Friday, June 25, 2010

Theatre review: "Killer Joe" from barebones productions. For broadcast 4th July 2010

Vivid violence, full frontal female and male nudity, constant profanity. Live. Not a movie. Thus comes the in-your-face reputation of Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, his first produced play, from 1993. This is the guy who gave us Bug three years later and who was given a Pulitzer for his August: Osage County in 2007, the least aggressive of those three.

barebones productions puts this to us. Like any other of barebones’ shows you can expect exceptional acting, great directing and an impressive, realistic set. This item has the added attraction of local, famed rocker Joe Grushecky singing and guitaring intermittent bluesy items to add to the color. He sounds just fine.

This comes on the kicking heels of a bb production of Bug back in 2007 right upstairs of all the Forbes Ave. heavy traffic, youthful saunter and slouch of Pitt U-ville. And here again Letts hits on white trash. You may have read or heard about Letts’ aim to depict people struggling with moral and spiritual questions, saying he was inspired by the work of Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner. Right. Uh-huh. But both of those writers find compassion and tenderness among lost souls. Letts ain’t into that scene here.

Full-time loser Chris, his stepmother Sharla and his dad Ansel come up with a scheme to kill off Chris’ estranged and nasty mom so that his sister Dotty can collect on the life insurance and they can split the proceeds. To do that they hire detective Joe Cooper whose part-time job is contract killing. He lusts for innocent and temporarily virginal Dotty. You witness sleazy, greedy, nasty people scheme and stumble, turn slimy and vicious. I suppose, after the ultimately violent goings-on, feeling you have to justify your admiration for how well the whole thing comes off, you may wonder what’s the fucking point? How about the old playing- with- fire bit? That’ll work OK. But of course, none of us can identify with such Texas low-life as this. So consider yourself at some kind of zoo, circus, freak show.

Given those parameters, admire especially Point Park U Junior Hayley Nielsen’s perfect take on Dotty and Patrick Jordan’s approach to playing against the obvious darkness which inhabits Joe’s soul, subtly menacing, like a gun in the pocket rather than on the table. Lissa Brennan and John Gresh always look and sound right too as Sharla and Ansel but John Steffenauer’s take on Chris doesn’t have as much definition.

This has often been called a dark comedy. Surely it has the potential to be funnier than this, given that Chris, Dotty and Ansel don't have full houses upstairs. But it can work well without provoking laughs. And it does work. Who can tell for sure just why director Kim Martin decided to stay straight and narrow? Who cares? Clearly she got it all together, pacing-wise, truth-wise. And Randy Kovitz’ astonishing fight staging certainly adds to the reality.

This play has been praised all over world maps. Beats the hell out of me why. Sure, you can appreciate how much the performers make out of it with all that visceral action grabbing you. Too bad you can’t care about the characters. Too bad it says so little. Although not an action movie, it comes close, even as it comes so close that you can smell the sweat. Wipe the popcorn grease off your hands.

Killer Joe continues through July 10th at the New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East
1-888-71TICKET i.e 1-888-718 4253

Friday, June 11, 2010

Theatre Review: "Miss Saigon" from Pittsburgh CLO-Sunday 13th June 2010

Miss Saigon has returned to the Pittsburgh CLO stage. The cast sings with plenty of strength, even beauty…..when possible… and the orchestra, led by Tom Helm, plays superbly. What a shame that they do so in the service of so many shoddy songs. Yeah, I know. This audience-magnet has drawn in hordes since first hitting London in 1989, stunning Brits for 10 years with an equally running smash in New York starting in 1991. But people often want to be there for something famous just due to the fame, not the quality. Well, this could make them think it’s major, knocking them dead almost from the get go with heavy-handed songs.

Remember that this is another epic by the guys who already who created The Miserable Ones in 1980, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil. Both shows come cast from the same mold: heavy drama, a large cast, an emphasis on special effects and, musically, pretentious attempts as something like opera but lacking imagination and originality.

You may have heard that Miss Saigon is based on Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. True. And Boublil and Schöenberg’s transformation has potential, updating it all to Saigon and nearby over a three-year period involving an American Marine, Chris, (the Pinkerton role) a Vietnamese bar girl Kim (i.e Butterfly) and mixed race wheeler-dealer The Engineer (marriage broker, Goro.) Plus it’s also got a cute little kid.

The action comes across looking dramatic and colorful. Director Barry Ivan and scenic designer Michael Anania make that work really well. The first act in particular stays dynamic and lively. Except….someone transposed the big physical moment from the first act to the second. The helicopter bit. So, audiences could feel that something crucial is missing, a famed highlight of Miss Saigon. Instead it turns up as an odd flashback in the second act. No harm done, really. Maybe it’s been relocated to make up for major absences in the second act: good songs.

This, remember, is a sung-through musical. Too bad that so little is spoken. Some recitatives could stand replacement. Nonetheless the first act has a few appealing songs. And, every so often, orchestrator William D. Brohn inserts good Asiatic color, even as did Puccini. But by the time that act ends, the singing has become standard, obvious selling in which feelings are expressed by being loud and holding lots of notes. Don’t blame the cast. This is their job.

