Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, August 28, 2009

Quantum Theatre's 36 Views

Posted By on Fri, Aug 28, 2009 at 9:06 AM

Some themes in art appear over and over because they need to. That's the case with this play, whose story is built around a forgery. It's about deception, authenticity, and our need to believe. It's all stuff we "know" but often have trouble remembering – or simply find agreeable to forget.

Just as with the multiple kimonos one character wears, playwright Naomi Iizuka dons, then strips away, layer upon layer of story. The forgery is of an 11th-century Japanese courtesan's journal, written by an overeducated 21st-century white American guy. His boss is a sketchy art dealer (named Darius Wheeler) who covets the forgery, and whose reasons for that include the fact that he's fallen for Setsuko, an Asian-American scholar of that very sort of writing.  

So: A portrait soliliquied upon in one scene is dismissed as of "iffy" authenticity in the next. Later, Darius – whom we've seen insisting that "happy" simply "means happy" – says of one artwork, "There are fakes and then there are fakes." Then we learn he's lying there, too.

Iizuka (and maybe director Karla Boos) employs a couple of smart techniques to express the subjectivity of our gaze. At one point these include a literal veil over one artwork that's literally lifted as one character's illusions are dispelled.

The dialogue, meanwhile, often suggests not only characters trapped in a web of lies, but interesting games being played with the audience. For instance, Setsuko lauds the "pillow book" (which we know to be fraudulent) as having "a voice that was … unmistakably female." But of course we understand that the playwright, three of whose characters are men, is practicing the same sort of gender impersonation. What's engaged on one level is that eternal question of our willing suspension of disbelief in a work of fiction. 

Ultimately, however, the play mentions more themes than it explores, including but not limited to Westerners' tendency to exoticize the Orient, and whether art becomes less beautiful as it becomes more graphic in its depictions. The central romance plays out a bit flatly, too.

Meanwhile, the production, with its handsome outdoor setting in an amphitheater at one end of Washington's Landing, is ankled by ambient noise. Train horns blow; motorboats growl; the cicadas provide a constant percussive background; barges honk. (At one point in the performance I saw, after Setsuko offers Darius her theory about how the courtesans' habit of writing in their native language -- men wrote in Chinese -- freed them to express their true emotions, a barge passes, and Darius responds, "Well, that sounds [hoooonnk].")

One thing 36 Views surprisingly brought to mind was the recent L.A. Fitness shootings here. The shooter's online journal was widely quoted. In all the news coverage I saw, no one seemed to question whether the man's account of his social and romantic isolation might not be entirely true. It was a "journal," true. But because it was one he knowingly posted online, it was also a performance. Perhaps then, also, part lie.

What 36 Views reminds us is that we all to some extent (perhaps a large extent) believe what we want to believe, for our own reasons, facts be damned. (Why might people want to believe the gym shooter might go on a rampage simply because he hadn't had sex in year?) And we lie in the same way. At its best, 36 Views gives us characters' subtle negotiations with themselves as they gauge how much they want to tell a lie, what it will get them, and how much the other person wishes to hear it.

And the little fake moons of the stage lights illuminate all.


36 Views continues through Sun., Aug. 30.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mysteries of the Great Lakes at Carnegie Science Center

Posted By on Mon, Aug 24, 2009 at 7:38 AM

The first IMAX movie I ever saw, some 25 years ago, was about skydiving. But quite a few of these large-format spectacles have taken up themes of nature and the environment. Perhaps it's something about how the domed screen suggests the sky.

In any case, my second IMAX was about beavers (10-foot incisors, comin' at ya!), and takes on our imperiled oceans, the power of hurricanes and the like include this one that opened Aug. 13, about pollution in the five huge fresh-water bodies to our north. (Note from the film's press preview screening: Avoid arriving early unless you're prepared to hear the Science Center's sound system play two verses of Gordon Lightfoot's Great Lakes-themed folk-rock epic "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," looped continuously.)

While the film is structured around efforts to save the threatened lake sturgeon from extinction, the "mysteries" thing is a red herring, a nod to Native American lore, buttressed by a biologist's reverential visit to some Indian rock art. (No living Native Americans are featured.) The film blames the lakes' problems on the "systematic ravaging" of the ecosystem by human industry from the mid-19th century on.

