The commercial success of a stage production is entirely relative; the total turnout for a good three-week, 15-performance run at most local professional theater companies wouldn't constitute a decent weekend's work for a big touring Broadway show like Wicked. But on the local level, there are trends that suggest ways newer or smaller companies can get noticed.
This came to mind at the Dec. 13 final performance of Chicks With Dicks, the uproarious, sassily campy 1960s biker-babe movie sendup by Bricolage Productions. The script, by Trista Baldwin, already had a cult following here, after readings at Bricolage. But the full production, which opened in October, extended its original five-weekend run by two weeks, and judging by the closing-night sellout, it might have gone longer still.
The show, directed by Tami Dixon, was big goofy fun: lots of women in tight-fitting and/or minimal clothing, declaiming ludicrous dialogue; a you're-much-smarter-than-this plot; outrageous, cartoonisly mimed violence; and, eventually, mutation. But my guess is that one thing that made the show a big hit on the little company's terms was some canny marketing.
Instead of trying to make it "theater," Bricolage -- basically, Dixon and group co-founder Jeff Carpenter -- made it, literally and figuratively, rock 'n' roll. Shows were booked on Friday and Saturday nights only (i.e., non-school nights) and late, at 10 p.m. And Bricolage actually had a local rock band play a short pre-show set each night in the troupe's Downtown lobby. (I saw the satisfying old-school glam of The Science Fiction Idols.) The carnival atmosphere included cotton candy and a chance to get your picture taken on a vintage police motorcycle, complete with sidecar.
Bricolage's smart tactics reminded me of one of the local trends I've noticed: The past few years have seen many more live-performance groups, and indeed arts venues of all kinds, turning shows into events, even parties. Several years ago, for instance, barebones productions helped launch its move to the top ranks of local indies by having rock bands and beer after performances of the play This is Our Youth. That sort of thing is pretty common these days; even big, established groups like Pittsburgh Public Theater and the Pittsburgh Symphony are hosting mixers and other social events to make themselves more attractive to younger audiences.
The second trend, by the way, is holding one's event at an odd, nontheatrical location. The oldest running practitioner of that tactic is Quantum Theatre, which by design seldom uses traditional theater spaces, building anew for each show (whether in a cemetery, a park or a defunct municipal swimming pool). The old Flux art happenings partook of the idea too, commandeering warehouses and other underused spaces for its shindigs. It raises the curiosity factor, for one thing, and also makes it feel more like an event than just another show.
Bricolage, of course, staged Chicks in its usual retrofitted storefront. But by the looks of the turnout, that was enough.
In the often-thrifty world of local theater, this fascinating show is one of the few I've seen that might benefit from even more minimal staging. Tarell Alvin McCraney's play (running through Sun., Dec. 21) is rich in emotion, but theatrically it's spartan by design: McCraney says he wrote it to be played on a sidewalk, and you can see how it would work. Three actors portray two African-American brothers in rural Lousiana and the just-paroled younger brother's mysterious prison buddy. That the actors speak many of their stage directions aloud (in formal voices distinct from those of their characters) gives the play a ritual, almost mythic quality -- McCraney was inspired by Yoruba culture -- and makes props unnecessary, if not superfluous.
Brothers Size is about many things, including longing, loneliness and the paradoxes of being one's brother's keeper. Often, like the plays of August Wilson (to whom rising young artist McCraney not long ago served as assistant), it's about the pleasures and tensions of men hanging out together -- of talk, even. But it's distinguished from Wilson by (among many things) the small size of its cast and its stylization: Fences without a back-porch set, and Two Trains Running absent Memphis Lee's Hill District diner counter, would lose more than Brothers Size would sacrifice without the incarnation of older sibling Ogun's auto shop we see here, with its battered garage doors and ancient Esso sign.
While the well-designed Brothers set, in City's intimate Lester Hamburg black box, is appropriately gritty, the production is relatively lush: There's a fairly elaborate sound design, for instance, and special lighting effects. I wondered whether director Robert O'Hara could add by subtracting. Ogun already mimes digging with a shovel, so why does he need to lock a real box wrench onto a real metal frame (doubling as a chassis)? The spoken stage directions tell us dream sequences are coming, so what would be lost without the floor lighting and echo effects on the voices?
