Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, July 29, 2011

Organic Theater Pittsburgh Debuts

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 2011 at 3:39 PM

While there's a lot more going on in Pittsburgh arts-and-entertainmentwise than there was when I became CP's A&E editor, in 2003, the uptick is especially noticeable in summer.

Used to be things quieted down after the arts fest and stayed sleepy until mid-September. Not anymore. If the shows and exhibits aren't quite as wall-to-wall as in traditional peak months like April and October, July and August are still pretty busy. And for all the economy's continued woes, and general fretting about empty seats at theaters, there are even people still out there starting new theater companies.

Organic Theater Company, for instance, was launched just this month by Jaime Slavinsky. The 2000 Point Park grad and familiar face on local stages stars in Dead Man's Cell Phone, a thought-provoking 2007 comedy by Sarah Ruhl.

Ruhl is an up-an-coming name in the national theater community, with a Pulitzer-finalist distinction (for her play The Clean House) and a MacArthur genius grant. It's a big deal for a start-up like OTC to present the Pittsburgh premiere of Ruhl's latest work. The play world-premiered at Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. and went on to Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre and then to Off-Broadway; in Pittsburgh, OTC mounts the show on the tiny back-room stage at ModernFormations Gallery.

Dead Man's is a dark comedy about a timid woman named Jean (played by Slavinsky) who answers a fellow café customer's insistently ringing phone … and then is shocked to learn that the man has kicked. Only half-willingly, it seems, she gets sucked into his life, and drawn into deepening encounters with Gordon's mistress, mother, wife and younger brother.

When Jean learns what Gordon did for a living (something only she, it seems, didn't know), things only get weirder and more dangerous.

The play is a sly commentary on the ways cell phones' ubiquity has warped our lives, to be sure. ("When everyone is on their cell phone, it's like no one's there," Jean observes. "The more we're there, the more we disappear.")

But ultimately the play is about loneliness, the lengths people will go to avoid it … and how going to said lengths can wind up making them only lonelier. (And yes, it remains a comedy.) The set design expertly reinforces this theme with pre-show projections that evoke the paintings of Edward Hopper, like "Nighthawks at the Diner," which explore that particular American species of loneliness in public places.

The cast, which also includes Adam Kukic, Deb Wein, Michael E. Moats, Ja'Sonta Roberts-Deen and Jennifer Chervenick, is fine, likewise the direction, by Ricardo Vila-Roger.

OTC, whose mission statement incorporates eco-friendliness, will even take $2 off your ticket if you bring in an old cell phone to be recycled (and tickets are only $12 to start with -- a third of what you'd pay at many local theaters).

Dead Man's Cell Phone continues with performances at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, and concludes with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sun., July 31.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Locally Produced Science-Fiction Web Serial Debuts

Posted By on Mon, Jul 25, 2011 at 3:55 PM

The year is 1975, and everything is about start going very poorly for Edward Borman. His government office in the U.S. Steel Tower is closing for the evening, but instead of heading home to a beer and a ball game, Borman finds himself wrapped up in a dangerous plot involving invaders from Mercury, a mysterious "league" of good guys and, potentially, the end of the world.

The Mercury Men is a new web-based serial presented by, written and directed by Chris Preksta, the Pittsburgh resident and Point Park grad behind the web series and 2005 feature film Captain Blasto. And from what I've seen of it, it rings all the right sci-fi geek bells. I was hooked at the first sight of Borman's face; Mark Tierno, who plays the office cog, has wrinkles and shadows straight out of the Twilight Zone, an impression further strengthened by the show's high-contrast black-and-white imagery.

Although I'm not quite sure why these men from Mercury are so intent on destroying the Earth -- with a "Gravity Engine," no less -- it's a suspension of disbelief comfortable to all fans of science fiction. And once you first set your eyes on the aliens, it hardly matters. They're giant, glowing creatures, made from "light so dense it has become solid," according to the series website. All of the featureless invaders are played by Preksta, who at 6'7" is uniquely capable of playing the loping creatures.

