Stage reviews: Point Park's 'Big Love'; CMU's 'Ragtime'
March 4, 2017 7:03 PM
The three sisters at the heart of “Big Love” at Point Park: from left, Amber Jones (Thyona), Markia Nicole Smith (Lydia) and Saige Smith (Olympia).
By Christopher Rawson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh is blessed in its two big college theater programs, Carnegie Mellon and Point Park, which each year send dozens of graduates into the national professional pool.
The most immediate payoff for us, however, is while they’re still here we get to sample their talent as it matures.
Right now there’s one of those happy conjunctions where both schools have had big, rewarding, entertaining shows that are ours to enjoy – although with a caveat in the case of CMU.
‘Big Love’ at Point Park
I start with “Big Love” because it’s such a rare and eccentric treat but mainly because you can still see it. After opening Feb. 24, it paused this week for Point Park’s spring break, but it returns March 9-12 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s Rauh Theater.
In bald outline, it sounds beyond bizarre: an ancient Greek tragedy turned into a modern marriage comedy, but with its bloody plot intact.
Actually, it’s one of the more plausible plays by the fecund Charles L. Mee, who ransacks world literature and devises plays by the dozen, then makes them available (mainly for free) on his website, which is a pretty entertaining experience all by itself.
Pittsburgh first saw “Big Love” in a No Name Theatre production in 2004 – I was excited to see it again.
Mr. Mee invites theaters to “pillage the plays as I have pillaged the structures and contents of the plays of Euripides and Brecht and stuff out of Soap Opera Digest and the evening news and the internet.” Behind these wild acts of expropriation is the conviction that “there is no such thing as an original play,” even when “some of us write about our own innermost lives, believing that, then, we have written something truly original and unique. But, of course, the culture writes us first, and then we write our stories.”
“Big Love” is lifted from a play, or really a largely-lost trilogy, by Aeschylus, c. 460 B.C., in which 50 sisters flee 50 brothers, whom they’re being forced to marry, to take refuge in Greece. Denied succor, the women kill the men, except for one hold-out. At that point they really do need succor, but also divine judgment.
In Mr. Mee’s revision, set in the modern world, the brides (reduced to three, although the others are said to be waiting in their ship just off stage) take refuge at a rich Italian coastal villa. “I can’t take in every refugee,” says their unwilling host. Their three angry grooms-to- be arrive and the debate is joined – also the bloody revenge, the ethical dilemma and the ultimate judgment.
If you have any familiarity with Greek tragedy, it’s fun to hear the staccato dialogue, the longer speeches about ethics and justice, both human and divine, and even the inserted pop songs, all the while imagining the Greek choral originals of which they may be modern adaptations. Or may not – I haven’t done the homework to know what Mr. Mee has adapted, invented or appropriated from elsewhere.
But it’s a crackerjack show, full of ethical quandary and issues as timely as the latest uninvited grope or imperious rape. The guest director, Reginald L. Douglas, best known as artistic producer at City Theatre, manages the pace well, alternating speedy and languid so as to balance serious themes with soap opera fun. Some times you can’t tell which is which, because there are ethics at stake in soap operas and fun in the Greeks.
As to color-, ethnicity- or disability-blind casting, Mr. Mee advises on his website that “directors should go very far out of their way to avoid creating the bizarre, artificial world of all intact white people, a world that no longer exists where I live.” Not to worry — Mr. Douglas’ cast is a visible mix of black and white and perhaps other categories as well (why would we need to know?), fitting the sense that the story is mythic and universal in scope.
The three nicely differentiated sisters are the stars, especially the angriest and least willing to compromise, Thyona, played by Amber Jones with thrilling hauteur. Her assigned partner, a real piece of male chauvinist work (but what else does he know?), is played by Drew Campbell-Amberg with equally captivating energy, unsympathetic though he must be.
In fact energy is key to the whole show, pursuers and pursued breaking the wedding china and throwing themselves and each other about with passionate excess, under the hand of fight director Randy Kovitz.
At the heart of things is Bella, seemingly a garrulous bubbe (to mix ethnicities) who grows, in the person of Bebe Tabickman, into the wisest person on stage, based (if you go back to Aeschylus) on Aphrodite, the god who knows most about the pangs of love.
Does that sound heavy? It’s not.
‘Ragtime’ at CMU
Sad news first: this stunning “Ragtime” ended today, Saturday. But you didn’t have much of a chance to see it anyway, since most performances were pretty much sold out before it began its two-week run on Feb. 23, and once it did open and the good word spread, any seats that were left disappeared like snow in May.
I put this news first to make a point: it’s worth keeping CMU drama on your early radar system, because there’s a large East End audience that’s been thronging its shows for years – you have to be on your toes not to be closed out.
The best news is that it’s a remarkably accomplished realization of a huge, difficult and deeply satisfying musical, displaying a lot of talent already at proto-pro level. One of the main arguments in the lobby afterward is over which actor to praise the most.
Adapted from “Ragtime,” E.L. Doctorow’s epic historical novel of turbulent pre- World War I America, the musical is no less epic than its source, interweaving stories from three main ethnic groups — WASP, black and immigrant Jew. It then layers these with the snapshot stories of a half-dozen historical figures: Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Admiral Perry and Evelyn Nesbitt, the girl on the red velvet swing.
It just never stops coming at you. But Terrence McNally’s book isn’t even the best of it: there’s preeminently the lush, quasi-operatic score by Pittsburgh native Stephen Flaherty, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The only viable complaint about the music would be that there’s so much of it, with enough major anthems to stock a couple of musicals more.
In truth, this is not just musical comedy, but something grander. If it isn’t already, “Ragtime” will soon be in the repertoires of the less hidebound opera companies.
The standout performances are without dispute by John Clay III (Coalhouse Walker), Hanna Berggren (Mother) and Tateh (Clay Singer), not incidentally the central characters of the three plot lines. I was also taken with Lea DiMarchi (Goldman), Amanda Fallon Smith (Nesbitt) and Isaac Miller (Willie Conklin).
At bottom, there is also music director Thomas W. Douglas and his strong orchestra, with less big sound you’d expect in a fully-produced professional version, but sumptuous anyway.
Ultimately, the whole thing is bound together by the indefatigable director, Tome Cousin, who seems to know that “Ragtime” is especially fitted to our difficult political moment. It finds hope after great loss, the story ending with a hybrid family blending all three ethnic groups. What could be more inspirational?
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.
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