Theater: Mid-Season Report Card

Halfway through the season, Philly stages are winning the battle against the economy.

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Jan. 5, 2010

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For sheer ingenuity nothing in Philly matched Brat Productions’ theatrical treat 'Haunted Poe.'

We’re midway through the current theater season and the news couldn’t be brighter. Instead of being hampered tighter budgets and smaller shows (due to the sour economy), local companies have found inspiration in their budgetary obstacles. Many theaters haved delivered impressive productions in the opening half of the 2009-10 campaign.

Of course, not all the shows were winners. The usually-reliable 1812 Productions offered a rare dud with Billy Aronson’s The First Day School. A farce about casual sex in the suburbs, talented director Pete Pryor and his cast were overwhelmed by the play’s infantile humor and woeful lack of ideas. The fall brought other disappointments including Bristol Riverside Theatre’s lukewarm staging of the formulaic musical I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; Theatre Exile’s energetic but emotionally stunted satire Hunter Gatherers and People’s Light & Theatre Company’s bland world premiere of the underdeveloped drama Absence.

Fortunately, the successes far outweighed the disappointments—especially at the Arden Theatre Company, which produced not one, but two outstanding shows this fall.

The top company in the area last season, the Arden opened with director Terrence J. Nolen’s involving production of Alan Bennett’s contemporary masterpiece The History Boys immediately followed by the powerful Rabbit Hole. Artfully directed by James J. Christy, David Linsday-Abaire’s brutally honest play about a couple coping with the death of their only child was a penetrating investigation of grief that was surprisingly funny and deeply moving.

Admirable productions were also presented by Azuka Theatre (The Long Christmas Ride Home), Philadelphia Theatre Company (The Light in the Piazza), the Wilma Theater (Coming Home), the Walnut Street Theatre (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Theatre Horizon and 11th Hour Theatre Company (Little Shop of Horrors), InterAct Theatre Company (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity), Gas and Electric Arts (Cabinet of Wonders), EgoPo (the uniquely immersive Company) and Pig Iron Theatre Company, which scored a hit at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival with their spirited new work Welcome to Yuba City.

For sheer ingenuity nothing matched Brat Productions’ theatrical treat Haunted Poe. Conceived as a haunted house with spooky hallways and a host of eerie chambers, director Madi Distefano and her imaginative designers brought the tales of Edgar Allen Poe to life in terrifying detail. An instant classic, Haunted Poe was easily the most innovative show of the season’s opening half and a triumphant return to form for the pioneering Brat.

Unlike last season which was dominated by its leading men and women, the current season has been marked by exceptional ensemble acting and major contributions from young actors. Savvy child actors turned in credible performances in the Wilma’s astutely observed Coming Home and the Walnut’s Oliver! More mature portrayals were delivered by Temple University student Aaron Stall, who gave a devastating performance as an emotionally-stricken teenager in Rabbit Hole, and University of the Arts senior Michael Doherty, who gave a fabulously nuanced performance as a gay teen The History Boys.

It wasn’t just the shows or performers that made the season’s first half notable. In early December, Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn issued a report criticizing 100 grants distributed as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Two of the grants were given to Philly companies Spiral Q Puppet Theater and Pig Iron Theatre Company, which both received $25,000 to fund jobs at the companies. In other government-related news, the state proposed an additional tax on arts and cultural events that was eventually abandoned after members of the arts community staged a boisterous rally in Center City.

One of the leading voices against the proposed state tax was Peggy Amsterdam, who passed away from cancer in December. President of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance for the past decade, Amsterdam was an outspoken advocate for the city’s arts and cultural organizations who was instrumental in reviving the city’s Office of Arts and Culture as well as emphasizing the impact arts and culture have on the region’s economic well-being.

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