By Sharon Eberson
Here’s my weekend in Pittsburgh theater, or, more to the point, so much Pittsburgh theater, so little time …
Pittsburgh theater – it’s worth saying a third time – had the opportunity to strut its stuff last week, as the city and its theatermakers hosted colleagues from around the country for the Theater Communications Group’s national conference.
The host committee, including Mayor Ed Gainey, was a who’s who of Pittsburgh theater, extended further by those who were panelists and attendees in discussing the accomplishments and innovations of, and challenges facing, theater artists in America.
It was a hybrid virtual/in-person conference for TCG, which boasts a membership network of 500+ member theaters, 7,000+ individuals and 250+ university, funder, trustee and business affiliates.
Attending in person were dozens of theatermakers from the likes of Fayetteville, Ark.; Detroit; Houston; Indiana; Oklahoma City; Portland; Rhode Island; Vermont; San Antonio … and all got a glimpse of our fair city.
They were here on a weekend when Two Trains Running made its final stop for Pittsburgh Public Theater, Kinetic Theatre was in the midst of The Illustrious Invalid at City Theatre; and Pittsburgh CLO marked the beginning of its summer season by opening Puffs at the Greer Cabaret.
Besides attending sessions, I was a proud representative of local performing arts journalists for Offscript, the podcast of TCG’s American Theater Magazine – an online and print bible of national news and features for many in the theater community.
When it came to attending performances on this busy weekend, I chose three nights of diverse experiences:
Friday: A Momentum reading of Steven Sapp‘s in-development A Poet’s Journey, at City Theatre.
Saturday: RealTime Interventions’ Angelmakers: Songs for Female Serial Killers, at Pittsburgh Winery in the Strip District.
Sunday: Elizabeth Elias Huffman’s solo performance of her play Not My Revolution, presented by Off the Wall Productions at Carnegie Stage.
Not My Revolution
Of those performances, only Not My Revolution continues on, so I’ll begin there, with an enthusiastic recommendation.
Reviewed by Talkin’ Broadway when Huffman performed Not My Revolution at The Cell Theatre in Albuquerque, it was described as “an ambitious, brilliantly acted one-woman tour de force” by Monongahela native and performer/playwright Huffman.
I was captivated for all of the show’s 90 minutes.
Huffman sizzled in her homecoming as a performer, after building a career as an international artist on the West Coast. Her play, directed by Portland-based Louanne Moldovan, highlights the plight of women displaced by the current Syrian civil war. In its telling, Not My Revolution spreads the spotlight to today’s worldwide refugee crisis, plus one notable day in 1793.
The Revolution of the title covers war on multiple fronts and helps make the unexpected connection across the centuries, between Marie Antoinette, in the hours before her execution, and a Syrian wife and mother of means who, after being caught up in an act of resistance and violence, finds herself alone and an unwelcome refugee in Istanbul.
The world’s ills are reflected in the two women coming to terms with their previously narrow perspectives. The Queen of France, about to be beheaded, missing her children, still sees her previous opulence as part of her royal duty. She also damns the people who have misrepresented her and relates how, coming from Austria as a teen, she has always been treated as an outsider. The Displaced Woman, defined by her name, is an educated Syrian who has married into wealth but has always felt the disdain of her in-laws.
In a stunning introduction, we meet the latter being cursed in multiple languages as an unwanted refugee. The story unfolds from there, as Huffman transforms from the woman’s current state, as a squatter in a rat-infested hiding place, to her upper-crust former self, to the Queen of France.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the actress accomplishes each transition before our eyes, sometimes by donning or doffing a wig or a cap, or by baring her close-shaved head.
As Marie Antoinette, she is imprisoned, reflecting on her life, awaiting her death. In a dreamlike moment, The Displaced Woman is granted a book on the fated queen. It becomes her distraction and companion, and reflects that Not My Revolution was inspired by another solo play, French Gray, based on the queen’s final hours.
