The 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville

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Two impulses ran perceptibly through the 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays.

The first was a commitment to inclusivity and diversity that permeated the festival at nearly every level. Four of the five playwrights who received full productions at the festival were female; two of those were Asian-American. The writers invited to contribute to the multi-authored “apprentice play” were equally diverse, including a Latinx writer and a female writer of Indian descent. Four of the festival’s six directors this year were female, the fifth was a Latinx man, and many of the designers were either female or members of underrepresented minorities. All of the plays featured diverse casts pulled from a majority-minority ensemble (twenty-six out of the forty-eight actors across all the productions were actors of color), and several of the plays – including, especially, the collaboratively written You Across from Me, featuring the apprentice company – explicitly, and often humorously, called attention to the struggles women and minorities face in getting their stories in front of audiences. If you’re looking for an institution that has embraced a mandate to “close the gap,” the Actors Theater of Louisville seems a good place to start.

A second impulse that threaded through many, though not all, of the plays presented was a preoccupation with death and loss. I suspect this commonality was more serendipitous than planned; nonetheless, the reflection of our world that emerged out of this festival was a rather desolate, and in places downright dispiriting, one.

Cast of GOD SAID THIS by Leah Nanako Winkler, 2018 Humana Festival. Photo by Jonathan Roberts.

L to R: Jay Patterson, Ako, Satomi Blair, and Emma Kikue in GOD SAID THIS. Photo by Jonathan Roberts, courtesy Humana Festival.

Leah Nanako Winkler’s God Said This tells the story of a Kentucky family reunited at the hospital bedside of their cancer-stricken mother, Masako (Ako). Daughter Sophie (Emma Kikue) is a born-again Christian; her older sister, Hiro (Satomi Blair), works as a high-flying account manager in New York City. Their father, James (Jay Patterson, superb in the role) is a recovered alcoholic; his history of booze-fueled abuse towards both wife and daughters informs the primary conflict of the play, which mainly revolves around Hiro’s refusal to return fully to the family fold. Instead of spending time with her ailing mother, Hiro pals around and smokes dope with an old high-school acquaintance, John (Tom Coiner). Although the subject matter is grim – it’s clear that Masako will not survive – the play is quite funny, and the cast, directed by Morgan Gould, worked the script with terrific comic timing. However, I don’t fully know what to make of my impression that – in a play written by an Asian-American woman about a bi-racial family – the most interesting, complex, and compelling character was the late-middle-aged white man.

by Deborah Stein, 2018 Humana Festival - 2. Photo by Dana Rogers.

L to R: Nancy Sun, Carla Duren, Jessica Wortham, and Ted Kōch in MARGINAL LOSS. Photo by Dana Rogers, courtesy Humana Festival.

Marginal Loss, by Deborah Stein, also deals with death and loss, albeit on a much larger scale. The play is set in the week right after 9/11, in a warehouse in New Jersey where employees of a financial firm that had been obliterated in the terrorist attacks are attempting to piece the business back together, using an ancient computer with a dial-in modem and boxes of old paper files. The play’s fictional firm is modeled on Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services company that lost nearly 70% of its workforce when the World Trade Center collapsed; in the play, John (Ted Kōch), an equities trader, has a similar reason for being alive as the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald – he was dropping his child off at school at the time of the attack. Now John, along with coworker Allegra (Nancy Sun) and company VP Cathy (Jessica Wortham) face the Herculean task of somehow reconstructing tens of thousands of customer accounts and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transactions, all while also trying to come to terms with the devastating loss of their friends and coworkers and with their own survivors’ guilt. The emotional terrain this play traverses is deeply compelling, and director Meredith McDonough skillfully deployed long moments of silence that allowed the chilling horror of the magnitude of loss – in both human lives and in the data the characters must now reconstruct – to sink in. The play’s plot, however, felt somewhat inorganic to its situation, revolving as it does around Margaret (Carla Duren), an opportunistic temp worker who capitalizes on the firm’s need for extra labor to insinuate herself into the industry.

, 2018 Humana Festival. Photo by Bill Brymer

Rinabeth Apostol and Rebecca S’manga Frank in we, the invisibles. Photo by Bill Brymer, courtesy Humana Festival.

Labor is also one of the subjects of interest in Susan Soon He Stanton’s play we, the invisibles. Set in the upscale lounge/bar area of a swank New York hotel, we, the invisibles tells the story of playwright Susan’s (Rinabeth Apostol) journey in writing this play about her experience working with a veritable United Nations of maids, bellhops, cooks, bartenders, hostesses, security guards, and other hotel employees. Susan narrates throughout, often commenting not only on the events she recounts but also on her own artistic decisions (at one point, for example, one of her characters accuses her of having made him too two-dimensional and announces he’s leaving the play). The issues that crop up along the way include sexual harassment and assault (a primary touchpoint for the plot is Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s assault of hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo), racism, the sacrifices made by immigrants who come to the US, white entitlement, exploitation of vulnerable laborers, the unfairness of our justice system, #MeToo, the corrupting effects of power, Susan’s love life, the challenge of becoming a playwright, and even the evils of Big Pharm. The hodgepodge of themes, issues, and storylines made it seem as if Stanton was rummaging around in a really enormous purse and pulling out one item after another to bring to our attention, and although all those items might have been worthy of focus individually, their quantity was overwhelming. Yet the ensemble for this production – in addition to Apostol, the cast included Tricia Alexandro, William DeMeritt, Rebecca S’Manga Frank, Emily Kuroda, Kurt Kwan, and Luis Moreno – was excellent. All of the actors except Apostol played multiple roles, with multiple accents and a gazillion costume changes (designed by Kara Harmon), and director Dámaso Rodríguez did a fine job of keeping the action flowing on scenic designer William Boles’s ingeniously flexible set.

