October 8th, 2011

F. J. Hartland

Alcoholism knows no boundaries.  It cuts across all lines: gender, race, age and social class.

Sadly, too, alcoholism takes a toll on the lives of more than just the individual doing the drinking.

Both these points are brilliantly addressed in Shaken and Stirred by Virginia Wall Gruenert, the current offering at Off The Wall in Washington PA.

Utilizing an ensemble cast of four women, the playwright has dove-tailed the stories of eight different characters—each struggling with a different facet of alcohol abuse.

It could easily be reduced to all gloom and doom, but the playwright has wisely infused humor into the script as well.

Erica Cuenca plays Happy, and Cuenca superbly transforms from a young girl on roller skates to a disillusioned college student.  Happy both adores and is ashamed of her father, who spends his time drinking in the basement—when he isn’t fighting with Happy’s mother.  Cuenca makes the gradual changes in Happy’s ages and mood flawlessly.

Karen Baum plays Harley a tough-talking bar maid from Kentucky.  She and her mother live in a trailer, and Harley picks up all her mother’s bad habits—men and booze.  Harley is raped by one of her mother’s boyfriends.  Regardless, she loves the baby the is the result of the assault. The baby is taken away from her—and all Harley wants is to get her child back.  Baum’s performance is beautifully layered.  We see the pain under the tough talking veneer.  She will move you to tears as Harley is begging to see her child—al while chugging a bottle of mouthwash.

Virginia Wall Gruenert plays a variety of roles; Happy’s mom, Harley’s sponsor in AA, a former activist now battling liver cancer.  Each character is distinctly drawn.  Her Iris, the AA sponsor, is very funny; her Roz is heart-breaking.

Shaken and Stirred is directed by Robyne Parrish, who also plays two roles in the play.  While the scenes play at wonderful pace, there are some scene transitions that stop the momentum of the play, forcing the actors to go back to square one and recapture the audience.

The set by Paul A Shaw is simple, but works well for the many settings and time changes in the play.  It is dominated by three large painted panels.  The image of two of the panels made sense, but I was confused by the symbolism of the center panel.

Shaken and Stirred is a powerful and emotional piece.  If you know anyone who is an alcoholic, the play will speak to you.  If you do not, it will give you insight to a disease that cripples millions of individuals—and the people who love them.

Shaken and Stirred runs through October 22.  Then it will move to Theatre 54 in midtown Manhattan for a week-long New York run. 


October 7th, 2011


F. J. Hartland

Electra is (justifiably) upset.  Her mother Clytemnestra (in cahoots with her lover Aegithus) has murdered Agamemnon (husband of Clytemnestra and father to Electra).  And Electra’s brother Orestes is far, far away and can’t help her.  And it looks like Aegithus has plans to bury Electra (without letting her die first). 

Talk about a dysfunctional family!

But it’s just another day in Greek tragedy

Electra is the current production at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. 

Under the direction of Artistic Director Ted Pappas, it is an uneven production at best.

From the set to the costumes to the acting styles, the overall look of the show is quite eclectic.  The set by James Noone is rather simple…two large walls held up by chains.  Gabriel Berry’s costumes look like a mish-mash of Greek and medieval and modern day.  And sometimes the performances have a “classic” feel to them with stylized movement; other moments look like modern Stanislavski.

So when exactly does director Pappas see Electra set?  I don’t know.

And there seemed to be powerful emotional moments that drew inappropriate laughter from the audience.

As Electra Catherine Eaton has a primal, almost animalistic quality.  It is a very physical performance.  But even at her best, Electra is not a likeable character—no matter how wronged she has been.

But she seems a charmer once you meet Lisa Harrow’s bitch queen Clytemnestra.  Electra wants her dead.  I’m thinking it’s not such a bad idea.

Chrysothmis (played by Catherine Gowl) is given more levels to play, and she plays them well.  It creates an excellent contrast to the other two female leads.

Michael Simpson plays brother Orestes as if Electra was a new NBC sitcom instead of a classic Greek tragedy.  His performance seems very out-of-place in this production.

Poor David Whalen! Not only does he have the last entrance of the play, he is given very little do.  And it looks like he is wearing one of Regina’s dressing gowns from The Little Foxes.

