April Theater Guide: A Deluge of Strong Shows

O lucky man: Nemorino (tenor Dimitri Pittas, center of attention) drank the wrong stuff but it worked anyway in the boffo opera buffa 'The Elixir of Love.'

O lucky man: Nemorino (tenor Dimitri Pittas, center of attention) drank the wrong stuff but it worked anyway in the boffo opera buffa ‘The Elixir of Love.’

“April showers” would be putting it too mildly. On the Pittsburgh theater scene this month it’s more like April thunder and lightning. The schedule includes some earth-shaking classics, plus newer shows that seem likely to blast away anyone’s winter doldrums.

In the classics department: PICT has an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s female-Gothic gripper Jane Eyre. The Public reveals what is rotten in Denmark with Hamlet. Pittsburgh Opera aims to ignite a laugh riot with its opera buffa production The Elixir of Love. And Pittsburgh Playwrights does August Wilson’s stormy King Hedley II, in which we learn that “God is a baaad [expletive deleted].”

In the category of newer works: The White Chip, at City Theatre, is a whirlwind tour of playwright Sean Daniels’ real-life mad descent into alcoholism. Off the WALL’s Byhalia, Mississippi takes a seriocomic look at a young Southern couple’s explosive dilemma. Attack Theatre—the dance company whose name says it all—presents a mixed-media piece titled If / Maybe / Then. The 5th annual Pittsburgh Fringe festival features acts that are totally too twitchy for mainstream.

And we’ve even got a category called Very Strange Touring Shows from Overseas. The Barcelona company Señor Serrano presents Birdie. The silent Swiss troupe Mummenschanz performs you & me. Dan and Jeff’s Potted Potter is a British exercise in high-speed silliness, one of many strains of silliness practiced there.

There’s more. Shows in the EC spotlight are previewed in order of their run dates, with “other notable productions” at the end.

Continuing from March:

Everybody needs cash for the ‘Rent.’

Everybody needs cash for the ‘Rent.’

RENT (musical) by Jonathan Larson. March 27 – April 1, touring company at Heinz Hall.

Rent is one of the hottest musicals of modern times, and the show’s 20th Anniversary Tour is booked into Heinz Hall, where seats have been going fast and early. A brief primer, for those not familiar with Rent: It was inspired by (and is partly adapted from) Puccini’s lively-but-tragic opera La Boheme, about starving artists and their friends in Paris during the 1800s. The musical is set in New York in the late 1980s, with characters who include a struggling filmmaker, a rock singer, a stripper, and a drag queen. Many characters are HIV-positive or have AIDS, and the spirit of living fully in the face of difficulties and death is a major theme. The writer/composer of Rent, Jonathan Larson, died of a rare heart condition the night before the 1996 premiere. Rent won the ’96 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Musical; the Tonys for Best Score and Best Book went posthumously to Larson. And the 2005 movie version of Rent mostly bombed—having failed to capture the je ne sais quoi that keeps the live show very much alive. Presented as part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series at 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Shows in the Entertainment Central Spotlight for April: 

MUMMENSCHANZ YOU & ME (very unusual masked theater) by Mummenschanz. Apr. 4 only, at the Byham Theater.

You have probably seen pantomime, and you’ve surely seen people in masks, but here’s betting 100 Swiss francs that you haven’t seen anything like Mummenschanz. The members of this inventive Swiss theater company bill themselves as “musicians of silence.” Like all good Europeans they speak multiple languages, though never a word onstage. They act out stories—or, some would say, they act out primal emotions and basic human predicaments—by moving about artfully (and often humorously) while wearing gigantic “masks,” which in many cases are actually intricate whole-body costumes. (Ever seen a human actor playing a hand—meaning, literally, a disembodied hand?) Mummenschanz was founded in 1972 by a trio of young performers who said they were influenced by the creative tumult of the Sixties. The company has grown and evolved since then, earning worldwide recognition. Today’s Mummenschanz-ers are coming to town to perform their new show titled you & me. They’re here as part of the Cohen & Grigsby Trust Presents Series. 7 p.m. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

Charlotte Brontë was ahead of her time.

