July 29, 2008

‘Out of Reach’ Proves PNME Has Wit, Talent Well in Hand

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 29--The envelope wasn't so much stretched as irrelevant Friday night at the world premiere of "Just Out of Reach" by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble. It was the finale for the 2008 season at City Theatre on the South Side, and was fulfillment of the group's subtitle -- Theatre of Music.

Created by the group's artistic director, Kevin Noe, and composer and board member Kieren MacMillan, "Just Out of Reach" is brilliant post-modern entertainment. It is a wickedly smart one-hour show that combines three ancient Greek myths of frustration that are raised in perspective by an existentialist classic but driven by contemporary sensibilities.

The specific plot created by Noe is that the gods visit Tantalus, Sisyphus and Narcissus in the underworld, to which the three have been sent as punishment. The gods are played by the instrumentalists, one of countless jokes in the show. Taking pity, the gods offer suicide as an escape from suffering.

Rejecting suicide in the face of absurdity is the point of departure for Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus." Noe runs with that perspective.

When Apollo asks Narcissus whether he is suffering, the answer is, "Yes, (pause) but I'm worth it." The L'Oreal tag line is delivered by Robert Frankberry, who grew his hair longer for the joke.

MacMillan wrote a luxurious and rhythmically free melody for Frankberry, who sang with sincerity that was perfectly -- not excessively -- neurotic in self-absorption. Narcissus had two arias and a Love Duet -- with his reflection.

The show's centerpiece is "Melodious Diagnosius," a segment that parodies television game show tackiness, including groaners. But using the form of "Jeopardy," Noe wrote some utterly classic answers to questions for himself to deliver as Sisyphus, or rather Mr. Phus.

Noe also sang "Am I Blue?" with such precisely arched attitude that the audience cracked up again and again.

His script is cleverly constructed by laying down ideas that will be played with later, especially the definition of insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

Percussionist David Skidmore does his most important work away from the sticks by portraying the Keeper of the underworld. In that role, he regularly plays on audience awareness by talking about how the show's going.

"Just Out of Reach" will be performed for two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland starting Sunday, in the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble's European debut. Then it should be recorded on a DVD, because "Just Out of Reach" is not an ephemeral statement.


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