Two in One – a review of “The Pyramid Builders”

by Michael Buzzelli

When Farrah (Cynthia Caul) meets Maya (Elexa Hanner), a homeless teen, in the park, it sets both women on a trajectory towards a heartbreaking future – for this life and the next – in ‘”Pyramid Builders,” a new play by Karuna Das.

There’s a lot going on in this play. The first act is about Farrah and Maya and their connection in 2012. The second act is about Satya (Hanner in a dual role) and Octavia (Karla C. Payne) and her lover Cassie (Caul in a dual role) in the near-future where white militias roam what’s left of the United States, indiscriminately slaughtering Black people.

“Pyramid Builders” is built on the premise from the 2018 Pittsburgh billboard, “There are Black People in the future,” and the ire it caused here in the recent past.

The play posits that if people are so angry about the billboard, surely they must not want Black People in the future. History repeats itself when Octavia becomes another Harriet Tubman, smuggling Black people away from roving gangs of white militia men. In this future scenario, she’s a mule transporting people OUT of America and INTO Mexico.

Farrah (Cynthia Caul) meets Maya (Elexa Hanner) in “The Pyramid Builders.” Photo Credit: Bianca LaVerne Jones

Director Bianca LaVerne Jones gets some fine performances out of all of her actors. The cast is terrific.

Hanner is a charismatic lead. She dazzles on the stage, creating layers upon layers for her two, very distinct characters.

While Payne has only a minor part in the first act, she rules over the second act. Deftly sharing the lead with Hanner.

Caul’s Farrah is a harrowed CEO in the first act, and her role as Cassie is reduced in the second act, but she does a superb job in both roles.

Patrick Conner is perfectly cast as both Quinn and Teller. The historian and teacher gets to use all of his professorial skills spouting dialogue about ancient mythology, astronomy, archeology and anthropology.

David Ogrodowski and Brendan Piefer round out the cast playing a variety of bad guys. Both of Piefer’s characters have a jingoistic tag line, twisting an American motto for evil intent. Both men are frightening, even the normally affable Piefer. At one point, the two men don black robes and featureless face masks – it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Scenic Designer Richard H. Morris Jr. set could have easily been constructed by Cosmo Kramer. “Levels. You know…like ancient Egypt.”

While the cast is terrific, there’s too much story in “The Pyramid Builders.” Act one and act two are two separate plays. Das has filled the play with pile of scientific concepts. The characters chatter about ancient Mayans, Egypt and other mythologies. They muse about astronomy. There’s also a political discussion. The second act hinges on a nightmare scenario where – though the Orange A-Hole is never named – Trump wins the 2024 election.

Act one is a sad tale about mental decline and homelessness. Act two, a sci-fi dystopia is heartbreaking in its own way. Act one needed a little more time to breathe. The connection between Farrah and Maya was tenuous at best. It strained credibility that these two random women would have such a deep connection.

But act two is a  fascinating dystopia. “The Pyramid Builders,” like Certs breath mints, is two in one. Either act one or act two could have stood on their own. Together it’s a bit jumbled. It’s just a little too much story in one play.

In the final moments, there is hope. The audacity of hope. It’s a resounding theme that the show could use a little more of – and, frankly, hope is something we all could use – in ample supply. It’s also a reminder to vote. Yes, there are Black People in the future, but let’s make it  a fair, equal and equitable future for everyone.

– MB

“The Pyramid Builders” runs from April 14 to April 30 at the  Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street, Pittsburgh, PA. For more information, click here

Sophie’s Choice – a review of “The Wanderers”

by Michael Buzzelli

An acclaimed author, Abe (Jed Resnick), begins a premature mid-life crisis with a virtual bang when he ignores his wife, Sophie (Allison Strickland), and obsesses over a famous movie star, Julia (Sarah Goeke), in Anna Ziegler’s “The Wanderers.”

Flashback to Brooklyn, Hassidic Jews, Esther (Moira Quigley) and Schmuli (Nick Lehane), navigate the parameters of their arranged marriage.

