All Things Entertaining and Cultural
THE BALD SOPRANO — Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, at Bethany Mission Gallery, 1527 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia, firstname.lastname@example.org, through February 16 — Tina Brock constantly sophisticates and updates her act as she breezes, ambles?, through a canon few are brave enough to touch to accentuate the logic in the absurd in pieces of that ilk and the pain of being different or unfulfilled in a naturalistic world. Brock is tops as both as actress and a director. This latest rendition of Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” is a masterpiece of wit and a jaunty jaundiced look at polite society and all of its banality and inanity. Luckily Brock illuminates banality and inanity without practicing it. Aimless conversation, the mores of hosting, fascination with the uninteresting unusual, and the whole realm of thoughtless inertia passing for life is visible in a snappy, fun-filled 90 minutes on the IRC stage. Brock creates a party atmosphere, leading the way as a chatty wife and an ebulliently excited hostess to guest she did not expect. Or did expect until they were too late arriving when they arrived. IRC’s gift is presenting the topsy-turvy as the mundane. The bright but obvious ordinariness of situations and talk is what makes it amusing and what comments on how much of our lives we invest in trivia. The Bethany Mission Galley becomes a character, as Brock deftly uses its loopily arcane pieces as props and charts. The furniture on the Brock-designed set and Erica Hoelscher’s marvelous ’60s chic suburban costumes add to the fun and the commentary. Especially amusing is when the host couple excuses themselves to change clothes, and the husband comes back wearing the exact outfit he left in. Diction and crisp, pointed line reading in an IRC gift, and Brock, Bob Schmidt, Sonja Robson, and John Zak practice it to a rousing tee. Always reliable Tomas Dura is marvelous as the maid. Carlos Forbes has the bravura to overcome the lack of substance in the fire chief’s appearance. Spirited and funny, this is a “Bald Soprano” for the doubting and fearful. Brock will convert them to Absurdist fans!
DESCRIBE THE NIGHT — Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia, 215-546-7824, www.wilmatheater.org, through February 22 — Who thought Rajiv Joseph had this remarkable, telling, and currently important play in him? “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” and “Guards at the Taj” were thought-provoking, “Tiger” having scenes of deep interest, but in “Describe the Night,” which uses writer Isaac Babel, a dedicated Soviet policeman and espionage agent, and a young Vladimir Putin, to tell his story, Joseph joins Tom Stoppard, Julian Barnes, and Marlon James in exploring what truth is and if truth can be strained or ameliorated by who claims to tell it. Even the title and its context are brilliant. “Describe the Night” is what a young Babel asks himself as a sort of writing exercise when he thinks he is alone in a Polish wood during a peaceful moment during a war Babel is reporting as a correspondent. Babel records his description but is soon joined by a Russian officer who finds Babel’s concern with the night romantic. His description is literal while Babel’s is accurate by more stylishly expressed. Already we see how even a description of a night is personal and subjective, like a theater review. The truth is there, but it may not be expressed by everyone in the same way. Not all is subjective. Truth, as Joseph and the three author named above, tell us over and over again in their works, does exist about many things, can be told, can and usually is distorted, but is there no matter how one manipulates it. Massaging and realigning of the truth is the major theme of “Describe the Night.” One thing Babel does in that first Polish wood scene is show the Soviet how deft and convincing he is a lying. It’s a lesson that officer will employ many times in the 50 years we see him in action. It’s a method the Putin character, called simply Vova, will perfect as he climbs up NKVD and KGB ranks. He will edit, decide, and create the truth, the craft of so many politicians and journalists today.
