Monday, October 24, 2011

Theatre review: "Time Stands Still" @ City Theatre. Sunday 23rd October 2011

City Theatre has started its new season with a remarkably well-written, well-developed thoroughly thought-provoking play. It’s Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends seen here in 2002 produced by Pittsburgh Public Theater. Both, intensely focused on just a few people, offer well-developed characters whose intelligent, articulate, natural dialogue goes beneath the surface, deep into what they feel. The totally convincing acting by the City Theatre cast and Tracey Brigden’s insightful direction make this throb on many intense levels, provoking you during the performance and after to ponder where it has all gone and why.

The primary focus is on a journalist-couple, Sarah, a photographer and James, a reporter. Both have looked closely into the bloody, shattered faces of war. And, at the core of their existence, lies the question of how, being so close to death, they can live with what they’ve seen and try to live with each other with their shared, haunted memories. They also share their feelings and thoughts with close friend and editor Richard and with Mandy, Richard’s much younger, less sophisticated girlfriend.

The relationship between Sarah and James evolves before your eyes while Mandy’s personality develops in new, surprising ways. Margulies writes far more than essential dialogue; the character development continually engages you, wondering what these people might do or say next and where they will go inside the play’s frame or outside in the rest of the world. Moreover, beneath what is seen and said, other lines of story-telling remain implied in just a few words, background you will not learn and need not learn but which fills in even more these thoroughly-developed portraits.

Time Stands Still goes into how such people as Sarah and James can deal with the horrible trauma they’ve witnessed and how they try to objectify the effect. That colors their lives not only away from the war zones but how they relate to life in their different other real world. In this respect Margulies perceptively has them rarely touch or never actually use the word “love," as if being too committed to anything emotional could shatter their well-constructed armor against what they have witnessed in other parts of the world gone mad.

Director Brigden subtly and meaningfully stages Sarah’s and James’ movements to underscore their fragmented connections. Don’t look for that or think about it. Let it stand there while, more important, you become engaged with the truthful passion and vulnerable reasonableness of Andrew May’s portrayal of James. Or watch the many levels of meaning in Angela Reed’s version of Sarah, getting you to know and feel how much goes on inside her which she need not say to make genuine.

Add to this Robin Abramson’s always believable, sweet take on Mandy, at first comic but later even more endearing. Tim McGeever’s Richard perfectly rounds out the ensemble.

Time Stands Still never stands still but moves in many directions, all of them masterful, all of them worth your time inside the theater and later outside while you ponder what Margulies tells us about real people.

It continues through November 6th at City Theatre 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side 412/ 431-4400

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Theatre review: "Electra" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday, 9th October 2011

Electra. She strides the stage. She commands your attention. Every word she says, every gesture she makes exudes passion. She’s played at Pittsburgh Public Theater by Catherine Eaton. But she does not stand alone. She is surrounded by a vibrant cast full of equal urgency, equal energy, equal depth. Ted Pappas has placed them there. Ted Pappas has them move with primal meaning, speaking forcefully, clearly, definitively in this powerful version of the Sophocles play. Frank McGuiness adapted it, tightening it into an intense microcosm, whose energy burns up not so many minutes as you’d think, watching the inexorable hands of the clock. But within that flame, within that frame, everything happens that needs to happen.

The timeless Greek tragedy seethes with meaning while evoking the ritual that gave it birth. Pappas’ staging makes it so.

Electra vows revenge on her mother Clytemnestra and on her step-father Aegisthus. They murdered Electra’s father Agamemnon. But Electra has no power in that man’s world and yearns for her brother Orestes to return and kill them. More than that you need not know now. All will be revealed under the intense lights of the stage.

The dialogue, spoken forcefully, tells it all. This cast knows how to speak the speeches. Pappas knows how to bring that out. Pappas knows how to move these people in James Noone’s starkly evocative setting. Zach Moore’s choices of music and sound underscore it all with equal fervor.

Lisa Harrow surges forth but for a few intense minutes, her Clytemnestra clearly a woman who can kill, clearly a woman who knows what she is doing. No weakness shows. She could stand toe to toe with this daughter.

But when Orestes returns Clytemnestra is no match. When Orestes returns Electra knows the joy of anticipation even if he wavers for a time. Michael Simpson perfectly makes clear those shadows of doubt. And when the brother and sister re-unite their love lights up the darkness.

Witness too Edward James Hyland’s compelling, dynamic version of Orestes’ servant.

Meanwhile, in the center, Eaton glows with fire.

Electra. The classic lives.

It continues through October 30th at Pittsburgh Public Theater. 412/316-1600 or

Friday, October 14, 2011

Theatre review: "The End of the Affair" from Quantum Theatre-Sunday 16th October 2011

Graham Greene’s novel,The End of the Affair, a somewhat personal exploration of romantic liasons in London during World War II, has been admired so much that it has been transformed into two films and an opera. Quantum Theatre’s Karla Boos has turned it into a play and it is currently world-premiering.

