Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Uncle Tom's Cabin, A Little Night Music,
Venus in Fur and American Sligo

Ed Swidey and Nia Ali
Photo by Jenna Kuerzi
First, the good news: it works. Mostly.

EgoPo Classic Theater's Uncle Tom's Cabin: An Unfortunate History—a cross-race adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's landmark 1852 anti-slavery novel, with white characters played by black actors and vice versa—is far and away the most controversial production of the Philadelphia theatrical season. It's worth seeing—not because of the controversy, but because the central concept, improbable as it may sound, works. Sure, it's weird at first to see white actors playing slaves. Sure, it's weird at first to see black actors insulting whites by casually throwing around the N-word. But after a few scenes, it doesn't feel weird at all. Director Lane Savadove's gambit allows the audience to focus on the characters rather than their images and to strip away a lot of the baggage that history has added to Stowe's novel. With the help of a gifted and versatile cast, EgoPo's production allows the viewer to see the characters as people and not as stereotypes. If EgoPo's aim was to humanize Stowe's characters and make the work more approachable, then it has achieved its goal.

Now, the bad news: it's still Uncle Tom's Cabin. That is, it's an old-fashioned story told in an old-fashioned way, with too many melodramatic plot twists and too many characters, most of them simplistic and none of them likable.

EgoPo has wisely decided to create a new adaptation (written by Savadove and Glenn Odom) rather than use a script from one of the countless stage versions that were a staple of the American stage for about a century. The adaptation makes the plot easy to follow, and uses a great deal of Stowe's dialogue. But the production is an odd blend of interesting choices and dull ones. There is some striking imagery—for instance, set designer Joseph Napolitano uses bales of hay to represent everything from horses to the ice floes that Eliza makes her escape on. (These bales are evoked later, in a slave auction scene, by a line taken directly from Stowe's novel that "a slave is, in every respect, a bale of merchandise.") But much of the show moves slowly, seeming more like a 19th century pageant than a 21st century play. Nearly every scene ends with a blackout that slows down the action.

The show runs two hours and forty-five minutes, with the book's halfway point (the introduction of the slave child Topsy) appearing an hour and forty-five minutes in. This means that the introduction of the main characters is handled at too leisurely a pace, while the last half of the story is crammed into the play's final hour. Part of the reason for the slow pace is that Savadove and his crew seem determined to fit in nearly every plot point from the novel, no matter how minor. (Couldn't the subplot about Lucy and her stolen child have been cut?) Oddly, act one, which should end on a high note that fills us with anticipation for the action to come, concludes instead with perhaps the show's least exciting moment, the introduction of Ophelia, a supporting character. When the lights went up for intermission there was no applause, as the audience seemed confused that the act would end without any suspense over what would happen next. EgoPo's Uncle Tom's Cabin is full of bizarre moments like that—there's no momentum in the show's overly literal approach. The show needs to be edited to a more manageable length and needs to be constructed in a way that is less, well, slavish to Stowe's text.

The 15-member cast (with most of the actors playing multiple roles) does a solid job, fleshing out the largely underwritten characters. Ed Swidey, with his long, sorrowful face, turns Uncle Tom into an ideal of tragic nobility, and Maria Konstantinidis plays Eliza with grace and empathy. Steve Wright brings a soothing charm to the reluctant slave owner St. Clare, and Langston Darby plays the villains Haley and Simon Legree with glee but without turning them into cartoons.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is not great literature, but it's important literature. Likewise, EgoPo's adaptation is not great theatre, but it's important theatre. It still needs quite a bit of work to be a complete success—at times it's as stodgy and clunky as its literary predecessor. As a piece of literature, Uncle Tom's Cabin has not aged well; it's easy to respect but very hard to love. And its weaknesses, including the way it treats African Americans (sometimes with compassion and admiration, sometimes with insulting condescension), will tell you why the book, once a staple of American schools, fell by the wayside once the Civil Rights era began. But EgoPo's production needs to be seen by anyone who wants to understand why the book had such a huge impact, and why it played such an important role in American history.

