June Theater Guide: Into the Not-So-Empty Void

There won’t be smooth sailing for these gents: that is a blueprint of the RMS Titanic. Pittsburgh CLO presents the musical ‘Titanic’ as part of a June theater lineup that includes happier endings as well.

There won’t be smooth sailing for these gents: that is a blueprint of the RMS Titanic. Pittsburgh CLO presents the musical ‘Titanic’ as part of a June theater lineup that includes happier endings as well.

As time’s arrow flies through May into June, major theater companies in Pittsburgh wrap up their fall-to-spring seasons, leaving a void in the local scene. But nature abhors a vacuum. So do actors, who like to work, and theater fans, who like to watch.

Thus the void is filled by the blossoming of certain species which, together, make up the ecosystem known as “summer theater.” One is a hardy year-round species that busts out all over in June: musicals. Shows this month include musicals set in the early 1900s (Titanic and Ragtime), jukebox musicals (On Your Feet! and Life Could Be a Dream), and the musical version of the novel that explained how covered bridges lead to adultery: The Bridges of Madison County.

Another summer staple is so-called light comedy, represented on our schedule by plays like Noël Coward’s Hay Fever. Then again, Coward wasn’t an intellectual lightweight, so his comedies are like swimming pools. While frolicking in the shallow water, you may notice that there’s also a deep end.

Summer brings adventurous theater, too. Some smaller companies run their seasons when the big companies don’t, in the spring-to-fall window, and their offerings range from popular standards to edgier, seldom-seen plays. Three of the latter stand out this June. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a mind-bending, genre-bending seriocomedy. Lyle Kessler’s Orphans is a much-acclaimed dark comedy about crime and family. And Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, an obscenely absurd sociopolitical satire from the 1890s, is considered timely again due to the current state of real-life absurdity.

There’s more. Read all about it below. Shows are previewed in order of their run dates.

Continuing from May …

KING HEDLEY II by August Wilson. Through June 3, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

August Wilson is one serious playwright, even when he’s being funny. These Wilsonian qualities are displayed vividly in King Hedley II. Set in the Hill District during the 1980s, the play is a dark one—a story of people with blasted pasts and dim futures—yet it’s amazing to see how such dark materials can light up the stage. The title character is an ex-con whose plans for a better life are dubious and desperate, such as fencing stolen refrigerators to get money for an honest business venture. Another striking character is Stool Pigeon, who got the nickname after spilling what he knew about a murder case. He considers himself a “truth-teller” and serves as the neighborhood’s Scripture-quoting, fire-breathing streetcorner prophet. Almost everyone in King Hedley II is somehow striving for validation and redemption. The play provides a great intro to Wilson’s world for newcomers, and there’s no better time to see it. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is performing King Hedley II at the actual site of Wilson’s boyhood home in The Hill. 1727 Bedford Ave., Hill District.

NOMAD MOTEL by Carla Ching. Through June 3, City Theatre.

'Home' is an elusive concept for the kids of itinerant parents in 'Nomad Motel.' Here, Alix (Katie Lynn Esswein) and Mason (Christopher Larkin) find music in the madness.

‘Home’ is an elusive concept for the kids of itinerant parents in ‘Nomad Motel.’ Here, Alix (Katie Lynn Esswein) and Mason (Christopher Larkin) find music in the madness.

Search “Nomad Motel” on the web and you’re likely to get a bunch of entries for actual motels, including one reviewed by a visitor as “worst motel ever.” The fictional characters in the new play Nomad Motel, at City Theatre, often find themselves in similar surroundings. California-born playwright Carla Ching has focused the story on a family of so-called motel kids. They’re growing up in the bedbug underbelly of the Golden State, trying to live well as they drift with their mother from one cheap motel to the next. It seems that Mama is a rolling stone—and City Theatre is part of the play’s “rolling world premiere.” After opening here, Nomad Motel will be staged by theater companies in Atlanta and Kansas City. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

THE CEMETERY CLUB by Ivan Menchell. Through June 9, South Park Theatre.

