Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

(gravity + grace)

Posted By on Tue, Sep 29, 2009 at 9:48 PM

Lots of arts events were derailed by last week's G-20 summit. Among the smaller-scale independent productions that by necessity went head-to-head with road closures, protests and general discombobulation, one that deserves a broader audience is this original new opera by Frank Ferraro and Steve Pellegrino.

Not that this evocation of a man's experiences with early-onset Parkinson's disease was attended all that badly, even all the way out in Fox Chapel, on the Shadyside Academy campus. In fact, the Saturday-night show I saw, the third of three scheduled, drew a couple hundred folks.

But Ferraro, Pellegrino and their cast and crew are talented pros who earned applause for a sophisticated exploration of what's too often movie-of-the-week territory.

Writer and artist Ferraro and composer and performer Pellegrino collaborated on the book and music for the show, based on Ferraro's experiences and the stories of others. It's mostly a series of musical vignettes, with live music and dance.

It's not even really all that "small": True to their claims to opera, the show boasts a 14-piece orchestra and members of the Renaissance City Choir, plus actors Brian Czarniecki and Adrienne Wehr and dancers Jamie Erin Murphy and Renee Smith. Pellegrino's score is artful and lyrical, the songs (with words by Ferraro) covering a range of styles from cabaret to rhythm and blues.

But a real sense of Ferraro's witty, idiosyncratic approach can come only from seeing the show in person. The production boasted what might be music-theater's only cowboy song sung by a lead performer (Czarniecki) with his butt to the audience and his head deep inside a washing machine. (A video camera within beams his harshly lit mug to the crowd on a screen above.) The show is often humorous, frequently surprising, and moving and hopeful but never maudlin.

While the offbeat style won't surprise anyone who knows experimental-theater veteran Pellegrino's work, it can be a weakness as well as a strength. One scene, built around the song "Godspeed, The World is a Monkey," finds singer Pellegrino repeatedly leaving and returning to the stage, while dancers dance, singers sing and Czarniecki pops up with what look like traffic cones on his hands. (There's a story behind the number – it has to do with Ferraro offending a TV news reporter with a comment about a lab-animal research subject – but even though I knew the story I still couldn't make heads or tails of scene or song.)

Nonetheless, I'd call (gravity + grace) accessible. Ferraro wisely anchors the show with three straightforward monologues delivered by Wehr in the voices of caregivers, not to mention Czarniecki's empathetic Everyman turn. And the the singers, under the direction of Andres Cladera, are integrated seamlessly to provide some beyond-beautiful musical moments.

Ferrarro and Pellegrino hope to take their show on the road. But we should hope they stage it in Pittsburgh again.

Friday, September 25, 2009

G-20 Thoughts at Bricolage

Posted By on Fri, Sep 25, 2009 at 2:06 PM

If you find yourself wandering our depopulated Downtown today (and possibly into early this evening), swing by Bricolage Theatre's storefront, at 937 Liberty Ave.

Just a few blocks from the Convention Center, Bricolage's Tami Dixon has opened one of the few unshuttered spots on that stretch of Liberty for anyone to write what the G-20 makes them think. Butcher paper is stretched across the walls and floor, and markers are supplied.

Dixon began the project Thursday night in reaction to G-20 arguments, griping and clashes between police and protestors. "People want to be heard, but there's too much yelling and no space for listening," said Dixon in an e-mail.

On the first night, visitors included anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who wrote, "Stop Raping Us."

I stopped by a couple hours ago, and Dixon was hosting a steady stream of passersby. "We're the only thing open," she said. Inside, The Decembrists played on the stero while artist David Connelly painted a colorful mural on one wall. 

On the floor, the messages (some ironic, most not) ranged from "Stop the Protesting / Police Rule" to "Follow Jesus as your king!" and "Great Day for the World, America and Pittsburgh."

Also: "G-20, G-21 ... Whatever it Takes."

"Do Africans Matter?"

"Dear Protestors: Why do you want to wreck our city?"

"Strippers [heart] riots." (Connelly: "We had some girls from Blush in here last night.")

Dixon herself was sitting out front, encouraging people to come in, but mostly heard refusals. "People are so afraid if you ask them to do this," she said.

Writing one's opinions, she speculated, scares many people more than speaking them does.

Even reading opinions seems to trouble some. As I arrived, a middle-aged guy in a T-shirt who'd ventured inside came out to where two friends were waiting. "OK, guys, let's go," he said. "Buncha wacko stuff in there."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Drawn to the Summit at the Warhol

Posted By on Mon, Sep 21, 2009 at 12:06 PM

You could do a lot worse to prepare for this week's G-20 than to check out this new month-long international exhibit of political cartoons.