Amir Wachterman and Bjorn Dupaty in DO YOU FEEL ANGER by Mara Nelson-Greenberg, 2018 Humana Festival. Photo by Bill Brymer.

L to R: Amir Wachterman and Bjorn Dupaty in DO YOU FEEL ANGER? Photo by Bill Brymer, courtesy Humana Festival.

The clear audience-pleaser of the festival was Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s outrageous play Do You Feel Anger? I’m not fully sure I am up to the task of describing this production, which was simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, but I will try. Imagine the most toxic work environment possible, and then push it another few degrees into absurdity, and you have the world of Nelson-Greenberg’s play: a world in which Eva (Megan Hill) is mugged at work on a daily basis and must invent a boyfriend so that her male co-workers Jordan (Bjorn DuPaty) and Howie (Amir Wachterman) won’t constantly hit on her. They all work for a debt collection agency (of course!), and their extreme inappropriateness on collection calls has forced their boss, Jon (Dennis William Grimes, who does a masterful comic bit about women’s periods that I won’t soon forget) to hire outside consultant Sofia (Tiffany Villarin) to provide empathy training. Jordan, Howie, and Jon occupy the extreme end of emotional stuntedness – at the beginning of the play, the only feelings they can identify are hunger, anger, and “horn” (which is “when you want to have sex with someone”). They are also so thoroughly entitled that their impropriety knows no bounds: Jon suggests to Sofia that she would excel more at her job if she wore a dress, and one of the first things Howie tells Sofia, on meeting her, is that he wants to have sex with her. Eva, meanwhile, has developed desperate survival mechanisms for navigating this hostile work environment, most of which involve either humiliating self-abnegation, inane kowtowing, or throwing a verbal curveball to change the subject.

L to R: Megan Hill, Tiffany Villarin, Amir Wachterman, and Bjorn Dupaty in DO YOU FEEL ANGER by Mara Nelson-Greenbergl. Photo by Bill Brymer, courtesy Humana Festival.

I’ll confess, it took me a bit to figure out what was going on in this play (other members of the audience were quicker on the uptake): its situational absurdity blows up, almost beyond recognition, a dynamic that is so familiar and everyday that it sometimes threatens to pass under the radar screen, and it thereby allows us to see how easy it is for abusive environments to get normalized, even when they are lit in screaming neon. The genius trick of this play is when it turns to track how, even when the toxic masculinity is so extreme as to be shocking, there remains a structural pressure on women to accommodate men’s needs and feelings at the expense of their own safety, well-being, and integrity. Specifically, Sofia’s need to succeed at her job – which requires getting the baby-men in the conference room to cooperate – leads her slowly but inexorably to ally with them and gang up against poor Eva. Director Margot Bordelon established a high-energy, loud, over-the-top tone for the acting that suited the bizarre and off-balanced nature of the dialogue nicely, and the actors inhabited their oversized characters with verve and gusto.

, 2018 Humana Festival. Photo by Bill Brymer.

Cast of EVOCATION TO VISIBLE APPEARANCE by Mark Schultz. Photo by Bill Brymer, courtesy Humana Festival.

Les Waters directed the final premiere of the festival, Mark Schultz’s Evocation to Visible Appearance. Here, too, the thematic material centered on loss; Schultz’s was unquestionably the bleakest and most nihilistic of the works staged. His central character is a teenaged girl, Samantha (Suzy Weller) who may or may not be pregnant and who certainly doesn’t believe that the future holds great things in store for her. Her pessimism isn’t just personal – she inhabits a world full of the detritus of the past, both figuratively, in the mess of her family’s deterioration, and literally – the scenic design (Andrew Boyce) is a big trash heap. She’s lost and more than a little manipulative, lying to her boyfriend Trevor (Lincoln Clauss) that she’s having his baby so that he won’t go to college. She’s also vaguely unlikeable. Her father Russell (the terrific Bruce McKenzie) is an unemployed loser; her sister Natalie (Ronete Levenson) is institutionalized for mental illness; her boss Martin (Daniel Arthur Johnson) offers nothing more than platitudes and cheery corporate-speak. She finds something of a soul-mate in Hudson (Luke F. LaMontagne), a heavy metal satan-worshipper; her involvement with him not only satisfies a craving for connection, but also involves her in nihilistic violence. Waters’ direction gave the production a moody, violent edge – the action was punctuated with loud bursts of heavy metal music and, at several moments, theatrical lighting instruments rained disconcertingly onto the stage as if the theater itself was also falling apart. The production was simultaneously inaccessible and haunting – it was hard to extract meaning from the play itself, but the imagery and emotional hollowness lingered.

20Joey Miller, Jack Schmitt, and Emily Kleypas in National Foosball Championship by Jaclyn Backhaus from YOU ACROSS FROM ME, 2018 Humana Festival. Photo by Bill Brymer

L to R: Joey Miller, Jack Schmitt, and Emily Kleypas in “National Foosball Championship” by Jaclyn Backhaus from YOU ACROSS FROM ME. Photo by Bill Brymer, courtesy Humana Festival.

The theme for this year’s apprentice show, You Across from Me, was “coming to the table,” and playwrights Jaclyn Backhaus, Dipika Guha, Brian Otaño, and Jason Gray Platt crafted a set of twelve short plays that interpreted that theme in a wide range of stories and styles. Running strongly through many of them, as I noted above, was a concern about who gets to sit at the table, who speaks at the table, who dominates the table, and who is left out. Guha’s three-part “A Date with the Family” comically skewered both gender role expectations and the practice of casting white as neutral. Otaño’s “DiversityInclusion” took aim at the way theater, film, and television gatekeepers pay little more than lip service to bringing more diverse voices to the table; the play made clever use of cross-casting to take some scattershots at microagressions along the way. Platt’s “Just Right” raised an eyebrow over the increasing lack of tolerance for a diversity of political opinions, while Backhaus’s “The National Foosball Championships” rebooted the Billy Jean King/Bobby Riggs sports-as-proxy-for-gender-equality battle and updated it to reflect the concerns of post-Millenials. Jessica Fisch directed the energetic twenty-member ensemble with theatrical flair, finding a wide range of tones and styles to suit the different registers of the writing but still unifying the whole through music and movement.

