On one level, the six principal characters of David Mamet's modern classic are ciphers. They seldom discuss anything but their jobs selling fraudulent real estate. The only one who refers to a wife -- to any sort of domestic life -- is Lingk, the sucker for one of the salesmen's confidence games. Indeed, the only one on whom Mamet bestows any real past is the struggling veteran, Shelly Levene -- and Levene narrates that past entirely in terms of his sales conquests.
There is one exception, however, and it's an intriguing window into not only this fine barebones production, but also the depths Mamet subtly provides (or for which he perhaps simply leaves opportunities for actors to provide).
Again it involves Levene, who's played by Pittsburgh stage legend Bingo O'Malley, whom I profiled for CP a couple weeks ago: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A71500.
The exception is that three times, Levene mentions his daughter. (My article incorrectly says twice.) The mentions are all very brief; two of them, in fact, are nothing more than an abortive "my daughter ..."
In an interview before the show opened, O'Malley cited Levene's references to his daughter as one of Mamet's peepholes into character -- one reason O'Malley was interested enough to take the role twice. (The first time was back in the 1980s, for City Theatre.) O'Malley says that for him, Levene's mentions of his daughter prompts a curiosity about the man that yields a different interpretation each time.
Audiences will note that Levene is a con artist, and that he refers to his daughter only when he needs something. The first time is in the play's first scene, where he pleads for leads from the unyielding office manager.
So does Levene even have a daughter? I asked O'Malley, and he wouldn't say what he thinks. He was concerned that his answer would cost the show's audience too much intrigue.
But here's my interpretation, based on seeing O'Malley's powerful performance last Friday.
The first time Levene mentioned his daughter, I was sure it was a ruse. But the play's arc is Levene's -- from desperation to seeming triumph to final undoing -- and my impression changed accordingly. By the third mention, I was not only sure that there was a daughter ... but also that she'd died.
How so? This is nowhere in the script. But O'Malley's line reading suggested that while Levene still mentions the daughter as a ploy, he is in genuine grief over her death.
It's just a guess. I don't know what Mamet thinks. And I still don't know what O'Malley thinks -- though I do know that his wordless depiction of Levene's final dissolution is perhaps the most potent acting I've seen on a local stage this year.
This week is your last chance to see for yourself. Glengarry continues at the New Hazlett Theater tonight through Sun., Nov. 29, not counting Thanksgiving (www.barebonesproductions.com).
The fest closed out in high style Saturday night with a Regent Square Theater screening of this silent classic, accompanied by an original score performed live by Boston's Alloy Orchestra.
Cinephiles couldn't have asked for more: a sold-out showing, with a pristine 35 mm print of a film that hasn't been screened publicly around here for at least a decade. And the Alloy's propulsive and witty accompaniment was the perfect match for Dziga Vertov's still-astonishing 1929 avant-garde documentary about a day in the life of Moscow.
The film's quick cutting and masterful use of devices from slow motion (beautifully used to depict athletes) to multiple superimpositions and stop-motion animation were surprising enough. But who would have thought a film from Stalinist Russia would have depicted women on a beach, naked from the waist up and photographed frontally, smearing themselves with mud (presumably for cosmetic reasons)? Or a split-second view of a newborn baby, umbilical cord and all, in front of the spread-eagled woman he'd just emerged from?
Perhaps most notable is the title device, the cameraman who's seen trotting through many of the film's scenes, tripod over shoulder. (And he, like Vertov, is indeed male, accounting for the high count of demi-cheesecake shots on that beach.) The cameraman's presence is a wonderfully postmodern device, a constant reminder that we're watching a film, and of what it takes to make one.
Better still in this regard are the scenes depicting strips of exposed film itself, with close-ups on individual frames -- a laughing child, say -- that then "come to life," now taking up the whole screen. (The editor whom we see in these scenes is likely Elizaveta Svilova, Vertov's wife and frequent collaborator, and widely regarded as a co-author of this film.)
Man With A Movie Camera's approach was not entirely new. For instance, the film is very much in the mold of the "city symphony" portraits of other bustling metropoli that were in vogue at the time. And Buster Keaton, for example, had experimented with self-reflexive cinema-themed narratives in such earlier films as Sherlock, Jr.
