July Theater Preview: More than Midsummer Mindlessness

Should summer theater be lightweight fare, for audiences whose brains are on vacation? Maybe that old stereotype still holds in the movie industry but not on the live stage. For example, Pittsburgh theater companies have plenty of comedies scheduled in July, but most are the kinds that carry a Muhammad Ali punch—float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Instead of mindless escapism we get stuff that stretches the mind, sometimes into mind-bending realms where the fairies of madness dwell.

Babette (Tressa Glover, seated) stirs a mean brew in "Brewed," as Lee (Moira Quigley) offers a hand while Juliette and Roxette (Siovhan Christensen, Kelly Trumbull) stand clear.

Babette (Tressa Glover, seated) stirs a mean brew in “Brewed,” as Lee (Moira Quigley) offers a hand while Juliette and Roxette (Siovhan Christensen, Kelly Trumbull) stand clear.

Whereas Macbeth had only three witches, No Name Players’ Brewed doubles the toil and trouble with six. (See our review of Brewed.) Pittsburgh CLO’s Gypsy is one of the mid-1900s musicals that helped to set a new formula for that medium: satirical humor and sly songs fused with a serious dramatic story—driven in this case by Gypsy’s obsessive drama-queen mother.

There are comedies that howl over the dead (Sharon’s Grave at PICT), feature a dead man walking (Pine at South Park), wake dead actors to sing and dance (The Drowsy Chaperone at Stage 62), and transpire in a dead-end corner of Maine (Last Gas at Little Lake). Throughline Theatre is even mounting a serious Greek tragedy, for the fans who know how to pronounce Medea. (It’s Meh-DEE-uh.)

And for those times when we really do want to just switch off our brains and chill out in the heat to a bubbly beat, July includes some theater that will do the trick. CLO’s second musical of the month is The Wedding Singer. Shows are previewed in order of their run dates.

BREWED by Scott T. Barsotti. June 26 – July 11, No Name Players.

If you like dark comedy, Brewed is super-dark. This play by Pittsburgh native Scott T. Barsotti— which stunned Off-Loop audiences in Chicago two years ago—puts a capital D on “dystopian.” Brewed is a surreal tale of six weird sisters doomed to perpetually stir a bubbling pot of something-or-other while failing to get along rather spectacularly. Sister Nannette races stock cars while Babette spews venom from a wheelchair; Roxette (for some reason) brings home her new girlfriend to meet the family; there are fistfights and more. In other words it’s just the kind of play that audiences love to see from No Name Players, and they’re doing Brewed at off the WALL Theater. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

Mike Petrucci (standing) plays the perplexed Nat Paradis—yep, he's Paradis Lost—and John Michnya is his buddy Guy in "Last Gas."

Mike Petrucci (standing) plays the perplexed Nat Paradis—yep, he’s Paradis Lost—and John Michnya is his buddy, Guy, in “Last Gas.”

LAST GAS by John Cariani. July 9-25, Little Lake Theatre Company.

Aroostook County in Maine is one of the remotest corners of the U.S., long known for its rugged beauty, black flies, and moose. Because of playwright John Cariani it has also gained a rep as the setting for quirky seriocomic plays about the angst of modern life. Ten years ago Cariani’s Almost, Maine became an under-the-radar hit. Now Little Lake Theatre is doing his lesser known but highly regarded follow-up, Last Gas. Set in a gas station and convenience store at the edge of nowhere, Last Gas revolves around an existentially troubled single dad, all of whose exes do not live in Texas. They’re coming out of the Maine woods to hover about him as he runs on empty, toward a hazy future that holds a hidden surprise. 500 Lakeside Dr., Canonsburg.

SHERLOCK’S LAST CASE by Charles Marowitz. July 9-26, Kinetic Theatre.

When Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in the 1893 story “The Final Problem,” London went into mourning. Men wore black armbands. Women wept. Angry readers wrote letters demanding a recall, and subsequent stories by Doyle and many other writers have brought the detective back to life. The play Sherlock’s Last Case brings him back to death. Or at least to what looks like it, given that this dizzying 1984 sequel was written—how can one say it?—with a forked tongue in both cheeks. Sherlock’s Last Case has Holmes twitting poor Watson until Watson rebels; it has a plot with more twists than Wiz Khalifa’s dreadlocks; and the Kinetic Theatre production has David Whalen playing Sherlock. At the Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

GYPSY (musical) by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents. July 10-19, Pittsburgh CLO.

Pittsburgh CLO cranks up its summer season with a bizarre and brassy musical that seems to never grow old. Gypsy, which opened on Broadway in 1959, tells the story of a domineering stage mom who finally sees her daughter rise to fame … as a striptease artist. The musical is based on the real-life memoir of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee but the most prized role is that of Gypsy’s mother, Rose. Great actress/singers who’ve played the volatile mum range from Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury to Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. Pittsburgh CLO brings in TV’s Kim Zimmer (of “Guiding Light” and other series) as Mama Rose. Songs in Gypsy include “Let Me Entertain You” and—pun intended—“Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

Alan Obuzor goes heels-over-head for Alexandra Tiso in "Strength & Grace."

Alan Obuzor goes heels-over-head for Alexandra Tiso in “Strength & Grace.”

STRENGTH & GRACE (a collection of dance pieces). July 16-19, Texture Contemporary Ballet at the New Hazlett.

Texture Contemporary Ballet is a five-year-old company founded by Alan Obuzor, formerly a dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet and an experienced, though still quite young, choreographer. He and associate artistic director Kelsey Bartman have assembled a troupe of rising young dancers who all are versed in both classical and cutting-edge ballet. And in a four-day run at the New Hazlett Theater, the Texture team presents a sampling of its repertoire under the title Strength & Grace. There are new pieces by company members, “athleticism and elegance” are promised, and a special Saturday performance for children offers a condensed version of the full show. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (musical) by Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison, Bob Martin, and Don McKellar. July 16-26, Stage 62.