4. Cast of A Date with the Family by Dipika Guha from YOU ACROSS FROM ME, 2018 Humana Festival. Photo by Bill Brymer.

L to R: Joseph Miller, Emily Kaplan, Suzy Weller, Jack Schmitt, and Tim Peters in “A Date with the Family” by Dipika Guha from YOU ACROSS FROM ME. Photo by Bill Brymer, courtesy Humana Festival.

“Heisenberg” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

There are two very different stories that could be supported by the dialogue and action of Simon Stephens’s 2015 play Heisenberg.

The first is a May-December romantic comedy, in which Georgie (Robin Abramson), a free-spirited and impulsive American woman in her early 40s, meets, pursues, and eventually falls in love with Alex (Anthony Heald), a 75-year-old introverted, “still-waters-run-deep,” habit-bound Irish butcher.

The second is a black comedy of manipulation, in which Georgie – a narcissistic crazy woman with serious boundary issues – plots to seduce Alex – a lonely old man and easy mark – to get him to give her money so that she can travel from London to the US in search of the adult son who has cut off ties with her.

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L to R: Anthony Heald and Robin Abramson. Photo by Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Director Tracy Brigden has leaned into the first of these two narratives in her production of the play. Given the Pittsburgh Public’s pastel hearts-and-cupids marketing of the show as a “boy-meets-girl story with a facelift,” she seems not to have been given much other choice. Brigden stages the play in the round on a minimalist set comprised of four benches on an open square of floor, which keeps our focus on the characters and the development of their unexpected relationship (as well as on Stephens’s witty dialogue).

And the character development here is first rate. Abramson imbues Georgie with vivacious charm – this is a character who talks up a storm, often contradicting herself from one minute to the next, and she enters into Alex’s life like a whirlwind, opening his eyes to a void in his life that he hadn’t previously realized was there. Heald, who plays Alex with wry self-effacement, is convincing as a man who has spent decades content with his daily routines and who is in no particular need of a shakeup. In the six weeks covered by the action of the play, they go from strangers to lovers, and although there are some pause-giving conflicts between the two characters, the story comes off as an essentially happy one, of two misfits who end up finding what they need in each other.

But the play’s title seems a clue that this outcome is an uncertain one, and that the second, alternative narrative I suggest might just as likely be valid. Indeed, the text even provides explicit direction to be wary of tidy outcomes, when Georgie muses that “we hold different perspectives on experiences we think we’re sharing.” Certainly that is true of many of the experiences these two characters share, particularly as Georgie seems to yank the rug out from under them by revealing, in later scenes, that she is a liar, a stalker, an emotional manipulator, an invader of other people’s privacy, and an overbearing mother to boot.

So while I think this production seeks to leave you with the warm-hearted feeling that Georgie has sparked a transformation in Alex and prompted him to carpe diem before it’s too late, the play may also prompt you, as it did me, to consider who a person like Georgie would be in real life. Is she really as charmingly harmless as Abramson portrays her to be, or will Alex – like her son and her son’s father – eventually want to put as much distance between himself and her as he possibly can? Or maybe the question it poses is a rephrase of Tennyson: given life’s uncertainty, is it really better to have lived and loved – even if the person you fall in love with is manipulating and using you – than never to have loved at all?

“[Blank] My Life” – Season 3!

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While I realize that you, dear Reader, are the kind of person who gets out regularly to see live performance by our fabulous local artists at our terrific local theaters, I also know that sometimes you just want to curl up and stream something smart, incisive, and new.

Got you covered. Not only is the web series “[Blank] My Life” completely wierd and wonderful in the best of all possible ways, it’s also really well written and very stylishly filmed.

Trust me: it’s what all the cool kids in town are binge-watching right now. Written, produced, and performed by a group of wickedly talented Carnegie Mellon alums – including Alex Spieth, Ben Viertel, Stephen Tonti, Trevor McQueen,  Luka Glinsky, Arya Shahi, Lucia Rodriguez, and several others – the third season also features several familiar faces from here in the ‘burgh, including Gregory Lehane and Randy Kovitz.

The trailer for Season 3 was just released today (see below). I’m still catching up on Seasons 1 & 2; if you need to as well, you can find them here.

“Citizens Market” at City Theatre

Despite what the USCIS’s new mission statement asserts, the United States remains a nation of immigrants. It’s easy for those whose families have been here more than a generation to forget that fact; not so easy for those who have migrated themselves, or whose parents were immigrants. Such folks, playwright Cori Thomas suggests in her new play Citizens Market, share an experience of displacement, disorientation, and discrimination that organically leads them to form subcommunities of interest and solidarity.

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L to R: Shamika Cotton, Juan Francisco Villa, Ngozi Anyanwu, Ann Talman, and Jeff Howell. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

In Thomas’s play, the site of that community building is a grocery market in New York City, imagined by City Theatre scenic designer Tony Ferrieri to look something like one of those small independent markets that line Penn Ave in the Strip (complete with dingy linoleum tiles on the floor, crowded aisles, and stacks of unopened cartons blocking some of the shelves). The store caters to a multicultural (and apparently economically diverse) clientele, signalled by handpainted butcher paper advertisements on the glass windows for products ranging from carrots, organic kale, and quinoa to mangos, catfish, La Preferida hominy, queso fresco, and (in a de rigeur bit of Pittsburgh pandering) “Homemade Pierogi.” The United Nations of products is mirrored in the store’s staff: manager Jesus (Juan Francisco Villa) is an immigrant from El Salvador, his employees Ciata (Shamika Cotton) and Akosua (Ngozi Anyanwu) are from Sierra Leone and Ghana, respectively, and Bogdan (Jeff Howell) and Morfina (Ann Talman), an elderly married couple working as volunteers at the market, are from Romania.

