March Theater Preview: Time Marches On

Super-successful couple Simone and Ethan (Robin Williamson and Anthony Comis) see nothing but good times ahead in City Theatre's "Elemeno Pea."

Super-successful couple Simone and Ethan (Robin Abramson and Anthony Comis) see nothing but good times ahead in City Theatre’s “Elemeno Pea.”

Live theater in Pittsburgh this month comes in like a lion and goes out like a lion. The proverbial roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd never stop, although in keeping with a month in which the weather changes dramatically, the plays and performances vary dramatically.

We have on tap a mixture of throwbacks and fast-forward pieces. Older works include an Ibsen, a sexy Sixties comedy, Orwell’s Animal Farm (adapted for the stage), and one of the operas that has defined opera, Bizet’s Carmen. New works include a comedy about wealth inequality—which may sound like a contradiction in terms, but there it is—and some modern dance, and the wonderfully titled play Endless Lawns.

Also on tap are some new/old works, like the Pittsburgh premiere of a little-known August Wilson play from the past … but this kind of talk can get complicated, because time’s arrow never flies straight. The Zen truth is that it’s all happening now. However, to help you plan your March entertainment, attractions are previewed here in order of their scheduled runs.

GHOSTS by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Virginia Wall Gruenert. Feb. 27 – Mar. 14, off the WALL productions.

For a chilling drama on a chilly night it is still hard to beat Ibsen, the 19th-century master of plays about personal disaster. His plays scandalized audiences of the time and none was more scandalous than Ghosts. The opening has elements of a high-society farce, with some silly exchanges that involve a wealthy widow donating money to start an orphanage in memory of her late husband. Then the skeletons start rattling from the closet, as it turns out the eminent man was a philandering scoundrel whose legacy includes wrecked lives and syphilis passed on to the next generation. Off the WALL is staging its own adapted version of Ghosts, which stays true to Ibsen’s original but has new touches. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

ELEMENO PEA by Molly Smith Metzler. Feb. 28 – Mar. 22, City Theatre.

If there are laughs to be had from the class divisions in today’s society, this play is determined to find them. Elemeno Pea is a tale of two sisters from a working-class background, one of whom is barely scraping by, and one who has landed a deluxe job as the live-in personal assistant to the trophy wife of a tycoon. Feathers begin to fly when scraper sis visits lap-of-luxury sis in her employers’ lavish roost. City Theatre presents this comedy by Brooklyn-based Molly Smith Metzler as part of its mission to bring new and recent plays to Pittsburgh. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

Channelling August Wilson is Eugene Lee, in The Public's 'How I Learned.'

Channeling August Wilson is Eugene Lee in The Public’s ‘How I Learned.’

HOW I LEARNED WHAT I LEARNED by August Wilson, co-conceived with Todd Kreidler. Mar. 5 – Apr. 5, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Every theater fan knows about the ten plays of August Wilson’s famous “Pittsburgh Cycle” but there was an 11th that few have seen. How I Learned What I Learned is a one-man autobiographical show. First performed by Wilson himself in Seattle in 2003, just two years before his death, How I Learned is a memoir of his early days. As a precocious young man in Pittsburgh, Wilson dropped out of high school to become a full-time student of the human condition. He worked odd jobs while reading books from the library; he took notes about the colorful characters he met; he experienced the thrills and laughter—and also the shocks and awe—that came with being young, irrepressible, and African American. How I Learned has been revived in New York and elsewhere recently. Pittsburgh Public Theater brings it home with co-creator Todd Kreidler directing the show, and actor Eugene Lee as Wilson. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

BOEING BOEING by Marc Camoletti. Through Apr. 26, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Boeing Boeing is a naughty French sex farce from the early 1960s. It concerns a playboy in Paris who’s romancing flight attendants from three different airlines, deftly juggling their “layovers” (pun intended) so the women will not meet—until, of course, one day they do. Filled with wacky physical comedy and outré innuendo, Boeing Boeing gained a new generation of fans when a 2008 Broadway production won that year’s Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. And even though it’s not a musical, Pittsburgh CLO is presenting it here as part of the CLO Cabaret series. 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

