Friday, February 26, 2010

Rebecca Skloot at Creative Nonfiction Relaunch

Posted By on Fri, Feb 26, 2010 at 5:46 PM

Further proof that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks merits both its plaudits and its sales came Wednesday night, when author Rebecca Skloot spoke and read an excerpt at the packed relaunch party for the periodical Creative Nonfiction.

The book tells how some tissue samples taken from a poor Baltimore woman who died a half-century ago became a medical sub-industry -- and how her family suffers to this day for lack of medical care. It's a best-seller, with glowing reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere.

Skloot is on a self-organized book tour that's busy enough that she noted, before her short reading at Shadyside's Alto Lounge, "I've been talking nonstop for the past two weeks."

The book (from Crown Publishing) has some Pittsburgh connections. One is Skloot herself, who earned a graduate degree in Pitt's creative-writing program. There she was a student of Creative Nonfiction founder and editor Lee Gutkind. In fact, she said, it was 12 years ago, in the Starbucks right next door to Alto, that Skloot first asked Gutkind whether Lacks' story had the makings of a book.

Gutkind said it did, and now it's all come full circle, with an excerpt printed in the spring 2010 CN, which has been handsomely redesigned from a journal into a magazine.

More about that in an upcoming CP. Back to Alto, a modestly sized loft lounge where a couple hundred people raptly heard Skloot read. She set up the excerpt by reminding us that Lack's cells, dubbed the HeLa line, were the first to be cloned, and the first to have their genes mapped, among other distinctions.

Lacks herself was long dead by then, the victim of cervical cancer. But the cells that were taken without her or her family's knowledge proved perfect for research: Labs today grow three trillion of them a week. They were also the first cells commercially sold. "If our mother was so important to medicine, why can't we go to the doctor?" asked one of her children.

An excellent question. Also chilling was some material in the few pages Skloot read, anecdotes I hadn't heard in, say, Kathy M. Newman's review of the book last week in CP (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A75325).

One such story concerned the phone call Lacks' husband got years after she'd died, telling him what was going on with his wife's cells. Only he didn't know what a "cell" like that was, and so believed he was being told his wife was being held secretly in some medical prison somewhere so doctors could experiment on her. Cripes.

Then there was Lacks' daughter Deborah's belief that her mother couldn't rest in peace because she -- her cells -- were still being troubled on earth. There was also the moment that Deborah, visiting a lab, held the frozen vials containing the cells of the woman she hadn't seen in decades. "You're famous," Deborah Lacks told the vials, "only nobody knows it."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Buried Child

Posted By on Fri, Feb 19, 2010 at 5:32 PM

All unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, and American theater has fonr its best to depict as many of them as possible. As Robert Isenberg notes in this week's CP review (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A75327) of this Point Park REP production, Sam Shepard's 1979 Pulitzer-winner is one in a long line of such plays. (Many of them, of course, are by Shepard himself.)

But we keep getting such plays not just because family strife makes good theater. We keep getting them, and watching them, because it's still true that dysfunctional families don't just keep secrets from each other. They also share fictions about who each family member is, how to to interpret the past, and even what that past factually was. Plays like Buried Child are about chipping away at that shared mythology, and what happens when it crashes down (or doesn't). This Shepard work merely does it with more Gothic brio than most.

The REP's Buried Child ropes you in with Michael Thomas Essad's set, an epically rat-chewed incarnation of a decrepit Illinois farmhouse. Half the characters are mad (but not necessarily crazy), and most are damaged in some significant way. And the true dramatic catalyst isn't even Vince, the son (and grandson) who returns unannounced to reclaim his dubious roots. It's his girlfriend, Shelly, who's even more of an outsider than he, and thus free to question and ultimately fray the slender threads of falsehood that are the only things holding together a family that really shouldn't be held together any more.

The show is well-acted by a cast of seven that includes Broadway veteran Stephen Mendillo as Dodge, the curmudgeonly alcoholic patriarch, and smartly directed by John Shepard. I particularly tuned to one visual motif, one that at different points in the action had several different characters cradling in their arms items that had at those moments become important to them.

Sometimes this was quirkily comical, as when Shelly (Kiley Caughey) embraces a large bunch of muddy carrots she's volunteered to slice. As with other iterations of the gesture, she simultaneously goes so far as to protectively turn her back on every other character on stage. It's a childlike gesture, and one that foreshadows the play's eerie and wordless climax. And its suggestion of small bundles of comfort literally held dear poetically gets to the heart of Shepard's depiction of how the things we cling to for survival can also be the very things that ultimately destroy us.

