The Ballad of Joe Hill
In its 17-year history, the Fringe Festival has spawned a number of shows—Patio Plastico, Road Movie and Hell Meets Henry Halfway among them—that deserve the label “masterpiece.” Now joining this select group is Swim Pony’s thrillingly inventive The Ballad of Joe Hill.
Director Adrienne Mackey’s reimagining of the 7-year-old play is informed by its space in the rotunda at Eastern State Penitentiary, where the action takes place in a passageway approximately 15 feet long and 400 feet wide. The extraordinarily narrow staging area allows Mackey to manipulate the distance between the actors and the small audience, revealing perspectives that are surprising, haunting and often thrilling.
Utilizing often-superb folk music and a garish brand of vaudeville, the spectacular acting ensemble tells the story of Joe Hill, a union organizer sentenced to death for murder on the most circumstantial of evidence. Although the firebrand Hill was executed by the state of Utah in the early 1900s, this tale about struggling workers mirrors the political challenges labor still faces today.
Joe Hill’s run at the Fringe is almost entirely sold out, but if you can buy, beg or steal a ticket, you’ll discover a production that epitomizes the advantages of site-specific theater.
Through Sept. 15. $20-$29. Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave. fringearts.com
The scenario described in the festival guide for Renegade Company’s Bathtub Moby-Dick is vintage Fringe, promising that “a man reads Melville’s novel and begins a journey towards madness in a bathtub.” Who could resist attending a production performed in suds? But before you start imagining yourself watching from a toilet perch, know that while the show is absolutely performed in a bathtub, its audience never occupies the bathroom. Instead, the majority of the live production is viewed by the audience via a television screen mounted in the living room. The set-up is a bit of disappointment, but Bathtub Moby-Dick is still compelling enough to recommend.
Written by director Michael Durkin and the show’s sole performer Ed Swidey, Bathtub Moby-Dick begins with a birthday party for the man’s son, with the audience playing the guests. It’s an appropriately festive occasion, with food, balloons and even party hats for guests to wear. The tone turns dark when the man receives a phone call from his ex-wife. It quickly becomes apparent that his son is deceased—a fact with which his father is incapable of coming to terms.
When we are in the physical presence of the distraught dad, his pain is disturbingly evident. Unfortunately, despite Swidey’s excellent performance, the physical distance created by the TV screen also creates an emotional detachment between the actor and his audience. If Durkin can solve the obvious logistical obstacles and place them in the same room, Bathtub Moby-Dick could deliver a theatrical experience that would be hard to forget.
Through Sept. 22. $15. Wharton Heights, 18th and Wharton sts. fringearts.com
There have been a lot of changes in the eight years since Pig Iron Theatre Company’s uniquely compelling Pay Up made its first appearance at the Fringe Festival. Performed on an entire floor of the Asian Arts Initiative and bathed entirely in the sort of weird whiteness featured in Progressive Insurance’s TV commercials, Pay Up’s huge production features a number of large cubicles where different performances take place: a couple negotiating a sexual encounter, two monkeys under observation, an elderly man and his son, et al. The common denominator in each scene is that money is an important consideration. With almost military rigor, the actors instruct the audience with a tone that is both curt and decisive, and attendees select which cubicle to enter next, though there is also the possibility that all the cubicles will be at maximum capacity and one will be shut out. This is exactly the scenario I encountered. Feeling helpless and confused, I was approached by an actor dressed in white who offered me a proposition: I was told not to reveal anything about our encounter, but for a couple bucks, I could be convinced to break my vow of secrecy.
Shrewdly directed by Dan Rothenberg, the 2013 version of Pay Up makes a stronger impact than its previous incarnation, effectively exploiting our financial insecurities while simultaneously reinforcing that money does not buy happiness.
Through Sept. 22. $25. Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St., 3rd floor. fringearts.com Read more Fringe coverage online at philadelphiaweekly.com.