All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Here I go on one of my quixotic missions to talk briefly about a lot of shows.
2018 has been a mostly marvelous year so far. The first 11 shows I saw were so good, I had trouble ranking them and knew that #11 from that original 11 will likely be in the top third of the rankings list by the end of December.
I am finding that classics and revivals are more satisfying than new plays, which tend of be self-conscious and preachily heavy-handed. That said, there are two exceptions.
At the time of this flight of ambition, I have seen 19 productions in the Delaware Valley. Here’s my attempt to blitz through them. Some short takes may be expanded later.
Oh, and for those who missed the radio and Facebook announcements of the 2017 Philadelphia Theatre Critic’s Award recipients, they are for Best Production, “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Bristol Riverside Theatre; for Best Director, Keith Baker for Jesus Christ Superstar at Bristol Riverside Theatre; for Best Actor, Akeem Davis for “Marcus/Emma” at InterAct Theatre; for Best Actress, Lesli Margherita for “Guys and Dolls” at Bucks County Playhouse; for Best Supporting Actor, Joseph Gaines for “Elizabeth Cree” at Opera Philadelphia; and for Best Supporting Actress, Suli Holum for “Cabaret” at the Arden Theatre and “Company” with 11th Hour.
As usual, reviewed shows will be listed alphabetically.
COLD HARBOR, from “The Lydie Breeze Trilogy” from EgoPo — Lane Savadove’s direction gives this production an epic feel that maximizes the piece’s numerous strong sequences while getting this show past some of playwright John Guare’s muddier patches unscathed. You get a palpable feeling you are watching a Civil War saga that offers commentary on the time as it depicts a battle for personal survival by a group of people, including Lydie Breeze that don’t buy into the national frenzy. Savadove’s staging lends Guare’s piece extra intensity, and this production benefits from a natural central turn by title performer Melanie Julian, who is well abetted by David Girard, Charlie DelMarcelle, Victoria Goins, Mark Knight, Nathan Foley, and Andrew Carroll. The regular run of this third of Guare’s trilogy has run its course, but it reappears as part of a couple of three-part marathons. “Cold Harbor” is much different from the “Lydie Breeze” that played off-Broadway in the ‘8-s. This new work has more texture and more promise. Part II, preciously named “Aipotu” (“Utopia” backwards) debuts in March, Part III in April. Grade: B+
COPENHAGEN, Lantern Theater — The intellect and the issue raised about practical uses of scientific breakthroughs keep Michael Frayn’s play fascinating in spite of director Kittson O’Neill’s clinical production that often seems more narrated than spoken or acted. The Lantern rendition always picks up when the characters stop explaining what they imagine went on during a 1941 reunion of Nils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe and begin to interact with other in conversational or person-to-person turns. Throughout, reliable Sally Mercer works to keep the humanity of the piece. Charles McMahon and Paul L. Nolan also do a good job, but O’Neill has instituted a “Dragnet” approach to exposition that makes Frayn’s contrapuntal trio seem much like a lecture than a drama. Frayn wins out in the end because of “Copenhagen’s” compelling discussion and arguments that center around the simultaneous efforts of the World War II Allies, and their enemy, the Axis, to develop an atomic bomb. We are also curious if Heisenberg’s 1947 claims that he purposely neglected a mathematic point to prevent Nazis from being nuclear are true or a post-war smoke screen. Grade: C
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pa., through March 31 — David Bradley’s production of this classic is a sterling example of a strong scripts coupled with a great ensemble. Most people know the story of the Franks, another family, and a single dentist hiding from Nazis in an Amsterdam warehouse annex in an attempt for survive the German ravages of the time. Many have visited the Anne Frank on the Prinzengracht in Amsterdam, as I have three times. No familiarity with the Franks’ story or fate can take the intensity of immediacy away from Bradley’s telling. While the PL&T program scared me into thinking this production might be an overdone “think piece” meant to conceptualize the Anne Frank saga, I was quickly relieved and delighted to see Bradley and his cast deliver a straightforward, honest, and naturalistic reading of the material. The Wendy Kesselman revision of the original Goodrich-Hackett script adds texture, providing a broader picture of the life the Franks and van Daans lived in their refuge while keying into more individual factors about Anne, her mother, and Peter van Daan. Bradley’s cast is to be congratulated for creating the consistent feeling of people living their lives. There’s no self-consciousness on the PL&T stage. The material is direct and speaks for itself. Brittany Anikka Liu, the Anikka being a variation of the affection name Otto Frank called his daughter, is a marvelous Anne Frank, impetuous and incorrigible in her liveliness as an 11-year-old in hiding, mature and thoughtful as Anne becomes a teenager, begins to see things more complexly, and awakens to interest in boys, the only one around being Peter. Tyler S. Elliott keeps correct distance from everyone in early scenes, as Peter asserts individuality and independence the best his teenage self can but softens subtly and definitely to Anne in a sweet, laudably real portrayal. Melanye Finister does her expectedly brilliant job at the emotional Mrs. Van Daan. Christopher Patrick Mullen also comes through with his usual excellence as the dentist, Dr. Dussel. Although many of the performers were new to People’s Light, which usually draws from an ensemble that has done dozens of shows together (See “Morning’s at Seven” review), the veterans and newcomers in “The Diary of Anne Frank” came together as if they has the same experience and chemistry. Deborah Green, as Mrs. Frank, is a particularly satisfying addition to the fold.
