December Theater Guide: To the Holidays… and Beyond

That's no Christmas carol; it's "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat." Quantum Theatre's production of this modern opera features (L to R) bass Kevin Glavin, soprano Katy Williams, and tenor Ian McEuen.

That’s no Christmas carol; it’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.” Quantum Theatre’s production of this modern opera features (L to R) bass Kevin Glavin, soprano Katy Williams, and tenor Ian McEuen.

December is when performing arts offerings divide into two categories: holiday-themed and everything else. On live theater stages in Pittsburgh, the first group includes traditional Christmas shows—multiple versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s extravagant production of The Nutcracker—plus the latest entry in a new tradition. PICT Classic Theatre has taken to presenting a December play that is sort of Christmas-y but not the jingle-bells-and-twinkle type. Last year it staged alternative Dickens—a serious, nonmusical adaptation of Oliver Twist—and this year it’s The Lion in Winter, a play about a Christmas party hosted by one of history’s famous dysfunctional families.

“Everything else” includes a rich spectrum of contemporary works. Between Riverside and Crazy won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a chamber opera based on a strange but true story. And Lungs, by the British playwright Duncan Macmillan, is strange, period.

If you act fast, you can catch some interesting plays that have short runs ending the first week of December. They range from Edward Bond’s satirical period piece The Sea to the bizarro-modern Mr. Marmalade by Noah Haidle. And if you still haven’t seen The Toxic Avenger, take heart; the very long run of this cabaret-style musical comedy has been extended.

Shows are previewed in the categories and sub-categories mentioned above.

Holiday-themed shows:

PICT's "Lion in Winter" has Alan Stanford and Cary Anne Spear as the royal odd couple Henry and Eleanor.

PICT’s “Lion in Winter” has Alan Stanford and Cary Anne Spear as the royal odd couple, Henry and Eleanor.

THE LION IN WINTER by James Goldman. Dec. 1-17, PICT Classic Theatre.

Family gatherings light up the holidays, especially when they mix clashing personalities and contentious politics. To honor this fine old tradition, PICT Classic Theatre is staging The Lion in Winter, a seriocomedy that depicts the family of King Henry II of England spontaneously combusting at Christmastime in 1183. The scenes and dialogue are fictional, but the play’s backstory is true. Henry was a hard-driving monarch married to a formidable woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Their union produced five sons, three daughters, and a war in which some of the sons—aided by Eleanor—rebelled against their dad. Henry crushed the revolt and pardoned the boys, but locked up his queen. She spent years in the medieval version of white-collar prison, let out only on special occasions.

The play imagines Eleanor released to join a sexually and politically charged Christmas celebration that includes the still-unruly sons and a young femme fatale. The Lion in Winter was made into a popular 1968 film. PICT is doing it live at the Union Project, 801 N. Negley Ave., Highland Park.

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky et al. Dec. 2-27, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

It’s the ballet that even non-ballet fans enjoy. The Nutcracker also provides a huge share of annual ticket sales for ballet companies across the nation, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production is among the grandest of all. Choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s music by PBT artistic director Terrence S. Orr (who drew in part on the original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov), this Nutcracker has a traditional feel but includes many custom features you won’t find in other versions. The story 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. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

Mr. Fezziwig (Tim Hartman) can barely keep his wig on in "A Musical Christmas Carol."

Mr. Fezziwig (Tim Hartman) can barely keep his wig on in “A Musical Christmas Carol.”

A MUSICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL, adapted from the Charles Dickens novella. Dec. 9-23, Pittsburgh CLO.

How big a deal is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? In Japan, the novella has been viewed as one of the great works of English literature—“possibly in a league with Hamlet,” as one Japanese scholar wrote. Illustrious actors who’ve played Ebenezer Scrooge in adaptations of the story include Basil Rathbone, Lionel Barrymore, and, memorably, Michael Caine (in The Muppet Christmas Carol, with Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit). In Pittsburgh CLO’s annual production of A Musical Christmas Carol, Scrooge is played this year by Patrick Page, whose résumé seems made for the role. Page was The Grinch in the 2006 Broadway debut of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Given that he’s also played villains ranging from Iago in Othello to Scar in The Lion King, he’s sure to be a right nasty Scrooge. But will he really turn into nice Scrooge? Find out at the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

A LYRICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL by Ken and Jane Gargaro. Dec. 15-18, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

The centuries have seen countless stage versions of the Christmas tale by Charles Dickens, and a longtime standard here in Pittsburgh is Ken and Jane Gargaro’s A Lyrical Christmas Carol. Ken Gargaro was founding director of the Pittsburgh Musical Theater school and performance center. He wrote A Lyrical Christmas Carol with wife Jane and premiered the show in 1991. It has been delighting local audiences ever since. As always, the cast includes accomplished adult performers along with outstanding younger folks from the PMT school. Also, as always, the show features some song-and-dance numbers that’ll send you home from the New Hazlett Theater in a supercharged holiday spirit. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

Notable contemporary works:

THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT (chamber opera) by Michael Nyman et al., from Oliver Sacks’ story. Through Dec. 11, Quantum Theatre.

Before The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was made into an opera, it was the title case in a book by neurologist Oliver Sacks. In his 1985 collection of “clinical tales,” Sacks wrote of patients with various brain disorders that affected them in unusual ways. The man of the title suffered from visual agnosia: He could see quite well but was losing the ability to recognize what he saw. He’d confuse objects with people—trying to shake hands with a grandfather clock, thinking a fire hydrant was a small child—and one day, wanting his hat, he grabbed his wife’s head and tried to put it on. The man could still identify things and people by sound, in fact with great acuity, as he was a pitch-perfect classical singer. So not surprisingly, composer Michael Nyman and librettists Christopher Rawlence and Michael Morris wrote a chamber opera based on the story. It’s said to be moving and thought-provoking. Quantum Theatre, which blew away audiences last year with an operatic remake of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is staging The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. 200 N. Highland Ave., East Liberty.

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Through Dec. 11, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Stephen Adly Guirgis has won a rep for writing plays that leaves you laughing, shuddering, and amazed. Among those presented locally in recent years are The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, an epic fantasy set in Purgatory, where Judas is on trial, and the dark 12-step comedy The Motherfucker with the Hat. Now Pittsburgh Public Theater is doing Between Riverside and Crazy, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and displays the signature Guirgis touches: surreal humor and tense drama springing from extreme characters placed in bizarre situations. The action revolves around a black ex-cop who retired from the NYPD after being shot while off duty by a white officer. He’s haggling over a lawsuit for damages while dodging eviction from his Riverside Drive apartment, which is peopled by an odd crew ranging from the ex-cop’s wayward son to a spiritual/sexual healer called Church Lady. See our review for more—or see the play itself at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District

Two's company, but what would three be? Alec Silberblatt and Sarah Silk play the unnamed couple in "Lungs."

Two’s company, but what would three be? Alec Silberblatt and Sarah Silk play the unnamed couple in “Lungs.”

LUNGS by Duncan Macmillan. Dec. 2-17, off the WALL Productions.

The British are different from us, and one of the most different British playwrights is Duncan Macmillan, who deals with themes of personal and social crisis. Macmillan’s works have included I Wish to Apologise for My Part in the Apocalypse, an end-of-the-world romantic comedy for BBC Radio; and 2071, a stage monologue about the possible long-term effects of climate change, co-written with (and performed by) climate scientist Chris Rapley. The one that off the WALL Productions is staging, Macmillan’s Lungs, has elements of both of these. It’s a comedy/drama about a couple deciding whether to have a baby, agonizing over factors that range from their relationship to the global impact. Estimating that the newborn’s lifetime carbon footprint would come to thousands of tons of greenhouse gases, the woman says: “That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.” Critics have called Lungs an emotional shape-shifter that takes you from comic exasperation with the couple to being caught up in their concerns. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

Short-run specials:

Long before "edgy" was a thing, Aphra Behn was edgy.

Long before “edgy” was a thing, Aphra Behn was edgy.

