Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Warhol, Pittsburgh and POP! at City Theatre

Posted By on Thu, May 24, 2012 at 12:10 PM

One reason this new musical was big news in Pittsburgh, of course, is that everyone knows that Andy Warhola was born and grew up here. (Everyone in Pittsburgh, that is — no doubt most of the world still wonders why the museum named after him is located at the confluence of the three rivers.)

This terrific show's book-writer and lyricist, Maggie-Kate Coleman, and composer Anna K. Jacobs insist that POP! isn't a Warhol bio, and they're right: It's a carnivalesque portrait of him through the lens of his relationships at his legendary Factory, as occasioned by his near-fatal shooting, in 1968. (Here's my preview for CP.)

But POP! does deal with Warhol's roots, and in way that's probably perfect.

The moment comes late in the show, which is structured as a vaudevillian detective mystery, emceed by charismatic transsexual Candy Darling and featuring Factory regulars Edie Sedgwick, Ondine, Gerard Malanga and Viva, plus hanger-on (and would-be assassin) Valeria Solanas. (Pictured are Alyse Alan Louis, as Solanas, and Rapp as Warhol.)

Warhol himself, played by Anthony Rapp, is largely a spectator to the goings-on — also entirely appropriate. But the scene in question comes just as the Factory denizens' discontent with Warhol's passive-aggressive puppeteering begins to boil over ... and POP! starts feeling less like an amusement staged for his benefit and more like something he really can't control.

Andy, who's just been wowed by the appearance of the Pope (as played by Ondine), is suddenly found protesting the proceedings as Candy (the brilliant Brian Charles Rooney) dons a babushka to play Julia Warhola, his beloved mother, complete with Eastern European stage accent.

"Julia" sings:

Me Endy was good Cat'lic
Always go with me to mass
He didn't tell his friends
He come from Pittsburgh working class

 "Mama," Andy protests fruitlessly, "We live in New York now!"

More embarrassing revelations follow, including Andy's childhood health problems. Thus, in a few minutes, Coleman and Jacobs suggest some of the insecurities that helped make Warhol who he is.

Anyway, great show, complete with live band. (Here's Ted Hoover's CP review).

There are five more performances at City: tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.; 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturday; and Sunday's 2 p.m. matinee.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Atrocity Exhibition 2012

Posted By on Mon, May 21, 2012 at 12:00 PM


Great contrast Saturday night between the prosaic throngs of drunken college students and bachelorette-partiers out on East Carson Street and the scene inside the Rex Theater, at this annual cabaret. Safe to say there were more corsets, vinyl garments and emptied tubes of white face paint in the Rex than on the rest of the South Side combined.

The show onstage wasn’t bad, either. This year’s Morose & Macabre’s House of Oddities dark-themed performance showcase posited the Rex as a haunted theater, and each of the acts as a ghost re-living the grisly circumstances of his or her death.

The very goth crowd (notwithstanding the occasional zombie, kilt-wearer or arts editor in boring jeans and T-shirt) watched emcee/medium Madame Lilith DeVille introduce a series of mostly musical and burlesque acts. One dancer reprised her death by Jim Jones Kool-Aid cult. Another act was a Brechtian pantomine that ended with the female dancer, wearing a skull mask, stabbing the male partner who’d dispatched her to the afterlife. A third burlesque act opened with the dancer disemboweling herself (though things got a little lighter from there).

Co-founder Macabre Noir contributed her own compellingly creepy dance act. And the music included a lovely bowed-cello-and-vocals interlude from Phat Man Dee.

True, the sightlines aren’t always great when half the crowd’s in either platform shoes or stilettoes. But whether you wanted to peruse the in-house bazaar for lamps made from animal pelvises, watch Cherri Baum (pictured) float through the crowd in spectral array, or just soak up the atmosphere, The Atrocity Exhibition might be one to mark on your calendar for next year.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Local Film and Student Academy Awards

Posted By on Thu, May 17, 2012 at 4:00 PM


Mark Christian was used to Pittsburgh's unpredictable weather, but nothing could've prepared him for nights in Arizona. In roughly two hours, the temperature had dropped more than 40 degrees, and soon, his spirits had followed suit. Sitting on a dolly in the middle of the desert, the Point Park senior couldn't help but think, "This is absolutely the worst experience of my life."

Then, Christian remembered just how encouraging his cast and crew had remained throughout the shoot. "It was that moment where I was I like, ‘I have people that actually care and support me,'" he says. "That was the best moment of the whole week, when I actually realized that every single person there was there for my project."

Christian had helped assemble dozens of people outside Tucson this winter to film "Requited," a 12-minute Western recently selected as one of nine finalists in the "narrative" category at the Student Academy Awards, an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences-sponsored national competition.