A DOLL’S HOUSE, Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St., Philadelphia, through March 4 — Terrence J. Nolen’s sharp, precise, target-hitting production makes Ibsen’s classic, translated by Simon Stephens, as sweeping, compelling, and contemporary as it is meant to be. This is fine work, brought vividly to life by Katharine Powell’s brilliant Nora who can go from playful to pragmatic in a minute and who may cheat when it comes to chocolates or lack of thrift but who always acts from the highest motives when put it a situation that requires ingenuity and nerve. Powell, who seemed subdued in previous work at the Arden, comes through like an inspired powerhouse. Her every move is right and fascinating. Powell’s is a living,, breathing, fast-on-her-feet Nora, not an interpretation from a textbook. She keeps Nolen’s production humming deliciously, getting great help from Akeem Davis and Scott Greer in important supporting roles and from Joilet Harris and Emily Kleimo in meticulously played bit parts. Davis is especially deft at bringing out the resolve and cunning of Krogstad while keeping his motives and desperation so understandable, he comes off as a reasonable, if wracked, person and not a villain. Greer, that master of depth, finds the right combination of sardonic congeniality and deep-bred darkness in Dr. Rank. This is a telling “Doll’s House” that aces all of Ibsen’s big moments by playing the story while knowing where and how to emphasize the Norwegian master’s towering themes. Grade: A
AN EVENING WITH GROUCHO, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope, Pa., through February 25 — Frank Ferrante can turn into his boyhood and current idol, Groucho Marx, on a dime. He begins a story in his own voice, as Frank, but gets every tone and inflection right when he lets Groucho take over for punch lines and embellishment. Like Groucho, Ferrante proves to be a vaudeville trooper. In addition to barnstorming the U.S. and points abroad with his one-man show, he knows how to prevail over a tough crowd. The New Hope audience was of the -sit-on-your-hands, nod-in-recognition-instead-of-laugh type, but Ferrante never let his enthusiasm, energy, of lightning quickness as Groucho flag for a second as he valiantly soldiered on with high-class entertainment and some deliciously digging ad libs.
Ferrante’s show is a combination of ingredients, some stories here, by him of Groucho, some Groucho shtick there, and a panoply of songs by Kalmar and Ruby, Morrie Ryskind, George S. Kaufman, and yes, Gilbert and Sullivan. Groucho’s cigar gets a workout, and the “You Bet Your Life” duck hangs left center stage. Frank Ferrante doesn’t play Groucho Marx. He becomes him, Head to New Hope to see two geniuses at once. Grade: A-
HEISENBERG, Delaware Theatree Company, 200 Water Street, in Wilmington, Del., through February 25 — What? Him again? Yes and no. Werneer Heisenberg doesn’t appear, and is not even mentioned in Simon Stephens’s offbeat romance, but his uncertainty theory about the impossibility to predict the path, or even to successfully follow the path of quantum particles, becomes the basis for the comings and goings of an unlikely pair of Londoners whose first accidental “collision” triggers of number of meetings and an affair. Sometimes, Stephens’s piece is too clever by half. Somethings it’s formulaic. The trick to Matt Pfeiffer’s production at DTC is Karen Peakes and Bud Martin are so thoroughly likeable in their parts, you want to see them take “Heisenberg” wherever it might go next. Martin seamlessly embodies a plain-speaking curmudgeon while Peakes is charming as a chaotic woman who could be irritating or too over the top to be believable. So all remains quite pleasant and interesting in spite if “Heisenberg” generally being a middfe-of-the -road piece. Grade: B
THE HUMANS, Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Sts., Philadelphia, through March 4 — A beautifully natural cast, able to speak scripted dialogue as if it is an ongoing Thanksgiving conversation, and a smart, smart Stephen Karam text that pierces the façades we put up although we may be falling apart makes Bernard Havard’s Walnut production as keen and engaging as the play’s 2016 Tony-winning run. Karam’s gift is to take the stream-of-conscious byplay, teasing badinage, and genuine dramatic moments of a family gathering and make you care about all that is broached. Havard and his company of Greg Wood, Jennie Eisenhower, Mary Martello, Sharon Alexander, Alex Keiper, and Ibrahim Miari never break the reality of Karam’s construct, even at the end when an imagined supernatural even is suggested. You think you’re witness to the Blake Thanksgiving feast in the New York apartment of the younger daughter (Keiper). The cast remains that genuine even as revelations are blurted, emotions run high, and no opening for comment escapes comment. Unlike most new plays, Karam’s is about something, the things we keep hidden because we’re either embarrassed by them, don’t want to worry anyone, or trying to avoid pity. Each of the Blakes are in some state of free fall, but you’d never know it at first, or even fourth, glance. What Karam does that’s go great is let truths linger in the air, exposed but undwelled upon, which elicits both recognition and a deeper, more empathetic response. Martello is particularly deft at getting in the mother’s digs, warnings, and advice while never breaking conversational stride. Alexander is wonderful as the Blake matriarch struggling with dementia and physical limitations. Grade: A-
