November Theater Guide: Fantasy vs. Reality

Papageno the bird-catcher sports a birdcage headgear but he is caught by similarly named Papagena in Mozart's 'The Magic Flute.' Baritone Benjamin Taylor and soprano Véronique Filloux are the birds-of-a-feather couple in Pittsburgh Opera's production. (photo: David Bachman Photography)

Papageno the bird-catcher sports a birdcage headgear but he is caught by similarly named Papagena in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute.’ Baritone Benjamin Taylor and soprano Véronique Filloux are the birds-of-a-feather couple in Pittsburgh Opera’s production. (photo: David Bachman Photography)

On the Pittsburgh theater schedule this month, two music-intensive shows invite comparison: The Magic Flute and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. The issue is not Mozart versus disco, although it’s fascinating to think of what Mozart might have done if he’d had electric guitars and synthesizers. Rather, the shows represent opposite approaches to the art of constructing a story. 

The Magic Flute (at Pittsburgh Opera) is fantasy. The plot is more than fictional. It unfolds in an entire imagined world of wizardry and supernatural phenomena. We love to be taken to worlds other than our own, as evidenced by modern hits ranging from The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones to Black Panther and the rest of the Marvel and DC universes. But we also enjoy reliving—if only speculatively—what our real-world stars and dramas must have been like. And the Summer bio-musical (which visits in a touring production) is adapted from reality. It’s in a tradition that runs from Elizabeth and Erin Brockovitch to The Crown, Jersey Boys, and Bohemian Rhapsody, as well as Civil War reenactors and tribute bands. 

November brings us several intriguing plays on the adapted-from-reality side. Kinetic Theatre has the U.S. premiere of Oscar & Walt, a speculative restaging of the actual day when Oscar Wilde met Walt Whitman. Prime Stage Theatre presents KARLOFF The Man and the Monster, the true story of a real actor who played unreal beings. Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, opening late in the month at Quantum Theatre, is a multi-layered fictional odyssey drawn from a true incident at the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. 

Where, one may ask, is Shakespeare in all of this? At PICT Classic Theatre, where a cast of Pittsburgh-based stars perform the very comedic As You Like It. Meanwhile, City Theatre teams with Pittsburgh CLO to premiere a new musical comedy, somewhat deceptively titled An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake. It is billed as a riff on the war between art and commerce. Given our policy of not revealing spoilers, we can’t tell you who wins.  

However we can tell you there’s plenty more on tap this month. Productions are previewed below in order of their run dates, starting with Spotlighted Shows and closing with the not-to-be-overlooked Other Shows of Note. Rick Handler (R.H.) contributed to this Guide. 

Shows in the Entertainment Central Spotlight

AS YOU LIKE IT by William Shakespeare. PICT Classic Theatre. Now through Nov. 20. 

Zoe Abuyuan and Gabe DeRose as Rosalind and Orlando in PICT Classic Theatre's 'As You Like It.' (photo: PICT Classic Theatre)

Zoe Abuyuan and Gabe DeRose as Rosalind and Orlando in PICT Classic Theatre’s ‘As You Like It.’ (photo: PICT Classic Theatre)

What’s not to like about As You Like It? The play is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, which helps to explain why PICT Classic Theatre has chosen it to open the company’s 25th anniversary season. Rosalind, the comedy’s central character, is daring, resourceful, and flat-out funny. Having disguised herself as a young man, she offers manly advice on the arts of love to the man she’s in love with, and that is not all. As You Like It unfolds in a forest abounding with weirdly memorable characters. Many have taken to the woods after palace intrigues made them flee a supposedly higher form of civilized life, which provides another angle to the play. One exile, the irascible cynic Jaques, speaks the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue, as well as odd lines like “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.” The comedy includes a wrestling match, music, and more. PICT stages As You Like It with Zoe Abuyuan as Rosalind, Gabe DeRose as Orlando, and an all-star cast including Ken Bolden, Martin Giles, James FitzGerald and more. In the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, 4802 Fifth Ave., Oakland. (MV)

OSCAR & WALT by Donald Steven Olson. Kinetic Theatre. Nov. 4 -20.