Still, Vertov's film is that rare silent classic which dates hardly at all. Surely that's largely due to the film's sense of urgency. A friend I saw it with interpreted Man With A Movie Camera as a challenge to other artists to rise to the times.
Finally, the screening felt like a new high for Pittsburgh's decade-long romance with silent films with live musical accompaniment. Previous highlights have included everything from period scores to Chaplin and Harold Lloyd shorts to the Mongolian throat-singing group Yat Kha accompanying another Soviet classic, Storm Over Asia, at the Carnegie Lecture Hall. But the three-man Alloy Orchestra, whom festival organizer Pittsburgh Filmmakers hosts most every year, is the most prolific practioner hereabouts and arguably the best, showing what you can do with little more than percussion and keyboards.
Audiences almost always have questions when Squonk Opera gives a performance. But only rarely do you get to ask the questions directly, when the five-person troupe is still on stage.
That's what happened at the Kelly-Strayhorn theater this weekend, as Pittsburgh's veteran muscial phantasmagorians gave a free preview performance of Mayhem and Majesty. The work is set to debut next spring, and Squonk is still working up new material and seeking a workable structure. The performance was broken up into three short acts, during which the Squonkers unleashed their energies ... and then broke for discussion.
Unlike some of their more recent previous efforts -- including 2008's Astro-Rama -- Mayhem and Majesty will not have any explicit narrative arc. Artistic co-director Steve O'Hearn told the audience that scrapping the narrative was about "freeing up ourselves to be ourselves."
But the signatures of a Squonk work remain unchanged: wry humor, striking visuals, inventive props, and of course the music -- which runs the gamut from haunting lullaby to almost-overwhelming cacophony. In fact, the work comes out swinging from the outset, beginning with a full-throated roar. O'Hearn later noted that Squonk usually starts more quietly, to draw audiences in -- and then polled audience members to see if they liked the new approach.
Considering this is a work in progress, the musicianship was tight: Keyboardist (and co-director) Jackie Dempsey had a driving duet with percussionist Kevin Kornicki that felt like a Russian folk dance on meth; O'Hearn and guitarist David Wallace both performed howling solos lushly backed up by the rest of the band.
And while the set was sparser than in previous full-blown productions, there was still plenty to look at. Among the highlights: motorized umbrellas opening and shutting like flowers, and vocalist Autumn Ayers surrounded by microphones that circled her like fireflies. Meanwhile, a bit of shadow-play -- silhouettes of Ayers using a gramophone horn with O'Hearn playing a clarinet behind her -- was so captivating that an audience member suggested using it in Squonk merchandise.
"I would wear that T-shirt," the Squonkers were told.
More than 100 people attended the Saturday night performance, and they were enthusiastic about the new work, although a spirited discussion about the lyrics ensued.
Autumn Ayers' voice is perhaps the one instrument audience members remember most: It's one thing to see instruments navigate the varied terrain of a Squonk Opera performance, but it's hard to imagine so much range and power packed into one human frame. Yet audience members noted that the lyrics were almost impossible to hear, lost as they often were in the maelstrom unfolding on stage.
Squonkers argued that the point is that Ayers' voice is an instrument: that she backs the rest of the band as much as the other way around. Besides, they pointed out, hearing the lyrics might not help that much: Ayers gave a spoken-word performance of one song to illustrate that the lyrics fall somewhere between beat poetry and scat-singing. (In another song, the only lyrics I could make out involved repeated use of the texting acronyms LMAO and LOL.)
Squonk Opera, in other words, doesn't feel particularly obliged to "make sense." And if you can let go of the idea that they should, you'll probably have a good time.
In fact, the visuals which pleased the audience -- a giant face whose features were each projected on separate screens was a favorite -- also confounded it. One young enthusiast wanted to know "what possessed you" to project video footage of squirming microorganisms during one set.
"I just like the way mosquito larvae move," lead video designer Buzz Miller explained."Who doesn't?" O'Hearn asked.
A couple weeks back there arrived in the mail with a thump Arts America, a 540-page tome offering a guide to the arts in 20 American cities. Among them is Pittsburgh.
