Monday, August 13, 2012

Theatre review: "Ivanov" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre-Sunday 12th August 2012

This year, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s complex venture, Chekhov Celebration, certainly gives cause for celebrating. For one thing, the project is as close as we ever get to repertory theatre in this city. 23 actors, 15 of them local, appear in nearly 50 roles in nine plays. This gives us the opportunity to see many exceptional artists together in a short time and to admire and cherish those who live among us. This is also a way to extensively experience and further understand the work of the world-renowned Russian playwright enhanced by insightful directors. Add to this a remarkable program book full of interesting, thoughtful articles about Chekhov, about Russia, about translating and about what it means to be an actor.

In that book you will learn, as you could elsewhere, that one of the plays here, Ivanov, adapted by Tom Stoppard, has always contained problems and that Chekhov himself was never fully satisfied with his script. Such flaws soon become evident in the first two scenes of the four. But, as momentum and developments build, the virtues become clear, significant and, even, actually funny.

A constant subject is Chekhov’s idea of “comedy.” As you can read, he wasn’t aiming for big laughs, but rather he saw the characters he created as amusing in their foibles, their illusions, their behavior, even when there were tragic consequences.

Except for late in the play, you probably won’t find yourself laughing, nor should you expect to; that's not Chekhov's kind of comedy. But this is live theatre, not aiming for intellectual exercise or exploration of theses.

Characteristically the people depicted in Ivanov resemble those in later, more admired plays such as Three Sisters whose exceptional PICT production is ongoing.

In this case, for too long at first, this means more talk than action, as if nothing significant is developing. At the center is Nikolay Ivanóv, once full of life but feeling bewildered and unhappy, heavily in debt to Zinaida Lebdeva, and no longer in love with his tubercular wife Anna. Dr. Lvóv, attending Anna, dislikes Nikolay and criticizes him for spending too much time with Zinaida and her husband Pavel. Their young daughter Sasha is deeply in love with Nikolay, of whom gossipy neighbors are constantly critical. Add to this a sub-plot: Count Matthew Shabelsky, Ivanov’s maternal uncle, likewise an older man, is vacillating about marrying a wealthy young widow named Marfa, a typical inventive Chekhovian parallel.

These relationships may not immediately be clear; the program book does not identify the characters in relation to each other in this case any more than it does for Three Sisters. You might want to prepare, even though you shouldn’t have to.

Director Andrew S. Paul has done several things to try to overcome the sense that nothing of consequence happens in the first two scenes; he keeps them as lively as possible, although one or twice he pushes a little too hard to make something funny. In the later parts of the play, though, he and his cast have it all together, getting the fun out of truly laughable moments while making new developments feel like a galloping horseback ride through a dense forest.

Initially he has David Whalen’s Ivanov thoroughly vigorous, seething with anger, Whalen, always a dynamic actor, doesn’t get across the melancholy Hamlet-like introspection to which Chekhov even refers. Whalen doesn’t show the debilitating side of Ivanov’s depression and self-doubts, missing the man’s more complex dimensions. This undercuts Ivanov’s emotional trajectory later, as if he hasn’t changed significantly. Moreover Paul has Nike Doukas avoid showing the effect of Anna’s debilitated state; she is supposed to be profoundly ill whereas Doukas plays those scenes sweetly and with strength. Both choices make it look as if director Paul wanted to avoid having the early scenes look too somber, evading too much darkness, emphasizing pace, not internal struggles.

In the role of Nikolay’s friend Pavel, Martin Giles superbly gets across the man’s jolly vitality and sincerity. CMU senior Katya Stepanova, playing his daughter Sasha, has all the right warmth and strength. As The Count, Nikolay’s uncle, Alan Stanford most often looks as if he’s playing Oscar Wilde wit, getting every last drop out of the lines instead of coalescing into a definite character. The Count, like Nikolay, doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Yet Stanford doesn’t show any kind of connection with Nikolay and, most of the time, seems separate rather than part of the ensemble.

