By Christine H. O'Toole
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
In 2004, the last time Pittsburgh threw an international arts festival, 13,000 people huddled in the cold and dark to cheer "Titanic," in which a floating, singing German theater group submerged its stage set in the Allegheny River. This summer, crowds risked heat exhaustion trailing after a local dance company as it performed in and atop metal shipping containers parked downtown. Squonk Opera, whose exuberant work has been described as Rust Belt dada, is building a 40-foot radio telescope dish for this week's performance of its "Astro-Rama." The outdoor extravaganza coincides with a fortnight of avant-garde premieres by visiting artists. Offbeat, unlikely, indefinable or offstage, they'll all get an eager reception in a city that welcomes the weird.
Through Oct. 25, seven young arts groups take over the city for the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, dubbed PIFOF for short. ("Do not pronounce this if you lisp," warns Pittsburgh Quarterly's Graham Shearing.) It brings genre-bending premieres: new music by indie rockers Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, Spain's whacked-out Teatro de los Sentidos, blues guitar from Mali and more.
The tickets don't cost a fistful of euros: Top prices are $25, and you can snag three tickets for a cool 50 bucks. Local acts such as the Squonksters, film festivals, contemporary art at the Carnegie International and a citywide light show offer more cheap thrills. Throw in a weekend's worth of lower-than-D.C. prices for hotels and meals, and you'll feel the balance of payments shift in your favor.
Downtown, Wareham and Phillips's concert, "Thirteen Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests," pays homage to Warhol's heyday, when the Pittsburgh native was the King of Pop. The former members of the dream pop band Luna will perform songs influenced by the Velvet Underground as vintage films (from the city's Warhol Museum) flicker silently onscreen. A short walk across the Allegheny River, PIFOF takes over a hulking 1889 music hall on the North Shore for Norwegian dance theater (Jo Stromgren Kompani), Dutch video and stage performance (Kassys) and Malian guitar (Vieux Farka Toure).
From there, PIFOF moves offstage. In a deserted armory in the east end of town, Barcelona's Teatro de los Sentidos (Theater of the Senses) creates a labyrinth of sensory experience for an audience of one: In haunted-house style, ticket-holders navigate the performance solo, in the dark.
The Carnegie's current survey of contemporary art, the International, is a big draw. And it's easy to find, even in the dark. Look for Doug Aitken's "Migration," a new video installation projected on the museum's exterior walls. The images of wild birds and mountain lions stalking deserted motel rooms are like a Holiday Inn commercial from an alternative cable universe. A good time to check it out might be tonight through Saturday. That's when Squonk Opera performs on Schenley Plaza, next to the museum. Commanding a telescope dish tuned to the galactic frequency of B-flat, the show is billed as "free to all bipedal primates."
The spectacular backdrop for the Squonksters is the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. The 500-foot Gothic skyscraper is one of the structures tapped for the citywide Festival of Lights. French lighting producer Lucette de Rugy, who has illuminated Parisian landmarks, uses building facades like magic-lantern screens to create art with light. Her firm, Artlumiere, will create five massive designs throughout town. A total of 30 churches and public buildings will glow citywide through November.
Even the classic Pittsburgh Symphony, a European favorite, is embracing the new. The orchestra premieres an all-American oratorio for the city's 250th anniversary on Friday. Hila Plitmann will be the soloist for "The Good Life," by jazz-rock composer Derek Bermel. Despite the symphony's world-class rep, it's easy to score last-minute seats at Heinz Hall, the PSO's elegant venue, for as little as $20. Across Penn Avenue at the sleek Michael Graves-designed Pittsburgh Public Theater, August Wilson's "Radio Golf" runs through Nov. 2. The Pittsburgh native's final play has a local setting and a timely theme: race and politics in the 21st century.
Along with film festivals, there's one more celebration on tap for October. Pittsburgh's Black Sheep Puppet Festival celebrates grown-up puppet shows, and this year's lineup includes work by Los Angeles's Laura Heit and Taiwan's Spica Wobbe. Heit projects the antics of a matchbook-size theater on a theater screen; Wobbe manipulates shadow and light to tell the story of a girl searching for a star. Hard to envision but easy to see, those performances are a perfect fit for Pittsburgh's funky fall festivities.