September Theater Guide: Choices for a Binge
Come September, many people binge-watch football, but binge-watching live theater is more civilized. The shows aren’t scheduled end to end, so you can string them out a bit—say, one on Friday night, then another for a Saturday matinee, and a third that evening. This allows time to appreciate the content, which in most cases is richer than that of spectator sports. And September in the Pittsburgh area offers a wide range of shows to choose from.
Among the modern classics: August Wilson’s eerie Gem of the Ocean is one of his lesser-known masterpieces. The Lion King musical, featuring Julie Taymor’s vivid production design, visits for a nearly month-long run. Sam Shepard’s True West teems with meanings, but don’t worry about finding them; just enjoy the wild ride. Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men is a sharp-edged military courtroom drama. And Aldous Huxley, author of The Doors of Perception, would’ve loved the surreal dance company MOMIX. They’ll open a few doors you didn’t know you had.
As for intriguing new works: Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band, which recently rocked Chicago, gets a Pittsburgh production. Michael Skirpan’s mysterious immersive piece Project Amelia imagines the future of personal AI. Un Poyo Rojo, a loony Argentine takeoff on the macho mystique, isn’t exactly new—it’s been touring the globe—but Pittsburgh Dance Council brings it here for the first time. And Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is 420 years old but chances are you haven’t seen it done with an all-female cast.
Other shows include two plays based on American history, Rob Barron’s 5/31/89: The Flood (about the Johnstown Flood), and Joe Landry’s War of the Worlds: The Panic Broadcast, about the freakout-inducing radio drama. To see modern dance confront pop art, catch Attack Theatre’s Some Assembly Required at The Warhol. To see cult-movie fans going bloody bonkers, join them for Evil Dead: The Musical.
The choices are eclectic and need not be expensive. Smart use of discounts, preview showings, and the like can make for a budget-conscious binge. Spotlighted shows are previewed in order of run dates, followed by “other suggested productions.”
Continuing from August:
GEM OF THE OCEAN by August Wilson. Through Sept. 22, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.
If you are new to August Wilson, jump on the chance to see Gem of the Ocean. It is the opening play of his Pittsburgh Cycle—10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century—and, along with the classic Wilson touches, Gem has a deeper dimension: supernatural spirituality. The year is 1904. We are at the Hill District home of Aunt Ester, who in other plays is a presence but never seen. A former slave, she has aged well and learned much in her 285 years. One day a visitor arrives, a new man in town, named Citizen Barlow. He bears a burden of guilt and wants Aunt Ester to wash his soul. This, she can do. The ritual is remarkable and so are the events that surround it. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, long known for interpreting Wilson’s work, presents Gem of the Ocean with Chrystal Bates as Aunt Ester, Jonathan Berry as Citizen, Kevin Brown as Solly Two Kings, and Wali Jamal as Caesar. The play is performed outdoors at 1839 Wylie Ave., Hill District.
Shows in the EC Spotlight for September:
THE LION KING (musical) by Julie Taymor, Roger Allers, Irene Mecchi, Elton John, Tim Rice, and others, from the 1994 Disney movie. Sept. 4 – 29, touring company at Benedum Center.
Authoritarian rule is to be dreaded, except in The Lion King. All creatures rejoice when young Simba, a benevolent though carnivorous monarch, defeats a coup to reclaim his place at the top of the food chain. The 1994 Disney animated movie won the hearts of millions. The Broadway musical, stunningly adapted under the direction of Julie Taymor, has played continuously in New York since 1997. Now the latest touring production of The Lion King visits Pittsburgh. It retains all the features that won multiple Tony Awards (including Best Musical) for the Broadway original. Actors use Taymor’s costumes and puppets to vividly re-create a story in which no characters are humans. The musical has additional scenes and many songs beyond those in the animated film, as composers such as Lebo M of South Africa expanded on the movie’s Elton John-Tim Rice score. With the recent release of the CGI movie remake, Lion King aficionados can do a triple dip, comparing both screen versions and the musical. Just be advised that the live stage show is a hot ticket. Reserve promptly. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard. Sept. 6 – 29, barebones productions.
