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Philadelphia theater in review — The year of the small company

by Debra Miller

Without a doubt, Philadelphia has emerged at last as a thriving theater community that offers a wide variety of productions, nearly year-round. From the experimental to the classics, from dramas to comedies, from the intimate grass-roots startups with shoestring budgets in rented venues to the well-established and moneyed mainstays in their own grandiose buildings, there is something here to fit every taste and pocketbook. This season Amaryllis Theatre Company priced tickets to all of its performances at $10 ($5 for students)—less than the cost of a movie ticket. There is simply no excuse for anyone in Philadelphia not to support live theater.

If there were any trends to be noted in 2009-10, it would be the excellence of the small, low- to middle-budget companies that have exploded onto the scene within the past twenty years (a short time in our city’s long history), along with the outstanding performances of Philadelphia’s local actors. There was such a wealth of talent this season that it is admittedly difficult to narrow the field down to just one top choice in each category of the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre (the nominations to be announced in August, and the awards presented in October)—especially for the highly competitive Best Actor, Best Ensemble, and Best Play.

Shakespeare and the Classics

It is no surprise that Lantern Theater Company again excelled in its annual springtime production of Shakespeare, with the bard’s little-known history, Henry IV, Part I. Director Charles McMahon skillfully condensed the play and its characters to a comprehensible focus and size for the stage at St. Stephen’s Theater, without sacrificing any of the intensity and grandeur, or minimizing any of the didacticism and humor, of Shakespeare’s original text. His ensemble included some of the finest talents in Philadelphia, with especially noteworthy performances by Jered McLenigan and Russ Widdall. In a tour-de-force of casting, McMahon used the incomparable Pete Pryor as both the eponymous king and his comic nemesis Falstaff– antithetical role models to the young Prince Hal. Pryor’s transformation and characterizations were so distinctive that some audience members wondered aloud why Falstaff didn’t make a curtain call when the actor took his final bow in the costume of Henry IV, failing to recognize that he had performed both roles. I can only hope that this year’s Barrymores recognize the extraordinary quality of Lantern’s production, director, ensemble, and lead actor.

Also this spring, Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre offered an enchanting interpretation of one of the playwright’s most familiar comedies, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Director Carmen Khan’s production fully succeeded in transporting the audience to a distant dreamworld of fairies and potions, forests and moonlight. The cast, staging, set design, costumes, and lighting were nothing short of magical, with an especially stellar performance offered by the regal Christie Parker in the dual roles of Titania and Hippolyta, and complemented by Ron Heneghan’s exuberant Oberon/Theseus, who delivered the production’s most memorable line with perfect comedic timing: “I’m invisible!” Although looking directly at him, I believed that he was.

Also in the realm of comedies, Lantern’s re-imagining of Molière’s Scapin was a holiday treat. Relocated by director Aaron Cromie from France to Venice, and performed by a cast of actors synthesized with Cromie’s hand-fashioned puppets, the ensemble made great use of Nick Embree’s imaginative and colorful multi-leveled set. And 1812 Productions thankfully brought back its annual hit, This Is the Week That Is; it was the best Week ever in 1812’s history, with a constantly changing cast and script based on each day’s news. The entire ensemble was hilarious, but Jennifer Childs stole the show with her South Philly alter-ego Patsy’s evaluation of Obama’s first year in office, and her take-off on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Provocations

The ever provocative fare of Theatre Exile shocked its audiences again this year, comprising three dark stories of husbands in crisis, which made us all think, but also made us laugh. Standouts in the excellent casts included Matt Pfeiffer as the understated under-appreciated spouse and Amanda Schoonover as the accidental mass murderess in Hunter-Gatherers; Joe Canuso as the always accepting nice guy and Pete Pryor as his loyal but politically incorrect homicidal friend in Any Given Monday; and Scott Greer as the guilt-ridden widower in Shining City. Exile’s mainstage productions were augmented by a development series of new works by local playwrights, directed and read by some of Philly’s favorites. I especially hope to see a full staging of the beguiling film noir-inspired Quicksilver by Robert Smythe in an upcoming season at Exile; Charlotte Ford’s reading as the manipulative malefactress was the best and most chilling performance of her career.

