Sunday, December 15, 2013

"Well" - Simply Titled, Complexly Told

Daina Michelle Griffith as Lisa and Virginia Wall Gruenert as Ann in Off the Wall Theater's production of "Well"

Allergies. They come with an entire list of symptoms and maladies - everything from restless leg syndrome and stuffy nose to impaired sleep and itchy eyes.

Playwright Lisa Kron uses this often disabling affliction as a spring board to set in motion a seriocomedic autobiographic account of her and her family’s entrenched maladies and her own ultimate path to "wellness."

Getting its Pittsburgh area premiere at Carnegie’s Off the Wall Theater, "Well" takes on both the microcosm of the playwright’s biographical adventures on the road to self-discovery as well as the larger issues of community wellness. The key to the play is the protagonist’s relationship with her mother, a strong minded but emotionally soft- woman who’s spent most of her life immobilized by infirmity, but still energetic enough to be able to galvanize her community to stop its further post-industrial deterioration.

The play opens with Ann, the mother, dozing on her La-Z Boy while daughter, Lisa, enters to inform the audience they’re seeing a "multi-character theatrical exploration about the issues of health and illness."

Don’t let her dry description fool you into believing that you’re in for a dull evening of seat-squirming ennui. If anything, you’ll probably find yourself on the edge of your chair trying to keep up with the shenanigans of the six character cast and the author’s playful penchant for violating all the rules of chronology, place and dimension.

The membrane of Kron’s dramatic reality is extremely permeable and allows the audience to move fluidly from Ann’s cozy living room to the allergy clinic where Lisa goes for treatment to her childhood days and beyond. The characters, some of which play multiple roles, even manage to step out of their roles in Pirandello-esque fashion to take on Lisa the playwright as themselves, not actors.

With so much going on, Kron still manages to consider an unlikely mix of issues such as inter-racial integration, the slippery slope of memory, parent-child relationships, community and social well-being and the daunting task of really being able to know someone fully.

Daina Michelle Griffith as the intently self-absorbed Lisa anchors the play with remarkable energy and insightfulness. Equally as strong, though much more emotionally understated, Virginia Wall Gruenert cushions her daughter’s highly charged personality with maternal gentleness, wise understanding and an occasional pithy rebuke.

The four ensemble players Tony Bingham, Linda Haston, Alan Bomar Jones and Susie McGregor-Laine act as though the success of the play depended on them and with more than the expected amount of care, devotion and nuanced characterization

As director, Melissa Hill Grande must have exceptional organizational and leadership skills, not only to conceptualize the meanderings of the playwright’s complexly structured machinations but also to inspire the actors to give plausible treatment to the improbable gymnastics of Kron’s creative intellect.

In short, unlike an allergy, Off the Wall’s production of "Well" is nothing to sneeze at.
Through December 28. Phone 724-873-3576 or www.insideoffthewall.com.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Charles Ives Take Me Home" Take Wings at City Theatre

Like a perfect storm in which all the elements combine to produce a great effect, the playwright, cast and director combine in the City Theatre production of "Charles Ives Take Me Home" to concoct one of my most memorable theatrical events in recent history.
Playwright Jessica Dickey came to me from out of nowhere and blew me away with her ingenious writing, her insightful dialogue and poetic sensibilities. Nominated for the Susan Blackburn Prize, given annually to recognize women who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theater, Dickey is no newcomer to City Theatre. In 2011, the theater staged her play "The Amish Project," a work I regrettably missed.

A scene from "Charles Ives Take Me Home" Left to Right: Drew McVety, James FitzGerald and Tressa Glover. Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoover 

For those who may not know, Charles Ives (1874-1954) was an innovative modernist American composer from Danbury, Connecticut. In addition to having a gift for music, he was also an avid athlete, which makes him the perfect candidate for the go-between referee in Dickey’s play that pits a violinist father and his basketball-loving daughter against one another.
On the surface, a comic drama about two characters avidly immersed in their own interests, one in music, the other in basketball, seems rather trivial. But Dickey plays on the dynamic of the father and daughter relationship, their growing resentments antagonisms and failure to appreciate one another’s enthusiasms and spikes our attention by adding Ives to the mix as a sort of "Our Town" stage manager.
As Ives, James FitzGerald is a short-of-stature but large of mind presence in the play, a cerebral, energetic figure dressed primly in a coat and bow tie that’s sympathetic to both of the other characters.
As the daughter, Tressa Glover is required to handle the basketball like she was born to the sport. Dribbling across the stage and bouncing the ball of the backboard, all the while delivering her lines flawlessly, she is a powerhouse of determination to excel in the sport.
As the father, Drew McVety has an even tougher job. Not only does he have to convince as an actor but he’s also required to play the violin as part of the script. He does this so admirably you have no trouble seeing his character as a musician who attended Juilliard, plays in the Queens Symphony Orchestra and later lands a much desired position with the Frankfurt Symphony following a much anticipated audition.
Credit Matt M. Morrow for his slam dunk direction, scenic designer, Tony Ferrier’s evocative but minimalist set and sound designer, Katie Down for filling appropriate segments of the play with Ives’ ingenious music.
In the future I intend to keep my eyes open for additional works penned by Ms. Dickey, a talented playwright whose work shines in this City Theatre production, highlighted by some exceptional work on the part of the cast, director and technical crew.
"Charles Ives Take Me Home" is at the City Theatre through December 15. Phone 412-431-2489.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pittsburgh Spotlights Exciting Contemporary Art Works in 2013 Carnegie International




Pedro Reyes' "Didsarm" Mechanized Aerial View: Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
     Since 1896, when industrialist Andrew Carnegie decided to mount an international exhibition of contemporary art in his newly built Pittsburgh museum, some of the world’s most relevant artists have participated in what has since become a venerable setting for exciting and influential new works in painting, sculpture, photography, film and more.
    Carnegie missed the claim of mounting the world’s oldest international exhibition of contemporary art by a single year when the Venice Biennale beat him to the punch in 1895. Nevertheless, among the thousands of artists whose works have been showcased in the International are Mary Cassatt, Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Camille Pissaro - the list goes on and on.
    Originally held annually but mounted every three to five years since 1982, the 2013 International features over 200 works by 35 artists from 19 countries. To assemble the exhibit’s eclectic art pieces, three curators traveled the globe from Basel and Beijing to Tokyo, Vancouver, Yokohama and Zagreb, talking to artists, taking in exhibits, scouring studios and galleries and "engaging in endless conversations with one another" in the words of co-curator, Tina Kukieski.
    On a recent drive to the museum, my eye caught a glimpse of Phyllida Barlow’s (England) "TIP," a nearly 40-foot tall jumbled assemblage of wooden poles and colored cloth that stands just outside the main entrance, positioned between a Henry Moore sculpture and Richard Serra’s towering steel sculpture "Carnegie," itself an acquisition from the 1985 International.
    The 2013 International is spread out throughout the museum into unconventional spaces like the café and Grand Staircase. At the beginning of my visit, I found one of this year’s International’s most fascinating pieces in the Hall of Sculpture, where Pedro Reyes (Mexico) took weapons and guns confiscated from drug raids in his native country and ingeniously transformed them into abstract, mechanical musical instruments, electronically wired to play intermittently.
    Looking upward to the hall’s balcony, I spotted Nicole Eisenman’s (France now living in New York) fanciful, comedic, foreboding and apprehensive sculptures sharing the balustrade with the museum’s collection of classic plaster casts of ancient Greek and Romans statuary. The exhibit also includes 19 unorthodox, sexually charged paintings by Eisenman, winner of the 2013 International’s prestigious Carnegie Prize.
    Fun, entertaining, yet full of socio-political innuendo is Rokni Haerizadeh’s (Iran now living in Dubai) "Reign of Winter," an animated video of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The artist transforms actual media footage of the royal wedding by carefully hand-painting and drawing over each image to create fantastical video clips where humans are refitted with phantasmagoric animal heads or bodies.
    Along a wall leading off from the lobby, artist He An (Beijing, China) installed part of his ongoing project "What Makes Me Understand What I Know?" in which he takes neon light characters, stolen from signage in various Chinese cities, and reassembles them to form the names of his father and a favorite Japanese actress.
    Just through the entrance doors to the Scaife Galleries, four, large earth-toned cubes by Lara Favaretto (Italy) explore the effect of dissolution and decay of works of art. Each made of nearly 700 pounds of compressed confetti, the cubes will gradually disintegrate over time representing the transience of material objects, much like a Tibetan Buddhist mandala.
    Exploring the crossover between art and entertainment, Taryn Simon’s (New York) :Birds of the West Indies" is an assemblage of 190 color photographs of the weapons, cars and actresses who starred in James Bond films. Each identically-sized photo is framed in black paper and mounted in a straight line across the gallery walls, creating what Kukielski calls an "unintentional film strip" format.
    The photo ensemble’s title gets its name from Ian Fleming’s choice of the moniker James Bond for his 007 character, taken from an ornithologist named James Bond credited for writing a book titled "Birds of the West Indies."
    Another photographic installation eponymously titled "Homesteading" in a hallway just off the Scaife lobby by Zoe Strauss (Philadelphia) focuses on the residents of Homestead, once a major Carnegie Steel mill and site of the notorious 1892 steel workers strike. The photographic essay chronicles how the lives of residents have been shaped by the mill and its closing in 1986.
    With so much to see, media relations manager, Jonathan Gaugler said that visitors can easily spend a day taking in not only the 2013 International but the museum’s permanent collection, much of it drawn from the past 55 Internationals.



