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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Ruined, Miss Saigon and Vigil

Lynn Nottage's Ruined is a work of uncommon intelligence and scope. It's informative, telling the little-known (to Americans) story of the long-running civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war that is estimated to have killed over 5 million people since 1998. It's filled with heartbreaking and sometimes shocking portraits of Congolese women victimized by rape and other sexual violence. It's perceptive, illustrating what keeps the war running and what keeps the Congolese people trapped in a no-win situation. And it's an inspiring portrait of one woman's strength in a world where survival is the greatest victory of all.

From its first moments, when the cast assembles at the edge of the stage and stares intensely into the audience, director Maria Mileaf's production for the Philadelphia Theatre Company grabs the audience's attention and never lets go.

Mama Nadi (played with warmth and power by Heather Alicia Simms) is the proprietor of a bar where she gives the people—well, the men—what they want: a cold beer, a pack of cigarettes, or a turn on the dance floor with one of Mama's supply of dancing girls. If they'd like more from the girls than just a dance, they can make use of the brothel Mama runs behind the bar. But Mama and her roadhouse survive by doing more than just keeping the local miners happy: there's also the matter of keeping both sides of the conflict happy. If the army commander appears, he's coddled like a king; if the rebel leader shows up, he gets the same treatment. Loyalties change with the blink of an eye, and the rules change every few minutes. The dancers have their own tales of torment: Josephine (chandra thomas) was torn violently from the village where her father was a chief, while Salima (Erika Rose) was imprisoned for five months, "chained like a goat," by the soldiers who murdered her baby. And then there's Sophie (Keona Welch), who was "ruined"—in other words, sexually mutilated. She maintains a sunny exterior, but walks with a limp that hints at the emptiness behind her sweet smile. The men, meanwhile, have their own complexities: a diamond dealer (Paul Meshejian) proudly proclaims "I'm an independent" while remaining aloof; Salima's estranged husband (James Ijames) has mysterious motives; and Mama's supplier (Oberon Adjepong) is a good man torn between his need to make a living and his desire to help Mama and her girls.

Ruined isn't always an easy play to stomach. During act two of the performance I attended, Salima's tale of woe was met with gasps from the audience. But Ruined isn't unrelentingly bleak; the second act reveals a path to redemption for the women and the men. Unfortunately, Nottage shows this with a sentimental ending which, while it shines a ray of hope into Mama's world, is the play's one unconvincing moment.

There's a lot going on in act one of Ruined, but Mileaf's crisp production is never hard to follow, even if you know nothing of African politics. Act two wanders a bit with too many subplots, yet remains compelling. The twelve-member cast is uniformly strong; Simms, Rose and Adjepong are especially memorable. Antje Ellerman's barroom set, with its open spaces and corrugated ceiling, perfectly captures the atmosphere of a familiar yet makeshift watering hole. And the set for the girls' bedroom is decorated with a poster showing Rihanna, the pop star who, like the girls themselves, is an abuse victim. It's a subtle and impressive touch.

Needless to say, Ruined isn't for everyone; it uncovers some ugly truths and rarely pulls its punches. But its range, its compassion, and its insight mark Ruined as a remarkable achievement.

Ruined runs through June 12, 2011, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $69, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.


Miss Saigon
Eric Kunze and Melinda Chua
Miss Saigon ran for almost a decade on Broadway, and has enjoyed a healthy afterlife in theaters around the world. It's easy to see why: it sets an oft-told tragic love story (adapted from Puccini's Madama Butterfly) against the backdrop of the fall of Vietnam, aiming for the heartstrings with shamelessly calculated music and stagecraft. Yet as cheesy and simplistic as Miss Saigon is in its worst moments, it's moving and stirring at its best. Fortunately, in the Walnut Street Theatre's new production, the good outweighs the bad.

The creative team behind the Walnut's Miss Saigon includes several veterans of a production that ran last year at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars: director Bruce Lumpkin, choreographer Michelle Gaudette, and stars Melinda Chua, Eric Kunze and Philip Michael Baskerville. They all do solid, professional jobs here, enlivening the bombastic tale of an American serviceman who falls in love with a Vietnamese dance hall girl. And, just as America has to deal with the repercussions of its involvement in Vietnam, so the soldier finds that his brief affair is something he just can't leave behind.

Chua and Kunze have dynamic voices and good chemistry as the central couple, and Chua is quite touching in a restrained performance. Baskerville performs "Bui-Doi," a song about the biracial children abandoned in Vietnam by American servicemen, with authority. And Kate Fahrner shows off an impressive belt in her role as Kunze's conflicted wife. The production's biggest failing is in its biggest, flashiest role, The Engineer—a sleazy hustler who is ready to exploit anything and anyone in order to survive. Bobby Martino seems oddly detached in the role; he uses an odd accent and muddy diction, which often makes his lines, and his motives, hard to understand. And, although he possesses a sturdy baritone, he doesn't deploy it well; he speaks rather than sings half of his lines in his big number, "The American Dream."

The music and lyrics for Miss Saigon were written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (as a follow-up to their other megahit, Les Misérables), with Boublil's lyrics translated and adapted by Richard Maltby, Jr. Schönberg's music veers between beautifully melodic and crushingly bombastic, while the lyrics are often awkward and stilted. Yet the cumulative effect of the music, the lyrics, and Lumpkin's imposing production is a musical that is absorbing and moving. It's easy to find fault with the components of Miss Saigon, but what makes it work so well at the Walnut is that it's bigger, and grander, than the sum of its parts.

Miss Saigon runs through July 17, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets prices range from $10 to $95 and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.


Vigil
Leonard C. Haas and Ceal Phelan
Morris Panych's Vigil, the Lantern Theater's season finale, is about a man who quits his job and moves a thousand miles to live with his elderly aunt once he finds out the aunt might be dying. Ostensibly he's there to take care of her and to make amends for the three decades he's spent avoiding her. But the real reason he's there is revealed when he hands the bed-bound woman a scrap of paper and says, "Sign this. It's your will. You're leaving everything to me."

Vigil is a dark comedy. But what's missing here is, well, the comedy. Sure, there are plenty of funny lines sprinkled through the script, but they're all given to Kemp, as irritating and unlikable a character as you can imagine. As played by the talented Leonard C. Haas, Kemp is not someone you'd want to spend a lot of time listening to—and in this two-hour play, he almost never shuts up. Self-absorbed and self-loathing, he prattles on and on about his anguished upbringing (he was, he claims, an "eleven-year-old transvestite"), and how it left him with a hatred for sex, religion and, well, everything else ("I don't like people"). When Grace fails to obligingly die, Kemp takes matters into his own hands, inventing a "suicide machine" designed to kill her with electric shocks and blows to the head. Naturally, the machine backfires, dealing those blows to Kemp instead and making him stagger around Nick Embree's handsome set in a daze. Imagine Wile E. Coyote as played by Paul Lynde, and you may get an idea of what Kemp is like. (Except Messrs. Lynde and Coyote were much funnier.)

Ceal Phelan plays Grace, who has only one line of dialogue in the first act and a handful in the second. She spends most of the play rolling her eyes and glaring in response to Kemp's self-consciously outrageous statements. Despite Phelan's best efforts, her character quickly grows tiresome.

Playwright Panych may be attempting to make a serious point about society's careless treatment of the aged, but it gets lost in the play's repetitive joke-blackout-joke-blackout structure, which director Peter DeLaurier fails to enliven. It all makes for a comedy with some good jokes but few believable moments.

Vigil runs through June 12, 2011, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets. Ticket prices range from $20 to $36 and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, online at www.lanterntheater.org or in person at the box office.


Photos: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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