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A CurtainUp Review
Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe

Two related festivals, the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe have taken over the town. They run simultaneously from September 2-17.For Live Arts, celebrated world class artists and companies are invited by the Festival’s Producing Director Nick Stuccio. This year 15 Live Arts shows are being presented.

The Philly Fringe is an uncurated festival that draws both new talents and established artists from the city, region, and other fringe festivals. Thousands of theater, dance, music, comedy, visual art, and assorted other artists have gathered in Philadelphia to perform in over 200 Philly Fringe shows. Walk down the street and chances are at least half of the other people are absurdly talented performance artists.

Just a smattering of shows will be sampled, per the links below:
The Aliens| Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical| Whale Optics | Dancing Dead | Twelfth Night | Heavy Metal Dance Fag | Savage/Love and Tongues |

The Aliens
the Aliens
Jeb Kreager, Sam Henderson, Aubi Merrylees
(Photo: Robert Hakalski)
Annie Baker’s playscript should be shipped to theaters swathed in bubble wrap and labeled ‘fragile’, with special handling instructions. This jewel requires infinite sensitivity on the part of directors and actors who must possess their souls in patience and back off the dramatics. Director Matt Pfeiffer and this cast totally get it. But in the wrong hands, tarted up and manhandled, it could be disastrous.

Audience members going in will want to be pretty comfortable with quiet. This play cuts down on language – at something like 25% dialogue and 75% quiet. Not only silent, it’s not full of action. And it’s slow. Accustomed to sped up momentum in movies, tv, and theater, we’re fast becoming attention-deficit theater audiences. A pace slower than the speed of life presents a challenge. Audiences for The Aliens need to be laid back and prepare to wait.

KJ (Sam Henderson) is a gifted college dropout whose spark burned out before ignition. He has some form of OCD, is interested in propositional calculus, and likes to sing his formulas. Jasper (Jeb Kreager), high school dropout and self-described trailer trash, is an unpublished novelist who can write like the devil, but has been sidelined by life. These two damaged people are undelivered promises who support and sustain each other. Not surprisingly, they have taken to substances and to the work of poet Charles Bukowski.

Literally outsiders, they hang behind a coffee shop by the garbage. (The credible, understated set could have been moved in off the street. And glimpses inside the shop’s back door show a typical storage room.) Coffee shop management insists that they stop loitering out back. An awkward new coffee shop employee, Evan (Aubie Merrylees) initially gets stared down when he goes out back and politely tries to enforce the rules. But in this coming-of-age story he will be deeply impacted by Jasper and KJ.

Michael Kiley’s extremely minimalist sound design almost imperceptibly undergirds the scenes. His appealing music played during blackouts gains urgency as things heat up, somewhat.

As if accidentally, the story eases its way into some kind of focus. By intermission, details are still trickling out. The audience begins to feel the impact of random information contained in sparse conversation fragments, buried like land mines earlier in the play. After awhile you don’t care about the pace and you read the silences because you’re hooked in the small intersection of these three lives.

The Aliens is a supremely confident work by a young and accomplished playwright. No hustle, no video projections, just full and finely delineated characters whose words, actions, and lack of them power the story. Writer Baker comes off like a modern, re-worked slacker Chekhov, whose main indulgences are a disregard for excess talk and a lack of concern for other people’s sense of time.

It’s just a super production. Theatre Exile, with its improbable pairing of serious attentiveness to detail and a rakish outsider sensibility, is exactly the company to take this on. Director Matt Pfeiffer has the elegance and patience to let it roll out. And the three brilliant, intuitive actors bring off an intensely moving performance, where silences are never empty of meaning.
At Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St. 120 minutes with one intermission. Philly Fringe. The run has been extended to Sept 25.

Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical

Debbie Does Dallas
Jaclyn K. Dixon
(Photo: Sean Casey)
This is eXposed Theatre Company’s first foray into the fringe, an important step for them. At the fringe you don’t expect fancy, but you do expect care to be taken. The set design for Debbie Does Dallas, while fairly functional, is about as basic as it gets. First impressions are important, and the painting of the simple main backdrop is sloppily executed. Even the rudiments of basic lighting and sound design would really help this musical production.

