Monday, March 17, 2014

"Tribes" - Underwhelming in Spite of an Impressive Resume

City Theatre's "Tribes" L-R: Tad Cooley as Billy, Amanda Kearns as Sylvia, Robin Abramson as Ruth, John Judd as Christopher, Laurie Klatscher as Beth and Alex Hoeffler as Daniel. Credit: Mark Garvin

"Tribes" comes to Pittsburgh’s City Theatre with some pretty hefty credentials.
In 2012, it won the Drama Desk Award for "Best Play" and in addition to getting a fair share of rave critical acclaim, also happens to be one of the most performed plays of the still early 2014 theater season.
Furthermore, its author, Nina Raine, won the Critics Circle Award for most "Promising Playwright" for her 2006 debut work "Rabbit." All these and more insinuate an expected potency even before the curtain goes up.
However, as one who enjoys brainy comedy mixed with heartfelt sentiment, I must have missed something when I honed in on unearthing its superlative-laden reputation. For me "Tribes" a good play, but not necessarily a great one.
The artsy family of intellectuals that make up the bulk of the characters is certainly colorful and witty enough. They seem to make a game of communicating with one another, each trying to outdo one another in conversational skill, their often sarcastic comments and pithy rejoinders hiding beneath the surface a mutual affection and an emotional symbiosis.
As the family patriarch, Christopher (John Judd), academic and critic by profession, sets the tone and pace for his family of bohemian wannabees. As Bess, the caring matriarch, Laurie Klatscher is both a good match for her feisty mate and a buffer between the spirited conversational combatants who, in her spare time, is writing a "marriage-falling-apart detective novel."
Following his father’s footsteps into academia, son Daniel (Alex Hoeffler) is shown balancing the completion of a thesis about language with a recent romantic breakup, the intermittent reoccurrence of a stutter and a disabling series of equally intermittent auditory hallucinations.
Raine doesn’t seem to give daughter Ruth (Robin Abramson), who struggles to make a career in opera, the same verbal armament and skill at repartee as the rest of her family, but even she gets her licks in when push comes to shove. As the younger son, Billy (Tad Cooley), has a definite disadvantage when it comes to familial conversational interplay in that he’s deaf, but he makes up for this shortcoming to a degree by being adept at lip reading.
Billy’s life veers of course when he meets Sylvia (Amanda Kearns), the daughter of deaf parents who "signs" with the best of them. Losing her own hearing in stages due to a genetic defect, she introduces Billy to the hearing impaired community, a "tribe" that serves as an alternate to his regular familial clan. Billy’s growing affection for Sylvia and his introduction to another community of like souls ruptures his ingrained household relationships, especially those with his brother and causes him and the audience to see deafness (and communication) in a new light.
Director Stuart Carden takes risks by driving the dialogue at a rapid pace. In comedy, rhythm is a crucial element, and the cast is up to the challenge. Fortunately, the well-honed ensemble has had plenty of time to get things running like a well-oiled machine after a previous run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which co-produced the play with the City Theatre.
The acting is strictly top-notch and includes the veteran Judd with an extensive national and international portfolio of work and two actresses who recently won the "Post-Gazette Performer of the Year Award" - Abramson in 2009 for her work in City Theatre’s "Mary’s Wedding" and "Blackbird" and Klatscher in 2011 for her performances in "Precious Little" and "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods."
"Tribes" opens up new vistas into the world of the hearing impaired and deepens an appreciation for the impediments they try to overcome. It also creates a new awareness of the vagaries of communication and an appreciation of the ability to comprehend the spoken word. Unfortunately, for me, it failed climb to the Elysian heights of dramatic greatness I had expected.
"Tribes" is at Pittsburgh City Theatre through March 30. Phone 412-431-CITY (2489).

