December Theater Guide: Many Ways through the Holidays
Once upon a December dreary, the Pittsburgh theater scene had nary a show worth seeing that would vary from the familiar Dickens and Nutcracker lore. That has changed. These days the Muse of Theater Present comes tapping, tapping at our digital screens to say that in addition to traditional standards, there is Plenty More.
The Muse didn’t act alone. New waves of performing artists, patrons, and groups such as Pittsburgh Cultural Trust have conspired to create a quite diverse slate of productions, both seasonally themed and otherwise.
The non-Christmas-themed lineup is striking. Attack Theatre presents In Defense of Gravity, inspired by the work of police-detective-turned-poet Jimmy Cvetic. PICT Classic Theatre has Wilde at the Frick, a mini-festival of pieces about and by Oscar Wilde. Other notables are the fiery feminist play Medea / Shulie, Nathan James’ Growing Pains (about growing up black), the British baby-boomer satire Love, Love, Love, and—near month’s end—The Play (about Vietnam vet and football star Rocky Bleier).
As for seasonal shows: Along with the beloved ballet The Nutcracker, we have Sleigh My Name (with the scantily clad New York duo The Skivvies), a new musical called The Carols, and A Tuna Christmas (that’s right, Tuna) … PLUS several adaptations of Christmas stories that first appeared in the medium formerly known as print. These include The Gift of the Magi, A Christmas Story (adapted from the HBO movie based on books by Jean Shepherd), Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, and two versions of the Dickens story: A Lyrical Christmas Carol and A Musical Christmas Carol.
Shows are previewed in order of run dates, with fascinating background info provided as always.
Continuing from mid-November:
THE OLD MAN AND THE OLD MOON by PigPen Theatre Co. Through Dec. 3, presented by City Theatre.
Theater critics in New York and elsewhere have been left searching for words to describe The Old Man and The Old Moon—and for superlatives to praise it. It’s an invented mythical story acted out with the use of shadow puppets, weird DIY stage props, and original Irish-inflected folk-style music. The creators/performers are PigPen Theatre Co., a group of seven Carnegie Mellon alumni now based in New York. They’ve won a boatload of non-mainstream theater awards and taken shows on the road across the country, while also playing music gigs and self-releasing albums with songs like this one. City Theatre has invited the PigPen crew back to town to give The Old Man and The Old Moon its Pittsburgh premiere. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. PigPen’s visit also includes a concert at nearby Club Cafe on Dec. 4. (MV)
THE HUMANS by Stephen Karam. Through Dec. 10, Pittsburgh Public Theater.
You wanna talk turkey about the problems and personal angst of the beleaguered middle class? Pittsburgh Public Theater is staging Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which does exactly that. This seriocomedy takes place at a stormy Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a young couple braving the seas of student debt without a good job between them. The guests include picky parents who’ve gotten into a pickle of their own, a sister being simultaneously squeezed out of her law career and her love affair, and a grandma in deep dementia. The Humans won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play; see our review of The Public’s top-notch production. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
New shows, from late November into December:
MEDEA / SHULIE by Sara Lyons, from Euripedes’ Medea and the life of Shulamith Firestone. Nov. 29–Dec. 2, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.
Medea / Shulie is a new play about two hell-raising women, one from ancient mythology and one from real 20th-century America. The Medea of myth married the Greek hero Jason after helping him capture the Golden Fleece. Then later—as depicted in the tragedy by Euripedes—she took fearsome revenge when Jason arrogantly offered to keep her as a mistress while marrying another. “Shulie” was Shulamith Firestone, organizer of radical feminist groups and author of the 1970 manifesto The Dialectic of Sex. Carnegie Mellon’s Sara Lyons wrote Medea / Shulie by combining Euripedes’ Medea (often considered a proto-feminist drama) with Firestone’s story. We’re not sure how this is structured, but it promises to be fiery; Lyons also directs. Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater at Carnegie Mellon, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.
A TUNA CHRISTMAS by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard. Nov. 30–Dec. 16, Little Lake Theatre.
