Billy Porter plays a voice coach on NBC's 'Law & Order: SVU'

Written by Sharon Eberson on .

BillyPorterSVUBilly Porter, with Carly Rose Sonenclar, appeared in an episode of "Law & Order: SVU" that featured a vocal competition theme. Michael Parmelee/NBC

Pittsburgh's Billy Porter took time out from his Tony-winning role in "Kinky Boots" to film an episode of NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" that aired Nov. 6. In the episode titled "Dissonant Voices," Porter portrays a voice coach who is accused of indecent behavior with his young students. The full episode is available for viewing online at

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Ashford-Branagh 'Macbeth' can be seen on screen before it makes the trip from London to New York

Written by Sharon Eberson on .


Watching the performance of a live event on a movie screen has it's drawbacks, but for the most part, it's not just the next best thing to being there, it's the only thing. That's certainly the case for the Ashford-Branagh "Macbeth" that gets its second of two broadcasts at the SouthSide Works Cinema on Wednesday.

The filmed production starring Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston ran as part of the Manchester International Festival July 4-21 at the decommissioned St. Peter's Church in Ancoats, Manchester, and is being beamed to the States as part of the National Theatre Live series. Before the starry team makes its way to New York's Park Avenue Armory in June, American audiences have a chance to get a feel for what it might have been like to be inside the apparently sweltering church in Manchester, where actors were soaked by (indoor) rain and sweat and audience members were using programs as fans. 

One thing those actual live audiences don't have the benefit of is the behind-the-scenes glimpses and interviews that run before the NLT broadcasts. For "Macbeth," host NTL Emma Freud (Sigmund's great-granddaughter) conducted an interview with co-director Rob Ashford, the Point Park graduate, Tony and Emmy winner and an associate director of London's Donmar theater. Freud tells us that the original run of the play sold out in nine minutes, and Ashford talks about the ease with which he and Branagh worked, including the decision to use a found space. Once they landed on a church setting, London rehearsals were also conducted in a church. A play about what happens to good people who chose an evil course, from which there is no turning back, has resonance in a house of faith, he said. 

The title role, which has recently attracted Ethan Hawke and Alan Cumming in New York versions and James McAvoy in London, can be a touchstone in any actor's career — even a career so steeped in Shakespearean roles as Branagh's is.

At least to this American, Shakespeare's words sound so natural coming from Branagh, it's as if he was born to keep the Bard alive and more importantly, understood by modern audiences. He has directed or starred in half a dozen movie adaptations of Shakespeare and was equally at home portraying Franklin Roosevelt ("Warm Springs") as Laurence Olivier ("My Week With Marilyn"), the latter one of a handful of Oscar nominations. He also directed the first "Thor" film and played the foppish Gilderoy Lockhart in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

He brings all of those talents to the table in "Macbeth," a war hero who commits murder to ascend the throne and grows madder with each murderous act. As his wife and co-conspirator, Alex Kingston seems to be in a constant frantic state, first to push her husband to treason, then to cover his growing madness, then finally when she, too, is pushed over the edge by guilt.

Unlike the other recent versions, this "Macbeth" stays within the parameters of Shakespeare's version of the times, raw and restless and primal — although the staging has a bit of a Medieval Times vibe, especially when there is swordplay. And no one has to report the gory details of King Duncan's death — his and most of the bloody killings occur in full view of the audience on the unorthodox set.

The audience is seated on either side of what seems to be a muddy alley, but the substance is a bit of a wonder because footing doesn't seem to be a problem. On one end is a staging area, making the whole seem key-shaped, with the backdrop lined with an altar of candles and downstage grates that spit fire. The other end is a high wall with a ledge for a "Who goes there?" gate and a guilt-ridden night-walker like Lady Macbeth. The Three Weird Sisters whose prophecies ignite Macbeth's crime spree emerge from doors in the wall, muddied and murky and barely understandable in their high-pitched witchy whine, my least favorite vocal characterizations in the play.

