Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Act a Lady, Woman and Scarecrow and The Amish Project

Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady is set in a Midwestern town in 1927, where a group of gentlemen farmers decides to perform a play to benefit a children's charity. The play they pick is an 18th-century French farce that requires the farmers to dress as women—but, though they're eager to do the play, they don't want their actions to be misinterpreted. As one of the men says, "We don't want to be ladies, just gents in skirts, so they know it's just for fun." After a while, though, as the men switch between male and female identities, they find their attitudes changing, as they reveal aspects of their own personalities they'd kept from their friends, girlfriends and wives.

Act a Lady is at its best when Harrison shows off his facility with language. During the scenes set in 1927, the characters speak with a nicely natural grace, while the play-within-a-play has a farcical formality (one French character tells off another by saying "Your metaphors are as desperate as your fortunes"). And the gender confusion gives the play a sweetly playful tone. But the novelty of the cross-dressing wears off after a while, and Harrison's characterizations aren't as deep as they need to be to make us care. And there's little dramatic tension; it's easy to figure out early on that the upright and uptight Dorothy (the excellent Leah Walton), who opposes the actors' "sinfulness," will be won over in the end.

Still, director Kevin Glaccum has created a lively, cheerful production, with some endearing performances. Amanda Schoonover played Zina, the show's director, with hilarious, deadpan relish. Zina is a European martinet dressed in britches and boots like a female Erich von Stroheim, and she never seems to recognize how absurdly out of place she is in the Midwest. Megan Slater is sweet as the production's inquisitive makeup artist. The three men (Mike Dees, Matt Tallman, and Jamison Foreman) move effortlessly between their roles, with Foreman's gay farmhand the most touching.

Act a Lady marks Azuka Theatre's first show in its new home at the 19th-century First Baptist Church, and production values are high, with Joshua L. Schulman's lighting particularly effective.

Act a Lady, presented by Azuka Theatre, gave its last performance on November 20, 2011.

Irish playwright Marina Carr's Woman and Scarecrow is about a woman who is dying, but Carr purposely avoids saying what the woman is dying from. Judging from Villanova Theatre's earnest but artsy production, I'd say she died from an overdose of symbolism.

The woman, known simply as "Woman" and played with an affecting, haggard dignity by Felicia Leicht, is a prototypical earth mother. Married for 25 years and the mother of eight children, Woman gave all she could to the world, and it's given nothing in return. "You used up everything you had trying to give everyone what they wanted ... you're going to your grave out of bitterness," says her closest companion. That companion is Scarecrow, a creature out of Irish mythology played with brash directness by Jessica O'Brien. Scarecrow has spent decades serving as the woman's protector, confessor, tormentor and conscience, and now she is goading Woman into going down fighting. With Scarecrow's urging, Woman finally stands up to her cheating husband, telling him "For 25 years you've caused my suffering ... you drank the wine, now drink the vinegar."

Woman and Scarecrow is a serious, deep work that gives you a lot to think about. But it's far too glum, with a view that tells Woman she should embrace death as an end to her decades of oppression. Woman's dying plea to God, "Make me human and then divine," comes too late to make the two-hour journey worthwhile. The play's four actors never smile once, and the pessimism is stifling.

As directed by Rev. David Cregan, Woman and Scarecrow looks impressive, with artful projections by Jerold R. Forsyth. But some of the production's choices are questionable. None of the actors (except Lizzy Dalton-Negron as the Woman's aunt) speaks with an Irish accent, even though Carr's script is filled with references to the River Shannon and other Irish landmarks. Cregan gives the part of Woman's bullying husband to the impassive Ahren Potratz, who doesn't look like he's been alive for 25 years, let alone married that long. And worst of all is the decision to make O'Brien's Scarecrow look like Natalie Portman in Black Swan. The feathery bodice, bare shoulders, and angular eye makeup are such blatant steals from that hit movie that they distracted from what O'Brien and Leicht work so hard to accomplish. What should be a powerful dramatic piece ends up seeming more than a little ridiculous.

Woman and Scarecrow has a grim message, and Villanova's production, despite some strong acting, doesn't land as forcefully as it should.

Woman and Scarecrow, presented by Villanova Theatre, gave its final performance on November 20, 2011.

"Man enters Amish school and opens fire." Those words, ripped from the headlines, open The Amish Project and let the audience know right away what it's in for. Jessica Dickey's play is a documentary-style exploration of the 2006 tragedy in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in which a man named Charles Roberts entered a school and shot ten young girls, killing five, then took his own life when the police smashed school windows to get at him. The Amish community, while reeling in grief, forgave Roberts and showed kindness to his widow and children. Dickey's play tries to answer the question: Why?

The Amish Project is a one-woman show. Janice Rowland played all seven characters, including a little girl who lost her sister, a male professor who tries to explain Amish culture, the killer's widow, and a part-Hispanic teenager who tries to befriend the widow. The portrayals are vivid and convincing, and Rowland is superb. In its scope, Rowland's task is similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith's Barrymore-winning performance earlier this year in Philadelphia Theatre Company's Let Me Down Easy. And, unlike Smith, Rowland does it all without costume changes or high production values; it's just one woman, a severe black dress with a white apron, a wooden chair, and a black curtain. Some of the "scenes" in The Amish Project are only one sentence long, and Rowland convincingly changes characters with only variations in her voice and gestures. It's a stunning performance, directed with care by James Stover.

But there's a big difference between Let Me Down Easy and The Amish Project. Smith based her play and her characterizations on interviews she conducted herself. Dickey, however, conducted no interviews; her characters are fictional. (Even the killer's name is changed, Dragnet-style, to protect the innocent.) That ends up leaving the audience at a disadvantage; I'd be more interested in hearing the real voices of the Nickel Mines community, not Dickey's supposition of what the community must have felt like. The Amish Project lacks the crucial insight that Smith gives to her work. Furthermore, The Amish Project only lasts a little more than an hour, as if Dickey decided to stop the play when she ran out of characters.

In the end, The Amish Project leaves its audience with more questions than answers. Yet it also allows the audience able to savor Janice Rowland's remarkable accomplishment.

The Amish Project, presented by The Renegade Company in the Red Room at the Society Hill Playhouse, gave its final performance on November 20, 2011.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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