Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, October 31, 2008

Radio Golf at the Public Theatre

Posted By on Fri, Oct 31, 2008 at 8:28 AM

As usual with August Wilson, his Radio Golf offers more than can be adequately digested in a formal review, let alone a humble blog entry. The play, the 1990s piece of Wilson's monumental 20th Century Cycle, depicts ambitious Harmond Wilks' attempt to become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh. (The show runs through Sat., Nov. 2.)

The fine production, directed by Ron OJ Parson, includes obvious coincidental foreshadowings of current presidential campaign. ("They don't mind us playing their game," one character warns Wilks. "They just don't want you outplaying them.") But Wilson's poetic flow and earthy humor notwithstanding, what interests me most is his argument -- perhaps the cycle's key theme -- about community.

Wilks, following in his father's real-estate footsteps, is a child of privilege. (Indeed, I think this is Wilson's lone depiction of yupwardly mobile blacks.) The titular sport is Wilson's dubious symbol of African-American social striving. And Wilks is faced with a stark choice: Proceed with the redevelopment plan that could secure him the mayoralty, or save the mythic house at 1839 Wylie Avenue, the playwright's very symbol of black heritage? Listen to his business partner and wife/campaign-manager on one side -- or to the street voices on the other? Harm or Harmony?

The multifaceted discussion of community is fascinating. Handyman Sterling Johnson argues that Wilks can't "bring back" the Hill, because it's dead; he can only replace it. Wilks and his money-hungry partner, Roosevelt Hicks, meanwhile, eagerly await the "blighted" designation of "their" neighborhood that will earn their project federal funding. ("I told you blight would come through," says Harmon, and they celebrate giddily.) And Johnson and Wilson's octogenarian voice of the past, Elder Joseph Barlow, insist on the building's innate value. (It was the home of the Cycle's iconic Aunt Esther.)

Wilson offers no easy answers. But as I watched the play, Wilks' repeated insistence on following the rule of law tickled something in my mind. Then Johnson decided to fight money, power and progress. When Wilks ultimately did, too -- to abandon the rules -- I couldn't help recalling Gem of the Ocean, the second-to-last play Wilson wrote. (Golf was the last.) Gem, too, made a case for rebellion, even anarchy (there, sabotaging a steel mill; here, defying bulldozers). Wilson died in 2005; his final messages about community sound pretty radical.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The 10th Annual Black Sheep Puppet Festival

Posted By on Tue, Oct 28, 2008 at 8:36 AM

The festival's acts over the years have often been political, and, pretty unsurprisingly, that politics is reliably left. While the approach is sometimes heavy-handed (especially when you're preaching to the converted -- I mean, we're talking puppetry fans here), it's cool that the fest gives artists free rein.

This year's most explicitly political act at the good old Brew House theater was famed Vermont-based puppeteer Amy Trompetter's Wobby Bucket Brigade, here a collaboration with Chatham U students in a performance class taught by Tavia LaFollette. Four skits adapted chapters of Howard Zinn's iconic People's History of the United States, with pro-labor, anti-imperialist takes on Joe Hill, Columbus and our need for national heroes. It was energetic, with some nice woodcut-style artwork, but too old-school agitprop for me.

More inventive was Black Sheep regular Beth Nixon's "Disaster Muffin," a riotous take on our current catastrophe psychology in which the Philadelphian's principal puppet was herself, outfitted with a prosthetic womb. Quieter was Philly's Shoddy Puppet Company, a three-person troupe whose ingenious TV-sized stage and easygoing humor were good vehicles for its blend of whimsy, Hans Christian Andersen and real-life narrative; visually, a single shadow-puppet sequence about a tin soldier's picaresque journey surrendered new meanings with each story, with subtle insights into social class and exploitation.

Fare Feather Family's gypsy-troupe staging aided "The Old Man and His Peanut Tree," a winning parable about a grouch. Major Arcana's "Project Majo Shojo" took potshots at Catholicism, but was mostly a talky, well-performed depiction of the creative process behind a comic book inspired by the Japanese "magic girl" genre. (Think Sailor Moon.) Marionette incarnations of two schoolgirls were especially sharp. Meanwhile, locals Things That Stick offered joyfully unclassifiable weirdness with "Shoe," in which 20-foot-tall bunnies (made from post-consumer materials, with humans inside) danced, fought and humped.

My favorites, though, were Laura Heit's "The Matchbox Show" and Claire Dolan's "Line and Colour." On sets shorter than her index finger -- projected big onto a video screen -- Los Angeleno Heit stages macabre and wry black-out skits, some with puppets made of matches; she brought down the house with "27 Pictures of Myself Naked." Dolan's "Line and Colour" was a beautifully atmospheric, wonderfully theatrical adaptation of "The Road to Brodie," an Isaac Babel story about war in the Russian countryside. The stick puppets roamed gorgeously lit little sets, to live musical accompaniment and ruminations on bees, Cossacks and the crucified Christ.

