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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2016 at 12:50 PM

One show was canceled, and the central ticketing venue had to be relocated at the last minute. But overall, Pittsburgh’s first-ever fringe festival made some gains in its third year.

Michael Burgos in "The Eulogy"
Michael Burgos in "The Eulogy"
Pittsburgh Fringe executive director Xela Batchelder – who took over this year from fest founder Dan Stiker – says the three-day showcase drew about 720 people for 50 performances of 20 individual productions by cutting-edge performance-art acts from around the nation.

For the second year running, Fringe shows were staged in makeshift venues in the North Side’s Deutschtown neighborhood, including James Street Gastropub, Max's Allegheny Tavern and two private clubs (St. Mary’s Lyceum and the Young Men’s Republican Club).

Batchelder tells CP  that her attendance goal for this year was 800, and in fact total attendance was down from the 2015 festival (when 796 folks bought tickets). But because this year there were fewer shows, per-show attendance rose to about 14 per show (compared to 10 in each of the first two years). 

So even though the festival was unable to secure any outside funding, as it had in years past, “I think we’re going to get close to break-even,” says Batchelder.

Some of the increase in per-show attendance was probably due to moving the festival off of the Mother’s Day weekend slot it occupied its first two years; while she hadn’t broken out the numbers yet, Batchelder said that Sunday attendance seemed stronger than in the past.

Based on the three shows I saw this year, all on Saturday, the Fringe deserved much bigger crowds.

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 1:41 PM

Drag has been edging into the mainstream at least since RuPaul’s Drag Race; these days, a fair swath of Middle America is comfortable kicking it about wigs and throwing shade. Of course, our cults of masculinity and femininity have hardly gone missing: What we’re seeing in North Carolina’s anti-transgender law and elsewhere is surely backlash in a culture where issues of gender are being discussed openly like never before.
click to enlarge Jezebel D'Opulence and Beth Corning - PHOTO COURTESY OF FRANK WALSH
Photo courtesy of Frank Walsh
Jezebel D'Opulence and Beth Corning
The thoughtful and entertaining new show from Beth Corning’s Glue Factory Project pairs the choreographer with local drag icon Jezebel Bebbington D’Opulence for a series of vignettes exploring gender, including what it means to be a woman.
Much of the show focuses on women’s struggle for equal regard. In an eloquent opening solo, Corning moves, as if through a dense fluid, beneath a video screen on which are projected pairs of words referring to positive traits in men (“strong,” “virile”) as perceived in women: “dominating bitch,” “slut.” Later, Corning does a clever solo with a dancing mirror (wheeled about by an assistant) in which her character enumerates the careful-stepping strategies women must employ to navigate daily life in a way men take for granted.
 “I couldn’t be … entitled to safety,” she says she recognized, and later notes “the privilege of obliviousness” granted men. (The text for this part is by local author Sarah Shotland.)
Women must constantly think about how they’re being perceived by others, Corning says. “Being a woman is a performance I engage in every day. And that’s because there’s always an audience.”
Segments featuring Jezebel, meanwhile, largely explore what it means to be born in a male body but to consider oneself female. She first appears with Corning in matching unisex garb, in a sequence set to recorded interviews in which Corning asks interview subjects to “identify yourself” (genderwise); in voiceover, Jezebel recounts the difficulties of growing up gay in Puerto Rico.
The show’s themes overlap when Corning ends her mirror solo by saying, “I’m exhausted by the act” of being a woman — followed immediately by Jezebel’s first appearance in full drag, in a sequined dress, red push-up bra and four-inch stilettos (also sequined), embracing the audience Corning’s character wishes would grant her a reprieve.
Archly, Jezebel reads from an academically worded essay about the seeming contradictions of drag as a performance of womanhood — and a caricature, at that. But these are contradictions Jezebel immediately erases with her signature performance of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” – expertly lip-synced, with the moves and cheekbones to do Miss Tina proud indeed.
A later segment featuring both performers includes some amusing audience interaction and a demonstration of how each approaches walking in heels.
Corning and Jezebel have different movement styles – the contrast between a seasoned drag artist and a life-long professional dancer and contemporary-dance choreographer. Yet so much of drag is mime, after all, and Jezebel brings unquestionable authenticity.
Each of the show’s two big themes – the struggles of women for equality, and womanhood as performance – could support a show by itself. To integrate them is ambitious, and in Right of Way the overlap is both enjoyable and provocative. (Though I'm tempted to sum it up with a quote from RuPaul: "You're born naked and the rest is drag.")
Right of Way has four more performances, starting with tonight’s at 8 p.m. and concluding with the 2 p.m. show on Sunday.
Tickets are $25-30 and are available here. Admission to the Sunday matinee is pay-what-you-can at the door; regular-priced tickets can be purchased online ahead of time.
The New Hazlett Theater is located at 6 Allegheny Square East, on the North Side.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2016 at 10:00 AM

