Friday, March 27, 2015

Pick of the Week - Oblivion Opens at City Theatre

Quentin Mare Stars in "Oblivion" at City Theatre

City Theatre continues its 40th anniversary season with the comedy "Oblivion," by Carly Mensch, directed by Stuart Carden, on-stage in the Hamburg Studio Theatre now through April 26.
The plot concerns uber-hip Brooklynites, Pam and Dixon, who take pride in their progressive approach to parenting. But when their 16-year-old daughter, Julie, lies about where she spent the weekend, their cool façade crumbles. With the help of Julie’s friend Bernard, a budding filmmaker, this smart comedy takes a humorous look at Nietzsche, famed film critic Pauline Kael, and what it means to fight for the ones you love.
"Carly’s script is really sharp," says artistic director Tracy Brigden. "It’s full of that same irreverent humor you’d hear in her writing for television. Anyone who is a fan of "Weeds" or "Nurse Jackie" will really love this play."
In addition to Oblivion (Steppenwolf’s First Look Festival, Westport Playhouse), Carly Mensch is the author of Now Circa Then (Ars Nova, TheatreWorks), All Hail Hurricane Gordo (Humana Festival, Cleveland Play House), and Len, Asleep in Vinyl (2nd Stage/Uptown Series). Carly was also a contributing writer and producer for Weeds and Nurse Jackie, two original series on the Showtime network.

The cast if Oblivion

Oblivion features Christopher Larkin, Quentin Maré, Lisa Velten Smith, and Julia Warner, each making their City Theatre debut. The creative team includes Gianni Downs (scenic design), Sarah Hughey (lighting design), Liz Atkinson (sound design), Ange Vesco (costume design), Jordan Harrison (projection design), and dialect coaching by Melanie Julian.

Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m.
Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m.
Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.
Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Sunday Talkbacks – March 29, April 12 and 19 (following 2:00 p.m. performance)
Greenroom Young Professionals Night – April 17 (post-show reception)
City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203 (South Side)
$36 to $61
412.431.CITY (2489) or
Audiences under 30 may reserve $15 tickets in advance for all performances except Fridays 8:00 p.m. and Saturdays 5:30 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, rush tickets are available two hours prior to show time and based on availability.
Pay-What-You-Want tickets will be available one hour before the performance. Please call the box office in advance to check on availability. Mention "Pay-What-You-Want" pricing when purchasing. Seniors age 62 and older may purchase $22 rush tickets at the Box Office beginning two hours before show time based on availability. Groups of 10 or more are eligible for discounts.  Call Kari Shaffer at 412.431.4400 x286.

Lisa Velten Smith Stars in "City Theatre's "Oblivion"

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Newly-Released Rosés Allow Comparisons between North and South Italian Terroirs and Grape Varieties

Just in time for warmer weather wine imbibing, two of Italy’s leading wineries are releasing their first rosé wines. Both are budget oriented and sell for under $10.
The first, the Mezzacorona Rosé 2014 is made from 100 percent Lagrein grapes, a variety found along the Adige Valley north of Trento, the winery’s Northern Italian home. Handpicked in September, the grapes are soft-pressed in order to obtain a partial extraction of a pale pink color from the berries and fermented at low temperatures to preserve their fresh, fruity  bouquet and aroma. The wine comes in at 12% alcohol.
Much like a white wine with a delicate flavor, the Mezzacorona Rosé is dominated by an apricot profile with hints of citrus. Its fresh acidity is balanced by touches of minerality that make it a good companion to foods like white meats, tuna fish salad, calamari, grilled shrimp, octopus and white cheese and basil pizza.
Related to the Syrah and Pinot Noir grape varieties, the Lagrein is first mentioned in the 17th century in a written account in a Benedictine monastery in the Lagarina Valley of Trentino.
Stemmari Rosé 2014
From Sicily to the south, the Stemmari Rosé 2014 is made from 100 percent Nero d’Avola, the island’s most famous grape variety cultivated widely in the sandy soils of the Ragusa province, but now also all over Sicily and beyond.
More complex and fuller bodied than the Mezzacorona, the Stemmari has delightful floral notes and is somewhat sweeter than its nearly bone dry cousin from the north. Often compared to New World Shiraz, the Nero d’Avola, a.k.a., Calabrese, prefers  hot, arid climates and produces a red wine redolent of blackberry.
The Stemmari Rosé 2014 has a light ruby red color with aromas of strawberry and hints of white currant, cherry and gooseberry in its flavor profile. A great wine to serve on a picnic, this rosé can also be paired with grilled vegetables, seafood, and white meats.
"Both rosés represent the differences in their respective terroirs," said Lucio Matricardi, winemaker for both wineries. "Grapes grown in Trento are at a latitude that is almost identical to that of Mt. Rainier in Washington, while those grown in Sambuca [Sicily] approximate the growing conditions in a latitude belt equivalent to that of Napa Valley. This difference, combined with that of soil and varietal, has a profound effect on acidity and fruit profile, offering wine lovers an opportunity to experience two very different rosés - each with a unique character but both with elegant structure."