“The Wanderers” is set in two separate time periods. The action with Esther and Schmuli spans a swath of time between 1973 through 1982, while Abe and Sophie’s story is closer to the present.

After the birth of her children, Esther is unfulfilled. She wants to expand her life outside of the Hassidic community, even though it’s forbidden. Her conversations with her husband turn awkward.

Abe (Jed Resnick) gets an email from Julia (not pictured) as Sophie (Allison Strickland) looks on in “The Wanderers.” Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover.

Meanwhile, Abe’s online dalliance with Julia takes a surprising turn, and Sophie makes a difficult choice. She decides to take the kids and leave her husband.

Note: In the first few sentences in the show, Sophie announces that she’s leaving Abe, and technically not a spoiler, though it does punctuate her monologue with an exclamation point.

The show weaves into some unexpected territory.  Without spoiling the story, there is a clear connection between the parallel storylines.

Esther (Moria Quigley) negotiates with Schmuli (Nick Lehane) while folding clothes. Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover.

“The Wanderers” is moving, funny and has a few jaw-dropping moments. Ziegler writes some complex characters with complex problems.

Side note: Ziegler also wrote “The Last Match,” which was beautifully performed at the City Theatre several years ago.

“The Wanderers” is a very smart show. Sometimes too smart. Gold stars for anyone who can decipher all of the literary references.

Pet peeve: There is a plethora of writers talking about writing. It gets a little “inside baseball,” but it may be more interesting to audience members who aren’t authors and playwrights. Luckily, a fine-tuned and compelling cast rise above any irritations.

Resnick is terrific as the neurotic protagonist (there is some reluctance to refer to him as the hero of the story).  He hits the humor in a natural, nuanced way.  Bon mots drip out casually from his mouth.

Strickland plays all the various layers of Sophie’s character.

Quigley is a joy to watch. She plays Esther like a wounded bird who is getting ready to fly again.

Goeke is charismatic and stunningly beautiful, traits befitting her role as the mysterious movie star.

Lehane manages to make a line, “Let us commence” seem hilarious.

Hint: It’s all about the context.

Lehane brings a lot of charm to the laconic Schmuli, even after he pulls a vile stunt that caused the audience to audibly gasp.

Though the play is mostly dialogue, Director Collette Robert keeps the action moving at a quick pace. Ziegler’s tight script doesn’t leave much room for lollygagging.

Anne Mundell’s set is sparse, but clever and expertly utilized by Lighting Designer Natalie Robin.  All the action takes place around a sturdy wooden table. There are a limited number of props, but terrific costumes by Mindy Eshelman.  Schmuli’s Hassidic headgear is amazing. His wedding hat is a marvel to behold.

But Lehane’s costume isn’t the only one to admire. To crib from Ziegler, Goeke is luminescent in her sparkling silver dress in the final moments of the show.

It might be time to wander down to the Southside and catch “The Wanderers.”

– MB

“The Wanderers” runs until December 18 at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15203For more information, click here

Primal Urges – a review of “Dance Nation”

By Michael Buzzelli

A group of thirteen-year-old dancers, raging with hormones, enter a series of dance competitions that will propel them to their personal Mecca, Tampa, Florida for the National competition known reverently as Nationals.

Clare Barron’s absurdist play, “Dance Nation” is a combination “Dance Moms” and “Hunger Games.”  Amina (Miya Gaines) may be the star pupil, but all of the characters in this ensemble shine.

After a boisterous sailor routine, Dance Teacher Pat (Ricardo Vila-Roger with a magnificent mane of a wig) decides to switch up the routine and go with a dance about freedom leader Mahatma Gandhi. He claims everyone will get a chance to audition for the role, while the lone Indian girl, Connie (Nandita Mahesh), is screaming “Cultural Appropriation” with every shrug, eye roll and glare of disdain.

Eventually, Connie is cast as the holy man, though Dance Teacher Pat creates a new character, the Spirit of Gandhi, and casts Zuzu (Gabby Wilson) in the role, usurping Connie’s chance to be noticed. Instead, her “starring” role keeps her seated in the lotus position for most of the routine. The Spirit of Gandhi is the real lead.

