In Kareem Fahmy’s new play American Fast, the protagonist, Khady (Tara Touzie), is a college basketball star in her senior year who is hoping to lead her team to a March Madness championship victory. She’s also a non-religious Muslim who has spent much of her life appeasing her devout mother by seeming to be observant of religious customs and obligations. The play’s dilemma crops up around the obligation to fast for Ramadan, which also coincides with the month of the championship basketball tournament. Khady plans to do as she has in the past – not actually fast while letting her mother think she is doing so – but those plans are derailed by her coach – who whips up a lot of PR around Khady’s status as a first female Muslim basketball star – and her mother – who unexpectedly comes to town to help her manage fasting while playing the tournament. Khady finds herself suddenly obligated not only to observe a religious ritual she doesn’t fully believe in, but also – through the magic of social media – to stand as a model representative and symbol for young Muslim women around the world.
You know from the beginning that this will not go well, mainly because the play starts with its four characters – Khady, her mother Suzan (Deena Aziz), her Coach (Hilary Ward), and her boyfriend Gabe (Terry Bell) – trying to help her get back in the good graces of an unseen “provost” sitting in the audience who wants to remove Khady from the team because someone has graffitied “Khady Salama doesn’t believe in anything” on the side of the university’s brand-new multi-million dollar athletic facility. The action then jumps back in time to tell us what happened to put Khady into that pressure-cooker of a mess, most of which stems from a toxic combination of Khady’s driving ambition to be number one on the court and her fear of disappointing anyone, especially her mother. Those two character traits lead her to lie and keep secrets until her lies and secrets blow up her life.
Note that I said the action jumps back in time to tell (rather than show) us what happened. Fahmy is better at writing soliloquies than believable dialogue, and he plays to his strengths by having a good deal of the story delivered as direct-address monologues. I don’t know if the script also calls for the actors to repeatedly stand still downstage in spotlights while they talk to us, but the overall effect of director Jennifer Chang’s rather static staging is that it begs the question of why the script needs much more than a staged reading, other than to showcase Britton Mauk’s unexpectedly flexible set and Kaitlyn Pietras’s illuminating projection design.
I suspect this is a play that will land differently for viewers depending on their own relationship to religious identity and religiosity. Some may be most interested in its exploration of how the acceptance or rejection of religion can divide children from parents; others may be more drawn to its sensitive depiction of the various forms Muslim identity can take. The play was most compelling to me in the moments when it focused on how Khady comes to be seduced (or maybe a better word is pressured) into believing herself to be a Muslim role model, and then allows that to feed her already overly-large ego and ambitions. The god of social media leads her to lose sight of who she really is and what she really cares about, and it’s when she starts lying to herself that she fully loses her way.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about living in our current political climate is the impression that there seems to be no capacity for compromise or finding middle ground anymore. If you look at the heated rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum, you can’t help but imagine that disagreements small and large are making it impossible to engage in civil conversation, let alone live in community together and find shared values. But are we as impossibly polarized as the pundits would have us be?
Playwright Karen Zacarías seems not to think so. In her comedy Native Gardensshe gives us two couples who divide fairly neatly along familiar fault lines. Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Juan Rivera Lebron and Evelyn Hernandez) are a young married couple who have just bought a fixer-upper in a tony Georgetown neighborhood. She is a very pregnant PhD student and he is an up-and-coming lawyer; they are both Latinx, but with very different backgrounds – he is an immigrant from Chile who was born with a silver spoon, and she hails from a middle-class family that has generations of roots in New Mexico. Their new neighbors are Frank and Virginia Butley (Cotter Smith and Laurie Klatscher), a well-off white couple who have lived in the neighborhood for decades, and who take great pride in their immaculate and well-kept home and garden. The Venn diagram that captures the lifestyles and interests of these two couples has a very small sliver of overlap – they share a fence between their back yards, both Frank and Tania love to garden, and both Pablo and Virginia were the first or only of their category in their respective workplaces. What falls outside that overlap is significant – besides the fact that they are of different races and different generations, there is also the different approach to gardening (Frank is into herbicides, Tania is an organic farmer; Frank fills his garden beds with carefully arranged European cultivars, Tania proposes to let a native landscape proliferate) as well as different political affiliations (the Butleys are Republicans and the Del Valles are Democrats, of course).
The play’s main conflict comes when Tania and Pablo ask if they can replace an eyesore chain link fence that divides the two yards with a nicer wooden fence (Tony Ferrieri’s excellent scenic design tells you at a glance everything you need to know about the history of these two houses and yards). At first Frank is thrilled, because he believes that his repeated failure to win the neighborhood garden competition has been due to the ugly fence. But things turn sour when a property survey reveals that the fence is actually not on the property line, and that Frank’s garden extends two feet into the Del Valle yard. Despite Tania’s best efforts to keep things calm and civil, the dispute over the property line quickly devolves into farcical acrimony. It also becomes a (at times overly spelled out) metaphor for white supremacy and colonialism: whether or not the Butleys were aware that they had annexed a portion of the previous owner’s property, their reluctance now to acknowledge the misappropriation and return the stolen land is a clear stand-in for colonialism’s signature move.
