Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, Othello, A Raisin in the Sun and The Bends

By Tim Dunleavy

Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, Othello, A Raisin in the Sun and The Bends

Kenny and Benji are a couple of 16-year-olds who are going through some rough times. Kenny is trying to run his household on his own—his mother is dead, and his uncaring, stingy father is living in another city with his new girlfriend. Benji’s mom has kicked Benji out of the house after she discovered that Benji and Kenny are a gay couple. But has hard as things are for them, they can rest easy knowing that there’s someone protecting them at night. It’s Edith, Kenny’s precocious 12-year-old sister who patrols outside their farmhouse with a BB gun in one hand and her stuffed animal, a frog named Fergie, in the other. And if you think that’s not enough protection, well, you haven’t met Edith.

A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them is a striking portrait of three youngsters forced to fend for themselves in a world that doesn’t care much about them. As the three close ranks to protect each other, they become a family themselves, then are forced to take extreme measures when Edith faces danger that a BB gun can’t protect her from.

There’s a sincere tenderness to much of the show, especially in scenes where Kenny takes care of his sister, and in scenes where Kenny and Benji try to figure out their burgeoning romance. Act two feels padded at times; scenes where the boys communicate at high school by passing notes get repetitive. And the ending doesn’t quite work; the playwright creates a crisis with stakes so high that it doesn’t seem likely the trio can logically resolve it on their own. But Pamatmat’s empathy for his characters wins out, making the play a touching one.

The three adult actors—Justin Jain as Kenny, Steve Pacek as Benji, and Bi Jean Ngo as Edith—are warm and credible playing much younger characters. Ngo is especially convincing as a 12-year-old, with her restless body language and a stare that rarely leaves the (unseen) television as she does her math homework.

Director Aaron Cromie doesn’t rush the scenes, which greatly helps with their believability. It’s all played out on Lance Kniskern’s narrow but expansive set which runs nearly the full length of the (fittingly) bunker-like basement at The Power Plant. It’s a set that gives these kids plenty of room to run and room to grow.

Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them runs through March 24, 2013, and is presented by Theatre Confetti at The Power Plant Basement, 233 North Bread Street, Philadelphia (access off of New Street, between 2nd and 3rd). Tickets are $10-$35 and are available online at www.TheatreConfetti.com.

Forrest McClendon plays Othello with dignity and restraint in the first half of Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s fine new production. But in the second half, when Othello is consumed by jealousy and paranoia, Tony nominee McClendon rises to the occasion, his steely eyes burning with anger and his voice bellowing furiously. Othello’s gentle, trusting wife Desdemona (Lauren Sowa) cowers before his newfound power, and you can’t blame her.

Yet as good as McClendon is, it’s J Hernandez who steals the show here as an Iago you can’t keep your eyes off of. Desperate for power (and desperate to unseat and destroy Othello), this Iago casts quick glances all around, a betrayer always in fear of being betrayed. Driven to succeed quickly, he speaks his lines at a lightning speed—but when it’s time to deliver a soliloquy, he slows down, the better to let us see the wheels turn in his mind. After he embarrasses his rival Cassio (Chance Dean) in front of his superiors, Iago turns to the audience and takes a bow, smiling widely and reveling in his own villainy. It’s a bit hammy, but it works really well. Hernandez makes Iago a villain you’ll love to hate.

Director Carmen Kahn’s production is full of wonderful touches like that which flesh out the characters. Whether it’s a well-staged drunk scene for Cassio or a scene between Desdemona and her maid (Eleni Delopoulos) that movingly shows how they bond over their mistreatment by the men in their lives, Kahn mines Shakespeare’s text for all it’s worth. This is a three-hour Othello; little, if anything, has been cut, but it never drags.

Vickie Esposito’s military uniforms are largely subdued and oddly lacking in militaristic flourishes; a newcomer to Othello may not be clear at first that this is a play about the army. But Esposito’s oversized costume for the sad sack comic relief character Roderigo (Isaiah Ellis) emphasizes his youth and adds to the comedy.

Othello runs through May 18, 2013, at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30 – $35, with student, senior and group discounts available, and may be purchased online at www.PhillyShakespeare.org or by calling 215-496-8001. The show runs in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing, which will run March 29 – May 19.

The Younger family’s tenement apartment in A Raisin in the Sun is a home with no secrets. Four adults and a child are squeezed into the two-bedroom flat, with the boy forced to sleep on the living room couch. In the Arden Theatre’s outstanding new production, Daniel Conway’s set design emphasizes the family’s lack of privacy by showing walls that seem to float in the air, leaving large gaps. We can see the adults sleeping in their bedrooms, and we can see Karl Lindner, the infamous representative of the least welcoming welcome wagon ever, walking down the hallway to the apartment before he rings the doorbell with an offer that will change the Youngers’ lives.

