Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Monday, June 22, 2009

Harry's Friendly Service

Posted By on Mon, Jun 22, 2009 at 2:59 PM

Rob Zellers' new play at Pittsburgh Public Theatre reminded me of an interview I did with sage local filmmaker Tony Buba some years back. Buba is famed for short films documenting his hard-times hometown of Braddock, Pa., often highlighting postindustrial urban eccentrics: a motor-mouthed ne'er-do-well, a zealously overoptimistic used-furniture salesman. Interviewed a couple decades after completing the films that first made his name, Buba said that sort of person doesn't exist any more; our world just doesn't seem to have room for them.

Zellers' play, though, is set in just that world -- though in the version Zellers grew up with, in Youngstown, Ohio's. Perhaps it's not entirely coincidental that the year is 1977, around the time Buba was most assiduously documenting Braddock's characters.

Zellers' Harry owns a service station only nominally; he's really a bookie, and as the play open he's in a fresh $9,000 hole. Most of the story revolves around his relationship with his daughter, a young woman who turns up unannounced 12 years after he put her in an orphanage following the death of her mother. There's also the matter of his relationship with the local mob, and it's all against the backdrop of the collapse of the steel industry. (Again, shades of Braddock.)

And yes, crusty, angry old Harry (played by Edward James Hyland) is an eccentric: He keeps a beartrap in his office, and as a story one character tells makes clear, he's pretty good at scaring hippy college kids.

What struck me most about this entertaining and heartfelt play was the sense of community that made the story possible. Even its criminal aspects have roots: Harry's relationship to mob boss Carmine is definied less by their growing up together than by the generosity of Harry's mother that kept Carmine's impoverished family from starving during the Great Depression.

Meanwhile, the only constant in Harry's social circle is a pinochle game whose participants include Tina, the flame-haired proprietress of the local strip joint, and John, the struggling young lawyer whom Harry has allowed to set up an office in a corner of his gas station -- and who falls for Harry's daughter, Emily.

One scene depicts the aftermath of a boys' night at the club, played out before the eyes of innocent, earnest Emily. Yet when Harry reminds the calamitously hungover John "You told Heidi you'd call her this weekend," there's a double layer of meaning: The old man's not just nastily taking the young buck down a peg in the eyes of his daughter. After all, he knows the stripper Heidi, too -- and not calling her, you sense, would violate community protocol.

The characters in Harry's Friendly Service fight a lot, but they always fight like family, with a deep attachment to a place and a set of people, some chosen, some not. Never mind about eccentrics. These days, it's harder and harder to find people with that much sense of home.

(Harry's Friendly Service runs through Sun., June 28.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Unseam'd Shakespeare's Macbeth 3

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2009 at 10:14 AM

Cross-gender casting is less controversial (and sometimes more interesting) than cross-racial casting. Pittsburgh's own August Wilson inveighed against the latter, and he had a point: Works like his, set in very specific times and places, are largely about the culture that grew from America's history of racial oppression. They simply wouldn't make sense with white people playing black roles, and vice versa. (The issue's arisen again with an all-black Broadway Death of a Salesman, which some argue can't work for the same reason.)

Unseam'd's stripped-down, three-actor take on the Scottish play, meanwhile, isn't the first time the troupe's gone cross-gender. In fact, the first Unseam'd show I ever saw was a drag version of The Importance of Being Earnest. Not that Wilde's classic needs much help, but having Cecily, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell (as played by men) tower over the nattering Algernon and Jack (played by women) certainly added a new spin, not least in its critique of traditional "gender-appropriate" behavior as role-playing.

I recalled the technique some years later on reading of a new production of A Doll's House in which the stifled women were all portayed by the tallest actresses they could find, the oppressive men by dwarfish men.

Doing Shakespeare cross-gender, of course, is nothing new. (And originally, all the women's roles were played by men anyway.) Moreover, unlike August Wilson (or Arthur Miller), Shakespeare's plays are little enough about delineating specific social histories that we've long felt free to recast them in any setting we like.

