Unpacking the extra baggage – a review of “Hoard”

By Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant

Off the WALL produces Lissa Brennan’s new two-person play, “Hoard.” Given off the WALL tends to produce a lot of one-person shows, the 100% increase in onstage talent is both a surprise and a delight. The commitment to duality extends offstage as the show also has two directors, Kira Simring and Brian Reager.

“Hoard” is set in contemporary Pittsburgh and takes place in real-time. It’s a 90-minute encounter between shut-in hoarder Viv Donahue and Claire, an “organizational life consultant.” Viv’s adult daughter has hired Claire to help clear her mother’s house of ever encroaching piles. The set is towering with dilapidated cardboard boxes, teetering newspaper stacks, and a proliferation of life’s detritus – an empty birdcage, crumbled plastic bags, and ringed coffee pots. You keep waiting for roaches to scuttle out as extras, and you feel compelled to scan for mouse droppings. That being said, for anyone who’s ever watched an episode of “Hoarders” on A&E, it still feels like Tucker Topel’s set and scenic design is “hoarder light.” Walkways are still fully navigable, and Viv’s story and psychology would only be enhanced with an even more buried alive design.

Before the play even starts, Simring and Reager choose to set the scene with raucously loud rock music. While we haven’t yet met Viv (Virginia Wall Gruenert), the music feels overpowering and out of sync with a household where an overstuffed armchair hermetically sealed with a crocheted blanket is the living room centerpiece. The music is indeed a miss.

Luckily, Simring and Reager redeem themselves with four steady hands in guiding the performances of Gruenert and Claire (Erika Cuenca). Gruenert finds that delicate balance of making Viv as forgettable as anyone you might pass in the frozen food aisle at Giant Eagle, but because we get to spend time with her, we also get to see beyond the reach for frozen pizza. Viv is upper middle-aged, overweight, and wears frumpy shapeless clothes with elasticized waistband pants. Her dyed red hair is so short it doesn’t even seem like roots could show, and yet they do. Like any hoarder, there are deeper psychological underpinnings to her compulsion. From the outset, she exudes a nervous energy that expresses itself in repetition, immediately insisting Claire call her “just Viv…Viv, Viv, Viv, Viv, Viv” as opposed to Mrs. Donahue.

Viv (Virginia Wall Gruenert) and Claire (Erica Cuenca) sort through a mess in “Hoard.” Photo credit: Heather Mull

Claire is Viv’s foil. Cuenca exudes professionalism with sensible black heels, a white button-down, and pinstripe slacks. In fact, she almost seems too buttoned down and well-dressed for a woman who’s about to help a hoarder clean out her home. However, her clothing establishes the walled difference Claire wants to maintain between her professional self and who she genuinely is, a crack Viv widens into a crevasse in the course of the play.

The play evolves from clean-up session to psychological deep dive. Viv strikes a deal with Claire; Viv gets ask her a question when she gets rid of something. Interestingly, despite the towering trash heaps, the first item Viv chooses to part with is a usable one – a colander, but it’s a nice visual metaphor for the play. The colander retains that which we need while allowing the unusable to pass through.

One naturally expects Brennan’s script to focus on Viv as the hoarder. However, Brennan nicely develops both characters, arguably making Claire the more interesting one. We learn about Viv’s traumas, but Claire peels back her own layers via the Q&A or “give and take, take and give” as Claire calls it. The two strangers gradually expose a level of raw vulnerability that generally works, but feels rushed at moments given the real-time, 90-minute duration. When Claire swears and drops an f bomb for the first time, it immediately feels jarring and inauthentic as she’s been operating at arm’s distance business mode.

For Yinzers in the crowd, the play delights with regional nuggets like “redd up” and references to a Pittsburgh toilet. However, it’s not so colloquial as to be inaccessible to a beyond the Burgh audience. The Pittsburgh toilet becomes an educational moment for Viv as she describes this bizarre architectural feature of the standalone basement toilet to an appropriately puzzled Claire, a Boston transplant.