"Steeltown, U.S.A" (as the book calls us) didn't make the editors' cut of "major" destinations (New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.). But we do show up among 15 secondary towns, right there with Atlanta and Boston and Philadelphia.
Yeah, NYC gets 94 pages of entries and we get 12. But so do Houston and Baltimore. And Minneapolis/St. Paul only gets 16 ... but who's counting, anyway?
Indeed, books like this one, published by Las Vegas-based Huntington Press, always feel like occasions to see how your town stacks up. And of course it's gratifying to be included in what appears to be a labor of love for executive editor Jeffrey Compton (a businessman and arts afficionado with ties to Cleveland) and his crew of contributors. Their goal is to connect arts patrons to arts providers, especially on the road.
That said, few of the 16 picks representing Pittsburgh will be news to anyone who lives here: The Carnegie Museum of Art, The Warhol, the Public Theater, Symphony, Opera and Ballet eat up much of the space.
Less-canonical choices tend toward regional theater (City Theatre) and the family-friendly (Civic Light Opera, Pittsburgh Musical Theater).
Others on the roster: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, Mendelssohn Choir, Pittsburgh Jazz Society, MCG Jazz, and the Harris and Regent Square Theaters.
Meanwhile, some of the choices for including explanatory editors' notes are puzzling: Why annotate the Symphony and not explicate The Pittsburgh Camerata, whose function (professional chamber choir) even many Pittsburghers might be hard pressed to identify?
And annotaters should probably refrain from characterizing companies with productions from a decade ago, as they do in at least one case here.
One can rightly lament the general absence in Arts America's Pittsburgh chapter of smaller, more out-of-the-way venues and theater companies. (No Mattress Factory? No Quantum Theatre?) And what about Pittsburgh's modern-dance scene, which gets completely stuffed. (No Pittsburgh Dance Council, Dance Alloy Theatre or Attack Theatre? Geez.)
On the other hand, the guide expressly intends to cover "art museums [not galleries], theater, classical music, opera, jazz, dance, film and summer festivals." If you had only 16 entries to work with in those categories, who wouldn't include the CMOA, the Warhol, the PSO, the PBT, the Public Theatre, MCG Jazz and the Regent Square, at least?
The Arts America Web site is www.go-artsamerica.com.
It's no less fun than remarkable to see an established performance troupe that seems to get better almost every time out. But that's what it feels like is happening with Attack Theatre.
The group's latest combines the sophistication they've taught audiences to expect with a good deal of accessibility and humor. And it reaffirms Attack's position as surely the Pittsburgh performance group most committed to incorporating live music into its shows.
Last weekend's performances were notable for being the first in Attack's new space, in the Pittsburgh Opera's headquarters, in the Strip. The actual studio is on the second floor; the first-floor performance space (which the Opera has been renting out for shows and events) is splendid, big and high-ceilinged.
The work was set by Attack co-founders Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza on a company featuring them, Liz Chang, Dane Toney and Ashley Williams, with live original music performed by Dave Eggar, Charles Palmer and Tom Pirozzi.
Act one suggested a series of encounters, performed by various combinations of dancers, typically intense and affecting. Especially memorable was a trio featuring Kope, Toney and Williams, all in close, bodies folding over each other, with a surprising sequence of erotic pairings. The act was bracketed by a couple nice theatrical touches -- the skateboarder who weaved among the dancers to start things off, and the dancers' exit, through the doors they flung open, wordlessly inviting the audience back to the lobby while themselves disappearing into the dressing rooms beyond.
Act two was even more theatrical -- the first sign being that during intermission, all the chairs had been carried from the risers and lined up on the floor so we could watch the dancers turn the risers into the stage. Following a dream-narrative outline leavened with comedy, the troupe first cleverly mimicked an audience, then employed a series of devices including barred wooden dividers, a chair that rose into the rafters, and a good deal of nudity (discreetly tempered with the pages of One of America's Great Newspapers).
Just a bit more on the music. Eggars is an acclaimed cellist and pianist who's played solo at Carnegie Hall (the New York one) and the Kennedy Center, and performed and recorded with The Who, Wynton Marsalis, Evanescence and Yo-Yo Ma, to name a few. He's now done several shows with Attack (the first I recall is 2005's Games of Steel), composing original music for all of them, from drivingly artful rock to yearning cello solos.
