“Little Shop of Horrors” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater


There’s no way Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski could possibly have predicted that the impeachment trial would coincide with the Pittsburgh Public Theater run of Little Shop of Horrors. But holey moley! I can’t think of a more apropos commentary on the really big shop of horrors that is the GOP-controlled Senate than this horror-comedy rock musical about a hapless schmuck who nurtures and accommodates an evil, carnivorous plant until it becomes too powerful to contain.

Dear Reader, I know you’re a smart cookie so I won’t belabor the point and connect the dots further; besides, don’t you just want to bury your head in the sand right about now and pretend that the real-life monster just a few hours down the interstate hasn’t already grown too big to destroy? Well, luckily for all of us, Kaminski’s production of Little Shop of Horrors is so eye-poppingly gorgeous and beautifully crafted that you might – just might – be able to suspend your dread and anxiety for a couple of hours and forget that the show presents a near-perfect allegory for our present-day nightmare.

Philippe Arroyo as Seymour; photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The musical tells the story of Seymour (Philippe Arroyo), who helps save the dying floral shop he works at when he discovers an unusual plant that draws in curious customers. He names the plant Audrey II after his co-worker Audrey (Lauren Marcus), on whom he has a secret crush; she, however, is in an abusive relationship with Orin (Patrick Cannon), a sadistic dentist. Seymour quickly discovers that his plant is not only carnivorous, but also that it will only eat human flesh; the Mephistopheles-like Audrey II (voiced by Monteze Freeland and animated by J. Alex Noble) uses promises of fortune, fame, and power to lead Seymour down a slippery-slope of moral compromises and rationalizations that ends with the destruction of everything he holds dear (wait, did I mention that this is a near-perfect allegory for the death of our democracy?)

Tragic as the plot is, the whole is delivered with a camp-cartoon aesthetic. Tim Mackabee’s scenic design is dominated by the exterior of a building with rows of windows that pop and bop in vibrant technicolor to the beat of the music (lighting design by Robert J. Aguilar). The building also serves as a projection surface for Bryce Cutler’s ingenious media design, which at some times has the surface crawling and writhing with images, and at others provides atmospheric effects like lightning and rain. Set, lights, and projection work in animated concert to ensure that the world of the play – like the monstrous plant it brings to life – feels alive and in motion; indeed, at times it feels as if the set itself is dancing to the energetic music along with the characters on stage (the excellent orchestra is conducted by Catie Brown; music direction by John McDaniel). In their riot of pattern and color, Susan Tsu’s detail-perfect costumes match the vivid rhythm of the scenery, lights, and media, while at the same time offering witty commentary on the characters and nudging them towards caricature. Kaminski takes full advantage of this team’s spectacular design with her energetic direction of the show, keeping the stage in motion from number to number with impeccable timing and a keen instinct for visual and physical humor.

L to R: Melessie Clark, Abigail Stephenson and Tavia Riveé; photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The performances in this production are equally spectacular. Setting the tone for the show from the very top is a high-energy, big-attitude trio of street-smart girls named  Ronnette (Melessie Clark), Chiffon (Abigail Stephenson), and Crystal (Tavia Riveé); serving as a kind of brassy Greek chorus to the action, they channel the Motown girl groups that their names suggest with gorgeous tight harmonies. Marcus brings a Betty Boop-esque quality to her portrayal of Audrey that gives the character a nice quality of daffy sweetness, and Marc Moritz, as the floral shop owner Mr. Mushnik, is a suitably kvetching old Jew (the score itself contains a number of musical jokes; among them the klezmer send-up “Mushnik and Son” that features Moritz in a witty moment of davening). Freeland’s voice work as the bloodthirsty plant is stunning, particularly when you consider that he coordinates his performance with puppeteer Noble from an isolated room in the theater’s basement. But the standout performances in this production are Arroyo as Seymour and Cannon as Orin. Both actors bring an astonishing and delightful physicality to their roles, embodying the emotional extremes of their characters with a mixture of precision and abandon. Their total investment in the physicalization of their characters has a paradoxical effect, simultaneously enhancing the cartoonish tone of the show and adding dimension and depth to their individual characters. The scene in which Seymour visits Orin at his dental practice is a masterpiece of physical comedy that proves the rule about how high the stakes need to be for comedy to work; I also won’t soon forget Arroyo’s unbridled embodiment of Seymour’s indecision in the temptation number “The Meek Shall Inherit.”