Dapper young Oscar Wilde (Nick Giedris, L) meets rough and ready Walt Whitman (Sam Tsoutsouvas) In Kinetic's 'Oscar & Walt.'

Dapper young Oscar Wilde (Nick Giedris, L) meets rough and ready Walt Whitman (Sam Tsoutsouvas) In Kinetic’s ‘Oscar & Walt.’

It is somewhat surprising that Walt Whitman’s book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, became an iconic American favorite and a popular item overseas in the mid-1800s. Not because the poems aren’t good; they are; but because many passages are explicitly homoerotic (or just any-way-you-want-it erotic), to an extent far beyond the standards of the time. Indeed, some readers found the book scandalous, while others saw it as Whitman’s celebration of hearty, manly Americanism. Oscar Wilde loved Leaves of Grass. He first read it at the age of 11 along with his mother, Jane. She was a spirited woman. Years later, Wilde invited a college friend to his home thusly: “I want to introduce you to my mother. We have founded a society for the suppression of virtue.” And some years after that, when Wilde was a young writer on a speaking tour of the United States, he was invited to visit his grey-bearded literary idol Mr. Whitman. We have accounts of their two-hour conversation. Both men were publicity-conscious and each assured that glowing reports were written up in the press. Now, playwright Donald Steven Olson imagines how it really went in his play Oscar & Walt. See the U.S. premiere of Oscar & Walt at Kinetic Theatre. Oscar is played by Nick Giedris, Walt by Sam Tsoutsouvas, and Lisa Ann Goldsmith is Walt’s sister-in-law Louisa. In City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. (MV)

KARLOFF THE MAN AND THE MONSTER by Randy Bowser. Prime Stage. Nov. 5 -14.

Boris Karloff contemplates an elixir in Prime Stage's 'Karloff: The Man and the Monster.' The actor is David Nackman. (photo: Laura Slovesko)

Boris Karloff contemplates an elixir in Prime Stage’s ‘Karloff: The Man and the Monster.’ The actor is David Nackman. (photo: Laura Slovesko)

Prime Stage was hoping to add a production of Frankenstein to its schedule this season, but the ugly spectre of Covid continuing saw them move in a slightly different direction. Instead of a multi-person production they decided to keep it simple, but still very good and Frankenstein-related, with the one-person play KARLOFF The Man and The Monster. Actor Boris Karloff was known for his skillful portrayal of Frankenstein in three movies. Karloff’s Frankenstein was partly scary and partly a man searching for human connection. Appearing in over eighty films, Karloff is also well known as the voice of the Grinch and the narrator in the original 1966 animated television special of Dr. Seuss’ “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” Karloff would win a Grammy Award for his “Grinch” performances. David Nackman takes on the role of Boris Karloff in Prime Stage’s multi-media production. The play has the fond approval of Sara Jane Karloff, Karloff’s only child. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Sq., North Side. (R.H.)

THE MAGIC FLUTE (opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder. Pittsburgh Opera. Nov. 6 – 14.  

Wishing on a billion stars, Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, longs for release from darkness in 'The Magic Flute.' Pittsburgh Opera has soprano Adelaide Boedecker in the role. (photo: David Bachman Photography)

Wishing on a billion stars, Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, longs for release from darkness in ‘The Magic Flute.’ Pittsburgh Opera has soprano Adelaide Boedecker in the role. (photo: David Bachman Photography)

The Magic Flute is not your ordinary opera. Along with its bizarre story line and its enduring popularity, there is the fact that Mozart and librettist Emanual Schikaneder didn’t actually consider it an opera—at least not in the grand-opera style of the late 1700s. Like most Broadway musicals today, The Magic Flute combines spoken dialogue with the singing and dance. Technically it is a Singspiel (German for “singing game”), and to play the game a new way, Pittsburgh Opera presents The Magic Flute spoken and sung in English. The story remains an extreme exercise in allegorical fantasy: A prince wanders into an enchanted land where he meets a strange character calling himself a bird-catcher. Spirits appear, urging the two to rescue the daughter of the Queen of the Night. Said daughter is held captive in the domain of an evil wizard, but wait. The wizard turns out to be an enlightened sage. Villainy is indeed afoot but it’s an inside job. To accomplish the mission, the prince must undergo ordeals of fire and water. The flute of the title is a power object for changing sorrow to joy. 