Zacarías’s writing is at its best, and funniest, when it takes digs at the kind of self-serving rationalizations we all indulge in to justify actions or attitudes we know are morally suspect – as, for example, when the wealthy Butleys convince themselves that they can invoke “squatters’ rights” to make a legal claim to the disputed area of the yard. Such moments give insight into the mechanisms of righteousness that fuel polarization, and show how people devolve into hypocrisy without even being fully aware of it. The four actors are particularly fine at keeping those moments sincere and maintaining the characters’ three-dimensionality even as they descend into a childish peevishness; they never let us lose sight of the fact that these four people would really prefer to live in a world with less, rather than more, conflict.
Indeed, what’s particularly welcome – and feels “real” – about this play is that all of the characters really do want to be “good” and maintain cordial relations, even as they continually put their own interests first and thereby escalate the conflict. The problem the play sets up, and solves (at least for itself) is: how do you put that desire for community and cordiality first, and meet in the middle? It takes something of a deus ex machina (or maybe I should say: infantem ex matris) to bring them back to their adult senses, but in the end, compromise brings them all what they desire.
How often do you think about what the US Constitution means to you? I’m willing to bet that you don’t give it a lot of thought on a daily basis; I certainly don’t. But Heidi Schreck is here to warn that it would behoove all of us to think about it more, because many of its presumed protections are extremely fragile.
Of course, that’s not going to come as news to anyone who was awake last summer when the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision and essentially deprived millions of their right to make essential reproductive health care decisions. Schreck’s play – which premiered in 2017 –is clear-eyed about the tenuousness of rights that exist only by dint of Supreme Court decisions. Her description of the Constitution’s many inadequacies, particularly with regard to the protection of women’s rights, was alarming back then (I saw the original production on Broadway in the summer of 2019); now, it’s enraging.
In What the Constitution Means to Me,Schreck (played here by Tami Dixon) takes us back to when she was a fifteen-year-old who traveled around the country competing for college scholarship money by giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion Halls (the scenic design, by Sasha Schwartz, may transport you back to a Legion or Shriners event of your past, if you’re of a certain age). The show is, on one hand, a master class in understanding the Constitution as a document: not only does Schreck get deep into the weeds on a couple of key amendments, but she also explains the difference between the “negative rights” enshrined in the US Constitution – which protect us from things the government might do to us, like illegal search and seizure – and the many many “positive rights” that are missing, such as a right to health care, education, or gender equality (the fifty year old Equal Rights Amendment has still not passed!) But it is also deeply personal and insistently political. As part of the competition, the contestants were required to “draw a personal connection between their own lives and the great document”; while the teen Heidi found this part of the contest difficult, the adult Heidi is able to connect the dots between the Constitution’s failure to recognize women as full citizens and the domestic violence and sexual abuse suffered by four generations of her female ancestors. Also personal for her (as for many of us) is the (now partially voided) constitutional right to privacy that Justice William O. Douglas carved out of the 9th amendment, in the 1965 Griswold decision that legalized birth control, and that was later used to protect a woman’s right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term in Roe v. Wade.
Schreck employs a digressive storytelling technique that allows her to make connections across space and time and between major historical events and intimate personal history. It’s an approach that eminently suits a project aimed at illuminating how something as abstract as the US Constitution comes to have personal meaning and import; it’s also an approach that allows her to take her audience on an emotional journey that includes a good deal of levity and even LOL humor in addition to anger and grief. Dixon, an experienced hand at such storytelling, is the ideal amanuensis for Schreck – it’s hard to think of another local actor who would be so right for the role – and she is particularly great at shading the range of ire Schreck expresses, from ironic simmer to steely outrage. And while there’s always something odd when an actor plays another actor playing themselves, Dixon’s straightforwardness and connectedness to the text allows us to see the Heidi in her as much as we see her as Heidi.
I’ve been writing up to this point as if this is a one-person show, but in fact it includes two other performers. Ken Bolden plays Mike Iveson, who serves at the beginning of the show as the “older white man” Legionnaire judge of the speech competition (looking scarily accurate to type, courtesy of Richard Parsakian’s dead-on costuming), and whose job later in the performance is to provide “positive male energy” on stage, when he offers his own story of growing into his queer identity.
The other performer is a high-school student who comes on stage in the second part of the show to debate against Dixon on the proposition “The Constitution ought to be abolished.” Depending on the night you see the show, this will either be Fox Chapel Area High School sophomore Swati Mylarappa, or North Allegheny Senior High School senior Lamees Yasir, both of whom are poised, whip-smart, experienced debaters. A flip of the coin determines which side of the argument Dixon will take, and which will be taken by the student; at the end of the debate, a member of the audience is selected to determine which argument “wins.” Both times I saw this show – on Broadway and here at City Theatre – I was simultaneously impressed by the skill and self-possession of the teenaged debater and frustrated by the binary “win/lose” constraints of the debate format. Neither choice – to keep what Schreck has demonstrated to be a deeply flawed constitution, or to abolish it and put our rights at the mercy of the chaos monkeys who are currently holding the strings of power – seems like a good option.