The UK Telegraph declared the production "a thrilling and cinematically fluid production of Macbeth ... a triumph for Kenneth Branagh" in a five-star review. "Fast, furious and unstoppable … this Macbeth [knocks] the breath out of everyone, audience included," The New York Times raved.

In person, I'm sure the whole was a tense trial of decision-making about which way to turn your head and when. For instance, here must have been many audience members who saw the back of Branagh's head as the anguished Macbeth struts and frets after losing his lady, but the movie-theater audience saw it all in close-up.

There's the rub about seeing a play as a movie — you can't judge it as a live-theater audience member, not with a variety of camera angles directing your vision. As a movie experience, it's a whole different beast, one perhaps less raw and primal than the creative team intended. In person, it's easier to overlook Kingston's curly locks getting caught momentarily in a buckle — you'd probably miss it, depending on where you were sitting — but in the camera's unblinking eye, it becomes a quick feat of untangling and soldiering on.

No complaints, though, about audiences from coast to coast being able to see a production with such great pedigree and sense of purpose, one that despite traveling from London to New York might never go beyond those borders.

Well, one small complaint: There was no intermission. OK, I've seen longer movies with no intermission; this was 2 1/2 hours, including the introductions and interviews. There were breaks at previous NLT shows I've attended — two viewings of "Frankenstein" (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller switching lead roles), "Hamlet" with Rory Kinnear and the Donmar Warehouse production of Derek Jacobi's "King Lear."

As my colleague Maria Sciullo and I left the theater after Sunday's 11 a.m. screening, we couldn't help but notice that the movie showing next in the auditorium was listed as "Jackass" -- which Maria pointed out was a word not unfamiliar to Shakespeare. Wish I'd said that.

I'll be thinking of "Macbeth" tonight when I attend a screening of "Thor 2," the sequel to one of my favorite Marvel superhero films as directed by Branagh, and remembering the word everyone -- including the director -- used to describe it at a Comic-Con panel a few years back:



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Smaug is in the air today: 'The Hobbit' fan event goes live at 5 p.m.

Written by Sharon Eberson on .

A fan event for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" goes live at 5 p.m. today.


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'Calvin and Hobbes' creator Bill Watterson tells mental_floss mag, 'I have zero interest in animating' his creation

Written by Sharon Eberson on .

Mention "Calvin and Hobbes" in the offices of the Post-Gazette, and everyone rushes up to air his or her favorite. Maria Sciullo's favorite has a local connection. In it, Calvin, the 6-year-old mad genius who quotes Karl Marx and whose best friend is a stuffed tiger named Hobbes, says, "I wonder where we go when we die." Hobbes offers, "Pittsburgh?" To which Calvin replies, "You mean if we're good or if we're bad?"


mentalflossCHnewWoo-hoo! Look what came in the mail today: mental_floss mag's interview with Bill Watterson.Perhaps that's how Pittsburgh looked to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, native Bill Watterson, the creative genius behind the syndicated comic strip that ran in hundreds of newspapers from Nov. 18, 1985 to Dec. 31, 1995, when strip No. 3,150 signed off with Calvin and Hobbes on a sled and Calvin saying, "It's a magical world, ol' buddy … Let's go exploring."

Watterson, who always kept a low profile despite the mega-popularity of the strips, went into deep cover since that final strip. According to a rare interview (via e-mail) granted Jake Rossen for the magazine mental_floss (December 2013), he remains happily in seclusion. The pursuit of others to create toys and movies from his characters holds no interest for him — it seems to be an affront, actually. He put an end to an apocryphal story that had him setting fire to a plush version of Hobbes that was sent to him by the toy company Dakin, in an attempt to get him to relent and allow them to license his characters.

"Not exactly," he wrote to mental_floss. "It was my only my head that burst into flames."