Buried Child concludes with five more performances today through Sun., Feb. 21.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"Company B" at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Posted By on Mon, Feb 15, 2010 at 5:14 PM

It would be easy to market renowned choreographer Paul Taylor's 1991 work as a nostalgia piece. "Company B" is, after all, a high-energy, swing-inflected tour de force, with dancers costumed to suggest the 1940s, and moving entirely to songs by the Andrews Sisters.

Indeed, a nostalgia piece is what Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's ads for the show suggested. The most prominent billboard image featured a sassy, full-skirted young woman surrounded by three smitten lads.

So even audiences who knew that references to World War II figured into the show might have been excused a little cognitive dissonance: The soundtrack's jumping brass and Taylor's jiving footwork are the platter for a jarring and fairly unambiguous antiwar message.

On one level, Taylor straightforwardly constrasts homefront gaiety with the solemnity of young men going into battle. Behind the whirling of dancers Erin Halloran and Luca Sbrizzi to "Pennsylvania Polka," the soldiers appeared upstage as silhouettes against a gray screen -- marching; shouldering arms; taking a sniper's position.

Some of the 10 numbers didn't reference war at all. But the sprightly "Rum and Coca-Cola" was staged as a vivacious vignette of Yankee servicemen orbiting a Caribbean prostitute. "There Will Never Be Another You" was danced as a last dance with a partner lost to battle.

Most striking, even subversive, was Taylor's take on "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)," surely the show's best-known tune. Soloist Christopher Budzynski was all waggles and leaps, salutes and fanfare -- right up until the song's final note, which became a rifle shot that dropped him dead at the lip of the stage. Blackout. Next tune.

Indeed, the 45-minute dance smoothly and frequently incorporated the sight of young men dropping suddenly in heaps to the stage floor. It all gave a new connotation to the slashes of bright red that were the dancers' belts and hair ribbons, accenting otherwise muted costumes.

"Company B," which debuted the year of Gulf War I, has always been recognized as antiwar. But we're now in the era of perpetual war overseas and (if the ever-glossier TV ads are to be believed) perpetual amusement at home. Perhaps now more than ever, this show's canny schizophrenia leaves behind audience members hungry for a little Greatest Generation comfort food.

"That was cute," said one of the young women seated behind me, at intermission. (Unlike Taylor, who's 79, she probably wasn't old enough to remember Gulf I, let alone WWII.)

PBT itself seemed a little unsure how to pitch "Company B." In his program notes, for instance, artistic director Terrence S. Orr called the show "a romp thorugh the 40s that includes a look at how many ways the devastation of war takes its tolls."

While "romps" are, typically, devoid of devastation, it's undeniable that many of the dancers in "Company B" romp. And in fact, a New York Times review of a 1995 performance of the work, staged by Taylor's own Paul Taylor Dance Company, noted that the show was greeted by "laughter and cheers."

"Company B" was part of the PBT's Feb. 12-14 program, which also included Dwight Roden's stunning "Ave Maria Pas de Deux," Marius Petipa's "Don Quixote's Pas de Deux," and Twyla Tharp's epic "In the Upper Room." 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Clockmaker at City Theatre

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 12:29 PM

Here's an exchange between two characters in the first scene of this play by Stephen Massicotte. The protagonist -- whom we'll shortly learn is a failed clockmaker named Heinrich Mann -- speaks first, to a preposessing inquisitor named Monsieur Pierre.

"Have I done something wrong?"

"I don't know, have you?"

"I'm answering your questions as truthfully as possible."

"As possible."

The scene has a whiff of Kafka about it -- Kafka if the hero weren't the cryptically guilt-ravaged "K" but rather an innocent Stan Laurel type, which is how Mann comes off in actor Harry Bouvy's brilliant mix of pathos and nervous physical comedy.

But even though it's set in an unnamed, World War I-era European country, and despite mention of people getting disappeared, Clockmaker ends up going in another, non-Kafkaesque direction entirely.

Indeed, the whole thing seems designed to keep audiences off-balance: Most of the action toggles between what appear to be two separate but parallel realities. In one of them, Mann is a semi-recluse who's failed his father's business, while his customer Frieda (Tami Dixon) is a sweet, timid woman abused by her brutish, self-pitying husband. In the other, Mann and Frieda repeatedly meet and court each other, neither quite knowing how he or she got there or recalling who the other is.

Meanwhile, in this production, directed by Tracy Brigden, it feels as though Massicotte is emphasizing both that his characters have been beaten down by circumstance and that they've failed themselves on some level.

