‘See the thing’ – Carnegie Museum of Art’s Refractions Series with James “Yaya” Hough and etta cetera

by Gina McKlveen

On December 1, 2022, the Carnegie Museum of Art in partnership with the Carnegie Mellon School of Art hosted one of its many artist talks that is part of a series called, “Refractions: 58th Carnegie International Conversation Series.” Inside the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, two revolutionary artists—James “Yaya” Hough and etta cetera—sat side-by-side in conversation with each other and the moderator, Dana Bishop-Root, who serves as the Museum’s Director of Education and Public Programs.

Yaya is a seasoned artist who has had a love for expressing himself through the arts since his childhood. He grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh and recalled some of the struggles he faced in his early years that were “not friendly to the development of an artist.” At seventeen, after being convicted of murder, Yaya was sentenced to prison and served a 23-year mandatory life sentence without parole.

While in the prison system, Yaya rediscovered his love of the arts. Initially, his motive for making art was as a tool to change the conditions of his own environment. However, along the way Yaya realized that art had a unique ability to bring people together to make ripple effects in the community. So Yaya treated his role as an artist in prison with great responsibility, focusing first and foremost on building relationships with people—an ethos he continues to bring into his work to this day, as evidenced by his most recent work for the Carnegie International, A Gift to the Hill District, which is featured not within the Museum walls, but in the Hill District community and created in collaboration with the neighbors who live there.

The James “Yaya” Hough mural.

A Gift to the Hill District, is Yaya’s first public commission in his hometown, but he has been involved with Mural Arts Philadelphia for over a decade, served as the inaugural artist-in-residence at the Office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia, and created more than 50 works of art that have been installed at State Correctional Institutions across the United States.

Yaya crossed paths with etta cetera, artist and board of director of Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee, though an art exhibit hosted through BOOM concepts, a creative art space for marginalized voices in Pittsburgh. Yaya described one of the pieces he created for that exhibit as a “found object piece”—a collection of walnuts and a nail painted in white with an image and some text attached and etta recalled bringing a group of 17-year-old students to the exhibition, intentionally noting to these students that they were the same age as Yaya when he received his prison sentence. Like Yaya, etta’s view of the artist as a connector in the community serves as a path that leads to critical thinking, which can set people free.

For her own entry into the arts, etta also began at an early age when during her public-school education art became her favorite subject and all she wanted to do was be in the art classroom. She went on to work in Baltimore at the American Visionary Art Museum and discovered one of her foundational artistic inspirations, Beehive Design Collective, which introduced her to the paper mural art form that blended her creative expression with social advocacy efforts.

Let’s Get Free Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee is at City-County Building supporting The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act.

Now, etta says she sees every piece of art as a freedom prayer and her work seeks to show the humanity of incarcerated people. Specifically, etta mentioned the project “Let Grandma Go,” and described the story of an 80-something-year-old prisoner, Betty Heron, who knit a horse which etta used as an example to show the humanity of the elderly women still in prisoned. etta wants people to ‘see the thing’ that these prisoners create because prison has a way to isolating and invisibilizing people, especially women and trans prisoners who don’t have equal access to resources, including art materials, in prison as their male counterparts. Her collaborative work Across the Walls (2022), a 22-minute black and white video, details the first-person experiences of two women recently released from prison after serving over 40-year sentences, and five others who are still incarcerated. Her hope with this work is that people will see it and be ignited to do something to change their own community.

As a final parting for the evening, etta offered ways to get involved with Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee including Operation Break Bread—a visiting program that connects people in Pittsburgh with people who are incarnated at the two local women’s prisons, Write Time, a weekly virtual meeting space to write letters to people in prison, and Creative Resistance: Picture a Free World, an art show and fundraiser seeking submissions for visual art and poetry through February 1, 2023. More details on Let’s Get Free are available at: https://letsgetfree.info/.

-GM

The public can view A Gift to the Hill District at 2317 Center Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219 and Across the Walls (2022) is on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center (Floor 2). “Refractions: James “Yaya” Hough & Let’s Get Free” will air on Artists in the World, a new WQED and Carnegie Museum of Art Podcast. The next “Refractions: 58th Carnegie International Conversation Series” artist talk will take place on December 15, 2022 from 6:30-7:30 PM at the Carnegie Museum of Art Theater.

