Monday, October 15, 2012

Off The Wall - New Location, Same Bold Productions

Scene from "The Other Place." Left to right Ricardo Vila-Roger, Virginia Wall Gruenert and Mark Conway Thompson
If its debut offering in its smartly designed theater space in Carnegie is any indication, Off the Wall Theater will continue to stage the thoughtful, provocative dramas that delighted so many audiences in its previous home in Washington.
To introduce its new patrons to the kind of theater that stokes the mind, senses and spirit, artistic director Virginia Wall Gruenert chose playwright Sharr White’s fittingly titled "The Other Place."
Gruenert, who dazzled in the debut production, "Shaken & Stirred," at the Washington location, picked up where she left off in Carnegie by tackling a behemoth role, one that anchors both the show and the four character cast.
When the lights go up, we find her as a biochemist named Juliana talking about a recent experience in which she addressed a room full of doctors about the efficacy of a new drug that treats dementia. In the middle of her talk, we learn that she spotted a woman sitting amidst the physicians dressed only in a yellow bikini, a sight that produced spontaneously what she calls an "episode."
The play then segues into a new location where Juliana is seeing a physician, believing she might have brain cancer. As her story unfolds even more, we also learn of her suspicions that her husband is philandering behind her back at the same time she’s facing a medical crisis.
The play’s scenes change frequently from the doctor’s office, back to the room where she gave her talk and to her home, where she aggressively confronts her husband, Ian, played by Mark Conway Thompson as a patient man who listens to his wife’s charges of infidelity and earnestly disavows them.
Complicating matters even more is the couple’s estranged daughter, Laurel, who left home at the age of 15 with one of Juliana’s research assistant and hasn’t been heard from in more than a decade. While her mother tries to cope with the onset of her recent malady and her rapidly disintegrating marriage, Laurel abruptly renews contact with her by phone.
For most of the play, the script is written puzzle-like and challenges the audience to follow along so as not to miss the important pieces. Director Melissa Hill Grande makes sure the audience is aware of the scene changes by doing things like dimming the lights and putting the spotlight on Gruenert, while the other characters make their entrances and exits.
Erika Cuenca has the onerous task of playing three separate roles, but manages to evoke distinctly differentiated characters with finely tuned nuances. Ricardo Vila-Roger nicely fills in the gaps in a rather ancillary role.
The play comes to a climax when Juliana goes to visit her daughter at the family’s summer home in Cape Cod (the other place), when all of the questions as to what is really happening in Juliana’s life begin to take shape.
Kudos to set designer, Gianni Downs, whose initial minimalist, somewhat abstract design cleverly evolves into a more detailed, realistic setting, then transforms once again to serve as a movie screen which reveals the identity of the girl in the yellow bikini.
Overall, the weight of the play falls mainly on Gruenert’s shoulders, and she manages to carry everything off with a commanding tour de force performance. The production, the exemplary cast and the creative tech crew combine to establish the benchmark and set tone for Off the Wall’s future endeavors as the seasoned theater finds its way in its new and cozy digs in Carnegie.
"The Other Place" is at the Off The Wall Theater, 25 W. Main Street in Carnegie, at 8 p.m. on October 18, 19, 20, 25, 26 and 27 and at 3 p.m. on October 21. Tickets are $35 for adults, $20 for seniors and $5 for students.. Phone 724-873-3576 or

Annie Liebovitz' "Master Set" at Wexner Center, Columbus

Wexner Center Exterior

 As a teenager, acclaimed photographer, Annie Liebovitz, snapped her first pictures when her father was stationed in the Philippines during the Vietnam War.
Still going strong now at the age of 63, the artist who started her career as a photojournalist for "Rolling Stone" magazine in 1970 then moved on to "Vogue" and "Vanity Fair," where she remains today, has photographed American presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama as well as many of the most notable figures of our time. These include athletes, actors, dancers, musicians, fashion designers, scientists and business leaders.
Over the years, Liebovitz’ body of work has earned her many awards and honors, both national and international, and her images are emblazoned in the minds of people around the world.

