilson’s work, the city is about to bulldoze the block) creates an atmosphere in general of both comic and tragic tension between the younger generation – represented by Youngblood, Philmore, the numbers-runner Shealy (Roosevelt Watts), and Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena (Elexa Hammer) – and their elders. It’s a tension that is crystallized in the play’s two primary real estate transactions: Youngblood is using the money he earns, along with his GI benefits, to buy a house out in Penn Hills, while Becker and the old fogies make plans to squat in their location and refuse to let the city board up their block.

The production has many strengths in addition to the fine realization of character and character relationships by the actors. Cheryl El-Walker’s costumes feel authentic not only to the period but also to the social and generational status of each of the characters – in particular, Youngblood and Rena are recognizably living in a different sartorial era than the older men. The set design (Southers, doing double duty), has details of authenticity that go beyond its placement at 1727 Bedford Ave in the Lower Hill. The furnishings include a hideous orange couch with mismatched cushions and an old cushioned armchair, both of which swallow up poor Turnbo every time he sits (and he sits a lot!). There are also nice realist touches in the vintage payphone, fridge, calendar, and assorted magazines that Turnbo browses through when he’s not sticking his nose in other people’s business. The production has a few weaknesses, too: chief among these is the difficulty in hearing the dialogue, as the actors are in constant competition with cicadas, sirens, airplanes, fireworks (!), and other city sounds. Perhaps there is a philanthropist among my readership who might help the PPTCo beef up its sound equipment?

A placard on the upstage wall lists the jitney rates to various parts of town – ranging from $2 for the Hill, to $7.50 for the airport – and as you look at the familiar destinations – Giant Eagle, Penn Hills, Point Breeze, East Liberty – you realize that these have meaning here that they wouldn’t have if the play were staged in, say, Chicago or Detroit. As someone who is not native to the ‘burgh, I love that seeing these plays here – and especially here, at the August Wilson House – makes them come alive in a way that they never could before I moved here, and that Pittsburghers have the great good fortune to experience them in a special and intimate way because we know this place (and some of you, my dear Readers, may even have known the city as it was then). What the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is doing in the August Wilson House yard feels like a magic time travel trick, and it’s one that couldn’t be achieved anywhere else in the world.

“Grand Hotel, The Musical” at Front Porch Theatricals

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The story formula for Grand Hotel, The Musical is a familiar (dare I say cliché?) one: the titular site brings together a set of characters who all have pressing problems in their personal or professional lives, with the plot unfolding as their paths intersect. Set in Berlin, in 1928, the characters’ dilemmas can feel distant; the musical’s origin, in 1989, makes some of its gender and race representation seem dated as well. Yet the ambitious Front Porch Theatricals’ production, helmed by Scott P. Calhoon (director), Douglas Levine (music director), and Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique (choreographers) is a fresh, energetic, and engaging showcase of local talent.

The opening number, “The Grand Parade,” introduces us to the primary persons of interest. There’s Baron Felix von Gaigern (Scott Pearson), a womanizing aristocrat deeply in debt to an unsavory creditor, who needs money – fast! – to save his skin. There’s Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Daina Michelle Griffith), a prima ballerina on her final tour, who is facing not only financial difficulties but also a fear that she has aged out of her profession; she’s accompanied by her assistant Raffaela (Kristin Conrad), who is secretly in love with her. There’s General Director Preysing (Daniel Krell), a by-the-book businessman who is on the verge of bankruptcy and waiting for news that his company will be saved by a merger offer from Boston. There’s Otto Klingelein (Jason Swauger), a Jew (and former bookkeeper to Preysing), who has a fatal illness and has decided to live life to the fullest in his dying weeks. And there’s Flaemmchen (Betsy Miller, who ups the wattage every time she enters the stage), a typist and aspiring film starlet who is also, distressingly, late with her period. 

The cast of Grand Hotel. Photo by Deana Muro, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals

There seem to be a million other people parading onto the small New Hazlett stage as well, including our narrator, the mysterious and moody Colonel Doctor Otternschlag (played by Patrick Mizzoni on opening night); a silent dancing couple (Grant Braden and Mikaela Kapeluck); a pair of jazz entertainers from the US, both named Jimmy (Matthew Diston and Malcolm McGraw); the front desk clerk Erik (Sam Marzella), who is worried about his wife in labor and is harrassed by his boss, the Concierge (Jeremy Spoljarick); and a bevy of bellhops, maids, and other hangers-on. A count of names in the program indicates that there are, in fact, twenty-eight performers in the ensemble, but between the swirl of choreography and a panoply of costume changes the production gives the impression that the cast is many times that size.

Twenty-eight is still a big ensemble for a small company like Front Porch, and it’s a testament to the production team to have pulled together so much local talent. The production is marked by strong vocal work by both principles and chorus; while it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself humming any of the songs as you head out the door (it’s not really that type of score), there are some standout numbers, including Swauger’s rendition of “Table With a View,” Miller’s “Girl in the Mirror,” Pearson’s “Love Can’t Happen,” and Griffith’s “Bonjour Amour.” Herman and Verastique have also created a lot of energetic choreography, and the ensemble is up to the challenge. Four numbers in particular deserve mention – “Maybe My Baby Loves Me,” featuring Diston, McGraw, and Miller; “We’ll Take a Glass Together,” featuring Pearson and Swauger along with a showstopping number, “The Grand Charleston H-A-P-P-Y,” that features nearly the entire cast; and a beautiful pas-de-deux between Braden and Kapeluck after the song “Roses at the Station.”

