PianoLesson_poster_330Monday saw something special at the August Wilson Center. As part of the very gradual (first Monday of every other month) readings of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, “The Piano Lesson” was read by an all-woman cast. Not only that, but one of the actors was white.

And why not? I wouldn’t support an all-female full production, and I wouldn’t support white actors claiming black roles except in special circumstances like schools, but why not give August’s great plays as many interpretations as possible?

In the event, it proved a very solid “Piano Lesson,” all three hours of it plus intermission. I wouldn’t say it revealed anything new about this great play, which I already know very well: the women just voiced the parts, and their gender receded in importance. But there were certainly some resonant ironies, as when a (female) Boy Willie lectures a (female) Berniece about feminist pride.

The centerpiece was an especially robust and joyous Boy Willie by Vanessa German, who I might almost say was born to play the part. I wish August had been there to see it. Not surprisingly, the reading was Vanessa’s idea, and she brought the rest of the cast together.

The best of the others were Bria Walker’s Wining Boy and Tami Dixon’s Lymon, but I’d better just list them all: Chrystal Bates (Berniece), Stephanie Akers (Doaker), Twanda Clark (Avery), Nia Washington (Maretha) and Naila Ansari (Grace.) You can get an idea of how much fun they had from their poster – they did the reading in play-appropriate costume, but they celebrated it as you see above.

(Caption: German is at center top, with Washington below her. Clockwise starting with German the others are Clark, Akers, Walker, Dixon and Bates. Ansari is missing.)

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This press release just arrived from Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, and it's worth sharing right away. Alan Stanford, who is in town to direct PICT's "The Mark of Moriarty," will present a special one-night-only reading of Charles Dickens’ classic tale of redemption, “A Christmas Carol,” on Sunday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m. in the Charity Randall Theatre. Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for youth under 26.

Here's what PICT had to say about the special event:

Alan Stanford as Lady Bracknell in PICT's
"The Importance of Being Earnest."
Photo credit: Michael Henninger
Stingy Ebenezer Scrooge is a greedy, uncharitable man who is startled by a Christmas Eve visit from the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley’s ghost warns him that he must change his ways or face a miserable afterlife. Three ghostly visitors attend on Scrooge during the night; the first, the ghost of Christmas past, allows him to revisit scenes of his youth, a time when he was happy and innocent. The second ghost, the ghost of Christmas present, shows scenes of families coming together and enjoying what they have, in spite of poverty. The Ghost of Christmas yet to come shows Scrooge dire visions of the future if he doesn’t learn from what he witnessed. The journey towards redemption for Scrooge offers hope for the future and for all mankind.

Charles Dickens, father of modern-day Christmas traditions, is coming up on his 200th birthday (Feb. 7th, 2012). The original “99%”, Dickens was a journalist and a champion for the rights of the poor, using his pen to fight for better living and working conditions and revealing to the public the abuse and mistreatment of people. He was the greatest writer of the Victorian period, the first “rock star” of writing, enjoying wider fame during his lifetime than any previous author.

Stanford’s professional association with “A Christmas Carol” goes back more than a decade, when he first staged a theatrical adaptation of the book for the Gate Theatre in Dublin. He has staged a production of the show at the Gate every two to three years since. The benefit reading which Stanford is doing for PICT will reprise the performance he gave for an invited audience at the Irish Government Guest House.

The tradition of public readings of “A Christmas Carol” go back to Dickens himself. In 1853, A Christmas Carol was chosen for his first public reading with the performance an immense success. Thereafter, he read the tale in an abbreviated version 127 times until 1870 (the year of his death) when it provided the material for his farewell performance.

The first public reading he gave of A Christmas Carol was as a benefit charitable performance for Great Ormond Street Hospital, given at St. Martin-in-the-Fields church hall. The event raised enough money to enable the hospital to purchase the neighboring house, increasing the hospital’s capacity from 20 to 75.

In the early years of the 20th century, Sir Squire Bancroft raised 20,000 pounds for the poor by reading the tale aloud publicly; and Captain Corbett-Smith read the tale to the troops in the trenches of World War I.

Tickets are $25 for adults and $10 for youth under 26, and are available by calling ProArtsTickets at 412.394.3353 or online at www.proartstickets.org.

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Julie Taymor sues 'Spider-Man' producers

Tuesday, 08 November 2011 04:06 PM Written by

You would think that Julie Taymor would want to walk away from the controversy that ended her relationship with the Broadway production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” but nooooo. The Tony-winning director of “The Lion King” has filed a lawsuit in New York that claims the show has violated her rights by continuing to use her work without compensation, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“Spider-Man,” reportedly the most expensive Broadway show ever at more than $75 million, was troubled from the start, with cast injuries and almost universally poor reviews. In the midst of dozens of stoppages during the show and a record 180-plus previews (it had to preview on Broadway in it’s home, Foxwoods Theater, which was fitted just for the massive sets and flying stunts), Taymor was replaced and a new creative team joined song writers Bono and the Edge.

