May Theater Preview: Silly Season
It happens to all of us. We get in the mood for something silly, and should that mood strike you during the month of May, you are in luck. The schedule of plays and performances in Pittsburgh theaters reads like a guide to silliness in its many-splendored forms.
May’s lineup kicks off with the classically silly comic opera Daughter of the Regiment. It includes Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves, a comedy so silly that critics cannot agree on whether it is perfectly silly or too silly for its own good. If you care to see how silly alcoholism can be, the Scottish binge comedy Midsummer may enlighten you, while the EQT Children’s Theater Festival offers a smorgasbord of child-friendly silliness.
For Harry Potter fans of all ages, two very silly English comedians perform their Potter parody Potted Potter. And for theater lovers who have long awaited a definitive treatment of the silly stereotype that paints gay men as worshippers of the vintage pop diva Barbra Streisand, the wait is over: Buyer & Cellar explores Streisand silliness in greater depth than is actually there.
Should you need a shot of gravitas as a chaser, choices on the more serious side include August Wilson’s Fences, the wistful musical The Last Five Years, Agatha Christie’s mystery The Mousetrap, and two highly praised recent plays, American Falls and The Whale. Just be warned that these too have humorous if not downright silly aspects, because here’s the thing about silliness: You can run from it but you can’t hide. Shows are previewed in order of opening dates.
Opened in April:
THE WHALE by Samuel D. Hunter. Through May 9, off the WALL Productions
Samuel D. Hunter is being hailed as one of America’s best new playwrights. Last year he received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant”—the award that goes to people doing eye-opening and potentially game-changing work in various fields—and now off the WALL Productions is staging Hunter’s The Whale. This is not a remake of Moby-Dick though it features a man as bizarrely obsessed as Ahab. Charlie, the central character, is eating himself to death. He has gotten to the point where he can barely move. Beached in his apartment, he’s trying to find redemption for the life that has led him to this end while being visited, like Job, by people who come to comfort or accuse him. With F.J. Hartland as Charlie. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.
Opening in May:
DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT (comic opera) by Gaetano Donizetti. May 2-10, Pittsburgh Opera.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa has a dual challenge in Pittsburgh: She’s performing the role of Maria in Daughter of the Regiment with the Pittsburgh Opera—and she’ll also be running the Pittsburgh Marathon. Oropesa is singing for the first time in the title role of a young woman raised by a regiment of soldiers, but it’ll be the sixth marathon for the seasoned runner. Star tenor Lawrence Brownlee plays alongside her as love-struck Tonio, who joins the regiment to be with Maria, only for her to be promised to someone else. His role includes the famous aria “Ah, my friends” (“Ah, mes amis”), requiring no less than nine high Cs. Donizetti’s romantic comedy is sung in English and conducted by Antony Walker. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
POTTED POTTER: THE UNAUTHORIZED HARRY POTTER EXPERIENCE by Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner. May 5-7, Byham Theater.
If you enjoyed A Very Potter Musical, the Harry Potter spoof by StarKid Productions that went viral on the Internet a few years ago, Potted Potter may be the show for you. British comedy duo Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner created this send-up, which is done the extreme way. Two actors play all the characters and they squeeze in all seven books of J.K. Rowlings’ Potter saga. In that sense Potted Potter is similar to The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) or The Three Canadians Attempt Ben-Hur, except that instead of Macbeth’s duel or the chariot race, there is Quidditch. The touring production, acted by James Percy and Joseph Maudlin, has had rave reviews in other cities; here it’s at the Byham Theater. 101 6th St., Cultural District.
THE MOUSETRAP by Agatha Christie. May 8-17, Prime Stage Theatre.
There have been more prestigious writers, but in terms of sheer popularity none come close to Agatha Christie. She is the best-selling author of modern times by far, with total book sales of more than 2 billion. Christie also wrote plays, of which her murder mystery The Mousetrap owns a record that may never be broken. It opened in London’s West End in 1952 and is still running there 63 years and over 25,000 performances later. You cannot see a movie version. Christie, now long deceased, stipulated that no film be made until the initial run closed. You can, however, discover the secrets of The Mousetrap by attending Prime Stage Theatre’s production at the New Hazlett. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
MIDSUMMER by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre. May 9-31, City Theatre.
