Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, May 28, 2010

E.O. Wilson at the Carnegie

Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 8:59 PM

The great biologist and author was in town yesterday to pick up his Rachel Carson Legacy Award, for six decades of scientific research and raising awareness on environmental issues.

The award, amusingly, was a Frabel-glass fire ant. (From the audience at the Carnegie Music Hall, the figurine looked about 10 inches long.)

On the one hand, the statuette is entirely appropriate, given that as a Mobile, Ala., teen-ager in 1942, Wilson basically discovered the species on American soil, and a few years later did the first major study of it; his research, shipped to Rachel Carson herself in the late 1950s, was among the bases for Silent Spring.

Of course, the gift, from the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, is also ironic, considering that invasive species like the fire ant (which emigrated on cargo coming through Mobile Bay) are among the main causes of the astounding rate of species extinction worldwide Wilson has dedicated his career to battling.

Wilson is probably the most famous biologist since Carson. If he's less of a household name, it might be because so many of the objects of his interest are either (a) six-legged or (b) too small for the naked eye. (If you want to get people interested in what you have to say about nature these days, it helps to wrestle crocodiles, or pretend to survive three nights in the desert with nothing but a buck knife and two sheets of Saran Wrap.)

Even the latest twist in Wilson's career, his novel Anthill, focuses upon such wee critters, if partly as an analogue of human civilization. (Here's my CP piece on Wilson and Anthill:

In his address capping the day's Celebration of Biodiversity program, Wilson made clear why he's so concerned about the organisms that dwell, often invisibly to us, in the soil and in the trees.

Things like bacteria, fungi, nematodes (roundworms), beetles and ants are incredibly numerous: It's estimated that our-fifths of all the animals in the world are nematodes, he said. And these creatures' role in keeping the air, water and soil healthy is incalculably valuable. 

Wilson ended with a plea to preserve these organisms -- which are concentrated in rainforests and other tropical ecosystems -- the only way that will work long-term: by preserving their rapidly disappearing habitats. 

Why is that necessary? Many organisms can't survive outside very specific habitats. And not only haven't we identified an estimated 90 percent of earth's species, but we're destroying countless numbers of them through heedless razing of forests, polluting of water, paving of land.

As Wilson put it: "We're wiping out the great encyclopedia o life on earth without knowing what most of the volumes had in them," he said.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The REP's 2010-11 Season

Posted By on Mon, May 24, 2010 at 6:33 PM

There's a notable Pittsburgh theme to the newly announced season for Point Park's professional theater company. Two Pittsburgh-set plays get their world premieres, not to mention the local premiere of a work by bad-boy Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh.

The season opens Sept. 9 with The Umbrella Man. Edward J. Delaney's play, set in Pittsburgh in the late 1980s, concerns a man obsessed with JFK conspiracy theories. The director is Robert A. Miller (last seen at the REP directing his father's Death of a Salesman).

The Umbrella Man script is based on an eponymous screenplay Delaney co-wrote, which in turn is based on a short story of the same title Delaney published in The Atlantic, in 1996. Delaney, who lives in Massachusetts, is assistant editor of The Nieman Journalism Lab, at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism; the film version of The Umbrella Man, directed by Michael Grasso, is set to be shot in Pittsburgh later this year.

Also brand-new to the stage is Mercy and the Firefly. It's yet another from the keyboard of Pittsburgh-based playwright Amy Hartman -- in fact, it'll be her second world premiere here this year, after Unseam'd Shakespeare stages Mad Honey in June. Mercy is about a high school student brought to Homestead after witnessing the murder of a classmate in East L.A. It'll close the REP's season next April; Melissa Martin, who directed Glengarry Glen Ross for barebones last fall, is slated to direct.

The McDonagh is The Lonesome West, part of his Connemara trilogy also including The Beauty Queen of Leenane. The 1997 play, running next February, will be eagerly anticipated by those who appreciated the playwright's violent but darkly comic vision in works like The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore (both done by Pittsburgh Irish & Classical a few years back). Kim Martin will direct.

