“The Christians” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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Your Tatler encountered a lot of religion this past weekend – indeed, far more than she, as a secular humanist, is wont to do. And all of it was on our local stages: there was the irreverent and impious An Act of God at the Public on Thursday, the reverent and affirmative A Gathering of Sons at Pittsburgh Festival Opera on Friday, and finally, on Saturday, Lucas Hnath’s intelligent and deeply captivating play The Christians.

L to R: David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre

In many ways both An Act of God and The Christians address a similar fundamental problem at the root of all religion, which is that the texts that purport to contain God’s will must be read and interpreted by humans, who inevitably impose and project their own needs and wants and agendas into their interpretations. So who can really know what God wants? An Act of God cheekily tries to answer that question by imagining what message God might want to deliver to humanity in the 21st century were he to take form and visit us; The Christians tackles that question via the pastor of a modern American megachurch who has suddenly begun to doubt whether his evangelical faith has correctly interpreted the Bible’s teachings about the afterlife. And while The Christians is far more respectful in its depiction of Christians than An Act of God is in its representation of the deity, in the end it’s also far more devastating in its demonstration of the shaky foundations on which faith is built.

The whole of Hnath’s play takes place in the sanctuary of the megachurch that Pastor Paul (David Whalen) has devoted his life and work to building, and which scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach convincingly evokes with the sparest of architectural gestures: a large modern cross hanging above a raised, blue-carpeted dais, with a cross-shaped podium for the pastor and a semi-circle of seats on the floor of the stage for the audience, which takes on the role of the congregation. Screens on either side of the cross display misty images of sunrises, clouds, and nature (projections by Joe Spinogatti), along with quotes from the Bible and subtitles for Pastor Paul’s opening sermon, in which he makes a surprise announcement: after a confab with God while doing his business on the toilet, the good pastor has realized that he has been misinterpreting the Bible all these years. He has come to understand that there is, in fact, no hell; that God is all-forgiving and will admit all, believers and nonbelievers alike, to heaven; and that henceforth “we are no longer a congregation that believes in hell.”

Paul’s announcement has both immediate and far-reaching consequences, for him and for his church. The immediate fallout comes when his associate pastor Joshua (Joshua Elijah Reese) pushes back against this doctrinal shift and leaves the church, taking a handful of congregants with him. As time goes on, more and more members of the church take issue with the new doctrine, especially as the rift becomes complicated by issues of power, politics, and money, and in the end Pastor Paul is left with little more than his own increasing doubts.

Under Andrew Paul’s sensitive direction, Kinetic Theatre’s production has a magnetic energy, drawing in even those (like myself) who might instinctually distance themselves from squabbles over theological doctrine. The top-notch cast does an exceptional job of making all of the characters warm and likable, in particular David Whalen, who rightly avoids the temptation to portray Paul as unctuous and self-serving (the potential is there in the character). Whalen’s Paul comes across as kind and sincere, the kind of man you can imagine would inspire trust and deep respect among his congregants, and his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, seems a genuine partnership. As Elizabeth, Mindy Woodhead morphs fascinatingly from what at first appears to be a smiling dummy into a fiercely intelligent doctrinal sparring partner. Reese brings conviction and passion to the role of Joshua, a man whose conversion to Christianity saved him from a life of both spiritual and material poverty, and Gayle Pazerski (as Jenny, one of his congregants) and Robert Haley (as Church Elder Jay) both bring a quiet urgency to their characters’ spiritual and emotional claims. Hnath unconventionally calls for microphones to be used for all of the dialogue, even during intimate scenes, and the cast makes good use of this device, which paradoxically allows for a more naturalistic mode of speaking even as it adds a layer of performativity to the character’s speech. At times the mics give the impression that we are listening in to their unvarnished thoughts; at others, they serve to reinforce the essential debate-like nature of the play.

The play itself does several things quite beautifully. To begin with, it takes seriously, and gives insight into, the kinds of exegetical questions with which Christians have to grapple as part of their belief system, and shows that faith is likely never as blind as it might appear to non-believers. In addition, the play is astonishingly fair-handed, allowing all sides of the dispute equal weight. In the beginning, it seems that Pastor Paul, as the spiritual and intellectual leader of the congregation, will have the upper hand, but his vision of an all-forgiving God is challenged not only by Joshua, but also  by the relatively naïve congregant Jenny, who challenges him, among other things, to explain how Hitler could possibly be in heaven. There are no straw arguments here, no ridiculing of belief: in fact – and especially given the rhetorical environment of our current political moment – what may be most refreshing about the arguments presented in this play is the deep respect with which the characters treat each other, even as they are feeling themselves compelled to reject a way of thinking as anathema.