The series was filmed entirely without the use of the "green screen" filmmakers use to enable digital effects. Rather, to depict the Mercury Men, Preksta donned a completely black outfit in front of a shock-white background, then took a negative image. Combined with the hissing, TV-on-mute noise that the Men emit, they are the first really original bad guys I've seen in years.

Naturally, Borman doesn't have a snowball's chance of beating these guys alone, and help comes -- for no apparent reason -- in the form of Jack Yaeger, a bold and handsome man in an old aviator's uniform. Yeager knows these Mercury invaders, somehow, and packs a gun that shoots light, apparently the only thing that can hurt the enemy. At a singular moment, Borman -- staring incredulously at the man's weapon -- asks Yaeger whether he's a pilot, and actor Curt Wootton deadpans, "I'm an engineer."

The take-away from all this is that the Syfy network has taken a chance on a brand-new serial that completely deserves it. There are shoot-outs, glowing monsters, intrepid and not so intrepid heroes, and a talking brain in a jar. It is very much worth a click. The first of 10 seven-minutes episodes premieres today at

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pittsburgh Artists Wanted for MacDowell Colony

Posted By on Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 12:42 PM

The Heinz Endowments is encouraging Pittsburgh artists to take advantange of its newish fellowship program to help locals get residencies at this famed international artists' community in New Hampshire.

The fellowship program funds two slots set aside for artists from Allegheny County or any of nine surrounding counties. Fellowships cover all residency costs for two artists of any discipline to work for up to two months at MacDowell, located on 450 acres in Peterborough, N.H.

"We believe that we need to do much more to recognize and support the region's artists," Janet Sarbaugh, the Endowments' arts-and-culture senior program director, in a statement.

MacDowell, meanwhile, is leveraging the Endowments' contribution to "raise awareness of residency opportunities," says MacDowell development officer John Martin, by phone from the Colony's offices in New York City.

The catch: You're eligible for a fellowship only if you've already been accepted at MacDowell.

That's a challenge, given that MacDowell hosts just 250 artists a year, and that over the years artist residents have included such big names as Aaron Copland, Glenn Ligon, Suzan-Lori Parks and a former University of Pittsburgh grad student named Michael Chabon.

Still, i the Heinz Endowment fellowship's first year, 2010-11, Pittsburgh MacDowellites included visual artist and Carnegie Mellon assistant art professor Kim Beck as well as poet Joy KMT, who'll be at MacDowell come September.

MacDowell provides residents with accommodations, meals and private studio space, along with the opportunity to share ideas with other artists visiting from all over the world. 

Applications are encouraged in the following disciplines: architecture, film/video, interdisciplinary art, music composition, theater, visual art and literature.

The rolling deadlines are Sept. 15, Jan. 15 and April 15 of each year. "[T]he sole criterion for acceptance," says a MacDowell press release, "is talent."

For more information, see

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Birdsound and Butoh Dance at the Mattress Factory

Posted By on Thu, Jul 14, 2011 at 1:02 PM

Genuine Butoh dance is rare as hen's teeth in Pittsburgh. And we don't get many sunrise shows, either. But both those things happened, together, this past Saturday in the Mattress Factory's garden: an riveting improvised movement-and-music performance by internationally known Japanese performer Taketeru Kudo and acclaimed Connecticut-based experimental musician Michael Pestel.

The 6 a.m. performance for a suprisingly alert crowd of about 20 (not counting Mattress Factory staff) was part of a two-week series of community workshops and shows here involving Kudo, Pestel and other artists; sponsors included the museum, the Children's Museum and the National Aviary. (Full disclosure: My spouse, Renee Rosensteel, was hired by the Children's Museum to document the project.)

The series' final performance is "Stray Birds Sunset Full Moon," at 8 p.m. Friday, at the Mattress Factory. The show is free; call 412-231-3169 or see

Butoh is of recent enough vintage (post-World War II) that Kudo once trained with Akiko Motofuji, the widow of one of Butoh's founders. Its expressionistic movement language (though not codified) is largely one of suffering and anguish: spasms, writhing, contortions, deliberate one moment, spasmodic the next.

