One Step at a Time – a review of “The 39 Steps”

by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD

South Park Theatre takes on The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s 2005 parodic adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film by the same name, which was based on a 1915 novel by John Buchan. The Hitchcock connection signals the production may be one of suspense, and that yields to truth. The 39 Steps proves classic Hitchcockian complete with plot twists as Richard Hannay (John Herrmann) is an innocent man on the run who’s not sure who to trust. When a stranger (Misty Wilds Challingsworth), who claims to be a spy, is murdered his apartment, events are set in motion. He’s unjustly accused of the crime and wanted for murder. Richard runs from the law to carry out her instructions, hoping to clear his name.

In his portrayal of Hannay, Herrmann perfectly embodies a sort of Inspector Clouseau haplessness, less the director of his own fate than a mostly lucky bystander. Herrmann is the only one of the four actors to play a single role, and director Lora Oxenreiter’s wise casting creates a strong quartet. Challingsworth very capably takes on the primary female roles, from the Russian-accented seductress spy to the stranger on the train.

Photo credit: @Hawk Photography and Multimedia LLC.

Noah Kendall and Gavin Calgaro are both billed as Clowns. While often comic relief, that naming doesn’t do justice to the immense number of roles they take on. Both make it look effortless, despite the fact mere seconds sometimes elapse between roles with the presence of a hat or a quick pivot in direction signaling a character change. Wisely, Oxenreiter doesn’t let them rush through their roles, even those that are more physical comedy driven. Kendall and Calgaro’s many roles are made more impactful and memorable by the differentiation of each character through changes in costume, tone and/or physicality. The Clowns play women as well as men, reminding us of the artifice and fluidity of gender. Costume designer Annabel Lorence creates easy differentiators that complement the multitude of characters. With the flip of a wig, Challingsworth’s raven-tressed spy becomes a blonde train passenger.

Oxenreiter plays both director and set designer. Her strength is clearly as a director. While the small stage must accommodate a wide variety of settings, the mostly bare stage leaves little to center or capture one’s eye. It’s also a missed opportunity for lighting designer Eve Bandi to overlay some projections that could heighten the suspense and differentiate scene changes. Sound designer Bryce Jensen elicits laughter and lets us know early on that this version of Hitchcock bends to the comedic by inserting the Jeopardy theme music.

The geologic layers of adaptation that this production represents remind us of the malleability of the arts over time. A novel that’s now over a hundred years old turned Hitchcock film turned 21st century play. Hitchcock’s 1935 film came out after the creation and enforcement of Hollywood’s Hays Code that created censorship guidelines for the cinematic arts. Not only are the arts malleable, but the themes of trust and not knowing who to trust are just as relevant in 2022 with the easy spread of misinformation. The media’s broadcasted assumption of Hannay’s guilt and his efforts to clear his good name are just as timely and resonant today, if not more so.

The 39 Steps runs through October 8th at South Park Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit…/sout…/south-park-theatre/home


“That’s just a little bit of History Repeating” – a review of “What Kind of Woman”

Mike Buzzelli

-Michael Buzzelli

In “What Kind of Woman” by Abbe Tannenbaum, an unexpected phone call from her estranged son, sends Nora (Virgina Ginny Wall Gruenert) into a state of panic. In the final moments of their first conversation in years, Nora invites her adult son and his wife to come to her very cluttered apartment in Chelsea.

During a DIY scroll through YouTube, Nora finds Anne (Abbe Tannenbaum), an actor and personal organizer, and Nora realizes it’s time for a deep clean. Anne undertakes an archeological excavation through Nora’s life, and, suddenly, every item in her life is divided into the keep or pitch piles. Nora is forced to give the keepers a definitive “Hell, yes,” or Anne sticks it in the donation bin.

The tiny apartment is crammed with junk, a trumpet, a feather boa, books, a one-eyed teddy bear named Walter and, most importantly, a bundle of hand-written letters. The letters are a treasure trove, Anne and Nora uncover twenty letters from the 1970s, when Nora worked at the Women’s Health and Abortion Project in Chelsea in the days when the medical procedure was illegal.

While working in New York City as an actual personal organizer, Tannenbaum, the playwright, found the letters in a client’s apartment. The story is a fictionalized account of that true-to-life experience.

There are a myriad of twists and turns in “What Kind of Woman,” and they’re not all pleasant, but the story borders on brilliant. It is a play about women’s reproductive rights. While the play was written several years ago, it seems prescient, but it is not a heavy-handed melodrama about a woman’s right to choose. Every time the play leads down a preachy, “On a very special episode of ‘Designing Women’” corridor, it veers off into new territory. As a playwright, Tannenbaum swerves deftly without judging her characters or their choices.

Abbe Tanenbaum as Anne and Virginia Wall Gruenert as Nora Photo credit: Heather Mull Photography

Gruenert brings an emotional gravitas to the production. She breathes Nora’s character into life. It is a powerful performance with a full range of emotions on display.

