Sunday, February 28, 2010

Theatre review: "Time After Time" at Pittsburgh Playhouse-Sunday 28th February 2010

You don’t have much time left to delight in the extraordinary and exceptional world-premiering musical Time After Time at Pittsburgh Playhouse. In fact you have only four days. They are March 11th to 14th. Not this coming week. That’s because the production features students of the Conservatory Theatre Company, officially on break.

Simply put, it features a compelling and original story, the attractive music pulses and soars, the stage effects and direction come full of invention and the performers do credit to every word and every note they take on. The whole thing works perfectly like a fine gold watch, polished to perfection, moving precisely and impeccably.

The musical Time After Time is based on a novel by Karl Alexander, transformed into a 1979 movie, both with the same name. Fantasy and science fiction author H.G Wells, having invented a time machine, uses it to go into the future to pursue his one-time dear friend Dr. John Leslie Stephenson who has been revealed as the Victorian era’s Jack The Ripper. He escaped to the future with the machine. Both men cross paths in 2010 New York City. There John/Jack continues his murderous ways and H.G. meets and falls in love with a younger woman Amy. She too encounters Jack.

This may not sound all that complicated but Stephen Cole’s intelligent, perceptive dialogue creates a solid script, including talk about social class and the constant evils in society, regardless of the century. And yet, optimism, faith and tenderness also emerge. Example: H.G. sees the memorial to the victims of 9/11. And Amy tells him, with pride and insight “We keep rebuilding.”

And, every so often, Cole throws in amusing lines as Wells misunderstands contemporary American speech. Yet Cole never pushes that device. Moreover the story has a beautiful and touching twist at the end. Cole also wrote the lyrics.

Equally remarkable, Point Park University teaching artist-in-residence Jeffrey Saver has written a lot of appealing music, often resembling some of the best of John Kander’s, David Shire’s and Jason Robert Brown’s. And Steve Orich’s orchestrations work fine for the 10 musicians playing it, led impeccably by Douglas Levine.

Time After Time is directed by Gabriel Barre. He accomplishes wonders of movement, sight, sound, and space, aided, of course, by designers Stephanie Mayer-Staley, Andrew David Ostrowski and Dave Bjornson. Examples: a wax museum with his cast perfectly, marvelously, statue-like, or the scenes where ghosts of John/Jack’s victims haunt their killer.

As for the performances, John Wascavage creates an excellent portrait of the no-longer young Wells, an impressive character role contrasted to his interpretation of Candide in the Quantum Theatre production of it three months ago. That was a major singing role; this proves Wascavage has equal gifts as an actor. As the dark and dangerous John/Jack, Michael Campayno compellingly brings out the tortured psyche of the man who tortures women. His acting equals his convincing take on Billy Bigelow in Carousel at The Playhouse, likewise three months ago. And Campayno continues to sing superbly. In other roles all the cast remains believable, singing and moving with style and personality, also doing quite well indeed in with English accents

It should be noted that all the writers and the director have major professional credits. If this production, then, is some kind of tryout, Broadway seems a good choice some time soon as a future destination. And this cast makes everything look like this could be a hit.

Again you have only four days to catch Time After Time; March 11th to 14th at Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. 412/621-4445

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Theatre review: "The Inspector General" at CMU-21st February 2010

CMU’s School of Drama offers what can certainly be called “ a world premiere” a new and modern adaptation of an internationally renowned play, Nicolai Gogol’s political satire The Inspector General. This version is by CMU faculty member Michael Chemers and it comes full of contemporary references, including some with deliberately local barbs. Director Jed Allen Harris, also on the faculty, has staged it as a raucous cartoon. Moreover the program book and lobby exhibits add pointed and colorful background about political corruption, the focal point of Gogol’s piece.

The mayor of a small town, his staff and cronies learn that an inspector from the national government is coming to look into how they govern. They also discover that he would arrive incognito. They panic. They fear that he will discover the depth of their chicanery and greed. Tying to find the visitor, they mistake a traveling con man for the inspector who then finds way to exploit them.

Mistaken identity has often been a source for comedy, of course, but here Gogol is using it to send up venality in high places. Chemers gets a lot of inventive mileage out of that, finding plenty of examples in modern American life. The references, in rather straightforward dialogue, no doubt provoke the laughter of recognition. From time to time he also turns in some amusing phrases along with justified profanity.

Director Harris’s conception actually takes center stage, rather than the script, turning the production into a wild, physically vigorous, loud grab bag of slapstick shtick. Clearly this provides great experience for the student actors, called upon to milk the characters every way possible. They do well with those demands, but seem to shout and rant a great deal, in constant motion. This means they often deliver their speeches as if wielding machine guns rather than taking careful aim with pistols. I find parallels with the Playhouse Conservatory production last month of Room Service, where speed and action blurred dialogue and character for which such students don’t have enough experience yet.

Harris and CMU casts have triumphed together in several outstanding productions in the last few years. They did so in a wonderfully funny take on Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox. They likewise made Peter Barnes Red Noses a brilliant experience. Plus, more recently, Harris’ take on Aeschylus called The Oresteia Project remains another indelible theatre event. This looks like a good try but not as successful as those. Think of it as really valuable student training.