Jonmichael Bohach’s scenic design has a spare simplicity that gives ample space for song and dance and supports the smooth flow of the action. He indicates the grandeur of the lobby’s hotel primarily through faux-marble on the floor and on columns bordering the stage; a staircase takes up much of center stage, and the orchestra is set up on a platform above the playing space as if it’s the hotel’s resident big band. The main set pieces are a big round fringed sofa (which does double duty as a bed in a bedroom scene) and a stand with an old-fashioned rotary phone that serves as the hotel reception desk; most of the scenes are efficiently established with the use of straight-backed chairs that flow in and out as part of the choreography, sometimes to quasi-magical effect (a particularly lovely example is when the scene quickly establishes a ladies’ washroom with a horizontal pole between two stools and then subsequently transitions to a mens’ washroom with a subtle change of personnel and orientation). Valerie Webster’s costumes and Nicole Pagano’s wigs not only ground the action in its time and place, but also serve to underscore the impression that this is a world populated by a city full of people – many of the ensemble members seem to have a new look for each number. 

L to R: Betsy Miller and Jason Swauger. Photo by Deana Muro, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

Formulaic as the story may be, the performers do an excellent job of adding dimension to characters who could easily devolve into stereotype. The principles all take care to offer glimpses of their characters’ vulnerabilities and contradictions; particularly fine in this regard are Krell as the uptight Prussian who gets his first taste of vice and is on a downward slide from there, Swauger as the disheveled but philosophical invalid, and Miller, whose magnificent rendition of “Girl in the Mirror” ranges poignantly through a full spectrum of emotions, from high to low and back again. Miller also occupies the storyline that feels most resonant and relevant to a contemporary audience: not only are there hints that Flaemmchen might be looking to terminate her pregnancy (an option that seems to be abruptly, and weirdly, foreclosed with the play’s resolution), but she is also a victim of #metoo predation, and Miller takes us deep into the ick and awfulness of that abuse.

Other thematic threads in the play feel more stretched: there’s a recurrent suggestion of class resentment among the scullery workers and bellhops (“Some Have, Some Have Not”), and a vague gesturing at anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism. But these are all things we are told rather than shown in the world of the play – none of them are really central to its primary conflicts. 

Rather, the overarching driver of conflict in this musical (and maybe its most potent reminder that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose) is the need of its two primary White male characters to maintain their status, wealth, and privilege – and their readiness to engage in immoral and criminal behavior in fulfillment of that need. The fact that, in the end, neither actually succeeds is either the story’s most fantastical element – or its most subversive and hopeful one.

“The Cherry Orchard” at Quantum Theatre

The Quantum Theatre production of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is a play about family, in more ways than one. It is, first and foremost, a comedy about the once-wealthy Ranevsky family, whose members cling desperately to fading grandeur as their estate is put on the auction block to pay off the ruinous debts accrued by their spendthrift matriarch, Lyubov Andreyevna (Karla Boos). The fictional family of the play includes not only blood relatives – Lyubov’s brother, Gayev (Peter Duschenes) and her daughters Varya (Moira Quigley) and Anya (Julia de Avilez Rocha) – but also various servants and hangers-on to the estate, like the nouveau riche businessman Lopakhin (Nick Lehane), whose father and grandfather were serfs on the land; Dunyasha (Zanny Laird), the maidservant; Charlotta (Laurie Klatscher), the girls’ governess; Petya (Joseph McGranaghan), the idealistic former tutor to Lyubov’s deceased son; Pischik (John Shepard), a neighbor and longtime family friend; the hapless “walking disaster” Yepikhodov (Jake Emmerling), the estate accountant; Yasha (Benjamin Viertel), Lyubov’s misanthropic footman; and the ancient Firs (Gregory Lehane), the family’s faithful, doddering butler.

Alert readers will already have spotted the second way this production is about family: the cast includes a real family, in the persons of Gregory Lehane and Laurie Klatscher and their son Nick Lehane, who bring a shared quirky sensibility to the world of the play. Nick plays Lopakhin like a bull in a china shop, awkwardly blunt and bumptious in contrast to the moony airs and graces of the genteel Ranevskys; Gregory’s Firs is a hilariously stubborn curmudgeon; and Klatscher turns the eccentric character of Charlotta into a kind of performing monkey whose very presence offers ironic commentary on the vestigiality of the landed gentry to the future of Russia.

But there’s also another family, of sorts, woven into this production: the artistic team and ensemble include numerous current and former members of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama community, including alumni Katie Brook (director), Bryce Cutler (scenic design), and Damian E. Dominguez (costume design), in addition to actors Viertel, Laird, and Nick Lehane; faculty members C. Todd Brown (lighting design) and emeritus faculty Gregory Lehane; and current students Madison Gold (stage manager) and Grace Kang (asst. costume designer). For your Tatler, such a “family” reunion only added to the delight of the show.  