The play follows these characters as they navigate the challenges of becoming Americans. Akosua is the newest arrival, a green-card lottery winner who has aspirations to go to college and become a social worker. She gets a job at the market on the recommendation of her housemate, Ciata, who has been in the country longer and has had more time to adjust to life away from her homeland. Ciata’s recommendation holds a bit more weight because Jesus – who has been in the US for over twenty years and has worked his way into financial success – is not-so-secretly enamored of her. These three young immigrants from the developing world are foiled, in the play, by Bogdan and Morfina, white Eastern European immigrants who have failed at the American dream and find themselves destitute, homeless, and in a state of constant, bitter, and very loud recrimination against each other.

Crisis strikes this group of American dreamers when the INS gets a tip that Jesus is undocumented. As they rally to support and help him, the characters start to form a makeshift family, sharing their troubles and histories and helping each other in various ways, many of which take the play into sitcom territory. At one point, for example, Akosua demonstrates her aptitude for social work by holding an impromptu (and improbably successful) marriage counseling session for Bogdan and Morfina; at another, Morfina miraculously whips up a batch of her irresistible strudel to sell to raise money for Jesus’s defense lawyer. But while a lot (maybe too much) happens in this play – among other things, a character dies suddenly, another magically overcomes a fear of public speaking, others fall in (or back in) love – Citizens Market is less a plot-driven play than an attempt to flesh out the range of experiences and challenges faced by immigrants, to underline the sacrifices they make in their pursuit of the opportunities a life in the United States has to offer, and to counter misconceptions of immigrants as freeloaders or job-stealers.

For a play that seems interested in debunking stereotypes, Citizens Market traffics in several, among them “the hard working economic refugee from Latin America” (who even tells us that he comes from a long line of proud, hardworking, Latin American men); “the African immigrant with a PhD who works at a job for which she’s vastly overqualified”; and, perhaps most stereotypical of all, “the loud, entitled white man whose only emotion is anger”. These check-the-box characteristics feel at cross-purposes with the play’s larger aim of fleshing out the immigrant experience with greater complexity and empathy (although they do often achieve the goal of provoking laughter).

Director Reginald Douglas has assembled a strong group of actors, but at times they seem to be in different plays. Howell and Talman are mostly performing in the register of TV sitcom, while the formidable Anyanwu and the emotionally vulnerable Cotton could be in a Chekhov play, with Villa somewhere in between. Given that many of the play’s events have a kind of “madcap” quality, it might have been better served by a more enthusiastic embrace of both the sitcom acting style and the “quick cut” pace that marks such entertainment. This is especially true given the play’s unexpected happy ending, in which the action leaps seven years into the future and leaves a million questions unanswered, chief among them whether it represents a possibly real outcome for these characters, or merely a wishful, fantasy prefiguration of a post-Trump America.

“Inside Passage” at Quantum Theatre

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The arts community has been engaged in recent years in a trenchantly political conversation about (as the Hamilton lyric puts it) “Who tells your story?”

That’s also a question playwright Gab Cody grapples with in her new work, Inside Passage, as she seeks to uncover a story from her own family history that takes her down a path fraught with representational peril.

The story she seeks to tell, you see, is of her efforts to locate a pair of Native American siblings, Eddie and Sharon, who had joined Cody’s family as foster children during her early childhood in Alaska. When Cody’s parents’ marriage fell apart and her mother decided to return to California, Eddie and Sharon were removed from her family and sent to live with relatives in the Tlingit community. Four decades later, Cody set out to find out what happened to them, documenting both her preparations and the search itself on film. Inside Passage, the first manifestation of the results of that documentation, is a hybrid of theater and film that seeks to capture both Cody’s emotional, psychological, and geographical journey as she reconnects with these long-lost temporary members of her family, and Eddie and Sharon’s harrowing struggles with poverty, abuse, and neglect as indigenous children in the foster system.

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Shammen McCune in “Inside Passage”. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

Trepidation seems to haunt Cody at every phase of her journey, and rightly so. In the first place, going into the project she could have no certainty that she would be able to locate Sharon or Eddie, and no idea how they might respond to her overtures if and when she did. To exorcize that anxiety, Cody and director Sam Turich wrote and filmed a series of wry “preenactments” of potentially awkward first encounters between Gab and her long-lost siblings, with actors from the ensemble standing in for herself and for Sharon and Eddie, producing a film version of the kind of scene that plays out in your head when you imaginatively prerehearse a much-anticipated event.

In the second place, Cody’s task of telling this particular family story is complicated and vexed by the gulf between her own life experience, as a privileged white woman with social and geographical mobility, and the highly circumscribed experience of her Tlingit foster siblings. She addresses this trepidation with humor and theatrical flair, by turning the tables on herself and assigning her own self-representation to her diverse cast of actors, who bounce the role of “Gab Cody” between themselves like a volleyball. By ceding the embodiment of her voice to others, Cody acknowledges her own hesitancy to appropriate the stories of people whose experience she can never fully know: the (deliberately confusing) fracturing of the writer/storyteller into many bodies and voices both destabilizes her authority and empowers non-dominant voices to guide the narrative. It’s a move that seeks to cede this story, which Cody seems to fear is not fully hers to tell, back to the subjects to whom it belongs.

