This is changing-of-the-guard time in live theater, as most of Pittsburgh’s major companies and performing arts groups have closed for the summer or soon will. But it’s an ideal time to try something new. A number of fine smaller companies schedule their main seasons against the grain and they’re coming into the spotlight now.
One might catch Microscopic Opera’s Mercy Train—what, you haven’t seen Microscopic Opera? Better focus that eyepiece!—or visit Little Lake Theatre, one of the region’s strong community companies, which is staging the off-Broadway hit The Best of Everything. A couple of non-mainstream touring productions are on tap in Pascal Rambert’s A (micro) history of world economics, danced (yes, the title is correct) and Leonard Nimoy’s Vincent, a seldom-seen Van Gogh play.
And please permit a special shout-out to three small companies which, last year, put on three of the most interesting plays that this reviewer saw in Pittsburgh:
In 2014, No Name Players did a powerful rendition of Fixing King John, the zany and blood-curdling modern remake of Shakespeare’s King John by Austin, Texas playwright Kirk Lynn. This month, the company without a name comes back to deliver Brewed, an ultra-dark comedy that ain’t about coffee.
Throughline Theatre Company capped its 2014 season with The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ courtroom epic that has Judas on trial in Purgatory. Throughline now continues its adventures in alternate theology by presenting Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, the story of an English nobleman who believes he is God and has the evidence to prove it. (“It’s simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.”)
Meanwhile, Unseam’d Shakespeare (which doesn’t always do Shakespeare) was brilliant last year with Orlando, the adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s fantasy novel about a man who lives forever while changing mysteriously into a woman. This month Unseam’d changes pace to revive a longtime local favorite, Out of This Furnace, based on Thomas Bell’s historical novel set in Braddock.
There is more, but let’s check the lineup. Shows are previewed in order of their run dates.
FENCES by August Wilson. Extended through June 7, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.
One does not have to be a baseball fan to appreciate August Wilson’s Fences. Set in the 1950s, the play concerns a former star who missed a shot at the Major Leagues because his prime years came before the color line was broken. But as in all Wilson plays, while the shadow of the past hangs over the action, the story revolves around the drama and humor of the characters’ tangled personal lives as they try to build a future. Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1987. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company gives it a new production in the group’s intimate downtown space, which is ideal for conveying Wilson’s intimate style. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.
THE BEST OF EVERYTHING adapted by Julie Kramer from Rona Jaffe’s novel. May 28–June 13, Little Lake Theatre
Set in the late 1950s and the world of “Mad Men”, this play is about women of the time. It follows a group of women at a New York publishing company who want to make it big, or make it with the men they meet, or somehow just make life meaningful—all at a time when the glass ceiling was often more like a straitjacket. Rona Jaffe wrote The Best of Everything in 1958 as a mass-market novel. The book was a smash hit; the Hollywood movie that followed, not quite. Then much later, a 2012 stage adaptation by theater director Julie Kramer scored nicely off-Broadway, capturing the story’s fine tragicomic balance without drowning it in postmodern irony. Little Lake Theatre brings Kramer’s The Best of Everything to our town. 500 Lakeside Dr., Canonsburg.
HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES by Alan Ayckbourn. May 28-June 13, PICT Classic Theatre
Ayckbourn’s comedy is about three couples, of whom Wife A is having an affair with Husband B. Hot-tempered Wife B smells a rat, so Husband B tells her he’s been out late comforting Husband C, whose Wife C is cheating on him (none of which is true). Meanwhile, Wife A has covered her tracks by telling Husband A she’s spending time with poor Wife C whose Husband C is running around (equally untrue). Put all three couples together at dinner, add further wrinkles, and you have a recipe for pandemonium. PICT Classic Theatre has chosen comedic mixmaster Martin Giles to direct its production of How the Other Half Loves. Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.
BUYER & CELLAR by Jonathan Tolins. May 28-June 28, Pittsburgh Public Theater
A one-man comedy by Jonathan Tolins, Buyer & Cellar stars Tom Lenk of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as Alex More, a gay, underemployed actor who takes an unlikely job in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement. He’s the sole attendant in a strange and sad galleria of shops displaying the stage diva’s vast collection of stuff. As stated from the outset, everything that happens in the play is a work of fiction, but its bizarre setting is not. The visit to Streisand’s dream house and her strange underground mall seems to sum up so much about the loneliness and isolation of fame. Pittsburgh Public Theater closes its 40th anniversary season with this show that manages to find high humor in the depths of diva-hood. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
ADMISSION (modern dance) by fireWALL Dance Theater. May 29-31 & June 4-6 at off the WALL Theater
Off the WALL Productions, one of the area’s premier alternative theater companies, has an affiliated dance company. The troupe is fireWALL Dance Theater and its new offering, Admission, is performed entirely by women. If one should ask why no men are getting the spotlight, the answer might be “because they always do”. Admission is a pitch for entry to male-dominated circles with the proviso that once the women arrive, things will be different. Choreographed by Elisa-Marie Alaio, with original music by Ryan McMasters. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.
OUT OF THIS FURNACE adapted by Andy Wolk from Thomas Bell’s novel. June 4-27, Unseam’d Shakespeare Co.
