Bricolage Production Co.’s immersive-theater work STRATA was among 2012’s arts highlights around here. Now the show is one of several immersive or interactive works highlighted in the cover story of the current issue of American Theatre Magazine.
The article, “The Walls Come Tumbling Down,” by Diep Tran, explores the burgeoning phenomenon of theater that patrons participate in rather than merely watch.
It's a fun, accessible read that documents the explosion in recent years of these sorts of shows, an early example of which was British troupe Punchdrunk’s MacBeth-inspired Sleep No More, whose U.S. premiere was in 2003, in Boston.
For STRATA, which ran last summer, Bricolage took over the former Bally’s building, Downtown, and turned it into a “refitnessing center” run by an imaginary company that promised a kind of existential self-improvement.
The building was dressed as a variety of rooms, from doctor’s offices and archives to gymnasiums and multimedia isolation booths. Patrons “played” STRATA customers, who then underwent individualized experiences depending on the choices they made, as partly determined by interactions with actors playing STRATA employees (some friendly, some more menacing, some simply puzzling).
STRATA (produced in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust) was Bricolage’s biggest-selling show ever, and a massive undertaking for the small company. I loved it, and so did CP’s reviewer, Michelle Pilecki.
While STRATA is just one of the shows featured in American Theatre, the online version of the article leads off with a short video about the show’s set and lighting design, narrated by Rob Long, of Clear Story Creative, one of the many groups and artists that collaborated on the show.
Pittsburgh’s first two experiments with “community-supported art," launched in May, are off to a good start.
CSAs let subscribers buy a share in an art-subscription service, and in return receive a series of original artworks — or, in one case, admission to a series of new performances.
The concept is borrowed from community-supported agriculture, the trendy way to patronize local farmers. Folks in Minnesota pioneered art CSAs in 2010. The idea is to fund artists when they most need it — when they’re creating new work.
On June 7, CSA PGH held its first art pick-up, at The Andy Warhol Museum. Visual artworks by three local artists — a hand-lathed record album (David Bernabo), small photographs of local scenes (Ed Panar) and 50 pieces of a shirt belonging to Andy Warhol (Lenka Clayton) — were distributed to the 50 shareholders, who had ponied up $350 apiece.
And last night, The New Hazlett Theater welcomed shareholders and other guests to a preview event for its own CSA program.
The New Hazlett’s CSA is unique nationally in being dedicated to performance art. Four of the six CSA artists spoke, including Sarah Parker, of Continuum Dance Theater, and “audio/visual astronaut” Dan Wilcox (whose interactive work will ask, “Would you go to Mars if you had to leave tomorrow and you couldn’t come back?”
New Hazlett shares cost $100. Executive director René Conrad says that as of the conclusion of last night’s event, 89 of the target of 150 shares had been sold.
Hmmm — CSA PGH sold out its $350 shares in a month, while the New Hazlett is still trying to sell its $100 shares (albeit rather more of them, but still). Is performance a tougher sell than physical artworks? Certainly it’s non-collectible, which might deter some potential patrons — even though $100 is dirt-cheap for six original live performances.
Still, the first New Hazlett CSA performance isn’t until August, so there’s time for the other shares to sell. The theater does plan to offer non-subscription tickets to individual performances. But as Conrad says, “I really want to support the farm and not just the carrots.”
CSA PGH, meanwhile, has started a waiting list for next year’s offerings.
Saltimbanco is Cirque du Soleil’s longest-touring show, playing for seven performances at Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center. I caught the opening night on Thursday. With its breathtaking stunts, silly clowns, elaborate costumes and music combined in a general surreal spectacle, the show fulfilled all expectations of the troupe with eerie precision.
In Hard Times, Charles Dickens used the circus to represent the fanciful alternative to the world of facts and industry; to the machine. In Cirque du Soleil it seems the metaphors have merged. They create razzle-dazzle machines of entertainment in which everything is choreographed to smooth perfection. And with 5,000 employees, 20 different shows and an audience of millions worldwide, the Quebec-based troupe is seemingly unstoppable.
