Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

2012 Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe Roundup #2:
The Edge of Our Bodies
Zero Cost House
Ivona, Princess of Burgundia

See Part 1

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

Nicole Erb
Photo by Paola Nogueras
Nicole Erb's absorbing performance as a prep school student who has lost her way is the best thing about Adam Rapp's The Edge of Our Bodies. Bernadette is a 16-year-old who runs away from her Connecticut boarding school and hops a train to New York to confront the boyfriend who just got her pregnant. Erb's Bernadette is self-possessed, resolute, and conscious of her own allure and how it opens doors for her. And the tale she tells in this (nearly) one-woman show gains power from the way she narrates it—sometimes reading from her diary, sometimes just delivering her monologue directly to the audience, always with an intense stare and a world-weary sadness.

But Rapp's tale, while provocative, ends up feeling hollow. At times it feels like a female take on The Catcher in the Rye, but without any freshness. (There are references to Jean Genet's The Maids, which Bernadette has just been cast in at her school, but they don't connect strongly enough to the narrative.) Rapp sets a scene well, providing vivid, almost tactile descriptions of the smell of a man's cologne or the taste of his scotch. Yet the seediness of the scenes with the story—particularly in the scene about Bernadette's bizarre sexual encounter with a herpes-infected businessman who picks her up at a bar—soon becomes overwhelming.

Despite direction by Matt Pfeiffer that makes a potentially confusing tale easier to follow, The Edge of Our Bodies is hard to like. It's a creepy tale that even Erb's spellbinding performance can't quite redeem.

The Edge of Our Bodies runs through September 30, 2012, and is presented by Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 South 13th Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $22 - $25 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-218-4022 or online at

Dan Hodge and Krista Apple
In August Strindberg's 1888 play Creditors, Adolph is an artist who truly suffers for his art—he's anxious and weak, he requires a pair of canes to walk, and he suffers from what appear to be epileptic fits. As the play opens, he's conversing with his friend Gustav about his painting, his sculpture, and his marriage to Tekla, a novelist. After hearing what Gustav has to say about all three, however, Adolph has his doubts about all three. Gustav seems supportive at first, but eventually lets Adolph know what he really feels: that Adolph's artwork is "insipid," and as for Tekla, well, "that woman has never loved you." When Tekla arrives home, Adolph finds her affection aggravating rather than soothing. While Gustav has condemned Tekla as manipulative, it seems as if Gustav is the manipulator instead. Is he really Adolph's friend after all?

Creditors is an intriguing character study, and while the characters are often engaged in philosophical speeches about art and life, there's a motive behind each of those speeches, whether it's revenge, jealousy, or self-defense. The Philadelphia Artists' Collective presented the show in the second floor library of the century-old Franklin Inn Club, with the audience positioned on the sides of the stately room, in close proximity to the actors. Harsh words can sting when you're that close; Gustav's blatant misogyny drew gasps from the women in the audience. And it wasn't just the words that shocked; when Adolph pulled out a knife and ran it down his wife's dress, a woman in the front row, just inches away from the actors, cringed and averted her eyes.

Director Charlotte Northeast's staging is gripping, and the performances are always believable, despite extreme emotions that could have easily turned cartoonish. Dan Hodge's Adolph is the prize in a battle of wills, anguished and tortured in every way. Damon Bonetti's Gustav is not a simple villain—he's sympathetic even when his deceptions are exposed. And Krista Apple's Tekla is a woman of great passions but even greater intellect who refused to allow those passions to rule her life.

Creditors gave its final performance on September 23, 2012.

Alex Torra
Photo by JJ Tiziou
Playwright Toshiki Okada likes to play mind games with his audience. Fortunately for his audience, his games are a lot of fun to watch, even when they're not fully comprehensible. Part of what makes Zero Cost House so enjoyable is seeing him struggling to express himself as he dons multiple personas, as played by several members of Pig Iron Theatre Company.