L to R: Lauren Marcus and Patrick Cannon; photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

That scene, in fact, is where the mostly comic Little Shop delivers its serious insight into the psychology of accommodation. Seymour knows he has a diabolical monster on his hands, but it’s a monster that will help him achieve his goals, and his ambition causes him to lose sight of his principles and abandon his moral compass. He only realizes too late that he is just as dispensable as the rest of Audrey II’s victims. Sound familiar? There’s really only one solution, but I fear that – as in the play – in real life the advice comes far too late: “Don’t feed the plant!”

“Downstairs” at City Theatre


In Jungian psychology, the house symbolizes the mind, with the basement representing the deepest part of the subconciousness. As in the physical world, that psychic basement is a place crammed with all the “stuff” you can’t or won’t let go of – stuff you might need one day, or no longer need but aren’t ready to discard – along with all sorts of stuff you use regularly but don’t want to make space for “upstairs.” It’s a place of memories, and also a place that is a bit dark and scary; you never know what you might find when you start digging around down there. Were the psychic house a globe from the 16th century, the basement might bear the warning: “Here be demons.”

In Theresa Rebeck’s play Downstairs, the demons that occupy her characters’ psychic cellars are the main subject of interest, so – fittingly – she sets her action in a cluttered, junk-filled basement. Teddy (Martin Giles) has taken up residence in the downstairs of the home of his older sister Irene (Helena Ruoti) and her husband Gerry (John Shepard), claiming the need for “a haven…a life raft” from vaguely described conflicts at his workplace. It becomes quickly clear that Teddy is not particularly high-functioning: pill bottles on the nightstand next to the sofa he’s using for a bed suggest that his psychological coherence depends on medication, and a rambling story about being poisoned at work hints that he may not always be fully in touch with reality. But he is intelligent and has the kind of keen insight into other people’s motives and feelings that is often characteristic of people who seem “crazy.” Perhaps for that very reason, his presence in the basement is an irritation to Gerry, and this puts Irene in a bind: she doesn’t want to evict her brother, but she also doesn’t want to make her domineering husband angry. That’s the conflict at the heart of this keenly observed play: Teddy wants to stay, Gerry wants him out, and Irene is caught in the middle.

Rebeck musters a great deal of suspense out of this straightforward conflict, primarily through a slow reveal of the extent to which all three characters are psychologically damaged. Teddy’s mental instability is most evident, stemming in part from having suffered physical abuse from their psychotic mother. Irene seems, on the surface, to be more together, but she confesses to feeling overwhelmed by simple tasks like mailing a package and harassed and hated by her own clothes. And while Gerry prides himself on being a “normal” guy who – alone of the trio – can successfully navigate the world of rules and jobs and norms, as the action unfolds we come to learn that the basement of his psyche is by far the scariest place in the play.


L to R: Martin Giles and Helena Ruoti. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The first ten minutes or so of the production at City Theatre had me worried – Giles opens the play with a comedically ostentatious silent opening sequence that is at odds with the fourth-wall realism Rebeck’s script calls for, and it seemed to take a few exchanges of dialogue before he and Ruoti fully locked into character. But once they did, the brother-sister relationship, with all its complexities, conflicts, anguishes, and fathomless bonds, blossomed into life. The character of Teddy could be rather unlikeable – he’s something of a social loser, blunt, combative, and at times barely comprehensible – but Giles gives him a vulnerability and softness that has you rooting for him. It’s not hard to believe, from the way Giles limns the character, that he was once Irene’s beloved baby brother. As Irene, Ruoti conveys a profound sadness and despair underneath her character’s flighty irresolution, and she makes the character’s need for connection palpable. John Shepard’s Gerry ratchets up the tension of the play a hundredfold with his entrance on the scene: seeming at first to be merely a meanspirited bully, by end of the play it’s clear that he represents the kind of sociopath who rises to power in all sorts of situations by dint of his capacity to hide his inner lunacy behind a calm, cool façade of social normalcy.


L to R: John Shepard and Martin Giles. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Director Marc Masterson shapes the arc of the play with a sure hand, and with the help of Steve Shapiro’s strange and ominous sound design he builds a gripping tension that gets gratifyingly released at the climax of the action (at the play’s “ah-ha!” moment, a patron behind me hissed “Yes!”). The storytelling is marred, however, by a small but significant bit of staging that inadvertently introduces an implausibility into the world of the play: when Gerry first comes down the stairs, he catches Teddy monkeying around with a supposedly “broken” old computer that Gerry keeps in the basement. But Gerry evinces no curiosity or anxiety about what is on the screen in front of him, even though the information that Teddy has just pulled up becomes a key plot point (and major concern for Gerry) later in the play. Given what we later find out about that information, his insouciance regarding the computer in this moment is puzzlingly out of character.