-TR

Redd up and head out to Off the Wall’s production of “Hoard” plays through March 21st at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

 

The Sunset Looks Good from the East and the West – A review of “The Outsiders”

By Claire DeMarco, ‘Burgh Vivant

The haves and the have nots are the basis for “The Outsiders,” a play by Christopher Sergel based on the novel by S.E. Hinton. Set in the 1960s, two divergent gangs of teenagers seem to be on a collision course. Separated entirely by their socioeconomic circumstances, the Socials (Socs), rich, privileged and from the west side of the city coalesce together. The Greasers live on the east side, most of them from low income and broken homes.

The Socs and the Greasers are their own moral compass, without much or little guidance from adults on either side.

Greaser Ponyboy (Dominic Raymond) is unique as he has a special affinity for poetry, likes to read, activities not embraced by his Greaser cohorts. Recently orphaned, he and his brother, Sodapop (Lawrence Karl) are under the guardianship of older brother, Darry (Michael Barnett).

All the Greasers are particularly protective of Johnny Cade (Dakoda Hutton), traumatized by a recent Soc beating.

Ponyboy is often the narrator, providing the audience with necessary backdrop information. It is through his eyes and perspective that the story unfolds.

Soc friends Cherry Valance (Carolyn Jerz) and Marcia (Ariel Squire) are unceremoniously dumped after disagreements with their boyfriends, Bob (Noah Welter) and Randy (Kyle DePasquale). Cherry and Ponyboy become friends after Greaser Dallas (Cole Vecchio) pushes himself on her. Ponyboy intercedes. In neutral territory, Cherry and Ponyboy discuss poetry, sunsets, and other non-gang-related subjects. A Soc and a Greaser are actually talking to each other and not AT each other. She articulates the Soc’s attitude on life in general. “We’re looking for something we don’t already have.”

Both gangs continue to taunt, agitate, and challenge each other. A series of tragic events involving both sides escalates tensions between the two gangs with dire consequences.

The Greasers pose for a picture in “The Outsiders.”

Exceptional as the traumatized Johnny, Hutton believably shows both insecurity and courage when needed, tenderness and love when necessary.

Raymond portrays Ponyboy as the youthful Greaser and grows that character. He is able to convey his understanding that’s it’s not just a black and white world, but there’s also a bit of gray.

Vecchio transitions from a wise-cracking Greaser with all the “I’m the dude” moves one expects from that character into a sensitive, feeling, insecure young adult.

The production is brilliantly executed with a finely tuned, well-balanced ensemble with excellent direction by Scott P. Calhoon.

The play takes place on an open stage with the background conducive to either the outdoors or indoors. Subtle, quick, simple and quiet prop movements by the cast suggest a change of scene or venue.

Fight Director Michael R. Petyak’s choreography of fight scenes, transitioning their physicality into a slow-motion ballet effect is beautiful.

-Ced

“The Outsiders” is a production of Prime Stage Theatre at the New Hazlett Theatre Center for the Performing Arts, 6 Allegheny Square E, Pittsburgh, PA 15212 and runs from March 6 – March 15, 2020. For more information, click here.

Review: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, PICT Classic Theatre

Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant.  

Alan Stanford both adapts and directs Pittsburgh’s Classic Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” While I’ve seen “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” many times, it’s always in the summer and almost invariably performed outdoors, given the play is primarily set in the forest outside of Athens. Even the title lets us know when the play is set – and by extension, when to watch it. Stanford stages his exultant vision of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in mid-winter. There’s something almost forbidden about it in the “wrong” season. It’s like sipping a Mai Tai in a snowstorm.

Shakespeare’s comedy is set in a 4-day period leading up to the wedding between Theseus, duke of Athens, and Hippolyta. They’re one of four couples in this romantic frolic. The young Lysander and Hermia want to marry, even though she’s betrothed to Demetrius, who is loved by Helena. The king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, round out the quartet of couples.

Stanford’s casting is superb. Allan Snyder plays both Theseus and Oberon, and Shammen McCune plays Hippolyta and Titania. At the play’s start, Theseus greets his bride-to-be with a hug and a verbal barrage, including the first of many sexual innuendos that remind us this is a comedy. He reminds Hippolyta with a gentle pelvic thrust that he was able to “woo thee with my sword.” While they may not yet be wed, Hippolyta is already a proficient wife in her use of nonverbal communication that Stanford metes out with royally appropriate nuance. Hippolyta expresses displeasure at a gender-biased decision from Theseus with a subtle eye-roll at him that one easily catches from the stage. Afterwards, when Theseus extends his arm, she pauses as if she might withhold her touch, then reluctantly takes Theseus’ arm. Stanford artfully steers the production to many such moments that create agency for women within the play.