American theater classics don’t get more American, or more classic, than Sam Shepard’s True West. The play bundles bizarre humor and hallucinatory levels of meaning into a tale of two brothers fighting over a question: Who has the chops to tell the truth about the wild West? Little brother Austin is a strait-laced, college-prepped screenwriter working on a movie script that he hopes will capture the essence. Big brother Lee, the family’s black sheep, is a disreputable drifter who’s actually lived a lot of the wildness that such a script may depict—so he tries to take artistic control. Tensions between them escalate to a stage where myth, reality, and hilarity mingle madly. True West premiered in San Francisco in 1980. It became a hit when Gary Sinise (as Austin) and John Malkovitch (Lee) played the leads at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, then reprised their roles in New York. Braddock’s barebones productions presents True West with Gabriel King as Austin, Patrick Jordan as Lee, Randy Kovitz as Agent Saul, and Heidi Mueller Smith in a brief but memorable scene near the end. At the barebones black box, 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock.
JULIUS CAESAR by William Shakespeare. Sept. 7 – 29, various locations, Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks.
Seeing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar performed by an all-female cast is a rare opportunity. The chance to see it for free (though donations are welcomed) makes it close to a can’t-miss. Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks does the honors, in an outdoor production touring three City parks through September. The company is an independent nonprofit, and the casting is part of an ongoing wave of women claiming larger roles in theater, including roles written for men. Julius Caesar is an interesting choice: a play about men fighting over who will rule, and how. A notable precedent came when London’s Donmar Warehouse company produced a series of all-female Shakespeare plays, starting with Caesar in 2012, then Henry IV and The Tempest in 2014 and ’16. Perhaps you saw Pittsburgh Public Theater’s version of The Tempest done without male actors last year. Shammen McCune, Caliban in that show, now plays Brutus in Julius Caesar. Irene Alby is Caesar, Lisa Ann Goldsmith is Cassius, and Harper York is Marc Antony.
The schedule: Sept. 7-8 and 28-29 in Frick Park, near the Blue Slide Playground on Beechwood Blvd. Sept. 14-15 in Highland Park, across from the Super Playground on Reservoir Dr. And Sept. 21-22 in Arsenal Park, 40th St. between Penn Ave. and Butler St., Lawrenceville. All shows are at 2 p.m., preceded by an “about the play” talk at 1:30 p.m.
ONE-MAN STAR WARS TRILOGY by Charles Ross. Sept. 11 – 29, Mr. Ross presented by Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.
Out from the wilds of Canada comes a cosmic stage spectacle. Charles Ross spent many hours of a geeky youth in small-town British Columbia watching and re-watching the first Star Wars movie. Then he became an actor, studying at the University of Victoria. And in 2001, Ross teamed with director friend T.J. Dawe to create a show that would make him a global cult legend, One-Man Star Wars Trilogy. Pittsburgh CLO brings Ross to town for a generous run of his masterpiece. The show is both a spoof and an homage. It’s been described as amazing. Using no props, costumes, or recordings, the actor conjures up (and has fun with) all major characters and story lines from the original Star Wars trilogy: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. His Yoda is said to be sublime, his Darth Vader surpassingly weird. The action scenes are energetic and the self-generated sound effects reportedly add an interstellar dimension. Ross performs One-Man Star Wars Trilogy at the Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
A FEW GOOD MEN by Aaron Sorkin. Sept. 12 – Oct. 13, Pittsburgh Public Theater.
