Live Arts & Philly Fringe Reviews: "Red Rovers," "A Paper Garden" & "Dancing Dead"

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Love bytes: Exploring the red planet makes sustaining relationships rather difficult.


Space Cadets
What do Mars, love and Donkey Kong have in common? No clue.

By Nicole Finkbiner

Explaining the premise of Headlong Dance Theater’s newest Live Arts production is like trying to recount a weird dream you had to a friend. You’re sure there’s some sort of greater meaning to it, but you’re going to have to make sense of a lot of nonsensical details before you can figure it out.

Initially inspired by the Mars Rovers and the people driving them, Red Rovers tells a story of scientific exploration. Well, actually, it’s a conference of rover drivers who are preparing to explore the red planet. Or maybe it’s really a tale of two lovers torn apart by said exploration. Whatever the show is about, you’re a part of it.

Before entering the theater, you’re presented with a nametag—your cool/funny alias for the evening. Once inside, you’re instructed to stand and mingle. If you’re confused, don’t worry—your host and fellow Jet Propulsion Laboratories rover driver, Jeffrey Merbold (David Disbrow), explains everything with a humorously elementary PowerPoint presentation. Should you be offered any refreshments or gift bags, just ignore it. They’re not real.

Everyone is then broken up into four groups, each of which will work together later on a certain surprise assignment to be demonstrated at the end. The good news: Those 10 minutes, regardless of how ridiculous the task may be, are kind of fun. The bad news: The show is 70 minutes.

It all begins with Jeffrey video chatting with his girlfriend/co-worker Clementine (Christina Zani). He’s sitting at his desk, clicking away at his keyboard and chanting computer programming jargon like “If do see window, send no_op during window … if no window, sweep at 9:40 then send beep.” She’s across the globe monitoring his progress on the mission and being a bit of a ball-buster.

Their cold, long-distance relationship quickly becomes the real meat of the production. However, with no plotlines giving the characters any depth, these vapid, work-centered exchanges eventually grow wearisome. Making it worse, they’re interrupted by several Donkey Kong dream sequences, which basically entail dancing like robotic gorillas. What does that have to do with anything, you ask? Who knows.

Known for their innovative and experimental approach to dance, you must give credit to Headlong and visual artist Chris Doyle for putting on such an elaborate production. The students of Central High School’s award-winning Robolancers team even created electronic roverlike devices for the show.

With press having been invited to a “work-in-progress” showing, one can hope that some of its faults have since been ameliorated. In fact, many of the perceived blunders are intentional, giving Rovers a certain awkward charm.

But when you attempt to transport an audience from a fictitious conference to the surface of Mars to some virtual Donkey Kong world all in one show, Houston, you have a problem.

Red Rovers. Through Sept. 10. Various times. $25-$30. Live Arts Studio, 919 N. Fifth St.

Paper Tales
An award-winning cast brings a whimsical adventure to life.

By J. Cooper Robb

It’s hard to imagine a more delightful spot in town than the pocket-sized garden belonging to the American Philosophical Society. Nestled in the shadow of Independence Hall, it is the perfect home for the delightful A Paper Garden, created and performed by Mary Tuomanen, Genevieve Perrier and Aaron Cromie. The 40-minute site-specific production (which is playing through Sept. 17 as part of the Philly Fringe) is developed in conjunction with the American Philosophical Society’s exhibition Of Elephants and Roses: Encounters with French Natural History, 1790-1830. The production is free of charge (a heck of a deal considering the quality of the award-winning cast) but tickets are required (the performance I attended was sold-out).

“All gardens begin with an adventure,” announces the enterprising André Michaux (an appealing Tuomanen), a botanist who is exploring North American horticulture at the bequ est of the French crown. It is 1785 and when we first encounter the Frenchman, he is strolling through the greenhouse created by award-winning architect Jenny Sabin (Sabin’s ecologically conscious greenhouse is a show unto itself). Accompanied by his faithful companion, Pierre-Paul Saunier (an amusing Cromie), Michaux is excited by the “ancient forest” he encounters in New Jersey. Like the new America, it is a wild, untamed place completely unlike the “manicured gardens” in his homeland. Josephine Bonaparte (the fabulous Perrier) is likewise excited by Michaux’s horticultural discoveries, which she reads about while sitting in her palace garden.

Directed by the talented Cromie (who has become one of Philly’s most distinctive directors), the production boasts the same charming theatricality that he winningly employed in his productions of The Fantasticks and Henry V. Featuring a terrific cast and handsome costumes by K. Moriah Smith, it is a fun, lively show that celebrates not only the new democracies in America and France but also “the intangible good a garden does for the human soul. The soft wind and fresh air allows magic to happen,” Michaux asserts. It’s hard to disagree with that in a place like this.

A Paper Garden. Through Sept. 17. Free. Jefferson Garden, American Philosophical Society. 104 S. Fifth St.

Deadly Force
Brian Sanders’ evocative dance company is back.

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