Saturday, October 27, 2012

Theatre review: "Maple and Vine" at City Theatre. Sunday, 28th October 2012

Unconventional staging populates the territory of Maple and Vine at City Theatre but the 2011 play by Jordan Harrison, opening the season, remains thought- provocative, imaginative and amusing.

Social conventions themselves dwell in this script whose premise hovers on the borders between fantasy and reality. Certainly the essence focuses on how reality often can’t live up to fantasy, even when such fantasy can truly be explored.

Note the title of the play. It sounds like an innocent city intersection, but vines twist and turn, sometimes choking off life. And, in this fable, modern people have chosen to escape the intricacies of their existence to immerse themselves in a tight, reinforced, thoroughly constructed alternative society; they want to flower in what they perceive as a more innocent time in America: 1955. They seek to escape the presumed pitfalls, complications and anxieties of when and where they have been living. Near the start of the play you get the point; a 1950s-wardrobed man named Dean reminds us that, despite television family situation comedies, things in that period were not all black and white.

Harrison’s concept has a good satirical edge, as if sending up those of us who yearn for the presumably golden times of the past where brighter moments inhabit our memories amid the fluffy clouds of selective memory. i.e You can’t go home again. Harrison excellently furthers his premise: Katha has graphic dreams which threaten her stability, as if the dream world is getting confused with what happens when her eyes are open. Moreover, he excellently points up the idea that we sometimes disguise ourselves in order to better conform to what others expect of us.

Katha and her husband Ryu live hectic, urban lives, fractured by losing a not-yet-born baby. When she encounters a man who touts the seeming innocence and simple virtues of living in a community replicating 1955 U.S., she is strongly attracted. Katha and Ryu try to adapt to being, full-time members of the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence. They become close friends with Dean and his evidently cheery, uncomplicated wife Ellen. Ryu, a former plastic surgeon, takes a menial job supervised by Roger, whose persona embraces the standard anti-Asian prejudice of the times. But the actual pasts of all five outside this clinging cocoon still color their behavior and threaten to destroy fervent attempts to exist in a simulacrum of the good old days.

As the story progresses, some developments and revelations become a little too pat and unconvincing, as if Harrison is trying to wrap it all up into a neat package, looking almost as slick as a man in tightly-pressed pants, matching jacket, thoroughly-knotted tie, starched white shirt and firmly-perched hat.

Impeccable acting enhances it all, although, when Robin Abramson’s initially well-defined and vulnerable Katha evolves into an overly made-up, over- dressed smiley doll, that goes a little too far. The rest of the cast, coming here from out of town with major credits, give their roles the right dimensions. I found most memorable Ross Beschler’s playing of Roger, the least predictable character.

Director Kip Fagan usually keeps the playing within the right bounds, as if not pushing too hard for caricature. But I question his choice of a set design by Narelle Sisson. It spreads the action on a long platform across the entire center of the theatre, arranging the audience as if in bleachers. The play would be better served in a tighter space to make clearer the narrow, potentially oppressive confines of the characters lives, wherever they are.

Sound designer Eric Shimelonis’ choice of 1950s records sounds nifty, including zingy stingers along with darker colors for moments when things seem more black than white. And costume designer Robert C.T. Steele has even come up with the right clothes for scene-changing stage hands.

How has everything been with you? Could this turn out to be one of your good old days?

Maple and Vine continues through November 4th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Southside. 412/431-CITY (2489) or

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Theatre review: "Ainadamar" from Quantum Theatre-Sunday, 21st October 2012

You descend stairs and more stairs, deeper and deeper in a church, as if into burial vaults beneath the hearts of houses of worship in far, old places such as those in Spain or Latin America. In this vast, shadowy space you are immersed in glorious singing and powerful music permeated by the fire, the longing, the sorrow of flamenco soul. Argentina-born famed composer Osvaldo Golijov has invoked such chords, such rhythm in his intense, compact opera Ainadamar. And Quantum Theatre, superbly guided by director Karla Boos, grabs your senses in this immersion into a tale of the martyrdom of Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, revealed in the social hall of East Liberty Presbyterian Church.

