Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, March 30, 2012

City Theatre's Saturday Double-Headers

Posted By on Fri, Mar 30, 2012 at 10:50 AM

Over the years I'd attended a few City Theatre shows on Saturday nights. But until this past weekend, when I hopped over there for a performance of the wonderfully entertaining The Monster in the Hall, it had never struck me how unusual the company's Saturday schedule is.

According to City spokesperson Emily Price, City's been doing shows at both 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays since not long after it moved to its South Side digs, in 1991. As far as I know, they're still the only company in town that does it that way.

It's certainly convenient for people who spend Saturdays running around and can't quite get their acts together for the traditional 8 p.m. curtain.

But Price says the scheduling has more to do with the theater's location. For all its vaunted bars, East Carson Street also has a good number of restaurants. Early-show attendees can join the usual dinner crowd, while late-show folks can eat before they watch.

Given all the visitors to the neighborhood, just having one show would be missing an opportunity, says Price.

Early shows are actually more popular, she adds, and priced to match. But the late show of Monster I saw drew a nice crowd, too.

The production, not coincidentally, merits the attention. David Greig's play is a raucous, music-filled comedy about a Scottish teenager coping with caring for her father, an ex-biker with MS; an impending visit from a social-services worker; and other crises. The cast, directed by City artistic director Tracy Brigden, is exceptional, especially Melinda Helfrich in the lead role and Sheila McKenna in an hilarious dual role.

Special praise to Eric Shimelonis for his musical direction and rocking original music for Greig's interpolated song lyrics.

Here's Ted Hoover's full review of the show for CP.

There are four more performances of Monster, one tonight, two tomorrow and the Sunday matinee.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Photographer to Discuss Serial-Killer-Themed Work

Posted By on Thu, Mar 29, 2012 at 12:05 PM


Considering its subject matter, tomorrow's talk at Point Park University, by photographer Stephen Chalmers, has an unusual genesis.

Chalmers' series Unmarked began with the butterflies of early love, the beauty of open fields freckled with flowers. Once, Chalmers took his significant other on a hiking date along a Tiger Mountain trail, near Seattle — a perfectly normal and happy memory, until a friend pointed out that that's where serial killer Ted Bundy disposed of his prey.

Struck by how this information transformed his experience of the place, the artist and photographer started visiting places where murder victims had been disposed to document the sites with pictures he titled with the victims' names. (Pictured is "Danny Joe Eberle, age 13.")

"The images in Unmarked are deliberately ambiguous, in an attempt to provide a meditative experience on the lives of the victims," he says, "and to pull away from our cultural fascination with violence and those that commit violent acts."

The project includes about 250 pictures, a dozen of which will be shown during Chalmers' Point Park lecture. All were taken along the West Coast and Washington in particular, where he was living at the time. It is also the place where some of the nation's most infamous killers come from, including Bundy and Gary Ridgway.

Chalmers, who has also worked as a medical technician, is currently a professor of photography at Youngstown State University, in Ohio. His work is included in collections including the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Getty Research Institute. 

His talk tomorrow is part of The Speaking Light, a photography lecture series organized by Point Park's School of Communication.

The free event will be held at 6:00 p.m. Fri., March 30, on the second floor of Thayer Hall, 201 Wood St., on Point Park's campus, Downtown. Chalmers will present photography from the series and talk about how he and others located the sites he photographed with the help of Freedom of Information Act requests, police records and newspaper articles.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Diespace at the Dutch Festival

Posted By on Fri, Mar 23, 2012 at 10:00 PM

This funny, satirical show by Dutch multimedia performance troupe PIPS:lab sends up social media using slick digital technology. But much of the cleverness of this U.S. premiere resides in the format, which suggests a cheesy 1970s TV game show, complete with theme music and audience participation.

The premise is that the performers are entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on Western nations’ aging population by creating a Facebook-like site specifically for use by the deceased. They do it by “digitizing your soul.”

Audience members are enlisted to do everything from writing their names in the air with handout LED flashlights – the writing registers on a projection screen – to, in the case of one lucky visitor, actually undergoing the soul-digitizing process.

The feel is nearly carnivalesque: The host is a tall, thin fellow folded into a motorized wheelchair who careens madly about the stage, and two of the other performers are young fellows in comical old-lady drag.

