I don't find it particularly remarkable when trendy, well-subsidized theater companies perform outré work. (In fact, I expect it.) What does set me back is tiny theaters in extremely out-of-the-way places staging work unlike anything their unexpecting audiences have ever seen.
So there I was, in 2003, at the Olde Bank Theatre in Natrona, watching "Conquering the Moral Abyss," an evening of politically and sexually subversive one-acts put together, and partially written by, Sean Michael O'Donnell.
O'Donnell might be familiar as one of the more frequent playwrights produced by the Pittsburgh New Works Festival. The bad news is that several years ago, he and partner Todd Collar pulled up stakes and moved to New York City.
The good news is that he and Collar moved back to Pittsburgh, and have already replunged into the local scene by opening the New Olde Bank Theatre, this time in a second-floor storefront in Verona.
As usual, O'Donnell and crew give their audience an evening of theater about as far away from Neil Simon and Rodgers & Hammerstein as you can get. It's called Soul, and it's a new musical based on two Greek myths -- the love affair between Cupid and Psyche and the story of Persephone and her marriage to Hades.
O'Donnell has written the book and lyrics, while the score is by Vincent Chelkowski. As per usual, the company is made up of local amateurs and a few performers with prior theatrical experience. For reasons I've never understood, in a straight play you can sometimes cast enthusiastic amateurs and get away without too much damage. But when it comes to musicals, my belly does a back-flip when I see a program bio which reads, "This is Joe Smith's first time on a stage and he's very excited to be here." Usually, he's excited to be on stage because that means he can't be in the audience, watching.
I don't want to come down too hard on this cast, though, because highly seasoned pros would have difficulty with Soul. Chelkowski, you see, has not written an easy show. I'm not skilled enough in music to discuss this work technically, but Chelkowski's score is notable for its complete lack of conventional musical structure. Nearly everything sounds like recitative: unmelodic, non-rhythmic and almost always atonal. That could be Chelkowski's intention, but I gotta say that a very little of that goes a very long way. Happy, sad, lustful or in agony -- everything the characters sing sounds like everything else they sing. I guess I've been so scarred by Sondheim that it seems odd to me (and monotonous) for the content of the work to have no effect on its form.
As director, O'Donnell seems surprised to find himself directing in a four-sided setting, and much of the action gets lost.
I absolutely support the theory behind O'Donnell and his company (and I welcome them back). And I hope that next time out, I'll be able to be as enthusiastic about their practice.
Soul continues through Sept 28 . New Olde Bank Theatre, 722 Allegheny River Boulevard, Verona. 412/251-7904 or www.newobt.com