These are quibbles, of course. With an outstanding cast of Albert Jones, Jared McNeil and Joshua Elijah Reese (the latter one of Pittsburgh's best young actors), O'Hara has staged a wrenching show. But I couldn't help remembering how (in an interview in the weeks before opening night) McCraney harked to that chestnut about theater as shared illusion, and how the more you make audience members imagine, the more your accomplices they become.
I suppose everyone's prone to nostalgia. Even the wonderful oddballs, misfits and other creative types who wandered the South Side back in the mid-'90s, when freaks and artists could still afford to live there. The scene had a mini but cause-driven reunion this past Sunday at the Lava Lounge, to raise medical funds for Olivia Kissel of Zafira belly-dance troupe.
Back in the day, of course, the Lava Lounge itself was still new, but co-owner Scott Kramer's Beehive coffeehouse was ground zero for the subculture. Kramer himself was among those who congregated anew on Sunday, in the immediate wake of the Steelers' last-minute win. The MC was Phat Man Dee, who came of artistic age on the South Side in the '90s. And indeed, along with bellydancing by Zafira's Christine Hamer and Maria Hamer, some fire-eating by Lady J, and a little neo-cabaret singing from PMD herself, we got the latest incarnations of two of her erstwhile compadres in the Bull Seal! Collective, the splendidly strange performance group.
Liz Hammond (a.k.a. Ukulizzy) performed on four strings. (Her partner, Buddy Nutt, who accompanied PMD on his singing saw, was one person who hadn't yet come to town way back when.) "Pain-proof clown" Andrew the Impaled changed from street duds into leather harness and jester's cap to driven a ten-penny nail up his nose, then a screwdriver. Maybe best of all, though, was seeing Big Daddy Bull Seal. The singer, prop-maker and indefatigably mustachioed caper-cutter -- a sort of cross between Rufus T. Firefly and Captain Beefheart -- was back in town for the first time in four years, resplendent in vertically striped knickers, red plaid smoking jacket and bird's nest of bright orange hair. He and his lovely and talented "persistent," Sabrina, were visiting from Santa Fe, N.M., where they're making a living making puppets (some of which get shown in art galleries), and it was great to hear him recite one of his Beat-style poems to her violin accompaniment.
By 9:30, the place was packed, and they must have made some money for Ms. Kissel. Near the evening's close, Phat Man Dee noted how many of the night's performers -- herself included -- had once worked at janitors at either the Beehive, the Lava Lounge, or both. It was an amusing note to end on, with just the right touch of grubbiness.
I always feel like I'm getting away with something when I see a movie at the Maxi-Saver 12, out at Century Square Plaza. Weekday tickets are just 99 cents for movies that debuted as recently as a few months ago. This West Mifflin multiplex is the only real second-run bargain place around, and frankly I wonder how they can make any money, especially with DVDs seeming to hit stores just weeks after the films ends their first runs. But the Maxi-Saver (part of the Carmike Cinema chain) has been doing it for years.
The Dark Knight (itself DVD'd this week) is the second of British director Christopher Nolan's contributions to the Batman series. I first became aware of Nolan a decade ago, with his intelligent, provocative little psychological thriller called Following. These days, he's surely one of the few directors making big-budget superhero movies with high artistic purpose. His first Batman effort, Batman Begins, was broadly about the difference between justice and vengeance; Dark Knight is even more complex, with Batman's battle against the Joker the morally fraught vortex of a society consumed by its own fear and violence.
That society, clearly, is ours -- the futuristic Batmobile aside, the film's sets are unstylized -- and it's portrayed as an armed madhouse: Batman's vigilante crime-fighting has inspired useless imitators, while the real thing's effectiveness merely causes Gotham's gangs to escalate by hiring a pure psychopath, disguised in evil-clown makeup. Rather than targeting Batman (Christian Bale) directly, the Joker (the electrifying Heath Ledger) simply goes terrorist, and vows to keep killing until Batman reveals his true identity. Batman, meanwhile, resorts to torture; an upright DA is driven criminally insane; anarchic terrorists masquerade as cops; and cops are put in harm's way when they're forcibly disguised as terrorists.