Somehow, this all never feels as over-the-top as you’d imagine. I think it’s because the performers – Keez Duijves, Stije Hallema, Yorrick Heerkens, Daan van West and Thijs de Wit and Sebastiaan Kox – just spin out their smart, simple premise over the course of the hour, never really forcing any message. They don’t have to: Their mockery of the commercialization of cyberspace and our desire to live forever is inherent in that very premise.

Except for a brief doldrums about 45 minutes in – some hijinks likely inserted to mask video-editing necessary for the show’s finale – this is a good-humored but pointed addition to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Distinctively Dutch Festival. The show was staged in the capacious, versatile space at 805-807 Liberty Ave., Downtown. There is one more performance, at 8 p.m. Saturday night. See

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Death-Penalty Exoneree to Speak Here

Posted on Thu, Mar 22, 2012 at 4:49 AM


Juan Meléndez, who spent nearly 18 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and who now works to end the death penalty, speaks here next Tuesday.

In 1984, Meléndez was accused of a brutal murder in Florida. He could not afford an attorney and within a week, according to a press release from Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, he was convicted and sentenced to death on the testimony of two unreliable witnesses. Though physical evidence of his guilt was lacking, his conviction was upheld three times by the Florida Supreme Court.

According to the group Witness for Innocence , Meléndez was released only because of the chance discovery of a transcript of the taped confession of the real killer — a discovery made some 16 years after Meléndez was convicted.

Meléndez was released from prison in 2002. He has since told his story to audiences in North America and Europe. He has also testified before legislative bodies across the U.S., and was active in the successful fight to repeal the death penalty in his home state of New Mexico. He is the subject of the documentary film Juan Meléndez 6446.

According to PADP, Meléndez is the 99th of 140 death-row prisoners in the U.S. to be released on evidence of innocence.

His talk here is sponsored by PADP, Faith in Action Against the Death Penalty, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, Pittsburgh Amnesty International Group 39, and the Pittsburgh chapter of the ACLU.

"His story highlights the many problems plaguing our capital-punishment system, including the high risk and inevitability of the death penalty being imposed on the innocent," says PADP chair Martha Conley in a statement. "This has been further highlighted by the increasing number of accused being exonerated by DNA evidence. The death penalty is also unfair as it is most often applied to the poor and minorities."

As of October 2011, Florida had 402 inmates on death row second most in the nation after California, with 721. Pennsylvania ranked fourth, with 213. 

According to the PADP, "the U.S. is the only industrialized Western democracy still utilizing capital punishment."

Meléndez speaks at 8 pm. Tue., March 27, at Bricolage Theater, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

The event if free and open to the public. For more information, call 412-361-7872 or eamil 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reading of New "Maltese Falcon" Stage Adaptation

Posted By on Mon, Mar 19, 2012 at 2:45 PM

If you're looking for something to do tonight, a passel of top local actors is bringing to life Dashiell Hammett's classic of hardboiled detective fiction.

The source material isn't the great film version, starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.

Rather, actor James FitzGerald has adapted Hammett's novel in the style of a vintage 1940s radio drama. The reading is Downtown, at Bricolage Productions, whose Midnight Radio series specializes in radio-style dramas.

The cast includes a bunch of names familiar from area professional stages: FitzGerald, Alan Stanford, Tami Dixon, Jason McCune, Jeffrey Carpenter, Karen Baum, Ken Bolden, Paul Reynolds and Elena Bertolino-Alexandratos.

The reading benefits The Actors' Fund, a national nonprofit safety net for folks in the performing arts.

Bricolage is located at 937 Liberty Ave. The suggested donation is $10. The show starts at 7 p.m.

More info at

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hustlebot a Finalist in Comedy Central Contest

Posted By on Thu, Mar 15, 2012 at 12:30 PM


Maybe it's the slowly recovering economy, or the Republican primaries — or perhaps it's the 2012 Mayan prophecy — but lately we've noticed an uptick in comedy activity in these parts. Every couple weeks, it seems, there's a new improv troupe or comedy venue. 

And if there is a Pittsburgh comedy rennaissance afoot, another sign might be an honor for one of our longer-standing improv troupes. This week, it was announced that the dudes in Hustlebot are among the 25 finalists in Comedy Central's first-ever Short Pilot Contest.

Contestants submitted a script and an 8- to 15-minute pilot presentation for an original TV show. Hustlebot's was titled "Stoners with a Time Machine." You can imagine the possibilities.

The contest is held in conjunction with The New York Television Festival. The top prize includes a development deal with Comedy Central and $7,500. The winner will be selected at the end of April.

