Some of the boldest and most imaginative theater is created by the area’s fringe troupes, and after a pandemic pause, some favorites are returning over the next few weeks. Shows include Teatro Chelsea’s world premiere of “Revitalized,” which takes on housing conditions in neighborhoods ripe for gentrification; a family-friendly “Thumbelina” from Imaginary Beasts; and “Screwball!,” a delirious take on Preston Sturges from Beau Jest Moving Theatre.
First up is the world premiere of “Revitalized,” a look at what happens to people who are pushed aside when a neighborhood is “up and coming.”
“The issues feel very real here in Chelsea,” says director Armando Rivera. “Revitalizing a neighborhood sounds positive, especially when landlords have been lax about maintenance and repair, but the pressure to gentrify displaces the most vulnerable.”
Playwright Joel Ulloa sets his play on the West Coast, but Rivera says the story has echoes of South Boston, Jeffries Point in East Boston, and now Chelsea.
“There are elements that are a little too familiar,” he says of the drama, which will be told in both Spanish and English, with the characters switching languages depending on where they are in the play (often English is spoken at work, Spanish at home).
The plot focuses on an immigrant mother and her daughter, who is a US citizen. The women experience a growing sense of unease as job losses and then evictions move closer, and they worry about what choices they will have when they are pushed out of their community. The playwright weaves in a real estate developer named Doña Kati, a stand-in for the Mexican folklore figure La Catrina, the skeleton woman who represents death. Although in this case La Catrina is coming for their home, not their souls, Rivera says it’s not an overstatement to describe the theme as a life-and-death situation.
“We chose this play in collaboration with Chelsea’s local social services organization, La Colaborativa,” Rivera says. “They are working to help residents with housing rights, displacement prevention, and tenants’ rights advocacy. It’s important we make sure people understand what their options are, and not let language or immigration status be a barrier.”
Teatro Chelsea and La Colaborativa will hold a rally in front of the theater shortly before Friday’s performance to raise awareness of the housing issues and advocate for change. (“Revitalized,” through June 25, at Chelsea Theatre Works, 189 Winnisimmet St., Chelsea. $10-$25, apollinairetheatre.com/teatrochelsea.)
Meanwhile, you can step outside to spend a little time with Imaginary Beasts, a troupe that celebrates the Victorian tradition of the panto, a stylized take on traditional fairy tales, usually performed around the holidays.
“With the Omicron surge, we thought it best to pause,” says Matthew Woods, Imaginary Beasts’ artistic director. “When one of our actors, Jamie Semel, suggested Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, where she works, we thought the outdoor setting would make people feel more comfortable. And then we realized the paths and natural beauty make it an inviting space for families to explore before or after the show.”
Woods says the troupe decided on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina,” because it has a nature theme. Thumbelina is the thumb-size girl who sleeps in a nutshell before she finds herself on a lily pad where a mother frog wants to marry her off to her son. She shelters with a mouse in an underground home, is rescued from a mole by a bird, and flies off to meet a prince.
“The green space and the educational programs the Nature Center offers inspired some of our sets and costumes,” Woods says.
Puppets and creative props will be integrated into the show. “We’re calling it a ‘pocket-sized adventure,’” says Woods, since the show is just an hour long. “We’re really excited to invite people to explore the Boston Nature Center. It’s become a wonderful collaboration between two creative communities.” (”Thumbelina,” June 18-26, at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, Mattapan. Tickets are pay what you can, www.imaginarybeasts.org.)
And, for a fun tribute to the farcical comedies of Preston Sturges, Beau Jest Moving Theatre presents “Screwball!,” inspired by “Sullivan’s Travels.” The 1941 film features the wealthy director of successful but shallow movie comedies who decides he wants to travel as a tramp to learn firsthand about hardship so he can make a serious film. The plan backfires, natch, and comic mayhem, with an undercurrent of pathos, ensues.
“The screwball comedy was popular during the Depression,” says Beau Jest artistic director Davis Robinson, “because it combines social critiques with escapist themes. This seemed like the right time to return to those ideas.”
While Beau Jest used “Sullivan’s Travels” as its frame, the ensemble built the production around their strengths.
“We needed to think about how this story could translate to the stage and reflect our emphasis on physical theater and simple sets and props,” he says. “We decided to do a little gender switching and cast Robin Smith as Sullivan, and Kathleen Lewis as the young actress she falls for to normalize a healthy relationship,” says Robinson. “We also cast two white men as Sullivan’s butlers, shifting the power to a Black woman.”
Capturing the film’s multiple set changes didn’t intimidate Robinson either, since his company has taken on Akira Kurosawa (“Samurai 7.0″) and film noir (”Apt 4D”) as well as the comic strip capers of “Krazy Kat.”
“We focused on six members of a comedy theater troupe trying to do a serious show and layered in our style,” Robinson says of the show, which originally had been planned for 2020. “We found so much energy and crazy joy in the midst of the dark days of the pandemic.” (“Screwball!,” June 22-25, at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave. $25-$35, www.beaujest.com.)
Arlekin Players debut off-Broadway
“The Orchard” from the Needham-based Arlekin Players has debuted off-Broadway with in-person performances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and in a virtual interactive production, with both options available through July 3. The production is a continuation of the evolution of director Igor Golyak’s vision for Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” in the 21st century. (An earlier version was called “chekhovOS /an experimental game/.”) The production stars Mikhail Baryshnikov as both Chekhov and Firs, the play’s elderly servant. The cast also includes Jessica Hecht, Juliet Brett, Darya Denisova, Elise Kibler, John McGinty, Nael Nacer, Mark Nelson, and Ilia Volok. Go to TheOrchardOffBroadway.com for ticket information.