It becomes clear that Dance Teacher Pat picked Zuzu to teach Amina a lesson, and Zuzu suffers for it, mostly by biting and tearing at her own flesh like a braying wolf caught in a bear trap.

Maeve (Olivia Wick) plays a hook-handed sailor as the ensemble circles her in “Dance Nation.”

Director Kelly Trumbull keeps her cast, literally and figuratively, on their toes. “Dance Nation” has some great choreography, supplied by Tome’ Cousin, but it’s never really about the dance. It’s about the inner moments; the jealousies, the pettiness, the power and the imagination of this crazed batch of thirteen-year-olds. Children who are waiting for their lives to start, unaware they are living each moment and those moments are creating their lives.

Ashlee (Paige Wasserman) delivers the first of a series of unhinged monologues that is an alternatively hilarious and shocking rant on her self-confidence.  She is magnificent. 

Maeve (Olivia Wick) is another stand-out, oozing charismatic charm with pitch-perfect comic timing.

Molly Twigg makes several appearances throughout the show, first as Vanessa who sustains a career-ending injury. Then, she appears throughout the show as the girls’ moms (all of them with different wigs). She shocks in the first scene but lightens every other scene after that.

Luke (Cade Teribery), the lone male member (hee hee…”male member”) of the troupe, contorts his face into a variety of reactions as his teammates reveal their strengths and weaknesses.

Barron’s story is more than a story about competing thirteen-year-olds on a path to self-discovery. It’s about all those stray thoughts that live in your head. The moments you get to be as weird as you want to be. It’s about how imperfection makes you perfect.

To paraphrase from the show, albeit in a less vulgar vernacular, “Dance Nation is perfect, and it will stay that way forever.”

– MB

“Dance Nation” runs from until November 13 at Pitt Stages’ Charity Randall Theatre, 4301 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information, click here.

Hail to thee, Blithe Spirit – a review of “Blithe Spirit”

Mike Buzzelli

By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant

The Condomines are hosting an unusual dinner party. Charles (Eric Leslie) and Ruth (Stacey Rosleck) have invited the Dr. & Mrs. Bradman (Rick Bryant and Aleta Richmond) and the eccentric Madame Arcati (Ina Block) to hold a séance in Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”

Charles, a skeptic, is researching mediums for a new book he’s writing. He doesn’t believe in the supernatural, nor does his colleague Dr. Bradman. The moment their nervous nelly maid, Edith (Sydney Turnwald) opens the door and invites in their guests, all hell – literally and figuratively – breaks loose.

And Charles’s opinion on the existence of supernatural forces changes when the ghost of his dead wife, Elvira (Rebecca MacTaggart) shows up. Only Charles can see and hear Elvira which makes for a few awkward conversations. Mr. Condomine yells at either former or present Mrs. Condomine, both ask, “Which one are you talking to?”

It’s confusing for the haunted couple, but it’s hilarious for the audience.

Things take a misfortunate turn when Elvira decides his late wife should join him in the afterlife. But the best laid plans of specters and ghosts, of go awry.

Madame Arcati summons the spirits in “Blithe Spirit” Photo credit Carina Iannarelli

“Blithe Spirit” is delightfully directed by Rachel Pfennigwerth.

MacTaggart wonderfully brings the ghost alive as Elvira. She glides around the scenery in an ethereal way- aided by her flowing white dress constructed by Jessica Kavanagh.

Leslie is a terrific Charles. At first, the model English writer, witty and intelligent, prim and proper – until his ectoplasmic wife shows up – then, he’s reduced to a bewildered and blathering simpleton. Watching the supercilious Charles get his comeuppance is half the fun.

Block’s Arcati is a charming loon. She speaks in her own parapsychological language, which also confounds the Condomine’s and befuddles Bradman’s. It would be easy to tire of Arcati’s eccentricities, but Block does it with such style and grace you crave more of her craziness – as much as she craves cucumber sandwiches!