The book is the connection that brings Marie Antoinette to life and bridges the women and their plights.
Huffman’s performance as both women is as gripping as anything I’ve seen onstage this year. She inhabits the two women, with all their foibles – in some cases, clearing up some of history’s misconceptions about the maligned queen – as a microcosm of the forced displacement of Syrian women.
The design of the play includes an evocative set by Tucker Topel, with hidden doors and hooks to aid Huffman’s transformation. Portland artist Mario Calcagno designed the graphics and videos that accompany some segments, with lighting by local designer Bob Steineck and other features rooted on the West Coast and in the transfer to Pittsburgh.
In a postscript, the backdrop screen reveals the staggering numbers of refugees who comprise our current worldwide crisis, but numbers are rarely as comprehensible as an up-close view of the human toll of forced displacement.
And that is precisely what Huffman has accomplished – characterizing the enormity of what it means to be a woman and a refugee, with no safe haven to turn to, in relatable, heartbreaking, hellish, sometimes humorous and even hopeful terms.
Not My Revolution continues at Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., through July 2. Tickets and details: www.carnegiestage.com.
Angelmakers: Songs for Serial Killers
I was curious first to hear what was meant by Songs FOR Serial Killers – this being a true-crime work – and to see what Pittsburgh Winery is like as a cabaret venue. Also, it had been a long time between in-person RealTime Interventions presentations for me, and I was eager to support the work of Molly Rice and Rusty Thelin, having missed Angelmakers previously. I had attended their TCG panel, “Hyperlocal Meets Universal Community-Fueled Globally-Connected Theater in the City of Bridges,” and got to relive some of the special experience that was their collaboration with Bricolage, The Saints Tour in Greater Braddock, circa 2015.
And, full disclosure, I wanted to support “bad activist,” Mai Khoi, recently honored as a 2022 Roosevelt Four Freedoms Awards Laureate, who I know from working with the International Free Expression Project. I had been at a dinner where she sang for friends and guests earlier Saturday evening.
Finally, how could I miss a work by (mostly) women, about women and performed by women?
Angelmakers is a concept by Rice and Thelin. Rice wrote the music and lyrics, with direction by Cyntyhia Croot, Thelin as assistant director, and music direrction by Milia Ayache. Performers were Ayache, Mai Khoi, Hazel LeRoy, Samantha A. Camp, Angela Hsu, Angela Jade George, Julianna Austin, Lynette Taylor and Meg Booth
As for that FOR, the songs don’t condone nor do they excuse, with the premise that “everyone deserves a song.” The songs try to reach into the fractured thoughts and hearts of real women who committed heinous crimes, and those who may be on the verge.
In the tight space of the Pittsburgh Winery, the declarations of rage and madness ran deep, and I wondered if the couple next to me had chosen this particular work for a date night, and what conversations might have ensued.
Read more about Angelmakers here.
Teaser video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIToVLXwhwg
A Poet’s Journey
Momentum readings often herald the future of City Theatre, so I was eager to attend the one-night-only Momentum reading by Steven Sapp of his in-development, autobiographical work. Directed by Chay Yew, Sapp’s A Poet’s Journey describes growing up in the South Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop and, in Sapp’s world, a place of hope and, often, despair, leading to the man, father and artist he is today.
Pittsburgh CLO’s Kinky Boots has its stars. The show’s Lola, a role originated by Tony-winner Billy Porter, is Darius Harper, who also played the role in the first national tour. The CLO website also revealed that Brian Sears will portray Charlie Price. Sears’ Broadway and West End credits include The Book of Mormon, Lend Me a Tenor, Finian’s Rainbow, Grease and All Shook Up.
In addition, on his Facebook page, local Wilsonian actor Wali Jamal posted that he will be part of the CLO cast.
Kinky Boots opens July 5, following the run of The Drowsy Chaperone. https://www.pittsburghclo.org/shows/kinky-boots1