The question of “ownership” of the privilege to tell a story is also foregrounded in an interlude in which Tlingit actor Skyler Ray-Benson Davis interrupts Cody’s narrative to share a legend about Jeet, a boy who climbs a cliff to save his village. At the end of that tale, Davis expresses his thanks to the Wooshketaan Tlingit clan of Hoonah for lending him their story to share, a gesture that reminds us that a) stories have value as cultural currency, and b) there is a material and ethical difference between borrowing a story to share, and stealing one to sell.

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L to R: Kyle Haden, Laurie Klatscher, Kelsey Robinson, Skyler Ray-Benson Davis, Shammen McCune, John Shepard. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

The play consists of thirty-three short acts, announced with descriptive subtitles like “In Which Memory is a Black Hole” or “There Will be Goats.” The acts themselves represent a hodgepodge of aesthetic styles and approaches to storytelling, ranging from direct address to the audience to fictional reenactment of scenes, with just about everything in between, including songs, dance breaks, documentary footage, and stalking bears (as well as “talking” bears!). The effect is disorienting in a form-follows-content kind of way: the interpersonal and geographic disorientation that emerges out of Cody’s sleuthing into her past finds its structural expression in a kaleidoscopic fragmenting of actors and characters, film and live event, and scenes from the past and present. The play mixes in humorous metatheatrical commentary and audience interaction as well: at one point ensemble member Kyle Haden, “planted” in the audience, receives a phone call and tells the person on the other end of the line that “this play is really confusing, everyone is playing the same character”; at other moments, the performance is paused to give audience members the opportunity to view Cody’s family photographs up close.

Cody and Turich also devote a good portion of Inside Passage to humorously staging assumptions and misconceptions about Alaska and its indigenous populations. Grizzly bears play a prominent role in the piece, both as a running joke and as a symbol of the way Alaska is marked by a proximity of wilderness to human habitation. The spare arctic landscape of Alaska is evoked not only by the blank empty white canvas that forms the backdrop to Rob Long’s stylishly filmed “preenactments,” but also by Kellan Andersen’s predominantly white set, on which a movable dock-like structure serves as platform for much of the action and for screens that alternately glow like northern lights or come alive with projected images, titles, and documentary footage. The ensemble – which includes Laurie Klatscher, Shammen McCune, Kelsey Robinson, and John Shepard in addition to Davis and Haden – inhabits the deadpan tone and casual address of Cody’s writing with facility. Rachel Vallozzi’s costumes, which never let us forget that Alaska is a very cold place, contribute an additional layer of oddballity to this thoroughly eccentric production.

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Kyle Haden in “Inside Passage” (with stalking bears). Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

In the end, despite its wry and quirky tone, Inside Passage left me with a feeling of melancholy and loss: the kaleidoscopic narrative structure seemed designed to remind us that we can never know the full truth of our own stories, let alone the stories of others, and that getting at something that feels like the whole story is always much more complicated and vexed than we ever imagine it will be.

“Holmes and Watson” at Kinetic Theatre Company

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I’ve seen a lot of Sherlock Holmes in the last few years, both on the screen (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and on our local stages (nearly always with David Whalen in the title role). So I’ll admit, when Kinetic Theatre announced yet another episode in the Sherlock Holmes saga – featuring Whalen in the cast, yet again – I paused for a moment to consider how much Sherlock is too much Sherlock. You may be wondering the same.

Well, I’m here to tell you that, although there’s a lot of Sherlock – or perhaps better put, although there are a lot of Sherlocks – in Holmes and Watson, this is one iteration of the story you really don’t want to miss.

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L to R: Gregory Johnstone (Holmes #3), Darren Eliker (Holmes #1), Daryll Heysham (Watson), and David Whalen (Holmes #2). Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher sets his tale three years after Sherlock’s final encounter with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Although no bodies were ever found, the world has assumed that both Sherlock and Moriarty perished in the fall’s roiling waters. Now Dr. John Watson (Daryll Hesham) has been summoned to a mysterious asylum on an island off the coast of England in order to determine whether any one of three “madmen” claiming to be Holmes is, in fact, the real deal. The asylum is run by Dr. Evans (Tim McGeever), who refuses to divulge to Watson any information about the three men in his charge; he also keeps his reasons for needing Watson’s positive identification of Holmes a secret. Watson quickly discovers that this asylum was expressly renovated to house just the three “Holmes’s” (played by Darren Eliker, David Whalen, and Gregory Johnstone) and the only other inhabitants of the institution – indeed, of the entire island – are an orderly and matron (played by James Keegan & Gayle Pazerski) who help Evans keep the Holmes-trio in line.

This is a suspicion-generating setup of the highest order, and if you’re anything like me, dear Reader, you may already be thinking you know what kinds of twists lie ahead. I was implored not to spoil the fun for you, so I won’t say anything more about the plot, other than to heap admiration on Hatcher for very cleverly feeding what he supposes to be our expectations as the action unspools, and on director Andrew Paul for using both the casting and staging to underscore the script’s diabolical misdirections. I thought I had the whole thing figured out midway through, and was tickled to the bone to discover just how wrong I had it. Ah, the pleasures of a well-plotted mystery!

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L to R: Tim McGeever, Daryll Heysham, and James Keegan. Photo by Rocky Raco, courtesy Kinetic Theatre.