“Blithe Spirit” is a fantastic part for the leading lady, Elvira, but it’s also a fantastic part for her counterpart, Ruth. One can be considered the villainess and one the heroine – until it’s difficult to tell which one is which. Rosleck manages to parry and thrust witty bon mots with Leslie’s Charles and scathing jibes at MacTaggart’s Elvira. Rosleck does it with aplomb.

Turnwald does a great job as the scattered and ditzy maid.

Coward’s comedy is long, but its packed with witty repartee and rambunctious laughs. It’s a lengthy but thoroughly enjoyable evening.

-MB

“Blithe Spirit” runs till November 2 at Little Lake Theater, 500 Lakeside Drive South (across from the Mad Mex), Canonsburg, PA 153017. For more information, click here.

 

 

Seven with Sue: NICOLE GALLAGHER, folkLAB

Sue Kerr, ‘Burgh Vivant

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Seven with Sue, a Q&A series with local creators and artists. Each edition will ask seven questions (plus demographics) exploring the creator’s experience and views on all things arts and culture in Pittsburgh. The questions are crafted by our in-house Q&A contributor, Sue Kerr. Responses may be lightly edited, but we strive to allow the questioner’s authentic voice shine through. 

 

Up first is Nicole Gallagher, a resident artist with folkLAB and creator of the one woman show Mija: one bitch’s tale.

folkLAB is dedicated to creating more equity and representation in the Pittsburgh performing arts. All  shows are created in intensive 3-4 week processes. Debuting on July 21 is their current project: “Mija: one bitch’s tale” an interdisciplinary, autobiographical one woman show by miniMythologies resident artist Nicole Gallagher (co-founder of Fair Moans). Nicole is a queer, bi-racial Latina with a diverse skill set and history.

The show is directed by Ayne Terceira (Uncumber Theatrics) with videography by Julie Mallis (BOOM! Concepts).

The show runs for five short days next week: Wednesday, July 31st – Sunday, August 4th and takes place at Beauty Shoppe’s Terminal Building in South Side. The project is also sponsored by Beauty Shoppe.

Tickets: https://folklab.ticketleap.com/mija/

 

photo by P.J. Sage.

Name: Nicole Aurora Gallagher

Pronouns: she/her

Your Affiliation(s): member of Fair Moans Collective, member of Sex Workers Outreach Project

How do you describe your identity? Queer, anarchist, Latinx/multiethnic person, Native Chicagoan, Leo

 

Tell us about an under-appreciated or underutilized cultural resource in this region.

Pittsburgh has a strong and rich labor union history. Sadly, I think it is something that is fading out with older generations. When I moved to Pittsburgh nine years ago, I was told by a friend, who worked as a union organizer, that the union density in the city was over fifty percent, including service workers. Our city is quickly becoming more globalized and gentrified and with that, we’re getting an influx of new businesses and transplants, like myself, who don’t hold that history dear to their hearts, who aren’t inspired to keep it alive and revitalize it with all of the new industry. I am generalizing though. There are still pockets of workers coming together to take charge of their workplaces still. I tip my hat to all of the librarians organizing, the UPMC workers and adjunct professors and faculty in this city.

 

With whom in the Pittsburgh region would you like to collaborate?

I would love to collaborate with Moriah Ella Mason (goes by Ella). She is one of the cofounders of the SWOP Pittsburgh chapter I organize with. I think she’s such a badass, super organized, creative and just a great person. She created a one woman show a few years ago, Sex Werque, about her time as a dancer in Pittsburgh and it was fantastic! So inspiring! I’ve often thought about how I’d love to strip, but I don’t want to shave my body hair or wear heels! In conversations with Ella, we’ve bonded over the idea of creating a space for all bodies and all identities to make money being sexy in their individual ways on stage, the way strippers do.

 

Pittsburgh is a City where many identities literally intersect, but we are very attached to notions of unity and shared identity, ‘one Pittsburgh’, ‘The Steeler Nation’ ‘Most Liveable’ and so forth. How can intersectionality help all of us reconcile our individual and collective identities in this place called Pittsburgh? 

