BY LINDSAY HARRIS-FRIEL Absurdism is a lot of things, but in its most classic form, it’s tragicomedy, where characters are lonely, stuck spinning their wheels, unable to move forward and unwilling to go back. The playwrights most credited with creating this trend are Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov and Harold Pinter. A play in which characters are permanently stuck in pointless or repetitive action- or worse, inaction- absolutely goes against every expectation of good theatre, which is to keep moving forward, to take action against conflict. These plays, if not acted and directed very carefully, with tons of energy, can be obtuse fates worse than death. Fortunately, we have Tina Brock and The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, storming classic absurdism like the beach at Normandy. Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs is a play about an elderly couple so isolated, so stuck in their routine, that they can only repeat their memories and fantasties to each other, in their lonely lighthouse surrounded by the sea. The dazzling and crumbling white set not only has an unearthly, subterranean feel from the porthole windows and green light edging the entrances and exits, but it’s strongly reminiscent of Jeremy Betham’s Panopticon, or Eastern State Penitentiary, as if we are in a prison where nothing can be hidden. Their addiction to their own memories and fantasies has become so intoxicating to them, that they become utterly real- with tragic results. The endless supply of real chairs- and the relentless, rocketing ballet of retrieving and rearranging them- will have you laughing and amazed. Bob Schmidt never wavers in his loving command of the language, despite it coming on like a tidal wave, and Tina Brock’s poignant, dutiful and athletic portrayal makes you feel cheated when she leaves the stage. It’s a play where nothing happens and everything happens, tragically and hilariously. See it, but arrive early, because this simple and beautiful set leaves little room for latecomers.
FRINGE REVIEW: 4Play
BY LINDSAY HARRIS-FRIEL Every year, the Live Arts/Philly Fringe festival showers a lot of attention on performance disciplines that are “different”: movement-based, site-specific, underwater, improvisational, and so on and so forth. While it’s laudable that this time of year is thick with unconventional performance techniques, one of the things that often gets set aside is the work that’s done by a playwright. You can have the most amazing, colorful, detailed set, sound design that would make the angels weep, performers with a command of their bodies worthy of the Olympics and the Kirov, but without compelling dialogue, narrative and characters, audiences are left to make sense of things on their own. 4Play is quite the reverse; it’s a show where acting and scripts are the primary focus, and the actors have some great tools to play with.
Secret Room Theatre places an emphasis on emerging playwrights, good storytelling, contagious dialogue and great characters. 4Play is a showcase of short plays about, yes, foreplay, the time when all the action is rising, which playwrights love. This show covers the four pillars of good foreplay; mystery, control, vibrancy and a willingness to take risks. And, like good foreplay, it gets bigger and more intense as it goes along. In Josh McIlvain’s “Privates Investigator,” Ed Miller and Ellen Adair stir up the audience with what they can’t see, with wit that redirects like a great sleight-of-hand trick. Director Todd Holtsberry is wise enough to let the script speak for itself. “Monogamy,” by Robin Rodriguez, shows a traditional couple pushing the limits of themselves and each other, and asks deep, pointed questions about love, trust and risk. Carol Laratonda directs Melissa Lynch, Ted Powell and Johanna Dunphy as a painful and chilling triangle. “Four Dry Tongues,” by Alex Dremann, is a balanced, funny sex fantasy played with crackling verve by Carl Boccuti, Kristen O’ Rourke, Victoria Frings and Matthew Hultgreen. Director Alison Heishman has set up a game we all recognize from the sitcoms, but it runs way past that into some really fun territory. Finally, “Johnny Infamous,” a musical by Matt Casarino, reinvents the chamber musical. Bill Egan directs a cast of six with a focus on singing, and the infectious, funny tunes, through Daniel Palmieri’s musical direction, would be something you’d be singing in public the next day if they weren’t so dirty. The archetypes are clear, the performers fun, and John D’Alonzo dazzles as the dancing, singing, charming Johnny Infamous. You’ll never look at your toaster the same way again.
Throughout the Fringe, and certainly Philly’s theatre scene, there are so many shows with a set of black cubes and a black cloth backdrop so as to make it a genre unto itself; the black-masking showcase. In these shows, there tends to be strong performances, script and direction, but because it’s done on a shoestring, the set is just black. 4Play delivers the goods in terms of performances, stories, bright and engaging dialogue and direction, but it’s a sad sign of the times when these good shows have to look like they’re secretly put on in Mom’s basement. Now get out there and see 4Play, but don’t tell Mom.