May Theater Guide: Probing the Psyche, Baring the Soul

Playwright Sarah Kane drew "4:48 Psychosis" from the depths of her own struggles. Off the WALL's unique production has Erika Cuenca (center) as Kane, with Siovhan Christensen and Tammy Tsai as her attendants and alter-egos.

Playwright Sarah Kane drew “4:48 Psychosis” from the depths of her experience. Off the WALL’s unique production has Erika Cuenca (center) as Kane, with Siovhan Christensen and Tammy Tsai as her attendants and alter-egos.

Pittsburgh’s live theater schedule this month is heavy on, well, heavy-hitting plays. They’re the kind that probe deep into the psyche—be it the psyche of an individual, or the collective psyche of a culture—and bring out what’s there.

Off the WALL Productions has 4:48 Psychosis, a wrenching portrayal of playwright Sarah Kane’s mental illness. Actress Cathy Schenkelberg visits town with the one-person show Squeeze My Cans, a look back at her intense 14 years in the Church of Scientology.

Ironbound, at City Theatre, is a character study of an immigrant whose life hasn’t gone according to plan. PICT Classic Theatre presents Sive, a vintage Irish screamer and tear-jerker, while Death of a Salesman (at The Public) explores the consequences of the most obscene f-word in American society: failure.

Is it all anguish and despair? No, for even the darkest plays are lit up by flashes of dark humor and passages of sheer lyrical beauty. Besides, there are musicals. Dirty Dancing and the Gershwin brothers’ An American in Paris are about as different as two musicals can be, but both provide happy endings along with the tunes. The intriguing but little-known Violet is also on tap, and Tarzan features music from the King of the Jungle’s personal mixtapes.

Shows are previewed in order of run dates. As always, the previews include fascinating background info plus nuggets of subjective opinion; Christopher Maggio (CM) and Rick Handler (RH) each have written several.

Opened in April …

 4.48 PSYCHOSIS by Sarah Kane. Through May 6, off the WALL Productions.

Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is not for theatergoers with delicate sensitivities. Kane, a brilliant but troubled English playwright, committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 28. She finished writing 4.48 Psychosis shortly before that. The play is lucid but non-linear; it has been called brutal but eloquent, and whether it conveys an “understanding” of depressive psychosis is a moot question—it certainly conveys the essence of one woman’s struggles. Kane was considered a leading artist of the British movement known as In-Yer-Face theater, and this play fits the category. Due to the disturbing and demanding nature of 4:48 Psychosis, professional performances are relatively rare. Off the WALL Productions does us a favor by producing the play here. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

WILD WITH HAPPY by Colman Domingo. Through May 13, City Theatre.

Wild With Happy sounds like a title in which the words don’t quite go together but that’s okay, because the play—by actor/playwright Colman Domingo—is a dark comedy about a middle-aged guy with a life that’s like a drawer full of socks that don’t match. The central character, Gil, has pretty much flubbed his career as an actor while losing his boyfriend as well. When his mother dies, he fails to give her a proper burial—but does take a shine to the sexy funeral-home director—and winds up cremating mum and carrying her ashes with him to the only place a fellow can go when times are tough, Disney World. There’s more but perhaps you get the picture. Wild With Happy premiered off-Broadway in 2012; City Theatre is presenting it here. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

Baseball's color line kept Josh Gibson out of the big leagues but he lived large nonetheless. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker is Gibson in "The Summer King."

Baseball’s color line kept Josh Gibson out of the big leagues but he lived large nonetheless. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker is Gibson in “The Summer King.”

THE SUMMER KING (opera) by Daniel Sonenberg and Daniel Nester. April 29- May 7, Pittsburgh Opera.

Pittsburgh Opera is staging the first world premiere in its 78-year history, and it is an opera about one of the city’s legendary baseball stars. The Summer King is based on the life of Josh Gibson, who during the 1930s and ‘40s played for both of the area’s prominent Negro Leagues teams, the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Gibson, a catcher and prodigious hitter, is now enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame and is rated one the game’s greatest players ever. He also had a tumultuous and ultimately tragic life: he traveled out of the country at times to play in Mexico and the Caribbean; hoped to break baseball’s color line by being invited to join a Major League team (but was not); and died young—of a stroke, at age 35—in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Portland, Maine-based composer Daniel Sonenberg, an avid baseball fan, has collaborated with librettist Daniel Nester to write The Summer King. It’s an opera of epic scope that sets out to capture the drama and discord of Gibson’s times as well as the high and low points of his star-crossed career. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

Zach Grenier is Willy Loman and Kathleen McNenny plays his wife Linda in "Death of a Salesman."

