Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Monday, February 23, 2009

Heads Together

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2009 at 2:37 PM

I doubt whether I can bear to drag myself to this venerable video shop's liquidation sale, which continues through this Sat., Feb. 28. I moved to Pittsburgh in 1991, and the place quickly became one of my cultural way stations -- then as much for its used-book annex (called the Bookworm), quality magazine rack and little vinyl-record selection as for its VHS rentals. (OK, also for its proximity to the Squirrel Cage -- but I digress.)

It was then still in its original location, in the basement of the Squirrel Hill building by Gullifty's where it had once also sold water pipes. I remember descending those steep stairs into that sizable lair, packed with shelving and all the foreign-language and cult titles you could imagine. The counter was on your right as you entered, the videos on the left, books in back.

I had actually rented my last VHS tapes from Heads not long ago, maybe only a month before owner Dee Sias announced that she was closing up shop. The store, for the past couple years, has occupied a second-floor walkup space further down Forbes it shares with Jerry's Records. The picks were two groundbreaking documentaries of their respective days, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line and Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North.

Heads' departure reminds me of other unique video stores that disappeared in recent years: Oakland's Classic Video, whose selection of classics and art films was unparalled (I still don't know how they fit it all in that little Craig Street storefront) and Incredibly Strange Video, your cult-film source in Dormont. Both were as much victims of their long histories -- which came complete with giant VHS stockpiles, quickly obsolescing in a DVD world -- as they were of Netflix or downloads. (It's no coincidence that the city's lone remaining indie video shop, Dreaming Ant, is young enough to be all-DVD.) I can't imagine either that it helped Heads to have virtually no streetface presence ... though I guess it didn't have much when it lived in a basement, either.

It all makes me feel like I did when Homestead's legendary Chiodo's Bar closed a few years back, combined with how I felt in the late '80s, when it became almost impossible to find new music on vinyl: wistful at the passing of an era; angry at the public's lemming-like embrace of new technology; vaguely guilty that I can't do anything to stop it.

In my own miniscule way, I do share blame for Heads' demise: I patronize video stores way less than I did a few years ago. But it's not because I'm mail-ordering or downloading. I just don't watch movies at home much these days, except stuff I'm writing about for CP and for which I therefore get press screeners. And of the handful of titles I am interested in, many are available free from the Carnegie Library.

So dwindles the census of physical locations where humans of like mind once congregated. Now Squirrel Hill acquires another empty space where you won't see certain heads together any more.

Monday, February 16, 2009

International Poetry Forum Folds

Posted By on Mon, Feb 16, 2009 at 2:47 PM

The Forum's imminent demise is a body blow to the local literary scene. It won't of course be fully felt until late April, after this final season's final two readings take place. But no group has brought in top-ranking, even legendary poets, as regularly as the Forum, from Czeslaw Milosz to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Anne Sexton to Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. And nobody else has been doing it for anything like the group's almost mind-boggling 43 seasons.

Before I ever encountered the Forum, I knew of its founder and guiding light, Samuel Hazo. In the mid-'90s, I saw him recite his work for a small crowd in a basement a friend of mine had converted into a performance venue. And I do mean recited: Hazo knows his own voluminous work, and many other verses, by heart.

In the past few years, I've been to about half a dozen of the Forum's typically Wednesday-night readings, always at the Carnegie Lecture Hall. Each has been memorable: Martin Espada, Richard Wilbur, Paul Muldoon. Particular favorites included the great W.S. Merwin, who visited a couple of years ago, and more recently Brian Turner, the soldier-poet who'd served in Iraq and read from his riveting collection Here, Bullet.

Each of these readings (the Forum hosted six a year) bolstered Hazo's contention that poetry must be heard aloud to be fully appreciated. To hear the verses from the mouths of the Pulitzer- and Nobel-winners -- as well as up-and-coming poets -- who'd written them doubled the privilege. And in a town where lecture tickets run to $25, you can still get a seat at the Forum for $12 ($8 for students and seniors).

Pittsburgh still boasts a preponderance of places to hear poetry: The monthly Gist Street Reading Series, for instance, always pairs a poet and a fiction writer. Pitt's Contemporary Writers Series often hosts poets, too; Autumn House Press brings in many of the poets it publishes, often artists of national stature, while opportunities for local poets to read aloud abound.

But the Forum's status is unique, which makes the dried-up funding Hazo announced as the cause of its demise that much harder to take.