 

 

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Locally Sourced Artisanal Comedy finds a home – a review of Sketchville

Mike Buzzelli

By Michael Buzzelli

Travel with me to a foreign land, the exotic locale of “Sketchville.” The travel guide would tell you that Sketchville is “a bustling metropolis of wild ideas, goofy premises, and side-splitting one-liners.” All aboard! You’re gonna want to catch this train.

A plethora of local talent wrote sketches for local comedians. Can one be a locavore for laughter? Why the hell not?

The original all new material features sketches written by Eoin Carney, Kathi Finch, Jennifer Holz, Stephanie Kozikowski, Adam Lauver, Michael McBurney, Frank McDade, Ryan Nuzzo, Kevin O’Brien, Mike Rubino, Brian Schimmel, Matt Solter, and Scott Trampus.

Put your cell phone on mute. Brian Schimmel skewers “Uber Eats” in a sketch performed by Kevin O’Brien and Matt Solter. It’s a perfect parody for our times when our smart phone has gone from powerful tool in you pocket to intrusive nebby nose.

In Kazoo Police, Stacey Babyak gets pulled over by cops that sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Unlike Lucy Van Pelt, she can’t understand them. It’s a hilarious thread that weaves throughout the show.

Adam Lauver’s “Dolly” is a revelation. When Dolly Parton (Haley Holmes) goes into a recording studio to perform her hits, the producer (wryly played by Beth Geatches) learns that Dolly has tweaked her song to reflect the times. It’s another hilarious bit in a string of hilarious sketches, and Holmes is pure Parton throughout, while Geatches gets off some sardonic glances, and exasperated sighs.

Geatches has another triumphant moment as a panicked passenger on the Titanic, while the band plays on in Matt Solter’s sketch, “Titanic Sell-Outs.”

The cast and director of Arcade Comedy Theater’s upcoming “Sketchville” show. Back row, from left to right: Montaja Simmons, director Parag S. Gohel, Fred Betzner, Kevin O’Brien, Stacey Babyak and Beth Geatches. Front row: Maame Danso, Matt Solter and Haley Holmes. (Courtesy of Arcade Comedy Theater)

Ryan Nuzzo’s “Gay Jeopardy” is an instant classic. Nuzzo parodies one of America’s infotainment institutions in this sketch. The premise is simple but sublime as host Gary Grinder (Matt Solter) asks some fierce Jeopardy questions filled with ribald jokes enough to gag a drag.

Stephanie Kozikowski’s “Bachelorette Survival Kit” is a side-splitting sketch. When Montaja Simmons’s bride-to-be gets an unusual idea for her bachelorette party that may or may not involve a famous cryptid from the Pacific Northwest.

There’s even a song and dance in Scott Trampus’ “A Man in My Position,” delightfully performed by Kevin O’Brien and Matt Solter.

Director Parag S. Gohel gives each of the actors (Montaja Simmons, Fred Betzner, Kevin O’Brien, Stacey Babyak and Beth Geatches. Front row: Maame Danso, Matt Solter and Haley Holmes) a moment to shine.  Without his firm hand, it’s easy to see how the show could have devolved into a three-ring circus. Instead, Gohel guides the show with aplomb. Some actors could have been louder or more boisterous in presenting the material, but this show was reviewed from a final dress rehearsal.

Can it get silly at times? Yass, queen! But that’s the point of it. You can sit down, tune in and spend some time laughing out loud amongst friends. It’s a lovely evening out of your house, and there are enough sketches to keep you in stitches in “Sketchville.” It’s worth the trip.

– MB

“Sketchville” runs from December 1 to December 10 at the Arcade Comedy Theater, 943 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.  For more information, click here

I, too, sing America – a review of “Searching for Willie Lynch”

By Michael Buzzelli

When Mo Foster (Thaddeus Daniels) misses a payment, Davis “call me Mister Harlin” (Reginald “Reggie” Lee Wilson) buys his ancestral home and orders him and his son, Cricket (Lamar K. Cheston), to hit the bricks by noon the following day. But the house itself isn’t ready to give up on the Foster family.

The barriers of the space-time continuum break down in Layon Gray’s “Searching for Willie Lynch,” as several generations of the Foster family inhabit the surreal residence.

In 1925, Rahman (David N. Roberts) and Phebe (Ashley Victoria Scott) rush into their home seeking refuge from an unfortunate incident. In 1965, Basil (Layon Gray) and Charlene (Nicollette Ellis) are about have a baby, despite the fact that finances have tightened unexpectedly. In 2008, Peanut (Anthony Goss) stops by to pick Cricket up and take him the poles to vote for America’s first Black President, Barrack Obama when Mr. Harlin comes knocking.