Charlotte Brontë was ahead of her time.

JANE EYRE by Alan Stanford, from Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Apr. 5 – 28, PICT.

PICT, Pittsburgh’s Classic Theatre, wraps up its 2017-18 season with an adaptation of an extremely classic novel. Jane Eyre has been melting hearts and dazzling minds since it was first published in 1847. Charlotte Brontë wrote this coming-of-age novel by drawing from her own experiences. She then wrapped them in a gripping fictional tale that traces a young woman’s bizarre adventures from a grim childhood into a young adulthood spent among memorable characters like her love interest, Mr. Rochester, who keeps an insane wife locked away in his mansion. Critics have hailed Jane Eyre as a trailblazing work of modern psychological fiction, an insightful exposé of class and gender divisions in 1800s England, and a stirring proto-feminist novel. It’s also just a darn good story, which makes it prime material for dramatizing on stage. PICT’s adaptation is by Alan Stanford, the company’s artistic and executive director. It premiered at the Gate Theatre in Dublin and has drawn enthusiastic audiences in many places. PICT presents Stanford’s Jane Eyre in the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, 4802 Fifth Ave., Oakland.

PITTSBURGH FRINGE (performing and visual arts festival). Apr. 6 – 8, North Side.

It’s hard to have more fun than going to a fringe festival, and one could try, but why be difficult? The 5th annual Pittsburgh Fringe unfolds, transpires, and otherwise manifests itself on the North Side this month. A fringe festival is a panoply, assortment, and concatenation of live shows. These may include some fairly well-known acts—like the Japanese storyteller Motoko, in town for this year’s Pittsburgh Fringe—but may also include just about anything. For example, quoting from descriptions on the web: Andrew Frank’s MACROCOSM is a one-person comedy show exploring “the totality of existence.” The Daring Douglasses perform stunts with fire and nails that children should not try at home or anywhere in the universe. Philadelphia “farrier and actor” Bob Weick presents Howard Zinn’s Marx in Soho, which is about Karl Marx, not Groucho. And Anthony Alterio’s Who-Ha is an audience-interactive performance dance piece “that showcases feminine hygiene, feminine characteristics, and feminine oppositions in pop culture that are fueled by the straight, socially constructed male gaze.” Schedules and admission-price options are complex, so check the Pittsburgh Fringe website. Multiple locations, North Side.

Canadian actor Kyle Cameron plays Sean in ‘The White Chip.’

Canadian actor Kyle Cameron plays Sean in ‘The White Chip.’

THE WHITE CHIP by Sean Daniels. Apr. 7 – May 6, City Theatre.

Calling all 12-steppers and anyone with an interest in addiction: There’s a new recovery play to be seen. Sean Daniels’ The White Chip is on tap at City Theatre. This one is a comedy but also serious, of course. Daniels, an American writer/director, has made The White Chip an autobiographical tale. It traces a wild career in which he held directing positions at theaters across the country, despite drinking himself ever farther out of control—until finally, everything blew apart and he began the road back. And the title? In AA, a white chip (or silver-colored chip) is a plastic coin that you’re given to mark your first 24 hours dry . Presumably Daniels has also collected some of the higher-denomination coins for years of staying clean, because he’s now artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Massachusetts, where The White Chip premiered in 2016. The play is done with minimal staging and a cast of only three. City Theatre’s actors are Kyle Cameron, Daina Michelle Griffith, and Daniel Krell. In the Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY by Tony Kushner. Apr. 12 – 14 and 24 – 28, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

