Sunday, April 17, 2011

Theatre review: "Hunter Gatherers" at Bricolage- Sunday 17th April 2011

Bricolage Production Company offers a special treat just in time for Easter. It’s a play which begins with the sacrifice of a lamb and proceeds to nail the whole conception with fanatic devotion. The offering is Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers whose title may suggest some kind of anthropological discourse on primitive tribal experiences, but actually posits a modern day parallel in which several human beings revert to cave-person- like rituals and survival tactics. The result roars with gusto and howls with hilarity.

Lion-hearted Richard is preparing to slaughter and then roast an innocent, dewy-eyed, fuzzy, little, bleating creature, reminding us meat-eaters, lest we forget, that people kill animals to create mouth-watering meals. Richard’s wife Pam acquiesces sadly since the forthcoming supper serves as an annual rite of communion with long-time friends Tom, a doctor and Wendy, his wife, whose relationship has long been strained dues to Wendy’s passion and Tom’s timidity and reasonableness. As they gather, Richard and Wendy hunt a reason to be alone together and practice conjugal variations causing Tom to consider murder, if only he hadn’t taken doctor’s vows. Soon the four of them are regurgitating secrets from the past. Such as how Wendy cherishes the joy of sharing the revelations of first menstruation with Pam. Or how Richard and Tom recall the mutual discoveries of their own sweaty teen-age bodies. We learn too that Richard conceives himself as some kind of Johnny Human-seed regretting how, in the past, he always extended himself to support the latex industry instead of peopling the world with self- replicas. Overall, things get way out of hand.

In Hunter Gatherers, superbly directed and realized by Jeffrey Carpenter, the cast surges with talent, in constantly off-the wall performances which nonetheless seem like humans rather than cartoons. These characters, as in the best comedies, take themselves seriously and can’t help it if they lose control. Newly-arrived-in-Pittsburgh Jonathan Visser astonishes with his loony, vital and believable version of Richard. Meanwhile, as Wendy, Amy Landis has tremendous, non-stop panache and style. Michael Fuller plays Tom with a deeply sincere projection of the man’s earnest vulnerability within which lies the potential to believably erupt into comic and surprising dimensions. Amid all such vigorous delights, Tressa Glover has the more challenging role of modest, self-effacing Pam. On opening night she hadn’t arrived at something as definitive as have the rest of the actors, as if too influenced by so much high-volume intensity. Instead of shouting so often she would serve the play and the character better by making her gently sympathetic.

At the center of this whole expedition into the wild, writer Peter Sinn Nachtrieb has mined non-stop funny ideas and dialogue. This is the second example of his invention we’ve seen recently in this territory, the previous one not long ago, Boom, produced by Off the Wall Theatre. Keep his name in mind and wait with delight to see what next he has for us.

This important advisory: there is an open range of adult language and a clear-cut display of graphic violence starting with slaughter of meat on the hoof. Don’t bring the kids.

Hunter Gatherers keeps on coming through May 7th at Bricolage, 937 Liberty Avenue downtown. Tickets and info: and 412/381 6999

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Theatre review: The Alice Project at CMU. Sunday, 17th April 2011

We have another ongoing theatre piece called a “project,” The Alice Project at CMU. This takes Lewis Carroll’s, as fully titled, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There and goes into a fascinating, multi-prismed exploration of the many surfaces and dimensions of fractured activities and memorable characters Alice finds in a second fantasy world, having escaped unharmed from Wonderland.

It’s called a project because different perspectives come from collaboration among The CMU School of Drama’s graduate designers, undergraduate directors, graduate dramatic writing students and present acting students as directed by faculty member Marianne Weems.

With so many elements merging you may wonder how this can clearly lead anywhere. Well, it doesn’t. After stating that an intention is to find out who Alice really is, that destination is never reached. Nor does any meaningful interpretation come across as to the potential symbolisms and deeper meanings of Carroll’s concept. Yet, the longer you watch the less that matters.

