If you’re looking for something truly madcap to cap the year, this wonderfully entertaining short-run show by the Point Park Conservatory Theatre Company should do the trick.
Basically, it’s about three con artists who run a retirement home as a front for a scam to sell a fake wonder drug called “The Madness” to gullible college students. But that doesn’t begin to capture this show’s wild farcical energy.
Somehow, Cody and the talented cast manage to jam every theatrical technique they could think of into a single frenetic plot and keep it from flying apart at the seams.
The play is stuffed with caricatures — stoned hippy, sexpot nurse, foulmouthed old woman, jock, nerd, cheerleader, repressed Christian youth, shape-shifting charlatan. Set it on spin, and watch the performers go to work with slapstick — tons of slapstick — plus commedia dell'arte masks, fourth-wall-smashing, a live band, an improvised song, an extended tap-dance sequence, a video-game parody, several cheerleading routines, shameless puns, a raccoon hand puppet, the machine-gun patter of screwball comedies, a bit of circus … you get the idea. And the cross-dressing includes a young man playing an old woman who in turn portrays a drag queen.
What’s it all mean? Cody’s a very clever writer whose other theatrical credits include lead writer on Bricolage’s STRATA , an immersive take on self-improvement seminars. She was her also playwright and co-star of 2011’s Fat Beckett (at Quantum Theatre), which satirizes consumerism. Alchemists’ Lab complements those critiques of our obsession with having it all, preferably in pill form.
But Alchemists’ Lab is also simply about the astonishing amount of fun that theater can be. Although you’ve seen every trick in this show before, Cody’s sharp direction and the cast’s boundless verve make it all feel new. The 100-minute, intermissionless work flies by with not more than a brief lull or two.
My only qualm concerns representation. Of the four African-American males on stage, one plays a character who can’t talk and two play women. And yes, this is a student production, it’s farce, and there’s a long history of theatrical cross-dressing; and for all I know, in this co-devised work, some performers invented or developed their own roles. But in a theater landscape still short of roles for black men, this remains a concern.
Otherwise, I recommend The Alchemists’ Lab heartily. The show (which opened Tuesday) has six more performances at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, tonight through Sunday. Tickets are $9-20 and are available here.
Bricolage Productions, a theater company that’s done big things on a small budget Downtown, lost some crucial equipment to a burglar on Saturday.
Ironically enough, the office break-in happened while the troupe was spreading some holiday cheer just yards away, staging its show Midnight Radio: Animated Holidaze, in its Liberty Avenue performance space.
Taken were a wallet with some cash, a backpack — and two MacBook Pros that Bricolage depends on for research, grant-writing, script-writing, i.e., pretty much everything it does that isn’t actually on stage. About $4,000 worth of stuff, in all.
The company, run by Jeff Carpenter and Tami Dixon, is seeking donations to replace the computers … and also to install security cameras and purchase business renters’ insurance and a small safe.
Watch a short video here that explains further, and includes Bricolage pooch Odie.
Bricolage is accepting donations in any size. With theatrical can-do gusto, they’re calling it The “They Stole Our Stuff, But Not Our Spirit!” Campaign.
The acclaimed short-story writer gave a fine a very funny talk at a sold-out Carnegie Music Hall. He spent most of this Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures event demystifying the writing process in fairly candid terms.
And he added that, as a lapsed Catholic, he gets editing help from "my inner nun, Sister Mary Loathing."
By the numbers, this all meant, for instance, that “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” a key story in his latest collection, The Tenth of December, took him 14 years to write, with as many pages of deletions as of finished story. Saunders said he is usually is working on several stories at a time, and completes them at what some might view as an agonizingly slow rate: “I’m a two-story-a-year writer.”
He seldom gives up on a story, however, he said.
Saunders (visiting Pittsburgh for the first time in seven years), also recounted his long and winding journey as a writer, one that was about ceasing his attempts to be Hemingway or Kerouac, and less about finding than accepting his own voice.