To be quite honest, I have struggled with my identity in this city. It has taken me years to feel like I connect to any larger cultural identities. I felt very alone as an ethnically mixed, Lantinx person here nine years ago. I wasn’t a student and that’s where the majority of non-white, non-black Americans where– the school campuses. I worked in corporate service industry, which thanks to the unions and job security, was full of a lot of older, mostly hetero folks (again, generalizing, not trying to box everyone in). I have found a home in different activist communities over time. It is the place where I have seen old school Pittsburgh come together with newer voices- queer, brown, artistic, beautiful freaks. It is where I see people breaking down class and cultural divisions to create something new in Pittsburgh. So I am all for people coming together in their communities, workplaces, in our city at large, to have a voice, to effect change. Through getting out and involved, people build together and move beyond superficial barriers.

 

How do the arts contribute to a livable city in Pittsburgh?

The arts are a vehicle for many diverse voices to be heard. We are able to connect and understand each other more through hearing and empathizing with one another. Sharing those stories and perspectives is building a stronger foundation for our city to rest on. 

 

Your production Mija; one bitch’s tale is part of your miniMythologies residency with folkLAB. Why did you pursue this opportunity to create and produce your one-woman show? 

I work with Abi, the founder of folkLAB, at the Ace Hotel, and she’s been encouraging me to take this project on for over a year now. I would come into work and tell Abi about things I was working on in my sketch troupe or about my stand-up comedy class, my personal life stories, my perspectives on politics and life. She would keep saying, “I’m serious, you need to consider putting this altogether in a show, Nicole.” I have been trying to find my voice as a story-teller for years. I’ve explored different arenas for years, learned a lot, but nothing has  quite stuck, so I finally agreed that this could be the opportunity I’ve needed to test all the skills I’ve acquired out. I’m very interested in writing and collaborating with other artists to create shows in the future.

 

Most people are familiar with sex worker characters or roles on stage and on-screen (Vivian Ward, Fantine, Holly Golightly, Iris, Joe Buck, Satine, Gypsy Rose Lee, Sin-Dee, Alexandra) and familiar with media created about sex in general. It is rare to experience performance art about sex work where those workers actually control the narrative and the production of their own stories. Are there any stories from Pittsburgh with sex work themes that should reach wider audiences, either as existing works of art or potential future projects?

There are a ton of sex working artists in Pittsburgh, they may not label themselves as sex workers, because that work is stigmatized, but you would be surprised how many shows you’ve seen in Pittsburgh by sex workers. My work with SWOP Pittsburgh has been to lift and unify the voices and needs of our sex working community. We had a beautiful event on December 17, 2018 to commemorate International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers where we had sex workers submit and read short stories and poems. And I just need to say: wow! It was so powerful! There are so many perspectives and identities in our community. 

I’ve mentioned the show “Sex Werque” by Moriah Ella Mason. Ella has a show coming up in a few weeks “Queer, Jewish” that I think folks should check out. I also have a friend from SWOP, Jessie Sage, who is a writer, sex worker, teacher and activist. You can find her work in the City Paper, Peepshow, and her podcast by the same name. 

 

Please list two or three local creators to whom we should be paying attention and tell us why?

 You should be paying attention to Ayne Terceira of Uncumber Theatrics. She is the director of my show and recently had the show “The Stray” an interactive show where the audience took on the roles of cats in the house of a recluse. Ayne has a unique imagination and sense of movement that really engages the audience. She’s been working in Pittsburgh for years and has trained and inspired many other production companies to use her style. She’s the sweetest, funniest weirdo I know. I feel so lucky to be working with her. 

And:

Julie Mallis-  a multimedia artist and educator working with digital media, paint, installation, performance, sound and audience interaction. Their work focuses on building community, audio-visual experiences, speaking truth to power, and imagining new landscapes. They are working on a video for my show so I’ve gotten first hand experience of how awesome their work and imagination are.  They are affiliated with Boom Concepts, GFX, Bike Pgh and they’re now program director at Repair the World Pittsburgh.

