Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Final Weekend for Philip K. Dick Play

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2012 at 2:29 PM

One of this town’s many fine smaller stage troupes, Caravan Theatre of Pittsburgh, does itself proud with this strange and ambitious play about the cult-hero science-fiction author.
Even if you’ve never read a word Dick wrote, you know his concepts: Films from Bladerunner and Total Recall to Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly are based on his writings about the blurring lines between humans and androids, memory and falsehood, the future and the present.
Victoria Stewart’s play 800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick smartly and imaginatively summons the author’s spirit with a play whose form is adapted from Dick’s own aesthetics.
The play is largely set in 1982, on the very day Dick died, in his San Francisco flat. But it’s built around a divine revelation Dick believes he had several years earlier, and his efforts to write and publish a massive “exegesis” on God.
Just as Dick wrote about the present collapsing into the future, so in 800 Words does time seem unstable, with events from decades apart overlapping. And just like Dick made himself a character in his fictions, so does Stewart herself show up as a major character in Act 2, to hilarious if ultimately unnerving effect.
Caravan co-founders John Gresh and Dana Hardy play Dick and his long-suffering wife, Tessa. (“It’s just words,” Tessa says of one of her husband’s promises; he responds, “That’s all I have.”) The often manic action involves puppets, including Dick’s talking cat. The excellent supporting cast is expertly directed by Martin Giles.
A Dick fan I ran into at the show, staged at Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Downtown venue, said the play had inspired him to dig back into Dick’s writings.
Here’s Michelle Pilecki’s review for CP.
There are four more performances starting tomorrow, including a Sunday matinee. Tickets are $15-20.

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Jim Breuer at the Byham Theater

Posted By on Mon, Sep 24, 2012 at 10:22 AM

What happens to stoner comedians when they grow up? If, like Jim Breuer, they’ve successfully riffed off a permanently baked facial expression long enough to title their own autobiography I’m Not High, then it’s their children inheriting the same expression that becomes the joke. Stoner comedy begets more stoner comedy.
Slight material perhaps, but it’s testament to Breuer’s skill as a comedian that he can extract whole skits from the smallest observation. The 45-year-old comic — who performed here Saturday — has cleaned up his wacky style made famous by SNL and cult stoner film Half Baked. His hour of quick-fire standup is billed “family-friendly” since Breuer had his own, and he rarely strays from this topic.
Just as children's television contains far more violence than adult’s, Breuer’s routine is rife with slapstick. The maniacal mimic gives his microphone a Tom and Jerry-style beating, knocks over props, and ferociously roars to animate his wife’s disciplining technique.
He’s so energetic an impersonator it’s easy to lose sight of the drab premises to his gags; small children are tedious, parents don’t go out much, and taking kids to restaurants is hard.
Breuer’s new dependents themselves salvage many a staid joke. A skit about pretending to be Canadian in Europe — a ploy Eddie Izzard suggested in 1998 — is revived by his daughters’ amusing misreading of a German sign. And the pithy punchline to an anecdote involving a queasy number of retching sound effects is provided by Breuer’s elderly father.
But Breuer’s myopic concerns are thrown further out of proportion when he starts reminiscing about his prankster past. An incredulous account of the reaction to a mock bomb threat he made to Sears while impersonating Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t quite ring true post-9/11. And his modest surprise at how far through society his SNL “Goat Boy” skit has spread is a little naive in the digital age.
Moreover, Breuer’s devoting the best part of an hour to the difficulties of children becomes exhausting. The evening’s host, Pittsburgh-basedl Bill Crawford, gives a much conciser quip about parenthood that’s apt introduction to Breuer’s routine: “It’s not going to be good all the time. It’s not going to be bad all the time. It’s just going to be all the time.”
Though Breuer briefly blames his own appearance on parenthood’s stresses, he could have elaborated; he’s not high, he’s just a parent, and it’s bred the same skewing of perspective.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Final Weekend for the REP's "August: Osage County"

Posted By on Sat, Sep 22, 2012 at 10:39 AM

There are just three more chances to see this great production of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer-winning play, tonight and tomorrow at Point Park University's Playhouse, in Oakland.
I've enjoyed local stagings of a few of Letts' earlier plays, including Bug and Killer Joe, but this one really floored me.
It's just huge, an epic in a small-town Oklahoma house that begins (after a brief prologue) with the disappearance of the family patriarch, a poet and college professor named Beverly Weston. From there it sprawls out into an uproarious 13-character drama about Weston's extended family.
But while it's quite dark — delving into alcoholism, prescription-drug addiction, infidelity and plenty of other taboos — August: Osage County is also one of the funniest plays I've ever seen.
And this mostly local cast, directed by John Shepard, does it proud, led by Mary Rawson as drug-addled matriarch Violet Weston.
CP critic Robert Isenberg gave the show a glowing review. And a theater veteran who saw last night's show with me said the REP's production bested the touring production (starring Estelle Parsons) that introduced the play to Pittsburgh in 2010.
The show's up for matinees today and tomorrow, with an evening show tonight.

