Saturday, March 24, 2012

"M.I.A." from Pittsburgh Playhouse

"M.I.A" follows the family of a soldier who is currently "Missing In Action", but is most likely dead. The soldier's 40th birthday lands on the weekend his conservative, patriotic father is accepting a "Man Of The Year Award" from the local VFW. While the family has in many ways moved on from the death of the eldest brother, when the youngest son declares his desire to enlist, the family is torn between patriotism and keeping a child safe.

The show, while "emotional" is labored. The script is populated with lots of talking over miniscule, low-stakes events - some of which have nothing to do with the story. Characters ask the most obvious questions about each other. Because why would a father, on the weekend he is receiving an award from the VFW M.I.A. Commitee, on the birthday of his son who went M.I.A., seem distracted?

And it's not that the performances are bad. Larry John Meyers as Frank Schooler - the father who might have taught his boys too well - and his real-life wife Holly Thuma as Emmy Schooler bring the chemistry and are believably married onstage. Justin Mark DeWolf delivers a young man who is torn between allegiance to his family and allegiance to what he believes makes a man (and delivers what could be the best monologue in the show). The supporting cast, Tommy LaFitte and Daina Michelle Griffith are equally skilled in their craft.

What makes everyone suffer is that the characters are basically archetypes. There's the housewife who cooks well, the career woman growing distant from her husband (but who never seems to leave her parents' house...), the wise-talkin' Democratic black man who keeps the Republican white man in check with witty banter. However, the play does succeed in keeping the focus off the politics and on the humanity, even if the characters are clear-cut from the first scene.

Also characters talk about two things: the father and the missing brother. There's also no real discoveries revealed throughout the piece, so there's very little driving action that propels the story forward. And the "surprises" can be seen coming from a mile away. The ending becomes some version of "A Christmas Carol" with the ghost of the dead son appearing - played by Justin Fortunato - in a performance that makes you wish the character had been used better than "The Ghost of Christmas Past".

One consistently nice thing about Pittsburgh Playhouse is the attention they give to set design. Even in the studio space, whenever you go to see a production there you know the stage is going to be unique and transformed for every given show. In "M.I.A", the set is a sand colored and textured blank slate with benches, tombstones and dinner tables seemingly growing from the sandscape.

What really transforms the space are the lighting elements. Fantastic visuals of sand flowing and wind whistling help disorient the audience and the characters so dream sequences, nightmares actually have a complete change from the "real world".

 Now, let it be said that "M.I.A" is NOT the worst constructed show to be given a full production in Pittsburgh this year - not at all. But, it seems to be a plague among Pittsburgh theatres that shows which have a strong connection via writers, marriages, professional relationships to the theatre/people involved are the ones being performed.

That is fine, it really is. It's a part of having a theatre community, but is it too much to ask that these world-premieres - which are on the road to becoming full-fledge, well-paced, stand-alone shows - get a few staged readings? Maybe some developmental workshops? Just so someone has the chance to say, "Hey, the first 45 min of this show is nothing but exposition to set up the Act 1 curtain...maybe we could integrate that better?"

TIckets for "M.I.A." can be purchased here:

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic enjoys aliens, but only half as much as robots. That being said, robots are liked only one fourth as much as mutants, but hey, no one is perfect.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Monster In The Hall" from City Theatre

"Monster In The Hall" follows Duck, a sixteen-year-old girl Scottish girl on what could be the most stressful day of her young and stress-filled life. The house is a mess, her Hell's Angels retiree father has finally been struck blind by his Multiple Sclerosis, her could-be-gay/would-be-boyfriend drops by for a proposition and her Mom is still dead, leaving Duck to juggle it all on her own - all with the woman from Social Services planning to stop by for lunch. There's also a small amount of Socialism.

"Monster In The Hall" by City Theatre could be one of the best shows you see this season. Best described as a "play with music" rather than a full-out musical, half the play is sung in rock/punk style by the energetic cast who dance and sing with all the enthusiam of teens alone in their bedrooms. The energy and comic skill of the cast keeps the high-energy show of ever-growing stakes constantly moving. They sing. They dance. They have motorcycle chase scenes.

Melinda Helfrich as Duck is as endearing as she is awkward - which is what the character demands. Her Duck is a girl whose strength is abundantly clear to the audience, but who can't see it in herself. Helfrich makes what could be a tragic, put-on young woman into a heroine who has our support by never dreaming to ask for it.

Sheila McKenna as ALL the other female roles is domineering, then endearing, then a Norweigian punk star, all while being hilariously funny. The same can said for Matt Dengler as Lawrence (and as various Game Show Hosts) and David Whelan as her motorcycle-minded father, Duke. With a cast of four, everyone is consistently onstage signing, dancing, pantomiming all in a joyous mix that tries to mask the piss-stained, weed-filled home that Duck and Duke have cobbled together. All this is accomplished not with brazen sarcasm, but real tenderness that makes life, no matter how hard, tolerable.

The set is a series of child-decorated doors and cupboards that fill the stage, opening and closing without rhyme or reason. The lighting and video elements are brilliantly done, with the motorcyle crash that took Duck's mother popping up, much like tragic events keep recycling through our own mind. A fantastic lighting and sound scheme keeps the energy of the play going in perfect sync with the performances.

While the play could be called hodge-podge, it's structure makes sense. "Monster In The Hall" is all about coping. Music helps you cope, so there's music in the play. Fantasies help you cope, so the play is filled with them too. So do video games, game shows, stories about the past, and the production manages to mesh all these things together in a fantastical but honest spectacle of theatre. "Monster In The Hall" should not be missed.

Tickets for City Theatre's "Monster In The Hall" can be purchased here:

- The Eponymous Theatre Critic does not believe the slanderous rumor that Greenland in filled with ice while Iceland is green; neither should you. Such an irony could not be cooked up by a people as barbaric as the Vikings.