Utter reliability shouldn’t be a problem for a show like Saltimbanco, in which people unfurl from ropes tied fifty feet in the air and somersault off swinging platforms to be caught by human towers. But it does rob these fantastic feats of suspense or a sense of the performer's personalities. The possibility the bungee swingers, trapezists, and jugglers could screw up seems more remarkable than the fact that they don’t. In its 20 years of touring Saltimbanco is a victim of its own success.
Moreover many of the acts are over-saturated. The mind-bending "Cane Balancing" act or multi-person "Chinese Poles" come accompanied by booming Muzak — played live but sounding thoroughly artificial — and masked clowns faffing around in the background. It’s like watching the Olympic gymnastics final on your smart phone during a pop concert. There are some amazing displays of human ability in front of you, if only you weren’t too stimulated to concentrate on them.
The most effective acts in Saltimbanco are also the most stripped back. A drumming and whip-cracking duo in the "Boleadores" act create a vivid tango with minimal window dressing, and the schoolboy-attired solo clown "Eddie" is the star of the evening.
Using no more than mime, his personableness and beat-boxing skills, Eddie mocks up a spaghetti western standoff with an audience member. And what I’ll remember the most from Saltimbanco is when he flushed himself down the toilet, despite the fact most of the visuals of the scenario took place in my mind.
Saltimbanco plays through Sun., Oct. 21. Tickets are $32-80 and available here.
One of this town’s many fine smaller stage troupes, Caravan Theatre of Pittsburgh, does itself proud with this strange and ambitious play about the cult-hero science-fiction author.
Even if you’ve never read a word Dick wrote, you know his concepts: Films from Bladerunner and Total Recall to Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly are based on his writings about the blurring lines between humans and androids, memory and falsehood, the future and the present.
Victoria Stewart’s play 800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick smartly and imaginatively summons the author’s spirit with a play whose form is adapted from Dick’s own aesthetics.
The play is largely set in 1982, on the very day Dick died, in his San Francisco flat. But it’s built around a divine revelation Dick believes he had several years earlier, and his efforts to write and publish a massive “exegesis” on God.
Just as Dick wrote about the present collapsing into the future, so in 800 Words does time seem unstable, with events from decades apart overlapping. And just like Dick made himself a character in his fictions, so does Stewart herself show up as a major character in Act 2, to hilarious if ultimately unnerving effect.
Caravan co-founders John Gresh and Dana Hardy play Dick and his long-suffering wife, Tessa. (“It’s just words,” Tessa says of one of her husband’s promises; he responds, “That’s all I have.”) The often manic action involves puppets, including Dick’s talking cat. The excellent supporting cast is expertly directed by Martin Giles.
A Dick fan I ran into at the show, staged at Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Downtown venue, said the play had inspired him to dig back into Dick’s writings.
Here’s Michelle Pilecki’s review for CP.
There are four more performances starting tomorrow, including a Sunday matinee. Tickets are $15-20.
There are just three more chances to see this great production of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play, tonight and tomorrow at Point Park University's Playhouse, in Oakland.
I've enjoyed local stagings of a few of Letts' earlier plays, including Bug and Killer Joe, but this one really floored me.
It's just huge, an epic in a small-town Oklahoma house that begins (after a brief prologue) with the disappearance of the family patriarch, a poet and college professor named Beverly Weston. From there it sprawls out into an uproarious 13-character drama about Weston's extended family.
But while it's quite dark — delving into alcoholism, prescription-drug addiction, infidelity and plenty of other taboos — August: Osage County is also one of the funniest plays I've ever seen.
And this mostly local cast, directed by John Shepard, does it proud, led by Mary Rawson as drug-addled matriarch Violet Weston.
CP critic Robert Isenberg gave the show a glowing review. And a theater veteran who saw last night's show with me said the REP's production bested the touring production (starring Estelle Parsons) that introduced the play to Pittsburgh in 2010.
The show's up for matinees today and tomorrow, with an evening show tonight.