Portion of Pedro Reyes Disarm Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

If You’re Going
The 2013 Carnegie International is at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh through March 16, 2014. Phone 412-622-1313 or www.cmoa.org.

The Porch Restaurant, Exterior View Credit Bill Rockwell

    For a place to dine nearby, The Porch, 221 Schenley Drive is sandwiched between the museum and the University of Pittsburgh in a lovely park-like setting. With a modern, eye-catching decor, The Porch features a limited but excitingly creative menu of soups, salads, appetizers, pizza, entrees and desserts, made from scratch using as many local ingredients as possible. The restaurant even boasts a rooftop garden which grows seasonal vegetables and herbs and houses two active beehives.
    Included in its list of craft beers and wines is a delicious Zinfandel made locally by Pittsburgh Winery that definitely worth a try. Recommended dishes include Red’s Pork Green Chili, the roasted lamb shank and the Scottish salmon. Phone 412-687-6724.

    Looking for a place to stay? The Parador Inn Bed and Breakfast, 939 Western Avenue, is the closest lodging establishment to both Heinz Field and the new Rivers Casino and an easy walk to the Andy Warhol Museum, National Aviary, Mattress Factory and Manchester Craftsman’s Guild. Currently, the Parador is featuring a Penguins package that includes a special $100 rate for an over night stay, a complimentary breakfast, free parking and a special gift. To be eligible, simply show your ticket or online confirmation to a Penguins game at check in.
    The inn is three blocks from the Allegheny Station of the "T", Pittsburgh’s Light Rail system. Guests are able to park overnight in the inn’s lot and take the "T" to The CONSOL Energy Center for free, thereby avoiding the traffic and a parking fee at the Center. Phone 877-540-1443 or www.theparadorinn.com.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Pittsburgh Opera Enchants with Magic Flute





Tamino (Sean Pannikar) with Monster Credit Pittsburgh Opera
    I doubt if anyone ever started off an operatic review with a mention of the costuming elements. Let me be the first.
Hints of what was to come later in the Pittsburgh Opera production of "Mozart’s "The Magic Flute" arrive as early as the overture, played with Mozartian panache by the full-sounding, 46-piece orchestra under the baton of Antony Walker, now in his eighth year with the Pittsburgh Opera. While the orchestra fills Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center with glorious music, the cast flutters around on stage preparing for a birthday party for young Pamina.
While the service staff is shown in muted, earth tone colors, the principals are adorned in brightly colored garments, almost luminescent in their contrasting brilliance. Part of the birthday celebration is the staging of a play, i.e. "The Magic Flute," as an entertainment for the party-goers, a concept brought to the story by Diane Paulus, who directed the premiere of this production at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto 
Those unfamiliar with the plot of "The Magic Flute" should know that the hero, Tamino, is put through several ordeals in Act Two as part of what is believed by scholars and opera buffs to be a Masonic-like ritual that leads to his eventual enlightenment. As part of the trials, Tamino and his enamored, Pamina, progress through passages of fire and water, both of which are dazzling visual spectacles accentuated by brilliant light shining on a sea golden orange costumes for the fire scene, ingeniously creative trappings for the water segment.
Shades of "The Lion King," the opera also brandishes all sorts of fantastical animal characters, including a towering three headed serpent, a giraffe and a large lumbering alligator.
But when it comes down to it, costuming is rather a trivial element when compared to the musical score, libretto, singing, orchestra and acting. (Costume designers, please forgive me!) That’s where Mozart, his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder and the Pittsburgh Opera pick up the bat and score a home run in the process.
Mozart was near the zenith of his talent when he penned "The Magic Flute." What makes the opera even more remarkable is that he simultaneously wrote another opera, "La clemenza de Tito" for the coronation of Emperor Leopold III and almost completed his "Requiem" - all at a time when he was seriously ill.
The great composer conducted the premiere of "The Magic Flute" in Vienna in 1791, but ten weeks later he was dead, leaving behind what many consider his best opera. The work opened in the theater owned by Schikaneder, Mozart’s friend and collaborator, who also sung the role of the comedic Papageno, a simple chap who makes his living capturing and selling birds. Because Schikaneder’s vocal skills were believed to be rather limited, Mozart wrote the part so as not to overly challenge the singer.
Nevertheless, in the hands of someone like Craig Verm, Pittsburgh Opera’s Papageno, the role becomes a delicious blend of madcap athletic antics, luscious singing and superior acting.
Much more formidable is the role of the opera’s Queen of the Night, which requires virtuosic singing along with a knack for portraying a charismatic, if somewhat dark and malignant character. As the conniving Queen, Audrey E. Luna sails smoothly through the tricky waters of the demanding Act One aria "Zum leiden bin ich auserkoren," sung in this English language production as "My fate is grief!."
In Act Two she’s positively spellbinding in "Here in My Heart" jumping through two octaves, including a high F, in one of the most well-known arias of the operatic repertoire.
Tenor Sean Panikkar is a vigorous, youthful Tamino, with a clear, forceful voice that swells through the hall like a diaphanous swatch of velvet. Even more stirring is the bouyant Layla Claire, making her Pittsburgh Opera debut as Pamina an impressive one. A young 2012 graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, the native of British Columbia will sing the role Fiordiligi in "Cosi fan tutti" with the Canadian Opera Company early next season and later reprise the role of Pamina with the Minnesota Opera.
Not to be overlooked, the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus continues to delight with its fine vocal support of the cast, its lush full-bodied harmonies and its kinetic on-stage movement that adds a lot to the production’s dynamism.
The Pittsburgh Opera production of "The Magic Flute" will grace the Benedum Theater stage for two more performances - at 8 p.m. on November 15 and at 2 p.m. on November 17. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Savoring Tallinn’s Tasty Trove of Medieval Fare


