Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

City Theatre's Precious Little

Posted By on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 at 5:16 PM

Like most really good plays, this new work by Madeleine George is about more than one thing. But one of its concerns involves both up-to-the-minute science and the human complexities that play out on the flip side of such studies.

As befits a play largely about language and communication, the protagonist is a linguist. Brodie believes that language is the key to unlocking human consciousness. Books proliferate on the subject, and so do popular media. (I must have heard half a dozen episodes of public radio's Radio Lab that touched on the subject.)

So what happens when Brodie studies the all-but-last speaker of a dying Asian language, even as she (a) learns that it's possible that her unborn child is developmentally delayed, perhaps to the point of lacking the power to speak and (b) makes the acquaintance of a zoo-bound gorilla who has been taught the rudiments of human language?

It should first be noted that Precious Little is foremost very entertaining -- funny and fast-paced, and clocking in at an intermissionless 75 minutes. Yet it's quite full -- of action, dialogue and ideas.

Especially poignant, and telling of the language theme, is the relationship between Brodie (played by Kelly McAndrew) and Cleva (Laurie Klatscher), the frail, elderly woman whose language Brodie is trying to catalog before it vanishes.

Cleva hasn't spoken her native tongue in decades, simply because there's no one to speak it to. (The fact that she never learned English very well is another of the parallels between her and the ape -- parallels the play emphasizes in numerous ways, including apportioning both roles to the same actor.) As Brodie prompts her to recall, the effort summons up memories for Cleva -- good ones and terrible ones both. Language in this case is nearly equivalent to consciousness.

At the same time, Brodie confronts the notion that her child might not have language -- and struggles with whether to continue her pregnancy. This anxiety is at least part of what's prompts her fascination with the gorilla, who is both not-ape and not-really-human -- someone between consciousnesses, or states of being.

And it's most moving that the story of a protagonist who starts out insisting on the primacy of language resolves (or at least concludes) with a potently wordless visual that symbolizes the only solace she can just now find in a world suddenly grown uncertain.

Precious Little continues at City Theatre through Sun., April 3 (

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

WRCT's What Would Your Mother Say

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 4:05 PM

Susan Morris (right) on the air.
  • Susan Morris (right) on the air.

It's Tuesday night on WRCT and a Carnegie Mellon student panel is explaining to host Susan Morris about "sexiling." Sophomore computer-science major Amy Quispe says it's when one roommate kicks out the other for the purpose of hooking up. Morris gets the idea, but she calls it "sexting" instead, which provokes laughter from the college kids.        

Welcome to What Would Your Mother Say? It's a brisk, 60-minute, live-on-air conversation in the basement of the Carnegie Mellon University Center between college students, moms and Morris. Sometimes, experts on topics as varied as nerds, depression and sex come to chat. There's a lot of laughter, but it's all as earnest as the incoming emails seeking advice on a weed-smoking roommate or whether a casual hook-up is ever a good idea.

Morris was born in New York, raised in Pittsburgh and went to Mills College, in California. The veteran of Pittsburgh's WDUQ, as well as National Public Radio, just moved back from Stanford, Calif., where What Would Your Mother Say? was born five years ago.

Back then, Morris was doing "little segments in a show on finance for students, and this friend of mine said, 'That sounds really boring, Susan, why don't you do a show called What Would Your Mother Say? and I'll fund it.'" Morris suspects her friend, who then had college-aged kids (Morris' were a bit older), wanted her daughters to listen to somebody's mom, even if it wasn't their own.

The Pittsburgh show has been on-air about two months. Tonight there's one mom, Niki Gorecka, who has four kids and is still getting the hang of her radio voice. Amy Quispe, freshman Lindsay MacGillivray and the lone male -- sophomore physics major Dan Kirby -- are more relaxed. But everyone has something to add about tonight's hot topics, drama queens and dating rules.      

According to Morris, a more accurate title for the show might be What Would the Students Say?, but that's not as snappy. Besides, both the students and the moms learn from each other. The kids want to know what the moms think, and the moms can lecture a little bit, but not too much. Quispe loves being on the show because "I'm encouraged to talk frankly," she says.

