Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Monday, December 13, 2010

Michael Phillip Edwards' runt

Posted By on Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 10:40 PM

One interesting beat in this well-crafted one-man show is how the title is explicated. A "runt," in the usage of the rural Jamaican grandfather Edwards lived with as a child, isn't the smallest critter in the litter (as I'd always thought). Rather, among dogs at least, it's the one lowest in status -- the one who eats last at the trough, if at all. (The size of the fight in the dog, as it were.)

"Runt" is a measure, Edwards says in the show, of "how much fear an animal allows to live within itself."

It's an interesting and elegant phrase, and one that the writer and actor, as the son of an overbearing and verbally abusive father, obviously applies to himself here.

The hour-long show had eight performances here Dec. 2-12, at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's bare-bones Downtown performance venue, the Trust Education Center.

It's a lauded show, and not new -- its premiere performance was at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, in Scotland, where it won the coveted Fringe First award. It's also been a BBC radio drama and a feature film, and Edwards (who now lives in L.A.) has performed it around the U.S. and the world.

The Pittsburgh shows were the start, in fact, of a revival and new national tour. When I interviewed him for a preview piece, Edwards, now 43, said the show resonates differently with him -- more deeply -- than on the first go-round.

One thing that emerges clearly is Edwards' resolve, as an artist, to make his father a full-blooded person, not some monster.

To be sure, in Edwards' verbal and physical characterization we feel the substantial weight of the father's anger-filled psyche, the menace behind even his more conciliatory words, and even at his happiest moments: This very wealthy, hard-driving businessman simply can't bear that his son is unlike him. And he's an alcoholic and unrepetant womanizer besides.

But quite early in the work, Edwards says that his father, his bluster either notwithstanding or the proof in the pudding, was in truth consumed by fear. Later, he ties that insight to a key dynamic in their relationship: "I was his only son, the the only one who could ever make him wrong."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dance Alloy's From Where We Come ...

Posted By on Wed, Dec 8, 2010 at 2:25 PM

It's a nice little juxtaposition, celebrating your dance company's 35th anniversary with the very show where you introduce three brand-new performers (more than half the troupe). But Dance Alloy Theater, under the direction of Greer Reed-Jones, pulled it off with a smart, lively show whose four-performance run ended Sunday.

The program was a solid mix of new and old. But it opened with an historical tribute. With help from performance poet Vanessa German, Reed-Jones sectioned the Alloy's history into four chunks, each with its own representative movement style.

Dancers, for instance, worked in between video of early-1980s interviews with former artistic directors Susan Gillis and Elsa Limbach. And there was a fun group work that accompanied early-'90s (I think) footage of the troupe appearing on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, rolling around on big exercise balls.

More poignant, for reasons that had only partly to do with the dance itself, was the tribute to the Mark Taylor era -- 1991-2003, making him the longest-serving of the company's artistic directors. This was a Tayloresque solo by Michael Walsh, the lone current dancer to have performed under Taylor. (Walsh joined the Alloy in 1999; Taylor is still on the group's board of directors.)

The 2003-09 artistic directorship of Beth Corning was represented by a moving solo by Maribeth Maxa, whose Alloy tenure began with Corning's. The piece utilized a straight-backed red chair -- a tip of the hat to one of Corning's original choreographic works, and in general to her commitment to dance theater. (It was Corning who added the "theater" to the company's name.)

New also joined old in "The Son is the Father to the Man," a sturdy duet by former company member Kevin Maloney, danced by Walsh and newcomer Raymond Interior. And the whole company seemed to have a blast with Taylor's "Swan Lake: Act II," an inspired bit of silliness parodying the famed ballet, complete with Tchaikovsky score.

Fittingly, though, this anniversary program's most memorable piece might have been the newest work: "When You Hear Hoofbeats, Think Horses," by former company member (and now Pennsylvania Dance Theatre artistic director) André Koslowski. It's an all-out dance-theater piece -- movement-based, but often more like experimental theater than traditional dance.

What else would you expect when you return from intermission and the stage is set with props including a metal collander, a pushbroom, a hardhat, a pile of tree branches ... and a larger-than-life inflatable zebra? The darkly provocative 45-minute work, which Koslowski developed with the dancers through journaling and other assignments, seemed mostly about its characters either abusing or ignoring each other.

Read into it what you like, but a labored sequence or two aside it was fascinating to watch, and a chance for newcomers Jasmine Hearn and Gretchen Moore to show off their acting chops as well as movement technique. Moore in particular was delightfully mischievous -- a nice complement to her comic turns in "Swan Lake: Act II."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

First Night 2011

Posted By on Tue, Dec 7, 2010 at 1:45 PM

The Cultural Trust's press conference for the annual New Year's Eve celebration was the first I've attended (this year, anyway) to feature giant dancing penguin puppets.

There were two on the sidewalk at Liberty Avenue, and three more inside the building at 805 Liberty, The latter were swaying to the Caribbean Vibes steel-drum band, the musicians dressed in tropical shirts and playing seasonal fare like "Under the Boardwalk."