Many locals remember The Cemetery Club as a 1993 movie filmed in Pittsburgh. However the movie was based on a stage play, and South Park Theatre is performing this comic drama in its original form. The story: Three newly widowed women, all of advanced age, strike up an informal “club” around visits to their late husbands’ graves. Comedy and pathos ensue when it turns out the women have quite different approaches to widowhood. One is devoted to the memory of her dear departed, another to snagging a new man—and the third, while hardly trying, actually snags one. The Cemetery Club is by playwright and screenwriter Ivan Menchell. In recent years he wrote the books for a couple of dark musicals: Bonnie & Clyde, based on the careers of those criminals, and Death Note: The Musical, adapted from the Japanese manga-and-anime series about a student who finds a magical notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written in it. There’s no true crime or supernatural terror in The Cemetery Club—just classic New York-style Jewish humor—but audiences over the decades have found it amusing and endearing. Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.

BUILDING THE WALL by Robert Schenkkan. Through June 10, 12 Peers Theater.

Some books are written and produced rapidly in response to current events; here is a play that fits the description. Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall premiered in Los Angeles in March 2017, just two months after the inauguration of Donald Trump. The play is a dystopian drama set in the near future. Trump has been impeached—but not before he reacted to a terrorist attack by massively escalating his anti-immigrant agenda. Immigrants already in the country were rounded up, herded into camps, tortured, and executed. All this was done by U.S. citizens complying with orders, of course, and the play is in the form of a prison interview with a man who carried out such atrocities. 12 Peers Theater presents Building the Wall in the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre. Level B, Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland.

New shows in the Entertainment Central spotlight for June:

MOMENTUM ’18 (new-play staged readings & workshops) May 31 – June 3, City Theatre.

Ever been to a staged reading of a new play? It’s a “workshop”-style production, with the performers reading most of their lines from scripts-in-progress—but it’s still good theater, and you may get a first look at a future hit. Pittsburgh’s City Theatre hosts an annual festival of staged readings called Momentum. Admission is free but web reservations for the reading(s) of your choice are recommended. Shows at past Momentums have included POP!, the musical about the shooting of Andy Warhol, and Some Brighter Distance, a history play about ex-Nazi rocket scientists who led the U.S. space program. Momentum ’18 is now upon us, with a lineup that features: The Haunted by Claire Kiechel, a spooky modern romance. #Fuck7thGrade, a charming musical solo show by Jill Sobule. P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle, a hip-hop reality-TV satire by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. And Matt Schatz’s dark social-media comedy The Burdens, which will premiere in full-up form as part of City Theatre’s 2018-19 season. In the Lester Hamburg Studio, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

ARCADIA by Tom Stoppard. May 31 – June 16, Little Lake Theatre.

Nobody has more fun with serious intellectual stuff than British playwright Tom Stoppard. His many plays over the years have included Jumpers—a comedy about philosophy professors who are forced to practice gymnastics—and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the hypothetical inside story of two minor characters who get offed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Now Little Lake Theatre is performing what many consider to be Stoppard’s masterpiece, Arcadia. This is a comedy-slash-mystery concerning two subjects of universal interest: science and sex. Arcadia time-travels between the early 1800s and the present. History and mathematics also figure prominently in Arcadia, as do Lord Byron, a duel, and a large tortoise. You’ll be sorry if you miss it. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.

ORPHANS by Lyle Kessler. May 31 – June 23, indie production at Aftershock.

Aftershock, a new performance space in Lawrenceville, catapults into summer by hosting a major production of a modern classic. The play is Lyle Kessler’s tragicomedy Orphans. Set in a down-and-out part of North Philly, it’s about two orphaned brothers who live by petty thievery. One brother tries to turn their fortunes by kidnapping a big-time crook, but the guy turns the tables on the young men, and shocking life lessons ensue. Orphans is described as wickedly funny and very moving. It premiered in 1983, was made into a 1987 movie starring Albert Finney, and has been played on stage internationally. The production at Aftershock is put together by a top-notch team of local theater artists. Actor Ken Bolden plays the senior crook, with Dylan Marquis Meyers and Max Pavel as the brothers. The director is Ingrid Sonnichsen, who recently did the knockout Byhalia, Mississippi at off the WALL. And consulting on Orphans is Cotter Smith of Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” who recently moved to Pittsburgh because he likes it here. Reserve online for Orphans at Aftershock. 115 57th St., Lawrenceville.