On the topic of dating and hooking up, Gorecka and Morris say it was different in their day. But Kirby offers the soothing commentary for anyone with "kids today! hysteria.": "I think even today people don't expect sex on the first date," he says.

What Would Your Mother Say? airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays 88.3 FM and

Monday, March 28, 2011

Schedule Change for Quantum Theatre's Maria de Buenos Aires

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2011 at 2:26 PM

For the first time in its 20-year history, Quantum Theatre has had to delay the opening of a show.

That doesn't sound so impressive unless you know that Quantum is a theater company homeless by choice: It creates a new theater space for each show, usually in nontraditional venues, whether cemeteries, old swimming pools or vacant warehouses. That requires a lot of retrofitting the built environment, and also a good bit of negotiation with various property owners and government entities.

Maria, a sort of surreal tango opera by Astor Piazzolla, is being staged in the East Liberty YMCA. But this time, unlike all the others, Quantum ran into some problems with building codes that were not fixable by curtain time last week. The issues is accessbility for patrons with physical disabilities.

In a statement, Quantum said it would get the necessary waiver this week from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry's Accessibility Advisory Board.

So Maria now opens on Fri., April 1, and artistic director Karla Boos has scheduled new performances to make up for the lost week.

Maria will now be  performed April 1-17, with a show every single evening except April 11. The shows on April 4, 5, and 12 are at 8:30 p.m., and on Sat., April 16, there will be two performances, at 7:30 and 10 p.m.

Quantum can be reached at 412-697-2929 and

Friday, March 25, 2011

An Evening with Ragnar Kjartansson and Friends

Posted By on Fri, Mar 25, 2011 at 3:50 PM

Performance art has a reputation, not entirely undeserved, as the opposite of entertaining.

So what to make of Ragnar Kjartansson, who's definitely a wacky performance artist -- he's sung songs for days on end in an abandoned theater -- but also a born entertainer?

In other words, should we be glad that a man jouncing his he-boobies is considered art fit for the stage of the Carnegie Music Hall?

Kjartansson, 34, is the internationally feted Icelandic artist whose exhibit at the adjoining Museum of Art included last night's performance. Kjartansson had billed the show as "Ingmar Bergman-style vaudeville," though what that meant was largely a matter for personal interpretation. We knew only that it would involve Kjartansson, some family members and friends, and music.

The curiosity factor must have helped. The show -- a joint production with The Andy Warhol Museum's Off the Wall series -- drew some 400 folks, by my estimate. The performance actually began in the music hall's grand, marbled lobby, where eight local guitarists has been recruited by Kjartansson to perform the same chord progression for a couple hours straight while strolling about (even while no one else was around). The musicians had been asked to wear pajamas and drink beer, though not all had complied with the former request.

On stage -- alongside a big stuffed lion (the Warhol's, I think) -- longtime Kjartansson collaborator David Pór Jónsson began with a lengthy piano improvisation. It was impressive, ranging from classical airs to loungey interludes. Most of the show, in fact, was music, including several charming, dark-humored little original ditties played as a two-guitar duo by Kjartansson and Pór Jónsson.

They even paid tribute to Pinetop Perkins, the 97-year-old bluesman who died this week -- a bit eerily, just weeks after Kjartansson's video honoring him went on display at the Carnegie. (Perkins "started smoking in 1921 and died Monday," Kjartansson reminded us.)

At its best, the evening truly had the feel of a living-room get-together, as Kjartansson had promised in interviews.

So where was the "performance art"? You know, the concepty stuff?

Well, there was this "melodramatic play" (Kjartansson told us) written for the show by his wife, Ásdís Sif Gunnarsdóttir. It was in four or five scenes interspersed throughout the evening, most of them involving Gunnarsdóttir playing a sort of tortured artist.

At first, even knowing Kjartansson's impish humor, you were inclined to take the play straight ... by which standard it was deadly performance art of the sort everyone fears: pretentious, impenetrable, etc. (At one point, after reciting some terrible poetry, Gunnarsdóttir flicked on an overhead projector and sort of scribbled on it.)