It is not a straightforward telling. It is not intended to be. Rather,through music sung and played, through dance and gesture, it re-awakens the memory of a woman who, across the ocean from hers and Lorca’s homeland, a woman who loved him, lives out again what haunts her 33 years after he was executed. She evokes, too, an ancient well called Ainadamar where Lorca died.

But what counts, as the story unfolds and refolds, becomes how it sounds, how it looks, as if you witness a ritual, akin to those which transpire above, closer to sunlight streaming through colored windows. It sounds, it looks as strong as the faith of those who immerse themselves in those connections to heaven.

In Uruguay, self-exiled Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu describes her days with Lorca for her student Nuria. Xirgu harks back to the time of the Spanish Civil War when a play by the poet angered the generals by espousing freedom of expression, when it stood against terror. Xirgu wanted Lorca to save himself and flee. He refused. Falangist Ruiz Alonso arrested Lorca and had him killed.

Three extraordinary, brilliant Pittsburgh women supremely sing the roles of Margarita, Nuria and Lorca. They are Katy Williams, Leah Edmondsen Dyer and Raquel Winnica Young, while Carolina Loyola-Garcia, likewise from this city, dancing, stuns and stirs with her vibrant feet and puts fierce, menacing power into the role of Ruiz Alonso. As Lorca, Young also superbly reaches into lower notes enhancing a convincing portrait of a vulnerable young man whose dignity will not be trampled.

Director Boos gives every gesture, every meaning compelling clarity, making telling use of the space, her conception enriched by Joe Seamans’ imaginative video designs flashing on a screen hovering above a giant staircase. Meanwhile, he clarifies meaning, projecting translations of David Henry Hwang’s Spanish text across two other walls, putting Ruiz Alonso’s words into harsh capital letters. And sound designer Ryan McMasters adds to the depth using gunshots as counter-rhythms to the staccato stomping of feet and the rhythmic clapping of hands.

21 accomplished musicians interpret Golijov’s score with polish and skill, impressively directed by Andres Caldera. Amid them, guitarist John Marcinizyn plays with powerful beauty.

As the waters of Ainadamar cascade on the screen, you may be moved to flowing tears shed in Lorca’s memory. Yet his words remind us of his immortality. They are “I am the fountain from which you drink.” Lorca lives. Golijov too. Quantum Theatre makes it so.

Ainadamar continues through November 3rd at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, 116 South Highland Ave., Tickets at ShowClix 1-888-718-4253; or

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Theatre review: "The Producers" from Point Park U's Conservatory Theatre Company-Sunday, 21st October, 2012

You might ask yourself “Self? Who came up with the musical version of Hamlet called Funny Boy? Who struck gold, titillating the public by re-working Oliver Goldsmith into She Shtupps to Conquer? Who found the road to success aboard A Streetcar Named Murray ?” Answer: Max Bialystock who claims, early in the riotous musical The Producers, that his is one of the biggest names on Broadway: 13 letters.

You see where this is heading, right? Head on over to Pittsburgh Playhouse and hold onto your seat, a hit up there onstage is socking it to ‘em. Get this: no one in the cast had even been tickling their parents featherbeds when this thing was conceived as a 1968 movie; university students have all the roles. Point Park University Conservatory Theatre students. They serve it up in spades. Dig it, thanks to Susan Stroman’s 2001 directorial concepts and choreography re-created, enriched and enhanced by Tomè Cousin.

You know, no doubt, that the musical collected a bunch of Tony Awards and packed Broadway houses for years. And you know too, that, writing this, Mel Brooks packed this package with off-the-wall, sometimes outrageous gags. 

So nu? No, it’s not new. A road company starring Lewis J. Stadlen hit Pittsburgh’s funny bone in 2005 and Pittsburgh CLO had a romp with it a year ago. Why see this one? I’d say because it’s fresh, alive and kicking doing justice to all the good things in it.

The cast plays, dances and sings everything with professional quality and class. The sets and costumes look great. The 12-member orchestra led by Douglas Levine swings and sways to perfection.

FYI: Max teams up with previously shy accountant Leo Bloom to produce the world’s worst show so that, when it quickly tanks, they can keep all the investments. They discover Franz Liebkind' s dictator-love-fest Springtime for Hitler, (“There was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! Two coats!”) And they hire cross-dressing, disaster-prone director Roger DeBris, who gets to wear Hitler-like boots and belts. But the best laid-men’s plan falls on its tush.