For the very first time, the 156 images Liebovitz personally selected as the definitive edition of her work from 1968 to 2011 is on display in its entirety at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. This "Master Set," on exhibit through December 30, 2012, is drawn from thousands of photographs taken over the years of professional assignments.
Some of the images like her "Richard Nixon Leaving the White House," a work that shows the president’s copter barely rising from the ground after his resignation in 1974 while workmen hurriedly roll up the carpet he just trod over, are familiar to most Americans over the age of 40.
One of her best known works, that of John Lennon in the nude snuggling up to a fully-clothed Yoko Ono in bed, won, in 2005, the number one spot in a compilation of the forty top magazine covers of the past forty years by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Just five hours after she took the iconic photograph, Lennon was shot and killed outside his residence in the Dakota in Manhattan,.

Looking at "The Wall" at the Wexner Center

At the Wexner, the Master Set is arranged chronologically and takes up the entire gallery space, when added to a second collection of 78 of her photos of interiors, landscapes and objects of historical figures taken throughout the United States and Great Britain for a personal camera project titled "Pilgrimage."
The earliest photo in the Master Set, "American Soldiers and Mary, Queen of the Negritos," was taken at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in 1968.
The newest, taken in 2009 and simply titled "Niagara Falls " is a dramatic look from the top of the falls. So powerful is its imagery, it feels like the rushing waters can pull you over the precipice. Fittingly, the work from the Pilgrimage collection is mounted at the top of a staircase connecting the Wexner’s two main gallery spaces and is a sensational preface to the rest of the exhibit.
A few of my favorite Liebovitz works in the exhibit include Bette Midler lying on a bed of rose petals, taken as a promo for the film, "The Rose; two side by side portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama; and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth shot at Buckingham Palace in March 2007 that shows the queen gazing towards a large open window and reveals some of the room’s furnishings and a reflection of a chandelier in a mirror.
A third, informal component of the Liebovitz exhibit is mounted on the "Wall" in the Wexner lobby and includes feature portraits and related prints taken by Liebovitz of artists who have appeared at the Wexner over the years.
On November 9 through 11, Liebovitz will visit the Center to accept the Wexner Prize, given to "a contemporary artist in any field who has been consistently original, influential and challenging to convention." During her visit Liebovitz will deliver a talk that’s open to the public.
From November 15 through 18, the Wexner, a multidisciplinary arts center that features an array of theater, music and dance performances, will also stage Sontag; Reborn," a tender look at the prolific essayist and long-time Liebovitz companion before she became a world-renowned author and activist.
If You’re Going
For more information on the Wexner Center and Liebovitz Exhibit, phone 614-292-3535 or visit website
For a place to stay, the Lofts Hotel, 55 E. Nationwide Blvd., is offering a Liebovitz Exhibit Package that includes two tickets to the show, overnight accommodations, valet parking, a $25 gift card for one of fourteen participating restaurants, two tickets for a movie of your choice at the Arena Grand Movie Theater and a complimentary breakfast at Max and Erma’s Restaurant. Phone 614-461-2642 or
For a place to dine, Lemongrass, 641 N. High Street, features Pan Asian dishes such as sushi, sashimi, soups and a variety of creative Asian dishes, many with a European twist. Entree examples include Hawaiian duck and banana-wrapped orange roughy served in a colorful, artsy atmosphere. Phone 614-224-1414 or
Lemongrass Restaurant Exterior

Friday, October 12, 2012

Quantum Theatre Stages Pittsburgh Debut of "Ainadamar"

Since its founding in 1990, Pittsburgh’s Quantum Theatre has considered itself a kind of laboratory and an incubator for the amazing by bringing to the forefront actors, directors, playwrights and influencers forging new theatrical ground.
To pull from the theater’s own self description on its website, their shows "run the gamut from those you thought you knew but now experience like never before to shows that didn’t exist until their elements mixed in its laboratory. Sometimes there’s singing. Often a sunset. Always a reaction."
Starting October 19, Quantum Theatre will stage "Ainadamar," a chamber opera by Grammy Award winning Argentine composer, Osvaldo Golijov with lyrics by David Henry Hwang..
In a recent interview, I managed to get stage director Karla Boos, to provide some valuable insights into the production of "Ainadamar," Arabic for "Fountain of Tears," slated to open October 19 at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh.

Q: I see that "Ainadamar" considers Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s relationship with Catalan tragedian, Margarita Xirgu, who Lorca considered his muse. In view of Lorca’s homosexuality, which included an implied erotic relationship with Salvador Dali, what exactly was Lorca’s relationship with Xirgu? Romantic, platonic or what?