So this was a joke, right? Had to be. Except it wasn't over the top enough to be funny ... unless it was instead some sort of Andy Kaufman-like exercise in audience discomfiture. But that wouldn't really fit Kjartansson's style.

Regardless, most of the audience stuck around after intermission and really got the better of the deal. Especially, this involved the extravagantly bearded Kjartansson and Pór Jónsson appearing respectively in the balcony-boxes above either wing of the stage, clad in gladatorial breastplates and, wielding electric razors to the strains of heroic symphonic music, shaving their faces clean down to the mustaches. Now that's performance art you can dance to.

The encore ended with Pór Jónsson on piano, accompanying Kjartannson for a set of German lieder, or art song. Kjartansson's a passable singer, and the melodies were quite lovely. So of course beefy Kjartansson crescendoed by peeling off his shirt and concluding with the aforementioned burlesque move -- a sight few will forget, no matter how hard they might try.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Glass Menagerie at Prime Stage Theatre

Posted By on Sat, Mar 12, 2011 at 2:33 PM

Prime Stage is known mostly for its adaptations of classic literature for young-adult audiences, and its mission is expressly educational. But don't let that keep you from this fine production of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece.

The performance I attended last night was mostly post-collegiate folk, and few went away disappointed.

Admittedly, the turnout was likely boosted by the participation of two local stage luminaries: Veteran Richard Keitel directed, and the role of Amanda was played by Robin Walsh, whom many consider Pittsburgh's top actress. (This is the first chance to see Walsh on stage in about two years, by my count; lately she's been doing more directing herself.)

Walsh's musical line readings of the dialogue for Williams' faded and desperate Southern belle alone might be worth the price of admission. But it's a strong show overall, and not the first time Prime Stage has hit the mark with a classic. I recall a very good The Crucible there a few years back.

There are two more performances of Glass Menagerie, tonight at 8 p.m. and the 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinee.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Ragnar Kjartansson at the Carnegie

Posted By on Fri, Mar 11, 2011 at 3:36 PM

The Icelandic performance and video artist's first-ever Pittsburgh exhibit debuted last night at the Carnegie Museum of Art. The traffic-jamming crowd of hundreds was probably due at least in part to the museum program that makes Thursday-night visits in March free. But everyone seemed curious about Kjartansson, the centerpiece of whose show was a "long-duration performance work" starring his three nieces, in the museum's Hall of Sculpture.

Kjartansson is in his mid-30s, with a fuzzy beard and the manner of a friendly bear. He's known for video works like one in which he stands bare-torsoed and buried to the waist in a field, while he strums an acoustic guitar and sings a song called "Satan is Real." Another work, this one live, found him dressed like a viking in an abandoned rural theater, singing all day for weeks at a time, regardless of whether anybody came by. It was called "Scandanavian Pain."

For the opening reception, he dressed with ironic formality in a brown double-breasted suit and bow tie, his blonde hair slicked down. In a conversation with Carnegie curator Dan Byer, Kjartansson was charming and wry. In one of his videos, he and his mother stand side-by-side and she repeatedly spits on him; it's a triptych, with the ritual repeated at five-year intervals. "It's a nice tradition," said the artist last night. "It's super-duper Freudian."

Another topic of discussion was the new work, "Song." It involves his three nieces, lovely young blonde women, reclining on a large pedestal in the Natural History Museum's Hall of Sculpture, harmonizing the same fragment of a song their uncle has written, over and over, all day, for three weeks. The lyrics go, "The weight of the world is love." Said Kjartansson last night: "The Hall of Sculpture becomes a temple of love!" Then he raised his fists overhead, like a champion boxer.

Some tips about the show:

-- Most of Kjartansson's work is located in or around the Forum Gallery, right behind the reception desk. The "spit" video's on the wall outside, another video work inside.

-- "Song" is down the big hall linking the museums. You can see and hear it from the first floor, but while the girls are miked, they sound much better -- heavenly, in fact -- from the Hall of Sculpture's second-floor balcony.

