Friday, January 29, 2016

"Ciara" - A Collaborative Theatrical Effort by Three of Pittsburgh's Most Accomplished Artists

Mary Rawson in "Ciara"

    "Ciara" opens with the lines "The sky is striped with streams of what look like ribbons arcing over the city below. You can see the university spire and the green hills beyond. Like some kind of apocalypse or photographs taken during the Blitz."
This linguistic foreplay should be enough to get the audience up and stirring, anticipating the narrative adventures yet to come from a playwright whose style is colorful, lyrical, even a tad challenging.
I’d never before heard of Scottish playwright David Harrower, but he’s one that seems to have captured the imagination of Quantum Theatre’s artistic director, Karla Boos. In her director’s notes, she writes in the program she admits that Harrower is "among the most meaningful people I’ll never meet, never talk to in my artistic life."
But that hasn’t stopped her from staging two previous Harrower works - Knives in Hens; Kill the Old Torture the Young.
As I understand it, Ms. Boos discovered "Ciara," three years ago while attending the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Currently, she’s directing the play for Quantum at the Javo Studios in Lawrenceville, where it will run through February 14.
To fill the slot for the title character in this one-woman play, Boos selected pre-eminent Pittsburgh actor, Mary Rawson, named by the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette" Performer of the Year in 2012. It takes a gargantuan effort and a lot of moxie to stand alone in front of an audience for 90-intermissionless minutes, look them in the eye and nonchalantly relate the captivating tale of a Glasgow art gallery owner with gritty, unsavory  roots and mob bosses for a father and partner.
After the show, I did an empathy check and imagined myself in Rawson’s shoes, hundreds of eyes watching my every movement, and felt like the proverbial deer at night caught in the middle of the road in the glare of the headlights of an oncoming tractor-trailer. Rawson, to her credit, seemed relaxed, her deep blue eyes making contact with folks throughout the audience, telling them with chummy charm her character’s life story with an ingratiating insouciance.
Her Ciara is no gum-chewing, sassy mouthed mob moll, but a refined lady who arrives on stage dressed for the role as a sophisticated patron of the arts. Costume designer, Julianne D’Errico, clads her in style with soft gray boots, slimming black pants, pink blouse and a knee-length, gossamer cape-like sheath that billows when she moves across the stage.
There’s a certain polished grace in Rawson’s characterization, but she also manages to intimate her unsavory familial roots by showing an ingrained toughness, an advantageous trait that obviously comes in handy for someone with an underworldly background and connections. Although her father, tried to isolate and protect her from the strife and strain of his "professional life," enough seems to have seeped into her being by osmosis to give her a hardened, don’t tread-on-me quality hiding beneath her arty, sensitive veneer.
Dialect coach Don Wadsworth seems to have earned his keep informing Rawson’s speech with a convincing Scottish accent. This Ciara can rattle off the Celtic Rs with the best of them, and I especially relished how poignantly the F-word came bounding out of her mouth with a Scottish hue when called for.
Note: Be sure to check out the glossary in the program before curtain. It defines several of the words in the Scottish patois probably unknown to most American audiences.
Rather than tell Ciara’s story in a straightforward narrative, Harrower does so in fits and starts, all rendered in his stylistic lyrical tone. An anecdote here, a reminiscence there, a short vignette there all combine to paint a discursive mosaic.
And speaking of painting, the third member of the prominent collaborative team, venerable Pittsburgh artist, Robert Qualters, came up with a stellar set that seems to envelop, even caress, the actress. Done in his unique characteristic style, Qualters, awarded the title "Pennsylvania Artist of the Year in 2014, said in a feature published in "Pittsburgh magazine" that he never met a color he didn’t like."
His penchant for visual brilliance comes through on his stage craft, particularly in the lower section of his "Ciara" tableau which is alive with color. The upper portion, however, is more monochromatic and depicts the play’s emblematic image, a naked woman reclining against the background of the Glasgow cityscape.
The production is further enhanced by the talents of lighting designer C. Todd Brown, sound designer Anthony Stultz and media designer Joseph Seamans, whose creative projections give the actress temporary, albeit brief, relief by drawing the eye towards something else than herself.
Just committing to memory the lengthy text, as dense and rich as the Whiskey cake served at the opening night, post-performance reception, is daunting enough. Retelling it live in front of an eager audience with a compelling ease and grace like Rawson does is truly a Herculean effort, one that’s well worth the watching and listening.
"Ciara," a Quantum Theatre production, is at the Javo Studios, 5137 Holmes Avenue in Lawrenceville, through February 14. Tickets are $38 to $51. Phone 412-362-1713 or visit website

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