In the category of girl-meets-guy comedies there are many sweet and sentimental stories, and then there is Scottish playwright David Greig’s Midsummer, which is more like Bonnie meets Clyde. She’s a divorce lawyer. He’s a rock musician turned small-time con man. They bond in a bar and embark on a binge that includes bed and liquid breakfast, a bundle of loot, and bad guys in pursuit. Parts of this hookup from hell transpire to rock music composed by Gordon McIntyre of the Edinburgh indie band Ballboy, best known for rousing post-punk anthems such as “I Hate Scotland” and “You Can’t Spend Your Whole Life Hanging Around with Arseholes.” City Theatre presents Midsummer as part of its ongoing mission to produce new and recent plays of compelling interest. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.
FENCES by August Wilson. May 9-30, 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.
EQT CHILDREN’S THEATER FESTIVAL. May 14-17, various locations, Cultural District.
There’s no need for children to sit still and listen to enjoy the EQT Children’s Theater Festival—in fact, they don’t have to see a play at all. The entertainment at the four-day festival includes more than 40 hands-on activities from hula hooping and building with Lego to a giant sand box. The performances—which come from theater companies around the world—don’t require sitting quietly either. Tangle, by Polygot Theatre of Australia, involves making your own art installation by winding colorful elastic around poles. Meanwhile, a production by Danish company Teatret Gruppe 38, strictly for 8-year-olds and over, asks whether you’re brave enough to hear the “real story” of Hansel & Gretel. Multiple venues, Cultural District.
AMERICAN FALLS by Miki Johnson. May 14-31, barebones productions
Talk about strange cycles: In 2006, Miki Johnson played a featured role in Quantum Theatre’s After Mrs. Rochester, which was staged at the historic Braddock Carnegie Library and marked the debut of modern avant-garde theater in that steel mill town. Johnson later moved to Houston, Texas where she became a playwright as well as an actress. Now Pittsburgh’s barebones productions is mounting her lauded first play, American Falls, in—where else?—Braddock. The venue this time is the former Superior Motors building, where chef Kevin Sousa will soon open a destination restaurant. American Falls is a slice-of-life drama about people in the small Idaho town of the same name. It’s been called an “Our Town for our times” and won Johnson the 2012 Houston Press award for Best New Playwright. 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock.
SCOTTISH BALLET PRESENTS A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (modern dance/theater), adapted from Tennessee Williams’ play. May 19 only, Pittsburgh Dance Council.
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire turns 68 this year, but the Scottish Ballet have given the masterpiece of American theater a burst of new life as a steamy, stylish modern ballet, with the tagline “Dance, desire, despair”. A collaboration by theatre director Nancy Meckler and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, the ballet is set to a jazz-inspired score, befitting its New Orleans setting and the story of faded Southern belle Blanche. Touring since 2012, the production has won praise for its minimalist styling and perfect period details. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.
THE LAST FIVE YEARS (musical) by Jason Robert Brown. May 22-31, Front Porch Theatricals
This is the musical that bends time’s arrow and once triggered a lawsuit. The Last Five Years tells the story of a failed marriage from two viewpoints: the husband relates his side in chronological order while the wife presents hers in reverse, from breakup back to first meeting. Writer/composer Jason Robert Brown based the story on his own failed marriage—perhaps too closely, for after the show premiered in 2001, Brown did some rewriting when faced with legal action from his ex. Aside from these quirks, music fans like The Last Five Years for its intricate, unusual songs and melodies. Front Porch Theatricals is producing the show at the New Hazlett Theater. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
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, who was in the hit TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” as Alex More, a gay, underemployed actor who takes on 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 clearly from the outset, everything that happens in the play is a work of fiction, but its bizarre setting is not. It’s inspired by Streisand’s real book My Passion for Design, about the construction and design of her Malibu dream house, and her strange underground mall that 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.
Photo credits: Potted Potter, courtesy of the artists. The Whale, by Heather Mull. Agatha Christie, unknown, portrait circa 1900 (?) at about age 10. EQT Children’s Theater Festival, courtesy of the Festival. Scottish Ballet, by Andrew Ross.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central. Writer and editor Heather McCracken also contributed several entries to this Preview.