Stage 62, a top-notch community theater group, performs unusual musicals that are tricky to pull off. In recent years the company has scored big with Avenue Q, which requires mastery of puppets, and Side Show, wherein the female leads play Siamese twins joined at the hip. Now Stage 62 takes on The Drowsy Chaperone. This 2006 winner of five Tony Awards is both a parody of old musicals and a tribute to them, written as a play within a play. The central character is a shy fellow who sits at home alone listening to vintage recordings of Broadway tunes from the 1920s. When he puts his favorite onto the turntable—the soundtrack of an exuberantly hokey fictional show called, well, The Drowsy Chaperone—the cast members magically appear and start performing the show. At the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie.

SHARON’S GRAVE by John B. Keane. July 16 – Aug. 1, PICT Classic Theatre.

The “I” is for “Irish.” PICT Classic Theatre was originally named Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre, and the company still schedules intriguing plays from Ireland that are steeped in that country’s lore but seldom seen in the U.S. Next up is Sharon’s Grave, a macabre tragicomedy for which playwright John B. Keane was evidently channeling his inner banshee. Set in a rural seacoast area, Sharon’s Grave features a death watch, a wake, a feud over the dead man’s land, and a haunting. The villain pursuing the land grab is grotesquely unhinged: picture Voldemort without the emotional stability. The spirited daughter of the deceased insists on inhabiting the premises, while her brother is inhabited by spirits from Celtic mythology. In the Henry Heymann Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

Euripides, a controversial figure in his time, raised feminist issues with plays like "Medea" and "The Trojan Women."

Euripides, a controversial figure in his time, raised feminist issues with plays like “Medea” and “The Trojan Women.”

MEDEA by Euripides. July 17-25, Throughline Theatre Company.

The year 431 BCE was a tough one for Euripides but a memorable one for posterity. At the annual theater competition during the Dionysia festival in Athens, with the public watching (and judges rating) new plays by the city’s leading playwrights, Euripides finished last. Yet one of his entries from that year has become the modern world’s most frequently produced ancient Greek tragedy. The play is Medea and it is a hair-raiser. Medea, a barbarian woman married to Jason of the Golden Fleece, goes mad when her husband leaves her for a proper Greek princess. In revenge she coldly plots a murder spree that includes killing the children she’s had with Jason. The play’s grisly outcome and its undertones of proto-feminist rage may have been what prompted a thumbs-down from Athenians of 2500 years ago. Judge for yourself, as Throughline Theatre Company presents Medea in Pittsburgh. At the Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville.

PINE by Eugenie Carabatsos. July 23 – Aug. 8, South Park Theatre.

Pine is a comedy about a difficult subject, our longing for a loved one who has passed away. Written by emerging New York playwright Eugenie Carabatsos, the play was the prizewinner at a South Carolina new-works festival in 2013 and has been making its way around the country; South Park Theatre gives Pine its Pittsburgh premiere. In this story the departed is a young man who died in an auto accident. The catch is that he isn’t really gone. He reappears at family gatherings, visible, it seems, only to the audience and to his younger brother, while trying increasingly to make his presence known. Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Twp.

THE WEDDING SINGER (musical, based on the 1998 movie) by Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin, and Tim Herlihy. July 24 – Aug. 2, Pittsburgh CLO.

What were you doing in 1998? Investing in the dotcom bubble, listening to the Goo Goo Dolls, or just trying to make it through kindergarten? If the latter, you might have missed the Adam Sandler movie The Wedding Singer, which captured the bumbling but energetic spirit of the time. The hit comedy was later reverse-engineered into a Broadway musical that’s now being revived by Pittsburgh CLO. Although this version of The Wedding Singer leaves out some signature songs from the movie—notably, the J. Geils Band number “Love Stinks,” which Sandler belts at a wedding gig after his own bride-to-be has left him—plenty of other tunes have been added. There’s more than enough to wake the echoes of those wacky days that kissed the twentieth century goodbye. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

IT COULD BE ANY ONE OF US by Alan Ayckbourn. July 30 – Aug. 8, Apple Hill Playhouse.

There are typical summer-stock murder mysteries, and then there’s the kind in which not even the actors know whodunit. Alan Ayckbourn’s It Could Be Any One of Us is that kind. The identity of the killer can vary from one performance to the next depending on a random event that occurs during Act 1. Some companies cheat a little, rigging the game in advance each time, though surely the folks at Apple Hill Playhouse are above such shenanigans. It Could Be Any One of Us also delivers the usual Ayckbourn quotient of comedy, with characters including an artistically inept trio—an out-of-tune composer, an ineloquent writer, and an unsightly painter—plus a clueless detective. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.

GIRLS ONLY—THE SECRET COMEDY OF WOMEN (cabaret revue) by Barbara Gehring and Linda Klein. Through Aug. 16, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Contrary to certain rumors, men are welcome to attend Girls Only—The Secret Comedy of Women. In fact seeing how readily they get the jokes may be a good test of their gender consciousness. The sketches and songs in this revue are built around the plot device of two women comparing notes as they read through their old diaries. In such a manner, one gets a double comical dose of women’s history: the characters re-trace their personal journeys from girlhood to adulthood while conjuring up social phenomena they’ve lived through. Girls Only was conceived in Denver and has toured the country. CLO Cabaret has it for a nice long run. CLO Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: Brewed, by Luke Bruehlman. Last Gas, by Heather Spirik. Strength & Grace, by Katie Ging. Medea, by Marie-Lan Nguyen (Roman copy of Greek bust of Euripides).

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