Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Theatre review: "MIA" at Point Park U's The Rep-Sunday 1st April 2012

The Rep, the Point Park U professional theatre group,continues with its admirable project of producing entirely new plays this season with MIA by Bruce J. Robinson. Inevitably something like this, untried before now, can still need work. This needs a lot, but the dynamic and inventive second act makes it clear that Robinson has something significant to say and seems capable of saying it well.

Now that so many newer plays resemble extended one-acts, coming in at 90 minutes or so, something can be said for such a concentrated focus and a resultant trajectory pushing along serious stories like these, making them potentially more intense. This two- act play could get there with serious tightening, working better in the shorter framework.

MIA has some affinities with Arthur Miller’s plays about fathers and sons. All My Sons likewise deals with the question of honor during wartime. And, as in Death of a Salesman, the father is also a salesman. But, based on this effort, Robinson has a long way to go to equal Miller’s clarity of writing and depth of character.

The premise has potential. Frank Schooler’s oldest son Michael evidently died in the first Iraq War; his body was never found. On what would have been Michael’s 40th birthday, while new wars rage, younger son Randy wants to enlist. Frank and his wife Emmy can’t deal with that.

Underlying this dilemma, the dialogue suggests Frank’s patriotism could be in conflict with his resistance to Randy’s need to do something significant for his country. Robinson has made a bad choice in having Frank reluctant to clearly state what he thinks and feels most deeply. Moreover, too much of the first act meanders into trivial conversation wandering around the core of the exposition before having some emotional intensity when Randy gets drunk.

The second act gets more into focus, including developing a solid secondary theme about commitment and the need to take charge of one’s own life. This concerns Randy’s married sister Maura. Eventually Robinson also brings in good theatrical devices, including Michael’s materialization in Frank’s dreams.

Director John Amplas and his production staff have found many interesting, expressive ways to underscore the story with lights and projections. But, on opening night, sound designer’s Steve Shapiro’s echo effect for a dramatic scene between Michael’s ghost and Frank seriously went awry.

The excellent cast does well with what it has been given, especially Point Park Conservatory alumnus Justin Mark DeWolf’s convincing version of Randy. Daina Michelle Griffith also capably shows Maura’s multiple dimensions. As Frank, Larry John Meyers looks stuck with an ill-defined character, neither thoroughly conveying Frank’s potentially harsh side nor his emotional vulnerability. Visiting actor Tommy LaFitte plays Frank’s long time friend Kenny, something of a level-headed foil to Frank’s variable states of mind. On opening night, I found it difficult most of the time to understand what LaFitte was saying. So did the woman next to me.

Unfortunately neither Amplas nor his cast can do enough to make the play work better. Robinson could. I wish him well.

MIA continues through April 7th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412-392-8000 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Theatre review: "The Monster in The Hall" : Sunday 18th March 2012

The Monster in the Hall may sound like a title for a horror movie but in fact it’s for a highly original, imaginative, zippy, charming play by Scotland’s David Greig. The title refers to a real motorcycle called The Ducati Monster. There’s an unrepaired wreck of one sitting inside the home of Duke Macatarsney and his daughter Duck. She’s even named for that machine. Clearly, considering where the wreck is placed, it is central to their lives. But further it has symbolic meaning, implying a different kind of wreck, Duke and Duck struggling with the monstrosity of his Multiple Sclerosis.

Aye, this sounds like a dark tale. Oddly, though, it’s not. Although the situation could be tragic, Greig instead has made it life-affirming, full of goofiness and fun with only a few sidelong glances at anything serious. You’ll come away marvelously entertained, especially given Sheila McKenna’s multiple turns as different women, sometimes back to back. At the same time, director Tracey Brigden and movement master Tomè Cousin wonderfully fill the stage with all kinds of physical activity. E.g. The cast dances and sings songs by Eric Shimelonis, blind Duke stumbles all over a tiny kitchen in a disastrous attempt to make macaroni and cheese, everybody whizzes along in a motorcycle chase or things get farcical with two doors into and out of which McKenna pops as two different people.

As for what’s at the center: Duke has brought up Duck ever since her ma died in a wild motorcycle ride. Duke, a one time Hell’s Angel, is on the verge of going to heaven, suffering the hell of increasingly failing health. However he remains sustained by beer, pot, an active on-line fantasy life and by Duck’s attempts to take care of him. They celebrate what they have instead of bemoaning what’s missing. Three people surge into their lives, a social worker who wants to save Duck, a woman named Agnetha, a salty, socialist visitor from across the sea and Lawrence, one of Duck’s classmates who needs a sexual favor to counter the impression that’s he’s gay.

Greig’s script calls for a variety of novel elements such as scenes suggesting computer games, or those delving into Duck’s fantasy of becoming a media star or being visited by The Catastrophe Fairy. And Greig ingeniously shows both father and daughter finding solace in a variety of fantasies.

David Whalen further proves his talent for playing character roles and for mastering physical comedy. His Duke bounces along with sass in the songs, he pantomimes all kinds of business with unerring skill and yet he leaves room to show genuine tenderness for beloved daughter, Duck.

In that role visiting actress Melinda Helfrich completely conveys the girl’s youthful charm, vulnerability and intelligence while visitor Matt Dengler gets Lawrence just right, and equally well doubles and triples in other small roles. Both also sing and dance with polish.

As for Shiela Mckenna, she plays a whole bunch of roles with non-stop vitality, keeping the heady pace which everyone keeps, making the whole experience a non-stop delight.

