Tuesday, March 5, 2013

60-second review: ENDGAME (Arden)

Samuel Beckett's ENDGAME (now onstage at the Arden Theatre) is empty and confusing; the action confined, the pacing slow. For all this, it's a great play: a humorous exploration of the meaningless and inexorable deterioration that is human existence. Crippled, stuck in a room in an apparently post-apocalyptic world, Hamm (Scott Greer) beats down his servant Clov (James Ijames) and helpless parents, as he entertains himself with his own stories. "It's better than nothing," he tells Clov. "Better than nothing, is it possible?" Clov asks.

The Arden's production captures some of Beckett's power, giving the language space for poignancy, but misses the humor and chemistry possible in Hamm and Clov's relationship. The set feels cluttered instead of desolate, and director Edward Sobel is more interested in contemporizing the political undertones than exploring the obvious psychological overtones. It's been too long since Philadelphia had a great Beckett production. The wait continues.
January 17-March 10, ardentheatre.org

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

60-second review: EQUUS (Curio)

Writing for websites, word count isn't much of an issue, so I wanted to challenge myself to write a couple concise reviews. Here's the second, on Peter Shaffer's classic EQUUS, now onstage in West Philadelphia.
Equus,Peter Shaffer's EQUUS premiered in 1973, and its age shows. A psycho-sexual exploration of insanity, spirituality, and conformity, it continues to appeal to generations of teenagers who identify with Alan Strang (Eric Scolati), a troubled teen committed to an institute for blinding six horses. Once risque, its sexual undertones now veer to passe; once profound, its condemnation of society's progress and consideration of mental illness feel naive. Curio Theatre Company's technically brilliant production (another great set by Paul Kuhn) makes little attempt to update the work. Nevertheless, fine performances by Scolati, Kuhn (as psychiatrist Martin Dysart), and especially Isa St. Clair (in too-brief scenes as love interest Jill Mason) engage, though performance levels drop off in minor roles. And Shaffer's work—a snapshot of 1970s theater rather than an enduring masterpiece—contains depth and philosophy enough for hours of after-show discussion.
Jan 23-Feb 16. curiotheatre.org/equus.html

60-second review: THE AMISH PROJECT (Simpatico/Renegade)

Writing for websites, word count isn't much of an issue, so I wanted to challenge myself to write a couple concise reviews. Here's the first, on Jessica Dickey's THE AMISH PROJECT, closing this weekend.
After a solid run from upstart Renegade Company, THE AMISH PROJECT is getting a revamped co-production with star indie company, Simpatico Theatre Project. Janice Rowland repeats her virtuoso one-woman performance embodying several characters intimately involved in the 2006 Amish schoolhouse massacre. Given added poignancy and relevance by the recent Newtown shooting, THE AMISH PROJECT is an "important" work, with all the heaviness and baggage that implies. It's easy to get drama and emotion from such an obvious tragedy, but it's also easy to lose sight of the real humans involved. Fortunately, Jessica Dickey's script never feels sentimental or pedagogical, instead capturing complex emotion and psychology in characters ranging from young schoolgirls to the killer himself. Much improved production values in the new staging give deserved respect to a nuanced script and stellar acting performance. Jan 15-Feb 3.  simpaticotheatre.org/landing/season/the-amish-project/

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A theater which has been destroyed...

Just came across this quote by the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca:
The theater is one of the most expressive and useful instruments for educating a country; it is also the barometer by which one can measure a nation's greatness or its decline. A sensitive and well-rounded theater (in all its many forms), from tragedy to vaudeville, can change the sensibility of a country in only a few years; and a theater which has been destroyed, where wings have been replaced by hooves, can vulgarize a whole nation and induce them to sleep. The theater is a school of tears and laughter. It is a free and open arena where individuals can expose to the light old or faulty morals, and illustrate with living examples the eternal principles that guide the heart and feelings of man.[my italics]
If ever vulgarized nations were in need of a change of sensibility....

Lorca was executed by baddies in the Spanish Civil War, so the quote comes before the advent of television and film and perhaps Lorca would've included those in his claim. Still, he seems to speak to the specific power of the stage and its potential.

recent articles on a dying artform

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An overview of the Philly theater scene

I wrote this for the Philadelphia theater page at Arts America, where I'll be a regular theater blogger (visit my author page for the latest). They had to cut it down a bit, (here it is) but I thought I'd post the unedited version.

Philadelphia theater is rich in its diversity and output, with over 100 companies presenting thousands of performances every year. The city boasts a long-standing tradition of theatrical production—Center City’s Walnut Street Theatre is the nation’s oldest continuously operating playhouse, having recently celebrated its 200th anniversary.

