May ‘21 Theater Guide: Heading Outdoors and Downstream

One of the pieces that Pittsburgh Ballet will be performing is from their production of 'Don Quixote.' Pictured are Yoshiaki Nakano and Jessica McCann. (photo: Kelly Petrovich)

One of the pieces that Pittsburgh Ballet will be performing for their Fresh Air Festival is from their production of ‘Don Quixote.’ Pictured are Yoshiaki Nakano and Jessica McCann. (photo: Kelly Petrovich)

With the advent of warmer weather we are seeing a decrease in streaming productions from Pittsburgh theater companies and a big uptick in outdoor productions. The biggest outdoor production of the month is the remarkable Open Air Festival by Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre which includes over 20 participating groups and performers in Schenley Park. Others headed outdoors include South Park Theatre with Nora Ephron’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, and Just the Ticket. Stage 62 has the jukebox musical Forever Plaid, while Pittsburgh Playwrights presents Hypersensitive with the uber-talented Vanessa German. and Little Lake Theatre does the dramatic comedy Shirley Valentine. Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Handel’s Semele is going the traditional route—indoors, albeit with covid-19 safety precautions. 

Streamers include two fantastic festivals: The Pittsburgh Fringe Festival with many zany and creative performances from groups and individuals both foreign and domestic; and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s EQT Children’s Theater Festival. Also streaming are Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Black Ballerinas, City Theatre’s Homegrown Stories 2, and barebones productions with Tragedy: A Tragedy. And going old-school as well as digital is Demaskus Theater Collective’s Black Mary, which is part of the nationwide Post Theatrical series of plays through the mail and is augmented by digital accompaniments. Whatever May’s weather brings you, you have the best of all worlds with outdoor, indoor and streaming productions.

Mike Vargo (M.V.) also contributed to this Guide.

There's no better subject for theater by mail than Mary Fields, a.k.a. 'Black Mary.' A former slave, she delivered mail in the Wild West undaunted by snow, hail, or bad guys. (photo circa 1895)

There’s no better subject for theater by mail than Mary Fields, a.k.a. ‘Black Mary.’ A former slave, she delivered mail in the Wild West undaunted by snow, hail, or bad guys. (photo circa 1895)

BLACK MARY. Post Theatrical. Demaskus Theater Collective. Mail and online. Through June 19.

The pandemic has put a severe crimp in the stock and trade of theater companies—live performances. Many companies have been delivering plays via streaming. Pittsburgh theater company RealTime Interventions has gone another “route” in delivering its Post Theatrical assemblage of plays, to a method that was first established in 1775—the U.S. Postal Service. RealTime is the lead pony in an express of ten theater companies from around the country, including RealTime itself and Demaskus Theater Collective here in Pittsburgh. The overall project is billed as “A festival of works that use the post as a theatrical medium.” Some of the mail-delivered theatrical materials are enhanced through tie-ins to digital audio, video, and photographic content. Post Theatrical began in February and continues through June.

Demaskus Theater Collective is up first with its production of Black Mary. The theatrical experience revolves around the first African-American female U.S. Star Route mail carrier, Mary Fields. Working a route in Montana, she was deemed “one of the freest souls ever to draw a breath, or a .38.” The audience-actors relationship will be conducted through the mail, text messages, and a culminating event for Juneteenth (Saturday, June 19). Tickets for the festival range from Pay-What-You-Can to $75. (R.H.)

Rick Miller performs Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' using vocal impressions from "The Simpsons" as part of EQT's Children Theater Festival.

Rick Miller performs Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ using vocal impressions from “The Simpsons” as part of EQT’s Children Theater Festival.

EQT CHILDREN’S THEATER FESTIVAL. Various companies and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Online. May 1-16

Pittsburgh is a great theater city, not just for adults, but for children too. Especially each spring when the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust holds its annual EQT Children’s Theater Festival. Now in its 35th year, the Festival will be an at-home version again this year. Highlights include access to full-length performance streams, workshops with artists, a Frog Stop Scavenger Hunt and more fun, from both local and international artists and theater companies. The 2021 Festival includes four featured international shows: the interactive We Cover the Universe (United Kingdom), MacHomer (Canada), Aesop Bops! (United States), and University of Wonder and Imagination (Northern Ireland, also interactive). Fans of “The Simpsons,” both young and old, may enjoy MacHomer. Rick Miller’s one-man hit has him performing Shakespeare’s Macbeth using 50 vocal impressions of characters from the TV program. (R.H.) 