The Monster in the Hall
continues through April 1st at City Theatre 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side 412.431.CITY (2489) or www.citytheatrecompany.org

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Theatre review: "La Cage Aux Folles" at Benedum Center

A touring production of La cage Aux Folles is here for a few days. And it does great things with Jerry Herman’s wonderful melodies and snappy lyrics, the cast singing superbly and the small orchestra sounding fine. Plus chorus people dance Lyn Page’s inventive choreography with great style and vitality while Tim Shortall’s sets do the show proud, especially the glitzy ones.

In case you don’t remember the essence, this is based on a 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret, focusing on a gay couple at a French Riviera night club which features drag entertainment. Georges is the club manager and his long-time lover Albin stars there. Farcical things develop when Georges' son, Jean-Michel, brings home his fiancĂ© Anne’s ultra-conservative parents.

Clearly the focus on gayness has made La Cage famous and special. As a play and a movie it mostly aims for comedy, given that being gay at the unspecified time of the story is not a time for openness. The best effect, though, would come from not pushing for laughs but by making Georges and Albin genuine people, sincerely in love, not simple-minded caricatures. The natural tendency, however, is to camp up the whole thing, as done frequently in this production.

Certainly Harvey Fierstein’s book milks some of the ideas, especially in a long-drawn-out scene in the second act when Georges tries to get Albin to look butch. And having Anne’s nasty father appear in drag to sing and dance in the finale goes overboard.

Movie star George Hamilton is the deliberate box-office draw. At age of 72 he carries off everything capably, with surface polish and a flashy-toothed, gleaming smile. Opening night he sang acceptably, wisely avoiding holding notes and, although going up on lines a couple of times, stayed adequately convincing. But he didn’t do enough to suggest that Georges and Albin are still in love, lacking obvious gestures of tenderness.

Not that Christopher Sieber’s Albin seemed that lovable. Sieber remained perpetually busy with verbal embellishments within dialogue and songs, sounding like throw-away ad-libs rather than like lines with meaning, comic or otherwise. Moreover Sieber popped into and out of various voices and other things designed to be funny, defusing a sense of character, as if doing a comedy act. Albin could legitimately be played sweet and vulnerable. At times Sieber did better, for example, when Albin pretends to be Jean-Michel’s mother. He didn’t overdo that. And he got genuine warmth and sincerity out of two good songs, “I Am What I Am” and “The Best of Times.”

Also taking the show too far, it would be hard to equal Jeigh Madjus’ over the top take on Albin’s dresser, Jacob. Less significant but also sloppy, Gay Marshall (yes. a woman cast member) as Jaqueline speaks with a French accent unlike all the other characters who are also French, but speak standard English. Since everyone speaks the native language, why would there be foreign accents?

This production has been on the road since October of last year and I have the feeling that some in the cast have been making what they think are improvements. Director Terry Johnson should come back and fix things especially since, with so many marvelous songs and a potentially endearing story, a really good show lies within the glitz.

La Cage Aux Folles continues through 6:30 pm Sunday March 18th at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/ 456-6666 or online at www.TrustArts.org.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Theatre review: "Freud's Last Session" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday 11th March 2012

You’re in for a thought-provoking experience dropping in on Freud’s Last Session at Pittsburgh Public Theater. And it may seem like a dropping in, as if a visit to or a witness of a lively encounter between two significant real people coming together to debate the existence of God and such connected issues as the meaning of life, love, sex, war, suffering. It is called a play, of course. A play of minds would be a more precise definition, since it is actually a dramatization of the essence of Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.’s book, The Question of God , juxtaposing writings of Sigmund Freud and C. S. Lewis on such subjects,as if they were conversing.

And the actors portraying these men superbly make them seem totally real. Mark St. Germain’s well-written, perceptive, intelligent script also keeps them vividly alive, during their sometimes amusing, sometimes dramatic 80 minutes together. Moreover St. Germain intensifies the meaning of this imagined meeting while the British prepare for the inevitable horrors of World War II and while Freud ponders ending his 83 years of existence.

The script does not attempt to support or endorse one man’s thinking over the other’s on any disputed subject, no more, evidently, than does the book. But it does make both men seem not just articulate,serious thinkers but also quite human, especially given Freud’s suffering the visible pain of progressively more deadly cancer. Among other things they also compare their childhoods, finding communality. And, along the way, they almost bond, despite deep,vigorously debated philosophical differences,never attacking each other personally.

David Wohl’s version of Freud capably personifies the man’s devotion to reason in whom there is a passion for ideas but whose other emotions remain masked by intelligence. Meanwhile, as Lewis, Jonathan Crombie excellently makes it clear that the man is vulnerable to being swayed by feelings, consistent with the idea that Lewis came to his belief in God in an epiphany. Credit too director Mary B. Robinson for bringing that out. Meanwhile her hand is never obvious as the actors move with unforced naturalness.

The setting is Freud’s study in London, imaginatively conceived by Allen Moyer as framed by a stunning tower of books, symbolic, no doubt, of centuries of accumulated thinking about the issues in this discourse. The rest of the set, appropriately, is never cluttered,as if to emulate the clarity of the minds active in it.It likewise adds to a sense of truth, even if such human searches for ultimate truth will never find definitive resolution. After all, how can the causes for religious faith be proved? And yet,how can they be denied?

Freud’s Last Session continues through April 1st at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600 www.ppt.org