Dinner at Estlander

One afternoon of my all-too-brief three day stay in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city, was devoted to taking an eye-opening tour that gave me a taste of some of the foods served back to the days when the city was a rich Hanseatic League town named Reval.
Linking up with guide, Iveta Mandla, a charming lady who leads groups through Old Town, we started off on a romp that includes four tasting stops that turn into a complete dinner by tour’s end.
Our first stop was the Old Town Pharmacy, the oldest in continuous use in Europe, for a sample of marzipan, a tasty confectionery made with sugar or honey and ground almonds from an "ancient recipe." No exact date chronicles when the pharmacy, thought to be the birthplace of marzipan, opened, but records show that it already had its third owner in 1422.
The Raeapteek, as the pharmacy is called in Estonian, still stocks medicinal essentials such as aspirin and cough syrup, but way back when patrons could also find things like swallow’s nests, burnt hedgehogs, bat powder, even unicorn horn powder in the pharmacy inventory.
Further on, a quick but fascinating stop at Haa Eesti Asi at 23 Viru Street gave me a look at a foodie’s dream emporium. In between sampling several tasty featured foods, I jotted down the names of things that caught my eye. Along with Estonian cheeses, flavored honeys, and crackers made from blueberries, cranberries or black currants, I listed in my notebook exotics such as canned bear meat, wild bear terrine, moose meat, jarred eel and moose and horse sausage.
Moving on to the town’s 1404 City Hall, we stepped into a candlelit, brick vaulted, Medieval tavern on the first floor where ladies in period garb handed us bowls of delicious elk and wild boar soup along with a meat pie that resembled a flaky croissant. Patrons not on the tour can buy this tasty treat for two Euros, which includes a chance to spear a dilled pickle out of a wooden barrel.
Appetite slaked somewhat, we hiked up Long Leg Street to Toompea, the Upper section of town where the wealthy lived and the view of Old Town is a tourist favorite. Contemporary Toompea is the site of the Estonian Parliament, many foreign embassies and the stately St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. An architectural gem built in 1900 as a power symbol of Tsarist Russia, the gleaming bright yellow and white Orthodox cathedral with its characteristic onion-shaped domes permits visitors to enter its splendor-packed interior.
Further on to the city’s highest point, the panorama platform just outside the Luscher and Matiesen Winery was packed with people poised with cameras snapping shots of the picturesque rooftops and church spires below.
L and M for short has a fascinating history that dates back to 1910 when Swiss-born Arnold Lüscher and Estonian Paul Matiesen established a vodka factory in Moscow. The business partners fled back to Tallinn during the Russian Revolution and began importing spirits to Estonia. Soon wine was added to the inventory and yearly production eventually totaled 400,000 liters.
World War Two saw the closure of the business, but in 2009 Matiesen’s nephew, Dimitri, revisited Tallinn to celebrate the factory’s golden anniversary, and the business has been resuscitated and is marketing remarkably good wines made from grapes from France, including Bordeaux, and Spain. For more information, go to www.matiesen.ee/eng.
Taking the Short Leg back into Lower Town, we took the bulk of our eating experience at Estlander, a restaurant with 17th century looks and traditional Estonian cuisine. Of the two options available on the tour, I chose the four meat stew (chicken, pork, beef and elk) with sides of charcoal baked potato, warm sauerkraut and carrots in mascarpone cream sauce.
Dessert was just a short walk away in an old merchant’s house, Olde Hansa, where I reveled in "a velvet delight of the nobility," which translates into a delicious rose pudding.
If You’re Going
For more information of Culinary tours of Tallin, go to www.foodsightseeing.ee. For more information on the city and Estonia, visit websites tourism.tallinn.ee and visitestonia.com.
At the entrance to the Luscher and Matiesen Winery

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Tallinn - Amazing Discoveries in Estonia's Capital

Ome of Many Charming Streets in Old Town Tallinn

Several years ago, while visiting the Selva Verde Eco-Resort in Costa Rica, I ran into a chap from Britain who led tours all over the globe. During our conversation, I managed to ask him what his favorite destination was and, without blinking an eye, he spurted out Tallinn.
During a visit to Helsinki this July, I discovered that Estonia’s capital is but a short two-hour, 50-mile ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki on the Tallink Silja Line. As an add-on to my Finnish adventures, I decided to book a round trip excursion.
With a cruise ship ambiance, the line’s massive, multi-deck ferries cross the Gulf seven times a day and also offer cruises, some overnight, to other Baltic ports like Stockholm and Riga. It’s even possible to complete a round trip excursion between the two capital cities with enough time left over to explore Tallinn.
Waiting in the Helsinki terminal, I was lucky to have a great view of the tall sailing ships that were sailing out of Helsinki on their Baltic tour. What a great way to while away the time with a ringside seat for a great nautical experience!
Once on board, I enjoyed the spacious lounge in business class, along with its copious complimentary buffet, which included wines, liquors, cocktails and beer. On the trip over, I discovered Vana Tallinn, a delicious, rum-based, Estonian-made liqueur flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, citrus oil and spices. I liked the liqueur so much I picked up a bottle in the ferry’s duty-free shop.
In no time at all it seemed, the ship docked in Tallinn, and I joined hordes of other passengers plodding through immigration and customs, then set out on a three day visit to this old walled Medieval city comparable to Krakow with the flavor of Prague.
My first view of the city was somewhat a disappointment. The area around the port is not all that attractive due to construction and a mishmash of modern buildings. It wasn’t until I got close to Old Town, a few blocks away, that my interest spiked.
The oldest capital in Northern Europe, Tallinn started out as a fort in 1050 and first appeared on a map in 1154. The Danes took control of the area in 1219, but sold their holdings to the Teutonic Knights in 1346.
As a strategic crossroads of trade, defenders built a tall stone wall 4.7 kilometers long around the town along with 46 observation towers and seven gates, including the main Sea Gate, constructed in the 16th century. Of these, nearly two kilometers of wall remain along with half the original towers. It’s within these ramparts that Old Town, with its twisting cobblestone streets, gabled houses, rustic lanes and iron street lamps remains, forming the fairytale core of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
Finno-Ugric ancestors of modern day Estonians, Finns and Hungarians moved into the Baltic Coast as early as 8,000 BC. Today, all three nations share the same root language.
Nevertheless, I was surprised to find so many speaking American English, the result of films and television programs from the U.S. I was told. (Films and shows on TV are spoken in English but with Estonian subtitles, which makes learning easier for those who want to speak English, which most of the youth I encountered did)
The tiny nation, about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, has nearly 1,300,000 inhabitants, of which roughly 430,000, or nearly 30% of the nation’s residents, live in Tallinn.
Following the "Singing Revolution" of 1987-88, in which traditional mass singing events turned into a protest against Soviet rule, Estonia declared independence on August 20, 1991.
Twenty-two years later, the country surprised me with its sophistication and modernity which exists hand in hand with the Medieval architecture and infrastructure of Old Town. For one, free, wireless Internet is available almost everywhere, and car parking can be done by mobile phone. As a sign of its "with-it" pulse, Tallinn is listed as one of the ten digital cities in the world and was named European Capital of Culture in 2011.
If You’re Going
For more information, visit websites tourism.tallinn.ee and visitestonia.com.
As to accommodations, Tallinn is remarkably sophisticated, and the two hotels I stayed at couldn’t be more different. My City Hotel is chic and modern, but within easy walking distance on most Old Town attractions. It come with a sauna and Jacuzzi, restaurant and bar and full complimentary breakfast in the morning.
By contrast, the St. Olaf reeks with Old World charm and takes its name from the city’s 14th century St. Olaf Church, at one time, believe it or not, the world’s tallest edifice . The building in which the hotel sits dates back to the 15th century and is a pleasant two minute walk from Tallinn’s bustling main square.

Bustling Town Square in Tallinn

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"The Zero Hour" - It's Definitely Not Daylight Saving Time


Erika Cuenca as Rebecca and Daina Michelle Griffith as O in The Zero Hour: Photo Credit Off the Wall Theater




Madeleine George, a playwright new to me, has had several plays produced or developed at venues such as Pittsburgh City Theatre and the Berkeley Rep, one of my very favorite American theaters.
During the 2010-2011 City Theatre season, I missed a production of George’s "Precious Little," and, so, went in cold to an opening night performance of the playwright’s "The Zero Hour," now getting a staging at Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie. I left only lukewarm.
Admittedly, I was impressed by George’s flashes of brilliant dialogue, but unfortunately they were counterbalanced by nearly the same number of mediocre moments.
In "The Zero Hour," there’s a lot going on, what with one character, Rebecca, coming to terms with her homosexual inclinations while, at the same time, trying to get at the truth in a children’s educational book she’s writing about the Nazis and the Holocaust. Her sexual playmate, simply called O, is Out with a capital O, a feisty feminine unemployed Lesbian with mother issues.
The play opens with the two young ladies together in bed, then proceeds through a series of rather brief scenes in which both actors play multiple roles that include their mothers, a therapist, and several Germans from the Hitler Youth Movement that Rebecca fantasizes about meeting on the Number 7 subway in New York City.
The play runs about 90 minutes uninterrupted by an intermission, and the two actress assume their multiple roles by donning clothing that helps shape their personae. While Rebecca struggles with issues of her own identity, she also explores how 85 percent of the German population got caught up in the Nazi movement just prior to and during the Second World War.
Genocide, she recalls, was not limited to 1930s and 40s Germany as she goes on to list other instances of ethnic and racial cleansing, including the American treatment of its Native peoples.
To paraphrase one telling line, Rebecca underscores the play’s title when she wonders how many innocent German girls were captivated in an instantaneous epiphany by the cold look in a Nazi soldier’s eyes that formed empty dark zeros.
Rebecca, who has remained in the closet to her mother and her fellow workers and even denies she’s gay in encounters with her therapist, has her own flash of personal insight, her own zero hour. Lying to herself, or at least suppressing the realization of her sexual identity, she finally comes to terms with herself when she visits a bar and meets up with a dandy intent on hitting on her.
As she plays mind games with her boy toy, she finally admits to him (and herself) that she’d never sleep with him because she’s gay.
Two noteworthy actresses, Erika Cuenca as Rebecca and Daina Michelle Griffith as O, make lovely dramatic music together Griffith is the brasher of the two, full of sexual energy and tension, while Cuenca is more settled and composed. Griffith excels in her multiple roles, getting things right, right down to the accents she’s required to pull off. She also has an ear for comedy, timing her lines just right and hitting the mark on appropriate gestures that are downright chuckle inducing.
Cuenca is rightly cast in the weightier role and vividly communicates her character’s sexual ambivalence, her introspective musings, her moody humanness and her cerebral insights. Both actresses have good erotic chemistry, a command of the dialogue and the energy to pull off their demanding roles.
John Steffenauer as Doug, Rebecca’s bar encounter, is also a strong presence in a diminutive role, and sound designer, Ryan McMasters, does a great job incorporating Hitler speeches in the sound tract that evokes the mood of Nazi Germany along with snippets of beautiful singing from Mozart’s opera, "The Magic Flute," as well as some captivating music in the bar scene I’d like to get my own hands on.
How do you create a set that is appropriate for both the ladies’ shoddy Queens apartment, the phantasmagoric Teutonic scenes on the subway and the therapist’s office? Rich Preffer does just that in an inventive convincing way.
While George’s dark comedy is an incongruous mix of coming-to-terms sexuality, Fascist history and mother-daughter and girl-to-girl relationships gone awry, it succeeds somehow on a dramatic level. Give the playwright credit for even conceiving of such an improbable mishmash of themes. In the long run, however, I don’t think the play has much staying power and will probably fade into the shadows in the not-too-distant future. If you want a bit of theater you won’t find many other places, see it now for the clock is ticking away.
"The Zero Hour" is at the Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie through November 9. Phone 724-873-3576 or visit website www.insideoffthewall.com.


