Battle of the PIFA Shows: Carnies vs. Hippies

By Nicole Finkbiner
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 17, 2013

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Flower power: Dancers from SHARP’s "Aquarian Exposition: A Trip Back to the Original Woodstock." (Photo by Kylene Cleaver)

With the end of PIFA 2013 just two weeks away, and only a handful of shows left to choose from, we want to help make the selection process a tad easier, pitting two current productions—The Trial of Murderous Mary and Aquarian Exposition: A Trip Back to the Original Woodstock—against one another to see how they stack up and, ultimately, which is more deserving of your time and money. Let the battle commence!

Story/premise: In Aquarian Exposition, SHARP Dance Company focuses less on the legendary performances on stage at Woodstock and more on the groovy vibes being creating by concertgoers in the muddy fields during those three historic days. Murderous Mary tells the little-known true story of The Sparks Family Circus and the tragedy that ensued after their five-ton show elephant turned man-killer in a small town back in September 1916.

Atmosphere/setting: Both productions really aim to create an experience for audiences. Though the Kimmel Center’s swanky enclosed rooftop garden is the last place you’d expect a circus, that’s nothing that can’t be changed with a little popcorn and candy, upbeat carnival music and a classic game of beanbag toss. Aquarian Exposition goes even further, inviting the audience to come in their best hippie attire for the chance to win a costume contest. Your trip back to the summer of ‘69 begins upstairs inside the Hatchatory building in SHARP’s “Soul Lounge,” with wine and live music. Meanwhile, in the downstairs performance space, candles are lit, band posters and vinyl records cover the walls, and a mismatched collection of chairs surround the stage.

Music: It would be unfair to compare original music with some of the greatest pop and rock songs of all time. And the music hardly matters. What does matter is that Aquarian Exposition’s lead vocalist Jenn Hallman singlehandedly outsang all five of Murderous Mary’s cast members.

Accessibility: Intellectually, Murderous Mary may just be too accessible. In fact, up until the last five minutes, everything about the show—the lame jokes, the mime getups, the animal stick puppets and the accompanying jungle sound effects—would lead you to believe you were watching children’s theater. After a few half-hearted attempts to send a deeper message about animal cruelty, they finally opt to drive it home by flashing a disturbing image across the screen for half a second.

Now, needless to say, any show relating to Woodstock is naturally going to draw a slightly older crowd. And if the several announcements regarding the bathroom locations were any indication, SHARP was definitely catering to the senior citizens in attendance. But however wide the gap between the audience age or level of appreciation for modern dance, choreographer Diane Sharp-Nachsin abridged it, capturing the free-form movements of concertgoers, but with an exciting, contemporary edge. Having the dancers randomly whip out fake joints in the middle of one routine was a nice touch.

Audience reaction: Not only did almost every audience member heed Aquarian Exposition’s recommended dress code, but during the rendition of the Who’s “Tommy,” several were moved enough to suddenly chime in. Murderous Mary, on the other hand, was never able to elicit anything more than a few faint chuckles, and only thanks to actor Dave Johnson. He wasn’t the best juggler, and his dimwitted redneck shtick certainly wasn’t revolutionary, but Johnson’s performance at least made some sort of impression.

Overall performance: Believe it or not, but Aquarian Exposition boasts more circus-inspired entertainment in its very first act than Murderous Mary delivers in 45 minutes. Almost as soon as Mary’s Big Top went up, the show’s energy seem to go down—way down. Presumably the anti-climatic nature of their circus acts was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but there’s little to be desired about a circus without any pizazz. Hell, even the damn $3 popcorn was disappointing. Making the lackluster presentation more befuddling, its stars and creators, Aaron Cromie and Gwen Rooker, each have impressive resumes, specializing in puppet design and clowning, respectively.

Winner: It was no contest. The hippies make the carnies look like chumps.

Aquarian Exposition: Through April 21. $20. The BOX, 2628 Martha St. sharpdance.org; The Trial of Murderous Mary: Through April 20. $29. Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. pifa.org

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