 

Thank you, Nicole. 

 

Readers can find Nicole on Facebook @fairmoanspgh and on instagram @fair_moans_collective. folkLAB is also on Facebook @folkLAB and Instagram @f0lkLab

 

 

ROCKY HORROR ROCKS MUNHALL


RHS

 

With a little help from their ‘friends’…

PITTSBURGH –Brisbane Management Group (BMG) is proud to announce the launch of their company with its inaugural production of The Rocky Horror Show! With it’s interactive take on the cult classic, it is designed to push the envelope and take theatre to the next level. Today’s theatre audience is dwindling. “How do we bring in new blood and make it interesting for the younger generations to come?” asks Kelli Brisbane, Founder and Artistic Director for BMG.

In an age where reality TV, video games, smart phones and multi-media are at our disposal, theatre seems a thing of the past. BMG’s hope is that this is more than just a show and that is becomes a ‘reality theatre’ experience that people will join in with the excitement. “Musical theatre has not been pushed in this direction. We’re excited to test the waters, and are fortunate to have secured multiple venues that lend hand to our backdrop,” says Brisbane.

This show has been years in the making – flashback to the year 2000, where a young Brisbane, was on the professional West End Tour of The Rocky Horror show, and was daydreaming out the tour bus window about how ‘cool’ it would be to have an audience follow Brad and Janet on their journey throughout the castle. Time passed, and the idea continued to grow, while other companies started actualizing the interactive theatrical experience much like De La Guarda, Fuerzabruta and Sleep No More. “I knew I was on to something, and knew that if it was going to be done, it had to happen sooner, rather than later,” says Brisbane. So after recently moving back to the Pittsburgh area, after 18 years, Brisbane was excited to find that local companies like Bricolage and Quantum were already thinking ahead of the game and producing great things. It was time to set the show in full motion with a deep commitment from the community.

In this particular venture, BMG has focused their efforts on the Munhall area, a district neighboring the Waterfront, and ripe for growth. BMG is partnering with local companies whose mission is to help spur economic growth right in their own backyard. Efforts are being made to drive as many of the 650 audience members to visit participating restaurants and establishments local to Munhall.

BMG is engaging and encouraging local community neighbors, corporations, and ‘creative industries’ on their mission: art improving community. Rock Bottom Brewery and Allied Remediation Technical Services are two of their local community partners. Rock Bottom Brewery is supporting with a unique offer to Rocky Horror VIP ticket purchasers and Allied Remediation provided their professional services to make the location suitable for performance.

“Theatre is about collaboration, taking chances and building something bigger than we are. Nobody should wait for permission to create,” said Brisbane. “So this Halloween season we are doing just that.”

The show will run this October 16-31 in Munhall, Pa. Using three distinct venues, audience members will be taken on an immersive theater experience with Brad and Janet LIVE WITH YOU on every turn.

Cast Includes: Maurissa Auer
, Charles Beikert
, Kelli Brisbane
, Kristin S. Buccilli, 
Marissa Buchheit, 
Brendan Conaway, 
Jeremy Earhart, 
Chucky Hendershot
, Tom Kolos, 
Adam Pribila, 
Maggie Ryan, 
Tom Sarp, 
Christine Starkey, 
Johnny Terreri, and 
Tara Zyndel.  Directed by Lisa Ann Goldsmith.  Music Director – Lisa Harrier.

October 16-31: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8PM – October 27 at 2PM, October 31 at 8PM and Midnight Location: Munhall, PA (Details TBA to ticketholders prior to performance) Tickets*: $20 Students / $30 General / $50 VIP (includes pre-show Time Warp dance lesson and post show drink voucher at Rock Bottom Brewery).  
Tickets on sale now and may be purchased by visiting: http://www.brisbane-management-group.com/tickets/
Tickets must be purchased in advance, and each performance is capped at 50 attendees.
*Please note that this show is rated “R” for Rocky; no one under 18 years of age will be permitted.

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