Thursday, December 22, 2011

Memorable Moments of 2011

There was a great deal of great theatre in Pittsburgh in 2011.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see as much as I usually do (mostly because I was busy actually doing theatre), but looking back, there were some memorable contributions.  Instead of trying to choose “a best,” I have decided to recognize all the work that remains pleasantly in my memory…
Scenic designers transformed local stages into London, the deep South, Amish country and the living room of a college professor.
The brilliant Tony Ferrieri made it rain—and also featured a pool of water—in City Theatre’s The Secret of Sweet.  Bob Frawley’s set for Mary Poppins took the audience all over early 1900’s London—both in color and stunning black-and-white.  No name’s The Book of Liz featured stunning set by painting by Alanna James.  And T.J. Firneno beautifully captured a 1960’s home in the Summer Company’s production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Supporting actors are amazing to me.  Given fewer lines and less stage time, they work hard to make the leads look good.  And 2011 saw some excellent examples of this…
Daina Michelle Griffith was outstanding as the perky New York transplant “Theresa” in the Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s production of Circle Mirror Transformation.  As “Lucy” in Jekyll and Hyde, Elizabeth Stanley brought her amazing vocal talents to the production.  Todd Betker gave the performance of his career so far as the bath tub-bound brother in no name theatre’s production of The Mistakes Madeline Made.  The same production also featured Don DiGuilio as the lovable geek “Wilson.” Not only did he give a very funny performance—but Mark Yoachum also transformed himself into a rhinoceros in the Summer Company’s Rhinoceros.  And I can’t talk about supporting performances without mentioning the powerful star turn of Curt Hanson as “Gabe” in the musical Next to Normal.
There were also some very memorable performances by lead actors this past year.
Havon Burton as “Fiona” in Shrek, the Musical was a true delight.  Rachel Downie was hysterically funny—and played a mean timpani—in Off The Wall’s production of boom.  Stealing the Public Theatre’s Gods of Carnage was Deirdre Madigan as crazed mom “Veronica.” Mamie Parris gave a memorable (and musical stunning) performance as “Judy” in the musical 9 to 5.  Jamie Slavinsky answers a stranger’s cell phone and is beautifully sucked down a rabbit hole as “Jean” in Organic Theatre’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone.  And John Lane, who is usually behind the scenes, stepped into the limelight to give an incredible performance as “George” in the Summer Company’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Overall, shows that truly entertained me during 2011 include the musical Next to Normal, Off The Wall’s very funny boomthe well-acted One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at McKeesport Little Theatre, Organic Theatre’s unusual Dead Man’s Cell Phone and no name’s quirky The Mistakes Madeline Made.
I am looking forward to more great theatre in Pittsburgh in 2012!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Say "YES" to the YES

Outside the Pascal home in Washington DC, a hurricane is raging, but it’s nothing compared to the storm that’s going on inside.
And while every family has it’s share of skeletons in the closet, the Pascals have some of the worst—and they’re all about to be revealed when Marty brings his fiancée Lesly home to meet his clan.
That’s the basis for dark comedy The House of Yes by Wendy MacLeod, the current production at Off The Wall Productions in Washington PA.
Director Robyne Parrish opens the play with a stylized and highly choreographed dance that sets the tone for the madness that’s to follow in the next ninety minutes.
Mrs. Pascal, matriarch of this odd family, is played to perfection by Virginia Wall Gruenert.  Awash in marabou (and wearing amazing shoes), she is a gorgon of a mother.  Constantly darting between maternal denial and emotional blackmail, Gruenert spouts platitudes about family, motherhood and the Kennedys—all delivered with a rapier sharp edge.  She has a real knack for delivering Pascal’s deadly one-liners.
Mrs. Pascal has three children; she’s not sure who any of their fathers might be.  Yes, it could be her husband, but it could also be any man she’s ever met at a cocktail party.
There are the twins Marty and Jackie-O, both obsessed with the Kennedy assassination—and both harboring dark secrets.  As the Jacqueline Kennedy wanna-be, Lauren Michaels is maniacal, yet funny…in a very creepy way.  She will make you laugh and frighten you all at the same time.
As Marty, the brother who yearns for some normalcy, Justin Mohr seems normal enough…in a very creepy way.  Mohr is able to quickly shift gears between being a nice guy to being a cold-hearted jerk.
John Steffenauer plays the younger brother Anthony, creating a character that is vulnerable and endearing…in a very creepy way.  Burdened with caring for his crazed and violent sister, Steffanauer is immediately smitten by Marty’s fiancée Lesly, who works in a donut shop (played by Erica Cuenca).  Cuenca is delightful as the fish-out-of-water, the only voice of normalcy in this world of insanity.
Cuenca and Steffenauer share some of the plays best scenes.  The subtleties and the silences they share are so telling.  Each is able to say so much with a single look or gesture.
Director Parrish keeps the play moving at a solid pace.  There are some uncomfortable bumps in the road, however.  Twice during the show (and I don’t want to give anything away), one of the actors is blocked to break the “fourth wall” which seemed inconsistent with the overall tone of the play.  After the dramatic climax, Parrish stages a tableau vivant that may destroy the final applause for an audience that is smaller and less-enthusiastic than the one that was there for opening night.
Scenic designer Paul A Shaw once again transforms the small Off The Wall stage with a whole new look, featuring columns, draperies and unusual statuary.  One drawback was Michael E. Moats’ lighting which had some obvious dark spots.
The House of Yes is a roller coaster of comedy and tragedy—and well worth the drive to Washington to see it.  Not only will you have a good time, you’ll feel so much better about your own family!
The House if Yes runs through December 17.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Color me...RED

