September Theater Guide: Lean But Keen

Women in Hats is how Corningworks describes this photo from their 'Six Abreast' production. photo: Frank Walsh.

Women in Hats is how Corningworks describes this photo from their ‘Six A Breast’ production. photo: Frank Walsh.

September is a relatively lean month in Pittsburgh’s live theater schedule, as the summer musicals and touring shows are gone, and some resident companies (along with the university departments) don’t open their fall-to-spring seasons till October. But does that mean you should stay home and watch ‘way too much football on TV? Uh-uh.

Each year there are gems to be found. Past Septembers have featured knockouts such as Quantum Theatre’s The Winter’s Tale and Throughline’s The Censor, both rated by Entertainment Central as among the best productions of any recent years. Astute fans will therefore cast a keen eye on the current lineup, which holds significant promise.

Early in the month we have Red Hills at Quantum and A Masterpiece of Comic … Timing at Little Lake. Near the end come Peter Shaffer’s stunning, enigmatic Equus (at The Public) and Eugene Lee’s August-Wilson-like ensemble piece East Texas Hot Licks (Pittsburgh Playwrights). In between are a pair of shows with social justice themes: the highly lauded musical The Scottsboro Boys at The REP and Mark Clayton Southers’ The Homestead Strike of 1892.

For comedy, try the vintage hooter Boeing Boeing at Apple Hill—or the new Halley Feiffer play with a realllllly long title, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecological Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City, at City Theatre.

Furthermore: Pittsburgh-based theater artists Frank Ferraro and Adrienne Wehr present their experimental multimedia play In The Company of Ghosts. Two original dance shows are on tap, Texture Contemporary Ballet’s Boundless and Corningworks’ Six A Breast. Community theater groups forge on with Murder for Two at The Mountain Playhouse, Vintage Hitchcock at South Park Theatre, and Little Lake’s second(!) of the month, Middletown.

Shows are previewed in order of run dates. This month’s Theater Guide is a joint production of , Christopher Maggio (CM), Rick Handler (RH), and Mike Vargo (MV).

Continuing from August:

THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten. Through Sept. 2, Apple Hill Playhouse.

If one has several good friends to share the journeys of life with, that is a treasure to be cherished. The Dixie Swim Club is a story that’s centered on that theme. The play, written by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, follows five remarkable women, who first met one another while members of their college swim team. They meet for a long weekend each summer at the same beach cottage on the Outer Banks. There they “catch up, laugh and meddle in each other’s lives.” The Dixie Swim Club focuses on four specific weekends over a 30-year period. The play humorously chronicles the women’s support for one another through life’s ebbs and flows. Apple Hill Playhouse, 275 Manor Rd., Delmont. (RH)

Can you have good times re-living the bad times? God's Blessing (Patrick J. Ssenjovu, L) and David (Scott Parkinson) attempt the feat, as the ghostly image of Mary (Ava Kepple) looks on from afar.

Can you have good times re-living the bad times? God’s Blessing (Patrick J. Ssenjovu, L) and David (Scott Parkinson) attempt the feat in Quantum’s ‘Red Hills,’ as the ghostly image of Mary (Ava Kepple) looks on from afar. photo: Heather Mull.

RED HILLS by Sean Christopher Lewis. Through Sept. 10, Quantum Theatre

Quantum Theatre opens its 2017-18 season with the world premiere of a noteworthy play. Red Hills is a fictional story grounded in a tragic true event, the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Within a few months an estimated half-million to one million people, mostly of the Tutsi ethnic minority, were killed—some by government troops but many by their own neighbors. The play, set years later, imagines a confrontational reunion of two men: an American who was in Rwanda at the time and wrote a book about what he saw, and a Rwandan he’d met who was fleeing the massacre. Red Hills has them differing as to their interpretation of what happened and what it all meant. New York-based playwright Sean Christopher Lewis has examined issues of violent societies in his previous one-man shows Killadelphia: Mixtape of a City and Dogs of Rwanda, a precursor of Red Hills. Quantum is co-producing Red Hills with the New York company En Garde Arts. In the Recycling Building at 32nd and Smallman Streets, Strip District. (MV)

A MASTERPIECE OF COMIC…TIMING by Robert Caisley. Through Sept.16, Little Lake Theatre.

It has been said that “Timing is everything” and “Time is Money.” Both of those sayings are front and center in A Masterpiece of Comic…Timing. Whiz-kid Nebraska Jones’s first comedy play was a big hit. New York producer Jerry Cobb was so impressed that he’s invested his life savings in the new play that Jones is writing. Cobb even flies Jones to his Arizona home. And there lies the rub as Jones has come down with a bad case of the blues. He’s not eating or writing, but he is drinking. And he has a taste for Cobb’s expensive bourbon. To get the project moving again, they hire an erratic assistant and a Hollywood starlet, both of whom ratchet up the laughs. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Cannonsburg. (RH)

MISS ABIGAIL’S GUIDE TO DATING, MATING AND MARRIAGE by Ken Davenport and Sarah Salzberg. Through Sept. 17, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Javier Manente and Paige Davis star in the CLO Cabaret production of 'Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.' photo: Archie Carpenter.