In case you wondered, yes, The Magic Flute has been made into a video game. But Pittsburgh Opera’s production gives you all the humor, drama, and brilliant Mozart music of the original. Tenor David Portillo is the prince and soprano Adelaide Boedecker plays the captive princess. The English libretto is projected above the stage in supertitles for super-clarity. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (M.V.)

ANIMATED ARIAS (live opera music and animations) by various artists. Pittsburgh Opera and Point Park University. Nov. 13 only, free performance at noon. 

Pink flamingos abound in 'Animated Arias.' This video animation, one of six in the show, is set to the 'Habanera' from Bizet's 'Carmen'—"L'amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser ..." ("Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame ...")

Pink flamingos abound in ‘Animated Arias.’ This video animation, one of six in the show, is set to the ‘Habanera’ from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’—”L’amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser …” (“Love is a rebellious bird that no one can tame …”)

A nearly lost art comes to life again in Pittsburgh. On November 13, 1940, Walt Disney released Fantasia, a series of animations set to classical music. On November 13 of this year—exactly 81 years later—Pittsburgh Opera and Point Park University present a live, mixed-media event titled Animated Arias. The opera company’s artists will perform arias and duets from six operas, each accompanied by the screening of an animation created by students in the university’s Cinema Arts Department. To say that both the opera company and Point Park are excited about this collaboration would be putting it mildly. Operas sampled in the show include Carmen, The Magic Flute, and The Barber of Seville. The students worked with Professor David Morrison to select the pieces and then design their interpretations. Et voilà: music videos return to their roots! Better yet, admission is free provided you register online in advance. Animated Arias will roll at noon sharp in the performance space at Pittsburgh Opera headquarters, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District. 

SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL. Book by Colman Domingo, Robert Cary, and Des McAnuff; lyrics and music by Donna Summer and various contributors. PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh. Nov. 16  – 21.

Brittny Smith, Charis Gullage, and Amahri Edward-Jones portray the singer at three stages of life in 'Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.' (photo: Nick Gould Photography)

Brittny Smith, Charis Gullage, and Amahri Edward-Jones portray the singer at three stages of life in ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.’ (photo: Nick Gould Photography)

In the late ‘70s Donna Summer’s music could be heard across the land—blasting from radios and on discothèque floors. The singer from Boston found her glory days in “The Big Apple,” New York City. The Queen of Disco, as she was widely known, charted a total of 42 hit singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 during her career, with 14 of those reaching the top ten. Summer died much too young at the age of 63 in 2012, but her music lives on in many places including Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. The show opened on Broadway in 2018. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is chock-full of over 20 of her hits including “Love to Love You,” “On the Radio,” “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” and “Last Dance.” The jukebox musical is part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (R.H.) 

CHIMERICA by Lucy Kirkwood. Quantum Theatre. Nov. 27 – Dec. 19. 

Ghosts of the past haunt Zhang Lin in Quantum Theatre's 'Chimerica.' Characters Left to right, Ariel Xiu as Liuli, Tobias Wong as Young Zhang Lin, Hansel Tan as Zhang Lin (background). (Photo by Jason Snyder)

Ghosts of the past haunt Zhang Lin in Quantum Theatre’s ‘Chimerica.’ Characters Left to right, Ariel Xiu as Liuli, Tobias Wong as Young Zhang Lin, Hansel Tan as Zhang Lin (background). (Photo by Jason Snyder)

