Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'Collaborators' at Pittsburgh's Quantum Theatre

Posted By on Wed, Apr 19, 2017 at 12:51 PM

By turns hilarious and sinister, and sometimes both at once, Collaborators is an exceptionally engaging evening of theater. Playwright John Hodge’s satiric drama imagines an almost-plausible 1930s collusion between famed writer Mikhail Bulgakov and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

As history and biography, the play takes us only so far. But it’s a fascinating — and highly entertaining — rumination on the relationship between politics and art and a terrifying exploration of the price of moral compromise.

In the play, a secret policeman proves oddly chipper; Bulgakov’s relationship with Stalin feels weirdly dreamlike (and might, it occurred to me, actually be a dream). The show’s aspects of madcap, absurdist humor rub shoulders with its moments of mortal danger — a mix surely informed by director Jed Allen Harris’ long experience doing political theater, as well as his work in the former Eastern Bloc nation of Bulgaria.

The cast shines; Marty Giles devours the role of Stalin. That the building in which the show is staged is purportedly an old livestock-processing building in a warehouse district adds something, as does the sound of the train that intermittently passes on the adjacent tracks.

Here’s Michelle Pilecki’s review of the show for CP.

A further note: These days, all political art — even if, like Hodges’ play, it dates to 2011 — begs analysis in the context of the current political climate. This production of Collaborators, moreover, truly seemed to ask for it: Early versions of Quantum’s promo image (as sent by email) depicted two men shaking hands while concealing weapons, one man clearly Stalin, the other, sporting a distinctively contoured blonde man-bouffant, surely meant to suggest Donald Trump:
But curiously, the program I was handed at the show this past Friday had a new color scheme — both men’s hair was now maroon — and both the bow and stern of “Trump’s” hairpiece had been trimmed.

I asked Quantum artistic director Karla Boos what had happened; I was ultimately told, by Nathan Davidson of Little Kelpie, the design studio Quantum hired to create the image, that there was no intent to move away from the Trumpier iteration: “I suspect what’s happened is that an early version of the show art was used as a place-holder on the program and we never noticed during layout and proofing,” Davidson wrote in an email.

That original image, by the way, survives on Quantum’s web site — and also, to my eye, in the production itself, in Giles’ iron-gray wig, which styling-wise might be called “Stalin in the front, Trump in the back.”

Boos, for her part, says via email that she liked the original artwork for its identification of Trump not with Stalin (with whom he’s depicted merely shaking hands), but with the Bulgakov character — “the guy with the moral dilemma.”

In real life, Trump is so far less a Stalinesque despot than an amuck plutocrat. On the other hand, in Collaborators, Stalin does say, “Killing your enemies is easy. The challenge is to control their minds,” which does resonate disturbingly in a world of presidential lies and “alternative facts.”

Collaborators continues with 10 more performances tonight through April 30. Tickets are $18-56 and are available here.

The venue is at 6500 Frankstown Ave., in Larimer.

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Joyce Carol Oates speaks in Pittsburgh

Posted By on Wed, Apr 19, 2017 at 11:46 AM

Post by Jody DiPerna

Joyce Carol Oates arrived in Pittsburgh on a red-eye flight on Tuesday morning and said that walking around Mount Lebanon felt kind of surreal, as the morning after an overnight flight often does. But the cross-country travel didn’t slow the acclaimed author down last night, as she kept a full auditorium at Mount Lebanon's Mellon Middle School in thrall discussing her latest novel, A Book of American Martyrs.

Joyce Carol Oates
  • Joyce Carol Oates
The novel, set in Michigan and Ohio, is told in the voices of myriad characters. Primarily it is the story of two families: those of Dr. Augustus Voorhees, an abortion doctor who is murdered in the novel's first sentence, and Luther Dunphy, the Christian-fundamentalist assassin. Both men end up martyrs to their respective causes.

The first excerpt Oates read was from the perspective of Voorhees. Interestingly, it was a passage she edited out, explaining that it felt like a stand-alone piece, or a short story. Oates has taught creative writing since the early 1960s and she clearly brings her professorial self to bear when editing her own work.

She read two other excerpts (both actually in the book): one from the perspective of Dunphy, living on death row and grappling with his own imminent death, the other a very moving inner dialogue from the perspective of a corrections officer whose job it is to administer the lethal injection. Oates talked about visiting San Quentin Maximum Security Prison, which houses all of the California's death-row prisoners, and trying to describe that execution chamber exactly for this book, right down to the incongruous robin’s-egg blue walls.

Discussion of American Martyrs segued into talk of the current political climate. “Since the 2016 election, the two Americas have been at war, and the rift in our society is ever more obvious since the election of Donald Trump," Oates said. "The division is painful and it’s hard to see a way out of it.” And though she wrote American Martyrs prior to the 2016 election, the book reflects this deep fracture.