Sunday, March 22, 2015

"Boeing Boeing" - High-Flying Cast Grounded by Lackluster Script

Cast of Boeing Boeing L to R: Amanda Pulcini as Gloria, Tony Bingham as Bernard, Kelly Trumbull as Gabriella, Connor McCanlus as Robert, Elizabeth Ruetas as Berthe and Lisa Ann Goldsmith as Gretchen

Give me three perky gals, one playboy and a slew of doors, and I feel a farce coming on.
A genre that goes in for nonsensical plots, highly exaggerated situations and hilarity at its zaniest, farce depends more on a skillfully developed situations rather than character development. Examples of theatrical farces include Noel Coward’s "Hay Fever," Joe Orton’s "What the Butler Saw" and Georges Feydeau’s "A Flea in Her Ear," all of which have had me squealing in my seat with giggly delight on numerous occasions.
So why then did "Boeing Boeing," playwright Marc Camoletti’s 1960’s farce set in the early jet era and now playing at the CLO’s Cabaret Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh leave me less than chuckle fulfilled?
It couldn’t be the cast, which is both talented and motivated to the point of going the extra mile, pouring into their work an unbelievable amount of physical energy and stamina. Timing in comedy is crucial to a successful delivery, and this group of Thespians maneuvers through the two and a half hour long mania like clockwork. Doors slam and open in tandem, just like they should. People come and go, adroitly missing one another by a matter of mere seconds.
The pivotal character is Bernard, a conniving roué with a stylish Paris apartment and a penchant for picking up airline flight attendants (stewardesses back in the 60s, the era in which the farce is set). When the play opens, he has three of them that he judiciously juggles in and out of his love nest by keeping tabs on their flights in and out of town, sequestering their knowledge of one another and keeping chance encounters at a bare minimum, which is to say zero.
Gloria (Amanda Pulcini) is American, flies for TWA and is on her way to San Francisco one fine morning, vacating the apartment just as Gabriella (Cathy Trumbull), an Italian, is about to land in time for lunch. That leaves Gretchen (Lisa Ann Goldsmith), a German who flies for Lufthansa and comes on a bit like the female Commandant in Lena Wurtmuller’s film "Seven Beauties" but with oodles more sex appeal, a visual voluptuary with tinges of "Fifty Shades of Grey" sensibilities.
All three actresses manage to escape the charge of being stereotypic and cut from the same character mold by giving cleverly nuanced and colorful performances. If variety is the spice of life, Bernard can revel in the differentiated savoriness that comes with these three distinct personalities.
An accomplice to his romantic machinations is Berthe (Elizabeth Ruelas), who grudgingly serves as Bernard’s maid, preparing customized meals that appeal to each flight attendant’s nationality and keeping things tidy with a dour temperament that comes off as astringent comedy.
As Bernard, Tony Bingham is a boyish, self-confident lothario who takes his master plan for debauchery too much for granted, thereby setting himself up for an inevitable fall. Just how long can you keep three mistresses from colliding with one another when all three use his apartment as their Parisian  home base?
The monkey wrench that brings him down gets thrown into plot just after the arrival of Robert, his boyhood friend from Wisconsin who  brings with him a rural mind set that seems more 40s than 60s. Naïve and bumpkinish, Robert (Connor McCanlus) soon becomes the mastermind that takes over when all three of the flight attendants arrive chez Bernard at various times on the same day.
Each of the women get assigned their own room in Bernard’s spacious apartment, elegantly designed by Tony Ferrieri in light pastel colors, and manage to avoid meeting despite their frequent comings and goings from room to room. As the play progresses, events become more and more frenzied, Bernard more and more frantic, Robert more and more mentally nimble, jumping impending catastrophic hurdles that seem impossible to scale. Berthe, pushed to the limit of endurance, surprisingly lends the two gents a hand by keeping the ruse going and the ladies from meeting.
Particularly impressive is McCanlus, whose work seems to get stronger the deeper into the plot it goes. Initially, I perceived him as an inconsequential character, there for a few laughs as a bumbling nerd, but he actually becomes the play’s pivotal character who dominates the action in a most deliciously humorous way.
So why then, with such fertile soil for comedy and a cast and crew up to the challenge, do I rebuke the production, (though only mildly so)?
I partially blame Camoletti’s script, which seemed a little lame, studded with too many moments of pure silliness and overly long and in need of a little pruning. But, considering the large size of the audience during my Thursday evening visit and the fact that the original run of Boeing, scheduled to end on April 26, has been extended to May 10, means that others experience the farce differently
I attribute my going against the grain of popular opinion as a matter of personal taste. I’m often at variance with the opinion of the general public, eschewing such popular pastimes and preferences as NASCAR, certain fast food franchises, March Madness (except when Pitt’s in it), Rap music and, dare I admit it, Primanti sandwiches.
It seems as if audience demand and taste for the CLO Cabaret production, directed by executive director, Van Kaplan, no less, will keep "Boeing Boeing" flying longer than originally intended. To me, however, it became a holding pattern at the end of a long flight that kept the theater experience going a bit longer than I’d have wished.
For tickets and scheduling information, phone 412-456-6666 or

