Churchill in Short(s)? a collection of plays by Caryl Churchill

Churchill in Short(s)? a collection of plays by Caryl Churchill

I hadn’t heard of British playwright Caryl Churchill before, but I’m glad I have now. The Pitt Repertory Theatre premiered three of her one-act plays the evening of Friday the 18th, with performances on Wednesday, February 23 through Sunday, February 27.

Churchill is British. So was the accent of the person who welcomed the audience before the actual start of the show. The voice asked us to turn off our cell phones, etc., with just enough of a clipped, sarcastic, edge to elicit a laugh from the crowd. Somehow, it seemed set the stage well—a way of engaging the audience before the fact. Perhaps that’s also in the script.

As is stated in the program, “Churchill’s plays ask the audience to question the supposedly stable boundaries between the personal and the political as well as reality and fantasy.” The first act, “Lovesick,” is more in the reality vs. fantasy realm. I won’t be giving anything away to say that it’s what I have in the past heard called a “shrink yarn,” meaning a story where a psychiatrist is a key character, and functions as a sort of narrator/Greek chorus, alternately commenting on the action and participating in it. Here, the nerdishly bespectacled Dr. Hodge, played by Fred Pelzer as if he can’t remember where he left his wallet, lays out the case histories of a family of patients and assorted others unlucky enough to have stepped in the minefield. Indeed, the only characters who seem to come away unscathed are two dogs, played by Kevin Christian and Amanda Lee, although it’s also implied that they all might have been in better shape before their therapies.

One especially good gag is when four of the players, including the two canine companions, mime being in a moving car together. I was too busy admiring the choreography to notice if Fido and Rover were hanging their heads out the window.

Maria Polombo, playing the part, in “Lovesick,” of the mother, Jessica, is the most charismatic performer, at least from this writer’s point of view. She seems to have an aura around her. She doesn’t simply speak her lines and try to sound stentorian—you can see the emotions playing on her face as her character acts and is acted upon.

This is as good a place as any to mention the show’s overall technical excellence, by the way. There are a lot of precise lighting cues, evoking subtle changes in mood, deployed in so subtle a manner that one rarely notices them taking place. (Offhand, I don’t remember if there were any similar sound cues, although there must have been; let’s just say there were no auditory gaffes that detracted from the action onstage.)

While I will stand by my assertion that Maria Polombo has a certain something about her, the rest of the ensemble is uniformly solid, some playing one major part, others playing two or three minor parts, even giving one of the two dogs something else to do. The entrances and exits, to and from different points, are just as on the money as are the technical aspects. Having once been in a show myself where there were a lot of quick changes and comings and goings, I listened for the sound of running footsteps, and was pleased not to hear any.

Anything in the program is fair game, and, by definition, not a spoiler. Bearing that in mind, the program goes on to say: “in ‘Lovesick,’ Churchill poses questions about the distinctions between sanity and insanity.” I’ll leave it at that, but I’ll also share the thought that crossed my mind as the action unfolded, that perhaps Churchill had gone through analysis herself at some point, and wrote the play as revenge on her analyst, as we’re left wondering if the shrink is perhaps the craziest person there. It wouldn’t be the first time something that has happened—I’ve known some analysts myself who were on the wrong side of the couch.

The second act is a briefer work, titled “This Is a Chair,” much more of a free-form piece, without any major or minor characters. On the surface, it’s a series of disjointed vignettes, each prefaced by what may or may not be a title, projected on a center-stage screen (Example: “The Democratic Party’s Slide to the Right.”) Looking a little more deeply, it’s not that much different from “Lovesick,” or even the third-act play, “The After-Dinner Joke.” “This Is a Chair” is every bit as intricate and fast-paced, but also manages to come off just as relaxed and effortless as the other two segments, a testament to plenty of rehearsal, to be sure, but also a compliment to the director, Tommy Costello, who obviously knows that the players still have to have fun onstage.

The third act, after the intermission, “The After-Dinner Joke,” is as long as the other two acts put together, closer in spirit to “This Is a Chair” than it is to “Lovesick,” but more complex than both put together. Here is where Churchill’s more overtly political agenda also comes to the forefront. Quoting one last time from the program, “Churchill’s work is often situated in a specific political context…Churchill has encouraged new productions of her work to update and relocate the political references in the plays so that they remain relevant and immediate for the audience.” So both plays sport references to Darfur, Bangladesh, Haiti, even Afghanistan, with what I am sure is no detriment to the playwright’s intentions. “The After-Dinner Joke” could be framed by one time and place as well as any other, because it’s really a comment on, for lack of a better term, “charity work,” anywhere , anytime, and how it’s not always motivated by the best of intentions, and, even when the intentions are sincere, often ends up doing more harm than good.

Amanda Leslie, relegated to the role of a dog in “Lovesick,” at the very bottom of the cast list yet, has the lead role in “The After-Dinner Joke,” and proves she was worth waiting for, playing the noblesse oblige boarding school girl with both wide-eyed innocence and blueblood lockjaw. She doesn’t command the stage so much as she occupies it. Fred Pelzer, “Dr. Hodge” from “Lovesick,” does an excellent job of playing three small roles in different places. I feel compelled to mention that I didn’t recognize him without his Clark Kent glasses, but also because he was playing characters so far away from that earlier, quite indelible, performance.

Maria Polombo plays another key supporting part, and holds her won quite well all over again, even battling Amanda Leslie to a standstill when both are sharing the stage. I hope I don’t sound like I’m calling her a scene-stealer—it’s not her fault that she kept getting my attention, but she didn’t chew any scenery, either.

All in all, one especially admirable characteristic of the show as a whole is how democratic it is. Looking at the casts of the three shows together, one can’t help but notice how those near and at the bottom of the list in “Lovesick” are in the opposite position in “The After-Dinner Joke,” with “This Is a Chair” serving as a sort of free-for-all in between. Everybody has at least one good part somewhere. When they came out at the end to take their bows, I was applauding the entire company, and I know Maria Polombo must have been in there somewhere.

Don’t miss this one. You’ll be thinking about it afterwards.

Churchill in Short(s)?

Churchill in Short(s)? (Zane Leydig, Amanda Leslie)

Churchill in Short(s)? Cast (Amanda Leslie, Andrew Mozdy, Dylan Meyers, Emily Pojman, Fred Pelzer, Kevin Christian, Maria Palombo, Theo Allyn, Zane Leydig)

Churchill in Short(s)? Cast (Amanda Leslie, Andrew Mozdy, Dylan Meyers, Emily Pojman, Fred Pelzer, Kevin Christian, Maria Palombo, Theo Allyn, Zane Leydig)

When is the show?
Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 8:00pm
Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 8:00pm
Friday, February 25, 2011 at 8:00pm
Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 8:00pm
Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 2:00pm

Where is it?
Henry Heymann Theatre (Stephen Foster Memorial downstairs)
4301 Forbes Ave (map)
Pittsburgh, PA, 15213
(412) 624-4100

How much to go?
Tickets are $12, $15, and $25

What’s in it for me?
Every ticket stub will get you a free donut from Dunkin Donuts.

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