Thursday, May 19 –

Romare Bearden! The exhibit at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (24 W.57), showing 22 of his insightful collages, runs only through this Saturday, so you’re probably out of luck, but you can see all 22 images on the website. For me, seeing it in the flesh was pure serendipity, or rather, Mary’s good planning (I plan the plays, she plans everything else).

Of course Bearden is especially interesting to me because he was an inspiration to August Wilson, who said that “Joe Turner” and “Piano Lesson” began as responses to specific Bearden works. What I would give to own one! – but not as much as it would take. Even if you took off the final zero from the prices, they’d be far beyond our range unless we mortgaged our house. But we can look. And there are books. And in Pittsburgh, there’s the huge mural at the downtown subway stop, once it reopens.

Then off to the Met for “A Room with a View,” the exhibit of early 19th century paintings that feature a window, creating drama with the contrast between what you see outside and in. It is striking but not surprising how many of the artists were also designers for the stage.

And then, finally, “Spider-Man Turn off the Dark.” You know what? It’s not bad! All the prognostications of catastrophe (artistic, I mean) have been exaggerated. Replacement “creative consultant” Philip Wm. McKinley has apparently slimmed down original director Julie Taymor’s gargantuan production, and after a rather tepid Act 1 it turns legitimately exciting in Act 2.

That’s partly because of the ebullient wit of the villain, the Green Goblin, and absolutely because of the astonishing stage designs (love that Chrysler Building!), which are pretty strong in Act 1, as well. My severest criticism goes to the score, which most of the time sounds mainly like noise, but you can partly chalk that up to my age. Over-all, this is one I’m looking forward to review.

When will that be? "Spidey" No. 2 is still in previews, not opening until June. But that hasn't stopped others, including our Sharon Eberson, who wrote about No. 1, so I'll probably have something to say in a week or so. Most important, if our Post-Gazette theater tour group is representative of the marketplace, I’d say “Spidey” has a future.

Tomorrow: If you think “Spider-Man” is astonishing, wait till you see “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”

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Broadway Blog 2: 'Mother******' and 'War Horse'

Friday, 20 May 2011 01:46 PM Written by

Wednesday, May 18 –

My daughter went with me to see “The Book of Mormon” last night. That’s one of the side benefits of this theater critic racket – taking others with you. I always say you ought to, because you want to have a full experience, and sharing it expands the pleasure, even if the play’s a bomb. If your opinions differ, that’s productive, too. My rule (I’ve written this often in my 30 years on this beat) is that whoever goes with me has to say at least one good thing I can steal and make it seem my own, and I’ve never been disappointed.

Today’s shows were “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” in the afternoon and, the Post-Gazette group having arrived, “War Horse” at night.

Right off, let me say that the title of “Motherf**ker” is perfectly justified by Stephen Adly Guigis’ brisk, 90-minute, intense comic drama. When you first hear the title (in the second scene, I think), you’ve heard so many curse words it just seems part of the conversation. But it’s also a kind of red herring, because, although the hat helps jump start the plot, it soon becomes irrelevant to a surprisingly touching story about two passionate (that’s hardly strong enough) lovers and three friends.

If you’ve heard anything about this play it’s probably the presence of Chris Rock, a comedian whom I admire a lot. But this is his Broadway debut, and although he’s made a lot of movies, he just isn’t a stage actor. The result is a kind of absence, or rather, the presence of Chris Rock’s TV persona (the only way I’ve seen him) in place of Ralph, the AA member he plays.

No matter, or at least not a lot of matter, because the play is propelled (which is hardly a strong enough word) by Bobby Cannavale and Elizabeth Rodriquez as would-be, have-been, may-be lovers who deserve their own circle in Dante’s Hell. Yul Vazquez and Annabella Sciorra aren’t bad, either. More on this when I write the review.

I then joined the PG group. They, Paul Busang (group leader supreme of Gulliver’s Travels), Mary and I all went to dinner at 21 Club, then on to Lincoln Center for “War Horse,” the big London hit of a couple of years standing. It’s an epic about English farm life and World War I, but the heart of it is the horses, played by life-size constructs (they call them puppets, but they’re big enough to ride) manipulated by three handlers each.

