Friday, November 18, 2011

"Three Decembers" from the Microscopic Opera Company

"Three Decembers" from the Microscopic Opera Company is a chamber opera (this means "short") which follows a mother, daughter and son together through three Christmases in three different decades. The mother is a famous stage actress. Her daughter is a pinot noir-slugging housewife with two kids. And the son is caretaking his boyfriend who has contracted AIDS. The story unfolds as the children come to discover their fading memories may not be the only reason they have trouble remembering their father.

The magical nature that the Microscopic Opera Company establishes cannot be overpraised. The set is made up of simple white furniture, reminiscent of the delicate nature of a dollhouse, and surrounds the excellent ten-piece orchestra. The production is top-notch, directed by Lise Ann Goldsmith. It is at times haunting, hilarious, heart-breaking, all the while being an honest portrayal of family life. The actors command the complete set and beyond, making use of the entire space. The entire production is so well put-together that small movements, intricate moments here and there let you know that characters are connected even if they are seperated by time and space.

If the performers of the Microscopic Theatre Company are any indication, the days of opera singers singing without acting are either numbered or already dead. Every member of the three-person cast rises to the occasion creating, not just characters, but believable human beings. Mary Gould as the mother, Madeline Mitchell, is the quintessential diva constantly lamenting her children or behaving like a child herself. Daniel Teadt, who is about to make his New York City Opera debut, plays Charlie, the son, whose veneer of wit and charm covers his need for his mother's long-overdo acceptance of himself and life partner. And Beatrice (actress's name not included in program) the sister whose drinking intensifies as she searches for guidance from a dead father. While all these roles could fall into the chasm of stereotype, the polished and savy actor/singers keep their performances grounded in honesty while reaching the heaven with their voices.

As stated before, the orchestra is excellent and lend a depth to the piece that simply cannot be captured without live music. The music is so at one with the performance onstage that the audience is free to "forget" they are there and absorb the performance. All the elements of the stage - lights, set, sound- stand together beautifully. In particular, costumes, by Richard Parsakian, are actually incredibly period-specific, so the audeince knows what decade we're in before someone actually has to say the date.

   "Three Decembers" is a piece not just for opera connoisseurs but for anyone desiring to witness a night of great theatre. Best of all, the cast performs unmiked, so the power and subtlty of their voices shine through and enhance the story. While the mother constantly laments why life is so hard, the Microscopic Opera Company is music to the ears.

Tickets for "Three Decembers" may be purchased here: *

*Purchases made AT the theatre are cash only.

-The Eponymous Theatre Critic marches to the beat of an entirely different drum. ENTIRELY different. So different in fact that it is actually a banjo. It is a difficult life, only marching to string instruments...

Monday, November 14, 2011

"Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir" from City Theatre

"Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir" by Keith Bunin follows Sam Bendrix, a bartender/crooner who, for one night only, has been given the time onstage to perform a nightclub act all his own...for someone who may or may not show up.

The City Theatre manages to set up a convincing lounge atmosphere, complete with (fake) smoke clouding and swirling around the lights. There are two and four-seat tables set up on risers so parties can sit together comfortably, and guests are even encouraged to bring their drinks with them. After all, it is a nightclub. The lighting stays ambiant, and the music from the band is clear and engaging without being overpowering.

The show is...fine, in every good and bad sense of the word. Luke Macfarlane, of some television acclaim, plays Sam and uses the audience as any good nightclub comic, basically as a second character or straight-man for his one-liners. Macfarlane's voice is like velvet, and he wears the character of Sam Bendrix like a dinner jacket - tailor-made. The musicians, while subtle, are great, really coming across not as actors (which they aren't) but as musicians there to support their lead. All in all, the show has the appeal of a good, low-key date night or something to bring your visiting grandparents to for nostalgia's sake.

However, those looking for a "something more"  night of theatre may want to look elsewhere. Basically, "Sam Bendrix..." is another "my life as a gay man" one-man show. And, while this one has the distinction of being set in 1958 New York City, it is pretty much the same-old, same-old. Macfarlane is affable, friendly, pretty darn virtuous and very nice to look at, and in the little over an hour and a half he's onstage we get to hear snippets about his childhood, his move to the Big Apple, his loves and subsequent heartbreaks, his tender relationship to his mother and a lot of forgotten classic songs. But then, try to find a one man (of any gender) show that doesn't involve music or tales of ex-boyfriends or that life in New York City was/is harder than it seems. Maybe less songs and more history? Maybe higher stakes and less affability? There needs to be something to take this particular show out of it's already well-worn path.