And this October, the REP stages La Ronde. Arthur Schnitzler's classic is a study of sex and class set in 1890s Vienna, structured as a series of 10 scenes, each featuring a pair of lovers. It's directed, notably, by Robin Walsh: She's best known as a top-flight Pittsburgh-based actress, but in fact it'll be her second directing gig of 2010 ... after Hartman's Mad Honey.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Vanessa German's Root

Posted By on Fri, May 21, 2010 at 5:27 PM


"I write poems and I am a poem," declares German in her new solo show, which premiered last night at the August Wilson Center's First Voice Festival.

In my profile of German in this week's CP (, I quoted several of her poems, but mostly let them speak for themselves. As best as they can, that is, on paper: German's explicitly a performance poet, her work meant written to be recited aloud and even acted out.

At Root's premiere, directed by Heather Arnet, German sang some of her words; spit others out typewriter-quick; and drew out still others in langorous syllables. German often speaks of poetry's sound, and this 75-minute piece in fact ends with a sort of incantation about her "going over onto the sound and into the sound" and a request that we join her (a request her joyful dance moves throughout the evening made all the more enticing).

As with music, in a performance like this it's neither possible nor wise to try to separate the sense from the sound. But German's subject matter and straight-up rhetorical skills continued to prove as potent as in previous shows, like Testify, or "Let Her Be a Sweet Thing," her recent civil-rights-themed work performed at the Toonseum.

The show ranged from a summoning of her childhood in Los Angeles, when she first experienced her deep love of poetry, to a thunderous climax: a potent swat at white privilege and white presumptiveness that begins, innocently enough, with German describing herself attending a breakfast meeting.

Here's a few lines from the show as a whole that jumped out as especially good, most somehow combining a sense of outrage with German's deep ability to empathize. German describing street kids "working slave-plantation hard at the myth of their own ruthlessness." German imagining the violent fates of similar kids as "all those new teeth in the ground." Telling how she comes to understand certain situations: "Some things I can't see with my eyes open."

As with the premiere of any stage show, this one had its slow spots and its bugs to work out. But it's got potential for a life beyond Pittsburgh -- and hopefully for additional performances in Pittsburgh, too, as the premiere (result of an August Wilson Center fellowship) was a one-off for now.

One part of Root I'd definitely keep is the sequence describing an encounter with a disheveled, hugely fat man on a city bus. It begins with minutely observed, poetically rendered details and shifts imperceptibly into a metaphysical conversation between the poet and the man, who's just "looking for something he lost a long time ago."

The show's coda, by the way, includes German giving voice to hypothetical skeptics about a story she's just told, about a shape-shifting ancestor. She replies, "Didn't I just turn myself into all kind of poems and then back again?"

And it's true -- she did.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Filmmaker/Animator Nick Fox-Gieg

Posted By on Thu, May 20, 2010 at 9:29 PM

Got late word that formerly Pittsburgh-based artist Fox-Gieg is returning Thursday for a free talk and screening at Pittsburgh Filmmakers.

Especially if you don't know his work, this is really one to see. For several years starting in the late '90s, Fox-Gieg (a West Virginia native and CMU grad) was among Pittsburgh's most interesting makers of short videos, many of them animations and other fascinating experimental work.

And he's kept up the good work -- his short "The Orange" just won the jury prize for Best Animated Short at SXSW 2010, which is quite a big deal.

Nick's based in Toronto now, but his work gets around to international festivals and such; a Manchester (U.K.) Guardian critic called it "whip-smart experimental animation."

"The Orange," from a story by Benjamin Rosenbaum, begins with the words, "An orange ruled the world." The parable-like two-minute short -- view it on Nick's online demo reel ( -- is as intense, witty, intellectually probing and visually stunning as earlier works like "Peace Through Strength" and "The Story of Enoch." Newer titles like "The Foxhole Manifesto" and "The Option of War" indicate he's also still critiquing militarism, long a popular theme of his.