But let’s get back to where we started: the junk we all keep in our basements, both actual and psychic. Tony Ferrieri’s reproduction of a suburban basement is detail-perfect, down to the wood-slatted laundry cage hanging from the ceiling and an old tire stashed behind the stairs. Yet, oddly, it’s impossible to puzzle out the floor plan of the imagined house above, given the location of the door to the ground floor. I initially thought this must be a mistake, but the more I consider it, the more it seems of a piece with Rebeck’s sensitive and perceptive rendering of the relationship between the darker recesses of the mind and the presentation of a coherent self. Like Ferrieri’s imagined house, the architecture of the mind is never as logical or discernible as we would wish it to be, and Rebeck’s play is a cautionary tale about the demons that dwell beneath even the most orderly-seeming abodes.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors” at Resonance Works

Resonance Works’ 2019 holiday offering is a double bill of a concert of music by four female composers in the first half, and the sweet and heartwarming short opera Amahl and the Night Visitors in the second.

The opening concert features work by contemporary American composers Jennifer Higdon, Jessie Montgomery, and Nancy Galbraith, as well as a piece by the early 20th-century French composer Cécile Chaminade. The compositions by the latter two were highlights of this section of the evening. Nancy Galbraith has created a new arrangement of her haunting piece O Magnum Mysterium for the Resonance Works ensemble, and the result is a rich, luscious, and transcendent blend of voice and orchestra with a lyrical and expressive solo on flute played by Lindsey Goodman. Goodman also gives a bravura performance of Chaminade’s Flute Concertino, a technically challenging piece that allows her to put her sensitive musicality and exquisite phrasing on display.


L to R: Robert Frankenberry and Emmanuel Tsao. Photo by Alisa Garin, courtesy Resonance Works.

Amahl and the Night Visitors is a mid-20th century fable related to the Christmas story that was written by Gian Carlo Menotti and first performed on television in 1951. In it, the impoverished Amahl and his mother receive a midnight visit from the Three Kings who are bringing gifts to the newborn Christ. They generously offer what little hospitality they can to their rich visitors; but when Amahl’s mother sees how much gold the Kings have, she is tempted to steal it in order to get the medical attention Amahl needs for his lame leg. She is caught in the act of theft, and after the Kings explain that the Child they are traveling to visit will be a champion of the poor, she returns the gold and Amahl is moved to gift his crutch to the Child. His act of selfless generosity prompts a miracle – he is cured, and the Kings invite him to join him on their pilgrimage.


L to R: Emmanuel Tsao and Olga Perez Flora. Photo by Alisa Garin, courtesy Resonance Works.

Stage director Haley Stamats has chosen to set this fable in a present day city park, where Amahl and his mother, having been rendered recently homeless, are struggling to survive on the streets. This is a choice that sharpens the political edge of Menotti’s tale, reminding us of how radical and anti-establishment Christ’s message of charity and equality was and remains. But the scenic design and staging also unfortunately require the audience member to mistrust either her eyes or ears in order to find a coherent logic to the world of the play: for example, at the play’s beginning, the mother adds wood to a fire in a large steel drum but then almost immediately sings that she has “not a stick of wood for the fire,” the lyrics frequently reference an “inside” that doesn’t exist, and when the Three Kings arrive we are required to imagine that somehow this city park also has a door that can be knocked upon. I hate to be that person, but honestly it’s a little hard to stay with a production when what you see is being so patently contradicted by what you hear.

What does keep you with this production, nevertheless, are the fine performances, in particular the endearing and winning turn by young Emmanual Tsao as Amahl. Tsao not only has a clear and precise soprano voice, but is a delight as an actor to boot: he has an emotional presence and naturalness of reaction that make each moment feel fresh, and he totally sells his surprise and wonder at the miracle cure in the fable’s climax. The adults in this production also deliver solid performances: Olga Perez Flora gives the mother a steely resolve, but you also sense her anguish over the desperateness of their situation, and the Three Kings (Rob Frankenberry, Christopher Scott, and Jonathan Stuckey) differentiate themselves from one another with lovely character touches – Frankenberry, in particular, is endearing and comical as the hard-of-hearing King Kaspar. A lively ensemble brings both vocal and physical finesse to the opera’s big ensemble scene, with dance and even juggling skills on display among the other homeless “shepherds” of the chorus.

Midnight Radio: “Yinzer Scrooged: A Pittsburgh Christmas Carol” at Bricolage Production Company

Reader, if – like me – you’re a relatively recent transplant to Pixburgh, the presence of the term “yinz” in the title of anything might immediately raise a question about your audience-ship, namely: have I lived here long enough to understand the accent, let alone get the inside jokes?