It's a striking art form, and Kudo a stunning performer. He appears to be in his 30s, wiry and wraith-thin, with a shock of black hair. "Stray Birds Sunrise Performance" began with him appearing atop the Mattress Factory's rough stone wall, some 8 feet off the ground. His skin was smeared with a layer of white make-up, his hair likewise whitened, and he wore a tattered gown the color of the inner bark of a tree. A bit of red thread depending from his left ear suggested a slash of blood.

As Kudo traversed the top of the stone wall in a lizard-like crawl, Pestel, hidden from view, played sparse, bird-song-like passages on his flute. Kudo made his way to ground level, moving in his improvised dance around the rough-hewn Mattress space and among the audience members dispersed around it. His gestures also often suggested those of some animal -- often a dying animal -- while somehow remaining recognizably human. Once or twice he stripped down, not quite naked, and then dressed again, all in stride.

While Kudo developed his silent pantomime of creaturely suffering -- steam rising from his body in the cool, overcast morning -- Pestel, still often unseen, ran through a remarkable series of sounds, from melodic stabs to hoglike snorts and snuffles. At one point, however, Pestel was plainly visible … with a bird call stuffed in his mouth and each nostril, apparently playing all of them at once.

Occasionally, real birds added to the music, though at no point in the hour-long performance was anything loud enough to wake the museum's neighbors.

Kudo too sometimes vanished from our view. At one point he simply fled to the museum's parking lot. After a minute, someone decided to follow him. We found him in the near distance, flitting back and forth across the street that runs uphill perpendicular from Jacksonia Street, the North Side's wooded hills shrouded in mist behind him. When he slowly strode back through the museum's gates into the parking lot, it was an amazing bit of found staging: a moment of profound silence and perfect visual symmetry.

Here's a link to short video interview with Kudo that incorporates footage from the sunrise show:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

House at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical

Posted By on Wed, Jul 13, 2011 at 3:59 PM

This Alan Ayckbourn play has been noted largely for its novel staging: It was written to be performed simultaneously with Garden, an interlocking Ayckbourn play featuring most of the same characters. The action of both plays takes place on the grounds and inside the walls of a British country estate on a single day. So when an actor runs offstage in House, she's likely headed to join the action in progress in Garden, staged in a tandem theater.

In the performance I saw last week, PICT pulled this off without a hitch, using the upstairs Charity Randall Theater for House and the downstairs Henry Heymann for Garden. But when you're watching this 1999 play, knowing the sleight-of-hand involved can be part of the fun for only so long. After that it risks becoming just a gimmick.

But what I think will stick with me most about House is its curious tone.

Both House and Garden are billed as comedies, and House at least has its farcical elements. (I've yet to see Garden.) But much of time it doesn't really feel like a comedy, and certainly not a light one.

Perhaps the best example is the character of Giles, the neighbor of main characters Teddy Platt (an upper-class twit) and his estranged-in-situ wife, Trish. Before we even meet Giles, we learn that Teddy has cuckolded him. And on Giles' appearance on the stage, we discover that Giles himself is completely oblivious to this infidelity by his wife, which even his teen-age son (and the Platt's teen-age daughter) know of.

In a standard farce, Giles' obliviousness would be played strictly for laughs, likely in part by making him roughly as unlikable as most of the other characters. But Ayckbourn doesn't do that. Instead, Giles (played by the wonderful David Bryan Jackson), is probably the nicest, kindest character on stage (with the possible exception of his own son). You feel for him instantly, even moreso because of his cluelessness.

To top it off, this production gives Giles a stutter. That risks going over the top, but Jackson makes it work.

 Shortly -- after his wife's infidelity and her accomplice have been revealed to him -- Giles becomes a bit more typically comic character. But it's hard to miss the real sadness in House. That's not to mention the casual verbal brutality of other scenes, such as when the play's most sophisticated character, a novelist named Gavin Ryng-Mayne, stomps one of its more naïve characters like an overeager bug.