Yet another thing this play does beautifully is to explore the barriers to opening oneself to doubt and change. For Elizabeth, the prospect of changing belief systems raises the possibility that her future self will look back and consider her present self stupid and ignorant; this idea is so repellent to her that she cannot even consider such radical change. Joshua, on the other hand, would like nothing more than to accept Paul’s vision of an afterlife that only contains heaven, if only it could provide him the same solace and moral guidance that present doctrine does.

But much as this play succeeds in giving equal time and space to contradictory arguments and diverging points of view, in the end what it really accomplishes is a trenchant deconstruction of the relationship between faith, organized religion, and morality. What Pastor Paul discovers is that, convincing as his argument may be for an all-forgiving God, the fear of spending an eternity in hell is a much stronger motivator of expressions of faith such as tithing and church membership; for, as Jenny innocently points out, if everyone is saved no matter whether or what they believe, what’s the purpose of belonging to a church? What sets apart the faithful, if the faithless are saved as well? If God doesn’t punish sin, why be good?

The real chicken-and-egg question behind these queries, of course, is: does the church serve the belief system, or is it the belief system that serves the church? That’s a question the play leaves us to ponder, just as it leaves Paul and Elizabeth in a terrible yet wonderful state of radical uncertainty.

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“A Gathering of Sons” at Pittsburgh Festival Opera

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The new opera A Gathering of Sons, which is having its world premiere at Pittsburgh Festival Opera under the direction of Mark Clayton-Southers, addresses one of the most pressing issues of our current moment: the tragedy of police violence against African-American men.

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Terriq White as Victor, photo by Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

The opera begins with such a moment of violence: Lockdown (Robert Gerold), a white police officer, commands Victor (Terriq White), a young black man, to run and then cold-heartedly shoots him in the back. He takes from Victor a small black bag of “magic,” which Victor warns him will be his ruin. The scene is witnessed by a chorus of spirits that include the ghost of Victor’s deceased father (Leslie Howard) and a multi-generational group of Sons who were also victims of white violence; they appeal to four chthonic figures representing the earth, sky, water, and blood to intervene on behalf of the family and the community and put an end to the cycle of violence.

As Victor lays dying, his brother City (Miles Wilson-Toliver) and his wife Violet (Adrianna M. Cleveland) welcome their new son Freedom into the world; in an observant passage of musical pairing, Victor’s mother Victoria (Denise Sheffey-Powell) joins her wails of mourning to Violet’s cries of labor. In the meantime, the magic Lockdown has stolen begins to work against him, and the spirits that promised to intervene in the first scene torment him mercilessly. When City – who is also a police officer – learns that it was Lockdown who killed his brother, he sets out to seek vengeance; but in the end he resists the temptation to kill Lockdown and arrests him instead. Back in the bosom of his family, City almost loses his newborn son Freedom to cardiac arrest, but the spirits convince Freedom to return to his body, and the opera ends with Victor’s funeral procession and a choral affirmation of faith.

The work is at its best when it takes imaginative flight, as when Lockdown’s gun magically transforms into “Glock” (Kevin Maynor), a menacing figure dressed all in black who turns against him. And in places, librettist Tameka Cage Conley ventures into provocative territory, especially towards the end of the opera, where the spirit of the newborn baby rejects life, not wishing to be born into a world where the color of his skin puts him at risk of an early death. But much of the libretto is overly literal and on-the-nose, with Manichean characters that lack complexity and depth, and in many places the production would have been wise to heed the old theatrical adage “show, don’t tell” and make some judicious edits.

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L to R: Leslie Howard and Denise Sheffey-Powell. Photo Patti Brahim, courtesy Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Dwayne Fulton’s music draws mostly on a jazz idiom, with some gospel, some blues, and a hint of a rock beat from time to time. Robert Frankenberry, who also orchestrated the music, conducts the small orchestra with panache, and there are many superb performances among the very large cast. Denise Sheffey-Powell does a lovely job of conveying, through song, the grief and anguish of a mother who has lost her youngest son, and Adrianna M. Cleveland brings a clear, lyrical soprano to the role of Violet. Robert Gerold is strikingly good, both vocally and as an actor, in the (somewhat thankless) role of the villainous cop, and Charlene Canty’s powerful and luminous voice shines in the role of the Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing. Kevin Maynor, who personifies the gun “Glock,” has a fabulous presence and a beautiful voice, but unfortunately his lyrics are nearly impossible to understand. By far the standout in the cast is Miles Wilson-Toliver, who combines a gorgeous baritone voice with compelling charisma in the role of City.

The opera touches a lot of sensitive nerves, including the simmering anger and resentment justifiably held by the black community against both institutional racism in general and police brutality against black men in particular, and it provides some cathartic vengeance in the scene in which Lockdown gets his brutal, tortuous comeuppance at the hands of beings more powerful than he. But A Gathering of Sons seems less interested in exploring solutions or proposing political actions to address police violence than in reinforcing faith in a higher justice. I’ll be honest, that didn’t feel very satisfying to me, especially on the very day Philando Castile’s murderer was acquitted of all charges. Yet the opera’s invocation of patience and endurance clearly resonated with many members of the audience, who responded positively and warmly to the opera’s final – and quite beautiful – choral affirmation of the power of healing through unity and through connection to a higher spirit.