Pre-show, Vermont's Dolan had also scored with a performance in the lobby. It was a salty spoken-sung narrative (illustrated with big comics-style drawings) about a go-go-dancer/nurse and the health-care system titled "Where's My Fucking Bailout?" In her two performances, Dolan showed how to be pointed, and subtle, and both at once.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Jo Strømgren Kompani's The Department

Posted By on Mon, Oct 27, 2008 at 10:07 AM

This live stage show demonstrated how an artwork can be undeniably entertaining, probably more than the sum of its apparent influences, and yet still feel not quite essential.

The show, which I saw at the New Hazlett on Oct. 23, was making its U.S. debut as part of the Cultural Trust's Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts. It's hugely funny and beautifully performed by a cast of four men, playing cogs in some fictional totalitarian bureacracy. Their uniform dress -- like the set, it's all olive-drab and gray -- and the Space Age props (manual typewriter, flashing incandescent lightbulbs), holler "Eastern Bloc," and the men have been stuck in this seemingly underground office long enough to run out of cigarettes. They've also essentially created their own culture: When not responding to messages (delivered by pneumatic tube) instructing them to create radio programs, they enact a series of manic rituals to allay crushing boredom. Their jobs and pastimes are both hilarious, from the old-school radio productions to a spitting contest, a puppet show and even a couple of surreal group modern-dance routines.

Oh, and while there's a lot of dialogue, none of it is in English, or any other real language, but rather a kind of formally eloquent gibberish. (Think Chaplin's speeches as Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator.)

It all recalled, variously, the Marx Brothers, Kafka via Looney Tunes and, finally, circus clowns sans whiteface. And then the overtones grew darker -- hopeless attempts to decipher ruined text, sounds of distant bombfall. As the existence of a parallel outside world was suggested, expressionistically existential elements overtook the narrative, and it started most resembling circus clowns dosed on Beckett (who himself of course dosed on clowns).

I was engaged throughout, and laughed as hard as I had at anything since Borat. At the post-show Q&A, the four affable members of this Norwegian troupe proved charming. One of them was born in Poland (whose native tongue inspired the invented, largely improvised dialogue). Their explanation of the show's origins made it sound like an uneasily nostalgic take on Norway's uneasy proximity to Soviet Russia during the Cold War. Hence, too, the apocalyptic tint, and a nod (they said) to Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's classic existential science-fiction film Stalker, forebear to The Department's theme of ambiguously desirable escape to terra incognita.

I left feeling that while the company had created something formally fresh, the familiarity of its themes portended only a little more than a gleaming, if madcap, entertainment.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Films of Bruce Conner

Posted By on Thu, Oct 23, 2008 at 8:21 AM

I started writing about film for CP in 1997, but it took me a while to warm to experimental work. For someone raised (like everyone else) on linear narrative and photographic realism, appreciating nonnarrative, conceptual and abstract stuff demanded study.

But now I can dig films like those of Bruce Conner, who pioneered the use of found and appropriated footage cut to his own ends, collage style. A free program at Pittsburgh Filmmakers on Oct. 16 and 17 included some of his best films, drawn from the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art. (Conner, whose photography is in the Carnegie International, used to visit the Carnegie's late, lamented film department back in the day; he died in July, at 74.)

"Cosmic Ray," for instance, is a wild montage of nude female dancers, stock artillery footage and Mickey Mouse cartoons, cut to live Ray Charles ("What I Say?"). Its MTV-rapid cutting must have seemed insane in 1962. (It was Conner's second film.) "A Movie" (inspired by the "war" montage in Duck Soup!), soundtracks anomalously ponderous music over such silly imagery as people riding tiny bicycles, and includes the famed comment on cinematic voyeurism in which a submarine periscope operator seems to be gawking at cheesecake footage of Marilyn Monroe. "Crossroads" (1976) is a contemplative 36-minute montage of the first underwater atomic tests, in 1946, on the Bikini Atoll.

But two instances really made clear to me Conner's skill and importance. One was a fascinating sequence in the 12-minute "A Movie" (1958): a platypus swimming underwater, shot from below; the Hindenburg collapsing in flames; a scuba diver; a school of fish; the scuba diver approaching a sunken ship and dissapearing headfirst into the dark hold; a sunburst as seen from underwater. Dreamlike, hypnotic, pregnant with meaning.