A scene from "The Zero Hour; left to Right: Daina Michelle Griffith and Erika Cuenca: Photo Credit Off the Wall Theater

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

PBT Spends "An Evening with Twyla Tharp

Scene from "In the Upper Room" with Dancers Kumiko Tsuji and Luca Sbrizzi Photo Credit" Rich Sofranko
Since founding her dance company in 1965, Twyla Tharp has become one of the biggest names in the world of dance. Her resume lists more than 129 choreographed dances, six Hollywood movies, four Broadway shows, three books, one Tony Award, two Emmy Awards and nineteen honorary doctorates.
When I discovered that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre was opening its 44th season with two Twyla Tharp contemporary ballets, my interest grew exponentially, especially when I learned that one of the ballets in "An Evening with Twyla Tharp" was "Nine Sinatra Songs," a piece I saw in the early 1980s while living in San Francisco.
I distinctly remember intense positive feelings for the work that has to be one of my all-time mind-blowing experiences with the world of dance. Adding to my interest was the discovery that the mixed repertory program also includes celebrated composer, Philip Glass’ "In the Upper Room," a work I am unfamiliar with but one commissioned by Tharp herself. How could you go wrong with two a collaboration between two geniuses?
In preparation for the opening of the three performance run on October 25-27, I posed a series of questions to Hannah Carter, a dancer in the Corps de Ballet, about my much anticipated terpsichorean experience.

Q: "Nine Sinatra Songs" has been described as a blend of ballroom movement and ballet with influences of Tango, Swing and Cha-Cha danced by nine couples set to a "nonet" of Sinatra tunes such as "My Way" and "Strangers in the Night." As a ballet dancer, what transitions do you have to make to adapt to the non-balletic dance elements and what challenges do they pose? Is the work weighted more to the ballroom or ballet style of dance?

A: I think the piece is weighted more to the ballet side with a ballroom theme; there is a lot of waltzing and constant flow of movement. The hardest transition has been dancing in heels instead of pointe shoes. It’s a completely different feeling and at first felt very unstable.


Q: Discounting the two ensemble sections in which the entire cast performs, how were the dancers chosen for seven remaining songs? Randomly or specifically chosen for a particular song because of their relative strengths?

A: As I didn’t cast the piece, I can’t say for sure why each person was chosen for each song apart from what I see when I watch them dance. But, of course, dancers are chosen for roles to which they are best suited; the first song "Softly as I Leave You," for example, requires a very strong man, because there are a number of very difficult and tricky lifts, not only in the pas de deux, but in both renditions of "My Way" as well. The sixth song, "Forget Domani," is very fast and needs two people with quick footwork.


Q: Which of the two pieces on the Tharp program is the most difficult for the dancers to perform and why?

A: Both pieces have been challenging for different reasons. "In the Upper Room" is very cardiovascular, and, in that sense, trying to get the piece up to performance level without looking tired and actually being able to get through it all has been difficult. Finding the right feeling of Tharp’s movement has also been hard as it doesn’t always come naturally to ballet dancers.
The hardest part of "Nine Sinatra Songs" I would say, from a female’s point of view, is definitely putting on the heels, and then having to jump and run, not only forwards, but backwards too. Shelley Washington, our repetiteur, taught our dances on flats first as she wanted us to get a feel for the quality and movement of each piece. It worked because I felt very light and pretty, and as soon as I put on the heels I felt weighted and awkward. But I knew exactly the feeling I needed to find and that has made its way to the surface.


Q: Oscar de la Renta designed the costumes for "Nine Sinatra Songs." Using his designs, were they created in-house by the PBT costume shop or made elsewhere? How do they further the theme or mood of the piece and underscore the choreography and music?

A: The costumes were created in the PBT costume shop following the designs of Oscar de la Renta under the direction of PBT costumier Janet Campbell. The men wear tuxes and the girls each have a different dress to match the theme of her dance. All of them are beautifully made, some long and covered in jewels, others short and colorful. But we all wear very big diamond earrings, stockings and heels. A lot of the choreography was done to show off the dresses, some lifts were designed so that the dresses continue moving after we have stopped or have continued on to the next step, constantly showing the audience how beautiful we look.


Q: How well do "Nine Sinatra Songs" and "In the Upper Room" fit in the same performance? Are they complimentary yet contrasting? Is the choreography an exposition of divergent styles? And what are the Tharpian influences that the audience can spot in both?

A: Twyla Tharp has an extraordinary ability to stretch her knowledge of dance and choreography from the power and velocity of "In the Upper Room" to the elegance and subtleties of "Nine Sinatra Songs." Both are masterpieces in their own right. The dancers feel very different dancing both pieces, and the audience will feel that it has been two different experiences to experience them both.


Q: Have you seen any other of Tharp’s ballets, either live or on film? If so, what other of her ballets do you think would work with the upcoming performances? How true will the PBT performances be to her original choreography and how is it accurately shaped in the rehearsal studio?

A: I haven’t seen any other pieces by Twyla Tharp, though I did watch the Birmingham Royal Ballet (in England) perform "In the Upper Room" when I was at school and loved it. After working on these two pieces, I would love to see more of her work.
The performances are going to be as true to the originals as they could be as we have been extremely fortunate to be taught by repetiteur Shelley Washington, who was an original cast member for both pieces. From the beginning, we have watched videos of the original cast in performances and in the rehearsal studios so that we know exactly what we are aiming for.
It has been incredible to work with Shelley for the past nine weeks, she has amazing energy and has created a fantastic show. For the first time since "In the Upper Room" was created in 1986, an entire second cast is going to get to perform it, and that is down to how hard Shelley has worked with us and how well the company has worked with her.

 
Q: "In the Upper Room" has become a very popular addition to the programming of ballet companies worldwide. To what do you attribute its universal appeal?

A: The music for one. There is so much power behind it; you can feel the adrenaline pumping round your body even just listening to it. When you combine that with her choreography, you have a masterpiece. Also, the fact that there are two different styles of dance in one piece, the ballet dancers and the stompers. It is rare to find a ballet company these days that does not perform contemporary, so it is a great opportunity to show an audience how diverse your company can be.


Note: Hannah Carter of England joins PBT as a member of the Corps de Ballet for the 2013-2014 season. Carter graduated with honors from The Royal Ballet School in London, where she had the opportunity to dance in a number of company productions and school performances.

Prior to coming to the United States, Carter danced professionally with Estonian National Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet, and performed in productions, including "Romeo and Juliet," "Swan Lake," "Coppelia," "The Nutcracker," "La Sylphide" and Balanchine’s "Who Cares?" Her repertoire also includes "Three Muskateers," "La Bayadere," "Giselle," "Firebird," and "The Sleep-ing Beauty."

