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5 Pittsburgh theater troupes that continue to surprise

Virginia Wall Gruenert and Hans Gruenert of Off the Wall
Virginia Wall Gruenert and Hans Gruenert of Off the Wall
Pittsburgh is packed with theaters—large and small, amateur and Equity, and each is a little bit different from all the others. Some fans try to see everything, and they bounce from Public to City to Quantum with aplomb, signing up for every season subscription they can find. Others gravitate to their neighborhood stage, like South Park and Little Lake, happy to support their friends and neighbors.
 
But some companies really stand out, not just because they produce excellent shows, but because they’re full of surprises. They don’t fit the usual categories; you can’t quite pin them down, and they seem to like it that way. Through shrewd leadership and visionary staging (often with limited resources) these artistic directors have won over critics and audiences.
 
If you’ve never seen a production (or heard of them, period) this critic fervently recommends the following five companies. If Penn Avenue is Pittsburgh’s Times Square, then consider this the Off-Broadway crowd—eccentric, cutting-edge, and guaranteed to show you something you’ve never seen before.
 
Stage 62
On the surface, they look like an ordinary community theater: Stage 62 stages Broadway musicals, their cast and crew are all volunteers, and they perform in the Carnegie Library of Carnegie, PA (known locally as the “Carnegie Carnegie”). But Stage 62 is no ordinary company; they produce a range of challenging shows, from last year’s Sweeney Todd (about the murderous Victorian barber) to the recent Dani Girl (about a young child dying of cancer). Stage 62 finishes its 2013 season next month with Avenue Q, the avant-garde puppet musical by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marks, and Jeff Whitty. The company also conscripts some outstanding talent, from ambitious set designers to singers with serious vocal training. Even the orchestra pit is full of top-notch musicians. It takes chutzpah for a community theater to produce The Producers, but it takes skill to do it well.

No Name Players
Their company may lack a name, but they’ve garnered quite a reputation: No Name’s first production, Big Love, by Charles Mee, was a smash-hit. So many people showed up that audiences were crammed into the aisles. Each season, artistic directors (and married couple) Don DiGiulio and Tressa Glover try something completely new—this summer’s season consists of rock-musical comedy Viva Los Bastarditos!, by Jake Oliver, and Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes, a world premiere by Sean Graney. The company’s most ambitious project is their annual Swan Day celebration (SWAN stands for “Support Women Artists Now”), an epic festival of female musicians, dancers, poets, theatre artists, visual artists, filmmakers, and fashion designers. Ever-hungry for interesting playwrights, No Name has produced shows by such acclaimed writers as Amy Sedaris, Nei LaBute, and David Lindsay-Abaire.
 
Off the Wall
When Off the Wall opened its doors in Washington, PA, they broke all the rules. Their space was small and professional, not the gigantic community stage that locals might expect. And their play selection was gritty and modern—instead of the usual cycle of musicals and farces, they picked super-drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee, and feminist tragedy How I Learned to Drive, by Paul Vogel.

Then they broke the rules again: Artistic Director Virginia Wall Gruenert and Managing Director Hans Gruenert (also married) moved their operation to Carnegie. Their state-of-the-art theater is much closer to Pittsburgh, and some of the city’s finest actors are spending time on the Off The Wall stage. The season ends this month with the world premiere of Without Ruth, a mother-daughter drama by Wall Gruenert herself.
 
Prime Stage
When most people think of “theater for young audiences,” they often think of kids’ shows, with body puppets and alphabet songs. But Prime Stage caters to the young adult crowd. This season, they performed such middle school-lit adaptations as The Great Gatsby and Fahrenheit 451, and this month they perform Walk Two Moons, adapted by Tom Arvetis from the novel by Sharon Creech (see if the twist ending doesn’t blow your mind). Housed in the New Hazlett Theater, Prime Stage consistently pushes the envelope, and their high-quality productions attract some of the most formidable actors in the city. Guests as young as 12 feel perfectly comfortable in their shows, but adults are almost always as engaged as their youngsters. Sesame Street Live this is not.
 
barebones productions
Runaways, serial killers, and the Holocaust—barebones productions ain’t for wusses. Celebrating his 10th year as artistic director of barebones, Patrick Jordan has sustained a definite style: The plays he picks are dark, unsentimental, and end with moral ambiguity. Even the lightest production, Take Me Out, by Richard Greenberg, concerned the first openly gay baseball player (fictional) and featured significant frontal nudity. For years, barebones alternated between one dark, stripped-down performance space and another, including semi-vacant lofts, art galleries, and even a storage room. What began as a zero-budget operation has become one of the most daring—and successful—companies in Pittsburgh, also based in the Hazlett. This summer they present Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain and The Motherf**cker with the Hat, by Stephen Adly Guirgis.
 

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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