December Theater Guide: Full Stream Ahead

Mr. Fezziwig is so ready he's almost flipping his wig. The actor is Tim Hartman in Pittsburgh CLO's 'A Musical Christmas Carol,' one of many holiday shows on the menu. (photo: Matt Polk)

Mr. Fezziwig is so ready he’s almost flipping his wig. The actor is Tim Hartman in Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘A Musical Christmas Carol,’ It’s one of many locally produced shows running in a streamed or (as in CLO’s case) a pre-recorded version during December. (photo: Matt Polk)

Someday, live theater will return to the real world. This month, all productions from Pittsburgh companies come to you via the medium we share at this moment. Which is not such a bad thing—at least not for us, the people in the audience. The actors are real. The shows are good. 

Furthermore, the variety of holiday-themed shows is unusually rich and intriguing. Five dueling adaptations of A Christmas Carol give us five Scrooges and fifteen Ghosts to compare and contrast. The Gift of the Mad Guys is a hypermodern, highly altered re-enactment of The Gift of the Magi, the O. Henry classic. Claws Out: The Holiday Drag Musical isn’t adapted from any pre-existing work, although it appropriates certain cultural imagery. Ubuntu Holiday presents a seriocomic culture clash between neighbors celebrating Christmas and Kwanzaa, respectively. And Fireside Nutcracker may sound dangerous but is family-friendly, being Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s way of bringing home The Nutcracker online. 

Non-holiday-wise, we have an emphasis on shows based in reality. The multimedia opera Soldier Songs is drawn from the actual stories of U.S. war veterans. Wild is a fictionalized take on the exodus of whistleblower Edward Snowden. The Women Who Rode Away is a one-woman show about real women who rode away from convention. As for plays based on real phenomena, if not actual persons and events: Sassy Mamas depicts the adventures of women of a certain age in their search for younger men, while It’s a Wonderful Life brings the adaptation trip full circle by imaginatively re-creating the Frank Capra movie. 

And now for a serious Public Service Announcement. Many of these online shows are free. Others have low virtual ticket prices. Whatever the case, please open your virtual wallet and make a generous donation. Theater companies and theater artists have been hit hard. If we want to see them again in real space/time we should invest in that outcome now. 

Shows are previewed in order of run dates, with some entries written by Rick Handler (R.H.). Happy holidays! 

WILD by Mike Bartlett. Quantum Theatre. Through December13. 

In 'Wild,' a fictional Snowden clone must confront his inner demons while wondering who's got his back. Quantum streams the play in the intimate-realism style of early TV, with actors Chris Cattell (foreground), Lydia Gibson, and Wali Jamal. (photo: Heather Mull Photography)

In ‘Wild,’ a fictional Snowden clone must confront his inner demons while wondering who’s got his back. Quantum streams the play in the intimate-realism style of early TV, with actors Chris Cattell (foreground), Lydia Gibson, and Wali Jamal. (photo: Heather Mull Photography)

Livestreamed theater moves beyond the Zoom format with Quantum Theatre’s encore run of its production of Wild, on a pay-what-you-can basis. Quantum has used realistic methods to stage and stream a political psycho-thriller inspired by real events. Wild, by English writer Mike Bartlett, is a fictional takeoff on the Edward Snowden case. A young computer geek working for U.S. intelligence has turned whistleblower, leaking files that show how the government spies on its own citizens. To avoid arrest, he is holed up in a Moscow hotel room, where he’s visited by two mysterious strangers. They claim they mean to help him, but might in fact be out to break his will and betray him.  

Wild mixes suspense with dark comedy, all unfolding in cage-match fashion within a stage set made up as the hotel room. And for this play, Quantum departs from the Covid-era practice of Zooming together actors in separate locations. The cast of three interact naturally in a studio set. Multiple cameras follow the action. Viewers see the play in a series of continuous cuts between camera angles, just as in a movie—or in the early live-TV dramas of the 1950s. Sam Turich directs. See our full story. Continues online through December 13. (M.V.)

UBUNTU HOLIDAY by Kim El. Pittsburgh Playwrights. Through January 3.