Can anyone fill its niche? In this funding climate, it seems a long shot. So -- and if only to say thanks to Hazo -- take full advantage of these final Forum readings: Ron Padgett (March 11) and Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (April 15). (See

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Seafarer at City Theatre

Posted By on Fri, Feb 13, 2009 at 4:42 PM

Complimenting the set at a play can come off like praising a film's cinematography --a convenient way to avoid saying you didn't like the show. And indeed, even patrons who were disappointed in Seafarer raved about the set, which recreated the present-day living room of a decrepit house on the outskirts of Dublin, home to the action of this at once earthy and supernatural Conor McPherson comedy.

While I did enjoy Seafarer (which runs through Sun., Feb. 15), the set was a big reason. City's scenic design is always top-notch, and sometimes spectacular; I'm thinking especially of the multi-level suggestion of a teeming small-town apartment building in 2004's Gompers. But the scenic design for Seafarer comes courtesy of someone relatively new in town: Narelle Sissons.

Sissons is a big name in New York, with credits including the recent Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. Here, she collaborated with City artistic director Tracy Brigden (who also directed Seafarer) on what might be the biggest City set yet, seeming to take up every possible inch of the proscenium and more. It's meticulously shoddy, with its half-crushed, finger-grimed furniture; smoke-smudged walls; ceramic knick-knacks; and ceiling shorn of plaster down to the lathe. Maybe best of all, the whole thing's tilted up at stage left, an apt visual metaphor for the rough sailing to be experienced by the titular protagonist, as well as for the play's generally drunken milieu: The first half hour of the story, which begins on the morning of a Christmas Eve, seems to consist largely of hangover jokes.

McPherson isn't known for his strong plots. And if Seafarer is considered his most narratively developed play (it is), I can see why: It's a pretty slender story, albeit built around a wager with the devil. But the characters are wonderfully sketched and the performances are mostly top-notch, particularly Noble Shropshire's comedic (yet incisively pathetic) self-pity as Richard, the title character's blind elder brother. The script's biggest pleasure is surely McPherson's vivid dialogue among these drunken men. It boasts, among other things, the funniest excuse a drunk could give for accepting another drink: The character, played by Marty Giles, has lost his glasses, and having found himself in a bar, he explains, "I couldn't see who to say no to."

But Sissons (currently teaching scenography at Carnegie Mellon) has created a set that, though without a line of dialogue, is a character in itself. My favorite touch sat off to one side: An ancient console stereo, still in place though its function has been superseded by the little egg-shaped portable tape-player, about 1-100th its size, sitting atop it. It was the perfect analog for the veneer of coping these men had laid over their generally feckless personal histories. In McPherson's telling, the past still took up the most space -- but, this being comedy, the lads prove just lucky enough to get by.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Janet Browne at the Drue Heinz Lectures

Posted By on Wed, Feb 11, 2009 at 2:08 PM

First, an anecdote from Carnegie Museum of Natural History director Samuel Taylor, who introduced Darwin biographer Browne at her Feb. 9 talk: Once, he said, while soliciting feedback on a dinosaur exhibit, the museum heard from a man who'd found the "Achilles heel" of that whole evolution thing. "If dinosaurs all died out millions of years before humans arrived," inquired Gotcha Guy, "then how is it we know all their names?"

It's easy to mock evolution-deniers. But Browne, emulating Darwin's own humility, mostly didn't. Rather, she offered some interesting material about the historical context for the publication, in 1859, of The Origin of Species (which sparked "one of the first truly international scientific debates") and about how Darwin's ideas spread. It mostly wasn't through scholarly debate: Instead, as now, it was through mass media, like printed cartoons (many of which depicted Darwin as an ape) and other commercial speech. Browne showed slides of ad in which a chimp touts hair tonic, and another depicting sheet music to a popular song, titled "Darwinian Theory" and set to the tune of something called "The King of the Cannibal Islands."

Browne also noted that -- although Origin scarcely mentioned human evolutionary ancestry -- tumult over it centered on whether men were "apes or angels," and the debate was informed by new, and misleading, research about the supposed viciousness of gorillas.

She also tackled, briefly, America's outlier status in terms of public acceptance of evolution: The only other developed nation where fewer than half the population believes in evolution is Turkey. (Thoughout Europe, the theory has been widely accepted for well over a century.) Browne hypothesized this might have to do with the decentralized U.S. school system, in which individual states and school districts (hello, Kansas!) are free to set their own faulty curricula.

