The Titanic all over again

Pittsburghers, college students, teenagers, children, and dogs all huddled together en masse on Friday night on the sloped lawn of the North Shore Riverside Park to await the opening night of Theatre Titanick?s production of ?Titanic.? This hour-and-a-half-long dramatic rendition of the famous tragedy creates a play of the natural elements as fires burn in the midst of torrential outpourings of water.

Straight from Germany, the Theatre Titanick open-air acting troupe hails from M?nster and Leipzig. They are internationally renowned for their outlandish and unique storytelling of the Titanic, their use of cabaret-style costumes, and their incorporation of strange, silent humor in their version.

Theatre Titanick?s performance on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are a part of Pittsburgh?s Festival of Firsts, sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University?s School of Drama and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Three of the master performers have given lectures at the School of Drama featuring talks on set design, acting techniques, and the history of their group.

This is the first time the group is performing in the United States. Their arrival is part of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust?s initiative to bring to Pittsburgh international artists who have never showcased their work in the U.S. and to create a cultural hub in this old steel town. This is also the first time that Theatre Titanick will perform on the water. A special stage was created for the performances, floating on a barge in the Allegheny River.

The locals got cozy in the darkness of late Friday night in their blue nylon fold-up chairs and plaid woolen blankets. A second group watched from behind the barge in a Gateway Clippership slowly drifting on the water. The closeness of bodies and the lateness of the night lulled the audience as they waited for the performance to start. They were shaken awake by the long tones of the didgeridoo, indicating boat horns, that kicked off the start of the performance.

The audience?s curiosity was stirred as torches were brought out to light oil drum fires on stage. The actors started banging and clanging, reminiscent of Broadway?s Stomp. The first structure erected was the ships main steam pipe ? a huge yellow-and-black barrel that was raised 60 feet into the air.

French exclamations were exchanged as the ship?s flamboyant chef and other crew members loaded up the moving kitchen into the yet-to-be-assembled ?boat.? The eight actors ran around getting things ready to cast off to the tune of ear-splitting chords from the French horn and didgeridoo. Bright lights came on around the stage as more frames of the boat were erected using ropes and wheeled ladders. The assembly of the boat was part of the artistic performance ? it was hopeful and lighthearted. The spinning stage sets were professionally planned and worthy of Broadway.

Simple pieces of the boat puzzle were rolled, pulled, lifted, and flung in poetic harmony on stage. To the live soundtrack of a three-piece band, the slow pace of would-be boring assembly built up anticipation in the viewers? minds. The bow was finally fitted into place, and suddenly blinding lights flipped on. An odd little old-fashioned European motor car zipped on stage carrying a buxom and curvy lady. A parade was implied as big band music started up and the crew members were wheeled around on ladders, waving to the audience.

The lady, part of a duo that made up the pair representing the Titanic?s rich passengers, was in turn paraded around with her husband as they also smiled and waved to the audience. She was offered a bouquet which she promptly threw into the audience as a parting gift. After she smashed an ice block against the ship?s side, they departed. They left in a melee of fireworks ? sprays of white sparks and colored flares shot up into the night sky to finish off the grand goodbye.

Water sprayed from the bow indicating the quick pace of the ship gliding across the Atlantic. Then the ship hit the iceberg. The captain cried out, warning of the collision but none of the crew or passengers seemed to mind. Ominous creaks of metal were heard before the first leak appeared. The mechanic, a gimpy old man with a crutch, went to check on the technical difficulties, and tried futilely to stop the massive leaks himself.

Life went on for the other people on board, as they washed up and pulled out a white tablecloth to wine and dine the paying passengers. Giant metal funnels were offered to the diners and wine was poured into their throats. Playing along with the theme was the roasted pig, lavishly brought from the kitchen on a skewer, garnished with whole vegetables. The four-foot-long pink papier-mache pig was placed in front of the guests and promptly carved, starting with the vegetables. The diners ate ravenously and food flew everywhere, including into the audience, to everyone?s delight.

Meanwhile the lame mechanic continued to bail water alone in the hull section of the stage while water sprayed and poured onto the stage. He shouted warning of an iceberg to the captain and to the others, but they remained unperturbed and continued to revel in their evening festivities.

More fireworks, dancing, and gallivanting ensued in the midst of danger. More leaks sprung up and the water was now unavoidable to the passengers and other crew members. Fountains of water then became the main attraction on the stage as the actors rn around in dismay. Chaos ripped loose as fires started in multiple places, punches were thrown, and screams erupted. Intentionally, fire hoses used as props sprayed on the people rather than on the fires. Water was everywhere and everything was soaked and sprayed. No one could escape the torrents. Finally, the main steam pipe burned down and it ended.

A waste of water? I think not! A feast for the eyes and ears, and fun for the whole family, this production was better than a circus.

If you missed out on this part of the Festival of Firsts, check out the other activities at www.pgharts.org/PIFOF/index.html. The festival runs October 8?24. The festival is curated by Elizabeth Bradley, head of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.