But it raises the question: what does the Constitution mean to me? To any of us? And along with that question comes the even more pressing one: to whom have we delegated the power to interpret it, change it, and possibly even abolish it? That’s a question that has become even more urgent – and frightening – in the last two years, making the stakes of Schreck’s work feel very high indeed.
“Be careful what you wish for” might be the phrase that best captures the sentiment at the core of Anna Ziegler’s new play The Wanderers, which depicts the quiet dissolution of two marriages as a result of a yearning for something – some vague, undefined thing – more. And – because this is a play about both religious and secular Jews, and the title is an overt reference to the forty years’ that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness – I should probably add “and accept what is bashert.”
Schmuli (Nick Lehane) and Esther (Moira Quigley) belong to the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community; their marriage, in the early 1970s, is an arranged one that is troubled from the start by Esther’s small rebellions against the rules and traditions that circumscribe what she is allowed to do and be. When she floats the idea of using birth control so that she can pursue other interests besides raising children, the otherwise gentle and meek Schmuli allows the Rebbe to impose a punishment so severe that it forces Esther to take their newborn son and divorce herself from both Schmuli and the religious community.
Secular Jew Abe (Jed Resnick) and bi-racial Black-Jewish Sophie (Allison Strickland) have known each other since childhood – both were raised by mothers who left the Hasidic community and who remained close friends on the ‘outside.’ In 2015 their marriage is tested when Abe, who is an award-winning novelist, gets a fan message from famous movie star Julia Cheever (Sarah Goeke) and embarks on a secret text and email flirtation with her. His correspondence with Julia opens up wounds in himself and in his marriage that aren’t readily healed.
Ziegler cuts up these two marriage stories and assembles them like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The writing craft here is admirable: she organically spools out the relationship between the two couples in a way that doesn’t feel like an artificial construction of suspense or mystery but rather serves as a means of carefully building up the layers of legacy, loss, and betrayals of trust that spur the characters’ desires. And because Ziegler assembles the puzzle with such finesse, the piece that changes the picture toward the end of the play has a surprising and devastating effect.
This being a play about Jewish agon, it’s also quite funny. Abe is the self-castigating neurotic type (think Woody Allen before we all hated him), and Resnick fleshes out the stereotype with wry sensitivity. The other characters have their flashes of humor and quirk as well, in particular Esther, whom Quigley gives a stubborn but good-natured need to question everything. Lehane brings humanity and warmth to his portrayal of the pious, rule-bound Schmuli, and Strickland and Goeke layer subtle complexities into the characters of Sophie and Julia.
Layers and layering are echoed in the production’s design and directing. The spare scenic design, by Anne Mundell, evokes the stone lattice of an Islamic temple, with a balcony above that director Colette Robert uses to suture together both time and space. Particularly effective is her staging of the scenes of text and email conversation between Abe and Julia: jettisoning the usual “eyes forward” stage convention for such exchanges, she lets the characters speak directly to each other, often in the same space, capturing, in their eye contact and emotional connection, the kind of intense feeling of direct communication we often feel when engaged in an extended text message exchange. Mindy Eshelman’s costuming also picks up the theme of complex layers as a way of connecting the characters across the generational and cultural divide: the ritually prescribed formal layers of dress of the Hasidic characters are echoed and contrasted by the casual and schlumpy layered look favored by the hipster secular characters.
All those layers invite you to think about what they are intended to hide or protect, and about all the externalities that lead people to feel restless, bored, dissatisfied, and discontented, because there is some “more” to be had “somewhere out there”. In the end, as both couples come closer to understanding that what’s on the outside may be neither the source of, nor the solution to, their dissatisfaction, it becomes increasingly clear that, more often that not, happiness is wanting what you already have.
Or, as Esther puts it: “let us feel how fortunate we are.” Accept what is bashert, and you can stop wandering in the wilderness.
Nothing in Lynn Nottage’s play Clyde’s is only what it first appears to be. While on the surface it’s a play about a diner in a truck stop somewhere near Reading, PA, that establishment is not merely a way station for hungry drivers but also a liminal space – a limbo, if you will – for its employees, all of whom have felony convictions and prison records. Likewise, the sandwiches they make for their clientele are not mere sustenance but stand-ins for artistic expression and self-actualization, and the practice of making sandwiches a means of disciplining a kind of Zen present-mindedness. Indeed, the play itself is at once both a light comedy about misfits, and a thinly veiled allegory of redemption, in which angels and devils battle over possession of the hearts and minds of the once-fallen.