The horses seem more and more real as the play progresses, so that by Act 2 I was hardly aware of the handlers. In fact, the horses are so real -- every tremor of their flanks and twitch of their muzzles – that they focus your concern more than the humans dying around them.

With us were our daughter’s family, including granddaughters Ella (13) and Alice (9 ½). If there were tears in our eyes, imagine what it was like for Alice – scary, too. But of course she’s much more grown up than others of her age (just like everybody says about their grandchildren, right?), so she seems to have handled it well. I get to talk about it with her Friday, when we join them for dinner.

By the way, it poured all day. And it’s been pretty chilly. Is this really May?

Tomorrow, at looong last: “Spider-Man Turn off the Dark.”

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Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre is dedicating tonight’s performance of "Antony & Cleopatra" to the late Anne D. Mullaney, former PICT board member. Her husband, Judge Maurice Cohill, will be there with friends, and PICT will be asking those in attendance to make a donation in support of Anne’s most recent charity initiative – construction of schools in Haiti through the Partners in Progress nonprofit organization.

After the performance, PICT is inviting patrons and friends to Mullaney’s Harp & Fiddle in the Strip to celebrate her life.

In addition to this dedication performance, PICT advisory board member Ray Werner is designing a special memorial that will go into the PICT program encouraging support for Anne’s cause in Haiti. For more information, visit http://www.piphaiti.org/Contribute.html.

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Broadway Blog 1: Getting there and "Mormon"

Thursday, 19 May 2011 05:55 PM Written by

Tuesday, May 17 (and if you think this isn’t about theater, read on) –

A trip to NYC to catch up on the flood of new plays naturally starts with travel, which for me usually means USAir, with all its inconvenience (and memories of its glory days), because I like to fly to Laguardia, which is a quick cab ride from the friend who puts me up on the upper East Side.

One of my smaller pet peeves about flying involves getting seated on the plane (which also involves major peeves about airplane procedures, but never mind about that). I prefer the aisle. Inevitably, the inhabitants of the window seat arrive after me, plunging down the aisle, without any warning eye contact, to arrive directly beside me and point at the empty seat. So I struggle to stand, with a mix of obedience and irritation, waiting for them to give me room, which they can’t because the line has pushed forward behind them. Why are people so stupid?

On the plane I always dip into the collection of NYTimes Magazines and Book Reviews accumulated in the side pocket of my travel bag. Who has time for them in the flow of a normal week? And what better soporific to spur the 40 winks I need on the flight?

I did catch up with one great essay: A.O. Scott’s May 8 “Riff” on photographs and the blizzard of digital images. It has a half-dozen sentences or even just phrases I’d kill to have written.

But for subway riding in The City (as they irritatingly call it; but you pick up the habit, and there’s some truth to it, isn’t there?), I prefer something like the NY Post, and what a delicious Post day this was, with not only two juicy scandals (the French diplomat and the former gubernator of California) but also the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Yankees’ losing streak, which is pure ambrosia to a Red Sox fan like myself.

“Gubernator” reminds me of “Doonesbury” and this week’s Rapture sequence. Garry Trudeau is sure taking his chances, isn’t he? After all, the strip has to be drawn several weeks in advance, so next Monday’s strip is going to look pretty foolish if the Rapture prophets turn out to be right!

Finally, at 8 pm, there was actually a show to see, and speaking of crackpot religious prophets, what a great show it is: “The Book of Mormon,” a deliriously silly send up of those earnest young men who go forth to tell the world that God appeared (through his angels) on a New York State hillside in 1827 to inspire Joseph Smith. Well, it’s about a lot more than that, and while it does indeed make fun of Mormon beliefs and behaviors, it also makes fun of liberal political correctness (making fun of someone’s religion does that already) among other satiric targets.

