“A Christmas Carol” at Off the WALL productions

Tags

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

Mark Coffin. Photo courtesy Off the WALL productions

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

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

“Sweat” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

Tags

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

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

PPT_Sweat_2018_MWH_198

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags

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

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

Storyteller Bodil Alling of Teatret Gruppe 38

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

espaece3

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

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

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

espaece1

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

espaece2

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

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

“Pipeline” at City Theatre

Tags

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

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

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

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

181023_CityTheatre_Pipeline_065

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midnight Radio: “Frankenstein” at Bricolage Production Company

Tags

,

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

Sort of like this? —

Screen Shot 2018-11-04 at 11.10.28 AM

Um….Wrong!

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

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

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

Frankenstein 2

Cotter Smith, in Frankenstein

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

Brett Frankenstein

Brett Goodnack as Victor Frankenstein

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

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

Tags

, ,

“How are you?”

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

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

How are you?

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

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

bricolage moment

Moment of tribute at Bricolage 10/27/18

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

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

Oof.

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

Brett Frankenstein

Brett Goodnack as Victor Frankenstein

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

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

Hanut31

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

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

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

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

 

“Karoo Moose – No Fathers” – Baxter Theatre Centre (Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts)

Tags

I’m fairly certain that I’ll quickly exhaust my capacity to describe the phenomenal South African Baxter Theatre’s Karoo Moose – No Fathers, particularly since I am doing something that I never do on this blog, which is: I’m writing about a performance immediately after seeing it. But I want to post about Karoo Moose before it leaves town, because – to borrow the FoF’s own marketing language – “this is the one” everyone’s going to be sorry they missed when they hear others talking about it.

The story told here is of a village “where time is of little consequence” and “where children don’t stay children very long.” It’s a story that is both harrowing and hopeful. The moose of the title is an escaped zoo animal that has been roaming the outskirts of a village in the Karoo of South Africa. This “unimaginable wild beast” captivates the fearful imaginations of the village children, but the real danger to them lurks within the town’s confines and stems from poverty, despair, hunger, and lack of access to education and opportunity. A family’s children are hungry; their mother is dead, and their father is a drunken loser, in debt to a pair of menacing thugs. After a particularly bad wager, he barters his teenaged daughter to the two men to pay his debt, proving the second part of the play’s title, that this is a village of “no fathers.”

RS11585_Chuma Sopotela, Mdu Kweyama in Karoo Moose - No Fathers, pic 2 by Oscar O'Ryan

L to R: Chuma Sopotela, Mdu Kweyama. Photo by Oscar O’Ryan, courtesy Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

The story spills out from this incident to encompass the moose, a whole village’s worth of characters, and a white police officer whose family has been marked by similar violence. The cast of six superb performers – four men and two women – present the narrative through a spellbinding combination of storytelling, dance, song, and acting. Karoo Moose is “poor theater” at its absolute finest. The scenery is minimal; instead, the story is brought to life with the help of an array of objects lining the perimeter of the stage – among them palm fronds, boxes, plastic jugs, planks, drums, a sled, a wheelbarrow, fishing nets, and various costume pieces – all of which are transformed by the actors with adroit precision into the scenic elements necessary for the action.

Director/writer Lara Foot’s theatrical instincts yield brilliant moments of inventive and ingenious staging. For example, instead of presenting us with a “realistic” simulated sexual assault, she figures the rape as a kind of horrific soccer match with the young girl standing in for the goal; the substitution makes the violence of the assault all the more awful to watch because the ugly, testosterone-fueled energy of the men kicking the ball is all-too-familiar. Other memorable moments of theatrical magic include the eloquent and powerful evocation of the moose and a stunning moment – one that actually made me gasp! – when the girl gives birth, simultaneously, to her baby and her self.

Woven into and around the storytelling are songs – which are sung mainly a cappella and in exquisite harmony – accompanied by music produced on a variety of objects, including, at one point, a knife on a head of lettuce and a plastic bag filled with what sounded like bits of glass. The versatile actors – working in both English and Xhosa – each play multiple roles, metamorphosing in the blink of an eye from child to adult or narrator to character and back again as the story pulses along. I know that in past I have shown scant patience for plays that rely too heavily on narration; Karoo Moose is the exception that demonstrates how that can and should be done. When the actors narrate, it’s to establish tone and set the scene, not to describe the action. Moreover, in their hands the story itself becomes another character in the play – its trajectory becomes part of the whole, as the storytellers react to the characters’ choices and nudge the narrative in a new direction.