Yet what's interesting about Unseam'd's fine Macbeth 3 (based on an original adaptation by L.A.-based theater-maker Lisa Wolpe) is how not-weird it feels to cast a woman as Macbeth and a man as Lady Macbeth.

If "fair is foul, and foul is fair," after all, why not "girls will be boys and boys will be girls," as another British bard had it? Moreover, as director Michael Hood noted when I interviewed him before the show opened, Shakespeare's dialogue is rife with plays on gender stereotypes.

Take Lady Macbeth's famous Act I monologue: "Come you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughs, unsex me here, / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty! ... Come to my woman's breasts, / And take my milk for gall ..." In proper Elizabethan fashion, she sees remorse and mercy as womanly traits that must be overthrown if regicidal ambition is to be fulfilled.

Likewise, in argument with Lady Macbeth over their scheme, Macbeth's moral qualms are seen as unmanly. "I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more is none," he contends. She replies: "When you durst do it, then you were a man; / And to be more than what you were, you would / Be so much more the man."

It's all played "straight," as it were, with strong performances by Lisa Ann Goldsmith as Macbeth; Rich Venezia as Lady Macbeth (and also, rather pointedly, as the added character of Satan); and the seemingly shape-shifting Jennifer Tober in a variety of mostly male roles.

Still, I think what I like most about the Wolpe/Unseam'd meta-commentary is resetting Macbeth not anywhere on earth, or in time, at all. The whole thing takes place in hell, Macbeth forced to relive his violent sorrows endlessly (on a wonderfully creepy set by Gordon Phetteplace, with lighting by Michael Boone and sound by Mark Whitehead).

So when the witches ask, "When shall we three meet again," the answer is, literally, "tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow."

(Macbeth 3 has five more performances through Sat., June 20.)

Monday, June 15, 2009


Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2009 at 8:32 AM

I live on the South Side, and my wife and I watched Game 7 at a favorite East Carson watering hole. We started our walk home in the middle of the on-ice Cup-hoisting ritual, but got only as far as the corner of 17th before we stopped to watch the ruckus in fan-clogged streets. It wasn't nearly as large, or as carnivalesque, as the Super Bowl victory melee a scant four months ago -- that one had a guy in a kilt, after all -- but it was still quite diverting.

Yet, despite the brandishing of ersatz water-bottle Stanley Cups silvered with duct tape; the sore-winner cries of "Fuck you, Hossa!"; the rather-moot-by-now chants of "Let's go, Pens"; the senseless twirling of hand-towels at police; the riot-geared cops shaking up cans of Mace (but apparently not using them); the seeming good humor of the poor farkers on the 51C that on a nominally open-to-traffic street took 45 minutes to get from 17th to 14th streets; and the lady rather poetically blowing soap bubbles from the third-floor window over Slacker, I have just one question:

Why do the two guys who trundle the Cup onto the ice after the final game wear white gloves to deliver it for kisses and man-hugs to a bunch of sweaty, heavily bearded hockey players? It's like having butlers at a keg party.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

La Pocha Nostra at Three Rivers Arts Festival

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2009 at 2:50 PM

Performance art usually works best when it's not patently obvious what the artists are trying to say. A poem, in other words, is better than a speech. That's how it seemed to me Saturday night at Downtown's Bricolage theater space, where this internationally acclaimed troupe staged a new version of Corpo Ilicito: The Post-Human Society #69. The memorable show drew a full house -- well over a hundred, drawn heavily from the local theater community.

Some walked out of the hour-plus performance. But a number of folks who are usually particular about, or indifferent or even hostile toward performance art said they were genuinely engaged by the work's questions and provocations about culture, ethnicity, sexuality, domination and more. As well as its sheer theatricality.

At either end of the smallish venue, Pocha principals Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes staged a series of politically charged tableaux vivant on small risers. The first pair of scenes set the tone: The long-haired, heavily made-up Gómez-Peña, costumed to suggest a barrel-chested Native American drag queen up top, a hairy debutante below, struck a series of poses with a half-naked blonde female assistant, usually with her restraining him with such accoutrements as a dog chain attached to a collar.