MEL BROOKS’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (musical) adapted by Brooks from his film. Mar. 5-15, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

Poor Frankenstein. The doctor and his creature were first brought to life in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s touching, tragic fantasy novel about science and the nature of humanity. Then their story got adapted and re-done until it was mangled beyond recognition in a long series of corny monster movies. Finally Mel Brooks came to the rescue with his 1974 film Young Frankenstein, a brilliant parody of those movies. Later, Brooks adapted that creature into a stage musical—which fortunately keeps the fun alive, incorporating high points such as the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” dance number. Now Pittsburgh Musical Theater performs the tuneful Young Frankenstein for your enjoyment on some dark and stormy night. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

PBT PREMIERES (ballet): a program of works by Jiri Kylian, Jerome Robbins, and Mark Morris. Mar. 6-8, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performs an evening of three modern pieces which, together, provide a fascinating overview of where this classical dance form is headed in our time. The dramatic Petite Mort is by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian. The Concert, by Jerome Robbins, is a comic ballet that requires a corps of six ballerinas to perform the artful trick of doing a good job of dancing together badly. And Mark Morris’s energetic Sandpaper Ballet doesn’t spoof the craft but it does include some rather amusing effects. None of the works have been seen in Pittsburgh previously, and thus the show is titled PBT Premieres. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

Now let me tell you about the pigs! Orwell's book, reborn as a stage play, keeps on telling.

Now let me tell you about the pigs! Orwell’s book, reborn as a stage play, keeps on telling.

ANIMAL FARM by Andrew Periale, based on George Orwell’s novella. Mar. 6-15, Prime Stage Theatre Co.

Prime Stage is known mainly as a theater company for teen audiences, but the plays are equally enjoyable for adults. Many are adapted from edgy social-issue novels you might’ve read in high school, like Fahrenheit 451 (done recently by Prime Stage). Now comes Animal Farm, based on George Orwell’s fable about animals booting out the farmer who has exploited them, only to find the pigs taking over.

Prime Stage has used a British theatrical adaptation, relocating the farm to West Virginia and adding Appalachian music. This doesn’t change the essence of the story, though. Orwell wrote his book in the 1940s as a satire of how Stalin’s dictatorship had ruined the ideals of the Russian Revolution. It’s a story that will live on as long as there are pigs co-opting populist ideals, and if you haven’t seen the tricks depicted live on stage, this is your chance. At the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

WINE IN THE WILDERNESS by Alice Childress. Mar. 12-15, demaskus Theater Collective.

Wine in the Wilderness is set in Harlem during the race riots of 1964, which were set off when a black teenager was fatally shot by a police officer. The play deals with issues of personal, racial, and gender identity amid the turmoil.

In Childress's play, this painting is at the center of a search for meaning during a troubled time.

In ‘Wine in the Wilderness,’ this painting is at the center of a search for meaning.

We meet an African American artist working on a painting—and finding a most unexpected “muse” to guide his efforts—while chaos reigns in the streets outside his apartment. Last performed in Pittsburgh decades ago, Wine in the Wilderness is being revived by demaskus Theater Collective, a new group whose mission is to “make known the messages of the marginalized.” The Collective will follow up with another history-based play (Marilynn Barner Anselmi’s You Wouldn’t Expect) in the fall. Meanwhile, Shaunda Miles, founder and CEO of demaskus, is directing Wine.  Peirce Studio, Trust Arts Education Center, 805-807 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

DINAH by Ernest McCarty. Mar. 13 – Apr. 5, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

Who is Dinah? Why, Dinah Washington, of course. This new play at PPTCo is about the woman called the Queen of the Blues. After starting as a big-band vocalist in the 1940s, Washington became one of the top voices of the then-emerging rhythm & blues genre, winning an R&B Grammy Award in 1959 for her torch ballad “What a Difference a Day Makes.” Alas, her own torch burned all too fast: Washington married seven times before dying of a drug overdose, in 1963, at the age of 39. Ernest McCarty’s play is a portrait of a woman who did not go quietly through the music industry, or through life. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

CARMEN by Georges Bizet (opera). Mar. 21-29, Pittsburgh Opera.