Stanford finds the winter vibe with the help of costume designer Zoe Baltimore who brilliantly chooses to dress the entire cast in white. The Athenian couples all wear satiny white pajamas that signify their social status and the attending leisure that comes with it. The costumes also visually reinforce the playful sexual banter and innuendos, overlaying an eroticism that never lets us forget their bedroom destination as lovers – or soon to be lovers. Winter white carries through to local laborers who are rehearsing a play to perform at the duke’s wedding reception. Baltimore outfits them in white painter’s dungarees. The roughly textured fabric immediately draws a class distinction between the two groups. However, the laborers are portrayed by the same actors as the four young lovers, a reminder of the artifice of class as they are separated by no more than their clothes.

Domenico LaGamba’s scenic design is comprised of four hanging translucent fabric pillars. The white fabric columns work flawlessly with Baltimore’s flowing white pajamas. The columns are large enough to hide in, creating absence within presence. We see Titania curled up asleep inside a pillar while the laborers practice their play in the forest, heightening anticipation within the play. She has been charmed with a love potion that will cause her to fall in love with one of the laborers/players, Bottom (fabulously acted by Martin Giles), when she awakes.

After having been given the same love charm by the spirit Puck, both Demetrius (David Toole) and Lysander (Ryan Patrick Kearney) rip off their pajama tops in a moment of zealous male preening as they passionately vie for Helena’s affections (Zoe Abuyuan). Helena can come across as self-pitying, but Abuyuan gives her a righteous hair-tossing millennial defiance, often stalking offstage with exaggerated movements, only to turn around and give us another mouthful of her mind.

Jacob Epstein brings a youthful vibrance to Puck. He’s plucky and mischievous as he carries out various tasks at Oberon’s behest, giving them his own twist and relishing the humor of those turns. After charming Titania, he decides to give Bottom the head of an ass. Giles’ hilariously timed brays are clearly off-putting to the queen’s crew of fairies who glance soundlessly at each, sharing an open-eyed wonder and disgust. One of the play’s only flaws may be its sound engineering by Kris Buggey, which is so subtle it’s nearly as invisible as Puck himself.

Comedic tribulation turns to triumph, and everything ends properly as the four couples unite. Given the play is staged at the Fred Rogers studio at WQED, it feels like an even more appropriate ending. Come to sit, laugh and dream with your neighbors this winter at Pittsburgh’s Classic Theatre’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which plays through February 29th at the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, 4802 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

 

Jarring Revelation: a review of APPROPRIATE, University of Pittsburgh Stages

Claire DeMarco, ‘Burgh Vivant.  

Three siblings are mad, sad and definitely not glad to be back home at their old homestead.  They’ve returned to their roots after the recent death of their father and patriarch of the family to distribute, divvy up, claim and settle his estate. Antoinette “Toni” Lafayette (Kelly Trumbull) is a former school vice principal, divorced, resentful and vulgar.  Her young, troubled son Rhys (Pedar Garred) only adds to her erratic behavior. Younger brother Bo (Sean Cook) lives and works in New York. His wife Rachael (Josie O’Connell) and their daughters Cassidy (Gabriella Walko) and Ainsley (Melissa Barbour) also accompany him on this trip home. Frank (Christopher Staley), a recovering addict who also has unnatural leanings toward children is the most troubled sibling of the bunch.  His free spirit fiancé appropriately named River (Ariana Starkman) is his support system.

Note:  Toni is the only character with a Southern accent, perhaps meant to emphasize that as the oldest sibling, she’s been in the South longer and is still a current resident.

With deep roots in Arkansas, this very white family delves into their father’s personal items. They uncover some disturbing mementoes that indicate that their father was a racist.  Toni doesn’t believe that her father would ever be involved in any despicable actions while Bo has doubts but sees potential monetary value in the discovery.  Frank is ambivalent.

Interspersed with dark humor and total dysfunction, Toni, Bo and Frank attempt to come to terms with their own shortcomings, their father’s hidden past and their acceptance or denial of that past and their seemingly never-ending conflicts with each other.