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pick of the Week - Pittsburgh Opera's "Carmen"

Rinat Shaham as Carmen and  Morgan Smith as Escamillo. Photo Credit: David Bachman

Pittsburgh Opera continues its 76th season with a grand, traditional production of Georges Bizet’s beloved opera CARMEN. On stage at the Benedum Center March 21, 24, 27 and 29, CARMEN is one of the most-performed operas in the world, with a tuneful score (including the famous Habanera and Toreador Song), a heroine like no other, splashy arias and ensembles, and a sensational ending. Music Director Antony Walker conducts the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra and Chorus.  Performances are at 8 p. m. on Mar. 21, 7 p.m. on Mar. 24, 7:30 p.m. on Mar. 27 and 2 p.m. on Mar. 29.  Tickets start at $12.

Based on the Prosper Mérimée novella that was considered too salacious for some 19th-century appetites, CARMEN marks the return of the sizzling Rinat Shaham (Don Giovanni, 2001) in the title role, and the debuts of A.J. Glueckert and Morgan Smith as the men who love her. Ms. Shaham has sung Carmen many times, earning praise from multiple publications, including Opera News: "The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham…was a fascinating Carmen. Shaham fully embodied the character, seamlessly weaving the arias and duets into the dramatic action… Vocally, Shaham went from strength to strength… " Morgan Smith, described by Opera News as possessing "good looks, striking intelligence, charismatic stage presence and a powerful baritone of mingled velvet and steel," sang Escamillo recently in Vancouver, while A. J. Glueckert recently also won praise from Opera News for his portrayal of the Prince in Rusalka: "a gleaming, effortless tenor sound and he did not shy away from the high-lying vocal writing."

CARMEN also calls for a large supporting cast, and the Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists gain valuable stage experience in roles such as Don José’s sweetheart Micaëla (Jasmine Muhammad), gypsies Frasquita and Mercédès (Adelaide Boedecker and Corrie Stallings), and military officers Morales and Zuniga (Alex DeSocio and Phillip Gay). CARMEN adds to the grandeur with appearances by the Children’s Festival Chorus (complementing the Pittsburgh Opera Chorus) as well as supernumeraries as the townspeople of Seville. Director Marc Astafan makes his Pittsburgh Opera debut, bringing significant grand opera experience to his first Carmen, with multiple productions of La bohème, La traviata and Rigoletto in his resume.  

Tickets to CARMEN start at $12, with all performances at the Benedum Center, 7th Street and Penn Avenue, in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. For the full story of CARMEN, visit To purchase tickets, call 412-456-6666 or visit

Three facts about CARMEN

1.      CARMEN was not particularly successful at first. It premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1875 and continued with just 35 additional performances. It was not until it was performed outside France for some years, that it was revived in Paris, and then gained tremendous popularity.