The two chief antagonists are the saintly Montrellous (Khalil Kain), a kind of culinary kung fu master of the art of sandwich-making, and his boss, the cartoonishly villainous Clyde (Latonia Phipps), who heaps all manner of abuse on her employees, for reasons largely unexplained (except that she’s, y’know, the devil incarnate). Clyde is the only employer in the area who will hire ex-cons, which gives her masochistic power over her line cooks. These, it turns out, are all Good People who have made Bad Choices, and who seem to have been doomed to suffer for a spell in the purgatory of Clyde’s kitchen. Tish (Saige Smith) is a single mother who did time after robbing a pharmacy for prescription medicine for her disabled child (and nabbing some Oxycodone and Adderall to sell on the side). Rafael (Jerreme Rodriguez) got hopped up on drugs and shot a bank employee in the face while committing armed robbery with a BB gun because he wanted to buy his girlfriend a King Charles Spaniel. And the newest employee, Jason (Patrick Cannon), regrets both the rage-induced assault that landed him in prison, and the white supremacist tattoos he obtained while behind bars.
If that last character sounds familiar, it’s because he represents a link to Nottage’s 2015 play Sweat, in which the character Jason attacks Oscar (a Latino worker who crossed a picket line to take work in the local mill) and in the ensuing melee winds up giving a traumatic brain injury to bartender Stan. When the Pittsburgh Public Theater produced that play in 2018, Cannon embodied the role of Jason with a sullen intensity; the continuity of casting here helps to flesh out the broader world of the play for those of us who had the opportunity to see the earlier production (which also featured Clyde’s director, Monteze Freeland, as Jason’s parole officer). But while the actor is the same, both the personality and the facial tattoos have undergone a confusing change: this Jason is far sweeter and more pliant than the character in the earlier play (and the prominent swastika on his cheek has shrunk significantly). The shift in genre from tragedy to comedy requires that Jason be redeemable – and Cannon threads the needle of Jason’s remorse and guilt with finesse – but it’s nonetheless a little hard to square this character’s about-face into meek submission with his cocksure past “self.”
Rodriguez, who was also in the PPT production of Sweat, playing Oscar with a quiet dignity, is here a tightly wound spring as Rafael; it’s not hard to believe that this is a man who is holding on to his newly-won sobriety with every fiber of his being. Smith’s Tish is feisty and fierce, and together they form a spiky foil to Kain’s soft-spoken Montrellous, to whom they are eager acolytes. For Montrellous, making a perfect sandwich is an expression of love – he says at one point that the sandwich represents strength, freedom, victory, and redemption – and as a Sensei of the Sandwich he is prone to offering aphoristic insights like “overcomplication obscures truth” in relation to both seasonings and life. While at times this sage philosophizing threatens to get heavyhanded, the play is also at its best when it self-consciously makes fun of its own indulgence in the “Ah, Grasshopper” trope.
Sandwiches also stand in for an aspiration that is anathema to Clyde’s dark view of the world. The four line cooks spend much of the play inventing recipes for their dream sandwich and testing those recipes out, but Clyde will neither taste their offerings of enlightenment nor put them on the menu. The comedy of this play inheres in both its snappy dialogue and in the fact that it puts its finger on the scale in favor of hope: in the end, the cooks come together to create a sandwich that is their ticket out of purgatory. Whether Clyde is able to see the light is a question that the play leaves unresolved.
In Lindsay Joelle’s new play The Garbologists, the mismatch is between veteran sanitation worker Danny (Jason Babinsky) and rookie Marlowe (Bria Walker), who has been assigned to Danny’s truck for training. He’s a chatty extrovert who’s not good with boundaries; she’s a taciturn loner with high walls. He’s an open book – transparent about the difficulties in his personal life, which include a TRO filed against him by his ex-wife and their conflict over custody of their son – while she is something of a mystery – an Ivy-league graduate who has opted for a career in sanitation. As he teaches her the tricks of the trade, he begins to chip away at her armor, and by play’s end each has come to trust the other with their most painful confidences.
The play is mostly a light comedy, although it pulls on some sober threads. Chief among these is the transience of existence, and of the ways our garbage becomes a marker for loss. Danny is an expert at “reading” the trash left out for them to pick up: he can tell the difference between a normal pile of garbage, and one that signals someone has died, moved, or been evicted. His years in the service make him insouciant about what those latter piles mean to the people who dragged them out to the curb; Marlowe, on the other hand, keenly feels the weight of the discards and the unknown stories behind them. In the world of the play, his job becomes teaching her not only how to follow the “house rules” of the job, but also how to let go and move on.
The snazzy production features a moving cab of a garbage truck, complete with lights, and not one but two “back ends,” one of which even has a clever working mechanism to scrape the garbage from the hopper into the truck (scenic design by Narelle Sissons); the excellent sound design by Karin Graybash fills out the illusion of a garbage truck in action. Although for the most part Joelle’s characters come across more like types than fully fleshed out human beings, under Monteze Freeland’s direction Babinsky and Walker connect genially and take their characters on a believable journey from friction to friendship.
The trajectory of the plot of Misery goes in the opposite direction, from friendliness to (way beyond) friction. Here the “odd couple” is a romance novelist named Paul Sheldon (David Whalen), and his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Sheila McKenna). Paul wakes in her home after he has been in an incapacitating car accident, and he is grateful at first for the seemingly daffy and kind Good Samaritan’s aid and nursing. But it quickly becomes clear that she is a deranged psychopath who is keeping him prisoner, and who has no qualms about tormenting him to keep him in line. When she discovers that in the final installment of his series he has killed off her beloved protagonist, Misery Chastain, she forces him to write a sequel that brings the character back to life; he does so with the understanding that writing the novel may be the only way to save his own life. You may already know this story: it’s adapted by William Goldman from the 1987 Stephen King novel, and was made into a film (also scripted by Goldman) in 1990.