On that matter, here’s an excerpt the phone interview I did with Saunders for last week’s CP, but which didn’t wind up in the preview article. I had asked Saunders about his frequent use of fantasy and science-fiction elements in his stories, something some readers (and perhaps even writers) still consider a bit declasse.
"I was kinda from a working-class background, so art was this spotless temple I was afraid
to go into. I really wanted to go in but I was a little bit self-conscious. So for many years,
I kept it out too. I kept out humor, and I kept out sci-fi or genre elements — and it worked
out for me, I really didn’t have anything else going on.
There was one kind of pivotal moment right before I started my first book. The scales kinda
dropped from my eyes, and I thought, “Maybe if you don’t use what’s really natural to you,
then you don’t have anything to use. It’s like if you’re trying to get someone to fall in love
with you and you didn’t want to be yourself, ever.
My childhood was mostly the TV. I was a big reader, but I read kinda sports books. Not so
much sci-fi, but books about World War II, boys’ books, stuff like that. But I watched a lot of TV.
And I really love pop culture. I don’t even think of it as love, I just thought of it as the world.
Then when I got to the place where I was really trying to get my writing to have a little more
oomph, I thought, I need to drop these walls and let a lot of that crap in."
Finally, lest the National Book Award-nominated Tenth of December hog all the attention, here from the archives is my review of his great 2006 collection In Persuasion Nation.
It’s the final week of performances for this Pittsburgh-premiere staging of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker With The Hat — and a good time to note barebones’ unique spot on the local theater scene.
Jordan — an actor just a few years out of Pitt when he launched the troupe — started doing smart stuff like having rock bands and kegs of beer after the shows, to draw young audiences. (This now-familiar practice was then novel in Pittsburgh.) But his connections in local theater were strong enough that he attracted top-of-the-line directing talent; in barebones’ fourth show, 2005’s Frozen, Jordan starred alongside two of Pittsburgh’s most acclaimed actresses, Helena Ruoti and Susan McGregor-Laine.
At age 10, barebones remains one of a handful of long-running local independent companies still guided by the artistic visions of their founders. (Others include Quantum Theatre, still run by Karla Boos, and Pittsburgh Playwrights, headed by Mark Clayton Southers.)
That’s both in spite of and because of the fact that barebones effectively is Jordan (the company has no other staff) and whomever he recruits as cast and crew for a given show. Most other troupes not affiliated with universities either become more institutional (like the Public or City Theatre), grow big enough to have more paid staff, or simply fade from the scene.
All nonprofit arts groups rely heavily on grants and individual donations. But despite the fact that barebones now sometimes deploys sets of an elaborateness unimaginable for the company in 2003 — Motherfucker features three distinct apartments on Douglas McDermott’s splendid lazy-susan-style set— the shows still basically only happen when Jordan can assemble the resources to stage them.
Given all that, barebones has a remarkably consistent production history. Unlike other small companies, it doesn’t have a set season. But in those 10 years it’s staged 11 shows, and only once, in 2011, did it go a calendar year without staging one. (The next show, Keith Huff's A Steady Rain, is already set to open next February.)
Jordan’s also been quick to jump on up-and-coming playwrights whom other local companies either don’t know about or won’t touch — like Tracy Letts, whose BUG barebones premiered locally a year before Letts won his Pulitzer for August: Osage County, and Guirgis, whose Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train was the first Pittsburgh production of a work by one of American theater’s biggest current names.
All this, and typically strong reviews, despite a penchant for material dark enough that Jordan himself played a serial killer in both The Glory of Living and Frozen — and in 2006 followed those shows with The Grey Zone, Tim Blake Nelson’s harrowing play set in a Nazi concentration camp. So it's not like he's pandering.
And though barebones — which used to stage plays in found spaces — has in recent years found a home at the New Hazlett Theater, Jordan's approach has hardly changed. One of the main characters in last year’s Jesus, after all, was also a serial killer.
