Saturday, December 6, 2014

Roving Pittsburgher Report, World Premiere L’Hotel Brings Life and Laughter

PPT’s World Premiere L’Hotel Brings Life and Laughter

 to the O’Reiley Theater.

By Megan Grabowski

On Thursday evening, November 20, 2014 I traversed downtown to the O’Reiley Theater for my first world premiere. Pittsburgh Public Theaters (PPT) debut of L’Hotel, by Ed Dixon, a unique and intelligent comedy lured a vastly astute audience into the invitingly bright playhouse.  I was merely aware of the shows plot before sitting down in my seat and skimming the program.  That turned out to be o.k., as the actors were so true to character I never once felt I was missing a beat.  The performance of L’Hotel is an all-inclusive dose of culture for Pittsburghers who may not be familiar with all of the artists portrayed in the show.  Theatergoers will be driven to investigate the characters unfamiliar to them after experiencing the dramatists’ flair for language and his intimate knowledge of each artiste under the skillful direction of Ted Pappas.
Deanne Lorette as Sarah Bernhardt and Daniel Hartley as Jim Morrison.

The show takes place, today, in the lobby of a posh French hotel,occupied by an eclectic group; Victor Hugo, Isadora Duncan, Gioachino Rossini, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Jim Morrison and the hotel’s loyal waiter.  Act 1 begins with the animated and adorable waiter bustling with the hurriedness only a perfectionist server can deliver; setting tables, straightening linens, pouring beverages before the hotel’s guests arrive; almost giddy with anticipation.  First to appear for morning cafe is the greatest and best known French writer, Victor Hugo, followed by Oscar Wilde.  The two literary minds sit at different tables and immediately begin to insult one another, a practice that follows the guests throughout the show.  Annoying?  Hardly, as the jabs consistently thrown across the stage between the actors contain brief spurts of biographical detail allowing the audience to collect tidbits of historical truths about the personalities.  

The strings of witticisms are brilliantly crafted. Only a writer schooled in the masterworks of each character could conjure.  The verbal pokes and prods pick fun at each characters iconic flaw, inevitably acknowledging the time period of their lifetime and success. No sooner does the audience begin to wonder why these 6 antiquated artists are dining, clearly they can scarcely tolerate one another, when they answer that through their banter. 

Sam Tsoutsouvas as Victor Hugo, Kati Brazda as Isadora Duncan, Tony Triano as Gioachino Rossini, Deanne Lorette as Sarah Bernhardt, Daniel Hartley as Jim Morrison, Brent Harris as Oscar Wilde, and Erika Cuenca as The Young Woman.
The jests, which skillfully span centuries, incorporate each person’s life miseries and awaken the harsh realities of their personal purgatory; confined to L’Hotel.  Together they are doomed to repeat the behaviors and dismal thoughts they harbored during life.  Their connection to one another, each are buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.  Each a celebrity during their lifetime is now condemned to live out eternity as guests in L’Hotel. Much of their time appears to be spent chastising each other, and attempting to validate their own self- worth by talking about how great they are at creating; constantly striving to outdo the other in stardom. 

The arbitrariness of the guests, author Victor Hugo, composer Gioachion Rossini, actress Sarah Bernhardt, dancer Isadora Duncan, novelist and playwright Oscar Wilde and rock musician Jim Morrison, jointly generate a synergy of stereotypical artistic traits; egotism, arrogance and eccentric behavior that produce consistent laughter from the audience.  Despite the cast’s woeful reminiscing of being, they unite during the development of a scheme to return one of them back to the land of the living.  The plan is initiated after a young girl visits the cemetery and leaves behind a bouquet of flowers on the grave of an unknown person.  Nothing incites the deceased celebrities more than seeing someone pay homage to a no-body.

The absurdity continues as the cast deliberates messages delivered through the Ouija Board.  Upon Bernhardt’s encouragement, the dead guests seek advice from other spirits about how to attain the means for rebirth.  The unusual plot and the sharp dialogue make this show full of energy and genuine entertainment. 

Each actor is undeniably cast appropriately and they work flawlessly together. The waiter, played by Evan Zes has perfected comedic timing.  He charms the audience with his knack for hustle and attention to detail as he strives to meet the needs of his patrons.  His characters warmth and honesty toward life and death emanate on stage and keep the audience grounded.

Kati Brazda as Isadora Duncan, Sam Tsoutsouvas as Victor Hugo, Tony Triano as Gioachino Rossini, Evan Zes as The Waiter.
Sam Tsoutsouvas cast as Victor Hugo portrays a highbrowed spirit who compulsively condescends each guest continually throughout the course of the play.  It is his disturbing reserve of emotion and a deep seeded arrogance which prevents him from fully bonding with any other character. His loftiness inhibits any ability for him to let go of the past and move forward in the ethereal realm. It is his role as a somber spirit, and Tsoutsouvas’s deep and sullen voice combined with his depiction of overtly forced self- worth, that permit me to believe he is Hugo. 