The title “Appropriate” is interesting as it’s a word that has two different meanings.  Hearing it pronounced settles its meaning.  Since we never hear the word uttered it’s up to the audience to toy with and consider an interpretation.

Trumbull is exceptional as the always angry older sister, expressing much of her angst by constantly moving across the stage like a carnivore looking for its next meal.

Cook infuses his role as the most sensible sibling with reality when needed, emotion and confrontation when required.

Staley’s ability to demonstrate the ambivalence of his character is a wonder to watch.  He is at first a contrite brother who apologizes for his ten-year absence, then transitions to bumbling, almost idiotic utterings.  He is an angry man in his final persona.

O’Connell is an equal, compelling combatant in her confrontation with Trumbull.

The play takes place in the living room of a no longer grand plantation.  Old furniture, drab curtains and general clutter suggest its decline as the song of the cicadas permeates throughout.

Appropriate was written by African-American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Fight director Tonya Lynn’s choreography of the family’s physical brawl is precise and wonderfully timed.

Brilliant direction by Ricardo Vila-Roger.

Appropriate continues through March 1 at the Richard E. Rauh Theatre of the University of Pittsburgh.  Tickets and more information can be found here.

 

 

Budding Relationships – a review of “The Verge”

by Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant

It’s tempting to dismiss Susan Glaspell’s play, “The Verge,” as dated, given its one-year shy of its centenary. However, Glaspell was a powerhouse in her day and has ascended to dramatic legend. She was only the second woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and she cofounded the Provincetown Players, widely considered to be America’s first theatre company. Her 1916 play, “Trifles” traces a woman accused of murdering her husband and was based on a journalism assignment Glaspell covered. “Trifles” always resonated at the college-level, a testimony to Glaspell’s timelessness.

“The Verge” is not quite as accessible, so it’s a brave choice by the University of Pittsburgh Stages. By 1921, Glaspell was detaching from realism and flirting with dawning expressionism. Where this falls apart is not in the play, but in the production. The weakest link is actress Emily Peifer. Her portrayal of protagonist and botanist Claire Archer embodies the oft-used corporate expression “building the plane while flying it.” This strategy can prove effective in fast-paced business settings, but it’s less successful in the dramatic arts where having a point of view on your character is critical. Peifer never finds Claire as she battles mental health issues, and director Andrea Gunoe leaves her scrambling in the cinders. Peifer attacks her lines with a mad, headlong rush, occasionally punctuated by a deer in the headlights gaze to the galaxies. Nuance is sacrificed to histrionics.

Luckily, there are more roots to this botanical drama than the main character. The play takes place in Claire’s greenhouse. Sound designers Nick DePinto and Parag S. Gohel create an enchanting use of onstage sound effects that hearken back to popular radio dramas of the 1920s. Paper on a roller simulates the wind, and each mention of Claire’s botanical hybrid piece de resistance – the scintillatingly named Breath of Life – is accompanied by an enchanting, fairy-like windchime. Gunoe thoughtfully positions the sound effects team downstage right to minimize intrusiveness while providing real-time optics into the effects. Breath of Life may be hidden for most of the play (and looks a bit flaccid and underwhelming when it is revealed), but the windchimes build anticipation and enhance the play’s ethereal, otherworldly quality.

Sound effects acutely bleed into the physical. Howling winter winds accompany each forceful opening of the greenhouse’s iron-rimmed door on Kami Beckford’s magnificently towering set reminiscent of a slightly ominous Phipps Conservatory. The door always seems most difficult for Claire’s husband to open and close, and you’re never sure if it’s inconsistent direction or correlation to the opener’s status in Claire’s heart.

The cast of “The Verge” gather around Claire (Emily Peifer).

Despite (or because of?) her neurotic nature, the beautiful Claire is loved and admired by three men who all want to save her in their own ways. Gunoe turns the trifecta of sexual tension into a quartet with an androgynously well-cast greenhouse caretaker, Anna (Cadence Reid). Yet Claire is living proof that admiration can’t save one’s sanity. She both relishes and is repulsed by the male gazes cast upon her as none of them satisfy, even with the heady cocktail of husband, lover and best friend under the same greenhouse roof.