It is the late 1950’s, and artist Mark Rothko has hired a young painter named Ken to assist him in his Bowery studio. 
This event is the enticing incident for the play Red by John Logan, the current offering at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre.
Red is the color of passion…and so Red is an appropriate title for this play.
If playwright Logan is correct, Rothko was a passionate man about painting as well as a cantankerous egotist, who was impossible to please.  If you say “white,” he’d say “black” and vice versa.  Jeff Still captures the swagger and bravado of Rothko, always uncompromising, always argumentative and with a cold edge.  As he often reminds Ken, his young assistant, “You are an employee.”
As Ken, Jack Cutmore-Scott has a slow start, but builds to a powerfully emotional climax.  Ken harbors a dark secret, and Cutmore-Scott does a brilliant job when it’s time to reveal that secret.  He also does an amazing job when Ken finally confronts his boss.
Both men do a phenomenal job, filling the large O’Reilly Theatre with heated talk about Matisse, Van Gogh, Caravaggio, life, color and the role of the artist.
The production could easily become mired into a static discussion between two artists, but director Pamela Berlin masterfully keeps her two cast members moving—wisely reserving stillness for the play’s most emotional moments.  My only concern was the long set changes, performed by the actors.  Some of them took so long that the momentum of the previous scene was lost, and the actors had to begin each new scene from square one.
Michael Schweikardt’s detailed set beautifully depicts an old indoor basketball court transformed into an artist’s atelier.  From the glass block windows to the old bricks walls and the worn hardwood floor, the set is perfect.  It even features running water.
Late in the play, Rothko remarks, “I am always fascinated by me.”  I think audiences will also find Rothko fascinating in this top-notch production.
It’s well –worth seeing.
Red runs through December 11.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

One flew East...

There’s a fine line that separates insanity from “normalcy”—and no where is that more evident than in Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s landmark novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the current offering at McKeesport Little Theatre.
Director Lora Oxenreiter has deftly shaped her stellar cast in an outstanding, razor-sharp production.
Adam Pribila brilliantly captures the arrogance and intense sexuality of Randall Patrick McMurphy, a man who feigns madness to avoid going to prison on a charge of statutory rape.  Pribilia’s brash performance commands the stage and raises the level of the production to all new heights.
Audience members laughed heartily (and wept loudly) before the play drew to its conclusion—and much of that is due to Pribila’s performance and Oxenreiter’s wise directorial choices.
Shaun Nicole McCarthy plays McMurphy’s arch nemesis, Nurse Ratched.  Her performance is fine—but never reaches the pinnacle that Pribila does.  She starts out very quietly, almost hard to hear—and that seems inappropriate for someone of Ratched’s power.  She does build as the evening progresses, but Pribila has set the bar quite high.
As the stuttering Billy Bibbitt, T. J. Firneno gives a sensitive portrayal that will break your heart.
Sean Butler not only captures the size and stature of Chief Broom—but also the compassion and confusion of this gentle giant.
All of the ensemble is top-notch.  Standouts include Mark Calla as the milquetoast Harding, and Timothy Dougherty nearly steals the show as Martini (obsessed with talking to his imaginary friend).  Patrick Conner is quite charming as Dr. Spivey, who is taken in by McMurphy’s charms.
The ensemble adds much of the humor to Cuckoo’s Nest, keeping the story from being all doom and gloom.
Director Oxenreiter also designed the set.  The institutional green walls and linoleum floor perfectly capture the stark, sterile world of mental institutions of decades past when lobotomies and electro-shock therapy were the norm.
Don’t miss it!
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest continues through November 20.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Doing double duty: The Maids

Two French sisters work as maids and share a love/hate relationship with each other (and their mistress) in Jean Genet’s The Maids, the most recent offering from the Red Masquers of Duquesne University.
Director Leah Casella has taken some creative liberties with the production. 
First, she has moved it from Paris of the 1940’s to Paris during the student riots of 1968.  While it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the message of the show, it creates some interesting visual aspects for the set and the costumes.
Second, Casella has the play performed twice in one sitting.  The first time you see the play, all the roles are played by men (as Genet intended).  The play is then done again with all women in the roles.  Both times, the play is identical in terms of set, costumes and blocking.  The result leads to some interesting discussion about gender roles (both is society and in term of acting).
On the down side, it makes for a long evening of theatre—nearly three hours.  Casella probably could have made the points just as effectively (and in a more entertaining fashion) if she had edited the script.
Overall, the women fare better than the men.  I’m not sure if that’s because they perform better—or because the audience has already navigated the complex psychological mire of The Maids once already.
Standout performers include Jacob Wadsworth and Nikki Cervone (ironically both playing the same role).  Cervone truly shines and gives a performance that is electric and mesmerizing (no easy task considering she is in the second go-round of the show).
One of the advantages of university theatre is that directors have the option of choosing plays that aren’t often performed AND can apply highly creative concepts—without a concern about selling tickets to stay afloat financially.
The Maids is an excellent example of this at its best.
The Maids closed November 12.