Reader, I’ll be honest: I approached this production with trepidation. I don’t love horror, and I worried that Misery would be too graphically violent for my taste. But though there are moments of physical assault, the play is primarily a psychological thriller, and it’s a beautifully crafted one to boot. Goldman’s writing is tight and suspenseful, and he creates a cat and mouse dynamic between Annie and Paul that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
The barebones production, directed by Patrick Jordan, is both chillingly suspenseful and shockingly funny. Scenic design by Tony Ferrieri and sound design by Matthew Nielson contribute mightily to the suspense: Ferrieri’s rotating set comes alive during a couple of heartpounding scenes in which Paul escapes from his room in a wheelchair to explore the rest of Annie’s twee little house, and Nielson’s ominous music ratchets up the tension as Paul frantically tries to get back to his room before Annie returns. Steve Tolan’s special effects take credit for much of the comedy: the gore on view is frankly awful, but also (as in so many horror films) so outrageous that it shades into humor.
Whalen and McKenna are well-matched and work beautifully together to intensify the stakes of their conflict. Both actors give their characters a sly intelligence that fuels not only their conflict but also the suspense over its outcome, and while it seems that Paul, the accomplished novelist, should have the upper hand over the provincial and unsophisticated Annie, McKenna plays Annie as a woman who is far cannier than she lets on. For a good deal of the play, Whalen is trapped in a bed – no easy task for an actor – and he uses the immobilization to good effect in conveying Paul’s pain, helplessness, and growing terror. His first attempt to get out of bed is excruciating to watch; equally excruciating is witnessing his realization that Annie is more diabolical than she appears (and this is a realization he, and we, come to repeatedly). As Annie, McKenna gives a whole new spin on crazy, shifting with jarring dispatch from adoring reader to punitive torturer to solicitous caregiver, and the more of Annie’s twisted obsession she reveals, the creepier she gets.
Harrowing as the scenario of Misery may be, the production is a downright thrill to watch, with a cathartic ending that won’t surprise anyone, and that may be all the more sweet now that we, too, have all been released from our own long covid-captivity.
Your Tatler has had a pretty busy spring, as local theatres – and she – emerge from the long pandemic winter. And there’s more coming up! Here are some of the performances I have on my calendar; you should try to catch them, too. As far as I know, all of the below have strong COVID precautions in place (vaccination proof and masks required).
Yesterday, the CMU School of Drama opened its production of the musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. I was able to see this show on Broadway when it featured CMU alum Denee Benton – it’s a raucously entertaining show, and the snippets of rehearsal I’ve seen on campus make me excited to see our production, which was directed by Tome’ Cousin and music directed by Rick Edinger (both colleagues of mine in the department). Also opening at CMU next week is another musical by the same writer, Dave Malloy: Preludes, which is about a turbulent period in the life of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. In addition, the annual CMU New Works series also begins later this week, featuring Vice Wheels by Malique Guinn, The Real Girls by Beth Ann Powers, and 차’nt by Trà Nguyễn, directed by B. Kleymeyer and Jasmine Roth. Yinz know my policy on writing about student work (I don’t), so: ‘nuff said. You can find information on schedule and tickets for all of these performances here.
Busy week at work, amiright? But there’s more! The Pittsburgh Public Theatre opened its production of Murder on the Orient Expressthis past weekend as well. I’m not going to have a chance to see this production until very late in its run, and because of that am unlikely to blog about it, but it looks like it will be a lot of fun, with its cast featuring the local talent of James FitzGerald, Martin Giles, Catherine Growl, Amy Landis, Jason McCune, Lenora Nemetz, Caroline Nicolian, Helena Ruoti, Alec Silberblatt, Saige Smith, Ricardo Vila-Roger, and David Whalen. Marya Sea Kaminski has directed.
Also coming up next weekend is the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh’s Monster: Frankenstein Re-Imaginedat the Oaks Theatre in Oakmont. This concert is a truly singular event: the original 1931 film Frankenstein, featuring Boris Karloff as the monster, is scored with a 1970s funk and rhythm and blues score that is performed by the choir and a five piece band led by bassist Paul Thompson. The music – arranged and written by artistic director Thomas W. Douglas and CMU Drama alum Jaron Crawford – promises to turn the film into a completely new – and unrepeatable – experience; this is the kind of event you’ll hear about later and wish you hadn’t missed. So don’t: you have two chances to see it, on April 23 and 24; use the code BCPALTO21 for a discount.
