Most shows we've reviewed are playing through the end of the Live Arts Festival and Fringe—so if anything sounds up your alley, there's still a week and a half left to catch it!
Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Cankerblossom (at the Live Arts Festival through Sept. 18) stands out as one of the most imaginative productions in the history of the festival. An ingenious, all-ages romp through a fantastical world, Cankerblossom (the title refers to a plant that supposedly sucks up all the world’s doubts) follows a three-dimensional (“round,” in the play’s terminology) couple who adopts a flat, cardboard baby that arrives at their door by parcel post. The couple isn’t sure what to do with the changeling, but just as they are getting attached, their paper-thin bundle of joy disappears. A mysterious message leads the couple to “the in-between,” a sort of no-man’s land between the second and third dimensions. To retrieve their baby, the couple must avoid the evil Mr. Eye (an amazing creature with an eye where his head should be) and make their way to the two-dimensional world of “the flats.”
Now, Dan Rothenberg’s direction is wonderful, the text (attributed to Tim Sawicki and Pig Iron) is involving, Rosie Langabeer’s silly, infectious music lends to the 2D, cartoony feel and the four-person cast is engaging. But the real stars of Cankerblossom are Beth Nixon and her cardboard creations. The land of the flats is filled with Nixon’s wondrous characters: a falcon that flies out of a painting, a helpful underwater knight (whose armor is, no doubt, slightly rusty), a magical smelly flower, a singing turtle, a hang-gliding mouse-smuggler. Nixon, scenic designer Mimi Lien and costume designer Leslie Rogers have done incredible work, creating an entire world out of plain brown pulp. Cankerblossom succeeds in immersing the viewer in a fascinating, richly detailed universe where the impossible is expected and doubts go up in smoke
Luna Theater opens its season at with a disappointing production of Will Eno’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival hit Thom Pain (based on nothing) (at the Philly Fringe through Sept. 19). Thom Pain consists of a performer, Thom Pain (played by the usually excellent Christopher M. Bohan), standing behind a microphone and berating us for 70 minutes.
In another production, Thom Pain could be seen as a parody of creative indulgence, or a portrait of a man desperate for a connection with anyone or anything. Unfortunately, under Greg Campbell’s direction, it’s neither funny nor profound—just dull and irritating. The show’s been described as “existential stand-up,” but offers neither laughs nor insight. Eno is clearly not without talent, but he and his ranting protagonist seem to be shooting for shocking and provocative, but mostly just end up straining the audience’s patience with truly insufferable AIDS jokes and a story (and I use that term loosely) about a bed-wetter and an electrocuted dog.
For this risky production to work, there has to be something, however miniscule, that is appealing or sympathetic about the protagonist; in Bohan’s performance, Pain emerges as one of the most annoying characters you’ll ever encounter. Luna is one of the city’s most consistently engaging companies, which makes this simplistic exercise in verbal masturbation all the more exasperating.
AGGROCRAG Production presents Hello From the Children of Planet Earth (at the Philly Fringe through Sept. 18), a surprisingly sweet new play focusing on three couples and their relationships with the cosmos, conceived and directed by Max Reuben.
Earth opens with two young astronauts hovering above the stage, lights twinkling around them. Their mission is never revealed, but their relationship is captivating. Beamer (winningly played by the delightful Benj Mirman) and Davis (the equally likeable Jon Herman) spend their time afloat in the cosmos chatting about rock bands, playing word games and singing songs (including a surprisingly touching version of “Bridge over Troubled Water”). Beamer and Davis are never identified as a gay couple, but the pair is so charming, their banter so natural and their affection for each other so genuine that they seem romantically linked.
NASA scientists Dr. Carl (Andrew Farmer) and Dr. Annie (Nicole Weiss) are the play’s second duo. They’re a classically mismatched pair, a general guarantee that they’ll eventually find happiness together. The scientists aren’t as appealing as Beamer and Davis (few stage couples are), but their bumbling pursuit of romantic bliss holds our interest.
But the same can’t be said about the play’s third couple, a courageous pilot and his bland wife so formulaic and dully written that they barely register as human. The production, which includes a competent two-member “space orchestra,” has its flaws—the use of LCD screens is more distracting than useful—but Reuben has a good ear for dialogue, and effectively communicates that intimacy is possible even in the vastness of space.
Gas & Electric Arts’ world-premiere production of the “musical travelogue” Between Trains (at the Philly Fringe through Sept. 19) continues the company’s trend of presenting intriguing but utterly confounding theater. Inspired by the Buddhist ideas of the “bodhisattva” (according to the program notes, that’s a being that allows us to break our cycle of suffering brought on by negative emotions) and the six realms of existence, Juanita Rockwell’s play is a head-scratching journey into a twilight zone of train tracks and travel.
Director Lisa Jo Epstein stages the play’s action in and around the audience, who sit on benches scattered about the large, open space as if they’re waiting for a train themselves. Luggage is piled in the corners and train schedules paper the walls. Suddenly, a naked woman named Wendell (the appealing Mary Tuomanen) pops out of a suitcase, and our journey begins.
As best we can deduce, Wendell is an amnesiac traveler attempting to define her reality—at the moment, a train station occupied by a hodgepodge of people. The first traveler she meets is a nice enough man (Davon Williams) who insists he’s a dog, although he might just be saying that to secure the Milk Bone that Wendell discovered in the pocket of a coat she found. Their conversation doesn’t reveal much (pretty standard for the production) but Wendell is a resourceful woman so she does what any amnesiac in a train station would do—she sings a song. Tuomanen has a wonderfully natural voice, and while the song’s meaning is obscure, Chas Marsh’s music (which is reminiscent of early R.E.M. and requires little in the way of accompaniment) is earthy and appealing.
Epstein’s production has a striking physicality to it (actor Nick Troy channels Spider-man with an impressive display of wall-walking); there’s a constant sense of movement as characters travel through the space that’s both innovatively choreographed and well-executed by the five-member cast. Yet while the stylish physicality of the production keeps us interested the play lacks clarity and what Rockwell is trying to communicate remains uncertain at best.
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