A: Platonic muse, a very intense friendship and artistic kinship. Love, they loved each other. No question that Lorca was homosexual.

Q: How much of Lorca’s life does the chamber opera cover? Is it just the time he spent in his relationship with Xirgu or does it extend all the way from boyhood to his death at the hands of the Falangists?

A: It doesn't intend to cover Lorca's life… Margarita is remembering… she remembers their meeting, their friendship, the great moment they were invited to perform Mariana Pineda in Cuba, and how Lorca wouldn't come because things were terrible in Spain, he chose to stay and be counted among those fighting. So she's actually remembering the last time she saw him alive, and she imagines his death.

Q: In looking at the places where the opera has already been performed (Tanglewood, where it premiered, the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Boston, Chicago’s Ravinia Festival, the Cincinnati Opera, Carnegie Hall in New York and Granada, Spain near Lorca’s hometown of Fuente Vaqueros), I didn’t see a mention of Pittsburgh. Will your production, then, be making its Pittsburgh debut? A: Certainly.
Since "Ainadamar" was written as a chamber opera to be performed by a chamber rather than a full orchestra and since Quantum Theatre usually stages live dramas without music, how did you go about selecting the musicians who will provide the accompaniment?

A: We have quite an extensive track record of operas at this point. I like to experiment with the language that theater can use - music is a language to me. The musicians were chosen by the piece's music director: Andres Cladera. Andres and I have collaborated before, this our third time, and I think about eight musicians out of the large ensemble have worked on previous Quantum works.

Q: Will the staging of the opera be in a recital format or will its be fully or partially staged with costumes, sets, lighting elements and props?

A: Fully staged, a completely immersive experience.

Q: Since the opera will be staged at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, will the audience be seated in the entire expanse of the church or in a more concentrated area"

A: We're not in the sanctuary, we're in a wonderful, two-level room called the Social Hall. It looks like a Spanish courtyard to us because of the balcony level, and slate floor, dark wood, fancy aluminum. There's a monumental staircase at one end and a stage at the other. Stage functions like scenery - the opera begins with Margarita onstage, about to perform Mariana Pineda for the umteenth time, when she sort of breaks down, can't do it, becomes lost in memories of Lorca.

Q: The opera, the first by Argentine composer Osvaldo Gorlijov, has a flamenco-based score which won him two Grammy Awards - for Best Opera Recording in 2006 and Best Classical Contemporary Composition. David Henry Hwang, whose credits include "M. Butterfly," wrote the opera’s lyrics. How well do they fit Gorlijov’s score, how well do they tell Lorca’s story and would you comment on their artistic merit?

A: It's a work of genius, pretty much in the world's opinion as well as mine! Golijov also won a MacArthur award.

Q: I see that you’re bringing back the artists from Quantum’s 2011 production of "Maria de Buenos Aires." Would you care to comment about some of the voices of the leads?

A: Raquel Winnica Young, who played Maria, is a stunning Lorca - you understand it was written for a woman, a mezzo? Katy Williams is a gorgeous soprano with both amazing high and low ranges - that's what's needed for the role of Margarita, as well as great acting ability. I think Katy is respected in Pittsburgh, but she's given an opportunity here to show all her talents in a way that is going to surprise and amaze people.
The third lead is Leah Edmondson Dyer playing Nuria, Margarita's favorite student. Leah's a recent CMU graduate with a gorgeous soprano. These three female voices work beautifully together, one voice climbing over another throughout the opera.

Q: I assume the opera is sung in Spanish. Will there be something like OpTrans to translate the lyrics into English for the audience?

A: Yes, large, prominent, easy-to-see supertitles throughout. The libretto by David Henry Hwang is too good to miss, he honors the poetry of Lorca in his libretto.

Q: Lorca is considered by many to be a martyr to freedom of artistic expression. Does the chamber opera consider this element of his life and to what extent if it does?

A: Oh my yes, that is the opera's point, that Lorca could not be silenced, not through his death, and that it fell to other brave artists to carry on his legacy. Golijov actually makes a beautiful point in setting it in 1969… Lorca is long dead but Franco is still ruling in Spain.
Xirgu was never allowed to set foot in Spain, and it was no picnic in Latin America either actually, but she performed his plays until her own death, and as the opera shows, her students carried on after her death, Eventually Spain could once again claim and celebrate Lorca, as can the world.
For ticket reservations and more information, phone 1-888-718-4253.