How much these 59 images (lining that small gallery on floor 5) reflect "world opinion" is hard to say. Their character partly conveys the sensibilities of curators Sylvia Rhor and Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers (who pored over some 500 cartoons by 100 artists). And no doubt the idiosyncratic personalities of the world's cartoonists might channel the sentiments of their countrymen either more, or less.

Still, a few examples help demonstrate that not everyone sees global issues, or themselves, or us, as many American do.

Among the images you'd be least likely to see in an American publication, for instance, is Argentinian Sergio Langer's "Missles and Shoes": The upper panel depicts an array of bombs flying rightward, the lower panel a barrage of battered brogans hurled left, a la The Guy Who Threw His Shoes at Bush. Langer neatly summarizes the power imbalance, and perhaps makes us ask whether the right person went to jail.

Likewise, Australia's Peter Broelman puts a perspective-altering spin on the Somali-pirate matter, which the U.S. media played as a major threat to justice and peace. Broelman's image has two boats on the high seas. His bedraggled Somali pirates, in their skiff, say, "We're after ransom." "We call it a bailout," say the sleek, business-suited bankers in their fancy motorboat.

(If there is one thing the world's editorial cartoonists agree upon, it is their disdain for bankers.)

One can also learn about our neighbors to the south. According to the exhibit's wall text, in Mexico the figure of a skeleton in a cowboy hat – a calaveras -- is now as synonymous with that nation as Uncle Sam is with the U.S. (In one cartoon about the grim state of world finance, however, it's George Washington who shares a sinking canoe with the skeletal cowboy.)

One also finds environmental concerns where one might not have expected. Turkey's Eray Ozbek, for instance, depicts a golfer (seen only from the plus-foured knees down) preparing to tee off -- but instead of a ball there are the speckled eggs of two bewildered birds who perch in the background on one of three tree stumps standing between the flags on the green. Very The Lorax.

Meanwhile, China Daily's Pang Li addresses the vagaries of global climate-change negotiations. Diplomats assembled round a table in the Arctic tell a nonplussed polar bear, "We need to discuss your nationality." Rather tellingly – though China is now the world's top carbon emitter – none of the men's placards reads "China." In a unhappy sign for future climate talks, the cartoon's coffee-cup clutching U.S. representative looks especially venal.

American cartoonists fire at will at Obama these days, but few so artfully as the UK's Steve Bell's (UK), whose "Sermon on the Hood" takes the wind out of 44's soaring rhetoric: The commentary on the auto bailout finds a pious-looking Obama sitting on a big car in what appears to be a traffic jam, eyes skyward, intoning, "Blessed be the makers of cars, for they shall be the makers of cars ..."

My favorite piece, though, was the Italian cartoonist Alessandro Gatto's "Man's Best Friend." It depicts a human figure walking an oil-pump (the nodding-head kind, but with four legs) like a dog, against a stark landscape. It's empathetic and cutting at the same time, evoking our terrifying dependency on something that's killing us. Maybe that's called "tragedy." Gatto's wordless image is both poetic and beautiful enough to hang alone in an art gallery.

Alessandro Gatto's "Man's Best Friend"
  • Alessandro Gatto's "Man's Best Friend"

Friday, September 18, 2009

G-20 Haiku Contest

Posted By on Fri, Sep 18, 2009 at 4:53 PM

A curious little facet of Pittsburgh's grassroots poetry scene got some love in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday when reporter Timothy Aeppel wrote about this Pittsburgh Filmmakers contest.

Haiku is of course the perfect form to welcome a summit of international finance ministers. For while nobody has the foggiest idea what those people are going to be talking about inside the Convention Center, a haiku -- unlike, say, a sonnet or a villanelle -- is something everybody thinks he or she knows how to write. Moreover, the concept of haiku (like that of mime) is often a punchline, and mocking the G-20 in one way or another is tempting.

The Journal printed numerous entries, including at least one from overseas. One got attention in the CP offices because it was crafted by regular contributor Manny Theiner:

No movies tonight
The drama is in the streets
See yinz on Monday

Pretty good. Theiner also got points for his beautifully snarky response to Aeppel's phone call. ("If you aren't calling to tell me I won, there's nothing for me to talk about.")

The entry by contest winner Angele Ellis (which will grace the Harris Theatre marquee during the summit) has special resonace for locals because Ellis is both a respected poet and a longtime social activist:

we harvest leaflets
blown like autumn leaves: our hopes
speak truth to power

It's a skillfull little metaphor that emphasizes those hopes while also suggesting their fragility.