Is it time for a play about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis? Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama thinks so. Next up on the mainstage schedule is a revival of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. Written during the Reagan presidency in the U.S., Bright Room takes us back to Germany in 1932-33. The setting is a Berlin apartment where a group of artistic and intellectual folks gather to socialize and talk politics. These left-leaning people are at first bemused, then increasingly alarmed, by the hard-right shift of the government. In typical Kushner touches, spooky characters including the Devil himself visit the apartment as troubling news unfolds outside: The Nazis win the most seats in the Reichstag. Bankers and industrialists press to have Hitler named chancellor. Then very quickly books are banned and burned, the first concentration camp opens at Dachau—and step by step, the unthinkable becomes the new normal. A Bright Room Called Day wasn’t a great success after its 1987 premiere but the play is getting renewed interest lately. In the Philip Chosky Theater at Carnegie Mellon, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

IF / MAYBE / THEN (immersive dance and multimedia) by Attack Theatre. April 12 – 29 at The Waterfront.

Good lines, in blue, from Attack Theatre's 'If / Maybe / Then.'

Good lines, in blue, from Attack Theatre’s ‘If / Maybe / Then.’

Now is your chance to go shopping for modern dance. Attack Theatre, the Pittsburgh company that never dances defensively, is performing its latest piece in the space formerly known as Office Depot at The Waterfront. The piece is called If / Maybe / Then. It’s about, well … it’s about possibilities. It’s a mixed-media production, with video environments plus live action. And it is an immersive experience, meaning that there’s no fourth wall between the performers and audience. Various things will be going on in various areas, and you get to pick, choose, and mingle with the dancers through the course of the show. As a special attraction, Attack Theatre is offering discounted repeat-visit tickets for those who want to come back a second time and catch what they might’ve missed. Two Attacks—that’s almost as good as Buy One, Get One! The videos are designed by longtime Attack Theatre member Dane Toney. If / Maybe / Then happens in the Waterfront storefront between Michael’s and PetCo, 630 E. Waterfront Dr., Homestead.

BODYTRAFFIC (modern dance company). Apr. 14 only, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

When people talk about the dance troupe BodyTraffic, a word that comes up often is “versatile.” Watch the brief samples in the video above. You’ll see the Los Angeles-based company performing pieces that span a wide range of styles and moods. BodyTraffic visits Pittsburgh to dance a show of three works at the Byham Theater. One of them, o2Joy (read “Ode to Joy”), is an exuberant piece set to jazzy swing music. Dust is in a different key: According to the company, it “takes a dark look at the power and commercialism that steer today’s society and asks us to question what is important.” Then, while you’re mulling these matters, Once More Before You Go mixes hip-hop moves with electronic music. BodyTraffic’s artistic quality has won high acclaim. The company is presented here by Pittsburgh Dance Council, now in its 48th season of bringing outstanding contemporary dance to our town. 8 p.m. 101 6th St., Cultural District.

THE DRESSER by Ronald Harwood. Apr. 19 – May 5, Little Lake Theatre.

Life in the theater trade can make a good subject for theater itself, and a lauded play of this type is Ronald Harwood’s 1980 tragicomedy The Dresser. Set in England during World War II, it concerns an imperious old actor who travels about with his company bringing Shakespeare to folks on the home front. Assisting the star is his “dresser,” a personal aide who costumes and preps him for each show. Unfortunately, the great man is losing his marbles, and the dresser’s urgent attempts to keep him going drive the play. The Dresser was made into a 1983 movie which won multiple Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture. Little Lake Theatre kicks off its 2018 season by performing The Dresser live. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.

HAMLET by William Shakespeare. Apr. 19 – May 20, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Hamlet ponders the human predicament, as played by Edwin Booth in 1870.

Hamlet ponders the human predicament, as played by Edwin Booth circa 1870.