The costumes, sets and music all enrich the look and feel of the entire production. Here we have a great and relatively rare chance to witness this less-known Chekhov play and to experience its virtues while watching many fine actors making the best of their art.

Ivanov continues through August 25th at Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. 412/ 394-3353. Or

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: "StrAta" from Bricolage Production Company

Bricolage Production Company has created a highly original, extraordinarily devised conception stretching the boundaries of theatrical experience.  The ticket-holder does not look on from a safe remove, as if viewing performers on a stage. Rather, such a visitor is an inevitable participant.  It’s called StrAta.  

And, indeed, there are levels of meaning, strata, if you will, to be explored, should you choose to ponder them. But don’t think of it as some kind of intellectual conundrum.  If you allow yourself to go with the flow, you could finish your visit feeling different than when you started, which I think is the intention.  

Never fear, you will not come away harmed, shocked or shattered. If you feel what I felt,  you may leave remarkably tranquil, seeing and feeling things differently for a while, as if the rest of the world, the life on the streets and the people there seem different.

The closest thing to this in my experience came after spending a tranquil weekend at a Yoga ashram in city suburbs. Leaving, when I re-entered the city, it was as if “real” life had altered, rather than that I had. The effect was temporary. But unforgettable.

In short, from the effect of StrAta, your mind-set which guides you to work out the challenges of everyday living can be peacefully changed for a while.    

Participants who buy into this are asked to not reveal the specifics of what they went through. I hew to that agreement.

Consecutive guides take you along short downtown street routes to the insides of a large, multi-storied building.  Initially, though, your ability to see and perceive is challenged. Go along with it. It will open you up. Thereafter, so will each contrasting short event in which you participate. Moving along singly, you are guided to a series of hallways and rooms where solitary performers tell short personal stories expecting you to respond. Or another performer may challenge you to participate in a simple activity.  You could also be given an elementary, puzzling task to perform.  A couple of times you may be amused. Recorded voices add to the environment, most murmuring or exhorting or reciting what sounds like quasi-philosophical reflections. You needn’t try to listen. You can if you want. You will not be tested.

Being thoroughly open to what’s offered could have a different effect than what I experienced. Not just by playing along but by actively, creatively playing a role yourself. Another level where, alas, I did not go.

The preparation and the details have been remarkably, cleverly, thoroughly, impressively  conceived and prepared.  The wizards behind the curtain are many. They have created magic. The program book, given to you when you depart, will name them. A standing ovation is not possible. And it would be too noisy and too obvious.  

StrAta continues through September 1st

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review: "The Golden Dragon" from Quantum Theatre-Sunday 5th August 2012

Inevitably any visit to a production by Quantum Theatre becomes memorable and provocative. Artistic director Karla Boos often chooses unexpected, unfamiliar settings whose properties are as much as part of the experience as the play, even when you may come away puzzled as to why she chose the material. As in this month’s experiment The Golden Dragon by contemporary German writer Roland Schimmelpfennig as translated by David Tushingham.

The location grabs you instantly. Bleachers face a stagnant pond in Highland Park (called "Lake Carnegie") its grimy surface suggesting a repository of litter, although none floats there at first. Yet, soon, characters throw things in and spit into the water. The surface is broken by what look like industrial concrete platforms, many of them laid out in a long cross terminating at a small wooden cabin. In the foreground sits a cluttered collection of pots, pans, kitchen implements, greasy boxes and battered tubs. The people moving into and out of these surroundings wear smeared aprons over cheap, worn-out clothes. Everything fits together, not so much as a puzzle but rather as a statement, evoking ugliness and disgust, clearly deliberately.

Meanwhile, as complex narratives and events unfold, Boos and her staff implement and underscore them with intricate sounds, lighting and technical effects, spending time, energy and money to enhance it all. Boos also colorfully choreographs her cast on every solid surface. Everything comes across vividly.

But what does such devotion serve? Schimmelpfennig’s script could remind you of a piece by Bertolt Brecht, deliberately distancing you from sympathy or empathy, as if to deconstruct the third wall. Performers talk to the audience and articulate stage directions, while all five step into an out of characters and costumes, giving rudimentary suggestions of who these people are.