I'm partial to another entry the Journal printed, by local software engineer Jean Kirby:

what country am I
dying of hunger and thirst
number twenty one

Sure, it's earnest. But like all good poetry, it manages to do a lot in very little space.

It draws us in, riddle-like. It reminds us of the suffering the leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies are nominally supposed to confront, and probably won't. And it deftly emphasizes (at least to me) that while those 20 countries are responsible for some 80 percent of the world's economic production (in the crude way we measure it), there is a whole other "world" out there -- the one inhabited by most of its people.

Nicely done, Ms. Kirby. 

City of Asylum/Pittsburgh Jazz Poetry Concert

Posted By on Fri, Sep 18, 2009 at 9:12 AM

Pittsburgh means different things to different people. Maybe that's one small lesson of all the G-20 noise.

But an annual free event that symbolizes how a place can transform itself is this outdoor concert, organized by the local incarnation of the international network of refuges for writers persecuted in their own countries.

It takes place on the North Side's Sampsonia Way, just behind program co-sponsor The Mattress Factory, and partly lined by "art houses" that have sheltered writers. The best-known is House Poem, beautifully covered in verses rendered in calligraphy by the first resident writer, dissident Chinese poet Huang Xiang (who has since moved on).

Every September, City of Asylum/Pittsburgh director Henry Reese, staff and volunteers set up a stage and a few hundred chairs to host performances by an international group of writers, partly in collaboration with a line-up of top jazz artists. The musicians have always included reed-man Oliver Lake, who this year was joined by the other members of his Trio 3 and pianist Geri Allen. The collabos are created in improvisatory workshops the night before.

The first reader on this year's event, this past Saturday, was Khet Mar, the current Sampsonia resident. She's a Burmese national, a journalist, writer and political activist living in exhile. One of her poems, "Pittsburgh Spring," ends with the line "life takes place amidst blooming flowers." It's an observation seldom adduced about Pittsburgh. (Nationally, Super Bowls and Stanley Cups notwithstanding, we're still more of a punchline to jokes about dreariness; witness G-20 "Pittsburgh?!?!" cracks.)

Emcee Barbara Russell also reiterated the project's plans to create a new literary center (including café and bookstore) on the nearby site of a former bar, and announced the receipt of an NEA grant.

But aside from the great music, and the thrill of seeing 500 people pack a narrow street to hear jazz and poetry, the concert always provides some global perspective. This year, that came not only from the writers who joined Khet Mar onstage, but also those represented on video.

Most haunting was the short video from Iran. It consisted of a single, static shot of a darkened cityscape, shot from a high window, with street noise in the background, and the voice of a young woman. Choking up, she recited a series of questions reflecting the political turmoil there, along the lines of: "Where is here, where the blood of our young people [is] being shed on the streets?" The video was attributed to "Anonymous."

Not all the news was grim. We also learned -- and saw video -- of a 6-year-old Chinese girl named "Little Pittsburgh." She was named, Russell told us, by her father, a Chinese poet who wanted to honor a town that had sheltered his colleague, Huang Xiang, the first resident of City of Asylum here. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Accordion Pool Party

Posted By on Tue, Sep 15, 2009 at 2:31 PM

This Lawrenceville event this past Saturday was both nothing you'd ever seen before and -- if you'd heard about it ahead of time -- exactly what you'd have expected. Basically, it was a block party around an abandoned pool that happened to have 20 people playing accordions inside it.

Well, they didn't just happen to be there, of course: The afternoon shindig at the old Leslie Park pool was organized by neighborhood residents Susan Englert and Deb Knox. The idea was to spark imaginations about what might be done with the city-owned space, which had stood vacant and accumulating trash since 2003. Knox herself even stood in the empty drink with the other musicians, helping supply waltzes, polkas and tangos fordance performances and dance lessons.

It was about as down-to-earth (even partly below it) as an art event gets. The turnout was great: I estimated 300 on my arrival at 5 p.m., and around 6 p.m. Englert told me they'd handed out more than 400 programs (accordion-folded, naturally).

Most of the people milled around on the concrete deck or sat in folding chairs, watching the musiciansand dancers. As impressive as the turnout was the demographic and stylistic diversity of the dancers: toddlers to septugenarians; clean-cut dads paired with young daughters; shaggy-haired, skinny-jeans-wearing hipsters. Boys dancing with girls, and girls with girls, and boys with boys. (Visitors hailed from Lawrenceville and all over town; Englert, for one, praised the efficacy of church bulletins in turning out the crowds.)