Have no fear along those lines with playwright Tami Dixon’s transplant of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol from 19thcentury London to the present day Steel(ers) City. The yinzer accents are thick, fer sure – and the folks at Bricolage are old hands at milking the local dialect for laughs – but the humor and sentiment in their revival of Yinzer Scrooged: A Pittsburgh Christmas Carol are welcoming enough that even those relatively new to the ‘burgh will feel included in its gentle parody of local customs and history.


Wali Jamal as Jeffeneezer Scroogeoff in “Yinzer Scrooged.” Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company.

In Dixon’s reboot, Wali Jamal plays Jeffeneezer Scroogeoff, the haughty and mean-spirited CEO of a health insurance company known by the libel-evading acronym “PMCFU”; his night of ghostly visits is triggered after he callously rebuffs a generous invitation to Christmas dinner from one of his employees, Barbara Cratchett (Jaime Slavinsky), and her ailing son Tiny Tony (Connor McCanlus). Accompanying Scroogeoff on his journey of transformation and redemption are none other than famous Pittsburghers Andrew Carnegie and Fred Rogers (both played by Michael McBurney, the latter rather uncannily) along with quasi-hometown celebrity Lena Horne (the gorgeous-voiced Shammen McCune). Many local touches are strewn along the way – including a festive meal of ranch dressing-filled Pierogies (is that even a thing?) – but in general the bones of the story are familiar: after revisiting his past, re-viewing the present, and getting a glimpse of his desolate future, the miser Scroogeoff is brought to embrace the spirit of the season, engage in acts of generosity and compassion, and become a model citizen.


Shammen McCune. Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company.

All this is delivered in Bricolage’s signature cheeky “Midnight Radio” format, which layers a sheen of old-timey radio-play irony on top of Dixon’s already clever satirical writing. The actors – who also play a host of other characters in the play, including union protesters, hoity-toity one-percenters, and irritable food bank workers – all create foley sound effects at tables equipped with ingeniously repurposed objects, while light-up “On Air” and “Applause” signs cue the audience in to our own role in the fiction that we are participants in a live studio broadcast. Dave Bielewicz’s scenic design brings a silhouette of the city, complete with yellow bridges, into the studio setting; lighting designer Jenna Ferree Robertson adds atmosphere and spookiness to the proceedings, particularly in the sequence led by the groaning, heavy-breathing Ghost of Christmas Future (a wheezing accordian, wielded by McBurney, helps bring this apparition to life). Musical Director Deana Muro, kitted out in what looks like the regalia of every black-and-gold sports team ever to have graced a Pittsburgh field, provides seamless accompaniment on keyboard, with music ranging from original composition to the familiar tag line from a certain locally produced PBS children’s show.


L to R: Jaime Slavinsky, Connor McCanlus, and Michael McBurney. Photo by Handerson Gomes, courtesy Bricolage Production Company.

Dixon’s script is not only a lot of fun but also sharply observed: in this age of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, Dickens’s social observations, filtered through local politics and culture, could not be more apposite. As such, waggish and impudent as Yinzer Scrooged may be, it lands in an unexpected place of real sentiment and emotion in the end, thanks largely to director Sam Turich’s sensitive shaping of the material and to the actors’ commitment to the core emotional journey of their characters. If a dose of “God Bless You, Everyone” is what you crave to get into the holiday spirit, you won’t be disappointed by the Bricolage team. Indeed, you might be surprised to find yourself with a tear or two in your eye, and it may or may not be of the laughing sort.

“One Night in Miami…” at City Theatre


After he won the World Heavyweight Championship by roundly defeating Sonny Liston on February 25th, 1964, Cassius Clay celebrated his victory in private with three friends: R & B star Sam Cooke, political activist Malcolm X, and professional football record-setter Jim Brown. There’s no record of what they did together that evening; in One Night in Miami…playwright Kemp Powers has taken that gap in the historical record as inspiration to imagine what these four friends might have talked about.

In Powers’s historically specific and richly imagined recreation, the discussion centers on the men’s keenly felt responsibility to use their accomplishments and renown to lead the struggle for black equality and civil rights. The three older men have each approached that responsibility in different ways. Brown (Quincy Chad), embraces the idea that he can make a difference by being an exemplar of black excellence, combating racism by showing the world through his achievements that blacks are not inferior to whites; Cooke (Dwayne Washington) believes that the best way to help his community is through economic opportunity, and he uses his fame and access to opportunity to help other black artists navigate the music industry and make money; and Malcolm X (Avery Glymph, an eerie lookalike in the role), aims to advance the cause through political advocacy and activism. The play’s main conflict comes when Malcolm X accuses Sam Cooke of being a sellout and tries to convince him put his voice and talents in service of advocating more directly and passionately for black rights.


