Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe: Roundup #1
Twelfth Night, Lady M, and How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found

Also see Roundup #2

James Sugg and Josh Machiz
Photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg
Pig Iron Theatre Company never does things the easy way. Ordinarily they don't start with a script but with a concept which they develop into a full-blown play. But for this year's Live Arts Festival, they've gone in a different direction, tackling an actual script, and one that's centuries old: Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. But this is a Twelfth Night like none you've seen before. It's endlessly inventive and surprising, with an odd but effective design concept, spirited and offbeat music, and wonderfully varied and satisfying performances. And best of all, it's a whole lot of fun.

What makes this stew so appetizing? Start with Maiko Matsushima's set, a harsh, vaguely Eastern European, post-industrial landscape dominated by grey metallic panels, antique wooden doors, and a skateboarding half-pipe (the last of which shows more versatility as a dramatic prop than you could ever imagine). Add Olivera Gajic's costumes, which give us Duke Orsino in a seersucker suit and Andrew Aguecheek in a motley collection of stripes, plaids and argyles. Stir in Rosie Langabeer's rousing gypsy jazz played by a roving band of musicians on violin, mandolin, string bass, trumpet, tuba, trombone, and any other instrument that seems to have been lying around. (And Feste the jester sings while strumming an autoharp inscribed "This fascist kills machines," a good-humored invocation of Woody Guthrie.) Top it all off with director Dan Rothenberg's excellent troupe of actors. The production emphasizes the wild comedy of supporting players like Sir Toby and Andrew, but leaves room for some touchingly romantic moments.

Sarah Sanford has played cross-gender roles before, but here she digs deeply into the role of Viola. Her desperate longing for Duke Orsino—and her shock when she realizes that her disguise as a male has made her the object of Olivia's desires—are made palpable by the emotions she reveals on her expressive, mustachioed face. Dito van Reigersberg is the duke, who knows how to display his power; he can stop the band from playing with just a wave of his hand. James Sugg plays Sir Toby Belch as a dissolute drunk with the aura of a faded rock star who has gotten away with his antics for decades; he's a cross between Keith Richards, Billy Connolly, and Foster Brooks. Michael Sean McGuinness plays Malvolio as an upright, uptight English butler who, when called upon to smile, needs three attempts to get it right. Birgit Huppuch's Olivia turns from mournful to giddy upon meeting the disguised Viola, then berates herself over all the foolish questions she asked ("What is your parentage?," she repeats to herself, rolling her eyes). And Scott Greer plays Feste without an air of artifice, an ordinary man in a land of upper-class fools. His unaffected delivery is a thing of wonder.

Under Rothenberg's direction, the varied performance styles work with, rather than against, each other. It all makes sense, and set against a forbidding yet inviting backdrop, it all works beautifully.

Twelfth Night, or What You Will, presented by Pig Iron Theatre Company, runs through September 17, 2011, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street. Details at

Catharine K. Slusar
Photo: Mark Valenzuela
For another take on Shakespeare, try Lady M, a look at Macbeth from Lady Macbeth's point of view. Conceived by its director Adrienne Mackey and its lead actress Catharine K. Slusar, Lady M shows Lady Macbeth questioning her place in her marriage and in society. She knows that she has given her husband the strength to usurp the crown—she is, after all, the one who tells Macbeth to "screw your courage to the sticking place"—but she does not get the benefits that her husband receives. "I could be ten times the soldier he was were I a man ... I can wash a king's blood from his hands but I cannot attend a meeting ... I helped to kill a king but now must stay in the bedroom." Macbeth—"Oh, that's strange," says his wife, "I can't seem to think of his first name"—is played by a woman, Charlotte Northeast. In the world of Lady M, that makes sense; after all, we see her goad her husband to commit murder by saying, in a quote from Shakespeare, "When thou durst do it, then you were a man." The stage is filled with ten more women who chant, drone, and dance around her, representing everything from the three witches to the voices of the world at large.

Lady M mixes passages from Shakespeare with pithy observations, and it's fascinating to watch. Lisi Stoessel's sparse set and Maria Shaplin's moody lighting set a spooky mood, as do the costumes that turn the chorus into ghostly, shapeless blobs. And Slusar's performance is spellbinding, whether she's climbing a rope of sheets to escape the ghosts who besiege her or intoning, "I am legend ... I will be feared. Fear me."

Lady M falters, however, toward the end of its 75-minute running time, when it runs out of things to say and becomes repetitive. Having made its points, the show has nowhere to go, and so the last 20 minutes or so replay events we've already seen, making a concise work less focused. It's a disappointing conclusion to a show that has so much going for it. Here's hoping that Mackey, Slusar and company continue to develop it.

Lady M, presented by Swim Pony Performing Arts, runs through September 9, 2011, at the Arts Bank at the University of the Arts, 601 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Details at

Like Twelfth Night and Lady M, British playwright Fin Kennedy's How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found tells a familiar story. Several familiar stories, in fact. Unfortunately, the reason that they're familiar is that they've been told before in much more interesting books and movies. The central character is an alcoholic and drug addict who talks about himself in the second person and is obsessed with mourning his recently deceased mother. No, this isn't Bright Lights, Big City, just an amazing simulation. Eventually our antihero gets caught embezzling from his company to support his drug habit, so he goes underground and creates a fake identity (shades of Catch Me If You Can). He can't give up his drug habit, though, and so he ends up spiraling down even further. He does eventually learn a lesson in the last two minutes of the play, but by then it's too late to care about him.

Director Gregory Scott Campbell's production does boast some fine performances: David Stanger is focused and intense as the protagonist, and Mark Cairns and Jennifer MacMillan bring some nice comic touches to several small roles. And Michael Long's video projections are sensational. But if all you want to see is a good video, rent Bright Lights, Big City or Catch Me If You Can.

How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, presented by Luna Theater Company, runs though September 18, 2011 at the Playground @ The Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Details at

-- Tim Dunleavy

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