More of the Unexpected from Live Arts-Philly Fringe

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 19, 2012

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Telling tales: Nicole Erb in "The Edge of Our Bodies."

Photo by Paola Nogueras

The Edge of Our Bodies

Through Sept. 23. $20. Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St. 215.218.4022.

At the wildly unpredictable Live Arts Festival-Philly Fringe, the one company you can count on to present a show worth your time and money is Theatre Exile, which continues its winning streak at the Fringe with an involving production of Adam Rapp’s The Edge of Our Bodies.

First presented at the prestigious Humana Festival for New Plays in 2011, Edge ’s sole character is 16-year-old Bernadette, played by the excellent Nicole Erb. A student at a prestigious New England boarding school, we first meet “Bernie” on the stage of the school’s small black box theater where she’s played the role of Claire in a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids. The audience has left the theater, and Bernie is alone on the set of Genet’s play. To our surprise, she takes out her diary and begins to read about her recent trip from Whitney’s Connecticut campus to New York City.

Rapp’s main attribute as a writer is his ability to create vivid imagery, and his descriptive writing immediately draws us to Bernie’s tale. With exquisite detail, she describes her train trip to New York and her visit to the home of her 19-year-old boyfriend, Michael. Michael isn’t there, but his father, Wayne, is. Wayne is suffering from prostate cancer, and though Bernie describes Wayne’s appearance with almost clinically objectivity—her diary is curiously devoid of emotion or self-assessments—we can feel Wayne’s all-consuming pain. After leaving him, she makes her way to a small bar, where she encounters a middle-age man from New Jersey with whom she will have a strangely intimate and unexpected encounter in a hotel room.

To his credit, there is no attempt by talented director Matt Pfeiffer to enhance Rapp’s play by the usual means. The sound and lighting design is barely noticeable, and there is no music to evoke or sustain a particular mood. The story is realized only through Rapp’s words, Erb’s voice and our imagination.

Although Edge’s minimalism makes it seem more like a reading than a typical play, the difference is that most plays aren’t meant to read. Edge is, however, and the world Rapp creates through language and the sound of the actor’s voice feels both real and complete. Michael—who his father describes as a “tenacious narcissist” who is obsessed with his own perfect, hairless chest—is as fully realized in our imagination as he would be if he were portrayed by a living, breathing actor. The same is true for the play’s other characters, with the exception of Bernie. Instead of sharing her own thoughts and feelings, what we know about Bernie comes only through her explained interaction with others.

The only moments in Edge that don’t work are when Bernie suddenly departs from her story and performs brief scenes from Genet’s Maids . Instead of adding another layer of interest to Bernie’s story, those acted-out scenes—which concern two sisters who hatch an elaborate scheme plan to poison their cruel employer and have no clear connection to Bernie’s story—are unwelcome disruptions.


Othello, Desdemona & Iago Walk into a Bar

Through Sept 23. $15. The Trestle Inn, 339 N. 11th St. 215.413.1318.

Even at the Fringe, where the strange is commonplace, ad hoc theatre project’s Othello, Desdemona & Iago Walk Into a Bar at the popular whisky go-go bar The Trestle Inn is truly bizarre. Directed, produced and co-written by Mark Kennedy, the play is part of the growing trend of presenting theater in a drinking spot, but unfortunately in this case, the venue is far more interesting than the production.

Although Othello, Desdemona & Iago Walk Into a Bar isn’t technically a site-specific affair, Kennedy’s production is informed by the Trestle Inn’s long history as a fabulously seedy stripper spot. The proceedings begin with main characters Othello (Akeem Davis), Desdemona (Meredith Sonnen) and Iago (Emily Letts) dancing into the small playing area that is squeezed in between the tables at the Inn. “It’s a special night. A special fucking night,” Iago gleefully proclaims. And just in case anyone in the audience is still expecting a conventional telling of Shakespeare’s tragedy after Iago’s outburst, Davis’ Othello informs us that if we came to the show expecting “to see Mandingo kill a white woman,” we will be sorely disappointed.

Soon, Desdemona is topless, save for her tassels, and Iago is knocking back shots of vodka and performing bad card tricks for Othello’s amusement. In between the drinking, dancing and karaoke exuberantly performed by Desdemona, we get a hint of Shakespeare’s original play—a silent black and white film provides some relatively humorous exposition—and the ending strikes a surprisingly serious tone.

Kennedy wants to explore topics about race, the objectification of women and the disconnect between body and soul, but he also wants a production that will entertain the happy-hour crowd at one of the city’s hippest watering holes. A burlesque version of Shakespeare’s Othello isn’t a bad idea, but weak writing and poor execution waters down a clever concept.

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