L to R: Moira Quigly, Karla Boos, Julia de Avilez Rocha. Photo by Jason Snyder, courtesy Quantum Theatre

The production is set outdoors on a multilevel octagonal set that sits between two banks of audience seating. While most of the action plays out in the center of the space, director Brook takes ample advantage of the outdoor area that flanks the set, allowing the characters to escape the confines of the house and roam what feel like distant fields (Peter Brucker’s sound engineering ensures that you hear every word of the play, even when the actors are off in the far distance). Such staging not only adds visual interest to the world of the play but also drives home Chekhov’s piquant satirization of his country’s landed gentry: faced with an existential threat to their home and livelihood, the members of the family put on the blinders of denial and take long leisurely walks. It’s also something of an insider theatrical joke, demonstrating the difference between realism as a style and the real: there would never be room in a “realistic” play to let your actors actually, really, disappear from view and then meander slowly back to the stage. At such moments Brook reminds us, with her own surehanded command of postdramatic staging conventions, that Chekhov’s “realism” was avant-garde in its time, a way of making the familiar strange.

Much of the comedy of this play derives from the fact that pretty much every character is deeply invested in their own, sometimes bizarre, little world, and because of this, when they talk to each other they are often shockingly careless about what they say; that is, they are forthright and candid in ways that people in real life rarely dare to be. Libby Appel’s fine translation of the play delights in its bluntness, producing moments like when characters repeatedly turn to Firs and say: “you will die soon, old man.” Here, too, is another way this is a play about family: the characters don’t pussyfoot around each other because they are all familiar, all orbiting the gravitational pull of the family estate. Brook and her ensemble embrace this aspect of the work, producing a world of richly realized and endearingly self-absorbed individuals who feel no need to hide their thoughts from each other and who stubbornly remain their flawed, desperate selves even in the face of shattering changes to their lives.

“The Illustrious Invalid” at Kinetic Theatre – and some more “upcoming”!

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Actor-writer Simon Bradbury admits in his note on his play The Illustrious Invalid that it’s a challenge to turn his subject matter into comedy; after all, his writing is inspired by a pretty tragic event, the death of 17th-century French playwright Molière shortly after he suffered a tuberculosis-induced hemorrhage onstage while playing the title character in his own play, The Imaginary Invalid.

For many in the audience on opening night it was: challenge met and bested! Your Tatler was surrounded by spectators delighting in the boisterous shenanigans that Bradbury sets in motion among the members of Molière’s troupe as they attempt to keep him from trodding the boards in his consumptive condition. The action, which takes place in Molière’s dressing room backstage, not only has the fast-paced energy but also many of the devices of the farce, including slamming doors, swapped identities, hasty concealments of people and objects, and characters getting caught in their own web of lies. And the talented ensemble assembled by director Andrew Paul is all-in for the spirited hijinks and madcappery that await poor Molière on his final night on earth.

L to R: Matt DeCaro, Derdriu Ring, Joanna Strapp, & Simon Bradbury. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre.

A running gag in this production involves an enormous syringe wielded by troupe member Dufresne (Matt DeCaro), who regularly plays a doctor on stage and who has so internalized his line of stage business that he believes he can heal the ailing Molière (played by Bradbury). His proposed cure, which he attempts to execute with the help of Molière’s maid, La Forest (Derdriu Ring), is to “purge” the actor-playwright. This is a fate Molière manages to avoid only by swapping identities with the eager but hapless younger actor Baron (Michael Patrick Trimm), who also happens to be shtupping Molière’s wife Armande (Joanna Strapp) on the side. Further complicating Molière’s last day on earth are the Musketeer Le Tournier (David Whalen, in one of four roles) and the hump-backed priest Levere (Tony Bingham), both of whom bring high-minded and self-righteous moral objections to Molière’s life and work. The former barges into the dressing room only to interrupt – and express outrage at the apparent homoerotics of – Dufresne’s initial attempt to administer his obscene enema; the latter pops in and out of the action via the dressing room privy.

Enemas & privies: who knew Molière was so obsessed with poop and poopers? As the saying goes: people who like this sort of thing will find it precisely the sort of thing they like. You may have guessed by now that this is not exactly Your Tatler’s cuppa comic tea. Indeed, my funny bone was far more tickled by the occasional sprinkling of meta-theatrical humor, as when the put-upon David Whalen acknowledges, in an aside to the audience, that he is a “dogsbody” not only within the world of the play, but also in The Illustrious Invalid itself, “playing multiple roles to serve the plot.” I could have wished for more of that, and less of the scatalogical humor that predominates. But as in so many things, taste in comedy is subjective: if you’re looking for the kind of tonic that only a good fart joke can provide, this may be just what the doctor has ordered.

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Speaking of tonics: your Tatler is about to take a much-needed break! But many invitations have landed in my inbox, for performances that will take place while this blog is on pause, and you should check them out! They include:

On June 15, Chamber Music Pittsburgh will present the award-winning Cuban-jazz fusion band Hugo Cruz and Caminos at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh’s Northside at 7:30 p.m. This pay-what-you-wish outdoor concert will bring Cruz’s rhythmic stylings to the museum’s lobby, where the doors will stay open to Garden, the permanent installation by artist Winifred Ann Lutz that explores the urban and natural history of the Mattress Factory’s courtyard. 

From June 16-18, RealTime Interventions’ hit concert cabaret ANGELMAKERS: SONGS FOR FEMALE SERIAL KILLERS will be re-imagined at Pittsburgh Winery in the historic Strip District. This brand new iteration of one of RealTime’s anchoring productions will feature beloved original lead performer Milia Ayache from Beirut, Lebanon, in addition to the voices of eight other utterly unique Pittsburgh-based female-identifying vocalists, including Vietnamese pop star, asylee and activist Mai Khôi and Pittsburgh theater favorite Hazel LeRoy. Accompanied by original ANGELMAKERS musicians Zorahna and Michele Dunlap and directed by Cynthia Croot, the cast also includes the talents of Angela George, Angela Hsu, Julianna Austin, Linette Taylor, Meg Booth, and Samantha A. Camp. 