Impressive seasons of the smaller companies

Among the newer, smaller companies with the most consistently impressive productions—I would go so far as to say near flawless seasons–were EgoPo and Inis Nua Theatre Company. Each presented three powerful plays that explored the human condition with a searing vehemence and, at times, surprising tenderness.

EgoPo’s all-Beckett season gave us meaningful new interpretations of the absurdist classics. Under the insightful vision of founder and artistic director Lane Savadove, the innovative adaptation of Company (Beckett’s first-person novella on the experience of dying) was personal and comforting, rather than frightening (staged with each blindfolded attendee lying supine on the floor and led through the interactive performance by a personal guardian angel); Endgame focused on the love between the dysfunctional characters, which they were tragically incapable of expressing; and Waiting for Godot gave us all hope in having someone with us to share in our most impossible situations and challenges. The ensembles in all three were superb; Ed Swidey’s performance in Endgame was extraordinary; but Waiting for Godot was the crème de la crème of EgoPo’s, and Philadelphia’s, season. The fully coordinated, stylized black-and-white set, costumes, and lighting, Brenna Geffers’ impeccable direction of the all-male, all-star cast (Ross Beschler, Robert DaPonte, Doug Greene, and Charlie DelMarcelle), and the seamless coalescence of the actors’ perfectly calibrated performances, made for an unparalleled evening of theater. Nominations for Best Play, Best Ensemble, and Best Director should come easily, and the phenomenal Brenna Geffers, who is equally adept at directing and graphic design (contributing both EgoPo’s and Theatre Exile’s stunning advertising campaigns of the past few seasons), wins my vote for this year’s Emerging Theatre Artist.

Inis Nua, too, offered a series of three heart-wrenching plays from Ireland and Scotland, with equally superb casting and direction. Trad the Remount, with Mike Dees reprising his original role of 2007, was at once funny and unforgettably poignant; Dees deserves recognition for one of this year’s very best performances. Gagarin Way, in collaboration with Amaryllis, showcased yet another powerful performance by Jered McLenigan, whose rants, snorts, and ticks gave convincing form to his murderous working-class Scotsman. And Melissa Lynch proved her considerable acting skills as the crippled daughter in Bedbound, the finale of Inis Nua’s faultless season, while the always proficient Brian McCann rose to a new level of excellence in his featured role as her father. In addition to the demands of acting, Inis Nua’s exclusively Irish, British, Scottish, and Welsh productions require appropriate accents of its casts; all delivered admirably, under the expert guidance of director (and company artistic director) Tom Reing.

Rising stars of small theater

Amaryllis (co-producer of Gagarin Way) closed its season with a sterling one-man show, I Am My Own Wife, starring Charlie DelMarcelle as the German transvestite Charlotte van Mahlsdorf, who survived both the Nazi and Communist occupations of East Berlin. In a virtuoso display of acting and stamina, DelMarcelle also played more than 30 supporting characters in the engrossing 90-minute biography, giving each an individual personality and demeanor, and providing audiences with an award-worthy performance. Flashpoint Theatre Company and Bckseet Productions also numbered among the rising stars of this season’s small theaters. Susan Giddings was a delight as the divine Barbara in Flashpoint’s amusing, thought-provoking creation-myth Boom, and should surely be a candidate for Best Supporting Actress.

Kate Brennan, playing the psychologically unstable young wife in Bckseet’s Angels in America (Parts I and II, performed in repertory on a thrust stage), brought an unsurpassed humanity to her fragile character, and should be another frontrunner for a Supporting Actress nomination; her performance was moving beyond words.

And Luna Theater Company presented one of the most interesting recent plays of the season, Zayd Dohrn’s Sick, directed by Luna’s founder and artistic director, Gregory Scott Campbell. The semi-autobiographical work by the real-life son of two leaders of the revolutionary Weather Underground featured a fine ensemble led by Sally Mercer as the paranoid germ-fearing mother, and a suitably sterile set design by Dirk Durossette.