Saturday, March 15, 2014

"An Iliad" - Relevant to History, A Propos for Today

Teagle F. Bougere as The Poet in "An Iliad" Credit: Pittsburgh Public Theater

After sitting through a production of "An Iliad," all doubt as to where the ancient Greeks first developed a taste for tragic drama becomes clear. Sitting around in clustered groups listening to Homer’s epic tale may have been the cinema and television of its day, but it also appears to have been the precursor to later masterful Greek writers of tragedy like Sophocles and Euripides.
Now enjoying a fresh look in an adaptation for the stage by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, the Greek poet Homer’s famous "Iliad," regarded as the oldest extant work of Western literature, sketches the outline of the war between the Greeks and Trojans. As in all wars, there’s more than enough grief, sorrow and pathos to go around, and Homer didn’t get his deserved reputation by holding back on emotional desolation.
But before you settle into your seat at the Pittsburgh Public Theater anticipating a dark and morose experience, keep in mind that both the playwrights who adapted the work and the masterful actor who single-handedly takes on both armies, their retinues and a bevy of gods and goddesses makes for an evening of entertaining adventure.
Who’d have believed you could compress "The Iliad" into a one-character play and the ten-year Trojan War into a nonstop hour and forty-five minute long theatrical masterpiece? Who’d have thought the words of a story told since the eighth century B. C. could shine with a new luster that combines the lofty tone of the ancients with a more modern street smart sensibility?
When the lights go up, the audience sees the hurried entrance of "The Poet" through a large door with the sounds of bedlam, warlike and menacing, following behind. A quick slam shuts out the noise but reveals a contemporary scene that reminded me of a construction site - a bucket dangling from a chain here, a mound of dirt there, gritty walls as a backdrop. The ambiguous scene designed by Marion Williams could serve either as the aftermath of some destructive incident or the beginning of some new construction project.
The audience is immediately tuned into to a contemporary world from which The Poet transports us to a much more antique era. And so the story begins with an outline of the cause of the war, how the Greeks rushed to avenge the honor of their king, the futile years of stalemate, the quotidian battles that culminate in the valiant death of Patroclus, the festering relation ship of Achilles and Agamemnon, the decisive meeting of Achilles and Hector, sometimes broadly told but with even more moments of detailed, delicious narrative.
The monumental task of bringing the entire story to life falls on an amazing young actor, Teagle F. Bougere, abetted by some solid, unobtrusive direction from Jesse Berger. Just memorizing the lines to this epic would be a feat in itself, but Bougere invigorates The Poet and makes his story spellbinding.
Most of the time he’s seen as the bard carrying on the ancient tradition of passing on through the centuries Homer’s tale, generation after generation. But sometimes he slips into other characters in the story, giving nuanced personalities to everyone from Hector and Hecuba to Priam and Patroclus.
Granted I’ve been absent for a number of years until recently from Pittsburgh’s theatrical scene, but my interest in local theater dates back many years. In all that time, I can’t recall many other actors who impressed me with such a astral performance like Mr. Bougere does in "An Iliad.".
One aspect of the play I did find a bit tedious was The Poet’s litany of wars that humankind has perpetrated on one another since Homer’s times. I assume the playwrights included the long list of armed conflicts, which seemed to go on for a good five minutes, into the script to show how war has remained with us as a constant through the centuries.
It’s a long way chronologically from Anatolia, where ancient Troy was located, to Afghanistan, but time, the authors seem to say in "An Iliad" hasn’t seemed to have been able to change the persistence of ingrained human combativeness.
"An Iliad" is at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through April 6. Phone 412-316-1600.
Teagle F. Bougere as The Poet in "An Iliad" Set by Marion Williams Credit Pittsburgh Public Theater

Monday, March 3, 2014

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Features Three Exciting Works by Three Eclectic Choreographers in "3X3"

Dancer Lisa Kaczmarek and Ian Casady in "Ketubah" Credit:Julia Adam courtesy Houston Ballet
 The first two weekends in March, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will bring to the stage of the August Wilson Center a trio of works in a mixed repertory program titled "3X3" that promises "to showcase an unconventional exploration of ballet musicality and movement."

The program features a PBT world premiere by choreographer Viktor Plotnikov, the cross-cultural fusion of Julia Adam’s "Ketubah" and Dwight Rhoden’s jazz-inspired "Smoke ‘n Roses" set to the live vocals of Pittsburgh’s own Etta Cox.

PBT Soloist Amanda Cochrane Credit: Nicholas Coppula

PBT soloist Amanda Cochrane will perform in all three ballets. A native of Spokane, Washington, she joined PBT in 2009 and has since danced many roles including Caroline in Anthony Tudor's "Jardin Aux Lilas," Russian Girl in George Balanchine's "Serenade," Cinderella in Septime Webre's "Cinderella," Tinkerbell in Jorden Morris' "Peter Pan" as well as Marie and The Sugar Plum Fairy in Terrence S. Orr's "The Nutcracker."

In the upcoming "3X3" she’s been given the arduous task of dancing in all three works. Recently, she took time away from her busy rehearsal schedule to participate in the following Q and A.

Q: I understand that you’ll be performing in each work in the next trio of PBT ballets scheduled to take place on the stage of the August Wilson Center. Presumably you won’t be dancing all three works every evening of the six performance run. How will your participation be scheduled to give you a break from what appears to be a strenuous assignment?

A: There are two casts performing in this program that flip every other show. I will be performing Julia Adam’s "Ketubah" and Viktor Plotnikov’s "In Your Eyes" for four of the shows and Dwight Rhoden’s "Smoke ‘n Roses" for the other three. 

Q: I imagine that rehearsing the choreography for three different works at the same time is much like learning the roles in three separate plays simultaneously. How far off (or close to the truth) am I in my assumption? Also, what roles will you dance in each of the three works? Do you have a personal favorite and why?

A: We are indeed rehearsing for three different ballets simultaneously. Each choreographer has a very unique style and vision for each of these works. I find that I need to put myself in a different frame of mind and prepare differently for each of the individual pieces as I approach them.