Philip Wm. McKinley (“The Boy From Oz”) is now listed as “creative consultant” above Ms. Taymor in the program; her credit is “original direction.”
After seeing the show for a second time, I wrote:

“Taymor-era leftovers reveal the sort of excess that pushed the director/writer to the exit as producers tried to right a sinking ship after months and months of mostly sold-out previews. When it was apparent that people were coming as much for the chance to see a catastrophe as a Broadway spectacle, Ms. Taymor was sent packing.”

Spidey_330That’s not to say she didn’t leave behind stunning visuals (she won a second Tony on "The Lion King" for costumes). The structure and substance had been changed and pared down, numbers were cut and added, and yet ... Taymor’s artistry was still at play in many of the ways that delight audiences: the outrageous costumed villains, the giant cartoon Spidey hand catching a falling cartoon baby, the unfolding skyscrapers and bridge, the overhead battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin.

The THR story says the divorce between Taymor and producers in March, before the official opening of the show, was “due to artistic differences.” Fans, however, have had their say: “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” continues to play to near capacity at the 1,900-seat theater.

“After Taymor was let go, she filed an arbitration claim against producers, saying she was owed more than $500,000 in royalties. An arbitration hearing was held earlier this month, and the outcome isn’t known," THR reports.

“But Taymor is taking a new tact in an effort to claim profits from the show, alleging in her complaint that producers have continued to make use of her creative contributions. Producer Michael Cohl’s 8 Legged Productions is the defendant.”

No question, Taymor’s artistry is still at work in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” But if reviews can be entered as evidence, well, here’s what New York Times lead theater critic Ben Brantley said the second time he saw the show:

"Adrenaline-raising acrobatics are a necessary part of the lumpy package that is “Spider-Man,” which had its long-delayed official opening on Tuesday night, after 180-some preview performances. First seen and deplored by critics several months ago — when impatient journalists (including me) broke the media embargo for reviews as the show’s opening date kept sliding into a misty future — this singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore."

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Allderdice H.S. honors Rob Marshall

Monday, 31 October 2011 04:53 PM Written by

MarshallDeppA brief in today's paper about the induction of Hollywood and Broadway director/choreographer Rob Marshall and other luminaries being inducted into the Pittsburgh Allderdice Alumni Hall of Fame on Thursday forgot to mention that the ceremony is free and open to the public. Allderdice requests a call to the RSVP line -- 412-422-4846 -- to say how many are in your party, so the planners can prep accordingly.

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The play "Pump" was the big winner at when the Pittsburgh New Works Festival announced the annual Donna Awards, named for the festival's founder, Donna Rae.

For its 21st season, the festival gave four awards to "Pump" by Kim Zelonis Dale, a Chicagoan by way of Pittsburgh. The play, a production of won Best Production and Directo for Scott P. Calhoon, plus acting awards for Joline Atkins (actress in a lead role) and Caitlyn Rose Allison (supporting role). 

pnwflogoF. J. Hartland won the $500 prize that goes with Outstanding Contribution by a Playwright, for "Funeral in the Rain." The Donna for outstanding lead actor went to Brian Edwards for his performance in that play. Charlie Wein won for his supporting rolein "Off-Color Remarks."

Also at the Sunday gala, Marci Woodruff was honored with the Pittsburgh New Works Festival’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented by Helena Ruoti. This year marks Ms. Woodruff’s 40th year in professional theater. Past winners in attendance were Bingo O’Malley, Richard Rauh, Tony Ferrari and the PG's Christopher Rawson.

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Just 5 weeks to Broadway ShowPlane, Nov. 16-20

Friday, 14 October 2011 02:41 PM Written by

Four musicals and a clutch of stars (Bernadette Peters, Harry Connick Jr., Sutton Foster, Joel Gray and more) headline the PG's Fall Broadway ShowPlane, Nov. 16-20.

That's just five weeks ahead, but there's plenty of time to make your plans. For a full description, just click this link. Or you can click on the PG Theater Trips plaque on the left of the Theater page -- which is probably the page where you found the link to this Theater Blog. 

If you want even more info, you can read the trip brochure prepared by Gulliver's Travels, which handles the trip logistics. (I'm the one who picks the shows and talks to the group along the way -- heaven forbid I should be making plane and hotel reservations.) You'll find links to the colorful brochure and the reservation form in that same description (here). Or you can just call Gulliver's at 412-441-3131.

Hop aboard.

-- Chris Rawson

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It feels like fall when there’s so much theater going on in and around Pittsburgh and the grand family musical of the 21st century, “Wicked,” is packing of seats at the Benedum Center once again, a somewhat magical feat of endurance in these hard economic times.