Twyla Tharp been awarded the Vietnam Veterans of America President's Award, the 2004 National Medal of the Arts and many grants including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

For tickets for PBT’s an Evening with Twyla Tharp, phone 412-456-6666 or visit website
www.pbt.org.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" - The Ghost of Chekhov Found in Bucks County


Left to Right:  Karl Glusman, Helena Ruoti, Amirah Vann, Harry Bouvy, Sheila McKenna, Hayley Nielsen
Photo credit:  Suellen Fitzsimmons


   
    The thing that often intrigues me about theater and entertainment in general is what I call selective comic stimulation. Why is it that some people love say, Seinfeld, South Park, and Workaholics, popular TV shows I try to avoid every chance I get, yet disdain Chris Rock, Daniel Tosh, Family Guy and Steven Colbert’s celebrated interviews with our nation’s congressmen, which I find hilarious?
The same polarity seemed to be working one Friday evening when I sat through Christopher Durang’s "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," now getting a staging at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s bustling South Side. There, I found myself engulfed by an audience that laughed wholeheartedly at jokes and lines that merely brought a wry smile to my face, yet failed to respond, save for a few like-minded folk, at ticklish puns that got my belly chortling convulsively with laughter.
Humor disparity be damned, Durang seems to have plugged plenty of hilarity into VSMS, as I like to call his 2012 Tony Award winner for Best Play, enough to tickle the funny bone of every type of comedy aficianado.
Never mind that the play is set in a farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the characters are mostly out of Chekhov with names like Vanya, Sonia and Misha thrust on them by their community theater-loving parents and themes like the pending loss of their ancestral home and its scant collection of cherry trees. (do these ring a bell Chekhov fans?).
The comedy begins benignly enough, with siblings Vanya (Harry Bouvy) and Sonia (Sheila McKenna) dourly taking their morning coffee on their back porch, delightfully bantering as they go about their early morning rituals. While waiting for the arrival of a blue heron, a good omen they feel, that comes daily to feast on their pond’s frogs, they get Cassandra (Amirah Vann) instead, who arrives like a bolt of lightning No ordinary cleaning lady, this fury-like seer has the gift of precognition, and, like her Trojan namesake, she professes a future no one pays mind to.
Unexpected arrivals in the form of the third sibling, Masha (Helena Ruoti), and her peppy, narcissistic boy toy half her age, add even more spice to the comic stew. A contrast to her brother and sister, who’ve spent their entire lives living at home and taking care of their now deceased parents, Masha, an aging film star who’s lost some of her looks but none of her theatrical flair, has led a glamorous, exciting life.
Despite the advance of time, Masha’s managed to latch on to Spike (Karl Glusman), a youthful stud with exhibitionist tendencies, who seems to relish showing off his body and discarding his clothes down to his black boxers every chance he gets.
Before long Spike, whose performance reminds me of Ashton Kutcher in one of his early Nikon television ads, meets Nina (echoes of a character in the Seagull, anyone?), a neighboring waif with a fondness for foreign movies and Beatles’ music. With all the characters finally introduced, things get even more frenetic as they prepare for a costume party, Masha going as Snow White, Vanya as her dwarf, Grumpy, Spike as her Prince Charming and Sonia as Maggie Smith playing the Evil Queen in Snow White. (Durang manages to keep it funny without getting silly).
Amidst the Act Two shenanigans look for a couple of lengthy monologue gems. The first gets a command performance by McKenna, who carries on a hilarious, wonderfully nuanced phone conversation with an admirer she met at the party. The other eclipses even her fine work when Bouvy creates something I’ve never before seen in theater.
For several electrifying minutes, he rants on all sorts of nostalgic topics as he chastises Spike for texting during the reading of his play. His speech is non-stop and a Herculean labor of memorization, delivered with a rapid rhythm that takes your breath away. To catch his every word, the audience seems to hold back its laughter, compressing it inward until the end of his speech, whet it’s released with both pent up laughter and a well-deserved round of hearty applause.
"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" is at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh through November 3. Phone 412-431-2489 or www.citytheatrecompany.org.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Helsinki - A Baltic Beauty


Sibelius Monument in Helsinki


On my first day in Helsinki, I battled jet lag and hot temperatures and headed for Suomenlinna Island Fortress, whose construction started in 1748 when Sweden ruled the area. To get to the UNESCO World Heritage site, cited as a prime example of European military architecture, I caught a ferry at bustling Market Square where vendors sell all sorts of produce and seafood and the inhabitants like to sit and enjoy a Keralian pie or coffee and a local rendition of the doughnut.
As my boat slipped away from its dock, I was impressed with the number of big cruise ships docked in port, then readied my camera for some great shots of the cityscape from the upper deck.
The sea around Helsinki is dotted by close to 340 islands, some large, some no bigger that a pick-up truck, which must have proved problematic for early seafarers. The ferry, however, had no trouble navigating the rock strewn waters, and 15 minutes or so later, it docked at the island fortress, one of Finland’s most popular attractions.
It was a pleasure to be able to walk along cobblestone streets in the shadow of the crenulated stone battlements without being distracted by auto traffic. Actually a town of 350 year-round residents, Suomenlinna shares its historic stone bastions with a number of artist shops, museums and cafes.
To see much of the fortress, including the King’s Gate, the Great Courtyard, the pink-plastered jetty barracks, the extensive Zander bastion and the 1854 Russian church (now functioning as a Lutheran house of worship), plan to do a bit of walking and allow yourself at least three hours, more if you linger in the museums.
Back in town, expansive Senate Square and its surrounding buildings are the oldest part of central Helsinki. Much of the square’s Neoclassic architecture resembles that of St. Petersburg because, after the Russian emperor annexed Finland, he commissioned the same architect, Carl Engel, to work on construction that previously worked in what was then the Russian capital.
Massive Helsinki Cathedral dominates the square, its series of stairs a popular place for the younger crowd to sit and socialize. The square is also a point of departure for hop-on, hop-off bus tours. After a quick look at the 1868 Uspenski Cathedral, a green domed, red brick building that claims to be the largest Orthodox edifice in western Europe, I boarded a bus and headed to the unique Temppeliaukio Church.
Starting in the early 1930s, plans called for blasting the church out of native bedrock in the Toolo section of town World War Two brought things to a standstill, but the "Church of the Rock" finally opened in 1969. As many as a half million visitors get to enter the church, cited as one of the city’s most important architectural treasures, gaze up at tits copper dome and watch as the sunlight pours through the line of windows beneath the dome.
Another impressive site, the Sibelius Monument dates back to 1967 and honors Finland’s most heralded composers. An abstract structure made of a wave of 600 hollow steel pipes, the monument tries to capture the essence of Sibelius’ music and also allows visitors to interact with the structure by making sounds and echoes in the pipes.
Helsinki hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics, with most of the games centered in the Olympic Stadium, considered by many to be the world’s most beautiful. Originally intended to host the 1940 Olympics, the stadium’s construction began in 1934, but World War Two prompted the cancellation of the games. Today, the stadium’s 238-foot tall tower is open to visitors and boasts some of the best views of the city.
Culture vultures might want to visit the Ateneum, Finland’s national art gallery, located across from the Central Railway station, itself one of Finland’s most renowned buildings, designed by Eliel Saarinen. In addition to showcasing Finnish art from the 1750s and Western art starting with the mid 1800s, the Ateneum was showing at the time of my visit a special exhibit of paintings from the Presidential Palace, now undergoing a renovation. The exhibit will be up through February 9
Besides being a city of beauty and grace, Helsinki has been designated one of the world’s safest cities, and "Monocle" magazine ranked it "the world’s most livable." In my brief two day stay, I only managed to scratch the surface of what there is to see in the cosmopolitan city on the Baltic.
Helsinki cathedral

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Aida" Marches Triumphantly into Pittsburgh Opera’s 75th Season

