Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Art at Pittsburgh Public Theater

Posted By on Tue, Jun 22, 2010 at 1:12 PM

I won't call it "smart," because that would be redundant: Everything about Yasmina Reza's neo-classic is smart, and likewise this Ted Pappas-directed production. But there's one passage in the play that illuminates a lot about both Reza's craft and the themes of her cunning take on the vagaries of long-term male friendships.

The passage occurs late in this concise, intermissionless play, as the three characters finally drag the tensions between them into full light.

Till now, the conflict has been mostly between Serge, a dermatologist, and Marc, the engineer who thinks his buddy Serge is an idiot for paying a small fortune for a white-on-white abstract painting. But the long, climactic scene turns the focus on Yvan, the mediator and accommodator in this friendship triangle.

Yvan (played by Harry Bouvy) is the least professionally successful of the three, having just switched from one undesired job to another; he also has a private-life disaster waiting to happen, via a seemingly unadvisable marriage.

While Serge (Darren Eliker) and Marc (Rob Breckenridge) verbally -- and almost physically -- duke it out, Yvan lets drop an observation from his therapist (whom the intellectually overbearing Marc has, naturally, already announced is a fool).

I'm paraphrasing: "If I am who I am because I am who I am, and you are who you are because you are who you are, then I am who I am and you are who you are. But if I am who I am because you are who you are, and you are who you are because I am who I am, then I'm not who I am, and you're not who you are."

The neurotic Yvan's reading of his handwritten crib from his therapy session draws a nice laugh, and predictable derision from his two friends. But it's a measure of Reza's sophisticated structuring that this seeming bit of double-talk is actually one of the play's key points: Over 15 years, the friends have molded each others' lives so much that, when they are together, at least, they are no longer three individuals, but rather a unique sort of symbiotic organism -- one that requires its own kind of care to survive.

"Your friends need to be chaperoned, or else they'll get away," notes Marc at one juncture. It's a truism that, characteristically, cuts a couple ways, at least one of them ironic and at least one other poignant. And its an observation the Public's staging nicely follows up on in the closing scene, when the show's straightforward lighting scheme turns soft and shaded, suggesting relationships that might proceed with more thoughtfulness and less taken for granted.

Art continues at the Pittsburgh Public Theater ( with eight more performances through Sun., June 27.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gasland on HBO

Posted By on Fri, Jun 18, 2010 at 1:22 PM


On June 5, I was among the hundreds at the Byham Theater for a preview screening of Josh Fox's smart, scary and impassioned new documentary about Marcellus Shale gas-drilling in Pennsylvania.

Gasland -- which goes national via HBO at 9 p.m. Mon., June 21 -- does something relatively few commentators about such drilling have done: It frames the race to exploit natural-gas deposits deep beneath Pennsylvania with what's already happening in deep-shale gas fields in some of the 33 other states where it goes on.

The results are ugly. Most of the concern about Marcellus drilling involves water quality. Already in Pennsylvania, with drilling efforts still ramping up, people and animals have been sickened when wells and other fresh water were contaminated with methane or other toxins after drilling took place.

The Pittsburgh area is a hotbed of current and projected Marcellus activity, in places like Washington County, but with efforts to drill near or even in the city itself advancing.

Meanwhile, out West, drilling is further along. From the air, some of the plains of Colorado, for instance, are revealed to be dotted with hundreds of well sites, regularly spaced as the dimples on a cracker.

One memorable sequence in Gasland finds Fox visiting a series of about ten homes in Wyoming … and setting fire to the water that comes out of their faucets. 

And in a riposte to those who cite landowners who've made big bucks by leasing to drillers, Fox interviews people who deeply regret what drilling has done to the land.

Fox himself turned down a $100,000 "signing bonus" from a gas company who wanted to drill on his family land in Mylanville, in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Mylanville is a short drive from Dimock, Pa., another town where residents say drilling has poisoned well water -- and hand Fox the jars of sickly yellow liquid to prove it.

This is heavy stuff, but Fox's approach is cogent, disarmingly low-key, and even humorous. (One scene finds him playing "This Land Is Your Land" on banjo at a drill site on federal land, while wearing a gas mask.)

Another point that's hammered home is that the avalanche of deep-shale drilling was unleashed by the so-called "Halliburton loophole" in national energy policy as crafted by former Vice President Dick Cheney. The loophole exempts oil and gas drilling from most of the federal rules to protect air and water.

Indeed, Fox was refused almost all interview requests to government officials. A notable exception is John Hanger, who heads Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection.

Hanger doesn't come off looking so great. But even Fox, who attended the June 5 Byham screening and took part in a lively panel discussion afterward, agreed that Hanger has lately taken a tougher line.