The sturgeon is Exhibit A: This magnificent fish, which can grow to length of 7 feet and attain 300 pounds, is 150 million years old, a contemporary of the dinosaurs whose skeletons we pay museum prices to see. But Westerners first considered the fish an inedible nuisance -- they burned the massive bodies like logs, for fuel -- and then hunted it relentlessly, for its roe, which we call caviar.

Dirty water, of course, is another culprit: industrial effluent, agricultural runoff, discharges of raw sewage.

The film empathetically portrays the Wisconsin state wildlife biologist who's leading efforts to repopulate the sturgeon through a breeding program. But its handling of the larger environmental issues it raises is slightly dubious.

Take two issues. One involves the trouble caused for the sturgeon by hydroelectric dams, whose prevalence can keep the fish from its spawning grounds. The film notes that some dams are working to accommodate the spawning runs -- but ignores that any dam necessarily and permanently destroys thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. Even more jarring, in this 45-minute film, is a five-minute digression into the marvels of hydroelectric power itself, which is touted as "clean," a designation many environmentalists question.

Likewise the infiltration of the lakes by nonnative species like the lamprey, whose presence is shown to be indirectly responsible for the renewed poisoning of the once-resurgent bald eagle. (Some eagles feed their young the lampreys, which accumulate especially large amounts of toxins in their flesh.) The film reports that invasive species are often carried in the bilgewater of cargo ships. But its claim that shipping companies are working on this problem probably engenders a false sense of security: Invasives can cling to hulls, too, one of many routes international trade affords them.

None of this is too surprising, given that the film's prime sponsor is the global megacorp Unilever, which despite its attempts to raise a green profile is at least indirectly repsonsible for many of the eco-ills the film cites, agricultural runoff in particular.

Still, far from fabricating a happy ending, Mysteries leaves the fate of the sturgeon unsettled. That's one of the ways the film could perhaps raise consciousness about that "systematic ravaging," mixed messages or no.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Brew House Open House

Posted By on Mon, Aug 17, 2009 at 8:43 AM

Summer and fall are house-tour season, but I doubt there's a more intriguing look at living spaces than the one arranged by this South Side artists' co-op.

The former Duquesne Brewery (whose big clock tower looms over the neigbhorhood) is some three decades into an experiment begun when a group of artists squatted in a portion of the huge old vacant space. After years of legal battles, the co-op got all legal-like, with official control of its portion of the building, enough for dozens of artists.

Even for audiences who haven't been attending the monthly art exhibits in its first-floor gallery space, or the frequent performances in its theater, the Aug. 15 open house demonstrated that the Brew House remains a pretty vibrant space as well as a practically venerable landmark.

Saturday, you could have spent the evening either in that theater -- with a variety of edgy acts from experimental music to a fire-breathing sideshow dude -- or wandering the studios and live/work spaces on the second through sixth floors. The place retains admirable demographic variety, from a young painter fresh out of Pitt who'd just moved in to a commercial photographer (his portfolio older than the aforementioned painter) who's been there for years.

The work ranged from high-end woodcraft to macabre oil paintings and a one-night installation featuring goofy variations on county-fair games (like throwing a small bike tire over a traffic cone 20 yards down the hall while balancing on a wheeled rocker board).

The event was well-attended, visitors streaming through the lobby and traversing the stairwell. The dozen artists I visited included self-taught Curt Sell, who uses a big magnifying glass to melt colored glass (bottle or stained) for sculpting. It's about as green as you can get working with molten glass.

The turn-of-the-century industrial brewery, with its steel bones and concrete skin, is great for creating art, but aesthetically too it makes for a wide variety of spaces. The Brew House has everything from little windowless chambers to grand corner lofts with full kitchens and big casement windows overlooking the South Side, even Downtown panoramas. Some are just studios; others mostly apartments, or some combination of the two. (In the higher-ceilinged spaces, living areas are often added with a half-story platform.)

