At least half the reason I was eager to see this show, which closes Saturday, is that playwright Madeleine George also wrote Precious Little, one of the best new plays I’ve seen in recent years.
Zero Hour (2010) isn’t quite as elegantly woven as that earlier work, which City Theatre staged beautifully in 2011. But if you liked Precious Little — or, really, if you like plays about both people and ideas, delivered in succinct but beautiful language — you’ll also find much to like in Zero Hour.
What’s especially attractive about George’s writing is, simply, how she thinks: She has ideas, some heretical, and she boldly blends them together on the page. And there’s nothing easy or sanctimonious about how she approaches even so sacred a cow as the Holocaust. At one point, George has Rebecca question whether it makes sense, in a century crowded with genocides, that “the Nazis” have become our supreme benchmark of evil.
The play’s two strands concern the troubled relationship between Rebecca and O, and Rebecca’s series of surreal encounters on the el with Nazis — real Nazis, that is, survivors somehow of World War II. Whether these hilarious/horrifying encounters are real, partly real or totally dreamed up in Rebecca’s stressed-out mind is for audiences to decide. It should give us pause, though, that in one them George rather convincingly equates fascists and sports fans.
But if George recoils from easy answers, neither does her intelligence ever feel like knee-jerk provocation: When she rhymes fearful, closeted modern queers with persecuted minorities of the past, it’s not just with Jews in hiding in Hitler’s Germany, but also with post-war Nazis forced to create fresh, false personas for themselves as well.
Not incidentally, and rare among contemporary playwrights, George supplies great roles for women and lots of opportunity for theatricality. At Off the Wall, director Robyne Parrish takes full advantage of the talents of Erika Cuenca (as Rebecca) and Daina Michelle Griffth (O), each of whom plays multiple roles.
Here’s Michelle Pilecki’s review for CP.
Zero Hour has two more shows, tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5-35 and are available here.
Though the announcement arrived too late for our print edition, tomorrow’s Unblurred gallery crawl includes a brand-new venue worth mentioning. It’s run by a familiar name.
The gallery opens with the group show On Paper, curated by locally based artist and Carnegie Mellon art professor Ayanah Moor.
The show features works by “six artists who engage the mediums of drawing, performance, print media and installation.” The works in the show “range from illustrative to representative to imaginative.”
The artists include Althea Murphy Price, of Knoxville, Tenn.; Paul Stephen Benjamin, of Atlanta; Chicago-based Krista Franklin; Atlanta-based William Downs; Pittsburgh-based Alisha B. Wormsley; and Jordan Martin, of New York City.
The show opens will a reception from 6-8 p.m. tomorrow. (That both starts and ends a little sooner than most of the goings-on at Unblurred.) The show runs through Dec. 14 (though gallery hours are limited to noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, or by appointment).
Fieldwork is located at 4925 Penn Ave. For more information, contact email@example.com.
If you ever participated in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest, the company is looking for you.
The program will be distributed at February’s Showcase of Finalists.
The Shakespeare Nation Project seeks to bring together the the thousands of student contestants (grades 4 through 12) who have participated, many of whom now live elsewhere.
The project’s honorary chair is Gillian Jacobs. In the 1990s, as a Mount Lebanon high school student, the co-star of NBC’s Community participated in the contest three times.
Jacobs apparently never won, but must have done all right: She also appeared in three productions at the Public, including As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In addition to Community, she’s also now making feature films, including a role in the upcoming Kevin Costner drama Black & White.
The Shakespeare contest was created by Rob Zellers, the Public’s education director, who still oversees it. It’s grown dramatically (so to speak), from 75 participants in 1994 to 1,200 last year.
For its program book, the Public asks past particpants to tell, in a sentence or two, “what you gained from your experience in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest.” Include your name and the year and school you attended when you took part, and feel free to attach a current photo. Email responses to Margie Romero at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The deadline is Nov. 15.
The 20th Anniversary Shakespeare contest is supported by the EQT Foundation and Richard E. Rauh.
Post Written By Brett Wilson
When children are frightened into believing that a ghost story is real, the effect is usually temporary. But one local author offers a compilation of actual belief in witchcraft — and the persecution of witches — right here in Pennsylvania.
White’s account takes us to counties all over the state, with accounts of belief in witchcraft that many people might be surprised to hear took place so close to them.
