Monday, October 6, 2014

Syrian writer Osama Alomar at City of Asylum

Posted By on Mon, Oct 6, 2014 at 1:17 PM

Great reading last Tuesday by a singular expatriate voice.

Alomar emigrated to the U.S. from Syria in 2008, and he's just published his first chapbook in translation, Fullblood Arabian (New Directions).

Odds are you haven't heard of Alomar, but he's making a name for himself. The introduction to his book was written by no less than Lydia Davis, the critically acclaimed flash-fiction author.

No coincidence there, because Alomar himself writes something like flash fiction, though often with an allegorical or fabulist twist.

Here, in its entirety, is one he read last week at a salon-style event at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, on the North Side, titled "Tongue Tie."

"Before leaving for work I tied my tongue into a great tie. My colleagues congratulated me on my elegance. They praised me to our boss, who expressed admiration and ordered all employees to follow my example."

Alomar, who drives a cab in Chicago, speaks good English and writes in Arabic. He was accompanied by his translator, C.J. Collins, who read a couple of Alomar's stories as well. Though Collins lives in New York state, he and Alomar actually do most of their translation work in Alomar's cab when Collins is able to visit, which makes for some amusing conversations with passengers.

The visit to City of Asylum came with a sort of mini-residency: The group put them up for three days so they could work on new translations uninterrupted by dispatchers or fares waving from street corners.

Alomar's stories reminded me a lot of some of Kafka's very short pieces. Here is one of Kafka's titled "Couriers":

"They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other — since there are no kings — messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service."

Last Tuesday, during the Q&A, I asked Alomar about Kafka and he said the famed writer was a big influence — though he said he considered Kafka less a writer per se than a philosopher. Collins added that Kafka's take on the oppressiveness of bureaucracy had considerable resonance in modern Syria, which Collins visited several years back and where he first met Alomar.

Alomar left Syria well before the current civil war there, but many of his stories comment, if allegorically, on political repression in his homeland.

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Attack Theatre’s Are You Still There? at the Pittsburgh Coliseum

Posted By on Mon, Oct 6, 2014 at 11:29 AM

The dance company got its 20th season off to a strong start with this new work for five dancers, staged with live music in the big, hardwood-floored spaces of Homewood’s Pittsburgh Coliseum.

Brittanie Brown
  • Photo courtesy of Carl Thorborg
  • Brittanie Brown
For a dance show taking place in a former roller rink, Are You Still There? is appropriately playful, even playground-like. In one sequences, dancers take turns getting dragged across the floor on a gym-class parachute. On a stage adorned with old-school telephones, however, the show’s signature prop is an extra-long phone cord (actually a cable in disguise) slung through a pulley mounted in the ceiling; dancers used the handsets on either end to pull each other into the air.

A four-piece band fronted by vocalist Richard Hutchins, of Hutch Simon Project, provided a vibrant soundtrack, from jazz and Latin-tinged pieces to contemporary pop. The jazz instrumental that backed the fine group dance that wrapped the work’s first act was a highlight.

Even so, the biggest revelation of the evening was probably the Attack debut of Brittanie Brown. The young, Juilliard-trained dancer moves with amazing fluidity and control. (I wasn’t the only one who thought so; as a fellow patron put it at intermission, “She’s incredible!”)

Brown and another guest dancer, James Johnson, joined company members Dane Toney, Ashley Williams and Kaitlin Dann.

Brown has another local connection: She’s a former member of Kyle Abraham AIM, the troupe run by the eponymous rising-star, Pittsburgh-native dancer-choreographer. Let’s hope we see more of her in the future.

Are You Still There?, choregraphed by Attack co-founders and co-artistic directors Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, has four more performances, Tuesday through Friday of this week.

Tickets are $10-40 (the $10 tickes are for residents of Homewood/zip code 15208).

More info is here.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Will Smith movie seeks to cast former football players

Posted By on Wed, Oct 1, 2014 at 8:32 AM

Former high school and college football players, rejoice. Your glory days aren’t over just yet.

Real Heaven, Inc. Extras Casting is seeking football players to portray professional and college-level players in Will Smith’s upcoming, untitled film project.

The film is based off of the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist, played by Smith.

Omalu first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition caused by head trauma, during an autopsy of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. Omalu released his findings on brain injuries in professional sports, attracting the wrath of the political, cultural and corporate interests covering up the risks.