For Julia Adam's "Ketubah," I will be dancing a supporting role as part of the corps de ballet. In Viktor Plotnikov’s "In Your Eyes," there are six couples dancing throughout the four movements, each showcased at different moments. My pas de deux with Yoshiaki Nakano is in the fourth movement. Dwight Rhoden’s "Smoke ‘n Roses" is again more of an ensemble piece, with couples featured at different moments.

I enjoy dancing in all three works and am honored to have the opportunity to dance in each of them. I’m especially grateful to have been a part of the creation of "In Your Eyes." As a dancer, it is amazing to have something choreographed on you. It was a wonderful experience working with Mr. Plotnikov. 

Q: Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr commissioned choreographer Viktor Plotnikov to choreograph an original new work on the company this season featuring a live string quartet playing Dvorak’s "American" String Quartet #12 Op. 96 in F Major." "In Your Eyes," as the ballet is titled, will feature six couples performing an inventive approach to contemporary, ballet-based movement to music that the Kennedy Center describes as "among the sunniest and most endearing creations in the instrumental repertory. Is this the most ballet-based work on the program and will the work be performed in its entirety in four movements?

A: All three works in this program are ballet based, but they are all very unique in their styles. Mr. Plotnikov’s work is performed in four movements. It is very light-hearted and beautiful. I see the first movement as a way of introduction of all six couples. This leads into a stunning second movement, which is slow and luxurious. The third movement is definitely the most amusing of the four, and I won’t go into detail, so I don’t spoil the fun. The work concludes with a fourth movement, which is very exciting to perform, with fast and energetic dancing. 

Q: The second work "Ketubah," choreographed by Julia Adam, is a hybrid of
ballet, modern and Israeli folk dance set to Klezmer music. As I understand it, the work follows a couple from their first meeting to their wedding night, depicting traditional rituals including the unveiling of the bride, the ceremony under the chuppah- the wedding canopy – and the final celebration. The full work features 16 dancers - 8 women and 8 men – and makes evocative use of white fabric to depict the mikvah, veil, chuppah and other traditions. The title, "Ketubah," refers to the marriage contract signed by the bride and groom on their wedding day. As a classically trained dancer, how difficult is it to adapt to these different dance styles incorporated in the piece?

A: Julia Adam’s choreography in "Ketubah" is very different from classical ballet in that it has a lot of turned-in positions and flexed feet. At one point, the women are even dancing barefoot. Using these different muscles and trying to turn and balance in shapes that I’m not accustomed to can be challenging and create sore muscles in the earlier stages of rehearsals, but gets easier with practice and time.

Q: The final work on the program, Dwight Rosen’s "Smoke and Roses," is a PBT commissioned work that received its world premiere in 2007 and features a medley of jazz songs sung live by Pittsburgh jazz diva, Etta Cox. Based in Rhoden’s physical, contemporary ballet style, the choreography mirrors the syncopation and complexity of the music, translating the intricate note patterns of jazz to intricate steps between larger, flowing movements. Would you care to comment further on Mr. Rhoden’s choreography?

A: I thoroughly enjoy dancing Mr. Rhoden’s choreography. There is an exploration of how big you can make your movement and how far you can push your body. He has a very intricate style with fast and isolated gestures in the arms and hands. These complexities make it hard to learn, but once you have the choreography and muscle memory down, you can relax, have fun and fully enjoy the movement. 

Q; In 3X3, you’ll dance to classical music from the late 19th century, to traditional music of Ashkenazy Jews from Eastern Europe consisting of dance tunes played at weddings and other celebrations and a medley of jazz songs. How difficult is it to dance such a varied and eclectic mix of musical styles on a single program? How much of a mental, emotional and physical adjustment is required to perform such a program?

A: Dancing to such a large range of music is very enriching and enjoyable. Listening to these different scores gives me the emotions necessary for the appropriate mood and setting of each number. I personally find that the music guides me in the dramatic adjustments needed between each of the three works.

Q: Do you prefer dancing to a program that features classical ballet such as PBT’s upcoming "Don Quixote" or to a mixed repertoire such as 3X3 and why?

A: I don’t prefer one over the other. Both types of programs have wonderful opportunities and moments for artistic growth and expansion. I have loved dancing since I was a little girl, and it gives me great joy to be doing something that I enjoy on a daily basis. Whether it’s classical or contemporary, I believe dance is an endeavor for perfection and beauty, and an exploration of the body and movement that will continue to change with every passing year.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s 3X3 is at the August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh at 8 p.m. on March 7, 8, and 9 and 13, 14 and 15 and at 2 p.m. on March 9 and 15. Tickets are $25.75 to 69.75. Phone 412-456-6666.
Artists -Kumiko Tsuji & Christopher Budzynski. Credit: Jenn Peters.jpg