February Theater Guide: New Ventures in Online Experience

Love blooms among the drudgery of work in a hat factory for Joan (Lisa Velten Smith) and Todd (Andrew William Smith) in Caryl Churchill's "Far Away" at Quantum Theatre. (photo: Heather Mull Photography).

Love blooms among the drudgery of work in a hat factory for Joan (Lisa Velten Smith) and Todd (Andrew William Smith) in Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” at Quantum Theatre. (photo: Heather Mull Photography).

We are approaching one full year since live theater lighted up venues across Pittsburgh. Until that happy state of affairs can return, the city’s companies and artists keep breaking beyond the Zoom barrier. This month they offer several new ways to stream drama, comedy, and music to your screen at home. 

Quantum Theatre checks in with a filmed-on-set production of a modern classic, Caryl Churchill’s dystopian fantasy Far Away. Pittsburgh Playwrights takes the action outdoors with Lissa Brennan’s Grist from the Mill: 1902, a spooky one-woman history show that was first done onstage, and has been remade by filming Brennan at locations throughout the area. 

In a rare live-in-person performance—with audience size strictly limited—Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dances to Ravel’s Bolero at a splendid setting, the Hall of Sculpture in Carnegie Museum of Art. Jill Sobule’s F*ck7thGrade, an entertaining musical show in a rather different vein, was originally scheduled to go live at City Theatre. Instead the company staged an outdoor, drive-in, concert version last summer, and a film of the concert is now online. 

Since February is Black History Month, some companies are addressing the theme by means that include films of stage productions. New Horizon Theater has Cowboy, about Bass Reeves, who in the late 1800s was the first Black U.S. marshal bringing outlaws to justice in the wild West. Prime Stage presents Sojourner, about Sojourner Truth. And Pittsburgh Public Theater has Justin Emeka’s Romeo N Juliet, an energetic adaptation that sets the Shakespeare play in Harlem. 

Elsewhere, Pittsburgh Opera streams two online concerts (including a love-song special for Valentine’s Day), and Real Time Interventions presents a new episode of its touching puppet-video series Sharon. 12 Peers continues streaming new and previous episodes of its Mythburgh series and Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks livestreams Love’s Labour’s Lost, its first winter production ever.

All shows are previewed below in order of run dates. Some stream for free with donations optional, but please—in every case—consider donating as much as your heart and wallet will allow. That’s the way to keep live theater literally alive. Rick Handler (R.H.) has written selected previews. 

GRIST FROM THE MILL: 1902 (one-person show) by Lissa Brennan, with on-location filming by PJ Gaynard. Pittsburgh Playwrights, streams now through Feb. 28. 

If you are a fan of the fiery theater artist Lissa Brennan, or a fan of Pittsburgh history, this month you can watch a unique online production combining the two. Brennan’s Grist from the Mill: 1902 is a solo storytelling show about a fictional murder, embedded in historic fact. It tells of a neighborhood where 196 men died from work-related accidents at the steel mill during 1902—and one died another way. Brennan first performed the show early last year at the avant-garde venue Carnegie Stage. Now there’s a new version, told by Brennan and filmed by media artist PJ Gaynard at locations across the Pittsburgh area where the eerie tale might have once unfolded. The settings range from spooky local byways and abandoned barge-docking stations to the immense Carrie Furnaces industrial site. This new, enhanced Grist from the Mill: 1902 is presented by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company as part of its pandemic-adjusted current season. Online viewing is free through February but donations are more than welcome. (M.V.)

Noted singer-songwriter Jill Sobule brings her life story, including a rough 7th Grade, to the concert stage in the City Theatre production, "F*ck7thGrade." (photo: Kristi Jan Hoover).

Noted singer-songwriter Jill Sobule brings her life story, including a rough 7th Grade, to the concert stage in the City Theatre production, “F*ck7thGrade.” (photo: Kristi Jan Hoover).

 F*CK7THGRADE (concert film version) by Jill Sobule, with text by Liza Birkenmeier. City Theatre, streams now through June 30.