From June 16-19, the premiere production of the new Prime Stage Sprouts series will feature The Amazing Lemonade Girl, which is a regional premiere. The true story by James DeVita was inspired by the life of Alexandra Flynn Scott, whose illness inspired her to start a front yard lemonade stand to raise funds to help other kids. Based on the book written by her parents, this regional premiere shows how a single person can change the world one act or even one cup at a time. 

On June 17, Hiawatha Project presents a new play reading IN OUR TIME/Stories from the Front Lines of the Medical Fields by Anya Martin. Tickets are free but pre-registration is suggested.

And from June 17-July 2, Off the Wall productions in Carnegie presents Not My Revolution. The 90-minute play, written and performed by Elizabeth Elias Huffman, examines the very real consequences of forced displacement, and the judgments passed on two women whose destiny has been determined by appearances and society’s expectations of them.

“Two Trains Running” at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre

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August Wilson’s 1990 play Two Trains Running transports us back to a Pittsburgh Hill District that no longer exists – in fact, it takes us to the very point in time when the city was using its powers of eminent domain to finalize its shredding of the neighborhood. It’s a play about that neighborhood: about the struggles residents held in common, and about the different ways individuals within the community faced their common challenges and frustrations.

L to R: Brian Starks and Brian D. Coats. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theatre.

Our window into that time and place is a restaurant owned by Memphis (Brian D. Coats), where locals gather to grab a bite, get the local gossip, and even do a little business. Those locals include Holloway (Justin Emeka, who also directed the production), a retired painter who is also the resident philosopher; Wolf (Brian Starks), a hep-cat type who runs numbers, often using the restaurant phone to do his business; Risa (Melessie Clark), the restaurant’s put-upon waitress; the mentally-challenged Hambone (Ananias J. Dixon); the wealthy funeral home owner West (Wali Jamal); and newcomer Sterling (Brenden Peifer), who has just been released from the penitentiary after doing time for bank robbery. For the most part, these are characters who know each other well, and under Emeka’s direction the excellent ensemble establishes an easy rhythm to their interactions that solidifies the impression that these are folks who have a lot of shared history. The sense that we are eavesdropping on a slice-of-life is underscored by scenic designer Richard Morris Jr.’s decision to place the action in the round – both play and production offer a rich three dimensional realism, one that is bolstered by Alethia Moore-Del Monaco’s spot-on costume design.

Two Trains Running is not a very plot-driven play; rather, it invites us to become invested in its characters and care about their strivings, and in particular about their desire to be treated with fairness and live with dignity. For Memphis, this takes the form of a demand that the city pay him $25,000 for his property, and “not a penny less.” The idea that he might be cheated out of what he rightly deems his due – by either the white folks downtown, or by West, who wants the property so that he can consolidate his holdings and leverage a larger payout for himself – sends him into an apoplectic rage more than once during the play. For Hambone, the desire for equitable treatment comes in the form of a debt he is owed by the white grocery owner Lutz, who nine years previously had promised him a ham in return for painting his fence and then reneged on the deal. Sterling just wants a job so that he can get his life back on track, but he is stymied by the Catch-22 of union membership: to work at the steel mills, he needs to be a union member, but to become a union member he needs to get a steel mill job.

These personal frustrations play out against a history and backdrop of racist oppression, and Wilson makes a point of showing that the sting of racism is sharp no matter how brutal or mild a form it takes. Memphis’s bitter outrage over the possibility that he might not be fairly paid for his property finds justification in the harrowing story he tells of having been violently driven from his land in the South decades earlier: he wears the trauma of that injustice like a gloomy cloak. Hambone’s obsession about getting the ham he is owed has a comic dimension, but the blow to his dignity is just as profound: as Holloway observes, “he ain’t willing to accept whatever the white man throw at him.” 

The world of the play is also filled with richly imagined characters we never see: like the recently-deceased Prophet Samuel, who is lying in state in a coffin stuffed with money and jewels and whose devoted followers line up around the block to visit him one last time; or the mysterious Aunt Ester, who claims to be 322 years old and who, according to Holloway, has the power to “straighten you out”; or Buddy Boy, who is unable to attend his own wife’s funeral because he was arrested stealing a dress to bury her in.  All of these figures appear in stories that the on-stage characters share with the same air of matter-of-factness that they use to place wagers on numbers or put sugar in their coffee, and the very casualness of their evocation of the complicated tapestry of the community makes this play feel poignant and bittersweet: the characters know that they are living through a transition, but they don’t know, as we do, the full dimension of what is about to be lost. 

Upcoming! The Bach Choir, Pittsburgh Public, Fake Friends, Quantum, and more…

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It’s Memorial Day weekend; summer is here, and your Tatler has some recommendations for you!

To begin with: this coming weekend, June 3 & 4, the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh is presenting its “Obsessions” concert, which was postponed back in February due to you-know-what. This is a collection of choruses from operas, ranging from the familiar to the rarely performed, including pieces from Porgy and Bess, La Traviata, Carmen, Dido and Aneas, Faust, Mefistofole, Cavalaria Rusticana, Susannah, Madama Butterfly, The Tender Land …and more! The program includes solos by soprano Charlene Canty, mezzo soprano Demareus Cooper, tenor Michael Vallikappil, and bass-baritone Miles Wilson-Toliver; don’t be scared off by the idea of “opera,” the range of styles and moods is thrilling and inspiring. Use BCPALTO21 to get a discount on tickets.

