“HIR” at barebones productions

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It’s obvious to anyone who has been awake and breathing over the last two years that the 2016 election represented a watershed before-and-after moment in American politics and culture. Ways of thinking about our cultural moment that felt insightful and true before November 2016 came to have a different resonance after the anti-progressive backlash of the election and the subsequent resurgence of racist, mysogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic sentiments and activism that came in its wake.

It seems to me that several works that were written in the first fifteen years of this century have had their thematic and emotional content utterly changed by the assertion of white male grievance and privilege that the current presidency represents. For example, Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop which received an excellent production at City Theatre in 2014– is one that I often think about in this regard. That play, which imagines Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, ends with an emotionally powerful media montage of the history of the civil rights movement after King’s assasination, culminating – when the play was originally produced – with images from Barack Obama’s historic election to the presidency. The message conveyed was one of pride-swelling hope and optimism, a tribute to King’s legacy that said: “look how far we’ve come.” Today, any production of that play would have to include media coverage of the expressions of racism and white supremacy we saw at Trump campaign rallies and in Charlottesville and elsewhere, rendering its ending a depressing chronicle of Patriarchal White America’s Revenge and a dispiriting reminder of how little progress really has been made in extending equal rights and opportunities to all.

Taylor Mac’s play HIR is another play whose message and mood felt very different before 2016 than it does today. In the play, middle-aged mother Paige (here played by Helena Ruoti) has been awakened to her own oppression by two major changes in her life: first, her domineering, physically and emotionally abusive husband Arnold (Douglas Rees) has suffered a debilitating stroke which has rendered him passive and childlike; and second, her teenaged child Max (Liam Ezra Dickinson) has transitioned from female to male. Max, whose preferred gender pronouns are ze and hir, has also transitioned from public school to homeschooling, where ze has taken on the task of tutoring Paige in feminist and queer theory. This, in turn, has led Paige to rebel ostentatiously against everything she associates with patriarchal oppression and particularly to upend all of the norms, rules, and patterns Arnold formerly imposed on the household. The play’s crises are set in motion when older brother Isaac (Tad Cooley) returns home from deployment in Iraq to find his mother in charge, the house in complete disarray, and his humiliated and emasculated father dottering around the house in garish makeup, a clown wig, and a woman’s nightgown.

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L to R: Tad Cooley, Douglas Rees, and Helena Ruoti. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

When I saw this play in its original production at Signature Theatre in 2015, it seemed to be flipping a joyful middle finger at a white male power structure that it figured – in the person of Arnold, particularly, but also in the person of Isaac – as irrelevant. “You are done,” the play clearly crowed; “we queers and feminists are the future.” Now, in the wake of both the 2016 election and recent studies concluding, rightly or wrongly, that the election was, above all, an outpouring of rural America’s fury over its perception that coastal elites hold the white working-class in contempt, the play comes across more as an example of the kind of smug liberal disdain that supposedly led the country’s Isaacs and Arnolds to respond with fawning admiration to the current president’s gloating misogyny and racism. When Isaac slinks out of the house in disgrace and shame at the end of the play, the taste is sour rather than sweet; hindsight tells us he’ll soon be putting on a red baseball cap and voting his vengeance on Paige, Max, and all they represent.

It’s hard for me to assess the extent to which it’s the changed socio-political climate alone that has altered how this play signifies, or the difference in production choices made by director Patrick Jordan and his cast – or, putting the two together, the extent to which the changed socio-political climate impacted the production choices Jordan and ensemble made. Whatever the reason, the barebones’ production seems a wholly different play than the one I saw previously, despite nearly identical scenic and costume designs.

The most significant of the differences is in the intepretation of Paige. In the 2015 Signature production, Kristine Nielsen played Paige as a daffy, addle-brained bird, flitting and floating on a giddy cloud of triumph over her escape from her cage of ideological oppression. Her performance was light and nimble, and she only allowed the character’s rancor to nibble at the edges at key moments of the play. Ruoti’s Paige, in contrast, is far more tuned-in, angry, and bitter, a choice that is fully understandable in light of the changed world we now inhabit. But it’s a choice that has the side effect of making her seem scolding, preachy, and superior – precisely the sort of lefty posturing that those on the other side of the culture wars find so infuriating. At the same time, Cooley and Rees offer much more sympathetic and likeable renderings of Isaac and Arnold than their 2015 counterparts, such that they start to appear tragic rather than irrelevant – or, perhaps better put, tragic in their irrelevancy.

