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American Theatre Critics Association – 2016 Conference

Philadelphia – More than Cheesesteaks

The American Theatre Critics Association held its annual conference April 6-10 in Philadelphia. Thanks to Visit Philadelphia, the Kimmel Center, Fringe Arts, Wilma, and Arden theaters for contributing space for sessions. The meetings addressed issues of the transition of the theater reviewing landscape from predominately print to electronic. A panel discussion dealt with another transition – the need for acceptance of all gender identified and oriented individuals, particularly transgenders, into the theatrical community. Additionally, the association voted to avoid supporting jurisdictions that pass legislation which denies inclusion of all groups.

On the theatre front, we were generously hosted by several theater companies to some fine performances. These productions alone confirm that theater is alive and well in Philadelphia. Most of them have played somewhere in the Bay Area, but most will likely return at some point, as well they should.

The biggest production was Rick Elise’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Walnut Street Theatre, which is the oldest theater in the country and which also claims the nation’s largest subscriber base. This prequel to “Peter Pan” which reveals how Peter comes to fly had a modest Broadway run but won five Tonys and other awards. The staging was beautifully mounted with fine detailing, and the overall production was fully professional. Like so many plays, one’s appreciation of this one is a matter of taste, and to this reviewer, the text is a bit shallow and the humor sophomoric.

A very creative production was the Wilma’s “An Octoroon.” This is a Branden Jacobs-Jenkins update of Dion Boucicault’s controversial antebellum, plantation drama. It partly concerns a 1/8th African young woman who finds that her manumission papers may not be valid. It is a provocative work that is highlighted by a white-face performance by a black actor playing two parts, sometimes in conversation with one another. This production included a band at the corner of the stage whose music was generally appropriate to the themes. Two jarring aspects were the opening number which was unnecessarily foul-mouthed and unconnected, and occasional movement of singers onto center stage, disrupting the viewer’s dramatic focus.

Laura Eason’s “Sex with Strangers” was a compelling two-person play by Philadelphia Theatre Company. The setup is that two writers meet by the contrivance of the man at a getaway home. The younger man has written a vulgar book about his sexual conquests, but appears to be intelligent and cultivated. The older woman is an academic with one book to her credit but with no confidence to publish her second. Will they become an item? How will their characters’ other facets be revealed? This is a play that the most modest of companies can produce, and it is a very interesting piece.

This reviewer had seen the next two plays in the Bay Area, so comparison was of interest. San Francisco Playhouse recently offered a superior production of “The Nether” by Jennifer Haley, who won last year’s ATCA award for emerging female playwright This one was by InterAct. The theme is about a future in which the Internet (now the Nether, because of its dark side) has addictive virtual reality areas, and the one of interest in the play is a site for pedophiliacs. At its center, a Nether investigator is trying to blackmail the owner of the site to divulge its server location so that it can be destroyed. Overall, Playhouse’s was better – determined firstly by its use of a revolving stage to create three starkly different venues, while IA had a fixed set with different spaces representing the three. Also the performance of the girl at Playhouse was more convincing. An interesting alternative casting decision, either of which has merit, is that Playhouse’s site owner was the average schlep who you might expect to be promoting porn, whereas IA’s was a suave and likeable character. Both worked nicely, but differently

Multi-ethnic Theatre produced a modest production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” in San Francisco. Its ragged set was appropriate to the neighborhood of the play, but the play appeared underrehearsed and lacked energy. In Philadelphia, the Arden Theatre had a set that was too expansive and spiffy, but it offered a fully Actors Equity cast that was formidable and made for a great performance.

Last, but in some ways the unexpected dramatic apex of the conference offerings was a one-man performance of Shakespeare’s epic poem “The Rape of Lucrece,” about a Roman general who leaves his troops to force himself upon the still chaste wife of his best friend. It was performed on a Sunday morning for the ATCA attendees by Dan Hodge, whom we had seen as Lord Aster in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” and who would have two performances of that play later in this day. He was totally captivating in delivering 80 intense minutes of Shakespearean poetry. Not only was his delivery of the thousands of words flawless, but his passion and ability to shift characters was exemplary.

The Philadelphia Artists Collective offered an alternative performance to any of the above.  It was the 1914 Russian play by Leonid Andreyev, “He Who Gets Slapped.”  The play concerns a failed scientist who becomes a clown, and the play integrates circus elements into the action.

As an additional note, for those who may make it to Philadelphia, the Kimmel Performing Arts Center which houses the Philadelphia Symphony is a stunning building with a huge asymmetric atrium and a concert hall totally in highly polished wood. The city’s museums include the all-purpose Philadelphia Museum as well as the Barnes Foundation, with one of the largest Impressionist collections in the world, and the Rodin Museum. The biennial International Arts Festival is in April, with a great diversity of performances. Otherwise, there is great history, architecture, and public spaces. And, yes, do go to Reading Terminal Market for cheesesteaks and a myriad of comfort and specialty foods from local to international.

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