If three related plays make a theatrical trilogy, four make a quadrology. The plays of the semi-legendary Tuna quadrology are set in Tuna, Texas, and each calls for only two actors to play the fictional town’s eccentric people. Little Lake Theatre has correctly judged that this is the right time of year to present the Tuna saga titled A Tuna Christmas. The main story line concerns a threat to the annual Christmas Yard Display Contest, but subplots abound, for even in a place as small as Tuna, human comedy unfolds endlessly in myriad ways. A Tuna Christmas is a cult favorite locally, so plan your ticket-buying with foresight. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg.
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE by Mike Bartlett. Nov. 30–Dec. 17, Kinetic Theatre.
Kinetic Theatre is on a roll. So far, the company has staged perhaps the most thought-provoking play seen in Pittsburgh this year, The Christians by Lucas Hnath, and the no-contest funniest play of the year, the David Ives update of the 17th-century comedy The Liar. Now Kinetic is going for funny AND thought-provoking with a modern British satire, Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love. This one pays ironic homage to the baby-boom generation by tracing a loving couple through three stages of life: youthful adventures in drugs and hipness during the late 1960s, pursuit of middle-age success in the greed boom of the early ‘90s, and immaturely mature reckoning in 2010. Kinetic is presenting Love, Love, Love in association with Cockroach Theatre of Las Vegas. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.
IN DEFENSE OF GRAVITY (modern dance) by Attack Theatre. Dec. 1-3, performed by the company, with guest artists.
Attack Theatre creates striking original works of dance through unusual collaborations. Last year’s Laws of Attraction, devised with input from science experts, applied the laws of physics to human relationships. Now the Attack dancers return with In Defense of Gravity, which may sound like another physics thing but isn’t really. The feature-length piece was inspired by—and uses samples from—the poetry of Jimmy Cvetic, who after a career as a police detective has won renown for his gritty poems with touching titles such as “You Almost Bite a Guy’s Nose Off Because He Tries to Kill You and a Whore Jumps on Your Back and You Think of the Big Whorehouse in the Sky and That Ain’t Bragging.”
So. Speaking of titles, why In Defense of Gravity? Attack Theatre says the piece explores how we respond to life’s “heavy” moments. With vocalist Anqwenique, voice actor Patrick Jordan of barebones productions, and musicians Jeff Berman, Ben Brosche, and Ben Opie. In the company’s George R. White Studio, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District.
THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) choreographed by Terrence S. Orr, with Tchaikovsky’s music. Dec. 1-27, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Here comes the ballet that even non-ballet fans enjoy. The Nutcracker provides a huge share of annual ticket sales for ballet companies across the nation, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production is among the grandest of all. It was developed by PBT artistic director Terrence S. Orr, who drew in part from the original 1892 choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. But Orr also studied many contemporary versions, then teamed with his PBT colleagues to create a one-of-a-kind synthesis of classical ballet, modern artistry, and stunning stagecraft. (See the background story here.) This Nutcracker is set at an old-time Christmas party in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. Then, as we move into the realm of fantasy—with the Nutcracker doll coming to life and leading a cast of adult and child dancers through a visit to the Land of Enchantment—there are dazzling special dances, amazing magic tricks, and breathtaking stage effects. The music of course is by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.
WILDE AT THE FRICK: Three theater pieces about and by Oscar Wilde. Dec. 6-10, PICT Classic Theatre at The Frick Art Museum.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” These words are from an essay published in England in 1891, calling for a new socioeconomic order that would end poverty and liberate human potential. The author was Oscar Wilde—best known as the high-society wit who wrote such comedies as The Importance of Being Earnest—and a complex man, fascinating and provocative on many fronts. PICT Classic Theatre is staging a mini-festival that consists not of Wilde’s plays, but rather three unique pieces that offer an up-close-with-Oscar experience. In the Company of Oscar Wilde (Dec. 6-10) is the U.S. premiere of a show portraying Wilde’s life, work, and personality with words drawn from his many writings. Oscar Wilde Fairy Tales (Dec. 9) is a reading of two children’s fantasies he wrote for his sons, Cyril and Vyvyan.