Aida Watches as Amneris Crowns Radames: Photo Credit David Bachman
Opera is by nature theatrical spectacle, and as far as spectacle goes, "Aida" is near the top of the list.
Giuseppi Verdi composed this lengthy opera on an invitation from the Khedive of Egypt as part of the opening of the Suez Canal, and the maestro ingratiatingly responded by setting the exotic work in ancient Egypt. To guarantee splendor, he included in the regal cast of characters the Pharoah, his daughter, the Princess Amneris, the High Priest Ramfis and Radames, the dazzling military leader who leads his country against its Ethiopian enemies. For such a stately crew, you’d expect some eye-catching sets and costumes, and Pittsburgh Opera, now staging the work at the Benedum Center as the opener of its 75th season, has seemingly gone all out on both counts.
The opening set, the palace of the king, got a good bit of ahhhs from the audience bedazzled by both its massive size and the sumptuousness of Claude Girard and Bernard Uzan’s design. The following scene, the temple of Vulcan is almost as impressive with its brazier lit exterior. After segueing into Amneris bedchamber, the audience next gets a good taste of what the good life in a palace is like as it sees the splendidly clad princess surrounded by courtesans and fanned by two hugely tall ostrich fans held by a couple of youthful servant boys while dancers (from Pittsburgh’s Attack Theatre) entertain the princess with snippets of choreography
The crown of "Aida’s" splendor come in the form of the Triumphal March, which closes the first third of the opera. The march, one of the most spectacular scenes of any opera, begins with a quartet of trumpeters, hired for the occasion by Pittsburgh Opera, exploding in fanfare from the top of a parapet. (The trumpeters later also appear in the Benedum lobby to announce the end of each of the opera’s two intermissions).
The parade of victors in the Triumphant March includes two horses on loan from the Allegheny County Police Mounted Patrol Unit, a tethered hawk or falcon, a bevy of greyhounds, even a long pale white Burmese python wreathing around one marchers body marching along with the victors, which include guest star, former Pirate pitcher, Bob Friend. (Opening night saw Steeler quarterback Charlie Batch cast in Friend’s quick cameo appearance with Franco Harris and Phil Borque to follow on October 18 and 20 performances respectively).
Another knock-out set opened Act Two, an evening scene along the Nile dominated by a glowing golden full moon and the gently gliding boat bearing Amneris and the High Priest.
While the visual spectacle of the production was engrossing, the aural spectacle was equally exalted, starting with the polished sound of the orchestra led by Antony Walker. Like a tossed stone skipping across the water, Verdi’s score offered a series of gorgeous arias, beginning with Radames’ stunning "Celeste Aida, forma divina," sung brilliantly by tenor Carl Tanner, then moving on to an impressive trio sung by Radames, Amneris (mezzo soprano Elizabeth Bishop) and Aida (soprano Latonia Moore).
As one who is particularly fond of Verdi’s operatic composition for chorus, I relished in the full-bodied sound of the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus, which seems to get better with time. Who could resist the appeal of the mesmerizing invocation to the god Phtha by the chorus of priestesses, the rousing Gloria all’ Egitto" that heralds the Triumphant March or the mystical sounding "Spirito del Nume sovra noi discendi," the call on the gods to witness the justice of the death sentence by living entombment handed down to Radames?
As the title character, Moore gets my vote for the best voice of the evening, soaring lyrically over the torrent of sound from the chorus, blending proportionately in her duets and trios and captivating in arias like "O Numi, splendete." A polished actress, Moore conveyed explicitly her extremely conflicted emotions brought on by her irreconcilable loyalty to her father, the king of her native country, and her love for Radames, her country’s enemy.
As Amneris, Bishop is equally anguished, torn between her desire for revenge, which can only end in Radames’ execution because of his preference for Aida, and her deep felt love for him.
The opera ends dramatically when Radames is sent to his death. Sealed inside an air-tight, underground chamber, he finds that Aida has hidden away inside to share his fate. While the couple sing the tender duet "O terra, adio," as a farewell to life on earth, Amneris is seen standing forlornly in anguish above them. As the curtain falls, she sings a prayer to the gods, supplicating the them for peace as the chorus softly chants their invocation to Phtha.
In "Aida," splendor meets art and heightened emotion wrapped around gorgeous sound.
Remaining performances are at 8 p.m. on October 18 and at 2 p.m. on October 20. For tickets, phone 412-456-6666 or visit website pittsburghopera.org.

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Our Town" Opens PPT Season with Home Grown Production

Left to right: Erin Lindsey Krom, Patrick Cannon and Tom Atkins in a scene from "Our Town." Credit PPT
"Our Town" Opens PPT Season with Home Grown Production
Pittsburgh Public Theater artistic director, Ted Pappas, gives, as one of the reasons he’s opening the theater’s 2013 "Masterpiece" season with "Our Town," the fact that the 1938 American classic is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its premier.
Unaware of the play’s milestone anniversary, I had my own reason for wanting to see what some might consider slow-moving, archaic and peopled by characters so out of step with contemporary life. (But are they really)?
I first encountered "Our Town" as a teen in high school where it was included as required reading in an English class. I remember being transported to a different realm and the homespun, nostalgic mood it evoked so well. The reading assignment proved one of the first things that got me hooked on literature and theater.
More decades later than I’d care to admit, I deeply desired to revisit emotionally the small New Hampshire town of 1901 Grover’s Corners and its "ordinary" residents currently being resurrected at the Public. With years of hindsight behind me, I was amazed at how effectively my original mood and feelings about the play resurfaced with a combination of delight, nostalgia and a touch of melancholy, evoked by the third act’s haunting message.
I entered the theater, scanning the stage, barren except for a perfectly-inscribed, white circle on the floor, wondering how the younger members of the audience, accustomed to mega-productions with elaborate mechanical stagings and huge budgets, would take to the period piece with a minimal set and barebone props. I’d planned to query a few at both intermissions just to sate my curiosity, but, alas, circumstances prevented me from doing so.
Pappas directs the play that earned author, Thornton Wilder, the second of his three Pulitzer Prizes. Thematically, at least as far as the title goes, he’s also enlisted a cast of 24 made up entirely of Pittsburgh actors or actors with strong Pittsburgh connections. Our town, indeed!
Seasoned actor, Tom Atkins, returns for his 18th production at the Public in the focal role at the Stage Manager, a Virgil to the audience’s Dante, invitingly leading us through the everyday life of unremarkable people, giving us a glimpse of their aspirations, budding romances, shortcomings, significant events and, ultimately, their demises.
Two small tables, each surrounded by a scant three chairs, serve as the microcosmic setting that reflects a universal message, that humans fail to stop and smell the roses (or heliotrope, as one of the female characters encourages her preoccupied husband), to live in the present, to cherish the people they share their lives with and to notice the smaller, often overlooked things that are wondrous in themselves but blurred and buried by indifference in deference to the flotsam and jetsam of quotidian concerns.
Taking place over a 13 year period starting in 1901, "Our Town" is segmented into three acts, simplistically titled "Daily Life," "Love and Marriage" and "Death and Eternity." We watch as the neighboring Gibbs and Webb families arise in the morning and go through the same daily routines as do millions of others around the world. Their world, however, feels a bit easier, more benign and free of unsavory characters (backbiters, gossips, con men, connivers and the like), where everyone greets one another with a welcoming, unhurried smile and doors are kept unlocked day and night.
As Dr. Gibbs and his wife, John Shepard and Bridget Connors are wholesome parents and a devoted married couple who manage to find contentment living in a small New England town. (Mrs. Gibbs, however, does show a bit of itchy malcontent when she proposes a trip to a country "where no one speaks English or even wants to.)" Their counterparts, the neighborly Webbs, (Marc Epstein and Cary Anne Spear) show a humorous bent that comes across so delightfully in a kitchen scene in which father Webb gives his future son-in-law some nuptial advise on the morning of his wedding.
Act Two centers around the budding romance and awkward courtship of young George Gibbs (played with boyish charm by Patrick Cannon) and the even younger but, perhaps wiser, Emily Webb (played endearingly by Erin Lindsay Krom. From her performance, I see her as a possible candidate for a future role as Ophelia in Shakespeare’s "Hamlet").
The mood of Act Three changes abruptly darker when the scene moves to the town’s hilltop graveyard. There the dead folk are spiritually present observing the comings and goings of the latest internment, conversing with one another and leading the way toward the expression of the play’s ultimate philosophical message.
This comes at the end when Emily realizes that life’s everyday bounty of experiences and hidden wonders should be valued, even cherished. When she asks the Stage Manager if anyone manages really to live life while still alive he responds sagely with a "No. The saints and poets, maybe – they do some."
After viewing PPT’s masterful production, perhaps some in the audience will do the same - at least for a while, while the play’s theme lingers in their minds.
"Our Town" is at Pittsburgh Public Theater through October 27. Phone 412-316-1600 or www.ppt.org.

