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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Hell and The Importance of Being Earnest

Hell
Ross Beschler
Photo: Michael Chittenden
Hell is a new stage version of a 1908 novel by Henri Barbusse which was one of the biggest selling and most celebrated French novels of its age. But whatever power it may have had on the page is mostly missing from EgoPo Classic Theater's handsome but empty adaptation. Hell aims to tell its audience the meaning of life, but it does so with an unsympathetic protagonist, cardboard characters, and a point of view that is so lacking in compassion and subtlety that it seems absurd.

Adapted for the stage by Ross Beschler (its star) and Lane Savadove (its director), Hell tells the story of an unnamed man (Beschler) who rents a room in a hotel/boarding house. There he finds a hole in the wall that lets him peer into the adjoining room. And what does he see through the hole? Life's rich, and often painful, pageant—everything from childbirth to death. And a wide variety of sexual experiences in between, too: adultery, rape, homosexuality, a newlywed couple's first night together, and teenagers experiencing the first stirrings of lust. Oh, and a series of beautiful women who are just dying to take their clothes off (although only one actually does). The play's voyeuristic obsession with sex leads to scenes which veer between erotic and creepy, with creepy usually winning out. The man, when he's not cruising the streets for prostitutes, sits in his room and bemoans the terrible sights he sees through the hole. He pleads, "Where is God? Why doesn't he save us from this hell?" Good question—although the man's answer, which he arrives at suddenly in the play's last moments, is a solipsistic philosophy ("I am the center of the universe") that seems more like an avoidance of his own question than a coherent response to it. There's also a lengthy screed against the Catholic Church, which might be more persuasive if the author's alternative to religion wasn't steeped in hatred and self-loathing.

All of this is played with grim seriousness—although, on opening night, a few of the more stilted lines got laughs which were surely unintended. There's little dialogue; instead, characters read the narrator's lines from the novel ("She begins to clean. She moves things about, straightens the bed," says a maid as she does just that). It's unclear why this book was turned into a play: There is little that's dramatic about Hell, and Beschler and Savadove's self-consciously arty adaptation is largely unable to bring it to life. A compelling subplot (a cancer patient attempting to put his affairs in order before he dies) arrives halfway through act two, but the momentum the play abruptly acquires isn't enough to save it.

Beschler, as the haunted protagonist, is onstage nearly every moment, and his focused, intense performance is the best thing about Hell. And there is good support from Ed Swidey as the dying man and Cindy Spitko as his wife, as well as from Mary Lee Bednarek and Allen Radway as a pair of adulterous lovers. Anthony Hostetter's set design, in which a series of sliding doors open up behind the protagonist to reveal the rooms he's spying on, is superb, and the lighting (by Matt Sharp) and video projections (by Ren Manley) are excellent too.

Director Savadove establishes a mood that's unrelenting in its bleakness and bitterness, in a tale that starts odd and keeps getting more and more remote. Sadly, this Hell will leave you ice cold.

Hell runs through May 15, 2011, and is presented by EgoPo Classic Theater at The German Society of Pennsylvania, 611 Spring Garden Street. Ticket prices are $30 ($15 for students) and are available online at www.egopo.org.

Earnest
Josh Carpenter and Janis Dardaris
Photo: Elan Gepner
Out in the Mount Airy section of the city, the atmosphere is considerably sunnier in Quintessence Theatre Group's take on The Importance of Being Earnest. Director Alexander Burns has transplanted Oscar Wilde's comedy of country estates and mistaken identities to 1962. Yet, aside from a few pieces of sleek furniture and some knee-length dresses for the ladies, this is basically Earnest as it's been since its 1895 premiere: a well-constructed romp full of ridiculously charming characters doing utterly ridiculous things. Just when you think that all the antics might get tiresome, Wilde drops in another of his timeless witticisms, and all is right with the world.

That's especially true when Janis Dardaris is onstage as Lady Bracknell, perhaps Wilde's most delicious comic creation. This fine actress has made the portrayal of patronizing matrons one of her specialties in recent years, and she gives Lady Bracknell a delightful air of imperiousness. In Lady Bracknell's worldview, everyone else is a fool, and she does not suffer them gladly.

The four young lovers whose machinations form the play's plot are a mixed bag, however. Josh Carpenter's Algernon is too smarmy to root for, and Janel Miley's Gwendolen lacks sparkle. But Jake Blouch shows off a nice slow burn as Jack, and Emily Rast radiates spunky joy as Cecily. There's good chemistry between them all, though, and the rest of the cast is fine, although Marie Maginity, as Cecily's governess, uses diction that often makes her words hard to understand.

Quintessence's Earnest is, in the best tradition of English farces, a grand time.

The Importance of Being Earnest runs through May 22, 2011, 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 by dialing 1-877-238-5596, online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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