The underlying story seems simple enough. Writer Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, the wife of civil servant Henry Miles, fall in love and struggle to sort out their lives together and separately, ruminating on their feelings. With Bendrix frequently narrating, Boos encapsulates the story with just three actors in 90 minutes. One can appreciate such modest dimensions given the elemental premise. But her script lacks an essential: clarifying the various years in which things take place. They do not occur sequentially and time is frequently crossed. The program book also does not specify. Director Martin Giles could have helped audiences in that regard. He also failed to provide such essential information when staging Quantum’s production of When The Rain Stops Falling.

His excellent cast convincingly delivers all of the speeches in a sturdy pace and in intelligible accents, while, occasionally, a few vivid displays of feeling emerge. In what most looks like a case-study of emotionally constrained English people amid the dreariness of their time and place, who can readily identify with them or care about them? Not I, for one.

These aliens, conversing in civilized ways in language much like our own, dressed in drab clothes, regularly got soaked in dirty rain and ate ugly food. Certainly they also heroically endured the ravages of incessant deadly bombings and must be admired and respected for their resilience. But this play only deals with that part of their lives once. Death and destruction regularly rained from the skies tearing apart their beloved city. Yet Maurice and Sarah initially don’t even discuss it as a moderate inconvenience, until he is injured and feared dead. Which is the crux of how the affair ends. You’d think such constant danger would have intensified their initial need for love and tenderness, yet that significant, meaningful theme remains undeveloped.

Maurice, whose self-reflections become the dominant element of this version of The End of the Affair, often speaks of passion, of love and hate as if from the outside, describing feelings as abstractions, rather than being moved by them. Sarah also discourses objectively about her own behavior. Both occasionally get emotional but, more often, in their self-analyzing ways, remain as remote as their period and their culture.

Tony Bingham’s performance as Maurice reminds me of Dana Andrews uni-dimensional leading man roles in 1940s movies. A handsome face delivering lines capably but with nothing much behind them. A shadow in a world of black and white. Bingham, often a colorful actor, here sounds as if attempting to be so English that his own personality has been submerged in the gloom. Gayle Pazerski’s take on Sarah just as much lacks specific personality, despite obvious physical fragility. Neither comes across enough as special or distinct, as if Giles worked hard to make them authentic instead of having them get inside themselves and inside deeper feelings. And yet, James Fitzgerald, as the husband Henry, succeeds in the deliberately right look of a genuinely boring person, whose insecurities make him real and sad.

Giles or Karla Boos in her script call for total frontal nudity several times. You can certainly see that it makes the lovers seem vulnerable and human. Moreover Giles insightfully has them, in their oh-so-English way, carefully undress in an orderly manner never uncontrollably leaping onto the bed and onto each other. These surfaces work well as do the intentionally shabby details of Tony Ferrieri’s sets.

The performances, appropriately, take place in drab surroundings, within a back room of the former Emma Kaufmann Clinic of Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill. The address is 3028 Brereton Street. But you could find yourself confused since that address is the closed front of the building and the performances are at the back, one block away on one-lane Phalen Street on which there is no parking. You may need extra time to get oriented and to walk the distance. Directions are at Quantum’s website:

Performances of The End of the Affair continue through October 30th. Tickets are at Showclix: 1-888-71 TICKETS of 1-888-718 4253.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Theatre review: "Shaken and Stirred" at Off the Wall Productions-Sunday 9th October 2011

I’ve no doubt that you will be stirred by the performances and by the stories of Shaken and Stirred, written by Virginia Wall Gruenert and produced by her own company Washington PA’s Off the Wall Productions.

As the title certainly suggests, this has to do with drinking. Serious drinking. Alcoholism, in fact. That’s hardly a rare subject for drama, being depicted in many famous movies, but less often dealt with on stage. It is a theme clearly running through stage works, such as many Irish plays or the work of Irish-American Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill in particular explored the effect of drunkenness on families. Wall-Gruenert’s play also deals with families but goes in many meaningful, insightful and unpredictable directions, effortlessly blending interconnected themes in ways neither polemic nor melodramatic. The result left a deep, thoughtful, strong impression long after I’d departed the theater, especially since I have just been watching Ken Burns’ TV series about Prohibition.

Likewise leaving a strong impression: the phenomenal acting of Erica Cuenca and Karen Baum. These two have become regulars at Off the Wall and director Robyne Parrish could not have made a better choice than to cast them in the two principal roles. Cuenca’s natural, truthful playing comes suffused with internal beauty which makes her every moment on stage alive with meaning, from portraying a pre-teen to a maturing college girl. Watching her, for example, at one end of a phone conversation would be instructive for any actor. And Baum gives an amazingly disturbing, convincingly sorrowful performance evolving into another kind of sweet beauty.