Sifuentes, meanwhile, stood swathed in yards of clear plastic film, inside of which he was locked in an embrace with a large, palely reddish object that turned out to be the skinned carcass of a goat. Sifuentes' skin was coated with red gore, which also stained the crotch of the diaper he wore, along with tinted goggles and a camouflage jacket. His "assistant" was a sort of naughty nurse, who eventually sliced him from this chrysalis.

Piped-in music ranged from Beach Boys harmonies to "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes and Latino dance music. A projected-video loop offered silent-era depictions (both fictional and documentary) of aboriginal peoples, plus racist sequences from The Birth of a Nation -- and a little antique girl-on-girl bondage.

Every few minutes, the tableaux changed: Gómez-Peña put on blush, performed a "native" ritual with spray deodorant (very funny), and had people wash his feet. Sifuentes wielded a machete, held his feet over lit candles, and wore the gutted goat carcass, its neck lolling, like a headpiece.

The work that was more suggestive, rather than explicit, felt most powerful. Sifuentes polishes a gun with a handkerchief-sized U.S. flag -- eh, kinda obvious. When he rolls it into a tourniquet and ties it off, as if to shoot up -- a little more interesting. When another small flag sits inside the oxygen bag he inhales from -- it's hard to say what it meant, exactly, but it got my attention.

Likewise, the soundtrack. Gómez-Peña, for one, was born in Mexico, and Corpo Ilicito was touted as a commentary on post-Bush, post-9/11 society. So excerpting Bush lies ("I did not ask for this war") was fish-in-a-barrelly, especially for this crowd. But excerpting a martial passage from Obama's acceptance speech -- "To those who would tear the world down, we will defeat you" -- felt like helpful recontextualization.

La Pocha likes audience participation, and the group recruits. I ended up onstage twice. The first time, I was handed a toy rifle and asked by Gómez-Peña to place the barrel "at my genitals ... It's OK," he said in his accented English. "Pooosh."

The San Francisco-based Gómez-Peña and Sifuentes had performed at a previous arts fest, setting up a "confession booth" here, back in the mid-'90s. This spring, they also conducted a workshop with local artists. The show that grew from that workshop, titled Homeland Insecurity, will be performed at 8 p.m nightly Thu., June 11, through Sat., June 13, at Bricolage, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Tickets are $10.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The 50th Three Rivers Arts Festival

Posted By on Mon, Jun 8, 2009 at 9:31 AM

It was hard to fully grasp how much different last year's renovations had made Point State Park's "big lawn" until I saw, early on the festival's first night, even a few people inhabiting it. Hours before The Black Keys packed the grass out in front of the Hilton with a blistering set of blues-rock, the handful of folks lounging there with $9 fajitas suggested a scale the place couldn't manage when the old "moat" was still in place.

It's too bad those recreated walls of the historic Fort Pitt redoubt are gone. But in a city where grand old structures disappear for the sake of parking lots, I guess we should be grateful that at least this time we got something in return: a nice new civic space.

The festival, newly scaled down under the new proprietorship of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, seemed to go pretty smoothly on its first weekend; there weren't even any of the traditional baptismal thunderstorms. Here's a sample of festival exhibits:

  • 707 Penn Gallery has a cool show by the f295 photography group, all images made with pinhole cameras and other historic or alternative photo procesess;
  • the Three Rivers Arts Festival Gallery Co-op hosts a vibrant showcase of work from 12 local galleries, from the Silver Eye Center for Photography to moxie DaDA;
  • the raw space at 929 Penn houses Collective Works, a "bring-and-hang" show of work by some 90 Associated Artists of Pittsburgh members, including Elizabeth Castonguay's oil painting "Solitary Confinement ... Huang Xiang," a stunning portrait of the dissident Chinese poet and former Pittsburgher; and
  • "De-Tranquilizers," a exhibit of work by locals curated by the Warhol's Eric C. Shiner, in storefronts at 925 and 927 Penn. The title seems a sly dig at the Festival's reputation for mainstream art; in any case, it's good to see stuff like painter Fabrizio Gerbino's familiar ochres, yellow and grays put to more abstract use; Gregory Witt's delightfully useless machine of functioning gears made of pink foamboard insulation; and the installation, complete with short video documentary, on local "yoganatrix" Lilith Bailey-Kroll.

