Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review: "Confluence of Dreaming" at Pittsburgh Playhouse Rep-30 May 2010

There’s a world premiere from The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse. It’s called Confluence of Dreaming and it’s by Tammy Ryan who also wrote FBI Girl which premiered there in 2007. She also lives here and her plays have been produced all over the country. She’s crafted a sometimes clever script which gets superbly performed and which John Amplas has directed with imagination and a great sense of physical comedy. The hilarious and ultimately touching second act compensates for weaker elements in the writing and the conception.

The most original aspect of the play concerns on-line chat rooms and the contrast between sexual fantasies and attempts to follow them through in real life. Ryan gets good comic mileage out of on-line connected simulated sex and the subsequent connection of real people whose fingers are no longer typing out words but instead groping body parts. Ryan also comes up with a good and touching closing scene, which, although, not far removed from soap opera, contains sweet surprises.

In Confluence of Dreaming the focus is mostly on Carol, a wife and mother who feels as if life is passing her by in a suburban middle class marriage. She, her husband Peter and their 17 year old daughter Morgan have only one computer, moreover with only a dial-up line, this being 2001. When Carol can, she visits a chat room where she encounters Ted. Eventually they meet in person.

Ryan’s examination of the marriage and the relationship with young Morgan doesn’t look particularly original or insightful. And, throughout too much of the script Ryan evokes symbolisms from The Wizard of Oz, a now-clichéd device, one she really doesn’t need.

You have to admire the actors giving so much believable definition to the characters. In particular Sam Turich’s portrayal of Ted comes across superbly rich in nuance. He plays a simple-minded fool to perfection. As Carol, Bridget Connors remains touchingly vulnerable in her sincere confusion. Robert Turano’s version of the husband Peter, makes stereotypical laconic responses seem as if coming from a real person, He never pushes the obvious. And Point Park senior Connie Costanzo always stays convincing as the young daughter Morgan.

Meanwhile director Amplas, aided by scenic designer Stephanie Meyer-Staley and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski give the entire production a constantly fascinating look and flow. Plus Amplas, along with Turich and Connors, have made the second act sex scene wildly funny. Everyone on stage and behind it makes the script look and sound like it says more than it really does.

Confluence of Dreaming continues through June 13th in Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Theater, Oakland. Info and tickets: 412/621-4445

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Theatre review: "The Blonde, The Brunette and The Vengeful Redhead" @ City Theatre Sunday 16 May 2010

The title for the current production at City Theatre is The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. For some of us that could suggest a lightweight comedy and, since it is a one-woman show, it could mean something bordering on stand-up comedy. Moreover many one-person shows turn out to be not very dramatic, even if charming with a lot of attention given to how that person can pull off everything convincingly, making it look effortless. However this play and the performances by Michele Pawk emerge as a remarkable and impressive theatrical experience on every level.

The script by Robert Hewett comes full of major substance and invention, engaging you not only in how it develops, or in its emotional effect, but also in stimulating you to fill in implied elements of the story. Think of it as a first-rate invention heightened by amusing and sometimes eloquent writing. Certainly Michele Pawk leaves a stunning impression of versatility and talent. But foremost she and director Lou Jacob make the best of the script. She interprets seven characters. And she does that so well that you are bound to think of the characters as separate, distinct individuals, rather than as an actress changing wigs and costumes. Director Jacob must be credited for bringing out, shaping and emphasizing the best of Hewett’s words and ideas through Pawk’s interpretations.

In the ingenious script, all the characters consecutively connect to each other. The details of the story become gradually revealed, as if you are encouraged to use your imagination to figure out what is not being said or how unseen persons are related to what has been happening. Red-headed Rhonda’s husband Graham abruptly informs her that he is moving out. Her brunette friend and neighbor Lynette tells her that she has seen Graham with a blonde. Graham visits Dr. Alex Ducette, a lesbian who, with her partner, have a son, Matthew. Pawk plays each of the roles as well as Tanya, the blonde and Mrs. Carlyle who lives next door to Alex and Matthew.

In The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead a tragic event is the focus of what these characters tell to anyone who will listen, in this case the audience. This inventively suggests the multi-dimensional views of the same story, somewhat like Rashomon. But it has goes further than simple story-telling to reveal more about these people, including Lynette’s shallowness and Graham’s vulgarity. By the way, in case you need to know it, Graham’s language is full of profanity. There is also a graphic description of how someone’s head has been cracked open. And, tellingly, note in the final episode scenic designer Tony Ferrieri’s insertion of a floor mop bucket with a warning on it.

