Sunday, September 11, 2011

Theatre review: "Race" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre.Sunday 11th September 2011

David Mamet’s exercise in black and white, called Race, surges with all kinds of color and intensity as produced by Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. Given that it’s only been around for two years it seems a little early to call it a classic. But, in Mamet’s comments about it, reprinted in the excellent program book, he does call attention to the essence of classic tragedies as if some kind of inspiration.

This cast, superbly paced by director Andrew Paul, dynamically makes clear the broad, shimmering palette of Mamet’s provocative ideas.

I call it an exercise in black and white not just because, obviously, it deals with race, but with the questionable absolutes of truth and justice and, in this case, one major part of the American way. Mamet’s recurring theme concerns guilt and shame. I won’t go into what he means or why; that and much more of what he has to say become the fascinating reason for being there.

This revolves around a wealthy white man, Charles Stickland, who is accused of raping a black woman. Strickland comes to Jack Lawson and Henry Brown’s law firm hoping to have them defend him. As the play spirals and twists back and forth, Lawson, who is white and Brown, who is black, at first debate whether or not they should take the case. They also have the assistance and input of recently hired Susan. She’s black. As the play progresses her relationship with Lawson also emerges.

Fundamentally this 90 minute version of Mamet’s Race, evidently tightened compared to the two acts on Broadway, vibrates with conceptions and pre-conceptions rather than with definitions of characters. Strickland, the accused rapist, is the only person clearly defined beyond the confines of the sweaty but spartan office walls. Michael Fuller’s convincing performance makes him look vulnerable and innocent, but lacks the shadings which would seem to go with such a man of privilege and affluence. Meanwhile as the lawyers, John DeMita’s Lawson seethes with the appropriate fervor of a man with a passion for verbal combat while Alan Bomar Jones’ take on Henry Brown comes across with sturdy humor and winning personality. Caisha Felt plays Susan totally right, as a woman with attitude.

You may find some analogy here with the more recent Dominic Strauss- Kahn case, especially since part of the developments concern questionable testimony by an immigrant chamber maid. But the play was written before that case surfaced.

This reminder, should you need it, as usual, Mamet’s language is peppered with expletives. But they and all the other words serve a more intense purpose: to get us to ponder those thorny aspects of our society which still color our perceptions and our behavior concerning race.

Race continues through October 1st in the Henry Heymann Theatre in Oakland’s Stephen Foster Memorial. Tickets and info at ProArtsTickets at 412/394 -3353 or

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Theatre review: "Wicked" at Benedum Center, Sunday, 11th September, 2011

Once again, a traveling version of Wicked has landed in Pittsburgh. You can bet that seats will be packed throughout its flight, even though this hit has been running for nearly eight years on Broadway. Surely people are drawn to it more than once, like re-visiting a beloved movie. In this case, as you probably know, this musical is a spin-off of a movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Not L. Frank Baum’s book really, but rather the enduring, classic 1939 film derived from it. And, although Wicked is said to be based on Gregory Maguire’s novel of that name, the sung and danced version of it is only a shadow of its source. In fact it looks as if Winnie Holtzman’s book tries to exploit familiarity by constantly throwing in references to the movie as do some of director Joe Mantello’s effects. Nonetheless both keep the frequently comic spirit alive during the first parts.

Some of Maguire’s most original ideas clearly come through, derived from his back-story about the Wicked Witch of the West, whom Maguire named Elphaba. And when you get to witness that imaginatively conceived story, swiftly sketched-in to make room for so many peripheral songs and production numbers, you get glimpses of satirical edges about animal rights, racism and fascism. Thus, this take on what Maguire created remains interesting and colorful amid the unrelenting sparkle and flash of making everything look dynamic.

But Steven Schwartz’s generally utilitarian, uninteresting and predictable music, spiced up with a few clever lyrics, take up too much time and space. This could have made such an interesting play. Would people buy tickets for such as that? Probably. But if you want to mount a theatrical spectacle aiming for really big bucks you have to have songs.

Anyway, this production of Wicked looks great with cleverly-styled costumes and sets to suggest another off-center time and place, decorated with some very good special effects. And everyone sings with style and verve, meaning, in this case, the leads belting out their numbers in the predictable stand-and-deliver, crowd-provoking style so common to recent musicals, short on meaningful melody, long on volume. Anne Brummel does everything right as Elphaba and Natalie Daradich plays all of Glinda’s bubble-headedness with good, big comic touches. On the other hand, they don’t really evoke much specific and interesting character. I also don’t find Don Amendola’s version of the Wizard to have any interesting qualities, as if he’s walking through the part. Come to think of it, most of the performances of other specific roles, although polished, came across as likewise generic.

I was surprised too by a very chintzy effect towards the end when Dorothy, an incidental character, is portrayed in a slapped-together shadow show throwing an empty bucket of water on Elphaba. With all the money this show costs to mount, you’d think that the producers could have had some member of the chorus do this on the stage front with real water.

But my throwing cold water on this production probably doesn’t matter to anyone interested in the show. And it does have such an imaginative premise. So, even if this performance seems to be taking itself for granted, it still looks and sounds good.

Wicked is at Benedum Center through October 2nd in the PNC Broadway Across America-Pittsburgh series : 412/-471-1390 or

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Theatre review: "The Merry Wives of Windsor" from Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks-Sunday 4th September

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks offers a lively take on the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor. The cast kept it amazingly energetic despite the intense heat and a few heavy -looking costumes at the Saturday afternoon opening in Frick Park. Director Tommy Costello has had his actors project everything clearly while getting the basic sense of most of the lines. Sometimes, though, they milked the words instead of allowing them to flow naturally plus a few mugged too often as if in some kind of 19th century vaudeville show instead of in an actual play. While no one came across with an interesting and specific characterization, everyone made clear the elements of the story in broad, comic spirit.

Aging, overweight, self-important Falstaff is very short on money and decides that he will court two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Meanwhile three different men are trying to win the hand of Page's daughter. The husbands learn of Falstaff’s plan and the wives agree to have fun with Falstaff by making him more of a fool than he is already.

You could learn more about the plot; Alan Irvine gives a verbal synopsis before each performance plus the program book gives all the details.

Costello has cast Joanna Getting as Falstaff and her performance stays loud and boisterous rather than specific, the most vaudevillian of all, nearly a clown act. Among the more interesting choices Jorgè Azcàrate triples in three roles which he gives clear and separate definition. And as another two characters, Adam Huff makes them nearly credible. Several other women also play men’s roles without going overboard to mimic masculinity. Characteristic of semi or non professional actors, child-like, many threw away important words at the ends of sentences, as if periods require downward inflections.

Cellist Rachel Smith adds musical color, which, unfortunately, at times competes with dialogue delivered a few feet away from her.

Costello has everyone walking through and sometime directly playing to the randomly seated audience, a friendly way to make the experience as down to earth as the story.

This reminder: you choose your own seating, meaning you might want to bring a folding chair or at least a blanket for sitting on the grass.

The free performances of The Merry Wives of Windsor are all at 2pm. The next are September 10th and 11th at West Park at Allegheny Commons, on West North Ave & Brighton Road, on the North Side

Those September 17th and 18th are in Arsenal Park , 39th and Butler St , Lawrenceville

And September 24th and 25th they return to Frick Park at Beechwood Blvd. and Nicholson St in Squirrel Hill.

Info at