Sunday, February 26, 2012

"M33" by Pittsburgh Playhouse

"M33" is a slice-of-Americana play about the the Depression Era national craze known as "marathon dances" where everyday folks, ex vaudvillian performers and anyone looking for a free meal would dance until they dropped, were sabotaged, were disqualified or won.

It is rare to find an effective, narrative-driven dance show that is not also a musical. And, while "M33" may be begging to be made into a musical at some point, it really works well as it now stands. Don't be mislead, there is definately music involved throughout, but the dialogue and the dancing are what really drives the story forward.

The lead is perfectly cast Heidi Friese as the so-much-more than plucky June Havoc, who traverses the valleys and mountains of her past and self throughout the show. Friese takes the character through the physical and emotional trials so effectively, the audience can feel June's exhaustion, and determination to work through it, even though it is obvious the actress is physically onstage for a mere two hours or so.

Fantastic character performances feed the rollicking show. Reed Worth and Kristen Sherman as married clown performers Bozo and Helen Bazoo steal hearts with their honest chemistry and comedic adroitness. Audra Qualley is an understated but deliberate dirty player who's seen the bad side of the dance hall a few too many times. Kassie Doherty is quite charming as the "local" entered in the contest. Brandon Taylor as Patsy McCarthy provides a nice, relaxed juxtaposition to Friese's energy. And Sarah Meahl as The Mick who is so evocative physically her character does not need too many words.

The set, apparently, is supposed to be "a boardwalk along the seashore". It never really evokes that (sure there's water shown outside, but it's never as specified as a shore), but is realistically executed and fits the stage action perfectly. Locations like the sleeping quarters of the dancers (only eleven minutes every hour) and June Havoc's flashbacks are completely at home on the two-level set above the dance floor. The costumes are also perfectly period, and make-up really transforms the talented young cast into a believable array of ages and character types - not an easy feat for young performers.

The only note might be a problem in the play itself. Late in the game, the play tries to set up a physical antagonist, like the Mob or one of the dancers, but these are largely distracting plot-wise, never resolved and uneccessary. After all, the marathon is the antagonist which forces the dancers into constant conflict with themselves and one another. Also, there's a strange use of life-sized rag dolls early on? At first, you think it's a gag used to get pennies from the spectators, and then it is revealed that, yes, the dolls on the stage are meant to be real people - supposedly to fill the stage more for the beginning of the dance marathon? But, the human cast makes up about 21, so maybe this is also a bit superfluous/confusing. Confusing being the bad part.

Even though the characters drop out in increasingly more psychologically damaging ways, the triumph of the play is that it manages to keep the mood light but blindingly realistic. This is not a plastered-on smile and apple pie slice of Americana, but one about endurance, metaphorical and physical. The play has as much dirt on its face as the contestants dancing for their lives. Moments are particualrly surreal just because they are true: violence from other dancers in the sleeping room, a couple having sex under a blanket while dancing upright on the floor, exhausted women warned about being kidnapped or drugged and sold right off the floor and the constant threat of "going squirrely" from a mixture of sleep and sun deprivation. Don't worry though, the play never stops being a good time.

But, after over 1000 hours, (that's over 41 days, to keep it in perspective), there's the light at the end of the tunnel of glorious prize money. Or, at the very least, there's another dance marathon.

Tickets for "M33" can be purchased here:

-The Eponymous Theatre Critic has been a longtime believer in, "Sadism is sexy. Masochism is talent." It is, in fact, the only tatoo Epony has on eastward side of Epony's back.    

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" by Carnegie-Mellon University

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a fan-favorite 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 and daughter, 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.

The production currently running at Carnegie-Mellon University is a dynamic mixture of spectacle and gore set in a gothic wonderland. That is to say, it is not to be missed. Director Joe Calarco takes the often-done production and transforms it into a complete departure from all that's known, making even entrances and exits unexpected and exciting (setting the tone for the entire night). However, while extremely innovative and new, nothing is neglected, from the opening stage picture to the final terror, to this whole, complete production.  If you can get a ticket, that is.

The most dynamic performances in the show go to the supporting roles. Marrick Smith gives new depth to the sailor, Anthony, as a young man who is impestuous and easily taken by passion instead of simply a Dudley-Do-Right. Corey Cott as Tobias captures the innocence and paranoia of a boy raised in abuse. Noah Plomgren as a scene-stealing Pirelli that makes you wish the character lived for a just a few more numbers. And Jessie Ryan Shelton as a sweet, docile, but ultimately very funny Johanna. Another sign of the production's level to detail, the Male and Female Ensemble steal the show at their various interludes and transformations as the town people of London, Pie devourers and, ultimately, Sweeney's victims. What is fantastic is that the Ensemble and Supporting roles (even those not mentioned here) are just as powerful, evocative singers and performers as the leads, making every moment of the production mezmerizing.