This week brings the final four performances of this new play that most critics have been loving as much as CP’s Ted Hoover did. Audiences seem to have been pleased, too: Playwrights extended the show’s run a week to make possible these four extra shows.

click to enlarge Tami Dixon (left) and Chrystal Bates in "Miss Julie, Clarissa and John" - PHOTO COURTESY OF GAIL L. MANKER
Photo courtesy of Gail L. Manker
Tami Dixon (left) and Chrystal Bates in "Miss Julie, Clarissa and John"
Indeed, I can’t add any better advice than this: Go. Mark Clayton Southers, the troupe’s founder and a seasoned playwright, has outdone himself with this drama inspired by August Strindberg’s 1888 classic Miss Julie, about an illicit affair between a rich woman and her father’s top servant. Sagely, Southers retains the time period but transfers the action to Virginia and makes the servant a freed former African-American slave. All this builds on Strindberg’s dynamics while opening up a vast thematic and emotional range.

The production nails just about everything, from scenic designer Tony Ferrieri’s raw-wood set to the sharp direction by Monteze Freeland. The acting is top-notch: In Tami Dixon’s hands, the impetuous Julie becomes a chilling portrait of white privilege avant la lettre, while Kevin Brown is solid as John and Chrystal Bates (one of Pittsburgh theater’s best-kept secrets) spectacular as John’s woman, the servant Clarissa.

Self-love and self-hate, the complicated politics of desire and, of course, America’s tortured history of race –- Southers gets it all down. A favorite moment: The magic that Southers works with John’s retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White as a way of professing his love for Clarissa. It's funny, shrewd and deeply moving all at once.

Shows remain at 8 p.m. nightly tomorrow and Friday, and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets are $25-30 and are available here.

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre is located on the third floor of 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Posted By on Thu, Mar 17, 2016 at 5:27 PM

The local stop on The Who’s latest (and maybe, this time, actual) farewell tour had me considering a big paradox at the band’s heart – one I think is mostly a strength.

You could find it in their opening number last night. “Who Are You?” was valorized first as an 1978 AOR hit, and more recently as TV theme music. The band roared (as it would all night, often beautifully) and the crowd sang along. But even as a life-long Who fan, I still find the song’s last verse startling (surely moreso now than when I first heard it as a teenager):
click to enlarge Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey on an earlier tour stop - COURTESY OF THE WHO
Courtesy of The Who
Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey on an earlier tour stop

I know there’s a place you walk where love falls from the trees
My heart is like a broken cup, I only feel right on my knees
I spit out like a sewer hole and still receive your kiss
How can I measure up to anyone now after such a love as this?

This, in one interpretation, is Pete Townshend laying bare his conflicted feelings about his relationship with his audience. It’s one of his great themes, and among his fellow British Invasion songwriters, maybe only John Lennon wrote with similarly brutal honesty.