L to R: Dwayne Washington, Thomas Walter Booker, and Quincy Chad. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

This is a talky play, but under Reginald L. Douglas’s loving direction the production’s tensions are many and palpable, and it has theatrical moments that are highly rewarding. In the former category, there is the vaguely menacing role played by Malcolm X’s two Nation of Islam bodyguards, Kareem (Lamar K. Cheston) and Jamaal (Brenden Peifer) – Malcolm X alludes to his fraught relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and its charismatic (and hypocritical) leader Elijah Muhammad throughout the conversation, and it helps to remember that less than a year later, Malcolm X will be assassinated by three men similar to the two who have been assigned to “guard” him on this February evening. In the latter category are the lyrical flights the production takes at key moments, when lights (designed with sensitivity by  Andrew David Ostrowski) shift the mood into a different register and we get a glimpse into the talent and greatness that catapulted each of these men into the top of their field. Particularly stunning is a segment in which Cooke steps out of the present moment and into an impromptu recreation of one of his concerts, a performance that sends Clay and Brown into spasms of ecstasy. Washington has an incredible voice, and he masterfully channels Cooke’s persona and style – his renditions of  “You Send Me” and “Change is Gonna Come” alone are worth the price of admission.


Dwayne Washington as Sam Cooke. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

Cooke, too, will die within two years of this night, and while the play is very focused on the conflict between Cooke and Malcolm X, our knowledge of who and what Cassius Clay (Thomas Walter Booker) will become as history unspools helps explain what this play is really about. At twenty-two, when the play takes place, he is still finding his voice as a leader of the movement; in many ways, Powers imagines this evening as his apprenticeship in black leadership, since he will go on, as Muhammad Ali, to combine the qualities of all three of his friends as a figurehead of the black civil rights movement. Like Brown, he was an iconic figure of racial pride and exemplar of black excellence; like Cooke, he leveraged his own success to uplift and provide economic opportunity for other members of the black community; and like Malcolm X, he converted to Islam and became a leading advocate for civil rights and humanitarian causes. Ali carried forward the torch his friends helped light; with this production, Powers, Douglas, and their fine ensemble of actors continue the legacy and hand responsibility for leading change on to a new generation.

“Dance Nation” at barebones productions


Allow me to introduce you to the fierce yet fragile preteens who populate Clare Barron’s savagely wonderful play Dance Nation.


L to R: Hope Anthony, Liron Blumenthal, Cary Ann Spear, Mita Ghosal, Lissa Brennan, Mei Lu Barnum. Photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

There’s Sofia (Mei Lu Barnum), that girl you knew in middle school who had all the answers and was ashamed of nothing – you know, the girl who was unembarrassed to admit that she masturbated or watched porn, the one who had a much older sister who told her stuff.

There’s Ashlee (Lissa Brennan), “future president of a post-apocalyptic USA,” who carries so much potential and possibility and fire in her tiny little body that it threatens to overwhelm her. And also Connie (Mita Ghosal), a good dancer who’s also a bit of a hanger-on, a follower who’s still clinging to childhood.

There’s Maeve (Cary Ann Spear), the oldest on the dance competition team to which they all belong and seemingly the least committed to the art; always late and a little disheveled, she stays on the team for the friendship rather than the competition.

There’s Amina (Liron Blumenthal), the star dancer who has to navigate between her desire to be liked by her friends and her fervent longing to be the best. And Zuzu (Hope Anthony), who is second-best on the team to Amina and struggling with her dawning recognition that she doesn’t have the talent and drive to be the great dancer she has always dreamed of being.

And finally there’s Luke (Jerreme Rodriguez), the only boy on the dance team, whose vestigial presence in this world of girls serves mainly to call attention to the play’s radical, glorious centering of female experience.

Barron’s play is, on the surface, about a bunch of girls navigating competition and friendship in the context of a dance studio – it’s about the delicate psychosocial choreography that ensues when girls compete and their hunger to excel rubs up against both the social pressure to be nice and the desperate fear of losing a friend. It’s about all the messy complicated feelings that come out of girls’ need for each other – for example, when Zuzu tells Amina that she still loves her and still considers her to be her best friend, but that she has to stop talking to her about dance, you’re catapulted with her into a swirl of conflicting adolescent emotions, a confusing brew of affection, neediness, jealousy, shame, and self-protection. And it’s about the all-important, hugely looming role that Moms (Nancy McNulty) play in the life of a preteen girl – as friend, supporter, coach, chauffeur, advocate, advisor, champion, and shoulder to cry on.


