Saturday, February 26, 2011

Congo Square at Pittsburgh Playwrights

Posted By on Sat, Feb 26, 2011 at 12:34 PM

Having previewed this play for CP, I wanted to see the finished product. 

It was, after all, the local premiere of a work by locally based playwright Frank Gagliano, and both the script and the rehearsal I'd sat in on suggested an offbeat evocation of themes of innocence, corruption and fantasy through the lens of a hostage standoff in New Orleans.

Oh, and it's a musical -- or at least, a "drama with music," as Gagliano puts it.

Congo Square is a play about play-acting as escape -- possibly the only escape available to Willy Beau and Delphine, gunman and putative hostage, trapped in a corrupt world they never made and can't otherwise alter. 

Willy (played by Monteze Freeland) is holed up in a warehouse full of old Mardi Gras costumes and the mannequins that wear them; apparently he's shot someone, but because he's suffering from traumatic amnesia, we don't learn the full story until late in the play.

Joined by a young woman named Delphine (Erika Cuenca), whose true identity likewise is mysterious, Willy plays out a sort of personal history of New Orleans by singing in the personas of various characters historical, fictional and mythic from the 19th and 20th centuries: a madam, a murderous mulatto dandy, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. 

All the while, the play's third character, the mayor (Kevin Brown) tries to talk Willy out of the building that's facing demolition, first from outside, by bullhorn, eventually by joining he and Delphine in the warehouse.

While Tony Ferrieri's set is a splendid mad attic, the best thing about the play as written are the songs, with lyrics by Gagliano and music by the late Claibe Richardson (with new arrangements by, and performed live by, pianist Ed Tarzia). And that's largely because of Freeland, who's onstage for all 90 minutes and singing for half of it. He gives his all, and he's got a lot of talent to give, both vocally and dramatically.

The play itself is somewhat less successful. Director Marci Woodruff works hard to emphasize a through-line, but the script too often feels less like a portrait of real people and more like an intellectual exercise -- a working out of themes.

As such, it's not bad. Gagliano, for instance, draws an interesting parallel between a land-developer's 1845 plot to replace the slaves who dance in Congo Square on Sundays with a modern dirty deal to bulldoze part of historic Nawlins for a shopping mall.

But the narrative never really drew me in emotionally. And the buried-memory trope feels pretty hoary. (It's worth noting that Gagliano wrote the original version of Congo Square in the 1970s.)

Still, the set, the songs and Freeland's great performance are well worth the price of admission and 90 minutes of your day.

There are three more chances to see Congo Square at Playwrights' Downtown space: tonight, tomorrow's matinee, and on Tue., March 8, as part of a special Mardi Gras performance of Gagliano's entire Voodoo Trilogy, also including In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau and The Commedia World of Lafcadio B.www.pghplaywrights.com

Friday, February 25, 2011

Final Weekend of Lonesome West canceled

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 12:08 AM

Point Park’s REP theater company has canceled the final weekend of performances of its current production, The Lonesome West, starting with tonight’s.

The cause is a medical emergency involving a member of the cast.

All remaining performances through Sun., Feb. 27, are canceled.

The cancellation was announced just this afternoon.

If you have tickets, the REP asks that you contact the Playhouse box office, at 412-392-8000, for a refund or tickets to a future REP show.  

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Scenic Design in City Theatre's Marcus

Posted By on Sat, Feb 12, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Scenic design is both the most concrete and often (except for maybe sound design) the least analyzed aspect of a stage play. But veteran designer Tony Ferrieri's work on Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet struck me as exceptional.

The play's a coming-of-age story set in the Louisiana bayou. City's thrust stage is set up mostly as a series of narrow boardwalks, backed by two stylized "houses": façade doorways, one accompanied by a set of stairs that rises to a little platform that serves mostly as Marcus' bedroom.

Ferrieri is possibly Pittsburgh's busiest set designer, a frequent contributor at City, Quantum Theatre and elsewhere, and this set makes it easy to see why. Though it's made almost entirely of unpainted wooden boards, it speaks volumes about playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney's theatrical world.

It's a play where the title character's growth has a lot to do with hidden pasts in his family and small town. The boardwalk, accordingly, curves its way just over top of the onstage pool of water the script calls for – a shallow mini bayou the play uses to symbolize a dream world, the past, or both. Ferrieri's boardwalk evokes this in such a way that you feel that the characters are always on the cusp of breaking through or tumbling into it (a warm-weather version of thin ice, perhaps).

More clever still are the stylized trees that loom upstage. These are silhouettes, but they too are made of those same boards, arrayed in short horizontal sections. This suggests a oneness of the natural world with both fencing and clapboard housing, which well suits McCraney's highly theatrical conception of dream sequences, quasi-Shakespearean monologues and characters who sometimes say their stage directions aloud (i.e., "Enter Terrell").

And oh, yes, the play is quite good, too.

The show's final performances are this weekend, concluding with the Sun., Feb. 13, matinee (www.citytheatrecompany.org).

Friday, February 11, 2011

New G-20 Documentary to Screen

Posted By on Fri, Feb 11, 2011 at 7:07 PM

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Local filmmaker John Detwiler is set to premiere Pittsburgh Welcomes ..., a new take on the 2009 meeting of world leaders here that generated street protests, mass arrests and widespread curtailment of civil liberties.

You remember those wacky three days in September: What other event could have brought us both zero action on climate change (or any other important issue) and the ghost-town lock-down of half the Golden Triangle, with more out-of-town cops than you'll ever see again?