It's an 'Ubuntu Holiday' for the people in Cheryl El-Walker's play. Actors shown here are (L to R) Sundiata Rice, Melessie Clark, LaMar Darnell Fields, and Nia Washington. (photo: Mark Clayton Southers)

It’s an ‘Ubuntu Holiday’ for the people in Kim El’s play. Actors shown here are (L to R) Sundiata Rice, Melessie Clark, LaMar Darnell Fields, and Nia Washington. (photo: Mark Clayton Southers)

There is more than one way to celebrate the year-end holidays, as Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company aptly demonstrates. PPTCo is streaming a free-on-demand video of its 2014 seasonal production, Kim El’s Ubuntu Holiday. “Ubuntu” is a word used, and a philosophy embraced, by many people in southern Africa. The term has been variously translated as “kindness,” “goodness,” or the like; more broadly it represents the belief that we can only be fully human through loving relations with others. In the seriocomic Ubuntu Holiday we meet two contemporary African-American families—one doing Christmas in the usual U.S. mainstream way and one that’s celebrating Kwanzaa instead. The woman from family A doesn’t get the Kwanzaa idea, and objects rather disruptively, but in the end, ubuntu carries the day. Ubuntu Holiday was directed by Mils James, with a cast featuring Paris Nakena Crosby, Nadia Locust, Nia Washington, Sundiata Rice, Melessie Clark, Lamar Darnell Fields, and Scott Nanji. It’s available online through January 3. (M.V.) 

CLAWS OUT: THE HOLIDAY DRAG MUSICAL by Monteze Freeland and Shua Potter, with music by Douglas Levine. City Theatre. Through January 10.  

Writer/performer Shua Potter nails it in 'Claws Out.' (photo: Kristi Jan Hoover)

Writer/performer Shua Potter nails it in ‘Claws Out.’ (photo: Kristi Jan Hoover)

Great ideas have the feeling of inevitability. And few things seem greater or more inevitable than a holiday-themed musical played in drag. Claws Out: The Holiday Drag Musical—created by a team of Pittsburgh all-stars, and bearing a title that plays mercilessly upon the name of a certain Claus—is a new online production. Produced by City Theatre, the (pre-recorded) streaming show was written by Monteze Freeland and Shua Potter, with music by Douglas Levine. Better yet, all three perform, including composer/conductor Levine who is usually closeted behind the scenes. City’s Marc Masterson co-directed along with Freeland, and as for the plot: Such a thing is not strictly required in productions of this nature, but Claws Out has one. It involves Mrs. Rachel Claus, whose makeover of the North Pole is threatened by a clause in her contract that allows a hussy named Roberta to take over the makeover. Carole Claus and Blitzen figure into the story as well, and so does Devontay. All parts are played with flamboyant musical mirth.

Claws Out was filmed at WQED and Steeltown Entertainment using strict Covid-19 precautions. Buy a digital ticket at a price of your choice, as long as it’s $15 or more per household, and anyone with whom you cohabit can watch any time, now through January 10. Tickets are also available for live, interactive virtual events that will be streamed in conjunction with the show on December 12 and 19 at $50 per. Mrs. Claus reminds us that drag is for everyone. Whether you’re naughty or nice. (M.V.)

A MUSICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL (streamed video of 2018 production) by David H. Bell, from Dickens’ story. Pittsburgh CLO. Broadcast and online, December 10-31. 

Tim Hartman, as Mr. Fezziwig, scrupulously supervises the kissing kiddies in Pittsburgh CLO's 'A Musical Christmas Carol.' The scene is from last year's production but Hartman, and the play, return this month. (photo: Matt Polk)

Fezziwig (Tim Hartrman) scrupulously supervises the kissing kiddies in Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘A Musical Christmas Carol.’ The scene is from the 2018 show that was video-recorded for posterity—and wouldn’t you know, posterity is now. (photo: Matt Polk)

A favorite holiday tradition in Pittsburgh is visiting the Cultural District for Pittsburgh CLO’s annual production of A Musical Christmas Carol. Since the show can’t be done live this year, CLO has teamed with WQED to both telecast and web-stream a video of the 2018 production for free. As always, the play is an adaptation and enhancement of Charles Dickens’ novella by American theater writer David H. Bell. He is best known for Hot Mikado, the jazzed-up remake of The Mikado. There’s no bebop in A Musical Christmas Carol—in fact, very little music at all—but Bell has added some scenes that fill out Dickens’ original story nicely. In the 2018 CLO production, Scrooge is played by Broadway and TV actor Richard Thomas. Pittsburgh-based cast members include Jeffrey Howell and Lisa Ann Goldsmith as the Cratchits, and Allison Cahill as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Telecast dates on WQED are December 10 at 7:30 p.m., the 18th and 24th at 9 p.m., and the 27th at 1 p.m. Or view the show free online any time from December 11 through 31. (M.V.)