Still, I thought Browne's most plangent observation grew from the way Darwin was influenced by, and influenced in turn, how his society viewed itself. Victorian England was industrializing rapidly. Fortunes -- including the one that bankrolled Darwin's researches -- were being made rapidly. This was called progress, and Victorians like Darwin saw no end to it -- a model for evolution's "improvements" on less simpler life forms, or those less well-adapted to their environments.

In London as in Pittsburgh, the smell of burning coal was the smell of civilization, not of global warming. The Galapagos Islands were richly biodiverse, in the days before internal-combustion engines; forests were endless, and seas were full of whales and fish for the taking.

"He didn't have that anxiety about where we're going that we have," Browne said of Darwin.

And maybe that's our own strange evolution: We've inherited Western Civilization's faith in endless technological progress, even as we slowly begin to realize the limits, on a finite planet, to what it can accomplish.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Metamorphoses at The Public

Posted By on Mon, Feb 9, 2009 at 5:43 PM

In bringing Iron Age myths to iPhone Age audiences, Pittsburgh Public Theater's production (which runs through Sun., Feb. 15) draws an interesting line. As conceived by playwright Mary Zimmerman, this adaptation of Ovid's great work speaks often in a modern, even contemporary idiom: Ovid's Orpheus and Eurydice is supplemented with Rilke's; business suits mix with togas; and the sleek, cunningly simple set, dominated by a sizable swimming pool, plays host to such signal modern interactions as a therapy session. But Metamorphoses is about as far from "realism" as it gets.

True, Zimmerman's comic rendering of the story of Phaeton and Apollo -- spoiled adult son of a famous, distant father -- as said poolside therapy is the evening's most crowd-pleasing set piece. But the play has a lot less contemporizing than you might guess. What's more interesting is how the production insists on its theatricality.

Many of the stories, for instance, are narrated by an actor standing onstage, even as other actors act them out; some of the narrators, in fact, actually stand knee-deep in the pool, behind a small music stand holding a script. Some of the costuming is outrageous, especially wild headdresses for Ceres and Aphrodite. Apollo spends most of his stage time singing, opera-style. Orpheus, Eurydice and Hermes circle the pool a half-dozen times, re-enacting their fraught procession endlessly. And those titular metamorphoses -- into animals, trees, golden statuary -- are achieved with no more special effects than lighting and actorly gesture.

Zimmerman jokes about this theatricality, I thought, in the scene when Morpheus is ordered to pose as a dead sea captain's ghost for the benefit of the man's distraught wife, who doesn't know he's dead. The same actor, of course, plays both the "transformed" Morpheus and the captain. First he's complimented on his accurate transformation, and then he visits the widow and lies: "I am not some bearer of tales, but the man himself, to whom [the tragedy] happened."

As peformed by a fine cast of 10 directed by Ted Pappas, it's all "stagy," of course. But whether that's an insult depends on whether we're truly spoiled for theater's imaginary worlds by the equally illusory "realism" of modern film and TV, in which it's thought that even Mordor and Narnia have be photorealistic to pass muster. Those who think that theater's prospects rest with the very thing that makes theater unique -- its theatricality -- could make a pretty good case with Metamophoses

The themes Zimmerman draws from Ovid concern love, trust and kindness -- and even, as Pappas noted when I interviewed him about the show, a pretty strong environmental sensibility. (Several characters are turned into trees or birds, and this is a happy fate; another character who cuts down a goddess's favorite tree is cursed with insatiable greed to the point of a rather grisly fate.) If Ovid's stories are indeed timeless, there's little need to dress them in sweatsuits -- or to pretend they're real. "The myth is a public dream," as one character says. "Dreams are private myths."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Encyclopedia Destructica PowerPoints

Posted By on Thu, Feb 5, 2009 at 2:52 PM

It was nice last Saturday to see the Miller Gallery's first-floor lobby in use, and packed besides. Astria Suparak, in her first year as this CMU venue's curator, has plans for the lobby, which over the years has usually seemed like the dead space you pass through to get to the exhibits on the second and third floors. But meantime, local art collective Encyclopedia Destructica -- run by Christopher Kardambikis and Jasdeep Khaira -- brought the lobby to life with an event built around the presentation of its 2008 Flying Destructicate award.

The award, which included a several-month residency, went to local artist Jonathan Brodsky. (The FD is also a little multi-contributor art book, with a DVD, which I'll write about it in a future issue of CP.) But the evening's main attraction were performances drawn from two special events held late last year, when ED invited local artists to put together six-minute PowerPoint presentations on subjects of their choice.

Appropriating a form (or maybe it's a "genre") associated with the dreary cube-farms of postindustrial America for artful and perhaps even subversive use is a pretty great idea. While I hadn't seen the other shows, the sampling offered Feb. 7 didn't disappoint.