2.      Georges Bizet died at 36, during the first run of CARMEN, and never knew that his work would become one of the most frequently-performed operas in the world. 
3.      CARMEN has inspired more than 70 films, according to a Newcastle University study. Many depart from the opera's storyline, but all retain the broad themes of jealousy and thwarted love. The films range across languages and cultures, and have been created by prominent directors including Otto Preminger and Jean-Luc Godard. The film Carmen on Ice, starring Katarina Witt and Brian Boitano, was inspired by Witt's gold medal-winning performance during the 1988 Winter Olympics. In 2001, Beyoncé Knowles starred in Robert Townsend's Carmen: A Hip Hopera. 

Related Events        
CARMEN Previews on WQED-FM 89.3 and WQED.ORG
Friday, March 20 – 7:00 p.m.
Hosted by WQED’s Stephen Baum and Anna Singer, and broadcast over the airwaves as well as the WQED website, the CARMEN preview gives listeners an engaging introduction to the singers, music and story of the opera. For more information, visit
Audio Description: CARMEN
Tuesday, March 24
Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters
Ticketholders with visual impairments are invited to use Pittsburgh Opera’s Audio 
Description service at our Tuesday performances. Trained volunteers describe the scenery, costumes, and stage action via headphones. Those wishing to use Audio Description should reserve seats to the Tuesday, March 24 performance: contact Randy Adams at 412-281-0912, ext. 213 or Braille and large-print programs are also available.

Meet the Artists of CARMEN
Tuesday, March 24
Immediately following the opera, in the performance space
Ticketholders for the Tuesday, March 24 performance of CARMEN are invited to gather in the performance space immediately following the performance for interviews with General Director Christopher Hahn and the stars of the opera. This event is free to all Tuesday performance ticketholders.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

"How I Learned What I Learned" - A Look at August Wilson’s Formative Years

Eugene Lee in "How I Learned What I Learned"

It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to say that I once got to meet August Wilson. It was in 1989 just after the opening night production of his "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone" at the Pittsburgh Public Theater when I went to the cast party and found him sitting quietly at a table with Roscoe Lee Browne, who starred in the production.
Sheepishly, I stepped up to their table and respectfully asked if I could have their autographs. Without hesitation, Wilson graciously signed my book as did Mr. Browne,. I have the revered book to this day securely tucked away for safekeeping.
Like many others, make that the vast majority of those living in Southwestern Pennsylvania, I’m all rah-rah for the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins. But as a theater lover, it gives me special pleasure to be able to say, chauvinistically, that one of the great writers in the world of live drama hails from Pittsburgh.
In 1989, the first and only time I met him in person, Wilson had already gained the respect of the theater world. "Fences" had won a Tony Award in 1987 for Best Play and captured a Pulitzer Prize that same year. But yet to come were five additional plays that would be grouped together with five he’d already written labeled "The Pittsburgh Cycle," a.k.a. "The American Century Cycle."
Each of the ten plays are set in a different decade of the Twentieth Century and chronicle the African-American experience over the span of a hundred years. What makes them even more poignant and personal is that nine of the plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, just blocks from the city’s Downtown core.
Now playing at the Public is a one-man show penned by Wilson in collaboration with Todd Kreidler, a Western Pennsylvania native who now resides in Vandergrift and directs the play. An autobiographical look at Wilson’s early years battling poverty and racism in Pittsburgh, "How I Learned What I Learned" is the playwright’s last play and unfolds in a series of short vignettes, not always in chronological order, that are sometimes humorous, often touching and deeply moving and surprisingly revelatory regarding Wilson’s character, especially what he calls "principles."
"My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century and, for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job," he writes in reference to slavery. "But since 1863, it’s been hell. It’s been hell because the ideas and attitudes that Americans had toward slaves followed them out of slavery and became entrenched in the nation’s psyche."
The play debuted at the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2003, two years before Wilson’s death at the age of 60. There, Kreidler directed the premiere with Wilson tackling the acting duties.
For the Public Theater staging, Kreidler directs veteran actor Eugene Lee,  who sports a Wilson-like beard and the same stout frame I recall that Wilson had when I met him 26 years ago. Lee maneuvers David Gallo’s deliberately tawdry and sparse set (an old wooden table on a wooden platform flanked by a pair of rusting filing cabinets), retelling stories of Wilson’s series of odd jobs that included washing dishes at Klein’s Restaurant in Downtown Pittsburgh, his brushes with landlords and the law, his association with fellow writers and amorous intrigues with the ladies both married and unmarried.
As Wilson, Lee tells most of the tales in the first person, but sometimes steps into other characters as well - friends, fellow artists and antagonists he encounters in the early stages of his life. Lee does a masterful job as a cogent narrator, making the daily trivialities of living as interesting and enlivening as the more serious and somber moments of Wilson’s life.
At times, the hurdles the young playwright had to master seem overwhelming, a balancing act of educating himself after quitting school at 15, writing, working at menial jobs, paying the bills with time left over for socializing and romancing.
One formative moment in the script comes when Wilson joins the crowd standing outside the famed Crawford Grill, a Pittsburgh jazz landmark, listening to John Coltrane playing sax for the paying customers inside. The event inspired Wilson to believe in the power of art as a way to deeply affect people’s lives and inspire them and spurred his own drive to achieve some sort of aesthetic perfection through his writing.
The roughly 95-minute long play is broken into chapters by projected headings typed on the back wall, itself plastered with single sheets of paper, symbols of Wilson’s prolific output.
Regarding the director, I was told by a Public Theater insider that Kreidler stayed true to the original Seattle production and didn’t try taking a different approach in the Pittsburgh staging.
As one who’s seen four of the Wilson’s ten plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, I can honestly say "How I Learned What I Learned" gave me a better insight into the playwright’s body of work. Enjoyable and rewarding as a piece that stands on its own, it also added a new element to my bucket list -  a resolution to see all of the ten plays in the cycle penned by a fellow Pittsburgher and seminal, innovative author of contemporary American drama.
"How I Learned What I Learned" is at the Pittsburgh Public Theater through April 5. Phone 412-316-1600.