“An Act of God” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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The sly and insightful humor of David Javerbaum’s An Act of God stems primarily from a niftily canny bit of reverse-engineering, summed up by God’s line late in the play (sorry, I’m going to spoil this for you): “I made mankind in my image – and I’m an asshole, all right?”

Marcus Stevens as God. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Javerbaum’s God is, like so many of the humans he modeled after himself, a self-serving, petty, jealous, power-hungry, nasty, judgmental, self-righteous jerk, with wrath management issues to boot. He’s also chatty, confiding, and charismatically charming, as you’d expect a God to be. And as played by Marcus Stevens, he’s unabashedly Jewish, highly sardonic, a little bit fey, and utterly hilarious.

The conceit of the play is that God has come to the O’Reilly Theatre and taken form in the body of actor Marcus Stevens in order to bring a new set of laws to replace the original ten commandments, which God feels have run their course. He’s brought with him a couple of archangels, Gabriel (John Shepard), who stands ready “on Bible” to provide textual evidence, and Michael (Tim McGeever), whose job is to read the minds of members of the audience and pass their questions on to God. As he goes through the new commandments one by one, God gives perfectly logical explanations for why he’s jettisoning the old commandment for the new, brings in Bible passages for support and de- (or re-)constructs them, and fields Michael’s increasingly combative questions.

The new commandments all reflect the frustration a progressive might imagine God would feel at the way humans have (mis)interpreted and (mis)used religion and faith to mistreat each other. So, for example, one of the first new commandments is “Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate.” This is clearly a God who’s more than a little fed up with humanity. At the same time, he’s omniscient and all-powerful and doesn’t much like to be second-guessed, either – hence, he reserves a special place downstairs for humanists, doubters, and evolutionary biologists.

Javerbaum was a head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and the writing here is pitched, like that show, at an audience of intelligent, well-educated, progressive skeptics. A smattering of the humor involves groan-inducing puns (for example, riffing on Don McLean’s American Pie, God claims that “today the mosaic (law) dies”). But the majority of the comedy comes from a combination of surprise juxtaposition of ideas in the writing and Stevens’s masterful comic timing and versatile delivery. Stevens cascades through an astonishing range of tones and facial expressions as his God shifts in mood from warm and confiding to snarky and sardonic to pissed off and vengeful, with infinite shadings in between. Shepard and McGeever are divine as his “wingmen” (see what I did there?) – Shepard’s Gabriel seems full of gravitas, but he can’t keep from cracking up over some of the more ridiculous passages in the sacred text from which he intones, and McGeever’s Michael finds it impossible not to challenge God with all of the inconsistencies and injustices he has baked into his creation.

Director Ted Pappas beefs up the humor with sound and lighting effects that appropriately “meta” the comedy – drum riffs for the terrible puns and deep red glows to underscore God’s moments of rage (sound by Zach Moore, lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski). Michael Schweikardt’s heaven is a gay 80s modernist paradise, with a white couch and glass-and-chrome side table that would fit in nicely on the set of Dallas and a background that presents a camp version of the celestial gates, complete with bright clouds and a gauzy white curtain. Valerie M. Webster’s white and blue costuming – complete with wings for the angels – rounds out the sleek and slightly kitschy look. Together the set and costumes deftly complement Javerbaum’s astute and irreverent take on religion.

Oh, and did I mention it ends with a show tune?

John Shepard, Marcus Stevens, and Tim McGeever. Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

 

“Thom Pain (based on nothing)” at 12 Peers Theater

Playwright Will Eno wants you to think about how you are spending the precious moments of your life.

The question is: do you want to spend any of them watching his play, Thom Pain (based on nothing)?

That’s not me being snarky; it’s a question posed pointedly in the play, by an obviously scripted metatheatrical gesture within the first few minutes of this postmodern-existentialist one-man show, in which a “plant” in the audience (here, director Vince Ventura) abruptly walks out. “You know, you might be better off if you had gone with your heart and left, like our friend, now departed, who just left with his heart,” Thom (played with dexterity by Matt Henderson) advises.

And it’s a question that comes back around, again in a rather pointed way, when Thom “volunteers” a hapless audience member to join him on stage and directs her to stand behind him, holding a glass of water. He leaves her there without further instruction for the remainder of the show, only, in the end, to shame her: “I thought you would have left by now.”