One space is also a school: The Academy of the South Side, a collaboration by three local artists to teach classic portraiture the old-school way. Two of the artists, in fact, had spaces on the tour. One was Tim Meehan, who showed off paintings he and his students had done, including a work-in-progress from that day, when their model was a man dressed as Napoleon. 

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Moth at American Shorts

Posted By on Sat, Aug 15, 2009 at 1:19 PM

The American Shorts Reading Series has changed a lot in its seven seasons. In its original incarnation, it featured local writers and performers reading favorite works of short fiction in a different venue each month. (Six shows per season, I think.) One highlight was actor Chris Josephs's delightfully chilling rendition of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" (it was around Halloween) in the parlor of one of those repurposed Mellon mansions on the Chatham University campus.

Gradually, the series assumed new shapes; now formally called American Shorts a@ WYEP, it hosts writers and talkers in a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres. Often, admirably, it focuses on topical, even political themes; this season's four shows have tackled "Sexuality & Faith" and "Iran Unveiled," among other themes, for instance.

The Aug. 13 installment found the series playing presenter as much as curator, hosting a road-show version of the popular New York-based storytelling series The Moth. Created in 1997, The Moth has brought everybody from a pickpocket to movie stars to stand before audiences in intimate settings and tell real-life stories, sans notes.

Though The Moth's lone national tour didn't hit Pittsburgh, it's pretty well known here. On Aug. 13 (competing against the Steelers' preseason opener and Bill Clinton at the Netroots Nation conference), it drew some 350 people to the Pittsburgh Opera's Strip District gathering space. About one-third of them raised hands when host Tom Shillue (a comedian and Daily Show contributor) asked who'd seen a Moth podcast, and likely others know it from frequent Moth-derived segments on public radio's This American Life.

The show's theme was "Building Bridges." The three storytellers included Moth regular Boris Timanovsky, a Russian-born New Yorker who gave an hilarious deadpan account about deciding to pose as his 11-year-old son to be an e-mail pen-pal to a Russian friend's adolescent daughter. ("How hard can it be?") New York actor Stephanie Summerville told of a bizarre, racially charged assignment she got as a temp-agency home-health worker when she was a clinically depressed college student. Poet and Carnegie Mellon professor Terrance Hayes recalled meeting his biological father for the first time, as a new father himself. ("Yeah, Butch, he's one of yours," says Hayes' dad's girlfriend the second he walks through the door.)

The Moth was created with a back-porch storytelling ethos; somewhat like the original American Shorts, I guess, it made a formal, paying event out of something one could do any night for free, given a case of beer and the right bunch of friends.

I later learned the performances weren't as informal as descriptions made them sound. In other words, it wasn't just recruited 'tellers hopping up on stage and spieling. New performers were required to audition stories, and even got coached on shaping their narratives. Timanovsky's story, in particular, with its cascade of ironies and his flawless, rapid-fire delivery, had obviously been told more a few times before.

That's not a complaint: No one went away disappointed (and there was beer on hand, too, after all).

In a post-performance Q&A, someone asked Shillue whether the Moth vets these nominally true stories for truthfulness. It seemed an odd question; truthfulness seemed almost implicit in the intimacy of a person standing up to tell a story about their lives, even if essentially to a roomful of strangers. On the other hand, even if we know it's not true, "The Cask of Amontillado" is a pretty good story anyway. We just like to listen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Shepard Fairey's Pittsburgh Murals

Posted By on Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 5:44 PM

Shepard Fairey (black T-shirt, long-handled brush) and his crew hang a mural on First Street near Wood, Downtown, on Wednesday night. - BILL O'DRISCOLL
  • Bill O'Driscoll
  • Shepard Fairey (black T-shirt, long-handled brush) and his crew hang a mural on First Street near Wood, Downtown, on Wednesday night.

I spent 45 minutes or so Wednesday evening watching Obama "Hope" poster artist Fairey and his crew of four as they made a Downtown stop on their rounds during a week-long mural project.

Fairey is a veteran street artist whose work is now the stuff of museums and sanctioned public works. Indeed, this mural initiative was arranged by The Andy Warhol Museum, where Fairey has a show opening in October.