Pawk superbly makes each of the characters distinct, so much so that, justifiably, you think not about what she’s doing but about these people. Don’t look for and think about this as a tour de force, think of it as extraordinary theatre brought off by two exceptional interpreters, Pawk with director Jacob plus one fine writer, Robert Hewett.

The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead continues through May 30th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side 412/ 431 CITY (2489).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Theatre review: "Jitney" at Pittsburgh Playwrights-Sunday 16 May 2010

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company has August Wilson’s Jitney vigorously and convincingly up and running. As usual, director Mark Clayton Southers knows how to bring forth truth and substance from his performers and in his craft as a set designer.

Wilson completed this in 1982. It is the eighth in his Pittsburgh Cycle, set in a worn-down Hill District jitney/gypsy cab station in 1977. It comes loaded with talk from colorful, distinctive characters, bantering, arguing and trying to work out their personal differences. It doesn’t really focus on the cultural or historical significance of the car service itself but rather remains a vehicle for looking at and into the men who work there. Wilson has devised his characters well; they behave unpredictably, humanly.

In the more than 2 and ½ hours, the conversations often circle around and around without going anywhere special, or making any significant points. In addition to a couple of somewhat revealing monologues, two major personal relationships get much attention in two long soap-opera-like scenes which seem more basic than compelling. It looks as if Wilson was trying to tell audiences that loving and stressful relationships among black families are no different than those among white people. In fact, racism here takes a back seat, with Wilson even making a good point when one character tells another to take responsibility for his own life and not blame white men. Yet, although tensions occasionally heat up, nothing powerful or strongly dramatic occurs.

Some of Wilson’s dialogue sounds well-written and expressive but the cast doesn't get the best out of it. The actors usually drop the ends of sentences, losing meaningful emphases, even if you could argue that this is a legitimate speech pattern for this culture. Southers should have done something about that.

An older man, Becker, runs the car service. His drivers include other older men, the constantly gossipy Tumbo and the heavy drinking Fielding. Another driver is youthful, volatile Youngblood. One major theme concerns Youngblood’s relationship with Rena, with whom he lives. Another is the reappearance of Becker’s son Booster, just returned from prison.

Former Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin plays Becker. Despite his extensive experience as an actor, he doesn’t come across with a consistent, inner sense of specific character. Jonathan Berry, on the other hand, surges with vitality and personality as Booster. Joshua Elijah Reese makes Youngblood very real and sympathetic while Wali Jamal adds convincing solidity to another driver, Doub. Tumbo and Fielding are played by Les Howard and Lonzo Green; they also make those men genuine.

Most of the other performing, even in smaller roles, remains convincing and sincere, another indication that director Southers continues to do right by August Wilson.

Jitney continues through May 30th at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, downtown at Penn and Sixth Avenues. 412/394-3353

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review: "Young Frankenstein" Road company @Benedum

You’re bound to have a lot of fun at Mel Brooks’ musical version of Young Frankenstein. A classy national traveling company has stopped off here with it for a few days and the show looks and sounds great. You may think that you already know what to expect if you’ve seen the famed 1974 movie on which it’s based. And according to people who know the film so well that they can recite dialogue from it, this stage adaptation is more a replica than a new take. For some audiences that’s swell. If you aren’t one of the already converted, you’ll find howls and delights aplenty. But if, like me, you sort of remember the movie, you’ll discover stuff you don’t remember and get those kicks. Are there new gags? I don’t know. Who cares?

Of course, this isn’t the movie. How could it be? It’s got songs and dances.

Nah, the music won’t bowl you over with originality. Mel Brooks wrote generic melodies, as he did for The Producers on stage. But they serve their cute purpose and create the kind of light entertainment which characterizes a whole bunch of shows of the 1930s. And this is set in that time frame. Plenty of his lyrics sound clever though. Why not? The guy is known for writing funny words. As for the dances, director/choreographer Susan Stroman has come up with plenty of imaginative routines. And, inevitably, made the most of the best song in the whole thing, Irving Berlin’s “Puttin On The Ritz” in a wonderful tap sequence where all of the ensemble is dressed to resemble the Monster, taking his first steps into show biz.