These are both clever moves in a metatheatrical, cerebral sort of way, but they’re both more awkward than dexterous in the execution. I suppose we’re meant to feel that we are not exercising our freedom to leave and to use our time in the “brave and true and reckless” ways Thom claims we would if we knew we only had one day to live. But of course the reality of the situation is that if the show were in fact to succeed in prompting a real audience member to walk out, then it would be, by most measures of theatrical success, a failure. Conversely, its failure to drive us out of the theater says less about its success in getting us to reflect on the meaning of our lives than it does on the social pressures that keep us from being rude to hard-working actors.

Henderson’s task in this show is just that – hard – as the roughly hour-long monologue slips and slides between memories of a traumatic experience from his childhood (involving an electrocuted dog and an attack by bees), an account of a recently ended love affair (which he ended before he could be dumped), and countless self-interruptions to muse on the fragility of existence or to praise us for our patience and indulgence as we sit listening to his story. Henderson is at his best with the material when he handles it with a light touch, and his rapport with the audience is confident and wry. His comic timing is also very fine, and his lightning-quick shifts in mood and tone add to both the humor and depth of the piece.

But Eno’s dank, sad-sack character is a heavy lift, and I suspect you need a very different sense of humor than mine to find the comedy in this writing. I’ll confess right here, I’m one of those folks who’s never understood what’s funny about Waiting for Godot, either, and this play is clearly aimed at those who do. Eno’s excavation of existentialist angst is deadpan, knowing, and post-modernly “meta” in the way it reflects upon itself as it writes itself, and as the saying goes, if you like that sort of thing, then this is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to like.

But me? I’m perseverating on that poor member of the audience, who, on the evening I saw it, tried to exercise her free will by initially refusing to come on stage, but was dragged up nonetheless, only to be upbraided later for obediently playing along.

Mr. Eno’s intentions might be to get us to reflect on the absurdity, capriciousness, and fleetingness of life, but the bigger lesson I took home was: don’t sit in the front row.

“Violet” at Front Porch Theatricals

Suitcases!

That’s the first thing you see when you walk into the Front Porch Theatricals production of Violet. They fill a wall of shelves along the upstage wall of the space, and are also tucked underneath the platform on which the eight-piece orchestra plays. And as the musical progresses, suitcases of varying shapes, sizes, and colors serve not only as backdrop but also as props and furniture, becoming bus seats, card tables, the counter of a café, a bed, and even a candy tray.

It’s an apt choice of object for this play, which is set in 1964 and is about a young woman, Violet (Elizabeth Boyke), who embarks on bus journey from North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma with the purpose of imploring a televangelist faith healer to work a miracle and heal a horrific scar on her face. She’s got a lot of emotional and psychological baggage that she’s carrying with her on this journey in addition to the little yellow valise that holds her belongings: the scar, a result of an accident involving her father’s axe, has made her a social pariah in her small town, and has left her with mixed feelings towards her recently deceased father (played by Jonathan Visser), as well. But the two soldiers she befriends on the long bus journey – a white corporal named Monty (Daniel Mayhak) and a black sergeant named Flick (Lamont Walker II) – see past her scar, and their desire for her becomes a catalyst for her to jettison that baggage and heal from the inside out.

L to R: Missy Moreno, David Leong, Becki Toth, Gena Sims, Elizabeth Boyke, Erich Lascek, Corwin Stoddard, Daniel Pivovar. Photo Jonmichael Bohach, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

The story is actually a bit more complicated than that, and on many levels it doesn’t fully make sense. The compression of time in the play makes many of its developments perplexing, because there doesn’t seem to be quite enough room for the characters to evolve properly over the course of the play. Moreover, contradictions that might make for more complex characters in a drama or short story – where dialogue could help develop psychological depth – become simply puzzling in the shorthand world of the musical. So, for example, we see Violet and Flick fall in-love-at-first-sight, but then the fact of racial difference rears its ugly head, and she ends up sleeping with Monty. Then Monty, who claims repeatedly that he’s only interested in quick hookups with women, suddenly has a change of heart and ends up proposing marriage to her, with seeming sincerity. But in the end– after a confusing sequence in which she thinks her face has been fixed – Violet rejects Monty to be with Flick, even though she seemed, in earlier scenes, to have closed the door on that relationship. Add to this the mysterious evaporation, in the musical’s final moments, of the threat of racist violence that hovered over earlier hints of romance between Flick and Violet, and this viewer was left wondering whether librettist Brian Crawley was attempting some miracles of his own in order to achieve his desired resolution.

But this is, after all, first and foremost a musical, so it’s probably bad form to demand too much detail or realism from the plot. In the matters that really count, the musical shines. The music – composed by Jeanine Tesori, of Fun Home fame – is glorious, ranging from folk to bluegrass to pop-rock to gospel, with a few anthems and ballads in between, and under Deana Muro’s agile music direction, the cast and orchestra bring it home.