That being said, the most sucessful performances are the ones that give over to the extreme emotion that is within the music. Denver Milord who plays Sweeney Todd, while a flawless voice, seems to be holding something back. Also, he and Abdiel Vivancos, Judge Turpin, do not carry the work-weary/older bodies or age of their respective characters. However, Vivancos goes to the depravity of the controlling Judge while Milord's rage seems flimsy. Lucia Roderique, however, carries the age and world-weariness of Mrs. Lovett as epically as she sings.

Someone once said that a good set is one that you don't even notice, and this similarly goes for costumes, lights, sound, any production aspect. However, in this production, all these elements are an intractable piece that, where any of them altered or removed, the entire production would not be the same. It may still be a good production, maybe even great, but it would not be this production of Carnegie-Mellon's "Sweeney Todd". And this production is fantastic. In the interest of spoiling, the specifics will not be discussed here. Also, the running time is NOT two hours but, including the intermission, clocks in at about three. However, if you are unable to attend, don't let anybody tell you about it. It's better if you don't know what you miss.

Tickets for "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" at Carnegie-Mellon University cane be attempted at here:

Please Call the Box Office for Wait Listing Procedure.

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic enjoys a good tot of gin in front of a roaring fire of a chapel in which the harmonium will only be partially singed.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"The Elephant Man" from Prime Stages

"The Elephant Man" is the stage adaptation of the life of John Merrick, a man who's physical deformities made him an outcast for most of his life. The play, which was originally done on Broadway where Merrick was at one point played by Mark Hamill and David Bowie. The play follows not only Merrick's journey, but the journey of the Victorean-era Londoners that surround him.

The play at the beginning is a fast-moving trek through London society circa late 1800's. The doctors, most importantly Dr. Frederick Treves (Justin Fortunato), stand very straight and speak elegantly about the fortunateness of being a British male at this point in history. Meanwhile the lower rungs of society are cruel and heartless to those even lower then themselves, as in the case of Merrick's manager, Ross (performed despicably by Brian Czarniecki). Basically, at the start of the play, it is very clear who we are meant to root for and loathe against as we are introduced to the titular character.

As we spend more time in the clean, sterile world of upper Victorean society, the play becomes almost allegorical. Merrick breaks through the facade of Victorian thinking, chastity and rules that "are for your own good" not with a sledgehammer, but with questions. What is great is that the play is not a "My Fair Lady" story where Merrick struggles alone, but how everyone struggles around him. Fate propels the play as light-up placards read foreboding messages about Merrick's future. And the shift as the question of "why are we helping him" rises is almost imperceptable until it becomes a moral land mine to Dr. Frederick Treves (played by Justin Fortunatoto in a role which transforms almost as much as the Elephant Man). After all, we want to like the nice people helping Merrick (for example Mrs. Kendal played by Maggie Ryan as the force-of-nature actress of the time) and dislike the bad people hurting him, but when the nice people's motives are called into question, it makes you go back rethink their interactions with Merrick from the start.

Sean Sears, who plays Merrick, steals the show. Yes, it is by virtue of being the main character, but it is also by the physical discipline Sears exerts onstage. "The Elephant Man" by Bernard Pomerance specifically calls for the actor to wear no prostetics. In truth this is probably to ease the production aspect as much as it is "see the humanity" of the Elephant Man, but it means many actors perform the role as physically normal, or with a slight speech impediment. However Sears goes to the necessary extreme, contorting his face and body not in general, but with extreme attention to what actual part of his body is deformed and how to move with it. On top of the physical, Sears moves a character through emotional maturity and discovery - which may not always be for the better.

The only complaint of the show would probably be that there are a few characters whose roles are so small/unimportant to the arc of the story that when they appear, speak a few lines, and disappear, the audience is distracted as to their point. Also, while the show is staged in the round, the best seats are really the main seats to the front - that is where the actors emote, speak and turn to most, particularly in monologues.

The great set over which hangs a chandelier and projection screen is a single-ring circus, Merrick's first cage, to his London Hospital room full of books , which may or may not be his second. Circus music feeds the set changes and dream sequences. Everyone stands tall and proud in their Victorean garb while Sears, notably, never dresses above a working man's suit - even when meeting a Countess.