That brings up the subject of costumes. They look great. Remember that many intend to suggest Eastern Europe, somewhere around Transylvania.

Know what else looks great? The sets. The effects.

Particularly get a load of a couple of guys as horses pulling a load of hay. Wonderful style. You want big stuff? OK. There’s a magnificent giant puppet version of the original Monster. Karloff on steroids.

As for the performances, every one has got it together. But especially delight in Roger Bart’s take on young Frederick Frankenstein, the role he originated on Broadway. He’s got charm, he’s got personality, he’s got timing.

Script and text-wise, you might need to know, if you’re considering taking some kids, it’s got bawdy lines and suggestive situations. Uh-oh. And people seem to be smoking. Uh-oh. Lobby warning: strobe lights flash on and off. Uh-oh. And you might need to know that one character is missing an arm and a leg and gets no sympathy. And a person gets hung…uh, hanged.

Ah, yes. Remember the good old days when no such advisories were posted and the actors actually smoked real cigarettes and you could buy Raisinettes in the theater for a nickel and the ushers were younger than you?

Get there quickly while you still have the time.

Young Frankenstein continues through Sunday May 9th at 6:30 at Benedum Center
412- 456-6666 and/or

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Theatre Review: "The Task" Sunday 2 May 2010

You may not have heard before of German playwright Heiner Müller or have seen any of his more than 30 stage works, some of which started causing sensations in the 1970s when he was in his 40s. It is possible that you have heard of director Jed Allen Harris, especially locally, given that he’s been part of Pittsburgh theatre equally far back. But many people tend to overlook the work of directors; it’s harder to tell what they have contributed to their productions. Let me try to jog your memory. At CMU in the last few years Harris was responsible for exceptional conceptions in Red Noses by Peter Barnes, in the wonderfully comic Sly Fox by Larry Gelbart, and for a multi-dimensional, highly experimental take on the three plays of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. And just a couple of months ago you could have witnessed his slapsticky version of Gogol’s The Inspector General at CMU. In short he has remarkable theatrical imagination. And he makes that clear again in The Task by Müller, an extraordinarily fascinating experience

Müller’s work has been often described as controversial and certainly this play and Harris’ production for Quantum Theatre can grab you and provoke you. I find it difficult to describe it concisely; so much happens in so many ways and on so many levels. These things you may need to know: It is staged in a vast, now unused industrial space with audiences led on foot through various parts of the work which are set in various parts of the place. At times audiences sit, but people with problems walking should be aware of the necessary on- foot participation. There’s also unmistakable, thorough female and male nudity, although brief, with the actors right up close. Plus there are depictions of graphic cruelty.

Of course, since this is a Quantum Theatre event, experimentation and unconventionality should be expected. But you may need to know that The Task is described as a collage and follows a meandering path, assaulting you in fragments, jumping over time and place, even as the actors beckon you to follow them into shadowy new corners or up and down levels and platforms and around peeling walls. This somber, ugly setting fits the piece like a well-worn, grimy workman’s glove and director Harris makes the most of every nuance you could infer. The foundation of the script’s structure deals with events during the French Revolution, focusing on three citizens from the center of that violent, constantly shifting political earthquake. They have been sent to one of the colonies of their British enemies, Jamaica, to foment rebellion among black slaves. Müller uses that to comment on slavery in many forms and in many different times, to comment on how ever-changing political power always squashes the goals of liberty, equality and fraternity. That is the essence.

Meanwhile Harris could make you could feel as if you have become part of a Paris mob during the Revolution striding the shifting soil of patriotic fervor. That could turn perilous if you don’t watch your step. Yes, you become part of it. You could likewise feel as if in a museum where your participation consists of moving from display to display, coming up with your own meanings for what you see, and in this case, hear. And, at times, too, you will hear that Müller has written eloquent, trenchant dialogue, or so it seems in Carl Weber’s translations

Everyone in the seven member acting ensemble makes it all compellingly clear and meaningful. But in one scene Larry John Meyers especially stands our in a brilliant, virtuosic interpretation whose heat glows in the darkness.

This production and what director Jed Allen Harris has made of it again substantiates how Quantum Theatre can come up with rare and remarkable experiences to amaze and astonish you.

You don’t have much time left to be part of The Task. It’s at The Gage Building in The Strip District though next Sunday. More information is at and 412/394-3353