Pittsburgh Public Theater goes into a new season shifting gender gears. Last season, the company’s first under artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski, featured plays highlighting women as playwrights and/or lead characters. Now the company opens with a macho number: Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men. Sorkin is best known as the creator of TV’s “The West Wing” and screenwriter for films including The Social Network, but his career was kick-started by this military courtroom drama of the 1980s. Fictionalized from true events, A Few Good Men crackles with tension and sharp exchanges. Two U.S. Marines are charged with inadvertently killing a fellow Marine in a hazing incident. Although it looks like an open-and-shut case, the court martial reveals more to the story. The 1992 movie became iconic for Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” tirade. The Public’s cast includes a couple of good men who aren’t primarily actors—Rocky Bleier, and KDKA Radio news host Larry Richert—plus notables such as Ken Bolden, Monteze Freeland, and Cotter Smith. Alison Weisgall, in a key role, plays the lone female character. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED (interactive modern dance) by Attack Theatre. Sept. 13 – 14, the company at The Andy Warhol Museum.
If you have opinions about Andy Warhol, here is your chance to see them expressed in dance. Attack Theatre, the company that never dances defensively, brings a classic show from its repertoire to a spectacular venue. Some Assembly Required is an improvised, interactive piece done in museums and galleries where visual art is on display. Attack’s dancers begin by dancing briefly to live music; then they join the audience to view and talk about certain artworks. This leads to a second dance inspired by people’s reactions, so that each performance is unique. Attack Theatre has performed the piece at venues from Carnegie Museum of Art, which commissioned it in 1995, to the famous Avignon Festival in France. This year, Some Assembly Required inhabits The Andy Warhol Museum. Better yet, each show is pay-what-you-want. Online reservations are strongly urged. Attack dancers for the event are Simon Phillips, Dane Toney, and Sarah Zielinski, with percussion music by PJ Roduta. The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side.
UN POYO ROJO (dance/theater/comedy) by Luciano Rosso, Alfonso Barón, and choreographer Nicolás Poggi. Sept. 14 only, 8 p.m., touring production at August Wilson Center, co-presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.
The title appears to be a pun in Spanish, although we aren’t sure. Argentine performers Luciano Rosso and Alfonso Barón like to make sure you’re never sure what will happen next, as seen in their two-man show Un Poyo Rojo. They say this means “A red stone bench” but poyo sounds like pollo, which means chicken, and the acrobatic dancers do a lot of comical cockfighting in their feature-length pas de deux. The show comes across as a sendup of macho culture laced with homoerotic undertones. A Scottish review of a performance at the Edinburgh Fringe called Un Poyo Rojo “a gloriously camp and joyous piss-take of tussling locker-room masculinity,” reflecting how strongly it spoke to the hot-blooded Scots. Now Rosso and Barón perform Un Poyo Rojo in Pittsburgh. They’ll be at the August Wilson Center, co-presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council, with a no-extra-charge party after the show hosted by DJ Inception. 8 p.m. 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.
CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND by Lauren Yee. Sept. 14 – Oct. 6, City Theatre.
Chicago is a big theater town, with myriad productions each year and picky critics. When a play arriving there gets rave notices like “haunting, wise … chilling … triumphant”—not to mention “the best show you’ll see in Chicago this spring. Maybe all year”—it’s probably pretty good. City Theatre of Pittsburgh brings Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band to our town. The (fictional) story revolves around a young Cambodian-American woman who travels to Cambodia, hoping to learn details about the massacres and atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. That part, sampled in flashbacks, is all too true. An estimated 2 million people died in dictator Pol Pot’s attempts to purify the country. Targets included intellectuals, city dwellers, Muslims, anyone with foreign connections, and children of those killed, lest they seek revenge when grown. Yet Cambodian Rock Band is described as “uplifting”—and it does rock. There’s plenty of live music from psychedelic surf rockers Dengue Fever. (See the video above, made at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production.) The play is co-presented at City by Victory Gardens Theater, which staged it in Chicago a few months ago, and Merrimack Repertory Theatre of Lowell, Massachusetts. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.
