Theatre Exile returns to the Philly Fringe with a staging of Rona Munro’s character-driven drama Iron (through Oct 10). In this play about memory and the perils of love, the past is something that can neither be escaped nor forgotten.
Directed by Deborah Block (who co-founded the Fringe in 1997 and served as program director for nearly a decade), Iron focuses on a mother Fay (Catharine K. Slusar) who reunites with her daughter Josie (Kim Carson) while serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband—Josie’s father. The two haven’t seen each other for 15 years and their initial meeting is an uncertain one. Eventually however a bond is formed.
Munro has an knack for dialogue and imagery, but the script has little forward momentum. The pace could be excruciating in the hands of less-talented artists, but under Block’s careful direction both Carson and Slusar are excellent. Carson’s Josie is a capable, lonely woman intent on filing an appeal on her mother’s behalf. Carson plays the role without sentimentality—she is passionate, but not especially emotional.
Her levelheadedness stands in contrast to Slusar’s tortured Fay. In one of the best performances in her long career, Slusar conveys the effects of prison on Fay’s body, mind, and soul with nervous gestures and an expression of desperate, junkie-like need—a woman staying sane only by clinging to the life raft of her daughter’s periodic visits.
During the production, the characters and audience are unnervingly circled and watched by two prison guards (Michael Hagan and Caitlin Antram). The sensation reinforced by Laura Jellinek’s creative scenic design, which forgoes iron bars to use a long, open tiled area, cinder blocks and fluorescent lights to denote the idea of a prison cell. It’s a curious set given the title, but it does a very good job of communicating Fay’s utter lack of privacy—which works well as one of many subtler, less-obvious tortures of being caged.
EgoPo Classic Theater returns to the Fringe with Peter Weiss’ dizzying work The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (through Sept. 18).
Almost entirely a play-within-a-play, the setting is the Charenton Asylum, a hospital for the mentally ill in Napoleon-era Paris. The somewhat-enlightened hospital director (Joe Canuso) allows, as a sort of therapy, the inmates to perform a play penned by fellow resident Marquis de Sade (David Blatt). The good doctor occasionally makes rips in what is more the third-and-three-quarters wall than the fourth wall, stepping in to intervene when the inmates get overexcited.
De Sade himself is a cynical, self-involved aristocrat insitutionalized partly for writing extremely pornographic novels, but partly for falling out of political grace for decrying the Reign of Terror, the year after the French Revolution during which “enemies of the revolution” were beheaded en masse.
But the sense of revolution in Marat/Sade isn’t confined to the Marquis’ play or his barely contained inmate actors—it extends to the inspiring principle behind both Weiss’ play and EgoPo’s upcoming season: Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty.” It’s a (somewhat vague and complicated) philosophy of surrealist theater as an instrument of revolution, through depiction of the primal “cruelty” of reality instead of the comforting false reality usually put on the stage. Productions inspired by Artaud’s theories tend to be driven as much by spectacle as text, which is precisely what you get in director Brenna Geffers imaginative staging.
Geffers disperses the action around the Rotunda, an atmospheric structure dominated by its huge domed ceiling. There are constant mini-events going on as inmates interact outside the main focus, plus some screaming—an effective communication of barely contained chaos. De Sade’s play-within-a-play requires a lot of stylized, formal movement, and the contrast as the inmates try (with varying degrees of success) to subsume their problems in this formality is very well performed.
The capable cast is led by the excellent Jered McLenigan as the narrator-like inmate playing the Herald, and Steve Wright, who, though confined to a bathtub for most of the play because of Marat’s painful skin condition, gives a commanding performance as the doomed political leader.
While not everything in Weiss’ meta-theatrical play is entirely clear, EgoPo’s production makes for stimulating theater.
Marx in Soho
Karl Marx takes center stage in Iron Age Theatre Company’s sterling production of Howard Zinn’s Marx in Soho (through Sept. 18).
In the solo play, Karl Marx (the excellent Bob Weick) informs us that he has returned from the afterlife “to clear my name.”
Through Weick’s likeable portrayal, we get to know Marx not only as a political theorist, but as a family man. He discusses his lifelong battle with painful boils, and confides that his wife Jenny found his famous economic treatise Das Kapital ponderous, preferring the brevity and directness of The Communist Manifesto.
Weick’s polished, charismatic performance uses rate, pitch and volume to give the script a rhythm it might otherwise lack. Unhappy with how many of his ideas about government and the distribution of wealth have been corrupted and misrepresented by unethical or incompetent leaders, Marx moans that “socialism is not supposed to repeat the stupidity of capitalism.”