Ayckbourn, for all he's stuffed into the "comedy" bin, is not so easy to categorize -- a fact the playwright perhaps alludes to when Ryng-Mayne corrects another character who labels his novels "thrillers": "I regard them simply as novels," he says coolly. "It's an appalling habit these days, isn't it, wanting to put everything into neat pigeon-holes."

House & Garden has six more performances through the Sun., July 17 matinee.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Squonk Opera on America’s Got Talent

Posted By on Tue, Jul 12, 2011 at 11:15 AM


It's a big week for Pittsburgh performers out of town.

This past Sunday afternoon, the Zany Umbrella Circus performed its new one, Mirette's Circus, at New York City's outdoor SummerStage series, on the Central Park Main Stage, no less. (The charming show had just world-premiered here last week, at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.)

And this Friday, the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble takes its own turn at SummerStage. The troupe, led by Greer Reed-Jones, was chosen to perform the New York premiere of "Regality," by emerging choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie.

But first, Squonk Opera faces the biggest — and perhaps the toughest — audience of all: America. Not to mention Sharon Osbourne, Howie Mandell and Piers Morgan, the judges on this popular variety-show contest program.

You can catch Squonk on AGT at 9 p.m. tonight on NBC.

The now-venerable but still wonderfully wacky Squonkers comprise a critically acclaimed, globally touring enterprise, but tonight they'll face some new challenges. Probably the most daunting is what co-founder and keyboardist Jackie Dempsey describes as "doing a 90-second scene [when] we're used to doing 90-minute shows."

Another challenge might be one of category. Some people might call Squonk an art-rock band. It is, but it's also a theatrical outfit, one whose shows like Astro-Rama and Mayhem and Majesty typically incorporate homemade props and machines, some of them quite large, not to mention video projections. (Note that Dempsey describes the group's AGT show as a "scene" and not, say, a "number.")

One also wonders how the six-member troupe's typically surreal sensibility will play on a contest show more used to rock ballads, magic acts and acrobatic dance groups.

Still, left-field types have appeared on AGT before, and some have done well. (My colleague Al Hoff recalls a successful act consisting of some "guys in inflatable suits, jumping up and down.") And someone at AGT must like Squonk: Dempsey reports to fans via email that the troupe auditioned for the show "many, many months ago," and made enough of an impression to get into this season's Top 48.

In her email, Dempsey says the group's scene tonight combines elements of Astro-Rama and Mayhem. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Aaronel deRoy Gruber, 1918-2011

Posted By on Mon, Jul 11, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Gruber, likely the longest-active prominent artist in Pittsburgh, died July 6, four days short of her 93rd birthday.

Gruber's work was internationally exhibited, but around here she was perhaps best known not just for her longevity, but for her ability to successfully shift between, and evolve her practice through, different media. The Pittsburgh native and Carnegie Institute of Technology grad (class of 1940) started out as an abstract painter (her mentors included the great teacher Samuel Rosenberg), then moved into metal sculpture, plastic sculpture, photography and video.

Her best-known work was probably the 20-foot-tall metal tower called "Steelcityscape," which in the late '70s and early '80s was displayed under the City-County building's portico, Downtown, and is set to be installed in Mellon Park this fall

Meanwhile, Gruber was past 60 when she took up photography — the medium in which she had her last big Pittsburgh show, 2009's The Analytical Eye, at Silver Eye Center.

Gruber, who lived in Churchill, was active into 2010, too, and after news of her death broke I caught up with one of her final collaborators: Deanna Mance, who teamed with Gruber on the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh's 2010 show exchange.

Working with an artist more than six decades her junior was Gruber's idea, says Mance, who's now 29. The older artist had met the younger while giving her an award the year prior, and phoned to suggest they collaborate in the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh exhibit Exchange, displayed at the Downtown's 937 Liberty Gallery.

"I was totally thrilled," says Mance. "Totally lucky, miracle experience for me to have."