The Pittsburgh Fringe Festival's offerings include many out-there performances including Not Too Fancy Productions' 'Wild Women of Planet Wongo.'

The Pittsburgh Fringe Festival’s offerings include many out-there performances including Not Too Fancy Productions’ ‘Wild Women of Planet Wongo.’

PITTSBURGH FRINGE FESTIVAL. Various local, national, and international performers. Online. May 6-8

Sometimes it’s a little more fun and daring to live life on the fringes, and when it comes to the arts, that’s just what the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival seeks to accomplish. Now in its eighth year, one of the main components of the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival is performing arts. This year’s Fest features over 53 different shows, all presented online with 21 streaming live and 32 on demand. The lineup includes six international shows, 13 from Pittsburgh, and the rest from across the nation. Intriguing titles include Bingewatch, Love Chicken, Cookie Tongue’s Kaleidoscopic Bone House, The Comedy of (Zoom) Errors, WILD WOMEN OF PLANET WONGO, Shepherds Gone Wild, SEXPERT MADAME K!, and God and Abraham Play Ping Pong. Here’s some more numbers: 19 free shows, 14 pay-what-you-want or suggested donation shows, and 14 shows which are $10 and under. To help the artists and performers appearing in the Festival during these trying times, Pittsburgh Fringe has not charged them any fees this year. (R.H.)

LOVE, LOSS, and WHAT I WORE by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron. Outdoors. South Park Theatre May 6-16

One nice thing about being South Park Theatre is, well, you’re in South Park. The location lends itself to outdoor locations to produce a play during a pandemic. And that’s just what South Park Theatre is set to do. The company will have an outdoor stage on their property with lawn chairs and picnics welcome—with paid admission of course. First up on the summer slate is a play by the noted writer Nora Ephron and her sister Delia Ephron: Love, Loss, and What I Wore. It is a touching comedy which focuses on many areas of importance—”mothers, prom dresses, mothers, buying bras, mothers, hating purses, and why we only wear black.” Based on the popular book by Ilene Beckerman. Corner of Brownsville Road and Corrigan Drive, South Park Township. (R.H.)

In 'Semele,' a headstrong woman plays with fire when she gets in bed with the ruler of the gods. Pittsburgh Opera has soprano Veronique Filloux as Semele and tenor Aaron Crouch as Jove. (photo: David Bachman Photography)

In ‘Semele,’ a headstrong woman plays with fire when she gets in bed with the ruler of the gods. Pittsburgh Opera has soprano Veronique Filloux as Semele and tenor Aaron Crouch as Jove. (photo: David Bachman Photography)

SEMELE (opera) by George Frideric Handel, libretto by William Congreve. Pittsburgh Opera. May 8 – 20 on stage, May 14 production livestreamed. 

George Frideric Handel’s Semele, at Pittsburgh Opera, is one of those theatrical works that sat dormant on the shelf for many years until being revived and enjoyed in the modern era. Semele got off to a rocky start when it was deemed too risque for its time. Handel, who spent most of his career in London, staged the opera there in 1744. This was just a year after his Messiah—composed to words lifted directly from the Bible—was panned for being too sacred to be performed in such a profane venue as a theater. There is no pleasing some people. 

At any rate, Semele opened during Lent, when apparently the audience was expecting something at least semi-sacred or soberly meditative. What they got was an operatic treatment of a legend from Greek mythology, in which Zeus seduces yet another mortal woman, who rejects her human fiancé to pursue Olympian passions. Never mind that the woman’s name right there in the title should have been a tipoff. Semele also drew scorn because it was sung in English, at a time when fussy English opera lovers believed that if it isn’t in Italian, it isn’t really opera. Handel tried tweaking Semele for a second run, cutting the sexier stuff and even, incongruously, mixing Italian arias into the English libretto. This mongrelized version wasn’t a hit, either. Semele wound up consigned to the doghouse for the next 175 years or so. 