Also opening on June 4 is Two Trains Running, an August Wilson play set in the late 1960’s, which centers on the fight against “gentrification” of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Directed by Justin Emeka, the production features actors Melessie Clark, Brian D. Coats, Ananias J. Dixon, Justin Emeka, Wali Jamal, Brenden Peifer, and Brian Starks. And of course, this week also begins the ten-day Three Rivers Arts Festival.

June is also Pride Month, and in celebration the New York-based theater company Fake Friends is bringing back its Pulitzer Prize-nominated work Circle Jerk, both live and streaming, from June 8-25. The blurb describes it thusly: “It’s winter on Gayman Island, a summer retreat for the homosexual rich and fame-ish. This off-season, two White Gay internet trolls hatch a plot to take back what’s wrongfully theirs. Cancellations, meme schemes, and political and erotical flip flops abound as three actors playing nine parts play out this chaotic live-streamed descent into the high-energy, quick-change, low-brow shitpit of the internet.
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I watched hundreds of online performances during the pandemic “lockdown”; there were only two or three that felt electrifying and new, and Circle Jerk was at the top of that short list. If I could make it to NYC to see the show live, I would; and if you’re there in mid-June, you should (and if you buy your ticket before tomorrow, you can use the code CJMEMORIALDAY to get a discount). Nonetheless I’m still looking forward to seeing the streamed version again; it’s a blast (and it’s cheap: just $5)! Full disclosure, one of the company members, Cat Rodríguez, is an alum of the dramaturgy program at CMU; but I would find this performance amazing even without the personal connection. Here’s a little teaser:

Early June also sees the world premiere of Simon Bradbury’s new play The Illustrious Invalid at Kinetic Theatre; described as “riotous” and a “madcap romp,” the play imagines the final day in the life of the playwright Molière as he prepares to put on a performance of his play, The Imaginary Invalid. Directed by Andrew Paul, the production features the author in the role of Molière, in addition to ensemble members Derdriu Ring, Joanna Strapp, and David Whalen; it opens June 9 at City Theatre. And, opening that same day, is the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Open Air” performance series, which also features performances by the Pittsburgh Festival Opera on June 9: if you are still not ready to see live performance in a closed auditorium, this is your chance to get your fix in the open air, on the riverfront in Sharpsburg. Tickets are free!

Further on in the summer, Off the Wall in Carnegie will open Not My Revolution on June 17 – a one-woman show written and performed by Elizabeth Huffman about two women whose lives are impacted by civil war. Quantum Theatre will open The Cherry Orchard on July 8, directed by Katie Brook and with a cast that not only features three actors from the same family (Gregory Lehane, Laurie Klatscher, and Nick Lehane) but also artistic director Karla Boos herself, in the role of Lyubov Andreyevna. And in mid August, Front Porch Theatricals will produce the musical The Grand Hotel.

There’s more, of course: the Pittsburgh CLO has performances running through the summer, as does the Pittsburgh Festival Opera, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and the Allegheny County Summer Concert Series. I bet I’m missing some; feel free to add recommendations in the comments!

“A Man of No Importance” at Front Porch Theatricals

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“Love who you love who you love.” That’s a repeated lyric in the musical A Man of No Importance, and if it brings to mind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love,” I suspect it’s hardly a coincidence. Both constitute anthems of acceptance for the multitude of ways the human heart expresses its desire, and both figure as responses to homophobic violence. 

Miranda made his plea for the equality of all love in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016; in A Man of No Importance, which is set in 1964, the sentiment is expressed by Alfie Burns (Allan Snyder), a Dublin bus driver with a passion for poetry and theater, particularly the poetry and theater of Oscar Wilde, and who spends his free time directing an amateur theatrical troupe, the St. Imelda’s Players, which rehearses in the local church social hall. He lives with his sister, Lily (Becki Toth), who has put her own romantic life on hold while waiting for him to find a wife. Unfortunately she is blind to all the signs that her wait is going to be a lifelong one: Alfie cooks, he enjoys foreign food, he carries around a little book of poetry and recites verses to his bus passengers, and he spends his evenings at home with her, mooning after his co-worker, the handsome and athletic Robbie (David Toole). When a new passenger, the young and lovely Miss Rice (Clementine Wurzbach), boards his bus one morning, Alfie decides to tackle Wilde’s Salome and recruit her and Robbie to play the roles of Salome and John the Baptist. Lily hopes that his interest in Miss Price is more than merely theatrical; we quickly realize that he harbors hopes that Robbie might share both his love of theater and the “love that dare not say its name.”

L to R: David Toole and Allan Snyder. Photo courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

For a musical based on a 1994 film about a closeted homosexual in 1964 Ireland, A Man of No Importance feels surprisingly fresh and timely. The book, by playwright Terrence McNally, is structured as something of a flashback – the musical begins just after the troupe’s production of Salome has been cancelled due to its “salacious” content, and then rewinds to tell the story of the events leading up to that cancellation – and that structure achieves a bit of theatrical sleight-of-hand, making you think, at first, that the focus of the musical will be the repressive forces that shut down free artistic expression. But then – as now – those same forces also seek to put limits on the expression of love and desire; then – as now – the performing arts offer space for pushing against those limits and telling stories that open hearts and minds.