There is one moment where Sam and the band look nervous, after all, it is 1958 and the mere mention of homosexual practices are grounds for a police raid. But, rather than the tension mounting as the story becomes more and more intimate and overt, everything melts away to more relaxed singing and talking. Similarly, the play suffers from several anachronisms. For one, the play is set in 1958, Sam mentions buying a Chatty Cathy doll for a friend's daughter several years before...which is miraculous, as the doll was only available in stores in 1960. Similarly, The Cat in the Hat only came out in 1957...also, the blender they pull out at one point is decidedly not vintage, but now Epony is just being picky.

As stated before there is nothing "wrong" with the show. It is enjoyable, takes a few low-key suprising turns and is willing to make you laugh and send you on your merry way. And there is nothing wrong with that, but some innovation in the form may be the shot in the arm this show needs to truly distinguish itself.

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic does is fact know when the Chatty Cathy doll was made because Eponymous was the one standing at the front of the line at Macy's in 1960 buying five of them for reasons which, as of now, seem very silly and far away. Yes, Eponymous is old.

"Red" by Pittsburgh Public Theatre

"RED" is a play by John Logan, who is most famous for his screenplays, about real-life artist and larger-than-life personality Mark Rothko and his struggle to create a series of four paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in what was one of the largest paintings commission ever at it's time.

Dramaturgy is the unappreciated art of theatre. In case you don't know, and there's no particular reason why you should if you're not in the down-and-dirty of theatre making, dramaturgs are the bookworms who research the time period, historical facts, etc. of the show. So, random lines that may make no sense to us not familiar with say, the 1800's, 1970's or small town in Nebraska during the great depression, are researched extensively by the dramaturgs so that may find some way to impart the necessary information that the director, and often the audience, needs. The fruits of their labor are usually reduced to the program. So, it's rare that dramaturgs get any sort of accolades in a review. Well, prepare for history in the making:

The program of "RED" is about the size of a slim child's reader. In it are fun facts, interviews, timelines, etc. all about the life and work of Mark Rothko. There are even pictures of various classic works, exhibiting not just the use of but the feeling of the color "red", which are listed off by the characters in "RED". You can tell the Public truly desires to make sure the audience follows, and also has their own intimate connection, to the constant shop-talk of two artists that is, in essence, the entire play.

The set is so realistic and inviting, it's a temptation to get out your chair and just walk around it, observing all the minute details so elaborately set up. While it's never mentioned, the space where Rothko paints is a converted sports gymnasium - and you can tell by the remnant backboard of a basketball hoop still hnaging on the wall. Similarly, the sound design of the Public was amazing! Sound erupts for key moments and set changes and then is brough back down to actually sounding like it is eminating from a record player on the floor. Sometimes the transition was so spot-on, Epony didin't realize it was happening until it changed again.

Jack Cutmore-Scott as Ken, Rothko's assistant (who is completely imagined by the playwright) and Jeff Still as Mark Rothko, share a similar review - particularly because this is a two-person play and their interaction is constantly and only with each other. Both actors never quite convince the audience that they are real people. In Still's case, Rothko enters the story and yells at his assistant. In subsequent scenes he instructs his assistant, through yelling, berates his assistant, through yelling, and when finally Ken has the nerve to argue back, Rothko answers - through yelling. Ken, similarly, tells us about one horrific defining moment in his life, but is almost faceless personality-wise. This is basically because every aspect of him is supressed and overshadowed by Still's Rothko, and Scott fails to assert himself as anything more than an eager art student.

That being said, it is usually useless in reviews to comment on the actual script, which, in this case, won the 2011 TONY Award for best play. However, since this is to the defense of the actors, it must be said. The script of "RED" is not very playable. Believe you me, Epony was rarin' to go for a great night of Tony-Award winning theatre, but Logan's script proved to be just too one-note for the actors. Logan states: "I ...what really moves them is the father-son relationship between these two men. To me the play is really not about art or painting at all; it's about fathers and sons." This is ironic, because practically every line in the play is about art...and I mean, ART. It's theory, it's history, what and whose is good, etc. in an unrelenting, often consistent tirade that just grows...tiresome with still an hour to go in the production. Again, this is not the fault of the actors, who valiently keep the energy up no matter what.

