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Pittsburgh Playwrights accepts the challenge of staging noted playwright Frank Gagliano's Voodoo Trilogy

click to enlarge Playwright times three: Pittsburgh Playwrights stages Frank Gagliano's Voodoo Trilogy. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Playwright times three: Pittsburgh Playwrights stages Frank Gagliano's Voodoo Trilogy.

Musicals are hard to stage. Doubly so previously unproduced musicals.

So why is Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. -- a scrappy but modestly funded outfit -- staging a world-premiere musical about a New Orleans sniper standoff ... and following it immediately with the other two edgy plays from something called The Voodoo Trilogy?

Even playwright Frank Gagliano had to wonder when company artistic director Mark Clayton Southers approached him, in 2009. "He said, 'I want to do all three,'" says Gagliano. "I said, 'You're crazy.'"

A veteran director whom Southers queried, reacted similarly. "Are you ca-razy?" Marci Woodruff recalls thinking at the time.

But Woodruff is directing (enthusiastically) Gagliano's Congo Square, which opens Feb. 11 at Pittsburgh Playwrights' Downtown space. Then comes In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau (Feb. 24-March 8), Gagliano's "unsung voodoo chamber opera." Finally, there's a staged reading of his farce The Commedia World of Lafcadio B. (March 5-8).

It's all a late-career plot twist for Gagliano, 79 -- and the longtime Mount Lebanon resident's first hometown productions since the 1990s.

In the 1960s, Brooklyn-born Gagliano was prominent in New York's groundbreaking Off-Broadway scene; early works like Night of the Dunce were produced at the legendary Cherry Lane Theatre alongside plays by such rising names as Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson. The 1967 premiere of Gagliano's signature piece, Father Uxbridge Wants to Marry, starred Olympia Dukakis; a television production featured Roy Scheider.

The Voodoo Trilogy was conjured in the 1970s. Laveau, about the legendary New Orleans voodoo priestess and two favor-seekers in her thrall, is set in 1900. It sprang from some research on New Orleans that Gagliano was doing, and developed during his long association with the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center. The play, which has been staged professionally a couple of times, incorporates multicultural elements from that singularly hybridized Southern city, including voodoo, Catholicism and classic opera. Its professional premiere in Pittsburgh, directed by Kim El, stars Chrystal Bates as Laveau.

Congo Square, meanwhile, blends New Orleans history and folk tales with the legacy of Charles Whitman, the infamous sniper at the University of Texas (where Gagliano taught for three years). Congo Square -- the title references the famed gathering place for slaves -- follows a disoriented young African-American gunman named Willy Beau in his standoff with the mayor, as a young white woman named Delphine tries to talk him down. The musical drama features Gagliano's lyrics and a score by the late Claibe Richardson, who scored Broadway musical The Grass Harp.

As a whole, the trilogy explores such characteristic Gagliano themes as the corruption of innocents and people's desire for celebrity. As Willy and Delphine sing: "For the mighty will always be pardoned, / if they're corrupt enough, / and cruel enough." And all three plays take place in Laveau's parlour, though at different points in the 20th century.

Gagliano's works also trace his fascination with the mythological, and with theatricality itself. "Suddenly, late in life, I've come to feel that I'm really a descendant of Fellini," says the affable Gagliano -- meaning he blends the poetic with the grotesquely comic and the salacious. "Laveau is filled with sex. I do that a lot, too."

In 1976, Gagliano became a theater professor at West Virginia University. (He retired only last year.) A decade later, Congo Square received a staged reading at Carnegie Mellon's Showcase of New Plays, during showcase co-founder Gagliano's long tenure as artistic director. But mostly, the trilogy stayed on the page.

That changed in 2007, when Pittsburgh Playwrights staged a scene from Congo as part of a reading series. Southers liked how the material challenged the actor who played Willy Beau: "When an artist is stretching like that, an audience's imagination is going to be stretched." 

Ed Tarzia, who'll play piano live at the performances, adapted Richardson's score to make it sound less Broadway, more French Quarter. Meanwhile, a recent rehearsal suggested that young local actor Monteze Freeland can handle Willie's mercurial transitions from paranoid gunman to 19th-century mulatto dandy, ebullient jazzman and saucy madam. "It's like 10 musicals in one piece," says director Woodruff. And all three cast members -- Erika Cuenca plays Delphine, with Kevin Brown as the mayor -- can sing the lights out. 

As for Gagliano, in today's commerce-minded theater world, he's just happy Congo Square is finally reaching the stage. He's grateful to Playwrights' Southers for embracing the whole trilogy. "Who the hell else would do this?" says Gagliano. "I don't see it happening in any other city, including New York."

 

Congo Square Thu., Feb. 10-Feb. 27 and March 8. In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau, Feb. 24-March 8. The Commedia World of Lafcadio B., March 5-8. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. $17.50-22.50. 412-394-3353 or www.pghplaywrights.com

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