No, I don’t think I’d subscribe to Ben Brantley’s hyperbole in the NYTimes, calling it the best new musical of the century (which is just 10.5 or 11.5 years, depending how you reckon such things), though I’d better check the Tony Awards of the past 11.5 years to be sure. But yes, it’s a very good musical – a buddy musical, you’d say – and the soon-to-be Tony winner is Josh Gad, aA CMU grad. More about all that in my eventual review.

Tomorrow: “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” and “War Horse.”

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Mary and I just had a quintessential Pittsburgh evening: visual artist Bob Qualters, performer Steve Pellegrino and filmmaker Tony Buba -- idiosyncratic Pittsburgh artists all making theater one way or another.

For Qualters, it was an opening at the Borelli Edwards Art Gallery in Lawrenceville (3583 Butler St.), a big exhibit of his latest paintings of Pittsburgh laced with myth, or rather myth discovered through personal takes on Pittsburgh. These are Qualters-esque visions of Daphne and Naiads and Icarus (my favorite) and Persephone interwoven with vigorous, colorful focus on Pittsburgh places, realized with layered media, all robust and earthy but sometimes verging on mystical. They burst their borders like performances pushing beyond the proscenium. It’s drama. Steve Jumpin'

Then on to the Grey Box Theatre next door for Pellegrino’s one-man “Accordion Stories,” a ramble through his working class heritage up the Mon Valley, expressed in anecdote, accordion and song.

So who’s the Anon. credited with defining a gentleman as someone who can play an accordion but doesn’t? Someone short on soul, I’d say: someone wielding “gentleman” as a stick to keep the lower classes in order. Pellegrino grew up in an accordion playing household in an accordion era, and we are the beneficiaries as he shows what his accordion and his father’s and a squeezebox can do.

Along with setting our feet to tapping, they summon history, because Pellegrino is not just a musician, he’s a story teller who can talk and sing as well as play, and he has all the gusto of a Qualters painting. As some of you may know, he’s also an artist of serious surreal eccentricity, master of the Drywall series of performance pieces going back, what, a couple of decades? Three? More? SteveB0119

But not here. This is a Pellegrino planted firmly in the industrial working class, quite naturally wearing the overalls he uses (for real) to install drywall and plaster. He’s explicit in laughter and nostalgia as he tells tales of growing up, but especially of his parents and grandparents, which takes him back to the Depression. Two songs touch depths of pain, a superlative “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and a throaty tale of coal mine tragedy that you can only call Mon Valley Blues. He even gives the audience a chance to dance.

Unfortunately his three performance weekend is done, but if Pellegrino doesn’t bring “Accordion Stories” back soon for a longer run, we ought to hunt him down and insist.

As to filmmaker Buba, he was there to video Pellegrino. He’s featured him on film before, and I guess he will again. But I’m the theater guy and i say, it’s better in person.

(Photos by Larry Rippel. Top: "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Bottom: "Brother Can You Spare a Dime.")

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A three-day conference presented by Quantum Theatre and the University of Pittsburgh May 12-14 wil feature staged readings of "Merchant on Venice" by Shishir Kurup and "Jihad Against Violence" by Fawzia Afzal-Khan, with lectures before each reading.

The conference "aims to initiate new inquires into the aesthetics and impacts of diasporas onto theater practice." It was organized by Neilesh Bose, historian, theater artist and editor of "Beyond Bollywood and Broadway, Plays from the South Asian Diaspora," an anthology of plays.

The play "Merchant on Venice" is part of Quantum’s 2010-11 subscription package. Beyond subscribers, the conference is free and open to the public, space permitting.


Schedule of events:

Thursday, May 12, Frick Fine Arts Building:

5:30-6:30 p.m., Fawzia Afzal-Khan, “Performative Interventions in the Body Politic of Pakistan”

7-8:30 p.m., "Jihad Against Violence" staged reading

Friday, May 13, Frick Fine Arts Building::

5-6 p.m., Neilesh Bose, “South Asia, Diaspora, and History: 'Merchant on Venice' and Post-Colonial Secularism”

8-10:30 p.m., "Merchant on Venice" staged reading

10:30 p.m., Talkback and reception

Saturday, May 14, Posvar Hall 4103:

9 a.m.-5 p.m., Re-Orienting Asia: Southern Asian Performance Across Frontiers, conference.