Zach Grenier is Willy Loman and Kathleen McNenny plays his wife Linda in “Death of a Salesman.”

DEATH OF A SALESMAN by Arthur Miller. Through May 21, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is a tragic play that’s been hailed as one of the 20th century’s greatest. The aging salesman of the title, Willy Loman, has lost his job despite the post-World-War-II economic boom while his two once-promising sons, nicknamed Biff and Happy, aren’t getting along well in life either. There’s a lot of back and forth about what went wrong for whom, and, as the title forebodes, Willy dies. This may sound like a downer all around but it is perceived as a classic dissection of the nature and failings of the postwar American Dream. Death of a Salesman won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. The part of Willy Loman is played by Zach Grenier, who portrayed attorney David Lee for seven seasons on TV’s “The Good Wife.” Pittsburgh Public Theater is staging it at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Opening in May … 

SQUEEZE MY CANS (one-person show) by Cathy Schenkelberg. May 3-7, presented by 12 Peers Theater.

Cathy Schenkelberg in "Squeeze My Cans": was she blinded by the light?

Schenkelberg in “Squeeze My Cans”: was she blinded by the light?

A number of A-list actors have joined the Church of Scientology. Cathy Schenkelberg was never a household name, although for years she worked as a top-tier voiceover talent in TV and radio ads. And now, after leaving the Church, she’s done something that noted Scientologists such as John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and Kirstie Alley have not: she has produced a one-person show about the experience. Schenkelberg’s Squeeze My Cans traces her adventures and misadventures with Scientology from the time of her youthful entry through her decision to leave, 14 years later, in 2009. Squeeze My Cans—performed, of course, by Schenkelberg herself—has been a sensation at the Hollywood Fringe Festival and Chicago’s Greenhouse Theatre Center. The show is described as wildly humorous but shocking. While it certainly is not a promotional piece for the Church, it’s also been praised for taking a straightforward, matter-of-fact approach to a controversial subject. Pittsburgh’s 12 Peers Theater has scored a coup by bringing Schenkelberg and Squeeze My Cans to town for a limited touring run. In the Studio Theatre at the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland

SIVE by John B. Keane. May 4-20, PICT ClassicTheatre.

The acronym in “PICT Classic Theatre” stands for Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre—the company’s original name—and PICT is re-tapping its Irish roots with a production of John B. Keane’s Sive. Well known in Ireland but seldom seen here, Sive is a 1959 play about a young woman unwillingly betrothed to her small town’s wealthy old coot. Though set in the 20th century, the play has elements of a traditional folk tale: For instance, the girl loves a younger man, but she is an orphan who lives with a wicked-stepmother-type relative intent on marrying her off for the money. There’s plenty of ferocious family conflict and deceptive treachery flying about. Sive is pronounced to rhyme with “five” and it’s the second Keane play that PICT has done recently, following a 2015 production of Sharon’s Grave. This one wraps up the company’s current season at the Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave., Highland Park.

TARZAN by David Henry Hwang and Phil Collins. May 4-14, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

Tarzan returns. Since first appearing in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan has starred in multiple media, most recently the 2016 movie The Legend of Tarzan. The Disney musical playing at the Byham Theater is based on the 1999 animated film of the same name. You probably know the story: Tarzan is raised by apes. Tarzan falls in love with Jane, an English naturalist. Tarzan must choose between his world or Jane’s. The musical features a book by David Henry Hwang and music by Phil Collins. (Yes, that Phil Collins, of Genesis.) “You’ll Be in My Heart” won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song. Collins wrote nine new songs for the live musical. It debuted on Broadway in 2006. 101 6th St., Cultural District. (CM)

THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Hailey Rohn, adapted from Stephen Chbosky’s novel. May 5-14, Prime Stage Theatre.

As you read Stephen Chbosky’s epistolary novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you get the sense that something is off with its protagonist, Charlie. Intuiting this doesn’t make the final reveal any less crushing in this must-read for all suburban high school students. Charlie navigates sex, drugs, and a winter-themed mixtape. The book employs plenty of lighter moments too, like when Charlie learns how to drive or when he and his friends attend The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Chbosky is from Pittsburgh, and his book shines with landmarks, including “infinite” rides through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. A film version, starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller, was released in 2012. The movie was filmed in Pittsburgh, and the scenes involving The Rocky Horror Picture Show were shot at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont. The regional premier of the stage version comes to the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (CM)

HERCULES DIDN’T WADE IN THE WATER by Michael A. Jones. May 6-21, Pittsburgh Playwrights.