The members of the ensemble are Zoleka Helesi, Mdu Kweyama, Bongile Mantsai, Thami Mbongo, Chuma Sopotela, and Mfundo Tshazibane; I wish I could tell you which characters each of them played, but unfortunately the program only lists the performers’ names and not their parts. They are all exceptional, and they create a fully realized and emotionally impactful world through brilliant ensemble work. You have four more opportunities to see this beautiful work of theater; do it!

“In the Tunnel” and “TseSho/ What’s That?” – Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts

Tags

Gesher Theatre’s extraordinary In the Tunnel  juxtaposes two narratives centered on the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below is the concrete-dun, claustrophobic, dimly lit tunnel in which a pair of Israeli reserve soldiers encounter a pair of Hamas fighters; the resulting skirmish leaves one of the Palestinians dead and the other three fighters trapped together in a stalemate. Above (literally, on the two-level set) is the bright, expansive, technicolor world of television pundits and slippery politicians spinning the event for commercial and political gain. Below, the tension between the Israelis and the surviving Palestinian starts at a rolling boil and gradually cools to a simmer as the three men start to talk, trade histories, and even break bread together, while bombs from both sides threaten to bury them alive. Meanwhile, above, leaders from Israel and Hamas engage in a cynical circus of finger-pointing, zero-sum-gaming, and verbal bomb-throwing, while a hapless German UN official attempts to broker a cease-fire that will allow both sides to retrieve their trapped soldiers. Below, the trajectory of the drama progresses from two dimensions to three, as circumstances force enemies who have pigeonholed each other as barbarians and terrorists to inch toward recognizing each other’s humanity. Above, meanwhile, the characters farcically devolve from two dimensions to one, as they become caricatures of attention-seeking talking heads and vote-hungry politicians.

In the Tunnel

L to R: Firas Nassar (Hisam), Miki Leon (Iftach), Ido Mosseri (Tzlil); image courtesy Cherry Orchard Festival Foundation (http://cherryorchardfestival.org/gesher-theater-israel-in-the-tunnel/)

The aesthetic and stylistic contrast between these two worlds adds up to a sarcastic and biting theatricalization of the absurd Manicheanism that propels Israeli-Palistinian hostilities: what’s happening above would seem absurd to those below, and vice versa. Yet with the choice to give dimensionality to the three men below, the play also puts its finger on the scale: we come to really care about Iftach (Miki Leon), the older of the two Israeli soldiers, whose daughter is about to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, Tzlil (Ido Mosseri), the inexperienced and frightened younger soldier, and Hisam (Firas Nassar), who speaks Hebrew because he fell in love with an Israeli woman, and who fights for Hamas because his brother was killed by Israeli bombs. The cardboard cutouts above, in contrast, are the targets of easy mockery, particularly the intransigent politicians from Israel and Hamas (Assaf Pariente and Alexander Senderovich) and the ineffectual UN envoy (Ori Yaniv).

The dual structure of In the Tunnel allows it to be simultaneously hopeful and deeply cynical, which is an admirably tricky thing to pull off. There are even two possible endings – audience members are asked to vote before the show begins whether or not they’d like the play to end with a light at the end of the tunnel (“Dream!”) or not (“Wake Up!”) The night we saw it, apparently we were in a collective mood for light, and the play ended with a glimmer of hope – for the three trapped men, at least, if not for a full resolution to the bigger conflict that raged around them.

The five young performers of the Ukrainian Teatr-Pralnia (“Laundry Theatre”) channel the innocence of childhood to ask trenchant questions of the political and economic status quo. TseSho/What’s That? is billed as a “puppet cabaret,” but really it’s more a concert performance of music that feels like a marriage of Eastern European folk songs with a dance club beat. Musically, it’s fresh and unusual: the instruments are acoustic – a bass (the kind you see in a symphony, not the rock band kind), a cello, an accordian, a saxophone, a melodica, and a drum set – and the performers weave a complex, high-energy, and at times whimsical texture that includes lyrics often at odds with the mood of the song. For example, their opening number, in which they impart grim news ripped from the day’s headlines (“Hurricane Michael kills 16 people”), has a boppy rhythm and cheerful, upbeat melody, sung as they rock back and forth and point their fingers staccato-like in the air.

RS11895_what's_that_7

Teatr-Pralnia, cast of “What’s That?”