If you are looking for a hidden treasure in Pittsburgh theatre, then "Prime Stage Theatre" might be what you are looking for. The company boasts a constantly moving, circulating group that regularly features new directors and actors. On top of it all, they have a great educational program benefiting the children and teens of the Pittsburgh area.

Tickets for "The Elephant Man" can be found at "Prime Theatre Stages" website at:

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic's clothes are woven from coarse camel hair, and features a leather belt around the waist. Before a show, Epony enjoys locusts and wild honey and visits from the people of Jerusalem, all of Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"The Gammage Project" by Pitt Rep and The Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company

"The Gammage Project" is the exploration of the tragic 1995 murder of Jonny Gammage by police in the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood. A cast of almost 30 report "the circumstances and the aftermath of his violent death" at the Henry Heyman Theatre of the University of Pittsburgh, but is produced in conjunction with Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.

My gosh, this play is boring.

Here are the reasons why:

The framework of the play is completely bizarre. It is a fragmented mix that begins in a classroom and then moves on to various locations, but for the majority of the time lingers in the most tedious place imaginable - a court room. That's right, 90% of this play is exposition. We, the audience, get presented minor lessons on the role of the NAACP (in general), how law enforcement jurisdictions work, and a whole, whole lot of facts that are true - completely true and horrifying in their reality - but completely un-theatrical. Who knew that police brutality could become boring - even after being drilled into your head for over two and a half hours.

"The Gammage Project" is begging to either be a straight play (with a set beginning-middle-end, cause and effect story arc, etc) or a documentary/monologue show that delves into the personal lives of the people involved (beyond the headlines i.e. most famously The Laramie Project). As it stands now, the show wavers in between the two, creating an ungratifying hodge-podge effect. And what's sad is that the play does show us places where an actual play could start! Maybe we inhabit the funeral of Jonny Gammage for two hours, maybe it's the coroner's inquest where the red flags of innocence were first realized, maybe it's even the bar of the bad cops, the misnomered "Good Ole Boys", where we follow the bad guys as they don't even bother to get their cover stories straight.

What makes it boring is that the play presents the facts in the very beginning. There is never any doubt in our minds who the bad guys are and that they are very bad. Not just bad, but so devoid of any natural humanity that nothing bad they do could honestly surprise us. But they are presented as bad, immoral, untrustworthy, and then that information is repeated and recycled the entire play. Nothing is left for the audience to discover. There are no surprises in the entire show, no revelations and no real driving action that makes us want to follow the story, just lots and lots of talking. This personification is accurate, by the way, but accuracy does make it theatrical. (Theatrical here meaning "interesting to watch".) What if there actually was doubt in the audience's mind that was progressively shrunk until we decided they were guilty. Wouldn't the tragedy of the piece be magnified when the cops go free?

And maybe this long-windedness of the never-ending courtroom scenes and facts could be forgiven if the play were straight transcripts, but the playwright's notes indicate that, "The Gammage Project is more relaxed in its use of found dialogue than many documentaries, but at 80% of what you will see is sculpted out of a great mass of data..." So not only do we have to watch this amazingly dull inquest (an inquest and three trials and part of a civil suit among others things) most of it is paraphrased.

All this being said, there are seven minutes of this play that are not only watcheable, but brilliant. The actual re-enactment of the murder (which we finally get to see rather than get informed of) is visceral and terrifying, crossing a line (maybe dangerously) into the audience and is one of the best examples  realistic stage violence Epony has ever seen. It's brilliant, and you can vault from your chair right after because it's right before intermission and downhill from there. Later on, the actor actually playing Gammage returns for the most human part of the show - a final conversation between him and his mother that drips with sad irony and hope that will never be realized. Things like, the fact that Gammage was engaged, would have fed the story so much. These two moments add volumes more than the hours of talking about it. Why the actual human element of the show was pushed to the tail-end of both acts is a complete mystery to the entire piece's detriment. This can only be credited to director Mark Clayton Southers, who shows he can make great when presented with good work.

While somewhat loathed to, the character of "The Joker" (played by Rico Romalus Parker) must be remarked on. While the character, who is supposed to act as "comic relief" and an alternate point of view for the horrendous event, is a nice burst of energy to a show with very little action, his jokes aren't particularly funny, and they eventually stop being jokes. Rather than the charm of Pryor or Cosby (who the character is suppose to emulate) that could attract anyone of any color, The Joker stops presenting as a comic and starts with a thinly-veiled animosity that makes the show heavier rather than relieving tension. Because everyone white in the audience wants to be lumped in with the Good Ole Boys.   