The Walnut is joined by a number of other major resident theaters in putting on shows of a quality in scope to match almost any in the county. Old City’s Arden Theatre Company is lodestar of this group, presenting consistently high-quality seasons of new and classic works. Along Broad Street, known as the city’s Avenue of the Arts, the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s stylish Suzanne Roberts Theatre hosts an array of major theater events, including many world and national premiers by contemporary American playwrights.

A generous offering of smaller spaces and non-resident companies add flavor to the Philly theater scene, each filling their own unique niche. Stalwart Plays and Players has now been in its elegant historic space for 100 years. InterAct Theatre, resident at the multi-stage Adrienne Theatre (a good place to look for top small local companies), produces mostly new work of a politically conscious hue. The city’s only all-comedy company, 1812 Productions is guaranteed for humor fests. The Lantern Theatre, which stages in the rear space of a Center City church, is the place for quality classics—their Shakespeare shows are regularly the best in town. (Also look to the resident Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre if the Bard’s your thing.) Other top independents such as Theatre Exile, BRAT Productions, and Simpatico Theatre Project can be seen on the second stages of the city’s theaters and other smaller spaces around town.

Cutting-edge theater in Philadelphia reaches a peak every September, when the annual Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe presents a smorgasbord of commissioned and independent productions. Experimental works by the best regional companies combine with visits from national and international groups and small venue shows by the city’s up-and-coming performers for a unmissable two-week citywide event.

At the other end of the spectrum, Broadway comes to Philadelphia under the auspices of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts’ Broadway Series, which presents touring shows at the Merriam Theater, Forrest Theatre, and elsewhere. The University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center also hosts national tours of a high quality.

Beyond Center City, West Philly’s Curio Theatre, Kensington’s Walking Fish Theatre and Papermill Theater, and Mount Airy’s Sedgwick Theater, are within easy reach of public transportation—and well worth the trip. In the city’s suburbs, Malvern’s People’s Light and Theater boasts the best production values of a number of high-quality theater venues that includes Media’s Hedgerow Theatre, Ambler’s Act II, and Pottstown’s Tri-County Performing Arts Center.

Recent theater articles:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Best of Philadelphia Theater, 2010-2011

The Barrymore Awards ceremony is tonight, and I'm not there, but that doesn't mean I don't have my own opinions about the best actors and productions of last season. I didn't see a bulk of the Barrymore nominees (for one thing, I didn't go to the much-nominated Wilma; for another, I rarely go to musicals), but I did make it to over 50 shows last season, many of them short runs, staged readings, or other productions not eligible for the awards. Here are my picks from those I saw and remember:

Best Play: El Conquistador, (Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental)
Honorable mention: Blasted (Luna Theater Company); Lydia (Amaryllis Theatre Company); A Moon for the Misbegotten (Arden Theatre Company)

Best Actor: John Jezior, Blasted (Luna)
Honorable mention: Leonard C. Haas, Vigil (Lantern Theatre Company); Thaddeus Phillip, El Conquistador, (Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental); Eric Scotolati, Great Expectations (Curio Theatre)

Best Actress: Grace Gonglewski, A Moon for the Misbegotten (Arden)
Honorable mention: Mary Tuomanen, Hamlet (Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre), Anna Deavere Smith, Let Me Down Easy (Philadelphia Theatre Company)

Best Supporting Actor: Jerry Rudasil, Titus Andronicus (Plays and Players Theatre)
Honorable mention: Brian McCann, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Curio)

Best Supporting Actress: Johanna Carden, Lydia (Amaryllis)
Honorable mention: Ceal Phelan, Vigil (Lantern),

Best Director: Matt Pfeiffer, The Lieutenant of Inishmore (Exile)
Honorable mention: Matt Pfeiffer, A Moon for the Misbegotten (Arden); Allen Radway, The Cryptogram (Simpatico Theatre Project)

Best Original Script: John Rosenberg, California Redemption Value (Hellafresh Theater)
Honorable mention: David Stratten White, Simulations (Plays and Players); Catherine Rush, Main Line (BCKSEET Productions [reading]); David Robson and John Stanton, Playing Leni (Madhouse Theater Company); John Rosenberg, Queen of All Weapons (Hellafresh Theater); Josh McIlvain, Carter's Play (SmokeyScout Productions [reading])

Best Ensemble: Lieutenant of Inishmore (Exile)
Honorable mention: Dublin by Lamplight (Inis Nua), Lydia (Amaryllis)

Best Set Design: Daniel Krause, Losing the Shore (BCKSEET)
Honorable mention: Kevin Depinet, Superior Donuts (Arden)

Best Lighting Design: Thom Weaver, A Moon for the Misbegotten (Arden)
Honorable mention: Dan Ozminkowski, Let Me Down Easy (PTC)

Best Sound: John Moletrass, The Crucible (Tri-PAC and Village Productions)
Honorable mention: Ryan Rumery, Let Me Down Easy (PTC)