More than a half century after its Broadway debut, Lorraine Hansberry’s revolutionary play retains its power. Hansberry’s straightforward, naturalistic language makes the case for racial equality and feminism without ever once getting preachy. And she endowed the Youngers with distinct, rich and clashing personalities that humanized African Americans for a white audience—personalities that remain vivid in director Walter Dallas’ production. Dallas gives his actors plenty of room to breathe, resulting in nicely nuanced performances. The most interesting turn is by U.R. as Walter Lee Younger. Through much of the play he seems tense, barely suppressing anger over his lot in life. Yet when Walter finally does erupt—after making a huge financial mistake that may ruin the family—it’s not with anger but with sorrow, as he falls to the floor in a fetal position, howling with grief and regret.

There are solid performances all around: Nikki E. Walker as Walter’s weary wife Ruth, Joliet F. Harris as his wise and practical mother, and Jaleesa Capri as his flighty but ambitious sister Beneatha. (Yannick Hayes, who plays Walter Lee and Ruth’s young son, rushes through too many of his lines and looks down at the floor too much; he needs to relax into the role.) Segun Akande is sweet as the African visitor who gives Beneatha hope, and Leonard C. Haas is smiley and shifty as Lindner.

Last season, the Arden presented Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ semi-sequel to A Raisin in the Sun. It was good, but it’s even better to see the play that inspired it—and that has inspired so many people.

A Raisin in the Sun runs through April 21, 2013, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with discounts available) and are available online at www.ArdenTheatre.org or by calling the box office at 215-922-1122.

Megan Mostyn-Brown’s sly and surprising The Bends, a world premiere at Flashpoint Theatre Company, tells of a group of college friends reuniting a decade after graduation. Gemma (Janice Rowland) is on a book tour to promote her first best-seller, and she visits the home of Lacy (Megan Slater), her old college roommate. When Lacy’s husband Adam (Jared Michael Delaney) walks in, he’s startled to see Gemma because he was Gemma’s college boyfriend. As they catch up, their conversation is full of awkward gaps; when Gemma mentions she lives in Korea, Adam mutters “Korea. Wow. Korea.” A dinner party that night brings in another college friend, Paul (Charlie Del Marcelle), and his young and naïve fiancée Sadie (Isa St. Clair); Paul’s relationship with the others is delved into deeply. And another old acquaintance, Manny (Walter DeShields), shows up too; his relationship with the others is murky at first, but eventually it will be revealed—along with a lot of other things. And when that happens, this tale of a reunion of old chums, which starts out in a lighthearted mode, takes a decidedly nasty turn.

Mostyn-Brown writes witty, pithy lines that reveal a lot about the characters, not just in the speeches but in the way they prod other characters for information. The way she introduces the characters, and the way they reveal themselves, is a model of careful and clever construction. Once we’ve gotten to like the characters, though, more and more alcohol is consumed, and deeper and darker secrets (mostly involving drugs and sex) are revealed. Two-thirds of the way through its 90-minute length, The Bends transforms from an ironic comedy of manners into a sort of warmed-over, Gen X version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s still good, but it just doesn’t seem as original as it did earlier.

Director Kathryn MacMillan creates a simultaneously relaxed and edgy dynamic between the cast members. The relationship between the two female leads is especially satisfying: Rowland’s Gemma is the golden girl who’s not so golden after all, while Slater’s Lacy conveys all the conflicted tension of a person who professes to be happy yet can barely contain her envy and contempt for the girl who has all the success (and all the male attention) she ever wanted. Del Marcelle and St. Clair are excellent as people who are much deeper than they appear on the surface, and Delaney is good as a man who is adrift in his own life. But DeShields, playing the sketchiest role, seems too detached to make a strong impression.

The final moment of The Bends, in which Gemma silently stares off into the distance reflecting on what’s happened, seems oddly out of step with the rest of the show; the moment cries out for a speech that sums up what we’ve seen. (Considering Gemma is a best-selling author, she should be able to put her thoughts into words.) But despite a few flaws, Mostyn-Brown’s play is excellent, and the engaging cast of Flashpoint’s production gives it a real spark.

The Bends runs through March 31, 2013, and is presented by Flashpoint Theatre Company at The Off-Broad Street Theatre at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $22, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at www.FlashpointTheatre.org.