Paul stages the play like one big magic trick, keeping your attention focused on distractions while what you’re supposed to be paying attention to hides in plain sight. The excellent cast – many of whom are playing more than one character, and some of whom are playing characters in disguise – has the tricky job of maintaining the magic trick until its payoff is revealed at the end, and they do so masterfully; this is a play that – much like the film The Sixth Sense – will have you rewinding scenes in your imagination to see whether all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and because the actors do such a skillful job of maintaining a double reality, those pieces fall neatly into place. The production is fine at every level: Johnmichael Bohach’s scenic design makes excellent use of the architecture of the New Hazlett Theatre, with dropcloth-draped scaffolding making a gothic labyrinth of the playing space, and a large rumbling metal shop door adding menace to the environment. Lighting design, by Alex Stevens, establishes an eerie and threatening atmosphere, and Kim Brown’s costuming grounds the play in a 19th century milieu, while small touches – like David Whalen’s goofy wig – also signal that there’s a bit of comedy afoot. Joe Spinogatti’s projection design and Angela Baughman’s sound design play an important role in establishing the atmospherics for repeated flashbacks, and key moments in the play’s plot get their punch from Steve Tolin’s formidable special effects.

The weather is dreary, and I imagine that for many of you – as for me – it’s hard to resist the temptation to just curl up inside and binge-watch some cliff-hanger of a show. But if it’s a well-plotted mind-twister you’re after, get up off the couch and down to the New Hazlett – you won’t regret it.

“In the Heat of the Night” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

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One could only wish that a play based on a 1965 novel and 1967 film about intransigent racism among nativist whites in the South would feel like a musty museum piece. Indeed, I’ll confess that five or six years ago I myself likely would have wondered how relevant a play like In the Heat of the Night was to what many of us considered the “post-racial” Obama era. Alas, in the wake of all that’s happened in the past half-decade, including – especially – the dismaying influence of Nazis and clan members in our political arena, Matt Pelfrey’s stage adaptation of this civil-rights-era-defining book and film speaks all too depressingly to our present moment.

Pelfrey’s play takes the main premise of John Ball’s mystery novel but adds a final plot twist that spectators familiar with either the book or film will not expect. The setting is a small town in Alabama, in 1962. Sam Wood (Jonathan Visser), a police officer, has found the body of a wealthy local real estate developer, Charles Tatum (Brett Sullivan Santry) in the middle of the street; he appears to be the victim of a homicide. Police Chief Gillespie (Daniel Pivovar) orders Wood and fellow police officer Pete (Tal Kroser) to be on the lookout for vagrants and strangers as primary suspects; Wood finds such a stranger in Virgil Tibbs (Kevin H. Moore), a well-dressed black man waiting for a train at the local station. Turns out, to the surprise of the openly racist cops, that Tibbs is a police officer himself, a detective from California, no less, who specializes in solving homicides. When the dead man’s close friend, local bigwig Endicott (Arthur Peden) discovers this, he uses his connections to get Tibbs loaned to the local police force until the case is solved, resulting in predictable tensions between a white community convinced of its racial superiority and the hotshot black detective who is accustomed to being addressed as Mr. Tibbs.

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L to R: Kevin H. Moore, Johathan Visser, Adam Seligson. Photo by Chris Chapman, courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

Director Monteze Freeland stages the play in a manner that recalls the cinematic quick cut: very short scenes are linked together with film noir-inflected jazz music that helps sweep the action along (sound design is by Wayne Gaines), and even though cast members play multiple roles and have many off-stage costume changes (clothes by Cheryl El-Walker), the transitions are tight and smoothly choreographed. The plot of the play has some confusing gaps and elisions – for example, the relationship between Endicott and Tatum’s daughter (Jenny Malarkey) is unclear, and the plot thread involving accusations that Wood has raped and impregnated the teenaged Noreen Purdy (also played by Malarkey) is hard to follow – but the otherwise highly engaging story gets you on its ride and keeps you there to the end. Standout performances in this cast include Visser as Wood, the cop who is most changed by Tibbs’s presence on the force; Peden, playing the fastidious Endicott and (nearly unrecognizably) the gravel-voiced town mayor as well; and Pivovar, as the grumpy and beset-upon police chief.

Caution: the “N-word” gets thrown around a lot in the dialogue of this play, along with the word “boy”; indeed, even Oberst (Adam Seligson), a lowlife who’s been thrown in jail on flimsy charges and who might be exonerated by Tibbs’s investigation, doesn’t hesitate to call him “boy” to his face. Likewise, in defiance of any expectation of alliance among “others,” the town Jew Kaufman (also played by Seligson) physically attacks Tibbs with no compunction whatsoever. The play dives deep into representing a world and town in which whites unashamedly and unapologetically rank themselves above blacks, even when they themselves are inferior to Tibbs on every metric – less educated, less wealthy, less intelligent, less morally upright, and (particularly in the case of the white trash Purdy (Brett Sullivan Santry), his daughter Noreen, and her boyfriend Ralph (Seligson again)) far less socially valuable to society.

Freeland has clearly created a safe space for his mostly white cast to embody this ugly racial animus, and as a result they do so with conviction, which is crucial to the play’s driving energy. The crime has to be solved, but the suspense of the play derives less from “whodunit?” than from whether Tibbs will manage to get out of town unscathed, and for that, you need to believe that this town is populated by people who really do fear losing their power and social status to (what they see as) black and brown intruders. If this sounds familiar to you from the current debate over DACA or the Charlottesville rally last summer, well … I think that’s the point.

“A Devil Inside” at The REP Professional Theatre Company

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“None of us is very far from the murderer who skulks his way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.” So opines Carl (Philip Winters), a Russian Lit professor. And he should know: he fills his journals with thoughts of killing the nondescript Brad (Michael Fuller), an appliance repairman he barely knows, simply because he finds him unbearably dull. But unlike Roskolnikov, Carl would never act on that impulse. Or would he?

Philip Winters (Carl) & Hayley Nielsen (Caitlin)

L to R: Philip Winters & Hayley Nielsen. Photo John Altdorfer, courtesy The REP.

That each of us has a ‘devil inside’ is the subject of David Lindsay-Abaire’s frenzied black comedy, which combines the outrageous blood-shedding of a Martin McDonough play (think Lieutenant of Inishmore) with the farcical energy of a Joe Orton comedy, packing these into a whodunit plot that leaves none of its characters innocent or unscathed in the end.