Finally, during the 20th century, productions in England and elsewhere found a more appreciative response. The opera is now hailed as a rediscovered gem, with rich and varied music that brings out the dramatic twists of a well-drawn story. (The librettist, William Congreve, was himself an accomplished playwright.) Pittsburgh Opera presents Semele for the first time in our city. Stage director Kristine McIntyre, aided by set designer Carey Xu and costumer Jason Bray, has reset the action in the Roaring Twenties. It seems a fitting time period for a fiery, tragicomic tale of a young woman driven by desire to rumble with the godfather. 

In line with Covid-19 precautions, Semele is being played in condensed form: a single act of about an hour and a half, to avoid audience mingling at intermissions. Limited in-person seating is sold out but the Friday, May 14 performance will be livestreamed at no charge. The Pittsburgh Opera cast features soprano Veronique Filloux as Semele, tenor Aaron Crouch as Jove—Zeus’s handle for this Handel—and mezzo soprano Maire Therese Carmack as Jove’s irate wife Juno. Music is by the Chatham Baroque ensemble with Antony Walker, Pittsburgh Opera’s music director, conducting. 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District. (M.V.) 

FOREVER PLAID by Stuart Ross. Stage 62. Outdoors. May 15-23

Forever Plaid is a retro jukebox musical that imagines the day the music didn’t die. The music is the kind that ruled the airwaves in the 1950s and early ‘60s, before rock took over utterly—back when Connie Francis was America’s Sweetheart of Song, and guy groups sang four-part harmony instead of playing electric guitars. Forever Plaid is set in 1964, when a fictional quartet called The Plaids don’t make it to a big gig. In an act of blatant symbolism, they are killed by a bus carrying teenagers to The Beatles’ U.S. debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” But someone upstairs loves that harmony, as The Plaids are miraculously re-assembled to sing a deathless setlist. It includes The Four Lads’ “Moments to Remember,” The Four Aces’ “Three Coins in the Fountain,” change-of-pace songs like Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang”… and if you’ve never heard “Scotland the Brave” without pipes and drums, you will now. The music is mixed with much clowning and topical humor. Stage 62 presents Forever Plaid outdoors at Crafton Park Amphitheater. (M.V.) 

OPEN AIR FESTIVAL Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and other performing arts companies. Open Air. Outdoors. May 18-31

Last summer Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, with the help of several Pittsburgh foundations, purchased a sleek new mobile stage, the Stageline SAM450, for productions outdoors at its parking lot. This month Pittsburgh Ballet will be using the stage for excerpts of its own productions including Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and The Sleeping Beauty and other dance programs at Schenley Park’s Flagstaff Hill. The Ballet, under Artistic Director Susan Jaffee, is also sharing the “wealth” of its new stage with its ballet school and over 20 local performing arts organizations and musical groups. Pittsburgh Opera, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, River City Brass Band, Staycee Pearl Dance Project and Soy Sos, Richard Parsakian’s Dance Showcase, Attack Theatre, the Lemington Gospel Choir, Balafon West African Dance, Texture Contemporary Ballet, and Tania and Jeff Grubbs are some of those performing. For a complete list of organizations performing see the PBT website. Advance reservations are available for free lawn seating and premium VIP seating. Flagstaff Hill, next to the Carnegie Mellon campus in Oakland.  

Vanessa German takes us to her roots in 'Hypersensitive.'

Vanessa German takes us to her roots in ‘Hypersensitive.’

HYPERSENSITIVE (one-woman show) by Vanessa German. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. Live outdoors, May 18 at 8 p.m. and streamed online at dates TBA.

Is Pittsburgh still the Renaissance City? Yes, and it even has a Renaissance Woman: Vanessa German. She is a nationally exhibited sculptor, a community activist and founder of the ARThouse center in Homewood … and a powerful writer and performer. If you were lucky, you saw Vanessa German a couple of years ago playing Ma Rainey. She was thunder and lightning in a 2018 production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, staged by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. Now PPTCo brings her back for a solo show of her own. German’s Hypersensitive is being presented in an unusual way for our unusual times. She performs the piece live, outdoors, in a limited-seating production for which tickets can be purchased. A film of the performance will then be streamed on dates yet to be announced. 