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Life & Death of Little Finn at CorningWorks

Posted By on Thu, Sep 13, 2012 at 3:00 PM

The latest from Beth Corning's Glue Factory Project is billed as "an adult dancetheater puppet production." I'd also call it "boutique theater." The show opened its limited run last night.

The delightful if darkly funny production, based on a concept by Canada's Company X, is designed for three performers, numerous puppets and a small audience. The chief incarnation of its puppet-protagonist, Little Finn himself, is nearly miniature; his floppy-limbed body fits in your hand. This production blending human movement and puppetry is one audiences need to be close to see, and seating in the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh basement theater is limited to about 30.

 "Like most of us, his life was small," a pre-recorded narrator tells us of Finn. The story follows him from birth through school, work, courtship, marriage (to a mail-order Russian bride) and the inevitable. It's a poignant narrative, told with sympathy shaded by mordant humor. But the show (here's Steve Sucato's preview for CP) is all in its tone and details. 

Corning, who formerly headed Dance Alloy Theatre, is steeped in the European dance-theater tradition, which is less about athleticism and spectacle and more about gesture and nuance. It's an approach especially suited to her Glue Factory concept of dance work for performers over age 40. Here, Corning is joined by kindred spirits Marina Harris (who largely created the show with her husband, Kip) and Melinda Evans, a frequent Harris collaborator over the years.

Thus, early on we get an exquisite trio, the three women all dressed in black, pajama-like two-piece outfits, with the Finn doll a sort of hand-borne bystander to the fraught interplay between his mother (Evans), an unscrupulous suitor (Corning) and a third undefined character (Harris). It's beautiful, and ends with a perfectly staged detail: a human hand on a puppet-sized proscenium, stubbing out a cigarette in a tiny spotlight.

Other Finn puppets — a rod puppet, for instance — are larger. And pther scenes are more on the comic side. In one, evoking Finn's unluckiness at love, the women takes turns abusing the bean-bag hearts Finn has mailed them.

Indeed, the overall feel is quite European: the dark fairy-tale quality, the ambiguously (un)happy ending, right down to the Germanically accented voice-over narration. The name "Finn," Harris said during an audience talk-back after the show, was even borrowed from a Norwegian friend's brother.

There are seven remaining performance of Little Finn, but three are sold out, including tonight's. Your best chance is probably for evening shows this Saturday and Sunday. See

Monday, September 10, 2012

Jazz Poetry Concert

Posted By on Mon, Sep 10, 2012 at 4:00 AM

It was another good night for City of Asylum/Pittsburgh's annual Jazz Poetry Concert — even if threatening weather kept this free show indoors for the third straight year.

Musical highlights at Saturday's show at the New Hazlett Theater included sets by the Oliver Lake Steel Quartet with Meshell Ndegeocello. Lake's band features Lyndon Achee, who plays steel pan like no one you've ever seen, the expected mellow melodicism bolstered with lightning runs and a jazzman's rhythmic invention. Bassist Ndeogeocello also enthralled when she lent her deep, rich vocals to her of version Nina Simone's "Four Women."

In-person readers new to the event inlcuded T.J. Dema, of Botswana, and Luis Bravo, of Uruguay. And the Quartet's vibrant backing worked especially well with a performance by American poet Patricia Smith, who raised the roof with saucy, sensual works including "Queen of the Hot Territory."

The program also included video interviews of persecuted writers: Nyein Thit, who lives in hiding from the government in Myanmar, and Tsering Woeser, who is living under house arrest by the Chinese government. Woeser recited a short poem, including the line "a sheet of paper can becomes a knife."

A new touch was an awareness-raising tribute to persecuted writers globally, part of COAP's mission to not only shelter one writer at a time, but to draw more attention to the hundreds of others in the same boat.

In 2011, the group PEN International reports, 888 writers around the world had come under attack, including 43 who were killed and 241 who were imprisoned.

On entering, each of the nearly 600 attendees received a program with the name of a different persecuted writer in big block letters on the back. My program bore witness to Bedri Adanir, of Turkey, whom explanatory text said is imprisoned and facing up to 50 years of jail time for publishing a collection of speeches by the leader of the banned Kurdish Workers' Party.

Mid-event, the Hazlett's house lights were turned down and we were all instructed to hold up the names of the writers, which glowed in black light. 


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