Monday, October 15, 2012

"Maple and Vine" from City Theatre

"Maple and Vine" by Jordan Harrison is the story of a wife and husband who are more than frustrated by modern life, they're harried, isolated and genuinely unhappy. But, when a well-dressed stranger with a hat and a briefcase invites them to relocate to a special gated community where it's perpetually 1955.

"Maple and Vine" follows Katha, played by Robin Abramson and her Japanese husband Ryu, played by Nelson Lee (who also played the character at A.C.T. in San Francisco). As their normal-era selves, Abramson and Lee seem almost come across as desensitized to their real world (but not necessarily first-world) problems. It's not that they're smiling through the pain, but rather slightly bemused by the simultaneous oppression and isolation of their modern-day life.

Abramson and Lee in their 2012 New York City apartment are modern day "free" - they order in, they sit on the back of sofas, they have oral sex and wear poly-blends - but they're still anything but happy. Dean, the man with the hat, introduces the couple to the "S.D.O.", the 1955 Society of Deliberate Obsolescence where people create their dossier (in concordance with 1955's politics and history, of course) and start living the life of a beatnik, milkman or, as most women in the day, a housewife.

When Abramson and Lee enter the S.D.O., it  seems more like a game than the last act of two desperate humans on the brink. And while, in essence, they are everyone in the audience - better educated, more socially aware, able to rise above social oppression and racism - what is fascinating is how easily and well the couple switches to the 1955's game. Stereotypes are embraced as jokes, domestic fights are applauded and blackmail is attempted.

But the game does change for the current residents. Greg McFadden, a charmer from the second he steps onto the stage, plays Dean, one of the pillars of the communities. Caralyn Kozlowski is his statuesque Stepford-like wife Ellen who brims with a carefully controlled power beneath a flawless exterior of button wrist gloves and pot roast. Ross Beschler, who juxtaposes a modern and 1955's version of a homosexual with alternating humor and realism, gives a real voice to the pain of repression. All give tremendous performances that overflow with humanity once the 1950's veneer is shattered, or eroded, away.

While the 1950's are pictured today as a simpler, nicer, better time, the world isn't a brainwashing operation. Once inside, you live and partake everyday as a human being in the 1955 microcosm - complete with all the complexities and secrets that were kept hidden behind the floral-print curtains. The costumes by Robert C.T. Steele are deliciously flawless with all the beautiful constraints of the inherent in the un-budging fabrics.  Under Kip Fagan's direction the work is funny, tender and an honest study of what we will do to achieve happiness.

Tickets for "Maple and Vine" can be purchased here: http://citytheatre.culturaldistrict.org/production/33010/

The Eponymous Theatre Critic is involved in a life-long role-playing game where players involve themselves in key positions in society and seek to disrupt the normal, American way of life by enhancing our dogma. The game is called: Veganism.

"Suspicious Package" from Future Tenant

"Suspicious Package" is an interactive role-playing theatrical experience that has been to New York, Edinburgh and recently closed (to far less fanfare than deserved) in Pittsburgh. A sugar-substitute heiress, hard-boiled detective, a glamorous showgirl and a cast of other noir archetypes are played by the theatre-goers who are directed their lines, inner monologues and footsteps via iPod.

The Hostess, Creator, Writer and Video Performer Gyda Arber has created an experience that is both entertaining and completely accessible. Most multi-media works push the threshold of audience/performer relationships - sometimes uncomfortably so - but "Suspicious Package" is just fun! Any fan of noir films, Raymond Chandler novels or just pretending are in for a treat if this show moves on to another venue.

"Suspicious Package" takes a group, six at most, and assigns everyone a role: Detective, Heiress, etc., then a hat (or feather boa), and a Personal Video Player. Participants walk around the block, visiting secret locations as music, their character's voice overs and actions that must be accomplished are piped in through their perfectly-synced earphones. The audience/actors are given just enough to structure the story: The Showgirl flirts with the Detective, the Reporter snoops, the Doctor has a bright red bag, but the "how" things get accomplished, i.e. the fun bits are up to the spur-of-the moment, and off-the-top-of-the-head.