If you’re wondering why there is no character named Willie Lynch in a play called, “Searching for Willie Lynch,” look no further. Lynch is the name of a slave owner who allegedly read a letter to teach his methods to slave owners on how to keep Black people divided for 300 years.

In a moment of anger, Cricket recites a portion of Lynch’s insidious letter to Mr. Harlin. He says, “Don’t forget you must pitch the old Black male vs. the young male. You must use the dark skin slaves vs. the light skin slaves, and the light skin slaves vs. the dark skin slaves. You must use the female vs. the male, and the male vs. the female.”

It’s a dark moment fueled by rage, but it paints a bigger picture of the conflict between Mr. Harlin and the Fosters. It paints a frightening picture of race relations in America. Knowing the problem, however, can get us to a solution.

Headshots of the cast of “Searching for Willie Lynch.”

“Searching for Willie Lynch” has mystical and mythical elements that enhance a generational story.  It’s a base it is a story about love – romantic, spiritual and familial.

All of the actors are superb with many strong performances throughout as the generations crisscross through the house.

Ellis’s Charlene is an overworked woman in the last month of her pregnancy. She exudes grace, confidence and love. She’s a joy to watch.

Cheston plays Cricket with aplomb. He is dynamic and charismatic. He is also uniquely outfitted in a vibrant dashiki supplied by Kelly Davis.

Goss’s Peanut gets a heart-rending monologue. It is a powerful performance.

Phebe is probably the most underdeveloped character in the piece, but Scott hands in a layered performance.

Gray, the writer, director and actor, infuses the story and his character with a deep, devoted love. You can feel his fondness for the characters and the actors oozing out of him.

Herb Newsome’s set is simple yet homey, stuck in the early Twentieth Century. Kudos to Olga George for properly appointing the set with artifacts of each era.

“Searching for Willie Lynch” is a play about connection. It is the kind of play we need after a pandemic. It was a perfect play to watch after hearing that a certain divisive (read racist) political candidate is running for president again. It is a play that reminds us that we need to stand up and fight injustice, to fight for your family.  Fight for love.

It’s also a play that reminds us to vote.

-MB

“Searching for Willie Lynch” runs until November 20 at the New Horizon Theater company, inside City Theatre’s new rechristened Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203. For more information, click here.

Putting the Fun in Dysfunctional – a review of “Kentucky”

by Michael Buzzelli

Hiro (Esther Lee) is on a plane descending into Kentucky, falling into familiar patterns and, simply, falling apart as she returns home for her sister’s wedding in Leah Nanako Winkler’s “Kentucky.”

Kentucky is a metaphor for Middle America. It’s a state and a state of mind. In New York and Los Angeles, it’s considered a “Flyover,” but for the people who live there it’s home, and there’s no place they’d rather be. In “Kentucky,” it’s both.

For Hiro, Kentucky is a battle zone. She tells her therapist, Larry (Clark Eileen Atkinson) that she plans on rescuing her sister Sophie (Zoe Gonzalez) from her impending nuptials and whisk her off to NYC, freeing her from their abusive father, James (Marc Palombo) and her Christianity.

Hiro has a hero complex.  Unfortunately, the moment she arrives the trouble starts. Her white father picks her up at the airport and the fuse is immediately lit. Her Japanese mother, Masako (Maddy Cox), expects her to keep peace, but he’s on her like white on rice (a nod to the sometimes thinly-veiled/sometimes blatant racism in a show about a half-Japanese, half Caucasian family).

There’s a Hallmark Christmas movie moment when she runs into the hotshot high school heartthrob, Adam (Cam Webb), but quickly veers off from the predictable paths.

The thing that makes Nanako Winkler’s play is the various Points of View. No POV is right or wrong…it just is. It’s also a weird, wonderful work of art.

“Kentucky” is expertly directed by Adil Mansoor, who finds the weird and wonderful in everything he touches.

Lee is fantastic as Hiro, playing her as both hero and villain in the story. It is a layered character, and Lee performs it deftly.

James seems like a one-note character in the first act, but we slowly see more depth to the character. Polombo gracefully handles the nuances.

Webb delivers a charismatic performance as Adam, the lone voice of reason and maturity.

