Live Arts & Philly Fringe Reviews: "Friends of Alcatraz," "The Aliens" and "Twelfth Night"

By J. Cooper Robb and Nicole Finkbiner
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Catty shack: Alcatraz introduces this far-out puppet show.


Escape to Alcatraz
A puppet show that’s absolutely not for kids.

By Nicole Finkbiner

In print, the idea of a puppet mouse singing Amazing Grace at another puppet’s funeral probably sounds pretty stupid. Yet, when watching it live, something that silly could very well make you laugh harder than you have in a long time. That, my friends, is the beauty of improvisational comedy, or, in the case of Philly Improv Theater’s Friends of Alcatraz, puppet-prov.

Bringing the diverse group of puppets to life are five local improv comics—Joe Sabatino, Rob Cutler, Dave Jadico, Jason Stockdale and host of the PBS KIDS program, The Sunny
Side Up Show, Kelly Vrooman.

After Alcatraz—“most desirable cat in the world”—delivers an introduction, the audience is asked to yell out something incredible that has happened to them recently. For one woman, that was “getting picked up in an IKEA.”

And so the show begins with a woman yelling at a mouse for relieving himself in an IKEA showroom. From there, you get to meet the rest of Alcatraz’s friends through several short, unscripted and hilarious scenes.

Warning: Don’t be fooled by the seemingly friendly puppets—this show isn’t suitable for children.

Through Sept. 17. Various times. $20. Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St.

Alien Nature
Theatre Exile expertly captures life’s “in-between” moments.

By J. Cooper Robb

It would challenge the skills of even the most hyperbolic theater critic to convey the extraordinarily high quality of Annie Baker’s emotionally penetrating drama The Aliens, which is making its Philly premiere at the Fringe in a tremendous production from Theatre Exile.

The play is set in a small Vermont town, where Baker takes us behind the quaint shops to show us the reality of life in small-town U.S.A. There beside the Dumpster in the rear of the local organic coffee shop we find Jasper (the always brilliant Jeb Kreager) and KJ (Sam Henderson). Unemployed dreamers, the two are best friends and outsiders in this nothing-to-do town. The tiny band of misfits becomes a trio with the appearance of a geeky teenager named Evan (Aubie Merrylees), who is instantly welcomed by the friendly Jasper. In this bland, utilitarian environment poetry is read, music is played, souls are revealed, friendships are developed and relationships abruptly dissolve. In other words, life happens, and if the goal of realism is to imitate life on stage, Aliens is one of the most realistic plays to come along in quite some time.

The realism is only part of Aliens’ appeal. In large part it’s Baker’s gift for capturing that unique “in-between” moment in life—inbetween jobs, relationships, schools, etc. “I don’t really worry about serious shit,” says Jasper, who has just lost his girlfriend. Yet despite his outward calm, we’re not entirely convinced that he or his friends are entirely happy or at ease.

Ultimately, The Aliens is about a community of outsiders who use their friendship to inoculate themselves against the terror of loneliness and isolation.

Through Sept. 25. $20. Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St.

No Holds Bard
Pig Iron’s take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

By J. Cooper Robb

If you’ve ever been bored by Shakespeare in the past (and seriously, who hasn’t?), Pig Iron Theatre Company’s production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will makes the play not only easily understandable but surprisingly stirring. Easily one of the company’s most assured productions (Dan Rothenberg’s direction is as astute as it is thoughtful), Pig Iron brings a new vitality and clarity to Shakespeare’s 411-year-old play.

The story revolves around a brother and sister who besides their gender difference are identical in appearance. Following a shipwreck, the two are separated. The sister, Viola, (the excellent Sarah Sanford) disguises herself as a man, falls in love with the local Duke (a velvety smooth Dito van Reigersberg), and inadvertently stirs the simmering passions of the fair Lady Olivia (the slyly funny Birgit Huppuch). When the sister and brother are finally reunited, genders are revealed, heterosexuality is preserved, and general happiness ensues.

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