Eugene Lee in "How I Learned What I Learned"

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Elemeno Pea" - A Reversal of Relationships with Comedy and Drama

L to R: Ariel Woodiwiss (Devon), Kimberly Parker Green (Michaela) and Robin Abramsin (Simone) in a scene from City Theatre's "Elemenopea"
Going into City Theatre’s production of "Elemeno Pea," I knew what to expect from the plot. I’d seen the debut production of playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s comic social satire with poignant moments of drama at the Humana Festival in Louisville a few years back.
Not particularly impressed with the Louisville staging (I’d have given it a C grade), I was drawn to the Pittsburgh production by curiosity. I wanted to see how a new cast, crew and director would put their imprint on the work.
Ten minutes into the play, I was less than impressed and ready to get out my scorecard  and pen to record another C grade. Then something happened that completely reversed my incipient impression of yet another exercise in humdrumdity. I inexplicably became completely absorbed by what was happening on stage.
The locale of this theatrical adventure is the almost Edenic world  of  Martha’s Vineyard, New England’s largest island that lies off the Massachusetts coast. The setting is one of the summer homes of the super affluent, make that guest home, that comes with an infinity pool, a hot tub, a view of the ocean, a private beach and amenities that cross over into extravagant.
Two sisters meet at the beach house the for a cozy weekend get together to renew sibling ties. Simone (Robin Abramson) lives in the house as an extravagantly paid personal secretary and general lackey to trophy wife, Michaela (Kimberly Parker Greene). Her sister, Devon (Ariel Woodiwiss), flew in from Buffalo, where she lives in the basement of her mother’s house on the rebound following a disastrous West Coast romance.
Almost immediately, the two women begin sparring verbally, sparking a series of laughs in the audience that came with such frequency and audibility that I missed snippets of dialogue. So much for their planned weekend of sibling bond-building.
Things get even more interesting when Michaela arrives, distraught and disconsolate, after being peremptorily abandoned by her husband, seemingly for no apparent reason. Despite her plight, Michaela maintains a haughty attitude tempered by a need to appear as a down-to-earth, one of the girls, whose only difference is that she has loads of money.
Drawn like a moth to the flame and blinded by the light glinting off Micaela’s golden lifestyle, Simone doesn’t seem to realize how obsequious she’s become when badgered by her employer’s demands. It’s an attitude, however, that Devon will have none of, and she shows off her grit and moxie by going head-to-head with her pampered, but beleaguered hostess.
Events take an even more colorful turn when Jos-B, played with  exemplary  craft by Tony Chiroldes, the household handyman and jack-of-all-trades, shows up with his unique brand of humor, adding a blue collar element to the mix. Counter point to him, is the superficial, self-centered, Ethan (Anthony Comis), a wealthy, youthful playboy who’s veered out of his social class by taking a liking to Simone.
Those familiar with Woody Allen’s film, "Blue Jasmine," are aware of the meaty escapades that comes with the heroine’s fall from grace. The same scenario follows suit in "Elemeno Pea," when Michaela "steps over the line," an event that sends her on a downward spiral with her husband and the lifestyle he offers. One of the highlights of the production is the skill with Green transitions from an unlikeable plastic princess to a woman deserving of sympathy.