There are many ways to create a play or movie “based” on real events. You can try a mostly faithful reenactment (Apollo 13 set the bar high), or weave a fictional story into a true one (Titanic), or use true events as a framework filled in with imagined dialogue, details, and even music: Hamilton! In the acclaimed Chimerica, British playwright Lucy Kirkwood starts from a dramatic true incident and spins out an imaginary sequel. At the end of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989, a man bravely stood in front of a column of army tanks to block their progress. Photos of “Tank Man” by an American journalist became iconic images; Tank Man’s identity and subsequent fate remain unknown to the public. Chimerica imagines the photographer, decades later, setting off on a quest to find the man. Clues lead back and forth between China and America, as the hunt becomes many things: a detective story, a journey through the cultures of the two superpowers, an inquiry into truth-telling. Chimerica premiered in London in 2013 and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. Quantum Theatre presents Chimerica in Pittsburgh at The Maverick Hotel, 120 S. Whitfield St., East Liberty. (M.V.)

AN UNTITLED NEW PLAY BY JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE by Matt Schatz. City Theatre and Pittsburgh CLO. Nov. 27 – Dec. 19.

The lineup for 'An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake,' L to R: actor/singers Julianne Avolio, Melessie Clark, Lara Hayhurst, and Craig MacDonald.

The lineup for ‘An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake,’ L to R: actor/singers Julianne Avolio, Melessie Clark, Lara Hayhurst, and Craig MacDonald.

An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake isn’t really by the pop icon. Rather, it is a new musical by writer-composer Matt Schatz, whose comedy The Burdens was a hit at City Theatre in 2019. The musical also skews comical and is said to be about the clash between art and commerce, with Mr. Timberlake serving as an embodiment of the issue. A literary manager at a theater company wants to stage fascinating new works by little-known playwrights. However the chief executive officer believes what the company really needs is a blockbuster by a widely known, sex-symbol-ish, rock/pop superstar. Timberlake in real life claims that “What Goes Around … Comes Around.” We shall see what Matt Schatz’s musical has to say regarding this adage. City Theatre presents An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake in partnership with Pittsburgh CLO. It’s directed by Reginald L. Douglas, with music direction by Douglas Levine and orchestrations by Rona Siddiqui. On City Theatre’s mainstage at 1300 Bingham St., South Side. (M,V.)

Other Shows of Note

LITTLE CHILDREN DREAM OF GOD by Jeff Augustin. Pittsburgh Playhouse Conservatory Theatre. Nov. 3 – 14. 

A Haitian woman, fleeing from the difficulties in her country as well as from a mysterious personal problem, escapes to Miami by floating on a tire, no small feat given that she is past-due pregnant. In Miami she is taken in and midwifed by a single mother who has 11 children, and who claims that all were fathered by God. The drama unfolds from there in Jeff Augustin’s play Little Children Dream of God. Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre performs it at Pittsburgh Playhouse. 350 Forbes Ave., Downtown. (MV)

LOVE AND INFORMATION, THE ADRIENNE KENNEDY PLAYS, and WOYZECK—three free admission shows. Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. Various dates, Nov. 3 – 22. 

Rarely do you get to see good theater for free. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is offering its season to the public at no charge, and this month three intriguing plays are scheduled. Tickets can be reserved online at the box office starting at noon the day before any of the following.  Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (November 3 – 5) is a series of quick-hit vignettes about love in the time of info overload, by the reigning grande dame of experimental theater. Adrienne Kennedy, another groundbreaking playwright, is best known for her surreal one-acts. The Adrienne Kennedy Plays (November 17 – 19) offers a sampling of her best. Finally comes Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, the classic tale of an unfortunate military recruit (November 19 -22). The adaptation is by theater director Daniel Kramer, and indeed adaptations are the only way to see Woyzeck, as Büchner died while writing it and different finished versions exist. All plays are in the Purnell Center for the Arts on the Carnegie Mellon campus, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland. (M.V.) 

RUMORS by Neil Simon. Little Lake Theatre. Nov. 4 – 13.