L to R: Lissa Brennan, Jerreme Rodriguez, Liron Blumenthal, Hope Anthony, Mei Lu Barnum, Mita Ghosal, and Cary Ann Spear. Photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

But dig deeper and this is really a play about the superpowers we lose as we transition from grrrlhood and are socialized into womanhood. It’s no accident that the adolescents in this play are all played by adult actors, all of varying ages – we’re meant to see the feral child haunted by the tamed adult she will become. Each of the characters has a moment in which they reveal the wild animal within, and it’s simultaneously intoxicating and a little depressing, particularly when the gulf between the body of the actor and the ferocity of the character yawns open. One of the play’s most exhilarating moments comes in the form of an aria to girl power delivered with savage fury by Brennan as Ashlee; one of its most haunting ones comes when Spear, as Maeve, steps into her adult self to confess that she will one day forget that she was once able to fly. I never had that particular superpower, but Dance Nation reminded me that my preteen self was a far fiercer, more passionate, more idealistic, more confident, and way more kick-ass human than I am today.

Director Melissa Martin and choreographer Tomé Cousin pull no punches with their staging of the play and its many dance numbers, and the production makes excellent use of Steve Tolin’s talents with blood and gore special effects to lift the play into the surreal at key moments. Robert C.T. Steele adds a playful touch with the costuming, particularly in the dance routines. The ensemble brilliantly maneuvers between the play’s comedy and its pathos – this is a rollercoaster of a show, and you’re in such fine hands you can just strap in and enjoy the ride. I experienced it two days ago and I’m still delirious from its dizzying effects; the play’s climactic choral ode to the pussy will live on in my memory as one of the highlights of this year’s season.

“School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

The title of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play tells you a certain amount about what to expect from this funny and surprisingly moving play. Like the Tina Fey movie on which it is semi-modeled, the story centers on the toxic high school dynamic that buzzes around a queen bee and her group of wannabees. And, as in the film, the power balance in the hive is disturbed by the arrival of a new girl who brings both a more worldly perspective into their midst and an immunity to the charms of the leader of the pack.

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L to R: Atiauna Grant, Shakara Wright, Candace Boahene, Markia Nicole Smith, and Ezioma Asonye. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

But the social pressures that interest Bioh go far deeper than the dysfunctional emotional world of teenaged girls, and her play slyly uses the familiarity of the Mean Girls plot as a vehicle to smuggle a host of unexpected issues and conflicts into our consciousness. The central conflict of the play revolves around the aspirations of queen bee Paulina (Markia Nicole Smith) to represent Ghana in the 1986 “Miss Global Universe” pageant.  Among the girls at the prestigious Aburi Boarding School, she has the best chance of wowing the recruiter who is due to visit – her friends all “agree” that she is the prettiest, best spoken, most talented, and most suited for the honor.  But the arrival of new student Ericka (Aidaa Peerzada), who has just moved to Ghana to live with her father after growing up in the United States with her American mother, poses an immediate threat to Paulina’s plans. Ericka is biracial, with the lighter skin and longer, softer hair that will more closely match the “Miss Global Universe” pageant standards of “conventional” – that is, white – beauty. The ambitious pageant recruiter Eloise (Melessie Clark), who pins her own dreams of advancement on finding a winning contestant, clocks this instantly, setting off a series of fights and betrayals among the girls.

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L to R: Aidaa Peerzada, Shakara Wright, and Candace Boahene. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Suddenly, a play that seemed to be “merely” about internecine squabbles among hormonal girls becomes a riveting and stinging exploration of internalized racism, white cultural dominance, the impact of globalism and commercialism on far-reaching corners of the globe, and the pernicious psychological and physical consequences of colorism.

That last is an issue that I, as a white woman, had scant provocation to ponder before seeing School Girls. Bioh’s deeply sympathetic portrayal of her characters makes vivid the emotional pain and humiliation inflicted on dark-skinned people by a media and advertising landscape in which beauty and success are predominantly equated with white – or light – skin. Paulina uses her status among her peer group to try to rope her friends into conformity with what she understands to be accepted standards of health and beauty – in particular, bullying her “fat” friend, Nana (Atiauna Grant), to lose weight and condescendingly schooling friends Ama (Ezioma Asonye), Mercy (Candace Boahene), and Gifty (Shakara Wright) on the latest US fashion and lifestyle trends – but a lighter skin tone is the one externally-imposed standard she can’t do anything to achieve. You might think at first glance that it’s silly for any of these girls to care so much about a beauty contest, but it gradually becomes clear that what’s at stake for them is their very visibility, and the lengths to which Paulina, especially, goes to be “seen” makes her a particularly tragic figure.