The performers sing with an impish and deadpan quality that is amplified by costumes that give them a naive, “Where’s Waldo” vibe (all five wear round black glasses and a wool hat with a little pompom on top). The promised puppetry comes in the form of little dolls, dressed identically to the performers, that the musicians animate on occasion to illustrate a song or to foreground the childlike perspective under exploration. The dolls play a relatively minimal role, although one of the most potent stage images of the evening comes when the five dolls “hide” under a bench while the musicians sing of the impact of war. The performance is augmented by moody concert lighting and an arresting media design of ever-shifting images and graphics that both animate the space and provide a counter-narrative to the songs.

I found it challenging to grasp a “whole” from the performance, but I came away with admiration for the skill and finesse of both the individual performers and the production as a whole; in particular, the diminutive Marichka Shtyrbulova has a voice like nothing I’ve ever heard, ranging from a Portuguese fado-like quality to a clear operatic soprano, with a diversity of vocal styles in between.

RS11829_beyond_2

BEYOND/PLAYMODES

After the show, we stopped again to take in Beyond/Playmodes, which I enjoyed even more the second time than the first. At 9:30 on Saturday night it was nearly empty, which is criminal – people, where are you? Get yourself downtown between 7 and 10 Thursday through Sunday and catch this light and sound show before it’s gone – it’s free, for goodness sake – and while you’re down there, head over to Tago (the Korean drum performance); Flying Girls (an art installation at the August Wilson Center); Mrs. Krishnan’s Party (an immersive theater performance from India); Karoo Moose – No Fathers (theater from South Africa); Cris des Nago (dance from Haiti); or the new Bricolage Midnight Radio production of Frankenstein in combination with Karate Man Patrick Kim from Tel Aviv.

See you there!

“Pride and Prejudice” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

Tags

There is much to be said for a version of Pride and Prejudice that elicits an audible and collective gasp of surprise from the audience when Lizzy Bennett (Simone Recasner) learns that her fourteen-year-old sister Lydia (Emma Mercier) has run off with the disreputable Mr. Wickham (Chris Richards). Surprise, at a plot point from a Jane Austen novel! Because I myself cannot even begin to compass the impoverishment of an existence ignorant of Austen’s work – and particularly of this, her most well-known and frequently “filmed” novel – I can only conclude that Kate Hamill’s adaptation for the stage is so adept and fresh that it utterly robs some audience members of their capacity to remember the original.

PPT_Pride and Prejudice_051

L to R: Emma Mercier, Simone Recasner, Ashley Bufkin; photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Indeed, Hamill is a perspicacious reader of Austen, and her translation of the text into a theatrical idiom offers a slew of surprises even for those audience members (guilty as charged!) who would be in a position to fill in lines of dialogue given too long a pause in the action. Take, for example, her choice to figure the amiable Mr. Bingley (Andrew William Smith), who “sees the best in everyone,” as an eager and easily distracted puppy dog; or her insight that the odious Mr. Collins (Chris Richards) is “the original Mansplainer”; or her inspiration to have both the supercilious Caroline Bingley and the ungainly and unmarriageably bookish Mary Bennett played by male actors (Richards and Smith, respectively). These character attributions function like the dash of salt on a gourmet chocolate chip cookie, enhancing the enjoyment of an already excellent and beloved confection by updating it for a modern palate.

PPT_Pride and Prejudice_018

Andrew William Smith (as Mary Bennett). Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

But I do a disservice to both Ms. Austen and Ms. Hamill in referring to Pride and Prejudice as a confection. I know I need not remind you, dear sophisticated Reader, that the pleasure in reading Austen primarily derives not from her romantic plots – delectable as those film versions of her novels, with their wet-shirted heros, may be – but rather from her subersively ironic depiction of women’s limited options within a patriarchal social system. Hamill pulls that thread as well: for her Lizzy, the marriage market resembles nothing so much as a game, with “rules, strategies, wins, losses … theoretically, done for pleasure,” all arranged by overly anxious mamas on the basis of financial and social-climbing considerations. Lest we forget what, precisely, is for sale in this market, we see Mrs. Bennett (the gifted comic actress Elena Alexandratos) pump her girls up before each ball with a cheerleading-style chant: “Chest and bum and eyes and smiles/ Catch that man with female wiles!”

