Short Takes: 'Giver' thoughtful; Pillow Project Dance super

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'The Giver'

Speak with manners and precision. Don't let doubts impair our vision.

Jay Keenan, left, is The Giver, and Alexander Zukoff is Jonas in Prime Stage Theatre's production of Lois Lowry's "The Giver."
Click photo for larger image.

That's part of the mantra repeated by the citizens of the community of sameness, a seemingly idyllic environment portrayed in Prime Stage Theatre's production of "The Giver," based on the Newbery Award-winning novel by Lois Lowry.

The residents, including 12-year-old Jonas, seem content and happy with their lives. Everything is the same. There is no war, no pain, no difficult decisions to make, and disruptions are quickly taken care of.

Then Jonas is selected to become the Receiver of Memory. As he undergoes training with The Giver, who transmits to him the history of what the world was like before "sameness," Jonas sees what his community is missing. There's no color, no choices, no love. He begins to have doubts that the security of his community is worth what the citizens are giving up to maintain it.

Under the direction of Wayne Brinda, Prime Stage's artistic director, the stage production captures the thought-provoking issues of Lowry's tale. The simple set design and the drab-colored uniforms emphasize the oneness of this regimented and isolated society. Video screens help show the transfer of memories from The Giver to Jonas without disrupting the other scenes.

The responsibility of getting the play's message across falls mainly on the shoulders of Alexander Zukoff as Jonas and Jay Keenan as The Giver. Both rise to the challenge superbly. Zukoff portrays Jonas as a mature child who is open to improving his society, not a precocious brat. Keenan's grandfather-like nature shines through as he bonds with Jonas and starts to see truth through the boy's eyes.

There's not a lot of action here, which may disappoint some of the younger set. But the story offers up relevant issues, serving as an impetus to family discussion.

"The Giver" continues 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown, and 8 p.m. May 12 and 13 at Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland. Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and $8 for youth. Prime Stage will host an author's reception with Lois Lowry from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $15. Call 412-394-3353 for reception or show tickets.
-- Karen Carlin, Post-Gazette staff writer

Pillow Project Dance Company

You had to love the title of Pearlann Porter's latest dance epic, "The Swank Easy." It was a Gatsby-ish accent to the historical splendor found at Construction Junction in Point Breeze, where Porter and an army of staffers took architectural pieces and added a few tables and lamps to re-create the laid-back, finger-snapping sensibility of a jazz club.

In only her third try, Porter impressed. She retained the trendy improvisatory video feel of her first attempt, "Kinda Sorta" and combined it with the visionary principles of the second, a retro rock adventure called "The Concept Album Tour."

"The Swank Easy" had it all -- a jazz group that seamlessly combined live and recorded music of classics by Dave Brubeck and Charlie Parker, Bob Steineck's nifty high-tech lighting and 24 committed dancers who form the Pillow Project Dance Company, making it one of the largest in Pittsburgh.

Where many choreographers succeed at intimate levels, few, like Porter, can integrate all of the artistic elements in a production of this size. It resembled, in a way, the sweeping energy of an early Hubbard Street concert, with plenty of spectacular dancing to feed a hungry audience.

But in this day and age, Porter has a more contemporary, urban way with the choreography, blending street dance with tap and jazz into a kaleidoscope of patterns. At the opening performance on Friday, dancers freely moved through the crowd, blending fantasy and reality in "Give Me a 5ive," where they skillfully stretched Brubeck's famous five-count rhythms into funk, blues and rap.

"The Parker Recontextualization Experimentation" featured some Savion Glover-style tapping at the start and a risky sofa dance that entertained. Most intriguing were the doodle patterns that the dancers drew onto the back wall and which they subsequently translated onto the dance floor.

The energy was palpable -- one might only wish for leaner, meaner choices from an abundance of material. But there was no doubt that the audience was enthralled by the swank. In other words, "Thumbs way up."

-- Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette dance critic


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