Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Little trouble: Shadow play explores microbiology and public health

A doctor examines a flea in the shadow play "Wee Beasties."
Stephanie Trainer
Uncumber Theatrics
A doctor examines a flea in the shadow play "Wee Beasties."

Few things have caused more controversy in recent years than public health. From mask mandates and business shutdowns to vaccination drives, American society has been split in two (or more) over how to manage a potentially fatal disease that spreads rapidly via airborne microbes.

“Wee Beasties,” the new play from Uncumber Theatrics, takes us on a novel trip back to what historians call the Golden Age of Microbiology, when scientists made huge strides in tracing diseases to organisms invisible to the naked eye.

“Wee Beasties” invites audiences of just a dozen at a time into a box 10 feet tall, 10 feet high, and 10 feet wide. Five actors and puppeteers will perform on all three sides and even from above. Through scrims of translucent fabric, audiences will watch back-lit puppets and actors — visible only in silhouette — tell a story set in the 1880s and revolving around typhus. Uncumber creative director Ayne Terceira calls it “a shadow play about fleas, disease and a girl named Louise.”

“Wee Beasties” runs Fri. Aug. 11, through Aug. 27, at the Bitz Opera Factory, in the Strip District. Terceira describes its tone as at once fairy-tale-ish, cutesy, and macabre.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Love stories about arts and culture? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

Typhus has killed millions throughout history. Not to be confused with the similarly deadly typhoid fever, typhus is characterized by high fever, headaches, delirium, and a rash. It’s caused by a bacteria transmitted by infected insects, including fleas and lice.

Terceira studied the history of science at the University of Florida. She never quite completed her doctoral studies, but her fascination with public health abides.

Ironically, she had created “Wee Beasties” before the pandemic struck, meaning it’s Uncumber’s first production since the shutdown. But today’s headlines resonate eerily with the 19th-century moment she portrays, when society was learning disease wasn’t something that happened to one person at a time, and “that in order to treat the disease you can’t just treat the individual body, you have to treat the entire population.”

The show’s cast of four, she said, will embody points of view “from the microbe to the flea, the flea to the little girl who gets infected, her mother who must manage her disease, and then the doctor who has authority over both the mother and the child, and then disease writ large as having even more power over the doctor.”

Uncumber is known for its experimental, often interactive approach.

Its earliest productions included “Her Things” (2014), in which audiences participated in the late main character’s estate sale. Audiences for 2015’s “Mingled” assumed the roles of speed-daters, while ticket-buyers to “Serpentine” were asked to rifle through the office of a mysteriously vanished private eye and then hunt down clues at multiple sites around the city, from a Schenley Park roadside to a swanky Downtown bar.

The show runs just 45 minutes, but it’s preceded, somewhat cheekily, by a 20-minute “flea circus” — complete with tightrope-walkers and trapeze artists — that let patrons work the lights and puppets themselves before they settle in.

The cast includes Bayley Brown, Liam Gannon, Jalina McClarin, Christine Starkey and Christian Allen Diaz, with stage direction by Connor McCanlus.

More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: