The Surreality of Popping Balloon-Breasts at the Wilma

Plus Wanamaker in Paris at the Arden

The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts—the city’s three-week centennial celebration of Parisian artistic expression—is in full swing. There are hundreds of events. Not only can you catch the lighting of the Eiffel Tower in the Kimmel lobby every night and take trapeze lessons from Fly City, you can also eat from a menu at a local Philly restaurant that was developed with a French chef.

The Arden Theatre’s world-premiere of Wanamaker’s Pursuit is one PIFA event that evokes the characters of Paris past—Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Paul Poiret. These modernists were known not just for their talent but also for their personalities. Add in the shimmering backdrop of Paris 1910s and just think of the possibilities, right? Yet, in this listless play by Rogelio Martinez, these artistic giants are reduced to the ordinary.

Nathan Wanamaker (Jürgen Hooper), grandson of store founder John, begins his pilgrimage to Paris. His goal is to return with new, (slightly) revolutionary garments to bring back to the Philadelphia stores. With the assistance of expats Gertrude Stein (Catharine K. Slusar) and her brother Leo (David Bardeen), he is introduced to the highly influential designer Paul Poiret (Wilbur Edwin Henry). And his wife, Denise (Geneviève Perrier), whom Wanamaker quickly falls for.

Where it should be vivacious and lively, the play is often stiff and stilted. Hooper, as Wanamaker, brings no warmth to his role. Even in his letter-monologues to his wife, he is distant and flat. This is not helped by the limited staging; oftentimes, Hooper is left standing, stilly, onstage. Yes, he, the businessman, is to be the foil for the crazy creatives, but it only makes him seem more disconnected and standoffish. Additionally, the script is limiting. Following a pattern of talk, talk, pause … talk, talk, pause … the interactions feel fake—facsimiles of real conversations.

Yet the biggest complaint I have is about what’s happening offstage. I don’t mean some errant noise or stage-crew mishap, but rather what happens, offstage, in the plot. There’s always some fabulous party, a bustling Parisian street, a fight with Alice B. Toklas, and even an exploding oven occurring just beyond our eyes and ears. Yet, we are stuck with stilted actors on a beige set speaking in stilted dialogue about things that, in contrast, are not very interesting. It makes the audience long for what it doesn’t have.

Wanamaker’s Pursuit was to be the perfect bridge between Paris and Philadelphia for PIFA. But other than passing references to 1300 Market Street, the Academy of Music and Dr. Barnes, there is little to enjoy about this listless production.

Some things defy explanation—especially, a dance/theater/music piece based on a play written by the man, Guillaume Apollinaire, who coined the word “surreal.” So in Wilma and Ballet X’s Proliferation of the Imagination, you have: a woman changing her sex (by popping her balloon-breasts), a baby smoking a cigar, a dancer wearing a giant mouth mask, a man giving birth to thousands of children (in one afternoon), a duel, and a lot of groping.

I frequently had no idea what was going on. But it didn’t matter; I enjoyed every moment of this unique performance. (Looking around, the enraptured audience was filled with similar, slightly confused smiles). These dancers, actors, and musicians give everything they have for 60 minutes. They commit to every move, note and word, regardless of the ridiculousness. The vivacity of their performances was infectious.

The music and choreography are joyful, energetic and odd. Set designer Steven Dufala, costume designer Maiko Matsushima and lighting designer Drew Billiau create a dada/surrealistic world. Stage director Walter Bilderback creates an organized madness within this world. (I do wish some stage directions felt a little more natural, a little more spontaneous.)

Like Dada and Surrealism, this performance will not be to everyone’s liking. But if you are able to forget convention, you’ll find a blissful work of staggering oddness.

Pennsylvania Ballet celebrates the work of George Balanchine in Building on Balachine. This unique performance includes a world-premiere ballet from Benjamin Millepied (choreographer and dancer from Black Swan, and soon-to-be Mr. Natalie Portman.