5/31/1889: THE FLOOD by Rob Barron. Sept. 17 – 29, Mountain Playhouse.
The Johnstown Flood of 1889 still ranks as one of the most deadly disasters in U.S. history. Re-enacting what it was like to live through the ordeal, Mountain Playhouse of Jennerstown stages Rob Barron’s play 5/31/1889: The Flood. Decades before the flood, a dam was built above Johnstown on the Little Conemaugh River, to form a not-so-little reservoir for the canals that served Pennsylvania’s early economy. After railroads replaced canals, a group of wealthy Pittsburghers (led by Henry Clay Frick) bought the reservoir for vacation use as a private lake. Normally the stream coming out of it descended gradually through a winding valley. When record rainfall swelled the lake and broke the dam, the wall of water thundering down equaled the volume of the Mississippi at its largest, killing more than 2,000. Playwright Barron is chair of the Theatre and Speech Department at City College of New York. Mountain Playhouse commissioned and first presented his Flood play in 2004; this year’s edition marks the 130th anniversary of the calamity. 7690 Somerset Pike, Jennerstown.
PROJECT AMELIA (immersive theater) by Michael Skirpan. Sept. 20 – Nov. 3, Bricolage Production Company.
If you enjoy high-tech mystery you’re a candidate for Project Amelia. It is the latest work of on-site immersive theater from Bricolage Production Company, which two years ago performed DODO in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Project Amelia is more concerned with the unnatural future. Conceived by Michael Skirpan, the play envisions a new AI product that will, says the promo material, “Replace all the disparate devices that clutter your life and streamline your physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological, spiritual, and time-management needs.” Since the experience is immersive, you participate. And once you reserve online, you even find out where to go. Project Amelia is limited to audience members 18 or older, with the location disclosed to ticket holders by email before they come. We know only that it’s somewhere “in Pittsburgh’s South Side.”
VIVA MOMIX (modern dance) by MOMIX. Sept. 21 only, 8 p.m., the company at the Byham Theater, presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council.
There are some modern dance companies that win followings among people who didn’t even think they liked modern dance, and MOMIX is one. The troupe’s unusual work might best be described with a term from literature: magical realism. MOMIX dancers perform feats and create illusions that boggle the norms of perception, while seeming to tell surreal stories. Strange props and stage effects are used freely. Results can range from hypnotic to hilarious. Founder Moses Pendleton began as a core member of the famed company Pilobolus, then spun off to start MOMIX in 1981. Pendleton grew up on a farm and is an avid outdoorsman—his rural home has served as the company’s de facto HQ—so it’s not unusual to see dances that evoke flora, fauna, or the workings of nature generally. MOMIX visits Pittsburgh to perform Viva MOMIX, a collection of pieces from its various shows over the years. Presented by Pittsburgh Dance Council at the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.
EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL by George Reinblatt, Christopher Bond, Frank Cipolla, and Melissa Morris. Sept. 27 – Oct. 19, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.
So far, over 500 productions of Evil Dead: The Musical have been staged worldwide. Think of what this has required in human terms. Hundreds of talented actors, fluent at using their hands gracefully on stage, had to learn how to play a character whose right hand is replaced by a chainsaw. Yet the role is a coveted one, for Ashley “Ash” Williams is not your average bionic hero. In the Evil Dead films on which the musical is based, he duels with deadites in settings from the present-day U.S. to medieval Europe. Ash is a complexly flawed hero who bumbles through everyday life, but excels in matters such as fighting the Kandarian Demon. The British cinema magazine Empire ranked him the greatest horror movie character of all time. Pittsburgh Musical Theater—which presented one of those 500+ productions, just last year—resurrects Evil Dead: The Musical by popular demand. B.A. Goodnack stars again as Ash in a run of late-night performances. Exuberant audience response is welcome but leave your chainsaws, and children, at home. Preferably not in the same room. Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main St., West End.