It's an entertaining show, but any sense of lightness is at least a little deceptive. There's something darker at Clockmaker's bottom. The resolution -- I won't give too much away here -- is a kind of Rorschach for the audience: You can accept, with some cheer, the idea that the protagonists have found a sort of refuge from an unjust world. Or you can view their "salvation" as a victory in an ironic sense only.

It's a play with more layers than its melodramatic outline suggests.

The Clockmaker continues at City Theater through Feb. 21.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Barry Lopez at the Drue Heinz Lectures

Posted By on Tue, Feb 9, 2010 at 6:50 PM

The snow was mounting, and the Port Authority buses had already stopped running, when I ran into musician and artist Evan Knauer at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, on Penn Avenue. Knauer noted that there's a certain kind of art-crawl magic that can happen on stormy evenings: Expectations of quiet galleries are thwarted by intrepid locals who venture out on foot. And so while attendance at events like Friday's Unblurred might be down, it seems positively huge compared to empty. And among those who have made the trek, there's a distinctive sense of comradery and merriment abroad.

So too had the evening begun when a 71D dropped me at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Despite the inch or so of slushy stuff already on the ground, nearly every room in the old manse buzzed for the opening of the group show Cluster. The PCA, in a novel turn, was serving soup (wedding; tomato bisque) on the second floor. It made one reluctant to leave, but at 7 p.m. I set out for Penn.

It wasn't quite blizzarding, but the empty streets of Shadyside and East Liberty suggested there mightn't be anyone home at Unblurred. To the contrary. Though the quantities of liquid fortification necessary to complete such an arduous journey on foot might impede my memory a bit, here's highlights from a snow-coated, but not snowbound, Unblurred.

A newer art space at 5405 Broad Street (uphill from Penn) is a converted house dubbed Schmutz Lodge. Owned by artist Connie Cantor, it's run by artist Dave English and is currently home to Unstill'd -- a substitute venue for artists from the shuttered Brew House's "Distillery" residency program. Of the several room-sized installations, I especially enjoyed Becky Slemmon's medieval-castle wall: Look through the door's little window for a special vision -- one that changes when you open the door, though as Slemmons notes, most people don't seem to think to do so.

Down on Penn itself, a few venues had canceled due to the weather. But you could still be privy to the grand opening of the world's best instant bookstore: Rob Ziller's Awesome Books. Ziller, an artist and poet, last year took possession of the long-sequestered stash of thousands of volumes from the South Side's defunct Riverrun Books. Ziller's spouse, ceramacist Laura Jean McLaughlin, has let her Clay Penn studio and gallery be turned into an in-progress used-book outlet, complete with cats. Ziller was busy shoveling the sidewalk all night, even as the store received a steady stream of visitors; he promises more unpacking and more organizing of the already intriguing collective of fiction and nonfiction classics and curiosities.

My shoes soaked by now, I still couldn't help noticing a nearly full People's Indian Restaurant, or the teeming Spak Brothers storefront. Image Box Gallery was warm and welcoming with the fascinating pinhole photography of Brian J. Krummel. There was more intriguing photography at Garfield Artworks ... and the opening of a show by mixed-media artist Joan Brindle at the Freeman Center.

Lucky I stopped in the latter. The storm-crafted Unblurred was fun, but I'd been counting on the buses. Had I not run into Knauer and his four-wheel drive pickup, I might be trying to write this from a different neighborhood this morning.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Snowstorm Gallery-Hop

Posted By on Sat, Feb 6, 2010 at 3:10 PM

The snow was mounting, and the Port Authority buses had already stopped running, when I ran into musician and artist Evan Knauer at the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, on Penn Avenue. Knauer noted that there's a certain kind of art-crawl magic that can happen on stormy evenings: Expectations of quiet galleries are thwarted by intrepid locals who venture out on foot. And so while attendance at events like Friday's Unblurred might be down, it seems positively huge compared to empty. And among those who have made the trek, there's a distinctive sense of comradery and merriment abroad.

So too had the evening begun when a 71D dropped me at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Despite the inch or so of slushy stuff already on the ground, nearly every room in the old manse buzzed for the opening of the group show Cluster. The PCA, in a novel turn, was serving soup (wedding; tomato bisque) on the second floor. It made one reluctant to leave, but at 7 p.m. I set out for Penn.

It wasn't quite blizzarding, but the empty streets of Shadyside and East Liberty suggested there mightn't be anyone home at Unblurred. To the contrary. Though the quantities of liquid fortification necessary to complete such an arduous journey on foot might impede my memory a bit, here's highlights from a snow-coated, but not snowbound, Unblurred.