Participants lounge around the performance area, talk, and prepare for the show in plain view of the audience whose existence they don’t acknowledge. In his welcoming speech, director and choreographer Brian C. Peeke informs the audience that this show is interactive, “There’s no 4th wall.” Evidently no one told the actors.

The conceit is that the director is taping the show, which can be stopped for dropped lines and so forth. That’s good in concept, but less successful in execution. Also having actors hang out during and in between scenes sounds cool, but doesn’t work out so well in an overly loose production. The smattering of musical numbers and simple dances, while they need work, supply some structure, and the numbers fare better than the talking parts.

With flair and polish this could be burlesque, however as it is it’s essentially a show of silly pseudo-porn scenes, tit grabbing, and awkward, half-hidden semi-nude scenes. It seems furtive and almost embarrassed. The musical itself presents these problems, so it’s not just an issue with this production. Add to this the fact that the show’s message is less than stellar, and you’ve got problems. This, perhaps, was not the ideal musical for this group to choose.

A few standout moments emerge, like the deathless pronouncement, “Cheerleaders are, like, role models for society.” And it’s funny when a society snob takes a call while involved in a sex act. A major plus is that Jaclyn K. Dixon is a poised and pulled together Debbie, and she really can sing.

The company--especially its director-- has put work into this project, and they’re game. But the ensemble needs discipline. “Hey kids, lets put on a show,” isn’t enough. The show isn’t ready. It needs to be ramped up for presentation to an audience. Still, credit is due for making the initial leap into the Philly Fringe.

It takes a good deal of finesse to handle risqué elements with panache. Performed by experienced musical comedy professionals tasteless can be very tasty. When it’s awkwardly done by amateurs it can come off as just tasteless. At Mascher Co-op Space. Cecil B. Moore Ave. 1 hour and 35 minutes. Philly Fringe.

Twelfth Night
Pig Iron Twelfth Night
Opening night of a Pig Iron Live Arts show is an EVENT, the epitome of avant garde cachet. But last night it looked like the occasion would be, well, mainstream — the performance of a popular Shakespeare play in a beautiful theater.

The question has been floating around: Why is an experimental theater company, celebrated for blazing trails and creating new material, presenting a text-based warhorse at the Live Arts Festival? This Twelfth Night is not transposed into new work, like for instance, their Isabella (’07), which was a re-imagined Measure for Measure. Questions are whispered in worried tones: Is Pig Iron turning into just another first-rate acting company?

Do the experimenters look at tackling an oft-performed Shakespeare gem as an experiment? It’s a relief to be able to report that they can produce a rollicking, not quite traditionally staged play with their inimitable POV, physicality, intelligence, attention to detail, inspired set design & costuming, and music. Gypsy music. . .why not?

I’ve enjoyed seeing multiple Twelfth Nights (including the all male production at the New Globe when Mark Rylance was artistic director). Wonderful actors have handled each of the play’s roles. But I have never seen better than Sarah Sanford’s lovestruck, boyish, feminine interpretation of Viola / Cesario in this Pig Iron production.

All of these actors give el primo performances: Blake Delong, Scott Greer, Birgit Huppuch, Charleigh Parker, Andy Paterson, Sarah Sanford, James Sugg, Alex Torra, Dito van Reigersberg. And the musicians enchant too.

As inimitable self-centered Duke Orsino, Dito van Reigersberg enjoys his lovesickness until he (along with Olivia and Sebastian) learns to love the one you’re with. James Sugg brings exuberance to inebriated, carousing Sir Toby, who is centrally positioned to carry much of the weight of the show. Michael Sean McGuinness provides dignity as poor, officious Malvolio who suffers from an excess of decorum and an unsuitable love for his boss. Perhaps the production goes a bit too far in making him appear more foolish than he already is in his cross gartered yellow stockings.

Scott Greer is an inspired choice to play Feste, the melancholy, some might say cranky, fool. Greer has gravitas even in his half-bald fright wig, and his performance of the famous, sobering little closing song is beautiful in its simplicity. (Is there a parallel here between the lyrics about leaving childish stuff behind and growing up, and Pig Iron maturing, opening a school, and settling in?)

