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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Blue Door, Gagarin Way and The Prince

Blue Door
Kes Khemnu and Johnnie Hobbs, Jr.
Tanya Barfield's Blue Door tells the story of a man going through an existential crisis. Lewis is a successful and respected mathematics professor. But his wife has just divorced him after twenty-five years of marriage, saying she didn't respect him after he declined to attend the Million Man March. (It's 1995; he's black, she's white.) Lewis has spent his whole life trying to satisfy expectations from both the black and white communities, and it has left him adrift ("I don't know who I am. I don't know what I am."). He's become detached not only from his own heritage but from the larger society he's strived to become a part of. He is visited on a restless night by the ghosts of his ancestors and his late brother, who give him some perspective on his own struggles.

Blue Door scores best as an acting showcase. Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. is excellent as Lewis, who is suffering but never annoying; we feel his pain. Kes Khemnu plays all the other roles, and he's simply dazzling as he moves from character to character and voice to voice, sometimes within the same sentence. Each character is distinctive, intriguing and heartbreaking. Director Walter Dallas sets up an effective contrast between Lewis' comfortable existence and the degradation that his grandfather and great grandfather had to deal with in their every waking moment.

Barfield's script doesn't shy from the brutality of the past, but it also has some beautiful poetic touches and some moments of sly humor. And it's full of well-rounded characters that are quite touching. Where it falters a bit is in its conclusion. Lewis doesn't like to visit the country because he's "afraid of trees"; he seems an unlikely successor to his brave great grandfather, who was lynched for defying a mob of Klansmen. At the end, Lewis finds out what freedom really means—but does he have the courage of his convictions? Blue Door's ending is supposed to be uplifting, but it only worked halfway for me: It left me with much hope for the future of the African-American community, but without much hope that the play's hero will do the right thing.

Blue Door runs through March 21 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.

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Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way gets its title from a street in the Scottish county of Fife named after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. This area has long been a hotbed of communist sympathizers, and the play centers on a disaffected radical named Eddie, an unstable young man who works in a warehouse where he's frustrated by an uncaring, faceless corporate structure. He comes up with a scheme to make a political statement about the evils of capitalism by kidnapping and killing a corporate executive visiting his town in Fife. He enlists his friend Gary to carry out the crime, but instead of grabbing a Japanese executive like he expected, he ends up kidnapping Frank, who grew up in the area and now lives in the south of England. And that's not the only hitch in the plan: a na´ve security guard named Tom stumbles onto the plan, and he ends up as a hostage, too.

Gagarin Way won't be to everyone's taste: it's full of violence and profanity, and lead actor Jered McLenigan (as Eddie) speaks in a Scots burr so thick that you may spend the first 15 minutes of the 95-minute play trying to suss out what's going on. But if you hang in there, you'll find a richly rewarding play that asks some big questions about political violence and individual responsibility. Eddie and Gary think that their background as the sons and grandsons of miners entitles them to kill on behalf of their cause, but they hadn't thought of the human impact. And they certainly hadn't counted on having a hostage who comes from the same background and who has lived a very different life. "I understand the emotional appeal" of the cause, says Frank, but "I don't have to defend what I do—what I do defends itself." He calmly refutes their empty rhetoric, only causing the hysteria to escalate. Meanwhile, Tom tries to be a peacemaker, but in Eddie's world, peace can never be satisfying.

Director Tom Reing's production is loaded with satisfying tension, and he gets convincing performances from his whole ensemble. McLenigan bursts with nervous energy as Eddie; Jared Michael Delaney is tough and jaded as the thuggish Gary; Kevin Meehan is likeably antsy as Tom; and Brian McCann is carefully restrained as the executive who is resigned to his fate, whatever that may be. These characters act as if their lives are on the line—and for each of them, they really are. And that helps to make Gagarin Way so compelling.

Gagarin Way is presented by Amaryllis Theatre Company as a co-production with Inis Nua Theatre, and runs through February 7 at The Playground at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices are $20 (with discounts available for seniors and students) and are available by calling 800-260-1126 or online at www.amaryllistheatre.org.

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The Prince
Bill Van Horn and Armen Pandola
The Prince is a new comedy about a power broker trying to hold onto his power. Paul "The Duke" Ducachevski is beloved by his constituents as a rarity: an elected official who can get things done. If that means making a bribe or laundering money through a charitable foundation, so be it. He exerts political influence with threats ("You vote your conscience on this one," he warns a fellow legislator, "and you see your life go up in smoke"). He quotes Machiavelli's classic political tome "The Prince" as justification for his ruthlessness: "A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promises," he says with a smile. "The end justifies the means," he adds, and to him that can justify anything from jobs for his constituents to a new coat of paint for his own house.

Philadelphians will recognize the Duke as a thinly disguised version of Vince Fumo, the longtime Pennsylvania state senator who was convicted last year on 137 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice. (The Duke ends up facing 210 counts.) And like Fumo, the Duke—thanks to a charismatic performance by Bill Van Horn—gets by on his charm. The Duke's dialogue gets a lot of laughs because so much of it seems familiar and true. But while Fumo's fall was a fascinating story to follow in the newspaper, it doesn't work well in a play. "I never saw anything I did as wrong," the Duke protests—but he never comes to an epiphany where he realizes that ripping off the public is wrong. When the Duke faces jail time, it's not a moment for reflection and repentance but an occasion for one more adventure. As a result, The Prince is shallow—its central character comes off as nothing but a glib, genial buffoon.

Armen Pandola sleepwalks through the role of the Duke's attorney. He's supposed to be the voice of morality here, but he delivers his lines in an impassive, stilted monotone, so the audience's sympathy naturally shifts to the bad guy. Pandola and Van Horn co-wrote the play, which Van Horn also directed. It's staged in the round, in a room where the farthest seat is only two rows away from the action. Yet, aside from one well-staged and well-written scene set in a confessional (where the two men alternate confessing and denying their sins), there's little that's dramatic about the play or its production.

The Prince goes down easy, but as is true of so many of our elected officials, we deserve better.

The Prince runs through February 7 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, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or Ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.


Photos: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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