If Manny Theiner’s career is a play, his third act is by far the most surreal.
Theiner, a luminary in local music and a longtime Jewish educator, is the mastermind behind “Heroineburgh,” a 13-episode web series that follows a predominantly female cast of superheroes and villains as they embark on campy escapades throughout the Steel City.
Exploring a hyperlocal life of good, evil and the sometimes murky places in between is a welcome space for Theiner, 48, a Lawrenceville resident who grew up in Squirrel Hill and attended neighborhood institutions such as Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, Taylor Allderdice High School and CAPA (the Creative and Performing Arts High School in Homewood) before graduating from Carnegie Mellon University.
For decades, due to his freelance writings, on-air radio comments and promotional activities, Theiner has been regarded as a critical and sometimes controversial voice in local music. With a return to fictionalized narratives he has, in a sense, exited from his former scene.
“I couldn’t afford to do both comics and records,” Theiner said.
Even so, in catapulting crafts, he’s remained true to a higher calling.
For more than 30 years, Theiner has taught at Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Squirrel Hill, where between leading youth services on Saturday mornings and spending Sundays at J-JEP, he has educated approximately 1,000 local kindergarteners.
Past students appear in “Heroineburgh,” as do countless tributes to Theiner’s Jewish interests — he was a member of the cantor’s choir at Beth Shalom for many years and played piano accompaniment to the sisterhood and youth choirs.
Thiener’s music plays a role, too. Apart from multiple genres sampled in the series (such as indie-rock, punk, post-punk, heavy metal, jam band and electronic) that provide enjoyable listening independent of the entertaining on-screen actions, the show’s theme song, with its “ ’80s synthpop feel” is a catchy composition certain to captivate listeners’ ears.
But in the show’s sometimes not-too-kosher collection of episodes (viewers should be warmed of harsh language and other age-appropriate issues) the many moments of on-screen hamming are where “Heroineburgh” delivers its best treats. The puns and Easter eggs are too many to list, but one example is the transformation of a grant-rejected psychologist by the name of Harry Switzer whose exposure to dark energy after a visit to the JCC’s sauna renders him “Dr. Shvitz.”
In another episode, the mutation of Deborah Dronestein says, “I do love to be in control,” only to re-emerge moments later in a black and yellow-striped costume complete with wings and announce, “You’re not the only one who could use a Yiddish pun. I devour the minds of my prey. I’m Devorra the Queen Bee. Let’s go pollinate the town.” (Devorah is Hebrew for “bee.”)
“Heroineburgh’s” Jewish elements, which range from wordplays to honoring “Agent Emes” (the series of locally-made kids movies about a character who divides his days in a yeshiva and nights battling evil), are aplenty. The series, with its focus on “justice, empowerment and Jewish feminism,” is in honor of Theiner’s mother, Bonnie Podolsky Theiner, a Jewish educator and writer who died in 2013.
“She was a really big Jewish feminist,” and whether it was about women rabbis or politics she “always talked to us about feminist Jewish women in history,” he said.
Aided by an ethnically diverse cast representing various subcultures on screen, the teachers, mothers, scientists and professionals in the series “depict fantastically real superheroes,” said Theiner. “Heroineburgh” has more than 20 primary characters and a host of subplots, but a commonality is an eschewal of extremism and creating something “Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem would approve of.”
Laura Gild’s son, Aaron Grant, is an actor in “Heroineburgh.” She praised Theiner for creating a fun atmosphere and a chance to “showcase ourselves as being versatile and talented.”
Grant, a 13-year-old student at Community Day School, had previously performed in school and JCC productions. He credited “Heroineburgh” with providing a rich learning experience.
“I play baseball, I run cross country, I go to Community Day School and I’m a proud Jew,” said Grant. “I’ve done musicals and been on stage in front of people, but being in front of a camera, it’s a lot different. It’s a good experience and it will help me in the future.”
For Theiner, who as a young child purchased copies of such comics as X-Men, Teen Titans, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Dial H for Hero from the rotating racks in Eddie Millstone’s Murray Avenue Newsstand, “Heroineburgh” has had a personal benefit.
“It’s gotten me thoroughly back into the comic book world,” said Theiner, who plans on expanding the series into a second season and bridging the two with a print-based narrative. “It’s just so much fun to do. I have another important aspect to my life in addition to music and to teaching kids.” PJC
Episodes 11-13 of “Heroineburgh” will premiere on Saturday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Coffee Buddha, 964 Perry Highway in the North Hills and on Sunday, Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. at Hambones, 4207 Butler St. in Lawrenceville. Episodes are available at heroineburgh.com.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.