Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Gene Ludwig Tribute This Weekend

Posted By on Thu, Jul 29, 2010 at 6:17 PM

Ludwig, a star of the local jazz scene, was to have performed at this Sunday's opening night of Citiparks' Reservoir of Jazz concert series. It would have been a nice launch for this year's series, and probably heavy on the veteran organist's familiar favorites, like "It's You or No One."

But the show will have to go on without Ludwig, of Monroeville: This pillar of Pittsburgh jazz died July 14, at age 72. Instead, the Reservoir of Jazz (a Highland Park tradition) will open with a Tribute to Gene Ludwig. A quintet including Ludwig collaborators will honor him with a set including other favorites, like "Birk's Works," and such Ludwig originals as "Louie & Jazz" and "Duff's Blues."

The band will include Jay Willis (tenor sax), Mark Strickland (guitar), Tim Jenkins (piano), Jeff Grubbs (bass) and Thomas Wendt (drums).

Missing will be Ludwig's own tones, which the Cambria County native (who grew up in Wilkinsburg and Swissvale) honed for a half-century, playing jazz and R&B, locally, on the chitlin' circuit, and in Atlantic City, among other places. He was best known for his stylings on the classic Hammond B-3 organ.

The free tribute show is 5-7 p.m. Sun., Aug. 1 (412-255-2391 or visit

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble

Posted By on Wed, Jul 28, 2010 at 11:42 AM

Under artistic director Kevin Noe, PNME has for years been a musical initiative that warrants performing in a place like its longtime home, City Theatre's main state. The July 23-24 program went particularly far in utilizing the stage as would a theater company -- one that also performs adventuresome and devilishly complex music.

At the center was pianist Conor Hanick, performing all dozen movements of György Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata." (It's a partly structural work, with the first piece limited to just two notes, and each succeeding section adding one note to the palette.) But between each movement, other members of the ensemble emerged from the wings to perform some other short work, each occupying a different part of the stage in a circle around Hanick.

Some of the pieces were designed to be theatrical. Thierry de Mey's "Musique de Tables," for instance, consists of three performers whose only instruments are one butcher-block of wood each and the hands and fingers they variously slapped, thumped and rapped upon the wood, a marvelous bit of percussive play. More stage-friendly still was Emmanuel Séjourné's "Vous Avez de Feu?" -- four musicians playing cigarette lighters, the noise of the spark-wheel the only sound, the brief little flames dramatically echoing the "notes" on the darkened stage.

(Most of the works, of course, were performed on conventional instruments: violin, marbimba, cello, clarinet.)

Sometimes, PNME's staging can get a little corny or labored, and the visual impact of the third movement of "Tables" was somewhat blunted for being performed way upstage (behind pianist Hanick). But because this show -- like most PNME programs -- was composed of several short works, it was a fast-moving hour whose highlights only began with Hanick's terrific work.

There's one more chance this season to see PNME, whose musicians hail from around the country and the world. (Violinist Natalie Shaw, for instance, lives in Paris, and Noe himself is based in Austin, Texas.)

The fourth and final 2010 PNME program takes place July 30 and 31 ( The show features five works, including the world-premiere commission "Radiance," by Ned McGowan, and Radiohead's "Like Spinning Plates."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cartoonist Pat N. Lewis and Trickster

Posted By on Wed, Jul 21, 2010 at 1:39 PM


Pittsburgh-based Lewis is among the contributors to this pretty cool, possibly unique new Fulcrum Books publication that takes a graphic-novel approach to Native American tales.

Editor Matt Dembicki, a Fairfax, Va.-based artist, paired native writers from tribes around the U.S. with artists like Lewis (a Shadyside resident).

The book ($22.95) is a handsome, full-color, 232-page paperback on glossy stock. The 21 tales cover everything from why there are stars in the sky ("Coyote and the Pebbles") to a song about an ursine grouch ("The Bear Who Stole the Chinook").

While some of the stories impart lessons about nature, or getting along with others, one of the real pleasures is their cheekiness. As in other classic fables and folk tales, the human characters and animal characters have a lot in common, and they're seldom terribly noble. Like us, they're often impatient, greedy, lazy and ungrateful. The trickster is the critter who uses others' traits against them -- sometimes so the victims get what they deserve, but often just because he can (or because a good meal is involved). Many of the stories resolve in a fairly open-ended, shaggy-dog kind of way.