SASSY MAMAS by Celeste Bedford Walker. New Horizon Theater. December 10-27.  

Sometimes, one just needs a little guilty indulgence. Such is the case of New Horizon Theater’s production of Sassy Mamas, in which three sassy women of means and high achievement become newly single and decide to “get their groove back” with younger men. This romcom was written by Celeste Bedford Walker, an award-winning playwright and video and film writer/producer. Her works range from the lighter side to more substantive historical works chronicling African American history. Sassy Mammas is directed by Eileen J. Morris. Each virtual ticket link is good for 24 hours. (R.H.)

SOLDIER SONGS (opera), music and libretto by David T. Little. Pittsburgh Opera. December 11 livestream, recording available through December 26. 

Baritone Yazid Gray soldiers on beneath a looming, projected nightmarish image in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Soldier Songs.' (photo: David Bachman Photography)

Baritone Yazid Gray soldiers on beneath a looming, projected nightmarish image in Pittsburgh Opera’s ‘Soldier Songs.’ (photo: David Bachman Photography)

Solder Songs—a one-hour, one-man, multimedia opera about the illusions and realities of war, by one of America’s leading young composers—gets an online performance from Pittsburgh Opera. The creator of this distinctive piece is David T. Little, whose other compositions include the post-apocalyptic opera Dog Days and the surreal bio-history opera JFK, both with librettist Royce Vavrek. Little himself wrote all of Soldier Songs after being inspired by former schoolmates who volunteered to serve in conflicts overseas. He interviewed U.S. veterans of several wars from World War II onward, using their stories as the basis for a stages-of-life narrative. The opera’s sole character sings and acts out a journey with its roots in childhood, when he was a boy fascinated by toy soldiers and combat games. As a young man he fights through the shocks of actual combat, then becomes an aging veteran in the buildup to a moving finale. 

Soldier Songs was first commissioned by Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, which premiered it as a concert with songs in 2006. Since then it has evolved into a fully staged opera. Pittsburgh Opera has baritone Yazid Gray as the unnamed “Soldier,” with stage direction by Kaley Karis Smith and Mark Trawka conducting. After a live opening-night performance December 11, a videorecording remains online through December 26 on the Opera’s Facebook page and YouTube Channel. (M.V.)

THE WOMEN WHO RODE AWAY (one-person show) by Natalia Zukerman. Off the WALL productions, December 11-19. 

Natalia Zukerman invites us to meet some spirited women from history in 'The Women Who Rode Away.' (photo courtesy of the artist)

Natalia Zukerman invites us to meet some spirited women from history in ‘The Women Who Rode Away.’ (photo courtesy of the artist)

Along with staging unusual new plays, off the WALL productions in Carnegie hosts one-person shows by performing artists from across the country. For our current shut-in season, the company presents singer-songwriter Natalia Zukerman online. Her show The Women Who Rode Away features plenty of music but is more than a solo concert. Using stories and projected images, Zukerman presents multimedia portraits of women who’ve inspired her. All are women who “rode away” from conventional paths to break new ground. In the late 1800s, for example, Jane Avril rose from the poverty of the Paris slums, becoming a famously unique dancer and actress. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe quit art school to develop her own style. (The Zukerman song “Georgia’s Mountain” refers to Cerro Pedernal, the peak near O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico.) The Women Who Rode Away was video-recorded at the Stissing Center in Pine Plains, New York. Off the WALL, which has presented the show in person, streams the video each evening at 8 p.m. from December 11 through 19. (M.V.) 

ONE CHRISTMAS CAROL by Douglas H. Baker, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Prime Stage Theatre. December 11 livestream at 8 p.m., video recording online through December 19.

One-person shows can often be popular theatrical devices. And that is likely to remain the case for Prime Stage’s One Christmas Carol. Scott B. Calhoon portrays Charles Dickens as he brings to life characters from the classic holiday story. The production is adapted by Douglas H. Baker from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Livestream at 8 p.m. on December 11 with the recorded performance available through December 19. One Christmas Carol is directed by Shane Valenzi. (R.H.)

GHOULFRIENDS by Ashley Southers. 12 Peers Theater. Available online starting December 13 at 7 p.m.

