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A&E: IRT 'Piano Lesson' well tuned

March 10, 2008

It wasn't by design, but this week I happened to find myself in the company of three different sets of young theater audiences.

The good news: All were better behaved than most adult audiences with whom I've spent time-there was limited candy wrapper crinkling and not a stray cell phone ring in the bunch. Plus, each broke with the stereotype of uninterested youth, proving generous and very open to the events on stage.

First was "The Piano Lesson" at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

August Wilson's play is definitely not your standard field-trip fare. It's not Shakespeare, it's not Arthur Miller and, more important, it's not a work that offers up easy answers.

(To be clear, this is an IRT mainstage, adult production that happened to be offering student matinees, one of which was convenient for me to catch. The production-and, thankfully, the performers-didn't cater to the kids who filled the house.)

Set in 1936, "The Piano Lesson" tells of Boy Willie, who arrives at the Pittsburgh home of his sister, Berniece, with the intention of selling the family's heirloom piano. Conflicts, of course, arise, but nothing in this or any other Wilson play operates by the standard theatrical playbook. Having seen four Wilson plays (including a previous production of this one), I've learned to embrace rather than be frustrated by the way language and character take precedent over plot. In his world, some threads are woven tightly into the fabric of the show and others are left dangling.

In the IRT's well-acted rendering of the work (part of Wilson's 10-play cycle, each set in a different decade of the 20 th century), there's a roominess, a cleanliness, that works against the play's passions but increases its clarity. This production's strongest pleasures come from the detailed performances of the supporting cast, proving that sometimes the most unappreciated star of a show is the casting director.

To my pleasant surprise, the high-schoolers in the crowd were spellbound by what was happening on stage. Their engagement in the work was a testament to the IRT-and to their teachers and administrators who were willing to take a chance on something outside the traditional teen canon.

If a generation whose primarily language is text messaging can get caught up in "The Piano Lesson," odds are good that you will, too.

Younger audiences packed the house at opening night of Children's Theatre Institute's production of "Treasure Island." And, once again, the attendees met the production more than halfway.

Engaged during some very fun improvisational audience-participation segments cleverly woven into the text, the tots kept their sugar highs in check (there was a preshow party that includes soft drinks and brownies) during the rest of the hour-long performance. And when the treasure in the title was finally revealed at the end, the kids crept closer and closer until they filled the stage.

It was a charming, memorable moment that helped mask the ho-humness of the script. This two-actor, multi-character, frequent-costume-changing adaptation was literal to a fault-the fault being way too much static exposition.

It was refreshing to see a show that didn't resort to cheap Shrek-ish pop culture references to generate parental smirks or excess violence to galvanize attention. What the show did rely on, unfortunately, was talk, talk, talk without magic, magic, magic. Little of it, I think, was followed by most of the children-let alone the adults-attending.

With a relevant mission, passionate leadership, and a strong talent pool to draw from, I'm confident that future productions will better show what CTI can do. There's no reason why this company can't aim higher-and deliver.

College students took up most of the audience at "Marriage," a translation of Nikolai Gogol's 1842 Russian comedy presented by Butler University Theatre Feb. 27-March 1. And seeing their friends and fellow students in such deliberately exaggerated work surely helped elevate the laughter level.

While it's great to see Butler Theatre doing work that is unlikely ever to be staged in these parts, though, I can't honestly say that the resulting production was of much interest beyond its academic-and friends/family-value. There were laughs, to be sure-and an effort at creating a borderline grotesque style to make the farce work. But pulling off such work requires stylistic consistency and vision that ties design, lighting, costuming, directing and all the other elements together.

In other words, "Marriage" requires a special kind of commitment that wasn't quite in evidence here.
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