While I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, I moved away as a teenager and only moved back to Pittsburgh-proper this year after a long interregnum. My relationship with the city kind of feels like that aunt you see every other Thanksgiving – somewhat familiar and you know you’re related, but it’s a little awkward as you’re lacking on shared experiences and knowing each other’s nuances.
Given this, I was wondering just how much of an outsider I’d feel like at 12 Peers Theater’s inaugural production of their new Mythburgh series that focuses on Pittsburgh-specific stories. My concerns eased as soon as I walked into the Brillobox. This is the first play I’ve seen in a bar, and there was something immediately relaxing about the setting. People were warmly mingling, and there was the usual din of bar chatter, nothing to indicate this was about to become a theatrical space beyond the regular performance antics of people with alcohol. There was no territoriality in staking out your assigned bingo-like seat number or squeezing past knees to claim a vacant spot as the space was mostly stand-rooming only, another theatrical first for me.
It was easy to gloss over the simple, makeshift stage with two chairs and a small table nestled in front of three towering windows separated by panels of Dr. Seuss-inspired red polka dot wallpaper. In a delightful surprise turn, director Nick Mitchell chose to stage the first play, Brian Edward’s Close Encounters of the Yinzer Kind or Super Bowl Forty, not on the stage but at a ledge-like table jutting out from a side wall, an appropriate choice given the play’s focus is two Southside locals sharing a story in a bar.
In another thoughtful directorial decision, Mitchell has the play start in media res. There was no formal announcement or sign the play was commencing, so most people missed the actual opening as twin brothers Donny (Joe York) and Melvin (Hank Fodor) lumber into the bar and order beer. They shout to be heard, and the gathered crowd gradually quieted in the collective realization this must be the play starting. York and Fodor are well-cast. They believably convey the casual ease between brothers that allows you to call each other jagoffs while still finishing each other’s sentences. They dominate the space both physically, bushy beards and shirts straining over their XXL heft, and verbally, locals who flick off the play’s attendee occupying their table with a casual “Get the fuck outta here.” Edward as a Pittsburgh native clearly has an ear for regional tones that he captures in the brothers’ speech, and also liberally peppers his work with local references from Primanti Brothers and PennDOT to Giant Eagle and CoGo’s.
Edward’s narrative comfortably vacillates between the broader story of the twin brothers, their shared 26-year tenure with PennDOT on the 4 am deer removal shift, and the specific story they share, which takes place at their house during Super Bowl XL. Edward wisely realizes he doesn’t even need to mention for this audience that the Steelers creamed the Seahawks, but for Donny and Melvin, the game is memorably interrupted by the arrival of an extraterrestrial visitor.
The supernatural carries over to the second play, Molly Rice’s Swami Matt and the Ghost Kiss. In the break between Close Encounters and Swami Matt, fortuneteller’s assistant Stella (played by Moira Quigley) circulated the room, chatting up attendees as she cracked her gum. While Rice draws Stella’s character a bit one-dimensionally, director Rusty Thelin helps Quigley hits that note well. Quigley elicits easy laughter as she memorably squeezes the accordion at key moments. Her croptop with the lipstick kiss print is hard to forget, a literal visual imprint of the love she’s seeking and a foreshadowing of the play’s ending where she hits on, then leaves with, the bartender.
The play ends up being a hybrid of improvisation and the scripted, and it’s abundantly more successful in its scripted portion. In the first two sequences, fortuneteller Swami Matt (played by Matt Henderson) visibly struggles with improvisation. The woman next to me was the first called on-stage when the fortuneteller conjures a reference to the “fighting Quakers” (the woman’s school mascot) from a slip of paper Stella hands him. Swami Matt closes each session with a rushed utterance of “Okay thanks,” and there’s palpable relief in those words.
In the third and final sequence, which is clearly all scripted, Henderson is better able to find his stride once he can focus on form over content creation. It’s a Groundhog Day narrative where Swami Matt gets the same name and is forced to retell the same story each night. As the story progresses, the emotion valence deepens. Although Henderson struggles to make it fully believable, you realize it’s not a mythical tale. This is a veiled story about Matt himself.
This past May, I ran my first marathon, and I was surprised to find the Pittsburgh marathon was as much about Pittsburgh as the running. There was something unexpectedly powerful and pride-inducing in running past Pittsburgh landmarks and across the city’s bridges, a heightened awareness that you’re part of something bigger. Similarly, Mythburgh connects you to our city, engendering pride and reminding us as we look around and laugh together that we’re more similar than different, a comforting reminder in a world that can feel divisive as you scroll your newsfeed. We not only get it – pierogies, chipped ham and Steeler nation – it’s part of us.
There will be 2 more installments of 12 Peer’s Mythburgh presented at Brillobox October 22 and November 19. Tickets to Mythburgh are always Name Your Own Price but you can find out more here.