Hustlebot, consisting of David Fedor, John Feightner, Larry Phillips and Joe Wichryk, began writing and performing under that name in 2006. The company — which modestly bills itself as "Pittsburgh's Best Comedy Troupe" — performs regularly at The Pittsburgh Improv Jam, held every Thursday at Downtown's. Cabaret at Theater Square.

The lads are also working on a movie with North Shore Pictures.

For a sample of their work, try the "Videos" page of the Hustlebot website, especially their audition pitch for Dark Knight Rises director Christopher Nolan.

As a finalist in the Comedy Central contest, Hustlebot is invited to be an Official Artist in the 2012 New York Television Festival, in Manhattan. The group also gets a chance to pitch its pilot to six additional channels, including Sundance Channel.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Pittsburgh Symphony’s Online Contest

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 3:40 PM

In February, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Manfred Honeck, announced an online competition to choose one soloist to perform next fall at Heinz Hall, as part of a BNY Mellon Grand Classics concert weekend.

In the PSO's Concerto Competition, soloists will upload their performances to YouTube, and Internet users world-wide can eventually vote online for their favorites. The winner will also go home with $10,000, part of the money granted by the PPG Industries Foundation for the contest. 

Symphony officials insist this is not American Idol meets Mozart. Truth is, the strategy more closely resembles Justin Bieber's use of YouTube to connect with his audience.

The deadline for submitting videos is March 22. Afterward, a panel of judges chosen by the PSO will select up to 20 of these soloists as semi-finalists based on four equally weighted criteria: style, technique, expression and musicality.

On April 13, the semi-finalists' videos will be uploaded to the PSO's YouTube channel. Then the international audience can vote until April 30. Four finalists will be flown to Pittsburgh for final auditions with Honeck in June.

"I am excited that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is the first major American orchestra to hold an Internet competition to select an instrumental soloist to perform in concerts," said PSO President and CEO James A. Wilkinson in a press release.

Others are less pleased. "I never knew that orchestras' search committee included humanity at large," someone commented on New York public-radio website "I always thought that orchestras had a highly qualified group of people for that important task."

Players of the piano, violin, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet or harp can enter by uploading a clip, up to 10 minutes long, of an original solo performance whose material must be chosen from a selection of concertos (see terms and conditions).

Only U.S. residents can enter the competition, but voting will be open to users worldwide. Contestants must have attained the age of majority in their state of residence (18 in most states).

The PSO's director of information technology, Kevin DeLuca, says the competition does not target a specific age group. "We have a minimum age limit because of the legalities of posting content online. The age limit for most states is 18, so we were bound by that on the low end; otherwise, we might have gotten submissions from players as young as 15 or 16 years old," he tells CP.

As of March 7, the PSO had received six clips, half of which are already available to the public online.

"Out of the six we got, we have only published three, because the other three didn't meet the requirements," says DeLuca. "We're not at all surprised; we don't expect the majority of them to come in until the end. But then again, we've never done this before, so there's no data to compare. We know there's also a possibility we might get too many -- or not enough. It's anybody's guess." 

"The Elephant Man" at Prime Stage Theatre

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2012 at 9:15 AM


A few notes about this fine production, which closed last weekend after a two-week run at the New Hazlett.

One, those who knew the story of John Merrick only from the 1980 film version might have been surprised to find that the actor playing the tragically deformed title character doesn’t don any sort of prosthetic, or even special makeup; he simply contorts himself, and slightly slurs his speech, to suggest those deformities. 

It’s quite a challenge, and as CP’s Robert Isenberg emphasized in his glowing review of this production, Sean Sears, as Merrick, was completely up to the task. (That’s Sears at right in the photo, with Justin Fortunateo and Maggie Ryan).

Second, the play itself, by Bernard Pomerance, is very good. (The well-regarded Elephant Man film, directed by David Lynch and starring John Hurt as Merrick, is not based on the play.)

Set in 1880s London, it finds Merrick contrasted — and compared — with Frederick Treves, the successful young surgeon who rescued him from a life as a sideshow attraction. There is much interesting talk of religion and science, though for me the more compelling themes include an exploration of whether Merrick, ensconced in comfort in a hospital and treated like a celebrity, is ever really accepted as a person, or simply the main attraction in a higher-class sideshow.

It’s a theme emphasized smartly by both Richard Keitel’s direction and Johnmichael Bohach’s set: The action, for instance, scarcely leaves a playing area that we first see used as a circus ring.