Electra is mercifully short, running only about 85 minutes and is played without an intermission.

One side note… the program credits McCorkle Casting, Ltd. in program for “Casting.”  With all the talent in Pittsburgh, does the Public Theatre really need a casting agency to fill its casts?

Electra continues through October 30.


August 28th, 2011

F. J. Hartland

Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the final offering in Duquesne University’s Summer Company for 2011.

And the season goes out—not with a whimper—but a bang!

T.J. Fierno makes an impressive main stage directing debut, tackling this lengthy (three acts)  and intense drama.

George, a college professor, and his wife Martha (daughter of the college president) have invited a new faculty member Nick) and his wife (Honey) to their home, following a campus cocktail party.  Nick and Honey have no idea what a hornet’s nest of mind games and deception they are walking into.

While it is a powerful and emotional drama, there are also some wonderful laughs.  But be warned.  It is a biting brand of humor; the kind that draws blood.

As Nick and Honey, Matt Robinson and Lisa Cummins look like the ideal, clean-cut couple from the Mid-west.  These two performers start out a little stiff, but both soon warm-up.

John E. Lane, Jr. gives a remarkable performance as George.  It is simply not to be missed.  He excels at the script’s witty banter but also shows incredible moments of anger and pathos.

Anne Brannen (as Martha) starts off well, matching George’s venomous wit barb-for-barb.  Overall, though, her performance does not match the high level of Lane’s.

The set design (also by Fierno) is beautifully detailed.  There isn’t an empty space that hasn’t been crammed with books or art or knick-knacks. It really does look like a college professor’s home, circa 1962.

Costumes also look very period—but could have been tailored better.  There are a few ill-fitting items.

Overall, it is an emotional roller coaster ride worth taking, especially to see Lane’s masterful performance.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues through September 3 at the Peter Mills Auditorium on the campus of Duquesne University.


August 7th, 2011

F. J. Hartland

In Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s (PICT) production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest all the roles are played by men.

The idea of playing fast and loose with gender in Wilde’s play is not new.

Several years ago Pittsburgh’s own Unseem’d Shakespeare did a production where all the roles were cast cross-gendered.

The difference is in the Unseem’d production, director Nona Gerard brilliantly trusted Wilde’s text and had the actors play their roles honestly.  In the PICT production, directed by Conall Morrison, mugging and pratfalls and sex gags are the order of the day, and the men play women like screaming harpies (a la RuPaul’s Drag Race).

The result?

The Unseem’d production was amazing and memorable for all the right reasons. 

The PICT production is memorable, too.  For all the wrong reasons.  Director Morrison reduces Wilde’s script to the level of a bad summer stock production of Natalie Needs a Nightie or Love, Sex and the IRS (and aren’t there enough of those?).

Morrison has also added a prologue to the play (just what a three-act classic needs…to be longer!).  This addition adds nothing really to the production (other than time).  Half of it is spoken in French, so if it wasn’t slow and plodding enough, it’s is also incomprehensible.  (There must have been jokes because I did hear the three people in the audience who spoke French laughing).

Why in the final year of his life is Oscar Wilde—played by Alan Stanford—remembering The Importance of Being Earnest (a play he had written years before)?

Your guess is as good as mine.  This production certainly doesn’t tell us.

The only possible explanation for this prologue is to make the cumbersome set changes required by The Importance of Being Earnest unnecessary. 

But then what does he do?  Morrison adds cumbersome set changes.  The top of Act Two in unbearably slow as we get to watch “gardeners” carry out (and plug in) about 75 lamps.  Really?  Couldn’t that have been done during intermission—and shaved five minutes off this three-hour production?  And yet another set change at 10:25pm?

Matthew Cleaver plays Cecily with a voice that sounds like Miss Piggy.  If this were The Importance of Being The Muppet Show, he’d be perfect!  Will Reynolds’ Gwendolyn is equally cartoonish.  Reynolds already towers over partner David Whalen—and then wears heels?

Leo Marks plays the most annoying Algernon I have ever seen.  And neither he nor David Whalen (Jack) look young enough to play men in their 20’s…not even from the back row of the Charity Randall Theater.

