Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe: Five Reviews

Recommendations and warnings after the first weekend

This weekend, I managed to get out and see five (okay four-and-a-half … more on that later) shows that are part of the 16-day Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe. While there’s a host of international performers in town for the fest, I decided to check out some of the local talent. Here, my thoughts on the shows, in the order that I saw them.

Lady M, The Arts Bank, September 2nd, 7 p.m.
I’m well aware of the old saying “To each his own”, but I think that Inquirer theater scribe Howard Shapiro was having a bad night on Friday when we both attended the opening of this one-act play that dives into the mind of Lady Macbeth. He calls Lady M “ultimately unfulfilling”. I couldn’t disagree more. Though the choreography of the 10 spirits who share the stage with the Lady for most of the show is a bit off, the script is sharp as nails, the dramatic vocalizations (director Adrienne Mackey’s speciality) are spine-tingling, and the performance of Catharine Slusar in the title role is just plain stunning. (Actually, Shapiro and I agree on that last point.) Go see Lady M. Through September 9th. Tickets.

Elephant Room, Plays & Players Theater, September 3rd, 4 p.m.
My biggest complaint here is that the Rittenhouse neighborhood surrounding this theater has not upgraded to the parking kiosks yet, so if you don’t have a bag of quarters, good luck. My second biggest complaint is that the bar on the third floor was not open for pre-show bloodies. Booo! And, unfortunately, my complaints extend to the show itself. Perhaps if I had not seen the previous efforts of the team behind this witty, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the weird characters known as magicians (I’m thinking specifically of the team’s groundbreaking shows All Wear Bowlers and Machines Machines Machines …), I would have been more than just entertained. Elephant Room is entertaining enough for sure, even if it could use a bit more (and stronger) magic. But it’s not holy shit brilliant. I didn’t walk out of the theater at 5:15 p.m. thinking, Wow, I was actually there to see that. Oh well. I’m sure I will next time. Through September 15th. Tickets.

Whale Optics, Prince Music Theater, September 3rd, 7 p.m.
The last time I saw Whale Optics director Thaddeus Phillips, he was remounting (and performing in) his triumphant El Conquistador for the 2010 Live Arts Festival. If you saw that crowd-pleaser, with its innovative use of video and a sinisterly clever script, you have high hopes for his newest production. And you won’t be let down. Though this ambitious show, which explores the disconnects between human beings in an increasingly “connected” age, does not need to be a full three hours long (c’mon Thaddeus, been watching too much Kubrick?), it’s a worthy (and totally different) follow-up to El Conquistador. Other than some annoying sound and other technical problems, there’s little to fuss about here. Phillips stays behind the scenes for this one, turning things over to an extraordinary cast (I cast my vote for James Ijames for the $10,000 Barrymore Emerging Artist award—the nominees were announced today). Both the music by Juan Gabriel Turbay and the set are perfect (and eerie!) complements to this underwater story. If you can only see one show, see this. Through September 11th. Tickets.

Water Bears In Space, Circle of Hope, September 3rd, 10 p.m.
Okay, this is where I officially admit to being lame. I really wanted to see this weird sci-fi show that’s part of the Fringe portion of the fest. But after driving from Elysburg to Philly at 3 a.m. on the morning of the 2nd, performing with Martha Graham Cracker at the Late Nite Cabaret on the morning of the 3rd (didn’t get off stage until 2:30 a.m.), and sitting through both Elephant Room and the epic Whale Optics the same day, well, I just didn’t have it in me. But what I did see in the first act (deft puppetry, sly humor, and a killer live band) before cabbing it home to a much-needed bed has me heading back for the second act at the next performance. Check it out if you can (only $10 and there’s free booze!). Through September 16th. Tickets.

Twelfth Night, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, September 4th, 7 p.m.
If you were worried about Philly’s unmatched Pig Iron Theatre Company taking on Shakespeare instead of doing what they do best, i.e. creating some new, bizarre, wholly original work (Chekhov Lizardbrain, anyone?) or hanging out in the cushy digs of Broad Street’s newest theater instead of in the basement of some church or other DIY venue, well, rest easy. They’ve taken the Bard’s funniest comedy, thrown in their unique brand of kook and a live, roaming Balkan band, and created something wonderful and fresh. Look for a breakthrough performance from Scott Greer as Feste the fool. Through September 17th. Tickets.