Monday, September 13, 2010

Theatre Review: "The Umbrella Man" at Pittsburgh Playhouse Rep 12th September 2010

In what is considered the start of this new professional theatre season, even though Quantum and Pittsburgh Irish and Classical theatres seasons are already underway, The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse offers something likewise new: the world premiere of The Umbrella Man, in a script by Edward J. Delaney based on a screenplay for a not-yet produced film by him, Michael J. and Joseph M. Grasso.

In a multi-media format, that is using voice-over narration, film projections and live performances, this comes across as multi-themed. Essentially it deals with anger and grief over fatal events, events arising from not-easily-explained causes. The script focuses on a man and wife estranged after the accidental death of their young son and, at the same time, concentrates on cult-like obsessions about Kennedy -assassination conspiracies. These themes are tied together. The grieving man, Lyle Asay, tries to escape his sorrow in aiming to be an expert about what happened in Dallas that fateful day.

I have the impression that,the writers primarily wanted to focus on the idiosyncrasies of conspiracy-cult behavior. Certainly that element of the play remains the most original and interesting, showing how people in such a cult resemble other fan groups latching on to popular culture. Yet those parts of the story look more sketchy than substantial. That may be due to following the other major theme, the family story. But to me that seems a vehicle to keep the play moving, trying to make it personal and emotional. Mostly, specific details about Lyle and his wife Deborah don’t get enough development even though the play revolves around them. The combined result resembles a movie-like, swift succession of episodic scenes rather than a play which goes deeply anywhere, although, once or twice, people behave maturely rather than predictably.

David Cabot and Dana Hardy play Lyle and Deborah entirely convincingly. In supporting, more colorful roles, Jarrod DiGiorgi shows that he’s becoming a character actor to watch and admire. He deftly plays Weston, Deborah’s former boyfriend, hot to trot all over again. And yet another heart-of-gold prostitute, this one called Jackie, Erica Cuenca conveys her usual indelible sweetness and vulnerability. And John Shepard creates a lot of creative personality in a marginal role while everyone else in this 13 member cast performs credibly.

Director Robert A. Miller has kept the focus and the story clear and well-paced which certainly dovetails with the idea that this is planned as a movie. Evidently it will be filmed in Pittsburgh, although the stage version’ s only connection is generic interior scenes. This take needs more work to become a compelling play.

The Umbrella Man continues through September 26th at Pittsburgh Playhouse on Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/621-4445 or

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Theatre review: "Almost Maine" at South Park Theatre-Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Mark Clayton Southers, the artistic director and founder of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, has continually made evident downtown his talents in staging plays and in getting solid performances from his casts. Now he does the same thing at South Park Theatre. He shows a great feeling for funny physical business and has elicited polished and versatile playing by eight quasi-professional actors.

The script from 2004 is by actor John Cariani and is called Almost Maine His only play so far has become much admired and produced in many many theatres considerably distant from the territory of the title. Actually, calling it a play doesn’t define it clearly. This really consists of nine character sketches where the people and events are only slightly connected to each other, if at all, even though each sketch takes place on the same winter night. Each focuses on interactions among couples. I know that that may sound quite simple, especially given that the nature of love comes across as the heart of the entire experience. But Cariani brings offbeat, loony imagination to many of the scenes, scenes full of surprises for the characters and for the audience. A few pieces go deeper than others, while a few in the second act don’t work as well as those preceding them. Admire especially those times when the underlying subject concerns how much love weighs, or how love can cause pain, or what it means to fall head over heels in love.

Director Southers make everything work credibly and with polish. And he gets his actors to play the off-the-wall stuff with the kind of sincerity that keeps it fresh. The eight performers, including locally famed Barbara Russell, take on 19 characters and they always seem well cast, even if most bring no special variety to multiple interpretations. However, Michael Shahen stands out the most interestingly versatile in three sketches, each a different variation on innocent dopiness. And Robert J. Roberts has wonderfully comic body language in the scene about love’s weight.

This emerges as a charming experience, featuring well-directed, good acting in good material.

Almost Maine continues through September 18th at South Park Theatre. Info and tickets at: 412/ 831-8552)

Theatre review: "Much Ado About Nothing" from Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks-Sunday 5th September 2010

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks this season offers a production of Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s better known comedies, although you may remember two principal characters, Beatrice and Benedick, more than the title. For people unfamiliar with the story there is a synopsis in the program book plus Alan Irvine tells the whole thing to the audience before the play begins.

I attended the opening day performance in Frick Park where the cast uniformly did well making the words heard and understood despite unexpectedly strong winds and regular overflights by airplanes. Moreover several people in major roles ably got across the essential meanings and intricacies of the text, especially Ricardo Vila-Roger as Benedick. Credit director Melissa Hill Grande for bringing that out and for making good and colorful use of the natural scenery with actors striding and gamboling purposefully amid the trees and on the grass. In this case, she staged most of the play at the bottom of a hill where much of the audience could sit quite close to the performers on self-provided chairs or blankets.

The production is essentially in contemporary clothes, as is normally the case. And, wisely, no attempt is made to speak in English accents. Characteristically as well some performers double in roles. Adam Pribila, convincingly cast as darkly tricky, mean-spirited Don John, also appears as a typical Shakespeare comic character, the malaprop-speaking Dogberry and Vila-Roger takes on Borachio, a not very nice follower of Don John. Except for changing clothes, neither of them does enough with the alternate characters to give them any distinction or meaningful development. I also saw George Hampe play Claudio, Benedick’s close friend who falls in love with the girl named Hero. Hampe played with sweet charm yesterday. But he will not continue in the role over the next weeks.

I regularly saw attentive smiles on people sitting around me, making look as if the audience was having a good time.

Next weekend the production of Much Ado About Nothing plays in West Park. The following weekend it moves to Mellon Park and then returns to Frick Park on September 25th and 26th. Admission is free and you can get more information at