The production at the Pittsburgh Public Theater is well-cast, with the regal Shinnerrie Jackson rounding out the ensemble as the matronly Headmistress Francis; in particular, the young actors playing the school girls are winning, infectious, and convincing as naïve Ghanaian teenagers. Shariffa Ali directs with a sensitive eye for detail in the interactions between the teenaged characters. My only quibble with this very fine production is that the accents seem to propel the actors toward vocal strain – from the opening moment, their volume is dialed up to ten, with little dynamic range as the action unfolds. That technical flaw aside, the play’s insightful and eye-opening revelations about the damaging effects of colorism are delivered mostly with a brisk and playful touch, one that paradoxically makes the play’s ending feel unexpectedly devastating and powerful.

“Shakespeare’s Will” at Quantum Theatre


When William Shakespeare died in 1616, he left behind dozens of plays and hundreds of poems, but little other than a last will and testament to shed light on his personal life. That document contains a much-debated line that has been inserted, almost as an afterthought, into a paragraph detailing his fairly generous bequest to his younger daughter Judith: “I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture.”

The oddness of this posthumous treatment of Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, has prompted Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen to ponder what her life, and their relationship, might have been like. Taking some of the few facts that historians can agree upon as a springboard for his own invention, Thiessen conjures into existence a woman who may or may not have existed, but one whose story is not only compelling but also serves to plausibly explain the mystery of Shakespeare’s bequest.

Reader, I am an absolute sucker for this kind of historical reimagination, especially when it is executed as skillfully as it is in Shakespeare’s Will. The play is structured as a memory play: Shakespeare has just died, and Hathaway (Sheila McKenna) is waiting for his sister Joan to arrive at the house and reveal the contents of his will. While she waits, she unravels the tale of their unusual relationship, a marriage that in reality appears to have been quite distant (Shakespeare spent little time in Stratford upon Avon) and that, in Thiessen’s reimagining, results from a mutual agreement to allow for space for personal fulfillment and growth. This works out better for “Bill” than for Anne, of course; she’s saddled raising three kids in a small town while he becomes a rich and famous actor/playwright in London. Her reminiscences are at times fond, at times embittered, and along the way Thiessen conjures a vivid picture of life in 16th-century England, with its anti-Catholic prejudices and its constant threat of fever and plague.

SW quantum

Sheila McKenna as Anne Hathaway. Photo by Jason Snyder, image treatment by BOOM Creative, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

McKenna is at the top of her game as Hathaway: she connects in bone and sinew to Hathaway’s joys and triumphs as well as to her losses, and she enchantingly draws us in as she weaves her story of strivings and disappointments. As Hamnet, the son who died at the age of eleven, Simon Nigam brings a centered presence beyond his years to a silent role.

The language and mood of the story ranges from prosaic to lyrical, a tonal shift that is beautifully underscored and heightened by the production’s creative team, under Melanie Dreyer’s agile direction. In particular, the music – arranged and gorgeously played by violinist Dawn Posey – lifts and expands Thiessen’s writing, serving at some times to reinforce the emotional tenor of the text, at others to counter it, and at still others as a form of responsive dialogue. Likewise, Joe Seamans’ projections, C. Todd Brown’s lighting, and Steve Shapiro’s sound design work in concert to bring an enhanced and resonant theatricality to Hathaway’s recollections. And Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s scenic design, which resembles a conch shell fashioned from sheaves of crumpled paper, has an eerie, ghostly quality that is apposite for Thiessen’s captivating fabrication of a history that will remain forever elusive.

Looking forward to…(November 2019)

Dear Readers! Much to look forward to in November in the Pittsburgh culture scene!

To begin with, we have four productions opening at the CMU School of Drama in the next few weeks – all but one of which are new works by students in our program. the dance floor, the hospital room, and the kitchen table is a new work by grad director Bonnie Gabel that unearths queer history and solidarity through interviews of survivors of the AIDS crisis; it opens this coming week, and tickets are free. The following week sees the opening of our production of Liz Duffy Adams’ comedy Or, directed by Kim Weild, as well as the premiere of three new plays by grad dramatic writing students Brandy Carie, Ty Greenwood, and Hallie McPherson in our annual New Works Festival, hosted at City Theatre. The week after – on Nov. 20, to be precise – we open Compensation, a new play by director/writer Hannah Manikowski that explores the ethics and entanglements of surrogacy. Meanwhile, our friends down the road at the University of Pittsburgh are producing one of my favorite plays of the last 5 years, The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, directed by Kelly Trumbull (and opening on Nov. 14); and the Conservatory program at Point Park will open Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing on Nov. 8. I won’t be writing on this blog about any of that student work, per my non-conflict-of-interest policy, but I’m looking forward to seeing it nonetheless.

