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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

2012 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe Roundup #3:
Red-Eye to Havre de Grace
Bang
Raw Stitch

See Part 1 and Part 2

Also see Tim's reviews of Love Story, The Musical and Pasek and Paul's Edges


Ean Sheeny and Sophie Bortolussi
Photo by Johanna Austin
Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is a mesmerizing piece of theatre. It starts out as an exploration of the mysterious last days of Edgar Allan Poe but ends up taking us deep into Poe's mind, exploring his obsessions and his anguish, with a clarity that Poe himself never achieved in those final days.

The title refers to the Maryland town that was one of Poe's destinations, and the show's text is taken largely from Poe's writings—his poems, his stories, and his letters to his beloved mother-in-law. We see Poe as he travels between New York, Philadelphia and Maryland in a fog that may have been caused by alcoholism and may have been triggered by Poe's overwhelming grief over the death of his young wife Virginia. And while Poe is alone on his journeys, Virginia is always figuratively present. When Poe sleeps in a hotel bed, her body twists around his. When he rides on a train, she lies on the baggage shelf overhead. When he gets a shave, she's the one who wields the razor. And when he looks into a mirror, it's Virginia who gazes back. She haunts Poe, and she haunts the audience as well.

The special effects are striking, and they enhance the storytelling. Director and designer Thaddeus Phillips creates images that use contemporary techniques yet convincingly place us in 1849. Poe moves through a world that doesn't understand him; when he visits Philadelphia to give a lecture on his new literary achievements, strangers ask him to recite "The Raven." Meanwhile, vintage doors flip around and turn into tables or hallways or beds, always allowing Poe to move forward yet never letting him escape his past. (Teller, of Penn & Teller, is credited as creative consultant.)

Ean Sheeny's wide-eyed, trembling Poe is severely uncomfortable in this world, but the fantasy world he escapes to offers him no solace. Sophie Bortolussi is Virginia, who communicates with her husband only through dance (Bortolussi also choreographed). The echo-filled, otherworldly music is performed mostly on a treated piano by David Wilhelm, with his brother Jeremy providing tenor vocals. (Jeremy does more than that, but to explain his role would give away one of the show's nicest surprises.)

Like some of Poe's work, Red-Eye to Havre de Grace can be harrowing. But like his best work, it's thoroughly engrossing and unforgettable.

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace played its final performance on September 16, 2012.


Bang
Sarah Sanford, Charlotte Ford and Lee Etzold
Photo by Kathryn Raines - Plate 3 Photography
The pre-show publicity for Charlotte Ford's Bang played up how sexy it was supposed to be. Is it? Well, yes and no. Sure, it's got a lot of nudity, but being sexy isn't why Ford, Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold took to the stage. What makes Bang so great is how it subverts and explodes our expectations. And what couldn't be expected was how hilarious it is, and how the more risqué the show gets, the more ridiculous it gets. Ford, Etzold and Sanford may not be your everyday sex symbols, but that's part of the point: Bang questions what fits our definition of what's sexy while it mocks women's self-image, the way men (and women) view women, and the hard work that women go through to live up to an impossible ideal.

Sanford is Barb Feinstein, a repressed, bookish, stuttering nerd with glasses and frizzy hair. Like the other women, she inexplicably finds herself on a stage with an electric "Sex Show" sign flashing overhead, then tries to figure out what it is she's supposed to do. Barb sneers at the audience—"I feel your gaze ... sickos!" before she angrily pulls off her turtleneck and long corduroy skirt, giving that audience what she figures they probably wanted anyway. Etzold is Gail McAllister, a suburban housewife in mom jeans who tempts an audience member onstage with the promise of beer, cheese balls and televised baseball, then attempts to seduce him by dancing awkwardly to a Madonna record. Ford is Cheyenne, an exotic dancer with waist-length hair who reels off New Age twaddle ("Speak to me with your twin pineapples of mercy"). She pulls a man onstage too, and then crams a stuffed animal into her waistband and brazenly begs him to "stroke my lioness." (When the man reached for another part of her body, the poised Ford reprimanded him: "No, just the lioness.") In the show's penultimate scene, Ford is shown on video taking a walk through the streets of Ben Franklin's old neighborhood that old Ben could never have imagined.

Directed with no holds barred by Emmanuelle Delpech, Bang engages the audience while challenging it. Ford, Sanford and Etzold are fearless and riotously funny—and they're out to teach you a few things while they, um, show you a few things.

Bang played its final performance on September 15, 2012.


Jacqueline Goldfinger's Raw Stitch is a raunchy comedy staged in Quig's Pub, on the third floor of Plays and Players Theatre—or, as bartender/host Corinna Burns proclaims it in the show's opening moments, "the bar of bad decisions." Over the course of an hour, eight actresses, in character, pop up in various areas of the barroom and discuss their lives—and, more often than not, their sex lives.

Directed by David O'Connor, Raw Stitch is a mixed bag—some monologues are funnier than others, some are dirtier than others. (The dirtier ones got the best reaction from the raucous crowd at the performance I attended.) One of the monologues, delivered by Jennifer MacMillan as a deaf woman, is probably the bawdiest, although it was hard for me to tell—the voice she was using rendered about half of her words incomprehensible to me, even though I was sitting two feet away.

Quality wavers, but some of the best pieces are performed by Miriam White as a bride-to-be obsessed with wedding preparations, Amanda Schoonover as a pageant contestant whose façade of sweetness disappears when she's challenged, and Hannah Van Sciver as a defendant who tells a judge "I got the southern slut gene."

I liked a lot of Raw Stitch, but it seems like it was best appreciated by people who came to Quig's for the drinks and stayed around for the comedy, rather than the other way around.

Raw Stitch played its final performance on September 22, 2012.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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