Monday, September 9, 2013

A Look at Finland's Design Riches


Villa at Anttolanhovi
 On the way for a look at Anttolanhovi Wellness Village in Southeastern Finland, I passed by the Ollinmaki Wine Farm. What? Wine in Finland, I gasped! I just had to see for myself.
I remember reading that all 50 American states now had at least one winery, but it never dawned on me that far north-lying Finland could even think such a thing. Pulling into the winery parking lot, I found a stone turreted building that once served as a cow barn. Now a cozy wine cellar and 100-seat restaurant, the refitted building is stocked with bottles made from, what else, Finnish berries like crowberries and red, black and white currants and fruits like apple.
I was pleasantly surprised at how sophisticated the wines were, especially a blend of red and black currant, a dry wine that would be perfect with chicken and pork. New at the farm is a red currant sparkler which could easily serve as a celebratory cork popper.
"Finland is a relative newcomer to wine making," said Jukka Villanen, owner of the winery that opened in 1995. "We started with nine wineries in our country and have now grown to around 25."
Off to a good start, I headed to Anttolahovi, a wellness village with a unique spin that started construction in 1978. While guests might opt to spend the night in the 54-room modernist hotel along the shore of Lake Saimaa, the over-the-top experience takes place in the 13 art and design villas.
"We held an architecture competition and picked the two best," said Cecilia Mattila, sales spokesperson. "One was for our lakeside locations, the other for the hillside sites."
Each villa was assigned its own artist who integrated their work into each villa’s unique design. Each also has its own color scheme, but shares ecologically -friendly features like walls built from Finnish oak, floors of natural stone and interior textiles made mostly of natural fibers like wool, cotton and linen.
Every villa has its own sauna and fireplace, and guests can order in-house meals, a chef, a beautician or a massage therapist with a simple phone call. A locavore advocate, chef Markus Maulavirta has been incorporating fresh local ingredients into his cuisine for 25 years.
I got to sample some of his fare during a knock-out lunch that started with ember cooked sweet and sour whitefish served with pickled cucumbers and watercress dressing, slow roast Kuvala pork belly, served with sauerkraut stewed in Huvila beer and tangy butter and carrot sauce and a wonderful milk chocolate terrine with raspberry sorbet and honey cream. For an online look at the village, go to www.anttolanhovi.fi.
Like other Nordic countries, Finland is designer friendly. Its capital, Helsinki, served as the World Design Capital in 2012, and the country has had a noteworthy design reputation around the world for decades.
In the 1930s and 40s pioneers like Kaj Franck ands Alvar Aalto led the way. Today, Helsinki has its own design district with around 200 designer shops, boutique and antique stores, and trendy restaurants. A good place to start a look around is on the Esplanade, a fashionable avenue with a long park-like swatch of green in between lined by shops with names like Artek, Aarikka, Marimekko and llitala.
A good way to get acquainted with the Design District is to take the two-hour guided tour in English called the Helsinki Design Walk or do it yourself by picking up a map at the Tourist Information Office at Pohjoisesplandi 19 on the Esplanade.
To learn more about Finnish design history, visit the Design Museum on Korkeavuorenkatu 23. The museum dates back to 1873, making it one of the oldest design museums in the world. In 1978, the museum moved into its current location, a Neo-Gothic, former school designed in 1894 by architect Gustaf Nyström.
Besides a permanent exhibition that chronicles Finnish design from 1870 to now, the museum stages changing exhibits from its collection of over 75,000 objects, 40,000 drawings and 100,000 drawings. If you have the stamina, the Museum of Finnish Architecture is located on the same block.
If You’re Going
For more information on Finland’s Lake District attractions, visit website www.savonlinna.travel. For more information on Helsinki, visit www.visithelsinki.fi. For more information on Finland, visit website visitfinland.com.
Design Forum Finland Showcases Finnish Design
For a one-stop look at Finnish clothing, furniture, tableware, jewelry and more, the Design Forum, Erottajankatu 7, is the promotional organization of Finnish design maintained by the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design, founded in 1875.
"In our shop, we have products of nearly 400 designers and companies, the large majority of which are Finnish," said sales coordinator, Eija Taljavaara. "There are lots of things here you won’t find anywhere else."
According to Taljavaara, Finnish design has its roots in simple, functional, close to nature products but has since become more playful and colorful and with more patterns. The Design Forum puts the focus on more contemporary design with items displayed on two floors, selling from 2 Euros for a post card up to !0,000 Euros for a pricey piece of jewelry. www.designforum.fi.



Uudenmaankatu Street in Design District
 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Opera in a Castle on an Island - A Unique Experience

Olavinlinna Castle - Home of the Savonlinna Opera

   

       It would probably shock the heck out of Danish knight, Erik Axelsson Tott, who founded Ovalinlinna Castle in 1475, to learn that what started out as a defensive fortification has since become the home of a summer opera festival that draws thousands of opera lovers from all around the world to the lovely lake country of southeastern Finland.
    Through the centuries, Ovalinlinna (literally St. Olaf’s Castle) was added on to and assaulted by foreign invaders several times, but it still stands, a massive stone citadel that claims the title of the northern-most, still-standing Medieval stone castle.
Remarkably preserved and built on a small granite island and surrounded by Europe’s fourth largest lake, Lake Saimaa, the restored castle offers tours daily that give visitors a look inside the circular towers, the king’s massive dining room, the central courtyard as well as several other rooms large and small. Just be prepared to climb up a stone staircase or two along the way that can be a formidable task for the physically challenged.
    Today, Ovalinlinna’s major claim to fame its opera festival, held each July when the evening sky can still be lit by the fading rays of the sun until 10:30 or even later. Because the castle is connected to the mainland town of Savonlinna by two footbridges that cross the lake, both the well-heeled and those of lesser means approach the festival on foot. No fancy limos pulling up to the entrance way here.
Still, for all, it’s exhilarating to make the march to the castle, where the Finnish flag breezes from the top of one of its three towers. People like to stop along the way and take one another’s photo with the castle in the background, listen to a group of talented children singing nursery rhymes on the access island, then enter the castle courtyard through a massive portal.
    The initial idea for the Savonlinna Opera Festival came from Finnish opera diva and ardent patriot, Aino Ackte, in 1907, the year Finland democratically elected its first Parliament by universal suffrage. While attending a political meeting in the castle, Ackte saw the possibility of staging an opera festival in this very romantic setting.
    The first opera festival was staged in 1912 and grew in renown until the First World War and ensuing economic difficulties put the festival on hold for nearly four decades. Ardent supporters, after years of planning, staged a televised production of "Fidelio" in 1967 that put Savonlinna back on the operatic map.
    From its early beginnings as a one-week festival, Savonlinna has grown into an international festival lasting a month that draws an audience of 60,000 yearly. On an artistic par with many of Europe’s best music festivals, Savonlinna presented six operas, a children’s opera and Verdi’s "Requiem" for the 2013 season.
    While I relished the experience of being able to sit through a staging of Verdi’s "Macbeth," aptly performed in an old castle, (how mood evocative can you get?), I also marveled at the superb artistry achieved by the production staff, the orchestra, soloists and chorus. Even more to my amazement is the fact that the small town of some 27,500 residents is able to accommodate the phalanx of musicians, technicians and singers, not to mention the audience.
    Initially, I questioned how well the acoustics might fare in a stone castle with rock-hard walls, but I was amazed by the superb sound starting with the overture to "La Traviata," the first in my series of Savonlinna operas. Because 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of both Giuseppi Verdi and Richard Wagner, Savonlinna decided to stage Verdi’s "Masked Ball," "Macbeth," and "La Traviata" as well as his "Requiem" and Wagner’s "Lohengrin," the final opera of the three I was able to see on three consecutive evenings.
    Rounding out the 2013 season were Saint-Saens’ "Samson and Delilah" and Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin," a production of the Mikailovsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia, which also produced "A Masked Ball."
    The 2014 season runs from July 4 through August 2 with six operas and Mozart’s "Requiem," which will be held in nearby Kerimaki in the world’s largest wooden church. The acoustics there are expected to be superb.
If You’re Going

    For more information on the Savonlinna Opera Festival, visit website www.operafestival.fi. For more information on area attractions, visit website www.savonlinna.travel. For more information on Finland, visit website visitfinland.com.
    For a place to stay, Villa Aria overlooks the lake at the end of town which gives it a peaceful, relaxing ambiance. The hotel has 20 no-frill but comfortable rooms and includes a complimentary breakfast. Rooms can be booked through www.savolinna.travel.