The agency is seeking men ages 18-30 with prior football experience (at least high school level). Those interested must not be currently playing, due to eligibility issues, and should come in workout clothes with a pair of grass football cleats.

An open call tryout for the roles will be on Sat., Oct. 4, at 9 a.m. at Bethel Park High School, Practice Field One.

Rehearsal and film dates will be two days between October 20-31. Pay rate is $250 for one rehearsal day and $400 for one film date.

The agency is also seeking extras to be Pittsburgh football fans, administrators, lawyers and reporters.

For more information or to preregister, email or visit

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Final Two Performances for Everyman at Throughline Theatre

Posted By on Sat, Sep 20, 2014 at 9:58 AM

My big question going in was how the company would ever interpret this medieval Christian allegory. How do you sell a 600-year-old play about the fact that we're all going to die to an affluent, secular 21st-century audience dressed for a night on the town?

The answer, brilliantly rendered by the folks at Throughline, is that you reveal that potentially creaky story's universality. You set the production in a ruined present-day library where, with some unspecified but brutal conflict (civil war? alien invasion?) raging outside, nine women have taken shelter. You have one of the women reading Everyman aloud repeatedly, for comfort and to everyone else's annoyance, until they all decide to act it out to help pass the time.

And you have most of the characters take the story for a campy joke until they realize that, in addition to sin and salvation, Everyman is also about things like not knowing who your friends really are. And being unsure if you can bear the burden of setting your life right before you're require to pass out of it. Throughline's conception of the play is strong enough that it might even resonate with audiences who weren't raised in a culture steeped in Judeo-Christian understandings of fate.

The anonymously written play, adapted by Throughline, is staged in a production directed by Abigail Lis-Perlis and Joseph Ryan Yow. The directors and the large cast do a great job at differentiating the unnamed characters; although we learn, really, nothing about their personal histories, the action and clever staging prompt us to imagine interesting back-stories for most of them.

Here is Michelle Pilecki's review of the show for CP.

Doing Everyman was a bold choice for Throughline, and it's paid off in a production that's both theatrically satisfying and deeply moving. And with ticket prices at $12-15, you'll get few better theatrical bargains in town.

Only trouble is, there are just two more performances, today's matinee and evening shows, at 2 and 8 p.m.

The troupe performs at Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., in Lawrenceville. More information is here.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

Two More Weekends for As You Like It at Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks

Posted By on Fri, Sep 19, 2014 at 2:18 PM

Sure, Shakespeare had his Globe Theatre to call home. But there's still something agreeably throwback about seeing Willy staged al fresco, by an itinerant troupe whose "backstage" is a couple of tents and whose dialogue sometimes competes with barking dogs and passing trains.

Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks is in its 10th season. This month, with five more free performances over two more weekends, it's putting on As You Like It, one of the Bard's best-loved comedies.

I caught it this past Saturday, with West Park standing in for the Forest of Arden. The cast, led by Andrew Miller as Orlando and Jennifer Tobin as Rosalind, is youthful and energetic, and cleverly directed by Lisa Ann Goldsmith. (Tobin is also PSIP's founder and artistic director.)

Last Saturday's show drew about 70 to the lawn outside the National Aviary, and the crowd skewed younger than most theater in town. Most patrons brought their own folding chairs, and some (as at the Globe) snacked during the show.

Best advice is to sit as close as you can: The ambient noise can make iambic pentameter a little hard to decipher.

Still, where else, in a comedy that ends in a quartet of weddings, would the show be briefly upstaged by a real wedding party from a nearby church filing past toward their photo shoot?

And if the bells from St. Peter’soccasionally stepped on the dialogue during this two-hour show, they were wonderfully welcome when, as if on cue, they began to ring just as the play's own closing wedding dance began.

This weekend, PSIP performs on Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park (up by Frew Street), at 2 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday. Saturday’s show is preceded by a 1 p.m. performance by the youth troupe Falstaff’s Fellows, while on Sunday, storyteller Alan Irvine relates his own version of the play at 1:40 p.m.

On Sat., Sept. 27, there are two shows at Frick Park’s Blue Slide Playground, off Beechwood Boulevard near Nicholson, at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. (Falstaff’s Fellows at 1 p.m.). And PSIP is back at Blue Slide at 2 p.m. Sun., Sept. 28, for the final show of the run (Falstaff’s Fellows at 1p.m.)

