On Stage: A Piquant Winter’s Tale”

October 1, 2015


Quantum Theatre’s production of “The Winter’s Tale” was surprisingly sumptuous, deftly moving beyond the gritty city adventures usually conjured up by artistic director Karla Boos. That doesn’t mean, though, that it was any less of an artistic escapade. This time the setting was decidedly baroque, virtually every aspect dripping with the overly refined mannerisms and overtly grand style of the 17th century, so fitting as the local company commences its 25th anniversary.

Boos took her followers Downtown to the top of the Union Trust building built by Henry Clay Frick, yes, the one with the fanciful roof on Grant Street. It’s well worth the price of the ticket, to look up at the atrium, then take one of those beautiful brass elevators to the top and get a closer look. But there’s more — a lovely little theater that Frick surprisingly included in the plans. (Check the history while you’re at it.)

The cast itself was baroque as well, 25 in all, including four dancers from Attack Theatre and an expanded accompaniment from another terrific local group, Chatham Baroque, also celebrating its 25th anniversary, and led expertly by co-creator Andres Cladera.

All the creative accoutrements contributed to the ornate feeling overall: Susan Tsu’s magnificent costumes and wigs (loved Paulina’s mini dress), C. Todd Brown’s complex lighting scheme (so on point), Tony Ferrieri’s expert extension of the original stage in front to include four small stages and a ramp enclosing the orchestra, bringing the action directly into the audience.

You could see it virtually from the start when the chorus stuck their heads through slits in the curtains, whereupon projection designer Joe Seamans started the first of his stunning visuals, an ivy-like swirl around the various singing heads. So how to fill this late, often dark, Shakespearean extravaganza, ripe with jealousy between two childhood friends, banishment and sorrow, when there already was so much?

Boos wisely directed with a feather-light touch, utilizing the various stages areas with a clarity and understanding of the various themes and plots.  Claderas and members of Chatham Baroque borrowed only from the best of the Baroque — Vivaldi, Handel, Purcell.  The recitatives, which conveyed the Shakespearean dialogue, were constructed by not only the musicians, but by Boos herself.

And, while I’m not a Shakespearean expert, it appeared that some of the arias were chosen because they fit into this operatic puzzle (Handel’s Happy We!), while others were given a twist — Hot, too hot! (Fatto inferno è il mil petto) and a title that seems more a part of an Apollo mission, The Oracle Has Landed (O Haupt poll Blut und Wunden).

Those remarkably witty veins run throughout the evening and would often sneak up and tap you on the ear. They  sounded like newfound (and brilliant) vestiges of Baroque, and probably something to be savored by a second (or third) visit to the Union Trust building.

The real contemporary accent came from Attack Theatre’s dance direction, sometimes playing various characters, other times providing an emotional element. The four company members were clad in unisex flesh-colored unitards with hand painted designs and wonderfully enhanced, remarkably without interfering in, the action. Two more highlights revolved around the appearance of the Bear and the transformation of Hermione from statue to human again. Suffice it to say that they were artfully accomplished with the use of movable screens and precise projections.

And let’s not forget the vocal cast that carried the visual/audio burden, particularly countertenor Andrey Nemzer (Autolycus), whose trills and flourishes were no less than thrilling, David Newman’s (Leontes) woeful journey of redemption and Dan Kempson’s robust love interest, Florizel.

So much to see and so little time to take in all of it. A friend of mine, who read the play in preparation, missed a few scenes that she thought should be included. I briefly thought about the length (nearly three hours) twice during the evening.  But the rewards were so rich that I immediately turned my attention back to a memorable production that will definitely be one of the top theatrical events of the year.



On Stage: Karla Feverish About “The Winter’s Tale”

September 17, 2015

Brush up your Shakespeare…or not.

When Quantum Theatre tackles a piece of theater, it always becomes its own entity, ready to lead its audiences on an adventure. That might mean an unusual work or a unique location. Or both. In this instance, ready to launch its 25th season, artistic director Karla Boos is taking on William Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”…sort of.

Yes, it’s one of the Bard’s more unusual works, sometimes labeled a comedy, sometimes a romance, sometimes a problem.  In brief, King Leontes of Sicilia gradually becomes convinced that his pregnant wife, Hermione, has had an affair with his good friend, King Polixenese of Bohemia. When the baby is born, he throws his wife in jail and sends his daughter to be abandoned in a desolate rural area.

The daughter, Perdita, survives and is raised by a kindly Shepherd. After 16 years, though, she meets Prince Florizel, son of Polixenese. Don’t fret — everyone winds up in Leontes’ court for the proverbial happy ending.

