Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Antigone, Terrorism and Ethel!

Lavita Shaurice
Photo by Shawn May
Quintessence Theatre is presenting a delicately impressive production of Antigone, Jean Anouilh's 1943 adaptation of Sophocles' classic Greek tragedy. Antigone is about the battle of wills between two strong-willed characters, and Quintessence's production is anchored by excellent performances in those roles.

Antigone risks ruin to bury her brother, killed in a civil war that tore apart Thebes. But Creon, the new king, has ordered that the brother not be buried, as a lesson to the rebels. So Antigone must choose between death and disgrace, while Creon must choose between executing Antigone and facing another rebellion from the masses if he allows her to disobey him. It's a battle between the political and the personal, where each argument has a consequence.

Lavita Shaurice brings a welcome aura of dignity and determination to the role of Antigone. Her Antigone is contemplative in the opening scene and sweet in the next, but then becomes fierce when she faces death. Robert Jason Jackson is imperious and intimidating as Creon, his booming voice striking terror into the hearts of all his subjects—except Antigone. John Williams, as the narrator, brings a nice casual tone to the proceedings, sipping from a martini glass and acting as the audience's gentle guide into a potentially intimidating story. (The colloquial translation is by Jeremy Sams.) And Cheryl Williams and Sean Bradley give the story some nice comic touches without resorting to exaggeration.

Director Alexander Burns' production has an insistent momentum that pays off in the end. Mike Billings' lighting heightens the drama, and Jane Casanave's costumes smartly delineate the differences between Thebes' social classes.

Antigone runs through runs through March 25, 2012, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Ticket prices are $30 (with discounts available for students and seniors) and are available online at, or by visiting the box office.

As I was leaving Antigone, I had a brief conversation with the couple sitting next to me. They said they liked the show, but they hadn't realized the ending would be so depressing. "It's a tragedy," I said with a laugh. "What did you expect?"

Well, if Antigone is too depressing for you, Terrorism will probably make you suicidal. It's a play by the Presnyakov Brothers, two Siberian siblings who have examined terrorism from all sides and have come to the conclusion that we're all doomed. Director Rosey Hay's production for New City Stage Company covers a lot of stylistic ground and keeps the audience on its toes, but the play's dark view of human nature and its sardonic sense of humor will be too alienating for many viewers.

Terrorism (which was written before the 9/11 attacks) consists of six scenes, each seemingly disconnected from the others, but with common threads running through them; for instance, the main character in one scene pops up in another, while the events in one scene are referred to in yet another. As the play opens, all air traffic has stopped at an airport because of a bomb threat. This leads to a debate between the travelers over how to deal with terrorist threats ("Something has been broken and what can you do about it?" says one pessimist). One man gets so aggravated with the delay that he says he'll go home for a few hours until the threat is over. In the next scene, two illicit lovers have a tryst in an apartment; when the woman mentions that her husband has gone out of town, a murmur went through the audience as they figured out that the woman's husband was the aggravated traveler from the previous scene. (When the audience figures out what's going to happen before the characters do, you know your play is in trouble.) The scene is erotic at the beginning, but as the man gets bored with his lover, so does the audience. Later, we see two grandmothers having a nice day in the park until one reveals she's plotting to kill her "ethnic" son-in-law ("You need to poison them—all of them—every single one"). The point, apparently, is that evil is everywhere and no one is safe.

Only one scene works well: a dark comedy set in an office whose placid fa├žade is ripped apart when one of the staffers hangs herself. Pretty soon, all the staffers are taking swigs from miniature vodka bottles and arguing over whether cutting down the body is bad luck. The scene has a jolly touch of absurdism, but its connection to terrorism is tenuous at best.

Unlike real terrorism, there's no bang in Terrorism. All of the scenes peter out, as the lights start to fade about thirty seconds before the scene ends with a blackout. It's as if director Hay is telling the audience not to get too involved. Hay does get a nice variety of tones, moving from the sensual to the chilling to the comic with ease. And a few of the performances stand out, notably James Stover as the tormented traveler and Russ Widdall as the tough-talking head of a bomb squad.

The bomb squad leader tells his men, "Everyone is infected [by terrorism] ... innocent people get killed, so they get infected." It's a cold message, and the didactic, ironic tone of Terrorism doesn't make it any more appealing.

Terrorism runs through March 25, 2012 and is presented by New City Stage Company at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $24 to $26, with discounts available for students and seniors, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-563-7500, online at, or in person at the box office.

Terry Burrell
Photo by Mark Garvin
Ethel! takes a look at the life of Ethel Waters, the performer from Chester, Pennsylvania, whose distinctive take on gospel, blues and pop made her a huge crossover star in the 1920s and beyond. Terry Burrell wrote and stars in this one-woman (well, one woman backed by two musicians) show, and covers nearly all the bases of the first five decades of Waters' career.

Ethel! finds the star in the late 1940s, living in her niece's apartment in Harlem; Waters is renting out her house in California in order to pay back a big tax bill to the IRS. She's at a low point in her career (I wish Hollywood would call again—that was some good money"), and uses the occasion to recall her highs and lows. There are lots of highs, which Burrell celebrates with renditions of Waters' hits like "Dinah" and "Heat Wave," and lots of lows, which are recounted in some harrowing stories. Waters was conceived when her mother was raped at age 12, and Waters herself was later forced into a loveless marriage to an older man at the same age. We learn of her professional humiliations (her co-stars in Broadway's As Thousands Cheer refused to share a bow with her) and her personal traumas (a minor injury in a car accident nearly turned fatal when racist Southern doctors refused to operate on her). There are stories that show off her raunchy sense of humor, moments that reveal her as temperamental (she was angry at Lena Horne for having the nerve to re-record one of Waters' hits, "Stormy Weather"), and scenes that show her faith in the good nature of all people regardless of race (like her admiration for the nuns who educated her and "treated me like a human being").

It's all interesting, and Burrell does an admirable job, delivering the songs with impeccable diction and high spirits. But it's not as uplifting as Burrell and director Kenneth L. Roberson seem to think. Some of the stories, like the one about how Waters barely avoided being murdered by racists in Alabama, are so dispiriting that it's a wonder how Waters made it through—and Ethel! gives us little indication of how she did it. Sure, she had talent and an indomitable spirit, but there's got to be more to it than that.

Ethel! is set in the era of Waters' late career triumphs with the movies Pinky and The Member of the Wedding, but Burrell doesn't look like the weary, overweight earth mother that Waters had become by that point. At one point in the show, Waters complains about weighing 200 pounds, but that's puzzling, because Burrell looks more like the slim, glamorous Waters of the 1920s (when she earned the nickname "Sweet Mama Stringbean").

All in all, Ethel! is a nice time, and Burrell is pleasant to be around for a couple hours. her fervent versions of "Suppertime" and "His Eye is On the Sparrow" are worth the price of admission. But Ethel! doesn't quite dig deep enough. Ethel Waters conveyed joy and sorrow with her soaring voice and rueful smile, but Ethel!, while enjoyable, never quite finds the perfect balance that Waters made look so easy.

Ethel! runs through March 11, 2012 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or online at or

-- Tim Dunleavy

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