Sunday, April 29, 2012

Theatre review: "Bus Stop" at CMU Sunday 29th April 2012

We’ve had good opportunities within about a month to revisit and admire the work of William Inge. Duquesne University students just performed Inge’s Picnic and CMU students are taking the stage in Bus Stop, Inge’s work from three years later. Both plays have exceptional qualities in common; they feature perceptively written, well-developed characters. Both also dwell on young men who mask their insecurities with bluster, involved with women who need to assert themselves.

In Bus Stop, the lighter of the two plays, the roles call for well-developed definition of the characters, since they are the focus rather than any major developments. Some of the students do really well with the challenges; others don’t seem to be able to bring out enough of the specifics and complexities which Inge wrote.

This production is directed by Gregory Lehane and he has put his personal stamp on it, as if trying to make a comment. He’s trimmed the play down to about 90 minutes, had scenic designer Josh Smith create an abstract set and calls for his actors to suggest the passage of time by singing upstage in shadows. And, instead of having the restaurant look real with real props and furniture, he has his cast bring on and remove some of that even while references to other, missing scenery remain in the script. Lehane adds nothing to the play with these tricks but causes no harm. The actors still have the major assignments to make the dialogue work no matter how everything looks.

Four inter-state bus travelers and their driver are stranded for many hours in small town restaurant. They interact among themselves, with two women who work there and with the local sheriff.  The travelers are brash young cowboy Bo Decker; Virgil Blessing, Bo’s long-time ranch hand;  a young woman known as Cherie, an aspiring night club singer whose past includes many casual relationships with men; and a much divorced, alcoholic college professor Dr. Gerald Lyman. Grace runs the restaurant and an intelligent high school girl, Elma, works there.

The main focus is on Bo’s near-abduction of Cherie so she can marry him as well as on Dr. Lyman and Elma’s affinity for each other despite a major age difference.

Playing Lyman offers a major challenge for a young actor, who needs to express the older man’s inherent sadness and confusion. Alex Rice does get across well some of the more humorous and self-revealing things Lyman says, but doesn’t seem able to pull everything together into one believable person. On the other hand, Jessie Ryan’s playing of young Elma remains constantly sweet, innocent and convincing.

Adrian Blake Enscoe also makes Bo just as appealing and believable. Yet  Annie Heise’s playing of Cherie never suggests the young woman’s simple-mindedness and inherent vulnerability. It looks as if she or director Lehane were reluctant to portray such a stereotypical woman from a bygone time in our culture, akin to Lehane’s toying with the setting, suggesting feeling the need to update something which doesn’t need updating.

Inge wrote a good, charming, well-developed play and many of its best moments still shine in this production.
Bus Stop continues through May 5th in the Philip Chosky Theater in CMU's Purnell Center for the Arts. 412/268-2407. www.drama,

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Theatre review: "Dutchman" at Bricolage Sunday 29th April 2012

Entering Bricolage’s playing space these days you’ll find yourself thrust into a stark environment. A wall is streaked with graffiti, another is realistically tiled to look like a grimy New York City subway platform. They frame bleachers. Between them sits a primitive, stripped-bare implication of a subway car. In this deliberately crude place something raw happens. Swiftly too.

Witness Jesse Connor’s remarkable setting for Dutchman, LeRoi Jones 1964 theatrical provocation, taking place, said Jones, "in the flying underbelly of the city." The play dwells on racism and black consciousness, issues as much alive today as when this was written. Jones, later altering his name to Amiri Baraka, wrote this brutal, short play with sometimes complex and unrealistic language, bordering on poetry, although you may not be able to grasp the essential meaning in some significant words where they count the most.

Traveling on a subway, a young naïve, bourgeois black man named Clay gets involved in a flirtatious conversation with an off-balance, deliberately provocative white woman, Lula, who comes on to him, taunting him, teasing him, insulting him until eventually he lashes out at her. Meanwhile other passengers behave as if nothing is happening, despite Clay and Lula moving all over the public space, slamming their bodies this way and that and into each other, swearing, yelling, becoming violent.