A newer art space at 5405 Broad Street (uphill from Penn) is a converted house dubbed Schmutz Lodge. Owned by artist Connie Cantor, it's run by artist Dave English and is currently home to Unstill'd -- a substitute venue for artists from the shuttered Brew House's "Distillery" residency program. Of the several room-sized installations, I especially enjoyed Becky Slemmon's medieval-castle wall: Look through the door's little window for a special vision -- one that changes when you open the door, though as Slemmons notes, most people don't seem to think to do so.

Down on Penn itself, a few venues had canceled due to the weather. But you could still be privy to the grand opening of the world's best instant bookstore: Rob Ziller's Awesome Books. Ziller, an artist and poet, last year took possession of the long-sequestered stash of thousands of volumes from the South Side's defunct Riverrun Books. Ziller's spouse, ceramacist Laura Jean McLaughlin, has let her Clay Penn studio and gallery be turned into an in-progress used-book outlet, complete with cats. Ziller was busy shoveling the sidewalk all night, even as the store received a steady stream of visitors; he promises more unpacking and more organizing of the already intriguing collective of fiction and nonfiction classics and curiosities.

My shoes soaked by now, I still couldn't help noticing a nearly full People's Indian Restaurant, or the teeming Spak Brothers storefront. Image Box Gallery was warm and welcoming with the fascinating pinhole photography of Brian J. Krummel. There was more intriguing photography at Garfield Artworks ... and the opening of a show by mixed-media artist Joan Brindle at the Freeman Center.

Lucky I stopped in the latter. The storm-crafted Unblurred was fun, but I'd been counting on the buses. Had I not run into Knauer and his four-wheel drive pickup, I might be trying to write this from a different neighborhood this morning.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Contestational Cartographies

Posted By on Wed, Feb 3, 2010 at 4:44 PM

© 2007, WWW.ODTMAPS.COM

One of the first things I recall learning about the familiar Mercator projection map of the world is that it is wrong. This is the most common two-dimensional rendering of the globe, where the perceived need to reproduce its likeness rectilinearly, on a page, means that Greenland, for instance, ends up looking bigger than the continental U.S. (even though it's less than one-third the size).

I believe some alert junior-high social-studies teacher or other also hipped us to the insidious jingoism inherent in the fact that North America is placed at the center of most Mercators we were likely to see, implicitly validating our national narcisissm.

Such bias was a subtext of last week's Contestational Cartographies Symposium, at Carnegie Mellon. CMU's Miller Gallery and Studio for Creative Inquiry hosted a series of talks by artists and scholars who question the means we use to abstract our notions of the space we inhabit. (The symposium was linked to the gallery's Experimental Geographies exhibit, which closed Jan. 31.) One symposium contributor, the artist and 1992 CMU grad Lize Mogel, calls her practice "radical, critical, counter-cartography."

Mogel presented maps included the one depicted here. This version of the Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection is fruitfully disorienting, inverting the standard world map's "north goes up" orientation and addressing some of the sizing issues of land masses.

Mogel spoke Friday evening at the symposium. Many of Mogel's own maps, meanwhile, seek new ways to depict the effect of globalization. Among her other world maps was one that emphasized sites of the international shipping industry, from a relocated shipyard in Shanghai to decommissioned navy vessels in former shipbuilding capital San Francisco to the worksites in coastal Pakistan where workers do the dangerous job of disassembling the developed world's scrapped ships, largely by hand. In the map, the Panama Canal loomed huge.

Sizing, of course, that's not all that's wrong with maps. In his talk, artist and CMU instructor Pablo Garcia noted that the reason the earliest world maps deformed geography to fit a grid was for shipping purposes. In other words, the demands of the commercial elite have for centuries quite literally shaped the way we "view the world."

Perhaps even more fundamentally, maps "abstract" the world, providing a God's-eye-view of a planet that's complex -- culturally, ecologically -- and making it seem nearly as readily understood as a postage stamp. Mogel noted that while most Westerners regard maps fondly, a Nigerian artist she met said he "hates maps" because of what colonial mapping regimes did to his country.

Mapping, however, is a powerful genie that it's several centuries too late to stuff back in the bottle. Mogel and other symposium participants noted that popular access to satellite images and other technology puts map-making ability in hands beyond the governments and industries who traditionally controlled them. Perhaps that will help make our abstractions more honest and less harmful, as well as more diverse. 

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