Fun times. We even got to experience that nifty "sonic cannon" police deployed -- from atop an armored vehicle on Bloomfield's Liberty Avenue, no less.

But remember, it was great publicity for Pittsburgh!

The screening is 6:30 p.m. Mon., Feb. 14, at Point Park's GRW Theater, located inside 414 Wood St., Downtown. The event is sponsored by the school's Cinema and Digital Arts program and the School of Communication Graduate Program.

The hour-long film comes recommended by veteran filmmaker and Point Park instructor John Rice.

When better than Valentine's Day, after all, to relive all those great G-20 memories?

Just learned of another screening, too. The Thomas Merton Center sponsors that one, at 7:30 p.m. Tue., Feb. 22, in the William Pitt Union (lower lounge), on Pitt's campus, in Oakland (www.thomasmertoncenter.org).

The Merton Center calls Pittsburgh Welcomes "[a] compelling, informative documentary set in our city about economic justice, global development, human rights, social protest, political power, and more."

The screening will be followed by a discussion with G-20 protest organizers and participants featured in the film, including Pete Shell (Thomas Merton Center Anti-War Committee) and Alan Hart (United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America), and Pitt students -- a bunch of whom were also arrested, many apparently just for being nearby during one of the Oakland protests.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pittsburgh Courier Centennial Exhibit

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 9:39 PM

I joined this morning's press preview of America's Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier, which opens to the public Friday at the Heinz History Center. Much of it wasn't installed yet, but a tour led by curator Sam Black suggests the show will provide plenty for folks interested in African-American history inside Pittsburgh and out, and amateur historians and newbies alike.

The show grew from a 2005 meeting between Black, the Center's curator of African-American Collections, and representatives of The New Pittsburgh Courier, corporate descendant of the original, who wanted help managing the publication's archive. 

The exhibit on the pioneering African-American newspaper covers some familiar territory, including its crusading role in the anti-lynching campaign and the civil-rights movement, and other aspects of its national reach. 

But America's Best Weekly also touches on such little-remembered episodes as the paper's coverage of the Ethiopian-Italian War, in the 1930s: The paper sent a correspondent, with some resultant growth in pan-African solidarity. There's also a display about the paper's backing of Republican Wendell Wilkie for president, in 1940, against FDR.

Notable artifacts include a large-scale reproduction of photo of a 1920 Ku Klux Klan march ... in Wilkinsburg. The sports display boasts a pair of Joe Louis's boxing gloves -- from his 1936 fight with Max Schmeling, the one Louis lost. (Louis's Courier connections frequently brought him to Pittsburgh.)

Still, among displays available for preview, the most fascinating for me was the paper's oldest extant front page. Vol. 46 of the Courier ("Five Cents"), from late 1910, wasn't the paper's first. But its headlines speak eloquently of both another time and the paper's origins among members of middle-class black social clubs (folks like co-founder Earl Harlston, a former funeral-home owner who moved here from Atlantic City).

Headlines like "Young Lawyer's Fine Record," "Presbyterian Council Meets" and "Current Topics in Washington / Lively interest taken in many matters of public importance / Social scene approaching" stand next to "Atlanta, GA Whites Attempt to Restrict Colored Persons to Certain District."

And the motto on No. 46's masthead (in the years before the famous and proud "America's Best Weekly" slogan) might have been penned by Booker T. Washington: "Work, Integrity, Tact, Temperance, Prudence, Courage, Faith."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Bill Daniel in Scale

Posted By on Tue, Feb 1, 2011 at 4:40 PM

The road-tested but locally rooted artist and filmmaker has one of the more intriguing pieces in Scale, a show at Downtown's Space Gallery.

Scale, curated by Ally Reeves (an occasional CP contributor), is broadly about people figuring out how to live in the new normal of limited resources and the patent social and environmental failure of more-is-always-better lifestyles.

There's plenty of good stuff in the show, which Savannah Schroll Guz reviewed for us a couple weeks ago (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A90153). And the gallery was a fun scene during last Friday's gallery crawl -- not least because the tamale cart contributed by the artist team of Heidi Tucker and Caleb Gamble was in operation. (Damn, those were some good sweet-potato-and-black-bean tamales, at two for $5.)

But I was perhaps most intrigued by Daniel's installation. The lion's share of it was set up under a huge awning attached to one of the high-ceilinged gallery's walls, the awning material itself printed with stark black-and-white photos of what looked like the American West, iconically suggestive of life on the road.

The awning mimicked one you'd find sprung from the side of an RV. And the wall beneath it was plastered with reproductions of various ephemera from the road, a crazy wallpapered melange of photocopied photographs, hand-written messages and pages from oddball magazines with names like 18-Wheel Singles

One page memorably consists of a series of headshots of female prison inmates, each of whom had written her own profile beneath. The capper was the message that ran across the top of the page, warning readers not to send any money to convicts.

Daniel's installation matter-of-factly (and with a sneaky artfulness) evoked the crazy and unclassifiable American soul, one where politics are never cut-and-dried and one's deepest personal longings are often wrapped with scams, hucksterism and conspiracy theories (not all of them necessarily untrue).

The unoccupied folding chair and propane cannister set off to one side of the display were another smart touch. Daniel's work suggests that a life of limited resources (social, emotional, financial) has long been the norm for many of us. Its name is "getting by."

Scale runs through Sun., Feb. 6. 

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