White, 38, has written seven books on folklore and the supernatural. He is Duquesne’s archivist and curator, and specializes in legends and folklore. He says the idea for this book arose while he was researching his other books.
“I realized that there were stories of strong beliefs in witches coming from nearly every part of Pennsylvania at some point in time,” White says. “Most of the witchcraft stories in Pennsylvania come from the German population that originally migrated here and brought their stories and beliefs in witches with them.”
Among the stories he tells is that of “Mary ‘Moll’ Derry, The Witch of Fayette County.” She was rumored to have been mocked by three men once, and in response hauntingly told them that they would be hung. As she predicted it, someway or another over the years, each of them died from hanging.
While Pennsylvania has had just one official witch trial, in 1684 — presided over by William Penn himself — belief in witchcraft persisted. In 1802, an Allegheny County judged helped an accused witch escape an angry mob. And in 1934, in Schuykill County, a woman was shot and killed in her home by a man convinced she had put a curse on him.
White says that Pennsylvania has been rich with stories of witches for much the same reason that the Steelers are so popular nationally. “A lot of people originally migrated here,” he said. “Throughout time, for one reason or another, many people left and took the stories they heard with them. Then some people returned, and because of this in Pennsylvania we have a really prominent history of beliefs in witches and the supernatural.”
Mystery Lovers Bookshop’s coffee-and-pastries reception for White starts at 10 a.m. tomorrow. The event is free, but registration is requested at 412-828-4877 or here.
For a play often thought to typify Americana, as a portrait of unspoiled small-town life, Thornton Wilder’s classic retains something of the sucker punch.
Grover’s Corners, N.H., at the dawn of the American Century, has innocent young lovers, a dedicated town physician, a friendly, beat-walking constable, and all the predictable rhythms our national mythology associates with that time and place.
But Wilder constructs this scenario only to chip away at it. With gentle but precise strokes, he depicts main characters who can keep content with their lives only if they remain blind to other possiblities outside of it (whether that’s going to college or just visiting Paris).
And his famous Stage Manager (ably played by Tom Atkins), even after so many years, remains an ambiguous and even mysterious creation whose amusing asides can be ultimately read as cutting to the core of the work. After taking the role of minister for the play’s centerpiece wedding, for instance, he says about marriage, “Do I believe in it? I don’t know.” Later, he remarks, “Wherever you come across the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense.”
Both lines get laughs — maybe a bit too easily. This is a play, after all, that starts out lighthearted and charming and ends up proposing that death is merely the gateway to an afterlife in which our chief lesson is how little we appreciated being alive.
Our Town continues at the O’Reilly Theater with six more performances (including today’s matinee) through this Sunday. Tickets are $29-55.
This interactive theater work wants to make us ask some provocative questions about war, and it largely succeeds.
Measure Back, co-directed by T. Ryder Smith and acclaimed Brooklyn-based theater-maker Christopher McElroen, is a world premiere at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. It's staged on the top floor of Downtown’s Baum Building (above Space gallery). The venue is a large, bare, long-unused room where the audience of 40 or so began the evening sitting on cinderblocks. A bank of television monitors sat upstage, showing an array of sequences from nature films, surgery films, Hollywood war movies and sometimes infomercials.
The three-member cast is headed by Smith, a lean and sardonic fellow who led with a lengthy, amusing monologue. The talk was loosely about war — his father and grandfather were in the service — but was frequently interrupted by calls to his cell phone, purportedly about casting opportunities for Smith himself.
However, about halfway into the two-hour show, the scenario began gradually to transform from this engaging setup into a nightmarish, nonlinear war story, from train-up to an invasion/occupation sequence in which Smith was joined by two young actresses portraying residents of the invaded country.
The evening’s keynote motif was an extended riff on The Iliad, our oldest literary epic about war. Along the way — and as Smith shifted in and out of various personas — audience members were conscripted to be Greek gods, fellow soldiers or even just people asked to memorize a single word. Much of the second half, moreover, took place in a menacing near-dark, with flashlights and other small onstage lights the lone illumination.
Measure Back is not “anti-war” in the usual sense. Smith and McElroen, longtime collaborators who devised this work together, want us to ponder what impulses lead us toward war — and maybe to feel some of them ourselves.