The artwork, meanwhile, has something for everyone, from gorgeous realism and the stripped-down, stylized angularity you might expect from a "graphic novel" to stuff that wouldn't look out of place in Ren & Stimpy or even Pokemon.

Lewis contribution is to "Rabbit's Choctaw Tail Tale," about why rabbits (some of whom are apparently very talkative) don't have long tails like they used to. A fox is involved, along with the suggestion that rabbit's long tail would make the perfect fishing line.

The storyteller is Tim Tingle, an Oklahoma Choctaw and a touring story-teller and writer who speaks and performs at tribal gatherings, universities and more.

Lewis's style falls on the classic-cartoon side of things -- you can really see such avowed influences as MAD Magazine and Tex Avery.

Lewis, a freelance cartoonist, illustrator and designer, specializes in editorial, children's books, greeting cards and more, with clients like McGraw-Hill, Science Magazine, Johns Hopkins University and the New York Press. He has solo work out too, including the graphic novel The Claws Come Out (IDW Publishing).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Slush Puppies at 707 Gallery

Posted By on Thu, Jul 15, 2010 at 6:33 PM

In the summertime, what better way to cool off than with an icy treat? Two artists bring that cool feeling to summer with their exhibit Slush Puppies.

The exhibit combines music and a summer feel with a little taste of the chill of winter. Slush Puppies, which closes July 25, will be part of Downtown's Fri., July 16, Gallery Crawl.

Artists Chris Beauregard and Jonathan Chamberlain met while working at Wood Street Galleries. They teamed up to create Slush Puppies after discovering they shared a taste in humor and art.

The exhibit's title speaks to all the cool things that summer has to offer, with a humorous take on the season. Indeed, as a viewer first enters the gallery door, it's actually winter that's best represented: The temperature drastically drops. The walls are covered in white, with fake ice, and the theme of cold is present throughout.

Slush Puppies tries to freeze the memorable moments of summer and make them last forever. Though the exhibit is silent, about half of it displays musical influence. Another piece, "Endless Summer on Ice," consists of the sleeve of the soundtrack LP to the classic surfing movie Endless Summer -- frozen in fake ice two inches thick. Another highlight is "Snow Cone" -- a replica of a traffic cone, except colored blue and also encased in fake ice.

But while the artists introduce winter into summer, summer remains in the form of the season's stereotypical delights. "Three Ice Princesses," an acrylic painting, pays homage to the clothing of summer: beautiful women, colorful clothes, summer fads. These sit alongside the slushies, ice cream and Klondike bars that fill the thoughts of many minds on a warm day in Pittsburgh.

Slush Puppies reminds anyone who complains about the summer heat that no matter how hot it is outside, that there is always an icy treat to enjoy.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Unseam'd Shakespeare's Mad Honey

Posted By on Wed, Jul 14, 2010 at 12:57 AM

"It's a terrible thing to hate someone you love so much."

The honey of this play's title is literally an hallucenogenic, potentially toxic stuff that first one character,then a second, nicks from the Iliad. But this is an Amy Hartman play -- a darkly comic, tragic romance -- so "mad honey"is also a metaphor for love.

"I want to eat his letters. I'm so hungry for them."

Hartman's characters are usually lonely -- desperately so. In The Chicken Snake, Disinfecting Edwinand Mad Honey, they're so desperate that they lie, kidnap, steal babies and kill; they blackmail the objects of their love for requital.

"The perfume of his sour breath made me drunkand greedy."

Hartman is a poet of this sort of naked desire, and her poetry is fully on display in this world premiere, directed by Robin Walsh. The whole cast -- Autumn Ayers, Paul Ford, Laurie Klatscher, Matt McNear, Maggie Ryan -- is fine. But one small detail really struck me. Watch Klatscher's character, a repressed schoolteacher whose only family was a boy dropped on her doorstep whom she can't bear to surrender. Klatscher plays comic neuroses with wonderful precision, but there's real pain here: Her character never looks at another character, even when she's talking to him or her. The moment that finally changes is striking, but it's a long and painful road.

"I was in love once -- a love so fierce it stole my life away."