The pièce de résistance was the classic "Report" (1963-67). It's cut from footage of JFK's final motorcade, followed by images of his and Jackie's arrival in Dallas and a brilliantly edited sequence of shots from contemporary television ads and a bullfight. The soundtrack is just as good: a continuous chain of radio-news commentary full of bitter, wrenching irony, from the "every possible precaution has been taken" that's spoken as the first couple debark Air Force One to the account of the triumphal Dallas motorcade married to footage of Kennedy's funeral procession. It's wildly smart and inexpressibly poignant; I'd rank "A Report" among my favorite films.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lewis Lapham at Point Park University

Posted By on Wed, Oct 22, 2008 at 12:15 PM

Lapham, the social critic and editor emeritus of Harper's Magazine, spoke Oct. 16 at Point Park University. It was a wide-ranging talk about politics, the media and the financial crisis, but the most interesting thing he said was in response to a question about the presidential race. Someone in the crowd of a couple hundred (mostly students) asked his preference; Lapham said Obama, principally because he's "a student" with the ability to learn what he needs to know in office, while McCain thinks he already knows all the answers.

Then Lapham added this: Obama was peculiarly "constrained" as a campaigner because he could never be seen to show anger. To do so, Lapham said, would be to cast himself as "the angry black man," the electoral kiss of death.

I'll cop to being a partisan here (I'm an Obama volunteer), but it's surely true that while McCain is practically expected to be crotchety and bumptious, Obama's almost preternatural cool and calm is as necessary to his chances as it is seemingly genuine. Lapham's comment reminded me of another, young (and white) social critic, Tim Wise, and his explorations of "white privilege," which is the social and economic advantage held even by whites who aren't themselves racist. The idea is beautifully expressed elsewhere by the poet Tim Seibles, whose "The Case" begins:


White people don't know they're     white


and continues: "Sometimes, though, if you're not white / and a lot of other people are -- / but they don't know it: // Well, it can make you feel like you need to be somewhere / very far away."

Lapham, a bit stooped but still patrician at 73, spoke slowly and deliberately, but his wit rewarded one's patience. On the financial bailout: "You can look at this as, 'We've pulled one off on the world'" because the Chinese and Saudis hold so many of our devalued dollars. The only thing our financial overlords seem to know, the founder of Lapham's Quarterly noted, is that "money is good for rich people, because it ennobles them, and it's bad for poor people, because it makes them lazy and shiftless." Oligarchies are like cheese, he quipped, and America's has gone rancid.

But the near-aside about Obama and anger was what stuck with me. We congratulate ourselves, perhaps deservingly, about a major party nominating a black man for president. But it's clear we haven't come as far as we'd like to think.

[For more on Lapham, see CP editor Chris Potter's recent interview with him in the Book section of this Web site.]

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Paul Muldoon at the International Poetry Forum

Posted By on Tue, Oct 21, 2008 at 8:24 AM

Poetry predates written language. If that's a fact -- verified by the revenant oral epic-poetry tradition in places like India -- it's one honored in the breach. Even poetry aficionados read much more poetry than they hear. But the musical pleasures of poetry aloud are easy to find in Pittsburgh, and the city's oldest reading series is the International Poetry Forum.

Poet and English professor Samuel Hazo's creation opened its 48th season (48th!) on Oct. 15 with Paul Muldoon, the Pulitzer-winning Northern Ireland-born poet who's poetry editor of The New Yorker. Muldoon, 57, has a wild head of graying hair. He reads in a husky, deliberate voice with a light accent. (He's lived in the U.S. for two decades, currently teaching at Princeton.) Bespectacled, he has an air of John Lennonish mild cheek, and a habit of looking up somewhat challengingly at his audience at each stanza break.

It was easy to see why Hazo gave Muldoon the IPF's cash-prize Charity Randall Award for poets distinguished both on the page and in person. Muldoon, whose critically lauded work is often classified as obscure, spent a good deal of time telling the stories behind these 15 or so poems. "Graveyard visitations were very high on the list of social activities in that part of the world," he said, prefacing a poem recounting a childhood episode. He introduced "a poem having to do with a series of sensations through a hole in the wall" by saying, "It's a bit of a jumble. We'll see how we get through it." He offered a glimpse of his creative process, telling how a poem about his sister dying of ovarian cancer began as a verse about "one of my favorite animals, the turkey buzzard," and noting how another was inspired by a medical term for his unborn daughter's position in the womb: "The moment I heard that phrase, 'footling breach,' I felt a little poem coming on." And he read two new poems about porcupines.

But as with many good poetry readings, what I remember is the pleasure of the sounds, and the emotions they conjure: "Sinking fast in a dear crypt" and "the horse-hair-fringed niche" are two of Muldoon's I jotted down. And this turn of phrase: "Nothing can confirm one's sense of being prized than a sense of another's being anathematized."