The movie, which borrows characters and scenes from a previous short, "The Kid," centers on John, an outlaw bent on avenging his brother's death. Christian wrote the film's screenplay and served as the director of photography. 

Although "Requited" didn't make the final selection round of three films (which was announced this week), Madeline Puzzo, the director and production designer, says she was more than pleased with its performance.

"Just the fact that we were able to compete with some of those other films, especially with films coming from the schools they were coming from — it felt pretty good, actually," Puzzo says. "It was gratifying to get as far as we did."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Free Admission at the Carnegie Tomorrow

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2012 at 4:00 PM

The Carnegie Museums of art and natural history will offer free admission from 3:30 p.m. until closing time, 8 p.m., as part of the Association of Art Museum Directors’ Art Museum Day. 

Art Museum Day is officially Friday, but the Carnegie is piggybacking its free admission on its monthly Culture Club happy hour. Tomorrow’s Culture Club includes a screening of an episode from the current season of PBS series Art21, and a discussion of a work from the museum’s collection by Glenn Ligon.

Culture Club, which begins at 5:30 p.m., is included in the free admission, but the bar is cash. The Art21 episode, “History,” screens at 7:15 p.m.

Also participating in Art Museum Day are the Frick Art & Historical Center, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art and The Andy Warhol Museum. (A complete list of participating institutions is at 

On Friday, the Frick offers free docent-led tours of Clayton, the restored home of the Henry Clay Frick Family. (Admission to the Frick’s art museum is always free.)

Might be a good weekend to visit the Frick, as it’s the last for Draw Me A Story: A Century of Children’s Book Illustrations, which surveys the genre from the mid-1800s on. The weekend includes a tribute to the late Maurice Sendak, whose art is featured, with a Sat., May 19 screening of animated versions of Where The Wild Things Are and other Sendak stories.

The Westmoreland, in Greensburg, usually asks for a donation but is also offering free admittance on Friday.

The Warhol will offer free admission on Tue., May 22.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Talking Race at Dutchman

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 2:50 PM

Bricolage Productions is staging this touchstone 1964 play specifically to spark conversations about race in America. Judging from the post-show talk last Saturday, on opening weekend, it's working.

In fact, the Saturday installment of the Between the Lines discussion series lasted longer than the 50-minute play itself.

To one ticket-holder, the sessions (not to mention the play) were so compelling that he had attended three nights running. "This is really important dialogue," said the man, a white retiree. "I'm learning a lot."

Dutchman, by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) depicts an encounter on a New York subway car in which a white woman alternately provokes and seduces a buttoned-up young black man, leading to sudden violence. Local actors Tami Dixon and Jonathan Berry play Lula and Clay. (See Michelle Pilecki's review for CP.)

Each Between the Lines is facilitated by a different community leader. Saturday night's guest was Mindy Fullilove, a research psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and professor at Columbia University. Fullilove is quite familiar with Pittsburgh, having written Root Shock, a book about the impact of urban dislocation (a la the old Civic Arena) on minority communities.

Fullilove even brought her own guest: Stephen Glassman, who chaired the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission for eight years under Gov. Ed Rendell, and now leads Pittsburgh's Community Design Center. 

Fullilove said she found the play inspiring — not for the dysfunction it depicts, but in how it depicts it. "We have a repetition compulsion going on in America," she said, referring to the killing of young black men. As much as being a person, Lula is the embodiment of that murderous system. (The specter of Trayvon Martin's shooting, among others, necessarily haunts this show.)

But Fullilove added that it is not only victims who are damaged. "Our whole national community is strangled by this," she said. "The injury of doing harm is as profound as the injury of being harmed."

The actors, too, are affected by the play, but perhaps not as you'd expect. Dixon says that after each performance as the evil Lula, she has to decompress; but Berry said Clay's cathartic speech — a famed monologue about the rage he feels as a black man — is how he lets off steam. "By the time I walk out of here, I'm cool," he said.

On the other hand, the play reminds cast member Kevin Brown that when a black man commits a crime, society suspects all black men — but when a white person commits a crime, only that white person is blamed. Brown voiced skepticism that the play can help. "I don't leave here feeling any better than when I came, because I don't see any change" resulting from the show, he said.

And while it's true that a play like Dutchman is probably preaching to the converted — and rather unlikely to draw many real racists — many in the audience seemed to feel that everyone can benefit by talking about racism openly.

Glassman, for instance, said that he found the play "profoundly disturbing" in its depiction of how racism "erupts without warning." He also spoke of how difficult it had been, in cases before the HRC, to get perpetrators of perceived discriminatory acts to empathize with victims.

Glassman also observed that compared to other cities he's lived in — including Baltimore, New York and Washington, D.C. — Pittsbrgh is deeply segregated, not only racially but economically. And he added that all major American public-school systems are more segregated now than they were at the time of Brown vs. The Board of Education.

