Monday, April 11, 2016

Six Mini Reviews from the Philadelphia Theatre Scene

While at the annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association, I was able to attend six plays with my colleagues from across the nation.   Following are six short reviews I wrote about each of the productions.  What I learned loud and clear is that the theatre scene of Philadelphia is extremely rich and exciting and is well worth a trip to the city just for seeing plays and musicals, much less for visiting all the historical sites and world-renown museums.

Two Trains Running
August Wilson

Many duo-tracks run in parallel, crisscross, and sometimes collide in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, the 1960s contribution to his ten-play, 20th Century American Cycle.  Death and life, white and black, love and loneliness, older generation and younger upstarts, poor and wealthy are just some of the dichotomous threads running through this poetic play of powerful prose of a turbulent, turning-point period American history.  In the video-enriched production of Arden Theatre of Philadelphia where the scenes and sounds of 1968 Philadelphia racial-and-economic injustice speeches and protests (and riots) overlay the Hill District diner setting below, the sometimes conflicting means to a just end advocated by Dr. Martin Luther King and by Malcom X become yet two more highlighted tracks running through these late 1960s.  Through stunning performances by each cast member as directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Arden has staged a Two Trains worth riding through the every minute of the 150+, no matter how many times one has seen this 1991 play awarded Best New Play by the American Theatre Critics Association.

Rating: 5 E


Peter and the Starcatcher
Rick Elice

With puns by the hundreds (some groaners, most deliciously funny) and with imaginative, make-believe antics at every turn (mostly done with objects from someone’s forgotten attic), Peter and the Starcatcher is an afterthought prequel fully fitting for everyone’s favorite tale of the boy from Neverland.  Winner of five Tonys in 2012 and frequently staged since all across America, Rick Elice’s play is a fun frolic that is just the right mixture of silly but not ridiculous, naughty but never nasty, and heart-warming without sappiness.  Moreover, the script opens new pages not-yet-read of the tale most of the audience come knowing and loving about Peter Pan and Wendy, the Lost Boys and Tinker, Captain Hook and Schmee ... and of course, Tick-tock, too.  The oldest theatre in America, Walnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia (founded in 1809) stages a rambunctious romp of a show at an engaging clip and with a cast that climbs, rolls, marches, runs, falls, and fights just like a bunch of kids in the backyard.  While each has many moments to shine, particularly stellar is Ian Merrill Peakes as Black Stache (aka later as Cap’n Hook) who is just the kind of villain you cannot help but love.  A tale certainly suitable for all ages, it is the adult crowd that particularly will get a kick out of the quips and quibbles that tumble by the dozens out of these mouths.

Rating:  4 E


He Who Gets Slapped
Leonid Andreyev
Adapted by Walter Wykes
In Partnership with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts

A play written during the period of the Russian Revolution of 1917 explores in a mixture of realism and symbolism the underlying elements of the aristocracy’s greed, the working class branded by the rich as outcasts and misfits, and the roles of Fate and Chance in the outcomes of the time’s great societal upheaval.  Under the big top of a circus, Leonid Andereyev’s He Who Gets Slapped – adapted by Walter Wykes in this Philadelphia Artists’ Collective production – unfolds a story of an intellectual trying to escape a world turned upside down all around him.  He assumes the role of a beloved, if not also abused, clown in what he hopes will be a new world of fantasy and wonder.  He joins a family of juggling and tumbling clowns with out-of-tune kazoos; a whip-cracking tamer obsessed with her lions; and a sullen, handsome bareback rider whose young and beautiful partner is actually a Countess with a philandering father currently penniless. 

Love triangles develop; a plot for possible fortunes through arranged marriage thickens; and the newly arrived mystery clown, now named He, manipulates Fate to take control of Chance.  Underneath the surface, the playwright comments about his disillusionment and disgust with both the old money of Tsarist Russia and the new lords and despots, the Communists.  PAC partners with the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts to present a fascinating, engaging, if at times also puzzling in its symbolism He Who Gets Slapped.