It’s interesting to watch how many relationships go into reverse during the play’s 90-minute run time. The two sisters are on again, off again, then on again, Michaela and her husband go from married couple of nearly five years to bitter enemies. Jos-B’s initial superficial subservience to Michaela takes a 180-degree turn after her marriage miscarries. Even loyal Simone takes on a new attitude to her employer by the end of the play. Only her relationship to Ethan seems to have survived the thunderstorm of emotional upheavals.
If you’re wondering about the play’s title, it’s a reference to one of the sister’s grade school experiences while learning the alphabet.  Thinking that elemeno pea was a single letter of the alphabet seems to have been enough to keep her from passing the first grade and earned her the derision of her classmates. The word followed her into adulthood to become a code of understanding shared by the two sisters.
Director Tracy Brigden moves the plot along at a fast clip that takes the audience on an exhilarating ride that’s full of laughs with side trips into more sober  landscapes. Set designer Tony Ferrieri captures the posh feel of a Martha’s Vineyard seaside summer house that’s beyond  the economic reach of most American pocketbooks.
If I were to grade City Theatre’s production, I’d give it a B. The acting, directing, costuming and technical elements are wonderful but I’m still less than satisfied with Metzler’s script. Though well-crafted and entertaining, it sometimes leaves its realistic base and wanders into zany burlesque at the expense of verismo.
The morning after my theater outing, I did a bit of soul-searching and asked myself why the difference in my perceptions of the play at the Humana and at City Theatre. For one, the theater at the Humana was much larger. At the Humana, I was also on a play weekend in which I saw close to eight plays in the course of three days, and burn out and attention fatigue may have played a role. Or it could have been something as simple as seeing the play for the second time gave me insights I may have missed the first time around.
Whatever the case, my opinion of the play has improved following an entertaining outing at City Theatre.
"Elemeno Pea" is at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side through March 22. Phone 412-431-2489.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Picks of the Week - Love Knots and PBT Premiers

Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh believes there’s still time for romance.
    At 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 7, a special concert titled “Love Knots” will be staged at the Hillman Auditorium at the Kaufman House, 1835 Centre Avenue in Pittsburgh. Performed in an intimate setting by a select group of eight singers from the Bach Choir, "Love Knots" runs the gamut from poignant to clever, heartbreaking to humorous. Songs are performed by the entire ensemble as well as soloists, duets and other combinations of voices.

    Arranged by artistic director Thomas W. Douglas, the "Love Knots" cabaret embraces standard tunes as well as lesser-known musical theater works that both celebrate love and speak to the sometimes difficult compromises that it requires. Some are accompanied and others are sung a cappella.

    Tickets are $25 and include wine and light snacks. Phone 1-888-718-4253.

Artists Julia Erickson and Robert Moore in PBT's "Petite Mort" Credit: Duane Rieder


PBT presents masterworks by three of the most influential contemporary choreographers of our time: Jiřί Kylián, Mark Morris and Jerome Robbins. Featuring groundbreaking works by visionary dance makers, PBT Premieres contrasts Jiřί Kylίan’s powerful Petite Mort, Jerome Robbins’ comedic The Concert and Mark Morris’ witty ensemble work, Sandpaper Ballet.

