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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Stairs to the Roof and
The Metamorphosis

Also see Tim's reviews of Under the Skin and Nora and Kelly's review of Frost/Nixon


The Ensemble
Photo by David Sarrafian
Stairs to the Roof is a real curiosity—one of Tennessee Williams' earliest plays, and one of his most obscure ones. Williams finished it in 1941, but it didn't get performed until 1947 (in Pasadena, California), between the Broadway runs of his first two successes, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. But Stairs to the Roof has almost nothing in common with those landmark dramas. Instead, it's an absurdist comedy about a frustrated office worker looking for a way out of his humdrum 9-to-5 life. It's far from a complete success—it's too derivative and unfocused—but it's an intriguing experience for Williams fans. And EgoPo Classic Theater's new production (the show's Philadelphia premiere) takes it to new levels, with a level of visual wit that enhances every bizarre speech.

Ben Murphy is one of an army of office drones stuck in dead-end jobs at Consolidated Shirt Makers, on the top floor of a 16-story building. He's also got a pregnant wife who does nothing but berate him for his failures. So Ben decides to escape—first by taking breaks on the building's roof (via the hidden stairs of the title), then by roaming the city streets at night. During his nighttime excursion he meets a secretary; she's trying to get back into that 16-story building to retrieve the love letter she rashly wrote to her boss. Ben and the secretary—the script calls her simply "Girl," but Ben calls her "Alice" after Lewis Carroll's heroine—go to a zoo where they set animals free, then to a carnival where they watch an off-kilter production of "Beauty and the Beast," then meet up with some travelers from outer space who want Ben to colonize a distant star.

Ridiculous, right? It makes Williams' later experimental plays like Camino Real seem coherent. Its depiction of soulless office workers exploited by their cruel bosses makes it a pale echo of Elmer Rice's 1920s play The Adding Machine. Williams overdoses on symbolism, stocking the play with eccentric characters who only show flashes of humanity. (The weirdest of them all is called "Mr. E"—like "mystery," get it?) And Williams pursues every flight of fantasy he can think of, no matter how damaging it is to the play; for example, the visit to the zoo seems to take place just so the Girl can spout a metaphor comparing herself to the animals ("I'm caught in a cage, the same as those fifteen foxes").

But Stairs to the Roof is never boring. It shows a fascinating side of Williams I've never seen before. It's often very funny. And director Lane Savadove piles absurdity upon absurdity to make it even funnier. Those fifteen escaped foxes, for instance, are portrayed by wind-up toys. The office workers march to work in lockstep slow motion, a drill team performing mindlessly but with military precision. Two characters break into a fencing duel using a tobacco pipe and an aquarium net, while we hear sound effects from an actual swordfight. And the play ends with the ensemble tap dancing to that classic dance hit, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." (Robert Carlton's sound design mixes pieces by an unlikely combination of composers—Tchaikovsky and 1930s bandleader Raymond Scott—to great effect.) It's all performed in front of painted canvases designed to remind us that the world we're seeing is not realistic at all. (Dan Soule provides the scenic design, and Robin I. Shane provides some sharp suits for those spacemen.)

Much of the cast of EgoPo's production was recruited at Rowan University, and consists of students, alumni, and faculty. Craig O'Brien and Lauren Berman are likable in the leads, and several members of the large supporting cast give good comic performances, including Jenna Kuerzi as Ben's noisy wife, Katie Knoblock as an eye-rolling carnival performer, and Christopher Marlowe Roche as the bizarre Mr. E.

It may play more like a contemporary play by Charles Mee than a work by one of the twentieth century's most important playwrights, but EgoPo's take on Stairs to the Roof ends up being charming and fascinating in spite of itself.

Stairs to the Roof runs through March 1, 2015, and is presented by EgoPo Classic Theater at The Latvian Society, 531 North 7th Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling 267-273-1414 or online at www.EgoPo.org.



Gracie Martin, Douglas Hara, and Kristen Bailey
Photo by Shawn May
Speaking of weird stories ...

You probably remember The Metamorphosis as that book you had to read in high school about the guy who turns into a giant insect. As retold in Quintessence Theatre Group's new production, Franz Kafka's tale is just as freakish and disturbing as ever. But the way it's told is so remarkable and gripping that it's impossible to look away. And in the central role, Kristen Bailey is sensational. She's oddly convincing both as an insect ... and as a man.

Bailey first appears as a weary Gregor Samsa—a salesman who is worn down by the hours and the travel he has to put in to support his family, worn down by the bureaucracy of his job, worn down by life itself. Neck slumped forward, with a hollow expression, this Gregor seems to wish to be anywhere else. Life is fragile for Gregor and his family—in Colin McIlvaine's ingenious set design, everything in the Samsa family's apartment, from the walls to the doors to Gregor's suitcase to his sister's violin, appears to be bound together with masking tape.

Gregor feels taken for granted, and when he wakes up in a new body one morning, his life becomes even more insignificant. Gregor is truly transformed—and as we see Bailey lying down, she is sandwiched by two other cast members, legs jutting out above and below, to simulate Gregor's new insect body. When Bailey moves, she doesn't seem human—she scampers across the stage on all fours, or rolls over her fellow cast members, or climbs up the walls. Under Rebecca Wright's dynamic direction, it all seems natural and necessary—you never question Gregor's actions, you simply sympathize with the unspeakable agony that is his new life. And that agony really is unspeakable. When Gregor speaks, his family can't understand him; electronic squeaks in the background (courtesy of Adriano Shaplin's unsettling ambient sound design) are all his family can hear.

Steven Berkoff's stage adaptation focuses on the reactions of Gregor's family, and the performances here are excellent: Douglas Hara as the angry and paranoid father, Anita Holland as the mystified mother, and Gracie Martin as the sympathetic sister. There's also strong support from Alan Brincks as Gregor's squinting, snooping boss, and from Lee Minora and Julia Frey, who supply Gregor's extra limbs.

But the show really belongs to Bailey, who seems to become more bug-like, more desperate, and more touching with every passing moment. Her performance helps turn this brief (70 minutes), low-key version of a strange, hundred-year-old story into something special.

The Metamorphosis runs through March 1, 2015, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Ticket prices are $27 - $34, with discounts available for students and seniors, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-987-4450, or online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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