Uncle's Tom Cabin: An Unfortunate History runs through June 9, 2013, and is presented by EgoPo Classic Theater at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. Tickets are $20-$32 and are available by calling 267-273-1414 or online at

Christopher Patrick Mullen and
Patti-Lee Meringo

Photo by Mark Garvin
The Arden Theatre has always been in its element when it does Stephen Sondheim musicals, and their new production of A Little Night Music is no exception. It's a handsome production and a thoroughly charming one.

Hugh Wheeler's book, adapted from the Ingmar Bergman movie Smiles of a Summer Night, offers up a romantic roundelay involving a middle-aged lawyer and his teenaged wife, his old mistress and her new lover, plus a few other characters and, for good measure, a maid and a butler. We're in Sweden circa 1900, a land of formality and beauty; James Kronzer's elegant set and Rosemarie E. McKelvey's opulent costumes set the scene perfectly. And Sondheim's songs, full of intricate, touching and often hilarious lyrics, take us into the minds of people who are not always as dignified as their surroundings. There's Desiree, an actress who appears to be living "The Glamorous Life," but is actually exhausted from decades of touring. There's Countess Charlotte, trapped for years in a sterile marriage to a philandering military man, who summarizes her life as "Every Day a Little Death." There's Henrik, a frustrated seminary student who declares "As I've often stated / It's intolerable being tolerated." And there's Petra the maid, who rejects the ordinary life of a housewife by noting that "It's a very short road / From the pinch and the punch / To the paunch and the pouch / And the pension." (Try singing that three times fast.)

Sondheim sets all his Night Music songs to various waltz tempos and uses some dazzling musical techniques, including the complex, interlocking melodies of "Now," "Soon" and "Later"—sung individually at first, then reprised as a round—and the audacious double quintet of the act one closer "A Weekend in the Country." Eric Ebbenga's eight-piece orchestra offers fine support.

Night Music has a great mixture of brainy playfulness and somber regret, and director Terrence J. Nolen's approach finds just the right balance. The cast is strong, especially Grace Gonglewski's warm Desiree, Karen Peakes' sardonic Charlotte, Jim Hogan's anxious Henrik, Alex Keiper's sassy Petra, Sally Mercer's jaded Madame Armfeldt, and Ben Dibble's smarmy Count Carl-Magnus—all excellent singers.

If there's a minor flaw in Nolen's Night Music, it's that it's a little too stately for its own good at times. The best Night Music I've ever seen—a superbly sung production at Baltimore's CenterStage in 2005, with Kate Baldwin as Charlotte and Polly Bergen as Madame Armfeldt—generated a lot more heat. And there's one major flaw in this Night Music: the casting of Christopher Patrick Mullen in the leading role of the attorney Fredrik. He's too hesitant and downcast to be convincing in the role, and his voice isn't robust enough for Fredrik's challenging songs. Mullen's duet with Dibble on "It Would Have Been Wonderful" should be a battle of equals, but Dibble's rich voice overpowers Mullen's.

Overall, though, this is an admirable A Little Night Music, one that does justice to a show overflowing with pleasures.

A Little Night Music runs through June 30, 2013, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $29-$48 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at

Mark Alhadeff and Jenni Putney
Photo by Frank Wojciechowski
In the opening moments of David Ives' Venus in Fur, we meet Thomas, a playwright worn out from a long day auditioning dozens of "incompetent actresses." Talking on his cell phone to his fiancée, he says he's lost hope that he'll ever get the role of Vanda in his new play cast. "There are no women like this," he says. "No beautiful-slash-sexy women. No sexy-slash-articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of a brain in their skulls."

And then Vanda walks in. An unknown actress with the same name as the character, she shows up to audition, and she seems to have it all—she's formidably smart and overwhelmingly sexy (partly because she's wearing next to nothing). But there's something mysterious about Vanda. She claims to know nothing about Thomas' play or its subject matter, but it soon becomes clear that she's memorized the entire play—how? She knows intimate details about Thomas' private life—how? And she's brought a bag full of appropriate props and costumes—why? Who is Vanda anyway, and where did she come from—from Brooklyn, or from 19th century Vienna, or some other dimension? And what does she have to teach this writer about literary theory, role playing, and identity?