LOVES, LIARS, AND TAXIDERMY, Inis Nua Theatre at Louis Bluver Theatre, S. Hicks St. between Spruce and Pine, Philadelphia, through March 4 — Tom Reing’s production of this amiably quirky play is a mixed bag. On one hand, Alan Harris’s play has a gentle sensibility even as it deal with people who cope with constant roughness, disappointment, and disruption in their lives. Harris is deft at the whimsical and/or questioning line. Several pop up throughout his text. He makes his characters, their dilemmas, and aspirations clear. You want to go with the piece and ride it to an amusingly agreeable impression, as opposed to being roused, excited, or enthusiastic. You’d like to do that, but the entertainment remains too mild and too earthbound to soar. Lifts come, when they do, from occasional flights of language or from a character breaking out of expected type to show range and depth. Harris and Reing have provided a piece that engages. They haven’t provided one that grabs because “Love, Lies, and Taxidermy,” for all of its gentle charm suffers from a 21st century habit to tell more than it shows. Peter Shaffer may know how to use direct narrative to set off scenes in “Equus” and “Amadeus,” but Harris, like so many of his contemporaries, use it to dodge writing the scene they’re content to explain. Theater has to be more visual, mor animated than that. I always felt as if I was being told a story, with some parts playfully acted out, rather than experiencing a play. The difference is palpable. Telling in place of showing is inferior to creating scenes that do the main work. Seth Reichgott is enjoyable in a variety of parts he distinguishes by range instead of changing his look or voice. Joseph Teti was able to wring sympathy and get you on his side in his main part as a smitten young misfit. Francesca Picciotti also impresses as a young woman caught in many binds she has the imagination, but not the resources, to handle. The sweet valentine of a closing sequence would have had more romantic impact if “Love, Lies, and Taxidermy” had explored its characters in depth instead of presenting mostly narrative sketches of them. Grade: C+
MARIE ANTOINETTE, Curio Theatre, 48th and Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia, through March 10 — The overriding point of most plays about Marie Antoinette, including David Adjmi’s at the Curio and Laura Gunderson’s “The Revolutionists” at Theatre Horizon, is no matter what sparked and sputtered the French Revolution, no matter the issues of that bleak segment of French history, and no matter who emerged as a leader or contemporary, it the is French queen who has the last say is who is remembered by history. Danton, Marat, Robespierre, and their ilk have mostly been forgotten or had their names mostly given to poodles, while the guillotined Marie retains fame, is thought of admirably, in the way of a Kardashian but admirably, and is often a symbol of grace and glamor in turmoil. Adjmi, abetted by Jennifer Summerfield in the title role, and Jessica DalCanton in a broad selection of parts, looks, it seems, to skewer the Marie Antoinette mythos by satirizing, Summerfield boldly and intelligently being the one who plays all straight even when Marie is not being depicted in the best light. Adjmi’s script may work, but Brenna Geffers’s production for Curio is too undisciplined a mishmash for anyone to know conclusively if that’s the case. Geffers in given to pushing a joke or a point, to overplaying or overanimating to an extent that becomes dizzying and obscures anything but the theatrics she’s employing, Notice I say “theatrics” instead of “theater.” Geffers’s work here is more self-conscious and meant to impress than done in service of a story or its clarity. Adjmi’s work is a satire, but Geffers takes the word too seriously. Her muscular style of direction works in dramas and was especially illuminating in EgoPo’s “The Hairy Apre,” but in this comedy, she and her company are all over the place. Moments and individual takes, such as DalCanton’s courtier, Liam Mulshine playing the voice of a life-size cardboard dauphin, or Rich Bradford oozing charm as a treacherous rake, have merit. Summerfirld makes the most of the material and attitude she’s given. In general, though, this production is a consistent mess that loses even the one thing it has going for it, its stabs at humor, when it becomes serious and dour, as when it depicts any revolutionary. No wonder the French Revolution failed and led to a more potent dictator than Louis XVI could ever be, Napoleon Bonaparte, with these Jacobins who couldn’t add humanity to their cause. I don’t mind saying the French Revolution made me a conservative, of a Goldwater-Nixon stripe, because of idiotically orthodox zeal I saw in ’60s revolutionary wannabes, and the Michael B. Jordan character in “Black Panther.” Seeing the way Geffers had her cast portray the French citizen confirmed my convictions. Grade: D-