The “women’s” costumes by Joan O’Clery are ghastly. 

Poor James FitzGerald is forced to wear such large mutton sleeves and enormous breasts as Miss Prism that his head looks miniscule.  The effect is like he was a life-sized doll that had a “Barbie” head planted on it.

The only good thing I can say about Sabine Dargent’s shabby set with bad sightlines is that it is so busy, it gives one something to look at when you avert your eyes from this train wreck of a production.

Jim French’s lighting is fine—if you are downstage.  I don’t know if the cast knows they are barely lit when upstage on the platform (or if they move too far stage right or left).

The production is not completely without merit.

David Crawford makes a fine Canon Chausible (but he, too, is forced to mug and have pratfalls by Morrison).

Martin Giles creates a very funny Merrimen—noticeable because it is the only understated performance of the evening.

Legend has it that when Oscar Wilde was dying in his hotel room in Paris, he looked at his window curtains and declared, “Either those drapes go—or I do.”

If he were alive today to see this three-hour monstrosity, perhaps he would say, “Either this production goes—or I do.”

The Importance of Being Earnest runs through August 27.


August 4th, 2011

F. J. Hartland

Pittsburgh CLO brings its season to a close with the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice classic Jesus Christ Superstar.

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been forty years since this show was introduced to the world.  And what once seemed so controversial seems somewhat tame.

Sadly, director Charles Replogle gives us a very tame production of the show.  As the song says…”everything’s alright.”  Just alright.

In this quick-paced production (under two hours), the voices are magnificent.  And considering that the creators labeled their show “a rock opera,” strong voices are required.

As Judas Iscariot, Josh Tower brings a vibrant energy to all his numbers, culminating in the power title song.

Doug Kreeger as Jesus is also a vocal powerhouse.  The duets between Kreeger and Tower are always electric confrontations.

Not only is she exotically beautiful, but Stephanie Umoh as Mary Magdalene makes the most of all her numbers.  The high point is definitely her emotional “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”  which resounds in  the Benedum Center. Sadly, Weber and Rice have given the character very little to do in Act Two.

Doing his best work of the season is Robert Cuccioli as Pontius Pilate.  This is the first time that I’ve seen Superstar when I walked away remembering Pontius Pilate.

However, these performers (along with the rest of the cast) deserve a far better production than they get.

The costumes (from Theatre Under the Stars) are awful.  The cast looks like a combination of Mexican peasants and refugees from a bad Christmas church pageant.  Some of the items the actors are required to wear are downright laughable.

The set by Michael Anania is uninspired and looks like something from a bad high school musical.  Director Charles Replogle really doesn’t make the most of it either.

John McLain’s lighting is confusing.  Odd shapes are projected on the back cyclorama that don’t make much sense.

Truthfully, the physical aspects of the production are so bad that I found myself closing my eyes and just listening to the amazing vocals.

Jesus Christ Superstar continues through August 14.


July 30th, 2011

F. J. Hartland

Tormented by memories of her brother, Edna stops bathing in an attempt to take control of her life in the Pittsburgh premiere of The Mistakes Madeline Made, the second summer offering from No Name Players.

Elizabeth Meriwether’s odd script is peppered with memorable characters, and director Marci Woodruff more than meets the challenge of this peculiar play!  Not only does the play move along at an excellent pace, but Woodruff has gotten top-notch performances from her cast.

Woodruff and No Name give The Mistakes Madeline Made a very professional looking production. 

 Nick Coppula’s massive set fills the stage of the Studio Theatre in the Cathedral of Learning.  It is also nicely appointed and detailed (and contains a surprise or two).  Coppula’s lighting is not quite as successful as there are dark spots.

As Edna, Liz Roberts starts off very unsympathetically—but she plays a full arc of emotions and will bring you to tears by the time the lights fade.

John Feightner shines in multiple roles as Edna’s various paramours.  He creates three very distinctive (and obnoxious) characters.

Todd Betker gives one of the finest performances of his career thus far as Edna’s brother—and he plays most of it from inside an old-fashioned claw foot bathtub.  Betker portrays the shell-shocked war correspondent on the edge of madness with great sensitivity and flair.