Director Mark Clayton Southers gives this piece a relentless intensity. Like the rushing train underground, it surges toward its dark destination. He and Tami Dixon make the most of Lula, as she gyrates, lurches and slides, propelled both by the train and by her own unpredictability. And, when she speaks LeRoi Jones' sometimes fractured language, she justifies that by seeming to talk crazy. As long as Jonathan Berry as Clay seems fascinated, puzzled and intrigued by the tempting spectacle of such a creature, he perfectly conveys Clay’s vulnerable malleability. But then Clay erupts with compelling intensity into powerful and dangerous assertion, in a monologue wherein, so I’ve read, Jones wants to say many things about being a black American man, evidently the main reason for the play. Berry delivers all of that in a non-stop cadence more appropriate to a song than to bringing out the essence. He regularly drops the ends of lines, losing what, presumably, Jones most wants to say. Again and again Berry throws away what could be important words, leaving only the heat of anger.

Certainly Jones has multiple points to make including, via the other passengers, something about New Yorkers shielding their own vulnerability within tightly constricted personal space, as if indifference will protect them. Southers adds to the meaning, having all the passengers white.

Speaking of heat, by the way, Jones calls for this to take place while it is “steaming hot.” Southers does not have his cast portray that element, which could add fuel to the fiery things that transpire, even suggesting a territory deeper underground: hell.

The program book adds to the impressive sense of preparation and thought that went into this production. It suggests a transit schedule, perhaps even reminding you of our own, originally reflecting a system to serve all of the people all of the time. An issue, locally, which increasingly seems in doubt. There’s a contemporary relevance Jones could not have foreseen, even though the racism he evoked still stalks our streets.

Dutchman continues through May 12 at Bricolage, 937 Liberty Ave, Downtown 412/ 471-0999

There are also post-performance conversations with community leaders and activists focusing on the play.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Theatre review: "In the Next Room or the vibrator play" from PICT

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre has started its new season with a play that’s neither Irish nor classical. It’s by a much-admired American, Sarah Ruhl. In The Next Room or the vibrator play, is definitely a period piece, although the year is not indentified in the program book. Ruhl wrote about a specific time and its mores, customs and practices, specifically Victorian era attitudes towards the role of women, women’s sexuality being the main theme. 

The drama, sometimes promoted as a comedy, narrows in on one of many wonders of the dawn of the electrical age, the vibrator. Ruhl evokes real history in that, initially, the device was used by some doctors to deal with female “hysteria,” while actually causing  what was not immediately recognized as an orgasm, given that women were not expected to enjoy sex.

Certainly such a subject on stage could provoke laughter, some of it nervous, some of it from being amused by the naïveté of the times. Director Alan Stanford adeptly has his cast play this sincerely and convincingly rather than deliberately funny.

Dr. Givings worships Thomas Edison and that inventor’s discoveries. Among Givings’ patients is previously disoriented and listless Sabrina Daldry, who, after intimate contact with a vibrator, is stimulated into new life. Meanwhile, the doctor’s wife, Catherine, feels her femininity diminished, unable to breast-feed her infant and missing personal and physical intimacy with her husband. She becomes curious about what transpires in her husband’s home office. Then, after hiring a wet nurse, a black woman named Elizabeth, a second new element enters the controlled environment: lively, worldly young English painter Leo Irving.

Ruhl develops and fills out her major points exceptionally well. But she spends too much  time repeatedly dwelling on people getting stimulated into orgasms. You’ve got to hand it to the actors, though, who make those seem genuine, despite being partially clothed under sheets.

Ruhl also ably evokes the period and develops some of the characters. For example,  Catherine seems almost obsessively chatty while, by contrast, Elizabeth is more verbally contained but, being outside the mainstream of society, her emotions are less disguised. Ruhl writes Irving best with eloquent, expressive, articulate dialogue. Note too an inference that he is Jewish and, therefore, like Elizabeth, outside the mainstream. Leo is more thoroughly alive than the other white people, a fine contrast, another example of being natural rather than controlled. Here and in the lovely closing scene, Ruhl has written insightfully, meaningfully.

Yet Sabrina, Mr. Daldry, Dr. Givings and his assistant Annie look like stereotypes.