This play is packed with characters and everyone gets a moment to shine, cute-but-attention-starved Amy(Maggie M. Clark), man-hungry Nicole (Isabella Duran-Shedd), even the bridespeople and groomspeople get a piece of the pie (or, in this case, cheesecake – as in Cheesecake Factory, which gets a nod in this tale).

Grandma (Sadie Pillion-Gardner) and Sylvie the Cat (Hattie Baier) are scene stealers. Baier plays a cat. She, literally and figuratively, chews the scenery.

Side note: usually, when people play cats it’s annoying. Example: “Cats.” But Baier’s performance is hilarious.

The set is a masterpiece. Scenic Designer Sasha Schwartz does an incredible job with the stage. There is a hydraulic lift, a rusty garage door and a pop-up chapel.  There are moments of awe when each new set piece is unveiled.

“Kentucky” is a dichotomy. It reminds us that every human being is both wonderful and terrible.  And, as Du’Ran (Colin Villacorte) reminds us that we love the whole person, not in spite of their past but because of it.

“Kentucky” is wonderfully made.

-MB

“Kentucky” runs through November 20 at the Highmark Theater, inside Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA  15222. For more information click here

Many Wrongs Make it Right – a review of the “Play That Goes Wrong”

by Michael Buzzelli

Chris Bean/ Inspector Carter welcomes us to the Cornley Drama Society’s production of “Murder at Haversham Manor,” but not really. It’s Colin Burns up there on stage acting the part of Chris Bean acting the part of Inspector Carter in “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

The plot is simple. Thomas Haversham (Fred Coleman) is murdered. Haversham’s brother, Cecil (John Feightner), his best friend, Thomas (Stephen Toth), fiancé Florence (Erika Krenn), and the Haversham maid, Perkins (Liz Schaming) are among Inspector Carter’s top suspects.

The ‘actors’ are struggling up there as set pieces fall apart, lines of dialogue are delivered out of order (or in some cases repetitive loops) and props aren’t where they’re supposed to be.

At one point, a miscued entrance smacks Sandra the-actor-playing-Florence (Krenn) so hard she’s knocked unconscious and replaced by Annie (Chelsea Conway), who dons the red dress, a copy of the script and jumps on stage.

Playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields cook up every possible mishap that could ever possibly go wrong in a show.

From left to right: John Feightner, Chelsea Conway, Colin Burns, Erika Krenn, and Stephen Toth form a party line to answer a mysterious phone call. Hawk Photography and Multimedia LLC

Steven Gallagher choreographs the cast with precision of a German clockmaker. Every movement is a perfect ballet of mishaps, choreographed klutziness.

The show is expertly cast, and there were strong performances from every member, including “the crew,” Katheryn Hess, Randi Ippolito, Emma Paulini and David Lu!!

Krenn is a charismatic Sandra/Florence. She has perfect comic timing and the best British accent of the bunch.

When Sandra (Krenn) goes down, knocked out by the swinging door, Toth’s face freezes in mid-gasp. It is one of the most hilarious moments in a show filled with hilarious moments.

It is no secret to the Pittsburgh comedy scene that Feightner is a comedic genius.  Every herky-jerky movement, every facial expression is pure, undiluted hilarity.  He does it in such a natural way that its masterful (even the dedication he wrote in the program was funny).

Jim Froehlich is delightful as Trevor, the Conley Drama Society’s put-upon lighting and sound operator who must jump in as Florence Haversham when both Sandra and Annie are out of commission.

There were some issues with the venue.

Over the years, the production company has gone through numerous names and various venues. The Allegheny RiverTrail Park is not an ideal space. It’s cramped and this show is never going to get the size audience it deserves. The seats were crammed together.

The front row was inches from the stage. The first row should have been declared a splash zone. I was spat upon twice. I always assumed “spitting distance” was a colorful aphorism.

Even though I was in front of the show, I had some difficulty hearing because I was seated next to a family of wild hyenas who laughed so boisterously and loudly that I couldn’t hear the plot. At one point the boy fell on the floor and rolled around. I also thought ROTFOL was also just an expression.

Then, I realized, the plot was secondary. The audience’s enjoyment should be the most important thing. In that case, everything about “The Play That Goes Wrong” was right.

