Organic Theater Pittsburgh Debuts | Program Notes

Organic Theater Pittsburgh Debuts

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While there's a lot more going on in Pittsburgh arts-and-entertainmentwise than there was when I became CP's A&E editor, in 2003, the uptick is especially noticeable in summer.

Used to be things quieted down after the arts fest and stayed sleepy until mid-September. Not anymore. If the shows and exhibits aren't quite as wall-to-wall as in traditional peak months like April and October, July and August are still pretty busy. And for all the economy's continued woes, and general fretting about empty seats at theaters, there are even people still out there starting new theater companies.

Organic Theater Company, for instance, was launched just this month by Jaime Slavinsky. The 2000 Point Park grad and familiar face on local stages stars in Dead Man's Cell Phone, a thought-provoking 2007 comedy by Sarah Ruhl.

Ruhl is an up-an-coming name in the national theater community, with a Pulitzer-finalist distinction (for her play The Clean House) and a MacArthur genius grant. It's a big deal for a start-up like OTC to present the Pittsburgh premiere of Ruhl's latest work. The play world-premiered at Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. and went on to Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre and then to Off-Broadway; in Pittsburgh, OTC mounts the show on the tiny back-room stage at ModernFormations Gallery.

Dead Man's is a dark comedy about a timid woman named Jean (played by Slavinsky) who answers a fellow café customer's insistently ringing phone … and then is shocked to learn that the man has kicked. Only half-willingly, it seems, she gets sucked into his life, and drawn into deepening encounters with Gordon's mistress, mother, wife and younger brother.

When Jean learns what Gordon did for a living (something only she, it seems, didn't know), things only get weirder and more dangerous.

The play is a sly commentary on the ways cell phones' ubiquity has warped our lives, to be sure. ("When everyone is on their cell phone, it's like no one's there," Jean observes. "The more we're there, the more we disappear.")

But ultimately the play is about loneliness, the lengths people will go to avoid it … and how going to said lengths can wind up making them only lonelier. (And yes, it remains a comedy.) The set design expertly reinforces this theme with pre-show projections that evoke the paintings of Edward Hopper, like "Nighthawks at the Diner," which explore that particular American species of loneliness in public places.

The cast, which also includes Adam Kukic, Deb Wein, Michael E. Moats, Ja'Sonta Roberts-Deen and Jennifer Chervenick, is fine, likewise the direction, by Ricardo Vila-Roger.

OTC, whose mission statement incorporates eco-friendliness, will even take $2 off your ticket if you bring in an old cell phone to be recycled (and tickets are only $12 to start with -- a third of what you'd pay at many local theaters).

Dead Man's Cell Phone continues with performances at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow, and concludes with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sun., July 31. www.organictheaterpgh.org

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