CMU acting major Denver Milord stands out wonderfully as Irving, creating an appealing presence, thoroughly conveying the man’s intelligence and vitality. Plus director Stanford and Jessica Frances Dukes excellently bring out Elizabeth’s compound dimensions even when not spoken, conveying significant meaning.

As for the rest of the cast, their portrayals tell the story clearly but don't give the characters enough discernable personality. Five of them seem like shades of black and white appropriate to their repressed society. You'd think, given developments, that new color would eventually come into their cheeks when they discover more and more about themselves, as if new lights went on. That's when the glow of confined, indoor lamps is replaced by the brightness of nature outside the rooms. 

In the Next Room or the vibrator play continues through May 5th at the Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, 4310 Forbes Avenue, Oakland. 412/ 394-3353 or

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Theatre review: "Around the World in 80 Days" at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Sunday 22nd April 2012..

Man overboard! His name is Tom Beckett. He flails. He yells. He sinks under the weight of 16 roles in Mark Brown’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 days now at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Moreover Beckett plays everyone nearly the same, despite changes of costume, wigs and accents. He may not be solely responsible. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge is at the helm of the weak vessel of a script and doesn’t seem to have much control over how her crew carries out their tasks. Inconsistently, two other actors play their roles fairly straightforward, another looks almost devoid of definition and the fifth veers back and forth amid everyone else’s styles.  

Expectations may have been high that this would be another hoot, equal to the recent hilarious re-take on Hitchcock’s film The 39 Steps. And Around the World….does seem to have that potential, given that just a few actors as a vast variety of characters must pantomime complex actions in physically complicated scenes.

Unlike Steps, a loony mystery full of clichés, Verne’s famous book has a different premise being a fantasy adventure without an obvious point, almost a travelogue. Certainly there are scenes where things actually happen en route, but much time and energy is devoted to depicting the travel, with a whole lot of shaking going on, usually representing being on trains and ships, the play’s major venture into amusing movement. Mark Brown often makes this feel that many stops en route are just names, not places, looking about as colorful as a drive from Scranton to Altoona to Uniontown even if, somewhere, having to replace a tire or getting lost in a local mall while depending on the kindness of strangers, yet always able buy what you need.

However, that matter-of-fact point of view is consistent with how Phileas Fogg, the initiator of this journey, views the world. He’s goal-oriented, doing his damndest to win a bet, rather than being interested in tourism. After a while, his story more and more  becomes a collection of pins on maps, although director Dodge could have made this more interesting by having her scenic designer create an actual map for the audience to follow.  

In 1872, wealthy bachelor Fogg is convinced that, given new technology, it is possible to make such a trip and bets a fortune with fellow club members that he can do it. He hires a Frenchman Passepartout as his valet. They travel lightly but with plenty of money. They are also followed by Detective Fix who’s convinced that Fogg is a fleeing bank robber. In India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue Aouda, a young Indian woman about to be burned alive with the body of her freshly deceased husband. She becomes a travel companion for the rest of the sometimes delayed trip. 
The character of Fogg could be interesting. Although described by his compatriots as “similar to a Madame Tussaud wax figure” he certainly has the potential to be more than played here by Ron Bohmer. His Fogg never becomes amusingly eccentric, consistent with some of his habits, nor a take-off on too much self-control, nor inherently charming and likable. Bohmer or Dodge do have him suddenly lose his composure a couple of times, but that looks weird and overdone.  
As Passepartout Jeffrey Kuhn never overplays, getting agreeable mileage out of a French accent and a few mispronunciations but he doesn’t come across with much of the inherent charm. And Meera Rohit Kumbhani’s version of Aouda seems capably centered in the same kind of reality as Kuhn’s performance.
Meanwhile Richard B. Watson gets stuck with shtick as Detective Fix, given repetitive bits of business by Dodge and an anachronistic musical stinger for TV and radio’s Dragnet. Surely she or sound designer Zach Moore could have found appropriate music from the period. Watson’s Fix mugs incessantly but, as eight other characters, the actor never gets as excessive as Beckett.
Had this been cast using Pittsburgh actors instead of these undoubtedly capable people, the production might have been more engaging locally, allowing us to watch artists whom we know and admire.
To Dodge’s credit she keeps the pace relentless, making the production less drawn-out that it could be. Such a pace keeps the performers vigorously doubling, amusingly swiftly, switching costumes. But, along with such energy, as if affected by the intensity, the actors say nearly everything as if working Benedum Center without microphones. Given that this is about a race, they could be justified in racing through the words, and with  Brown’s simple, utilitarian text, no one loses. Brown wrote a story, not much of a play.  
Suitable for children.  
Around the World in 80 Days continues through May 13th at Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater 621 Penn Avenue, downtown. 412/ 316 1600