Looking a bit further into the future: City Theatre will present the world premiere of Lindsay Joelle’s new play The Garbologists, opening on May 6 (previews begin April 30). This play is an unconventional buddy comedy that follows two sanitations workers in the cab of a nineteen-ton garbage truck in New York City; tasked with picking up what the world has discarded, they learn that some things are easier to toss than others. The production is directed by Monteze Freeland and features performers Jason Babinsky and Bria Walker. Attack Theatre brings back Some Assembly Requiredon May 12-15, a performance that involves its audience in the creation of its choreography. PICT will open a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgamethat same weekend. And Front Porch Theatricals is back in business after a two-year hiatus, and will open A Man of No Importanceon May 20.
Feels so good to be back experiencing live performance again. Mask up and join me!
This week saw the opening of two original works that each tell the story of an ordinary person in inventive ways.
As part of its CSA series, the New Hazlett presented Papa, a new play written and performed by Bailey Lee and co-created by director Coleman Ray Clark. Papa tells the story of Lee’s grandfather, “papa” (played by Arnold Y. Kim) who immigrated to McKeesport from China in 1950, when he was a teenager, and of her father, who died when Lee herself was a teenager. The family story here will feel familiar to many whose progenitors came to the US in the first half of the 20th century: there is xenophobia and an inadvertent name change by immigration authorities at the port of entry, there is the conflict between preservation of culture and assimilation, and there is the climb up the socioeconomic ladder through hard work and education that has characterized the experience of so many immigrants, especially those who were able to enter the US during the postwar boom years. Lee’s family history is also a story of biracial identity: both her papa and her father married white women (both the grandmother and the mother are played by Frances Dell Bendert), and the blond-haired, green-eyed Lee has a much deeper connection to her Chinese heritage than her outward appearance might signal.
The play is structured episodically and jumps around in time from the present day to select moments in the past; Lee functions as a narrator throughout, but also steps into the action to play a customer at her great-grandfather’s Chinese restaurant, her own father as a young man, and herself at various ages of her own life. The work also experiments playfully with different approaches to telling its story. At times it suddenly becomes a musical, complete with jazz-hand choreography; there is also a comic “clash of the Chinese zodiac animals” dance that helps to establish the family dynamic between Lee, her mother, and her papa, a moment of slam poetry, and even some unexpected puppetry. One particularly well-crafted episode comes when Lee is asked at an audition to reveal a bit more about herself: she goes deep into her relationship with her father, and also into her own insecurities and guilt over that relationship. Using the audition as a pretext for such a vulnerable soliloquy is a clever choice, particularly because it allows for a bit of cynicism from the auditioners to cut comically through her solipsism.
Lee seems aware of the danger of getting mired in sentiment, and for the most part she successfully treads the line between sweet and treacly. Frequently she brings in a sour note to add unexpected humor and bite, as when she offers a metatheatrical ending in which she gifts the play itself to her papa. He protests that his life is really not interesting enough to be turned into a play, and in a way he’s right: nothing he’s done or experienced has been particularly unusual or dramatic. But Lee’s theatrical love letter to him and to her family is heartwarming and sincere, and prompts reflection on the ways we all are shaped by the journeys made by the people who made us.
The inventive folks at RealTime Interventions take a very different, and delightfully unusual, approach to telling the story of a real person in their new work People of Pittsburgh: The Alchemist of Sharpsburg. This is the first in what will be a series of “theatrical portraits celebrating extraordinary, ordinary Pittsburghers”; here, the subject of the portrait is Candra, the manager of Games Unlimited in Squirrel Hill, who is not only a game aficionado (as his profession might suggest) but also a lifelong seeker of spiritual knowledge and insight. Like Lee’s papa, his life story is also not a particularly unusual or dramatic one (with the exception of some very high weirdness involving occult phenomena), but RealTime’s theatricalization of his biography cleverly turns content into form by rendering his story as a “choose your own adventure” (CYOA) role-play game (RPG).
I’m going to pause for a moment and confess something: I’m not someone who indulges in games very often (my use of the acronyms above is a brazen imposture). As an adolescent in the 70s I was mystified by Dungeons and Dragons (and by its popularity among the boys I knew); I’ve never understood or been drawn into any video games; and it’s only on rare occasions that I’ll get pulled into a game, usually when visiting family for holidays. So I was a little hesitant when I first saw the description of The Alchemist of Sharpsburg; I worried that it would be too “insider” to gamers, and that I wouldn’t be the audience for this show. I’m happy to say that I was wrong. Indeed, even my theatre-going partner – who I would venture to say actively dislikes most games – was thoroughly engaged and charmed by this unique evening of theater.