The team of Lynn Ahrens and Pittsburgh native Stephen Flaherty wrote the lyrics and music, which are steeped in the vernacular of Celtic session music. Many of the numbers open with a haunting solo Irish flute (George Hoydich), and the orchestra, led by Deana Muro, jams with the lively vibe of a Ceilidh. The large ensemble is packed with talent, with particularly strong vocal performances by Snyder, Toth, and Wurzbach, and an impressive vocal and physical performance by Toole, who pretty much parkours all over the stage in the musical’s most recognizable tune, the showstopper “The Streets of Dublin.” Snyder is a genial presence in the leading role, conveying Alfie’s suppressed yearning and pain with quiet subtlety; Toole is charismatic as the Dublin man about town; and Toth brings depth to a character who seems, at first, to fit the caricature of a provincial Irish spinster. With the help of scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach, director Robyne Parrish makes use of simple elements – a handful of umbrellas, large wooden spindles of varying dimensions, some chairs, a platform, a curtain, and a piano – to swiftly shift the scene from church hall to bus to kitchen to street. 

Eleven additional ensemble members populate the world of the play with many more characters, all drawn with clarity and verve; these are the bus passengers, pub denizens, music-lovers, and troupe members whose condemnation Alfie most fears, and whose acceptance forms the core message of the play. It’s a hopeful message, in the end: a message of the power of art to make the world a more welcome place for all.

“The Garbologists” at City Theatre and “Misery” at barebones productions

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This past week, your Tatler had a chance to see The Garbologists at City Theatre and Misery at barebones productions. Both feature finely honed performances, inventive scenic designs, and fantastic sound design; each is also, in its own way, about an odd couple. The similarities end there.

In Lindsay Joelle’s new play The Garbologists, the mismatch is between veteran sanitation worker Danny (Jason Babinsky) and rookie Marlowe (Bria Walker), who has been assigned to Danny’s truck for training. He’s a chatty extrovert who’s not good with boundaries; she’s a taciturn loner with high walls. He’s an open book – transparent about the difficulties in his personal life, which include a TRO filed against him by his ex-wife and their conflict over custody of their son – while she is something of a mystery – an Ivy-league graduate who has opted for a career in sanitation. As he teaches her the tricks of the trade, he begins to chip away at her armor, and by play’s end each has come to trust the other with their most painful confidences.

The play is mostly a light comedy, although it pulls on some sober threads. Chief among these is  the transience of existence, and of the ways our garbage becomes a marker for loss. Danny is an expert at “reading” the trash left out for them to pick up: he can tell the difference between a normal pile of garbage, and one that signals someone has died, moved, or been evicted. His years in the service make him insouciant about what those latter piles mean to the people who dragged them out to the curb; Marlowe, on the other hand, keenly feels the weight of the discards and the unknown stories behind them. In the world of the play, his job becomes teaching her not only how to follow the “house rules” of the job, but also how to let go and move on. 

L to R: Jason Babinsky and Bria Walker. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The snazzy production features a moving cab of a garbage truck, complete with lights, and not one but two “back ends,” one of which even has a clever working mechanism to scrape the garbage from the hopper into the truck (scenic design by Narelle Sissons); the excellent sound design by Karin Graybash fills out the illusion of a garbage truck in action. Although for the most part Joelle’s characters come across more like types than fully fleshed out human beings, under Monteze Freeland’s direction Babinsky and Walker connect genially and take their characters on a believable journey from friction to friendship.

L to R: Sheila McKenna and Davis Whalen. photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

The trajectory of the plot of Misery goes in the opposite direction, from friendliness to (way beyond) friction. Here the “odd couple” is a romance novelist named Paul Sheldon (David Whalen), and his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Sheila McKenna). Paul wakes in her home after he has been in an incapacitating car accident, and he is grateful at first for the seemingly daffy and kind Good Samaritan’s aid and nursing. But it quickly becomes clear that she is a deranged psychopath who is keeping him prisoner, and who has no qualms about tormenting him to keep him in line. When she discovers that in the final installment of his series he has killed off her beloved protagonist, Misery Chastain, she forces him to write a sequel that brings the character back to life; he does so with the understanding that writing the novel may be the only way to save his own life. You may already know this story: it’s adapted by William Goldman from the 1987 Stephen King novel, and was made into a film (also scripted by Goldman) in 1990.

Reader, I’ll be honest: I approached this production with trepidation. I don’t love horror, and I worried that Misery would be too graphically violent for my taste. But though there are moments of physical assault, the play is primarily a psychological thriller, and it’s a beautifully crafted one to boot. Goldman’s writing is tight and suspenseful, and he creates a cat and mouse dynamic between Annie and Paul that keeps you on the edge of your seat. 

The barebones production, directed by Patrick Jordan, is both chillingly suspenseful and shockingly funny. Scenic design by Tony Ferrieri and sound design by Matthew Nielson contribute mightily to the suspense: Ferrieri’s rotating set comes alive during a couple of heartpounding scenes in which Paul escapes from his room in a wheelchair to explore the rest of Annie’s twee little house, and Nielson’s ominous music ratchets up the tension as Paul frantically tries to get back to his room before Annie returns. Steve Tolan’s special effects take credit for much of the comedy: the gore on view is frankly awful, but also (as in so many horror films) so outrageous that it shades into humor. 