In the role of Beth, Edna’s boss, Tressa Glover is both funny—and frightening.  Glover maneuvers her desk chair adeptly all while spouting such catch phrases as “”nuff said.”

The highlight of this stellar cast is Don DiGiulio as Wilson, Edna’s quirky co-worker  He brings high energy and great humor to the production…and then brings real warmth and pathos to the play’s conclusion.  DiGuilio plays the role of the lovable geek to the hilt.

It takes a few scenes to get accustomed to the characters and the style of the play.  But once you do, it is a highly enjoyable evening of theatre.

The Mistakes Madeline Made continues through August 13.


July 24th, 2011

F. J. Hartland

Three actresses from Thoreau MN—A production company braved swarms of gnats and oppressive humidity to perform an outdoor production of The Complete History of America (Abridged).

You have to admire their courage for performing without a net…or lights…or a microphone…or a real stage.  In many ways it harkens back to the days of ancient Greece, when actors performed on a hillside with no fuss or frills.

The script by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor (the same team that have reduced The Bible and the works of Shakespeare) covers the history of America from even before the arrival of Columbus in 1492.  When the script is good, it is witty and clever.  When it’s not good, it’s sophomoric and resembles a fraternity skit from some college’s Greek Week.  Much of the material was probably ad-libbed by the creators who originally performed the show.  And sometimes when ad-libs are written as real “lines,” they tend to go “clunk.”

The actresses (Chelsea Forbes, Barb Sawatis and Marjie Stewart) work very hard (and in this heat wave, no less).  Like the script, they have some good moments; others moments, not so good.  At times, they mesh and perform like a well-oiled machine.  But there are times when they don’t always “click.”

Director lance-eric skapura keeps the show moving at a lively pace—and is to be commended for choosing this difficult script.

There really is no set or lights to talk about, but I will say that the printed signs used during the show need to be bigger—or bolder (and the actors need to hold them up long enough so that they can be read).

There are some good belly laughs, but overall it’s an uneven production.  On the plus side, it is performed at the Vineyard by Mellon—so the delicious wine is available before the show and during intermission.

The Complete History of America (Abridged) will be performed again on August 6.  For tickets, call 412-901-0639.


July 23rd, 2011

F. J. Hartland

What would your cell phone tell a stranger about you?

When the gentleman next to her in a café doesn’t answer his cell phone, Jean does it—only to make the horrifying discovery that the gentleman is dead.  She keeps his cell phone, though, and it sends her into a journey into the life of the deceased.

It’s Dead Man Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, the premiere production of the newly formed Organic Theater.

It’s a fantastic premise for a play.  And I’ll admit that playwright Ruhl did hold my interest through Act One.  But Act Two spirals into a total mess, leaving me disappointed and unsatisfied.

To the credit of the Organic Theater, they give the script a top-notch production.

Jamie Slavinsky portrays Jean beautifully—capturing all the nuances of a shy, lonely woman caught in a situation that overwhelms her.  Slavinsky makes a complete physical transformation, looking like America Ferrara of television’s Ugly Betty.

As the Dwight, the deceased brother, Adam Kukic makes a welcomed return to the stage.  His Dwight is simultaneously sweet and creepy.  Kukik embodied a lost, little puppy—but you’re never quite sure if the dog is going to lick your hand or bite it.

Also making a return to the stage after a long absence is Deborah Wein as the deceased man’s mother.  Wein brings great comic relief to Dead Man’s Cell Phone, and the eulogy she delivers for her late son is hilarious!

Director Ricardo Vila-Roger (and scenic designer Jamie Slavinsky) have beautifully show-horned this production into the spare space of the ModernFormations Gallery and Performance Space.  The set pieces are simple but well-enhanced by the use of projections.  The use of Edward Hopper paintings to reflect the isolation of the characters was a stroke of genius. 

On the down-side, Act Two tends to drag and could probably be 5-10 minutes shorter.

It’s a promising start for this new theatre company.  I just wish they had chosen a better play.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues through July 31.


July 21st, 2011

F. J. Hartland

The Benedum Center is alive with The Sound of Music.