And who is Carmen? One of the most famous heroines of opera: the high-spirited, exotic-dancing, and, um, knife-toting factory girl of the early 1800s who is pursued by a dashing young soldier and an extremely dashing bullfighter. You know it’s not going to end happily, but the adventures (and music!) along the way add up to quite a ride. Pittsburgh Opera presents Georges Bizet’s masterpiece with a cast of all-stars brought in as the leads. Mesmerizing mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham has sung the role of Carmen worldwide and will sing it here. Tenor A.J. Glueckert is the soldier Don José and baritone Morgan Smith is Escamillo, the toreador. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

At Once There Was a House'—no, make that two. In Beth Corning's piece, people have a lot on their minds.

‘at ONCE there was A HOUSE’—no, make that two. In Beth Corning’s piece, people have a lot on their minds.

at ONCE there was A HOUSE (dance/performance) by Beth Corning. Mar. 25-29, CORNINGWORKS at New Hazlett Theater.

Beth Corning, the Pittsburgh choreographer whose unusual dance-and-theater works have been performed internationally, returns to the New Hazlett with an expanded, feature-length version of a piece that has played to critical acclaim in other venues. Corning describes at ONCE there was A HOUSE as an exploration of the question “What ever happened to Dick and Jane?”—which means it’s about a lot of things. Performers (along with Corning) include Squonk Opera’s Jackie Dempsey, actor/R&B musician John Gresh, Michele de la Reza of Attack Theatre, and dancers Yoav Kaddar and Tamar Rochelle Tolentino. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

ENDLESS LAWNS by Anthony McKay. Mar. 26 – Apr. 12, Pittsburgh Playhouse REP.

A true meeting of the city’s theater minds is unfolding at Pittsburgh Playhouse, as Point Park University’s Playhouse REP company presents the world premiere of a play written and directed by a pair of Carnegie Mellon drama professors. Endless Lawns is billed as “a collision of tragedy, comedy, and cocktails.” The play revolves around two elderly sisters whose dearly departed dad was a renowned actor, and be forewarned that explicit references to lawn mowing are made. Playwright Anthony McKay is an associate professor of acting at CMU. McKay’s colleague Gregory Lehane, a drama and music professor with a distinguished global resume in directing, is director of Endless Lawns. Studio Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

For dancers of Union Tanguera, the toast comes with a sizzle.

For dancers of Union Tanguera, the toast comes with a sizzle.

UNION TANGUERA (modern dance). Mar. 28 only, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.

Saturday, March 28 is Tango Night in Pittsburgh. This will not be one of those “anyone can tango” events at which even people who have never tried it are invited to come out on the floor and learn … although, after watching Union Tanguera, you might be tempted to give it a whirl. Pittsburgh Dance Council is bringing the French-Argentinean company to town because these dancers do tango as it’s never been done anywhere. Union Tanguera mixes traditional tango moves with the acrobatic, hyper-expressive styles of modern dance. The music, played live by a Buenos Aires quartet, is likewise a blend of traditional and out-there. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (musical). Mar. 31 – Apr. 5, national touring company at Heinz Hall.

In 1991 Disney released the animated film Beauty and the Beast. If you were a child or had children at any point since then, you may have seen it. Perhaps you marveled at how cheerfully the filmmakers managed to render this dark tale. But did you know that the movie made show-business history? In 1994 it was the first Disney animated feature to be turned into a Broadway musical! Now you can see history re-enacted, as the PNC Broadway Across America series has booked the latest road-show production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast into Heinz Hall, where “Be Our Guest” and a host of other song-and-dance numbers should provide entertainment that’s more beautiful than beastly. 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits:  Eugene Lee, by Josh Lamkin for Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre. George Orwell, BBC Archives, public domain. At Once There Was a House, by Frank Walsh. Union Tanguera, courtesy of the company. Elemeno Pea by Kristi Jan Hoover.

Mike Vargo, a bad actor but a pretty good writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.