Tannenbaum’s Anne is joyful, wacky and a more sympathetic character. She does get to explore some darker moments, but she brings it back to comedy every time. One of laugh out loud moments in the play (and despite the subject matter there are quite a few) is watching Tannenbaum’s Anne attempting to escape a big, dark green garbage bag, hulking out of it in a fit of rage.

Tucker Topel’s set looks like it was transplanted to Carnegie from an episode of A & E “Hoarders.” The stage is stuffed with knick-knacks, tchotchkes, gewgaws, trinkets and trifles.

Stagehands swiftly removing items between scenes. Said scene changes are filled with interstitial video material from the alleged YouTubeification of Nora’s decluttering.

Director Kira Simring keeps the pace fast and increasingly fastidious. The show is guaranteed to spark more joy than a Marie Kondo special.

– MB

“What Kind of Woman” runs from September 23 to October 1 at the Carnegie Stage before moving off to the cell theatre in NYC from October 19 to November 19. Catch it here so you don’t have to go there. Off The Wall Productions at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main, Carnegie, PA 15106. For more information and tickets, go to

Say It Ain’t Sew – a review of “Nana Does Vegas”

By Claire DeMarco

What is the relationship between 80-year-old seamstress Sylvia “Nana” (Lynne Martin Huber) and Dino (Andy Cornelius), an alleged mobster?

One of the following might apply:

      1. They’re romantically involved!
      2. She sews some of his clothes.
      3. Nothing. Surely you jest?
      4. See the show and find out.

Nana is in Las Vegas with her best friend Vera (Ina Block). Engaged as a seamstress for Las Vegas entertainers, Nana anxiously waits for her granddaughter Bridget (Jill Buda) to arrive from New York for Bridget’s bridal shower.

Fiancé Tom (Nick Redford) remains in New York since he is new at his job as a NYPD detective. He promises Bridget that he won’t work too hard, and he’ll concentrate on writing their wedding vows while she’s away.

Tom, however, actually works for the FBI and is on his way to Las Vegas for an undercover job with his supervisor Jo (Renee Ruzzi-Kern). Their assignment is to investigate a case concerning Dino.

Bridget has no clue that Tom works for the FBI nor that he will be in Las Vegas. Tom gambles that he will succeed in keeping this secret.

Spoiler Alert: He doesn’t!

When all the characters find themselves in the same Las Vegas location, subterfuge is finally exposed, misdemeanors explained and innocent misunderstandings resolved.

Vera (Ina Block) doubles down at table. Photo credit: @Hawk Photo and Multimedia, LLC

Block is a treasure! Her delivery is matter of fact, direct, sarcastic and hilarious, reminiscent of “Golden Girls”’ Sophia. All of this is done while she’s dressed in sequins and flamboyant finery, at times while pushing a lighted walker.

Huber’s facial expressions and general movement enhance her comic delivery. Vocal delivery adds favorably to the mix.

As the play evolves, Buda transitions effectively from a rather quiet person into one more assertive.

Redford’s gymnastic movements highlight his role as an insecure, bumbling spy.

Cornelius shows us both the rough side of a mobster and the kinder human underneath that facade.

Lighting is critical and is used effectively to identify different action locations. With this small stage lighting seamlessly segues from one location to another.

This is a delightful farce meant simply to entertain and it does.

The answer to the question initially posed above is D.

Go see the show and find out!

Directed by Kathy Hawk.

“Nana Does Vegas” was written by Katherine DiSavino.


“Nana Does Vegas” is a production of Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Drive South, Canonsburg, Pa. It runs from September 22 through October 1. For more information, click here.

Morning at Carnegie’s Art Museum Dawns a New Directorship

By Gina McKlveen
The grand opening of any art exhibition, even one that has been regularly exhibited since 1896, has that quintessential anticipation for what will be displayed or what new thing will be discovered. It is a similar feeling of anticipation that we may feel when we wake up in the morning at the dawn of a new day and silently wonder to ourselves “What will this day hold?” before returning to our usual routines.

This year, the Carnegie Museum of Art will hold its 58th Carnegie International, beginning on September 24th and running through April 2nd of next year. At its inception in 1896, the Carnegie International exhibition was selected by the Carnegie Museum of Art’s inaugural director, Mr. John W. Beatty, and several foreign art advisors. In 1895, Mr. Andrew Carnegie—an industrialist and philanthropist—founded the Carnegie Museum of Art and wisely appointed Mr. Beatty, the Pittsburgh-born silver engraver turned prominent painter and illustrator, to carry out the mission of discovering the next great masters among those currently practicing artists.

Mr. Carnegie’s vision for the Museum and related International exhibition was to make the so-called “Steel City” as famous for the arts as for its steel. Since then, the Museum has seen a steady growth and expansion in the arts within its own collection, having added the Hall of Architecture at the turn of the 20th century and acquired works through the years by artists like James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Sigmar Polke, Chris Ofili, Edward Hopper, Isa Genzken, Mary Cassatt, among many others. Now, 126 years later, the Carnegie International (the longest-running exhibition in North America) once again opens its doors in Oakland for visitors to enter in and explore the world of art with the newest Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Carnegie Museum of Art and Vice President of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Mr. Eric Crosby, encouraging all who see the exhibition to engage in “both local and global creative conversations.”