After the hour-long screening, Nick's talk will focus on how he uses digital tools like Flash, After Effects and Isadora.

The event is at 6 p.m. Thu., May 20, at the Melwood Screening Room, in North Oakland (412-682-4111).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Comic Book Ink!

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 2010 at 12:48 PM

Two years ago, bankruptcy lawyer Jason Mazzei purchased a 10-foot plaster replica of the Hulk without a thought of where to put it. It was 2008, the year The Incredible Hulk came out in theaters, and Mazzei, a long-time comic-book fan, bid on and won the replica, one of about 150, for $2,500 in an auction.

For a while the statue loomed in Mazzei's garage in Allison Park (it wouldn't fit through the front door). But today, if you stand at the corner of Smithfield Street and Liberty Avenue, Downtown, you can see the Hulk flexing, green and angry, in the window of The Comic Book Ink!, a store Mazzei opened on a relative whim last August. 

Mazzei, 38, spends his days on the fourth floor of the building, which he bought for his law firm Mazzei & Associates. Passersby would often stop in to inquire about the hobby shop previously located there, prompting Mazzei's idea for a comic store in the unused ground floor.

Despite its newness, the shop seems charmingly old fashioned. It's small and organized with books, posters and toys lining its pale, wooden walls.  Beatles songs play from computer speakers, and Sam Wilson, the store's only full-time employee and self-titled "manager by default," strolls casually behind the desk. A 24-year-old Bloomfield resident, Wilson has curly brown hair and glasses and gladly gives first-timers his "20-second tour." The dollar bins are in the front; trades and graphic novels are on the bookshelf; the old stuff is in the boxes; new issues are in the back.

Since August, business has steadily increased, says Mazzei. There are fanatic regulars, wanderers-in from the street, students from the Art Institute, and even a few "business people in suits," Mazzei says. The store offers a subscription service, where, at a discounted subscription rate, the store sets aside the books, assuring availability and mint condition. The service currently accounts for about half the shop's business.

To Mazzei, classic comics characters are the "American mythology." In an age where print is dying and the virtual reigns supreme, Mazzei is calmly optimistic about the future of comics. He views the Internet not as a replacement medium but as a tool to promote discussion via message boards and blogs. "There's something to be said for holding a comic, leafing through the pages, the smell of it, the look of it, the feel of it," he says. "The fact that you can collect it and save it, and hopefully someday it will be worth something."

The Comic Book Ink! will celebrate its one-year anniversary on Aug. 7 with an event featuring giveaways, a costume contest, and the tattoo Wilson proudly pledges to get on his calf or his forearm of the store's logo —a splattered ink spot with its namesake in the center.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Billy Nardozzi at Shaw Galleries

Posted By on Mon, May 17, 2010 at 5:40 PM

The crowd gathered at Shaw Galleries downtown Friday night was unique: kids, older Pennsylvanians, 30-something arty types, a small contingent from PNC Bank. The common interest was the poet they'd all been reading for years, a man who'd been paying almost weekly for the chance to put his words before them -- the bard of Green Tree, Billy Nardozzi.

Nardozzi is something of a local legend, and this was his coming-out party: the first public reading for a guy who works for the LCB and, to hear him tell it, spends most of his free time alone with a pen and yellow legal pad working on epic odes with an AA/BB rhyme scheme and occasional "extraneous quotation marks." He publishes his work regularly in the "Celebrations" classifieds section of the Post-Gazette, paying out of his own pocket to share his odes (celebrations they usually are): the romantic ("My Wife"), the mundane ("Primanti's"), and the speculative ("If I Met Jesus," my personal favorite).

The excitement mixed with anxiety as the room filled up: would the diminutive man with the famous mullet deliver? Would get get nervous and, as the poem he scribed for the event flyer suggested, "just take some Tums?"