Another favorite was Sarver's Bait & Tackle, the storefront at 905 Penn that former Tom Museum proprietor Tom Sarver (back for the summer from grad school) turned into a homage to fishing.

One wouldn't think that Sarver's outsider-art-style paintings could be confused with an actual bait shop. Yet Sarver says that even while he was building the show, guys would stop in off the street thinking it was the real thing. At Friday's opening night, he told me, "People come in and they say, ‘Tell me where to fish around here.'" And a friend I ran into at the Black Keys show, who describes his father as the most serious fisherman he knows, said the old man had excitedly told him, just that day, of the new bait shop he'd seen on Penn.

Is there a pent demand for this service Downtown? A Cultural District fishing emporium – that would be a fine legacy for the Arts Festival.

On the other hand, I was a little disappointed with the Three Rivers Arts Festival Retrospective (907 Penn). While the exhibit included new works by the reputable likes of Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, the title had led me to expect a look back at the fest's history of art work -- not just a wall display of 50 years of festival program cover. Still, said display had its retro charms, as did a wallfull of old news clippings (1977 headline: "Three Rivers Festival: Was It Arty?"). There were also old-school slide carousels for your hands-on review of four decades of photos of performers and audiences.

I also missed, more than I thought I would, the big outdoor sculpture or installation of the sort that had been the calling card of many a previous festival, but which the Trust lacked the time and money to commission after taking over the institution from the Carnegie just a few months ago. Things like those crazy stick structures that filled one end of the park in 2003 really brought the room together, as they might have said in The Big Lebowski.

Monday, June 1, 2009

August Wilson Center Community Day

Posted By on Mon, Jun 1, 2009 at 3:02 PM

To the extent that August Wilson's plays are about validating community -- perhaps, in a larger sense, even creating it -- Saturday's festivities announcing the arrival of the Center's new home felt on target.

The block of Liberty alongside the striking, largely complete structure was closed for a street fair, with vendors of food, art and crafts, and at one end a stage for live music and other performance. If the crowd was multiethnic, the vibe was Afrocentric -- entirely appropriate for a Center for African American Culture.

Of course, the Center's most concrete legacy will be the building itself. At 60,000 square feet of space for exhibits, performances, education and more, it cost nearly $40 million. It's not quite done: Informal guided group tours watched their step, tromped through plaster dust and consulted posted artists' renderings to get a better idea of the finished product (set for unveiling in September).

But what's there is encouraging. A spacious second-floor gallery for temporary exhibits offered a slide-show preview of the first, one that will recreate rooms from an historic house in the Hill District. There'll also be a studio space for rehearsals and informal performances (complete with sprung floor for dancers). In the education center (just an open space for now), we watched storyteller Amir Rashidd tell African folk tales, aimed mostly at kids, with a wisdom and panache one could imagine the late Wilson himself admiring. And the big theater space -- complete with several hundred seats and a balcony -- was already humming with a full day's slate of local performers of all ages, from gospel singers to hip-hop dancers. (The stage will be formally christened June 11, with a concert by Me'Shell Ndegeocello.)

But the best part of architect Allison Williams' design, I thought, was the windows. Most of the structure's two-story Liberty Avenue face is plate glass, and from the second-floor studio and education center you got a sweeping view of the sunlit street teeming with visitors. Clever notches in the walls provided other viewing angles on the rest of Downtown and even on a wooded hillside of the Hill District, which of course is Wilson's old neighborhood.

All that natural light will surely help the Center in its quest for LEED certification as an environmentally sensitive building. But if the building's very existence, especially in such a prominent location, is a long-overdue validation for African-American culture in Pittsburgh, the effect of the windows in particular is transformative. Just as in Wilson's plays, where a backyard or a living room or the interior of a diner is made to seem the focal point of an entire world, so the Center's windows join the building's inside to its outside. They definitely make you feel part of a community.


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