January Theater Preview: Themes of Identity and Creation

If you plan to re-invent yourself in the new year, live theater may provide some inspiration. Pittsburgh stages in January offer a variety of shows about people exploring their identities or creating new ones.

It’s also a month of unusual formats, as a couple of the city’s major theater companies are mounting one-person plays. The rest of the slate includes revived musicals, a Baroque opera done with period music, and a modern dance performance. Shows are previewed here in order of opening date.

In off the WALL's "Or," Lady Davenant (Robin Abramson, masked) pays an unexpected—and amusing—visit to Aphra Behn (Erika Cuenca).

In off the WALL’s “Or,” Lady Davenant (Robin Abramson, masked) wants to make Aphra Behn (Erika Cuenca) a star.

Already running (opened in December):

OR, by Liz Duffy Adams. Through Jan. 10, off the WALL Productions.

For something completely different try Or, a farcical comedy about a remarkable woman from history. During the 1600s, Aphra Behn (a.k.a. Agent 160) was a spy for King Charles II of England before launching a new life as the country’s first female professional playwright. This modern play is a fictional imagining of her hectic career change and you can read our review for more info. At off the WALL Performing Arts Center, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie. 

UPROAR (modern dance) by Elisa Marie Alaio and Erika Cuenca, with music by Ryan McMasters. Through Jan.11, FireWALL Dance Theater.

The town of Carnegie is becoming a regional center for off-the-beaten-track theater. In the past few months alone it has hosted an intriguing cult musical (Side Show, presented by Stage 62), a radical remake of Shakespeare (Fixing King John, done by the No Name Players), and the above-mentioned Or, by off the WALL. Now a new modern-dance company joins the mix. FireWALL Dance Theater—housed in the off the WALL space—performs an original work called Uproar. The feature-length piece shares a stage with Or, being danced at alternate showtimes, and it has a thematic link to that play as well. Choreographed by Elisa Marie Alaio for an ensemble of dancers, Uproar is meant to embody the inner struggles of a creative writer. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

Opening in January:

PIPPIN by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson. Jan. 20-25, PNC Broadway Across America series: national touring company at Benedum Center.

Sasha Allen (arms spread) is the Leading Player in the hooped-up new production of "Pippin."

Sasha Allen (arms spread) is the Leading Player in the spectacularly hooped-up new version of “Pippin.”

Long ago in early medieval France, there lived a prince who hoped to be king. He never knew that his ultimate fate was to be the subject of a Broadway musical. Pepin, a son of Charlemagne, aspired to his father’s throne but lost out in the intrigues of the time. Centuries later, composer Stephen Schwartz turned the story into Pippin, a surreal musical tale about a young man’s quest for identity and meaning in life. An initial version played at Carnegie Mellon in 1967 when Schwartz was a student there. Reworked for Broadway, Pippin became a hit in the 1970s. Now comes the traveling production of an amped-up Pippin that won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival. With acrobatics by the Montreal circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main (7 Fingers of the Hand), it’s a dazzling show. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

MY FAIR LADY by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Jan. 22–Feb. 22, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

There aren’t many musicals better known or loved than My Fair Lady. Nor are there heroines more captivating than the show’s Eliza Doolittle—a Cockney flower girl who learns to be a cultivated lady, then turns the tables on her teacher, Professor Henry Higgins. That’s why Pittsburgh Public Theater chose the 1956 Broadway classic as the musical entry for its 40th-anniversary “Season of Legends.” The Public’s My Fair Lady features all the songs that are classics in their own right: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “On the Street Where You Live,” “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and more. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

MR. JOY by Daniel Beaty. Jan. 24–Feb. 15, City Theatre.

This is a solo show written by the New York-based Beaty, who often draws his material from everyday life in the neighborhoods of Harlem. Mr. Joy centers on a shoe repair shop founded by a Chinese immigrant, whose value to the community becomes evident one fateful day when customers arrive to find the shop closed. Actress Tangela Large plays all the parts, ranging from a budding young shoe designer to a “gangsta granny.” The show has been workshopped in New York and elsewhere; Pittsburgh’s City Theatre is now giving Mr. Joy its full-blown world premiere. 13th and Bingham Sts., South Side.

RODELINDA (opera) by G.F. Handel. Jan. 24–Feb. 1, Pittsburgh Opera.

If January finds you in a throwback mood, yearning for old-time melodrama and music, Rodelinda is the opera for you. Pittsburgh Opera is performing Handel’s stirring 18th-century work with the music played authentically on instruments of the period by members of Chatham Baroque. The opera is based (loosely) on the true story of Rodelinda, Queen of the Lombards, who struggles to remain steadfast while her usurped husband fights to regain his kingdom. One deviation from authenticity: the king’s role was written for an alto castrato, but we no longer castrate young male singers, so the high-pitched part is often sung by a woman. Pittsburgh Opera has Corrie Stallings as King Bertarido and Jasmine Muhammad as Rodelinda. At CAPA Theater, 111 9th St., Cultural District

Meet your friendly hijra: It's Sanjiv Jhaveri, starring in Quantum's "Brahman/i."

Meet your friendly hijra: It’s Sanjiv Jhaveri, starring in Quantum’s “Brahman/i.”

BRAHMAN/i: A ONE-HIJRA STAND-UP COMEDY SHOW by Aditi Brennan Kapil. Jan. 30–Feb. 22, Quantum Theatre.

Like all Quantum productions, this unorthodox play merits some explaining. “Hijra” is a Hindi word for an intersex person. Playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil, an Indian-Bulgarian theater artist, grew up in Sweden and lives in Minneapolis. Brahman/i is part of her Displaced Hindu Gods trilogy, which invokes the spirits of ancient deities while exploring the lives of Indian immigrants in the West. And, as the subtitle indicates, it’s written as a show by a standup comic. For that role Quantum has Sanjiv Jhaveri, who has acted in Indian-American films. He riffs with high humor on the problems—and, interestingly, the power—that can come from being someone who doesn’t fit neatly into any one gender, nationality, or other identity. At Quantum’s “Temple of Comedy” (the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. Community Center), 113 N. Pacific Ave., Garfield.

Photo credits: Or, by Heather Mull. Pippin, by Terry Shapiro. Brahman/i, courtesy of the actor and Quantum Theatre.

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