Nardozzi is an outsider artist, sure: his rhymes are simple and his meter is nearly always the same. As he noted at the reading, he never went to college, and thinks of himself as "not a really smart guy." But it's impossible to feel as if he's biting off more than he can chew with regard to publishing his work and asking for feedback: lacking the vanity and, therefore, the fragility of an artist closer to the mainstream, Nardozzi takes the praise he recieves to heart and lets the criticism roll off his back: "That's just someone's opinion," he noted. "Everyone has an opinion. Who cares?"

The poet read from a newly published book that local designer Brett Yasko helped construct (it's of course called Celebrations) and from some yet-unpublished works. He kicked off with a double-whammy of odes to restaurants -- "Long John Silver's" and "Red Robin" -- to "whet our appetite," then went for some juicy tales of adolescent romance, and the classic story of how he'd treat Jesus if he were stopping by for the weekend. ("I got a lot of calls about this one," he noted. "What did people say?" an audience member asked. "'Why don't you take him to a better restaurant?!'" Nardozzi recounted.)

Effervescent, self-deprecating, charming, the Pittsburgh Poet was nearly speechless when audience members decided to show their Nardozzi pride: a few folks wore t-shirts with his visage in the style of the Shepard Fairey Obama print, with "POET" written across the bottom, one man sported a "WWBND" bracelet given to him by his son. He was moved nearly to tears a few times when he read work about his wife or his parents. He laughed at himself when he got to the funnier lines in his work, like where he takes Jesus to McDonald's for "afternoon lunch," and when he thanks the PLCB for the "job se-cur-i-ty." (He explained here that the hyphens are simply a device to make sure we read with the rhythm he intended. The quotation marks, on the other hand, are inexplicable -- "Someone wrote about it and said 'Who is he quoting?!' And I thought about it and -- Who am I quoting? I don't know! It's just something I do!")

But he won't change, and we don't want him to: Billy Nardozzi may or may not be the poet we want to be, but he's definitely the person we want to be. Maybe not the haircut, okay, but the ebullience, the confidence, the ability to touch other people with his simple observations. When we laugh about Billy cooking Jesus his "famous spaghetti," we're laughing with him. When he puts his poetry before us week after week, he's not begging for our attention, he's sharing with us. If it's possible to be both a folk artist a true original, Billy Nardozzi is both.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Dance Alloy Theater's Alloy Unlocked ... Part II

Posted By on Mon, May 10, 2010 at 11:59 AM

The Alloy's big spring show, its first under artistic director Greer Jones, was a nicely eclectic blend that leaves you wondering where the company might go next.

The first of the three short acts at the New Hazlett Theater was "The List," acclaimed choreographer Christopher Huggins' new work inspired by Schindler's List. The 20-minute piece followed a family of four -- danced by company members Christopher Bandy, Stephanie Dumaine, Maribeth Maxa and Adrienne Misko -- through the Holocaust, from ominous first door-knock to gas chamber. The narrative was plain and fairly literal (literal enough that we didn't need the projections of razor wire, or the prop shower-heads at the end). But the athletic movement style worked with the emotionally charged material, especially in an anguished duet by Bandy and Dumaine.

The second piece, "Duet," is a 2004 work by Pilobolus. That troupe's known for getting dancers as intimate as you can manage without surgery, and Maxa and the Alloy's Michael Walsh met the challenge of all those unusual lifts and carries.

The final work was, like "The List," a world premiere. Robert Battle's "Crossing" also represented the biggest break from the artistic directorship of Beth Corning, who guided the company from 2003-09.

Battle -- who was just named head of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- offered a wildly energetic homage to and lighthearted parody of jazz styles. The sections were danced to four pieces by Pittsburgh composer Sean Jones (who is Greer Jones' husband), each in a different jazz idiom. (To my ear, these were free jazz, fusion, a smoky ballad and bop.) The work's intent of pure fun with movement and music was telegraphed by the costumes (designed by Maxa), red-and-black take-offs on marching-band uniforms. 