Another small company worthy of accolades is the four-year-old New City Stage Company. I regret having missed its first production of the season, but the next two secured its position among the best of Philadelphia’s new theatrical ventures. Founder and artistic director Ginger Dayle brought Michael Brophy (co-founder of Lantern Theater Company, who’s been on long-term hiatus) back to active directing with her production of When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? It was an impressive pairing, which resulted in one of the most compelling dramas of the Philadelphia season. Russ Widdall, as the terrifying psychopath Teddy, gave the performance of a lifetime, and should be a favorite for this year’s Best Actor; in a season filled with awe-inspiring performances by dramatic actors, none was better than his. Red Ryder was followed by A Coupla White Chicks Sitting around Talking, and once again, both the directing and acting were par excellence. Madi Distefano made her long-awaited return to the stage, and her effulgent performance, directed by Brenna Geffers, was well worth the wait; it seemed as if the role had been written just for her, and designed specifically for her to win Best Actress.

Disappointments

If there were any disappointments this year, it had to be the sophomoric, heavy-handed, and self-indulgent Leaving at The Wilma Theater. I have to question if this were by a playwright other than Vaclav Havel, would it ever have been published or produced? While I admire Havel’s contributions to the politics and liberties of the Czech Republic, I can only wish that Leaving never came: it was an embarrassing waste of talent, with audience members adamantly and vocally criticizing its triteness during the intermission of the performance I attended; it was more suited to a posting on FaceBook than production on a theatrical stage. Gratuitous nudity and male infidelity only added to the unfunny farce’s retardataire definition of freedom; this is 2010, not 1968, and it’s just not shocking or liberating any more, it’s laughably juvenile and all too predictable.

Big-budget companies

But other revered big-budget companies did impress with high-quality productions. Arden Theatre Company captivated its audiences with Tanya Barfield’s African-inspired traditions of oral history and story-telling in Blue Door. Kes Khemnu characterized the African-American protagonist’s ancestors with such individuality and vision, I felt I knew them and could see the unimaginable horrors they experienced; it was a gripping performance that warrants an award for Best Supporting Actor. Also at the Arden, James Kronzer’s scenic design for Sunday in the Park with George and Jorge Cousineau’s sound and video design of its “chromolume” projections were nothing short of spectacular, and will surely add another Barrymore to Cousineau’s collection; there simply was nothing else like them in originality or visual excitement. The costuming and staging of the stop-action tableau-vivant recreations of Seurat’s paintings were also visual treats for this Art Historian.

At Philadelphia Theatre Company, playwright Terrence McNally’s Golden Age, in its world premiere, paid homage to both the power of art and the format of opera with its epic three acts and two intermissions. The set by Santo Loquasto (a native of Wilkes-Barre, PA, renowned for his work on Broadway and his multiple Tony Awards) was a gilded masterpiece that evoked the opulence of the era. Dave Jadico, the multi-talented actor, comedian, musician, and scenic designer, created another of the year’s most aesthetically pleasing and workable sets, for Delaware Theatre Company’s revival of Tony Lawton’s The Foocy, an original folktale set in a traditional Russian village. And Lawton (who is in a class of his own for intense solo shows) impressed me with his musical skills in both The Foocy and the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Oliver! He was, in fact, so convincing as Oliver!’s villain, that he received complimentary, Victorian-style booing and hissing from the audience.

Cabaret fundraisers

One final and welcome trend that I’ve noted this year among the emerging and mid-size theater companies, is the offering of cabarets as fundraisers, with reasonably priced tickets. It only makes sense that performing arts organizations would offer entertainment to its supporters, not just dinner, the requisite speeches, and a silent auction or raffle. 1812 Productions did a sidesplitting revival of Box Office of the Damned ($35), Flashpoint produced the Cabaret of Deee-Lites ($20), EgoPo hosted the Bordello Ball ($50), and Theatre Exile presented its star-studded Cabaret of the Exiled ($25). The fun-filled events served to remind us all why we should support these talented companies, and their modest ticket prices prove that we, as a city, can’t afford not to support them.

POST SCRIPT: In a disturbing development at this year’s Tony Awards for the best of Broadway, virtually all the major awards, presented on June 13, went to television and movie stars, rather than to the actors whose fame and careers were based in live theater. With New York’s theater community “going Hollywood,” it is even more important to recognize and to commend the flourishing of Philadelphia’s local live actors!

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