Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Wilma Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule

Also see Cameron's review of You for Me for You and Rebecca's review of The Importance of Being Earnest

Aneta Kernová and Aneza Papadopoulou
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev
Over the course of nearly four decades at the helm of The Wilma Theater, Blanka Zizka has distinguished herself as a director, administrator, and advocate for the arts in Philadelphia. The only title that has heretofore eluded her is playwright. That changed recently, when the world premiere of her first attempt as an author, Adapt!, began its world premiere production at Wilma's Avenue of the Arts main stage.

Like many nascent dramatists, Zizka has taken a write-what-you-know approach. The story of Lenka, a young woman who flees communist-run Czechoslovakia in 1977 with dreams of becoming an artist in New York City, roughly correlates with Zizka's own emigration to the United States. Lenka holds an uncompromising belief that art must be pure and truthful, that it is the natural disinfectant of misery and oppression. Adapt! builds upon this worldview with steadfast earnestness.

But Zizka shouldn't quit her day job just yet. For all its lofty goals, Adapt! unspools as a series of surrealist vignettes that make a lot of noise but don't say much of anything. Zizka wears her influences on her sleeve—she clearly owes a stylistic debt to her countryman Václav Havel, while attempting the marriage of high intellectualism and low culture often found in the works of her frequent collaborator (and fellow Czech emigrant) Tom Stoppard. Brecht's Alienation Effect (primarily expressed through the presence of a spectral narrator, played by Greek actress Aneza Papadopoulou) and the avant-garde banality of Ionesco are thrown in for good measure, and the fervid, atmospheric production, which Zizka also directed, owes debts to Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater and the austere works of the late French auteur Patrice Chéreau.

Regrettably, Zizka succumbs to the anxiety of influence, and her work rarely rises above the level of pastiche. Stylistic choices meant to be evocative and searing—the depiction of Communist party officials as Orwellian pigs, complete with porcine masks, or the presence of a mysterious woman (Krista Apple) who may or may not be Lenka's future self—merely seem jejune. Zizka makes a mistake that is common among novice writers: She's overstuffed her play with every idea that flooded her head, with little regard for how it all hangs together, and tied it up in surrealist bow, to justify the incomprehensibility. Although two dramaturgs, Walter Bilderback and Nell Bang-Jensen, are listed in the program, neither seems to have done much to cut through the kudzu of Zizka's muddled text.

It's a shame, because the play is not without moments of lyrical, sensitive introspection. In particular, Lenka's remembrance of her first theatrical experience—a performance of Dvorak's Rusalka, when she was eight years old—is recounted with stunning clarity. As underscored by the opera's haunting "Song to the Moon," the passion with which Lenka recounts her first communal artistic experience serves as a blueprint for her belief in the power of theater to change the world. The moment felt like an emissary from the play I wished I were watching.

The presence of Aneta Kernová, a Prague-based actress making her American debut, as Lenka lends a sense of authenticity to the proceedings, but I am not convinced that she is a stage natural. Her sharply etched features and piercing stare cannot overcome her monotonous line readings and slouchy comportment. In contrast, Papadopoulou effortlessly commands the stage; I found myself searching for her even when she wasn't meant to be the focal point. The rest of the play's myriad roles are taken up my members of the Wilma Hothouse, the theater's resident acting company. This troupe is composed of some of the region's best performers—among them Sarah Gliko, Campbell O'Hare, and Steven Rishard, to name just a few—and to see them given so little to do felt like a missed opportunity.

Whatever skills Zizka lacks as a writer, her instinct as a director is unimpeachable—even when the play is at its most trite, it still moves briskly. The production also benefits from Matt Saunders' evocative unit set and Thom Weaver's stark, apparitional lighting. But an attractive house cannot compensate for structural problems in its bones. If Zizka didn't have one of Philadelphia's most venerable theaters at her disposal, there would probably be a chance that Adapt! could gestate and collate into a compelling theatrical experience. It goes without saying that the time is ripe for the story of a hopeful, idealistic emigrant fleeing repression for the promise of a brighter day. Unfortunately, we are left with a mishmash of undercooked ideas passing itself off as a play.

Adapt! continues through Sunday, April 22, 2017, at The Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. Tickets ($10-45) can be purchased online at or by calling 215-546-7824.

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