Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Red, The Diary of Anne Frank and
The Merchant of Venice

Haley Joel Osment and Stephen Rowe
Photo: Mark Garvin
"What do you see?"

Those are the words of painter Mark Rothko in the opening moments of Red, John Logan's play about Rothko, what made him tick, and what made him tick people off. Like Rothko, and like his deceptively simple paintings, it's fascinating and absorbing. Philadelphia Theatre Company's new production captures the play's power well. For 100 stimulating minutes, Rothko's question hangs in the air, probing the audience to consider not only the way it responds to Rothko's paintings but the way it responds to all art, and to life itself.

Red depicts Rothko in the late 1950s, at the height of his influence as America's premier abstract expressionist. But Rothko is uncomfortable with his fame, and is filled with contempt for the people who made him famous: art patrons, critics, and customers. Paid an exorbitant fee to paint a series of canvases for the new Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, Rothko must now grapple with the question of whether he is selling out.

That question, along with many others, is raised by Ken, a young aspiring painter Rothko has hired as his assistant. Rothko announces that Ken's job is to do any task, "no matter how demanding or demeaning." Ostensibly that means keeping Rothko's Manhattan studio running smoothly and keeping Rothko content, whether by mixing paint or by buying his boss food and cigarettes. But mainly, Ken's job is to listen to Rothko's rants—about Nietzschean philosophy, about his fellow painters ("I think Jasper Johns is trying to murder me"), and about the newly fashionable pop art style ("That's business, not art"). But Ken's frustrations keep building, and as an admirer of art's newest wave, he can't help but respond to Rothko's outrageous pronouncements. "Not all art is psychodrama," Ken declares—but Rothko doesn't buy it, especially since Ken, like Rothko, has a pain-filled past.

Director Anders Cato's production makes all these seemingly dry issues seem vital, even for those who have no knowledge of the famous names cited. Cato persuasively builds the friction between these two men whose who each have a desperate need to be heard and recognized, but for different reasons.

Stephen Rowe plays Rothko as a force of nature—blunt, brilliant, tender and terrifying at the same time. As Ken, Haley Joel Osment isn't at Rowe's level; he plays too many of his angry scenes with a calm, blank expression. As a result, many of the points Ken makes seem lightweight, even when they're right. Osment is appealing as always, especially in the early scenes, but he isn't quite the worthy opponent Red requires.

Red is as striking to look at as to listen to, thanks to James Noone's convincingly weathered set and Tyler Micoleau's haunting lighting. And the scene where Rowe and Osment prime a huge canvas by slathering it with paint is dazzling, proving that art isn't always just an intellectual exercise—it can be strenuous physical exercise as well.

Logan's play often makes Rothko seems an egotistical bully, but there was much more to him than that. Red, like Rothko's art, continually reveals new facets the more you contemplate it.

Red runs through November 13, 2011, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $46 —$59, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at, or by visiting the box office.

Rob Kahn and Sara Yoko Howard
Photo: Andrew Clotworthy
EgoPo Classic Theater is presenting a fine, respectable production of The Diary of Anne Frank. In a cramped corner of the Prince Music Theater's second floor Independence Studio, set designer Matthew Miller has squeezed a replica of the annex where teenaged Anne, her family, and four other persecuted Jews hid from the Nazis in wartime Amsterdam. Surrounded closely by audience seating (which consists of some uncomfortable plastic chairs), it all feels stiflingly claustrophobic—and that's an appropriate way to approach Anne Frank's tragic story.

Wendy Kesselman's 1990s adaptation of the 1950s play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett brings a refreshingly frank point of view to the story; it shows Anne dealing with her burgeoning sexual feelings, but avoids becoming distasteful. It's helped greatly here by Sara Yoko Howard's sincere, affecting performance as Anne. There's good interplay among the rest of the ensemble, with especially strong work from Rob Kahn, in a confident turn as Anne's tough and compassionate father, and from Russ Widdall as the increasingly paranoid Mr. Van Daan.

Director Lane Savadove's production does a good job of building tension, showing the Franks and their roommates turning against each other as the pressure from the outside world mounts. Those outside forces ended up taking the lives of nearly all the residents of the annex, and at times they threaten to destroy the play as well. Even though Anne's last words in the play, as they were in her diary, speak of her belief that "people are truly good at heart," gloom far outweighs Anne's hopeful yearning. But, considering Anne's fate, there was probably no good way for the playwrights to balance the competing messages.

EgoPo's The Diary of Anne Frank isn't astounding, but it doesn't feel creaky either. It's a somber and solid production.

The Diary of Anne Frank runs through November 6, 2011, and is presented by EgoPo Classic Theater at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices are $12-$32 and are available by calling 800-595-4TIX or 215-552-8773, online at, or by visiting the box office.

Josh Carpenter and
Benim Foster

Photo: Alexander Burns
While EgoPo contemplates the ultimate catastrophic result of anti-Semitism, Quintessence Theatre Company examines anti-Semitism's insidious roots by presenting The Merchant of Venice. Quintessence's production is a lively one, anchored by two glowing lead performances. Yet Merchant remains the rare Shakespeare play that's impossible to love, with repugnant elements that no reinterpretation can resolve.

Director Alexander Burns has mounted a sleek production, aided by David A. Sexton's stark lighting and by Jane Casanave's costumes that find nearly the whole cast wearing crisp business attire—even the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who fits right in here among the other sharks. Benim Foster gives a forceful performance as a Shylock, who is as much tormented as tormentor, while Jessica Dal Canton is a most beguiling Portia, facing legal challenges and romantic absurdities with an assertive attitude and a wry, wide smile. The ensemble (the same one also seen in Quintessence's repertory production of The Venetian Twins, recently reviewed here) is uniformly strong, but special notice should be given to Alexander Harvey, who plays two comic roles with delightfully ridiculous accents. He's riotously funny as the Prince of Aragon, one of Portia's suitors, but his other role, as Shylock's servant Lancelot, proves an insurmountable challenge. The role is so obvious and labored that not even Harvey can make it funny.

But having a weak comic relief character is the least of Merchant's problems. Burns' production depicts a Shylock who is tormented by bigots like Antonio (the excellent Josh Carpenter), the merchant of the play's title, and it takes pains to show how Shylock and his fellow Jews were unfairly mistreated by Venetian society. But it does little to justify Shylock's stereotyped wickedness, and it doesn't disguise the vicious anti-Semitic glee of Antonio and his Christian friends when Shylock is defeated. And no matter how appealing the cast, and no matter how sympathetically Shylock is portrayed, that ultimately makes The Merchant of Venice hard to stomach.

At the conclusion of Quintessence's production, after the Jewish character is humiliated, the remaining characters break into a hora, the traditional festive Jewish dance. It seems to be a conciliatory gesture, but it hardly makes up for the characters' behavior, and it doesn't make this Merchant more pleasing, despite this production's many qualities.

The Merchant of Venice runs through November 20, 2011, and is presented by Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave, Philadelphia. Ticket prices are $30, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available online at, or by visiting the box office.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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