THE ROVER by Aphra Behn. Nov. 29 – Dec. 3, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

Almost forgotten in the mists of time, Aphra Behn has been resurrected as a cultural heroine: She wasn’t the first female playwright, but during the 1600s she became one of the first women to earn a living from the art. An intriguing character herself, Behn turned to writing after working undercover as a spy for King Charles II of England. Her edgy comedies were immensely popular in the Restoration period, the years after Cromwell’s dour Puritan rule, when a spirit of liberation swept through English society. Later critics, however, deemed her writing to be the scandalous work of a too-loose woman’s mind and consigned her to history’s proverbial dustbin. Today, Behn is back. A modern play about her, Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, was staged by off the WALL Productions two years ago. This year Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is performing a Behn original, The Rover. Catch it if you want to catch that Restoration feeling. At Purnell Center for the Arts on the Carnegie Mellon campus, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

MR. MARMALADE by Noah Haidle. Nov. 30 – Dec. 3, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

Did you have an imaginary playmate when you were little? In Mr. Marmalade, by Detroit playwright Noah Haidle, four-year-old Lucy has an imaginary boyfriend who is a workaholic, cocaine-addicted, emotionally abusive businessman. Can you say “relationship parody”? The part of Lucy in this dark comedy is customarily played by an adult actress, making it a challenging role. (Can you act like a demanding, pouting, silly small child? Some grownups do!) Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is presenting Mr. Marmalade with student actors in all the roles, from Lucy to the imaginary Mr. himself. College students work hard, play hard, and never sleep. They can do just about anything! In the Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theatre at Purnell Center for the Arts, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

THREE DAYS IN THE COUNTRY by Patrick Marber (adapted from Ivan Turgenev). Through Dec. 4, Kinetic Theater.

Some of the hardest-core literature fans are the people who get deeply into reading “the Russians,” i.e. the great Russian novelists of the 1800s and early 1900s. If you are such a fan, you know Ivan Turgenev as the author of the stunning 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. Turgenev’s plays are much less known, though one has endured, the comedy A Month in the Country. It’s the story of a woman who is bored with her marriage and struggles to keep a passionate suitor at arm’s length while scheming to snare a handsome younger man. A Month in the Country was banned in Russia for years as being entirely too naughty. We don’t sweat that stuff any more, and Pittsburgh’s Kinetic Theatre is presenting a modern adaptation by the English playwright Patrick Marber. This version is called Three Days in the Country—a faster title for faster times—but do not fear that Marber has turned Turgenev’s piece into a riff on Internet-based speed dating; the 1800s setting and flavor are preserved. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

THE SEA by Edward Bond. Through Dec. 4, Point Park Conservatory Theatre.

Edward Bond’s play The Sea is set in a quaint English seaside town in 1907—a town where a man has just been drowned, alas, during a storm. This is not another working-class drama about commoners bearing up in the face of grim hardships, though. These people are wacky. Indeed, as anyone who has frequented small towns will attest, their wackiness can exceed that found in our tumultuous urban centers. In The Sea, reactions to the drowning include a belief that space aliens have invaded. Bond, one of England’s legendary living playwrights, is one of its most idiosyncratic. The Sea is a satirical comedy, and Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre is performing it in our town. Studio Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

The Avenger’s work is not yet done:

Climate-change skeptics beware: The Toxic Avenger (Evan Ruggiero) will not be denied.

Climate change skeptics beware: The Toxic Avenger (Evan Ruggiero) will not be denied.

THE TOXIC AVENGER (musical) by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. Extended through Jan. 15, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

For those who enjoy mutations, a cult horror-comedy movie from 1984 has been turned into a stage musical. The Toxic Avenger tells the story of a pollution-fighting nerd named Melvin Ferd the Third who is transformed to a slimy superhero after being soaked in toxic waste. Using his newfound superpowers, mutant Melvin wins the love of a blind librarian, and together they wage war on the nefarious characters responsible for corrupting the environment. The musical, which premiered off-Broadway in 2009, has a rock score with songs like “All Men Are Freaks” and “Who Will Save New Jersey?” Pittsburgh CLO is performing The Toxic Avenger in the friendly confines of the Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Heather Mull; The Lion in Winter, courtesy of PICT Classic Theatre; A Musical Christmas Carol, by Matt Polk; Lungs, by Heather Mull; Aphra Behn, portrait by Sir Peter Lely, circa 1670, courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art; and The Toxic Avenger, by Archie Carpenter.

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