Javier Manente and Paige Davis star in the CLO Cabaret production of ‘Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.’ (Davis has left for another commitment.) photo: Archie Carpenter.

Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage is a two character play featuring Miss Abigail 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)

 

New for September:

CORNINGWORKS: SIX A BREAST — The Absurd Life of Women by Beth Corning. Sept. 6-10, New Hazlett Theater.

Six A Breast is a three-women dance show presented by Corningworks. The performance  employs “irony,” “farce,” and “vaudevillian scenes” to express “the lunacy of all our lives, no matter the gender,” while cautioning that “women . . . [get] the ‘mother lode’  backwards and in heels.” The Bare Arms Series precedes the performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Each installment features different local female celebrities, and topics include, for example, “NO, YOU TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE the art of negotiation & delegation.” Sunday’s matinee includes pay-what-you-can admission available at the door. Beth Corning created Corningworks in 2009 as part of The Glue Factory Projects, original performances featuring artists age 45 and older. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (CM)

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (musical) by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and David Thompson. Sept. 8-24, The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse.

The Kander and Ebb musical The Scottsboro Boys is noteworthy in two respects. Although it won various other awards, the 2010 Broadway production set a record for most Tony Award nominations without winning any: a total of 12. And, though modern musical theater takes on a wide range of subject matter, this show still prompts the question: “How did they make that into a musical?” The Scottsboro Boys (with a book by David Thompson) is based on a sad legal episode from history. In Alabama in 1931, nine young African American men were charged with raping two white women. Their initial trials, conducted hastily amid threats of a lynch mob, were followed by appeals and retrials at which the evidence seemed to indicate the “boys” were innocent. Yet they were repeatedly found guilty and served substantial prison terms. The Scottsboro Boys puts the story to music with numbers including minstrel-show routines that mock the racial stereotypes of the time. The REP, Point Park University’s professional company, brings the musical to Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. (MV)

BOEING BOEING by Marc Camoletti. Sept. 14-23, Apple Hill Playhouse.

French culture of the 1960s was by no means limited to inscrutable New Wave cinema and avant-garde novels. It was also a time when the French were in love with Jerry Lewis—and when French playwrights like Marc Camoletti turned out comedies like Boeing Boeing. This naughty sex farce concerns a playboy in Paris who’s romancing flight attendants from three different airlines, deftly juggling their “layovers” (pun intended) so the women will not meet—but of course, one day they do. Filled with wacky physical comedy and outré innuendo, Boeing Boeing gained a new generation of fans when a Broadway version won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Apple Hill Playhouse brings Boeing Boeing to Westmoreland County at 275 Manor Rd., Delmont. (MV)

THE HOMESTEAD STRIKE OF 1892 by Mark Clayton Southers. Sept. 15-23, presented by The Battle of Homestead Foundation.

The Homestead Strike made the cover of 'Harpers Weekly' in '92, but it would be years before organized labor recovered.

The Homestead Strike made the cover of ‘Harpers Weekly’ in ’92, but it would be years before organized labor recovered.

In 1892, Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Works had been growing into one of the world’s largest steelmaking plants. It was also one where an early union had gained a strong foothold, and that was about to change, in a brutal conflict reported nationwide. With a new contract due, the company proposed drastic wage cuts. The workers struck. The company, with  battle plans in place, sent barges of armed Pinkerton agents upriver to break the strike. Strikers backed by angry townspeople fought them off, but the governor ordered in state militia to reopen the plant. And public sentiment, initially with the workers, turned against them when anarchist Alexander Berkman shot and nearly killed company president Henry Clay Frick.

These dramatic events are now being re-enacted in a play called The Homestead Strike of 1892. Written by Mark Clayton Southers, the play shows that although the union’s power was broken, the Homestead workers pioneered workplace principles that would later benefit many. The Homestead Strike of 1892 was commissioned by The Battle of Homestead Foundation and is being presented in one of the few remaining parts of the steel plant: the historic Pump House at 880 E. Waterfront Dr., Munhall. (MV)  

MURDER FOR TWO by Kellen Blair and Joe Kinosian. Sept. 19-Oct. 1, The Mountain Playhouse.