-MB

“The Play that Goes Wrong” runs through November 19 at the Riverfront Theatre Company, Allegheny RiverTrail Park, 285 River Avenue, Aspinwall, PA 15215. For more information, click here

One for the Money – Two for the Show – a review of Graceland & Asleep on the Wind

by Michael Buzzelli

Elvis has left the building, but that doesn’t stop two devoted fans, Rootie (Kodie Warnell) and Bev (Jennifer Phipps Kopach), as they guard the gates of Graceland, hoping to be the first to enter the estate as it opens its doors to the public in Ellen Byron’s “Graceland.”

One night in June 1982, these two fools rush in, hoping to be the first into Graceland. They fight for the top spot. Bev is a hard-headed woman and Rootie is all shook up over the events of her past. At first, neither trusts the other. They both have suspicious minds. We learn that Rootie is a little sister in mourning, but both have a burning love for the guitar man. They fight, because it’s now or never! Only one person can be the first walk through the doors. As they fight, you’ll want to shout, “Don’t be cruel!”  When Rootie shares her memories, the two make up, dance to a medley of Elvis songs and go their separate ways.

In “Asleep in the Wind,” we flashback ten years earlier, Rootie (now played by Lola Arfield) spends a special afternoon with her big brother Beau (Noah Welter) before he goes off to war.

The show could be billed as “Graceland” and “Asleep in the Wind,” instead of “Graceland and Asleep in the Wind.” It’s a subtle, but important, distinction. The shows even have separate directors, Joe Eberle for the former, Mary Meyer for the latter.

Hawk Photography, LLC
Hawk Photography, LLC

Eberle directs “Graceland” with verve.  It’s an energetic show. Carly Sims-Linkish’s set is sparse, but the actors don’t need a lot to create their world.

Kopach does a great job as the big-wigged Bev. She is over-the-top when she has to be and much more low-key during the softer moments. Bev goes from cliche to a fresh, fuller character.

Warnell is delightful as Rootie. She immerses herself in the role.

Meyer’s “Asleep in the Wind” is the same but different, as expertly directed as Eberle’s “Graceland.”

Armfield doesn’t imitate Warnell but delivers a similar-yet-different version of Rootie. She is equally terrific.

Welter is charismatic, wide-eyed and innocent (P.S. he would have been perfect for Pippin if he was around earlier in Little Lake’s season).  The bond between the two ‘siblings’ feels real.

Separately these plays are cute, but together they form something much more meaningful, much more poignant, two big pieces of a puzzle, two pieces of Rootie’s heart.  The two fractions coalesce into something beautiful because of the strength of the actors’ performances.

They are two little gems (diamonds falling from the sky).

It’s literally one for the money, and two for the show. Now, get ready, now, go, cat, go.

-MB

“Graceland and Asleep on the Wind” runs until November 20 at Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South, Canonsburg, PA 15317.  For more information, click here

Duquesne’s SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical Bubbles with High Energy

Reviewed by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD

Duquesne University’s Red Masquers bring SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical to the stage.

I recruited the nearest kid, my 10-year-old son, to attend SpongeBob as my +1 to capture the target audience point of view. While he’s never been a huge SpongeBob fan, that high-pitched SpongeBob voice is also not wholly unfamiliar in our household.

Theron proved the only kid there for a packed opening night, but it wasn’t too shocking. While SpongeBob is still produced and televised today, the first episode aired in 1999. That makes SpongeBob and his best friend, Patrick Star, the childhood companions of today’s college students. The show is a nostalgic throwback for the collegiate crowd.

In ensemble scenes, the large cast spills over the perimeter of the Genesius Theater’s stage. Given the stage is at floor level and seats rise up on three sides, it makes for an intimate production. The energy levels radiating from the cast are palpable. Like a strong ocean current, the audience can’t help but be swept along the Bikini Bottom sea.

Leading the charge is the ever-optimistic SpongeBob (Ellie Troiani). The petite Troiani is a foil to the towering Patrick Star (Logan Raymond). They visually emulate their cartoon counterparts. Troiani is well-cast as her singing voice is the best and strongest in the house. Her bubbly energy bursts forth from her yellow short-sleeved button-down shirt and rolled up plaid trousers.

Patrick and the colorful citizens of Bikini Bottom at “Spongebob Squarepants.”