And gritty love triangle Motherfucker, despite its plentiful street-level humor, is ultimately (to my mind) about boiling the world down to narcissists and nihilists.
But you can see for yourself at the show’s three remaining performances, tonight through Saturday at the New Hazlett. Tickets are $30-35, and you can find them here.
Although it centers on the fraught, raucously funny relationship between two brothers, on another level Sam Shepard’s contemporary classic probes our national mythology.
The brothers squabble, perhaps most basically, about their authenticity. Hollywood insider Austin is working on a screenplay; drifter and thief Lee says he can write one, too. And the fact that Lee’s story is full (to Austin’s mind) of the rankest Western cliches, we learn, doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t sell.
Is family man Austin the truer citizen? Or is Lee’s form of self-sufficiency — burglary — just as authentic, especially given his apparent ability to live alone in the desert? Somewhere in the background, the soundtracks to 500 cowboy movies swell.
Historians debate how much the American character was formed by a belief in the frontier — its values, its justice, all now heavily mythologized. But perhaps what became most significant about the Western frontier, starting around 1890, is that there just wasn’t any more of it. In this fine production directed by Pamela Berlin, the brothers have nothing left to face but the the unknown terrain in each other.
True West has eight more performances at the O’Reilly Theater through this Sunday, starting tonight. Tickets are $15.75-55.
It's an intriguing play by one of the hottest English-language playwrights of the moment, cleverly staged in an old chain burger place in the Waterfront.
Despite his acclaim, British playwright Jez Butterworth hasn't had too much exposure in these parts — previously, to my knowledge, just a 2009 Point Park REP production of his first play, the gangster drama Mojo .
The three-character Parlour Song indeed suggests a playwright worth more time on local stages. It's a funny, insinuating and ultimately quite sad portrait of suburban loneliness, the quiet (or noisy) desperation we attempt to paper over with cheerful grins, fitness schemes, work and possessions.
Organizing metaphor: All of protagonist Ned's stuff is disappearing, each birdbath by stuffed badger. Thus does Butterworth take his characters into existential terrain without every brushing against pretense.
Butterworth is also said to be writing the script for a feature film about The Clash.
Here's Colette Newby's review of Parlour Song for CP. Of particular note is the show's staging in an old Pittsburgh Burger Company restaurant, the paneled half-walls and such eerily echoing any shoddy new subdivision you care to name.
Parlour Song has two more performances, at 8 p.m. tonight and 7 p.m. tomorrow. Tickets are $46, available here.
This start-up theater company is out of the gate strong with the Pittsburgh-premiere production of Joe Penhall’s darkly humorous, rather heady play set in a British mental hospital.
It’s got a potent cast: local favorites David Whalen and Sam Tsoutsouvas, plus relative newcomer Rico Parker. Whalen and Tsoutsouvas play two white doctors sparring over the case of a young black patient named Chris, played by Parker.
The director is Andrew Paul (late of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre), who co-founded the troupe with Mark Clayton Southers.
While the play tackles race, class and mental illness, to me it was mostly about the power of language. Or, as one character puts it, “If people get the meaning of the word wrong, how can they get the person right?”
Take this intriguing thread. Act One is largely about Dr. Bruce trying to convince Chris to stay in the hospital, when he wants to go, as Dr. Smith agrees he should. Act Two finds Smith trying to persuade Chris to leave, after he’s changed his mind and wants to stay.
That’s when things get really interesting. Smith argues to the paranoid Chris that Bruce has put thoughts in Chris’ head, and — an especially devilish argument — that Chris’ conscious mind (which is telling him to stay in hospital) simply must catch up to his unconscious desire to leave.
Then, in a written report, Smith puts his own words in Chris’ mind. But he’s also uniwttingly fed the patient’s paranoia. After which, Chris proves as unintentionally skillful at twisting Smith’s words as Smith was at twisting his.
Follow the sinuous lines of argument for four more performances, tonight through Saturday, staged at the Pittsburgh Playwrights space at 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Tickets are $15-38.
