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.