But as often as with any band ever, the sentiments of The Who’s lyrics have been gainsaid by the band’s huge sound: The Who, after all, made its name playing at festivals (Monterey and Woodstock) and pioneered both power chords and (for better and worse) arena rock. But perhaps the most important factor here is Roger Daltrey, whose often cocky vocals can turn confessions into anthems.

That approach made songs of vulnerability from “I Can’t Explain” to “The Real Me” and “Who Are You?” at once more palatable and more interesting, the latter because of the internal tension it created. Where’s there room for the most self-searching of lyrics in a 110-decibel heavy-rock song? At a Who concert.

But fans, of course, didn’t come to ponder paradox. They came to see the Who’s remaining two original members play the hits one last time, and last night they saw them do it notably well. Both Townshend and Daltrey are past 70, but Daltrey was in strong voice and Townshend can still raise the roof with his Strat, as on a resourceful extended jam on “My Generation.”

Not a single song was under 35 years old, and more than half the intermissionless two-hour set was drawn from just three albums — Tommy (1968), Who’s Next (’71) and Quadrophenia (’73) — but that didn’t matter, either. A crack band including Pino Palladino on bass and longtime drummer Zak Starkey made it all come alive, including unexpected number “The Rock,” an instrumental from Quadrophenia. Other old faves included an acoustic "I'm One" (sung by Townshend), "The Kids Are Alright" and "I Can See For Miles."

Speaking of the rhythm section, someone who had wandered into Consol unbriefed and got most of his or her visual info from the massive upstage video screen could have been forgiven for mistakenly thinking that duo still comprised Keith Moon and John Entwistle. Images of those two original members loomed large and frequently. (A still of Moon in a wig and bustier was the amusing visual for “Pictures of Lily.”)

The video show was mostly effective, including some trippy animations and some very early (and soundless) black-and-white footage of the band playing in a club (first glimpsed in the 2015 documentary Lambert & Stamp). It's one thing to show family-album style images of the band's history pre-concert. But after a while, the in-concert focus on guys who died 38 and 14 years ago, respectively, though surely meant affectionately, felt a little weird, if not creepy.

Still, if that’s the worst you can say about a band's 50th-anniversary rock show, it’s not so bad.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Posted By on Wed, Mar 16, 2016 at 3:04 PM

When City Paper interviewed ACLU of Michigan investigative journalist Curt Guyette, we credited him with "breaking the story" on Flint's water crisis. Nothing unusual there; most media outlets have done the same, because Guyette was in fact the guy who first publicized the key info on how the state-appointed emergency managers of that financially distressed city effectively poisoned many of its 100,000 residents with lead-laced water for months on end, all while trying to cover it up.

click to enlarge Curt Guyette
Curt Guyette
But at last night's "From Flint ... To Your Faucet" event, at Point Park University, Guyette himself gave primary credit for the story to others.

"The driving force throughout the whole thing were the residents who refused to believe their water was safe," he said. He repeatedly credited LeeAnne Walters, the Flint woman who played perhaps the biggest role in pushing authorities to admit that the smelly brown water coming out of the town's faucets was, in fact, toxic.

And while Guyette didn't let the feds off the hook in the crisis ("The EPA did a horrible job on this," he said), he gave credit to "unsung hero" Miguel Del Toral, an EPA water expert who raised early alarms about Flint's water. Part of Del Toral's achievement, Guyette noted, was simply taking residents' complaints seriously — something he says was the key to his own role in making Flint one of the year's biggest stories.

The event, at which Point Park also touted its new B.A. program in environmental journalism, was held at the campus' GRW Theater. It was sponsored by the Point Park News Service, The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, the Women's Press Club of Pittsburgh, and the Heinz Endowments.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Posted By on Mon, Feb 22, 2016 at 3:40 PM

click to enlarge Stewart Copeland
Stewart Copeland

Most of us are backbeat babies; we need that rhythm section to tell us where the music's going. I wonder whether the absence of a backbeat is one reason many contemporary music audiences have a hard time connecting to classical.