Other Suggested Productions:
OUTSIDE MULLINGAR by John Patrick Shanley. Sept. 5 – 15, Apple Hill Playhouse.
John Patrick Shanley, who was born and raised in blue-collar America but calls himself “Irish as hell,” has a dark side and a bright side. The dark side made him a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, by virtue of his 2004 drama Doubt: A Parable, about a nun who accuses a priest of sexually abusing an altar boy. Shanley’s bright side produces some fine work as well. Outside Mullingar, a romantic comedy, has been called his best play since Doubt. It’s set in a patch of rural Ireland, where an unmarried middle-aged woman has a longtime crush on a shy farmer who lacks the awareness to reciprocate. You can sense that they’ll get together in the end. The adventure lies in getting there. Outside Mullingar premiered on Broadway in 2014. Apple Hill Playhouse stages Outside Mullingar not far outside Pittsburgh, at 275 Manor Rd., Delmont.
A COMEDY OF TENORS by Ken Ludwig. Sept. 5 – 21, Little Lake Theatre.
A sequel that comes along 26 years after the original may sound odd, but Ken Ludwig’s 2015 play A Comedy of Tenors is said to be every bit as farcical as his 1989 Broadway hit Lend Me a Tenor, if not more so. Perhaps the playwright got sillier as he aged. A Comedy of Tenors, like the original, is set in the 1930s and features the pompously prickly opera tenor Tito Merelli and his entourage—or is it coterie, or retinue? Some French word for a bunch of folks, as this time they are in Paris, not Cleveland, for an adventure marked by sexual shenanigans, mistaken identities, and zippy one-liners in the manner of the Marx Brothers except R-rated. Little Lake Theatre presents A Comedy of Tenors with Warren Ashburn as Tito, Joyce Miller as his spitfire wife Maria, and more. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.
YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN (musical) by Clark Gesner, Andrew Lippa, and Michael Mayer, from the Charles M. Schulz comic strip. Sept. 13 – 29, McKeesport Little Theater.
McKeesport Little Theater, the company with the oddly cool slogan—”Because anyone can watch a movie!”—performs a musical for anyone who has read comic strips. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown began as a 1966 concept album, when composer Clark Gesner wrote a series of songs based on characters from Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic. The album was a hoot, with actors such as Orson Bean (no relation to Orson Welles) voicing Charlie. Gesner was urged to build it into a stage musical, which he did, and the rest is history. McKeesport Little Theater is doing the 1999 Broadway revival version that includes additional material by Andrew Lippa and Michael Mayer. Songs include Linus’ “My Blanket and Me,” Lucy and Charlie’s “The Doctor Is In,” Schroeder’s “Beethoven Day,” and more. 1614 Coursin St., McKeesport.
WAR OF THE WORLDS: THE PANIC BROADCAST by Joe Landry. Sept. 18 – Oct. 5, South Park Theatre.
South Park Theatre presents a history play framed as radio meta-theater inside meta-theater. The subject is Orson Welles’ legendary 1938 adaptation of the H.G. Wells sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds. Done live on national radio, in the style of breaking news reports about a Martian invasion, it led off with a this-is-fiction advisory but still alarmed listeners who tuned in midway. Modern playwright Joe Landry has developed a piece called War of the Worlds: The Panic Broadcast. Done live on stage, it re-creates an imaginary 1940s radio show re-creating Welles’ 1938 show and the hubbub that followed. Got that? It’s said to be fun. Brownsville Rd. at Corrigan Dr., South Park Township.
DISNEY’S THE LITTLE MERMAID (musical) by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Glenn Slater, and Doug Wright. Sept. 20 – 22, Stage Right of Greensburg.