In Incident[s], he also sings while fronting the combo of bassist Pirozzi and wizardly percussionist Palmer (who doubled as the skateboarder). Incorporating the Opera space's staircase, catwalk and risers, the musicians and their instruments dramatically expanded the possibilities for striking stage pictures. And Eggar even pitched in as comic relief, drawing his bow across the strings of the world's smallest cello, just for you.
Incident[s] in the Strip continues at 8 p.m. nightly Tue., Nov. 17., Fri., Nov. 20, and Sat., Nov. 21; 412-281-3305 or www.attacktheatre.com
You oughtn't need a reason beyond Leonard Berstein's stunningly crafty and melodic score to see this stage musical based on Voltaire's classic.
The witty lyrics, by poet Richard Wilbur and others (including Stephen Sondheim) don't hurt, of course, nor does director Karla Boos' cheeky deployment of the venue, a former Bloomfield auto-body shop, for all sorts of sight gags. (A big laugh last Friday went to the toy-car-styled shopping cart in which Cunegonde, played by Nicole Kaplan, was pushed about the stage while singing the show-stopper "Glitter and Be Gay.")
And let's put in a word for the fine cast -- and for a theater company that cares enough about this broadly comic operetta's music to have it played live, in this case by a chamber orchestra led by music director Andres Cladera.
The show is good fun indeed. But all its scathingly playful piss-takes on religion, philosophy, warfare and commerce and the people who practice them made me ponder the connections between farce and satire.
Normally we assume the former to be devoid of content -- "just for laughs" -- while the other is busy getting to the root of society's ills.
But Candide is farce as satire, or vice versa, and I think where the two dovetail is in their ascription to humanity of our tendency to follow our basest instincts. Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss is an object of derision, in other words, not only because of his moony "best of all possible worlds" philosophy, nor because of his desire to hump the servant girl, but because he pretends the former justifies the latter.
Innocents Candide and Cunegonde, meanwhile, believe in their own coupling that they adhere to Panglossian dictums, when in fact they're merely following the impulses of young people everywhere. And the rest of the comedy is occasioned by soldiers dragooning the hapless Candide, or raping the hapless Cunegonde; various proper clergymen having their way with Cunegonde; and pretty much everyone else (except for our young protagonists and the boringly content denizens of El Dorado) abusing their power at every turn to satisfy lust, greed or, better still, both.
In farce, the lecher pursuing his lechery is funny; in satire, he's contempible. In Candide, at once broadly comic and witheringly satirical, he's both.
Also, a note on the ending. The musical's prescription for a happy life -- that one work, or "tend one's garden" -- strikes some as out of tune in part because it is sincere (while the rest of the show is broadly ironic) and in part because it is a prescription (whereas the rest of the show is content to tunefully lampoon and caricature folly).
If that conclusion feels at all rocky, we can blame its originator, Voltaire. Alternately, it might simply prove that the entertainment possibilities of pretended virtue outstrip those of the real thing.
Candide continues through Sun., Nov. 22. www.quantumtheatre.com
It's a play about a video game about killing zombies, but don't be fooled. Bricolage's production of Jennifer Haley's inventive script is as striking a show as I've seen this year.
One key to its success is a risky choice by director Matt M. Morrow and the Bricolage cast and crew: Most of the dialogue, and most of the action, are rendered in highly stylized terms. From Scene 1 on, all the actors (a cast of four and a off-stage voice) speak in the halting, nearly affectless tones of video-game characters. Their gestures are similarly confined to a limited range. And to top it off, the actors generally face not each other, but offstage somewhere -- mostly toward the audience.
In theater, you can get away with a lot of things you can't on film, where photo-realism is requisite even if you're depicting Mordor or something. Theatrical sets, by contrast, are often abstractions, like Stephanie Mayer-Staley's genius stage design for this show falls. (The plastic walls, for example, have human-silhouette cutouts from which the actors emerge, like onscreen avatars; the pièce de résistance is a teen-ager's complete bedroom that pops from the stage floor.)
But theater audiences are still accustomed to realism from their actors. So having the cast portray what seem to be crude cartoon versions of disaffected suburban youth and the clueless parents around them might alienate ticket-buyers right off.