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L to R: Liam Ezra Dickinson, Helena Ruoti, and Tad Cooley. Photo courtesy barebones productions.

In the end, however, it’s Max whose precarious position ought most to compel our attention and sympathy. Dickinson plays Max with a dead-on combination of know-it-all eye-rolling teen sarcasm and deep, barely hidden insecurity. Max’s mutually exclusive desires – to usher in an egalitarian queer future, and to be fully welcomed and accepted into the fraternity of white masculinity, with all the access to power and privilege that comes with it – make hir the character whose internal conflict most eloquently captures the prize that is at stake, both within the world of the play and in our socio-political arena.

“Nomad Motel” at City Theatre

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Gianni Downs’s apropos “split screen” set for Carla Ching’s new play Nomad Motel – confidently directed here by Los Angeles-based director Bart DeLorenzo – adeptly and precisely encapsulates both its form and content. On stage right, occupying a little over half of the width of the stage, is the large living room/kitchen of an upscale contemporary suburban home, with dove-grey walls, laminate wood floors, a granite kitchen countertop, and four large skylights in a cathedral ceiling. It’s a space strangely devoid of furniture, however: the room is nearly empty save for a handful of mismatched chairs, a sleeping bag on the floor, and a desk in one corner, loaded with electronic equipment and surrounded by electric guitars and speakers. Stage left is a dingy motel room, with a low ceiling, stained mustard-colored walls, and a mottled linoleum floor. Here, the space is so crammed with personal items – most of them stacked in plastic tubs – that there is hardly space to move.

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L to R: Christopher Larkin, Katie Lynn Esswein, Nelson Lee. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

On stage, only a thin wall separates these two otherwise diametrically opposed spaces, just as, in the world of the play, the characters who occupy them experience widely different yet intersecting trajectories. The occupant of the spare but expensive home is Mason (Christopher Larkin), a 17-year-old from China living alone in Southern California; his wealthy widowed father James (Nelson Lee) has “parachuted” Mason alone into the US in order to send him to high school so that he can eventually gain admittance to an Ivy League college. On the other side of the “shared” wall is Alix (Katie Lynn Esswein), also 17, who is living motel room to motel room with her mother Fiona (Lisa Velten Smith) and two younger brothers. Not too long ago, this family lived in a house that was probably very much like Mason’s, but divorce and a rough economy has rendered them homeless and in financially desperate straits. Alix, too, has dreams of going to an elite university – she has her sights set on studying landscape architecture at Cooper Union – but her unstable family situation makes it tough for her to attend school regularly, let alone get good grades.

These two teens are thrown together for a school project – something to do with Shakespeare – and not only do parallels between their lives become evident, but their crises also start to converge. At play’s beginning, both have been shoved prematurely into adult independence: Mason lives alone, with virtually no supervision, and has to cope both with the practicalities of life and with loneliness, while Alix must support her family both financially and emotionally, as Fiona helplessly flails about looking for a way out of their predicament. By intermission, both of these teens believe they’ve been abandoned by their parents: James has fallen off the radar and stopped calling or sending money, and Fiona has parked her sons with a friend and moved a few hours away to take a job, leaving Alix to beg for shelter from her ex-boyfriend, Oscar (Shahine Ezell), who, it turns out, has himself been kicked out of foster care and is now squatting in an abandoned convenience store.

Mason and Alix eventually join forces and become an odd couple of sorts – conveniently, each has something the other needs (Mason has a roof over his head, stuff to sell to generate income, and can help Alix bring up her GPA; Alix can cook and knows how to write a killer college essay) – and, predictably enough, their friendship eventually morphs into a romance, one that is – also predictably enough – interrupted by the sudden reappearance of James. In the play’s final moments, a wounded bird that Mason sets free serves as a neon-lit metaphor for both Alix and Mason’s journey from damaged to whole: Mason finds the courage to break free of his father’s expectations and pursue his dream of becoming a composer, and Alix comes to have faith in her own potential and not give up on her ambitions.

