The weather is hot, and so are the collegiate theater offerings for 2018-19
By Amanda Reed
PC Staff Writer
While Pittsburgh’s best and brightest young artists are spending the summer resting their acting/dancing/singing chops, we couldn’t help but get excited when four local universities announced their 2018-2019 production schedules.
The schedule reflects Broadway’s dedication to diversity, offering theater-goers works by and about people living in the margins while still showing plenty of Sondheim and Shakespeare.
Among creative entertainment fields, theater has outpaced its counterparts in film and television when it comes to actively diversifying its ranks. According to a study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition in 2018, 35 percent of all roles went to minority actors — up five percent from last season — versus only 29 percent of roles going to actors in marginalized groups — which has hardly changed over the past decade.
University of Pittsburgh
University of Pittsburgh Stages opens its season on Oct. 3 with She Kills Monsters, a 2011 play by Vietnamese American playwright Qui Nguyen. She Kills Monsters tells the story of Agnes Evans, who leaves her childhood home following the death of her sister, Tilly. Agnes finds Tilly’s notebook containing a game scenario from Dungeon and Dragons and enlists the help of a “dungeon master” to play the quest Tilly authored. With a female-heavy cast, ’90s pop references and an intriguing premise, She Kills Monsters is a statement-making opener, directed by Kelly Trumbull and Ricardo Vila-Roger.
On Nov. 7, Pitt opens Shakespeare’s rom-com, Much Ado About Nothing. The plot happens over the course of several days during Don Pedro’s visit to the estate of Leonato, Governor of Messina, an idyllic Italian town. Problems ensue when a stinkin’ bastard Don John (literally, he’s Don Pedro’s vile, illegitimate brother) decides to destroy everyone’s happiness. Dennis Schebetta, who last directed a Pitt mainstage production in 2015 with Dog in the Manger, directs.
Pitt then presents Pearl Cleage’s 1994 play, Flyin’ West from Feb. 13 to Feb. 23. The play, set in 1898, follows four black women as they lay claim to land in Nicodemus, an all-black Kansas town. KJ Gilmer directs. The play is a powerful commentary on sisterhood, identity and race and is based on fact: in the late 19th century, many African Americans left the South to settle out West.
The season then ends with the crash of a beanstalk with Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, a 1987 musical that combines the plots of several Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault fairy tales. Niffer Clarke, a visiting assistant professor whose voice can be heard on the Meet the Robinsons soundtrack, directs the musical, which runs from April 4 through the 14.
Also, Don’t miss the student lab offerings: Bethany by Laura Marks and The Author’s Voice by Richard Greenberg, which runs from Oct. 3 to the 13; The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown, from Nov. 14 to the 17; Woyzeck by George Buchner runs from Feb. 6 to the 9; and Sophocles’ Antigone, runs from April 10 to the 13.
What I’m most excited for: She Kills Monsters/Into the Woods
Tthese two productions center around the consequence of choice. The subject matter of She Kills Monsters screams for the intimacy of the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre or the Henry Heymann Theatre, so it will be interesting how the play gets brought to life in the Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, a space usually saved for Pitt Stages musicals.
Pitt proved it could pull off an emotionally and vocally intense shows last season with Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, directed by Rob Frankenberry, so it is possible for them to do it again with Into the Woods. But, Into the Woods features a smaller cast where everyone has an important role, meaning the chorus can’t carry lead actors who cannot absolutely nail the notes of Sondheim’s tricky score and the emotional and thematic nuances in James Lapine’s script.
Carnegie Mellon University
CMU’s School of Drama opens its 2018-2019 season with the school’s first commissioned piece, “The Way Out West” by Liza Birkenmeier, who graduated with an MFA in dramatic writing from the school in 2012. The play, which runs from Oct. 4 to 13, centers on the families of scientists who worked on The Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World War II. Kim Weild, a Drama Desk Award-nominated director who joined the School of Drama Faculty in 2017, directs.
Dominique Morisseau’s 2013 play, Detroit ‘67, is about family, race, Motown and the 1967 Detroit riots, follows on Nov. 15. The play centers around Chelle and her brother Lank, who turn their basement into an after-hours club to make ends meet. A mysterious woman enters their makeshift bar and their lives. Feelings erupt, just as the city does with the 1967 Detroit riots, where 43 people — 33 black, 10 white — were killed.
Kander and Ebb’s 1996 musical Cabaret runs from Feb. 21 to March 2. Set in World War II, it focuses on young American writer Cliff Bradshaw and his relationship with cabaret performer Sally Bowles. Tomé Cousin — who directed The Scottsboro Boys at the REP, Point Park University’s professional theatre company and Sweeney Todd at Pittsburgh Festival Opera in 2017 — directs and choreographs the show.
CMU’s season closes with Shakespeare’s farce, The Comedy of Errors, from April 18 to 27. Two sets of identical twins are separated at birth and mishaps, thanks to mistaken identities, ensue. Don Wadsworth directs the production.
