By SHARON EBERSON
At a lanky 6 feet, 4 inches, Brenden Peifer is hard to miss, whether offstage or on. And this year, it has seemed he is always on.
So far in 2023, Peifer could be seen in productions for Pittsburgh Public Theater (his fifth PPT show, including August Wilson’s Two Trains Running) and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company; the PICT International Classic Theatre benefit reading series; and as Laertes in Quantum Theatre’s epic Hamlet.
Among the few local companies missing from the University of Pittsburgh grad’s resumé had been barebones productions, but that omission will soon be remedied.
Peifer joins Patrick Jordan and David Whalen in David Mamet’s American Buffalo November 17-December 10, the finale to barebones’ 20th season.
The role builds on a bio few can boast in such a short span. After being cast in Prime Stage and City Theatre productions as an undergraduate, followed by a pandemic-forced intermission, Peifer has moved from August Wilson to Shakespeare to Mamet in seemingly record time.
The Alexandria, Virginia native had arrived at Pitt with the intention of studying sports journalism. He was quickly bitten by the acting bug, despite an early introduction to The Bard, courtesy of his aunt, Joyce Peifer Forbes, the former associate artistic director at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.
“I remember being 5 years old and watching The Tempest, and being scared,” Peifer said via phone, during a break in rehearsals for American Buffalo. An actor onstage “pulled a whip out, and they had to pull me out of the theater because I was crying. I thought someone was going to get hit with the whip.”
Peifer can laugh at that memory after a summer spent sword in hand as Laertes. Yet even as he has ”kind of taken over as the thespian of the family,” he still turns to Aunt Joyce when he has questions about performing Shakespeare.
To take on the R-rated verbal sparring required by Pulitzer- and Tony-winner Mamet, Peifer is leaning on his veteran scene partners – Patrick Jordan and David Whalen.
It was suggested to Peifer that working with two actors with long-established chemistry can be like jumping on a runaway train. However, he chose his own metaphor.
“Once the rapids get going – that’s how I would describe it – I’ve found my way to buckle in and not only be a passenger, but also guide myself a little bit sometimes. It’s definitely been fun to not only see how [Jordan and Whalen] work together, but also, insert myself in there as well,” he said.
To take the metaphor one step further, he said he has been able “to get up to speed” not only with the help of his fellow actors, but also, the “fabulous” director Melissa Martin.
In American Buffalo, Whalen plays Chicago pawn-shop owner Donny, who has taken sweet-natured Bobby (Peifer) under his wing. When Jordan’s Teach, “a violently paranoid braggart” (per the show’s notes) arrives on the scene, the small-time hustlers test their friendship and the meaning of “free enterprise,” as they plan to steal a rare coin collection
In moving from the set of Hamlet at Carrie Furnaces this summer to barebones’ Braddock black box theater, Peifer has gone from a super-sized, outdoor setting to one of the most intimate stages in the area.
“It definitely is a contrast from that Hamlet experience of almost an entire field worth of distance between you and the audience,” he said. “But even with Hamlet, I thought there were really nice moments of intimacy with the audience”
In Braddock, the stage is comparatively claustrophobic, as it is being “crammed in a good way,” Peifer said, with objects to fill Donny’s shop. Peifer compared it to smaller spaces he worked in as a student, such as the Rauh Theater in the basement of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning.
“It’s exciting to be able to play with things like noise level and whispers, because [the Braddock space] is so intimate,” Peifer said. “You don’t have to necessarily throw your voice all the way to the back wall, when the wall is maybe 20 feet away.”
Some of the relatively calm moments in the play, between Donny and Bobby, are among his favorites.
“I love the phrase that ‘he or she is a very generous actor, a very giving actor,’ and that’s Dave, a hundred percent,” Peifer said. “He’s playing my parental figure, and the scenes where it’s just the two of us, I think have really set a wonderful pace in the show. So when Patrick does come in, with his rambunctious, really energetic [character] and starts to cause all this chaos, I think the balance that I’ve found with Dave is to be in some calm waters at the top, but still have high stakes.”
Peifer said he recently recounted to Jordan, barebones’ founder and artistic director, that the first professional production he saw in Pittsburgh, as a student with Pitt Arts, was barebones’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, at the New Hazlett Theater. That cast included another future mentor, Maurice Redwood, and displayed the kind of on-brand grittiness barebones is known for.
Peifer later worked on the movie project House of Stones with Redwood, Malic Maat and Monteze Freeland, his director in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for Prime Stage.
“To this day, that still is one of my favorite projects,” he said of the film. “It came out of relationships that got built up naturally during a theater process. [Caged Bird] was my first professional show that I had ever done, during my junior year at Pitt, and … that’s where I met Monteze and Reese [Redwood] and Malic and all of them. After rehearsals, we would all hang out and we were just kind of like, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we made a movie?’ “
It took five years, but House of Stones had its premiere screening in January, at the August WIlson African American Cultural Center.
When he is not acting, Peifer is an educator, thanks once again to Aunt Joyce, who advised him to become a substitute teacher, with flexible hours. He has subsidized life as an actor as a teaching artist for City Theatre, an educator for Pittsburgh Public Schools, and also works with Pitt as a “standardized patient.”
Acting can be a tenuous career path, often filled with stops, starts and rejection. Encouraging mentors have often provided the confidence boost to keep Peifer going.
“I was very blessed to have a great education at Pitt, and each year as I progressed, I felt more and more, not only confident, but just comfortable in my own skin and knowing who I was,” he said. “Then I felt I could step into these roles, not only in an educational setting where the purpose is for my development and growth, but also professionally, where the purpose is the business of the theater and the success of the theater company.”
Particularly influential were mentors such as Ricardo Vila-Roger at Pitt, acting coach Teisha Duncan and Reg Douglas, now the artistic director of Mosaic Theater in Washington, D.C. It was Douglas who cast Peifer in the stellar City Theatre production of One Night in Miami, following a role in Bricolage Productions’ The Clearing.
Now Peifer is closing out 2023 on yet another new stage, keeping up the pace demanded by Mamet’s fast-paced, repetitious dialogue.
“It’s about getting in the rhythm with it and flowing with your fellow actors, so having Patrick and Dave has just been an absolute godsend. I have loved working with them so much because they are such a wealth of knowledge, and with me just getting going in my career, working with well-established actors like Dave Whalen and Patrick Jordan, I just feel so fortunate,” said Peifer, before adding, “Hopefully, I get the chance to work with them plenty more in the future.”
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Barebones Productions’ American Buffalo is at barebones black box theater, 1211 Braddock Ave. in Braddock, Thursdays-Sundays, November 17 – December 10, 2023. Tickets: $40 through December 3 and $50 December 7 – 10. https://www.barebonesproductions.com/americanbuffalo