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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Prescott Method, The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini
and Henry V


Madi Distefano and Jessica Bedford
Photo by Mark Garvin
The Prescott Method: Easy Steps to Perfect Bread Baking, Every Time isn't an instructional presentation; it's a new comedy/drama about two 1960s housewives who connect through baking. Over the course of ninety breezy minutes, Peg (Jessica Bedford) teaches Veronica (Madi Distefano) how to bake bread using techniques from a famous cookbook (the fictional one in the show's title). Their weekly baking sessions are an escape from the strains of suburban life, and they parallel the ladies' domestic difficulties: when Veronica finds raising six children frustrating, or Peg suffers from marital strains, they can just go to Peg's kitchen and pound the dough as hard as they can.

Michael Whistler's new play is a well-constructed saga of female bonding and female empowerment, in the tradition of Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes. Like those hits, there's a lot about The Prescott Method that rings true, and a lot that will make you smile. But like them, The Prescott Method is often shamelessly manipulative. It shows the ladies bouncing from mini-crisis to mini-crisis, building each other's confidence at every step in a way that seems calculated to pull at the heartstrings. And sometimes it's downright creaky: when Peg consoles Veronica early in the play about a mysterious tragedy in her past, it's a safe bet that details of that tragedy will be revealed about fifteen minutes before the play ends.

Yet while the play is formulaic, its sweetness and gentleness won me over. Whistler constructs richly detailed dialogue that gives the characters well-defined, unexpected depths. He builds conflict between the two women without resorting to cliché; the emotions seem genuine. And he writes a lot of funny lines, too. Greg Wood's restrained direction avoids melodramatic excesses; the production is touching, but it never crosses the line to become tear-jerking.

It helps that the performers are so endearing and that their chemistry is so strong: Bedford's muted passive-aggression as Peg contrasts well with Distefano's loudmouthed brashness as Veronica. Susan Riley Stevens pops up from time to time as the Betty Crocker-like cookbook author whose pearls, perfect smile and polished diction (complete with rhyming couplets) set a standard that the women can't hope to live up to.

Mary Folino's costumes capture the era without parodying it, and Glen Sears' set design gives us two competing kitchens: a colorful and festive one for Peg, and an icy black-and-white one for the author. Both look terrific, but only one signifies the way to the future for these ladies.

The Prescott Method: Easy Steps to Perfect Bread Baking, Every Time runs through April 14, 2013, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30 – $40, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or www.Ticketmaster.com.



Robert DaPonte (front) and cast
Photo by Joe Grasso
There are five actors playing at least a dozen characters in EgoPo Classic Theater's The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini. But the real star of the show is its venue, Plays & Players Theatre. Normally, this tiny, century-old hall is far from the most appealing place in town; it's shabby and musty, with uncomfortable seats. (And don't get me started on the bathrooms.) But this time around, director Brenna Geffers changes the perspective: the audience is seated in bleachers onstage, looking out into the auditorium. Actors make entrances from the wings and from the orchestra section, and sometimes they appear in the balcony to shout a line or two. It's a fascinating way to view the life of a great showman; looking out into the expanse of the theatre, we see the world the way he saw it. (Lighting designer Matt Sharp does a superb job focusing spotlights on a challenging area.)

Geffers' staging of this work, co-written by the director and her cast, is fluid and invigorating: scenes and settings change in an instant, and Houdini's years touring the country in vaudeville are represented by a trunk being pulled across the stage ("two years ... three years ... six years"). And while this show crams a lot into 75 minutes—we quickly see him go from being Erik Weisz, "the son of a failed rabbi," to being the highest-paid entertainer in the nation, to being the leader of a campaign to debunk the spiritualism fad of the 1920s—it does a fairly good job of reviewing all the major episodes in Houdini's life.

But Life (and Death) ... fails as a drama and in its attempts to provide a psychiatric analysis of Houdini's life. The dialogue is often corny: for instance, when rabbi's son Erik becomes magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, an emcee tells us "And for his first trick, Erik will disappear." Moments later, Houdini announces "The greatest escape I ever made was when I left Appleton, Wisconsin." Yeah, we get it already. And when one of the most important show business careers of the era is reduced to a supposed denial of ethnic roots, or when Houdini's tender relationship with his yiddishe momme is dismissed as a "failed oedipal conquest," the play's condescending simplification of a complex life goes way too far.

The cast is strong, especially Robert DaPonte as a confident and resolute Houdini and Maryruth Stine as his slinky and glamorous assistant. Lee Minora is Houdini's discreetly ambitious wife, while Griffin Stanton-Ameisen and Tyler Horn move easily among multiple roles.

The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini runs through April 7, 2013, and is presented by EgoPo Classic Theater at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20 – $38 and are available by calling 267-273-1414 or online at www.EgoPo.org.



Mark Cairns and Ben Dibble
Photo by Paola Nogueras
Lantern Theater's production of Henry V begins with the actors stretching as they wait for the action to begin. Considering that director Charles McMahon has enlisted eight actors to play 44 roles, one can hardly blame them for wanting to be limber. This is a rapid production, with actors changing identity quickly from clergyman to soldier, from English earl to French duke. (Mary Folino's costumes hang from a clothing rack that sits stage right, allowing for quick changes.) And it's intense at times: when King Henry (a tough but likeable Ben Dibble) delivers the famous "once more into the breach" soliloquy, he shouts and growls his lines to rouse the men into defeating the French. They follow him into battle, all right—but with screams of terror coming from their lips.

Lantern's production is impressive in many ways, from the versatility of the cast to the way the lighting (by Drew Billiau) and the music (Michael Kiley) invoke the violence of the Battle of Agincourt. But it's a little too raucous for its own good, and the men (with the exception of Dibble) rely too much on bluster to get through the show. A little less noise, and a few more hints of self-doubt from the king, would have made a big difference. Fortunately, there are some lovely grace notes from the two women in the cast—K.O. DelMarcelle, as the French princess and as a servant boy to the English soldiers, and Krista Apple-Hodge, whose warmth makes her ideal as the Chorus, who serves as an intermediary between the cast and the audience.

Henry V runs through April 21, 2013, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30 – $36, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, or online at www.LanternTheater.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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