12 Peers Theater is a small Pittsburgh company known for producing great plays, and also for its Mythburgh storytelling events, which until this spring were held live at brillobox. Covid-19 put that on hold but the Mythburgh concept has returned online, in somewhat altered form. It’s a monthly series titled Yinzer Scared Online. Each episode consists of a spooky Pittsburgh-based story peopled by an imaginary but recurring cast of characters: Think “Night Vale,” except it has video and is expressly for yinz! Click the preceding Yinzer Scared link to watch—and to catch up on episodes you may have missed. This month’s episode is Ghoulfriends, written and directed by Ashley Southers. It’s “a virtual sleepover with some ghosts who are the life of the party.” (M.V.) 

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (online radio play), adapted by Alan Stanford from the Dickens story. PICT Classic Theatre. December 16 – January 3. 

Something unnatural is afoot in 'The Woman in Black,' and PICT has actors Martin Giles and James FitzGerald on the watch. (photo: Alan Stanford)

Here are Martin Giles (L) and James FitzGerald in a scene from PICT’s Sherlock Holmes play ‘The Woman in Black.’ They’re together again portraying Scrooge and Bob Cratchit this year. (photo: Alan Stanford)

If you are a Pittsburgh theater fan, chances are you’d jump at the chance to see Martin Giles play Ebenezer Scrooge. It can’t happen yet, but he’s getting close. You can hear Giles as Scrooge in PICT Classic Theatre’s online radio version of A Christmas Carol. The rest of the cast is about as star-studded as they come. James FitzGerald plays Bob Cratchit and Jacob Marley. Karen Baum is Mrs. Cratchit and Mrs. Fezziwig. Ken Bolden is Mr. Fezziwig, while Shammen McCune voices all three Spirits of Christmas. Lisa Ann Goldsmith, Jonathan Visser, and others chime in as various persons, and the adaptation is by Alan Stanford, artistic and executive director of PICT.  The company’s auditory A Christmas Carol can be heard on-demand, online December 16 through January 3. (M.V.) 

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (online radio play) by Joe Landry, adapted from the movie. Pittsburgh Playhouse, Point Park University Conservatory Theatre. December 16-20.

Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre puts its own spin on the heartwarming story of a man trying to do his best during extremely challenging times and desperately trying to hold onto the spirit of Christmas. The innovative part of this digital production of It’s a Wonderful Life is that they are staging the 1940’s radio play with the actors playing against each other simultaneously on three separate Pittsburgh Playhouse stages. Holiday music and sound effects round out the production. Directed by Steven Breese (R.H.)

THROUGH BROKEN DOORS. Developed by Adil Mansoor. Pittsburgh Playhouse/Point Park University Conservatory Theatre. December 16-20.

Push an elevator button and get off on a floor, although there’s no women’s wear or appliance floors on the Point Park Conservatory Theatre’s virtual elevator. There are however, 16 buttons each one landing the theater passenger into a different theater artist’s virtual production in Through Broken Doors. All productions share a common theme of instead of leaving one’s “baggage” at the door, we share it, explore it, support it, question it, and talk about it. The core concept is, “What if our frustrations, questions, and dreams were at the center of our art-making and community building?” Topics include explorations of white supremacy, Black life, the 2020 election, and conversations between loved ones. These Pittsburgh Playhouse productions are video and audio based. (R.H.)

FIRESIDE NUTCRACKER (ballet) based on Terrence S. Orr’s The Nutcracker. Pittsburgh Ballet December 17-31. 

Jessica McCann and Yoshiaki Nakano in a ballet dance duo in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's "Fireside Nutcracker." (photo by Kelly Perkovich)

Jessica McCann and Yoshiaki Nakano in a ballet dance duo in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Fireside Nutcracker.” (photo by Kelly Perkovich)

A long-running Pittsburgh Christmas tradition is Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s annual production of the holiday classic, The Nutcracker. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production is among the grandest. It was developed by former PBT artistic director Terrence S. Orr, who drew in part from the original 1892 choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. But Orr also studied contemporary versions, then teamed with his PBT colleagues to create a one-of-a-kind synthesis of classical ballet, modern artistry, and stunning stagecraft. (See the background story.) This Nutcracker is set at an old-time Christmas party in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. Then, as we move into the realm of fantasy—with the Nutcracker doll coming to life and leading a cast of adult and child dancers through a visit to the Land of Enchantment—there are dazzling special dances, amazing magic tricks, and breathtaking stage effects. The music of course is by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. 