If you’re a fan of supporting student directors, students in the John Wells Directing Program, named for the 1979 CMU Drama School graduate, will stage eight different plays throughout the season.
What I’m most excited for: The Way Out West/Cabaret
It’s another tie. With regard to the thematic and artistic threads for this season, professor Peter Cooke said in a press release: “This year’s productions will explore a range of historical and contemporary issues through a reinvention of works from the canon as well through the presentation of vibrant new writing and directorial wizardry.” And, when looking at what it’s offering, the School of Drama is not holding back when it comes to putting on theater meant to send a message. Seeing how the company tackles these two particular war-centered works is intriguing.
Point Park University
The Point Park University Conservatory Theatre Company’s 2018-2019 season will be the first in its new Downtown Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Its season opens with Cabaret on Oct. 26 and will be directed and choreographed by Zeva Barzell, an associate professor of theatre. It’s unclear if Point Park will use the musical to comment on today’s world— a show about Nazi Germany screams for a modern parallel. Regardless, it’s sure to entertain thanks to Point Park’s penchant for putting on a great show.
Coram Boy, Helen Edmundson’s 2005 drama adapted from Jamila Gavin’s children’s novel of the same name, runs from Nov. 16 to Dec. 2. Marketed originally as a play with music rather than a musical, Coram Boy takes place over several years in 18th-century England and tells the story of the Coram Hospital for Deserted Children. Point Park theatre alumni Tomé Cousin directs.
If there is one play in Point Park’s season that you know will make a statement, it’s Vinegar Tom, which runs from Feb. 22 to March 22. Written in 1976 by British playwright Caryl Churchill, the play is inspired by witch trials set in 17th-century England. Alice and her mother, Joan are accused of witchcraft after an altercation on a neighbor’s farm. Although it is implied Alice’s cat, Vinegar Tom is behind the trouble, the fear of female sexuality and witchcraft hysteria impairs the town’s judgement.
Another Sondheim classic, Sunday in the Park with George, runs from March 14 to 24. This Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is a fictionalized account of artist George Seurat and his successes and struggles during the creation of his most well-known work, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Tony Award-winner Michael Rupert, who directed Sweet Charity, The Crucible, Ragtime and Parade for the university, directs.
Point Park closes its season with The History Boys by British playwright Alan Bennett, from April 5-14. The 2004 drama is set in the early ’80s at a fictional boys-only grammar school in northern England, where the students are preparing for entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge. Their efforts are helped and hindered by three history teachers with varying, sometimes unconventional, methods of education.
What I’m most excited for: Vinegar Tom/Sunday in the Park with George
Relevant to what is happening in society today, Vinegar Tom shows that those in power will always find some way to blame and control women, and that there’s only one proper context to use the phrase “witch hunt.” I have high hopes for Sunday… because of Michael Rupert’s credentials and my own love of Sondheim.
Unlike the rest of the universities in this theatre preview, Duquesne University productions are coordinated through the Red Masquers, a student organization. Its 2018-2019 season centers around the idea of a “A Play Within a Play,” where the shows are either a play within a play or traditional plays receive new, different directorial choices.
The 2018-2019 season opens Oct. 4 with The Foreigner, a 1982 two-act comedy by Larry Shue. Two Englishmen, Froggy and Charlie, arrive at a fishing lodge in rural Tilghman County, Georgia. Hilarity ensues when Froggy tells Betty Meeks, the lodge owner, that Charlie does not understand English.
The 1966 George Haimsohn and Robin Miller musical Dames at Sea follows from Nov. 8 to 17. The romantic comedy follows a 1930s Broadway musical and its tumultuous journey from rehearsal to opening night. Along the way, its cast and crew fall in and out of love with each other.
The season then takes a drastic shift in mood with Anton Chekhov’s 1896 play The Seagull, which runs from Dec. 5-9. Set in the Russian countryside at the end of the 19th century, the melodrama is set around characters who are mostly dissatisfied with their lives. Although they chase success, love and artistic genius, no one attains happiness.
Duquesne’s next offering, Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello, runs from Feb. 14 to Feb. 24. An acting company prepares to rehearse a play, and confusion occurs after the unexpected arrival of six strange people, who are in search of an author to finish their story. It opened in 1921 to mixed reception thanks to its absurdist, metatheatrical approach.
The season concludes on April 4 with A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 Tony Award-winning musical. Based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, the show follows aging actress Desiree Armfeldt, her mother, Madame Armfeldt and various interwoven love affairs over one weekend.
Outside of its mainstage shows, the Red Masquers also will put on two 24-hour playwriting festivals, a one-act play festival for charity and a festival featuring student written, directed and produced plays called Premiere during its 2018-2019 season.
What I’m most excited for: Six Characters in Search of an Author
Modern theater is always a challenge to take on — when done poorly, it can confuse more than entertain and teach — so the Red Masquers havetheir work cut out for them.. But, meta-theater can be an ironic, challenging treat to watch when done well, making this selection particularly noteworthy.