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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe: Roundup #2
Elephant Room, A Paper Garden, and In the Blood

Also see Roundup #1

Elephant Room
Dennis Diamond
Photo: David Devant
Elephant Room is, simply put, one big ball of goofy joy. Three intentionally cheesy magicians sit in a room with cinder blocks for end tables and wood paneling painted a sickly shade of sea green. They ponder the big questions of life, and what it all means. But mostly, they perform magic tricks. Pretty neat ones, too. They turn an empty beer can into a full one. They turn a flower into an egg. They cook an omelet in midair. They turn water into Kool-Aid, then Kool-Aid into water. You'll wonder how they do it all, but you'll be laughing so hard that you won't mind being fooled.

In some ways, Elephant Room is a traditional magic show, right down to the pair of volunteers plucked from the audience (who were, at my performance, the prettiest girls in the crowd, naturally). But what makes the show so much fun is the performers' attitudes. They wear clothes and hairstyles (or wigs) that would have seemed laughable in 1978. They're all would-be hipsters who know they aren't fooling anyone when they say "The sky is full of stars—and so is the stage." There's an underlying seriousness to their message—what's with all those references to the Dalai Lama, anyway?—but don't let it get in the way of enjoying the silliness.

The three gentlemen onstage are Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic, and Daryl Hannah. The show was written by Geoff Sobelle, Steve Cuiffo, and Trey Lyford, three actors who, some might say, bear a resemblance to the magicians. Paul Lazar directed, and he makes sure that the whole enterprise is eccentric and enchanting.

Elephant Room runs through September 17, 2011, at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. Details at www.livearts-fringe.org.


A Paper Garden is an unusual show, too, but its purpose is educational, which is fitting for a show staged just a few yards from Independence Hall. It's performed in the garden of the American Philosophical Society, and it celebrates the history of gardening and botany. Even if you have no knowledge of the subject, A Paper Garden is sure to be of at least passing interest—and at only forty minutes, it's just the right length to be enlightening rather than boring.

A Paper Garden imagines a meeting between Josephine Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon and a lover of exotic flowers, and André Michaux, the official botanist for King Louis XVI who was sent to America by the king to research American trees and plants and bring them back to France. It's an occasion for Josephine (Genevieve Perrier), André (Mary Tuomanen), and André's assistant Pierre-Paul Saunier (Aaron Cromie) to teach us about (and display for us) newly discovered American plants like the Venus Flytrap, and to play accordion and ukulele while singing songs about the leaves on the dozens of different types of oak trees Michaux discovered in America. Tuomanen and Cromie co-wrote the show (with Cromie directing), which means they are responsible for the song that rhymes "arboreal" with "sartorial."

At times, A Paper Garden seems more suitable for a grade school field trip than standard theater. But it's performed well, displays a sharp sense of humor, and its heart is in the right place.

Besides, if you're lucky like me, you may get la belle Mademoiselle Perrier, as Madame Bonaparte, to give you a personal tour of the garden ... in fluent French. Hélas, this only taught me that even though I studied French for six years in high school and college, I remember almost none of it today. Peut-Ítre, I should have studied botany instead.

A Paper Garden runs through September 17, 2011, at the Jefferson Garden at the American Philosophical Society, 104 South Fifth Street, Philadelphia. Details at www.livearts-fringe.org.


Both Elephant Room and A Paper Garden are suitable for the whole family. But In the Blood, a show that is actually about a family, is not. Suzan-Lori Parks' 1999 Off-Broadway play resets Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in contemporary inner city America. Its Hester is an African-American mother of five fatherless children, living under a bridge and dependent on charity to get by. Unfortunately, she finds no true charity; everyone she looks to for help, from a doctor to a preacher to a welfare worker, takes advantage of Hester economically, socially and sexually. They all give speeches trying to justify their heinous actions. Meanwhile, Hester, the ultimate victim, cannot read or write; she struggles to write one letter of the alphabet: "A."

Parks' characters are symbols, and rather coarse ones at that. And, while In the Blood is a perceptive critique of American society, it's also a bleak one that sees no way out for the Hesters of the world. And because Hester and her oppressors are symbols rather than flesh and blood humans, their plight doesn't touch the heart. In the Blood is impressive in the breadth of its attack, but it's an attack that can leave you cold, as hopeless as Hester and her misbegotten children.

Director Bill Buddendorf's production takes a while to find its footing—the staging is confusing at first, and the room tends to swallow the actors' voices—but by act two, things are much improved. All the performances are fine, and the sets and costumes are excellent.

In the Blood is presented through September 11, 2011, by the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at the University of the Arts, and is presented at the University's Caplan Studio, 211 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, 16th floor. Details at www.livearts-fringe.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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