Sunday, April 7, 2013

Theatre review: "City of Asylum" at Pitt

University of Pittsburgh’s Repertory Theatre is presenting City of Asylum, which is described in the program books as “a stage performance conceived and directed by Cynthia Croot.” I quote to make clear that this is not called a play. It is, actually, an assemblage of narration and dialogue concerning four writers who have been, to quote the news release “in danger of persecution or death in their home countries.”  Those nations are China, Burma, El Salvador and Venezuela. The City of Asylum movement provides sanctuary to such people and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, is the first in the United States,

Croot, Assistant Professor and Head of Performance at Pitt, has come up a remarkable array of visual images creating 100 minutes worth of imaginative staging in scenes which feature 11 Pitt students in a variety of roles as narrators, or the writers themselves or as people in dialogue from material they created. Croot’s use of a video camera in particular looks like the work of a highly skilled cinematographer and her projections and props, including a blood spattered gurney, always make this look compelling.  

As for the words, they tell of the horrors of violence, sometimes graphically described, and of the psychological cruelty these artists have endured and witnessed. These topics stay constantly disturbing even though never physically depicted.  Yet the talk sounds and feel most like illustrated lectures. We get to know about these admirable survivors but never get much sense of who they really are; the writing keeps them at a distance, underscored by the fact that no performer stays long in any one role. And the dialogue scenes chosen from what they wrote seem trivial in comparison with the descriptions of their suffering. I suppose you could marvel at the innocence of such material. But that’s as intellectual as is, later, pondering with admiration that these people still cherish life, maintaining the urge to create.

The student cast brings vitality to everything done and  said , but, on preview night, the delivery of the texts often missed the emphases which would most clarify meaning and intensity.   

Croot has something important to tell us, and does not claim to have created a play. A more dramatic choice could have been to have only four actors in one symbolically valid, confined space more thoroughly personifying the writers, physically acting out what they went through with more than words. Perhaps the writers themselves could help her do that.

City of Asylum continues through April 14th as Charity Randall Theater in Stephen Foster Memorial  Oakland. 412-624-PLAY  (7529) or

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