But can it become an opera?

Sort of.

Boos calls it a “pastiche,” inspired by a Metropolitan Opera production last year called “The Enchanted Island.” Could she create an original translation with not-so-original music? She could, with a lot of help. As it turned out, she and maestro Andres Cladera, who have been in cahoots three times previously, had talked about doing a Baroque production.

So they set about making their own decorative excess. Shakespeare may be borderline Baroque, but “Winter’s Tale” is not. Nor are composers like Handel and Vivaldi.

Why not add Pittsburgh’s own Chatham Baroque, also celebrating its 25th as well? And why not add to the core trio of Andrew Fouts, Patricia Halverson and Scott Pauley? Enter Baroque specialists like flutist Stephen Schulz, oboist Geoffrey Burgess and baritone David Newman in the role of Leontes to head a cast of 16 more. A dancerly quartet from Attack Theatre is added to the brew as well.

But what location would add to the ambiance? Boos has had her eye on the Union Trust building on Grant Street for a while, notable for its Baroquish (really Flemish/Gothic) mansard roof with terra cotta trim at the top. The inside reveals even more, including a ten-story atrium with glass dome. The elevator skims to the top, where a circular staircase and skylights await, plus a jewel box of a theater where all the activities will take place.

Yes, activities, in the best over-the-top Baroque fashion as designers Joe Seamans, Susan Tsu, Tony Ferrieri and Todd Brown confine themselves to the theater, but add a few special twists here and there.

It’s taken a full year to select existing arias and write new recitatives (which will tell the story), vetting each detail before the whole group. Should the musical structure be ABA or just AB? When Hermione defends herself in the trial, what aria should we use? (Handel’s “Crude furie,” it seems.)

Despite all the Quantum-isms, Boos firmly asserts that “Shakespeare’s play has been preserved,” still leading her “to unpathed waters, undreamed shores.”

Through Oct. 3, see Listings.






On Stage: The Tale of Two Streetcars

September 7, 2015
Eve Mutso as Blanche. Photo: Andy Ross

Eve Mutso as Blanche. Photo: Andy Ross

With its unbridled passions and slow descent into madness, all set against the gradual decay of the Deep South, Tennesse Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire could be adapted into The Great American Ballet. As it turned out, two European companies, Hamburg Ballet and Scottish Ballet, have led the way, although, as it turns out, a pair ex-pat Americans, Hamburg’s artistic director John Neumeier and Scottish director Nancy Meckler, had a profound impact on their respective productions.

Of all the cities in world, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was the only one to have seen them both.

The productions came at varying points in their careers, however, with Neumeier in one of his first full-length ballets (1983) and Meckler commissioned by the Scottish Ballet towards the end of a long and distinguished theatrical career (2012).

Erik Cavallari (Stanley) and Sophie Laplane (Stella). Photo: Andrew Ross

Erik Cavallari (Stanley) and Sophie Laplane (Stella). Photo: Andrew Ross

Not surprisingly, Neumeier created a sumptuous, more traditional ballet dripping with projections, an extended stage and atmospheric lighting that worked in the expanse of the 2800-seat Benedum Center.  Meckler went for an edgy contemporary look, packing the stage with crates that became a part of the choreography as the dancers constructed the various scenes in the ballet and acted as a Greek chorus. A bare bulb served as a centerpiece, the symbol of Blanche Dubois’ fading hopes and dreams.

The musical scores couldn’t have been further apart. Neumeier tapped Visions Fugitives by Sergei Prokofiev and, for the second act, the jarringly acute Alfred Schnittke, which carried the drama to excruciating heights for some. But Meckler chose both original music and a musical cyclorama of the age, familiar in a way, which perhaps made the Scottish Ballet production more dynamic and accessible. That production was placed on the smaller Byham Theater stage, which could have added to the intensity by compressing it, throwing the emotional intimacy into the audience with unabashed accuracy.

In the end, however, these were told from a masculine and feminine angle, giving them a different weight and perspective. Neumeier’s Blanche was, as I noted, a “wounded butterfly” from the start, with Stanley the manimal as expected. Meckler’s Blanche was drinking in the foreign world around her, but still retaining a certain dignity as she withdrew. Her Stella developed from a young sister to a woman comfortable in her own sensuality. With choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa on the Scottish artistic team, the women had more substance and complexity in their stage presence, particularly in the duets where their roles were heightened.