Early in the talk, Oates quoted Stendhal ("Fiction is a mirror carried along a high road"), and referred back to the quote frequently.

She noted that the abortion doctor comes from “a world of her own” — one of financially secure people, most with advanced degrees and education. And that the other side, often fundamentalist, quite socially conservative, is often spoken of in pejorative terms by her own cohort. She had to work hard to put herself in the place of those characters, for her to make them feel less "other," to hold up Stendhal’s mirror. But she grew to have great sympathy for them and for Luther Dunphy, in particular.

Oates' work is serious, sometimes grim, often difficult. But she’s lighter and funnier than one might expect from reading her curriculum vitae. She talked about the sense of hope in her work, that she’s always looking for “affirmations of the resilience of the human spirit … things that are affirming and healing.”

She responded to a question about the often merciless nature of her work by saying that her writing was not, in and of itself, depressing. “It would be painful if everybody died, if there was a big sinkhole. That would be depressing, I think.”

It seemed like the right note on which to end the night.

Oates spoke as part of the Mount Lebanon Library Public Speakers Series. To read an interview with Oates from last week's edition of CP, see here.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

CorningWorks' "What's Missing?" at the New Hazlett Theater

Posted By on Fri, Mar 31, 2017 at 11:09 AM

"This performance is flawed," goes one of the voice-over lines repeated throughout this latest dance-theater offering from CorningWorks' Glue Factory Project.

Beth Corning and Donald Byrd in "What's Missing?" - PHOTO COURTESY OF WALSH PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo courtesy of Walsh Photography
  • Beth Corning and Donald Byrd in "What's Missing?"
As seen last night, the show, a collaboration between company founder and artistic director Beth Corning and Seattle-based dance legend Donald Byrd, is largely a reflective study of perception, expressed in a series of duets and solos.

The opening sequence establishes a relationship between the two characters, male and female, exploring a lived-in interdependence: Sometimes they move together, sometimes one must right the other, who's fallen over.

The solos deepen the characters. A notable one finds Corning working with the show's lone prop, a short wooden bench. Confused, tentative and fearful, she seems to be hoping the bench will serve as an anchor of some kind, but in the end finds it, too, provides no surety.

A memorable solo by Byrd is a comical turn in which he's instructed by a disembodied voice to perform various movements ("shimmy," "hula-hoop"), only to be evaluated at the end. It's perhaps notable that Byrd's character in this sequence is the only one in the whole hour-long work who smiles very much. But is that because he's happy to be told what to do, or simply because he's performing, and performers smile?

Ambiguity runs throughout; the performers express a lot of emotion, but — again, as the voiceover warns — there's no real resolution (other than a formal one). "This performance will not make you happy," goes another line in the show's script. But with its thoughtful choreography and performances, and interesting lighting and musical cues, "What's Missing?" satisfies aesthetically.

Here is Steve Sucato's preview of the show for City Paper.

What's Missing? has two more performances, tonight at 8 p.m. and the Sunday matinee. Tickets to tonight's performance are $25-30 and are available here. Admission to Sunday's show is pay-what-you can.

The New Hazlett is located at 6 Allegheny Ave., on the North Side.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Final performances of 'Virginia Woolf' at Pittsburgh's Cup-A-Jo Productions

Posted By on Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 10:04 AM

The folks who insisted to me that this staging of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a must-see — including two members of the local theater community who told me they saw it twice each — weren't kidding around.

From left: Hilary Caldwell, Joanna Lowe and Tom Kolos in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - PHOTO COURTESY OF KEN KERR
  • Photo courtesy of Ken Kerr
  • From left: Hilary Caldwell, Joanna Lowe and Tom Kolos in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
By staging the show in the living room of a Point Breeze house, the small but ambitious Cup-A-Jo troupe puts you right in the action: At moments, the front row of the limited-seating audience had their knees a foot from the actors. Of course, the production must justify that kind of intimacy, and this one does. It's a tough, unsparing but ultimately empathetic — and highly entertaining — take on this monumental play, with director Everett Lowe drawing the best from his cast.

If you've only ever seen the iconic film adaptation (with Elizabeth Taylor), hustle on down. You'll discover whole new layers to Albee's play about one rough night between two married couples after an early-1960s college-faculty party — or at least (like me), you'll be reminded of the play's corrosive brilliance, as full of wordplay and humor as it is of harsh insight.

Here's Stuart Sheppard's formal review of the production for CP.

Virginia Woolf has two more performances, at 7:30 p.m. tonight and again tomorrow. You must reserve tickets by emailing or calling 412-334-3126; the address is revealed on reservation.

Tickets are $20-25 and must be paid for at the door by cash or check. For more info, see here.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Essay film 'Robopaths' to screen tomorrow at Glitter Box

Posted By on Thu, Feb 16, 2017 at 2:21 PM

Everybody's talking about the roboticized future of autonomous cars and jobless humans. But what if another big danger were people becoming more like robots?