It was a busy arts night in Oakland: Within a couple blocks of the Carnegie Lecture Hall, Squonk Opera's outdoor extravaganza Astro-Rama opened; Scott Turow awarded Anthony Varallo the Drue Heinz Prize; and Pitt Rep opened The Clean House. But with Muldoon demonstrating, as he put it, how the performance of poems is "the completion of their poetic moment," the Carnegie was a good place to be.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Kassys Performs Liga

Posted By on Mon, Oct 20, 2008 at 11:20 AM

Liga, performed thrice by the Dutch theater troupe Kassys at the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts last week, is a show whose layers of meaning at first seem to unfold slowly. But then you realize that you're grasping its undercurrents almost in real time.

The first "act" of this intermissionless and disarmingly comic work engages: It's a video projection of a mockumentary about actors slipping backstage, one by one, as their unnamed live show ends. Then, the five actors enter the New Hazlett Theater stage, one by one, in person. (Proving that the PIFOF's roster of U.S. premieres holds many pleasures, including the linguistic, the three men and two women are named Thijs Bloothoofd, Harm van Geel, Esther Snelder, Marc Stoffels and Willemijn Zevenhuijzen.)

Initially, it's confusing: The actors seem to simply wander the prop-filled space, with its big pillows, small tables, folding ladder and inflatable palm tree. But as the random motion gells, it comes clear that they're portraying a bunch of little kids. It's playtime. They misbehave; characters played by Kassys co-founder Liesbeth Gritter and on-stage technical director Klaas Paradies impose order. Eventually they turn the random play into work assignments, and soon we're watching five adults at a barbecue.

The show is wonderful theater: There's inventive near-constant and motion, and the Hazlett's whole playing space and then some is used; the characterizations of toddlers (each with a distinctive personality) are spot-on and built to a hilariously anarchic climax. But as the video intro makes clear, with its actors being coddled and reassured like children, the show is also a wry meditation on theater itself. The closing scene, which gets the actors back offstage, is sharply conceived meta-theater.

Ultimately, though, the humor is poignant: The five kids' unselfconscious (if destructive) play is supplanted by the need for approval and pragmatism, and we're left with five awkward adults mouthing platitudes and bad puns, their imaginations colonized by movie and TV references, all of whom keep talking simply so they don't have to think.

"This acting in daily life thing fascinates me," Gritter, who also conceived Liga, said in the audience talk-back after the Oct. 17 show. She likes the idea of grownups playing children who pretend to be adults. But I thought Liga spoke for itself pretty well, too. Though you're never ahead of the show while watching it, when it ends you feel you've grasped most of what it has to offer, with just enough enigma left over to make it memorable.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Squonk Opera's Astro-Rama

Posted By on Fri, Oct 17, 2008 at 3:01 PM

Writing about Squonk Opera is like writing about a Roman candle, one that happens to come with a rhythm section. The troupe, now some 16 years old, is sui generis: Pittsburgh's only hybridizer of art rock and performance, and expert at blending surrealism, high camp and careful craft for the masses. Squonk's new free outdoor show, which I caught last night, nicely summarizes how its penchant for spectacle hobbles its shows' narrative momentum -- and how it doesn't matter that it does.

Here, the Squonkers -- who've feted Night of the Living Dead, Westernized the Minotaur (Rodeo Smackdown) and lovingly spoofed their hometown (Pittsburgh: The Opera) -- attempt to contact extraterrestrial life on our behalf. They've taken over one end of Schenley Plaza with a stage and a big satellite dish; the production also includes a crashed flying saucer; an anthropomorphized supercomputer (puckishly named "PAL 9000"); a giant silver hand; a set of false limbs; and lots of funny hats. The 70-minute show's like a big furry B-movie, with lots of trippy video (the satellite dish is the screen) and a dozen or more musical numbers, most of them pleasingly thunderous compositions for drums (Kevin Kornicki), bass (Ryan McMasters), electric guitar (David Wallace), keys (Jackie Dempsey), wind instruments (Steve O'Hearn, with a Dempsey Squonk co-founder) and vocals (Autumn Ayers).

The songs, many of them instrumentals, spin as tightly and kick as hard as Squonk ever has; of course, a few of them also stop the sketch-like story dead in its tracks, not to mention a couple of prop-based sequences that fall flat or go on too long.

In the end, though, this show (which concludes with 8 p.m. performances tonight and Sat., Oct. 18, weather permitting) satisfies. Even if the structure feels raggedy at times, there's a conceptual flow, with lots of hilariously straight-faced pigeon-technical jargon ("calibrate the Fibonacci sequence") giving way to a big on-stage and –screen party, and then to a manual override of out-of-control technology. Best of all, Squonk has retained its knack for comedy. The group manages to snap from a lovely ballad to madcap humor, and to smartly leaven the show's frankly stated anti-commercialization theme with well-timed quips. Astro-rama mightn't succeed at bringing all of mankind together, as the story puts it; but most of the few hundred people lounging on the damp Schenley Plaza lawn seemed united in the belief that Squonk had done it again.


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