Sunday, June 30, 2013

Pennsylvania Winery Makes Impressive Showing at California Competition

    When I got an email last week notifying me that Galen Glen, a winery in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, came home from the Riverside International Wine Competition with two prestigious medals, I immediately sat up and took notice.
        The 2-1/2 half day event at the South Coast Resort in Temecula, California was judged by 46 wine professionals which included wine columnists, importers, wine makers, wine educators, sommeliers, professors even executive chef William Blossom-Carter of the Playboy Mansion West, Beverly Hills.
   
    Obviously wielders of some hefty credentials, the judges’ panel awarded Galen Glen Winery’s 2012 Dry Riesling the Chairman’s Award (double gold, unanimous vote) and the winery’s 2012 Stone Cellar Riesling (dry) a gold medal. Only 31 wines from around the world received the gold or above award. Of those 31, only two were from Pennsylvania, and both were from Galen Glen.

    I decided to share a bottle of the 2012 Dry Riesling with a friend with a discerning palate, and our immediate reaction with the first sip was "green apples." Tart and fruity, the Riesling has subtler hints of citrus, herbs and pear with a touch of minerality.

    A few years ago, on a tour of New York’s Finger Lakes, I took along a copy of "USA Today," which carried a feature about the Riesling gold medal winners at the Eastern Wine Competition. One of my favorite wine writers, Dan Berger was a judge at the competition, which gave me even more of a desire to explore the dozen or so Rieslings given the top rating by the judges.

    On my Riesling adventures through the gorgeous Finger Lake countryside, I managed to sample every one nf the list. I only mention this because I feel that Galen Glen’s 2012 vintage is every bit as good as what I found in the Finger Lakes, where the Riesling grape is considered to be the signature grape of the area.
Another Galen Glen medal winner at this year’s Riverside Competition, its 2012 Stone Cellar Gruner Veltliner, came away with a silver medal. Made from a grape variety normally associated with Austria, the Gruner is a medium-bodied white wine with much in common with Reisling’s palate profile.

    Thinking it might be interesting to have my wine tasting group try the Gruner, I uncorked a bottle and got a mix of reactions. One found it clean and very refreshing. Another decided it was well balanced. Other comments included assessments like subtle, delicate and good for drinking by itself as well as with chicken and seafood. I thought it would be a good match for oysters on the half shell. Someone else suggested pairing it with spicy Asian food. Notes I jotted down as they came flying at me included peach and apricot, touches of licorice, white pepper, even pea pod.

    Everyone thought it was a great quaffing wine for the hot summer months ahead and a nice alternative to more well-known whites like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Already, Galen Glen’s winemaker, Sarah Troxell, has been getting media attention as a fine crafter of German and Austrian style wines.

    At $14 a bottle for the Stone Cellar Gruner Veltliner and $12 for the 2012 Riesling, it might be worth giving the winery a call to place an order. Phone 570-386-3682.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Karla Boos Answers a Few Questions about "Mnemonic"



Carolina Loyola-Garcia and Malcolm Tulip in "Mnemonic". Credit Heather Mull.
 

Just a little over a week before Quantum Theatre's opening of "Mnemonic," artistic director Karla Boos took time from her busy workload as the show's director to answer some questions about the intriguing play set to open on July 5.

Q and A for Mnemonic
Q: Considering the fact that there’s a vast portfolio of plays to draw from when planning your season, what drew you to "Mnemonic" and what influenced your decision to add it to your season and direct the work as well? Have you ever seen a live performance? If so, where?

A: I saw the very first performance of Mnemonic in 1999 at its opening at Riverside Studios in London, where it ran before it toured the world. There was a lot of anticipation; all new works by Complicite were, still are, a big deal to me and my ilk of theater people, experimenters, lovers of physical theater that asks a lot of actors, very imaginative theater that expresses a global perspective. Why would I choose to do it – well, it is all of the above, and its subject is rich - memory, our connectedness, people to each other, to the past, to our ancestors, with whom we have more common than we think.

Q: Amazon.com describes Mnemonic as a "play and production from one of the world's most innovative theater companies" (the British theater company Complicite). "Mnemonic is about memory, people's personal histories, shared memories and discordant recollections - exhuming the past in order to examine it in the present. A variety of stories - from the discovery of bog people like Tollund Man to peoples compulsion to retrace the origins of their ancestors - collide and form a piece of theater which questions our concept of time, our capacity to distort history and our attempts to retell the past. An ice-preserved body from 5,200 years ago forms the central image of Theatre de Complicite's dazzlingly imaginative meditation on memory and morality. Timely and unforgettable" What would you add to or change in this concise analysis?

A: That’s a great concise analysis. You always ask not only ‘why this play’ but ‘why this play now’… the challenge is what we can offer of ourselves through the work Complicite built. The really pragmatic answer to why now is that they gave me the rights now. I’ve wanted to do the play for years… but there’s a better answer too. Back in 1999, Complicite made a play about a man who lived 5,200 years ago and led us to conclude that we’re still very much like that man. However, we didn’t have the sense we have now - that there is no 5,200 years from now. So the play has a new poignancy, I think. As director, it’s my job to bring that meaning to light, as well as realize all the magic that it asks from the team of performers and designers.

Q Would you care to say a little about the cast?

A: I like to work with diverse ensembles, and I like to  ask people regularly to do things that are new to them. It seemed right that the cast would be comprised of people of different heritages, come from different parts of the world, and they do. We have my great friend Carolina Loyola-Garcia playing the leading female character, Alice, whose story of searching for her father parallels the Iceman story. She’s from Chile, and she’s a filmmaker and flamenco dancer – in this, she’s an actress, which is very cool to me in that she’s multi-dimensional and does things that she didn’t know she knew how to do.
The leading male character, who was played by Simon McBurney, Complicite’s Artistic Director, is Malcolm Tulip, a British actor who’s lived in the States a long time teaching at the University of Michigan.  He trained at the Lecoq Institute, the gold standard for physical theater-making, is about my age and Complicite influenced him greatly, as it did me. There's a bunch of other wonderful people in the cast and crew, and the designers are very important. It’s interesting that, in our group, five people saw the show way back when, most of them when it was on tour.

Q: Some think "Mnemonic" is a difficult play to understand. Do agree with this assessment?

A: No, I think it falls in the quite accessible range. It does tell two parallel stories, and it actually rolls over you like memory. It’s ‘fractured’ as the character Virgil says, but the two stories come together, and audiences (Quantum’s especially) are very used to stories being told not just in a straight line. (C’mon. I can’t understand a lot I see – just watched the Batman movie and found it quite hard to follow, for example). But this theatrical story telling is leading you carefully, in the immersive experience it creates, to what I’d call clear, emotional conclusions.

Q: As a boon to understanding and/or enjoying the "Mnemonic" experience, do you have any suggestions for the audience as to best way to observe and intellectually absorb what’s happening onstage?

A: The play is about memory. First a guy talks to the audience and asks people to consider some facts about the way memory works… that emotion plays a role in strengthening the connections between certain scraps of stored data in the brain. Our brains are constantly forming and reforming connections and certain ones assert themselves as important – because of our emotions.
Then, after the guy talks a bit, the play starts, and it illustrates his points. Two characters, a couple, are each on a journey to make sense of certain things, and their journey involves memory. Meanwhile, in a parallel story, the finding of the Iceman is a bit like searching our collective memory. There are clues to our collective past, and the international scientists reassemble his story – RE-member, ‘put the relevant members back together’. These parallel stories come together, eventually.

There’s a larger question in what you ask… I do believe in being open, ready to engage, when I go to the theater. I think the reward is great when you bring yourself in that state and a lot is asked of you. If you allow yourself to be taken along, challenged to think new thoughts, that can be very satisfying. Going to the challenging theater I seek out, for example, can make me feel like I’ve been to a foreign land, done something very physically challenging, or even the more pedestrian, tried a new restaurant, met a new, engaging person – all of these are things that ask some effort of a person and don’t necessarily just reinforce what’s already there. But life’s about meeting these challenges and what you get when you do. At Quantum, we want to present challenges with warmth, welcome, and humor. We want people to be up for it, and feel the reward is worth the effort.

"Mnemonic," a Quantum Theatre production, runs from July 5 through July 28 at the Kirkwood Building in East Liberty. Phone 412-362-1713 or visitwebsite www.quantumtheatre.com..