Singer/songwriter Jill Sobule’s rough 7th grade year turned her into the successful person and recording artist that she is today. Her F*ck7thGrade musical was originally slated to be the last play of City Theatre’s 2019-2020 season, but unfortunately was cancelled due to covid, with City deciding to turn it into a concert film. It was shot in August of last year at Hazelwood Green in advance of City’s Drive-in Arts Festival. Sobule tells funny, and sometimes painful stories about her 7th grade life. One humorous story is about Sobule riding around Denver, Colorado on her Raleigh blue chopper bicycle. Other personal themes include coming of age sexually, and achieving success in the music industry. The concert film is a very pleasing mix of Sobule’s hit songs, including the iconic “I Kissed a Girl,” performed with her full band, and stories from her life. See our story on the production. (R.H.) 

The picture is grainy but the eagle eyes are sharp: Western lawman Bass Reeves, real-life subject of 'Cowboy,' always got his man. (photographer and date unknown)

The picture is grainy but the eagle eyes are sharp: Western lawman Bass Reeves, real-life subject of ‘Cowboy,’ always got his man. (photographer and date unknown)

COWBOY by Layon Gray. New Horizon Theater, streams Feb. 8 -14. 

Was he the original, real-life Lone Ranger? Some say that Bass Reeves inspired the fictional hero of 1950s TV fame, and though he didn’t wear a mask, Reeves was one of the most extraordinary lawmen of the Old West. Born into slavery in 1838, he escaped his owner during the Civil War and fled to Native territory in present-day Oklahoma, where he made friends among the indigenous Americans who’d been forcibly resettled there. After the war, Reeves was appointed a deputy U.S. marshal—the first African American so honored, in the West. Over the next 32 years he tracked down and arrested more than 3,000 dangerous criminals, killing 14 while suffering hardly a scratch. Last year, New Horizon Theater of Pittsburgh staged a play about Bass Reeves: Cowboy, by writer-director Layon Gray. A film of that production goes online this month, viewable for donations of $15 or more. Cowboy centers on a single dramatic incident, with Reeves and his Indian partner confronting two outlaws in a small town while a tornado approaches. (M.V.) 

Did Shakespeare know he'd be 'Abridged'? (Painting: possibly by John Taylor, 1610, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

William Shakespeare. (Painting: possibly by John Taylor, 1610, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London)

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST by William Shakespeare. Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks. Streams Feb. 11 – 15.

Pittsburgh’s Shakespeare in the Parks usually produces outdoor plays during more temperate weather, however, the pandemic has altered their normal methods. For the first time in their history they are producing a winter show, and only the second play PSIP have streamed. They are at least though offering a play set in a tropical clime—Love’s Labour’s Lost, and it’s a good one. Some critics regard it as one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, but is not very often produced, in part because it’s also a very long play and usually needs some significant cutting for today’s audiences. So, this is a rare chance to see it. The basic plot: The young King of Navarre and his best buddies take a mutual vow to avoid the company of women for three years, to devote themselves to study and self-improvement. As one may imagine, the vow is tested. Many memorable scenes follow, involving some great female characters and assorted buffoons. Love’s Labour’s Lost also features the longest word in any of Shakespeare’s works—Honorificabilitudinitatibus. Morgantown’s Irene Alby and Cornel Gabara are first co-directors. Streaming live at 7 p.m. nightly through February 15. (M.V./R.H.)

On an icy day, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Gabrielle Thurlow and William Moore heat up the studio by rehearsing for Ravel's 'Bolero.' (photo: Nicole Sauter)

On an icy day, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Gabrielle Thurlow and William Moore heat up the studio by rehearsing for Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ (photo: Nicole Sauter)

BOLÉRO (ballet) by Maurice Ravel, choreographed by Susan Jaffe. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, live with limited seating Feb. 12 – 14. 