 People of different races not interacting is bad enough. Never talking about such facts makes things even worse.

 "If people don't talk about things, they're not going to change," Glassman said. Silence about racism, Glassman emphasized, is what lets racism flourish. "It allows it to build a life of its own that's acceptable."

But, he added, "It's very difficult to leave this play without having this kind of conversation afterward."

There are seven more performances of Dutchman, starting Thursday night. Here's a list of the remaining Between the Lines discussion leaders, with (when available) the sometimes-provocative titles of of their talks.

Thu., May 3: Bernadette Turner, of Addison Behavioral Care, "How Prejudiced are You? Cultural Perception in ‘Post Racial' America."

Fri., May 4: Bobby Vagt, of the Heinz Endowments

Sat., May 5: Tony Norman, Post-Gazette columnist

Sun., May 6: Tina Doose and Jay Dworin, of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh, "American Apartheid"

May 10: Justin Laing, of the Heinz Endowments, "White Supremacy: The First Step to Recovery is Acceptance"

May 11: Kimberly Ellis, artist and educator, "The StoryBoard or the Bullet: The Battle over Black Imagery in the 21st Century"

May 12: WWHAT'S UP (Whites Working and Hoping to Abolish Total Supremacy Undermining Privilege), "Challenging Racism"

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The News at the Dutch Fest

Posted By on Tue, May 1, 2012 at 2:45 PM


There was more than enough for the eye — and ear — at this world-premiere "nonfiction opera" by Dutch composer JacobTV, at the Cultural Trust's Distinctively Dutch Festival. But while some (including me) felt a little overwhelmed by the sensory overload in this two-hour work, there still was more to it than met the eye (and ear).

Saturday night, the audience was faced with a nine-piece band, two singers ... and a video screen as wide as the Byham Theater's stage. JacobTV's innovation is to create music that complements and comments on manipulated footage from the global news media — mostly people talking, from weatherpersons to Silvio Berlusconi to Arab Spring protestors in Tahrir Square.

The images were usually doubled, left to right, and often color-adjusted, to look as garish as possible; blazoned with text, whether as captions or large-scale graphic elements, also in motion; and tweaked to stutter, a la the scratching of a hip-hop DJ, or else slow-mo'd.

The band —  a brass section, guitar, bass, keys and percussion — played an eclectic score combining jazz, funk, reggae and arrangements you might hear in a more conventional opera. Then there were the "anchors," the wonderfully talented pairing of jazz vocalist Lori Cotler and lyric soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg, harmonizing with the pre-recorded audio or else commenting on it.

It was sometimes hard to know what to focus on.

But the overall effect was powerful, and often powerfully amusing. In an interview with CP prior to the show, JacobTV made The News sound like a largely uncurated ramble through media tailings. But the work was clearly constructed with commentary in mind.

You don't, for instance, start out with "666" floating across the screen, over images of a vacant-eyed TBN anchor who seems to be describing the Antichrist, if you're doing the operatic equivalent of channel-surfing. 

And you don't follow that by mining the spastic gestures and theatrical vocalisms of a manic, porcine TV preacher for all the humor they're worth unless you're trying to make a point.

JacobTV, it should be noted, also acknowledges a European fascination with the effusiveness of American TV personalties, whose Continental counterparts are much more reserved.

Act I did tend toward the jokey. Glenn Beck's Fox News interview of Sarah Palin was re-edited to resemble a sort of "Who's on First?" routine about trust. Paris Hilton's "interview" of Lady Gaga was likewise lighter than helium, and there was comic menace in a spot featuring a perhaps-drunk Hank Williams Jr. 

Most intriguing, though, were segments from financial shows, where the know-it-all arrogance of the anchors and reporters attempted to mask the desperation they were reporting on even as they betrayed it. Key phrases, stutter-repeated for effect, included "25 billion on top of that" and "short-term pop." This was also a good scene to note, in slow motion, how smug TV newspeople look.

The first scene of the second act set the tone for a much less comic experience: testimony from a Somali refugee, a young woman who fled violence with her children and is now living in a huge camp. A rundown of American war casualties was accompanied by an aria sung by Stoppelenburg. Even the sight of an apoplectic John Coleman, founder of the Weather Channel, calling global warming "a total scam" ("we're all going to do just fine!"), was good for only a few bitter chuckles.

JacobTV's sympathies don't seem especially hard to discern. The News features biting takedowns of Donald Rumsfeld, Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin, while Michael Moore (exhorting Occupiers) and Barack Obama (pre-2008 election) are presented without discernible mockery.

Still, JacobTV's real subject in The News is not any individual or ideology, but the media itself. His program notes quote Philip Roth and Bob Dylan about how media tends to blot out poetry and imagination. It's hard to argue. Fortunately, at least in this case, the media seems mostly to have inspired JacobTV's imagination.


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