While truth, and learning it in its purity, pervade this play, so much more goes one involving trust, relationships, ambitions, and the authority to act versus the morality of the action. Joseph loads his script with wisdom and thought, but, virtuously, he also provides taut drama and an overall story worth seeing and considering afterwards. “Describe the Night” is one of the few new plays that hits all the high marks. It is one that deserves wide distribution, and it would benefit greatly if it was always seen in Blanka Žižka’s sensitive, intelligent, absorbing production. Žižka brings out all of Joseph’s themes and intentions while keeping the story of “Describe the Night” moving and engrossing. Scenes flow excitingly, punctuated by dates and information projected on walls of the deeply sunken stage Žižka, in a program note, says she wanted to give the impression of an arena since each sequence is a pitched battle of sorts. There’s constant texture in Žižka’s production. All combines and comes to you at once, so the brain, the intellect, and the lover of storytelling is simultaneously satisfied. Joseph is also clever about how he brings threads, sometimes surprisingly related, of one scene into a subsequent one. A notebook of Babel’s serves as a particularly well-employed leitmotif. “Describe the Night” shows the power derived by those who can control information and use it to prosecute, to obscure, to denigrate, to falsely praise, to use for favor, and to use for revenge. Žižka’s cast is uniformly excellent. Keith Conallen is insidiously reptilian while being smooth, sharp, and precise as the emerging Putin. Steven Rishard, whose work becomes increasing nuanced with each performance, can exude charm and horror as the longest standing member of the Soviet Union’s secret police. Ross Beschler is both sophisticated and bashful as Babel. Sarah Gliko, continuing a string of fine-tuned portrayals, finds perfect notes to show us the young and aged Yevgenia. Brett Ashley Robinson and Anthony Martinez-Briggs have strong scenes as contemporaries who show that Putin’s rule hasn’t changed much between Soviet and current eras. Campbell O’Hare stands for many young who have the courage to put freedom above safety.
ELEANOR: AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY — Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, Media, Pa., 610-891-0100, www.mediatheatre.org, through February 23 — Jesse Cline’s production is pleasant to watch and Jonathan Bolt’s book is quite informative, even to people who know the story of the Roosevelt family, but little seems at stake in this musical by Bolt, Thomas Tierney, and John Forster, not even when Franklin Roosevelt is stricken with polio and Eleanor and Franklin’s marriage is threatened by Franklin’s philandering. Cline’s production needs more fullness in characterization and in creating dramatic moments. Maxwell Porterfield sings beautifully as Eleanor Roosevelt, but she doesn’t deeply convey the conviction nor the charisma of the woman. Patrick Ludt shows more of Franklin Roosevelt’s charm and humor, but more gravitas would be welcome. The show at the Media comes most to life when Hannah Parke is being gaily naughty as Alice Roosevelt Longworth or Roger Ricker is being fussily realistic as political operative Louis Howe. Susan Wefel is a positive Gorgon as Sara Roosevelt. Kelly Briggs is a likeable patriarch as Theodore Roosevelt.
I (HEART) ALICE (HEART) I — Curio Theatre, 48th and Baltimore, Philadelphia, 215-921-8243, www.curiotheatre.org, through February 29 — Amy Conroy’s provides a sweet look at a long-time Lesbian couple who bask in their ordinariness, tease about their differences, and enjoy each other’s company. Both women are named Alice, and they have maintained their relationship, in an Ireland that for most its duration would have frowned on it, for almost 40 years, by being typical along with being gay. Dramatic upheavals are small. The joy of Curio’s production, is seeing how nicely Aetna Gallagher and Trice Baldwin-Browns mesh in knowing comfort, savoring the easy amiability of the couple’s world, and spending a fulfilling 75 minutes with two individually and mutually engaging women. Gay Carducci and Rachel Gluck direct.
KING LEAR — Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Avenue, Bristol, Pa., 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org, through February 16 — Eric Tucker has done estimable work in bringing abridged and small-cast Shakespeare to theaters in New York and Princeton, but his “King Lear” at Bristol is an ungainly mess that abandons Shakespeare’s marvelous text as thoroughly and disastrously as Lear does when he relinquishes his kingdom to fawning, ungrateful daughters. Some of it plays like episodes of “Roseanne” or “Mom.” Tucker takes little pains to have his all-woman cast focus or articulate that words they speak. Shakespeare’s play is robbed of poetry and, worse, of texture and deep meaning. Zuzanna Szadkowski salvages some keep speeches and provides some fine moments during the scene in which Lear perceives and fears for his madness, but in general, Tucker’s production is a verbal and dramatic washout. The shame is Tucker had some good ideas. He squandered them by tossing them off without taking time to highlight or offset and by obscuring even the basic material people would have to glean to make much of Lear’s story. Anyone unfamiliar with “King Lear” upon entering the Bristol Riverside, would be lost and remain as unsure of the plot as when he or she walked in. Tucker’s work here is an argument against deconstruction. In this “Lear” it doesn’t isolate or illuminate, only confuse.