While Gruber was by then growing frail, "She wanted to keep going, which was inspiring," says Mance. The younger artist ended up creating new work to complement or modify existing pieces by Gruber. In a review of the show, I described the result this way:

"Gruber's ‘Steel Temple Ruins,' an austere, tinted black-and-white photo of the disenfranchised mill smokestacks at Homestead's Waterfront shopping district, hangs alongside Mance's colorful, candy-striped abstract drawing of the same scene. The two also team on ‘Mixologists,' a cheerfully macabre take on a child's toy incorporating dismembered baby dolls, featuring Gruber's Plexiglass sculpture and Mance's line work."

Gruber "was always thinking of new and innovative ways" to work, says Mance. "Mixologists" was especially interesting: Gruber supplied Mance with a plastic sculpture she'd made in the 1980s and told her to modify it. "She let me take it apart and add some drawing pieces inside." To help, Gruber also sent Mance a list of words "that would inspire me." (The "Mixologists" photo at right is courtesy of Gruber's assistant, Dan Mohan.)

Even at 91, Gruber "was very witty and a great storyteller, actually," Mance adds.

The Silver Eye show, whose photos dates from 1982-2001, likewise exhibited Gruber's passion for experimentation, incorporating sepia-toning, archival inkjet printing, hand-tinting and digital manipulation.

Half of the images in that show were made with infrared film or digital infrared to create images "in which sunlight on fields shines like snow, and cloudy skies glimmer pink," I wrote in my review for CP. "The effect can offer an impressionistic oak-lined Louisiana path (‘Down the Lonely Road') or the blue, white and gray moonscape of ‘Salt Cities of Mono Lake.'"

The show also included Gruber's iconic "Dream City": "A dirt lot provides the extended foreground for a solemn 1997 view of the old Lawrence Paint Building, near Station Square, while in the distance Downtown's skyscrapers shine behind their Point, like a magical island in the fog."

As Mance sums up, "We've lost an incredible artist in Pittsburgh."

Friday, July 1, 2011

State Arts Funding Salvaged

Posted By on Fri, Jul 1, 2011 at 3:34 PM

While the state budget that Gov. Tom Corbett signed yesterday signals tough times for schools, among other important constituencies, the arts escaped relatively unscathed.

The new budget allocated $9.14 million to the Pennsylvania on the Arts, almost all of that dedicated to funding grants for arts groups and individual artists.

While that represents a 1 percent cut from last year's PCA allocation -- already down 40 percent after three years of tight budgets -- it's a far cry from the nearly 75 percent cut in the budget proposed last month by the majority-Republican state House.

In a June 30 press release, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council went so far as to call the final budget "arts-friendly." GPAC had spent the couple of weeks since that House budget was announced encouraging citizens to write their elected officals to restore the funding. 

GPAC feels the cries were heard. Meanwhile, it couldn't have hurt that the arts have a big advocate in the governor's mansion: less the governor himself than First Lady Susan Corbett, whose husband had appointed her PCA board chair.

Gov. Corbett's own budget proposal, in fact, had included $9.2 million for the PCA.

The Corbetts hail from Shaler. Among other arts connections, Susan Corbett is former head of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, which stages the Drue Heinz Lecture Series. She's served on the PCA board since 2002, when she was a Mark Schweiker appointee (and she was re-appointed by Ed Rendell.)

After the Republican-majority House cut PCA funding, Susan Corbett actually joined Democratic legislators in publicly calling for its restoration. And arts advocates like GPAC chief Mitch Swain, for instance, typically mention her when discussing prospects for state arts funding.

Frankly, it also couldn't have hurt that restoring PCA funding wasn't that hard to do fiscally: That $9.14 million represents about .03 percent of the $27.15 billion budget, or 3 cents for every hundred budget dollars.

As to the importance of PCA funding, in the fiscal year just ended, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer, the PCA "made 1,322 grants to 596 arts organizations and supported 726 arts projects statewide." A great many Pittsburgh arts groups get at least some PCA funding.

GPAC is encouraging everyone to call their state legislators and thank them for funding the PCA at the current level. Find your legislator here.


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