Boyke is steely and tough as Violet, with a clear voice and big emotional and vocal range, embodying both the cynicism of a woman who has spent most of her life enduring rejection and the naïve hope of a child who needs, more than anything, to believe that miracles are real. Walker is charismatic and magnetic as Flick, and he possesses a gorgeously smooth tenor voice that brings down the house in the ballad “Let it Sing.” As Monty, Daniel Mayhak plays the entitled handsome white boy with humor and charm, and he produces a lovely bit of humor when he channels his inner Pavarotti to woo Violet.

L to R: Elizabeth Boyke and Lamont Walker II. Photo by Jonmichael Bohach, courtesy Front Porch Theatricals.

The three main characters are supported by an ensemble that is uniformly excellent. Deserving special mention are Missy Moreno, who brings a big voice and drop-dead presence to a blues number in the Memphis club scene, and Gena Sims, who knocks a gospel solo out of the ballpark in the delightfully over-the-top televangelist service. Equally terrific are Becki Toth as the old lady on the bus; Erich Lascek as the shaking-with-the-spirit, snake-oily Preacher; David Leong as his gatekeeping assistant; and Samantha Lucas and Jonathan Visser as the wide-eyed young Violet and her guilt-ridden father.

The versatile orchestra effortlessly shifts between musical styles, and the musicians – who are visible throughout the performance – are almost as much fun to watch as the cast as they bob and sway to the beat; during the showstopping gospel number “Raise Me Up” Keyboardist Tim Tucker’s hands seem to take on a life of their own, dancing across the keys with utter abandon.

An unruly sound system at times undermines the beautiful vocal work of the cast; the microphone levels are all over the place, making some voices suffer distortion while others are barely audible. But this is the one weakness in an otherwise technically strong production. Annemarie Duggan’s nimble lighting design transforms Jonmichael Bohach’s minimalist, suitcase-centered scenic design into a number of convincing locales, including a steamy blues club and the interior of a megachurch. Director Robyne Parrish has staged the action with flair, taking good advantage of the flexibility of the scene and lighting design to make smooth, flowing transitions from moment to moment, and in many places she manages to achieve the impression that the cast is twice its size. That effect is enhanced by Kim Brown’s splendid costumes, which not only ground the play in its mid-1960s time period but also help create the illusion that the world of the play is populated by a vast panoply of characters.

In the end, that full world of characters comes together, baggage-free at last, to affirm what Violet has learned on her journey: “If I show you the darkness I hold inside/Will you bring me to light?” It’s a final, rousing, pop-rock anthem that reminds us there really are no miracles that will heal us. Sometimes we just have to let go and move on.

“Ironbound” at City Theatre

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Anne Mundell’s set for City Theatre’s production of Ironbound (a new play by Martyna Majok) consists of a tall, rusting steel bridge support set atop a graffiti-covered concrete base and surrounded by mounds of detritus and trash. This monumental girder, which looms over the desolate New Jersey bus stop where all of the action of the play takes place, writes the economic and infrastructural woes of the Rust Belt in visual shorthand, creating both a fitting metaphor and a suitably bleak setting for its protagonist Darja’s own disintegrating social and economic situation.

Rebecca Harris in “Ironbound.” Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

For Darja (Rebecca Harris), this dreary, blighted spot is a place of refuge: she returns to this underpass again and again in moments of crisis and indecision. Like her, it’s seen better days (it once was the bus stop for a thriving factory), and like her, it sits overlooked at the margins. Lit in a murky and muted gloom by Andrew David Ostrowski, the eloquent scene design hems the character in, overshadowing her with the louring desolation of poverty.

Majok’s play hopscotches through time as it stitches together the tattered quilt that is Darja’s life as a Polish immigrant in the United States. In the opening scene, we find her at a crossroads in her current relationship with her live-in boyfriend Tommy (Rod Brogan), a postal worker who has been sleeping with the rich Montclair lady whose house Darja cleans. A subsequent scene finds her at the same bus stop, but two decades earlier, shortly after her immigration to New Jersey, waiting with her Polish husband, Maks (JD Taylor), for a bus home from the factory where both eke out a living. Maks wants a piece of the American dream: he aspires to become a blues musician and seeks to convince a reluctant Darja to move with him to Chicago to pursue that dream. And in a third moment in time, she’s just left her abusive second husband and is briefly befriended by Vic (Erik Martin), a suburban high school student who styles himself as a hiphop gangsta and deals weed to curry favor with his buddies.

The threads of anxiety that connect all these moments are twofold. To begin with, there’s economic insecurity – represented by the factory, just down the road from the bus stop, that once provided stable employment for Darja, Maks, and Darja’s second husband, and which now sits shuttered and abandoned, a rebuke to working class dreams of upward mobility. Connected to that economic insecurity is the fate of her son, Alex, whom we never see but who is the focus of her near-constant worry and care. Like the rusted tower of steel that backgrounds the action, Alex – who has disappeared with her car before the action begins, and who, we infer, has either mental health issues, a drug abuse problem, or some combination of the two – looms large in her mental landscape, a part of the infrastructure of her life that is also, and equally, beyond repair.