Claire’s husband, Harry (Cal Behr), is an aviator. She’s embittered that his daredevil nature is delimited to the skies, but she also clearly jumped into this second marriage without taking the time to validate her assumptions. The mustachioed Behr is reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau; he’s clueless and well-meaning, but his good intentions make him sympathetic. He’s a steadying course, which the volatile and often churlish Claire bucks against. From the outset, Claire flaunts her extramarital relationship with artist Dick Demming (Jason Goldstein). Goldstein finds the tension between the exultant masculine pride of conquest and exuding discomfort with Claire’s lack of subtlety.

Tom (Dennis Sen) is Claire’s best friend, and Sen wields his facial expressions with wonderful nuance. He finds an appropriately bemused sensibility towards his fellow challengers who know Claire in the bedroom, while only he seems to be able to calm her. However, Tom’s also the model of lovelorn confidante, torn between the desire for Claire’s continued friendship while coveting the headiness of her romantic affections. At one point, Claire’s hand drops from Tom’s shoulder. He reaches back with a palpable anguish to rest his hand on that spot, his own attempt to capture the Breath of Life that ultimately eludes us all.

-TR

The University of Pittsburgh’s production of “The Verge” plays through February 16th at the Charity Randall Theatre inside Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

 

 

There’s No Business Like Show Business – a review of “The Book of Merman”

Mike Buzzelli

By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro’s “Book of Merman” is a high concept idea. Take the “Book of Mormon” and add Ethel Merman. It’s simple! You know you’re getting a cross between “The Book of Merman” and “Annie Get Your Gun.”

In this show, the two Mormon missionaries, Elder Braithewaite (Jerreme Rodriguez) and Elder Shumway (Quinn Patrick Shannon) are faithfully attempting to execute their plan to go door-to-door to recruit people to their religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. One day, they knock on a hot pink door belonging to Ethel Merman (Christine Laitta) and all – um – heck breaks loose.

There’s not really a lot to the plot. Shumway has desires for a life in showbiz (and he as a few other secret desires). Braithewaite is holding on to a tight-lipped secret of his own. While Ethel Merman (who died in 1984) is a complete enigma.

They express all of their feelings in verse. There’s a lot of songs. The funniest of these ditties is “If It’s Not Hard, I Don’t Like It.” A thinly-veiled song of double entrendes that is meant to be about how there is no greater reward to overcome challenging and difficult tasks, but it’s really about penises.

There are two problems with “The Book of Merman.” One; the concept wears thin pretty quickly. Two; a good satirist knows to skewer a mainstream or more serious idea and turn it into comedy. When Richard Lopez and company decided to make fun of “Sesame Street,” he and his pals came up with “Avenue Q.” Recently, right in the Greer Cabaret Theater, Gerard Alessandrini took the Broadway hit “Hamilton” and created the parody “Spamilton.” The problem with “Book of Merman” is they took a really funny musical “Book of Mormon” and made an adequate one.

Shumway (Quinn Patrick Shannon) and Braithewaite (Jerreme Rodriguez) flank Ethel Merman (Christine Laitta) in “The Book of Merman.”

The cast is working really hard to sell the idea. They are terrific triple threats; each of them can sing, dance and act. But they can’t save this production.

Rodriguez knocks it out of the park, especially with his rendition of the Tin Pan Alley song “Hello Ma Baby!”

Shannon is delightful as Elder Shumway. He is a staple at the Greer and deservedly so. His comedic takes are genius.

Laitta is a true talent, but here she’s imprisoned with Merman’s voice in this show. Her imitation of the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage is not a pleasant noise. She sounds like a cross between Edith Bunker and an air raid siren. Luckily, she does get to sing one song in her regular voice and it’s beautiful.

There also seems to be some crime committed on stage when Merman neither sings nor utters the lines, “There’s no business like show business,” or “Everything’s coming up roses.” If you’re thinking maybe the joke was too obvious, don’t worry – plenty of obvious jokes were made. A lot of clunkers, too.

Tony Ferrieri’s set, however, is a beauty. It’s comprised of the front door, a sumptuous living space and a bus stop all fitting together seamlessly.