MORNING’S AT SEVEN, People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, Pa., through February 4 — No theater has been as successful at building or developing a core acting troupe such as People’s Light’s. Some of the members of the PL&T have been working together in dozens of plays since 1978 when the theater moved to its Malvern site. Marcia Saunders and Janis Dardaris pre-date that. (Janis played the first lead I saw by People’s Light, in 1973, when they a Hedgerow offshoot and performing in Westtown; Marcia was an actor who doubled as administrator and p.r. person who inveigled people to come out and see what was happening in a converted barn,) “Morning’s at Seven” is, at heart, a delightful comedy that shows an evening and morning in the lives of four sisters, three of whom live in adjoining houses (two houses because the maiden sister lives with a sibling and her husband). We meet their husbands, where there are husbands, see one of their sons though we hear about another sister’s children, and watch as they go about a typical small-town day. Of course, writer Paul Osborn besets them with little household crises and family dilemmas. The three Osborn’s uses to propel his plot are the impending marriage of one son, age 40, to a woman to whom he’s been engaged for 14 years; the intense dislike one brother-in-law has to his wife’s siblings, so sharp he prevents her from visiting htem, in vain; and the desire for the married sister who shares her house to reside, for once, with only her husband. Abigail Adams’s production of this savory chestnut is a delight made more lovable by the casting of some of PL&T’s most dedicated stalwarts in the play’s nine roles. The sister are played by Carla Belver, Alda Cortese, Marcia Saunders, and Janis Dardaris. I would like to live as long in years as the count of occasions some subsection of this quartet performed together. By now, they know every trick of line delivery and characterization the other has. Even with Saunders, usually cast as the high-spirited loudmouth, practically whispering her lines at a calm, almost glacial, pace, you see favorites doing the Thespian skills that made you love them. Over and over again. Belver and company are sisters of sorts in the PL&T family, so when they come together as such, no script or direction can create the bond they show. I am partial to Belver’s eldest sister, who I think promotes needed changes in tone and mood, but all four of the Gibbs sisters are grand and marvelous in their ensemble and individual work. When Saunders’s Cora explains, calmly, why she wants a home to herself, you go with her while feeling some sympathy for Dardaris’s potentially homeless Aarie. Peter DeLaurier, a true master at character creation, plies his prodigious craft again, giving an individual take and individual tone to Cora’s husband, Thor Swanson. Stephen Novelli is hilarious at a man whose regrets and sense of wasting his life are so palpable, he spends hours with his head against a tree. Graham Smith is whipcracking sharp as the borhter-in-law who disdains the whole lot of Gibbses and speaks of their intelligent expressions as he catches all of them including his wife, running around trying to recover a letter Aarie filched from Cora’s apron pocket. These sisters remind me of my grandmother, Mary, and her siblings. I doubt I am the only one who has that experience. (For the curious, Cortese’s Isa would be the Mary of the Gibbs story.) Pete Pryor is funny as the 40-year-old adolescent who is veering towards his father’s malady and found at times against a tree. Teri Lamm is wonderful as Myrtle, the bride who is meeting the Gibbses for the first time and finds herself in several precarious situations based on her fiance’s immaturity. Lamm finds ways to be comic and deserving of empathy at once. Osborn supplies many a good line, and Adams’s cast doesn’t miss any of them. DeLaurier is especially good at giving some of those lines extra meaning. Grade: A
MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY, Villanova Theatre at Vasey, Lancaster Pike at Ithan Avenue, Villanova, Pa. through February 18 — From Moses to Luke, from Homer to Shakespeare, from the Mahabharata to Beowulf, people love a good story. The mentioned stories, and several others, have been passed on for generations, some gratefully and miraculously preserved during the period between Mohammed and the Renaissance. What if those stories disappear? A more potent blight than a period of human ignorance comes to wipe away all literature and achievements such as electricity. That is the case following whatever apocalyptic catastrophe occurs prior to Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns.” (Although no one in the time Washburn posits remembers how to harness electricity or build a generator is beyond me. I guess it just makes for a better plot scheme.) “Mr. Burns” definitely has a plot scheme. Survivors roam its dystopian world. There’s expected fear or suspicion of any stranger who wanders into an encampment whose denizens have been vetted and approved.