Out of This Furnace is both a history play and a living piece of artistic history. Plays, films, and novels about blue-collar life were once common, but the genres of working-class drama and literature have been shrinking along with the working class itself, and Furnace is a survivor from the genres’ heyday. The story—which traces three generations of an immigrant steelworker family in Braddock, from the 1880s onward—began as a novel by Thomas Bell. Published in 1941 (not long after James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), it was overshadowed by World War II and went out of print. But a 1970s reprint caught on and today the book is read across the U.S., often in college courses on the history of labor. The reprint also spawned a popular theater adaptation, which Pittsburgh’s Unseam’d Shakespeare Company has staged twice before. Now Unseam’d presents a newly revised version of Out of This Furnace directed by Lisa Ann Goldsmith. Studio Theatre in the Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Oakland.
THE RULING CLASS by Peter Barnes. June 5-13, Throughline Theatre Co.
Peter Barnes’ play The Ruling Class is one of those “Who’s crazier?” stories. It gives you a character who has been diagnosed as mentally unstable, turns him loose within upper-crust society and invites you to ponder who’s really crazy here. The hero of this 1968 British dark comedy is Jack, 14th Earl of Gurney, who inherits the title despite his belief that he is a much higher Lord. Sporting a Biblical robe and beard, Jack sleeps upright on a cross and spends waking hours jauntily preaching his own gospel of love. Peter O’Toole memorably starred in the 1972 film, but The Ruling Class is best enjoyed live. Throughline Theatre Company performs the play to open its 2015 season, which is themed “Method in Madness”. At the Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville.
A (MICRO) HISTORY OF WORLD ECONOMICS, DANCED by Pascal Rambert. June 5-6, City of Asylum
If you suspect the new global economic order still has some kinks to be worked out, you may appreciate A (micro) history of world economics, danced. This intriguing mixture of dance and live theater, conceived by French director Pascal Rambert, has been staged at alternative venues ranging from the GrEEK Campus in Cairo, Egypt to New York’s PS 122. Each production is different, as Rambert recruits local talent, both professional and non-, to create the piece anew. Here in Pittsburgh A (micro) history is being hosted by City of Asylum, the nonprofit that houses visiting and exiled writers from abroad. The show is FREE but please reserve online or call 412-323-0278 to assure a seat. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
MODERN DANCE at DOLLAR BANK THREE RIVERS ARTS FESTIVAL. June 6-7 and June 13-14, various groups at various venues
While crowds flock to the free concerts that highlight this year’s Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival, some smart performing-arts fans will gravitate to the modern dance performances. They’re equally cool and likewise have no admission charge. This year’s lineup includes: Maree ReMalia / merrygogo (June 6 at Trust Arts Education Center), Alexandra Bodnarchuk and collaborators (June 6 and 13 at The Fountain in Point State Park), Attack Theatre (June 7 at Gateway Four Plaza), and Jasmine Hearn and collaborators (June 7 at Trust Arts). There also are two special events, Dance! From the Inside Out (June 7 at the Giant Eagle Creativity Zone), and a breakdance show with Hidden Characters and Get Down Gang (June 14 at the Stanwix Stage). See the links provided here for times, directions, and preview videos.
MARY POPPINS (musical based on the Disney movie). June 9-21, Pittsburgh CLO
Maybe you have a nanny, and maybe you have an umbrella, but have you seen Mary Poppins? Have your children seen it, and are they therefore properly prepared for adulthood? For that matter, are you? Take heart! It’s not too late. Pittsburgh CLO (Civic Light Opera) presents a live production of the beloved Disney musical to kick off its 2015 summer season—which will also features Man of La Mancha, Gypsy, The Wedding Singer, Kinky Boots, and Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. That’s an attractive lineup but remember: first things first. It all starts with Mary Poppins. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
VINCENT by Leonard Nimoy. June 13-14, Carnegie Museum of Art
After portraying Spock in the “Star Trek” TV series, Leonard Nimoy wrote and performed a one-man play about the painter of “The Starry Night,” Vincent Van Gogh. Nimoy’s Vincent is little known. He adapted it from a prior (and even lesser-known) play, then performed it in 1981 in Los Angeles, where it was well received but then forgotten. Now Carnegie Museum of Art presents a special revival of Vincent. The actor is James Briggs, founder of the aptly named Starry Night Theater Company in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Briggs has been touring Vincent to good reviews in New York and elsewhere. The play has two characters, Van Gogh’s brother Theo and the painter himself, with Briggs acting both as Nimoy once did. For Van Gogh fans it is a must-see and for others, a dramatic introduction to the strange life of one of modern art’s morning stars. Carnegie Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland.
MERCY TRAIN (opera) by Douglas Levine and Julie Tosh. June 19-21, Microscopic Opera
Long ago, big-city charities sponsored “orphan trains,” placing orphaned or unwanted children aboard railroad passenger cars that carried them to new and presumably healthier foster homes in far-off rural areas. Were young folks eager to ride those trains? Well, therein hangs many a tale, and Pittsburgh’s Microscopic Opera Company has spun a couple of them (fictionalized, of course) into a chamber opera called Mercy Train. If you have seen past Microscopic productions you know to expect the unexpected. Mercy Train, with music by Douglas Levine and libretto by Julie Tosh, is being given its world premiere at the New Hazlett Theater. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
BREWED by Scott T. Barsotti. June 26-July 11, No Name Players
If you want dark comedy, Brewed is super-dark, and what’s brewing is not artisanal coffee or any such sissy stuff. 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.
Photo credits: How the Other Half Loves, by Suellen Fitzsimmons. The Best of Everything, by Heather Spirik. Admission, by Grace Cohen. Out of This Furnace, by Samantha Kuchta. Attack Theatre, courtesy of the company. Vincent, courtesy of Starry Night Theater Company.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.