Sunday, July 31, 2011

Theatre review: "The Mistakes Madeline Made" from No Name Players. Sunday 31st July 2011

I have no idea about what playwright Elizabeth Meriwether is trying to tell us in her short play The Mistakes Madeline Made and no idea why No Name Players decided to invest time and talent to it. The only thing that becomes clear is that director Marci Woodruff and her cast perform this possibly deliberately absurd material with realistic sincerity and skill, even if I’m not sure if that’s the best or only choice. Certainly the set has a lot of substance.

Characteristically, as with so many semi-professional groups, nothing in the program says anything about the most essential person of this play, the writer. But I learned from Wikipedia that Meriwether wrote this in 2006 along with Heddatron and Oliver Parker! in 2010 as well as the screenplay for this year’s romantic comedy film No Strings Attached and has been grouped with "The Fempire" a group of female screenwriters.

The focus is on Edna, who hates her job as part of the home office staff of very wealthy family. Wilson is on the staff and, seemingly a mental case, delights in creating sound effects and incessantly babbling. Edna continually drops off into her past as a college student when her visiting brother Buddy, a war correspondent, spent much time in an empty bathtub. Since his death,Edna hasn’t bathed and gravitates to sex with writers. Also seemingly central is an obsession with Handi Wipes.

As for the title, it too seems more obscure than meaningful. It’s a reference to a short passage read aloud from a book by Dr. Joyce Brothers. I guess overall that Meriwether is trying to say something about contemporary women. And, I’m sure that, if you want to spend time and energy attending this and pondering it subsequently you might discover more merit in the experience than I did.

The Mistakes Madeline Made is at the Studio Theater in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh through August 13th. Tickets at : ShowClix 1-888-71-TICKETS which is the same as 1 -888-718-4253. Info:

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Theatre Review: "Twelfth Night" from Quantum Theatre. Sunday 31st July 2011

Quantum Theatre’s Karla Boos has come up with a delightfully charming version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Her excellent directorial concept with a nearly perfect cast carrying it out, renew the life in this thoroughly familiar comedy. Boos and her actors do not radically transform the characters or the story but make it all live again, enriching the spirit of fun without pushing or overdoing it. Here, the emphasis is on people taking themselves too seriously, never knowing that they are foolish, becoming unwittingly comic.

To make sure you remember the play, the best known people in it are Malvolio, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek whose ludicrous qualities along with their names have become indelible. In the center of the plot are the highly earnest Olivia and Orsino. Orsino believes because he is so passionate about Olivia that she’s obliged to love him. She, forswearing the company of men, swiftly finds her resolve crumbling encountering a boy sent to woo her on Orsino’s behalf. That boy is really a girl, wandering and homeless Viola whose twin brother Sebastian eventually arrives. Malvolio, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are in Olivia’s circle as is Feste, most often defined a clown, although not in this instance.

Boos always keeps the touch light and the pacing lively. And Robin Abramson’s Viola brims with winning personality, most of it while Voila has assumed the guise of a boy which she never forces. Abramson makes it all truthful, simple and gentle. No wonder Olivia falls in love. Meanwhile Robin Walsh expertly makes believable Olivia’s constant disarray. I don’t think, though, that Mark Staley found the subtle comic possibilities in Orsino. John Gresh turns the perpetually soused, perpetually playful Sir Toby into a jolly delight and Tony Bingham finds clever comic possibilities in Sebastian. As Malvolio, Gregory Lehane does something quite unexpected, an excellent choice. Malvolio is often played as initially laughable, but Lehane makes him totally serious, a good counterpoint to all that happening around him where seemingly respectable people don’t know that they are fools. On the other hand, the actual fool character, Feste, is often played as wise and reasonable. A good contrast. But, in this case, young, marginally experienced Justin DeWolf does nothing at all with that role.

Boos has made a few strange choices in costuming and staging, albeit peripheral. Most of the cast comes generically attired, suggesting no period. Several people wear visible, tight black corsets, I suppose to suggest characters seeking to control themselves. On the other hand Sir Andrew’s clothes look incongruously near Elizabethan. Plus, to symbolize money, “purses” in the script, she has everyone passing along credit cards. Odd. And she needlessly uses door buzzers to summon people who could just as easily be called directly. Maybe there are symbolisms which I missed.

As is often true in a Quantum production, the setting adds a further dimension. In this case Boos borrows an abandoned building along functioning railroad tracks beneath the South Millvale Avenue Bridge, a courtyard of the former West Penn Hospital Foundation Research Facility. With seats arranged on platforms facing the courtyard it becomes a fine amphitheatre. Crickets chirp, birds twitter and, once in a while, a train chugs nearby, all making no special point but adding to the appeal.

Everything feels so fresh. And, as the moon rises above the trees, so will your spirits lift.

Twelfth Night continues through August 21st at The West Penn Hospital Foundation Research Facility, 720 Gross Street, Bloomfield
Tickets through ShowClix 1-888-71-TICKETS i.e. 1-888 718 4253 or at

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Theatre review: "The Sound of Music" from Pittsburgh CLO for Sunday 24th July 2011

Pittsburgh CLO offers a superbly sung, good looking and convincing production of The Sound of Music Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration. Although you may think you know this classic, the songs, the story, you could be surprised by its virtues. And this performance, directed by James Brennan, honors the concept, never pushing the sentimentality nor overdoing the more obvious elements.