The Pittsburgh version only covered a single block and had only three locations (which is good for the directionally-challenged but can be repetitive in terms of the story). But it's honestly impressive how well the system works, considering the mixture of the two most unwieldy components of the theatre: Audience & Technology.

For future information on her shows, Gyda Arber's Website can be found here:
http://www.gydaarber.com/

The Eponymous Theatre Critic is gypped out of a lot of birthday presents. It's not the placement of Epony's birthday in the calender, but Epony's gambling addiction.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"The Rivals" by Carnegie Mellon University


"The Rivals" by Richard Brinsley Sheridan is a comedy of manner in five acts. Mistaken identities, meddling parents and rhyming couplets abound as Jack Absolute struggles to win the heart of Lydia Languish who believes him to be Ensign Beverly, his own rival for her hand in marriage.

A beautifully rendered set featuring a giant letter suspended above the English city of Bath opens "The Rivals" currently playing at CMU. Bath, is best comparable to an 18th century English Las Vegas, is a city where anything can happen - most of which does over the course of the three hour performance. "The Rivals" is best compared to a modern "Ensemble Rom-Com". It's fun, it's funny but there are so many characters doing so many things (and talking so much) audiences may feel a bit unfilled to some character's arcs.

But, despite some character's short stage time, what is anything but unfulfilling are the performances rendered. The diversity of the young cast onstage is amazing to behold. Alexandra Spieth as Mrs. Malaprop and Lachlan McKinney as Sir Anthony Absolute steal the show as the aged parental figures who insist on marrying the mischievous Jack to the girl he already has plans to elope with (under his assumed identity).

Joseph Maddox as Bob Acres, a simple country man in search of a Bathian bride, exudes energy and down-home humor as another rival for Lydia's hand. Similarly, Jon Jorgenson and Grace Rao as Faulkland and his fiance Julia Melville deliver what is perhaps the only heartbreaking moment of the night, but with such honesty and quiet strength it really seems the play might not have such a happy ending after all. (Don't worry, it does)


The costumes by Albulena Borovci are gorgeous to behold, with the men just as beautifully and pictorially done as the women. In the midst of so many words, it is wonderful to see the ingenious physical comedy that emerges throughout the play - corsets, three-cornered hats, pantaloons and all.

 Visiting director Annie Tyson clearly knows the world and where to find the comedy in even the most dense of vocabulary. It is easy to see that, when it comes to uniting beautiful language and physicality  the students of Carnegie Mellon University are without Rivals.

Tickets for "The Rivals" at Carnegie Mellon University can be purchased here: 
http://www.drama.cmu.edu/calendar/day_view/day:October+9,+2012

-The Eponymous Theatre Critic was waiting the entire review to make that last "rivals" joke. Just be impressed at the restraint to not fill the entire review with similar attempts.          

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"RABBIT: An Original Rabbit Tragedy" by Eternal Cult

"RABBIT: An Original Rabbit Tragedy" by Jon Mac Cole and Savannah Reich is a tale of a runt-born rabbit named Jonathan who dreams of being a great magician...or just having a family of his own. But, when a hawk picks up the unsuspecting hare, Jonathan is set on a journey that we are told can only have a tragic end.

"RABBIT" is a traveling Do-It-Yourself theatre show by Eternal Cult, currently touring with stops all along the East Coast. Besides great writing, the show boasts all the ingenuity of a indie band music video with the cast transforming themselves in simple but effective homemade costumes. Similarly, the group travels the country with a van and a set that is assembled and dissembled at each venue.

Jon Mac Cole stars as Jonathan, the tragic rabbit who - often through no fault of his own - ends up down Aristotle's structure more than up it. Savannah Reich is his hipster daughter with dreams and desires but not enough maturity to actually make a viable life plan. Rounding out the uber-talented cast is Patrick Costello, Flora Mahaffy, James Jordan and Anna Young as a cavalcade of characters from a hipster badger, a free-range shyster Guinea pig, a pretentious sci-fi novel writer, and the operatic Black Rabbit Queen of the Dead (among others).