The year is 2005, two men are on a roof top holding on for dear life as the filthy waters continue to rise. Hundreds of miles away are two women who are working hard to achieve love and success. These two subplots are the foundation for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company’s world premiere of Hercules Didn’t Wade in the Water. Set against the backdrop of one of the nation’s worst natural disasters, the play is written by Michael A. Jones and directed by the noted Wali Jamal. 937 Liberty Ave., Third floor, Cultural District. (RH)

SHEN YUN (Chinese dance and performance company). May 9-10, touring production presented by The Greater Philadelphia Falun Dafa Association.

Experience Chinese dance and music without a passport with Shen Yun Performing Arts at the Benedum Center. This impressive combination of music, dance, and visual effects explores 5,000 years of Chinese culture. The costumes’ flowing fabric combined with exceptional dancing provide an optical delight, while traditional music takes the audience back to the rich heritages of long ago. The performance captivates audiences with ancient and modern tales through remarkable backdrops and a musical score to match. Interestingly, this touring production is banned in communist China today. Catch these divine and dazzling performances for two nights and one matinee only. 237 Seventh St., Cultural District. (EC, RH)

PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (musical) by Wayne Barker and Rick Elice, adapted from the novel. May 11-21, Stage 62.

Are we living in an age of fantasy? It does seem that the popular arts are dominated by stories set in imaginary realms. Cultural literacy requires knowing the lore of at least 50 such places and institutions, from Westeros and Gotham City to Hogwarts and the Black Pearl. And speaking of supernatural incidents related to piracy, if you have not been briefed on Peter Pan’s backstory, catch Peter and the Starcatcher at Stage 62. This theatrical prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic began as a children’s novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, who felt the world ought to know why Peter can fly but cannot grow up. Their book became a bestseller while the stage adaptation has wowed audiences from Broadway to Boise. Peter and the Starcatcher picks up young Peter as an orphan sold into servitude aboard a rickety old ship called the Never Land. (That’s two words, with a double meaning—got it?) The Never Land  is carrying magical cargo coveted by pirates, which leads to surreal swashbuckling silliness. Song-and-dance numbers include a vaudeville routine performed by mermaids. In the Music Hall at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie.

MISS ABIGAIL’S GUIDE TO DATING, MATING AND MARRIAGE by Ken Davenport and Sarah Salzberg. May 11–Aug. 13, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage is a two character play featuring Miss Abigail (Paige Davis  from TLC’s Trading Spaces) as a relationship consultant so dismayed when Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt broke up that she rededicates her life to helping couples with relationship problems. Paco is Miss Abigail’s sexy assistant and who also has a secret crush on her. The play is based on a book of the same name by Abigail Grotke. Ken Davenport (Altar Boyz) and Sarah Saltzberg (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) joined forces to create this humorous look on love and dating. Part of the fun is Miss Abigail dishes out outdated and obscure relationship advice. The play received rave reviews when it ran off-Broadway in 2010 with Eve Plumb (Jan from the “The Brady Bunch”) as Abigail. Recommended for audiences 13 years of age and older. CLO Cabaret, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (RH)

IRONBOUND by Martyna Majok. May 13 – June 4, City Theatre.

Theater reflects the times, so it is not surprising that in today’s socioeconomic climate, plays that deal with the trials of working-class life are growing numerous and popular. A current hot ticket on Broadway (and winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, about workers in a factory where layoffs are looming. Meanwhile Pittsburgh’s City Theatre is presenting a play that scored strongly off-Broadway last year: Martyna Majok’s Ironbound. The Ironbound is a traditionally blue-collar district of Newark, New Jersey, so called because it is girdled by railroad tracks. And the central character of the play is an immigrant, but neither Hispanic nor a factory hand. She’s a Polish woman who had high hopes when young but now finds herself a middle-aged, odd-job-working single mother with a troublesome son and a cheating boyfriend. How did things turn out so suboptimally? That’s the question that Ironbound explores, tracing the story of the woman’s life through flashbacks and dark-humor dialogue. 1300 Bingham Street, South Side.