"Crossing," an unabashed crowd-pleaser, landed in marked contrast to work by Corning and her guest choreographers. Corning favored gesture over athleticism, and lyrical suggestion over straight narrative. Both approaches, of course, have their advantages.

In the fall show, the "Unlocked" themed Jones chose for her first season manifested largely in the guest work by local choreographers. In Part II, it arrived in the persons of eight young dancers from the Jones-run August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble, who joined the Alloy dancers in "Crossing." 

"Unlocked" is more a social statement than an asthetic one. But it's interesting to see the latest version of the venerable Alloy taking shape before our eyes.

There's one more performance of Alloy Unlocked ... Part II. It's at 7 p.m. Mon., May 10 (

Thursday, May 6, 2010

City Theatre's 2010-11 Season

Posted By on Thu, May 6, 2010 at 4:25 PM

City just announced its complete forthcoming season, and for me the most enticing pick is Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet.

It's enticing not because I know a darn thing about the play itself, but because it's written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote The Brothers Size, which City staged in 2008. Brothers is a terrific three-character work about brotherly love and rivalry, and McCraney's distinctive, emotionally charged way with dialogue made it seem contemporary and mythic all at once.

Marcus, says City's announcement, is about a young man "com[ing] to terms with his identity and his family's mysterious past." The press release calls it a "poetic tale of adolescence, community and sexuality." Apparently it also reprises characters from Brothers. That show goes up in January.

Other familiar names on the roster include Eric Simonson and Jeffrey Hatcher, playwrights closely allied with City. They collaborated, for instance, on Work Song, about Frank Lloyd Wright. Now they're taking on famed Pittsburgh-born playwright George S. Kaufman: Their world-premiere commission Louder Faster basically puts Kaufman into one of his own screwball farces. It's up next May.

Also on the schedule is The 39 Steps, by Patrick Barlow, a comedy "equally inspired by Alfred Hitchcock and Monty Python" (Oct. 16-Nov. 7, 2010); another world premiere, The Morini Strad, by Willy Holtzman about an aging former child prodigy and a violin builder (Nov. 6-Dec. 12); Precious Little, a drama by Madeleine George (March 12-April 3); and The Amish Project, Jessica Dickey's acclaimed 2008 one-woman show about the school shooting in Pennsylvania Amish country (April 2-May 8).

Another new wrinkle in City's bag is Celebrity Autobiography: In Their Own Words. The show, conceived by Eugene Pack, involves a rotating cast of performers reading aloud from celebrity autobiographies. It is, of course, comedic in intent -- and it won the 2008 Drama Desk Award. That series starts in just a few weeks, on June 3.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Quantum Theatre's The Task

Posted By on Wed, May 5, 2010 at 4:16 PM

Quantum typically makes the most of the sites of its site-specific productions, but the troupe really outdoes itself with the staging for Heiner Müller's play about revolution, betrayal and disillusionment in 19th-century France and Jamaica.

The taken-over locale this time is the Gage Building, an old multi-story brick warehouse in the Strip. Quantum artistic director Karla Boos commandeered the whole first floor, a vast and sepulchural if high-ceilinged space with few enough windows that it's got to be mostly dark even during matinees.

Each of the 90-minute show's eight scenes is played in a different corner of the space, with the audience walking between them. But really the whole first floor has been transformed, from the symbolic tumble of hardback books on the frozen conveyor belt as you enter the building, to the sight lines that afford glimpses of sets you've just visited, or are about to.

The play's first scene, for instance, partakes of a device I especially enjoy: While actors play right before us, some 50 yards "upstage" across the shadowy former shop floor is a spotlit loft done up like a shabbily ornate study. The effect recalls a deep-focus shot in film -- something we seldom get to see in theater (and rarely enough in film these days, for that matter). And the next scene's played out in that very loft.

Other staging highlights include a scene set in a freight elevator. Both its doors are open -- one on each face of the shaft - and half the audience of 100 is seated in front of each, watching both the boxed-in actors and the audience on the other side. The show even incorporates a pallet-jack … pulled by an actor in a huge papiér-mâché mask representing one of the Jamaican slaves our trio of Frenchman have supposedly come to liberate.