REDUCED SHAKESPEARE COMPANY: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S LONG LOST FIRST PLAY (ABRIDGED) by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. May 31 – July 1, company in residence at the O’Reilly Theater.

It’s a high-speed parody year in Pittsburgh. Having barely caught our breath after recent touring companies gave us super-condensed spoofs of “Game of Thrones” and the Harry Potter books, we now are visited by the legendary King Kongs of comical condensing, the Reduced Shakespeare Company. The show is RSC’s latest, William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged). It premiered in the theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. in 2016, and the video above—made for that premiere—will give you a brief intro. (Don’t have 3½ minutes? All right: The Long Lost First Play is a hypothetical mashup of mixed-up first drafts of plays that Shakespeare really wrote later. E.g., Prince Hamlet meets Lady Macbeth.) The Reduced Shakespeare act can look merely silly when glimpsed in small doses. But the guys are excellent actors, and the longer you watch, the funnier they get. They’re in town for a month-long run so you can even catch ‘em twice. At the O’Reilly Theatre, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

STEEL MAGNOLIAS by Robert Harling. June 7-16, Apple Hill Playhouse.

Apple Hill Playhouse continues its 2018 spring-to-fall season with a classic tragicomic tear-jerker, Steel Magnolias. Playwright Robert Harling was inspired to write it in memory of his sister, Susan Harling-Robinson, who died from complications of diabetes after giving birth. The play, set in a beauty shop in a Louisiana town, depicts the interactions and reactions of a group of odd but stout-hearted women as one of them faces the same crisis. Steel Magnolias premiered in New York in 1987, quickly becoming a popular ensemble piece for all-female casts. The 1989 movie adaptation had a star-studded lineup: Julia Roberts as the character based on Harling’s sister, Sally Field as her mother, and the circle of friends played by Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, and Daryl Hannah. A 2012 Lifetime TV film re-did the story with an all-African-American cast including Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, and others. The original play is simpler than either film version, and memorably funny and moving. 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.

ON YOUR FEET! (jukebox bio-musical) with music from Gloria and Emilio Estefan; book by Alexander Dinelaris. June 12-17, touring company at Benedum Center, presented by Pittsburgh CLO.

Sometimes the dancers in 'On Your Feet!' rise 'way off their feet!

Sometimes the dancers in ‘On Your Feet!’ rise ‘way off their feet!

What do blockbuster Broadway musicals have, which no previous form of theater had? An exclamation mark at the end of the title!  But that’s not the only attraction when the national touring company of On Your Feet! visits Benedum Center! This is the bio-musical about the lives (and music!) of two very popular pop musicians, Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio Estefan Jr. Along with being known for their sizzling Latin beats, the Estefans are civic icons among, and de facto cultural ambassadors of, the sizable Cuban-American population in Florida. Gloria met Emilio when she joined his band the Miami Latin Boys in 1977. The band was renamed Miami Sound Machine and became a national sensation with Gloria as lead singer. Later, working also as a solo artist, she recorded hit albums sung both in Spanish and English. The musical’s title, On Your Feet!, has a literal reference. Estefan was badly injured in a 1990 tour-bus accident that left her unable to walk for a while, let alone perform energetically on stage. She rebounded to do both. All this and more is captured in the touring musical, which has Christie Prades as Gloria and Mauricio Martinez as Emilio. Presented by Pittsburgh CLO at 237 7thAve., Cultural District.

SEASONAL ALLERGIES by Katherine DiSavino and Kevin Mead. June 14-30, South Park Theatre.