The Golden Dragon, we are repeatedly told, is a Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurant where the principal individuals, all perhaps Asian, cook in cramped surroundings, turning out complex dishes whose tasty ingredients are listed over and over as if in some ritual. The actors also portray people who eat there and/or live dreary lives nearby. In this unsavory menu, a tale emerges about a cricket who metamorphoses into a prostitute. Then, when a young illegal alien in the kitchen dies from a botched tooth extraction, that tooth takes on a complex life of its own.

The cast consists of three frequently-seen professional Pittsburgh actors, Gregory Johnstone, Catherine Moore and Mark Conway Thompson, along with Point Park University faculty member Curtis Jackson. They are joined by CMU senior Aidaa Peerzada. All five inhabit everything and everyone with skill and expertise,

What can you read into what they all do? Boos’ program notes suggest how to examine the ingredients, explaining why she decided to serve this up as well as what 
Schimmelpfennig was trying to say. Intentions, however admirable and profound, are background. A significant work of art must justify itself standing alone. Even so, without Boos' prompting, you may find something meaningful. I did not, regardless of the explanations, despite being strongly impressed with how the staging looks and feels. 

The Golden Dragon continues at Lake Carnegie in Highland Park through August 26th. Tickets at Showclix  1-888-71-TICKETS which is the same as 1-888 718 4253. Another connection:

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Theatre review: "The Addams Family." Sunday 5th August 2012

Pittsburgh CLO and the Broadway series have unearthed a traveling version of the musical The Addams Family which closed its Broadway coffin substantially in the black after a healthy life of 20 months. Seeing this cute show can make you realize why it has been a crowd-pleaser. 

For one thing, it can’t hurt that it’s a descendant of a mid-1960s TV sitcom. Black and white nostalgia land. For another, it has a goofy premise about seemingly not quite humans whose enthusiasms inevitably veer towards the dark side. Joke territory. 

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book digs into a body of solid gags keeping the show funny. The cast plays it with verve, sometimes milking the bits a bit, but all in jolly spirit with Douglas Sills brightening up every nook and cranny as Gomez.

Andrew Lippa wrote the songs. He came up with a heap of clever lyrics and, every so often, a few good tunes, including the sultry “Tango de Amor” and the incongruous but lovely finale “Move Toward the Darkness.” Everyone sings admirably, including doing the best to sell Lippa’s rather standard pushy numbers.

Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott directed this, also designing the sets and costumes. They make everything look good including “The Moon and Me” an imaginative flying sequence. Plus Gregory Meeh’s special effects and a few puppet tricks by Basil Twist add to a distinctive look and feel.

In this spin-off from massive amounts of macabre New Yorker cartoons by Charles Addams, not much ground is covered in the plot. Post-teen daughter Wednesday (unlike TV’s six year old) has fallen in love with Lucas who comes from the sunnier, “normal” world. She invited him and parents to her home for dinner to meet her family. That’s it. The source for misunderstandings, deceptions, near- farcical situations. The standard stuff of plenty of comedies, live or preserved on film.

You might think that this would try to get mileage out of the weird-people-are-just-as-good-as-the-rest-of-us routine. Nope. What you see is what you get. i.e songs, dances, some good visuals and laughs. To enhance the show with choreographic chorus the writers incorporate the ghosts of the Addams family ancestors hovering regularly on the premises. That works too.

Douglas Sills’ Gomez stays full of style and personality, making his every moment colorful and (dare I say it?) lively. As Uncle Fester, Blake Hammond also constantly charms and delights. The rest of the cast remains capable but not nearly as distinctive, with Sara Gettelfinger doing little to fill in the outlines of the Morticia cartoon.

From the pages of a magazine, spun like a spider web into a TV series, then re-born as a musical. There’s life in the old thing yet.

“The Addams Family” continues through August 12th at Benedum Center, downtown.

412/-456-6666 or,