As The Alice Project gets curioser and curioser, the adventure stays wonderfully creative and alive with visual effects, as if the designers have taken over to make this their project while all the other collaborators came along for the brilliant and dynamic ride. Clearly they’ve all agreed to make the most of modern technology, including live cameras, non-stop projections and soundscapes of various kinds. That creates an always vivid stage environment equally alive with actors swiftly moving into and out of multiple roles, including several playing Alice. Everyone climbs ladders to ascend into or descend from stacked box-like frames wherein to skillfully play out various scenes, like children in a massive playground making new discoveries while playing well with others. These kids, however, are old enough that, sometimes, they needlessly throw in street language which Carroll would never have used; he aimed to reach far more innocent youngsters. But then the script does not stick to the original text, nor intend to.

Director Weems writes that Through the Looking Glass “does not follow a straight line across a chessboard; the story is only the skeleton” that the details do not have to fit. Right. You learn where she wants to go. But I wonder what Lewis Carroll would have thought seeing what has happened to his ideas. He might admire how it all looks and sounds, including some original music. I do. And Carroll might wonder what is the purpose of thus deconstructing his highly original, distinctive tale. A tale which has a lot to offer on its own. Weems says this is “ample room to play.” Yes, I’d say that the participants in this fantasy probably are having a good time. Certainly, being students, they are also learning modern disciplines of interpretation and movement to serve future professional careers, especially in experiments which could resemble this.

For those of us outside the frame, we can marvel at the brilliant visual elements so much so that we needn’t think about what it all means or even if it has to mean something. Weems tell us what she thinks. Maybe afterwards, you might want to ponder her interesting thesis. But maybe too, it doesn’t matter, because what you see is a kind of wonderland. And that’s worth the trip.

The Alice Project continues through April 23rd at Philip Chosky Theatre on campus at CMU, Oakland. School of Drama box office: 412/ 268-2407

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Theatre review: "The Amish Project" at City Theatre

Like a classic Amish quilt, Jessica Dickey’s 2008 play The Amish Project unfolds at City Theatre to become a vivid, multi-patterned amazement. And, in her one-person performance of it, she keeps it full of astonishing patterns, moving sideways and up and down in time. She brings forth a work of surprising beauty, emerging from lives full of pain in what is neither a narrative documentary nor a pointed lecture rushing emphatically to an absolute conclusion. Don’t be miss-led; the title seems too simple for what she has created. Perhaps she intends to reflect Amish traditions. Restraint. Modesty. Yet this can warm you and hold you close against the revealed darkness of fragmented lives.

Dickey comes from south central Pennsylvania, not so very far from Pittsburgh and not so very far from Lancaster, PA and its many Amish communities. But her work reaches out in all directions bringing home something to grab us where we live even as we disperse in our many separate ways.

Alone on a deliberately frugally-set stage, she portrays seven people in a tale which weaves together real details with elements of fictional speculation in a pattern of intersecting lives…and deaths…into something bigger than any one component. At the center lie these facts: In 2006, not far from Lancaster, a gunman shot ten Amish schoolgirls, killing five and himself. The Amish community responded with forgiveness and reconciliation. Such a story, as you can see, contains an array of feelings, shock at the horror, sorrow, puzzlement, soul-searching and soul-embracing.

Dickey explores all of that, bringing forth her own perspective in depicting two young girls who were victims, the murderer, his wife, an accidentally involved teen-age supermarket clerk from a nearby town and a college professor who has long known the Amish and tries to explain to outsiders how and why they live the way they do. Somewhere in there, too, Dickey brings out details about an historical precedent of outsiders cruelly treating this deliberately self-contained sect.

Yes, it is a lot to grasp. But, amid your tears and smiles, you want to embrace those wonderfully portrayed, dear departed schoolgirls. And you want to try to understand why the killer did what he did, wondering if you would have equal grace and compassion to forgive him. Dickey deliberately does not answer all the questions but leaves it all for you to absorb and to come away with it permeating your memory. Director Sarah Cameron Sunde continually helps to make it live, although I wish that she or Dickey could have found a better way to physically personify the professor, even if the movements imitate an actual person.

Sitting there before the lights go out, reading Dickey’s eloquent program notes, you may wonder if you can endure what lies ahead, only to find, when the lights go up again, that something bright shines in the night, even as the latest news gives us new reasons to mourn.

The Amish Project continues through May 8th at City Theatre on Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Tickets and info: at 412/431-CITY (2489) or

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Re Shakespeare's "As You Like It" at Pitt.

