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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Walworth Farce and
The Seagull

The Walworth Farce
Harry Smith, Jake Blouch and Bill Van Horn
Photo by Katie Reing
And you think your family has problems.

In Enda Walsh's The Walworth Farce, now being given a sharp and energetic production by Inis Nua Theatre Company, a man and his two grown sons are living in a decrepit apartment on the fifteenth floor of a government-subsidized high rise on the Walworth Road in London. All three are actors, performing an intricate farce in their apartment—but it's a show that no audience will ever see. And this performance has been going on daily for twenty years.

Even though sons Sean and Blake have never performed in public, they are skilled comics who can switch personas at the drop of a hat. Blake, wearing a frock, plays a housewife named Maureen, offering sandwiches to her visitors; in a few seconds he switches wigs from brunette to blonde and is playing a woman named Vera, smoking a cigarette and speaking dismissively of everyone she sees. Dinny, their father, mostly plays himself, but he is also the playwright and director—and a stern taskmaster. Any actor who messes up his lines is likely to get bopped on the head with a frying pan.

But why? Playwright Walsh drops us into the middle of this family's life without any explanation and asks the audience to figure it out. Eventually, we learn that the family is acting out their last day living in Cork, Ireland, before they set out for London twenty years ago. But why did they leave the Emerald Isle? Is this just one of the many Irish families that was forced to leave their homeland for economic reasons? No, the reason for their departure was quite different—and it's a reason that Dinny has hidden from his sons all these years. Sean, during a break in the latest performance, asks his father "Is any of this story real?" Finally he has figured it all out, and he is looking to make his escape from a world where there's no future—only the past repeated over and over.

The Walworth Farce is fascinating to watch, but frustrating at the same time, since it can take a while to figure out what's going on. It seems at first as if the boys are acting out an episode of "The Goon Show," full of ridiculous behavior, outlandish characterizations, and a nonsensical plot. But stay with it: by act two, it all starts to make sense, and it becomes frightfully clear why Dinny is forcing his sons to act out this story. In no time flat, this farce turns into a tragedy—and the descent begins when Hayley, the supermarket clerk Sean has taken a shine to, shows up to return some missing groceries. With this family, no good deed goes unpunished.

Tom Reing's direction is just right: crazy funny one moment, simply crazy the next. Jake Blouch is wonderful as Sean, the son who knows how wrong the whole situation is but plays along as much as he has to. As touching as he is in the dramatic moments, he's riotously funny in the comic bits, with a booming voice that can probably be heard fifteen floors away. Harry Smith is daffy and precise as Blake, the quick changing other half of this brother act. Bill Van Horn is both funny and fearsome as their wide-eyed father. And Leslie Nevon Holden brings a gentle charm to the observant and innocent Hayley.

Like many an Irish playwright, Walsh is a grand storyteller, and it would seem that he is perfect for this tale of a family that escaped Ireland only to find "There's no pictures, there's no dreams, there's words." But the story of The Walworth Farce doesn't pay off quite as well as it should. Aside from the deliberate confusion, there's also the repetitive, circular nature of the play, which can get wearying. And while Sean and Dinny are finely detailed characters, Blake is drawn so sketchily that it's not apparent he's "a simple boy best left in the dark" until we're told about it explicitly near the end of the play. Hayley's role devolves from heroine to victim too quickly, giving Holden little to work with. And the ending is disappointingly predictable, save for a final twist that is far too downbeat to be satisfying.

Yet despite its imperfections, Inis Nua's The Walworth Farce is worth the effort you put into it. It's the sort of show where you find yourself laughing before you even know what you're laughing about. And Enda Walsh shows that the line separating comedy from calamity can be very thin indeed.

The Walworth Farce runs through May 27, 2012 and is presented by Inis Nua Theatre Company at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 $25 and are available by phone at 215-454-9776 or online at www.inisnuatheatre.org.


The Seagull
Jamison Foreman and Rachel Brodeur
Photo by Shawn May
The characters in The Seagull engage in a roundelay of missed connections, unrequited passions, and thwarted dreams. Anton Chekhov's classic from 1896 feels contemporary in Quintessence Theatre Group's production—and not just because of Mike Poulton's vernacular translation or the dungarees, sundresses and hoodies worn by the cast (Jane Casanave provides the costumes). At its best, director Alexander Burns' production has a compelling immediacy, but it's hobbled by inconsistent performances.

The Seagull takes place on a vast lakeside estate in the Russian countryside where the characters contemplate their place in the universe. These people are desperately searching for fulfillment, sometimes through their work, sometimes through art, but mostly through romance. There are several romantic triangles at play here, and even though some of the characters get what they want in the end, nobody seems contented. Konstantin (Jamison Foreman) wants to be a successful writer, Nina (Rachel Brodeur) wants to be a successful actress, and Konstantin wants Nina. But Nina longs for Trigorin (Josh Carpenter), already a successful writer, who is involved with Arkadina (Janis Dardaris), a successful actress (and Konstantin's mother). Meanwhile, estate manager Shamrayev (Randall McCann) is married to Polina (Marcia Saunders), who is in love with the neighborhood doctor Dorn (William Zielinski); and Masha (Julia Frey), daughter of Shamrayev and Polina, is pursued by the meek schoolteacher Medvedenko (Alexander Harvey) even though she's in love with Konstantin (remember him?). Arkadina's elderly brother Sorin (Robert Bauer), the owner of the estate, sits and observes it all with a resigned air.

The performances here are a mixed bag. Some, like Zielinski's indifferent doctor, barely register. Others seem wrong: Dardaris' Arkadina is more grating than affecting, while Frey's Masha, with her odd line readings, almost seems a parody of stereotyped Russian gloominess.

But the production's best moments come from the trio at its center, who bring a convincing naturalism to their story. Foreman is a forceful presence, conveying all of Konstantin's frustration, self-doubt, and intelligence. Carpenter's sullen Trigorin is both romantic and dangerous. Best of all is Brodeur, whose Nina is charming and exuberant when we first see her, but with an underlying vulnerability that makes her breakdown in the final act all the more poignant.

The men and women of The Seagull deal with crushing disappointments, and the varying ways they respond to these blows make Chekhov's play so rewarding. Quintessence's production has its share of disappointments too, but it never drags, and it has moments when the struggles of these privileged people become hauntingly vital.

The Seagull runs through June 3, 2012, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at www.QuintessenceTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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