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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Museum and Heeere's Tony!

Museum
Michael Jansen, Ahren Potratz
and Felicia Leicht

Photo by Paola Nogueras).
Tina Howe's Museum is a play that doesn't really have a plot—there's no action, no big conflict, no resolution, and no logical conclusion—but what it does have more than makes up for what's missing. It's an intentionally ridiculous play that makes some serious points about art and how people relate to it. Villanova Theatre's new production is flawed but mostly successful in its efforts to convey those points.

Museum takes place in a museum gallery where works by three artists are being displayed: one artist has made a series of small sculptures, another has assembled an installation using mannequins, and the third has painted a series of four all-white canvases. (Howe's play was first produced in 1976, two decades before Yasmina Reza made the same joke about an all-white canvas in her hit play Art.) A security guard keeps an eye on the artworks and on the museum's visitors. Those visitors come from all areas of society—different ethnic groups, different age groups, different social classes.

Everyone reacts to the art differently. Three working class women laugh hysterically as they ridicule the blank canvases ("Modern art!" they shriek with disdain). An art student looks at the same white paintings and says pensively, "I don't know which I like better, his seascapes or his landscapes." One woman doesn't want to see the art; she just wants to know where the gift shop is. Another woman sits silently weeping as she gazes at the statues, seemingly overcome by their beauty. Two people argue whether the installation is an example of pastiche or panache. A man bemoans the end of live art ("the museums are shutting down") while a curator gives a lecture on reductionism. And in the midst of heated words and personality clashes, the bright lights fade and everyone stands silently for a few moments, evaluating the art, taking it all in.

Museum isn't just a bunch of talking heads pontificating on symbolism. Howe doesn't take herself or her subject too seriously, and she's not above poking absurdist fun at the art world. The security guard is oblivious to what's going on right in front of him. A photographer is forced to request special permission to photograph the artwork, but once he gets that permission, he photographs the guard, not the art. One artist's photo in the exhibit's program has been replaced by a photo of a chimpanzee. And the guard suddenly breaks into a tap dance after a visitor complains that "Culture as we know it is on the way out and disappearing around the bend." Howe makes it all work through dry wit, sly satire, and the precise buildup of details. The play is a series of interlocking scenes that might work as standalone skits, but make a compelling effect when combined into one 90-minute work.

Director Joanna Rotté balances the dramatic and comedic elements fairly well. But the production is unwieldy. Howe's play has one main role (the security guard, who is onstage for most of the show) and forty supporting characters. Instead of using doubling (splitting the forty roles among twenty or so actors), Rotté has employed forty actors for the forty roles. The performances range from excellent (Michael Jansen as the guard, Nick Falco as a pretentious commentator) to amateurish (a few actors ham it up with overly broad gestures), with most of the cast falling somewhere in between. A little more discipline would have helped make the production seem more focused. (The curtain call, in which the forty-one actors take bows in groups of five or so at a time, feels endless.)

Technical aspects of the production are top-notch, including Parris Bradley's sleek set and Jerrold R. Forsyth's versatile lighting. And it's nice to see the real life artists who made these works—Lawrence Anastasi, Heather McLaughlin, and Ward Van Haute—make cameos as their fictional counterparts during the play's final moments.

Museum gets crazy at times, but its overall tone is respectful to artists and to the people who come in touch with their work. Some of its characters don't like the art they see, but Howe doesn't condemn these people for failing to see what others regard as beautiful. As Howe reminds us, the effect a piece of art has on a viewer has as much to do with what the viewer brings to it as what the artist has accomplished.

Museum runs through February 19, 2012, at Villanova Theatre, located in Vasey Hall on the Villanova University campus in Villanova, Pa. Tickets run from $21 to $25, with discounts available for seniors, students and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 610-519-7474, online at www.theatre.villanova.edu, or by visiting the box office.


At Hedgerow Theatre, local actor Tony Braithwaite, seen recently at Act II Playhouse in the revues Laughing All the Way and Let's Pretend We're Married, is reviving another of the entertainments he's previously done at Act II, Heeere's Tony!. As the name implies, it's a tribute to Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," complete with a sidekick, a band (well, a piano player), a desk and a couch. He even throws in an impression of Carson's "Carnac" character and a David Letterman-style Top Ten List, both done with affection.

On the night I attended, Braithwaite did some lighthearted topical humor, with jokes about President Obama, Newt Gingrich, Kate Middleton and Demi Moore. (One joke, about what the losing Super Bowl team will be doing instead of visiting the White House, was nearly identical to a joke that Jimmy Fallon told a few nights earlier.) There was a song with some off-color lyrics, a comedic juggler (the very funny Dave Jadico), and a soprano (Eileen Cella) who sang a couple of show tunes. But much of the 75-minute program was devoted to an earnest interview with two local educators talking about the new school they're helping to found, Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, which will have a work-study element aimed at helping underprivileged youth prepare for the world of work. Even while discussing a serious topic, Braithwaite managed to keep things light. When one of the interviewees, Mike Gomez—who, as principal of Saint Joseph's Prep, is Braithwaite's boss at his day job—mentioned that he once taught at a school where he served as moderator of the Star Wars club, Braithwaite teased him: "How many kids were in the Star Wars club, or was it just you?"

While watching Heeere's Tony!, I wondered why television doesn't do shows like this anymore—shows that make up in warmth what they lack in star power. I kept thinking of the lame local talk show that the Philadelphia NBC affiliate runs each morning, and how much more interesting it would be with someone like Braithwaite. He doesn't try too hard to act like everybody's friend, like most TV performers do these days; instead he's a good host because he seems engrossed in everything that's happening on the Hedgerow stage. It's easy to enjoy Heeere's Tony!, because it's clear that he enjoys it too.

Heeere's Tony! runs through February 19, 2012, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices are $22 to $29, with discounts for seniors and children, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-565-4211, online at www.hedgerowtheatre.org or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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