Yet this cast trusts Haley's words enough to unify the script's humanistic perspective and the production style's satirical edge. Bjorn Ahlstedt and Jacqui Farkas play, respectively, the "son type" and the "daughter type," while Tony Bingham and Tami Dixon excel as the "father" and "mother" types. (The prerecorded offstage voice, which delivers gaming clues, belongs to Randy Kovitz.)
This show works so well not in spite of the stylization, but because of it. In almost Brechtian fashion, the acting style lets us see these kids and parents as beings trapped in prefab social roles -- the lecturer, the sulker -- unable to see any way out. In the odd scene where a "real" kid talks to a "fake" parent, the domestic and generational alienation Haley is depicting is brought to a fine point. It's as if the kid who we assume is playing the game is instinctively satirizing his own parent.
Thus are the lines between the play's reality and its fantasy compellingly blurred, which is one of Haley's cautionary themes. Another highlight is the scene -- sparklingly played by Dixon and Ahlstedt for both humor and terror -- where a "real" mom finds herself trapped in the game with her son's friend's oversized digital avatar.
The play's final scene takes place in that fabulous pop-up bedroom. Ironically enough, it's the production's only realistic set. And it's just here that the acting style goes fully "straight" to literally bring home the dangers not of video games, per se, but of living with people who've become strangers.
(Neighborhood 3 continues Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 28; 412-381-6999 or www.webbricolage.org)
Sunday was a good day to catch up with some of the temporary exhibits. Digital to Daguerreotype: Photographs of People is one you should try to see. (It closes Jan. 31.). CP ran Robert Isenberg's consideration of the show back in August (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A66865), but it's worth re-emphasizing that this historical survey consisting of dozens of images is also a fine tribute to generations of Pittsburgh shooters.
And I don't just mean the usual local suspects — though W. Eugene Smith and Teenie Harris are well-represented — or Pittsburgh folks who discovered fame elsewhere (of which you get a double dose with Duane Michael's canny portrait of Andy Warhol and his ma).
There are also plenty of living, breathing contemporary locals in the mix. Charlee Brodsky contributes a couple circa-1990 street shots of life in Homestead. John Fobes has a charming diptych of antique-styled portraits of prominent locals Duane Reider (himself a photographer) and Graham Shearing (art critic), each in similarly antique costumes.
From Karen Kaighin, two dramatic shots from the Squirrel Hill slag heap, captured with a pinhole camera and printed with hand-painted emulsion on textured Stonehenge paper. Sue Abramson contributes an evocative Downtown streetscape; two of Dylan Vitone's distinctive panoramas depict, respectively, kids frolicking around a Bloomfield fire hydrant and primped and gowned teen-age girls at the Medallion Ball.
CP staffer Heather Mull is represented, too, with a shot of artist Kara Walker preparing some work for the Carnegie's own Biennial. And there's an image each by Melissa Farlow and Randy Olson, the globe-traveling couple whose spectacular photojournalism is currently showcased at the Silver Eye Center for Photography.
Still, for me the single most memorable image might be from the away team: Yasumasa Morimura's haunting self-portrait as Frida Kahlo.
I also checked ou the 99th Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annual, on its closing day. While CP didn't manage to review this latest iteration of this venerable show, I want to mention a few of the pieces.
Matt Sestak's small black-and-white photograph "After Hours," an unpeopled shot of a stairwell landing, somehow perfectly captured the spirit of its title. Dietrich Wegner's color photograph "Cumulous Brand, Sebastien in the Park" is a concise comment on the times: an infant boy, naked but plastered in corporate logos. Lynn Deppen's "Farm on a Cliff" is a striking acrylic.
But my favorite was probably a large-scale, untitled painting by Steve Emmett. It depicted a young boy, looking perplexed as he stands over a bearded young man sprawled on the ground before him. (Asleep? Passed out?) The earthy palette was complemented by childlike doodles around the painting's margins, intriguing with suggestions of inner turmoil.
Emmett died in 2008. His was one of several posthumous contributions in the show organized by the regional artists' group.
Before the plays even started this past Saturday, two things jumped out about "The F-10 Play Summit," the sixth annual iteration of this locally produced festival of 10-minute plays. Both had to do with the audience at Downtown's Future Tenant Gallery.
