September Theater Preview: Does the Past Foretell Our Future?

With theater season ramping up, here is a quick guide to what’s on stage in Pittsburgh during September. Plays are described in order by their opening dates—and one can see an interesting pattern emerging.

Several productions deal with events and people from the early 1900s. Since this year marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, it’s no surprise that we have a play set amid the carnage of that war. But the lineup also features a classic from the Great Depression, and two plays about radically eccentric women who made their marks in the first half of the last century.

Is this just a coincidence, or is it a sign of rising interest in the early-modern era? Did the turbulence of that era foreshadow what is happening (or might soon happen) in our own young century? Perhaps these are questions to explore with your friends after a show. Meanwhile, whether the plays you choose are set in the past or the hectic present, you should find plenty to enjoy in a month’s worth of strong, adventurous Pittsburgh theater.

Tamara (Megan MacKenzie Lawrence, right front) promotes cultural exchange by teaching Luisa (Robin Abramson) how to shimmy.

Tamara (Megan MacKenzie Lawrence, right front) promotes cultural exchange by teaching Luisa (Robin Abramson) how to shimmy.

TAMARA by John Krizanc. Already running, through Sept. 14, Quantum Theatre.

Although few people today know the name Tamara de Lempicka, her bold Art Deco paintings still resonate with modern tastes. During the 1920s and ‘30s Lempicka painted portraits of Europe’s elite while her flamboyant lifestyle made her a prototypical “liberated” woman of the time. In Tamara, a play based loosely on actual incidents, a visit to Mussolini’s Italy pulls the artist into a nasty web of sexual and political manipulation. For details on Quantum’s production see our review; the run is sold out but one can get on a waiting list in case some ticket-holders cancel. At Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Ave., Oakland. Photo: Quantum Theatre and Heather Mull.  

 

OBSERVE THE SONS OF ULSTER MARCHING TOWARDS THE SOMME by Frank McGuiness. Sept. 4-20, PICT Classic Theatre (formerly Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre).   "Sons of Ulster" Theater Poster

Irish writer Frank McGuiness is known for gripping, darkly humorous plays about people thrown together in difficult circumstances. His subjects have included Westerners held hostage by Arab militants (in Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me) and workers in a labor dispute (Factory Girls). In Sons of Ulster, the characters are eight Irishmen training for combat in World War I. They’re a diverse lot from a homeland troubled by Protestant-Catholic strife: upper-class and blue-collar, straight and (closeted) gay. As the men struggle to form a cohesive fighting unit, the play raises questions about what they are fighting for. Most are doomed to die quickly in the dreadful Battle of the Somme, oft criticized as being poorly planned and needlessly bloody. Tickets online or call (412) 561-6000. At the Charity Randall Theatre, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

 

OF MICE AND MEN by John Steinbeck. Sept. 4-21, The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Of Mice and Men is more than a hard-luck tale from the Depression. It’s an enduring fable about two friends whose dreams are wrecked by their own good intentions and shortcomings. For author John Steinbeck, the work was also a literary experiment. He wrote it as both a short novel and a play, keeping the story and dialogue the same in each. And the play—which opened shortly after the book’s release, in 1937—became a classic buddy-act vehicle.

The ill-fated migrant workers George and Lennie have been played by famous duos ranging from Broderick Crawford and Lon Chaney, Jr. to Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. A Broadway revival this year starred James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. In a new production at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, you’ll see Jarrod DiGiorgi as George and Leandro Cano as his sidekick Lennie.  Of Mice and Men is presented by The REP, Point Park University’s professional theater company, with Robert A. Miller as director. Tickets online or call 412-392-8000. 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

 

PITTSBURGH NEW WORKS FESTIVAL. Sept. 4-28, multiple theater companies.

An evening of one-acts offers a varied experience at the theater, and Pittsburgh’s New Works Festival—now in its 24th year, drawing entries from across the country—is one of the major events of its kind. Twelve original one-acts are staged in four separate programs of three plays each. Selections range from comedies and dramas to surreal sci-fi. Authors include newcomers as well as award winners from past Festivals, such as Chris Gavaler (his new one-act is Crisis on Infinite Earths). There’s even a play from a TV soap-opera writer in Los Angeles (Close Your Eyes by James Harmon Brown) and each one-act is produced by a different local community theater group. All plays are at Off the Wall Theater, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

 

The Mormon missionaries have their work cut out for them. Left to right: Monica L. Patton, David Larsen, Cody Jamison Strand. "The Book of Mormon" national tour. Photo by Joan Marcus 2014.

The Mormon missionaries have their work cut out for them. Left to right: Monica L. Patton, David Larsen, Cody Jamison Strand. “The Book of Mormon” national tour. Photo by Joan Marcus 2014.

THE BOOK OF MORMON by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone. Sept. 23-Oct. 5, national touring company at Heinz Hall.

If you missed The Book of Mormon last time it was in town you’ll know to reserve tickets early. The show won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2011. Some critics call it one of the best musicals ever. In an age when few things can truly shock an audience, this work, by the creators of the “South Park” TV series Parker and Stone and Avenue Q co-creator Lopez, is shockingly (and hilariously) irreverent while also being surprisingly uplifting. Two naïve young Mormon missionaries are sent to win converts in a remote African village, and the hijinks unfold from there. The touring production is brought here by Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadway Across America series. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

 

SOUVENIR by Stephen Temperley. Sept. 26-Oct. 12, The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse.

How bad a soprano was Florence Foster Jenkins? This vintage studio recording may only hint at how stupefying her live performances were. Jenkins, a wealthy socialite who loved opera, launched a self-financed career as a solo recital artist in 1912. She persisted until her death in 1944, writing off the laughter of her audiences as “professional jealousy.” Temperley’s play Souvenir explores art, ambition, and delusion by re-creating Jenkins’s adventures through the eyes of her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

 

Additionally, there is an interesting modern-dance performance this month:

PARALLEL LIVES by Beth Corning. Sept. 10-14, Corningworks at the New Hazlett Theater.

Among the excellent performance venues in Pittsburgh, the New Hazlett Theater stands out by virtue of its mission. It is home to a rotating array of small performing-arts companies, some of which stage intriguing avant-garde pieces. A prime example is Parallel Lives by the dance company Corningworks. This two-person narrative dance dramatizes an issue we’re all familiar with: In a world where everyone tries to stay “connected” electronically, how connected are we, really? Beth Corning created the piece and dances it with Arthur Aviles, formerly of the renowned Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in New York. Tickets online. At 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

 

Coming in early October:  The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, Oct. 2-Nov. 2, Pittsburgh Public Theater; Seven Guitars by August Wilson, Oct. 2-11, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama; Stop Kiss by Diana Son, Oct. 2-12, Pitt Dept. of Theatre Arts; Book of Ezra by Leslie Ezra Smith, Oct. 4-25, Pittsburgh Playwrights; Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Oct. 8-25, PICT Classic Theatre; and Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley, Oct. 11-Nov. 2, City Theatre.

Mike Vargo, a freelance writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, covers theater for Entertainment Central.