Lindsay-Abaire concocts the story of this play by dropping a series of Easter Eggs along a convoluted path, each of which explodes spectacularly at some point in the last ten or fifteen minutes of the play. This is the kind of play that makes alert and attentive audience members feel smart, as clues dropped in early scenes lead to “ah-ha!” moments later in the play; forget which character told which story from their personal history (as, I’ll confess, I did at one point) and you’ll fall behind. Their stories nest inside each other like an intricately carved Russian Matryoshka doll (one of which also makes an appearance in the course of the play), interlocking in a series of coincidences that center on a fourteen-year-old mystery for which each of the characters has a tiny piece of the puzzle.

The mystery in question involves the murder, in the Poconos, of the 400-lb father of Gene Slater (Cav O’Leary) and husband of Mrs. Slater (Terry Wickline). For unexplained reasons, his feet were chopped from his body; Mrs. Slater has waited until Gene reached his twenty-first birthday to reveal the fact that his father had been murdered and gift him the jar containing his dad’s enormous feet. Gene, however, is more interested in nailing daredevil skateboard tricks and flirting with Caitlin (Hayley Nielsen), who, in turn, is in love with both Russian Literature and her Russian Lit professor, Carl. Meanwhile, Carl has become obsessed with thoughts of murdering the excruciatingly uninteresting one-footed Brad, who is putting up the mysterious Lily (Daina Michelle Griffiths), an artist who has a strange fascination with feet as well as secretive reasons for having returned to the Lower East Side setting for the play. (Feet – both attached and unattached – are a theme in this play, as are dogs, Russia, and devils). Inconveniently – or perhaps conveniently – the city’s municipal services are all on strike, so not only do wild dogs run amok in the accumulating garbage on the city streets, but there are no police to intervene as the characters begin to machinate against each other in all sorts of impulsive ways. Given that the whole trick of the play lies in how it unwinds the reasons behind those machinations, I won’t give any more of the plot away.

David Lindsay-Abaire is an accomplished playwright, but this is one of his earlier works, and it shows. Crazily complicated as the plot is, the dialogue struggles to be funny, and in places the dark threatens to overwhelm the comedy. Moreover, wild as the play’s shenanigans are, the sum total of its parts is conspicuously unsatisfying; when you get to the end, you’re left with the strong feeling that (to steal from Gertrude Stein) there’s no “there there.”

Nevertheless, director Kim Martin does a fine job of drawing out laughs through bold strokes in the staging, and her cast commits to a broad, farcical playing style that serves the outrageousness of the play’s premise well. Particularly excellent in that commitment are Nielsen, as the Anna Karenina-wannabe coed; Winters, as the irascible professor; and Fuller, whose Brad morphs from beige to crazed in the course of the play. The scenic design, by Tucker Topel, solves the problem of the play’s multiple locales with ingenious efficiency, allowing the action to move at a clip without a need for anyone to ever move a stick of furniture. I could wish that every young director I know might see this production just to learn from its swift transitions, which derive much of their effect from Andrew David Ostrowski’s on-the-money lighting design and Steve Shapiro’s sharp sound design.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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Over two thousand years of comedic tradition (the twenty-one extant comedies of Roman playwright Plautus, no less!) feed into the plot of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Plus, it draws on the talents of an A-list of twentieth-century Broadway theater creators, including Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and Jerome Robbins, not to mention its writers Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Add in the unerring comedic instincts of director/choreographer Ted Pappas and actor Jimmy Kieffer (as the wily and desperate slave Pseudolus) and the cartoonish scenic and costume designs (James Noone and Martha Bromelmeier, reprising a design by Tony Walton), and you have a show that is virtually guaranteed to make you laugh.

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The Company (Jimmy Kieffer as Pseudolus, Center). Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

I’m not going to bother to go into the plot of this musical, because it’s the plot of nearly every comedy you’ve ever seen all rolled into one: indeed, one way to describe this musical would be to say that it takes up all the familiar character types and farcical situations of comedy and commedia dell’arte, adds the spirit of the American musical theater song and dance idiom, shakes vigorously, and produces a frothy cocktail of merriment and confusion.

The Public’s production is beautifully executed, anchored by Kieffer (who did a similarly disarming turn as the servant in A Servant to Two Masters) and augmented by delightfully zany performances from a cast that includes Gavan Pamer as the anxious (and aptly named) Hysterium, Jeff Howell as the procurer Marcus Lycus, Ruth Gotschall as the harridan Domina, Stephen DeRosa as her browbeaten husband Senex, Allan Snyder as the braggart soldier Miles Gloriosus, and James Fitzgerald as the daffy elderly Erronius. Rounding out the cast are the comic lovers Jamen Nanthakumar (Hero) and silver-voiced Mary Elizabeth Drake (Philia); three agile Proteans (Jonathan Blake Flemings, Andrew Pace, and Mark Tinkey) who serve as all of the supernumeraries needed for the action, and a bevy of scantily-clad courtesans who bump and grind their way through the story (these are, in alphabetical order: Elyse Collier, Brooke Lacy, Stephanie Maloney, Jessica Walker, Andrea Weinzierl, and Monica Woods).

Every aspect of the production is top notch, from the first-rate acting and singing, to the sure-handed staging and choreography, to the impressive scenic design (which got a round of applause at the reveal the night I saw the show), to the bright, character-defining lighting (Kirk Bookman), to the crisp and crystally clear orchestra (under F. Wade Russo’s direction, with sound design by Zach Moore). So: if all you want to know is whether this staple of the American musical theater canon is well produced, you should probably stop reading here. Seriously, just look at the picture below and stop.