Darja struggles to articulate these thoughts and feelings, however, and is often reduced  to simplifying what are clearly roiling emotions because of her incomplete command of English. Harris is superb as Darja, masterfully conveying the complexity and frustration of a character who has way more going on inside than she can properly express. Darja is something of a closed book, and while cultural difference surely has something to do with that, in Harris’s hands Darja’s inarticulateness functions as both an impediment and a shield – it both keeps her from opening out to others and protects her from the consequences of intimacy. At the same time, life experience has made Darja wary and defensive: the steady devaluing of her labor has brought her to conceive all of her relationships in purely transactional terms, so that, by the end of the play, any feelings and emotions she might have for Tommy take a backseat to the material gain she can extract from him.

L to R: JD Taylor and Rebecca Harris. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Tracy Brigden has directed the first-rate cast with a keen eye for character detail. Both Harris and Taylor – who is charming and sly as Maks – observe with studied precision the physicality of the EFL speaker: they are tense, tight, and forced when speaking English, and loose, relaxed, and free when they allow themselves to slip into Polish (Don Wadsworth provided the dialect coaching for the convincing accents). Rod Brogan is mulish but sympathetic as the philandering boyfriend Tommy, and Erik Martin is delightfully funny and surprisingly sweet as the wannabe badboy Vic.

An insert in the program advertising “World Refugee Day Pittsburgh” suggests that City Theatre wants to lean in to the play’s depiction of the immigrant experience, and certainly playwright Martyna Majok gives us opportunity and incentive to empathize with Darja and Maks’s struggle to master the English language, find employment in a shrinking job market, and chase that elusive dream of American-style success. But strip away the Polish accent, and Darja’s story could be that of any woman struggling to survive as a single mother in an economic system that puts so little value on people. With all the handwringing in the last election over the anxieties and frustrations expressed by white working class men, Majok’s play (which was first commissioned in 2013) affords a sympathetic look into the precarious lives of those working class women who labor, seemingly invisibly, in the background of our economy.

“The Pink Unicorn” – Off The Wall Productions at Carnegie Stage

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If only all gender non-binary kids in conservative small towns had moms like Trisha, the protagonist/narrator of Elise Forier Edie’s 2013 one-woman play, The Pink Unicorn. When Trisha’s daughter, Jo, cuts her hair short and requests to be addressed as “they” instead of “she,” Trisha’s first reaction is not to kick her daughter out of the house or send her to conversion therapy, but to open a web browser and google terms like “genderqueer” and “LGBTQ.” Her second reaction is to seek advice for dealing with this unexpected development from Pastor Dick, the spiritual leader of her church, but when he announces his intention to fight against a decision to allow homosexuals to be ordained within the USA Presbyterian Church, she surprises herself and her community by becoming a local activist for gay rights.

Amy Landis, photo Off the Wall

What ensues is a funny and endearing account of a battle on the frontlines of the culture wars, one that reveals both the breathtaking hypocrisy of religious rhetoric and the hope-inspiring transformations that can be achieved when people have the courage to take a stand at the local level. Indeed, although this play focuses on a mother’s outrage over the local school’s treatment of its genderqueer students, its bigger message about the power of people to effect change through committed activism, even when they represent a minority view in a homogenous community, is one that is all the more urgent in our current political environment.

Trisha is the kind of character it would be all too easy to caricature or patronize, but both Edie’s script and Amy Landis’s beautifully nuanced performance wisely choose to pull us deeply into her point of view instead. Ingrid Sonnichsen directs with a deft comic touch, and has made choices for the setting and context that enhance our feeling of connection with Trisha. Instead of staging the play as a formal presentation, as the script seems to encourage, Sonnichsen invites us into Trisha’s kitchen, where she tells us her story while she folds her laundry and bakes up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Landis is warm and winning as Trisha, roping us in with an endearing southern graciousness, and her chatty friendliness opens us to her perspective.

That’s important, because although we might be tempted to feel smugly superior to Trisha, her journey is one that is only possible because she has the humility to distance herself from such self-righteous certainty, and spending time with her provides a gentle nudge to be skeptical of our own pieties. Paradoxically, the very characteristics that make her a person so alienating to urban progressives – her Christian values and Southern etiquette – are also what make it possible for her to let difference into her personal sphere in a more than superficial way. Quick as she is to stereotype people who don’t conform to cis-gender norms, once her habits of hospitality and charity bring them into her orbit she comes to see past stereotype and love and value them for the people they are. At the same time, her predisposition to sketch the other people in her life with broad caricaturing brushstrokes also complicates our response to her: that is, her tendency to paint mocking and dismissive portraits of gays and lesbians – the very people she is ostensibly trying to defend – provokes cognitive dissonance (in both the character and us).