And here’s Ted Hoover’s review of the show for CP.
Local writer Matthew Newton has started a new small press, and is launching it with his own lovely new zine, titled “In Case of Emergency.” The event is tomorrow night, at Braddock’s UnSmoke Systems Artspace.
Newton’s new small-press venture is called No Empire, and “Emergency” is its first publication.
Newton has written for publications including The Atlantic, Esquire, Forbes, Guernica and Spin. (He’s also written for CP from time to time.)
Tomorrow’s event, co-presented with Small Press Pittsburgh, includes a Small Press pop-up bookshop with works by local authors; vintage-goods shop Do Not Destroy; and readings by Newton, Karen Dietrich and Karen Lillis (who runs Small Press Pittsburgh).
It’s also a chance to see the art exhibit View From A Hill, Devon Johnson’s "psychological portrait of the landscape of Pittsburgh."
Doors at UnSmoke open tomorrow at 6 p.m, with readings at 7 p.m. The gallery is located at 1137 Braddock Ave., in Braddock. The event is free.
Open any self-help book and you will likely be met with a barrage of what exactly you have been doing wrong for your whole life, and what you need to start doing right lest you be miserable forever.
“Almost every moment of the book emphasizes being excited about life, about your own creativity, about letting it run free but also being in control of it and yourself,” says Elliott. She's a former University of Pittsburgh poetry instructor who’s now a counselor, teacher and organizer in the Evolver Network, which is dedicated to visionary social activism.
Elliott, 29, says in an interview that she wrote the book for friends of hers who she saw had immense creative ability, but weren’t sure how to use it. That situation gradually made them more and more unhappy.
Positivity is something of an avocation for Elliot. On her blog, www.awesomeyourlife.com, she writes, “I’m on a mission to help myself and everyone else become fully lucid, joyful and compassionate inside this crazy dream.”
Awaken Your Genius is published by Evolver Editions. In it, she outlines seven steps to self-improvement, emphasizing “making your soul,” which, she says, gives you backbone.
“Soul-making is about learning to see the world through your heart,” she says. “Seeing the world through your heart emphasizes the idea of being good and happy in every aspect of your life.”
The seven steps are a chronological plan to help readers move through their life without being held back by their own creativity: Hearing Your Heart’s Call, Accepting the Call, Meeting Your Guide, Crossing the Threshold, Enduring Trials and Becoming Divine. The book’s final step, Taming Your Genius, tells the reader that it doesn’t matter if a particular objective is good or bad; if it is not within reason, one will lose control.
Elliot is a published poet, but the book also draws on her experiences teaching, reading and being with friends — her failures as well as her successes.
She says that the book is not just a plan for a couple months, but rather outlines a possibly lifetime journey. “Our genius is hungry, and it needs to be fed,” Elliott says. “We have many different kinds of energy and oftentimes it can be overwhelming … [W]ith the book I am trying to help people find a healthy outlet for their energy and their creativity.”
Arriving past our deadline was word of Pittsburgh Collects, an exhibition of 75 images contributed by three local collectors.
The collectors represented are Evan Mirapaul, Graham Shearing an an anonymous collector.
Mirapaul, though known locally as founder and director of the Pgh Photo Fair, is also co-chair of the library committee of the International Center for Photography. Shearing, a curator and consultant, has written art criticism for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Pittsburgh Quarterly.
According to the Silver Eye press release, the images in the show reflect both photographic history and current trends, from silver-gelatin prints to digital prints. Minor White and Josef Sudek are among the widely famed artists whose work is included. Local photographers whose work is represented include Sue Abramson, William D. Wade and the late Aaronel deRoy Gruber.
The exhibition is organized by Brian Lang, curator of the BNY Mellon Corporate Art Collection (and Silver Eye’s board chair) and Marcia Rosenthal, an independent art consultant, fine-art appraiser (and Silver Eye board member).
The show continues through Jan. 11. Silver Eye Center for Photography is located at 1015 E. Carson St., on the South Side.