In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” mermaid Ariel visits the Sea Witch and exchanges her voice for legs and feet to win a prince’s heart. The catch? Every step she takes is painful. Worse, the prince still marries someone else. Ariel can transform back into a mermaid, but must kill the prince and let his blood drip on her feet. The 1989 Disney animated film swapped out many of these macabre details for a happy ending and upbeat numbers like “Under the Sea.” The Broadway musical adaptation, filled with intriguing underwater and seaborne illusions, premiered in 2008. Stage Right of Greensburg performs Disney’s The Little Mermaid at The Palace Theatre, 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. (CM/MV)
TIME: UNBOUND (modern dance) by various choreographers. Sept. 21 – 22, Exhalations Dance Theatre.
Pittsburgh’s Exhalations Dance Theatre is a company for dancers and choreographers who’ve chosen other careers but wish to keep practicing their art at a professional level. Members audition to join, then work hard creating new performances for the public. The latest Exhalations show is Time: Unbound, a collection of original dances related to the title theme, which should appeal to anyone interested in unbinding time rather than managing it. You’ll see pieces danced to music by Twenty One Pilots, Zammuto, and others. Choreographers for Time: Unbound include the directors and members of Exhalations along with guest choreographer Kelsey Bartman of Texture Contemporary Ballet. At the Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.
THE SUNDAY GOD GAVE ME by Kim El. Sept. 21 – 22 at the New Hazlett Theater.
Performance artist and writer Kim El has been a multitalented presence on the Pittsburgh-area arts scene for years. Not saying that she’s old—just experienced—and much of her work includes reaching out to people in the community, whether through teaching or through dramatic pieces that convey their experiences. This month brings a stage production of Kim El’s The Sunday God Gave Me. The play is about domestic violence, its effects on children in the home, and the healing and renewal that can follow. Kayla Edmunds and Tanisha Shaw are featured. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT LIVE (touring version of the TV show). Sept. 25 only, 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Hall.
Do Americans buy too much stuff? Maybe, but we love to shop, and there’s no denying that “The Price Is Right” is the nation’s longest-running TV series. The game show, which involves bidding on goods from groceries to new cars and exotic experiences, has had multiple incarnations. An early version aired from 1956 to 1965. The current run began on CBS in 1972. With the global spread of U.S. culture and rising prosperity, adapted versions have been produced in countries from Bulgaria to Vietnam. And since 2003 in this country there’s been a live stage-show version, The Price Is Right Live! An added attraction here: If you buy a ticket or register for the chance, you may be picked as a contestant. The touring production of The Price Is Right Live! visits Pittsburgh for a one-nighter. 7:30 p.m. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
BLOOMSDAY by Steven Dietz. Sept. 26 – Oct. 12, Little Lake Theatre.
Bloomsday, June 16, is celebrated worldwide each year but most definitively in Dublin, where the all-day affair originated as a tribute to James Joyce and his novel Ulysses. Now it is the setting for an eerily whimsical (or whimsically eerie?) romantic time-travel drama. Little Lake Theatre performs American playwright Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday. A young Irishwoman and an American tourist meet in Dublin on a Bloomsday, fall briefly in love, then re-meet 35 years later after they’ve gone their separate ways. Musing on how things might have turned out different, they also re-trace and reflect events from Ulysses. Does life imitate art or vice versa? Carina Iannarelli and Connor McNelis play the young couple, Leah Hillgrove and Marc Duchin their older counterparts. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.
BEATLES & BACH (contemporary ballets) by Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman, with Cello Fury. Sept. 27 – 29, Texture Contemporary Ballet.
Texture Contemporary Ballet teams up again with Cello Fury, the Pittsburgh-based art rock ensemble, for a three-part show that sounds like it has only two: Beatles & Bach. The program leads off with a ballet choreographed by Texture Artistic Director Alan Obuzor to Bach’s exquisite Cello Suite No. 3. It closes with a sequence of dances to tunes from The Beatles, choreographed by Associate Artistic Director Kelsey Bartman. But in between is a yet-untitled new work, created jointly by the Texture dancers and Cello Fury musicians. Any of the pieces alone seems worth a look and listen; together they add up to a promising combo. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.