German describes Hypersensitive as “A love poem for strange Black Girls, fat Black Girls, Winged Black Girls, the Missing Black Girls, the Black Girls who rode skateboards to school, Black Girls whose eyebrows were never on Fleek, Black Girls who dig aloneness and Black Girls who do magic.” Ashley Southers directs. 8 p.m. May 18 on Flagstaff Hill, next to the Carnegie Mellon campus in Oakland. (M.V.) 

BLACK BALLERINA by Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze. Pittsburgh Public Theater. Online. May 20

Pittsburgh Public Theater is continuing its PlayTime subseries, Classics N’at, tonight with Black Ballerina, a new play by Stephen Fedo and Tim Rhoze. It explores the challenges of being a person of color in the world of ballet. The production centers around two Black ballet dancers, one in the 1950s and one of the present day, and the obstacles they encounter. The purpose of the series is to support playwrights in the tristate area. Donations to view Black Ballerina start at $10. Simply go to The Public’s PlayTime page. (R.H.)

SHIRLEY VALENTINE by Willy Russell. Little Lake Theatre. Outdoors. May 20-29

A hard-working housewife, Shirley Valentine, has taken care of her husband and children for over 20 years. The monotony is terrible. Talking to the walls and finding comfort in a daily glass of wine helps to cope. But life is full of unexpected turns, and in Little Lake Theatre’s production of Shirley Valentine, an ordinary life is reinvigorated by a surprise trip to Greece. Helga Terre plays the role of Valentine. 500 Lakeside Drive South, Canonsburg.

TRAGEDY: A TRAGEDY by Will Eno. Barebones Productions. Streaming and on-demand. May 21 – 23.

Barebones productions comes back from the pandemic with what they’re billing as the first-ever fully digital production of Will Eno’s dark comedy Tragedy: a tragedy. The plot revolves around a news team reporting live on a crisis as it unfolds. As coverage continues the human frailties of the team become more apparent. The play explores what is truth and what isn’t in a humorous look at the world we live in. Eno, a Brooklyn playwright, was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play Thom Pain (based on nothing). (R.H.)

The playwrights for 'Homegrown Stories 2) are, L to R: Patrick Cannon, Gab Cody, Kim El, Monteze Freeland, and Molly Rice. (photos courtesy of the artists and City of Asylum)

The playwrights for ‘Homegrown Stories 2) are, L to R: Patrick Cannon, Gab Cody, Kim El, Monteze Freeland, and Molly Rice. (photos courtesy of City Theatre, the artists, and City of Asylum)

HOMEGROWN STORIES 2 (five short plays by various Pittsburgh theater artists). City Theatre, with Pittsburgh Playhouse and City of Asylum. Livestreamed May 25 at 7 p.m.; videorecording streamed May 26 – 29. 

There’s a rule of thumb that applies in life as well as in show business: If it works, do it again—but make it new each time. In this spirit City Theatre presents Homegrown Stories 2. The show is a miniature one-act festival streamed online. It consists of five original ten-minute plays, each by a Pittsburgh-based theater artist, and each commissioned to be a “response to our current world.” Which covers a lot of territory, so expect anything. The playwrights for this edition are Patrick Cannon, Gab Cody, Kim El, Monteze Freeland, and Molly Rice. The intent was to assemble a lineup that would be, in Pittsburgh theater terms, roughly the equivalent of a starting five for the NBA All-Star Game. In keeping with the tradition of that event, nobody will play defensively and all will exhibit their best moves. Homegrown Stories 2 is co-produced with City of Asylum and Pittsburgh Playhouse at Point Park University. The production streams free May 25 – 29 but reservations are required. (M.V.)

JUST THE TICKET by Peter Quilter. South Park Theatre. Outdoors. May 27 – June 6.

The ticket in question is an airline ticket to Australia. Susan, an unconventional and accident-prone woman of 60, is reprising a trip she took to Australia with friends when she was 20 years old. Only this time she is doing so with a lot more “baggage.” Her continuous chattering adds to the hilarity in South Park Theatre’s Just the Ticket. Corner of Brownsville Road and Corrigan Drive, South Park Township. (R.H.)

Rick Handler is Entertainment Central’s executive producer.