The play and Landis are both at their funniest when they offer comic insight into the gulf between the ideological right and left. For example, at one point in the narrative Trisha recalls discovering that the ACLU – an organization that she had always been told was doing Satan’s work – was actually dedicated to helping people, like her daughter, who have had their civil rights violated. “Who knew?!?” Landis demands, looking straight at us with deadpan bewilderment. It’s that willingness to step out of her comfort zone and into the unknown that makes Trisha such a model for citizen-activism, and her story such a rich and rewarding journey.

“Falstaff” at Resonance Works

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Resonance Works artistic director Maria Sensi Sellner writes that the mission of the small company she founded here in Pittsburgh four years ago is to “showcase outstanding professional artists from Pittsburgh and beyond.” That’s a mission well-fulfilled this past weekend, which brought together an ensemble of world-class vocal and instrumental musicians to perform Verdi’s Falstaff at the Charity Randall Theater in the Cathedral of Learning.

Benjamin Bloomfield as Falstaff, photo courtesy Resonance Works

The talent showcased in the production included some performers new to Pittsburgh. Baritone Benjamin Bloomfield brought both a suitably large presence and a grand, mellifluous lustre to his interpretation of Falstaff as a longhaired king of the road, and baritone Joshua Jeremiah was a vocal standout among the cast in the role of Ford, the wealthy husband Falstaff seeks to cuckold. Also new to our stages was soprano Natalie Polito, who sang the role of Nanetta with sweetness and clarity. In addition, the production brought back to town (after too long an absence) the gifted tenor Joseph Gaines, who was delightful as the priggish, uptight Dr. Caius, and featured as well a number of artists whose work has electrified Pittsburgh audiences in previous Resonance Works productions, including sopranos Kara Cornell and Amelia D’Arcy and tenor Christopher Lucier.

Together the orchestra and vocalists rendered Verdi’s complicated music with precision and control, and at times the singers, who sharply enunciated their consonants and tightly rolled their Italianate “r’s,” seemed as much a part of the percussion section of the orchestra as they were characters in the story. I mean that as high praise – the coordination and interweaving of voice and orchestra constituted a primary pleasure of this production. But part of what contributed to our perception of that blending was a pair of awkwardly positioned astroturf-covered boxes, meant to represent hedges, behind which too much of the action was hidden from view, making the production more a pleasure for the ears than for the eyes. Indeed, stage director Stephanie Havey seemed stymied by the challenges presented by Gianni Downs’s ill-conceived scenic design. Aside from a few moments of inventive staging in the second act that captured the commedia dell’arte spirit of the world of the play with comic lazzi and slo-mo tumbling, the staging was generally vague and confusing, with scene changes occuring in the middle of songs, movement patterns that lacked motivation and choreographic specificity, and a space that, in several scenes, seemed simply overcrowded and muddled.

The storytelling was clear nevertheless, thanks to strong acting as well as singing on the part of the entire cast, with particularly lucid and humorous characterizations from Benjamin Robinson and Matthew Scollin as Falstaff’s henchmen, and from Gaines, Jeremiah, and Bloomfield as Caius, Ford, and Falstaff. The production didn’t have to do much to encourage us to see contemporary resonance in Falstaff’s misogyny, mendacity, and moneygrubbing, and the opera’s ending – an astonishingly complex multipart fugue that Verdi wrote to prove his critics wrong – brought down the house with its reminder (one proved all too true in the last couple of days with the chaotic news from Washington) that “Tutto nel mondo è burla” – “All the world is folly.”

“Death of a Salesman” at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre

Maybe it’s because this production was directed by a woman (Mary B. Robinson) – or maybe because it’s just so inescapably “in the air” – but what clings most to the Public’s Death of a Salesman is the overwhelming stench of toxic masculinity. To be sure, Arthur Miller’s play is pretty much the same one you read in high school, the one that would ask you to see Willy and Biff Loman as victims of the social and economic stresses of mid-20th-century American capitalism. But feminist consciousness and our current political moment make it nearly impossible to ignore the extent to which the presumption of white male privilege that was sociological “background” for Miller’s original audience is precisely what creates dysfunction at every level of his character’s lives.

L to R: Alex Mickiewicz, Zach Grenier, Maxwell Eddy. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

I’m pretty confident I was not alone in finding that the play plucked this sensitive nerve. Certainly my sentiment was shared by the group of around ten young (yes, young! at the Public!) women sitting in the row in front of me who gasped audibly when Hap Loman compared the girls he dates to bowling pins: “I just keep knockin’ them over and it doesn’t mean anything.” And because both Goethe and my good friend Chris Rawson tell me to do so, I’m going assume that excavating the toxic effects of “bro culture” was a deliberate choice, one that then helps explain not only the decision to make Willy Loman a character with whom it’s nearly impossible to sympathize, but also Zach Grenier’s interpretation of him as a man in something of an inarticulate, drunken fog, so poisoned by his own imbibement of noxious ideas about masculinity that he’s fallen victim to some kind of brain-addling dementia.

