Festival's Theater Offerings Focus on News-Making Events

Article excerpt

If you're interested in politics -- whether local, national or international -- theater artists are making a play for you this week.

Three regional playwrights have created a trio of plays that focus on unfolding and current events. Each of the plays will have its world premiere at the Three Rivers Arts Festival as commissions of the 4th River Project.

= "Dr. Goddess Goes To Jail," by Hill District resident Kimberly Ellis, debuts Friday for six performances.

Enlisting more than a dozen actors from the area, Ellis uses a variety-show format to celebrate the spirit of the Civil Rights and Black Power eras as she and her diverse group of characters face arrest and imprisonment.

"I like the fact that it's (also) an intergenerational cast," Ellis says. They range in age and experience from a 9-year-old girl to adults and include a poet, a comedian, a singer who's also a hair stylist and some promised, but not identified, local celebrities.

A sequel to "Dr. Goddess," her one-woman, coming-of-age show that was presented at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater in April 2006, "Dr. Goddess Goes to Jail" was inspired by her experiences protesting the proposal to build a casino in the Hill District.

During the controversy, Ellis says she and other activists were planning acts of civil disobedience for which they expected to be arrested.

"No, we never went to jail. But we were willing to go to jail," Ellis says.

Ellis says her show is intelligent, irreverent and funny.

"I wanted to show just what a movement to stop injustice on Montgomery's buses in 1955 has to do with us folks up here in Pittsburgh in 2006," she says. Her hope is that it will provoke and inspire. "Every scene has problem-solving potential," she says. "The ultimate solution relies on us as members of the community."

"American Humbug," written by Lynne Conner, of Squirrel Hill, debuts Saturday for nine performances.

Merging stage time and real time, "American Humbug" celebrates and attacks the legacy of P.T. Barnum, the 19th-century showman who turned hoaxes into an entertainment form.

"Teaching Americans to be entertained by hoaxes and other manipulative ways has become the norm," Conner says. "Our culture is filled with hoaxes."

Accepting those hoaxes as part of the culture has had serious consequences for 21st-century media consumers, Conner says.

She points to our willful belief of athletes' denials of steroid abuse, celebrity apologies for egregious behavior and claims of weapons of mass destruction as examples of Barnum's legacy.

The event begins when audience members are admitted to Barnum's museum created by set designer, puppeteer and theater artist Tavia La Follette, of Shadyside, who spearheaded the project.

It's filled with Barnum-era specimens such as a two-headed goat and obvious anachronisms such as a portrait of Osama bin Laden and homemade bombs reportedly from the Iraqi desert. Mirroring Barnum's 1857 museum of curiosities, the exhibits deliberately blur the line between artifacts lent by the Carnegie Museums and unabashed fakes. …