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Theatre review: "Tigers Be Still" at City Theater. Sunday 8th April 2012

Kim Rosenstock has written a wonderful, funny, sweet off-center play called Tigers Be Still. After seeing it at City Theatre, you might ask why she came up with such a title. We could ponder that for days and find reasons to explain it and take it seriously. But why? This charmer requires no analysis.

Oh, certainly, three of the four characters could use curative personal analysis; depression has been gnawing at their innards. Yet when an escaped tiger prowls the streets of their suburban neighborhood, none of them becomes paralyzed with fear. They have their own caged anxieties to deal with. Director Matt M. Morrow and his marvelous cast have found the key to unlock the magic.

Rosenstock has created a non-stop delight because these characters take themselves seriously, doing and saying quirky things, at the same time becoming endearing. The play edges near to looking like a jolly cartoon by framing developments with projected titles, but never goes overboard. The characters always seem genuine and the performances keep them that way.

Sherry Wickman, having emerged from depression, narrates a tale framed by the tiger’s escape. She, her older sister Grace and their mother Wanda have all had serious emotional dysfunction. Sherry’s recovery comes from getting her first real job, counseling others. Grace has made the living room her sack of woe, almost umbilically attached to the living room couch, a down comforter and bottles of Jack Daniels, nursing the agony of permanently collapsed wedding plans. Their mother Wanda is a recluse in her bedroom, the former prom queen having become more like a float in the parade, due to required medication. At a middle school, where Sherry has become a part of the staff, principal Joseph Moore has asked her to counsel his confused, disoriented teen-age son Zack.

Rosenstock fills her scenes with the kind of details stand-up comics use to get laughs, cultural references to ordinary products and situations such as Grace’s former fiancé having strayed from their commitments to fall head over heels in love with podiatrist Dr. Carol. Rosenstock also adds a few good reflective moments.

Erica Cuenca lights up the stage with goofy, vulnerable charm as Sherry, yet maintains the sense that she is a genuine person. So too does Theo Allyn keep Grace from falling into caricature, while wonderfully looking like she, the comforter and a pillow all have the same soft, floppy center. CMU’s soon –to-graduate Noah Plomgren, equals the others’ acting talents, getting the most out of Zack’s several sides. And Jeff Howell as Joseph Moore makes him both funny and sincere.

Credit director Matt M. Morrow for getting his cast to make the comedy work flawlessly while at the same time keeping the characters centered in reality. Many moments look as if he and the actors have found just the right movements, inflections and reactions to enhance the best written aspects of the script.

By the way, although you never see the tiger, even it has unexpected dimensions. Meanwhile expect plenty of laughs from these special humans.

Tigers Be Still continues through May 6th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side 412.431.CITY (2489) or

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Theatre review: "Beauty and The Beast"-Touring production at Heinz Hall

It’s called Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I’m sure you know that that is due to the fact that it’s a live theatre re-working of the cartoon feature. On Broadway it was a major box office success; the show ran 13 years.

It’s easy to see what makes this so appealing. Even this touring, non-Equity version looks great. Wondrous sets. Clever stagecraft from director Rob Roth. Some jolly looking and sounding production numbers. A few, excellent, large-scale puppets. And impressive costumes. Add to that flawless singing and dancing.

The songs? If you haven’t heard them yet, don’t expect much magic. Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice turned in something serviceable with only a couple of numbers worth re-hearing: the title and waltz-like “To Be Human Again.” Although “Be Our Guest” has fairly lively charm, but it mainly comes from the spectacular production number incorporating it.