I trust you have surmised by this point that this is not your grandmother’s Pride and Prejudice. Anachronisms abound: while the easily donned and doffed costumes (by Christine Tshirgi) situate the characters in the Regency era – with Empire waists for the female characters and high-collared jackets for the males – the actors’ body language, the sound design, and many of the props are distinctly contemporary. Director Desdemona Chiang has devised playful and theatrically imaginative solutions to the staging challenges posed by the play, employing fully dressed mannequins to stand in for characters who must be on stage while their actor plays an alternate role, plastic spray water bottles to materialize hems dripping wet from rain, paper airplane letters to bring news from the outside world, an electronic door chime to announce a character’s arrival, and red Solo cups for the party scenes. Chiang’s direction also vividly fills in the details of Hamill’s modern take on Austen’s characters, offering fresh avenues of exploration into the family dynamics at the heart of Austen’s satire. For example, here not only is Lydia a mini-Mrs. Bennett, parroting her mother’s lack of decorum and boundaries, but she also becomes an unexpected object of our sympathy toward the end of the play, when she, and we, realize the true cost of her impetuous behavior. Likewise, the always nervous and excitable Mrs. Bennett is endowed with new depth in this version, as she finds inner strength to cope with a crisis that destabilizes the equilibrium of the normally staid Mr. Bennett (Ashton Heyl).

Scenes overlap and shift quickly, aided by the swift rearrangement of carefully curated pieces of furniture (a harpsichord, a chair, a table with a tea set), by precisely timed sound and lighting cues (by Masha Tsimring and Andre Pluess, respectively), and by the occasional intervention of the Public Theater’s black-clad stage manager. Scenographer Narelle Sissons has transformed the space into a ballroom as it might appear the day after a rather wild and festive party, with blue and pink streamers dangling from large chandeliers suspended throughout the theater, and chairs, articles of clothing, and cushions scattered and hung rather willy-nilly about the space. The comedy and “drama” mostly plays out on a central parquet floor, bordered on two sides by banks of audience seats, although at times scenes also play out in the audience itself, including on a large four-poster bed situated at the back of one audience bank (a perpetual visual reminder of the ultimate aim of the marriage game, perhaps?). The arrangement has the advantage of upending expectations from the very beginning, but it also renders the actors’ faces unreadable to a good chunk of the audience at any given point in the performance, which is a shame, because the ensemble conveys a good deal of the play’s comedy and wit through nonverbal reaction. I was grateful to be sitting on the “main” side of the audience, as it seemed we were afforded a more frequent view of the players’ front sides than their backs.

PPT_Pride and Prejudice_010

L to R: Simone Recasner, Emma Mercier, Ashley Bufkin, Andrew William Smith, and Elena Alexandratos. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

As Lizzy and Darcy, Recasner and Ryan Garbayo not only ratchet up the requisite romantic tension but also make palpable the excruciating awkwardness of courtship in a world in which one’s prospects and engagements are a fully public business. Ashley Bufkin brings grace and charm to the eldest and nicest sister Jane, and a daffy, horse-like laugh to her portrayal of the sickly and insipid Miss Anne De Bourgh. Mercier embodies Lydia with the wild abandon and energy of a young teen; her Lady Catherine De Bourgh is frighteningly both opposite and apposite. Alexandratos is marvelous as the anxious and overly zealous Mrs. Bennett; Smith is goofily eligible as the bachelor Mr. Bingley, and fully weird as the gloomy “Captain Bad Vibes” Mary Bennett; and Heyl brings a calm sensibility to her characterization of the two most rational figures in the story, Mr. Bennett and the very practical Charlotte Lucas. Rounding out the cast, Chris Richards is imperiously haughty as Miss Bingley, appallingly sly and seductive as the pedophiliac Mr. Wickham, and clearly having more fun than should be legal with his portrayal of the unbearable Rev. Collins.

When you make plans to entertain yourself with this captivating production – as I know you will, dear theater- and Austen-loving Reader – be sure to leave yourself enough time before the show to take in the Festival of Firsts’ light and sound installation Beyond / Playmodes,  located just a couple of blocks east of the O’Reilly on Penn Avenue. Performances start every half hour on the half hour between 7 and 10 pm, last just five minutes, and are free (the Cultural Trust recommends tickets, but walk-ins seem both allowed and encouraged). It’s brief but unique; you may never have a chance to experience anything quite like it again.

Looking forward to…and more thoughts on “Blind Cinema”

Tags

,

Dear Readers, I really hope you have plans to be out watching some live performance in the next few weeks – because there is just so much on offer that it would be a shame if you missed out. Here’s a run down of my plans for the next two weeks – I invite you to join me!