The setup is this: after a short introduction to establish some ground rules and explain (to the few in the audience who have been hiding under a game-rock for the last five decades) what a Dungeons and Dragons-typerole play game is, performer-writer Rusty Thelin dons a hood and assumes the role of Game Master, casting us (the audience) in the role of Candra, whose life then unspools as a kind of quest in the manner of DND or Hero Quest. Thelin narrates the events of Candra’s life, starting from his early childhood, in the second-person mode of the Game Master (e.g., “you head over to your neighbor’s house with your mother…”). Meanwhile, performer Lydia Gibson reads Candra’s own words, as captured through interviews and conversations, and represents his thoughts and feelings about those events. At times, volunteers from the audience come onto the stage to embody and represent scenes from Candra’s life; at regular intervals, Thelin, as Game Master, asks the audience to vote, with double-sided paddles, on where the story will go next (this is the CYOA part). There are also obstacles that pop up, which need to be overcome (or not) through the roll of a large 16-sided die; this, too, brings an audience member onto the stage, and others in the audience can reduce the number that needs to be rolled by giving up a token that represents a sword. As Candra (that is, “we”) gains more understanding and experience through the game-journey, he/we “level up” (apparently there is some complicated math involved in the die-rolling as the levels get higher to which more experienced players in the audience were keenly attuned; Rusty assured us he was doing the calculations in his head). The chance and randomness built into the play’s structure mirrors its content: as in life, paths bifurcate or are blocked, foreclosing some options and channeling the journey towards others.
As you might imagine from my description here, the audience interaction in this production is plentiful, but be not afraid! It’s also low-key, informal, and completely voluntary. Indeed, one of the charms of this piece is that it quickly achieves the vibe of something more akin to an after-school RPG club than a theater. One of the rules established at the beginning of the performance was to “Ask questions,” and to my surprise, people in the audience did, not only about the game itself, but also about some of the ideas and themes raised in the course of telling Candra’s story. Chief among those is the power of stories to shape and transform people. The draw of role-play games is the draw of all storytelling, including and especially the storytelling of live performance: it’s the chance to engage imaginatively with someone else’s adventure, live their truth, and empathize with their joys, pains, dreams, and disappointments. RealTime’s alchemical experimentation with theatrical form is, in the end, not only about Candra’s extraodinary ordinary life; it’s also about the transformative power of story.
Set in 1949, Dominique Morisseau’s 2015 play Paradise Blueis part of her “Detroit Cycle,” a trilogy of tragedies about the Detroit Black community. Chronologically the first in the cycle, Paradise Blue looks back at what was perhaps the most hopeful of the three eras she explores – the other two plays, Detroit 67 and Skeleton Crew are set, respectively, on the eve of the 1967 race riots and at the start of the 2008 Great Recession. But here, as in the other two works, hope and opportunity function primarily as a means to expose the deep structural racism that overdetermines her characters’ dreams and aspirations, no matter their talent, drive, ambition, or determination.
The story of Paradise Blue centers on the Paradise Club, a jazz joint in the center of Paradise Valley, which, with an adjacent neighborhood called Black Bottom, formed a thriving Black community in Detroit in the first half of the twentieth century. The club’s owner is Blue (Rafael Jordan), a jazz trumpet player who inherited the storied venue from his father, Clyde Sr., who was likewise a gifted musician. Both were cursed with what their jazz pianist friend Corn (Wali Jamal) describes as “the cost of bein’ colored and gifted. Brilliant and second class. Make you insane.” As the play opens, the restless, emotionally labile Blue is considering selling his land to the City of Detroit, which – under its new mayor, Albert Cobo – is buying Black-owned property in order to “get rid of the blight in the city” (Paradise Valley and Black Bottom were, in fact, purchased by the city and bulldozed to make room for I-375 in the late 1950s). This is unwelcome news to the club’s percussionist Sam (Monteze Freeland, in a standout performance) as well as to Blue’s girlfriend Pumpkin (Melva Graham); both understand immediately the negative domino effect that such a sale would have, not only on the neighborhood, but also, and especially, on their own lives. Into this scenario steps the mysterious Silver (Eunice Woods), a woman with cash, sex appeal, and a murky background. She too has her sights set on buying the club, and seems ready to charm – or ruthlessly manipulate – her way to her goals. Her intrusion into this small community brings about unexpected changes, primarily in Corn and Pumpkin, the two characters who have arranged their wellbeing principally around their capacity to “go-along.”
In the City Theatre production, directed by Kent Gash, there is also a sixth character: Edward E. Haynes, Jr.’s set, which pulsates with Blue’s demons through Jason Lynch’s moody lighting design as well as through some startling special effects. The world of 1949 Detroit is masterfully evoked in Susan Tsu’s precisely observed costume design, and original music by Theron Brown gives a taste of mid-century motown jazz.
We don’t, unfortunately, hear nearly enough music in this play; but I suspect that’s intentional. Music is what sustains these characters; music “opens up the gates of heaven.” But here, as in the other two plays of the cycle, Morisseau seems more interested in exploring the systemic forces that keep those gates closed. Important as music is to her characters, her stories are as often about the way history has silenced their music as they are about its power to lift them up.
Here’s a sentence I don’t think I ever imagined I would write in my life: In Matt Schatz’s musical comedy An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake, the protagonist is a dramaturg named Beth, whose attempts to get a “serious” new play into the season of a fictional New York theater company come into conflict with the artistic director’s plan to produce a yet-to-be-written work by Justin Timberlake.
The protagonist – of a musical comedy – is a dramaturg? That may well be the theater-nerd equivalent of “You had me at hello.” (And if that’s the case for you, you might as well stop reading here).
