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A CurtainUp Report

Philadelphia Live Arts Festival + Philly Fringe Report - 2012

Updated September 14, 2012

(L to R) Sanford, Ford, Etzold in Bang (Photo: Kathryn Raines)
Titles will be added, with last reviews posted first. Click on Show Title or Scroll Down Page to Browse.
Barbie Blended: A Pop Rockin’ [new] Musical
Chomsky vs Buckley, 1969
Othello, Desdemona & Iago Walk Into a Bar
Ivona: Princess of Burgundia
Red Eye to Havre de Grace
Zero Cost House

Zero Cost House
It appears to be so simple: just a few performers in a bright, uncomplicated space telling a story that takes place in Japan and isn’t hard to understand. But in fact it’s not easy to begin with and it gets complicated. Dense and opaque, the piece taxes the audience, several of whom, with no patience for this, duck out at intermission. Most stick it out, but afterward some tell me they had a hard time staying awake.

For some reason I’d expected to see a performance by Piglet Irons from Pig Iron’s school, but they’ve brought in three of the big guns: James Sugg, Alex Torra, and Dito van Reigersberg. Add Mary McCool of New Paradise Laboratories (who was in P.I.’s Hell Meets Henry Halfway) and Shavon Norris. These are phenomenal actors, including newcomer Norris who holds her own among these Philly giants.

The work is performed in the movement style of playwright Toshiki Okada, who created this work with Pig Iron. In a gender and race-bent cast, no one is Japanese. Dito van Reigersberg plays the part of playwright and novelist Toshiki Okada --at least for awhile. Others also play Okada, separately and simultaneously in this character-shifting creation, where fluid identities spread onto the next actor like a fever dream.

I’ll take a foolish whack at explaining the basics: Briefly, an autobiographical play is being written by one Okada as it is acted out by another Okada and other characters. In the play the playwright/architect falls in and out of love with Thoreau’s Walden. Then after the multiple catastrophes of 3/11 in Japan (earthquake, tsunami, and resulting Fukushima nuclear power plant radiation-disaster), he comes to re-appreciate the relevance of Walden and wants to re-create that safer simplicity in his life.

But there’s more to it – for instance, conspiracy theories and the perceived arrogance of those advocating simplicity; sustainable housing and Sakoguchi (" To not build a building is something only an architect can do."); and Walden’s Irish family (which is a bunny family in Okada’s play). Over-explicated yet hard to grasp, the production is complex within a guise of simplicity, kind of like Thoreau’s own writing. A performer comments on the performance, "Back then in Act 2 we weren’t Japanese, we were Irish—but on an even more basic level, we’re rabbits."

With occasional music and a whole lot of talking, Okada’s philosophy of stage movement overrides Pig Iron’s own kind of masterful, theatrically physical theatre. Except for the slow Japanese-inspired dance performed by Norris and the hopping done by bunnies, dramatic action is just about missing.

Mimi Lien has provided much scenic design for Pig Iron and other theatre companies. Here her creation of a smooth suspended wall made of plywood segments dominates the space. In Lien fashion, it’s engineered to lift and tilt. However, it changes position only once toward the end. The set design, in keeping with the spare theme, does little to provide or help sustain interest. Or are audiences in the West just too used to thinking that more is more?

The production, which has been stewing in creative processes here and in Japan, is still finding its way and, if simplicity is a goal, will need more time to gel. While corporeally largely static, verbalized ideas spin around, running into each other, and it feels like death-by-talking. Pig Iron goes way out on a limb with this foray into low impact theatre. It can be lonely out on the edge.

At Arts Bank. 120 minutes and one 10 minute intermission. Philadelphia Live Arts.

Red Eye to Havre de Grace
An early version of this show lit up the Live Arts Festival in ’05, and I couldn’t wait to see the latest manifestation of the collaboration between Thaddeus Phillips’ Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental and Wilhelm Bros. music. The production has grown up over the intervening years. It’s bigger, wider, and deeper, and just as amazing and magical.

From the start, things may not be what they seem as a U.S. Park Ranger assigned to the Poe House introduces an imagined story of E.A. Poe’s actual last train journey. Real letters that Poe wrote are sung, as are various short works. Compelling and singular music drives the tale of the train trip that remains cloaked in mystery. Supertitles over the proscenium provide names of songs, works, dates, locations, and so forth.

Light and shadow spill across the stage, framing the play, an opera really, as a manifest dream or imagined memory. The few set pieces include a suitcase, three doors, a couple of folding chairs and two serial pianos. But in Phillips’s work, set pieces and props don’t necessarily perform the functions one might logically expect. This quirky, expressionistic exploration of Poe’s deteriorating state of mind seems able to creep inside his head even as he traverses horizontal doors and crawls through windows on his train journey. Ean Sheeny, a wonderful actor, is an eerily creditable Poe.