Finally, I’ll risk repeating a blog post from last March. As should be obvious from this production, Prime Stage, although its mission is to create theater for young adults, isn’t "children’s theater." In fact, last year’s post was about a solid Prime Staging of The Glass Menagerie, and audiences there are a nice mix of younger folks and post-collegiate types.

Artistic director Wayne Brinda’s troupe makes good theater, period. You might even keep an eye out for its next production, in which Prime Stage digs its roots adapting classic young-adult literature by staging A Wrinkle in Time.

John Glore’s new adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic fantasy novel runs May 11-20, also at the New Hazlett.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Wilkinsburg Native Turned Russian Basketball Star

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2012 at 4:35 PM


With March Madness kicking in, we caught up with a local guy who had a unique international basketball career. 

J.R. Holden claims to be the first African-American to be granted dual citizenship in Russia and the U.S. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in fact, he played for the Russian national team — whose opponents included the American "Redeem Team" (Kobe Bryant, et al) that was representing the country Holden was born in. (The accompanying game shot depicts Holdren and Bryant in competition.)

Holden retired as a player last summer, shortly after the release of his self-published memoir, Blessed Footsteps. But Holden's Olympic appearance was no one-off: By the time he retired, he'd spent 13 successful years hooping overseas. That tenure included eight consecutive appearances in the Euroleague final four, a record for an American.

The starting point guard's final season with CSKA Moscow — with whom he won two Euroleague championships — ended with the club winning the Russian League title. "I haven't done anything with a basketball since then," he said by phone earlier this week.

Though his cell phone still has a 412 area code, Holden lives in Atlanta now. He makes his living largely as an inspirational speaker. Recently, for instance, he set up shop at the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association annual tournament, in Charlotte, N.C., selling his book and T-shirts, wristbands and other merchandise bearing sayings like "I am For Greatness."


Holden's book is an intriguing glimpse into the world of European pro ball. It's a world Americans have tasted via the globalization of the NBA, and through the Olympics. But Holden is our guide through the continent's multiple lesser-known leagues, and through the challenges that faced an American there, especially when the Bucknell graduate first reported for duty in Latvia, in 1998.

The biggest obstacle was communication. "Imagine you're going to work and you're the only one who speaks English," he says. The European game is also more physical, he says, and hence lower-scoring.

But if anything, during his tenure the European game grew more ... American. When he started, European squads were limited to two Americans each. Now, the rule is that each team is required to carry two native-born players.

More broadly, Holden says that perceptions of America changed during his time overseas, which included the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and more.

"I thought that Americans would always be seen in a certain light," he says — as admirable. But while citizens of other nations still voraciously consume American popular culture, they "look at us in a way that they're equal to us or even above us," Holden says. Meanwhile, he's noticed, "Americans don't care about anything that's going on overseas."

Holden says CSKA Moscow offered him a two-year deal to keep playing. But after 13 years overseas, he wanted to come home for good. His sister and mom remain in Pittsburgh, where he visits regularly, and his young daughter lives in Detroit.

And while his playing days are over, he's offering audiences some of the mottos that kept him going. A big one, he says, is "Try to be better than you were the day before."

Monday, March 5, 2012

Center for PostNatural History at Unblurred

Posted By on Mon, Mar 5, 2012 at 1:40 PM

Richard Pell's new Garfield storefront venue was the hot ticket at the monthly Penn Avenue gallery crawl on Friday night.

Within a half-hour of its opening, there were enough people inside that you couldn't get to any of the phone receivers wired to display cases that Pell has built to inform visitors about genetically engineered plants and animals.

Later on, I was told, you couldn't even squeeze into the small lobby at 4913 Penn, where Pell held court behind a counter with displays about transgenic salmon and bio-engineered peas.

How do you feel about corn that's genetically engineered to resist the pesticides we spray on it? You might want to think about it, because you've probably already eaten some, directly or indirectly.

Pell, a Carnegie Mellon art instructor with an abiding interest in the biological sciences, means to fill the gaps, museum-wise, in our understanding of the increasingly human-impacted natural world and the lab-created beings we're loosing into it.

The CPNH was previously in residence at no less than the Smithsonian Institution.

CP will eventually cover the CPNH at length, but in the meantime, check it out for yourself. Pell says the venue, intended as a permanent attraction, will be open noon-6 p.m. on Sundays and by appointment. You can reach him at


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