Arthur Whitney, a great American novelist, has been shot, and it’s up to Officer Marcus Moscowicz to solve the crime and prove he can be a detective. Is the perpetrator Whitney’s wife? The ballerina? The psychiatrist? Or one of 10 other suspects? One actor plays all 13 persons of interest, so expect laughs and intrigue in Murder for Two. The musical’s title plays off its two-person cast. Both actors will also take turns at the piano throughout the 90-minute performance. The musical premiered through the Chicago Shakespeare Theater company in 2011. Its writers won a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Musical. Before it toured nationally, the regional premiere was at Pittsburgh CLO. For those who missed it or want to see it again, it’s running at the Mountain Playhouse. 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown. (CM)

VINTAGE HITCHCOCK: A LIVE RADIO PLAY by Joe Landry. Sept. 21-Oct. 7, South Park Theatre

South Park Theatre is staging a play that imagines how the works of Alfred Hitchcock, one of the 20th century’s most respected and innovative directors, would be done as a live radio drama. Hitchcock’s use of certain shots to build suspense could be substituted possibly by sound effects, dramatic pauses, and other devices of radio theater. A radio play can be very exciting; just think of Orson Welles and company performing the H.G. Wells work War of the Worlds in 1938. It sent many in the nation into a panic despite some disclaimers during the broadcast that it was fictional. Vintage Hitchcock: A Live Radio Play adapts scenes from the early Hitchcock thrillers The Lodger, Sabotage, and The 39 Steps. The five-actor cast  will even recreate vintage commercials. South Park Theatre, Brownsville Rd. and Corrigan Dr., South Park Township. (RH)

IN THE COMPANY OF GHOSTS by Frank Ferraro and Adrienne Wehr. Sept. 22-24, presented by the artists.

Frank Ferraro and Adrienne Wehr are among the most adventurous—and unusual—figures in the city’s performing arts scene. Ferraro—a multidisciplinary writer/artist and video/filmmaker—has for many years lived with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease, often creating work that reflects how this alters his experience. Wehr, an accomplished stage and screen actress, also has won notice as a producer of indie films and TV episodes. Now the two have collaborated on a multimedia performance piece titled In the Company of Ghosts. After workshopping part of it at the Oaks Theater in Oakmont (the video clip above is from that trial run), they’re presenting a feature-length version at the New Hazlett Theater. Ferraro and Wehr’s promo material for In the Company of Ghosts says that it “conjure[s] up their personal ghosts” to conduct “a fearless journey of life on life’s terms.” 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (MV)

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN-KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY by Halley Feiffer. Sept. 23-Oct. 15, City Theatre.

In A Funny Thing … , struggling stand-up comedian Karla and super-nerd Don fall in love at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. However, they are not the patients. Those are their respective mothers, who share a hospital room in this heartfelt and hilarious play written by Halley Feiffer. Feiffer’s other works include I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard and Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow. She’s also acted on screen and on- and off-Broadway. Her live-acting work includes the 2011 production of The House of Blue Leaves, in which she appeared alongside Ben Stiller, Edie Falco, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. A Funny Thing … premiered off-Broadway at MCC Theater in 2016. It makes its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles this fall. Pittsburghers need only travel to the City Theatre. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. (CM)

EQUUS by Peter Shaffer. Sept. 28-Oct. 29, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

British playwright Peter Shaffer is best known for Amadeus, but his most striking work is the 1973 play Equus, which has a strange backstory. Shaffer wrote Equus after hearing of a gruesome crime in which a young man blinded horses by driving spikes into their eyes. Trying to imagine what was behind such an act, Shaffer spun a fictional tale with eerie mythic overtones: A psychiatrist examining the criminal finds him to be a troubled teenager who worships horses (the boy’s horse-god is “Equus”) and is sexually attracted to them. It turns out he committed the crime when so-called normal life intruded, and the psychiatrist, himself a key character, comes to question his own views of normality. Equus was a sensation in London and won the 1975 Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway. Yet it later faded from the radar when Shaffer, for  reasons that aren’t clear, withheld production rights until finally approving a 2007 revival with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe as the young man. The play is now back in circulation and Pittsburgh Public Theater opens its season with Equus. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (MV)

BOUNDLESS (ballet/modern dance). Sept. 29-Oct. 1, Texture Contemporary Ballet.

Texture Contemporary Ballet is a company that does what the name says: contemporary dance grounded in classical ballet discipline and techniques. Typical shows consist of several pieces in a range of styles. Past performances have included dances set to songs by Adele and to live cello-rock music by the ensemble Cello Fury, as well as a dance choreographed by a hip-hop artist and another that mixed ballet with tango. So, what will Texture do next? We’re not sure, but the company’s new production is called Boundless. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (MV)

EAST TEXAS HOT LINKS by Eugene Lee. Sept. 29-Nov. 5, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

Two years ago, veteran actor Eugene Lee visited Pittsburgh to play the role of August Wilson in How I Learned What I Learned, the one-man show about Wilson’s life. This year the attraction is a play written by Lee himself. East Texas Hot Licks has some similarities to Wilson’s Hill District epics, but it’s shorter (about 90 minutes) and set in a small-town bar in Texas. The bar is a gathering spot for local African Americans during the Jim Crow era of the 1950s. As the play unfolds, we get to know an assortment of odd characters whose high-spirited camaraderie evolves into tensions and, ultimately, tragedy. East Texas Hot Licks was staged at theaters across the country after its 1991 premiere, and a revival last year in the Chicago area drew rave reviews from that city’s major dailies. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is presenting East Texas Hot Licks here. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (MV)  

Mike Vargo is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor who covers theater for Entertainment Central.

Christopher Maggio and Rick Handler also contributed to the guide.