I wanted to enjoy this play much more than I did, primarily because the situation of its two primary characters is both unusual and compelling. But Ching, who has done a good deal of writing for television, seems to have been unable to shed the conventions of the small screen here, and in both form and style Nomad Motel feels more like episodic television than theater. Structurally, the play depends a great deal on bouncing from one location to another in a manner that often feels sluggish and awkward. In particular, the final series of scenes, in which two conversations are happening simultaneously – one downstairs in the living room and the other upstairs in a bedroom – seem written for the quick cut of the camera rather than for the live stage, where one pair of silent actors are visibly not doing anything while the other pair is talking. Stylistically, the play aims for realism, but it’s the realism of a TV sitcom, in which we’re asked to overlook a whole host of rank implausibilities. Some of these implausible moments belong to the script itself: for example, at one point Fiona, who has been hastily packing up her family’s belongings so that she can vacate the motel room before the manager duns her for the rent, insists that Alix take the car keys, and then grabs just two of the many boxes lying about and rushes out the door, apparently never to return. How is she transporting the boxes, if she has just given her daughter the car? And why would she leave behind all of her other belongings? Other implausibilities are exacerbated by the production’s design choices, as when Alix – who is possessed of neither a sewing machine nor, as far as we are told, mad drapery skills – somehow ingeniously fashions a skirt, complete with elastic and shirring at the top, out of one of Mason’s shirts (likewise, a skirt she had earlier rigged out of Oscar’s old hoodie appeared equally impossible, given her circumstances).

In other words, in both play and production the maker’s hand is very much in evidence, making much of the plot and action seem overly contrived, particularly as the parallels between Mason and Alix, and between James and Fiona, start to line up as if on either side of a split screen themselves. As a result, despite the fact that the characters’ situations are based in fascinating and stage-worthy real-life predicaments, the play feels too neatly wrought to adequately capture their messy and unpredictable reality.

“A New Brain” at Front Porch Theatricals

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You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of William Finn’s 1998 quirky, feel-good musical A New Brain. The autobiographical tale, based on Finn’s own experience surviving a risky operation to correct an arteriovenous malformation in the brain, began life as a series of songs, written in the aftermath of Finn’s illness, that were then threaded together in collaboration with James Lapine to form a story; the musical had a relatively brief run Off-Broadway in 1998 and has been staged relatively sporadically since, most recently in 2015, as a concert performance at New York City Center.

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L to R: Becki Toth, Jeremy Spoljarick, Lauren Maria Medina, Pierre Mballa, John Wascavage, Brady D. Patsy, Meredith Kate Doyle, and David Ieong.

The show’s origins help explain why, despite the energy and complexity of the music, it has had such low visibility; as Ben Brantley wrote in his 1998 review, the musical as a whole has a “spliced-together feeling,” in which the songs don’t really fully coalesce into a coherent book musical. Nonetheless, Front Porch Theatricals’ fine production, directed by Conor McCanlus, highlights the strengths of the material to create a captivating evening of theater.

John Wascavage plays songwriter Gordon Michael Schwinn, who feels he is wasting his talent writing – or failing to write – songs for a children’s theater show hosted by a frog puppet named Mr. Bungee (Matthew J. Rush). He suffers what at first appears to be a stroke in the midst of a business lunch with his agent Rhoda (Meredith Kate Doyle); at the hospital he learns that his condition is genetic, and that he’ll need to undergo major, risky brain surgery to correct it. His mother Mimi (Becki Toth) arrives, full of Jewish motherly insistence that she will make everything all right, and his dashing, WASP-ish boyfriend Roger (Jeremy Spoljarick) is summoned from his sailing vacation to join him at his side. These characters and their concerns swirl around him, but the majority of the action takes place inside Gordon’s head, as he worries, reflects, and hallucinates in the lead up and aftermath to his operation.

McCanlus stages most of the play as a kind of hallucinatory dream, which is an excellent choice given the disjunctive nature of the songs – there is virtually no spoken dialogue, and the songs themselves stand more as ruminations on a theme than drivers of plot (and often have lyrics that don’t fully make logical sense, much like a dream). McCanlus uses ensemble movement skillfully to populate Gordon’s interior consciousness on stage, with swirls and groupings that evoke the feeling of a dream’s disorganized chaos. And although the subject matter is heavy with existential angst – Gordon is grappling both with his fear of death and his despair over having wasted his talent and failed to leave any significant work behind – McCanlus keeps the mood light and sly, emphasizing moments of irony and self-deprecation. Top among those is a scene in which Gordon’s boyfriend Roger appears in his daydream, parodically kitted out by costume designer Natalie Burton in a billowy white shirt unbuttoned to the navel (à la Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), to sing his love-song-that-is-not-a-love-song “Sailing.”

