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Stage Preview: New Randall Theatre opens with 'Much Ado'

Sunday, March 30, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

Theater is all about making do, and for decades the University of Pittsburgh Department of Theatre Arts made do with the Stephen Foster Memorial theater, building a ramp here, dangling a light there and jerry-rigging what had to be.

"Much Ado About Nothing"

dot.gif Where: Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, University of Pittsburgh campus, Oakland.

dot.gif When: Performances run Wednesday through April 19: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

dot.gif Tickets: $12 or $15; 412-614-PLAY.

Opening weekend

Following are the festivities and events marking the opening of the Charity Randall Theatre:

dot.gif Friday: Dinner honoring donors and supporters; 8 p.m. dedication and ribbon-cutting; performance; post-show party in Cathedral of Learning Commons Room.

dot.gif Saturday: 11 a.m.-12 p.m., Master Class in Directing, Stephen Coleman (Henry Heymann Theatre); 1-3 p.m., guided tours of Charity Randall, Henry Heymann and Studio theaters; 2 p.m., Shakespeare's "A Comedy of Errors," 50-minute version appropriate for the entire family (Henry Heymann Theatre, lower level, Stephen Foster Memorial). Call 412-524-PLAY to reserve free tickets.

Related Coverage
A dramatic makeover for the
Stephen Foster Memorial


Now, emerging from two years in mothballs and a $2 million makeover with Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," the theater has the technical improvements it once only dreamed of, along with a shiny new name, the Charity Randall Theatre.

No one is more intimately associated with the makeover than Attilio "Buck" Favorini, the founder and once again chairman of the Pitt theater department, a scholar, teacher and playwright who for many years as producer of the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival knew every Foster quirk. Having guided the makeover to completion, Favorini has the most immediate view of what the improvements will mean.

"The chief difference is for me as an educator. We now have an up-to-date laboratory." His voice speeds up with the excitement of a dream realized: "We never had a sound mixer, color scrollers, remote control lighting fixtures, the proper lighting positions. ... The first impact will be on students who will feel what they do when they walk into a chem or bio lab -- 'here's the equipment I need to learn.' "

For Favorini as producer, the upgrade's most noticeable effect will be on musical theater, thanks to the new sound system and improved orchestra pit. "Whether I like it or not, people have become used to hearing every word of a musical amplified. Now we'll be on board." In fact, Pitt has plans for a substantial musical next year.

It also can offer what Favorini calls "partnerships" to other theater companies that want to do musicals, for which the Foster wasn't suitable. To entice partners, Pitt now has three functioning theaters -- the Charity Randall (478 seats), the Henry Heymann downstairs in the Foster (153), and the Studio in the Cathedral of Learning (110) -- to match Carnegie Mellon's three and Point Park's four. Favorini says, "We continue to talk to several smaller theater companies in town ... looking for partnerships, not just rentals, that will provide opportunities for students, faculty and staff."

The first such "cooperative and collaborative arrangement" is with Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, which will produce four plays this year in the Randall and Heymann, starting with "Hamlet" in May. "I have every expectation" this will be a three-year arrangement, Favorini says.

He calls the conjunction of Pitt's "Much Ado" and PICT's "Hamlet" a "piggy-backing" that will "create a critical mass of events that support each other. I won't say a 'festival,' but I will say I look forward to making [both theaters in] the Foster available to groups that want to partner with us and contribute to the cultural identity of the Pitt campus and Oakland, which I like to call the Cultural Corridor of Pittsburgh."

To celebrate all this, Pitt plans a gala opening weekend around the Friday opening.

With his inaugural staging of "Much Ado," W. Stephen Coleman is the first director to use the new Charity Randall. He's particularly taken with the new lighting resources. "Unbelievable new instruments and light board, including two smart instruments," he says. "They don't exactly walk the dog for you, but they can be programmed to follow you as you walk the dog, changing colors, whatever you want."

There's also an "amazing new truss, grid and fly system," though it gets used sparingly in "Much Ado," and it will have to wait for a later show to showcase the new sound system. The two-piece band in "Much Ado" (Stephen Pellegrino and his son, Leonardo, on accordion and clarinet) will be actual, not amplified.

Coleman, the only other chairman the Pitt theater department has had, directed more than 20 shows in the Foster and acted in a good many, too. In the Randall, "the geography is essentially the same," he says. "The forestage is slightly larger and the restored ramp units on the sides will lend themselves well to large casts," such as "Much Ado," which has 31.

"It's like being back home," Coleman says, "but everywhere you look, it's new, and the equipment is fantastic and safe, which it wasn't always in recent year. We were lucky nothing [bad] ever happened.

Adding to the feeling of homecoming is the creative staff. The music is by Christine Frezza, long-time composer for Pitt theater and the Shakespeare Festival, now teaching in Utah. The sets, based on the modernist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, are by Henry Heymann, long-time Pitt designer for whom the smaller theater on the lower Foster level is named. Choreography is by Pitt alumna Renee Ann Keil.

Pitt is setting "Much Ado" in 1936 Sicily, so the war the soldiers return from to start is Mussolini's Ethiopian campaign. Coleman has seized on "a dance motif as the central metaphor for how people relate to each other." The tango was then a new craze, and in its variety -- "passionate, violent, calm, seductive, slow, even mournful -- it becomes a symbolic device that comments on or predicts action."

The largely student cast is led by a handful of pros -- Doug Mertz and Bryn Jameson as Benedick and Beatrice, S.T. Steele as Don John, Doug Pona as Leonato and Bruce Hill as Dogberry. This is the first "Much Ado" at Pitt since the 1983 Shakespeare Festival production that starred Daniel Southern and Lisa Bansavage, and the first in Pittsburgh since the Public Theater did it last fall.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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