On First Street, just off the rush-hour traffic on Wood, the Los Angeles-based Fairey drew a small crowd by taking over one end of a small parking lot to wallpaper-paste big sheets of pre-painted paper to the side of an old three-story brick building (the studios of architect L.D. Astorino). This was the first Downtown stop on a multi-day route that had taken them through the Penn Avenue corridor, to buildings including the Sprout Fund's, in Garfield.

Working in a spitting rain, the crew unloaded its supplies including an aluminum ladder from the hatchback of a late-model gray Chevy Traverse. Using long-handled brushes, they soaked the wall with paste. The paper ranged in size from small posters to strips a couple feet wide and several feet long.

"We're going to put the lotus and the peace fingers up first, then we'll rip patterns back into them," Fairey told his crew. "Just start getting it lathered up."

Fairey gained fame years ago by posting in public places his images based on pro wrestler Andre the Giant over the legend "Obey," usually without permission. (Fairey later copyrighted "Obey" slogan, leading to a brief legal battle this year with a Pittsburgher who used the word in an online project.) His iconic, red-and-blue Obama poster -- which got him into legal trouble because it was based on an appropriated news photo -- is arguably the most recognizable campaign art in recent decades.

In his old guerilla-art days, Fairey painted murals right onto the wall, and had to work fast, lest building-owners object. But his Pittsburgh sheets were all hand-painted, in his LA studio. The big ones, with a dark brown background, featured either a version of the famous '60s hand making the peace sign or a big kind of mandala. The small ones were a rich red, bearing another abstract. All of them incorporated stylized renderings of "Obey" and barely legible versions of his Andre the Giant logo.

Once they'd stuck the sheets to the wall -- again using brushes, in the style of old-school billboard plasterers -- the crew, under Fairey's direction, folded or ripped them into new patterns.

"If you look at my work, it's just like a puzzle I keep adding pieces to," he said.

Fairey's also in town to do an event with the Netroots Nation conference: Friday night, he'll hand out 1,500 free clean-energy-themed posters and DJ at the Warhol and the neighboring former Rosa Villa restaurant.

If you want to watch him work, he told me that he'd be at the Rosa Villa most of the day Thursday and Friday, doing another mural.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pittsburgh Visionary Arts Festival

Posted By on Sat, Aug 8, 2009 at 4:35 PM

Sometimes you don't know something's missing until it pops into place. The Pittsburgh Visionary Arts Festival feels that way. The inaugural version gathers at Schenley Plaza a few dozen local artists and artist collectives for three days of avant-garde, outsider or otherwise nonmainstream work that's got something to say.

Notwithstanding the familiar sight of white peaked display tents arrayed in neat rows across the Schenley green, the VAF immediately strikes you as different from any of the area's other outdoor arts displays. My first sight was of Connie Cantor's tent. On a big white cloth spread like a picnic blanket out front, a young man and a young woman were engaged in "Yoga With Pens." It's Cantor's latest experiment in instinctual doodling: The flexible pair, one a trained instructor, let the exercises tell them how to wield the colored markers grasped in fingers and toes. Anyone can play, by the way. (I tried, but be advised that sun salutations are not necessarily conducive to draftsmanship, even the most unselfconscious kind.)

Elsewhere: a tall table lamp whose post was crafted from a deer spine; a wall-mask fabricated from discarded little buckled straps, lashed together and painted matte black; Deanna Mance's crazily intricate large-scale ink drawings; Mike Budai's deceptively cute rock posters (and a couple of his racier take-offs on skin-mag photos); the politically radical silk screens of the Just Seeds Artists Cooperative; and Amir Rashid playing thumb piano before a tentful of his elegant found-object assemblages.

Meanwhile, veteran outsider-art collector Pat McArdle displayed work by Howard Finster, the Georgia preacher whose verbose images and naïve style helped launch the contemporary wave of appreciation for work by self-taught artists who make art with a purpose. Nearby, Kyle Ethan Fischer's unnerving sculptures – tortured human figures, flayed as if to their nerve endings – seemed alarmingly to erupt from the Oakland plaza's lush green grass. And around the corner, festival founder and organizer Alberto J. Almarza manned his own tent.

