Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Abraham.In.Motion at the Kelly-Strayhorn

Posted By on Sat, Nov 19, 2011 at 1:33 PM

Great world-premiere program last night by this company led by Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham. Live! The Realest MC is the latest by the dancer and choreographer, who's now based in New York City and getting plaudits from the national dance press, but who maintains close ties with his hometown, and especially the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

In the hour-long Live!, which repeats tonight (Sat., Nov. 19), the seven dancers embody Abraham's vision of "realness" as played out in a context of black urban gay life, informed by Abraham's own experience growing up. A key theme was an interrogation of the performance of masculinity as represented in hip-hop culture. In one sequence, Abraham plays an MC who alternately blusters and breaks down in tears.

As always, Abraham's choreography was wonderfully supple, by turns athletic, precisely spasmodic and astringently artful. There's even a strong dose of humor injected by the inclusion of hip-hop dance instruction video and audio. The group of dancers might be the strongest Abraham has brought with him in his frequent Pittsburgh shows over the years.

The production itself was striking as well. It featured an evocative, heavily electronic soundtrack; potent lighting design, by Dan Scully; video projections by former Pittsburgher Carrie Schneider; and an innovative backdrop consisting of these sort of giant, narrow, vertically hung louvers (like window-blinds hung sideways) that served as a projection surface but intermittently rotated, producing an interesting visual effect.

The second and final Pittsburgh performance of Live! The Realest MC is at 8 p.m. tonight.

Microscopic Opera's Three Decembers

Posted By on Sat, Nov 19, 2011 at 1:31 PM

Chamber operas are basically small-scale, contemporary operas. Neither is the audience for them large; I hadn't even heard the term much before Pittsburgh's Microscopic Opera, dedicated to such works, appeared, in early 2010. 

But the field has its stars. One is surely composer Jake Heggie, best known his full-scale opera Dead Man Walking, which Pittsburgh Opera staged several years back. Heggie also composed the stunning chamber opera “To Hell and Back." That piece was one of two works Microscopic staged in its debut. And to Heggie the company returns with its latest winner, Three Decembers.

This chamber opera is Heggie and librettist Gene Sheer's adaptation of Terrence McNally's stage play Some Christmas Letters. Three Decembers is a beautiful piece, with gorgeous music and a good deal of depth to the characters: a stage-actress mother and the two adult children with whom she has a torturous relationship, as played out over three holiday seasons a decade apart, 1986-2006.

The live, 12-member orchestra conducted by artistic director Andres Cladera provides the music, and the cast of three the voices. Soprano Mary Gould sings Madeline Mitchell, the stage diva; baritone Daniel Teadt her son, Charlie, whose lover dying of AIDS she'll barely acknowledge; and soprano Erica Olden his sister and confidante, Beatrice.

At about 100 minutes, including an intermission, Three Decembers, directed by Lisa Ann Goldsmith, is the longest work Microscopic has staged yet. The singing is great, the material emotionally fraught but regularly leavened with humor.

The only thing that might test your patience, in this show staged in Pittsburgh Opera's Strip District studios, is making out the lyrics in Act I. At first, the voices seemed to compete with the orchestra. That's less problematic with verse-chorus songs like you'd get in musical theater, moreso when the lyrics are actually complicated dialogue, sung through. But gradually the ear adapts (or in-house adjustments were made?) and by Act II at Thursday night's opening performance, discerning both the words and the music was easy enough.

Three Decembers is the last Microscopic show to be staged while Cladera, who's also done fine work as artistic director of the Rennaissance City Choirs and with Quantum Theatre, is still a Pittsburgher. But though Cladera's moving to Colorado, he and Olden -- who's also cofounder and artistic director -- will continue to run the company.

Three performances of Three Decembers remain as of this writing: at 8 p.m. tonight and Sat., Nov. 19, and 7 p.m. Sun., Nov. 20.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stars and Stripes Comic Book

Posted By on Tue, Nov 15, 2011 at 11:29 PM


The comic book Star and Stripes begins with soldiers marching into war. A battlefield blast  segues into a flashback of a boy, action figures in hand, playing a game of war. 

Stars and Stripes, by writer Michael "Frick" Weber and illustrator Loran Skinkis, follows an American soldier's frontline experiences during World War II, and adds the fantasy element of a "super soldier" something like Captain America. It augments the story with an excerpt of a real wartime speech by FDR and a reprint of an authentic Western Union telegram announcing the demise of a fallen soldier to his wife.

Weber and Skinkis began the project in 1999. The two met while working at local multimedia firm Mind Over Media; Skinkis was a former U.S. Marine Reservist who had been deployed during Operation Desert Shield, in 1990, and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Desert Storm.

Though their career paths subsequently diverged, they remained friends and creative partners.  After five years of fomenting ideas, shaping storyboards and courting publishers, they decided to self-publish in 2004. With no luck in sales -- "We had a few hundred copies stacked in my garage," says Weber, by phone from his home in South Hills -- they posted the project online in 2010.

Curiously, says Weber, Stars and Stripes proved popular in India, of all places. But the online presence also led to attention from Australia-based independent comics publisher Cloud 9 Comix. Last year, Cloud 9 approached them about their second book, The Field On The Edge Of The Woods. Cloud 9 picked up both books and currently features downloads on

Weber and Skinkis are also currently working on a follow-up to Star and Stripes. 

 "This project is one of those things: If you work on it every night, you'll get a little reward, everyday; if you take two of three nights off -- you get absolutely nothing," says Weber.

Weber notes how attitudes toward war have changed.

 "World War II was different from how we understand wars today because there was a clear bad guy," he says. "We had good and evil and we didn't need to question motives." 