The story is a sketchy re-working of a true one. Maria Rainer, at first a postulant at an abbey near Salzburg, Austria, becomes a governess for the seven children of widowed Captain Georg von Trapp, a celebrated navel hero of World War I. While at first very severe, he loses some of his edge when the children’s virtues become more apparent under Maria’s guidance, He plans to marry a Viennese woman, Elsa Schraeder, more to provide stability to his family than out of love. But, in fact he and Maria fall in love and marry. Meanwhile The Captain opposes the takeover of Austria by the Third Reich, Eventually the family finds a way to escape.

Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse’s book has some excellent elements, for example implying that the Captain’s initial edginess may be due to having lost his wife. Moreover they have given the Mother Abbess human wisdom and have evoked dark drama in the threats of Nazism.

The musical begins with sounds of wonderful simplicity, lovely a cappella singing by the nuns, followed by swift sung depictions of Maria’s basic character. The story moves along quite well for a while before detouring into some attractive but gratuitous songs. By now those songs have become so familiar that they are easy to appreciate even if superfluous.

Rodgers created lovely and charming melodies while Hammerstein regularly came up with good meaningful lyrics. “My Favorite Things,” I find one of their best. Also in this production “Climb Every Mountain” becomes really moving, due to compelling singing by Lisa Howard as the Mother Abbess. Note especially, too, the song “Edelweiss” as if the elemental beauty of the mountain flower has symbolic meaning.

Howard’s performance is among many which have integrity without being overdone including Robert Cuccioli’s interpretation of the Captain. He finds multiple dimensions and when he finally smiles, his genuine warmth lights up the stage. Jennifer Hope Wills’s Maria doesn’t have equal depth; she seems charmingly innocent at first but doesn’t emerge with any more character. However, she sings beautifully, flawlessly.

The children are all played by local performers. North Hills High School grad Kirsten Hoover as the oldest daughter Liesl comes across with as much polish and personality as any of the professionals. And, as you would expect, the youngest child, seven year old Madeline Dick steals the show just by being adorably tiny and a performer as skilled as anyone else on stage.

The cast includes Pittsburgh’s Terry Wickline, Gene Saraceni and Joe Jackson in minor supporting roles plus other local well-knowns Maria Becoates-Bey, Michael Campayno and Christine Laitta in the ensemble.

Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lindsay and Crouse created something quite good, even if sometimes formulaic. Pittsburgh CLO makes the best of it work on every level.

The Sound of Music continues through July 31st at Benedum Center, downtown.
412/456-6666 or

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Theatre review: "Comic Potential" at Little Lake Theatre -Sunday 10th July 2011

Given that Alan Ayckbourn has written 74 full-length plays, it stands to reason that his work has gone in many directions in the 52 years since his first was produced. He’s become best-known for comic theatrical tricks and gimmicks and for often focusing on dysfunctional marriages, as in 1999’s House and Garden currently visited by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. But, at Little Lake Theatre, you’ll experience something quite different, from the year before, a really very good, well-directed version of the play called Comic Potential, with performances equal to the professionalism of PICT.

This work has no special devices and not many deliberately comic lines and situations. Rather Ayckbourn thoroughly explores the potential for satire and philosophical themes, using what could be called science fiction, often a vehicle for comment on contemporary life. Also, he briefly, successfully mimics situation comedies and takes a few convincing turns toward melodrama.

Set in what Ayckbourn calls “the foreseeable future” he also says that that is “when everything has changed except human nature.” Here he follows along the possible permutation of what could develop and what could be inferred if modern science were to develop “actoids,” androids specifically designed to be actors in low-budget soap operas. Already you can see how such a concept can poke fingers at generic actors and generic programs, and at bottom-line producers who are indifferent to talent.

Idealistic young writer Adam Trainsmith visits a set where Chandler Tate, a former director of classic comedies, makes a living directing such soap operas. But some actoids start malfunctioning. One of them, a female, JC-F31-333, unpredictably starts laughing.

Adam, calling her “Jacie,” sees in her the potential for creating a new script evoking long-gone classic comedies. He also finds himself falling in love and they run away together. Here we could see a parallel to the idea of The Stepford Wives, Jacie programmed to be anything anybody else wants her to be. Also being sent-up are such ideas as people trying to contain and control human emotions. But I leave it to you to discover the many other themes Ayckbourn wonderfully satirizes and develops.

This production of Comic Potential features two exceptionally talented actors, Kate Neubert-Lechner as Jacie and Jason Dille as Adam. She, always able to suggest someone not completely human, still finds the many possible dimensions within that role. Dille has a charming sense of youthful vitality along with a great loose-limbed way of moving suggesting Dick Van Dyke. When both of them get into a dance routine, they are a delight to watch together. Neubert-Lechner, by the way, choreographed that.

In multiple supporting roles John McGovern, Bill Bennett and Charles Grant Carey also contribute to the polish and substance of this production. Given that this is an Ayckbourn script, director Sunny Disney Fitchett seems to have required English accents. She needn’t have done so; nothing in the story or its developments need accents, and, unfortunately, a couple of other supporting cast members sometimes make their words unintelligible. Disney Fitchett does do very well keeping the pace lively and the acting convincing. However, on the second night of the production, Dale Irvin’s playing of Chandler often seemed to be floundering for his lines, leaving clumsy, empty verbal spaces. The role could be played in several inventive ways, none of which he’d found yet. But, given that the character is more marginal than central to the story and to Ayckbourn’s many clever ideas, this in no way diminishes neither the admirable accomplishments of the playwright nor those of most of the cast and the company.

Comic Potential continues through July 23rd at Little Lake Theatre Company-500 Lakeside Drive, Canonsburg. 724/745-6300