Poe is possessed by the shade of his very young dead wife, Virginia, played by Sophie Bortolussi (a show co-creator). Her movement astonishes as she slithers over and under doors, crawls over the piano, and pours herself all over Poe, insinuating herself like smoke across his semi-lucid waking moments and haunting his dreams. Singer Jeremy Wilhelm, completes the trio of intensely focused performers. He’s the one who pulls the whole story together. The principal musician, and a bit of a magician, is David Wilhelm.

The Wilhelm Brothers’ music shapes everything by sound-painting with beautiful, doomed, fatalistic colors. An interior-lighted piano is played from above and below, using both keyboard and plucked piano strings. Haunting songs and instrumental sounds combine with steam train noises to add immeasurably to the mood and enhance the ever changing stagescape and the idiosyncratic, particularized lighting. In one flashback scene Poe and a doctor friend, visiting the Philadelphia Waterworks, are silhouetted against stunning light that glows against a blue drop. An account of the visit and a childhood memory accompany the picture. This is stage art.

Multiple requests to recite The Raven dog Poe to the end. At times he reverts to autopilot, rattling through the famed poem like a fast train. At times it’s handled slowly. I think it can safely be said that no one has seen or heard The Raven performed like this before. Morbid obsession is taken to epic heights and stygian depths. Yet in a letter to Muddy, his dear aunt/mother-in-law, Poe claims, "I was never really insane, just occasionally when my heart was touched."

A penultimate scene, set in a bar in Baltimore, presents slices of "El Dorado" and "Eureka", the work which Poe considered the culmination of his life, accompanied by light, color, darkness, dance —and flamenco guitar. After a few pseudo endings comes the magnificently staged actual ending.

Director, co-creator, and stage designer Thaddeus Phillips incorporates moving actors into the ever shifting spatial composition. Co-creator Wilhelm brothers’ strong and elegant score supports the whole. This is as dramatic a work of stage art as you are likely to see. You may not remember other Live Arts/Fringe shows, but this one you won’t forget. At Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Approximately 120 minutes. Philadelphia Live Arts.

Ivona: Princess of Burgundia
Ivona is both a parody of the comedy of manners and a satire of tragedy. With his pointed wit, playwright Witold Gombrowicz is a kind of Polish Jonathan Swift or Oscar Wilde, a contrarian whose epigrams feature hairpin turns and produce a wealth of wonderfully quotable lines.

Brimming with maliciousness and dainty murderousness, the play about a plain, silent woman who shows up at a palace and causes a royal ruckus is a kick. But it’s not without problems. The main one is that Ivona the silent one, who causes all the trouble, talks at all. Her brief utterances aren’t consequential enough to bother breaking her dramatic silence. Late in his life Gombrowicz repented of giving her any lines at all, and he took them all out.

The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium seems to be attracted to small spaces, but the tiny space at the Walnut’s Studio 5 doesn’t offer the capacity to present this particular work optimally. Lack of space constrains both the design of the production and directorial choices. Many scenes end up with actors just standing in rows reciting their lines. A tea scene, for instance, not only has no tea cups, teapot, or the comestibles talked about, but no table or chairs to sit on, so characters just stand and speak the lines.

That is not to say that the IRC production isn’t fun. It is, and the actors, particularly those playing the royals are a caution. They’re dazzling. Costumes are strange and splendid concoctions of formal fluff and bad taste, and the wigs are a marvel of tulle and toilet paper rolls. It’s good that a small and dedicated Philadelphia Theater company is committed to finding and producing the esoteric and arcane. At Walnut Theatre Studio 5. 100 minutes. Philly Fringe.

Othello, Desdemona & Iago Walk Into a Bar
Co-writer and director Mark Kennedy has a Cartesian skeptic’s view of Othello. He proposes that Shakespeare’s characters don’t want to be stereotyped, and he sets up a situation: What if the principal characters leave the theater and go to a bar to escape the play and reclaim their true selves?
This free-form performance finds Big O, Double D, and Iago-go (a woman) cavorting in a bar. It’s a real Philly bar, the Trestle Inn, where audience members relax, eat, and drink at tables during the show. An excellent and funny short B&W silent film, complete with intertitles, fills everyone in on the outlines of the Othello story .

The three characters throw off the shackles of their Shakespeare-bestowed identities, and dance and sing. Notable is Iago-go’s (Emily Letts) rendition of "I Know I’ve Been Changed." Double D (Meredith Sonnen) performs a cute little modified striptease, and Big O (Akeem Davis) insists that he’s just a regular Joe and he doesn’t want to be called Othello, his slave name. (Actually it would be great to someday see this talented actor star in a traditional production of Othello.) A card trick sequence goes on far too long, and some pieces seem only marginally related to the theme, yet the show is engaging.

Eventually they all down too many shots poured by the wily Iago-go, who has them toast liberation, then love , then honesty, then any other cause she can think of. Will Big O and Double D revert to form too? At the Trestle Inn. Time: Under an hour. [ad hoc theatre project] Philly Fringe.