Due to the pandemic, this year’s production, under the direction of new Artistic Director Susan Jaffee, is a virtual one called Fireside Nutcracker. Jaffee and PBT staff adapted Orr’s production for filming to be streamed hearthside (if applicable) in the comfort of your home. The filmed version puts the viewer closer to the action and central characters like the Sugar Plum Fairy. (M.V./R.H.)

THE GIFT OF THE MAD GUYS (staged reading) by Brian Pope, inspired by “The Gift of the Magi.” Pittsburgh Public Theater. December 17 livestream 7 p.m., video recording online through December 20. 

O. Henry’s 1905 short story “The Gift of the Magi” has been adapted and/or parodied many times in many media, but you will not find a version quite like The Gift of the Mad Guys, streamed by Pittsburgh Public Theater. Pittsburgh writer Brian Pope sets the tale in the here and now. The original young couple, struggling to afford Christmas gifts for one another, become mad-guy couple Wes and Andrew. Their wedding plans were scrapped by pandemic-related shutdowns, which also put a big dent in the guys’ budgets. Hair stylist Andrew is in grumpy Scrooge mode while Wes, inflamed by watching maybe too much Hallmark Channel, desires a splendiferous Yule. Intervening in the dilemma are bagpipers, a social-media influencer, and more. Will true love prevail? The Public presents The Gift of the Mad Guys in an online staged reading, live at 7 p.m. December 17 and viewable via video recording through the 20th. Donations of $10 or more benefit the theater company. (M.V.)

Additionally, The Public is offering a filmed version of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. This production is a stage play produced to stream and stars Tony Award-winning actor, Jefferson Mays, who plays over 50 roles in this innovative production. It was created as a fundraiser for The Public and other theater companies across the country. It is directed by two-time Tony Award nominee, Michael Arden. Streams through January 3. (R.H.)

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (online radio play) by Joe Landry, adapted from the movie. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. December 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m.

The 1946 film had Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart, and Karolyn Grimes winning hearts in postwar America. Now you can try the web radio version of 'It's a Wonderful Life.' (screenshot: National Telefilm Associates)

The 1946 film had Donna Reed, Jimmy Stewart, and Karolyn Grimes winning hearts in postwar America. Now you can try the web radio version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ (screenshot: National Telefilm Associates)

Perhaps you’ve seen the stage play It’s a Wonderful Life, which presents the story from the 1946 movie as if it’s being performed as an old-time radio drama. This year you can hear it (but not see it) in the form of an actual radio drama streamed online. So gather the family around the computer—just as families used to gather around their console-sized radios—and let your imagination provide the visuals while listening to the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center production of It’s a Wonderful Life. The community arts center in Midland is using the same script by modern writer Joe Landry that’s used in live theater. The core story is basically that of Frank Capra’s classic film, with small-town businessman George Bailey contemplating suicide until he’s saved by his guardian angel Clarence, but further twists are added. December 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. only. (M.V.) 

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (one-person play) by Mark Coffin and Heidi Mueller Smith, from the Dickens novella. December 23 – 27, off the WALL productions.

Mark Coffin conjures the Ghosts of Christmas and the ghosts of 1800s London in off the WALL's 'A Christmas Carol.' (photo: Heather Mull Photography)

Mark Coffin conjures the Ghosts of Christmas and the ghosts of 1800s London in off the WALL’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ (photo: Heather Mull Photography)

The year is 1843. Charles Dickens is hard at work on a book he hopes will secure his reputation forever: the ponderous satirical novel Martin Chuzzlewit. In between writing serialized installments, he squeezes out a little novella just in time for holiday book sales. And A Christmas Carol becomes the story that wins hearts for centuries worldwide. There have been many adaptations and many Scrooges. Lionel Barrymore played the role on radio, in voice only; Marcel Marceau played it with no voice, in mime only. Now you can see a new version available on the web only, with Scrooge, all other characters, and even Dickens played by only one man, theater artist Mark Coffin. Co-created by Coffin and director Heidi Mueller Smith, the show was premiered by off the WALL productions in 2018, and this year off the WALL streams a video of the closing-night performance. Click for tickets. This adaptation of A Christmas Carol is a good one. It’s available online beginning at 6 p.m. December 23 and continues through December 27. Proceeds go to The Actors Fund, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. (MV)

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central. Rick Handler is executive producer of Entertainment Central.