Throw in some high-tech surveillance and the post-9/11, War on Terror, Iraq War echoes are everywhere. (Batman even stands on the smoking ruins of a bombed building.) Eventually, less-bad things happen -- Batman again refuses to kill for vengeance, for instance -- but the film, far from the usual upbeat hero walk-off, wraps on dark, unresolved notes. (It's much more Seven Samurai, in that way, than Superman.) Interestingly, the most hopeful plot line in the film revolves around a sort of prisoners'-dilemma scenario devised by the Joker, which ends with two boatloads of civilians -- one of commuters, one of orange-jumpsuited convicts -- refusing to blow up the other to save themselves.
One criticism of the Maxi-Saver: due to either a poor sound system or someone's overenthusiasm with the volume knob, the film's dialogue was often was often as murky as its maze-like narrative. But what do you want for 99 cents?
When I first starting watching modern dance, about 15 years ago, probably the biggest challenge was overcoming my urge to narratize: "Oh, she's pirouetting ... that's means she's, um, confused about her relationship to the guy." After a while, you realize this viewing strategy is kind of dumb, and you look for other ways to appreciate the performance (beyond, of course, the sheer pleasure of watching highly trained bodies in precise and purposeful motion, which on a certain level isn't much different from grooving on a well-executed screen pass in football).
Dance Alloy Theater's recent show (Dec. 5-8) was unusual in that it offered a highly narrative performance along with a more typically expressionistic piece. New York-based choreographer Marina Harris's "Three Camilles" (a world premiere) retold the classic tragic love triangle in pretty linear fashion. The opening sequence, with one Camille (Adrienne Misko) draped in a cylinder of gossamer white fabric and contended for by her suitors (Christopher Bandy as the rich boy, Michael Walsh as the artist) was wonderfully sensual. There was also a good bit of humor -- at least early one -- as when the other two Camilles (Stephanie Dumaine and Maribeth Maxa) joined the first in using their hoop skirts as percussion instruments and mock weaponry. The 40-minute piece was satisfying in its own terms, but knowing where it would go narratively -- where it had to go --took some of the sense of discovery out of watching it.
But maybe that reaction only means I've grown conditioned to more nonlinear stuff like the second part of the program, "Schakt" (Swedish for "shaft"). The 1983 work is one of Alloy artistic and executive director Beth Corning's touchstones; she knew its choreographer, the late Per Jonsson, and the Alloy performed the piece previously during her tenure. (Corning, in fact, says her troupe is the only North American theater company with the rights to "Schakt," which was staged by Per Sacklén.)
It's a striking piece indeed, and literally: It opens with three dancers, each set in his or her own shaft of light, wielding a long-handled mallet to strike a huge, vertically suspended and artfully oxidized rectangle of steel sheeting. Accompanied by dire, bass-and-drone-heavy music, the dancers (Bandy, Maxa and Walsh) commence three parallel -- but often overlapping -- psychodramas of fear and trembling, their bodies evoking isolation, dread, debilitation. Aside from knowing it would have a beginning, middle and end, there was no telling where "Schakt" would go from moment to moment, and it was all the more potent for it.
Every good work of art is about more than one thing, but Albee's infamous The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is harder to get a bead on than most. The very premise is disorienting: This is a play, which debuted in 2002, about a man who falls in love with livestock, and it's not a farce. It is, however, darkly, darkly funny. And one way I've been thinking about it since seeing it this past weekend disturbs me particularly: The Goat explores how far a man will go to preserve the sense that he is Innocent.
By "innocent," I don't mean "not guilty." Albee's protagonist, a successful and happily married architect named Martin, technically admits his four-legged infidelity in scene one, and though he's keen to keep it a secret from his wife, Stevie, he never denies it. The virtuosic heart of the play -- it must consume a full third of the 110 intermissionless minutes -- is Martin's confrontation with Stevie after the truth is revealed.
Nobody writes arguments like the creator of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and this one, between two exceptionally smart characters played by two exceptional actors, rivets. ("I wish you were stupid," says Stevie at one point, and Martin returns the heart-crushing compliment.) Stephanie Mayer Staley's set -- the cinderblock-wall and the family's push-button lighting grid surrounding the artworks, the Lucite architect's models -- is a bunker full of fragility. Robin Walsh's turn as Stevie, alight with irony and betrayal, is at times nearly too painful to watch.