Chomsky vs Buckley, 1969
Arriving audience members are treated like guests at Bruce Walsh’s Northern Liberties home, and graciously served homemade hors d’ oeuvre and drinks by the host and others, who will turn out to be the actors. There’s no stage area and the two principals, embedded with the guests, sometimes sit together and sometimes talk across the room. Their discourse is composed of long segments of William F. Buckley and Noam Chomsky’s 1969 Firing Line debate. However the play is not about the famous clash of intellectuals, the conservative and the anarchist who locked horns over U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Here the debate serves as an armature on which to hang an interaction between a couple at home. They discuss Vietnam and have the famed exchange about defining "disinterested", but the erudite content isn’t really the point. This is an exploration of how the couple negotiate their conflict. It’s remarkable how well the debate works when recast as fodder for a domestic argument that almost incidentally resonates today, what with U.S. involvement in other catastrophes.

At tense moments a Garrison Keillor pops in to calm the waters with PBS moments and homey stories from Lake Wobegone. The couple’s dialectic waxes and wanes and at times they get frustrated. Other times they "get down" and dance.

The participants do a great job and the way writer/director Bruce Walsh works the idea of theatrical boundaries has produced an ideal fringe event. At Walsh home in Northern Liberties. 35 minutes not counting the appetizers.

Barbie Blended: A Pop Rockin’ [new] Musical
Theatre Underground, a UArts-affiliated theatre company, produces student-written, acted, and designed work. They take the bull by the horns and learn by doing it on their own. In Barbie Blended a boy and girl on the cusp of adolescence cling to childhood and fantasy, yet long for the possibilities presented by growing up, ie, sex. The kids learn in Family Life class that" Sex is like eating a taco that you are in love with." Personally I’m not nuts about theater in which young adults in children’s roles act infantile and credulous as they do here. In spite of this, however, it’s obvious these young actors have talent. The lively cast is rounded out by an imaginary-friend Barbie and a third actress who handles two mom roles. This coming of age story turns on the word, "blended", which appears to mean the point when kids grow up & fit in. It also means to throw away. For example, to blend your toys means to toss them. In real life, tweens’ interest in toys wanes gradually as new things attract them. But here all toys must go in one night by decree of the plot --via grotesque, imperious moms: " It’s time to blend your toys". Three musicians, who rock behind a painted scrim, contributed to the musical arrangements. Live and recorded music accompany the show with perky, boppy tunes, reminiscent of the High School Musical franchise, except this is about middle schoolers. The music has good bones and the writers’ book and song plots move things along. Unfortunately, because the story is too compressed to really work, the trajectory gets twisted as the Musical’s time demands result in unsatisfyingly out-of-character consequences. Yet although it’s rough, the show’s energy makes it easy to catch the spirit, if not all the words, and to go with the flow. Musical numbers range from sweet, like " Come Away With Me&qout; to the elegant sophistication of "I Ate His Booger (And I Knew it was Love). Philly Fringe. At Gershman Y. 2 hours including 1 intermission.

Bang: Charlotte Ford
After seeing Bang, my first reaction was "What the hell was that?" There’s no pigeonhole for it. Three of Philadelphia’s most accomplished and respected actresses, Charlotte Ford, Lee Etzold, and Sarah Sanford under the direction of Emmanuelle Delpech, carry on with jokey titillation. They don’t so much explore female sexuality as lampoon it. While they parody seduction, orgasm, and whatever else comes into their sights, they actually may be exploring something else entirely.

An illuminated Sex Show sign descends. " I feel your gaze" says Sarah Sanford’s reluctant character to the audience, "I think you need to examine yourselves a little bit, sickos." The performers are laying it on the line and we’re complicit. When we take our clothes off, they imply, you can see that we are people, not just entertainers.

Without the protection of an imagined 4th wall, would-be passive observers are exposed, addressed as a whole and individually, and expected to react and in several cases, to participate. Words are put in audience members’ mouths by Charlotte Ford, a yin and yang-spouting sprite, and she and Lee Etzold come on outrageously to male audience "e;volunteers". In this comic and wildly silly confrontational enterprise, unwary participants are surrogates for the rest of us.

Demythologizing through exposure --bodies are normal, everyone has one-- these smart and funny women show everything they’ve got. I laugh a lot but nervously, afraid they might select someone not so lithe of body to join them and shake some uncovered booty —someone like me, for instance. The participation challenge doesn’t go quite that far, though.

Frequent brief interactions with audience members will make the performance a little different each time, and the artists will deal with it, believe me. Each of these experts at improvisation can exploit opportunities and work a room with poise and humor.

BANG’s meaning is elusive and tied up in clowning and frolicking, as Charlotte Ford, the creator of this work, spoofs sex and seems to ask what it means to be human, with all the physicality that involves.
A video projection moves the concept out into the street, and the opening night audience laughs itself silly. This audience looks like a real Arts audience of cerebral culture-vulture voyeurs-- and they’re tickled pink and they actually end up singing. The joyful, hilarious, unnerving romp that is starts out over the top and it never comes down. Live Arts. At Christ Church Neighborhood House. 75 minutes.

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