That's the question posed in a feature-length film by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE. The film, in turn, was inspired by the writings of sociologist Lewis Yablonsky, who wrote: "In a robopathic-producing social machine, conformity is a virtue. New or different behavior is viewed as strange and bizarre. 'Freaks' are feared. Originality is suspect."

tENT, a veteran experimental filmmaker, calls Robopaths a "pastiche film" that incorporates footage from everything from Stanley Milgram's infamous "obedience research" to clips from the 1953 cult classic The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, based on a story by Dr. Seuss.

Other reference points are Nazism and suicide bombers. For a rundown of some of the clips used, see here.

The film's first public screening is at 8 p.m. tomorrow at The Glitter Box Theater, the new space inside Oakland's Bloomcraft. Admission is $6.

The Glitter Box is located at 460 Melwood Ave.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Tickets still left for tonight's 'Chad Deity' performance at Pittsburgh's barebones productions

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2017 at 12:53 PM

It's closing week for barebones' lively production of this unique, pro-wrestling-themed play at the Ace Hotel. But if you don't already have tickets, you'll need to go tonight, as Friday and Saturday's shows are sold out.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity - PHOTO COURTESY OF LOUIS STEIN
  • Photo courtesy of Louis Stein
  • The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
The Obie-winning play, by Kristoffer Diaz, depicts a drama that plays out behind the scenes (and sometimes in the ring) of a fictional WWE-style wrestling league. The often-satirical story revolves around efforts to turn an Indian-American wrestler into a bearded and turbaned villain named "The Fundamentalist."

Here's Stuart Sheppard's review for CP.

The show, complete with pro-wrestling ring, is staged in the Ace's gym. barebones usually runs shows for three weekends, but had to limit Chad to two weekends because of prior bookings at the space.

Tickets are $35 and are available here.

The Ace Hotel is located at 120 S. Whitfield St., in East Liberty.

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Program with renowned environmental artist Saturday at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art

Posted By on Thu, Jan 26, 2017 at 12:45 PM

Santa Fe, N.M.-based artist Andrea Polli, known locally for "Energy Flow" — the large-scale light installation on the Rachel Carson Bridge — gives a talk about how artists can help people visualize the environmental impact of their behavior.

Andrea Polli (center) and her "Energy Flow" on the Rachel Carson Bridge - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF ART
  • Photo courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art
  • Andrea Polli (center) and her "Energy Flow" on the Rachel Carson Bridge
The free, two-hour program in the museum’s Hall of Architecture is called Hack the Grid, and subtitled “A Conversation about Light, Energy, and Environmental Sensing, A Responsive Vision for Public Art.”

Polli will present and discuss the proposals made by teams of local artists, designers, architects, scientists and more whom she led in a five-day exploration of “creative visualization” based on Oakland’s locally famous Bellefield Boiler, or “cloud factory” (so nicknamed by novelist Michael Cabon in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh). The Boiler has long made the steam that heats most of Oakland's major institutions, including the Carnegie itself.

The teams will suggest ways to use the gas-fired Boiler as a site to help people understand data on matters like pollution, energy, weather and climate.

The problem the workshop means to address is that we typically lack visible proof of the damage done by environmental impact of such everyday actions as flipping a light switch. As press materials for the event ask, “What if each utility had a corresponding work of art, seen by everyone, that changed and morphed with our usage?”

Polli is one of four artists currently part of the Carnegie’s Hillman Photography Initiative. Her works include Energy Flow, which uses wind turbines installed on the Rachel Carson for last year’s Light Up Night to power a light installation which makes visual the amount of power the turbines produce. She also created "Particle Falls," the 2014 light installation projected on the side of Downtown's Benedum Center that made visible the amount of particulate matter in the air at any given moment.

Other permanent and building-scale works of Polli's are at the University of Utah and in San Jose, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit; Philadelphia; Hagen, Germany; and Zagreb, Croatia. Her artwork has been featured in solo and group exhibitions around the world.

Hack the Grid runs from 1-3 p.m. on Sat., Jan. 28. A reception follows.

Admission is free but preregistration is suggested.

The Carnegie Museum is located at 4400 Forbes Ave., in Oakland.

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Final performances of “Between Riverside and Crazy” at Pittsburgh Public Theater

Posted By on Thu, Dec 8, 2016 at 2:15 PM

Just five more performances remain of this fine production of last year’s Pulitzer winner for drama.

From left to right: Dawn McGee, Drew Stone and Eugene Lee in "Between Riverside and Crazy" - PHOTO COURTESY OF PITTSBURGH PUBLIC THEATER
  • Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater
  • From left to right: Dawn McGee, Drew Stone and Eugene Lee in "Between Riverside and Crazy"
The playwright, Stephen Adley Guirgis, is arguably the hottest in the country right now. Earlier plays of his to cause a stir on local stages in recent seasons include The Motherfucker With the Hat and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (both at barebones theater); Our Lady of 121st Street (at Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre Co.); and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (at Throughline Theater Co.).