Closing the series the night of Dec. 10 is The Trial of Oscar Wilde, scripted from historical records by Merlin Holland, the writer’s grandson. This re-creates a crucial part of the court trial that wrecked Wilde’s career. Outside his marriage, Wilde lived a parallel life as a gay man—at a time when anti-gay laws were on the books. Wilde’s eloquence could not prevail in court: He served two years in prison, emerged in failing health and died, at age 46, in 1900. The Trial, the Fairy Tales, and In the Company are presented by PICT under the omnibus title Wilde at the Frick. All performances are in The Frick Art Museum theater, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze.
THE GIFT OF THE MAGI by Jon Jory, from the O. Henry story. Dec. 7-17, Point Park Conservatory Theatre.
O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” about a young couple short of money but wanting to give each other beautiful gifts, has long been a popular Christmas story. Since its publication in 1905, it has been made into several movies (starting in the silent-film era), two operas—one of them in Finnish—and an off-Broadway musical, while being imitated, parodied, and otherwise riffed upon in multiple languages and media. This season in Pittsburgh you can see a straight-up live theater adaptation by dramatist Jon Jory. Point Park Conservatory Theatre is performing Jory’s The Gift of the Magi at Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
THE CAROLS (musical) by Jennifer Childs and Monica Stephenson. Dec. 7-17, Carnegie Stage.
Every so often there comes a show about people putting on a show. The 1982 comic play Noises Off is one; Fellini’s 8½ is another, a movie about making a movie … and now we have The Carols. In this musical stage comedy, three women are co-directing a community production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The setting is a New Jersey town in 1944. Most of the men who could play the male roles are away at war, but the gals forge ahead, with results that are said to be both humorous and heartwarming. Jennifer Childs and Pittsburgh-based composer Monica Stephenson wrote The Carols for Philadelphia’s 1812 Productions. Carnegie Stage is presenting it at 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.
A CHRISTMAS STORY by Philip Grecian, from the HBO film. Dec. 7-23, Bricolage Production Company / Midnight Radio series.
Pop quiz: You have seen the movie A Christmas Story on HBO (a) too many times to count, (b) maybe once or twice, or (c) never heard of it. Bricolage Production Company says there is no wrong answer, since all are welcome to attend its highly idiosyncratic “Midnight Radio” adaptation of the movie. This theater event starts long before midnight and is not a radio show. Rather, it uses a 1940s-style live radio format (with a live audience, of course) to re-create A Christmas Story, in which Ralphie craves a BB gun despite dire warnings from mom and Santa, dad receives a leg lamp clad in a fishnet stocking, and other such doings converge to make a typical all-American Christmas in the nonexistent town of Hohman, Indiana. The production is billed as “family friendly.” 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.
GROWING PAINS (one-man show) by Nathan James. Dec. 8-9 at the August Wilson Center.
New York-based actor and Pittsburgh native Nathan James returns home to perform his one-man multimedia show Growing Pains. James, a CAPA alumnus, earned an MFA in acting at Penn State after undergraduate studies at Point Park and Pitt. He’s been in numerous TV series, including such cops-and-crime dramas as HBO’s “The Wire” and NBC’s “Shades of Blue.” But James also writes and performs live—with Growing Pains being a signature work. The show dramatizes what he calls the “desensitization process” of growing up a black male in a troubled environment, where violent influences can hammer young men into “one-dimensional” caricatures of their true selves. Growing Pains, however, is hardly a desensitized experience. The feature-length piece combines elements of music, movement, and James’ original poetry. August Wilson Center, 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.
A MUSICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL by David H. Bell, from the Dickens novella. Dec. 8-23, Pittsburgh CLO.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is considered high schmaltz by some and high art by many others. In Japan, the novella has been viewed as one of the great works of English literature—“possibly in a league with Hamlet,” as one Japanese scholar wrote. Distinguished actors who’ve played Ebenezer Scrooge in adaptations include Lionel Barrymore (in voice only, on radio), Marcel Marceau (in mime, with no words), and, memorably, Michael Caine (in The Muppet Christmas Carol, with Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit). In Pittsburgh CLO’s production of A Musical Christmas Carol, Scrooge is played by Patrick Page, whose résumé seems made for the role: Page was The Grinch in the 2006 Broadway debut of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The adaptation is by David H. Bell, best known for Hot Mikado, the jazzed-up remake of The Mikado. There’s no bebop in A Musical Christmas Carol, but Bell has added some scenes that help to fill out Dickens’ original story nicely. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.
A LYRICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL (musical) by Ken and Jane Gargaro. Dec. 14-17, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.
The centuries have seen countless stage versions of the Christmas tale by Charles Dickens, and a longtime standard here in Pittsburgh is Ken and Jane Gargaro’s A Lyrical Christmas Carol. Ken Gargaro was founding director of the Pittsburgh Musical Theater school and performance center. He wrote A Lyrical Christmas Carol with Jane and premiered the show in 1991. It has been delighting local audiences ever since. As always, the cast includes accomplished adult performers along with outstanding younger folks from the PMT school. The show features song-and-dance numbers that’ll send you home from the New Hazlett Theater in a supercharged holiday spirit. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.
SLEIGH MY NAME (strange musical comedy revue) by The Skivvies, with babyGRAND and other guests. Dec. 15-16 at City Theatre.
The last time they came to Pittsburgh, singer/actors Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley performed in their underwear. They’ll do it again this time. They always do. The Skivvies, as they’re called, have become sensations on the New York club scene by doing bizarre musical “covers” while uncovered. Samples of their repertoire range from “Hardbody Hoedown,” a mashup of obscene rap lyrics done country-and-western style, to “Twerking in the USA,” a medley of classics such as “I’ve Been Twerking on the Railroad” and “Whistle While You Twerk.” For this month’s visit The Skivvies will undress Christmas songs in a show titled Sleigh My Name. Further, since their numbers feature special guests—Lin-Manuel Miranda once bared his soul with The Skivvies—they’ll be joined here by a bevy of stripped-down local talent, including the duo babyGRAND, a.k.a. Missy Moreno and Connor McCanlus. At City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side.
DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason, from the children’s book. Dec. 20-24, national touring company at Heinz Hall.
You don’t have to wait for Benedict to see The Grinch. The new animated movie of How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, with Benedict Cumberbatch voicing the title role, has had its release date pushed back to next year’s holiday season. However, high-quality Grinchiness is still available. The national touring production of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical is booked into Pittsburgh for a five-day, eight-show run. Get tickets promptly because seats are going fast. This musical version of the Dr. Seuss story has been critically acclaimed and audience-approved in cities from Minneapolis (where it premiered in 1994) to New York (Broadway debut, 2006) to Albuquerque. We may not have Albuquerque’s sunny skies in December, but we have a pretty nice venue for the occasion: Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
THE PLAY by Gene Collier. Dec. 28-Jan. 6, with Rocky Bleier.
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 was drafted again shortly after that, by the U.S. Army. He won medals for combat service in Vietnam; 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 towards that, miraculously regaining a spot on the Steelers roster in 1971 … and wound up starting in the backfield with Franco Harris through the team’s run for four Super Bowl titles that decade. Sportswriter Gene Collier 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. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.
XANADU (musical) by Jeff Lynne, John Farrar, and Douglas Carter Beane. Through Jan. 7, CLO Cabaret.
The movie Xanadu had Olivia Newton-John, Pittsburgh’s own Gene Kelly, music by Electric Light Orchestra, and animation by Don Bluth. What could go wrong? Everything, evidently. Xanadu, which helped to inspire the Golden Raspberry Awards, flopped at the box office in 1980. The songs, which included the No. 1 “Magic,” were a hit, however. A musical adaptation opened on Broadway in 2007. It kept the music while poking fun at the cinematic version. The combination was a hit, which garnered several Tony Award nominations. The plot involves Kira, a Greek muse who falls in love with Sonny, a mortal who wants to open the first roller disco. Their love is forbidden, and Kira’s two evil sisters intervene. CLO Cabaret performs the musical Xanadu in the Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)
Photo credits: Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, courtesy of the touring company, from the 2016 production, with Philip Bryan as The Grinch. “Medea” by Frederick Sandys, 1866-68, painting in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, England. In Defense of Gravity, courtesy of Dr. Robert Kormos. The Nutcracker, by Rich Sofranko. Oscar Wilde (1882), by Napoleon Sarony. Love, Love, Love, by Ryan Reason. Sleigh My Name by Paul Elledge. Rocky Bleier, courtesy of Mr. Bleier and Gloria Ashcraft. Xanadu by Archie Carpenter.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.