Meanwhile, the work’s female characters — a motif of veiling suggests Iraq, Afghanistan — told of oppression that one might wish to go to war to oppose. Yet the play also explored the links between misogyny and violence; one clever, Carlinesque sequence deconstructed the English slang conventions that make it a compliment to call a woman “dude,” but an insult to call her the name of a female dog.
That thread came to a point with running commentary on Helen of Troy as the supposed cause of the Trojan War. “I think Helen was just the story they told,” Smith said. “They wanted Troy.”
But the link between the practice of acting and the making of war goes beyond the Hollywood Helens flickering on those monitors, and even beyond Smith’s rips on the acting profession. Much of the audience interaction, for instance, was built around brief interactions in which Smith affixes blame or demands loyalty to his cause, forcing audience members into false choices, and demanding that people make snap, life-or-death decisions in the madness of a moment, sometimes, while literally in the dark.
Though it feels a bit longer than necessary, Measure Back is bound to provoke discussions about its meaning and intent. What it suggested to me is that, as if we were all unconsciously actors, we humans tend to play the roles expected of us. And if we are expected to engage in, or support warfare, we too often will.
Measure Back has four more performances, 8 p.m. nightly through Saturday. Tickets are $25.
The group that’s pushing the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to enforce laws requiring set-aside funds for public art funding recently sent candidates in the November election a questionnaire about the issue.
In Pittsburgh, a 1977 law stipulates that 1 percent of the costs of publicly funded building or renovations projects go toward including art; the figure in the county’s more recently enacted law is 2 percent. Many U.S. cities enforce such laws, but locally, neither law is currently enforced.
All candidates for mayor and city council were sent the questionnaires, though not all responded.
The most prominent candidate to respond was Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Peduto, a long-time outspoken supporter of the arts. Others to respond included Tony Ceoffe and Deb Gross, the presumed front-runners in the race to replace city Councilor Pat Dowd in District 7; and District 4 incumbent Natalia Rudiak.
District 8 city-council candidate Mordecai Trebelow did not answer individual questions, but rather made a statement of general support for the arts and a series of questions for clarifications about the questionnaire itself.
And in responding to a briefer questionnaire about the issue earlier this year, Trebelow's opponent, District 8 candidate Dan Gilman, said, "I agree with you 100% that we need to be more aggressive with the Percent for Public Art ... on Council I will be a public voice to champion this cause. ... Public Art must be a component of every project in the City."
Here are the questions from the most recent questionnaire, followed by answers by each candidate, all of which date from last week:
An up-and-coming local performance group keeps taking risks. And most of them paid off in Saturday night’s premiere of this hybrid of live actors, multimedia and puppetry at the New Hazlett Theater.
In that way, Birds couldn’t help recalling Belgian collective NanoDanses’ Kiss & Cry, performed at the same theater just a couple weeks ago as part of the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.
The blend of puppetry and live-actor shadowplay also recalled another Festival of Firsts entry, the Perth Theater Company’s It’s Dark Outside, whose final performance was likely getting underway Downtown just as Birds of America was wrapping up.
But Birds didn’t feel much like either of those shows, mostly because they’re just different kinds of artists. The fledgling company, led by Zach Dorn and Murphi Cook, “explores the underbelly of childhood nostalgia with the disappointed eyes of adulthood,” with shows they describe as “live-action comic books,” according to the group's statement.
Indeed, Birds (funded as part of the New Hazlett’s pioneering Community Supported Art performance series) was willfully over-the-top, a spookily fun hybrid of The Shining, The Birds, Rosemary’s Baby and probably a few other classic horror films beloved of Dorn and Cook.
Dorn’s direction kept the show moving; only at the end were a few of the transitions between live action and video confused. And the acting was fine, with Connor McCanlus as the unflappable Dr. Douglas Irene, Ivy Steinberg believably fraught as his wife, and Cook as the world’s most comically unnerving real-estate agent.
Inspired touch: The “photographs” in the doctor’s slide-show lecture were images of birds menacing his wife. And they weren’t photos at all, but images hand-drawn in crayon, as if by a child.
While Birds of America wasn’t nearly as slick technically as some touring multimedia shows we’ve seen lately — and the ending was a bit abrupt — it was proficient enough. And the troupe’s energy, inventiveness and talent for creating an atmosphere promise more good things to come from the folks who’ve already brought us The Luna Park Project and Tonight A Clown Will Travel Time.