The dance instructors included Rich Walters, a rather imposing fellow I know as a local attorney and actor. Wearing a bow tie and suspenders, he litingly called out the tango steps: "The cross is a good segue into the ocho movement ...Let us conTINue ... our line -- of -- dance ..."

From Cajun to Croatian, Polish to Mexican, the tunes went on from 3 to 7 p.m. Entrepreneur and character Michael "Zombo"Devine emceed. Englert and Knox plan to keep involved with the neighborhood meetings planned for fall to come up with other, perhaps more permanent uses for the site.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Steelers Fan at the Gist Street Reading Series

Posted By on Mon, Sep 14, 2009 at 9:44 AM

One time I said to a friend, "Sometimes people'll surprise you."

"No, they won't," he replied.

But here's some small evidence they can. It comes courtesy of last week's City Paper cover-photo and interview subject, author Sherrie Flick, via her role as co-curator of the Gist Street Reading Series.

The long-running monthly series regularly sells out, but its venue, the Uptown studio of sculptor James Simon, is pretty small, and many attendees are regulars. There was no reason to think last Friday's reading was much different -- until Anita showed up.

She was a woman in her late 50s, perhaps. She had short blondish hair and -- an anomaly at most literary readings -- she was armored in Steelers paraphrenalia. "Here We Go" pin on her vest. Steelers earrings. Everything but a helmet, apparently. (There are Stillers fans enough at Gist Street, but they seldom dress the fully merchandised part.)

What's more, reports Flick, Anita wasn't even local. She was from Florida, had come into town for Thursday night's home-opener, and stuck around for an extra day. Trolling the Web for something to do, she settled -- like any football fan on a Friday night would -- on a little literary reading featuring a poet and a journalist. (Bonus coincidence: The journalist was author Charles Leerhsen, who's also an executive editor at Sports Illustrated, likely another Gist Street first.)

What's more, Anita was staying in Coroapolis, with her sister, and didn't even have a car. Showing more initiative than many native Pittsburghers would, she'd taken the bus into town, and took it home after. 

On her raffle ticket, she wrote: "Anita. Go Steelers!"

Flick adds: "She stayed and talked for quite a while with the readers after the reading. Clearly had a good time. In fact, she walked up and gave us an extra 5 dollars mid-way through. That's how much fun she was having."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Miracle Berries at The Miller Gallery

Posted By on Sun, Sep 13, 2009 at 5:46 PM

Many of the guests at the Sept. 11 opening reception for the gallery's new show were handed a blister pack containing a single dried, seed-like sample of this West African berry. It's a culinary cult item: Suck on it for a few minutes, then sour things you eat afterward taste sweet.

Miller Gallery's tasting party featured the obligatory lemons, plus little cups of wine vinegar, sour gummy worms, radishes, tabasco sauce and the like. The berry itself tasted like cardboard, though as you lozenged away a little saccharine notekicked in. But it worked: For about an hour, lemons tasted sugary (with a tang), and vinegar more like a sauce in a Chinese restaurant.

It was another inventive opening reception from Miller Gallery curator Astria Suparak. The real question, though, is what the berry has to do with the show.

Titled 29 Chains to the Moon, and inspired by futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, the exhibit (guest-curated by Andrea Grover) showcased several artist collectives' visions for how mankind might inhabit Our Reeling Planet more sustainably.

So as not to pre-empt CP's forthcoming formal review of the show, I'll go into no more detail than to note that many of these conceptions of human life assume a future glacierless planet, and involve the ocean.

That is indeed a way to try to make lemonade out of lemons. I can see miracle berries as symbolic of imaginative thinking, a suggestion that we need not continue to respond to old stimuli (fear of ecological collapse, etc.) the way we always have.

But of course the metaphor only goes so far. Miracle berries don't change the lemons, just how they taste to you, and even that only temporarily.

Likewise, animplicit assumption that halting climate change is a lost cause is problematic in itself. A planet altered by greenhouse gasses isn't just warmer and wetter -- it's completely different. For instance, oceans absorb carbon dioxide, and become more acidic as they do. That kills coral reefs and fish alike. I would hate to try to live off the bounty of an ocean occupied by nothing by jellyfish and algae, miracle berries or no.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

404 Strand's FaustUS

Posted By on Wed, Sep 9, 2009 at 10:39 AM

This Pittsburgh-affiliated but internationally based theater troupe debuted in suitably unorthodox fashion last night at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

Let's just say that this stripped-down adaption of Christopher Marlowe's 1604 classic, staged inside a bathroom-sized wooden cage, climaxed with a bare-torsoed John Fitzgerald Jay freaking out across a floor strewn with half-eaten cake, the contents of a money box and a pair of panty hose stained with spray-on antiperspirant, all to the hauntingly percussive strains of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream."