The pleasure in A New Brain derives primarily from the music rather than the story, and in that department this production delivers. Music Director Deana Muro magically conducts a nearly flawless live orchestra from below the floor, and the vocal talent in this production is some of the best I’ve seen on a Pittsburgh stage. Wascavage is excellent as Gordon, with a clear tenor and a terrific ability to sell both the wit and the emotional content of his songs. Spoljarick’s gorgeously rounded, plummy baritone is a standout in the cast, and his rendition of “Sailing” is swoon-worthy. Becki Toth once again proves herself to be one of the best musical comedy singers in town, belting out the huge ballad “Throw it Out!” one moment and then silkily caressing the devastatingly sad torch song “Music Still Plays On” the next, her deep alto inviting you to melt into the music. Drew Leigh Williams, who plays Lisa, a homeless woman, is another vocal powerhouse in the cast, knocking her big number “Change” out of the ballpark. The terrifically talented ensemble also includes the wry Brady D. Patsy as the “nice” nurse Richard, Mei Lu Barnum as the Waitress, Lauren Maria Medina as the “mean” nurse, Nancy D., Pierre Mballa as Dr. Jafar Berensteiner, and David Ieong as the Minister.

“The Forest of Everywhere” at Bricolage Production Company

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An enormous storm has torn through the world, carrying animals from far-flung places and depositing them here in Pittsburgh, in the “Forest of Everywhere.” They’re lonely, confused, feeling out of place, and in need of kind and welcoming explorers to come listen to their stories, play with them, and help them feel at home again.

That’s the back story to Bricolage’s gently enchanting “Forest of Everywhere,” an immersive, sensory-friendly theatrical experience for children of all ages and abilities that conveys the message, on the level of both form and content, that no one should ever feel out of place because they are different.

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You enter the Forest after spending a few moments inside the hollow of an enormous paper mache tree, where an alpaca named Simon (Renee Rabenold) and a forest ranger (Dave JM Bielewicz) explain how you can help the new inhabitants of the forest adjust to their new homes, and ask you to take an oath promising to be kind and helpful before entering the space. The slumbering tree wakes up long enough to grant you access to the forest – through a tunnel of what appear to be shimmering stars – where you find an inviting interior playground, filled with little rooms and tunnels that belong to the different animal-characters (all represented by puppets) who seek new friends.

There’s a donkey, named “Don Key” (Parag S. Gohel) who likes to dance, and gets you to help him find his groove again. There’s Esther, an ostrich (Missy Moreno), whose entire bling-filled dressing room has been blown to Pittsburgh with her; she’ll invite you to dress up in her feather boas and beads and to invent a new song with her. There’s a crocodile, Sobi (Tal Kroser), who lives in a moss-covered hut, and who will share stories with you. Hops the Bunny (Kelsey Robinson) doesn’t speak at all, but her tunnel is perhaps the most soothing and centering space of all – filled with objects of all different textures to touch and sort, and with tubes of scents to sniff, it’s the kind of place just bout any of us would want to retreat to when life gets too stressful. A Prince (Grayson Rumsey) escorts you out through a hidden passage when you are ready to leave, and gives you the opportunity to conjure a gift from a magical fountain before you depart.

The sound (Sarah Pickett, Chris Evans, and David Gotwald) and lighting (K. Jenna Ferree) create a soothing, calm ambience that helps transform Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s cardboard trees and ingenious huts, caverns, and rooms into an enticing and inviting play-space. The space is set up precisely to accommodate young children, or children on the autism spectrum, whose attention span, ability to focus, or tolerance of high stimulation make traditional theater inaccessible – kids can roam, interact, play, and be as involved or uninvolved as they choose. Charged with helping the animals who’ve been displaced find ways of “being themselves” in this space, the children are free to do the same. Last year I had the chance to “playtest” an earlier iteration of the show, when it premiered as part of the Children’s Festival; at that time, I was invited to regress a bit and participate as if I were a child, age and personality of my choosing. I opted to be an inquisitive, unruly, and easily distractible child, and had quite a bit of fun unleashing my id and exploring the various activities as if I were a five-year-old. This year, I attended as an adult, and although the Bricolage team encourages adults to attend sans children, in truth its target audience remains the under-ten set, and the full experience isn’t really available to those of us who have lost our ability to think magically the way children do (or who aren’t comfortable pretending to be a child among real children).

So I asked my two young friends, Murray and Alice, to share their thoughts about the “Forest of Everywhere.” Here’s what they said:

What did you like most about the Forest?

“I liked the bunny cave. There was a tunnel where Hops can sleep in. She doesn’t talk. She did a movement that showed you where she sleeps. She has things you can smell. She likes to smell them too.”