And while the shows are free, don’t be stingy when they pass the donation basket.

For more information, see

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Top Visiting Spoken-Word Artists Here Tomorrow

Posted By on Thu, Sep 18, 2014 at 1:14 PM

Sets by a couple of visiting spoken-word artists with award-winning track records highlight tomorrow's Eargasm Open Mic series.

The three-year-old series, which recently moved to The Hill House Kaufman Center, features Breeze "I Life This" The Poet and Roscoe Burnems, both based in Virginia.

Breeze holds a host of titles from 2012 and 2013, including the King of South Slam Champion (both years) and 2013 Skinny Bully Grand Slam Champion. He was also a finalist at the 2013 LEAF Slam.

Burnems has been part of several top slam teams, including third-place finishes at Southern Fried Regional Slam, in 2009 and 2014. In 2014, he was one-fifth of The DC Beltway Slam Team when it won the National Poetry Slam Championship.

Eargasm, organized by longtime local spoken-word force Leslie "Ezra" Smith, also typically boasts a talented audience, making for good open-mic sets as well.

And they sell gourmet cupcakes, by Tishla Jones of Deliciously Devine.

The Hill House is at 1825 Centre Ave. The cover is just $5.

Open-mic signup starts at 8 p.m., and the show begins at 9 p.m.

For more information, call 412-613-0448 or email

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Final Day for "Parallel Lives" at CorningWorks

Posted By on Sun, Sep 14, 2014 at 9:10 AM

The latest from choreographer and performer Beth Corning is an artful bit of social commentary that exploits both some beautifully conceived staging and the talents of dancer Arthur Aviles.

Corning calls Parallel Lives "two 55-minute solos," and that's thematically appropriate: The show's about how our obsession with social media actually lessens our ability to connect to one another. So while Aviles and Corning technically share the stage the whole time, they are truly "together" for maybe 10 minutes of the hour, and that's an amusingly (if tellingly) awkward interlude.

Parallel Lives isn't heavy-handed, though; in fact, it often delves as far into full-bodied comedy as I've seen Corning get. (This is CorningWorks' fourth season; her previous gig was running Pittsburgh's now-defunct Dance Alloy Theatre.)

Corning and Aviles spoof the habits of reflexive social-mediators, taking selfies with their lunches and flitting from one barely noticed task to the next. But it's in the way of holding a mirror to our habits, and if it's a funny picture, it's not really a happy one.

Meanwhile, though I've seen dozens of shows at the New Hazlett Theater, I can't recall one with a more inventive stage setting. The show opens with two tall mesh screens running the width of the stage, one downstage and one at midstage, both of them surfaces for lovely projected line animations. (Thank, in part, projection designer Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh and artist Akiko Kotani, plus the tech crew.) The screen closest to the audience is drawn aside early to reveal a living-room set for Aviles' character, while Corning's fellow lonely apartment-dweller is seen behind the second screen.

It's a breathtakingly simple and effective way to suggest the "parallel lives" idea, and it looks great. (All the more remarkably, Corning says it's the first time in her four-decade career that she's used projections in a work she's choreographed.)

The whole show is rewarding, but perhaps best of all — partly because he's all but new to Pittsburgh audiences — is Aviles.

The New York-based dancer has performed in Pittsburgh before, but it was during his time with the famed Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, which ended in 1995. Now age 51 — and hence qualified for Corning's puckishly named Glue Factory, for dance artists over 40 — he's a compact fellow who moves beautifully, with enough athleticism to leap a sofa and do a forward handstand-flip. And he even does some quite credible a capella singing, in Spanish.

It's all in service of the show, though. And both Corning and Aviles are gesturally eloquent, communicating the pain and disquiet of otherwise inarticulate humans.

Today's the final performance of Parallel Lives, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25-30, though if you pay at the door today is pay-what-you-can day.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Last Week for "Tamara" at Quantum Theatre

Posted By on Mon, Sep 8, 2014 at 11:10 AM

Just five performances remain of this unique theatrical event … and they are all sold out.

But if you have scored a ticket to this huge hit for Quantum, here are some things to look out for (based on my experience at one show last week).