“Riverside” feels particularly incendiary at times. A retired, recently widowed cop is bitterly fighting a legal battle against the city while trying to hang on to his rent-controlled apartment and confronting his relationships with former police colleagues, his own ex-convict son, the son’s flighty girlfriend, unstable buddy and more.

Guirgis’ characters, as usual, inhabit a keyed-up world of salty humor and sudden violence, but the Public’s cast and crew ably bring out the script’s subtle emotions as well. It's a pungent mix of domestic drama, cop story, social commentary and sex comedy.

Here’s Ted Hoover’s review for City Paper.

Performances continue through this Sunday’s matinee.

Tickets are $15.75-56 and are available here.

The Public's O'Reilly Theater is located at 621 Penn Ave., Downtown.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Attack Theatre's "Unbolted"

Posted By on Tue, Dec 6, 2016 at 4:15 PM

If you’re a dance fan in Pittsburgh, I probably don’t have to tell you about Attack Theatre. The city’s most tenured independent contemporary-dance company is also perhaps its most ubiquitous, with frequent site-specific shows, community performances, and collabos with other arts groups supplementing its own theatrical season.

Anthony Williams (foreground) rehearses Attack Theatre's "Unbolted" - PHOTO COURTESY OF RENEE ROSENSTEEL
  • Photo courtesy of Renee Rosensteel
  • Anthony Williams (foreground) rehearses Attack Theatre's "Unbolted"
But just in case you needed a reminder, the troupe’s latest full-length work served notice that Attack remains an important creative force in town, and arguably just keeps getting better. Unbolted is an ambitious yet accessible three-act show — as well as Attack’s first ever performed in the round, at its home base, at Pittsburgh Opera headquarters, in the Strip. (Here’s Steve Sucato’s preview for CP.)

Act one found the company’s five dancers interacting with each other and a couple of simple props — first a road map, and then an impossibly long piece of elastic line. In the second act, Kaitlinn Dann, Dane Toney, Anthony Williams, Ashley Williams and Sarah Zielinski played a very sophisticated game of musical chairs. And in the third (with inventive live accompaniment by percussionist Ian Green), the prop was a single huge chair, a work in aluminimum that after being assembled onstage stood 5 feet at seat level (with its backrest doubling that height).

As choreographed by co-artistic directors Michele de la Reza and Peter Kope, the group dances, duets and solos flowed beautifully to a soundtrack that ranged from dance-club beats to Appalachian fiddles and, in a recurring motif, what sounded like a soccer chant. Built from gesture and fleeting implied narratives, punctuated with moments of athleticism, the acts played out as a series of cinematic scenes – 90 minutes’ worth, broken up only by two short intermissions — that turned on a dime from antic to somber.

Unbolted’s four-performance run is over. (I saw the final showing, on Saturday night.) But keep it in mind when Attack returns with its next new show, in the spring.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Final Week for "The River" at Pittsburgh’s Quantum Theatre

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2016 at 10:45 AM

When site-specific theater works well, it’s no gimmick: The real and the imaginary blend in ways that feed the themes of the play. That’s certainly the case with Quantum’s Pittsburgh-premiere production of this 2014 work by acclaimed British playwright Jez Butterworth, which runs through Sunday.

Siovhan Christensen and Andrew William Smith in "The River" - PHOTO COURTESY OF HEATHER MULL
  • Photo courtesy of Heather Mull
  • Siovhan Christensen and Andrew William Smith in "The River"
The site here is the boathouse of Aspinwall Riverfront Park, albeit amended: Onto the open mouth of the building’s giant door, Quantum has appended a sort of expressionist version of a rural fishing cabin whose principal conceit is the artificial brook that divides the wooden floor in half. (The audience sits indoors, and blankets are provided in case you feel chilled.) It’s the setting for an intermissionless series of scenes between a man and each of two women (none of the characters is named) whom he’s taken for a fly-fishing getaway.

Butterworth is a wonderful writer, but you can’t say too much more without giving away some of the pleasure of interpreting The River for yourself. Suffice it to say that the play name-checks Virginia Woolf and Ted Hughes, drops some fly-fishing science, and makes room for the real-time cleaning of a sea trout. And also that, when one character says, “It’s all trickery. It’a trick,” the subject might be fishing, theater or love.

Here’s Michelle Pilecki’s review for CP.

The River has six more performances, tonight through Sunday. Tickets are $38 and are available here. (A $56 option includes a hot boxed dinner.)

Aspinwall Riverfront Park (right on the banks of the Allegheny) is located at 285 River Road, in Aspinwall.

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