Pig Iron’s director Dan Rothenberg must be heavy duty into infrastructure, as his whole approach appears to be from the inside out, rather than the norm, which is vice versa. The actors’ attentiveness to the basics of character and situation, reflex to action and movement, and their way of playing off each other make this performance tick. The many little touches, like the antics of two nearly identical attendants, add to the hilarity. Still, Twelfth Night’s darker tones just surface from under the excessive revelry and party 'til you drop ‘tude.
And where is Pig Iron headed? The only thing we can be pretty sure of is that whatever course they take, with their vision and their singular and combined talents, they’ll continue turning out some of the best theater that Philadelphia or any place else has to offer. At Suzanne Roberts Theatre. 2 hours and 45 minutes. 1 intermission. Live Arts Festival.

Savage/Love and Tongues
Savage/Love and Tongues
Russ Widdall (the Poet) in Savage/Love and Tongues
(Photo: Annie R. Such)
New City Stage Company presents Savage/Love and Tongues, two short pieces composed of small poems that blend a tapestry of spoken word, percussion, music, and sounds. Theatre giants Sam Shepard and the late Joe Chaikin, coming from different orientations [Shepard’s personal imaginative “realism” and Chaikin’s collaborative performance-based theatre], fused their work in these pieces. These are solo shows, with substantial back-up from a sound man who’s visible during the performance. The evocative, powerful words create pictures as voice and sounds (Chaikin’s oral-aural) and shifting lighting help carry the meanings.

Tongues, created and performed in 1978, is a set of ruminations on death delivered in a variety of voices and rhythms. The creators described Savage/Love, composed in 1979 as “common poems of real and imagined moments in the spell of love.” Shepard once cautioned a director, “No matter what you do, it’s savage —savage love— don’t get sentimental. It’s mean.” In performance it can sound like verbal jazz as the sole character speaks directly to the object of his love.

Symmetry Dance Studio is a tiny theatre space, perfectly suited to the performance of these plays. And Russ Widdall, the actor in both pieces, is poised, able, and full of brio and good intentions. However, he provides consistent volume overkill as if addressing an auditorium. Shepard has described the work as subtle. While some sentiments are mad and wild, others will ring with truth spoken simply and quietly.

Some directorial choices are questionable. Savage/Love, which was created with movement, works well when the actor moves around. But in this production the odd, sometimes convoluted gestures and postures don’t read as intrinsic to the material, but rather as unnecessary directorial add-ons to spice it up. The performance of Tongues comes across as more physically truthful.

Mike Basini’s (DJ Butterface) put together his musical support in the spirit of the original performances. He supplies a basic percussion background and employs a range of instruments, including strange stuff and household items, to provide sounds for each piece. What’s new is the digital technology in the mix. Sound elements are most effective when they punctuate the beats in the performance, separate one poem from another, break up the recitation, and don’t necessitate that the actor speak even more loudly over them. In Tongues, Basini hits his stride.

The plays’ creators favored experimentation, and New City Stage Company’s production, with roots in the original performances, adds its own signature. Bring it down a few notches and it will have theatrical luster. At Symmetry Dance Studio. 1 hour including an intermission in which wine is served gratis, a convivial touch.

Heavy Metal Dance Fag
Heavy Metal Dance Fag
Janice Rowland, Terry Brennan
(Photo: Scott A Drake)
With loads of energy and a smokin’ yet nutty dance vocabulary, Heavy Metal Dance Fag concerns a tough young South Philly guy, T Bag, and his friends. T-Bag aka Timmy delivers a eulogy for his recently deceased dad who didn’t take nothin’ from nobody. The speech is intercut with scenes of his passion: dancing. In his room Timmy secretly works out dances in his clunky footwear. His mouthy friends have secrets too. Sometimes people don’t even know their own secrets.

Tribe of Fools’ attention-getting stylized acting features an outsized and very effective pause & pose technique. There are zero boring parts to sit through. You have your best friend, baseball, gym, gays, norms, big talk, identity, 80s metal music, and Catholics (“because that’s who we are”). It’s tight, fast, very funny, and definitely not skeevy. The killer dialogue was developed by writers Terry Brennan, Jay Wojnaroski, Tim Camello, and Nick Mazzuca. .