The Chicken Snake, at Pitt's Studio Theatre, concludes with four more performances, nightly through Sat., July 17 (

Monday, July 12, 2010

Staycee Pearl Dance Project at the Kelly-Strayhorn

Posted By on Mon, Jul 12, 2010 at 1:43 AM

The company's debut got stronger as the brief but intense July 9 program, titled PUPA: new ... again, proceeded.

The title work, the first of four segments, featured some interesting insect-like movement by the six dancers, and some nice duets and group sequences. But it still felt a little underdeveloped (pun intended). A large projected video that accompanied the dancers -- mostly closeups of leaves, though an ant makes a cameo -- might have been thematically apt, but its execution was desultory.

"Static" was stronger, starting with the attention-grabbing opening tableaux vivant of writhing bodies. "Static" was also where you began to notice the sound design by Herman "Soy Sos" Pearl (the choreographer's husband). One sequence featured a cicada-like montage of voices, with low, aquatic undertones; toward the end, the soundtrack broke into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The highlight, though, was "Resolution." (Not surprising; in the post-show talkback, Staycee Pearl said she thought it was the most successful piece, too, and one the troupe had workshopped for months.)

Here the inspiration was actually a Soy Sos sound project, constructed around a reading of a list of victims of the Iraq War, soldiers and civilians both. The most memorable sequence had the dancers in a line moving stage right to stage left, as if on a conveyor belt. As the names were read, dancers would vanish into the wings at stage left one at a time, only to rejoin the endless, ever-moving line at stage right. It seemed the spaces between the performers grew wider (as if even the ranks of potential victims were being thinned). Meanwhile, variations such as dancers crawling backward toward their fates emphasized the tone of resignation and despair.

The hour-long program's closer was "Introducing ... SPdp," in which individual dancers took solos while the soundtrack spun out a snippet of an interview with each, about something important that had happened to her. It was cute, though the general light-heartedness of the movement belied the typically heavier nature of the recorded confessionals.

Pearl is best known for her years as artistic director of Xpreessions Contemporary Dance Company. Her choreography has been less visible of late. (She's been wrapping up studies at Pitt, for one thing.) But with SPdp, she's assembled six young dancers -- Kerra Alexander, Jamie Murphy, Cassie Shafer, Renee Smith, Amanda Vavra and Laura Warren, all Point Park grads -- whose talents seem well-suited to continued exploration of her vision.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

barebones productions' Killer Joe

Posted By on Wed, Jul 7, 2010 at 12:53 PM

This early play by Tracy Letts is, at first glance, a little immorality tale, set in a nest of scoundrels. The plot's shoved into motion by a young man cold-hearted enough to want his own mother killed, but not bold-hearted enough to do the job himself.

In that sense, the play harks to film noir -- the genre that starting mid-century told Americans they were less a bunch of idealists than a crew of remorseless individuals, driven by venal (or just concupiscient) desires, and wholly out for themselvess.

Indeed, when I chatted up actor Lissa Brennan after last Thursday's performance of this sharply visceral barebones staging, the noir afficionado said she considered the play's second act a direct descendent of that great early noir Double Indemnity, right down to its unraveling of a crooked life-insurance scheme.

Yet something that's interesting about the play dramatically is that, to make the evil doings resonate, Letts has crafted at least a couple characters who have sparks of genuine compassion. They are not "sympathetic," mind you. But they're not monsters.

The young man with the murder scheme is Chris (played by John Steffenauer). He's an aimless fellow, but what drives the play isn't so much that he hires a contract killer to off his mom but his relationship with his younger sister, Dotty (Hayley Nielsen). He sees himself, and is seen by Dotty in turn, as her protector, a relationship that goes back to their childhood (and has in no small part to do with what appears to be the brain injury she lives with -- ever since her own mother tried to smother her, in infancy).

Of course, Chris is nonetheless willing to hand over Dotty as a "retainer" to contract-killer Joe (Patrick Jordan). Yet perhaps more intriguingly complex is Joe's relationship to Dotty.

It might at first seem purely sexual, an interpretation that their hair-raising first "date" does little to dispel. But Jordan ultimately emphasizes a reading of the script that makes Joe, too, sympathetic, at least in his relationship to Dotty.

We can almost forget, for minutes at a time, that he's a police detective who kills people on the side.

