September Theater Preview: The Season Takes Off

Let us not mourn the coming of September, for it is actually a second spring when many new delights burst into full flower: football, another school year, fusty fall-fashion colors, and, best of all, live theater.

Many Pittsburgh theater companies are launching their 2015-16 seasons while those that schedule on a calendar-year basis are already in midseason. The harvest is plentiful and varied. Moreover, in keeping with the newness of the month,  Entertainment Central is providing a special feature for newcomers to the city’s theater scene, as well as to those who want a roundup of what’s ahead beyond this month.

The capsule preview of each show is introduced (where appropriate) with a brief profile of the company presenting it. Thus if you are not familiar with the outfits that operate in our town, you’ll get a sense of the kinds of stuff they do.

Plays and performances are previewed in order of their run dates. Look deep into September because some great pieces open later in the month.

Rita Poster w wordsEDUCATING RITA by Willy Russell. Sept. 3-19, PICT Classic Theatre.

PICT Classic Theatre specializes in plays by Irish and English playwrights, typically ones that were written or are set in the pre-Internet era (i.e., before the 1990s). That’s a lot of theater to choose from, and past productions have ranged from the works of Samuel Beckett to social comedies, light and dark. PICT’s latest offering in this back-to-school time of year is Willy Russell’s back-to-school comedy Educating Rita. The title’s Rita is a hairdresser who wants to expand her horizons by acquiring culture. She enrolls in a university literature course taught by an alcoholic professor who’s become cynical about the very academic life to which Rita aspires. A hit when it opened in London in 1980, Educating Rita was made into a 1983 movie with Michael Caine and Julie Walters. PICT has Martin Giles as the professor and Karen Baum as Rita. Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

PITTSBURGH NEW WORKS FESTIVAL (one-acts by various playwrights). Sept. 3-27 at Carnegie Stage.

Why are some people big fans of one-act festivals? Because going to one, as opposed to seeing a full-length play, is like reading short stories versus reading a novel. You get a cross-section of stories in different styles and moods, which (a) is fun in itself, and (b) helps assure that you’ll see something you really like. The Pittsburgh New Works Festival, now in its 25th year, is one of the oldest and largest of its kind. During September, a total of 12 new one-acts are presented in four rotating evenings of three plays each; see the Festival website for schedules and details. This year’s entries come from playwrights living across the United States and beyond—there’s even one by an American expat in Barcelona—and the pieces range from high comedy to introspective drama. Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

THE COUNTRY HOUSE by Donald Margulies. Sept. 4-20, Pittsburgh Playhouse REP.

Pittsburgh Playhouse REP, a.k.a. The REP, is the professional theater company of Point Park University. And while the University’s student Conservatory season doesn’t kick off until October, The REP starts now, opening with Donald Margulies’ The Country House. Margulies is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who received the 2000 award for Dinner With Friends, and The Country House, his newest, premiered in New York in 2014—which means The REP snapped it up quickly. The play is a tragicomic take-off on Chekhov. Set in the Berkshires, it features a Chekhovian assortment of odd characters gathered at the summer home of an aging actress (Blythe Danner played the part on Broadway), where much sarcastic repartee and emotional mayhem ensues. The REP is stirring it up for this city’s hardcore theater fans. Rauh Theatre at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

Alas! In 'BECKETT & beyond,' renowned Swedish dancer Yvan Auzely doesn't seem to be going beyond anywhere.

Alas! In ‘BECKETT & beyond,’ renowned Swedish dancer Yvan Auzely doesn’t seem to be going beyond anywhere.

BECKETT & BEYOND (dance theater) by Beth Corning. Sept. 9-13, CORNINGWORKS at the New Hazlett.

Modern dancer and choreographer Beth Corning presents original ensemble pieces under the flag of her ongoing project CORNINGWORKS. Her new creation, BECKETT & beyond, sets the dancers in radical renditions of a pair of short works by Samuel Beckett, combined with new material from Corning herself. One Beckett piece is the mime play “Act Without Words II”—no voices here, so we can easily imagine it being danced—and the other is “Rockaby,” which features a woman in a rocking chair awaiting death and includes a haunting, rambling monologue of the kind that Beckett reveled in. Corning has billed BECKETT & beyond as a humorous exploration of “the fickle landscape of existentialism.” We don’t know what Beckett would think of that, since he is no longer existing, but all’s fair in love and art. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

GAMES OF THE MIND by F.J. Hartland. Sept. 11-19, Throughline Theatre Company.