Jay wasn't alone in the cage. He was joined at this climax by cast members Rick Kemp, Andrew Hachey, Molly Simpson and Kristin Slaysman, all of whom had spent the previous hour trading off the roles of Faustus and Mephistopheles. (For most of the play, the cage holds just one or two performers.)

The role-trading tactic is a favorite one with Dan Jemmett; the 404 Strand director also used it, for instance, in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, an original work he and much of the same cast staged for Quantum Theatre, in 2007. In FaustUS, it worked especially well: Sometimes, inside the horizontally barred cage, two actors would instantaneously switch roles, giving the visceral impression that soul-seller Faustus was confronting himself -- or was, literally, beside himself.

The idea was amplified by the staging. The audience of 30 or so sat in a single row of chairs surrounding the rectangular cage. That meant we were watching not only the performers, but each other. And the audience and performers both occupied the theater's stage: We entered not from the lobby but from the street, via backstage. The show began when the big curtain -- the one separating us from the theater's seats -- was drawn shut, closing us in. Then the threadbare red curtains lining the cage itself were pulled back to let us see inside.

Likewise, the performers toggled mercurially between addressing their fellow actors and engaging the audience members seated just a yard away, frequently making eye contact, sometimes beseeching.

Meanwhile, the few artifacts in this existentially abstracted environment were recognizably ours: the loaf of wonder bread, and especially the pop-top soup cans lining the cage-wall shelves, whose viscuous contents supplied all the production's approximations of bodily fluids.

In an interview a couple weeks ago, Jemmett had told me that the key line of dialogue belonged to Mephistopheles. When Faustus asks the Satanic henchman how he's gotten out of Hell, Mephistopheles replies, "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it."

Yet at some points, I wondered whether the cultural distance between Marlowe and the audience hindered us from seeing Faustus in us. The high-flown Elizabethan verse is beautiful, but hardly demotic. And a largely secular audience, I think, might not identify with the play's theocentric worldview, cast in terms of immortal souls bound for salvation or damnation.

On the other hand, the elements of Marlowe's premise are universal enough. For the promise of living "in all voluptuousness" for just 24 years, Faustus is willing to sell his eternal life. For the comfort provided by demon servants who will "resolve all ambiguities," who will "ransack the ocean" to supply him pearls, he'll get what he wanted but lose what he had.

It's an equation both basic and supple enough to apply to one's choices in personal relationships and to our treatment of nature, trading all the future for a few crumbs of temporary "voluptuousness." That the crumbs in 404 Strand's take are literal only helps emphasizes that Faustus' bargained-for triumphs are as pathetic as his losses are huge.


FaustUS continues through Sat., Sept. 12.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

David Matthews at Garfield Artworks

Posted By on Tue, Sep 8, 2009 at 2:02 PM

At last Friday's Unblurred gallery crawl I caught as much as I could in 90 minutes along Penn Ave. There was some nice stuff, from the "dance mural" performance at Dance Alloy to the Jon Howe vs Jason Sauer show at Most Wanted Fine Art (with Sauer's intriguing collages of real auto parts and religious iconography facing off against Howe's cunning mixed-media pieces). But the biggest surprise was at Garfield Artworks. 

Matthews is a local character who earned some notoriety back in the '90s, posting amusing personals ads for himself on neighborhood phone poles. I've known him casually for years, mostly as someone who also shows up at a lot of gallery openings and literary readings. I knew he wrote short stories and essays, but his couple dozen paintings at Garfart were news to me (though he's exhibited before around town).

Collectively titled Comminuted Fracture, the paintings date from 1987 to the present. The older and quite competent abstracts gave way to newer pieces incorporating smartly rendered charactes in the style of indie comix, imbued with a wackily macabre sensibility.

One painting depicted a lushly bearded man in a furry fez and a sort of robe whose cuffs flapped loose; "I have no hands and I must fist bump," read the text. Another featured a scrawny cat, bound and muzzled, while an insane-looking, goggle-eyed flying creature hovered above him. There was also some oblique social commentary: In another painting, a man in vaguely Scottish costuming stood in a big sack filled not with gold coins but little pills. Title: "Bailout Prozac."

Comminuted Fracture (named for the broken elbow Matthews got in March, running to Garfield Artworks, he says) runs through September.


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