John Lindsay McCormick’s costume designs for Laitta’s Merman are gorgeous, and it’s a treat to watch the costume changes.

One audience member, Jason Clark, summed the show up politely and succinctly. He commented, “I’ve seen better stuff here.”

– MB

“Book of Merman” runs until March 8 at the Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

 

Man-eater – a review of “Little Shop of Horrors”

Mike Buzzelli

by Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

The Skid Row Urchins, Crystal (Tavia Rivee), Ronnette (Melessie Clark) and Chiffon (Abigail Stephenson), the ever present and ever harmonious chorus, warns us that strange things are about to happen in Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” Things get strange right away.

Schlubby Seymour (Philippe Arroyo) spends his days sweeping up the backroom and pinning away for Audrey (Lauren Marcus) in Mushnik’s Skid Row Flower Shop until he finds a very interesting and unusual plant. He dubs the floral enigma the Audrey II.

The problem is the plant is droopy and water, plant-food and direct sunlight do not seem to be helping. When Seymour cuts his finger on the thorn, the plant perks up. He feeds the plant a few drops of blood it blooms.

It’s tasted blood and it wants more. More. More!

Suddenly Seymour realizes that the plant is on a people-based diet. Chickens, pigs and cows do not seem to satisfy it – only human blood will do.

Enter Orin Scrivello, DDS (Patrick Cannon). The sleazy sadistic dentist is dating the original Audrey. The girl comes to work with a black eye one day and a bruised arm the next. Seymour and Audrey II (played by puppeteer J. Alex Noble and voiced by Monteze Freeland) decide that the dentist sure looks like plant food to them.

When the dentist accidentally suffocates on his own nitrous oxide, Seymour feeds him to Audrey II. The plant begins to grow and grow.

Soon, the store owner, Mr. Mushnik (Marc Moritz) becomes suspicious of the dentist’s disappearance when he sees Seymour and Audrey kissing and it’s suppertime for the plant once more.

But how far will Seymour go to get everything he’s always wanted?

Pretty dang far.

Seymour (Philippe Arroyo) confronts Audrey II (voiced by Monteze Freeland and manipulated by puppeteer J. Alex Noble).

The musical is based on the titular 1960 horror comedy written by Charles Griffith, and directed by the pope of pop cinema, Roger Corman.

The cast, much like Audrey II’s mysterious origins, is out-of-this world. They are backed up by a fantastic orchestra conducted by Catie Brown.

Arroyo is adorable as the klutzy Seymour.

Marcus is a tremendous talent. Her “Suddenly Seymour” is a show stopper. She belts it out beautifully, incandescently.

Cannon is delightful as the deranged dentist with a sadistic streak. He is charismatic and  electrifying in his performance as Orin Scrivello, DDS. He also tackles a few additional roles with aplomb.

Freeland is hilarious as the villainous vegetation, Audrey II. He gives the creature the cadence and lilt of a scary ass drag queen from space. It’s a marvelous interpretation. It’s amazing how fluidly Freeland’s voice matched up to the puppet’s giant Venus Fly Trap of a mouth thanks to puppeteer J. Alex Noble.

Normally, the Urchins (i.e. the Chorus) are regulated to the back of the stage, singing back up. Director Marya Sea Kaminski moves the chorus front and center, and it’s pays off brilliantly. Rivee, Clark and Stephenson are amazing. Their voices combine mellifluously.

All the action takes place on an illustrious and imposing set wondrously designed by Tim Mackabee, and gloriously illuminated with projection design by Bryce Cutler.

If you’re in the mood for a monstrous musical, “Little Shop of Horrors” is the main event.

“Little Shop of Horrors” runs through February 23 at the O’Reilly Theater at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, 622 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does – A review of “The C-Word”

By Claire DeMarco, ‘Burgh Vivant

Mental illness and suicide are very serious subjects but injecting dark humor into the conversation often allows one to avoid coming face to face with those issues.  Conversation about these concerns are presented in the world premiere of “The C-Word” by Olivia LeSuer.

College-age Grace (Audrey Nigh) has recently come home to her mother, Mary (Katelyn Donnelly) after an attempted suicide.  It soon becomes apparent that Mary seems to have as many emotional problems as Grace as they never seem to speak openly concerning the attempted suicide.  They stand apart, skirting the issue in front of them with attempts at comedy and general avoidance.