Still with me? Let’s go over the premise again. Dramaturg/literary manager Beth (Julianne Avolio) is a theater idealist who is sustained by the mantra “do good work, do good plays.” When she discovers a play by the relatively unknown El Yamasaki Brooks (Lara Hayhurst) that she thinks has both social import and theatrical promise, she makes it her mission to convince her artistic director boss, the narcissistic Todd-Michael Smyth (Craig MacDonald) to agree to produce it. She convinces him to let her pitch the project to rising-star director Liz Cohen (Melessie Clark), who initially finds both the play, and Beth, alluring, and eagerly signs on. But complications ensue when Smyth returns from Los Angeles with the opportunity to premiere a new work by Justin Timberlake; to Beth’s surprise and dismay, Liz proves cynically ready to join Smyth in hitching her wagon to Timberlake’s celebrity star.
Schatz is a writer whom I’ve described in a previous post as someone who makes “devilish comic hay” with language; I’ll double down on that assessment here. I imagine him in front of his laptop with an imp on each shoulder egging him on to further and further heights of delirious linguistic brio. How do you not fall in love with a lyricist who manages, within the first few lines of a musical, to have a character sing that she’s “a transplanted Floridian” on her way to a “Le Pain Quotidien”? It only gets better from there, and it would be meanspirited of me to spoil for you the LOL surprise of some of Schatz’s rhymes; I’ll just say, you gotta give serious props to a guy who can seamlessly work in a rhyme to “Shakespeare” in a rap song titled “Starstruck Starfucker” (more on this in a moment).
Schatz’s music is vibrant and energetic, with a mostly pop-rock feel; I could wish in this moment that I was sufficiently versant in the JT oeuvre to be able to tell you whether there are musical call-outs in the score that match the wit of the lyrics. Alas, I am the kind of boomer who finds that all of the pop tenors I’ve heard on the radio since the mid 1990s sound interchangeable; if Schatz scattered Timberlake- or NSYNC-related musical easter eggs throughout the show, I missed them. Under Douglas Levine’s musical direction the hidden five-piece band is tight and the vocalists shine; excellently balanced sound (Zachary Beattie-Brown) lets you hear every word with crystal clarity.
Comic as the action and subject matter of Untitled are, Schatz manages to work in some sharp digs against the dysfunctional world of the nonprofit theater, and in particular he paints an eerily accurate picture of its power dynamics. I can think of several artistic directors who might have been the inspiration for the psychologically manipulative Smyth; ditto directors who, like Liz, are quick to shift their sails to catch the prevailing winds and who might, like her, justify their self-serving game-playing by claiming that “lying is our business.” The dramaturg who sees herself as a “modestly paid, hardly noticed, quiet person that could make a difference” also rings familiar, as does the anxious and despondent playwright at the bottom of the ladder. Schatz keenly observes how this system tends to absorb and coopt its idealistic young; even the principled Beth finds it hard to resist when Timberlake (Hayhurst, again, drolly caricaturing some of his signature NSYNC looks and moves) arrives and dials up the celebrity charm wattage on her.
Director Reginald Douglas has pulled together an ensemble that mines hilarity out of these power dynamics. As MacDonald, Smyth’s body language oozes white male privilege and the kind of “hey I’m one of the good guys” informality and unguardedness that so often characterizes charismatic but codependent leaders. Clark rides the rollercoaster of Liz’s flipflopping objectives with panache – costume designer Dominique Fawn Hill helps out by giving her a wig to match each new outfit, mood, and alliance – and she expresses the rage of women everywhere with her powerhouse delivery of the song “Would You Ever Have Said That?” Hayhurst gives the character El Yamasaki Brooks a neurotic unpredictability that both exploits and defies the stereotype of the “serious writer,” and her sendup of JT is pretty pitch-perfect. But it’s Avolio who carries the show with her nuanced and self-aware portrayal of the mission-driven (and somewhat out of her depth) Beth. Many of the funniest lyrics in the libretto are hers to sing, and it’s not just the clarity of her voice, but also the clarity of intention she brings to each thought that gets the lyrical wit to land just right. A highlight is her rendition of “Starstruck Starfucker,” the rapid-fire, expletive-laden rap number Beth sings to vent her anger over Liz and Todd-Michael’s embrace of the Timberlake project. Not only does Avolio manage to navigate its myriad tongue-twisters without incident (try saying the title alone five times fast and see where that gets you), but she also crafts the emotional arc and fury of the song with brilliant precision. I’d see the show a second time just to ride that wave with her again.
Schatz developed this sympathetic portrait of the work a dramaturg does “behind the scenes of the behind the scenes” over many years, receiving feedback and input from many collaborators along the way, including (you guessed it) dramaturgs. In particular, here in Pittsburgh Untitled benefited from the wisdom and insight of Olivia O’Connor, the Manager of New Work Development at Pittsburgh CLO, and Clare Drobot, co-Artistic Director of City Theatre. While I imagine they both had a grand time poking a bit of fun at their own profession, they are also artists who share Beth’s serious commitment to “do good work, do good plays.” Lofty as that sounds, sometimes it can be achieved through light-hearted comedy. With Untitled, I’d say it’s mission accomplished.