Perhaps most cleverly of all, the final scene takes place on the opposite side of that loft from scene 2. We're still staring at its nearly identical mirror image. Only this time we're seated in risers, looking down on the three protagonists and up at the symbolic action in the loft. It brings the play literally full circle, both visually and thematically.

As a whole, The Task is a mixed bag. The cast, led by Larry John Meyers, Tony Bingham and Larry Powell, is terrific, and fully game for all manner of perversion, intellectual badinage and theatrical gamesmanship. But Müller's observations about imperialism, oppression and the vagaries of revolution, if memorably wrought, are scarcely new. ("Traitors have a good time while the people walk in blood.") And some of his Freudian psychologizing feels pretty labored.

Nonetheless, the visuals wrought by Boos, director Jed Allen Harris and perhaps especially scenic designer Narelle Sissons (who teaches at Carnegie Mellon and boasts credits on Broadway and internationally) ensure that you won't soon forget The Task.

The Task continues through Sun., May 9 (

Monday, May 3, 2010

Graphic Novelist Rina Ayuyang

Posted By on Mon, May 3, 2010 at 2:15 PM


It's easy to take the term "graphic novelist" the wrong way. Even if you're mind's not in the gutter, you might picture X supernaturally-gifted hero and Y beautiful/quick-witted damsel roof-hopping between the word balloons. 

But Whirlwind Wonderland (Sparkplug Comic Books/Tugboat Press), the newest book from graphic novelist Rina Ayuyang, contains neither superhero nor smoldering sex god. (Though there is a Brad Pitt ballroom scene.) Instead, the collection of illustrated short stories reflects Ayuyang's childhood love of comics like Doonesbury and Nancy -- simple, friendly stories of everyday people.

"I like to write slice-of-life tales about ordinary moments that inspire me," says Ayuyang. "I wanted to write about a normal person as a superhero."

Ayuyang returns to Pittsburgh this Wed., May 5, for a reading at Downtown's Toonseum.

Ayuyang's superheroes are herself, her family, friends, bus people, childhood playmates and the occasional celebrity (like Angela Lansbury and the aforementioned Pitt), all drawn in Ayuyang's simple, sketchy cartooning style. Her stories are creative accounts of family get-togethers, daydreams on the daily commute, and recollections of growing up here, in Glenshaw.

Ayuyang is the only Pittsburgh-born daughter of two Filipino immigrants, who made career moves to the Pittsburgh area in the '70s. Parts of Whirlwind recall how Ayuyang negotiates her Filipino heritage with her Pittsburgh citizenship.

"I totally embrace [my background] now that I know it's not just something that makes me different, but that it's a part of me," says Ayuyang. Her first Whirlwind vignette recalls resentment towards her parents' Filipino decor. In a later story, she narrates her heart-warming relationship with her father.

And throughout, this Bay Area transplant gives props to her hometown. She illustrates how her Steelers pride rubs off on her non-sporty boyfriend. One story features younger Ayuyang donning a giant Steeler helmet. 

Ayuyang assures that, even in California, Pittsburgh pride is strong. As she writes and co-hosts her podcast, The Comic Claptrap, she's found hints of our town on the West Coast: "There are really so many Pittsburgh bars in the bay area. I feel like it's a sister city."

At her May 5 Toonseum reading, Ayuyang hopes to encounter Pittsburgh's developing graphic-arts community. This native still counts herself among the Pittsburgh comics Super Friends.

"The whole cartoon thing happened right after I left. Lame! But I totally think I'm part of it," says Ayuyang. "From a distance."


Whirlwind Wonderland is available on

Rina Ayuyang reads from Whirlwind Wonderland at 6 p.m Wed., May 5. The Toonseum, 945 Liberty Ave, Downtown. Free (donations welcome). 412-232-0199 or


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