Venus in Fur is a smart, dynamic and very funny play that takes a provocative subject and makes it enticing without cheapening it. Thomas' play-within-a-play is an adaptation of an 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian writer whose name inspired the word "masochism." When Thomas explains the plot, Vanda responds, "Basically, it's S-and-M porn." While Thomas defends the story and its view of sexual domination and power, Vanda criticizes it as sexist and demeaning. By the time 90 minutes are up, Vanda will have turned the tables on Thomas, egging him on, taking over as director and tearing his vision apart. She ends up as the dominant one, but not in the way you'd expect.

Director Kip Fagan's production never lets the audience's attention lag for an instant. Thomas and Vanda's first encounter is played at a breakneck pace, while a more erotic moment later is played at a slow and sultry tempo—and it all seems just right. Mark Alhadeff's Thomas is smart without seeming obnoxious; he manages to fall off his pedestal without ever seeming weak. And Jenni Putney's Vanda is a marvel as she leaps instantly from character to character, from accent to accent, and from gender to gender, evolving from a scatterbrain to Thomas' intellectual superior. While she lacks the carefree goofiness that Nina Arianda brought to the role on Broadway, she gets the confidence, stillness and focus just right in this exceptionally demanding role. The play's technical aspects are excellent, especially Thom Weaver's lighting, which turns a large rehearsal hall (designed by Jason Simms) into an intimate spot. And we get to see Vanda manipulate the lighting, just like she manipulates Thomas.

Venus in Fur is sensual but not sleazy. Like Vanda herself, Ives' play is not what you might expect.

Venus in Fur runs through June 23, 2013, and is presented by the Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $46-$59, with discounts for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at, or in person at the box office.

Allen Radway and John Jezior
Adam Rapp's American Sligo is set in the home of Art "Crazy Train" Sligo, a legendary professional wrestler who is just hours away from his final match before retirement. The widowed Art, his son Kyle, and Kyle's Aunt Bobbie (who serves as a housekeeper) are welcoming a guest: Bobby Bibby, a teenaged wrestling fan who idolizes Art and has won a contest to have dinner with his hero. It's a contest Bobby may soon regret entering.

American Sligo veers between comedy and harrowing drama. The comedy in New City Stage Company's production doesn't work especially well; gags about mutual embarrassment and Aunt Bobbie's failing memory are too repetitive. And the play takes too long to find its footing. But the play takes off once Art's second son, Victor, makes his entrance. Victor is a cocaine-addicted ex-con with a predilection for aggression and intimidation. Once Victor arrives, in search of a few extra bucks to make his next score, the play's suspense begins to take hold. Rapp sets up a marvelous contrast between Art's world and Victor's. Art dismisses his own legacy in wrestling—"it's all fake," he says, insisting that "I should have been a shoe salesman." But for Victor, and the people in his life, the threat of violence is real—and constant.

Director Aaron Cromie uses that threat to pull the audience into the Sligos' world, and much of the satisfaction in American Sligo comes from the way Cromie slowly reveals the tension behind the family's ordinary Midwestern façade. Allen Radway is chilling as Victor, Susanne Sulby has a kooky charm as Aunt Bobbie, and Jordan B. Mottram's Bobby is stone-faced, terrified of making a bad impression. Ginger Dayle and Francesca Piccioni are strong as the brothers' girlfriends, both of whom learn too late that they're in over their heads. Only John Jezior (as Art) and Sam Sherburne (as Kyle) seem less than perfectly cast, because they don't seem the right ages for their parts; I thought at first they were supposed to be brothers rather than father and son. The set design by S. Cory Palmer gives us a convincingly ordinary living room and dining room littered with decades' worth of photos and knickknacks.

Rapp's play is a mixed bag, but it's at its best when it keeps its audience guessing what will come next. (I especially like the way Piccioni's character seems to appear out of nowhere late in the action and take the play in an unexpected direction.) With its blend of normality, eccentricity and open hostility, American Sligo is an offbeat winner.

American Sligo runs through June 23, 2013, and is presented by New City Stage Company at the Skybox at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10-$35 and available by calling the box office at 215-563-7500 or online at

-- Tim Dunleavy

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