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Front row, L to R: Elyse Collier, Jessica Walker, Andrea Weinzierl, Brooke Lacy, Monica Woods. Back row, L to R: Andrew Pace, Allan Snyder, and Mark Tinkey. Photo Michael Henninger, courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

 

Because, alas, I’m sorry to say that I am going to be that killjoy viewer who – while I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the show, or that I didn’t laugh – found it really hard to fully board its train. It is, after all, a musical comedy whose sexual and racial politics are fifty (if not two thousand) years behind the times. While I know that much of the intention is to satirize and send up the attitudes and behaviors that the characters display, nonetheless it’s pretty hard not to see little more than a replication and reification of patriarchal scopic regimes in (to take the most glaring example) the Vegas-showgirl costumes and high-kick, butt-waggle dance moves of the long-limbed courtesans as they strut their stuff for sale. Funny Thing… reveals its retrograde gender politics in other places as well: in the overwhelmingly more negative “comic” traits ascribed to the female characters than the male characters; in lyrics in which we are invited to snicker at Philia, who is dumber than a doornail but “happy to be lovely,” or at the idea that Miles Gloriosus has “no time to lose” because there are “women to abuse”; and in the uncritical uptake of the play’s tired use of cross-dressing and homophobia to generate laughs.

Equally egregious is the lack of diversity in casting: there are only three non-white actors in the nineteen-member ensemble, only one of whom (Nanthakumar) has a prominent speaking and singing role. I appreciate that artistic director Ted Pappas, in his last year at the Public, might wish to indulge in a trip down memory lane. But the lack of diversity on stage, coupled with the show’s treatment of women as literally nothing other than objects of male desire, reads, to this viewer at least, less like nostalgia and more like a head-in-the-sand retreat from our present socio-political moment.

“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” at City Theatre

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On the other end of the spectrum from Rules of Seconds is the one-person show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, by James Lecesne. Where the former features a spectacularly aggressive display of alpha-male peacocking, the latter centers on the story of a gentle teenager who, given the chance, would adorn himself with peacock feathers and flutter through the school hallways kicking up his custom rainbow platform sneakers. Yet the two plays share a central conflict: in both, a person who is deemed insufficiently masculine is targeted for violence by a bully who has abrogated to himself the privilege of defining what it takes to be a “real man”. I guess the investigation of toxic masculinity is simply in the air nowadays (gee, I wonder why?).

But I begin to digress. Or do I? In The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, Chuck Desantis (Keith Randolph Smith), a former detective in a small town on the New Jersey shore, relates the details of a life-transforming crime that occurred a decade ago. The victim was fourteen-year-old Leonard Pelkey, a genderqueer young man described by his aunt/adopted mother Ellen as “TOO MUCH.” Leonard was an iconoclast of a kid, one for whom flamboyant expression of his unique individuality was both an existential and political necessity. Ellen’s friend, Mrs. T, tells Desantis that she tried to warn Leonard to tone down his self-expression, but he insisted that “if he wasn’t himself the terrorists would win.” If that doesn’t sound like someone taking on the patriarchy, I don’t know what does.

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Keith Randolph Smith as Chuck Desantis. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

As Desantis recounts the story of his investigation – from the first moment Ellen bustled into the police station to report Leonard missing to the resolution of the trial that convicts Leonard’s killer of a hate crime – he steps in and out of the roles of the various people in the community whose lives Leonard brightened during his short life among them. There’s Ellen herself, the strong-willed, chatterbox owner of a hair salon, who took Leonard under her wing as a kindred creative spirit. There’s Phoebe, Ellen’s somewhat introverted teenaged daughter, resentful of Leonard’s intrusion in her life but also envious of his courage and freedom. There’s the twee British director of the local theater and dance school, who recalls not ever having “met a child who can express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands” as Leonard could. There’s the German clock repairman, who saw, in Leonard, a chance to atone for the emotional damage he inflicted on his own gender-non-conforming son. There’s the pack-a-day-voiced, redheaded Mrs. T, whom Leonard convinced, along with all of Ellen’s other salon customers, to invest in a little black dress, on the theory that having such a dress would conjure the occasion to wear it. There’s the Italian mob-wife Gloria, who helps Desantis crack the case. And, last but certainly not least, there’s the crew of teenaged boys who took it on themselves to police Leonard’s masculinity through daily harassment and intimidation.

You’d think, from my description of all of these characters, that I saw them all on stage; but in fact, they are all brought to life by Smith, who shapeshifts into these and another half-dozen or so characters with vivid precision and empathy. Even the murderer gets a portrayal that allows us to see him as a fully fleshed out human being. Smith’s embodiment of the female characters that orbited Leonard’s charismatic star is particularly impressive, and although many of the characters are quirky, none are sent up as caricatures. What emerges is a portrait of a community coming to terms with, and learning to respect and value, difference in their midst.

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Keith Randolph Smith as Chuck Desantis. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The action takes place in Desantis’s basement, a space convincingly evoked by Britton Mauk’s well-observed scenic design (although a puzzling flaw in the play is that it provides no discernible  motivation for its basement setting, nor for our “presence” as audience in Desantis’s basement). Isabella Byrd’s lighting design brings Leonard’s “brightness” into the space, particularly when colored lights embedded in the set make it glow like the rainbow of his homemade sneakers.

While the story Desantis tells has a fatal outcome for Leonard, the overall tone of the show is joyful and celebratory.  Lecesne’s writing plants comedy in unexpected corners of the play’s world, and director Laura Savia threads the play’s sentiment lightly through its humor. While we never see more of Leonard than a blurred photograph and some personal items he left behind, the production makes him shine absolutely brightly in the imagination, and his fiercely stubborn and gloriously defiant insistence on being true to himself might serve as inspiration for change for audiences, just as it did in the town he left behind.