Throughline Theatre, an intriguing smaller company, produces seasons in which the plays are thematically linked. This year’s theme is “Method in Madness.” After starting with two classic plays about characters who are over-the-top mad—the delusional English lord in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, and the furious abandoned wife in Euripedes’ Medea—Throughline is premiering a new play that deals in more subtle and insidious forms of craziness: Games of the Mind by Pittsburgh’s F.J. Hartland. The characters here are alumni of a mythical Catholic high school. As classmates they competed on the prize-winning Scholastic Scrimmage team “under the cruel tutelage and enigmatic stewardship of Sister Brigid,” says Hartland’s promo material. Games of the Mind depicts them years later at a reunion, where dark secrets about those days come to light. Grey Box Theatre, 3595 Butler St., Lawrenceville.

Behold the Rock, comin' at you on stage.

Behold the Rock, comin’ at you on stage.

THE PLAY: WITH ROCKY BLEIER by Gene Collier. Sept. 15 only, presented by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Of the many outstanding football players in Pittsburgh Steelers history, none has accomplished what Robert “Rocky” Bleier did. A running back from Notre Dame, Bleier was drafted almost as an afterthought (in the 16th round) by the Steelers in 1968, then soon was drafted again, by the U.S. Army. He won medals for combat service in Vietnam, though, unfortunately, one was a Purple Heart. Bullets and shrapnel tore severe wounds in both of Bleier’s legs. Just walking became a struggle; doctors told him that playing ball again was unthinkable. Yet Bleier kept working at it … miraculously regaining a spot on the Steelers roster in 1971 … and wound up starring in the backfield with Franco Harris through the team’s run of four Super Bowl titles that decade.

Sportswriter Gene Collier, who co-authored The Chief, about Steelers founder Art Rooney, has made Bleier’s story into a one-man play called simply The Play. Bleier himself performs in it, drawing on the stage presence he’s gained from his post-football career as a public speaker. A special Sept. 15 performance benefits Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 7:30 p.m. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

TheWintersTale_titleonlyTHE WINTER’S TALE (operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by Andres Cladera, Karla Boos, and others). Sept. 16 – Oct. 3, Quantum Theatre.

Whereas many Pittsburgh theater companies schedule adventurous and unusual plays some of the time, Quantum Theatre does nothing but. It is the city’s de facto out-there company, with out-of-the-mainstream productions staged at out-of-the-way locations. Quantum did Émile Zola’s romantic potboiler Thérése Raquin in an empty swimming pool and performed a spooky adaptation of José Saramago’s dystopian novel All the Names in a vacant library building. This month Quantum takes on Shakespeare, choosing his enigmatic play The Winter’s Tale. It has nothing to do with winter; it’s a tragedy-slash-comedy with a happy ending (jealous husband drives wife and child to their deaths, but wait wait, there’s a twist); and the script includes Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, sending off one unhappy fellow with “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

The Winter’s Tale is so weird that few companies today attempt it. Quantum has turned it into a baroque opera—enlisting music director Andres Cladera, singers in all the roles, musicians from Chatham Baroque, and a dance troupe from Attack Theatre. Will the bear dance? Find out in the Music Hall at the Union Trust Building, 501 Grant St., Downtown.

JERSEY BOYS (musical) by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by The Four Seasons. Sept. 22 – Oct. 4, national touring company at Benedum Center.

There were people who couldn’t stand the sound, but millions more who loved it. The sound was the otherworldly, phenomenally high falsetto of lead singer Frankie Valli. It was the centerpiece of The Four Seasons’ distinctive musical style, helping to drive the group to fame and fortune in the 1960s from the members’ rough-and-tumble beginnings in the blue-collar world of Newark, N.J.—a climb so colorful that it inspired the musical Jersey Boys. The touring-company show is slated for a generous run of 15 performances here in Pittsburgh. Which isn’t surprising, given that the Broadway original won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006 and was recently made into a movie. Unlike the stage show and the group itself, the Jersey Boys film didn’t chart, but as the video sampler above reveals, it was directed by none other than Clint Eastwood. And if tough-guy Clint is enthralled by songs like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man,” who can resist? Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

 THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Sept. 24 – Oct. 25, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Pittsburgh Public Theater, now in its 41st year, is often regarded as the city’s flagship professional company. The Public strives to make each season a diverse mixture of good plays, combining classics with new works in various genres. Notable numbers on this season’s schedule include a modern adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters, a raucous comedy from the 1700s done in vintage Italian commedia dell’arte style; the provocative off-Broadway hit Venus in Fur by David Ives (which will close the slate next June)—and the current season opener, The Diary of Anne Frank. Many of us may have read this moving diary of the young girl hunted and eventually caught by Nazis during World War II, but few in recent years have seen the stage play. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1956 and The Public’s revival provides a fresh look at one of the enduring true stories of the previous century. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

ALTAR BOYZ (musical) by Gary Adler, Michael Patrick Walker, and Kevin Del Aguila. Sept. 24 – Dec. 20, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

Pittsburgh CLO (Civic Light Opera) has been a constant on the local theater scene since 1946, producing mainstage musicals during the summer and at Christmastime. Also, throughout the year, CLO presents comic musical fare in the intimate setting of its Cabaret theater. The new show opening there, Altar Boyz, is a cheerfully irreverent send-up of two popular trends: boy bands and Christian-themed music. The fictional Altar Boyz of the title are a group with members named Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham (he’s Jewish). Song-and-dance bits like “Church Rulez” and the hip-hop “Miracle Song” stop short of the outrageousness seen in The Book of Mormon but are quite rousing. The original off-Broadway production of Altar Boyz ran for five years, from 2005-10, and it has become a staple of regional theaters and fringe festivals worldwide. CLO Cabaret, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

TIMESCAPE (two modern ballets). Sept. 25-27, Texture Contemporary Ballet.

Texture Contemporary Ballet creates cutting-edge movement theater pieces based in but not confined by classical ballet. Founded in 2011 by former Pittsburgh Ballet artist Alan Obuzor, the company takes the stage at the New Hazlett with a show called Timescape. Two pieces are included in the evening: the 2012 ballet Infinity, set to music by Pittsburgh composer Blake Ragghianti, and a yet-unnamed new ballet choreographed by Texture’s Kelsey Bartman and Alexandra Tiso. The latter is a far cry from any dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, featuring music by the British indie band Bastille. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

CHOIR BOY by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Sept. 25 – Oct. 11, Pittsburgh Playhouse REP.

Maybe it’s a cliché to say that a play “rocks” the audience. That, however, is precisely what Tarell McCraney’s Choir Boy has been doing to audiences across the country since it opened in New York in 2013. The video clip above was made by the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., which presented the play early this year. The REP at Pittsburgh Playhouse is performing Choir Boy here, and seat belts should be fastened—unless you are moved to stand up and rock along with the cast. Though filled with music, this is not a musical. It is a drama about a boys’ gospel choir at an African American prep school. Much of the drama revolves around the fact that one boy is gay. Themes of repression, rebellion, and liberation abound, shot through with wicked humor. Choir Boy is not always pretty, but the word is that it’s pretty powerful. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

A young Groucho? Nope, but close—it's George S. Kauffman, writer for the Marx Brothers and co-author of the 1921 comedy "Dulcy," in revival at Pittsburgh Playwrights.

A young Groucho? Nope, but close—it’s George S. Kaufman, writer for the Marx Brothers and co-author of “Dulcy,” in revival at Pittsburgh Playwrights.

DULCY by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. Sept. 26 – Oct. 11, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

As the name implies, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is devoted to the work of Pittsburgh and locally born writers, with an emphasis on racial and cultural diversity. Known for its strong interpretations of plays by August Wilson and other modern artists of color, PPTCO is also prone to step outside that box, as it does by presenting Dulcy. The zany comedy is a throwback gem from 1921, co-written by Pittsburgh native George S. Kaufman and McKeesport native Marc Connelly when they were rising stars in New York. Both later won Pulitzer Prizes; Kauffman won another brand of fame as a writer for the Marx Brothers, and Dulcy has the Marxian spirit—except with a female flavor. The title character is a wild-witted woman who wades boldly into serious affairs of high society and big business, raising havoc all around. PPTCO’s production updates the setting from the Roaring Twenties to 2015 but aims to keep the roar factor intact. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: George S. Kaufman, unknown (public domain, photo circa 1915). All other still images, courtesy of the respective artists and/or companies. Additionally: Hakan Larsson, Corningworks c.2015

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

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