Grace’s father David (Christian Poach) has been alienated from Grace for fifteen years and now wants to insert himself back into her life.  We don’t know why he hasn’t been in the picture but his concern for Grace appears sincere.  He is able to encourage Grace to stay with him during her transition back into the real world.   But it’s obvious and disconcerting that he doesn’t know much about Grace.  “Are you allergic to anything?” “What school did you apply to?” “What are you studying?”

Insecure Mary constantly texts and calls Grace while she’s with her dad, attempting to interfere with this new relationship.

Every time there is a tumultuous situation or avoidance scenario by Mary, Grace or David with each other, their first reaction is to turn on the T.V.  Insertions of T.V. clips and commercials (usually funny) help break up the turmoil going on with this dysfunctional family.

The use of the T.V. as an avoidance mechanism for all the characters is a clever technique: Tune in to tune out!

It is hard to imagine how a smoke detector provides an avenue for the start of healing and coming to terms with the serious discussion of suicide and mental illness.

Nigh plays Grace as sometimes insecure, many times belligerent, defensive and unsure.

Donnelly’s range carries her from argumentative to, at times, not even speaking.   Even when sitting and seeming to appear calm, she is able to portray any underlying tension by playing with and moving her hands.

Nigh and Donnelly both, especially in quiet moments do not project fully to the audience.   It was difficult at times to hear all of their dialogue which lessened the impact of their otherwise good performances.

Poach provides an even performance, sensitive to his daughter’s needs, but stern when necessary.

Scenes occur in either Mary’s living room or David’s with subtle changes on the couch and a few strategically placed plants an indicator of where we are.

LeSuer discussed in her conversation noted in the program concerning mental health issues that there is no end all cure for mental health issues.  A lot of recovery is learning to accept it and cope.

– Ced

“The C-Word” is a production of The Red Masquers at Duquesne University’s Genesius Theater, 600 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15282.  It runs from January 29 to February 2, 2020. For more information, click here.

Forgotten Things, Buried Deep – a review of “Downstairs”

Mike Buzzelli

By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

Basements, like memories, hold a lot of forgotten things, buried deep. This is especially true in Theresa Rebeck’s darkly comic “Downstairs.”

Irene (Helena Ruoti) has graciously let her brother, Teddy (Martin Giles), camp out in the basement over her suburban home, much to the chagrin of her husband Jerry (a menacing John Shepard). Teddy needs a break from his daily routine, and the dingy squalor of the suburban basement seem to make him happy (for some reason).

Irene is nervous about having her brother squat in the cellar because her husband and brother do not get along. Understatement of the Century alert!

Because Irene is a few years older, the two siblings have vastly different memories of their childhood, but they do share laughs reminiscing about the good times. Their connection has weakened since her marriage, but it begins to blossom again while he is couch-surfing downstairs.

Teddy is ill. It takes a while to figure out if his sickness is physical or mental. Irene pretends her marriage is normal – it very much isn’t, but she doesn’t seem to know what normal is either.

Irene starts to realize her brother is mentally ill. He says things that are unusual. He might be speaking in metaphor, or he might believe what he’s saying. He doesn’t care if he sounds like a whacko. He just says what comes to mind.

Jerry, however, who passes as normal – is far sicker. He hides in shadows, passes through everyday society, but deep down, he’s very troubled. Insidious, actually.

There is a battle of wills waging between the brother and the husband and Irene realizes she has to choose a side before she becomes collateral damage.

The first forty-five minutes of “Downstairs” move at the speed of molasses. However, once Jerry appears for the first time, the play picks up speed. It steamrolls to the ending. There are some major twists and revelations near the end and they are shocking. No spoilers.

Irene (Helena Ruoti) tries to convince Teddy (Martin Giles) the old computer isn’t working, but he gets it up and running in “Downstairs.”

Rebeck’s dialogue is sharp, crisp and full of unexpected witty moments in dour situations. Each character has a distinct voice. At one point, Irene quotes her husband, and even the words she speaks don’t sound like her own as she says them.

Giles and Ruoti have fantastic chemistry. Their rapport is so fluid and dynamic.