The Inspector General continues through February 27th at CMU’s Philip Chosky Theater, 412/268 2407

Monday, February 15, 2010

Review: "Buried Child" at The Rep 15th February 2010

Recently The Rep’s choices of plays have been heavily into far out, dark and malevolent territory. And I can't help wondering if that's intentional.

The current production of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child serves as an example. It follows backbiting, bitchy The Queens by Normand Chaurette, preceded in September by a nasty bunch of guys reuniting in Jason Miller’s That Championship Season. In June there was Mojo by Jez Butterworth where a bunch of cockney sleezeballs rough it up. And, not long before that, there was Edward Albee’s exploration of obsessive bestiality, The Goat. Every one of these plays comes permeated with unhappy people poisoning the surrounding air and other people with misery and anger. Several of these plays also feature graphic violence. You could look rather hard and deeply at all five before coming across any redeeming characters. And, except for Albee’s brilliant stunner, you’d be hard put to find major moral or philosophical points.

I can’t help wondering what is behind the cumulative effect or intent of these choices for the Point Park University Theatre professional company. Certainly the overall impression suggests that the Rep may aim to explore, present and experiment with off-beat, provocative contemporary theatre. That seems a worthy endeavor. But, collectively, you could infer a depressed and negative view of the world and of life. Is this what The Rep is trying to tell us? And, just as important, what is it trying to tell the young people who are students of the University?

Make no mistake; the acting by many fine Pittsburgh actors in these productions has remained impeccable, consistently skillful and convincing. In Buried Child, local artists Jeffrey Carpenter and Patrick Jordan give scary credibility to their roles. No surprise, really, they inevitably enhance whatever they perform. And director John Shepard also makes it work believably, aided by excellent sound and lighting designs.

Has the project something worthy to offer? The play brims with unlikeable, dysfunctional characters who babble, crawl, cringe, rant, squirm, and spew misery all over the cracked and seedy territory. Not one of them seems likable or even pitiable. And, within the developments, much remains unexplained and unjustified.

But wait! An on-line search reveals that many critics think very highly of the play. Moreover Buried Child won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and launched Shepard to national fame as a playwright. Despite being, therefore, out of step, I have to say that I just don’t get why so many think it’s so great.

If you look at the praise, it comes first from not seeing these characters or their situation as real, but, instead, symbolic. Simply put, critics describe the play as depicting the fragmentation of the American nuclear family struggling with disappointment and disillusionment with the presumed American dream. OK. I can see that. But we're looking at people who seem real, not presented as abstractions. Also approvingly cited by the critics is the theme of a family trying to deal with an economic slowdown in rural economy and with a breakdown of traditional family values. Well, maybe. I didn't hear dialogue emphasizing any of these points. Besides, the family breakdown/ fragmentation thing turns up all the time in theatre.

But who among us can relate to the specifics of these ugly, confused people? Who would want to? The elderly Dodge, peppered with illness and loads of pills, sneaks smokes and booze while he and his wife Halie interminably yell back and forth at each other from separate rooms repeating nearly every empty thing they say. Dodge’s grown son Tilden whose recent history is never explained, emerges as a dimwit. Another grown son Bradley, lacking one leg, menacingly lolls around the house. Tilden’s son Vince arrives and soon goes off his rocker for no evident reason. And Halie turns out, when finally seen, after all that shouting gab, to look elegantly dressed as if from another planet, even turning up, inexplicably in a new outfit after having been away overnight. Sort of a Blanche Dubois, but without the touching sadness.

Also mentioned by approving critics are humor and poetic speech. Well, certainly, given those personalities, they could turn out to be wildly off-center funny. Yet, when I saw a performance on February 12th I got no sense of anyone in the full theatre laughing and I certainly didn't laugh either. If this is supposed to be funny, none of us was getting it. Other praise goes to poetic speech. Although every word came across clearly in the small theater, nothing sounded in the least poetic to me. Maybe Shepard’s directing didn’t intend to emphasize those elements.

The cast also includes two other capable Pittsburghers, former Point Park grad Nikitas Menotiades as Vince and current senior Kiley Caughey as Vince’s girlfriend Shelly. But Dodge and Halie are played by two out-of-town actors with major credits and major skills. They remain as totally believable as the rest of the ensemble.

But why were they cast when Pittsburgh has equally gifted actors who could play the roles and whose presence and versatility would add to the attraction? And why is this theatre company called “The Rep” anyway? Plays do not run in alternating repertory. And there is no repertory company, even though the Point Park University Theatre Department has excellent actors on its faculty who could be the nucleus of such a company. Sure, some of them turn up from time to time in various productions, but mostly the casts instead include other actors. Often other talented Pittsburghers. Give the Rep credit, then, for encouraging and recognizing local talent.

As for themes, next up: a tale focusing on Jack the Ripper. See what I mean?
Buried Child continues thorough February 21st at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445