One revelation from the article, at least for me, was that after years of rebuffing his syndicate's attempts to branch out with commercial entities tied to his comic strip, the Universal Press Syndicate gave up — even though they had the rights to his properties. The story relates that Watterson's contract was rewritten in 1991 to reduce the years he would have to continue and giving him the strip's domestic copyrights. That's when he took a nine-month sabbatical — think of how "Calvin and Hobbes"-deprived we all felt back then — and came back demanding more color space on Sunday, which most newspapers gave him.

Watterson, 55, would seem to be a man with pride but no nostalgia for the work he produced over a decade, even though many of us were head over heels for that rectangular box in our daily newspaper that synthesized our thoughts through the prism of a smart-alecky kid and his imaginary friend. Watterson borrowed from "Peanuts' " Snoopy by giving Calvin alter egos such as Spaceman Spiff, but the beautifully drawn illustrations and spot-on slices of life were from the creator's own fresh perspective. It could be wicked one day or sentimental the next, but always felt as if he was unveiling some universal truth and couching it as coming from the mind of a child.

I don't know about you, but there have been "Calvin and Hobbes" strips hanging on my refrigerator for years at a time. One involved Calvin going to the gallows and having a noose tied around his neck, and in the final panel his father is seen trying to tie a tie on his squirmy son. In my family, that was a keeper.

Although compilation books of the comic strip continue to sell, Watterson has no plans for any new ventures involving "Calvin and Hobbes." For instance, "The visual sophistication of Pixar blows me away, but I have no interest in animating 'Calvin and Hobbes,' " he said.

These days, he spends his time painting, but not for public consumption. He told mental_floss, "It's all catch and release — just fish that aren't really worth the trouble to clean and cook. But my second problem is that 'Calvin and Hobbes' created a level of attention and expectation that I don't know how to process."

In the magazine, there's is one old black and white image of the cartoonist, who dared mental_floss to come up with a phone of him that was less than 30 years old. They couldn't do it.

If being a recluse works for him, that's great. But more's the pity for those of would love to once again go exploring the magic world with Bill Watterson.


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"Game of Thrones" Jack Gleeson talks shop in Pittsburgh

Written by Maria Sciullo on .


About the only mean thing Jack Gleeson (aka King Joffrey on HBO's "Game of Thrones") did during a meet-and-greet at the Waterfront Barnes & Noble this afternoon was deface his own visage on a promotional poster.

Gleeson, in town for the annual fundraiser for Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre Oct. 28, happily scribbled a mustache over his photo in silver Sharpie, also filling in the eyes to give them a wicked look, and wrote "J" on one cheek, "G" on the other.

This is the guy who ordered the execution of Ned Stark??

In truth, Gleeson, 21, seemed a bit shy but was game to discuss his character with fans over the course of an hour-long session. He also talked about some of the actors whose careers he admires -- from Cillian Murphy, whom he met while playing a sacred little kid in "Batman Begins" -- to Daniel Day-Lewis ("I know, it's kind of a cliche answer"), to Mark Rylance, Tony and Olivier award-winning actor who has graced the Pittsburgh stage on occasion and currently is on Broadway with no one, but two Shakespearean plays.

He said he's also inspired by Joaquin Phoenix. It is a coincidence that Phoenix's character in "Gladiator" is akin to Joffrey in many ways, he added.

joffreyThrough Dublin's Gate Theatre, Gleeson has gotten to work with many fine actors, including Domhnall Gleeson (no relation), star of the upcoming "About Time". The latter's father is actor Brendan Gleeson.

Alan Stanford, PICT producing artistic director who is also heavily involved in Gate, said "I've been very lucky, we've had some incredibly talented people either come up through class or be involved in one of our [Gate] productions.

Among them: Pauline McLynn, Gabriel Byrne and Domhnall Gleeson, the last of whom played Herbert Pocket in Gate's "Great Expectations." Jack Gleeson was young Pip in that one.

"Ireland is a small country and Dublin is a tight theater community, like Pittsburgh, and the cream comes to the surface quite quickly," Stanford said.





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