In point of fact, director Robinson doesn’t give us much encouragement to have compassion for any of the men in the play. Hap (Maxwell Eddy) and Biff (Alex Mickiewicz) – two handsome and well-educated white boys – are victims of nothing but their own expectations to entitlement, and it’s hard to ratchet up a lot of pity for either of them as they blithely appropriate what doesn’t belong to them. Hap is a “philandering bum” who sleeps with his coworkers’ girlfriends and wives; Biff steals sporting goods and other merchandise from his employers. These guys had, and then squandered, all the advantages denied to women and minorities of their era, and we’re supposed to nod sympathetically as they whinge about excess parental pressure? On top of that, the success to which the Loman men aspire is all too clearly tied up, both in their minds and in the social world of the play, with a dismissive and objectifying attitude towards women, women who giggle and flirt their way to free stockings and cocktails or who are, like Linda Loman (Kathleen McNenny), silenced and cowed into adoring submission. Indeed, the signs of an abused wife are written all over McNenny’s Linda, particularly in her ardent support of a man who continually lies to her and runs roughshod over her emotionally, and I spent most of the evening fervently hoping that Linda would find some way to escape her abusive marriage other than waiting for Willy to off himself.

The six decades that have transpired since Miller wrote this play open up some other dissonances, as well. For example, the play clearly positions Charley (Randy Kovitz) and his son Bernard’s work ethic as the correct antidote to Willy’s shallow, “it’s all about being liked,” definition of success. Bernard (Shaun Cameron Hall) exemplifies the meritocratic dream: he’s the nerdy and unpopular boy who studies hard, gets good grades, and achieves respect, status, and a rewarding salary as a result. But the nearly unbridgeable expansion of the gap between rich and poor in this country in the last thirty-odd years has surely taught us that Willy was right all along: our system is by no means a meritocracy, and how far you make it up the socioeconomic ladder depends as much on what rung you start on, and who you meet along the way, as on the talent and effort you put into the climb. Viewed in retrospect, the play thus somewhat ironically evokes nostalgia for a time when the Willys of the world could be seen as tragically misguided; instead, he just comes across as a foolish loser.

That impression is underscored by Grenier’s performance in the role. As he staggers slump-shouldered around the stage, roaring and slurring many of his lines unintelligibly, we lose all sight of what might have once made Willy Loman lovable not just to his family but also to the buyers he must, at some point, have charmed. He’s nothing so much as a pathetic sad-sack whose failure to live up to the macho ideal embodied by his brother Ben (Tuck Milligan) – who walked into the jungle at 17 and walked out at 21 as a rich man – has left him spiteful and seething in self-loathing.

And where does that leave poor Linda Loman, at play’s end? Precisely where rampant white male privilege leaves most women, I’d surmise: drained, exhausted, and diminished, looking back on a life she wasted propping up the source of her erasure from the scene as she quietly recedes into the background once again.

“The Ascendants” at Bricolage Production Company

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When was the last time you had that consciousness of yours massaged? Been awhile? Well, the good people at Bricolage have got you covered. Their newest venture – the one-and-only Materfamilias Bathhouse in downtown Pittsburgh – offers a twenty-five minute spa experience that will recharge your mind and spirit.

Materfamilias – a spa that claims a “107 year history as the longest-running bathhouse in Western Pennsylvania” – runs a clean and clockwork-like organization. You ring the bell at your exact appointment time (latecomers are not accommodated) and are greeted by a friendly attendant, clad all in white, who confirms your registration and then reminds you of the spa’s primary rule: patrons must remain silent at all times. You enter the clean, tiled space, where upbeat music and the gurgling of a water fountain immediately put you into a more placid state of mind. You sign a waiver, stow your valuables on a cart, and enter one of the three changing booths, where you remove your shoes and socks and are instructed to don a specially-designed pair of headphones and goggles in preparation for your treatment.

L to R: Andrea Kozai and Michael Brewer. Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage.

The treatment itself – well, I’ve made a promise not to divulge too many of the details, since the methods used are proprietary. In addition, because the treatment is deliberately fashioned to produce an individualized effect on the patron, the spa recommends that you shed yourself of expectations before arriving, so it would clearly be imprudent for me to set any expectations on your part by giving an overly elaborate description of how the spa achieves its effects.

Nonetheless, what I can tell you is that you’ll be gently led on a one-of-a-kind, multisensory journey, one that takes you into the depths of darkness before leading you out again into the light. If your spa experience is anything like mine – and I sincerely hope it will be – you may find that it pulls your mind temporarily out of your body, cleanses it of anxiety, fear, and stress, and leaves you, in the end, feeling mentally detoxified and existentially refreshed.

Appointments are available through the Bricolage website, for a limited time only.