Best Costumes: Alisa Sickora, Carrie (BRAT Productions)
Honorable mention: Richard St. Clair, Wanamaker's Pursuit (Arden)

It was fun to think back on all the shows, thanks to all the performers and production artists who entertained me over the year. See also: my picks from the 2009-10 season

Recent theater articles:
9/6/11 A Voyage of Wonder: WHaLE OPTICS at the Live Arts (Stage Magazine)
9/1/11 Arts Alive! picks for the 2011 Live Arts and Fringe (Where Magazine Philadelphia)
9/1/11 10 Picks for 2011 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe (Philly2Philly.com)
8/31/11 Neighborhood Picks for the Philly Fringe (Spirit newspapers)
6/4/11 Madhouse Theater Company's PLAYING LENI is Spellbinding (Stage Magazine)
6/1/11 Bringing Women’s Voices To The Stage: an interview with Polly Rose Edelstein of Crack The Glass Theatre Company (Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority)
6/1/11 Cracking the Glass Ceiling with AN EVENING OF ONE-ACTS (Stage Magazine)
5/30/11 'Vigil' and Older Audiences at the Lantern (Broad Street Review
5/23/11 Why's Everyone Such A Critic? Theater People vs. Theater Critics (Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Theater People vs. Theater Critics...The Ultimate Debate

I've been a lover of the stage as long as I can remember. Mostly this love has been realized as a patron of local theaters. My father acted in community theater, and I had a scene onstage with him as his fictional son. In high school, I worked backstage on the light board and was rounded up for one dance number in my senior year production. A couple short pieces I wrote were selected for a short play festival a few years ago. I helped out last year at a friend's Fringe show. For most of my theater experience, though, I've been in the audience, a non-participant.

Still, the world of theater has always attracted me. When I first started to review plays, I thought "right, this is it, now I'm part of the world." I soon realized that "theater people" don't see it that way. Telling an actor or director that you are a "theater critic" is like telling them you like to kill puppies. It's not a good idea if you want to continue a conversation.

This is a shame, because reviewers have much in common with the people they review. Both are huge theater fans, with a great knowledge of drama and an eagerness to talk about plays shared by few outside the industry. It's not easy to create a play and to realize it on stage, but it's also a craft to critique that play intelligently, to have confidence in your vision and opinion, and to offer meaningful analysis or sound recommendations.

Certainly, I have objections to some of the reviews I see published in Philly outlets. Generally that's just because the reviewer did not share my judgement. At times though, criticisms can seem irrelevant or petty (a remember one piece when a critic complained about someone chewing gum a few rows away... mmnh). I have ideas about what is fair and not fair to write about a production, and those are not universally shared (or necessarily kept to by your faithful correspondent). But I know how hard it is to write a analytical journalism piece under deadline or for scant reimbursement. And if one well-educated experienced theatergoer had that opinion, however seemingly minor, others probably did too. A tough review can kill a small play run, and that's a shame, but the critic's commitment is to the reader, not to the playwright or director.

Broad Street Review, a local online media outlet which publishes regular personal-essay theater reviews of  generally good quality, has organized an interesting conversation on this subject, on Thursday, May 26, at the Franklin Inn Club. The panel discussion will feature Bernard Havard of the Walnut Street Theatre, Charles McMahon of Lantern Theatre and Seth Rozin of InterAct facing off against Broad Street Review's critics Robert Zaller, Gresham Riley and Jim Rutter, with website editor Dan Rottenberg as moderator. It's too bad the talk is set up as a us-v-them debate, but that's too often how the relationship is viewed.

Theater People vs. Theater Critics...The Ultimate Debate
Date: Thursday, May 26, 2011
Time: 5 to 7 p.m.
Place: Franklin Inn Club, 205 S. Camac St. (below Walnut, between 12th and 13th St.), Philadelphia.
Admission: $8 in advance; $10 at the door.
Light refreshments will be served.
Recent articles
5/9/11 Talkin' Irish with Madi Distefano of Brat Productions (Philadelphia Performing Arts Authority)
5/7/11 Brat Productions’ CRAIC Fringes the Irish Theatre Fest (Stage Magazine)
5/4/11 Commedia, Terrorism, and Royalty: Inis Nua’s DUBLIN BY LAMPLIGHT (Stage Magazine)
4/19/11 Amaryllis Theatre Company Brings an Excelente Lydia to the Adrienne (Philaculturati.com)
4/5/11 Bleak Complexity: SPEAKING IN TONGUES at the Walnut’s Independence on 3 (Stage Magazine)
3/29/11 One Woman, Many Voices: LET ME DOWN EASY at PTC (Stage Magazine)
3/23/11 Review of BCKSEET Productions’ Losing the Shore (Philaculturati.com)