The proposition was tested this past weekend with The Tyrant's Crush — the first world premiere concerto I can recall in these parts that was written by the former drummer of a one-time World's Biggest Rock Band.

It was the first time I've seen an audience member at Heinz Hall wearing a Black Sabbath hoodie. And it was also the first PSO show I've seen with an all-percussion frontline: timpani, celesta and more and, behind the drum kit, Stewart Copeland of The Police, who doubled as composer. (Here's Jordan Weeks' interview with Copeland for CP.)

I found the half-hour, three-movement work rhythmically inventive and engaging all the way through. Backed by a full orchestra, Copeland and the four percussionists were a lot of fun to watch, and there was a notable triangle solo.

Copeland, dressed all in black, was an appropriately charismatic presence: Upon taking his seat behind the drums, for instance, he windmilled his arms theatrically; after the first movement ended, he mopped his brow and drew a laugh by exclaiming "Hot work!" As this was a world premiere, it seems likely that some of his theatrics expressed nerves: When the show ended, he flung his drumsticks high over his shoulder, and during the concluding ovation salaamed gratefully to the orchestra.

While Copeland did indeed keep a backbeat much of the way through, this was hardly "Stars on 45 — Hooked on Classics" — he's too imaginative a player for anything like that, and much of what he was doing was pretty subtle.

Or so I thought. Two friends I ran into at after Friday's opening-night show, for instance, were underwhelmed. Both, by the way, have classical backgrounds, but neither resembles a classical snob, and one is in a rock band.

The first friend simply compared "Tyrant's Crush" rather unfavorably on terms of sheer musical effectiveness to the other piece the PSO played on this weekend's program, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1 in F minor (a gorgeous piece, for sure). The latter pal, however, seemed to object most to having symphonic music with a backbeat, preferring the experience of finding the rhythm for himself.

Overall, though, the big Heinz Hall crowd, which gave the work an enthusiastic ovation, seemed quite pleased. If one of the PSO's goals in commissioning this work was to broaden its aging audience, Copeland's Tyrant's Crush couldn't have hurt.

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Friday, February 12, 2016

Posted By on Fri, Feb 12, 2016 at 12:01 PM

Black history, we’re often reminded during Black History Month, is simply American history. But as Cobb noted in his great talk yesterday, the reverse is also true: You can’t grasp American history without understanding the role of race.

That role goes beyond the well-documented fact that the nation’s fundamental wealth was extracted from exploited black bodies — starting with chattel slavery, which, as every schoolkid should know, was written into the Constitution. (And, as Cobb reminded us, a Jeffersonian condemnation of which was written out of the Declaration of Independence.)

Race is also at the heart of so seemingly simple a matter of how many states we have, and where. Cobb cited the long-running 19th-century practice of admitting new free and slave states in “pairs”: Maine was created only so that Missouri could be a state, for instance. And he said Gen. Andrew Jackson (not yet president) seized the Spanish territory of Florida for the U.S. largely at the behest of Georgia slaveholders, who were losing runaways to the nonslaveholding land to the south.

History remains alive. When Cobb, a history professor at the University of Connecticut, visited Ferguson, Mo., for The New Yorker, he said, he got “the overwhelming sense that my syllabus had jumped off the page.” From Ferguson to Charleston, S.C., Cobb found the history of race in America embedded down to the very street names: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Charleston church where a horrific shooting took place last year, is on a street named for pro-slavery politician John Calhoun.

Cobb also recalled how, for decades, federal policy to facilitate the mortgages that helped build middle-class America effectively excluded black Americans. And even many apparent advances in race relations are heavily qualified: How could Barack Obama’s election in 2008 herald a “post-racial” era when only 39 percent of white voters chose him? (And why, for that matter, Cobb asked, did no one laud black voters as post-racial during the decades they spent voting for white candidates?)