A Thanksgiving-Christmas comedy in June? Why not? The proverbial human comedy unfolds in its many bizarre forms year-round, and therefore South Park Theatre is performing Seasonal Allergies. Don’t try Googling “Seasonal Allergies,” even with keywords like “play” added, unless you want thousands of hits for medical advice. Entertainment Central is here to inform you that it’s about a family who, at Thanksgiving, take in Mom’s troubled brother for what is supposed to be a short stay. Said brother—who is undergoing (if that’s the right word) a divorce—stays clear through jingle-bell time, producing humorous side effects. Seasonal Allergies premiered in 2014. It was co-written by L.A.-based playwright Katherine DiSavino and her fiancé, screenwriter Kevin Mead, around the time that they also collaborated on a short film titled Hot as Fuck. Further web search will be needed to determine whether the happy couple are still together. One hopes so, and BTW: Hot as Fuck depicts a man’s need for an air conditioner. Seasonal Allergies is a family-friendly comedy with no f-words. Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.

RAGTIME (musical) by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens, and Terrence McNally, from E.L. Doctorow’s novel. June 15-24, Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center.

Midland, the little Ohio River town once famous for high school basketball (five state titles from 1965-76), has a new claim to fame as home of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. Along with housing an arts-oriented charter school, the Center produces shows with professional actors. And on stage this month is the musical Ragtime. Adapted from the E.L. Doctorow novel, it’s an epic musical, similar to Les Miz in its aim to depict an entire society at a tumultuous time. The setting is New York in the early 1900s. Ragtime follows three sets of characters—Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side, African Americans in Harlem, and an upper-class family in the suburbs—as their lives intersect amid great events of the era. The Lincoln Park cast includes notable Pittsburgh-based performers such as Tru Verret-Fleming. He shined in last year’s earthshaking The Scottsboro Boys at The REP, and he’s got a key role in Ragtime: piano player/singer Coalhouse Walker Jr., who shakes up old New York with a funky brand of music called, well … ragtime. 1 Lincoln Park, Midland.

LIFE COULD BE A DREAM (jukebox musical) by Roger Bean. June 19-July 1, Mountain Playhouse.

Jukebox musicals use existing pop songs instead of new ones written for the show. They can provoke strong reactions, depending on one’s taste in music: ABBA fans love Mamma Mia!, while ABBAphobes live in dread of being dragged to see it. But almost everyone who’s not a curmudgeon is susceptible to the feel-good beats of 1950s rock and doo-wop, which explains the appeal of the jukebox musical Life Could Be a Dream. The show features a hit parade of golden oldies, from The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job”—more relevant than ever in today’s market!—to the oft-covered granddaddy of all get-up-and-hop tunes, “Little Bitty Pretty One.” The book for Life Could Be a Dream is by Roger Bean. As in his better-known musical The Marvelous Wonderettes, the plot revolves around a talent contest. Life Could Be a Dream premiered in Hollywood in 2009. It’s now a staple of regional theaters wishing to display their local talent, and Mountain Playhouse presents the show in our neck of the woods. 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown.

HAY FEVER by Noël Coward.  June 21-July 7, Little Lake Theatre.

If summer means “light” theater, then summer means Noël Coward, and Little Lake Theatre is staging his 1925 comedy of manners Hay Fever. Why is a play of this type called a comedy of manners? Probably because it’s about upper-class folks who have good manners, except they lose their manners when they get flustered. Coward was a master of the form. Born in 1899 into a struggling family far below England’s upper ranks, he became a high-society favorite by virtue of his wit and theatrical talents. A flamboyant fellow also known as one of the truly nice guys in show biz, Coward often acted in the plays he wrote. His comedies remain popular because they’re organically funny—that is, the humor flows naturally from the characters’ quirks and situations, instead of from laugh lines or gags jammed in merely for comic effect. Time and again, Coward’s keen observations of human nature shine through. In Hay Fever, four members of an eccentric family each invite a house guest for the weekend. The guests turn out to be an oddly mismatched bunch and they’re not prepared for the family’s oddities. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.   

TITANIC (musical) by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone. June 22-July 1, Pittsburgh CLO.