This sure-fire crowd-pleaser from Pittsburgh CLO is well-directed by James Brennan who keeps the pace lively.  For those of you who have suffered through those 3 ½ hour high school productions of The Sound of Music, there is nothing to fear from this quick moving and highly entertaining adaptation.

It also incorporates some of the musical numbers written specifically for the movie—so you film devotees will be pleased!

Jennifer Hope Wills is a delight as the young novitiate Maria, who becomes governess to the seven von Trapp children.  With boundless energy and a powerful singing voice, Wills captures the heart of the cold Captain von Trapp—and she’ll capture yours, too.

Speaking of voices, Lisa Howard as the Mother Abbess fills the Benedum Center to the rafters with her commanding rendition of “Climb Every Mountain.”  Her fellow “sisters” also make some beautiful music of their own.

Usually the role of Elsa, von Trapp’s betrothed, comes across as cold and villainous—but Dona English gives her a genuine warmth and caring.  Jim Brochu makes the most of the laugh lines in his role as the comic relief Max Detweiller.

Tony Award-nominee Robert Cuccioli fares better in Act One when Captain von Trapp is cold and stern.  His transformation for Act Two isn’t completely convincing.

The production is not without its flaws.The costumes border on embarrassing.  Not only do many of them fit poorly, the color palate is strange.  At the party scene, von Trapp is in a red tuxedo shirt; the result looks more like Count Dracula and not Captain von Trapp.  I’ve seen high school musicals with more professional looking costumes.

Some of director Brennan’s staging is odd.  In the wedding scene, the nuptials take place upstage behind a huge gate—which is behind a bank of nuns.  Had it not been for the bishop’s miter peeking up over the top, I wouldn’t have known that anything was going on!

I must admit that The Sound of Music is not one of the favorite musicals; it’s just a little too “sweet” and “cute” for my taste.  But I was pleasantly surprised by this production.  If you’re looking for some entertaining family fare this summer, The Sound of Music should be on your list.

The Sound of Music runs through July 31.


July 15th, 2011

F. J. Hartland

Theatre-of-the-absurd is not one of my favorites. But if I had to choose one, it would have to be Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

And—by luck—that happens to be the current production for the Summer Company at Duquesne University.

Rhinoceros is set in a small French town where one day a rhinoceros is seen charging through the village square.  One is again spotted later, but no one is quite sure if it was the same one seen earlier—or are here now two of them?

No one is quite sure where they’ve come from—as there is no zoo nearby and circuses were banned years ago.  Then there is a startling discovery.  One-by-one, these French villagers are being transformed into rhinos.

Ridiculous, you say?  Of course.  This is theatre-of-the-absurd. 

But Ionesco is making a very serious point about conformity versus individuality.

The current production directed by Jill Jeffrey has moved the play to America…and it doesn’t always work.  After all, there are characters named Papillion, Jean, Botard and Beouf…and the opening scene in the church square feels very European.

There are some highlights.

Mark Yochum nearly steals the show as Jean, the best friend of the main character Berenger.  Yochum has a strong stage presence and a voice that fills the Peter Mills Theatre with his crisp diction.  He plays the fastidiousness of Jean to a “T,” and then he does a full 180 degree turn in Act Two when Jean is slowly transformed into a rhinoceros!

Another stand-out is Eric Matthews as the Logician.  With his ever present pipe in hand, he spouts all sorts of silly syllogisms…and spouts them brilliantly.

Chris Sullivan is hysterically funny as the peevish Mr. Botard.  Not only does he have “the look” down pat—he’s also got the perfect voice and mannerisms.  Sullivan glibly smokes a cigarette as he eschews sarcasms left and right.

TJ Fierno’s highly serviceable set easily adapts to fit the four different locations of the play.  Scenes changes are covered by showing National Geographic footage of rhinos.  Sadly though, the scene changes are over long before the film segments end…and it makes the scene change breaks longer than they have to be.  And at 2 hours and 40 minutes, this show is already too long.

The crowd sequences in the opening scene have the potential to be much funnier if the cues were picked up. 

Pacing is a problem throughout the production. 

Overall, the entire production has potential, but the old directorial adage of “Louder, faster, funnier” should be applied here.

Rhinoceros runs through July 22.