-- One piece folks seemed particularly interested in was "The Man," Kjartansson's long-form video portrait of 97-year-old blues-piano great Pinetop Perkins. In it, Perkins plays his upright piano positioned in a Texas field, takes cigarette breaks and cracks jokes at the cameraman. The installation itself is similarly remote physically from the rest of Kjartansson's work -- it's up in the CMA's Scaife Galleries (walk up the main staircase and turn left).

-- "Satan is Real" is hung on the wall by the museum's first-floor bathrooms.

Another climax of the exhibit is a live musical performance by Kjartansson and friends, on March 24, at the Carnegie. Last night, he described it as "an Ingmar Bergman-style vaudeville show."


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Nora Chipaumire and Thomas Mapfumo at the August Wilson Center

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2011 at 7:21 PM

Honestly, I would have stepped out to see either of the two headliners on his or her own. Chipaumire is the Zimbabwe-born choreographer and dancer with a couple impressive Pittsburgh performances on her resume. Mapfumo, also a Zimbabwean ex-pat, is his country's musical conscience: a legendary Afropop pioneer who supported anti-colonial efforts in the '70s but fled a decade ago, with dictator Robert Mugabe made life hard for political dissidents.

Their touring show, lions will road, swans will fly, angels will wrestle heaven, rain will break: gukuranhundi, visited the Wilson Center last night. Chipaumire touts the work as an attack on cultural stereotypes about African backwardness and exoticism. It was good -- at times, very good -- but I occasionally wondered whether it was more than the sum of its estimable parts.

The evening started with music by Mapfumo and his band, The Blacks Unlimited, with him on guitar, a lead guitarist, a man on mbira (a traditional thumb piano, amplied) and a percussionist. The style would be familiar to anyone who's heard a little contemporary African pop: pulsing rhythms marked by liquid single-note electric-guitar runs and occasional soulful vocals (sung, I believe, in Shona). Then Chipaumire and male dancer Souleymane Badolo began a series of solos and duets, all with wall-to-wall music by the band, which got its own mini-set midway through.

About a third of the show, moreover, was seen through video projected on a stage-spanning screen, with evocative animated images of nature mixing with imagery referencing Zimbabwe's ancient cities.

Much of this was enthralling. Chipaumire and Badolo are fine dancers who move in a way that's neither "traditional" nor modern, but a little of both. It's a style familiar to those who saw Chipaumire's riveting solo work Chimurenga here, in 2007, or Becoming Angels, an original work she set on Dance Alloy Theater in 2009. Many movements are grounded, with the dancers taking a low center of gravity, with arcing arm motions and feet that often hit the floor full-soled, with a thump.

This was punctuated by sequences including an acrobatically flailing solo by Badolo and a sort of damaged tango by he and Chipaumire, in which she starts out holding him up (perhaps even reviving his lifeless body) and they end up supporting each other. With The Black Unlimited's chiming, repetitive music (which at times suggested trance-inducing Indonesian gamelan music), the effect could be hypnotic.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how much of Chipaumire's message got through. You had to understand that her spoken introductory travelogue about her homeland ("Victoria Falls!") was intended ironically, not invitationally, and I'm not sure that was apparent to all. And if you weren't along for that ride, I suspect it was hard to plug into the emotional power of what followed.

Moreover, sometimes it just felt odd for a musical giant like Mapfumo -- whose typical venue is a crowded nightclub -- to be leading a backing band for someone else's vision.

Still, the concluding passage worked well, with Chipaumire, in the midst of an energetically detailed solo, concisely emoting a troubled relationship with her audience: She'd stop dancing in order to warily size up the space between the joyful movement she might be making and what ticket-buyers might expect from an African artist. Mapfumo's sounds were beautiful. And in how many other venues in Pittsburgh could you sit with a rowful of African gentlemen (one in a "Zimbabwe" shirt) excited to see artists also born a few thousand miles away, in the place they call home?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pittsburgh Playwrights' Voodoo Trilogy on Mardi Gras

Posted By on Sun, Mar 6, 2011 at 5:24 PM

Mark Clayton Southers ambitious little theater troupe summons the darker side of New Orleans on Fat Tuesday itself by staging all three parts of esteemed local playwright Frank Gagliano's Voodoo Trilogy.