Still, Cobb said he counts himself as an optimist, though his optimism is tempered by a historian’s long view. Take Obama’s election. While an African-American chief executive had been unthinkable as recently as, oh, 2007, Cobb said, “Until we had a black presidency, we did not properly conceive of the limitations of one.” Likewise, just as Obama himself is a community activist who decided he could achieve more through electoral politics, his struggles in office have convinced a whole new generation of activists, like the folks in Black Lives Matter, that real change comes from the streets.

Finally, some interesting words on racialized monuments. Though Cobb cheered the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse, he pointed out that other, less obvious plaques and statues honoring Confederates and even lynchers remain abundant there and elsewhere. Yet “I do not think we should take any of those monuments down,” he said. For one thing, simply eliminating the monuments allows whites to grant themselves too easy an absolution for the wrongs of the past. Two, “like removing fingerprints from the scene of a crime,” mere removal effaces a history we need to remember. It would be more useful, Cobb said, to amend the monuments with signage identifying them as “monuments to our own inhumanity.”

Cobb was CMU’s featured Martin Luther King, Jr., speaker. (Here's the rest of the school's month-long roster of MLK programming.) The free on-campus event was attended by about 200 folks, most of whom seemed to be students and faculty. But the talk, which began at 4:30 p.m., was so good I wish more Pittsburghers could have seen it. Is it too much to ask of CMU (and other universities, for that matter) to hold more of these events after 6 p.m., say, when more working folks could attend? Just a thought.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Posted By on Fri, Jan 22, 2016 at 10:04 AM

From January 13 through January 17, a dozen Manhattan venues hosted over 120 acts as part of the 12th annual NYC Winter Jazzfest. With a wristband serving as admission to all the events, it felt in some ways like a post-graduate school version of CMJ’s annual Music Marathon, with enthusiasts wearing out the pages of the program, trying to figure which band to catch at what time without missing a favorite who might be starting a half-hour later down the street, or perhaps a subway ride away.

This, then, is the story of one of them.

The New School hosted four stages all within blocks of one another, making at least part of the festival an easy journey. Their Tishman Auditorium could easily have been the place to park oneself for the duration of both Friday and Saturday nights. Both evenings showcased artists on ECM, the European jazz and classical label which also houses a number of American jazz artists. Friday night began with guitarist David Torn (who visited our fair city last spring). Alone onstage with a bank of effects racks and two pedal boards, he might make some people wonder why he spends so much time twiddling with his effects before playing. But the twiddling is part and parcel of his playing. Torn turned some knobs for five minutes before he even touched the neck of his guitar. What he conjured from his amp was an amazing ambient wash that literally sounded like outer space transmissions (a descriptor which I normally use metaphorically). As his set proceeded, he turned tuning into a melody, adding some country twang to the soundscape and creating backdrops which seemed to be simultaneously speeding up and slowing down.
click to enlarge Tim Berne (saxophone), Ralph Alessi (trumpet) and John Hebert (bass) - MIKE SHANLEY
Mike Shanley
Tim Berne (saxophone), Ralph Alessi (trumpet) and John Hebert (bass)
Next up, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner found an exquisite foil in trumpeter Avishai Cohen. Their burnished tones worked together in Turner’s moving quartet, which also included bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Like many ECM acts, the group was neither strictly traditional nor avant-garde, but extremely thoughtful. Ideas flowed freely without the need for strict tempi.

Drummer Dave King is probably best known for his trio the Bad Plus. But this year’s WJF artist-in-residence has also continued to play in other groups including the pre-BP trio Happy Apple, which also performed during the festival. I caught him behind the traps at New School’s Jazz Building with tenor saxophonist Chris Speed’s trio, rounded out by bassist Chris Tordini. Speed’s writing featured some strong grooves in even and uneven time signatures. He was also capable of soloing for about three solid minutes, developing one long original idea, as opposed to several choruses with some relation to one another. While they delivered a strong set, with King’s brushes laying down some taut accents, it made me wonder what New Yorkers would think of Pittsburgh’s Thoth Trio, who do the same thing with a tad more variety in the dynamics department.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Posted By on Wed, Dec 9, 2015 at 2:50 PM

There are plenty of reasons to see this strong three-character drama before it closes on Sunday.

