Saturday, February 19, 2011

Theatre review: "Churchill In Short(s)?" at the University of Pittsburgh

The University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre continues to go quirky this season but at least its third offering features work by a well-known playwright, Caryl Churchill. Not well known works, though. Even the title looks like emphasizing the off-beat: Churchill in Short(s)? This a collection of three one-acts ranging from 1962 to 1997. During that time she wrote major Obie winners Cloud Nine and, seen here at The Rep in 2007, Top Girls. She also got much praise later for A Number (2002) which you could have witnessed at Public Theater in 2008. All three extract the juice from reality becoming pungent provocations, defying us to come up with easy answers, forcing us to think about what she’s trying to tell us and why she’s doing it that way. Not for everyone’s taste, even if well acted.

These plays Lovesick, This is a Chair and The After Dinner Joke, feel easier to decipher than those named above because they don’t come across as constantly surreal. And the able, mostly student cast does well at conveying the obvious parts, fulfilling the requirements for versatility, capably directed by Tommy Costello who also gets interesting, imaginative visual enhancements from his tech people. But he and his cast all miss the ironic comedy beneath the surface of Lovesick and The After Dinner Joke although there’s not much anyone can do with the time-wasting, one-gag
This is a Chair.

Lovesick could be a hoot. In it Hodge is a very skilled, very-smug psychiatrist who has often relied on aversion therapy and on developing conditioned reflexes. But he falls in love with one of his patients, a woman not the least interested in him. She’s attracted to a presumably gay young man so Hodge uses all his soul-probing skills to subvert that relationship. Thereby he damages and otherwise alters the lives of several people. Although his plans go awry, he’s so self-centered that he’s indifferent to the harm he’s causing. If Hodges were played with subtlety and style, this could be a barrel of laughs, but, given a major challenge to get it right, neither student actor Fred Pelzer nor Costello had found the way to do that, at least by the time I saw this in preview. The other actors didn’t get that much out of their roles either, forced to devote time and effort to keep on moving in Churchill’s constantly accreting scenes.

As for The After Dinner Joke, if you’re expecting a punch line or some other kind of zinger, forget it. Here Churchill aims at corporate greed and ancillary issues, while taking scatter shots at exploitation masquerading as idealism. This long, meandering item could have stood a good trim. One of her potentially funnier ideas is a pacifist Robin Hood. But again, as in Lovesick, on preview night the playing and direction didn’t find the laughs beneath the surface. The nine actors did well doubling and tripling as 14 characters, giving some good color to the roles. And the enhancements of Dan Carr’s projection designs plus Sarah Ivins’ puppets really perk up things.

This is a Chair doesn’t require much of anyone, including the audience which can get the point quickly and then has to endure repetitions. This is a rapid series of vignettes in which generic characters talk aimlessly about nothing special while title slides refer to major social, political and environmental issues to which they pay no attention. Although it gives everyone further exposure to what Churchill has to say, it doesn’t do much for her reputation. You may already start feeling that you have something better to do. And then The After Dinner Joke hovers in the wings to further try your patience.

Certainly the student actors get good training in playing many multiple roles and all of them get the surfaces well.

Yet, I don’t understand why this is called “Repertory Theatre.” It doesn’t fit any standard definition of the word, which usually means a resident acting company and/or plays presented in repeatedly alternating performances. Point Park University’s Theatre Department (as above) also misuses the term (“The Rep”) although members of the faculty regularly play roles alongside various and often-admired local performers, possibly loosely considered some kind of a company. At Pitt occasionally one or two faculty members appear, but not enough to suggest consistency or any kind of company. One faculty person, Theo Allyn, is in this. So are eight students. That’s not repertory.

One day those students might be in a real repertory company. Meanwhile, as way of educating them to how things are professionally done, the Theatre Department would look brighter if it stopped employing a word which it doesn’t need.

Churchill In Short(s)? continues through February 27th at the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue, Oakland. 412/624-PLAY (7529)-

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