Blanche's (Eve Mutso) world is falling apart. Photo: Andy Ross

Blanche’s (Eve Mutso) world is falling apart. Photo: Andy Ross

Both productions had their moments of ecstasy. Neumeier was to be lauded for his coordination of choreography, costumes and scenery as a young artist. However, it was the Scottish Ballet that truly captured the epic relationship between Blanche, Stella and Stanley, for a ballet that gave Tennessee Williams’ classic a new relevance more than 60 years after its debut.

It also made a strong case to incorporate more women in ballet.





Dance Beat: We’ll Miss You, Paul

September 6, 2015

PAUL ORGANISAKIt was reported in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that Paul Organisak, vice president in charge of programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, was stepping down from a position that he began in 2004. The truth is that he has been an important part of the dance community since 1988, when he became Director of Development for the Pittsburgh Dance Council under Carolelinda Dickey.

I can still recall his enthusiasm for dance and a passion that has never waned over these past 20-some years. Even though he never studied dance, it has been the art form that he held closest to his heart.

And that is the primary reason that we will miss him. Pittsburgh Dance Council is this city’s most adventurous series, bringing us the world in all of its diversity and excitement unlike any other. However, when Paul took over PDC and almost immediately folded it into the Trust, I had my doubts.

It proved to be a winning strategy as more arts organizations have come under the Trust umbrella, with the Dance Council maintaining a certain autonomy.

Now, in a time when dance organizations are fewer and far between, we still get the best here in Pittsburgh. I know, because I have gone to a number of dance critics conferences and found that I had interviewed almost all of the choreographers/panelists prior to their appearances in Pittsburgh.

It’s been that good and a great feeling to have Pittsburgh’s finger on the pulse of dance.

There was a tough spell when the U.S. government made it tough on foreign artists in granting visas and Paul played things a little safer. Then he admitted that subscriptions were down — PDC audiences wanted the unfamiliar, the surprising, the exotic. Since then, he has done that, with seasons that exceeded our expectations.

So now we’ve come to a crossroads. I feel that Paul has been a unwavering advocate for dance at the Trust, which is going on a national, even an international search to replace a Pittsburgh native who has logged more miles and more performances than he probably cares to admit.

It was all done with the purpose of bringing the finest in dance (he gradually added Broadway shows, the Cabaret series, the Trust presents, the International Festival of Firsts and assorted other international festivals that were some of the Trust’s finest efforts to his job description). That adds up to dozens of performances, always featuring new dance, something that I, for one, am grateful.

His gargantuan efforts have resulted in a robust arts atmosphere Downtown in the Cultural District, a real bonus to the quality of life in Pittsburgh.

Thank. You. Paul.



On Video: Dance Your PhD

August 10, 2015


On Video: Lil Buck in “Primetime”

July 22, 2015



On Stage: Womens’ “Admission”

July 16, 2015



Sometimes big ideas come in small packages.

Such was the case with fireWALL’s latest dance offering, Admission, at the postage stamp-sized off the WALL Theater in Carnegie.

It was the fourth piece choreographed by 23-year old Point Park University graduate Elisa-Marie Alaio and her works have created a steep learning curve over the course of her first season. Admission was the apex of that growth.

Right now, whether by design or necessity, Admission was the second all-female work.

It was driven by a corporate glass ceiling concept — very smart. Instead of glass, though, there was a crosshatch of bungee cords attached at the midpoint of the tiny off the WALL theater and also at the foot of the audience risers.

Eight women started at the back, cast in silhouette behind panels. They were seated on stools, moving from one pose to another. Some were bunheads, but these were no ballerinas.

Hands shook. Anxiety? Maybe, but then there was a “power” fist. Something else was afoot.

When the women finally emerged — the section went on for a while — we got the answer to the cables.


Made of the thick kind used to jump off bridges, they produced their own soundscape in addition to Ryan McMasters’ equally tensile accompaniment, full of voices whispering, an underlying beat, water and opera.

It was the stress of the workplace. The release. The manipulation. The constraints of society. And it all became faster, more frustrating, even dangerous in this most compelling of the sections.

The dancers began to unhook the cables. Success, perhaps?

They took off their corporate-driven black jackets to reveal loose-fitting white blouses. Then the dance became more prop-driven — I’m not sure why — with the use of six white chairs.

It turned out that the choreography doled out a sense of equal opportunity among the women. But would there be a winner at the end?

There were group-supported lifts. They linked arms. They huddled like a corporate sisterhood. But the finale turned out to be a jazz group number, more entertainment than substance. So there was no apparent winner, except Alaio and her dancers, who could take pride in their growth.


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