It’s a good thing William Shakespeare didn’t have to write Hamlet for a Hollywood studio. Imagine the complaints: Too philosophical! Script needs more sex, more fight scenes. And why is this Hamlet guy so inconsistent? He can’t make up his mind! Indeed, much of the play’s greatness lies in its ambiguity. Prince Hamlet comes across to us, down through the ages, because he knows too much and yet too little: Yes, life is complex and crazy, but what should we do about it? Hamlet is furthermore Shakespeare at his most eloquent. The play has been analyzed by Sigmund Freud, quoted by Mary Baker Eddy in her textbook on Christian Science, and invoked by the economist Joseph Schumpeter to help explain his theory of creative destruction. Famous actors who’ve played the title role range from Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln’s assassin, to Ethan Hawke—who delivered the “To be or not to be” soliloquy while roaming the aisles of a Blockbuster video store, in the 2000 movie version set in New York City. And now…

Ted Pappas, retiring from his longtime post as head of Pittsburgh Public Theater, directs a production of Hamlet to close The Public’s season. Pappas will be back next season to direct Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

THE ELIXIR OF LOVE (opera) by Gaetano Donizetti. Apr. 21 – 29, Pittsburgh Opera.

Fans of old-time popular music need to know the difference between The Elixir of Love and “Love Potion No. 9.” The latter is a comical R&B song recorded by The Clovers in 1959. The former, an 1832 opera by Gaetano Donizetti, is even more comical. That’s why it is still charting after all these years—14th on the Operabase Hot 100 list of most-performed operas—and why Pittsburgh Opera is staging The Elixir of Love to finish its current season. The story concerns a poor guy in love with a rich gal. To boost his chances, he spends his hard-earned cash on a magic elixir from a traveling salesman. It’s not magic, only cheap wine, but he drinks a lot of it, and much confusion ensues until true love wins out. The music is quite good. The traveling huckster’s aria Udite, udite, o rustici (“Listen up, listen up, peasants”) is a comic-opera classic, while the love-drunk hero’s aria Una furtiva lagrima (“A furtive tear”) redefines the notion of “tear-jerker.” Pittsburgh Opera is using a production design first done for Houston Grand Opera, which updates the setting to the 1950s. There is no doo-wop, however; it’s still The Elixir of Love. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

BIRDIE (multimedia performance) by Señor Serrano. Apr. 26-27, touring production at the New Hazlett Theater.

In 2015, Señor Serrano, a theater company from Barcelona, was called “smart asses and malicious” in the Italian press for doing a show that used “plastic action figures and miniature planes” to depict “American Indians, the hunting of Moby Dick, and the capture of Bin Laden.” Then again, the show won a Silver Lion prize at the prestigious Venice Biennale, so why believe the stinking critics? Now Señor Serrano visits Pittsburgh to perform a newer multimedia piece titled Birdie. It is inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and addresses other topics and themes of interest as well. Señor Serrano’s current mission statement is “Let’s make theatre great again.” Like much else about the company, that is subject to change, but the Pittsburgh Birdie gig is definitely on. Co-presented by Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the New Hazlett Theater at the New Hazlett, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

Wands out! ‘Potted Potter’ tangles again.

POTTED POTTER: THE UNAUTHORIZED HARRY POTTER EXPERIENCE by Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner. Apr. 27 – 29, touring production at the Byham Theater.

Do Millennials have short attention spans? Unlikely, given that so many have read all seven Harry Potter books. But just in case, Potted Potter is back on tour. This is the two-man parody show that condenses the entire J.K. Rowling saga into less than an hour and a half of high-speed silliness. Created by British comic actors Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, a.k.a. Dan and Jeff, Potted Potter is performed with precious few props but with plenty of pep and pop. Participation is prevalent, too—particularly in the part where children from the audience are invited onstage to fill out the sides for a Quidditch game. Anxious moments ensued in a recent Chicago performance when one of the kids turned violent and unruly, but we won’t let that happen in Pittsburgh. Gryffindor is going to beat Slytherin fair and square! At the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder. Apr. 20 – May 5, off the WALL Productions.