Brent Harris portrays Oscar Wilde with the flamboyancy and raunchiness I imagine he would possess if alive today.  Harris mastered the knack of gesturing while speaking, swaggering across the stage in a loud colored suit and retorting Hugo’s incessant insults with humor and guile. He spends a great deal of time self- examining his soul while wrestling with his spiritual demons, but it is the moments when Wilde is alone on stage speaking to his long- lost lover with passion and yearning that Harris truly engages the audience.  We listen, quietly, during these solemn moments, laughter subsides; Wilde’s pain is nearly tangible.

Brent Harris as Oscar Wilde.
Kati Brazda, sways across the stage, madly flinging her arms about, spinning, brushing the floor with her fingertips.  Brazda overstates Duncan’s sadness, her regrets and her revelries through movement; through dance.  Brazda’s presence on stage, depicting dancer Isadora Duncan, is enthusiastically exaggerated.  Duncan, although eager to unearth the steps toward reincarnation, also realizes the reality of her place.  She needs confirmation from the world that she is still influential and she attempts to draw this from her cast mates as she sashays across stage in a satin gown.  These eccentricities flow naturally from Brazda and I enjoyed listening to her speak of her time on the stage, communicating through movement. This zeal makes her a perfect accompaniment to Italian composer Gioachino Rossini, played by Tony Triano.  Duncan is patient and kind toward Rossini’s naiveté.  

While Triano plays up the gullible nature of the composer, who despite an appearance of flightiness is sincerely a musical genius Rossini ignores the matter of death altogether. He is a grand lover of life and his ability to produce and create beauty through writing music; he does not like the thought of being dead. Triano is stocky in stature and this adds to Rossini’s delight in eating.  Triano conveys Rossini’s pride by ensuring he speaks sincerely about his art and ignores most of the zingers Hugo, Wilde and Morrison throw at him.  Rossini never loses sight of his desire to continue composing so he pursues the opportunity to be born again.   

Daniel Hartley cast as Jim Morrison, the musical guile behind The Doors.  Morrison, a sex object even after death, wrecked his career with drinking and drugs and inevitably fashioned his own demise.  Morrison’s character maintains the same self- destructive behaviors throughout L’Hotel. His first appearance involves retching loudly off stage, then sauntering on in leather pants, sunglasses, smoking a cigarette and requesting a beer for breakfast.   Morrison does not regret how he lived, but is remorseful that he is no longer alive. Hartley’s display of Morrison’s coolness and immortal attitude is something the audience can relate to on a number of levels. The role requires Hartley wear leather pants and gyrate his hips while brazenly referring to sexual exploits.  More important is Hartley’s responsibility to demand the audience connect with him through reflection. What does it mean to be a celebrity in the 21st century?  Who deserves our revere?  Far too often the world loses a brilliant talent to drugs, alcohol or other negative behaviors.  Hartley’s portrayal of Morrison made me question my choice of idols.  Who do I think deserves the fame, fortune and recognition?  

Who do I think will be famous for just 15 minutes?  What do celebrities really want to be remembered for?  What do I want to be remembered for after I die? 

Sarah Bernhardt, ‘the most famous actress the world has ever known’ played by Deanne Lorette, is showy, proud, and overly dramatic.  She knows she was a renowned star and doesn’t hesitate to remind the others.  She holds steadfast to her reputation as a serious actress and uses her natural inclination toward the theater to lead the Ouija expedition.  She cajoles the remaining cast members with her vivacity to follow her as she contacts spirits, requesting instructions for escape.  Bernhardt insists she is no longer dramatic, but through Lorette’s hysterical interpretation we see Bernhardt as an eternal actress on and off stage, in life and after death. 

The young woman, played by Erika Cuenca is refreshing in her grief.  She is real and tormented. She agonizes over modern day difficulties. She speaks from the heart and unintentionally unites the cast in a demented and twisted manner without flinching.  She begs for someone to hear her and Hugo, Duncan, Wilde, Bernhardt, Rossini and Morrison holler back. These traits are the only aspects that impede a complete suspension of disbelief. 

Playwright Ed Dixon, has captured the essence of each character through dialogue and an original concept.  His familiarity of each character is uncanny as he attempts to have them shape the modern day images and ideals of an afterlife. The audience is left with a sense of ease, pondering our long held beliefs. Perhaps the uncertainty is not as frightening as we have thought. Or maybe more so!  Either way, Pappas, Pittsburgh’s stage mastermind, seizes the crux of each artist’s true being.  Through his impeccable direction 6 characters manage to transcend time and space on the stage of the O’Reiley, offering the audience they type of randomness that really makes a person wonder.  

Reviewed by Megan Grabowski

Positively Pittsburgh Good News Reviewer, Professional writer, Social-Media Junkie, Community Fundraiser and Pittsburgh Enthusiast.

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