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Happy Birthday, August Wilson

Wednesday, 27 April 2011 12:00 AM Written by

Born April 27, 1945, the great playwright would have been just 66 today, a reminder of how tragically early he was taken from us. His fatal liver cancer came on him so suddenly, just a few months from diagnosis to his death, Oct. 2, 2005.

But he left behind the extraordinary artistic legacy of his Pittsburgh Cycle of 10 plays, which continue to bear witness to the tragic-comic drama of America, seen through his turbulent tales of African Americans throughout the 20th century. I can’t imagine them ever growing stale; from my own experience, they continue to reveal new depths and dimensions the more you read or see them.

Right now, Pittsburgh has the advantage of seeing the Pittsburgh Cycle in a bi-monthly series of readings staged by Mark Southers at the August Wilson Center, downtown. Mark is doing them not in the order of the century but in that of their writing and appearance on Broadway. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (Feb. 7) and “Fences” (April 4) are past; “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (June 6) and “The Piano Lesson” (Aug. 1) are just ahead. (On the alternate first Mondays of every month there are readings of other African American plays.)

Further, Mark’s Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre has been offering annual, full-scale productions of the whole cycle, in that same order. This year, we are up to the eighth play, “King Hedley II,” one of the two that had its world premiere here. Mark your calendars now: “King Hedley” will run June 2-12 (also at the August Wilson Center), with a cast led by a veteran of the Broadway production, Stephen McKinley Henderson.

I’d like to add a shout-out here to the 15 members of my August Wilson senior seminar at Pitt, who are graduating Sunday. Their discovery of the range and power of the Pittsburgh Cycle is fresh testimony to the unfolding wonders of the August Wilson legacy.

-- Chris Rawson

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The amazing maze of CMU's 'The Alice Project'

Thursday, 21 April 2011 06:05 PM Written by


Courtesy of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama:

"The Alice Project" takes Lewis Carroll's Victorian sensibility and drags it kicking and screaming into the present day, as CMU's School of Drama transforms the story on a high-tech, three-story, steel-maze set layered with multimedia. The last offering of CMU's drama season runs through Saturday, April 23 in the Philip Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center for the Arts.

Directed by graduate directing program leader and faculty member Marianne Weems, this interdisciplinary performance explores the character of Alice through a modern-day lens of technology, using live cameras, projection surfaces and soundscapes on the steel structure.

"This use of multimedia creates connections and disconnections, which offers the viewer a window into this contemporary reading of Alice," said Weems, who will be making her directorial debut for the School of Drama.

Over the past year, a team of graduate designers, undergraduate directors and graduate dramatic writing students have collaborated with the director, actors and technicians to develop the performance.

" 'The Alice Project' combines performance, imagination, conceptual skills, technology and text in an original provocative and innovative explosion of theatricality," said Peter Cooke, head of the School of Drama.

Weems said the scale of the three-story steel structure of the set, each with multiple "cells" for various characters, combined with live action captured on video and encompassing soundscapes heightens the multi-varied perspective and creates a complex pictorial frame.

"As Alice's adventures move from square to square, the past and present encounter each other in a dynamic dialogue," Weems said.

The story follows Alice as she tiptoes through a set of seemingly arbitrary and fluid rules of the looking glass world to progress through a game of chess and become Queen. She meets a series of melancholic and delusional creatures unable to move outside of their own squares.

"Alice is constantly questioned as to who she is. Each encounter is a struggle with power, with what forces will define her identity and how much she requires affirmation and recognition from others along the way," said second-year graduate directing student Katie Brook. "Alice is seen and named by a variety of characters in multiple ways. As they struggle to define her, the story reflects fragments of different perceptions of Alice."

Ticket prices begin at $15 for adults and $10 for students at 412-268-2407 or visit http://www.drama.cmu.edu.

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