Rating: 4 E


An Octoroon
Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins

On a massive stage with dirt-filled gaps in the wooden-planked floor, raised stages on tracks, a chicken-wired pen, and a model reflected in a huge mirror of a Southern mansion of yesteryear, a man in underwear begins confessing why he has adapted a controversial melodrama of 1859 to the modern stage.  An antebellum hit that toured for years and was second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in popularity – The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault led to raging debates about the abolition of slavery (while the playwright actually claimed he was actually neutral on the subject).  Taking place on a Louisiana plantation called Terrebonne, the play’s tragic heroine is a young woman who is one-eighth Black (or octoroon) and whose loving protector and father has died, putting her and the estate’s fate (including all its slaves) literally on the auction block.

Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ updated An Octoroon at the Wilma Theater retains and accentuates the 19-century melodrama aspects of the original, borrows some reverse black-face elements of the recent Scottsboro Boys, and adds throbbing hip-hop music as well as fantasy elements like the trickster B’rer Rabbit – all done in a play within a play format.  The result bounces between amazing innovation of storytelling that is captivating and thought-provoking and an over-indulgence of too-many disparate elements that do not always add up to something meaningful.

Rating: 3 E


Sex with Strangers
Laura Eason

Kyle Coffman & Joanna Rhinehart; Photo by George Street Playhouse
Snow is falling in blizzard fashion; the fire is roaring in the empty rural Michigan B&B; and Olivia is settling in to put some finishing touches on her novel and to enjoy a nice red wine.  That is until some young dude who could almost be her son blasts in like a wet dog, helps himself to some of her wine, and soon starts making moves on her that both repulse and excite her.  The fact that Ethan Kane is a world-famous, NY Times best-seller for an blow-by-blow, explicit book about his sexually wild hook-ups (one a week for a year) is again both horribly disgusting and increasingly titillating for this author whose first book fell absolutely flat (although as it turns out, is known and admired by this rambunctious, over-sexed – and really cute – intruder).  The snowed-in pair of unlikely lovers soon proves opposites in fact do attract (especially when there is no Internet, no TV, and no way to leave). 

In her Sex with Strangers, Laura Eason has given Olivia and Ethan an adequate enough framework and script that allows Joanna Rhinehart and Kyle Coffman to give knock-‘em-out-of-the-park performances in this Philadelphia Theatre Company production.  Directed with David Saint’s keeping snap, sizzle, and surprise (as well as sensual sex) in mind, the two actors individually create intriguing, multi-layered persona with ongoing twists and turns in their character’s development.  Together, these two also totally convince through their intense love-making of eye, lip, and body contact that their age, wealth, and life-status differences mean little when it comes to the magnetic draw between them.  Where it all leads is enough to keep the audience fully engaged and themselves, more than a bit excited.

Rating: 4 E


The Rape of Lucrece
William Shakespeare

Dan Hodge
In a solo performance that ripped with intensity and intrigue, Dan Hodge reprised his Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, sold-out run of William Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece for a one-time performance in a hotel conference room for a group of America’s theatre critics.  In street dress, without normal stage effects, and with only minimal props save an old trunk and a candle, Dan Hodge held his audience in captive amazement for a hundred, spine-chilling minutes as he flawlessly recreated Shakespeare’s 1594 narrative poem. 

A young prince’s fevered lust for his best friend’s bride drives him to her midnight bed where he savagely violates her body and leaves her in a suicidal state of shame and despair.  Mr. Hodge masterfully becomes each of the characters of this tragic tale that Ovid and Livy both claim brought down the last king of ancient Rome, leading to a republic’s formation.  As the plotter and attacker, he goes from a tormented soul who is fearfully frightened by his attraction and its probable outcome to become a stalking animal with deadly viciousness, vividly evident in the actor’s popped, neck veins and enlarged, steely eyes.  When the actor suddenly lies prone to become the victim, his Lucrece sends chills down the audience’s necks as she struggles, pleads, and undergoes painful invasion.  Her near-deranged aftermath and subsequent confession to her weeping husband and his followers shakes one’s very core through the pain-laden whimpers, body tremors, and wild-eyed expressions Mr. Hodge gives her.  He equally excels as other, minor characters including an attending, timid maid and the shocked, horrified husband. 

Employing a fantastically wide range of muscles, body stances, facial expressions, and voices, Dan Hodge gave to the members of the American Theatre Critics Association a reprise none will likely forget.

Rating: 5 E

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