It’s a sprawling historical drama set in Italy in 1927, under Mussolini, in the grand home of a famous poet. Ten actors play the poet and his famous guests — and the house is played by Rodef Shalom temple. But the real novelty is that the actors move all around the huge building, and audience members must pick an actor to follow to his or her scenes. (You can switch whom you follow as often as you like.) It’s an “experience,” as they say, with a catered dinner at intermission. (Here’s Michelle Pilecki’s review for CP.)

The champagne you’re given before the show, when you are free to wander the temple’s garden, will make you feel a little aristocratic. But once you start scurrying after one actor or another as they move without warning from room to room, you’ll quickly start feeling like one of the servants themselves.

While all the actors move around, if your mobility is limited, you might want to avoid the younger characters — like the chauffeur, Mario, and the maid, Emelia, who tend to cover the most ground the fastest.

Aside from the running about, you might wonder at first what makes experiencing this 1981 play by John Krisanc feel so different. Because some of the scenes involve a monologue, or dialogue, in a room distant from all the other action, some commentators have called Tamara “cinematic.” But I think the strangeness of it also has to do with your physical proximity to the actors in real space: They act standing right next to you, or even brush past you on the way to their next mark, which is definitely more theater than cinema.

During the first act, you’ll probably encounter some traffic-flow problems involving other audience members, who all move at different speeds, and especially when there’s only one doorway out of the room. With each new scene, early arrivers are instructed to move to the opposite end of the room, so everyone can fit — but that means that if you arrive first, you’ll probably leave the room last.

However, this isn’t something to overworry: Even if you caught every word of dialogue by every character you followed, you’d still only experience a fraction of the play, even though a few scenes involve every character.

Finally, in the second act, there’s good fun to be had watching how fellow audience members have adapted to the challenges of this rather active form of spectatorship. If some ticketholders reacted only slowly to actors leaving a room in Act I, by Act II many will be fairly leaping off the mark, if only to get a jump on their fellow patrons.

At any rate, with Tamara’s run of sellout shows in the wake of Bricolage’s success with its differently interactive shows STRATA and OJO, Pittsburghers have definitively established that this kind of theater is for them.

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Comic creator Tom Scioli takes on Transformers and GI Joe

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2014 at 12:35 PM

If you're a creator in the comic book world, the only thing more prestigious than writing stories about well-known characters in long-established universes is getting the chance to re-imagine those characters and universes on your own terms.

Frank Miller got to do it in the '80s with Batman and Daredevil, imbuing these well-known characters with rough-and-tumble pathos. Todd McFarlane got to do it in the '90s with Spider-Man, shining a light on the domestic toll that a life of superheroing would take on everyman Peter Parker. When done right, these reinventions re-invigorate worlds and launch careers into the stratosphere.

Pittsburgh-based creator Tom Scioli — best known for his psychedelic American Barbarian and his recently wrapped collaboration with writer Joe Casey, Gødland - was recently given the opportunity to play in the sandbox of not just one, but two long-standing worlds: the world of giant, morphing robots the Transformers — whose greatest power of all seems to be their ability to smash box-office records — and the world of G.I. Joe, elite soldiers with a budget for over-the-top firepower that would make Chuck Hagel blush, and an unerring military intelligence to match.

Transformers vs. G.I. Joe
  • Transformers vs. G.I. Joe

Oh, and if that weren’t ambitious enough, he’s re-imagining both worlds in one fell swoop. Transformers vs. G.I. Joe is, for all intents and purposes, Tom Scioli's imagination run amok.

If Scioli's previous works are indication, that means that all bets are off. With the support of IDW Publishing's editorial staff and co-writer John Barber, Scioli's options are constrained only by his capacity to envision them.

"[I encountered] no resistance whatsoever. John Barber wanted a different take than what had been published previously. In fact, he wanted something even more whimsical than what I ended up making,” Scioli says. “I'm creating a new comic-book universe that will stand the test of time. ... I have the power to use or ignore whatever I want, so there is no downside.”

The result is something like when Brian DePalma directed the first Mission: Impossible film: true to the tone of the source material, but also clearly a product of its creator. It reveals previously hidden layers of meaning.

While creators like Miller and McFarlane made their bones by placing the well-known characters they were writing in a darker context than readers were used to, Scioli, who takes his creative cues from the legendary (and legendarily out there) Jack Kirby, plays to his own strengths.