Whalen and McKenna are well-matched and work beautifully together to intensify the stakes of their conflict. Both actors give their characters a sly intelligence that fuels not only their conflict but also the suspense over its outcome, and while it seems that Paul, the accomplished novelist, should have the upper hand over the provincial and unsophisticated Annie, McKenna plays Annie as a woman who is far cannier than she lets on. For a good deal of the play, Whalen is trapped in a bed – no easy task for an actor – and he uses the immobilization to good effect in conveying Paul’s pain, helplessness, and growing terror. His first attempt to get out of bed is excruciating to watch; equally excruciating is witnessing his realization that Annie is more diabolical than she appears (and this is a realization he, and we, come to repeatedly). As Annie, McKenna gives a whole new spin on crazy, shifting with jarring dispatch from adoring reader to punitive torturer to solicitous caregiver, and the more of Annie’s twisted obsession she reveals, the creepier she gets. 

Harrowing as the scenario of Misery may be, the production is a downright thrill to watch, with a cathartic ending that won’t surprise anyone, and that may be all the more sweet now that we, too, have all been released from our own long covid-captivity.

Looking forward to…

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Your Tatler has had a pretty busy spring, as local theatres – and she – emerge from the long pandemic winter. And there’s more coming up! Here are some of the performances I have on my calendar; you should try to catch them, too. As far as I know, all of the below have strong COVID precautions in place (vaccination proof and masks required).

Yesterday, the CMU School of Drama opened its production of the musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. I was able to see this show on Broadway when it featured CMU alum Denee Benton – it’s a raucously entertaining show, and the snippets of rehearsal I’ve seen on campus make me excited to see our production, which was directed by Tome’ Cousin and music directed by Rick Edinger (both colleagues of mine in the department). Also opening at CMU next week is another musical by the same writer, Dave Malloy: Preludes, which is about a turbulent period in the life of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. In addition, the annual CMU New Works series also begins later this week, featuring Vice Wheels by Malique Guinn, The Real Girls by Beth Ann Powers, and 차’nt  by Trà Nguyễn, directed by B. Kleymeyer and Jasmine Roth. Yinz know my policy on writing about student work (I don’t), so: ‘nuff said. You can find information on schedule and tickets for all of these performances here.

Busy week at work, amiright? But there’s more! The Pittsburgh Public Theatre opened its production of Murder on the Orient Express this past weekend as well. I’m not going to have a chance to see this production until very late in its run, and because of that am unlikely to blog about it, but it looks like it will be a lot of fun, with its cast featuring the local talent of James FitzGerald, Martin Giles, Catherine Growl, Amy Landis, Jason McCune, Lenora Nemetz, Caroline Nicolian, Helena Ruoti, Alec Silberblatt, Saige Smith, Ricardo Vila-Roger, and David Whalen. Marya Sea Kaminski has directed.

Also coming up next weekend is the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh’s Monster: Frankenstein Re-Imagined at the Oaks Theatre in Oakmont. This concert is a truly singular event: the original 1931 film Frankenstein, featuring Boris Karloff as the monster, is scored with a 1970s funk and rhythm and blues score that is performed by the choir and a five piece band led by bassist Paul Thompson. The music – arranged and written by artistic director Thomas W. Douglas and CMU Drama alum Jaron Crawford – promises to turn the film into a completely new – and unrepeatable – experience; this is the kind of event you’ll hear about later and wish you hadn’t missed. So don’t: you have two chances to see it, on April 23 and 24; use the code BCPALTO21 for a discount.

But wait, there’s more! Creator-performer Adil Mansoor opens Amm(i)gone at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater on April 22 as well. In this one-person show, co-directed by Lyam Gabel, Mansoor uses Sophocles’ Antigone to navigate his relationship with his mother after coming out as a queer person. I saw this production online during the pandemic, and am looking forward to seeing the IRL version; you can read more about it in Rachel Hodge’s beautifully written “guest-post”  from the spring of 2021.

Looking a bit further into the future: City Theatre will present the world premiere of Lindsay Joelle’s new play The Garbologists, opening on May 6 (previews begin April 30). This play is an unconventional buddy comedy that follows two sanitations workers in the cab of a nineteen-ton garbage truck in New York City; tasked with picking up what the world has discarded, they learn that some things are easier to toss than others. The production is directed by Monteze Freeland and features performers Jason Babinsky and Bria Walker. Attack Theatre brings back Some Assembly Required on May 12-15, a performance that involves its audience in the creation of its choreography. PICT will open a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame that same weekend. And Front Porch Theatricals is back in business after a two-year hiatus, and will open A Man of No Importance on May 20. 

Feels so good to be back experiencing live performance again. Mask up and join me!

“Papa” at the New Hazlett Theatre, and “People of Pittsburgh: The Alchemist of Sharpsburg” by RealTime Interventions (at City Theatre)

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This week saw the opening of two original works that each tell the story of an ordinary person in inventive ways.

As part of its CSA series, the New Hazlett presented Papa, a new play written and performed by Bailey Lee and co-created by director Coleman Ray Clark. Papa tells the story of Lee’s grandfather, “papa” (played by Arnold Y. Kim) who immigrated to McKeesport from China in 1950, when he was a teenager, and of her father, who died when Lee herself was a teenager. The family story here will feel familiar to many whose progenitors came to the US in the first half of the 20th century: there is xenophobia and an inadvertent name change by immigration authorities at the port of entry, there is the conflict between preservation of culture and assimilation, and there is the climb up the socioeconomic ladder through hard work and education that has characterized the experience of so many immigrants, especially those who were able to enter the US during the postwar boom years. Lee’s family history is also a story of biracial identity: both her papa and her father married white women (both the grandmother and the mother are played by Frances Dell Bendert), and the blond-haired, green-eyed Lee has a much deeper connection to her Chinese heritage than her outward appearance might signal. 