Joneice Abbot-Pratt and J. Alphonse Nicholson in "Sunset Baby," at City Theatre - PHOTO COURTESY OF KRISTI JAN HOOVER
Photo courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover
Joneice Abbot-Pratt and J. Alphonse Nicholson in "Sunset Baby," at City Theatre
It's not only the 2013 play's Pittsburgh-debut production; it's also (I'm pretty sure) the first local staging of a play by emerging national talent Dominique Morrisseau (who's also story editor on the Showtime series Shameless).

As Ted Hoover notes in his review for CP, Morriseau writes wonderful dialogue. And City's production, staged in its intimate blackbox-style Hamburg Studio Theatre, is a powerfully acted piece.

Fans of August Wilson might also find Morrisseau's play an intriguing twist and contemporization of Wilson's The Piano Lesson (so recently staged here by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company).

Sunset Baby
, too, is a play about a contested legacy in an African-American family — a legacy that certainly has implications beyond that family. Only here, instead of an heirloom piano that a woman wants to keep while her brother wants to sell it to buy some land, the disputed keepsake is a packet of letters written by a recently deceased black revolutionary to her then-jailed husband: The husband wants the decades-old missives for himself, while his long-estranged daughter (a street hustler to whom they were willed) means to hold onto them.

There are more complications, including the letters' potential dollar value to scholars. Suffice it to say the complexity of the letters' symbolism and significance would do Wilson himself proud.

Six performances remain, including tonight's.

Tickets are $36 and are available here.

City Theatre is located at 1300 Bingham St., on the South Side.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

Posted By on Fri, Nov 20, 2015 at 4:31 PM

If you were looking for rays of hope about the planet in Monday’s talk by the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction, they were few and far between.

click to enlarge Elizabeth Kolbert - PHOTO COURTESY OF NICHOLAS WHITMAN
Photo courtesy of Nicholas Whitman
Elizabeth Kolbert
But I’ll point to one glimmer: Last time Kolbert visited Pittsburgh, in 2008, I interviewed her, and I recall the conversation taking place in a context of widespread climate denialism. After all, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth movie was only two years old, and lots of people didn’t really understand how climate change worked, or care to know.

This past Monday, the hopefulness resided in the fact that Kolbert assumed that what looked like a full house at Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall all agreed that climate change was real, and a real threat. She explained the science briefly, but didn’t seem to feel she had to address any possible deniers in the audience. That’s a start, I guess.

Trouble is, things would be a lot better today if we’d been at that point, say 25 years ago, when there was already overwhelming evidence that human activities were causing the planet’s climate to change in drastic and sometimes unpredictable ways.

Which brings us to the rest of Kolbert’s talk. She focused on The Sixth Extinction, her 2014 Pulitzer-winner that explores how human activity is likely driving a mass extinction of historical proportions among plant and animal species.

Climate change is just one reason, and on this front Kolbert offered little hope. Despite the stated intentions of everyone from the president down, global emissions of greenhouse gases keep rising.

Many scientists have said a safe concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is 350 parts per million. This year, we passed 400 ppm, a figure not seen on earth in literally hundreds of thousands of years. Some activists hold out hope that the upcoming global climate talks will result in agreements that bring emissions down. But Kolbert presented projections that even in a low-emission scenario, we’re likely to reach 550 ppm by 2100.

That’s a level sure to spell increased disaster in the form of rising seas and extreme weather, not to mention a level of ocean acidification (from ocean absorption of carbon) that would leave us with effectively dead oceans.

And that’s the optimistic scenario. Wish I could leave you with something happier, but that's the way it is sometimes.

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