What is called the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre offers a large cast of students taking on the assignment of performing Shakespeare’s As You Like It, supplemented by one local professional actor, Ken Bolden, who’s also on the faculty. Faculty member Sam Turich has directed, calling for contemporary effects such as everyday clothing and cell phones. This is an opportunity for the public to witness young, non-professionals getting training and experience playing Shakespeare

Calling this and other student cast productions “repertory” is a mis-leading term suggesting to audiences that this is professional, which it is not. It’s also faulty education for students. The word “repertory” implies either an acting company which appears in more than one play in the same season or alternating performances of more than one play. Or both. The Pitt Theatre Department should know better.

Performances continue through April 10th on campus at the Charity Randall Theater in Oakland. Info at 412/624 PLAY (412/ 624-7529) or

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Theatre review: "Mercy and the Firefly" at Point Park U's The Rep- Sunday 3rd March 2011

Pittsburgh’s Amy Hartmann continues to come up with interesting, unconventional, original and complex plays. The latest is Mercy and the Firefly presented by Point Park U’s The Rep. I’m not sure what she’s trying to tell us this time, but certainly the cast makes all the speeches and the feelings completely alive and constantly convincing even as the play lurches to an overly melodramatic ending.

As before, Hartmann imaginatively ventures into alternative realities rather than into something resembling life as we know it. This can present problems, but director Melissa Martin and her fine cast depict this as happening to real people, even when elements don’t hold up logically.

I suspect that major underlying themes are resurrection and redemption. I say resurrection because a previously murdered parochial school teenager, Aisha Sun, frames the opening vigorously spouting profanity-laden rap even though we later learn that she was mute as well as mentally and physically impaired. Later, too, her ghost keeps haunting a witness to the murder, school-mate Mercy Rivera. Meanwhile, talk of tenets of the Catholic religion surface and re-surface, dealing with, among other things, the idea of transubstantiation. Plus a dead romance re-kindles between Lucy Clark, a school-teaching nun, and her former boyfriend, recovering junkie Oliver Hill.

All this and more is crammed into two vigorous hours full of interesting back-stories, which, for a long time at the start, seem to be the entire focus rather than do actions or developments. Ultimately everything starts to churn and whirl in many directions like the spiky spokes of a quirky wheel.

The overall details of Mercy and The Firefly are not hard to follow. Lucy took pity on Aisha, and, physically comforting the child, was suspended for doing so. She then kidnapped Mercy, bringing her home to Homestead (get it?) to keep her out of harm’s way. But, for reasons not clear, she asks Oliver to lodge Mercy in his home. There the temporarily mute Mercy turns to verbally abusing Oliver with profanity-laden street talk and tries to seduce him. You may wonder why and wonder about the reason for only using that language once, never again with him or anyone else. Among other things, Lucy feels she’s losing her faith and desperately wants to know who is her father, since her mother, Vivian, has never told her the truth. Moreover Vivian believes she is doing good works by catering last suppers to death-row inmates. Some symbolisms seem obvious. Other less-believable developments make me wonder if they are meant to be symbolic. As for the firefly of the title, that word and the subject get lost in the murkiness.

This and other underlying background, such as street-gang violence and the specifics of life in Homestead, which, here, looks generic, keeps on coming in a story full of colorful details where, from start to finish, striking-looking Shammen McCune makes Lucy lucidly complex and compelling. As Vivian, Penelope Lindblom always convincingly conveys the woman’s sorrowful, child-like confusion. The role of Mercy is played by University of Pittsburgh sophomore Chelsea Mervis who expertly brings believability to her multiple, inconsistent dimensions. Patrick Jordan has the role of Oliver, the least developed character of the four. On preview night he made the man seem real without adding any potential subtleties.

Director Melissa Martin keeps everything in vital motion and, admirably, gets the cast to play this sincerely. That makes as much out the script as possible rather than coming up with some kind of stylization to incorporate disparate elements. Adding to the sense of substance, sound designer Steve Shapiro enriches the feeling by framing scenes using recorded performances by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a Belgian girls' choir which often performs rock songs in ways that sound like sacred music.

You will likely stay engaged with the total effect, with its resemblance to a well-produced, dark, off-beat movie. So long as you don’t need to see it all clearly.

Mercy and the Firefly continues through April 17th at Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Studio Theater-222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412/ 392-8000 or online at