At 10:00 in the morning the day before the grand opening, these conversations in a diverse range of languages have already started to fill the Museum’s spaces. This year’s Carnegie International is titled Is it morning for you yet?, named after a commission for the exhibition by featured artist, Edgar Calel whose work has a corresponding title which was inspired from a Mayan Kaqchikel expression where it is customary to ask, “Is it morning for you yet?” rather than assume and say “Good morning” to someone who may be in a different time zone. The overarching theme of this exhibition points to the idea of acknowledging the different places and times people come from, while focusing on those common threads that bind us together. Specifically, the exhibition traces a timeline of the United States from 1945 to present day in order to contextualize the “international” in a local setting.

Climbing the stairs to the Heinz Galleries, a gaze out the glass windows to the right features an outdoor installation by Rafael Domench—its locally sourced scaffolding draped in hues of red and blue mesh soaked in early sunlight. Dividing an edge from an ever (pavilion for Sarduy) (2022) was installed this summer in the Museum’s Sculpture Court as a part of the Museum’s Inside Out program, a free outdoor event hosted on regular Thursdays throughout the summer season, as an effort to welcome locals from various regions into community with the arts and adhere to Mr. Crosby’s directorial vision for the Carnegie International.

At the top of the stairs, entering though the glass doors to the galleries, earth tones and natural matter decorate the white floors and walls. In this space is Édgar Calel’s Oyonik (The Calling) (2022), a 75 ceramic vessel collection, organized in scattered rows upon the floor and filled with water, roses, fruit tree branches. Like artifacts unearthed from the civilizations of the past, Calel’s Oynoik is a visual depiction of the Mayan Kaqchikel healing ritual for those who are lost, asking the heart of the sky and the heart of the earth to reconnect body and spirit to discover, or rather rediscover, oneself. Here, the artist and the Carnegie International by extension, confronts the histories that are not only on our walls, but also right under our feet. There is a graceful reminder here, too: sometimes one must get lost in order to be found.

Nearby, Sanaa Gateja’s handmade bead paintings on barkcloth surfaces exude the natural order of the earth with patterned organic designs. Seeds of Joy (2022) and Together (2019) face opposite walls, made from various sources like magazines, old school textbooks, and prior political pamphlets, but compose one clear theme of unity. Another homage at this year’s Carnegie International to the collection of diverse backgrounds that weaves together a unifying tapestry. Gateja relays words of wisdom that inspired the artist and the artwork: “A dot is a dot it is your village a community a voice in the hills.”

In the Hall of Sculpture, works of art from around artists located around the world line the balcony walls. Thu Van Tran’s Colors of Grey (2022) confronts the chemical agents used by the US Military in Vietnam that altered the people of Vietnam and their land across generations. Neither does Pacita Abad shy away from depicting the toil of social and political strife. Her paintings of the Jakarta riots of 1998 are conveyed with her unique global citizen perspective. Similarly, Mohammed Sami’s works of art depict everyday belongings and settings that exude the rupture of war’s disruption on the once ordinary life. Patricia Belli’s role as a leading figure in Nicaragua’s feminist art movement brings a relationship component to the global conversation with an intimate homage to her late mother using scraps of fabric, wire and bone figures to communicate the fragmentation of grief and loss.

From the balcony of the Hall of Sculpture the weight of grief does not deflate the significance of golden balloon structures weighed down to the floor by kettle bells. Banu Cennetoglu’s right? (2022) spells out the first 10 articles of the United Nations General Assembly’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in clusters of giant balloon letters, undoubtedly embodying the fragility of the international human rights framework. Along the walls next to this towering display, are photographs from Hiromi Tsuchia’s Hiroshima Collection which has been a decades-long endeavor to capture the particles and remains left behind after the United States indiscriminately dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city during World War II. Captions at the bottom of some of the photographs reiterate the tragic ending “body not found” over and over.  A watch, gifted from son to father, reads 8:15 while it’s owner died on August 22, 1945. Another copy of this photograph is featured in the Scaife Gallery’s “Refractions” exhibit, among other works that bring together the historical and political struggles of the United States with countries from around the world.

Mr. Crosby’s Carnegie International directorial debut accomplishes the essence of what the Museum’s founder and inaugural director had envisioned for the city of Pittsburgh, being both a local actor and global participant. Kathe and Jim Patrinos Curator of the 58th Carnegie International Curator, Sohrab Mohebbi, executed this mission and vision with pristine purpose, bringing together artists from across the globe while selecting and curating an exhibition with works that also combine culture and communication. Associate Curator, Ryan Inouye and Curatorial assistant, Talia Heiman part in engaging this community makes this Carnegie International all the more worth visiting. Is it morning for you yet? Is an exhibit that meets anyone exactly where they are at. A morning, noon, or evening visit to the Carnegie Museum of Art to see this exhibition will break up the monotony of the day like breaking dawn, there is so much more here to discover.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.