Theater fans who are up for trying a lesser-known play by a famous playwright may wish to catch Neil Simon’s Rumors. This wacky ensemble comedy is pure farce, capped by a scene that’s a comic masterpiece. Guests arriving for a fancy dinner party find that mysterious problems have arisen in the home of the host and hostess. Pandemonium ensues; eventually the police arrive, and then comes the scene you won’t forget. See Rumors at Little Lake Theatre, 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg. (MV)

HOPE IN HARDSHIP (a “spoken word dance film”), adapted from writing by Leonard T. and presented by Attack Theatre. Nov. 5 – 6.

Pittsburgh’s Attack Theatre, nationally known as an adventurous dance company, presents a new film created from a venture inside a hard place: a prison. The screenwriter, identified only as Leonard T., most likely cannot be at the screenings as he is incarcerated. Leonard has written deeply about his thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The film mixes spoken word with movement to bring the writings to life. Hope and Hardship is the title. Produced by Attack Theatre in partnership with the arts-in-prison nonprofit Shining Light, it is performed by Shining Light’s Denver Taylor and Attack dancer Simon Phillips. Hope and Hardship can be livestreamed or viewed in person. The in-person screenings include conversation afterward, and related workshops are available as well. At the Attack Theatre studios, 212 45th St., Lawrenceville. (M.V.) 

9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL by Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick. Stage 62. Nov. 11 – 21.

If your movie awareness goes back to 1980 you may recall 9 to 5, one of the year’s hit comedies and a star vehicle for Dolly Parton. Now there is a stage musical, with music and lyrics written by Parton herself. 9 to 5: The Musical follows the same plot as the film—three women, disgruntled office workers, rebel rather demonstratively against their oppressive, sexist boss. Stage 62, a company specializing in musicals, presents 9 to 5: The Musical in the Music Hall at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie. (M.V.) 

PHILADANCO (modern dance). Visiting company at the August Wilson Center. Nov. 12 only, 7 p.m. 

One of the nation’s foremost African-American dance companies comes to Pittsburgh for a mixed-repertory performance. Philadanco, a.k.a. Philadelphia Dance Company, was founded in 1970 by dancer Joan Myers Brown, who went on to become a leading advocate and organizer for bringing Black artists into the world of professional artistic dance—and who recently stepped back from active leadership of Philadanco at the age of 89. The company has performed worldwide. Known for its virtuosity in many forms of modern dance, Philadanco visits the August Wilson Cultural Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (M.V.) 

DISNEY’S DESCENDANTS: THE MUSICAL, from the films. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. Nov. 12 – 21. 

Fans of the Descendants fantasy series are invited to the very real town of Midland, Pennsylvania to see a live musical adapted from the Disney TV movies. Disney’s Descendants: The Musical features fave characters Mal, Evie, Carlos, and Jay, along with songs that the initiated may know by heart. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center, 1 Lincoln Park, Midland. (M.V.) 

IN THE LIGHT (contemporary ballet). Texture Contemporary Ballet. Nov. 19 – 21.

Texture Contemporary Ballet has made its mark in the Pittsburgh arts scene by creating original, modern ballets. The company comes to the stage this month with a program of short pieces titled In the Light. One of the new entries, a yet-untitled ballet by Artistic Director Alan Obuzor, uses dramatic lighting effects to augment the dance. See In the Light at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (M.V.)

MADELINE’S CHRISTMAS (musical) by Jennifer Kirkeby and Shirley Mier, from the picture book. Little Lake Theatre. Nov. 26 – Dec. 5.

We don’t usually highlight theater for kids—or TYA (theater for young audiences), to use the genteel trade term—but hey, this is Madeline. Lots of parents grew up loving the seven-year-old heroine of the Ludwig Bemelmans books, so they too should enjoy Madeline’s Christmas, a musical adaptation of the book of the same title. As in some other stories, there’s an unhappy occurrence but Madeline’s joie de vivre, élan, and je ne sais quoi lead the way to a happy ending. Little Lake Theatre presents Madeline’s Christmas at 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg. (M.V.) 

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