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New Pittsburgh theater company gets seriously funny in debut

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Eric A. Smith
(From left) David Whalen, Rico Parker and Sam Tsoutsouvas rehearse for Phoenix theater company's 'Blue/Orange.”
Eric A. Smith
David Whalen (seated) and Rico Parker rehearse for Phoenix theater company's 'Blue/Orange.”

A new Pittsburgh theater company is making its debut with a “caustically funny” tale of race, madness and power.

The Phoenix, founded by Andrew Paul and Mark Clayton Southers, will debut with a four-week run of Joe Penhall's Olivier Award-winning play “Blue/Orange,” Nov. 1 to 23 at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.

“We want to provide diverse theater for a diverse audience,” says Paul, Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater co-founder and former producing artistic director. “(The play) explores race relations in a provocative way and with a sense of humor.”

Southers is the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre founder and former director of theater initiatives at the August Wilson Center. He will oversee scenic design; Paul will direct.

With their new company, the pair says they hope to “explore our shared vision of a new kind of Pittsburgh theater that is not a ‘white' or ‘black' theater but rather one that is diverse, welcoming to all and that invites our patrons to journey across borders and boundaries with us.”

“One of things we were adamant about was making sure there are multiple opportunities for African-American actors working on pieces,” Southers says.

“Blue/Orange” takes place in a London psychiatric hospital where an enigmatic patient (Rico Parker) claims to be the son of an African dictator — a story that becomes unnervingly plausible. What begins as a battle of wills between a young, idealistic doctor (David Whalen) and his jaded superior (Sam Tsoutsouvas) over the appropriate course of treatment for his patient eventually turns into something altogether different.

“It's a very funny piece, but it's also very serious,” Southers says.

Paul says the characters each “have a lot of weight to them.”

“Penhall created three really interesting multi-dimensional characters,” Paul says. “Each one could be considered the central character. You're twisted from one point of view to the other.”

For the set design, Southers opted for a theater in the round, increasing the intimacy of the performance.

“By being that close, you get to see all the nuances of the performance,” he says.

The team says the theme of mental illness is particularly relevant, with so many tragedies related to it grabbing headlines recently.

“It's there in culture,” Southers says. “Everybody probably has somebody in their family who's dealing with mental illness on some level.”

“Blue/Orange” premiered at the Royal National Theatre in 2000 in a production directed by Roger Michell and starring Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and Chiwetel Ejiofor. It was awarded Best New Play at the Evening Standard Awards, Laurence Olivier Awards and at the Critics Circle.

Whalen's many collaborations with Paul include Mark Antony in Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar” and his acclaimed portrayal of former President George W. Bush in the Pittsburgh premiere of David Hare's “Stuff Happens.” Whalen recently completed work on the feature film “The Fault In Our Stars.”

Tsoutsouvas has performed leading roles on Broadway and at many of America's finest regional theatres. His Pittsburgh appearances include Caryl Churchill's “A Number” at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Frank Lloyd Wright in “Worksong” at City Theatre and Max in Stoppard's “Rock'n'Roll” at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre.

Parker, a native of Dayton, Ohio, has appeared as Booth in the Jubilee Theatre's “Topdog/Underdog” and was nominated for a Jeff Norton Award for his portrayal of Sylvester in the American Stage production of August Wilson's “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” directed by Southers. Parker has appeared in Pittsburgh in “Valu-Mart” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre and as the Joker in Attilio Favorini's “The Gammage Project.”

Paul suspects audience might find themselves surprised with how much they identify with Parker's patient, a role he plays as “child-like and frightening at the same time.”

“He has to seem incredibly normal, then there are moments when he gets a little scary,” Paul says. “This is the kinds of role that has room for all of that.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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