The play is structured episodically and jumps around in time from the present day to select moments in the past; Lee functions as a narrator throughout, but also steps into the action to play a customer at her great-grandfather’s Chinese restaurant, her own father as a young man, and herself at various ages of her own life. The work also experiments playfully with different approaches to telling its story. At times it suddenly becomes a musical, complete with jazz-hand choreography; there is also a comic “clash of the Chinese zodiac animals” dance that helps to establish the family dynamic between Lee, her mother, and her papa, a moment of slam poetry, and even some unexpected puppetry. One particularly well-crafted episode comes when Lee is asked at an audition to reveal a bit more about herself: she goes deep into her relationship with her father, and also into her own insecurities and guilt over that relationship. Using the audition as a pretext for such a vulnerable soliloquy is a clever choice, particularly because it allows for a bit of cynicism from the auditioners to cut comically through her solipsism.

Lee seems aware of the danger of getting mired in sentiment, and for the most part she successfully treads the line between sweet and treacly. Frequently she brings in a sour note to add unexpected humor and bite, as when she offers a metatheatrical ending in which she gifts the play itself to her papa. He protests that his life is really not interesting enough to be turned into a play, and in a way he’s right: nothing he’s done or experienced has been particularly unusual or dramatic. But Lee’s theatrical love letter to him and to her family is heartwarming and sincere, and prompts reflection on the ways we all are shaped by the journeys made by the people who made us.

The inventive folks at RealTime Interventions take a very different, and delightfully unusual, approach to telling the story of a real person in their new work People of Pittsburgh: The Alchemist of Sharpsburg. This is the first in what will be a series of “theatrical portraits celebrating extraordinary, ordinary Pittsburghers”; here, the subject of the portrait is Candra, the manager of Games Unlimited in Squirrel Hill, who is not only a game aficionado (as his profession might suggest) but also a lifelong seeker of spiritual knowledge and insight. Like Lee’s papa, his life story is also not a particularly unusual or dramatic one (with the exception of some very high weirdness involving occult phenomena), but RealTime’s theatricalization of his biography cleverly turns content into form by rendering his story as a “choose your own adventure” (CYOA) role-play game (RPG).

I’m going to pause for a moment and confess something: I’m not someone who indulges in games very often (my use of the acronyms above is a brazen imposture). As an adolescent in the 70s I was mystified by Dungeons and Dragons (and by its popularity among the boys I knew); I’ve never understood or been drawn into any video games; and it’s only on rare occasions that I’ll get pulled into a game, usually when visiting family for holidays. So I was a little hesitant when I first saw the description of The Alchemist of Sharpsburg; I worried that it would be too “insider” to gamers, and that I wouldn’t be the audience for this show. I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Indeed, even my theatre-going partner – who I would venture to say actively dislikes most games – was thoroughly engaged and charmed by this unique evening of theater.

L to R: Rusty Thelin and Lydia Gibson. Photo courtesy RealTime Interventions.

The setup is this: after a short introduction to establish some ground rules and explain (to the few in the audience who have been hiding under a game-rock for the last five decades) what a Dungeons and Dragons-type role play game is, performer-writer Rusty Thelin dons a hood and assumes the role of Game Master, casting us (the audience) in the role of Candra, whose life then unspools as a kind of quest in the manner of DND or Hero Quest. Thelin narrates the events of Candra’s life, starting from his early childhood, in the second-person mode of the Game Master (e.g., “you head over to your neighbor’s house with your mother…”). Meanwhile, performer Lydia Gibson reads Candra’s own words, as captured through interviews and conversations, and represents his thoughts and feelings about those events. At times, volunteers from the audience come onto the stage to embody and represent scenes from Candra’s life; at regular intervals, Thelin, as Game Master, asks the audience to vote, with double-sided paddles, on where the story will go next (this is the CYOA part). There are also obstacles that pop up, which need to be overcome (or not) through the roll of a large 16-sided die; this, too, brings an audience member onto the stage, and others in the audience can reduce the number that needs to be rolled by giving up a token that represents a sword. As Candra (that is, “we”) gains more understanding and experience through the game-journey, he/we “level up” (apparently there is some complicated math involved in the die-rolling as the levels get higher to which more experienced players in the audience were keenly attuned; Rusty assured us he was doing the calculations in his head). The chance and randomness built into the play’s structure mirrors its content: as in life, paths bifurcate or are blocked, foreclosing some options and channeling the journey towards others.

As you might imagine from my description here, the audience interaction in this production is plentiful, but be not afraid! It’s also low-key, informal, and completely voluntary. Indeed, one of the charms of this piece is that it quickly achieves the vibe of something more akin to an after-school RPG club than a theater. One of the rules established at the beginning of the performance was to “Ask questions,” and to my surprise, people in the audience did, not only about the game itself, but also about some of the ideas and themes raised in the course of telling Candra’s story. Chief among those is the power of stories to shape and transform people. The draw of role-play games is the draw of all storytelling, including and especially the storytelling of live performance: it’s the chance to engage imaginatively with someone else’s adventure, live their truth, and empathize with their joys, pains, dreams, and disappointments. RealTime’s alchemical experimentation with theatrical form is, in the end, not only about Candra’s extraodinary ordinary life; it’s also about the transformative power of story.