“I discovered a yellow foam hole, that when you pushed it, it felt good on your hand. I liked the slide, but you had to do a dance to slide on the slide.”

“I liked the part where we met Shushy. I had a lot of questions. Why is she snoring? Why won’t the door open? Why is there a speaker? The crocodile told stories, how Shushy became a real live tree.”

Who did you like helping?

“I spent a lot of time with Donkey, I helped him a lot.”

“I helped the bird.”

How would you describe it to a friend?

“It’s this crazy forest with all these people you need to help!”

“There are people but they have puppets, and I don’t know how they do it but they make it look like the puppets are really talking!”

Do you think other kids would like it?

“Yes! It was a lot of fun!”

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” at Throughline Theatre Company

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Polymathic comedian Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile might best be described as a love letter to creativity and to the creative energies that birthed both the joys and the horrors of the twentieth century.  The conceit of the play is a chance meeting at a Parisian café, the Lapin Agile (“Nimble Rabbit”), in 1904 between Albert Einstein (Steve Gottschalk) and Pablo Picasso (Nico Bernstein), both at the time in their twenties. The main action of the play is debate – Einstein and Picasso converse and argue about what constitutes talent, genius, and creativity, and whether art or science will be more valuable or useful to the coming century. Hindsight tells us, of course, that both of these men will introduce revolutionary innovations, and in the end the play celebrates the joys, pleasures, and importance of creative energy to both the individual and society.

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L to R: Steve Gottschalk, Nico Bernstein, Jenine Peirce. Photo by Kate Hagerty, courtesy Throughline Theatre Company.

Other characters in the play revolve around these two geniuses – there is the café owner, Freddy (here cross-cast as a woman, Jenine Peirce), who is rather simple, but who occasionally has a brilliant insight; her girlfriend Germaine (Lee Lytle), a waitress at the café who is also having an affair with Picasso; Gaston (Patrick Connor), an elderly patron with a tiny bladder and an obsession with sex; Suzanne (Hannah Brizzi), a Picasso-groupie who gets upset when he forgets that he slept with her; Sagot (Samantha A. Camp), a savvy art dealer; Schmendiman (Chris Duvall), an American with a lot of silly get-rich-quick ideas; the Countess (Sarah McPartland), Einstein’s girlfriend; and a time-traveling Visitor in blue suede shoes (guess who?), played with a Tennessee drawl by Stephen Ray.

Squint a bit and it’s not hard to imagine many of these characters having been cleaved off of characters Martin has successfully played himself in his long film career, in particular Gaston and Freddy – who both have something of Inspector Clouseau’s “idiot savant” vibe – and Schmendiman – whose wide-eyed belief in his own ability to sell a crazy invention evokes the sheet music salesman in Pennies from Heaven.

Strong performances by Bernstein and Gottschalk anchored the play’s central debate, and the Throughline Theatre Company production, directed by Daniel Freeman, garnered a lot of laughs, particularly from the many metatheatrical references sprinkled throughout the play. The simple set (Rob Hockenberry) served the needs of the production well, and lighting designer Paige Borak and sound designer Shannon Knapp brought in special effects that elevated the action out of its naturalistic setting as the play required.

“Byhalia, Mississippi” at Carnegie Stage

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The dilemma at the heart of Evan Linder’s play Byhalia, Mississippiis a knotty one: what should a man do when his wife gives birth to a child that is visibly – by virtue of its race – not his own?

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Brandon Meeks and Erika Cuenca. Photo by Heather Mull, courtesy Carnegie Stage.

If your Netflix habits are anything like mine, you might recall that this was also a central plot conflict of an episode of Call the Midwife. There, to the astonishment of the midwives, an elderly white husband – who both doted on his wife and also desperately wanted to be a father – simply accepted a black baby as his own with nary a blink of an eye. Here, Jim (Brandon Meeks) flies immediately into a nearly incoherent rage, first falsely accusing his best friend Karl (Lamar K. Cheston) of being the father, and then moving out of the house before his wife Laurel (Erika Cuenca) can bring the baby home from the hospital. But Jim’s fury about the infidelity is, as Laurel pleadingly points out, more than a bit hypocritical: he, too, had had an extramarital affair in the months before Laurel cheated on him, and she had forgiven him that betrayal. Why is he unable to do the same for her?

The play’s title helps provide the answer: Byhalia is a tiny town, one in which the baby’s race advertises loud and clear to everyone Jim has known his whole life that he has been cuckolded. The central question the play poses is: does Jim have it in him to forgive Laurel this public humiliation?