At 6 p.m. Tue., March 8, see The Voodoo Parlour Marie Laveau. Set at the turn of the last century, this "unsung voodoo chamber opera" finds two morally and emotionally compromised denizens of New Orleans in the lair of the legendary voodoo queen.

I saw the show this past weekend, and Chrystal Bates is mesmerizing in the juicy (but by no means easy) title role. It's also probably the only play you'll see this year with live conga drumming. And the fabulous set, by local artist Vanessa German, is laid in Playwrights' brand-new couch theater. It's literally a comfy den of second-hand sofas on risers before the small-scale proscenium stage. Performances of Laveau continue through Sat., March 12.

At 8 p.m., there's a staged reading of The Commedia World of Lafcadio B., set in 1917. The play involves a charismatic con man, and again revolves around Laveau's spirit. The reading stars Brian Czarniecki, Karen Baum and Chris Josephs and is directed by Gagliano himself.

And at 9:30 p.m., the PPTCO main stage hosts the final performance of Congo Square, a drama with music about a gunman's standoff with police in 1970s New Orleans. The highlight here is Monteze Freeland, tearing it up in the main role as the gunman whose songs transport him into the personas of a half-dozen historic or mythic characters (including, naturally, Laveau).

Congo is followed by a Mardi Gras cast party on the Laveau set, with music by blues artist Leroy Wolford.

Tickets to Laveau and Congo are $17.50-22.50. Lafcadio requests a donation. Admittance to the party will be granted with a ticket stub from any one of the shows.

It's all happening at 542 Penn Ave., Downtown (

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Art Benefit for Dara Greenwald

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2011 at 4:20 PM

They're calling it "Dancing for Dara" -- Sat., March 5's all-day art exhibition, video screening and dance party to help out the video artist with local ties.

Greenwald is the partner of Josh MacPhee, who's an original member of Justseeds, a nationally known arts cooperative whose distribution center is located in Pittsburgh.

MacPhee was also guest curator of Paper Politics, last year's fine show of politically engaged poster art at Downtown's Space Gallery. Greenwald herself co-curated of Signs of Change: Social Movement Cutlures 1960s to Now, at CMU's Miller Gallery.

Greenwald was diagnosed with cancer this past summer is undergoing chemotherapy. She lives in Brooklyn, but friends are organizing benefits for her all over the country (with recent events in Baltimore and New York).

The March 5 events in Pittsburgh take place at two venues. From 1-5 p.m., visit Justseeds' place in Lawrenceville (3410 Penn Ave., second floor, enter in rear off Spring Way) for an exhibition of MacPhee's own prints, posters, zines, T-shirts and more, and a Justseeds sale benefiting Greenwald.

Then at 8 p.m., just up the hill, Brillobox (4104 Penn Ave.) hosts a video screening organized by the esteemed Video Data Bank of Chicago. The program of nine video shorts includes work by Pink Bloque, Jem Cohen, Paul Chang, Greenwald herself and others. 

That's followed at Brillobox by a 10 p.m. dance party, with DJs Mary Mack, Square Peg, Drop That and Amor Secreto.

Tickets for the screening, party or both are on a sliding scale of $5-20. Pay $15 or more and they'll throw in a T-shirt.

If you're dancing, bring dollar bills for requests for the DJs.

For more info, see

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pittsburgh Symphony Open House

Posted By on Tue, Mar 1, 2011 at 8:13 PM

If you’ve longed for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the orchestra at work, tomorrow’s your chance.

The PSO is opening Heinz Hall to the public from 7 a.m.-2 p.m. on Wed., March 2.

You can actually check out an orchestra rehearsal from 10 a.m. to 12:30 pm. Tours of the building follow until 2 p.m.

The day’s festivities at 600 Penn Ave., Downtown, also include prize drawings, free food and coffee.

Along the way, expect at least a little bit of an additional sales pitch: Tomorrow only, the PSO is offering 50 percent off introductory tickets to the 2010-2011 BNY Mellon Grand Classics.

The special four-concert subscriptions can be purchased by phone at 412-392-4900 or online at


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