Killer Joe has four more performances, tonight through Sat., July 10 (

The production's novel and quite captivating twist of having local rock legend Joe Grushecky perform live (solo and acoustic) between scenes is in effect all four shows; he and his Houserockers do a closing-night concert.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Posted By on Mon, Jul 5, 2010 at 3:32 PM

If you've seen this brilliant film about street art -- or even if you haven't -- there's something provocative to consider in the opening montage.

The film, credited to famed British street artist Banksy, is mostly about work like the kind he does: Witty, boundary-breaking stuff, as often as not painted or posted on blank or otherwise untended spaces, like monolithic retaining walls or the sides of abandoned buildings. Think the work of two acclaimed street artists with recent credits in Pittsburgh -- Shepard Fairey and Swoon (both featured in Exit) -- and you'll get the idea. Even people who hate "graffitti" would have to agree that work like these artists' is well-crafted. They might even grudgingly admit such work improves the desolate spaces it is foisted upon.

But that opening sequence, a rapid-fire succession of scenes of street artists at work, isn't just about the clever Banksys of the world. Intercut are images of what even a street-art appreciator like me would call vandalism: Dudes spray-canning a wavy line down the length of a building, or scrawling an artless tag. The sort of thing it seems some young man or other gets busted, fined and even jailed for every year or so in Pittsburgh.

Exit isn't a movie about taggers -- it's about artists like Banksy himself, who has done conceptual paintings on the Palestinian side of the West Bank's Israeli wall (like a trompe l'oeil of a hole in wall that seems to provide a view of a tropical beach). The montage, though, recognizes no such distinction. The taggers are given equal status.

On the one hand, this doesn't surprise me much. In Banksy's highly recommended book Wall and Piece, he lays out some of his philosophy. It includes a critique of how corporations can buy public art space (in the form of billboards and other adverts), but anyone without money who tries to claim a few eyes for the vox populi is criminalized. (The film, moreover, is at heart a critique of the commercialization of art.)

On the other hand, that Banksy would equate taggers with artists surprises me a little, because in his book, he writes, "All artists are prepared to suffer for their work. Why are so few prepared to learn to draw?"

And indeed, it's the artfulness of work like Banksy's, combined with who-and-where of the victim (a Coke billboard, or some poor shlub's shop window?) that seem to me to determine whether something's guerilla art or merely vandalism. 

Exit Through The Gift Shop plays nightly through Thu., July 8, at the Regent Square Theater.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Unemployment Show

Posted By on Thu, Jul 1, 2010 at 5:23 PM

David English is not unemployed, but he used to be. And once a month, he likes to talk about it.

A Garfield resident, English studied puppetry at West Virginia University. Now, at 32, he hosts a comedic, late-night, live-streaming talk show about lay-offs, life behind a desk, and that pesky dissonance between seeking a job and finding one's true calling.

The Unemployment Show, a new project of Waffle Shop: A Reality Show, began when English met Jon Rubin, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon who teaches a class in which students create experimental public art projects.

Waffle Shop, a diner-style eatery opened through Rubin's class, has remained in business for almost two years on its corner of Baum and Highland, in East Liberty. Each Friday and Saturday, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., passers-by stumble in for a gooey treat and are invited to participate in an open talk show that is recorded and produced into a weekly webcast. Topics have ranged from Jimi Hendrix lyrics to pineapples, broke boyfriends to cannibalistic apes.

But now, the first Friday of each month, as part of Penn Avenue's Unblurred gallery crawl, the Waffle Shop opens its doors for an hour to English and his unemployed masses.

English, an active local artist, has landed a number of miscellaneous jobs but always stumbles back to his artistic roots.

"I've had a turbulent career past," he explains by phone from his new bartending gig in Lawrenceville. "Eventually I decided I really hate office jobs. But art doesn't pay the bills, so I needed to come up with something."

In each Unemployment Show, English presents sketch comedy, musical performances, and a lineup of off-beat experts on employment, or the lack thereof. The second monthly installment takes the stage Fri., July 2, and includes guests such as Three Rivers Arts Festival's "Best in Show" artist Deanna Mance; Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate Mel Packer; Some Kind of Circus Project's fire-breathing escape artist Dave Doyle; and musical guest Middle Children.

The Waffle Shop ( is at 124 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty.


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