Ravel’s Boléro is one piece of classical music that just about everyone recognizes. Stirring and sensuous, simple yet complex, it has been played countless times by symphony orchestras. What fewer people know is that Maurice Ravel didn’t compose it as a work for the symphony hall. Boléro entered this world as a ballet score. On the night of its premiere, in 1928 in Paris, audience members were thrilled to watch daringly choreographed ballet dancers leaping and swirling to the rhythms of Ravel’s music. Now a limited number of Pittsburghers can have a similar experience. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dances Boléro to new choreography, by Artistic Director Susan Jaffe, within the grand and spacious Hall of Sculpture at Carnegie Museum of Art. Audience size is limited to 25 persons at each of seven performances. All available seats sold out immediately, but you can visit PBT on the web for online options that give inside views of the creative process. (M.V.)

Sojourner Truth in 1870. The portrait is from the National Portrait gallery in Washington, D.C.

Sojourner Truth in 1870. The photo is from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia)

SOJOURNER (one-person play) by Richard LaMonte Pierce. Prime Stage Theatre, streams Feb. 12 – 28. 

Harriett Tubman is set to grace the U.S. twenty dollar bill sometime in the near future, and rightfully so. Tubman and other early female Black abolitionists fought hard against the evil of slavery. Now Prime Stage Theatre is staging a one-woman show by Richard LaMonte Pierce about Sojourner Truth, another famous anti-slavery advocate. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York in 1797. In 1826 she escaped with her infant daughter. And successfully went to court to get her son, winning one of the first battles of its type against a white man. She is also remembered for an inspirational speech she delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. It became widely known by the title, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Truth is portrayed by Delana Flowers in Sojourner. (R.H.)

Pittsburgh Opera's Head of Music Glenn Lewis (l.) and resident artist Yazid Gray perform the music of William Grant Still and Florence Price in "I, Too, Am America." (photo: David Bachman Photography).

Pittsburgh Opera’s Head of Music Glenn Lewis (l.) and resident artist Yazid Gray perform the music of William Grant Still and Florence Price in “I, Too, Am America.” (photo: David Bachman Photography).

SONGS FROM THE HEART Feb 14 at 5:30 pm, and I, TOO AM AMERICA, Feb 26 at 7 pm. Pittsburgh Opera, two streamed song-concerts.

Love has always been the inspiration for many great works of art including, songs, plays, and operas. This year Pittsburgh Opera is going all-in for Valentine’s Day with a free concert, “Songs from the Heart. It is a love letter/song from Pittsburgh Opera and its talented resident artists to the people of Pittsburgh. The 45-minute concert will feature a variety of “amorous arias, tender duets, and romantic ensembles spanning both operatic favorites and beloved selections from the Great American Songbook.” “Songs from the Heart” will be livestreamed on Pittsburgh Opera’s YouTube Channel and Facebook page. Additional accoutrements available for purchase include Valentine’s Video-Grams of romantic arias (both personalized and non-personalized, pre-recorded) sung by resident artists delivered via email on Valentine’s Day, and a five-piece package of Edward Marc Chocolatier’s (the event sponsor) milk salted caramels. Valentine’s Day, February 14, 5:30 p.m.

Additionally, Pittsburgh Opera pays tribute to Black History Month with “I, Too, Am America: The Music of William Grant Still and Florence Price,” featuring Pittsburgh Opera Head of Music Glenn Lewis on piano and baritone Yazid Gray on Friday, February 26 at 7 p.m. Grant is noted as being the dean of African American composers. When Price’s first symphony was performed by a major symphony orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in 1933, she was the first African-American woman to achieve that milestone. The recital will be streamed on Pittsburgh Opera’s YouTube channel. Also available for streaming is a 25-mintute documentary about the making of the socially distanced making of Pittsburgh Opera’s staging of Così fan tutte last fall, which the Opera waggishly is calling, Covid fan tutte. It can be streamed on their YouTube channel. (R.H.)

ROMEO N JULIET by William Shakespeare, adapted by Justin Emeka. Pittsburgh Public Theater, streams Feb.18 – 21.