T. Foley, for instance, offered "Types and Categories of Pics Attached to Postings Within Men Seeking Women Classified Ads on Chicago's Craigslist." Foley, in semi-mock-academic style, started by breaking the pics into those that depicted the poster and those that didn't, and further from there; her slides consisted of her own simple line-drawing versions of the online images and a sampling of the text. The Craiglist ads, perhaps predictably, ranged from poignant (a trucker promised prospective partners, "I always know where I am going and when I will be back") to the creepy ("Come share my penthouse"). Without the least condescension ("some of my best boyfriends ... came from Craigslist," she acknowledged), Foley brought her background in media-literacy education to bear for a presentation both humorous and insightful.

Another highlight was Laura Miller's faux-naïve piece on Joseph Baker, the illiterate, rabble-rousing anti-immigrant street orator who, in 1850, was elected mayor of Pittsburgh -- while in jail. "He was kind of a horrible man ... but he was our mayor!" enthused Miller.

Brodsky also presented his own PowerPoint, which was fascinating but, involving as it did theories of the origin of all life on Earth; pigeons; Eastern Bloc pneumatic-tube message-delivery systems; and more, was almost too much to absorb in one sitting.

I look forward to checking out some of the other PowerPoints on the ED DVD, including one on Alexander Berkman's attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick; one on Prince; and Brett Kashmere's intriguingly titled "The Fifth Quarter: A Secret History of Basketball."

Encyclopedia Desctructica, is way cool, and they even had snacks.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Super Bowl Revelry

Posted By on Mon, Feb 2, 2009 at 11:27 AM

As latter-day Steelers seasons go, this one can't compare, for my money, with the improbable wild-card to top-dog run of 2005. But any year that ends with a Super Bowl win most emphatically doesn't suck, and the amazing theatrics of the Steelers-Cards game itself made it much better than most.

In fact, it even totally justified my probably unwise decision to leave my neighborhood to watch the game: I live in the South Side, which at halftime gets walled off by cops, and after watching the 2006 game at a bar in Homestead I spent about two hours trapped in traffic within two blocks of my house, unable to either park or exit the vehicle.

This time things worked out better -- and that was before I found two $20 bills on the 18th Street sidewalk. I watched the game with a big crowd at a friend's place in Squirrel Hill, and it had everything you want in playoff football: An unbelievable play (Harrison's touchdown run); a bizarre play (a safety on a penalty?); a nutty statistical anomaly (Warner's record-setting passing in a losing cause); and two lead changes in the final minutes.

As for the three hours of "Super Bowl" time when the game clock wasn't ticking, the funniest commercial was that "I'm good" one, even though I can't remember what it was for. The Conan O'Brien "beer commercial" commercial (I think it was actually advertising Conan O'Brien) was pretty good, too. (Sadly, the Polamalu "remake" of that old Coke comemercial was half-assed; it didn't work because, unlike the Mean Joe Greene original, it didn't play off its protagonist's public persona.) Springsteen was swell, especially the crotch-first slide into the camera and that corny delay-of-game skit.

But what's with the Seahawks colors on the winner's gimme caps? And how is it that, when most players were still in shoulder pads for 11:30 interviews, just 20 minutes after the game ended, Kurt Warner was on camera, moussed and in a suit with a pocket hankerchief?

The most memorable thing, though, might have been the trip home, made in the knowledge that a car had been overturned and couches torched in Oakland. After taking a back route to the South Side, my ride dropped me off partway down 18th, which I walked high-fiving drunken strangers (and finding that $40). On carless Carson, amidst the ersatz Wards and Roethlisbergers and Millers, there seemed to be a half-dozen cops at every barricaded intersection, and their main function seemed to be holding big sticks and posing for revelers' snapshots.

It was just after midnight. Mostly this was a parade, people cruising on foot. Only a handful of bars and eateries were open. A guy wandered by in a Polamalu jersey, his hair exactly Polamalu's (not a wig). Between 14th and 15th, an inexplicably huge clot of people had set up in front of a clothing boutique whose plate glass was barricaded; they were waving Terrible Towels and hopping about and crowd-surfing, and it appeared that the only reason they were there rather than somewhere else was five idiots hanging out the second-floor apartment window over the store, also waving Towels and blasting that inane Steelers-cheer song and "We Are the Champions."

The guy in the Polamalu jersey and his girlfriend, wandered past again. Somewhere over toward the Slopes, someone shot off firecrackers.


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