Zero Cost House starts off as a riff on Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and ends up as a contemplation of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Okada's native Japan. In between, there are plenty of digressions; in fact, Zero Cost House doesn't have much of a plot—it's practically one digression after another. After Okada praises Thoreau's book—which he last read fifteen years ago—and its message of living a simple life, his agent pipes up: "You do like "Walden," right? You seem to be sort of detached from it ... listening to you talk about it doesn't really inspire me to read it." Being confronted with his own ambiguity leads Okada to condemn the naiveté of his past ("I wish you could have met me from fifteen years ago"). Eventually we learn that the aftermath of the earthquake has affected him strongly ("Okada has a radiation phobia," says another character), and we see his interactions with a local architect/politician who wants Tokyo to be abandoned. Mixed in with all the seemingly factual events of the play are whimsical appearances by a family of rabbits who complain about Twitter and make references to how the actors keep switching roles. During act two, one of the rabbits refers to something that happened in act one by saying "Back then, we weren't Japanese, we were Irish. But even so, we're rabbits."

Okada comes off as a well-meaning but self-centered guy who over thinks everything—but he's aware of his insecurities and self-doubts, which makes him seem charming. In the play's opening moments, Dito van Reigersberg narrates the play as Okada, while in the background we see Shavon Norris, playing another aspect of Okada's personality, supposedly writing the play as we are watching it. Eventually these two performers plus all of the other actors (James Sugg, Alex Torra, and Mary McCool) exchange roles, playing everyone from Okada to Thoreau to the rabbits. In director Dan Rothenberg's fluid interpretation, everything blends together to make an appetizing intellectual stew.

Incidentally, while most of the characters are Japanese, none of the actors are—yet racial and ethnic politics never become an issue. In Rothenberg's accessible vision of Okada's world, it seems as natural for Okada to be played by a white man and a black woman as it is for Henry David Thoreau to be portrayed as a flannel-wearing grunge rocker. Okada and Rothenberg keep their audience alert, waiting for the next playful, fascinating digression.

Zero Cost House gave its final performance on September 22, 2012.

Absurdity piles upon absurdity in Ivona, Princess of Burgundia, a 1938 work by the Polish playwright and novelist Witold Gombrowicz. But, unlike so many deliberately outrageous plays, Ivona never tries one's patience. The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium's production lets the audience in on the joke from the first moments, when we see the cast in Erica Hoelscher's witty costumes. The play is set in a fictitious kingdom, and we see the king and queen and the members of their court wearing fancy suits and gowns right out of 18th century France—but the wigs that the actors wear would never pass muster in Versailles. Most appear to be made out of cotton batting and are covered with empty toilet paper rolls. They're powdered wigs by way of the powder room.

Decorum and courtly civility rule the day in this palace. That's why everyone seems so flustered by the sudden appearance of Ivona (Heather Cole), who wears a blank expression and says nothing, even when she's questioned by the king and queen. (She does eventually make a few remarks, although they tend to be non-sequiturs.) The men and women of the court interpret Ivona's silence as disdain and arrogance, and a threat to their genteel society. Since she won't explain herself, everyone projects their feelings onto her. Prince Phillip (David Stanger), filled with pity for Ivona, proposes marriage—not because he loves her, he says, but to teach her a lesson "because I couldn't stand you." (When he breaks up with her, she still doesn't seem to care.) Eventually the royal family, the Lord Chamberlain (Lou Seitchik), and all the other members of the court look for a way to get rid of the drab, apathetic girl whom the king calls "Grumpy-Dumpy." In the process, they reveal their own callousness and their need to enforce conformity at any cost.

Director Tina Brock's delightful production is broad by necessity—everybody is over the top. Everybody, that is, except Cole, whose Ivona is a nice counterbalance to the rest of the cast. Cole's bemused commoner never seems like a simpleton—in fact, she's bordering on passive aggressive, and she comes off as much wiser than the fools running circles around her. Even when Gombrowicz's story becomes a bit repetitive, Brock's energetic cast always keeps things interesting.

Ivona, Princess of Burgundia gave its final performance on September 23, 2012.

-- Tim Dunleavy

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