In the realm of work that I’m looking forward to sharing with you in these “pages,” there is Shakespeare’s Will, Vern Thiessen’s poetic and modern one-woman play (featuring Sheila McKenna) that gives voice to Anne Hathaway, the enigmatic wife of William Shakespeare. Quantum Theatre is producing the play at the West Homestead United Methodist Church, beginning Nov. 8. Also opening soon are  School Girls: or the African Mean Girls Play, a new play by Jocelyn Bioh at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and One Night in Miamia new work by Kemp Powers about Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown at City Theatre – both of these productions begin previews this week and open on Nov. 15. And – so exciting! – barebones productions will open Clare Barron’s fantastic play Dance Nation on Nov. 22.

Off the Wall productions in Carnegie is premiering – one weekend only, Nov. 8-9! – a new one-man-show by Alec Silberblatt, The Mon Valley Medium, in which Silberblatt plays Mack, a lonely yinzer telling the story of the murder of a young girl and the effect it has on the community.  Silberblatt describes it as a dark and funny play that is set in the backyard of a Pittsburgh home and written and performed completely in the yinzer dialect. This sounds like my kind of thing, but I fear I won’t be able to see it, as it conflicts with my participation in the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh’s concert William Shakespeare: If Music Be the Food of Love(performances on Nov. 9 at 7:30 and Nov. 10 at 4:00).

Another one-man-show I’ll regret missing because of a scheduling conflict – but you shouldn’t! – is the award-winning Rhapsody in Blacka play written and performed by  Leland Gantt, McKeesport native. Gantt notes that “This play addresses the psycho-emotional effects of racism on a young black man growing up and living in America. Through harrowing, incredible, and often hilarious stories from my own life Rhapsody in Black relates the journey from realization to acceptance to transcendence, and aspires to spark a conversation we have been ducking for a long time.” The show will perform one night only, November 15, at the August Wilson Center.

So much happening! What have I left out? Tell me in the comments below.

See you at the theater!

“The World As We Know It (by 6 women of a certain age” at CorningWorks


What do women “of a certain age” have to tell us about the world?

A great deal, it turns out, although – when told through the medium of dance, as in the CorningWorks dance assemblage The World As We Know It – obliquely and with circumspection. These women aren’t giving their hard-earned knowledge of the world away.

The piece consists of six solo dance performances knitted together by interludes featuring the entire ensemble. Less overtly thematic and narrative than much of Corning’s previous work, the pieces, taken both individually and collectively, nonetheless explore familiar territory for her: gender roles and expectations, social pressures on women, and women’s lack of access to social and economic power. The ironic costuming underscores the evening’s political edge: when the “tribe” of women come together in the interludes, they are dressed in oversized pastel-colored men’s suits that make them look like children playing dressup; but as the interludes build to a final tableau around a “boardroom table,” it becomes clear that in reality the suits are nothing but an empty signifier of patriarchal power, a silly marker of status.


Beth Corning; Photo by Frank Walsh, courtesy CorningWorks.

Each solo dance is expressive in a different way of women’s embodied desire, yearning, and pain, building on a shared  movement vocabulary to capture and convey the weight of lived female experience. Five of the six dancers are “of a certain age,” and they seem to move from a place deep in muscle memory; what they know of the world is communicated more through small, subtle, and secret gestures than through flamboyant athleticism.

Yet there is also plenty of agility and dexterity woven into each solo. The show opens with “In medias res,” Li Chiao-Ping’s acrobatic pas de deux with a table, which is set to text constellated around the syllable “be.” In the second solo, Mauriah Kraker’s “the quiet,” dancer Simone Ferro seems to shed her skin like a frantic butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. Women’s domestic matters find exploration in the next three solos: Endalyn Taylor pulls forward moments of physical and emotional crisis in “Is All,” a piece choreographed by Sarah Hook that I took to be a meditation on postpartum existential despair; Charlotte Adams emerges nude from a bathtub in “Imagining Ketchikan (Canciones del Corazon),” rendering visible the joy and pleasure that a mature body continues to be able to both produce and feel; and Beth Corning reprises, from her 2016 piece Remains, a scene around a dinner table that evokes the generations of family whose endearing habits and irritating idiosyncrasies have been lost to time. The final solo, Heidi Latsky’s “Unfinished,” is danced with brio by Jillian Hollis; a redhead like Corning, Hollis seems to stand in both for Corning’s younger self and for the future of the dance form, a future that will carry forward, in bodies at all stages of life, the insights and wisdom earned by artists like Adams, Chiao-Ping, Corning, Ferro, and Taylor.