MAN OF GOD —InterAct Theatre, at the Proscenium at the Drake, Hicks and Spruce, Philadelphia, 215-568-8079, email@example.com, through February 16 — “Man of God” never truly or toughly deals with the issue it raises when a teenage girl, sharing a room in Thailand with three other like-aged girls from California on a religious retreat, find a camera in their bathroom and trace it back to the young pastor escorting them. Anna Moench’s play juxtaposes what I think is accurate outrage at a situation and reluctance to confront even when the chance arises, but misses the scene it most needs to show by never staging a real showdown between the girls and the accused. Yes, one many Moench’s approach more subtle and more telling, but I thought the author dodged bullets as she had the girls talking a good game and revealing a lot about how women are treated on an everyday basis but refused to put the priest on the line, ever after he nonchalantly reclaims the camera from one of the girls’ beds. Maura Krause opts for a girls-night-out free-for-all in her staging. It made the characters seem too playful. They acted at being real more than they persuaded they were real. Annie Fang made the biggest impression as the most mature of the girls. Good work was also turned in by Kimie Muroya, Claris Park, Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters, and Justin Jain.
RACHEL — Quintessence Theatre Group, at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, 215-987-4450, firstname.lastname@example.org, through February 23 — “Rachel” heartbreakingly demonstrates what happens when joie de vivre, especially in a happy, contented, self-confident child, is tainted by overt, unapologetic, systemic prejudice and racism. Angela Weld Grimké depicts character after character whose idealism or ambition is dashed by color being a factor in his or her advancement. It baldly exposes a situation that has not totally abated in the century since Grimké wrote. It saddens as you see the effervescently hopeful and decisive Rachel of Act One turn bitter, self-loathing, and self-destructive by the play’s conclusion. Quintessence founder and artistic director Alexander Burns is a master at mining forgotten plays and playwrights, and he did the world a favor by producing “Rachel.” That said, the Quintessence production, directed by Alexandra Espinosa, could be far deeper and stronger than it is. Espinosa finds the melodrama in Grimké’s work, but she doesn’t find the tragedy. Matters are kept too simple, too much on the surface. Yes, they have their effect, but I yearn to see a more subtle, more sophisticatedly exposing rendition of this play. Espinosa’s “Rachel” was eye-opening, in keeping with its once-upon-a-time classification as a “propaganda” play, but in listening to Grimké’s dialogue and in watching the later parts of Jessica Johnson’s performance in the title role and the Zuhairah McGill and Walter DeShields’s entire performance, I see how powerful and disturbing a piece “Rachel” has the potential to be. Portrayals of children, buy adults, were too cute, too self-conscious open and endearing, to register as real. The children depicted, the young Rachel, her brother Thomas as a new adolescent, and Jimmy seem as if they come from a play nine-year-olds are staging for a lark in their basement. They’re too sugary and flowery. Give those children some texture, and the effect of reality on them would be devastating instead of sad and unfortunate. There are questions are situations “Rachel” does not address, such as why the older Thomas, an electrical engineer, doesn’t start his own business when he can’t get a job from white employers. That question is, of course, for Grimké and not Espinosa, but Espinosa’s approach allowed time for me to think of it. My criticisms of this production are more than cavils — I don’t think “Rachel” gets its full due on the Quintessence stage. — but I am grateful to Burns and Espinosa for the chance to see it, and pound-for-pound, Espinosa’s “Rachel” warrants a visit to Quintessence, lest this play fades once again to oblivion. Jessica Johnson is almost unbearable as a stylized child Rachel, but is remarkable as the older Rachel, who by age 22, is awakened to the cruelty of racism and how it destroys the peace and dreams of children. I have reservations about the way Travoye Joyner was asked to play Thomas, but have nothing but praise for Joyner’s performance and a way he had of overcoming the lightness of the interpretation by providing humanity and depth to his execution of it. Walter DeShields was perfect throughout. He was never asked to downplay or soften his character, so its strength and resolve, even in the face of disappointment and denied potential, come through. Zuhairah McGill can be mesmerizing when she has a passage that lets her gift of tone and sincerity prevail. Thank goodness “Rachel” gives her opportunity for that to happen. Niya Colbert has a small but effective scene. See “Rachel.” It’s worth your time, and you will be moved.