Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Peaceable Kingdom
Orbiter 3
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule

Also see Cameron's review of Buzzer


The Cast
Photo by Plate 3 Photography
I doubt that a more memorable theatrical experience than Mary Tuomanen's Peaceable Kingdom will be presented in Philadelphia this year. Directed by Rebecca Wright and produced by the artist's collective Orbiter 3 at Old City's Christ Church Neighborhood House, this is the kind of piece designed to take your breath away from the moment you enter the house. What could possibly compete with Apollo Mark Weaver's oasis-like set, equally inspired by the Garden of Eden and the series of Edward Hicks painting that lend the play its name? Or Rebecca Kanach's animal costumes, which look endearingly homemade? And did I mention there's a nine-member chorus, complete with conductor, who interject musical selections by Randall Thompson at regular intervals? And that said chorus is costumed as trees?

You'll notice, though, that I said memorable—not best. For all of its ambition, Tuomanen's play is often frustratingly uneven, and frequently downright boring. It is easy to commend the author for the scope of her work and for her boundless creativity, but I stopped far short of loving—or even enjoying—much of the play itself.

Tuomanen spends eighty minutes upending the concept of utopia as presented not just by Hicks, whose controversial paintings portray a world in which lion and lamb can fraternally coexist, as envisioned in the Bible. She also takes aim at the theories of William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania in the hopes of creating a Quaker idyll devoted to pacifism where European Christians and Native Americans could live peacefully and benefit from each other. As Tuomanen suggests repeatedly over the course of the play, both philosophical underpinnings are little more than pipe dreams.

The kingdom of the play's title is a cooperative society infiltrated by Penn (Alexandra King), in which a group of animals have agreed to live together collectively, forgoing their predatory natures in service of a greater good. Penn is also spellbound by Chief Tamanend (Carla-Rae), a tribal elder who acts as the community's protector. The problem for both the animal kingdom and the humans who dwell within are strikingly similar: one cannot overcome his base nature, no matter how deep the desire. This is most clearly enumerated by Leopard (the menacing Chris Davis), who confesses the herculean effort required not to act on his natural impulses to maim and kill. One gets the sense that the eerily stoic Lion (played by Cathy Simpson) who exists at the periphery for most of the play understands this feeling, too.

The play unspools in a nonlinear fashion, creating a mood and sense of place through short conversations between animals and tribal councils that feature music and dance. These can be genuinely funny, as when a loquacious Lamb (Stephanie N. Walters) extols the virtues of shaking one's butt in the breeze, and deeply moving, as when an empathetic squirrel (the brilliant John Jarboe) takes in, and slowly falls in love with, a near-starved squirrel seeking refuge from a predatory community. But more often than not, Tuomanen cannot help sliding into didacticism, particularly since the play's underlying comment on the futility of utopian societies is never handled with much subtlety.

Tuomanen's dramatic structure (or lack thereof) also never puts as fine a point on the relationship between Penn and Tamanend as it could. Carla-Rae is given some of the play's most gimlet-eyed observations—Tamanend balks when Penn attempts to keep a peace pipe that's been offered, seemingly oblivious to the difference between sharing and gifting—but the dynamic does not go as far as it could in showing the natural chafe between Penn's Western morays and Tamanend's tribal predilections. A suggestion of sexual intimacy between the two men also feels oddly shoehorned, in service of nothing in particular.

Despite its flaws, I am willing to be somewhat forgiving of Peaceable Kingdom, if for no other reason than in admiration of its fearless scope. And it is wonderful that a company as original and inventive as Orbiter 3 is creating work in Philadelphia. (The company plans to dissolve in 2018, after producing two further plays by its member artists.) Although none of the five plays Orbiter 3 has produced to date have been entirely successful, they are not without merit, and it is gratifying that an artist-run institution can exist to allow maximum creativity to flourish in a safe, noncommercial environment.

One senses that the prolific Tuomanen—this is her third play produced in Philadelphia in 2017 alone, and she also acts—will continue to refine her craft until she fully finds the best use for her unique voice. Peaceable Kingdom is a noble failure, but memorable nonetheless.

Orbiter 3's production of Peaceable Kingdom continues through Sunday, May 28, 2017, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, Philadelphia. Tickets ($15-25) can be purchased online at www.orbiter3.org.


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