However, Logan fails to even mention that Rothko, in real life was a father - twice. He was also a husband, and an art teacher for many years. And while this would have been fascinating to learn about, all the family history we hear about is Ken's, a completely made-up storyline for a completely made-up character. Rothko, actually did have two assistants near the end of his life, when he was too physically ill to actually paint his own canvases. Rothko, in essence, would sit a chair and tell them what to paint - again, a much more fascinating story than the one hour and forty-five minute art lesson that is "RED".

Tickets for "RED" can be purchased here:

-EPONYMOUS enjoys long blues down the beach, sipping pink out of a green-sized flute glass and, of course, beige days made lipid by celestials oranges. Today is the color purple.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" by University of Pittsburgh

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a Sondheim musical built upon a British urban legend of a deranged barber who, seeking revenge on the world for the cruel fate of his beloved wife, slits the throats of men who come looking for a shave. Also embroiled in the story is a sexually deviant judge, a ruddy sailor and the female owner of the pie shop that would cannibalistically get rid of the bodies.

Eponymous will begin with the bad so to end with the good. Richard Teaster, who plays the titular character, has one of the FINEST Sweeney Todd voices Epony has ever heard. Truly, it is amazing to hear with all the low notes but not an ounce of gravel. However, his acting is abysmal. Teaster comes across like some deposed Lawrence Olivier who has a nose in the air as self-righteous as those he despises. We are presented with a Sweeney who has no actual passion when killing, no grief, madness, rage or desire - just the arm motions of it.

Worst of all, this seems to bring down the performance of Theo Allyn, Mrs. Lovett. While Allyn seems to strain for the alto role, it was fascinating to see the usually bouyant, outrageous character of Mrs. Lovett played so humanly. Instead of the instigator, Allyn shows us a woman not equally mad as Todd, but a conflicted woman - who is basically good - getting pulled down by her love for Todd. However, since Teaster's Todd isn't that imposing or manipulative, she seems to fade into the background for most scenes.

The production itself is quite interesting, completely minimalistic with a practically bare stage populated only by actors and some small furniture pieces. However, this acts as a double-edged sword as it sometimes makes way for absolutely wonderful ensemble numbers and other times leaves the actors nothing to do but stand and sing to the audience. It's almost as though this is a more feminine production of Sweeney Todd; it focuses heavily on the women and gives them more depth (Joanna is actually shown as clever and sexually curious despite her attachment to a doll), but, unfortunately, this also seems to mean a lot less killing and completely unconvincing fight/death choreography. Even the shaving of Mr. Todd, supposedly the best in London, is done with little conviction. There isn't even a scream when a woman is thrown into FIRE.

Now for the good: the director, Lisa Jackson-Schebette, truly takes the show into new territories. As stated before, the women on the show are given whole new identities, there is brilliant staging of the ensemble cast and silent moments that are completely new to the story. Joanna's predicament in "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" is wonderfully demonstrated by her stage movements being constantly shadowed by a Victorian-house birdcage (also beautifully sung with a bell-like voice by Ashley Krysinski). The program even list several female swings for lead male roles - which this Eponymous reviewer would personally love to see. And whole new spins are put on songs. For instance, "A Little Priest" is turned into a fantastic seduction between Lovett and Todd (or, at least, it would've been had the actors been more into it.)

 Not enough great things can be said about the ensemble cast. They have a fantastic sound as a chorus, are constantly invested in their action, and basically a joy to watch throughout. Tara Velan as the Beggar Woman truly distiguishes herself (in a very small amount of time) as a fantastic singer and brilliant performer who makes the most of every second she's onstage. In Velan's character is where we truly get to see the madness and passion that should be throughout the entire show. Similarly, Rocky Paterra as Toby is magnanimous with a beautiful voice, high energy and charisma that wins everyone - again, he makes the most of a much smaller role. Andy Nagraj as Judge Turpin truly commits to the seedy role and truly "goes there" - physically, emotionally - in respect to the depravity of the judge.

Much has been made about the live University of Pittsburgh Symphony Orcherstra that accompanies the production - and it truly does bring an amazing depth to the production and should probably be adopted as the standard for the Mainstage shows (provided the sound system can be made to not "pop" continuously.) But on the whole, an amazing supporting and ensemble cast coupled with a truly inventive production are what make this Sweeny Todd one to see.

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic lives,breathes and can currently be found at the top of a very steep hill producing snow by the constant snip, snip, snipping of Epony's balpoint-pen hands on reviews sculpted entirely from ice. Ice sculpted reviews available upon request and refridgeration.