It takes a minute to warm up to Teddy, but Giles plays him with such charm. In Giles’s hands, Teddy is more of a lovable kook than crazy person.

Ruoti does an amazing job. Irene is a duck, trying to appear graceful on the surface, while paddling as fast as she can. A lot of lies are told in this play, but none of them compare to the lies that Irene tells herself to keep her life together.

Shepard is downright chilling as Jerry. He provokes, pushes, bullies and threatens the siblings. He is terrifying. Before November 9, 2016, I wouldn’t have believed a human being could be this self-centered, bombastic, and completely void of compassion.

Director Marc Masterson picked three of Pittsburgh’s best actors for this play.

Tony Ferrieri’s set is filled with all the prerequisite items you would find in a basement, rusted tools, a laundry sink, a dog cage and picnic basket, but there is a pervasive subterranean gloom hanging over the cavernous room.

The lighting and sound design is also impressive. Kudos to Brian Liliethal and Steve Shapiro.

Note: Limit your liquid intake, the play runs without an intermission. And it runs rather long.

While there is a satisfying conclusion to the events in this particular suburban basement, “Downstairs” is not exactly the feel-good play of the year. It is, however, thought provoking. It is also a masterclass in acting, writing and production.

-MB

“Downstairs” is upstairs at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here.

 

The Dickens you say – a review of “A Christmas Carol”

Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant

The Theatre Factory breathes life back into “A Christmas Carol” by choosing a 2012 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic by Patrick Barlow. Barlow thoughtfully reduces the cast. His reimagined version is limited to Scrooge plus an ensemble of five who plug and play into a range of roles. The essence of the story remains unchanged, but it has a quicker, lighter tone. Dickens purists may find fault with Barlow’s generously modernized language. Barlow layers in references to things like “marketing,” which is how Scrooge describes the Christmas music playing at his business.

Director Olivia Hartle severely missteps in allowing the actors to adopt British accents. None of the thespians can consistently maintain an accent, let alone sustain the same one, making the wandering accent tour a chronic source of distraction. Scrooge (David Nackman) finds his dour as the play progresses, but at the start, Nackman can’t suppress his smile, making you wonder if Scrooge opens as an optimist in this adaptation.

Scrooge loves to talk in lofty metaphors that are designed to intimidate his lower-class borrowers. When Mrs. Lack arrives to borrow money and asks for Scrooge’s now deceased business partner, Marley, he tells her Marley has “shuffled off this mortal coil.” She looks at him quizzically until Scrooge finally enunciates “died.” Any negligible grief Scrooge felt has manifested to something he can call up on demand to shed the requisite tear designed to demonstrate a suffering he flips to take advantage of his customers. Scrooge’s turns of phrase come back to haunt him (literally) as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future later repeat them, cheerfully mocking his air of self-importance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (David Nackman) humbugs his way through the first half of “A Christmas Carol.”

Nackman shines with lightness in moments of disdain, showing us early glimmers that Scrooge may not be all humbug. When Marley fails to leave at Scrooge’s request, he tries to shoo him out of an open window, flicking his wrists and inculcating his rendition of ghost communication with an accompanying, “Whoosh, whoosh.” He mocks Marley when the first spirit fails to arrive exactly at the strike of twelve and churlishly calls out, “Ghost, ghost, ghosty.” The five actors who play a variety of parts are never named beyond their assigned number in the program. This makes it hard to match cast to role, but they all radiate earnestness and prove adequate. Tiny Tim is surprisingly represented by a puppet. The actor who voices him is as laughably poor at ventriloquism as he is at maintaining a British accent, but it’s a quirky moment of shared levity.

Strangely enough, there’s a Pittsburgh connection to this British literary classic. In 1842, Dickens visited Pittsburgh and toured Western Penitentiary prison. It is widely thought that the rattling chains of Marley’s ghost are based on the profoundly despairing sight of shackled prisoners that Dickens witnessed here in Pittsburgh. While not the cheeriest of legacies, given “A Christmas Carol” was published the year after Dickens visited Pittsburgh, it’s not an unlikely inspiration.

-TR

The Theatre Factory’s production of “A Christmas Carol” plays through December 15th at The Theatre Factory, 235 Cavitt Avenue, Trafford, PA 15085. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.