:: Friday, March 6, at 8 PM

:: Saturday, March 7, at 8 PM
Phone 412-456-6666.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Off the Wall Ventures into the Classics with "Ghosts"

L to R Ken Bolden as Rev.Manders, Virginia Wall Gruenert as Helen Alving and Weston Blakesley as Jacob Engstrand in Off the Wall Theater's production of "Ghosts"

With a mission of staging provocative, daring theater not normally produced in the Pittsburgh region, Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie set sail into terra cognito this weekend with a new production of a classic.
Now a venerable chestnut of dramatic literature, Henrik Ibsen’s "Ghosts," was considered so scandalous when it was first performed in the prudish Victorian era it earned a spot on the censor’s list.
    Written in 1881, Ghosts takes on the orthodoxy of the day, throwing a new light on convention, old ideas, social constraints and the morality and hypocrisy of the day and introduced unsavory elements such as profligacy and sexually transmitted disease, hitherto considered verboten, into his drama set in the Norwegian hinterland.
    I remember reading "Ghosts" while attending college in Pittsburgh during a rather bleak winter. The combination of the weather and the mood of the play produced a sort of melancholic angst. Subsequent attendance of plays by Ibsen and fellow Scandinavian playwrights such as Strindberg reinforced the impression that the long, gray winters experienced by Northern Europeans had a marked effect on their writings. Slow moving, introspective, guilt-ridden, pensive and glum scenarios seemed to be the norm.
    How exhilarating, then, to encounter a breath of fresh air with the staging now taking place at Off the Wall. Oh yes, the same tragic plot unfolds, but thanks to director Simm Landres’ brisk pacing, the entire 90-minute long experience sans intermission becomes a fascinating look at how orthodox conventions, social strictures, lies and putting on the false front they require can disable lives and produce deep-felt unhappiness. It’s a theme just as relevant today as it was at the turn of the 19th century.
Rather than simply grim and dour, the play has an enlivening spirit that occasionally takes it away from its darker moments, and Landres even finds nuggets of humor that elevate and enervate the narrative even more.
    Knowing beforehand the inevitable outcome that will come crashing down on the unhappy family as if some easily offended Fury was taking final revenge, I had wished I could have experienced the work with untried eyes. Even so, I found the entire drama fascinating and sat riveted in my seat.
    The production is hugely sustained by its talented cast, headed by Virginia Wall Gruenert (Mrs. Alving), whose character is doomed to have lived her life hiding the debauchery of her deceased husband from her son and community. Recently emancipated to the point of being able to reveal his many indiscretions to her minister, her life-long imposturing comes back to haunt her when her son arrives home after pursuing an artistic career in Paris.
    Wall Gruenert does a magnificent job fluidly transitioning from woman recently emotionally liberated and confident to one that is subsequently devastated  by learning the tragic fate of her ailing bohemian son. The emotional nuances she coveys as a continuum along the course of the play is theatrical artistry sheer and simple.
    As the prudish Reverend Manders, Ken Bolden creates a character focused more on a propriety, respectability and decorum that comes at the expense of compassionate humanity. The avoidance of scandal seems to be one of his major concerns.
    Capitalizing on the minister’s gullibility and sanctimonious insecurities, Weston Blakesley as Jacob Engstrand is a man acutely adept at manipulating the circumstance to fit his needs and is blessed with a way with words that’s a comic joy to behold. As his "daughter," Regina, Sarah Silk eventually reveals some of his psychopathic tendencies as she abruptly transitions from naïve and hopeful lover to distraught egomaniac consumed by her own self-interests.
    The most dramatic moments in "Ghosts" come at the end of the play when Wall Gruenert and Shaun Cameron Hall as her son, Oswald, team up for an emotionally-charged climax that is painful to watch and difficult to forget. The angst and horribly intertwined fate of both mother and son bristle with theatrical electricity that’s palpably convincing.
    The remarkable set by scenic designer, Rich Preffer is both a realistic depiction of a Scandinavian parlor at the end of the 19th century and an abstract, claustrophobic representation of the emotional constraints suggested by Iben’s theme. He manages this by enclosing the set in a cage-like devise suspended over the top of the stage that’s a contrast to the lofty mountainous landscape seen out the parlor window and continuing on both sides of the set.
    For a theater company that insists on bringing daring new works to its stage, Off the Wall did a superb job on its original treatment of a revered classic.
    "Ghosts" is at the Off the Wall Theater in Carnegie through March 14. For tickets, phone 1-888-71-TICKETS.