A word on the technical aspects. The lights are all right. The sound is good. The use of the movie screen is sporadic, but occasionally brilliant (The Juror who Declined Being Named), but honestly as long as the play is a shambles, nothing technological is going to make it anymore watcheable. Of the massive cast, a few notable actors actually manage to make the exposition interesting: Larry John Meyers as Cyril Wecht M.D., J.D. , Joseph Martinez as Bobby Del Greco Jr., Laci Mosely as Jonny's mother Narves Gammage (in a role far her elder), Ken Bolden as Anthony Krastek and finally, the man we saw far too little of Correy Talley as Jonny Gammage.

Apparently, there are lots of people who support the cops in question and the sneaking suspicion is that this play was written for them. It is a calm (for the most part) collection of the facts and how they were skewed to protect the white cops who killed a black man. However, the Joker  adds to the thread of dripping sarcasm throughout the piece directed at the rascist cops. For court scenes, two reporters sit as a peanut gallery and are "witty" at the blatant lies of the cops in court, despite the fact that these guys commited murder and are about to go free. They invite the audience (metaphorically) to point fingers with them at their ignorance, and anyone who supports them. And none of those people are probably going to see something called "The Gammage Project".

We, as an intellectual theatre-going audience, are already on Gammage's side. So give us something new to the story, give us the other, human side so the facts are not just facts, but actions by or against a man, community and/or race.

Tickets for the February performances of "The Gammage Project" (it moves on to the August Wilson Center in March) can be purchased at:

 - The Eponymous Theatre critic laments the closing of Kiva Han on Craig Street. Don't worry Kiva Han, Starbucks took over Pluto's role as a planet too.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Elder Hostages" from Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

"Elder Hostages" is a collection of three short by local prolific Pittsburgh writer Ray Werner. The three pieces, all featuring "older" casts, explore the complex relationships, love and tenacity of everyday people who have been old enough to "find the jug, go 'round it, and find the handle several times".

The most striking quality of "Elder Hostages" has to be the brilliant performances of the cast. About two out of the three short plays, Mum's the Word (featuring marathon performer Roger Jerome and David Crawford) and Wandering Angus (Jerome, Crawford and the thoroughly worth-waiting-for Stevie Akers) tend to drag and go in circles that are enjoyable, but grow tiresome through flat plots, and "Why are we here?" situations. However, what makes these short plays more than worthwhile is the brilliant level of performance put out by the casts. While the writing may be thin, the relationships are thick as thieves. Whether the characters have known each other their whole lives or just met at the bus, the expert cast creates whole human beings that are great to watch.

The third piece of the night, Night Song, is dedicated to all Alzheimer sufferers and the people who love/care for them. In it, a husband (played by Jerome who is featured in all and excels fantasically as three very different characters) struggles to under is wife's disease as she (played so convincingly by Susie McGregor-Laine) struggles to understand him and be understood. While the piece has fantastic performances, what sets it apart is the way the story unfolds. The scene is a puzzle and the couple's past in the final picture. The writing is intriguing in its single-mindedness and portrays a beautiful juxtaposition of two people reliving the same past, but from two different perspectives, all in an attempt to discover the elusive "B" (See the show and insert own metaphor here).

The set is something seldom seen in small, intimate theatres, a full-stage revolve that is used extremely well to relaistically transform wherever the actors are supposed to be (all three scenes take place in drastically different locations). Adding to this is fantastic set dressing that really makes the space seem alive and lived-in. Adding to the charm are classic tunes that serenade the audience in between plays.

Every Sunday features a talk back with notable Pittsburgh members of the "Revivement" (this generation's uplifting replacement for "retirement") community. And come early any performance day to experience the lobby of the dowtown theatre which doubles as a gallery, featuring phorographs of some famous (and other just amazing) human beings who have made their old age another notch in the belt of an amazing life. Well done, as this is the tone of "Elder Hostages".

Tickets for "Elder Hostages" may be bought here:

 - The Eponymous Theatre Critic is over six feet tall and lanky. Epony was born in a log cabin, the 16th President of the United States and an Illinois state legislator though failed in two attempts to be elected to the United States Senate. Epony can be seen in move theatres later this year killing vampires...which is a bit of an irony.