Why do people have an affinity for tragic accidents and disasters turned into popular art? This is Entertainment Central, not Social Psychology Central, so we won’t go there. We simply inform you that Pittsburgh CLO, the city’s premier musical theater company, is presenting Titanic. The show swept the big three Tony Awards for 1997: Best Musical, Best Score (by Maury Yeston), and Best Book (by Peter Stone). Better yet, Titanic even earns social-psychology credits by capturing many details and ironies that have made the 1912 sinking of that ship an endless subject of grim fascination. Unlike James Cameron’s movie, built around a fictional romance, the stage musical focuses on historical facts. The RMS Titanic, the world’s largest ship at the time, was hailed as a miracle of human achievement—yet it was undone by human errors and misjudgments that could’ve easily been avoided. The drama is conveyed in musical numbers ranging from “What a Remarkable Age This Is” to “The Blame” and “The Foundering.” CLO performs Titanic at Benedum Center, 237 7th Ave., Cultural District.

Long before Apple's 'Think Different' ads, there was Alfred Jarry, author of 'Ubu Roi.'

Long before Apple’s ‘Think Different’ ads, there was Alfred Jarry, author of ‘Ubu Roi.’

UBU ROI by Alfred Jarry. June 22-30, Throughline Theatre.

Ubu Roi is one of the weirdest plays ever written. Since its 1896 premiere, it has inspired more than a century’s worth of absurd theater and other arts, and it is the only play that begins—in the original French—with the line “Merdre!” That’s French for “Shit!” but with an extra “r” added. Playwright Alfred Jarry had more than one “r” in his name, so he wrote the expletive to match. Jarry was a five-foot-tall intellectual who liked to pedal his bicycle through the streets of Paris while high on absinthe and carrying a loaded pistol. (Fortunately he used the gun mostly for recreational shooting, at home in his apartment.) Ubu Roi’s premiere ran for only one performance. The audience rioted. It seems they didn’t appreciate a comedy that parodies Macbeth, capitalism, and the utter depravity of humankind all at once. The title character, Ubu, is an obscenely bloated, foul-mouthed ignoramus who somehow becomes king. Similarities to real persons always have been coincidental. Throughline Theatre, a small company that plays big, performs Ubu Roi in Pittsburgh. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (musical) by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman, from Robert James Waller’s novel. June 29-July 8, Carnivale Theatrics.

Difficult as it may be to believe, there are still some people who think The Bridges of Madison County is about a family named the Bridges. Wrong-o. The story concerns covered bridges and adultery, which go together if you’re an Italian-immigrant farm wife in Iowa with a crush on a National Geographic photographer who comes through to shoot pictures of the quaint bridges. Millions of Americans have related powerfully to the tale, thus proving the Hollywood adage that “nobody knows anything” about what’s likely to be a hit. Robert James Waller’s mega-best-selling novel was made into a 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, thereby demonstrating that Dirty Harry could shoot something other than a .44 Magnum. More recently, The Bridges of Madison County was adapted as a stage musical. It won 2014 Tony Awards for Best Score and Orchestration (both by Jason Robert Brown), with the song “Almost Real” drawing particular praise. Pittsburgh’s Carnivale Theatrics presents The Bridges of Madison County at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

PERFECT WEDDING by Robin Hawdon. Through Aug. 12, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

While Pittsburgh CLO is best known for mounting big Broadway musicals in summertime, the company also has an intimate cabaret venue with shows running year-round. Currently up in the CLO Cabaret is Robin Hawdon’s Perfect Wedding. It’s billed as a romantic comedy, though one might question how romantic it is for the groom to wake up on the morning of the wedding and find a strange woman in his bed. Complications then multiply. Perfect Wedding is neither big nor fat nor Greek but is reported to be exceptionally funny. CLO Cabaret serves food and drinks, so please laugh safely while consuming these. 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: Titanic, by Cylla von Tiedemann. Nomad Motel, by Kristi Jan Hoover. On Your Feet!, © Matthew Murphy. Alfred Jarry, 1896, Atelier Nadal.

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

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