The dancing was a little distracting, but it should be said that after the press conference, the indoor penguins did cease bopping and stood respectfully to listen when Cello Fury played a number to close things out.

As to First Night itself, after eight years running it, the Trust and its partners have the formula down. To paraphrase poet Samuel Hazo, First Night is "always differently the same."

It's still a bunch of events (150 or so) in 40 or more Downtown locations -- some outdoors but most indoors. It still costs $8 for a button that gets you into most events ($10 at the door). And it's still mostly live performance -- music, dance, a little comedy -- and hands-on art projects. Parades, fireworks, etc.

Judging by the thousands who fill the streets each year, it's a formula that works.

While even many of the performers will be familiar from years past, there's some news among the headliners. The big-stage bill-toppers are crowd-pleasing veteran funk 'n' soul outfit Tower of Power, whom I recall making people very happy some years ago at the Three Rivers Arts Fest. They go on at 10:45 p.m. at the Highmark Stage.

Other highlights include the Chicago-based stage troupe The NeoFuturists, who perform "30 plays in 60 minutes" in a show at the O'Reilly called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.

Meanwhile, local lads and lasses Squonk Opera do three sets at the Byham; saxophonist Tia Fuller (known for her work with Beyoncé) plays two sets of jazz at the Trust Arts Education Center; dance troupe The Pillow Project and Zafira Bellydance perform at 119 Sixth St.; and Pittsburgh-based theatrical guru Dan Kamin is at the August Wilson Center with something called A Cheap Evening of Expensive Theater.

There will also be attempts to tie in the Jan. 1 NHL Winter Classic, the Heinz Field hockey matchup between the Pens and the Capitals.

The full schedule is at

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Gist Street Reading Series Finale

Posted By on Sat, Dec 4, 2010 at 1:04 PM

The 10-year-old series' final page was turned Friday night, and it was a happy/sad sort of affair: Unlike arts groups that fold for lack of funding, or just fade from relevance, Gist Street went out under its own steam and at the top of its game.

The event made me think about what might take Gist Street's place on the local scene, and turned my thoughts to a promising new reading series across town.

More about that in a minute. But first back to James Simon's cozily funky Uptown sculpture studio, where Gist Street's monthly pairings of poet and fiction writer have been held since early 2001.

The studio, like a small loft, seats only about 80. And it wasn't long after Gist Street started that you couldn't get in the door for these 8 p.m. readings unless you showed up like an hour early.

The reason had much to do with the programming, of course. Co-founders and organizer Sherrie Flick and Nancy Krygowski regularly brought in quality artists, most of them also pretty good at presenting their work (especially for audiences as attentive and appreciative as Gist Street's.)

The series sometimes featured local talent, like poet Terrance Hayes (well before he won the National Book Award). But it specialized in out-of-towners who might not have made it to Pittsburgh otherwise, like poets Ilya Kaminsky and Tim Seibles, and Flannery O'Connor Award-winning short-story writer Lori Ostlund (who just read here last month).

But the series' cult status also had to do with the casual but deeply felt hospitality of the place: You felt like you were listening to great writers read to you in a cool pal's living room. A cool pal, by the way, who generally supplied very tasty food, including but not limited to whole roasted turkeys, homemade ice-cream and a bathtub full of beer. All this, for most of Gist Street's history, for $5. (The price went up to $10 last year.)

No wonder the line often wound around the block, and organizers sometimes had to turn away as many people as they let in.

No exception last night. The line began forming in the below-freezing chill, organizers said, at 5:20 p.m, or nearly two hours before the doors opened. Attendees outdid themeselves with the potluck feast, most of it home-made. 

And it was a fine reading to go out on. San Diego-based poet Jericho Brown read, mostly from his American Book Award-winning collection Please, with considerable stage presence. And North Carolina-based Holly Goddard Jones offered an incisive selection from her collection Girl Trouble

Just like nothing can replace the International Poetry Forum, which closed its doors in 2009, nothing can really replace Gist Street. But that doesn't mean the literary landscape is lying fallow.

On Nov. 20, in fact, I attended the first installment of Speaking Of ..., a new monthly series at the North Side's Amani Café. 

In one sense, Speaking Of got off to a Gist-like start: It packed at least 100 people into its little space and had to turn more away at the door. And the attendance wasn't due primarily to the writers bringing their tribes. The strong line-up of poet Elizabeth Hoover, spoken-word artist Brian Francis and Flick herself (she's a fiction writer as well as an arts organizer) were new to many in the crowd, who'd apparently just shown up because they heard something new was afoot.

So kudos to organizers including Phinehas Hodges. With little but word of mouth, some handbills and a slick promo video on their web site ( they've gotten off to a running start. It's taking December off, but look for Speaking Of again in January. It'll be interesting to see whether it can keep up the quality level, as well as the diversity of performance-based and more literary work.


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