THE PINK UNICORN by Elise Forier Edie. May 18-21, off the WALL productions.

off the WALL productions offers arguably this month’s timeliest play with The Pink Unicorn. Following her husband’s death, Trish is simply trying to get through every day in her small Texas town. She works at a hospital and attends church. Then her 14-year-old daughter disrupts this already fragile routine when she comes out as genderqueer. The daughter also plans to found a local Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school. Trish knows next to nothing about these issues, and it sounds as if she has a lot to learn: “I hate diversity. I know that sounds infantile and unevolved but I simply do not want to love them who are different from me. … Because no matter what, when I’m with one of them I feel like I’m gonna do something wrong. Or they’re gonna do something wrong. And that’s a nasty feeling,” she says, her ignorance transcending small-town Texas to encapsulate the intolerance that many people experience every day. Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie. (CM)

VIOLET (musical) by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. May 19-28, Front Porch Theatricals.

In Pittsburgh as in most places, news about the theater scene tends to focus on the city’s largest companies and the major touring productions. But it’s the smaller companies that fill out the scene, often with interesting or offbeat shows you will not find at big-ticket venues. One such company here is Front Porch Theatricals. Front Porch produces two musicals per year, choosing the kind that might be described as cult favorites, and first up this year is Violet. Based on a gripping short story, Violet came close to hitting it really big. The 1997 off-Broadway premiere won a handful of significant (if lesser-known) awards and a 2014 Broadway revival got several Tony nominations. The plot centers on a young woman whose face has been disfigured in an accident. Traveling to visit a televangelist, in hopes of being healed, she has strange encounters—but will she find truth? Or love? Violet’s action is set to music and songs that span a range of American genres, from down-home rock to gospel and blues. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

DIRTY DANCING (jukebox musical) by Eleanor Bergstein, adapted from the movie. May 23-28, U.S. touring company at Heinz Hall. 

Let’s correct an urban legend, please. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the closing number from Dirty Dancing, is NOT the most popular song played at funerals in the U.K. That honor belongs to Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” But for a night at the theater, rather than a funeral, the stage version of Dirty Dancing might be your ticket. It’s a live adaptation of the 1987 film about a teenager and a dance instructor that has been variously called one of the best movies ever, and one of the cheesiest. A North American touring company brings it to Heinz Hall with all of the rock-pop oldies and dramatic energy that made this story the stuff of legend. 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

ABBEY: IN THE RED (modern dance/music) with Staycee Pearl Dance Project and Soy Soz. May 25-27 at August Wilson Center.

Staycee Pearl and her Staycee Pearl Dance Project are getting prime exposure lately. The troupe performed at the Ecolution Fashion Event  during Earth Day week at the Fairmont. Then they previewed a number they will be performing at the Three Rivers Arts Festival at the TRAF media preview. That takes care of April and June, but what’s happening with them in May you ask? Staycee Pearl, her dance project, and her husband DJ/Producer Soy Soz (Herman Pearl) are producing Abbey: in the Red. The production is a dance and music tribute to the life and music of the  multi-talented Abbey Lincoln. She was a jazz vocalist, songwriter, actress, and civil rights activist, In addition to Staycee Pearl Dance Project, other contributors are musicians: Anqwenique Wingfield, Ben Opie, Ben Barson, Paul Thompson, and Elisa Kohanski. The Legacy Arts Project Dancers and design artists Idia’Dega and Atticus Adams will also be taking part. August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (RH)

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (musical) by George and Ira Gershwin and Craig Lucas. May 30 – June 11, touring company at Benedum Center.

For a musical to achieve massive success the songs are of paramount importance. Is there a better base to build upon than the music of two of America’s best composers, brothers George and Ira Gershwin? The musical is inspired by the 1951 Academy Award Winning Film of the same name which starred Pittsburgh native and sublime dancer Gene Kelly. The movie and play follow an American GI in post World War II in Paris who is trying to achieve success as a painter and woo a girl. Noted songs in the musical include: “S Wonderful.”I Got Rhythm,” and “An American in Paris.” Acclaimed director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon brings the magic and beauty of Paris to the stage in this production. An American in Paris, with book by Craig Lucas, was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in 2015, winning four. The Pittsburgh run is a co-presentation of PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh CLO. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (RH)

Photo credits: 4:48 Psychosis, by Heather Mull. The Summer King, David Bachman Photography. Death of a Salesman, by Michael Henninger. Squeeze My Cans, by Darren Stephens.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.