In all encampments, all people have is their memories. Especially about culture. In Washburn, no one remembers the Bible, Quran, Homer, or Shakespeare, let alone Asian of Medieval British texts. I take part of the back,, They do remember one Homer, not the reciter of “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey,” but Home Simpson. The group we encounter is Washburn’s first scene regales each other by remembering favorite programs from the long-running Fox series, “The Simpsons.” They sit in their squalor trying to one-up each other with recalled line and imitations of Homer, Bart, Marge, and the evil Mr. Burns. An interloper gains favor and acceptance by filling in a blank or two and clarifying a disputed “Simpsons” scene. This newcomer expands the repertoire of the group by bringing up sequences from “Cape Fear,” both the DeNiro-Nolte and Mitchum-Peck versions, and Gilbert and Sullivan. Stories inevitably lead to that other ancient custom, theater, and the collected castaways we meet form a troupe doing “Simpsons” episodes that evolve into full plays featuring the Simpsons with smatterings of “Cape Fear,” mostly the 1991 DeNiro take, and Gilbert and Sullivan thrown in. As their society advances to more civility, they find their rivals are no longer wanderers who might steal their food and take their lives as much as rival theater troupes also trading ion the lasting popularity of “The Simpsons.” Washburn’s idea is delightful in concept, and at times, in execution. From our seats, we who are “Simpsons” aficionados participate in reminiscing as much as the characters on stage. We revel in the “Simpsons” references and embellishments that show up in skits and full productions by the post-electric Thespians who have to devise artificial light. Blessedly, Washburn’s decision to have no one remember how to generate energy means we have only actors playing the Simpsons and no background cartoons. The result of all the conceiving and resultant mayhem is sporadic in quality and engagement. Early scenes make us, as I alluded, play along, but they are more interesting for doing that than for any writing. It’s Washburn’s core idea that gets us interested, not her dialogue or even the primitive situations in which the characters find themselves, This becomes a pattern. Each new development in “Mr. Burns” garners renewed interest, but nothing really gets past the idea stage. Even a second-act performance of the theater troupe’s magnum opus combining “The Simpsons,” “Cape Fear,” and G&S doesn’t quite hold up. Of course, there are instances of merriment, especially when Mr. Burns surprises Bart in a movie theater the way DeNiro’s predator in “Cape Fear” scares Juliette Lewis’s character in that picture. Hodgepodge and running around often pass for action, and we never key into the characters of the survivors turned actors, even though we can tell them apart and know some of their histories. Concept swallows up the intimacy or deeper point Washburn might be attempting to project. Jill Harrison’s production is coherent but can’t gather all the threads Washburn leaves dangling and make them work in entirety, Sisi Wright and Mina Kawahara stand out in a cast that might remain too ensemble for its own good. Grade: C-
Well, I didn’t quite make my goal. I was able to write about half of the plays I’ve seen in the Delaware Valley in 2018. Twelve more await, with Bristol Riverside’s “The Producers” in the wings. Stay tuned for those. I’m in the mood, in the groove, and motivated now to move!
Onward theatergoers! Next up: “Next to Normal” to “Waitress!”