Red Masquers, Duquesne University’s theater program and Pittsburgh’s longest running amateur theater begins a new season this fall with a host of new productions. Besides several brand new student productions, the theater will be putting on several notable contemporary plays, from the vivaciously punk musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to the eminently likable How I Learned to Drive. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Michael Makar, co-president of Red Masquers about the team’s hopes and goals for the coming year, which, in Makar’s own words, are remarkably ambitious: “This will be the best season we’ve ever done.”
The theater’s season opens with Avenue Q, directed by Jake Wadsworth, on September 29th and until October 16th. This is a particularly interesting choice for a university theater to perform, considering the play is primarily about a character completely unsure of how to tackle the complexities of the world with his college degree; this author can only hope the play’s opening song, “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” will literally contain a few tips.
But don’t let this potentially meta comedy fool you, because even here the theater will be forced to push itself. Avenue Q famously makes the use of puppets which are operated by unconcealed actors and puppeteers, posing a unique challenge for the cast.
Masquers will follow up Avenue Q with How I Learned to Drive (November 3rd to the 13th), a play simultaneously charming and kind of horrifying. Although I would make the claim that Paula Vogel’s work is best experienced knowing as little as possible going in, it’s no spoiler to say that the play’s heavy reliance on minimalism and subtle emotional storytelling will prove another interesting, potentially wonderful challenge for director Justin Sines and his cast and crew.
The second-half of the season promises a few surprises, most notably one named Rust, and original play written by F.J. Hartland and directed by Lara Oxenreiter. Hartland is a local writer, director and critic of note. His plays have been performed in a wide variety of Pittsburgh theaters, and the well-liked director has been reviewed well in recent years.
“[Hartland] is a local legend,” said Makar. “We’re very excited.”
As for what Rust actually is, it seems Hartland, for now, is keeping things fairly close to the chest. Generally speaking, the play will be comedic, and utilize about 10 characters. What the play is ultimately about, however, remains a mystery. It will be performed from February 16th to the 26th.
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is up next. Directed by Jill Jeffery, this production may potentially sharpen an already a politically pointed musical that utilizes punk music and dark humor to retell the story of one of our most infamous leaders.
“One reason Jill picked [the play] is the political relevancy [by] waiting until after the elections to do it.” And he may not be wrong: in an election year all-too focused on populism and the presumably basic skill of maintaining honesty in leadership, the challenging, brute-force approach to political storytelling in the play may indeed be more relevant than ever. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson will be performed from March 15th to the 19th, with at least one yet to be announced midnight show.
Proof, a play about a mathematician struggling with mental disease and her father’s legacy, will open on March 30th and run until April 9th. A play as dense in emotional complexity is this demands an empathetic director, and Makar is more than confident in director Nancy Bach’s ability to put on a production that is genuinely sensitive to the realities of its emotionally belabored characters, citing her past dramatic performances as evidence. “She is a master of heartbreak. She played Linda [Loman] in Death of a Salesman and gave a tear jerking performance…I don’t have much in common with a mid-50’s wife of a salesman, but I understood everything happening to her…I could feel what she was feeling.”
The last mainstage production will be of True West, which will be put on Makar himself, who described the essence of the play simply: “two brothers spiral into desolation. That’s really it. The whole play…it’s mostly a psychological battle. One brother’s a vagrant, one’s a screenwriter. They start to become more of the same person, and [It gets] hard to separate who they are and what they want.”
Makar’s goals for the play are to focus on the realism of the play by “moving in and out of menace effectively” and by closely examining what he describes as the play’s most central theme: “desolation consumes creation.”
True West will run from April 26th to the 30th.
Besides these mainstage productions, the student-run theater will also be putting on a Christmas Cabaret on December 9th and 10th, as well as Premiers on November 30th until December 3rd, which is a series of student-written and directed works over 4 nights that focus on specific themes and metaphors through sometimes unconventional means – Makar listed a play about racism in which three actors played ducks as a highlight from last year’s production. There will also be a series of established plays directed and performed by students called One Acts for Charity on May 4th to the 16th.
When I asked Makar how he feels generally about the upcoming season, he told me, “We have a scale we’ve never had…With how much we’re stepping it up and how much variety and inventiveness we’re employing, I’m confident this is the best season Red Masquers has ever done.”
Audiences can experience the Red Masquers’ upcoming season themselves starting September 29th. For tickets and more information about the Red Masquers’ adventures, click here.