At first glance, the play seems ripe for a children's production - if a few curse words could be removed. But, in the dawning of the second act proves what the Greek Chorus revealed at the top of the show - that the show is indeed a tragedy and can only end as such. Not a bloody, bloody, funny "tragedy", but an existential crisis of self-worth, the cages we can and can't escape and whether the choices of out lives matter.

Don't neglect to wear your ears. It is imperative that the show only be seen by squirrels.

Dates for the show can be found here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/278963

The Eponymous Theatre Critic is a highly-spirited, competitive sould who enjoys a rousing game at any point of the day or night - particularly with the hat game piece.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

'ROPE" from Pittsburgh Playhouse

"ROPE" by Patrick Hamilton is a suspense drama where apathetic intellect meets an unthinkable action when two undergraduate lovers kill a fellow co-ed and plan a pompous dinner party around the concealed corpse. And yes, it is basis of the same-titled Hitchcock film.

The production currently playing at Pittsburgh Playhouse begins with an expert use of darkness, shadows and natural light. It's not often that one sees the technical aspects of theatre use so simply with such stunning effect. Lamps provide lamplight, open doors flood with hallway light, dimmers are controlled by actors and work the way lights do in your own home - only the set by Gianni Downs belongs on a Better Homes & Garden catalogue.

The skill seen in director Elmore James's staging of the first ten minutes prepares everyone for a night of fantastic, complete and polished theatre. Nicholas J. Browne as Charles Grinaldo is the perpetrator of the unseen but much-discussed crime, and John Steffenauer is his Argentinian boyfriend who helped in the motiveless murder of their fellow student. Browne appears to hold all the cards as the ever charming, cool-headed mastermind and the tension between his hand pulling the strings and Steffenauer's unraveling counterpart adds so much to the show.

On the other side of the chessboard, the reluctant and almost unrecognizable as a hero Rupert Cadell is played with stylish and linguistic mastery by Ryan K. Witt. Witt manages to make the purposefully unlikable, jaded character rise to the challenge, become the hand of justice which the character does not even believe exists in the start of the play. Witt also manages the character's verbal gymnastics, one-liners and mocks with aplomb.  

In fact, every character is well-defined in the show. Some have less than 20 lines, some are onstage for less than 20 minutes, but all leave a real, often empathetic imprint on the mind of the audience. The stellar cast includes: Rebecca Knowles as Leila Arden, Kevin Daniel O'Leary as Sabot, Sean Sears as Professor Jonathan and Jennifer Tober as Mrs. Deben.

While many plays try to stuff as many variations of action and events that can possibly fit,  what is fascinating about "ROPE" is the way the simply-constructed story unfolds. We see the detective become interested and disinterested in the case (largely dependent on how much or what he drinks), leading the audience - who always knows where the body is - to constantly be waiting for the excitement of the reveal or the horror of the unreveal - both of which seem constantly inevitable.

Tickets for "ROPE" can be purchased here: http://www.pittsburghplayhouse.com/Tickets/ordertickets

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic finds leopard print in a variety of colors and styles, from electric blue to radioactive pink to verisimilitude lime green. From carpeting to bathrobes, leopard print in available at any time, day or night.    

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick" from Caravan Theatre

"800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick" wades into the arcane mind of the often misunderstood science fiction writer as he struggles to live through his last days, his experience with meeting God, and the transformation of one of his novels into the film Bladerunner."

Let it be said, "800 Words" is a play about ideas, just as Philip K. Dick was a lover, transcriptor of psychedelic, scientific and religious epiphanies. That being said, the play moves in an out through episodes of Dick's life to dissertations on theology and art to the fragile strings of his psychology, where even time is anything but linear. That being said, the play has a tendency to ramble and repeat with the actors going along for the ride rather than creating new explorations of some scenes that are ultimately the same.

Philip K. Dick is played by John Gresh who brings the complex character into the most human light imaginable. The "SF" writer is affluent in language and affable in demeanor. You instantly want to share one of his beers and listen to Linda Ronstadt with him, making all his triumphs and failures all the more personal. Also another high point of the show, Tony Bingham as Stan Lem, a Polish, Marxist book publisher and Secret Agent Man brings an amazing mix of comic timing, energy and physical prowess to his quick-switching roles.