The story is told here in realistic fashion – the set (by designer Adrienne Fischer) authentically recreates the living room/kitchen area of a small, low-rent home, the kind of place that might have been built in the 70s and untouched since. A couch propped on cinder blocks and an old Lazyboy recliner signal Jim and Laurel’s current economic status, but the dialogue makes clear that they are both college-educated (she’s a school teacher, he played sports at Ole Miss), and you suspect that they’ve both moved down the socio-economic ladder a notch from their upbringing. As the play begins, Laurel’s mother Celeste (Virginia Wall Gruenert) has been visiting, overstaying her welcome while waiting for the baby to arrive. She’s a cantankerous, censorious woman, and when she comes back after the baby is born, her first instinct is to command Laurel to give the baby up for adoption rather than try to raise it herself in Byhalia. Also adamantly opposed to Laurel’s raising the baby in town is Ayesha (Hope Anthony), the wife of the baby’s father – like Jim, she, too, feels publicly humiliated by the baby’s existence. But Laurel stubbornly holds firm that the “plan” she has made – to raise a family with Jim – is the plan she’ll follow, even if it takes years to come to fruition.

Byhalia, Mississippi is a play that would sit comfortably among the offerings on the Lifetime channel – it has a soap opera quality to its conflicts and its (at times overwritten) dialogue, and the structure of the play is more televisual than theatrical. Moreover, its predictable ending felt, oddly enough, far less realistic or plausible than the resolution of that Call the Midwife episode, in which, as much as the husband’s willingness to be blind to his wife’s infidelity beggared belief, it at least remained consistent with his most deeply held desires. In Linder’s play, the characters’ flip flops feel thinly motivated and improbable. Nevertheless, director Ingrid Sonnichsen finds a core of authenticity for each character despite the script’s implausibilities, and the ensemble makes vivid their characters convoluted and painful paths towards offering  – and accepting – forgiveness.

“The White Chip” at City Theatre

What does it take to overcome an addiction to alcohol? Many people find success through the twelve-step model, which requires, among other things, that addicts surrender to a higher power. But what do people do who, for one reason or another, find it impossible to believe in a higher power?

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L to R: Daina Michelle Griffith, Kyle Cameron, and Daniel Krell. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

That’s one question, among many regarding the difficult road to recovery, that Sean Daniels’ autobiographical play answers. The “white chip” of the title refers to the first plastic sobriety medallion a person receives at an AA meeting upon declaring an intention to stop drinking. Daniels (played engagingly by Kyle Cameron) finds himself the recipient of plenty of these, as rehabilitation attempt after rehabilitation attempt fails to help him say “no” to booze.

The play is written as a combination of first-person narration and brief scenes of dialogue, with side commentary tossed in regularly by Daina Michelle Griffith and Daniel Krell, who alternate between tallying up the “pro’s” and “con’s” of drinking and stepping into the roles of the many colleagues, friends, relatives, and lovers impacted by Daniels’ love affair with alcohol. The tone of the writing is playfully self-aware, consisting mostly of direct address to the audience that is laced with a good deal of sardonic self-criticism. The three actors capture that tone with a casual confidence, establishing an easy comic rapport with each other and the audience. The playful tone is underscored by Leon Rothenberg’s whimsical sound design, which punctuates the action at apropos moments with comic sound effects – doorbells, chimes, trumpets, and choirs of angels – that help keep the story light even when the subject matter turns dark.

I’m often skeptical about plays that depend heavily on narration, but this one really works. Director Sheryl Kaller has shaped the action with a keen sense of timing and pace, and she handles the shifts between narration and microscenes with panache. Robert C. T. Steele’s costumes help keep the action flowing, as iconic articles of clothing help to quickly and efficiently establish new characters, and Hank Bullington’s bi-level set simultaneously supports and makes fun of the inherent didacticism of any play about recovery, featuring chalkboards on multiple levels that allow the actors to trace (and at times erase) the “lessons” learned along the road to recovery.

It helps the comic energy of the play that the story Daniels has to tell is one that has a happy ending – his perspective as a storyteller is fully inflected by the fact that he managed to find a way to get sober, stay sober, and rebuild the life that alcohol destroyed. That his way did not involve succumbing to a higher power may be the most sobering insight he has to offer, as it points to the ways addiction-recovery programs may fail to serve those who like their solutions evidence-based.

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.

PPTHeisenberg029

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.