Still, Fox is among those who argue that the risks are such that better regulation simply isn't enough. He says we need a moratorium on shale-gas drilling as part of a strategy to get off fossil fuels altogether.

Many in the audience agreed -- in part, no doubt, not only because of BP's Gulf disaster, but also because of the June 3 accident at a Marcellus gas well-site in Clearfield County that spewed gas and toxic wastewater into the air for 16 hours.

Learn more at

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Quantum Theatre’s 2010-11 Season

Posted By on Tue, Jun 15, 2010 at 1:35 PM

Quantum artistic director Karla Boos has needled me (more than once) for something I wrote last year, a fall-theater roundup that seemed to imply that Quantum was playing it safe by staging the musical Candide.

My point was merely that, in a down economy, theater companies tend to edge toward name works by name talents, and the legendary Candide (with music by Leonard Bernstein) seemed to apply.

Of course, musicals are anything but easy to stage, even if you don't mount them in a former auto-body shop, as Quantum did. All the moreso Candide, whose wicked satire costumed as farce is harder still to get right.

Quantum's production did. But even people who don't fall head over heels for every Quantum show acknowledge that, unlike any other long-lived troupe in town, the company essentially builds risk into its mission by staging every production as a site-specifc work ... at a different site.

"Long-lived," indeed: Quantum's just-announced upcoming season will be its 20th, a landmark for any company. And as usual, its three slated shows mark literal and figurative journeys into new terrain.

The season opens right around the corner, with the July 29-Aug. 22 production of The Howling Miller. It's based on a novel by Finnish author Arto Paasilinna, adapted for the stage by Boos and Canadian playwright and actor Peter Duschenes.

Quantum describes The Howling Miller as a fable about the tiny country of Lapland in the years after World War II. Duschenes will direct this, Quantum's traditional mid-summer outdoor show, the lupine overtones of whose title will be echoed in its staging at bosky Frick Environmental Center. It's sure to be eagerly anticipated by those who recall such atmospheric outdoor productions as The Crucible a few summers ago.

Peripatetic Quantum often doesn't nail down its venues till later, and such is the case with its other two 2010-11 shows.

Possibilities for inventive staging, however, seem rampant in Andrew Bovell's When the Rain Stops Falling (Oct. 28-Nov. 21). Andrew Bovell's epic family drama leaps about in time and place, from 1959 London to Australia in 2039, when fish are extinct and it rains all the time. Bovell also wrote Speaking in Tongues, which Quantum staged in 2002-03.

The season concludes next March with another musical: Astor Piazzolla's Maria De Buenos Aires (March 24-April 17), with a libretto by Horacio Ferrer, and music direction by Andres Cladera, who did such a good job on Candide. The play, which continues Boos' exploration of Latin culture and dance (think Yerma, The Red Shoes, The Voluptuous Tango), is described as "A tango operita from the streets of Buesnos Aires."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Art of Technology

Posted By on Wed, Jun 9, 2010 at 2:29 PM

Most of the roomful of works in this Three Rivers Arts Festival exhibit were playful-looking, helping fill the big, half-raw third-floor space of at the Trust Arts Education Center.

I stopped for a few minutes, for instance, at Solomon Bisker's "Recursive Photo Booth," which uses a camera, screen and digital sleight-of-hand to let you take a picture of yourself holding the picture of yourself you've just taken, ad infinitum.

But largely, I had the same problem I often have with interactive and time-based works in a gallery setting: They just take a little too much patience, especially on a night like the opening night of the arts festival. (Yeah, even if it's raining buckets outside.) And works with audio that relied on speakers rather than headphones were impossible to hear, even before the gallery got busy.

One video did work pretty well: Jon Shumway's "Upgrade: Cyborg Ascending a Staircase." It's a multilayered Duchamp riff that fuses vintage film footage, old wallpaper patterns, color magazine ads, biology texts and more into an engrossing animated collage. By some quirk of acoustics, I could even hear the soundtrack.

The show was organized by the Pittsburgh Technology Center's Art + Technology initiative.

Among the artworks that didn't blink or move, I liked Ronald Nigro's series of sleek assemblies, made from disused machine and computer parts.

Somewhere in between the two poles are a few works by Sandy K. Kaminski. Kaminski must be the single most-represented artist, with perhaps 20 works hung here. Most were traditional prints with circuit-board motifs. But others were mixed-media sculptures incorporating actual computer hardware. And at least one used a tiny camera or sensor pointed into the gallery and linked to an LCD readout. "You can come closer," the readout told me. I took a step. "That's it."