One, it was a sell-out crowd, with more than 100 folks filling the storefront's seats, despite performances of the same program both nights preceding. Two, the crowd was on the whole much younger than Pittsburgh theater audiences in general, with lots of folks in their 20s.
Many, doubtless, were there to see plays by their friends, or to watch their friends among the (similarly youthful) actors. But if the idea to stage mini-plays was meant partly to draw audiences who wouldn't normally see theater, this outfit's done its job. And it probably doesn't hurt that: (1) your ticket gets you free beer and (2) the whole show is under an hour.
As is usually the case with festivals of one-acts, the plays themselves were a mixed bag. Some were disappointing (especially after FT6 producer Stacy Vespaziani informed us that the festival received 120 submissions, of which this weekend's shows were five of the ten chosen).
Philip Real's "The Unknown Artist," despite energetic performances by Claire Fraley and Valentina Benrexi, was a labored comedy about a frustrated artist kidnapping a critic. John C. Davenport's "Public Transportation" aimed for wacky farce, but its female instigator came off merely as deranged. And Carol Mullen's "Turning Trixie" (despite another game turn by Fraley) proved that it's really difficult to create comedy out of prostitution.
On the upside was Steven Korbar's "Let Go," featuring Christopher Spare and Rich Venezia as two former associates at a bar, one of whom is nursing a grudge over an unspecified wrong. The lack of detail adds to the intrigue: Were they lovers? Was it a bad business deal? Director Kyle Bostian and the actors wrung the maximum drama out of this well-shaped work.
Most memorable, however, was Blaise Miller's "30 Year Old Dora," a deliciously ill little number imaginging a certain cartoon explorer's dissolute adult years. Caitlin Northup's Dora is still wide-eyed, chirpy and full of her accustomed catch phrases — but the adventure's given way to self-medication. The play's set on a blind date, with director Fred Betzner as the waiter and Brad Stephenson as the straight man for Northup ... and Josh Aronoff as Boots, the very bitter monkey.
The festival continues with five fresh one-acts at 8 p.m. nightly Thu., Nov. 12-Sun., Nov. 14, with a 3 p.m. Saturday matinee (www.futuretenant.org).
Monster stories tend toward the metaphorically rich. See yesterday's post on the zombie play The Revenants, for instance; any vampire story; and, maybe best of all, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which I've been reading.
But one useful take on playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Stevenson's 1883 classic (which runs through Sun., Nov. 8) is that it's about drug addiction.
On one level, that's pretty obvious. Jekyll can't stop taking the potion that Hydes him. He experiences the transformations as blackouts; denies he's an addict; and says that fixing things is just a matter of finding the proper balance of chemicals.
But Hatcher's theatrical approach, as realized here by director Tracy Brigden, adds intriguing twists. Jekyll (played by David Whalen) never "becomes" Hyde; he's simply replaced on stage by him. Four other actors play variations on Hyde, though the most prevalent is Kelly Boulware's. At times, it seems the only actor on stage who isn't playing Hyde is Whalen.
Meanwhile, Hatcher's script works to find the admirable and despicable in both Doctor and Mister. At an anatomy lecture, Jekyll is the voice of science against the pseudoscience of another doctor's self-satisfied conjectures, while Hyde's running about carving up prostitutes. Yet it's Jekyll who literally can't face himself, while Hyde is all about confronting his dark side.
That's the framework for the drug read. Jekyll got into his mess because he wanted a chemical solution to humanity's baser instincts -- which suggests that Hatcher sees prescription psychiatric pharmaceuticals as problematic, too. (Jekyll also insists on "a distinction between the brain and the mind.")
Jekyll's problem is truly that he doesn't want to deal with whatever darker urges pulse inside him. He'd prefer to deaden them with his superego, or the mores of Victorian England. ("The will is all one needs," he says. "Sin is nothing but weakness.") Failing that, he tries chemistry. When that doesn't work, he hires a detective to follow Hyde. Then he calls the cops ("The whole of English law enforcement will be looking for you.")
It's all to save himself, Hatcher makes clear, from the parts of him he won't admit to. Kind of his own little personal war on drugs.