Tom Driscoll’s take on Max comes full of style, stomping, flopping, swaggering. Playing Leo, Carter Ellis’ quivering, shivering charm will win you over. Jordan Ross Weinhold superbly channels a Paul Lynde-like version of Roger DeBris, shimmering in his gowns, and, as Hitler, sashaying in his swastikas. Then there’s Carmen Ghia, named for a sleek Italian body powered by German know-how. Brandon Taylor’s takes the prize as that flaming flamingo whose every bone seems made of spandex.

The cast taps superbly, and it’s got rhythm, punctuating the score with adding machines and old lady walkers.

So what if Brooks’ music sounds generic and the second act looks too padded? It doesn’t matter in the long run. Too bad this has such a short run. These students, still learning their craft in class, have the class to make this production a hoot full of style. Cousin got them there and they make the best of it.

The Producers keeps rolling them in the aisles through Sunday, October 28th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412-392-8000 or

Monday, October 15, 2012

Theatre review: "The Other Place" at Off The Wall Productions-Sunday, 14th October 2012

Off The Wall Productions has new walls less far off from Pittsburgh than Washington, PA, now framing a congenial playing space on lively Main street in Carnegie. Appropriately, the first production there is called The Other Place. It’s by Sharr White and stars artistic director Virginia Wall Gruenert in an impressive, compelling, ultimately beautiful performance.

I say “ultimately” because the play starts out going in many directions without any obvious focus. Disjointed, bewildering fragments. Criss-crossing. Juliana Smithton paces the space. Talking to herself? Talking to you facing her. Talking to doctors. Are you there to analyze her?

As is turns out, White deliberately holds up a mirror to the increasingly fractured life of a biophysicist who has become a pharmaceutical pitchwoman. It takes time for you to realize where the story is going, even as it takes time for Juliana to realize in what direction she is heading and why. An exploration of the often-used what-is real- what-is-fantasy device.

As you come away later into the bright lights of the street, your mind can reassemble what you’ve seen and intellectually admire what you’ve witnessed on the sometimes shadowy stage. But, when it starts, you may feel  disoriented and not engaged, wondering what this is really about, until realizing it’s fundamentally about Juliana with six other characters encompassing her story.

Here are a few emerging facts: Juliana has given a talk about research into dementia, often distracted by a girl in a yellow bikini. Juliana is married to oncologist Ian. They had a daughter named Laurel who disappeared as a teenager from their Cape Cod summer home (the other place) perhaps with Richard, Juliana’s adult research assistant. Two scenes are flashbacks. One of them is the first scene. The rest is up from grabs.

Virginia Wall Gruenert's Juliana flows through it with every emotional dimension clearly, tellingly defined. Salty. Intelligent. Provocative. Infuriating. Vulnerable. Sad. Sympathetic. Hopeful. She has it all. She does it all. But never pushing. Never overboard, even though Juliana tilts and sways toward sinking.

Mark Conway Thompson portrays patient, loving husband Ian. He comes across with warm intelligence, albeit strong enough to withstand her excesses. Erika Cuenca plays three women, getting the sweet best out of a stranger who tries to comfort and reassure Juliana when mind and body are in another place.

Melissa Hill Grande directed this perceptively, getting well-tuned performances from everyone while making effective use of the large stage and an ingenious set by PICT resident scenic designer Gianni Downs.

Alas, Off The Wall does not give the audience information about the playwright in the program book as it used to do back in Washington, PA. However, the company website covers that well: White has impressive, lengthy credits.

You might want to know that this play premiered off-Broadway in March last year directed by Joe Mantello with Laurie Metcalf getting an Obie award for her interpretation of Juliana. A Broadway version opens in December. Certainly seeing and pondering this production you can realize why New York audiences and critics have been impressed. And Virginia Wall Gruenert shows how much can be done superbly with this material 370 miles west of New York on a friendly small town street.

