October Theater Preview: Trusty Classics, Tantalizing Surprises

For a proper theater scene, you want variety—not just plays in different styles and genres, so you can choose what you’re in the mood for, but a mixture of tried-and-true classics with new or little-known plays. Here are highlights of what’s on Pittsburgh stages in October.

The choices range from Shakespeare to raucous Russian satire, with plays by August Wilson (you know him) and Diana Son (wait, wait, who’s she?) added in.

In the Public Theater's opener, Cathryn Wake is Laura and she owns 'The Glass Menagerie.'

In the Public Theater’s opener, Cathryn Wake is Laura and she owns ‘The Glass Menagerie.’

Elsewhere, a touch of the old Tennessee is balanced with something new from that bloke named Shanley … and a long-beloved musical with two gritty Pittsburgh originals.

You will also find different kinds of folks putting on these plays: major professional companies in the city, theater departments at the universities, a touring company, and a couple of experimental outfits. Let’s take them by those categories.

At major professional companies: 

THE GLASS MENAGERIE by Tennessee Williams. Oct. 2-Nov. 2, Pittsburgh Public Theater

The Public, now in its 40th year, is billing this season as “The Season of Legends.” Kicking off the slate is the play that made Tennessee Williams’ reputation after it premiered in 1944. It’s vintage Williams, filled with memorable language and intricate tensions, and there really is a glass menagerie. The character Laura is a shy, reclusive young woman who keeps a knick-knack collection of glass animals. The question is, can she be pulled out of her shell into the larger and messier zoo of human relations? Visit The Public for times and tickets. 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

PICT 2014 FINAL MAILER INSIDE CS5 copy

MACBETH by William Shakespeare. Oct. 8-25, PICT Classic Theatre

Few plays have resonated through the centuries like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The story has been adapted many times (most chillingly, on film, in Akira Kurosawa’s spooky samurai version, Throne of Blood) and it has been the butt of parody, as in the “Prairie Home Companion” radio skit that imagined Mister Rogers playing a bright and bubbly Macbeth. (“Is this a dagger which I see before me? Is it? Yesss, it is! …”). PICT Classic Theater is mounting a fresh take on the original, giving it an avant-Goth flavor but staying true to the text, in a treatment the company says will appeal to Shakespeare purists as well as “Game of Thrones” fans. With David Whalen in the title role and Gayle Pazerski as Lady You-Know-Who. Ticket info here. 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

OUTSIDE MULLINGAR by John Patrick Shanley. Oct. 11-Nov. 2, City Theatre

City Theatre is devoted to presenting new plays, written or debuted within the past five years. Outside Mullingar comes to Pittsburgh hot from Broadway, having finished its run there in March, and it comes with a pedigree few can match. Playwright John Patrick Shanley owns a triple crown: He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and a Best-Play Tony Award (both for Doubt: A Parable) plus an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Moonstruck). The colorful Shanley—who was born and raised in blue-collar America but calls himself “Irish as hell”—returns to his roots in this latest work. Set on a farm in rural Ireland, Outside Mullingar is a love story with a twist. Visit City for details and tix. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

Meanwhile, three outstanding plays are being done in university theater:

Venturing fearlessly forward with a pipe wrench, Kelsey Carthew stars as Engineer Rein.

Venturing fearlessly forward with a pipe wrench, Kelsey Carthew stars as Engineer Rein.

BLISS by Mikhail Bulgakov. Oct. 1-4, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama

If satirical dystopian fantasy is your cup of tea, don’t miss Bliss, written by a virtuoso of the genre. Much of Bulgakov’s work was suppressed during his lifetime in Stalinist Russia, but he is known worldwide today for a novel published after his death: The Master and Margarita, in which the Devil visits the Soviet Union. (The book is said to have inspired the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil.”)  Bliss is a time-travel play about a bizarre workers’ paradise of the future, where alcohol runs from the water taps and everything is peachy, except for certain details. Carnegie Mellon drama students are performing a new English version translated and directed by master’s candidate Margo Gray, who has studied at the Moscow Art Theatre School. Get tickets early for this short run. Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater, Purnell Center at Carnegie Mellon, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

STOP KISS by Diana Son. Oct. 2-11, Pitt Department of Theatre Arts

Those who’ve seen it call Stop Kiss an under-the-radar gem of modern American theater. Two women, who have met and become friends in New York, spontaneously stop on a late-night walk to share a kiss. This enrages a passerby who attacks the women, sending one to the hospital in a coma. The assault isn’t shown, however—it occurs offstage—nor is it the sole focus of the play. While gay-bashing and street violence are certainly issues that come up, the incident is used as a pivot point for telling a host of other stories. By delving (often humorously) into the women’s lives before and after the crime, Stop Kiss takes you on a panoramic tour of the nature of friendship, love, and big-city life. Ticket info here. Henry Heymann Theater at Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

In 'Seven Guitars' we find Floyd Barton (Mitchell Edwards) trying to tune up his act for Vera (Johari Mackey).

In ‘Seven Guitars’ we find Floyd Barton (Mitchell Edwards) trying to tune up his act for Vera (Johari Mackey).

SEVEN GUITARS by August Wilson. Oct. 2-11, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama

The action in Seven Guitars revolves around Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton and his buddies in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Barton, a (fictional) blues musician and ladies’ man, aims for the stars but is pulled in the other direction—a recurring theme of August Wilson’s plays, which veer from high comedy to epic tragedy as they depict people torn between lofty visions and low-down deeds and circumstances. Seven Guitars is a rousing piece, with great music. Just keep an eye out for Hedley, the neighborhood’s self-anointed prophet, whose hair-raising tirades drive the darker messages home. Tickets for this “mainstage” production will put you in the Phillip Chosky Theater at Carnegie Mellon’s Purnell Center, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

In the touring department:  

ANNIE by Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan.  Oct. 28-Nov. 2, national touring company at Benedum Center

Alas, the comic strip Little Orphan Annie is defunct. There aren’t many people left who remember the strip in its heyday, back when Annie often had death-defying encounters with brutal arch-villains, and when Daddy Warbucks’ lethal hit man Punjab would come to her rescue. Yet the 1977 musical lives on. This Annie is still winning the hearts of new generations with its carnage-free, more upbeat rendering of the plucky orphan and her adoptive dad. One lesson is that cultural icons can evolve over time. Another is that you can join the fun by catching the road-show production of Annie on its stop here. Bring the kids. Part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway Across America series.  237 7th St., Cultural District.

Annie Image Art

And finally a pair of brand-new works …

Every year, local stages offer world premieres of Pittsburgh-original plays. A couple from the past were Jitney, which became August Wilson’s first hit, and Stephen Schwartz’s musical Pippin. You may want to try two originals coming in October: BOOK OF EZRA is a one-man show by the spoken-word artist Leslie Ezra Smith. Oct. 4-25, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. And could DAY ROOM WINDOW be the new “Orange Is the New Black”?  Drawn from playwright Bonnie Cohen’s own experiences, it is the story of nine juvenile offenders doing time in an adult women’s prison. Oct. 16-25 at the New Hazlett Theatre.

Photo credits: Bliss, Jordan Harrison; Seven Guitars, Louis Stein.

Mike Vargo is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor who covers theater for Entertainment Central.