One of the joys of theater is going to a small-company production of a play that most people never heard of, and having a ringside seat for something that turns out to be really good. Evan Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi, at off the WALL Productions, might be such a ticket. Byhalia won enthusiastic reviews in its 2016 Chicago premiere and has scored well wherever it runs. Set in the Southern town of the title, it’s a seriocomedy about a young couple who consider themselves “proud white trash.” They’ve been struggling to make ends meet. Now a baby is on the way. And the child’s birth sets off fireworks, as it’s clear that Mom has had an extramarital adventure. The baby is not white. Byhalia, Mississippi gets tensions going on multiple levels at once: over the personal issues involved, over issues of race and economic class. Critics have praised the play for teasing them all together in ways that ring true. Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

KING HEDLEY II by August Wilson. Apr. 27 – June 3, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

August Wilson is one serious playwright, even (and sometimes especially) when he’s being outrageously funny. These Wilsonian qualities are displayed vividly in King Hedley II. Set in the Hill District during the 1980s, the play is one of Wilson’s darkest—a story about people with blasted pasts and dim futures—yet it’s amazing to see how such dark materials can light up the stage. The title character is a newly released ex-con whose plans for a better life are both dubious and desperate, such as fencing stolen refrigerators to get money for an honest business venture. Another striking character is Stool Pigeon, who got the nickname after spilling what he knew about a murder case. He considers himself a “truth-teller” and serves as the neighborhood’s Scripture-quoting, fire-breathing streetcorner prophet. Almost everyone in King Hedley II is somehow striving for validation and redemption. The play provides a great intro to Wilson’s world for newcomers, though it is far from the first of his 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle, and there’s no better time than now to see it. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is performing King Hedley II at the actual site of Wilson’s boyhood home in The Hill. 1727 Bedford Ave., Hill District.

Other Notable Productions

RECOIL devised by Cynthia Croot and Pitt Theatre Arts students. This original show examines issues of gun violence. Apr. 5 – 15, Pitt Department of Theatre Arts. Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre, basement of the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland.

MAKS, VAL & PETA LIVE ON TOUR: CONFIDENTIAL (dance) from ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.” You asked for it—or maybe lots of other people did—and here it is! Apr. 10 only. 8 p.m. at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

BÜER’S KISS (multimedia play) by Carl Antonowicz. The playwright is a comics artist. Büer’s Kiss is adapted from a fantasy-comic story that he’s been writing and drawing. Audience members get a bound copy along with admission to the play. Apr. 12 only. 8 p.m. at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT (musical) by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The run of this classic modern musical includes a special sensory-friendly performance at 10 a.m. on opening day. Apr. 13 – 15, Stage Right. At The Palace Theatre, 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg.

MYTHBURGH SEASON 2 (multiple creators). The next installment in an ongoing series of shows that turn unusual Pittsburgh stories into short plays. Apr. 22 only, 12 Peers Theater. 8 p.m. at brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield.

THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI by Bertolt Brecht. While A Bright Room Called Day finishes its mainstage run at Carnegie Mellon, this Brecht play adds another view of Nazi Germany. It’s a satire that re-casts Hitler and his crew as mobsters taking over the Chicago cauliflower trade. April 25 – 28, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. At Studio 201, 201 N. Braddock Ave., Point Breeze North.

And closing after a long run …

UP AND AWAY (musical) by Kevin Hammonds and Kristin Bair. Through Apr. 22, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

What does the CLO in Pittsburgh CLO stand for? Long ago the company was known as Civic Light Opera, a euphemism for “we do musicals.” And CLO continues to mount full-up productions of big Broadway musicals, while branching into more intimate shows done cabaret-style. The latest in this vein is Up and Away, a comedy by Kevin Hammonds and Kristin Bair. Up and Away has a cast of five playing over 50 characters, in a plot that revolves around two brothers leaving a small town to pursue their fortunes. Accompanied by song and dance, of course. Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: The Elixir of Love, by Lynn Lane for Houston Grand Opera. Rent, by Carol Rosegg. Charlotte Bronte, portrait by J.H. Thompson, date unknown, in the Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. Kyle Cameron in The White Chip, courtesy of City Theatre. Attack Theatre, courtesy of Dave Garson. Edwin Booth as Hamlet, by J. Gurney & Son, N.Y. Potted Potter, courtesy of the artists.

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

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