Merry_350On a much smaller scale, local theater companies are gearing up for the season or gearing down from summer. Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, for instance, is giving its final performance of the run of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (left) at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Frick Park’s Blue Slide playground, Beechwood Boulevard and Nicholson Street, Squirrel Hill. For you Mac Miller fans, that’s the same place the Pittsburgh rapper has chosen to honor for his first record-label album.

Here’s something to watch for the next time around: The night after attending “Wicked’s” press night Sept. 8, I went to another musical Friday night, at a considerably smaller venue, the 150-seat Grey Box Theatre in Lawrenceville, where the Bald Theatre Company was performing William Finn’s “A New Brain.”

It’s a storefront theater without a lobby and curtains separating the seats from the bathroom area. Seats are first-come, first-with-a-good-view of the proceedings, or (if you’re relatively short, like I am) you might be seated behind a 6-foot-plus giant or two (as I was).

I craned my neck a lot and caught the well-cast group led by Justin Zeno as Gordon Schwinn, the down-on-his-luck composer who collapses because of “trouble in the brain.” The play follows his brush with death as he navigates through illness and hallucinations; a kiddy show host’s career demands; and his mother, lover and various hospital attendants (such as Rob James’ jaunty Good Nurse). Arlene Merryman was thoroughly believable as the doting and determined mother Mimi Schwinn and Natalie Hatcher as A Homeless Lady had a pleasant, clear voice. Jason Shavers, who has appeared with Pittsburgh Opera and Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, was a stand out with the gentle pop score as Gordon’s understanding lover who loves to go sailing.

If I had a gripe it was that sitting in the back and to the side of the elongated space, as I was, the capable five-piece ensemble sometimes drowned out the actors. But all-in-all, it was a pleasant evening with talented local actors and a chance to see a show that I had known only from the soundtrack, recommended to me by the original off-Broadway star, Malcolm Gets, when he was here last year for the Pittsburgh CLO’s “Curtains.”

Another local company, The Hiawatha Project, made its debut this month with “Camino,” reviewed today by Chris Rawson. The new company’s mission statement says it “creates original performances exploring specific social questions through myth, free association and movement. The company connects true stories and divergent communities through impactful and amusing theatrical works.” The site lists as its upcoming production “Helicopter Parents Anonymous,” planned for 2013.

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Now it can be told: I’ve been aching to write about PICT’s “House & Garden,” but I couldn’t, because my wife was acting in it as Izzie, the crusty housekeeper with the unorthodox family life. Now that it’s closed, why not?

I may have had a fuller experience of the two interlocking plays than anyone not directly involved, and this is what I learned:

(1) That you really had to see both plays (“House” and “Garden”) to enjoy them properly, no matter what you heard about either of them standing alone. Sure they do, but not very tall. (2) When you see the second, it’s much fuller and, of course, funnier, because you’ve seen the first. (3) Having seen the second, a return trip to the first is also fuller and funnier, because now you know the second. (4) Having now seen the first with fuller insight, a return trip to the second is also funnier and fuller. (5) And so on.

I’m still not sure which it was better to see first. I saw “House,” but for all I know, it might have been better to start with “Garden.” I do know that, in whichever order, “House” is a better play, a more melancholy (under all that humor) insight into the instability of life, especially marriage. “Garden” is funnier or at least more farcical. Then as you get to know both plays, you see how they reverberate with parallel themes, as different marriages crumble or different women break themselves free.

The heart of “House” is Trish’s speech in Act 2, not the one to Gavin (“with a Y”!) on nobless oblige and going down with the ship, but the later one to young Jake on the Maypole as a metaphor for the dance of death. Well, no, this isn’t Strindberg: call it the dance of fearful life.

The equivalent heart of “Garden” is Teddy’s speech in Act 2 to the uncomprehending (but also comprehending) Lucille about the deadening seriousness of life and the compensatory joys of sex and laughter. Out of the mouths of fools . . . or “idiot,” as Lucille calls him in French, which means something different.

By the way, I’ve heard “H&G” called male chauvinist. If so, why is playwright Ayckbourn’s sympathy so largely with the women? Of the five couples, two women (Trish and Lindy) get to break away from stifling marriages, another (Izzie) gets what she wants, and Sally gets an education. Only Giles and Joanna are ambiguous, and you could say he’s the one who needs some freedom and finds it – maybe.

I saw each play three times, I think it was. At the closing performance I persuaded the company (Don’t Try This at Home – I Am a Professional) to let me follow Marty Giles’ track as Teddy, moving from house to garden and back again, seeing all his scenes and everything that goes with them. I’d like to have done this with several other characters, too. “H&G” is a lovely Chinese box of a play -- thanks to PICT for staging it for me!

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