But it's Martin, beautifully played by Tony Bingham, who haunts me most. He is Albee's Good Liberal, for all the right things: tolerance (though struggling with his son's homosexuality); the future (he's designing a "City of Tomorrow," or some such). Though he's always correcting people's language ("the goat whom you've been fucking"), he is nothing if not empathetic. One sequence of his argument with Stevie involves Martin's story about a bestiality therapy group he attended, the point of which story is to explain away people's intercourse with pigs (the man had done it since he was a farmboy) and geese (the man was very ugly) and German Shepherds (the woman had been repeatedly raped as a child).
When I interviewd director Rodger D. Henderson for a preview piece on the show, he emphasized the theme of whether our lives are about what we do, or what's it's thought that we do. It's a significant question in the play, but I'm more struck by Albee's emphasis on it being Martin's 50th birthday; his forgetfulness; his childlike wonder in relating how he felt when he was with the goat; and even his repeated insistence that never once before, in more than two decades of marriage, had he even considered being unfaithful to Stevie. Wide-eyed and distracted, as Bingham plays him, he seems to argue that because his heart intended no malice -- was innocent -- he couldn't commit any. And that having an affair with a goat was right (or at least not wrong) because it felt right.
OK, Albee seems to be asking -- of his characters, himself, his audience -- what's not all right with you? What can't you justify to yourselves?
(The Goat continues at the Rep through Sun., Dec. 14.)
Is there a recreational way to teach how ecosystems work? The destructive and wasteful "economies" we're always propping up with bail-outs and interest-rate cuts are man-made, but it's still air, water, soil and sunlight, and the plants and animals they support, that ultimately keep us alive. Our failure to understand natural systems is a kind of cultural illness, but zoos might be a good venue for applying a remedy.
In my first visit there in a couple years, on Thanksgiving weekend, I petted a ray (the fish, dog-like, seemed to enjoy it) and got my first glimpse of seadragons -- fantastic sea-horse relatives that resemble elegantly floating sprigs of seaweed. And I felt my inevitable ambivalence about cooping close human relatives like orangs and gorillas in boxes. But mostly, I wondered how the zoo might help visitors understand how nature uses all its resources, recycling endlessly to keep things in balance.
Of course, this is inherently difficult for zoos: Animals who mixed there as in the wild would dampen revenue by eating each other, for one thing. And while the synthetic flooring, "foliage" and swimming pools that frame most exhibits are easy to maintain, they give scant sense of how, for instance, a forest processes rainwater.
Granted, displays like the one at the tiger exhibit have long noted how habitat destruction threatens animals with extinction. And there's an old monkey-house display that warns of the consequences of bulldozing rainforests for ranches and farms (even though, when I visited, the display's digital lost-acreage ticker -- perhaps exhausted from the effort -- had stopped counting.)
Some newer displays showed more promise. For instance, the aquarium, in collaboration with groups like The Seahorse Project, bore a detailed sign about global overfishing of the oceans and -- rather remarkably -- basically told people not to eat most shrimp (it's harvested unsustainably) and to lobby government for marine parks, to preserve habitat. Meanwhile, the updated polar bear exhibit offered pamphlets pushing ocean-friendly fish consumption; a sign explaining how petrochemicals like PCBs enter the food web and accumulate in predators like polar bears ... and people; and displays about how emissions from our fossil-fuel consumption is dooming polar bears through climate change.
There's a lot more to be done, and schools, of course, must do the lion's share. But in some ways, zoos, as places of fun, can probably instruct more effectively. If delightful sights -- baby elephants wrasslin' each other; penguins torpedoing through the water in the perpetual dark of a simulated Antarctic winter -- can make us empathize with individual species, they ought to be an inroad for teaching about the whole web of life, too. Even today, and even when they emphasize saving species and habitats, zoos seldom say why those things are more than exercises in sentiment, or asthetics. Too seldom do they tell us that the tigers, polar bears and seahorses are canaries in the coal mine -- and that we live in the same mine.