Raymond perfectly captures the hapless Patrick. When Troiani and Raymond sing “BFF,” Patrick is initially confused by “bff?” as he tries to make it into a word, not realizing it’s an acronym. Director John E. Lane Jr. makes the confusion believable. When SpongeBob and Patrick spell out BFF in the air as they sing, Lane has Raymond spell it slowly and cautiously the first time, visually out of step with the fast-paced Plain White Ts tune. By the final verse, Patrick swipes his finger through the air confidently, spelling out the three letters effortlessly as he has grasped the magnitude of friendship.

Ryan Graves portrays the temperamental Squidward Tentacles. Kim Brown’s costuming genius has the cephalopod in conjoined turquoise pants. A second pair of pants come off the back and bending legs terminate in a pair of white patent leather shoes that are stitched to Graves’ own at the rear heel seam. It’s completely mesmerizing. Graves moves fluidly and doesn’t let the costume overshadow his performance, particularly as he performs “I’m Not a Loser” by They Might Be Giants.

Unlike most musicals, this one features songs by an array of artists from The Flaming Lips to Panic! At the Disco. They all meld on the undersea floor, making the musical less one note.

Matt Dudley’s Sheldon Plankton, proprietor of The Chum Bucket (the Krusty Krab’s rival restaurant), is masterfully evil. Veined face make-up tracing his already prominent cheekbones amplify his menace. Kim Brown costumes him in a striking kelly green suit with a ribbed fuchsia mock turtleneck that is revealed to be sleeveless when Dudley rips off his blazer in perfect synchrony as he sings about not having arms.

John E. Lane Jr. triumphs as both director and set designer. The set design is enchantingly fun. Simple items like rainbow slinkies and pool noodles strung together like giant macaroni necklaces hang from the ceiling across the theatre. They create an undersea environment inclusive of both actors and audience. Boxes with oodles of pool noodles spilling out of them create stove-pipe sponges that frame the stage and playfully reinforce the sponge theme.

These pops of color are enhanced by Rick Frendt’s laudable projection design. Frendt channels another famous animated underseas world. Rays of light projecting down through the water at the start of the show are reminiscent of the opening scenes of Finding Nemo.

The 2017 musical written by Kyle Jarrow echoes differently in a post-pandemic world. As fear and uncertainty grip the town due to the threat of an impending volcanic eruption, opinions diverge and chaos unfolds.

The town’s Mayor (Emma Moore) channels the quintessential bureaucrat removed from reality. She pontificates with meaningless, process-oriented talk about searching for committee members, initiating a strategy, formulating a plan…all while the 48-hour countdown clock is ticking. Patrick represents the short-horizoned everyman who laments “the stores are all closed and I’m out of snacks.”

When smarty squirrel Sandy Cheeks (Susie Betten) recommends “science y’all – that’s the answer,” she faces an angry mob. As a proverbial fish out of water (or squirrel in water in her case), Sheldon riles the townspeople into believing she must have ulterior motives as an outsider. In fact, Sheldon’s finger pointing ploy is simply to distract from his own evil schemes.

-TKR

Will science win? Head over to the Red Masquers’ performance of SpongeBob Squarepants the Musical through November 19th to find out. Purchase tickets at here.

“Mary Shelley and Frankenstein – Together at Last” – a Review of “Frankenstein”

By Claire DeMarco

Trapped during a storm, Mary Shelley (Stacia Paglieri playing multiple roles), her husband and friends take refuge in a Swiss mansion. Perhaps due to boredom or the raging storm outside, those inhabitants think it would be fun to each write a “scary” story.  Mary’s imagination triggers during that fateful night, she conceives the idea of one human creating life (not in the traditional way).

Writing a story so creative with such an unusual theme in the early 19th century is not novel.  But considering the time frame, it is unusual and rather refreshing that this piece of science fiction was written by a woman.

Note:  Mary, Mary.  Quite contrary!

The theme of Frankenstein has gone through many variations, from a serious, frightening movie with a monster stitched, sewn together and bolted in some places to a dark comedy interpretation.

Lawrence C. Connolly’s adaptation takes the original basis of the book and incorporates the author, Mary Shelley and her cohorts into the play, interspersing Mary’s comments to her sister, Claire Claremont (Maddie Kocur playing multiple roles) as the play progresses.   At different stages of the production, Mary and Claire engage in conversation on how Mary’s story develops from conception to play solution.

The parallel story line of “Frankenstein” involves following Victor Frankenstein (Isaac Miller playing multiple roles) as he creates the creature (Everett Lowe) with the sole purpose of constructing another life that defies death.  Once created, Victor doesn’t know what to do with what he has created.