The whole thing comes across fresh as a cheesesteak hot off the grill, yet it’s been on the back burner for awhile. In ‘06 I saw a promising early version at the 10 for 10 Spark Festival. Good to see it reach its prime. Cast: Terry Brennan, Janice Rowland Peter Smith Tim Popp, Jess Conda, and Colleen Hughes (offstage). Kudos. Look for Tribe of Fools in the Fringe-worthy dank basement at St. Stephen’s Theater. 75 minutes. Philly Fringe. For info: [Osenlund]

Whale Optics
Whale Optics
James Ijames, Makoto Hirano, Brian Osborne
(Photo: Kevin Monko)
This year’s feat of coordination by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental ties together whales, a research library, Carl Sagan, Voyager, space, diving, ice & tropics, and the internet (among numerous other concerns). The sprawling performance, while video-laced, owes more to an antecedent, The Melting Bridge (Live Arts ’08) than it does to last year’s ultra precise exercise in actor /video projection interaction, !El Conquistador!

Whale Optics concerns a music composer’s quest and the interests of an employee at a fiber optics station at the Jersey shore. An underlying link is the sad fact that under-ocean fiber optic communications have disrupted whale communication, and whales have migrated to another part of the ocean.

In Avalon, NJ, the attendant takes routine readings on two under-ocean fiber optic lines, watches TV episodes of Carl Sagan, and fields calls from his mom. In an inspired moment a subtle encounter between this lonely guy and the UPS delivery woman illustrates humpback whale mating rituals.

The composer, meanwhile, with librarian assistance, seeks whale music for his musical score. Having reluctantly agreed to attend a project meeting in Columbia, he embarks on a trip. Let’s just say complications ensue. In a Thaddeus Phillips play you can pretty much count on an amazing journey of discovery laced with humor, multiple twists, and accidents of fate.

The totally remarkable, multi-taskforce cast includes Brian Osborne, Makoto Hirano, Lee Ann Etzold, James Ijames, and Emily Letts. The whizzes who aided Phillips and company include: Juan Gabriel Turbay (original score), Drew Billiau (lighting), Spencer Sheridan (video) Kevin Francis (sound). Just one note —the seats are hard and the show is long! It could stand judicious compression as the elements of this music-laced meditation pull together.

Audiences look forward to Lucidity Suitcase every year, and the latest adventure is not to be missed, with its lively adventure and cameo of chain restaurant, Red Lobster. See At Prince Music Theater. 2 hours, 45 minutes with two intermissions. Philadelphia Live Arts.

Dancing Dead
Dancing Dead
Brian Sanders' JUNK Dancing Dead
(Photo: Bill Hebert)
Brian Sanders’ Junk has pulled off a magnificent show -- this time with dead people. Their signature precision undergirds the performance, which is full of humor, blatant emotion, dancing dead and dirt. A bent-over old caretaker (Sanders) goes about his cemetery business. It’s routine. He’s down with dead people. At first the schmaltzy opening, performed over Streisand singing Evergreen, seems comic, especially when the caretaker roller-dances with a skeleton. But the subsequent unrelenting accumulation of vintage elegiac songs, paired with the soaring dancing of the messy dirty dead, sucks the audience into an emotional, humorous, terrifying, exhilarating experience.

The many sentimental old tunes include the Hollies’ "The Air That I Breathe," Terry Jacks "Seasons in the Sun (Goodbye my friend it’s hard to die)" and then there’s a really strange little dance to John Denver’s "You Fill Up my Senses."

As ethereal dancing as they are zombiesque walking, Junk’s dancers execute aerial tumbles and synchronized spinning, and perform sinuous interpretive dance upside down. No wonder these performers have killer abs. No doubt they can do push-ups with their pinky fingers. Trust binds them as they throw one another other in the air, climb up each other, and perform literally death-defying choreography from perilous perches. Risky dance moves elicit gasps of apprehension from the audience, who are riveted to their seats, worried for the artists’ safety. The dancing aerobats are: Leah Chilcutt, Gunnar Clark, Theodore Fatcher, Shelby Joyce, John Luna, Sinead O’Neill, Billy Robinson, Brian Sanders, Connor Senning. Tech: Terry Smith.

Musings on mortality merge with cavorting and cutting edge acrobatic dance. Like the monks in Sanctuary (Live Arts ’10), these re-animated folks just want to have fun and be free to frolic. At the sub-basement, 444 Lofts. 50 minutes. Live Arts Festival.

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