The Other Place continues through October 27th at Off the Wall Productions,  25 West Main Street  Carnegie, PA.  724/ 873-3576 or or 412/394-3353 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Theatre review: "Born Yesterday" Sunday, 14th October 2012

Opening its season, Pittsburgh Public Theater offers a sometimes engaging period piece which should please the public, Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday. It’s from 1946 and is no doubt best remembered for one of is characters, Billie Dawn, a seemingly empty-headed, full-bodied young woman whose transformation becomes the source of comedy and some degree of depth.

You need to wait until the second act to appreciate the best in the play. The first act essentially sets up the premise revealing fairly simple people who don’t provide many laughs. Visiting performer Melissa Miller stands out making Billie wonderfully charming and always convincing amid a cast playing everything with sincerity and believability. Public Theater Artistic Director Ted Pappas keeps it all colorful with a lively pace.

You won’t find the comedy as wacky as George S. Kaufman’s nor the serious moments close to Arthur Miller’s. Think of Born Yesterday fundamentally as an entertainment which, in the most intelligent parts of the second act, says well a few worthwhile things including some about politics, which don’t seem to have changed that much.

Uncouth, corrupt, rich junk dealer, Harry Brock comes to Washington D.C, to try to buy his way out of laws impeding his business, including trying to corner the market on war-destroyed ordnance overseas. He’s been paying off Senator Norval Hodges. Also in Brock’s bulging pocket is slick lawyer Ed Devery. Brock has brought showgirl mistress Billie Dawn with him. Since Billie’s ignorance looks as if that might cheapen Brock's image, he hires journalist Paul Verrall to educate her. Paul believes in the best aspects of democracy which he sometimes finds scrapped by people like Brock. Over the course of two months Paul not only influences Billie to read thought-provoking books but also to think for herself and to newly consider Brock’s personality and behavior.

Paul is played by Pittsburgh’s Daniel Krell, giving the role warm, sell-assured integrity. Visiting actor Ted Kōch portrays Brock with equal adeptness while Larry John Meyers looks and sounds entirely right as the Senator. They give the characters as much definition as possible given their limited development in Kanin’s script. Other local actors in the cast include John Shepard, Ken Bolden and James Fitzgerald.

James Noone’s set looks magnificent and director Pappas has added decorative physical touches of his own. Communications Manager Margie Romero has contributed enlightening information about the period and popular culture of the day. Among other things, she points out that Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun was running on Broadway at the time. Sound designer Zach Moore cleverly supplements that with a song from that show to set the stage, also giving nostalgia buffs samples of other pop songs of the mid-40s. Moreover Billie, whose career includes appearing in Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, sings a few bars from the score. Since those lyrics could double as Brock’s theme song, Kanin or Pappas make good points with that.

This good-looking, polished version of the 65 year old show offers a friendly couple of hours with a few things worth considering, especially given that the serious matters of a presidential election which waits just around the corner.

Born Yesterday continues through October 28th at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Theatre review : "Rope" at Pittsburgh Playhouse's The Rep-Sunday, 7th October 2012

The Rep at Pittsburgh Playhouse offers nearly two uninterrupted hours of superbly staged and performed suspense: Rope by Patrick Hamilton.The title and premise are probably best known in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 version of the 1929 English play, although they differ in several respects. This time the characters are upper- class Americans in Boston. And, unlike the movie, the three principal characters are clearly gay.

Guest director Elmore James has fashioned a compelling, well-paced, and deliberately dark evocation of the lurid tale without it ever becoming gruesome. And the all-Pittsburgh cast makes the most and the best of it, especially Pitt grad John Steffenauer and Point Park alum Ryan K. Witt in two major roles.

The play dwells on talk circling around the centerpiece, a coffin-like wooden chest on which dinner is served while inside lies the bloody carcass of freshly killed Ronald Kently, garroted by his socially privileged former classmates Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo. Brandon is the twisted mastermind behind the evening’s events, seeking to savor the satisfaction of motiveless murder, spurred by some of Nietzsche’s philosophy, which, as you may remember, inspired mass murderer Adolf Hitler. One guest at the dinner is poet and sometimes friend Rupert Cadell who has seemed to espouse Nietzsche-spurred amorality. Moreover, playwright Hamilton’s excellent premise implies that Brandon and Granillo’s high social standing makes them believe that they have a right to do anything they want. 

The story has often been described as analogous to a real-life and death one involving Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb just a few years before this play was written. Oddly,director James does not refer to that in his program notes.

The play’s tension derives from expecting the discovery of the crime and how or if Brandon and Granillo can pull off their deliberate provocation without falling apart. Most of Hamilton’s dialogue sounds straightforward rather than deliberately intellectual. Once Brandon has made clear what led him to the violent act abetted by his more fragile lover, chatter among the guests dominates at first, including playful speculations about violent crime. Later Rupert expounds on his beliefs in Hamilton’s most eloquent and evocative writing, getting the closest in the play to providing substance.

Those lines are delivered superbly by Ryan K. Witt whose characterization may seem Oscar Wildish but successfully so. Witt displays inner strength and sharp intelligence within a seemingly weak body. Meanwhile John Steffenauer’s Brandon makes the man’s self-importance and control thoroughly convincing. In this compelling portrait, even his reactions to other people’s words remain masterful.

Director James has expertly done much with the lighting to emphasize evil heavily breathing in the shadows or having sudden glare as conversations seek to sparkle or as revelations emerge from the gloom.

However James did not do nearly enough to suggest an actual dinner. The  food looks like canapes and snacks. The guests do not, tellingly, carve meat or sink their teeth into something seriously edible or stuff their mouths with a real meal. Yes, they nibble, even as much of their conversation has tiny fragments of thought, a good point, I suppose. But a choice which works against some of the premise.

However, this production stays so well conceived and played that you could come away admiring how this not-very-complex script gets expertly served.

Rope continues through Sunday, October 14th at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Avenue, Oakland. 412-392-8000 or

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Theatre review: "The Rivals" at CMU- Sunday 7th October 2012

Starting its new season the CMU School of Drama offers a remarkable cast of students whose talents and skills equal professionals. They shine and shimmer in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th Century comedy of manners The Rivals. No doubt much of their appeal has been stimulated and shaped by visiting English director Annie Tyson. She has evoked thoroughly meaningful interpretations of the text and characters creating an ensemble full of style. And to make the best of the words, evidently she has not emphasized genuine English accents, but rather just suggestions, wisely giving more time and intention to essentials.

The play can be a challenge not only to the actors but also to audiences, because not a great deal of substance emerges and it all comes engulfed in elaborate talk over more than three hours. Considerable substance can be found in the excellent program book.

Looking at the character names one might think that this is a satire. Indeed it could be, although it is not played that way but, rather, interpreted with earnest sincerity. This gives it constant charm but not that many laughs. There are such people as Captain Jack Absolute and his father Sir Anthony as well as Lydia Languish with whom Jack is most devotedly in love. His rivals for her affection are a country gentleman Bob Acres and a combative Irishman Sir Lucius O’Trigger. Add to them Lydia’s guardian aunt Mrs. Malaprop, whose name has ever since become a cinnamon for people with constabulary malfunctions. Also part of the folderol is Jack’s sometimes foolish friend Mr. Faulkland; he’s in love with Lydia’s friend Julia.

Much concerns the wooing amid the social whirl of the newly emerging fashionable vacation city of Bath.

In front of a simple backdrop representing imposing interconnected Bath buildings, director Tyson calls for simple prop and furniture embellishments to represent interiors. Consequently a lot depends on her performers to make otherwise empty space alive. They do that extremely well with body language totally right for such people of the period. And they do it with impeccable timing and wonderful reactions.

The most impressive performances come from Nick Rehberger as Captain Jack Absolute and Lachlan McKinney as his father. Rehberger’s polish and vitality make it look as if he has been playing this kind of material for years, rather than being a student. Meanwhile McKinney gives the older man the perfect mannerisms, including a way of seeming always off-balance, affected by gout with a simple suggestion: a constantly bent foot.

Lydia is played by Ginna Le Vine; she has a delightful ditzy quality which she never overdoes. I was also impressed with what Dylan Schwartz-Wallach did with Sir Lucius O’Trigger, another example of making memorable a thoroughly distinctive personality. 

But while these especially stand out, the rest of the cast equals them in conveying director Tyson’s exceptional conception of the play. They always keep it alive despite it length.

The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan frolics only through next Saturday, October 13th at Philip Chosky Theater in Purnell Center on the CMU campus. 412/268-2407