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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

August: Osage County and
The Venetian Twins

August: Osage County
Grace Gonglewski and Carla Belver
Photo by Mark Garvin
August: Osage County requires three and a half hours of your time—but don't let that dissuade you from seeing it. Time flies when you're watching people not having fun.

Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning comic drama is riveting, riotous and ribald from beginning to end. A modern day epic in the tradition of Eugene O'Neill, it doesn't sag for a moment, telling a richly detailed story that's both disturbing and fascinating. Director Terrence J. Nolen's production spotlights the richness of Letts' language and the depth of the Philadelphia acting community.

Letts built his reputation with plays like Killer Joe and Bug that wallow in the dirt of lower class Oklahoma. August: Osage County returns us to Oklahoma, but this time he focuses on an educated family that maintains a veneer of respectability. Letts begins exposing what lies underneath right from the play's first moments. "My wife takes pills and I drink," says the family patriarch Beverly Weston (David Howey) during the play's opening scene. Before the evening is out, many more shocking revelations will be made; at times, the dramatic mood feels closer to Jerry Springer than Arthur Miller. Yet August: Osage County never feels exploitative or cheap, partly because it takes its characters and their concerns seriously, and partly because it's really, really funny.

At the center of the Weston family is Violet, the heartless matriarch, played by Carla Belver in a fearsome and fearless performance. A few words from Violet are all that's needed to set off an argument about the past—and in the Weston family, the past is always present. Violet lambasts her family, calling one daughter "dummy" with the casual air of someone who's been doing it unthinkingly for decades. Yet as much as she asserts her strength at the top of her lungs, she is dependent on her family, and when they're not around, she's lost and pathetic.

Only eldest daughter Barbara can stand up to Violet effectively, and Grace Gonglewski plays Barbara with an intimidating fierceness and heartbreaking poignancy. (The scene in act one where she gets some bad news about her father moved me as much as any scene I've ever witnessed on a local stage.) Middle daughter Ivy (the intense Corinna Burns) fights against the darkness with weary cynicism, while youngest daughter Karen (Kathryn Petersen) avoids harshness by spouting trite platitudes; she's so self-absorbed that she never realizes how dangerous her glib fiancé (Antony Lawton) is. Mattie Fae (Mary Martello) shares her sister Violet's disappointment with her family, never failing to conceal her sarcastic disdain for her indolent son (Charlie DelMarcelle). And Barbara's anti-social teenage daughter (Dylan Gelula) would rather not deal with adults at all—except for the ones who can score her some pot.

The women dominate the Weston clan, and each actress offers a finely detailed portrait. But the men of the household make their stands in their own ways. The kind-hearted and long-suffering Charlie (Paul L. Nolan) has finally earned the courage to stand up his wife Mattie Fae, but doesn't know if it will make any difference. (Nolan and Martello marvelously capture the rhythms of a long-married couple.) And Barbara's estranged husband Bill (Eric Hissom) still loves his wife but is worn out by her and by everything else in his life; Hissom embodies the despair of a man who feels trapped by the bad choices he's made, yet keeps making them.

Belver and Gonglewski may dominate, but Nolen's ensemble doesn't have a weak link. Even the seemingly minor characters have an important presence, like Johnna (Elena Araoz), the young woman hired to help out around the house. Fittingly for a story set in the old Indian territory, this white family has a Cheyenne cleaning up for it. Even the most minute details reveal a lot in Tracy Letts' world. References to history and allusions to T.S. Eliot? It's all in a day's work for the Westons. Some audience members may be put off by the frequent cursing, but if you can get past that, the cumulative effect of August: Osage County is engrossing and uplifting.

It's all played out on in the many rooms of Dan Conway's wonderful three-story set, where the beams are as exposed as the people. You'll love the time you spend with the Westons, even though you'd probably never want to meet them in real life.

August: Osage County runs through October 30, 2011, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $45 (with discounts available for students, seniors, military, educators and children) 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.


The Venetian Twins
Josh Carpenter and
Bethany Ditnes

Photo by Alexander Burns
Meanwhile, in the Mount Airy section of the city, there's another long, three act play: Carlo Goldoni's 1747 comedy The Venetian Twins, presented here in a modern translation by the British dramatist Ranjit Bolt. It's a farce about identical twins who wind up in the same town on the same day and cause some frenzied complications. If that plot sounds similar to Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors—a play that has been produced far too frequently in the region over the last few months—that's no accident; both plays are derived from an ancient play by the Roman playwright Plautus. Shakespeare, writing a century and a half before Goldoni, used a more complex plot (with two sets of twins) and avoided a plot hole that prevents Goldoni's play from running effortlessly. But for the most part, Goldoni's work holds up quite well, giving its characters distinct personality traits and appealing humor. Bolt's translation replicates Goldoni's emphasis on the vernacular, but unlike in August: Osage County, the vulgar lines feel unnatural, as if Bolt is trying to seem daring. (Hearing a man describe his fear by saying "I'm browning my boots" just feels like desperation here.)

Director Alexander Burns' production takes about half an hour to find its footing, but once the exposition is out of the way, the play settles into a relaxed comic rhythm. The thrust stage—the third stage configuration that Quintessence has used at its home in the past year—makes for an intimate setup and allows some gentle audience interaction.

And the cast seems like it's having fun; most of the performances are broad, but nearly all seem suitable for the material. Josh Carpenter plays both twins and shows off remarkable range, playing one twin as a suave, cultured man of action and the other as a knock-kneed, punch drunk Brooklyn palooka. No matter who he's playing, he's completely winning. He gets fine support from Jessica Dal Canton and Bethany Ditnes as the twins' confused fiancées, and from Khris Davis as a servant who seems to have gotten his training in vaudeville. Benim Foster hams it up effectively as the villain, while Ken Sandberg and Daniel Fredrick engage Carpenter in some exciting sword fights (Ian Rose is the fight director). Only Leslie Nevon Holden disappoints; she plays the maid as if she's auditioning to play Anita in West Side Story, and the shtick becomes tiresome.

The Venetian Twins drags a bit in its final act, with a musical interlude that feels tacked on and an uncomfortable shift from comedy to tragedy; the two-and-a-half-hour play feels about twenty minutes too long. And the endings of the first two acts seem awkward, although the cast members more than make up for it with some lovely performances of 1920s pop hits during the intermissions. But overall, The Venetian Twins is a highly enjoyable bit of classical fluff, and the lively production makes it worth checking out.

The Venetian Twins marks Quintessence's first experiment with repertory; starting this week, the same hard-working 12-member cast will also be performing Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. It should be interesting to see them switch gears and tackle a very different classic.

The Venetian Twins runs through November 19, 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 online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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