Scioli’s Transformers vs. G.I. Joe is not dismal, but day-glo. It's a bold stance in a comic-book marketplace where dire dystopias like those found in titles like The Walking Dead frequently top the charts. Glancing at Scioli's illustrations alone, it would be easy to dismiss Transformers vs. G.I. Joe as mere kids' stuff: yet another commercial avenue by which to sell more of the toys on which the comic is based. Even the most cursory reading of the words and their feverish coupling with Scioli’s images, though, reveals something far more ambitious. “I wanted to create a comic that alternated between the absurd and the tragic,” he says.

Also like the toys on which the comic is based, Scioli’s frenzied, adventurous approach pushes the concept of play to the forefront. It’s clear from the lavish spreads and carefully coordinated color palette that Scioli is having a blast. Each panel is like a visual playset, which translates to a joyful experience for the reader, who will want to take a second pass just to make sure that all the eye candy has been consumed.

Drawing from careful study of the source material, of the distinctive character and vehicle designs of both properties, Scioli is crafting a universe that will appeal to long-time fans and newcomers, alike. “I spent months researching, trying to get a handle on the various characters and their worlds. If I didn't have so much lead time it would've been very intimidating,” Scioli says.

As mentioned earlier, until now Scioli was perhaps best known as a channeler of the visual language of Jack Kirby. Perhaps the greatest opportunity Scioli has in Transformers vs G.I. Joe is being able to dabble in the styles of other creators as well. He's seized this opportunity in his study of Larry Hama, the writer who is largely responsible for the G.I. Joe canon as it is known today.

“My primary influence is Jack Kirby, but in researching Larry Hama's G.I. Joe work, I've incorporated a lot of his virtues into my [own] work. Hama composes action sequences with lots of tiny characters and vehicles moving along multiple vectors. That freneticism, combined with Kirby's own brand of power action, has created a book unlike anything before.”

As much fun as Scioli is having, he is doing so with an eye to the future of his career and the future of his own creations. “Transformers vs. G.I. Joe reaches the widest audience of anything I've done. I plan to bring as many of those readers as possible to my other work, like American Barbarian.”

As much as he seeks to channel the knowledge of the creators who have come before him, Scioli also seeks to impart the knowledge he’s accrued to the next generation of creators. Along these same lines, Scioli will lead a class on creating comics for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. The workshop, Making Comics with Tom Scioli, will take place on August 9, at Downtown's Trust Arts Education Center.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Romance at Kinetic Theatre Company

Posted By on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 10:45 AM

The first production by this company — originally scheduled as the second show by Phoenix Theatre Co. — isn’t for everyone.

Andrew Swacckhamer (left) and Matt DeCaro in Romance
David Mamet’s knowingly offensive 2005 courtroom farce is quite funny at times. And this production is smartly acted, and directed with lightning dispatch by Kinetic Producing Artistic Director Andrew S. Paul (who co-founded the now newly renamed Phoenix last year).

With its feckless judge hopped up on allergy meds, an anti-Semitic lawyer with a weaselly Jewish defendant, and a character who’s a flaming gay stereotype, Romance — at one act, and 75 minutes — is as over-the-top as they come. But though one woman who saw the performance I saw last Saturday guessed that Mamet wrote it as a joke, there was definitely more on his mind than yuks.

Paul clearly thinks so: Why else would he provocatively round out the show’s printed program with a long excerpt of Mamet’s infamous 2008 essay “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal?”

You don’t insert a subplot about Israeli-Palestinian peace talks into a comedy set in New York City unless you’ve got something to say about it. In the essay, Mamet’s brief for his newfound conservatism, he notes that he used to refer to NPR as “National Palestinian Radio.” So while everyone in Romance is mocked, it’s a lot easier to imagine that the play reflects real disdain for the Palestinian cause, for instance, than it harbors about Jews, Episcopalians and gay men.

To be fair, Mamet's mockery of lawyers and judges is quite forthright. As the play’s defendant asks his lawyer, “Why did you go to law school if you don’t want to lie?” (Here’s Michelle Pilecki’s review for CP .)

And perhaps, as Paul himself himself notes in the program, the play’s really meant as an antidote to political correctness, and a “fiesta of forbidden laughter.”

Romance has three more performances, tonight, Friday and Saturday, at The Alloy Studios, 5530 Penn Ave., in Friendship. Tickets are $30 and are available here.

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