Pittsburgh up-and-comer Lily Davis plays several female roles and makes a lot of what could be seen as simply "jail bait" characters like Philip's underage grug supplier and a Marxist "incentive" named Gertrude. Likewise, Diana Ifft brings a lot in one of the play's most random tangents, although the entire scene could be cut from the piece with little or no reprecussions.

There are some problems with the show. The video aspects of the show are dismal to say the least, with random words flying by - mostly illegibly - and a "VIDEO" projection box in the right hand corner popping up on set. Similarly, there is lack of sound design (which is very different from just playing a song as background music) leaves some scenes feeling empty and oddly quiet, and puppetry of the piece is sloppy at many points - including some puppets being left dead onstage with their insides poking out.

Despite the unimpressive technical aspects of the show, there are a hundred reason to see Caravan's Theatre latest work. Lovers of Philip's work will be delighted with the piece, and noy-yet-fans will definately leave inspired to pick up one of his 44 novels or 121 short stories. Open-minded audiences will also be treated to a theatrical experience that asks dynamic questions of which the only answer is, there are more questions.    

Tickets for "800 Words: The Transmigration of Philip K. Dick" can be purchased here: http://caravantheatreofpittsburgh.com/Caravan_Theatre_of_Pittsburgh/Welcome.html

-The Eponymous Theatre Critic is alone on a smoldering planet surrounded by nothing but stacks and stacks of books and a single broken pair of glasses at Epony's feet.   

Monday, September 17, 2012

"Riders to the Sea" and "Lizbeth" from Microscopic Opera Company

"Riders to the Sea" follows a small Irish family on the night the last man of their family, as all the men before him, dies at seas. "Lizabeth" is an operatic exploration into the life and motivations of Lizzie Bordon, the infamous 19th century woman who allegedly killed off her father and stepmother with an ax.

It is completely possible that the general confusion of the audience at "Riders to the Sea" may be coloring this section of the review. But, let it be known, the Irish one-act that starts off the evening is actually shown in two ways. The first half is the non-musical play by J.M. Synge, and, immediately after, the actresses of the piece switch roles, and the operatic version by Ralph Vaughan Williams begins.

While it is interesting to see the two version put side by side, and even more exciting to see a company willing to take the risk, the two versions are a) virtually identical in terms of lines and b) virtually identical in forms of staging. The effect, instead of having one piece illuminate the other's, or show different aspects of certain revelations, is more watching one show and then watching it again, this time with music.

However, while the concept and staging seems a bit off, the performances by the various leads stand strong. Laurie Klatscher, Tressa Glover and Brandi Welle deliver an honest portrayal of women who have lost everything only to find the cliff where they can push off more. While Mary Beth Sederburg, Gail Novak Mosites and Leah Edmondson Dyer sing their way through the journey with grace and amazing voices.

However, the real meat of the night comes in the second act with the short opera "Lizabeth". While "Rider's to the Sea" features no suprises or changes between the two version, "Lizabeth" shows off the staging prowess of director Gregory Lehane. "Lizabeth" shows not only the murderess Lizzie, but her elder and younger version, showing all sides of her split psyche at once.

Anna Signer as Lizabeth, the eldest, is refined, friendly and creepily engaging as a woman who has spent the majority of her life trying to escape her own name. Is she caught in a web of self-delusion? Dementia? Is she using one to cope with the other? Jillian K. Marini as Young Lizzie captures the stubborn face and physical body of Lizzie's young, frustrated side. And, rounding out the gruesome trifecta, Erica Olden plays the Lizzie that is pushed to the brink as a woman, due to stress and affection that has always been just out of reach, finally breaks.

As always, the live orchestra of Microscopic is a perfect addition to the evening, never overpowering of the actors and beautifully underscoring both selections with melodies that uplift or haunt you long after the show is over. Again, Microscopic Opera provides a night of theatre that is unique and bloody good.

Tickets to "Riders to teh Sea & Lizabeth" can be purchsed here: http://microscopicopera.org/Home.html

- The Eponymous Theatre critic enjoys lambasting* with olive oil and oregano.

*Editor Correction: I believe the term is "Lamb Basting". If you want people to know you're a chef, just write it.