Fleeing from Victor the creature resides with Monsieur Delacey (David Nackman playing multiple roles) and learns to read and write.  His obvious intelligence makes him more of a threat.

The creature has a mind of his own, acts irrationally, commits crimes for no apparent reason.  He is smart enough that he allows others to take the blame for those crimes.

Realizing what he has created, Victor’s main purpose is to stop the creature. Obsessed with finding him, he trails him across the country and beyond.

As pursuit continues, one questions whether it’s Victor or the creature that is the actual villain?

Lowe is outstanding as the creature. He is not one-dimensional but clever, cunning, cruel and confused.

Miller as Victor displays a range of emotions from a stable, normal human wanting to create a perfect human to an almost crazed individual as he pursues the creature.

Kocur as Justine Moritz is effective as the pitiful woman convicted of a crime she didn’t commit.

Paglieri as Mary is confident and exciting as she continues to develop the play.  She easily conveys Mary’s independent nature.

Nackman does a wonderful job as the only person who provides the balance and support that the creature needs.

Excellent lighting by Lighting Designer Hope Debellius with effective sound by Sound Designer Mark Whitehead.

“Frankenstein” was adapted by Lawrence C. Connolly and is based on the novel by Mary Shelley.

-CED

 “Frankenstein” is a production of Prime Stage Theatre Co, performed at the New Hazlett.  It runs from November 4 – November 13. For more information, click here.

Primal Urges – a review of “Dance Nation”

By Michael Buzzelli

A group of thirteen-year-old dancers, raging with hormones, enter a series of dance competitions that will propel them to their personal Mecca, Tampa, Florida for the National competition known reverently as Nationals.

Clare Barron’s absurdist play, “Dance Nation” is a combination “Dance Moms” and “Hunger Games.”  Amina (Miya Gaines) may be the star pupil, but all of the characters in this ensemble shine.

After a boisterous sailor routine, Dance Teacher Pat (Ricardo Vila-Roger with a magnificent mane of a wig) decides to switch up the routine and go with a dance about freedom leader Mahatma Gandhi. He claims everyone will get a chance to audition for the role, while the lone Indian girl, Connie (Nandita Mahesh), is screaming “Cultural Appropriation” with every shrug, eye roll and glare of disdain.

Eventually, Connie is cast as the holy man, though Dance Teacher Pat creates a new character, the Spirit of Gandhi, and casts Zuzu (Gabby Wilson) in the role, usurping Connie’s chance to be noticed. Instead, her “starring” role keeps her seated in the lotus position for most of the routine. The Spirit of Gandhi is the real lead.

It becomes clear that Dance Teacher Pat picked Zuzu to teach Amina a lesson, and Zuzu suffers for it, mostly by biting and tearing at her own flesh like a braying wolf caught in a bear trap.

Maeve (Olivia Wick) plays a hook-handed sailor as the ensemble circles her in “Dance Nation.”

Director Kelly Trumbull keeps her cast, literally and figuratively, on their toes. “Dance Nation” has some great choreography, supplied by Tome’ Cousin, but it’s never really about the dance. It’s about the inner moments; the jealousies, the pettiness, the power and the imagination of this crazed batch of thirteen-year-olds. Children who are waiting for their lives to start, unaware they are living each moment and those moments are creating their lives.

Ashlee (Paige Wasserman) delivers the first of a series of unhinged monologues that is an alternatively hilarious and shocking rant on her self-confidence.  She is magnificent. 

Maeve (Olivia Wick) is another stand-out, oozing charismatic charm with pitch-perfect comic timing.

Molly Twigg makes several appearances throughout the show, first as Vanessa who sustains a career-ending injury. Then, she appears throughout the show as the girls’ moms (all of them with different wigs). She shocks in the first scene but lightens every other scene after that.

Luke (Cade Teribery), the lone male member (hee hee…”male member”) of the troupe, contorts his face into a variety of reactions as his teammates reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

Barron’s story is more than a story about competing thirteen-year-olds on a path to self-discovery. It’s about all those stray thoughts that live in your head. The moments you get to be as weird as you want to be. It’s about how imperfection makes you perfect.

To paraphrase from the show, albeit in a less vulgar vernacular, “Dance Nation is perfect, and it will stay that way forever.”

– MB

“Dance Nation” runs from until November 13 at Pitt Stages’ Charity Randall Theatre, 4301 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here.