This week, you can get a good laugh at local and national current events and help out the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank all in one festive evening: the annual satire/fundraiser Off the Record  is Thursday, Oct. 4 at the Byham. The cheap seats start at $31.25 but I know you’re not cheap when it comes to charity, right? Splurge for the orchestra section, it’s for a good cause.

The weekend brings three openings: Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, the opening of a new play by Liza Birkenmeier called The Way Out West at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, and the opening of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m excited about the first because I am a Jane Austen fan through and through (but you probably guessed that about me, didn’t you?) and because I really dug this script when I read it a few months ago. I’m thrilled about the second because this is the first play commissioned by the School of Drama, and Birkenmeier has found a subject of deep interest to explore: the group of young scientists who traveled to the wilds of the desert in Los Alamos in the early 1940s to work on a project that remained a mystery to the majority of them. And the third? Well, Nguyen’s work is completely new to me, which is always exciting, and since I don’t post about student work, if you are as curious to discover his work as I am, you’ll need to see it yourself.

The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts continues! This weekend, Joan Didion’s The White Album plays at the August Wilson Center Friday through Sunday. The children’s show Gab Squad is also on, Wednesday through Saturday. You can still catch the installation Beyond: Playmodes, and if you are making plans for next week – and you should be making plans for next week! – coming up are In the Tunnel (from Israel); What’s That? (from the Ukraine); and Deborah Colker Dance (from Brazil – one night only, Oct 13).

Speaking of the Festival of Firsts – I wanted to write a tiny bit more about Blind CinemaI sought out a chance to speak with Seth Laidlaw, the Education Program Manager at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, because I was curious about how the kids were instructed and trained to narrate the film. He told me that Britt Hatzius began by explaining how simultaneous audio narration is a means by which the blind often experience film, and that there are people trained to do what she was going to teach the kids to do in the 90 minute workshop. She then had them practice describing photographs to each other, with an emphasis on describing details, using lots of adjectives, and trying to make the description even more interesting and compelling than the photo they were looking at. They then practiced describing the action of a short piece of film. She worked with them on keeping their voice in a whisper, even when they got excited by what they were seeing, and encouraged them to react as they might naturally react to what they saw, but to remember that they needed to focus on details and on storytelling.

I was also interested in knowing more about the children’s experience of Blind Cinema, because in a sense the kids were both audience to and performer of the film. I had the chance to speak with 11-year-old Mia, a student at Holy Trinity who was one of the “whisperers.” She told me that she thought the whole experience was pretty great – not only did she think the movie was pretty cool, but she also enjoyed feeling that she had the responsibility to help another person understand what she was seeing. She said that she tried to give vivid information, because she realized that she needed to give as much detail as possible in order for her listeners to be able to see what she saw. At the same time, she also confessed that much as she liked the movie while she was narrating it, she didn’t really understand the whole thing until she had a chance to think about it afterward.

In the course of our conversation I gained a greater appreciation of the gap between what can be known from seeing something first hand, and what can be gleaned from verbal description. It turns out that there were many events in the film that I had forgotten, or simply failed to fully visualize  – for example, one of Mia’s strongest memories of the film was of a gorilla: at one point the boy puts the eggshells in a gorilla’s hand and then the egg becomes whole again, grows feathers, and disappears. When she mentioned the gorilla, I vaguely recalled having that narrated to me, but because at that point in the film I was struggling to find a visual world into which I could integrate an office building, rubble, fireworks, eggshells, drawn/drewed doors, etc., I completely failed to picture “gorilla” and as a result it didn’t stick in my memory – whereas for Mia, the gorilla was a potent visual image that persisted. Moreover, I suspect it never occurred to any of the kids to include the one piece of information that would most help their listeners understand the film’s visual world – that is, the film’s genre/style. I asked two other adults who had “seen” the film, and they both reported having thought, like me, that the film was some mix of animation and live action. According to Mia, the whole film had real people (and a real gorilla) and real locations – at one point, she said, there was a photograph of a building that turned into a real building, but otherwise it was a live action film. I don’t fault the kids for omitting that information – after all, the vast majority of movies are live action, so it makes sense to assume that your listener would be visualizing a live action film and wouldn’t need to be told so specifically. And yet it’s fascinating that all three of us blindfolded adults (small sample, I know, but I bet we were not alone) arrived at the conclusion that the strange shifts in locale and character that were being narrated to us must have been facilitated through animation or some other filmic trick.

Now, with that information, my own visual memory of the film has started to revise itself, so that Blind Cinema continues to play in my consciousness, long after the “performance” itself has ended.