Shaken and Stirred essentially probes the lives of two young women, Harley played by Baum and Happy, interpreted by Cuenca. Harley, raped in her teens, has become a stumbling, wanton bar girl and unwed mother, yearning as much for the daughter taken away from her as for any kind of bottle with which to nurse her addiction. By contrast, Happy has intelligent, perceptive control of her life, despite a father so perpetually drunk as to be mentally and emotionally absent even while at home.

Wall-Gruenert’s one-act 75 minute play also dwells on a woman named Roz, swiftly but thoroughly drawn, and whose life outside the bottle is as unpredictable and original as other developments in the script. Wall-Gruenert plays that role herself with the same kind of unforced truthfulness that director Parrish has capably evoked from the other women.

Oddly, though, there is one scene which goes into an incongruous non-realistic fantasy, a quiz show called “Name That Belief System,” which sidetracks the otherwise believable essence of the play. Continuing to ponder it, I still don’t get the point. Deleting it certainly would make the play about 10 minutes shorter, but since the rest never drags and always remains engaging, the question of minutes seems irrelevant; you won’t think about how long or how short this is, but rather about how much it says in whatever time it takes.

FYI: speaking of time, you may find, as I did, that driving from Pittsburgh to Washington, PA along Interstate 79 will not move swiftly. Construction projects narrowed a long stretch into one lane for several miles. I found the trip worth it.

Shaken and Stirred continues through October 22nd at Off The Wall Productions 147 N.Main Street, Washington, PA Tickets through at 12/ 394-3353 or at; phone: 724/873-3576

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Theatre review: "Lost Boy in Whole Foods" at Point Park Rep Sunday 2nd October 2011

Pittsburgh’s Tammy Ryan has come up with another highly original, provocative and evocative play and The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse makes it vividly alive thanks to director Sheila McKenna and a cast full of talent. The title is Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods which may sound as if suggesting something jocular or whimsical. But actually this is deeply serious and straightforward, far less quirky than A Confluence of Dreaming which The Rep staged in June of last year, that play full of symbolisms but deep with meaning. This 2010 work seems most to be storytelling but, within it, significant themes come forward.

Ryan here says much about a subject most of us have only slight knowledge, Sudan’s second civil war which preceded the genocide in Darfur. But this is not really a history lesson because the widespread brutality, deaths, terror-stricken migrations and escapes to refugee camps have gone on over and over in many parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world. Moreover, although Pittsburgh is the setting for the play, this too could take place elsewhere. Thus, fundamentally, Ryan deals with the vast divide between our own affluent culture and the struggle to survive in far-away third world societies. But Ryan does not lay a guilt trip on us, more into revelations than accusations. Less obvious, beneath the surface, she deals with the communality of family ties and with senses of self. She has created fine, thorough character development along with sincere and natural dialogue which speaks eloquently but directly. The result becomes a remarkable experience, given that she has gone deep into portraying the beliefs and rituals of a culture alien to average Americans.

Well-off single mother Christine encounters a young man named Gabriel working at Whole Foods. He is a refugee from Sudan and has found church and government- sponsored asylum in the U.S. She is drawn to him by his vulnerable charm and seeming joy in life, despite the hardships he has endured. She takes him into her home to share it with her rebellious, spoiled daughter Alexandria. Also in the story is Gabriel’s seemingly menacing older Sudanese tribal companion Panther. Christine wants to do all she can to help and support Gabriel. Eventually, Alexandria does too.

With Lost Boy in Whole Foods you can read internal meanings about the contrasts between Christine’s home life with Alexandria and the home life Gabriel had to flee. But Ryan does not seem to be a polemicist. She also gets engaged in telling us of the intricacies of practical complications behind making compassion turn into meaningful action and of the unpredictability of human nature which is neither black nor white. We witness the strong feelings of the characters, but from outside. Although intellectually understanding these people and what they represent, I didn’t find myself emotionally connected.

I was continually impressed with the sincere, totally believable and natural acting of the cast and how McKenna got it all to look effortless with pacing that never seemed forced or rushed or overly pointed. Everyone makes the dialogue totally real.

Laurie Klatscher gives a fine portrayal of Christine making her innocent and warm. Point Park junior David Anthony Berry’s Gabriel stays constantly appealing and truthful and his darker moments become equally genuine. I did find it hard to understand many words he said, given his convincing Sudanese accent which, nonetheless, did not detract from understanding the character. Point Park faculty member Ben Blazer also contributes solid substance to the role of Michael Dolan, an ex- Catholic Charities staff member involved in aiding Gabriel and Panther.

Steve Shapiro’s sound design stays compelling, at times intensely tribal, but appropriately becoming more American black contemporary to dovetail with looming events within the story.

Ryan and The Rep have much to tell us and they tell us extraordinarily well.

Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods continues through Sunday, Oct. 16 at Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse Studio Theater. 412/ 392-8000 or