As for the performances of the lead roles, everyone looks and sounds good. But, since this is cartoon-derived, it could be better if they did more than resemble outlines. Dane Agostinis gets closest to creating a character with real personality. As The Beast he beautifully conveys his ultimate vulnerability. Alas, though, this becomes undercut in some of his later scenes where he plays teen-age-like shtick. That may get some laughs, but it diminishes the integrity of the role. He sings superbly as does Logan Denninghoff as Belle’s self-impressed, would-be suitor Gaston.

Sure the story seems simple-minded. Why not? It’s derived from a fairy tale. It’s got kid appeal. Within the spectacle too a couple of minor messages lie for those parents and teachers eager to pass them on. i.e Love conquers ugliness. i.e #2 Being different is OK. #3 Women can be smart and strong. Duh.

Slick? Predictable? Sure. But it looks good. Who expects circus cotton candy to be nourishing?

Beauty and The Beast continues through the afternoon of Sunday April 8th at Heinz Hall, downtown. 412/392-4900.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Theatre review: "The Electric Baby" for Sunday 8th April 2012

Quantum Theatre world premieres The Electric Baby a remarkable, eloquent work of imagination by Stefanie Zadravec. It glows, especially due to a luminous performance by Robin Abramson.

Directing this CMU grad and former City Theatre Associate Producing Director Daniella Topol makes its vivid, moving the beautiful moments with grace and all of it with meaning.

Evidently Zadravec has based it on real events of her own life, events taking place in Pittsburgh. But this is no simple narrative, nor an elemental documentary. Rather she has taken her subject into unexpected realms encompassing legends, folk wisdom, a ghost and accidental interconnections permutating in unforeseen ways.

This coalesces around a baby with a rare, perilous and unexplained physical condition. His mother, Natalia, is Romanian-born. His father, Ambimbola, is from Nigeria. Both come from roots where magic, fable and mystery combine. Driving an unlicensed cab, Ambimbola picks up part-time hooker, Rozie and her long-time pal Dan. The cab nearly kills Helen Casey who has become increasingly emotionally distant from her husband Reed after the death of their daughter. Then a new death enters into the equation even while the Reed marriage itself appears to be dying.

These, of course, are the bones of the story but Zadravec fleshes it out to make it more than story-telling, as if a fable itself. Therein lies the beauty, amazingly so, since the Reeds are suffering and Rozie suffers for a while. But soulful Natalia and Ambimbola remain suffused with serenity.

Abramson as Natalia charms and cheers every scene she plays. And Monteze Freeland’s performance of Ambimbola equals that warmth. Laurie Klatscher and John Shepard interpret Helen and Reed with compelling truth. They perfectly interpret Zadravec’s portrayal of the characters’ vulnerability and confusion.

Director Topol has found remarkable ways to move her performers within Stephanie Mayer-Staley’s inventive stage adaptation of a small room in a Victorian house which is part of The Waldorf School. Sometimes, perceptively, Topol casts Helen, Reed and Rozie into the shadows, as if they are in the dark about themselves. Sometimes she has them shine in the light of the moon as if finding their way, lit by Natalia and Ambimbola’s clarity of mind.

One scene goes on too long, when Natalia does not leave the side of her baby while Ambimbola, unable to move from his bed, tells a long story of how they met. Topol does what she can to compensate by having actors Ruth Gamble and Nick Lehane dance a pantomimic version of that story. This needs to be trimmed or re-staged perhaps using Abramson and Freeland acting it out. This is, after all, a new play,

As for where the performance takes place, it seems appropriate that it is produced in collaboration with not only the school but also Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and the Children’s Hospital Foundation. You could leave comforted, recognizing that healing is possible even as you become aware that, as the day wanes, unresolved questions wait around the corner.

The Electric Baby continues through April 22nd at The Waldorf School of Pittsburgh, 201 South Winebiddle Street in in Bloomfield/Friendship. Tickets at ShowClix 1-888-71-TICKETS (1-888 718 4253) and