Although some dialogue in Stars and Stripes suggests anti-war sentiment, Weber insists that the subject just fascinates him. 

"We weren't trying to necessarily make a political statement. War is just one of those things you remember as a game when you were a child, and there's a disconnect with how you know it as an adult."

Weber and Skinkis will attend New Dimension Comics' Pittsburgh Comic and Collectibles Show, at Century III Mall, in West Mifflin, from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun., Nov. 20 (412-655-8661 or

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Future Ten's Submission Overload

Posted By on Tue, Nov 8, 2011 at 4:59 PM

The eighth edition of this annual independent festival of 10-minute plays was stronger than last year's.

That's not surprising, given that the national call for submissions generated more than 550 scripts, a threefold increase. Still, the overall quality of the eight plays chosen - all fast-paced comedies -- was impressive.

Partly credit seasoned directors Todd Betker, Joanna Lowe, Don DiGiulio and John E. Lane, Jr., who directed two works each. Meanwhile, the performances, shared by a cast of 20 (with several actors in multiple roles), were mostly strong, even in some of the lesser plays.

For instance, even if the resolution of James C. Ferguson's skit-like "The Chair" landed with a thud, Parag S. Gohel and Valentina Benrexi really worked the material. Likewise Everett Lowe and Allison Fatla in Marek Muller's "Bear-ly Legal," a too-cute piece about a couple fighting over the guy's failed scheme to use grizzly bears as security guards. However, its cast of four couldn't salvage Jeffrey Wolf's "The Department of Last Words," which fell short of its aspirations to literary comedy.

Notably better was Andrew Clarke's absurdist "The Interview," with Robert Isenberg and Joe Stile in a bit of corporate satire driven by inspired wordplay. Then there was Joseph Lyons' " Bury My Heart on Diabolical Kung-Fu Island": DiGiulio's smartly campy direction shaped this chop-socky spoof, with Brad Stephenson and Ricardo Vila-Roger as squabbling brothers staging a martial-arts death match.

Better still was "The Telephone." Roger Mortimer-Smith's stage-world premise (actors battle stagehand) risked coming off like an academic exercise. But his script went beyond fourth-wall jokes to give director Betker and actors Fred Betzner and Diana Ifft room to work funny faces, gestures and voices like expert vaudevillians.

 Even more impressive was "Bath Time is Fun Time." Arthur M. Jolly's piece began as a seemingly one-dimensional skit about a Rubber Ducky, Sponge, Submarine and Washcloth traumatized by a small child … but quickly transformed into existential comedy and comic religious allegory. Kudos to DiGiulio and actors Gohel, Isenberg (a CP contributor), Dave Ranallo and Adam Kukic.

Still, top honors are due to Gayle Pazerski's "There She Goes." I'm still trying to wrap my head around the theatrical dynamics that drive this darkly satirical but still uproarious one-act. It's built around a make-up-table tête-à-tête between two five-year-old female beauty-pageant contestants ... as played by unshaven adult men in kiddie drag, wielding New Yawk accents. As directed by Lane, actors Joe Lyons and John Feightner tear it up. But alongside the comedy, Pazerski brutally, yet somehow movingly, skewers the pageant world — or as contestants Madison and Mikayla call it, "the circuit."

Pazerski, who I believe is the only local playwright represented in this year's fest, is better known as an actress (most recently in Quantum's The End of the Affair). But if this is what she can do crafting scripts, let's hope there's more where it came from.

Future Ten 8 ( continues at 8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 11, and 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 12. Tickets are just $10 ($12 at the door). There's even free Woodchuck Hard Cider.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Posted By on Thu, Nov 3, 2011 at 12:11 PM

When it comes to Pittsburgh pride, Max Buriak isn't modest. Asked about his blog,, the web designer credits his late father.  

 "My dad was sort of a Lawrenceville philosopher," says Buriak, speaking by phone from his office on the South Side. "We were always discussing these ideas he had." 

His father, Fredrick Buriak, Jr., once imagined the name for his son's current project: a community website for people to share stories about moving away from Pittsburgh. Hearing Buriak describe his father's take on LeavingPittsburgh's potential imparts a kind of romanticism to the simple website.

 "When we discussed this project, he thought it could be like a message board -- similar to the rural billboards that existed during World War II," says Buriak, 30. "When European cities were bombed and families were separated, they left messages for each other so they could be found."  

 The site has been up only since July of this year, and as of late October there were more than 80 stories, many of them only a few sentences long. Most are anonymous; others use first name only.

Reasons for leaving can be as complicated as someone's sensitivity to surroundings: 

It's one of the most claustrophobic cities I've lived in. The weather with its low, overcast skies, combined with the hills all around and the general mentality of the average citizen, make me want to throw myself off the U Pitt tower. 

But more often, people lament lack of jobs: 

My husband lost his job and there was no work similar in his field. He searched for an engineering position for 6 months, with no offers or interviews. We moved to the DC area where he was offered a contracting job. We've met a lot of Pittsburgh ex-pats where we live. 

Such stories are not uncommon in Buriak's experience, as he also feels a sense of loss due to economic conditions that have driven away so many. 

"You hear this a lot: talented people who were born and raised and even educated here, unable to find jobs. There's a part of me that wishes they could stay and build something great." 

In addition to serving those who must leave and those considering it, Buriak hopes the site will reach local politicians and business owners, who may have the influence to reverse destructive trends.  

He's considered other incarnations of the site. "We talked about doing a podcast or even digital vignettes. The domain name is ours for at least the next ten years; right now, it's about the stories." 


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