Sitting in his breezy corner tent, in front of his portraits of Walt Whitman, Nina Simone, Rachel Carson as a wood duck and "Rimbaud With Antlers," Bob Ziller noted that unlike many area fests, the VAF has little in the way of crafts. No clocks, mugs or even jewelery here. "It's much more arts-oriented than Three Rivers [Arts Festival]," Ziller said. "That it's local is great too."

Indeed, while many of the artists – from Ziller himself to Vanessa German, from Randie Snow to Encyclopedia Destructica – are familiar names on the gallery scene, there's something to be said from bringing them all together. And on a Saturday afternoon, this batch of local artists was drawing a steady stream of visitors – hopefully a few in the market for artwork, or at least enough of a turnout to warrant support for a future festival. (The Sprout Fund helped bankroll this one.)

The sense of community an event like the VAF can create was exemplified in the tent of artist and activist Jude Vachon. Its walls were hung with T-shirts reading "F**k Their Crisis." But Vachon was also soliciting people's ideas about how to address the global economic meltdown, which they were to write on scraps of cloth and hang up. "Reuse," said one. "Learn to Grow Your Food." "Is It Really A Crisis." "Live Life It Ain't Goin to Get Better." Vachon was stitching the suggestions into a quilt; I sat and talked with her for a few minutes about the upcoming G20 summit, the sort of conversation I can't recall having at any other arts festivals recently.


Pittsburgh Visionary Arts Festival continues Sat., Aug. 8, until 9 p.m. and concludes noon-9 p.m. Sun., Aug. 9. Both nights include 8 p.m. performances by experimental-music ensemble HiTEC.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

PICT's Theater Online

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2009 at 3:10 PM

When Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre announced this week that it would stream its Aug. 15 performance of The History Boys live online, the first thing I thought of was a conversation I had with some friends recently. We were discussing why stage plays documented on film or video always feel -- no matter how good the show -- strangely unsatisfactory. 

We weren't talking about the film versions of plays: History Boys, by Alan Bennett, for instance, followed its award-winning stage run with a fine screen adaptation. But live stage shows captured on film are different than stage plays adapted for film. The latter might be talky, but they are created with the camera first in mind. The former are staged for a live audience, sitting and breathing a stone's throw away. The camera merely records what the performers are doing.

Anyone who's ever been disappointed by a concert film, for instance, knows what I mean. The camera can get you closer than even the top-priced ticket, but the performance styles and other aspects of stagecraft account for the person in the back row more than they regard the homebody with the slickest flatscreen. The intimacy is missing; you feel like you're eavesdropping, not like you're part of an event.

PICT's Live and In Person and Live and Online initiative also faces this challenge, I'm guessing. LIPLO grows out of PICT cofounder Stephanie Riso's Cabaret Pittsburgh series, and was developed with Alex Geis, of 21 Productions. In 2007 and 2008, selected performances were fed live to the Web. Riso deemed the experiment a technical success. Not having been advertised heavily, LIPLO didn't have many viewers, but "[t]he viewers that we had loved it," Riso told me today. One cabaret enthusiast accessed the Cabaret Pittsburgh site from Germany.

For History Boys, PICT's archival videographer, Randy Griffith, will capture the performance as he always does: with a single camera positioned in the orchestra pit, one he can pan and zoom for closeups.

But the differences between streaming a cabaret performance and doing so with a full stage production -- one with 13 actors -- are obvious. Cabaret is by nature intimate: One performer, or perhaps a singer and accompanist, speak directly to an audience no nearer to or further from hand than a discreet video camera might be. Stage actors, by contrast, are blocked for audience viewing but play off of each other -- and in character, to boot.

Live performance being more compelling than click-throughs, Riso says LIPLO might help PICT lure advertisers to It's good news, too, for theater fans who are laid up ill or out of town.

But I have to wonder whether, rather than reaching out to an online audience, the project won't merely emphasize the differences between the mediums -- between shows you're meant to attend and ones you simply watch on a monitor.

Still, if anyone can pull this off, it's PICT, which is among the city's most accomplished troupes. See for yourself: After History Boys, PICT has gotten playwrights and unions to also agree to live streaming of its next two shows, Crime and Punishment, in September, and Jane Eyre, in December.


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