As for that cast, as Kim, Ma-Anne Dionisio stands out with a wonderful voice, heard to best advantage early on before she has to do the pushy stuff. Kevin Gray plays The Engineer, a role which, by now, he sort of owns. The further into the show he got on opening night, the more his interpretation became overdone. Sure, everybody around him was singing their guts out, but he’s done the role often enough, he should have been able to hold his own and not be influenced by so much else going over the top.

Giacomo must be writhing in his coffin.

Miss Saigon continues through Sunday, June 20th at Benedum Center, downtown. Tickets at 412/456-6666 or the Box Office at Theater Square. Or

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Theatre Review: "Celebrity Autobiogrpahy" at City Theatre-Sunday 6th June 2010

Just opened at City Theatre is Celebrity Autobiography. This is a Pittsburgh version of an ongoing Off-Broadway hit. The hilarious experience here consists of many different, talented and versatile nationally and locally well-known performers interpreting parts of autobiographies written by …duh…. celebrities. If that sounds obvious, never let it be said that what’s read aloud sounds subtle, insightful and thought-provoking. Nor, evidently, is it intended to be funny, even if it comes across as a non-stop hoot. Rather the people who wrote this stuff take it seriously as they do the minutiae of their daily lives, their interactions with other famous people and their always remarkable belief that the ins and outs of their sexual connections come loaded with fascination. i.e This is for an adult audience.

At the opening yesterday the cast consisted of Pittsburgh’s Robin Abramson, Michael Fuller and Patrick Jordan plus visiting Annie Golden, John Marshall Jones, Lee Merriwether, plus two of the people behind the concept: Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel. Among the celebrities whose brainless candor assisted in their own sendups were Loni Anderson, David Cassidy, Kenny Loggins, Joan London, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Suzanne Summers, Ivana Trump, Vanna White and Tiger Woods, plus Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor cross-referencing each other. Appropriately, the intimate Lester Hamburg Studio Theater makes this thigh-slapper up close and personal. Tony Ferrieri’s design turns it into a kind of club, so there are tables and chairs to which drinks from the bar are permitted. This show will vary in whose actual words get used, from over 300 such books and the casts will also alternate during the open-ended run.

There is no break in this 90 minute laugh fest. So, if you want to go, go soon and go often.

Celebrity Autobiography is at City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side

Tickets at 412.431.CITY (2489) or

Theatre Review: "Art" at Pittsburgh Public Theater-Sunday 6th June 2010

Yasmina Reza’ s 1994 play Art has become known and admired world-wide. But it had never been presented before now by Pittsburgh Public Theater. As directed by Ted Pappas and played expertly, the script’s wit and fascination come across with vitality and style.

Pappas has found ways to create visual and verbal analogies to the art around which the play evolves. An abstract painting. He zips in and out of fragmented scenes, when the characters take only a few seconds to ruminate. This keeps the pace swift. Impressions of what’s happening then seem believably spontaneous. They also equal the characters’ uncontrolled, unpremeditated communications which prompt unforeseen reactions. Even as the fundamental three letter title of the play, Anne Mundell’s set echoes the seeming simplicity of the painting. It baldly frames the characters rather than diverting your attention to marginal details. Meanwhile Pappas and his cast make 90 minutes race ahead, as if nearly out of control, even as the men in the play lose control. And yet the painting’s elemental nature could suggest the artist’s unflinching control.

If you don’t know the play already, you need to know that it thrives on conversation. In Art long-time friends Marc and Serge are articulate, cultivated men. Serge reveals new- found delight in the costly painting. Marc calls the work crap. Not that word really. A different word is used, as are many other similar profanities when these men speak in anger. They clash not only about their differences of perception but also about their relationships…which start to unravel. They extrapolate about each other’s values and personalities, choosing their words not at all carefully. Their less intellectual friend Yvan is drawn into this semantic whirlpool against his will. Soon everything all three say and do spirals out of control.

In Thursday’s performance anger and emotion took hold more often that potentially argumentative reason, and after a while, it sounded too much like one-dimensional shouting, even if believable. Harry Bouvy stands out most as Yvan. In fact, you may remember another impressive performance by him. He had a leading role in The Clockmaker at City Theatre in February, likewise as a vulnerable innocent, the clockmaker himself. As for the rest of the cast, Darren Elliker always makes Serge genuine including showing his pride and joy in his acquisition and as Marc, Rob Breckenridge plays the man’s supercilious nature especially well.

I suppose you could ask if there is deep meaning and significant symbolism in the play. Given that the painting can be seen and interpreted from various angles, I’m certain that, if you want to ponder it, you can come up with something potentially profound. I haven’t yet. But I don’t feel that it’s necessary. With or without such analysis, it remains good, intelligent, lively theatre.

Art continues through June 27th at Pittsburgh Public Theater, on Penn Avenue, downtown. 412-316-1600