These two shorter stage shows were paired during their runs last week at this Pittsburgh Cultural Trust festival, and with good reason. Both employed puppetry and a similar multimedia esthetic, but ultimately came down to live performers and emotional resonance.
More impressive than the shows’ resemblances, however, was the way they complemented each other in mood and theme.
The Pigeoning told the story of a middle-aged big-city office worker whose obsessive-compulsive fixation on cleanliness and order lead him to believe that there’s a conspiracy against him … by pigeons. “Frank” was a yard-high, bunraku-style puppet operated by three puppeteers in black masks; other puppeteers operated the pigeons and other creatures that were the only other characters.
The world-premiere show, created by New York-based artist Robin Frohardt, was staged in the Bricolage Theater space and was remarkable for its inventiveness with found materials: Think pizza-box manta ray. The puppetry was exceptional, not only in the eloquence of poor Frank’s gestures but in the amusing realism of the pigeons and, perhaps especially, in a darkly humorous dream sequence that showed off the crew’s facility with low-tech special effects.
And just when you thought the show might get a bit heavy-handed, the story took an hallucinatory turn and ended up in a place you didn’t expect, its point pleasingly ambiguous but its gentle humor intact.
After that early show, much of the sold-out crowd strolled down Liberty Avenue, to the Trust Arts Education Center, for Perth (Australia) Theater Company’s It’s Dark Outside.
This show, receiving its U.S. premiere, was built around human characters who were sometimes represented by puppets, or by silhouettes behind a scrim. Both Pigeoning and Dark depict odysseys of sorts. But where Pigeoning made amusing use of an instructional-film spoof, and slide projections, Dark deployed breathtaking projected animations on a wall-sized upstage screen.
The show’s unnamed protagonist was an elderly man (played by actor Arielle Gray, in a rubber mask) who walks off into the desert. (Press materials say the show’s about Sundowner’s Syndrome, a compulsion to wander that affects some Alzheimer’s sufferers.) He’s pursued by a menacing figure in a duster-style coat who recalls Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
It’s Dark Outside too includes a surprise twist, one that’s both deeply moving and meshes seamlessly with the show’s physical world, blending the “real” with such fanciful elements as a pup tent that acts pretty much like a pup, and a miniature puppet version of the protagonist who acts out his doppelganger’s dreams. Standing ovations in Pittsburgh are all too common, but this one was well-deserved.
Both these shows were sold out well in advance, and their run ended Saturday. The Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts continues with a dance-theater show by Zimmermann and dePerrot this week, and the interactive theater work Measure Back, next week. Look for previews of both in Wednesday’s City Paper.
The reading series for this revived journal that combines art and social-justice activism got off to a nice start last night at the New Hazlett Theater.
The readers were Terrance Hayes, Pittsburgh’s resident National Book Award-winning poet, and visiting poet Saeed Jones.
Hayes focused on work he’s written since his award-winning Lighthead, including a riff on artist Jenny Holzer’s famous “Protect Me From What I Want” installations and “How to Draw An Invisible Man,” a dazzling take on author Ralph Ellison and his legacy.
Jones, of San Francisco, edits BuzzFeedLGBT. He read some explicitly political work, including one about a victim of anti-gay violence in Africa he memorialized thus: “My tongue is a kingdom; you live there.” (Jones noted that there are 76 countries where being homosexual is effectively illegal.)
He also read “Kudzu,” inspired by his late mother’s comment that the prolific invasive vine was “slutty” — and by Jones wondering if she was actually talking about him: “Soil recoils from my hooked kisses, pine turns it back on me … all I’ve ever wanted was to kiss crevices.”
Afterword, with HEArt founder and poetry editor Leslie Anne McIlroy, Jones and Hayes briefly discussed poetry and politics.
“The striving for complexity is political,” said Jones — meaning, in part, that the more poets’ voices can show the complexity of individuals, the harder it becomes to stereotype.
“What I’m interested in in a political poem is vulnerability, ambiguity and gray areas,” said Hayes. “We have a pretty good sense of right and wrong, except when we’re walking down the street.”
The HEArt series continues in 2014, with appearances by nationally known poets Tim Seibles and Martin Espada.