Monday, January 28, 2013

"Seminar" - Laughs for Those with (or without) a Literary Bent

Cast of "Seminar" Featuring (L-R): Daniel Gerroll, Rebecca Harris, Charles Socarides, Nadia Gan. Absent is Andy Bean. Credit Suellen Fitzsimmons.

I went into the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side knowing very little about "Seminar," the play I was about to see, other than what I’d read on the theater website. Shamefully, I knew even less of playwright Theresa Rebeck’s work.
With vague and blurred expectations, I was somewhat buoyed by the thought that City Theatre’s artistic director, Tracy Brigden was directing. (If the leader of the band finds merit enough to want to direct something, surely something of substance must follow).
I also felt that something promising had to be afoot when I caught a first look at set designer, Tony Ferrieri’s dazzling set, meant to depict a Manhattan Upper West Side apartment where the seminar, really a fiction writers workshop, would take place over a ten week period.
After seeing Ferrieri’s tasteful and finely crafted and detailed setting, I started to wonder if I could get him somehow to redesign a couple of rooms in my own house. Surprisingly, he hit me with a double whammy later in the play with a totally unexpected, though again marvelously conceived, set change.
As the lights go up, we find four aspiring writers assembled in one of their own’s apartment casually discussing things literary, dropping names like Jane Austen and Jack Kerouac along with concepts like post-modernism. Highly charged with an almost narcissistic affection to their own work, they exchange witty barbs, sparring cerebrally.
Don’t let the initial literary allusions and references scare you off. The plot soon settles into more down-to-earth matters, although the ensuing dialogue mostly maintains an elevated level of sophistication. Some of the action, i.e., the sexual adventures that come later, seem rather juvenile and adolescent for two of supposedly insightful, responsible literary artists who run around like a couple of teenagers when the parents are away.
The quartet of literary wannabes is quite a disparate group. Kate (Rebecca Harris) comes from money and her parents own her apartment where the seminar takes place. The well connected, Douglas (Andy Bean), comes from a respected literary family and the somewhat effete writer has had the most successful early career, which he lauds with a restrained, though palpable, sense of superiority.
Nadia Gan plays Izzy, a young, attractive vamp of a woman who seems willing to go to any length to further her career, while the earnest and highly motivated Martin (Charles Socarides) has thrown what little he owns into the seminar in the hope that it might propel him into the limelight as a writer.
Everything escalates with the entrance of Leonard (Daniel Gerroll), the once well-respected writer who now teaches with the sensitivity of a Marine Corps sergeant working over a bunch of new boot camp recruits. What prevents his iron fisted pedagogical approach to tutoring from descending into sadomasochistic carnage is the ability of his disciples to retaliate with strong verbal retaliation of their own.
Rather than firing up the hostilities and taking a nasty turn in the direction of something like "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," the playwright deftly manages to put the focus on the humor of it all as the battle of words and concepts flow as freely beer at an Oktoberfest.
Near the end of this 90-minute, intermission-less riot of amusing moments and witty dialogue, the tone takes a sudden revelatory and slightly darker turn that underscores one of Leonard’s main tenets - that one of the major duties of an artist is to search for the truth,
As Rebeck shows, that pursuit is often undertaken with a variety of motivations but mostly in the ruthless, dog-eat-dog world of publishing.
"Seminar" is at the City Theatre in Pittsburgh through February 10. Phone 412-431-2489.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stage Version of "Les Miserables" a Match for Victor Hugo’s Literary Genius

'One Day More' - The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables. Photo by Deen van Meer
'One Day More' - The Company of the New 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables. Photo by Deen van Meer
They say that over two million people followed in Victor Hugo’s 1885 funeral procession in Paris that led from the Arc de Triumph to the Pantheon, where the literary giant is buried. Being a confirmed Francophile and one who respects French taste and entrenched inclination for excellence, I’d say Hugo’s reputation as a noteworthy writer was more than verified by the throngs that honored him just prior to his internment in a place of honor.
Perhaps the most widely known work in Hugo’s literary portfolio, "Les Miserables," first published in 1862, is a literary gem that focuses on societal ills, injustice and the travails of the downtrodden and the poor, in effect, the "miserable ones."
Adapting for the stage what Upton Sinclair considers one of the six greatest novels of the world is no menial task. But after Cameron Mackintosh reviewed a seminal adaptation conceived by a French team of writers and composers, he assembled a team of his own that worked on an English language version. Since its opening at the Barbican Center in London in October 1985, "Les Miserable" has gone on to demonstrate its appeal by being witnessed by an audience of nearly 60 million in 42 countries.
The current touring production now at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center is an updated version that celebrates the Mackintosh production’s 25th anniversary. A definite epic if for no other reason than its three hour length (with intermission), Les Miz, as the tile’s become popularized, also has an excellent score, full of melodies that have become uber familiar, a wonderful cast with powerful voices and a technical team of set, costume and lighting designers that moves Hugo’s densely structured plot along with astonishing creative ingenuity.
A sung-through drama, Les Mis rises or falls with the caliber of its singer/actors and musical accompaniment. In the current production, I initially thought the orchestral ensemble that supported the singers might be pre-recorded, based on its flawless power and amplitude and the precision it projected. But I soon discovered that it’s a full-sounding, live ensemble of 14 that plays with such outstanding brilliance in the orchestra pit.
The cast’s two leading voices, Peter Lockyear as the convict Jean Valjean and Andrew Varela as his overzealous, compulsive antagonist, Inspector Javert, clash in the opening, pivotal scene that sets up the dramatic thread of fugitive and pursuer that carries over to the end. Both actors have powerful, melodious voices that make listening to "Bring Him Home" (Lockyear) and "Stars" (Varela) a genuine pleasure that also rouses the emotions.
Sadly, I seem to have a disability that prevents me from understanding sung lyrics, so I missed, at most, about a third of the dialogue. Ironically, I caught more than enough of the sung text to be able to follow the plot, although with blurred sections that escaped my full understanding. (My inability to comprehend sung lyrics, even sung English lyrics, is the main reason why I became an early advocate of OPTRANS, projected text above the stage, while some inveterate opera fans vigorously objected to its introduction to live performances).
The current production’s scenes change rapidly, and set designer, Matt Kinley, deserves much praise for the way he moves pieces, some quite large and bulky, on and off the proscenium like parts on an assembly line. As an enhancement, the production effectively uses projection and special effects to fill out the visuals. (Keep an eye out for the spectacular way Jovert resolves his anguish over his mistreatment of Valjean while standing on the balustrade of a Parisian bridge.
The standard of quality performances set by Lockyear and Varela trickle down to the inspire outstanding work by rest of the cast. Highlights include Genevieve LeClerk’s (Fantine) touching rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," Brianna Carlson-Goodman’s (Eponine) sad and evocative "On My Own" and the company’s ensemble singing at the barricades on the streets of Paris of the revolutionary anthem "One Day More."
If anything, the score suffers a bit from an overload of ardency. Too much impassioned zealousness begins to strain one’s ability to absorb and sustain an interest in what eventually becomes a monochromatic mood.
Fortunately, comic relief comes in both acts by way of some funny bone tickling antics by Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic as M. and Mde. Thenardier, delightful Dickensian-type rogues who inject a large measure of levity into the mix with their colorful buffoonery in "Master of the House" and "Beggars at the Feast."
As a tribute to Victor Hugo’s staying power, his 19th century opus continues to have resonance into the 21st century, and a powerful resonance it is.
"Les Miserables" continues at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center through January 27. Tickets are $26 to $79. Phone 412-456-4800.