Romeo and Juliet, a hit in Shakespeare’s own time, has become a play that lends itself to modern adaptations. The story’s main elements—street battles between urban clans, lovers from the two rival factions, macho comedy that turns into tragedy—were the basis for West Side Story. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet kept most of Shakespeare’s original but reset it in a mythical city of our time, with TV newscasters as the chorus and gunfights instead of swordplay. And now, streaming online in Black History Month, Pittsburgh Public Theater presents Romeo N Juliet. This adaptation is by Justin Emeka, the company’s resident director. He has transposed the story to Harlem, blended Shakespeare’s language with contemporary ways of speaking, and infused the entire play with the spirit and energy of African-American and Black immigrant cultures. Emeka’s Romeo N Juliet was premiered live by The Classical Theatre of Harlem in 2014.  The Public will send it onto your screen for donations of $10 or more. (M.V.)

Joan (Lisa Velten Smith, l.) converses with Harper (Ingrid Sonnichsen) in Quantum's "Far Away." (photo: Joe Seamans)

Joan (Lisa Velten Smith, l.) converses with Harper (Ingrid Sonnichsen) in Quantum’s “Far Away.” (photo: Joe Seamans)

FAR AWAY by Caryl Churchill. Quantum Theatre, streams Feb 19 – March 7

Caryl Churchill has been showing up on lists of the greatest living playwrights for so long that it’s hard to believe she is still alive. (Which she is, last time we checked, at the age of 82.) Churchill’s plays are strange but engaging. Some hover between fantasy and realism, while others time-hop or throw conventional story structure out the window. Done with human insight, these tricks resonate—perhaps because we tend to live in between our fantasies and reality, in a world that doesn’t follow tidy story lines. One catch: Churchill plays aren’t made into major motion pictures. This usually means you have to wait and hope for a local company to stage one of them. But now Quantum Theatre brings peak Churchill to your home viewing screen, with a filmed-and-streamed production of Far Away. It’s a dark-comic dystopian drama about social disintegration and hatmaking. 

At the core of Far Away is a budding romance between a young woman and man who work in a factory producing artistic custom-designed hats. Unfortunately, the hats are used for not-so-happy purposes, amid conditions where even natural law is giving way to disorder. The play premiered in London in 2000. Considered one of Churchill’s best, it has only three characters and runs a tight, tense 45 minutes. Quantum Theatre presents Far Away with actors Lisa Velten Smith, Andrew William Smith, and Ingrid Sonnichsen. A donation of $10 or more gives you online access any time through March 7. The play was co-directed by Quantum’s Karla Boos and filmmaker Joe Seamans, with Mark Knobil as director of photography and hats provided by a team of 13 artisans. (MV)

SHARON (puppet video series) by Molly Rice and Rusty Thelin. RealTime Interventions, streams constantly with new episodes added. 

Among online productions from Pittsburgh theater companies, Sharon is one of a kind. We have here a pre-filmed (well, video-recorded) series using Calico Critters dolls as tiny puppets on miniature sets. Produced by RealTime Interventions, Sharon comes across as artfully done, socially relevant, and just plain cute. Title character Sharon—a little brown bear dressed in human clothes—is a child care worker who enjoys her cigarettes and coffee when not tending the kids. Molly Rice and Rusty Thelin, co-artistic directors of RealTime, conceived the series from their own experiences with child care and fleshed it out by interviewing local caregivers. Aided by artists in several specialties, they blend real-life scenery footage with the puppetry to create episodes that are more convincing than you might imagine. “Chapter 1” is already online; the second drops February 10. Get into Sharon’s world by visiting RealTime on the web. (M.V.)

MYTHBURGH Series. 12 Peers. Episodes by various writers. Ongoing Streaming.

12 Peers Theater is a small Pittsburgh company known for producing great plays, and also for its Mythburgh storytelling events, which until last 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 now 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. Episodes include: “Mystic Matt and the Bridge to Nowhere,” “Fake Boos,” “Blue Rendezvous 2: Purgatory Drift,” and “Ghoulfriends.” (M.V.)

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