The show (at 805-807 Penn Ave.) continues from 4-8 p.m. today, noon-8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, noon-6 p.m. on Sunday.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bricolage's Midnight Radio

Posted By on Sat, Jun 5, 2010 at 2:35 PM

Because relatively few of us under 50 grew up listening to radio serials, let alone live radio theater, there's plenty of people who don't quite grasp Bricolage's concept with this series. The concept, however, is moot once you see the actual show: All you need to know is that it's funny, talented people doing funny, inventive stuff on stage for a little over an hour.

The concept, of course, harks to radio's mid-century golden age. Actors holding scripts get behind mikes and act out skits and stories and commercials, while frantic performers make the sounds of automobiles, fist fights and thunderstorms with little motors, leather belts and big pieces of metal. Mix in some live music for a classic variety-show format.

Midnight Radio is updated here and there for postmodern comic sensibilities. But imagine a less-earnest version of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion (the best-known revenant of this kind of work), or even old Bob & Ray routines, you've got the idea.

The ensemble includes top local stage regulars like Tony Bingham, Lisa Ann Goldsmith and Bricolage's own Tami Dixon (who doubles as main sound-effects artist), along with comedian Gab Bonesso and comic and pundit John McIntire.

So in this week's season-opener of this monthly series, there's an hilarious soap-opera parody; a fake PSA celebrating the spoon; a beer-commercial spoof in mock praise of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl; two songs by the alt-country group Small Cities, playing as an acoustic trio; an audience-play secret-decoder-ring game; and a genuinely creepy adaption of a vintage radio script based on the Ray Bradbury science-fiction story "The Zero Hour."

Throw in "Hey Hon Let's Cook," a vision of how a radio cooking show originating in blue-collar Pittsburgh might go (starring the hilarious Angela M. Vesco), and this is entertainment fast-paced enough for most, and funny enough for anyone.

If you're a theater fan who's seen some of these actors in heavier dramatic roles, it's especially good fun to watch them cut loose with broad comedy. (Bricolage suggests that to get the full radio effect, you should listen with your eyes closed, but I'd argue you'd miss have the fun that way; the performances in the intimate theater space are visually wonderful, too.)

I especially enjoyed Goldsmith, whose range this month includes a haughty soap-opera diva, a '50s suburban -- and Superman if he were Chinese, as depicted in the evening's other big set-piece, playwright Ken Kassiar's truly Bob & Ray-style newscast spoof "Our Top Story tonight."

The June installment of Midnight Radio concludes with a 9 p.m. show tonight at Bricolage's space at 937 Penn Ave., Downtown. The series returns with all-new episodes in July (

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Jitney at Pittsburgh Playwrights

Posted By on Wed, Jun 2, 2010 at 12:20 PM

As of this writing, it's the final week to catch this splendid new production of the first-written installment of August Wilson's famed Century Cycle (or, as Pittsburghers like to call it, his "Pittsburgh Cycle"). 

"As of this writing" because the production's been so successful -- hard-scrapping little Playwrights' best-attended show ever -- that last week the troupe extended its planned run by one weekend, with shows now slated through Sun., June 6.

There's a thousand things to recommend this version of Wilson's play about a neighborhood car-service in the Hill District of the 1970s. One is how the set evokes the milieu: Playwrights' artistic director Mark Clayton Southers' sets are always good, true, especially for the troupe's annual staging of a Wilson play. But this one (which premiered in 1982) summons the '70s, when Southers grew up in that very neighborhood. And from the gloriously ragged couch that's the single set's centerpiece on out, Southers (who also directed) incarnates the clubhouse feel of a place where men duck in and out, waiting for the ring on the payphone in the corner that means someone's ready to pay for a ride somewhere. It even incorporates half an vintage beater car. (You kinda have to see it to believe it.)

Typical of Wilson, Jitney's written for an ensemble -- it's a great play about fathers and sons, and ultimately about community.

Still, most signally, Wilson's work -- unfortunately almost alone in contemporary American theater -- is from an African-American point of view. And one line especially sticks with me.

One character, Youngblood, is a Vietnam vet and the station's youngest driver. He's working two jobs, worried about money and running into obstacles to his plan to buy a house. But when he complains that the white man's institutions are against him, one of the older men stops him: The white man, he tells Youngblood, isn't against you; rather, he doesn't even know you're there.

Yoiks. I saw Jitney a couple weeks back, just after catching (at the nearby August Wilson Center, no less) a screening of the latest installment of East of Liberty, local filmmaker Chris Ivey's documentary about life in the East Liberty gentrification zone. The film's collage of voices included a black teen-ager who was dumbfounded that some organization somewhere kept naming Pittsburgh "America's Most Livable City."

The designation, suffice it to say, didn't comport with his experience in a rundown neighborhood. "Where does this most-livable-city shit come from?" the kid kept asking.

The exchange Wilson wrought in Jitney -- the white man doesn't even know you're there -- is one way to start formulating an answer. 


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