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Monday, January 4, 2010 11:01 AM
On the Stage: Cinematic Titanic New Year's Eve Triple Feature
 by Fëanor

I don't think I've ever gone out to an event on New Year's Eve - I've always just stayed in with a close friend or two and watched the ball drop. But this year I eschewed the ball and, accompanied by Peccable and TrackerNeil, headed out to the Keswick Theater in Glenside to watch the Cinematic Titanic crew make fun of three really bad movies in a row. (Many thanks again to P & T for providing dinner and transportation.) The movies were: a rather depressing and silly apocalyptic Japanese film called War of the Insects, or Genocide, which has the typical message of Japanese monster films, that being, stop acting against nature or eventually it will have its revenge on you; an Italian strongman movie called Samson and the Seven Miracles, which is suspiciously devoid of miracles, although it does have an unintentionally hilarious scene where Samson turns around and gets konked on the back of the head by a bell he was ringing; and a creepy, icky, surreal Ten Little Indians-style dysfunctional family murder drama called Legacy of Blood. I actually had already bought the Cinematic Titanic DVD of Legacy of Blood, but had no trouble watching them tear the movie to bits again. It's a pain getting out to the Keswick, the venue has only two very small bathrooms for which there are always long lines, and the seats aren't particularly comfortable, but the sound is great, and it's a beautiful old theater. I wasn't used to staying up so late and ended up with a rather painful, pounding headache throughout the last two movies, but I still had fun. The five members of Cinematic Titanic did a great job and remained on point and funny throughout. It was a fine way to slide over into 2010.
Tagged (?): Cinematic Titanic (Not), Comedy (Not), Movies (Not), On the Stage (Not), Personal (Not)
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Saturday, June 20, 2009 08:46 AM
On the Stage - Look Inside (plus an adventure in the Blue Grotto)
 by Fëanor

poppy is a huge fan of a local dancer named Meredith Rainey, partly because he's amazingly talented, and partly because he's totally hot (according to her, anyway). So when she saw he had a solo show, she had to go. Of course I came along. We arrived at the venue (the Community Education Center) a little early. An older gentleman saw us sitting outside and invited us to go downstairs into the basement and check out some art while we were waiting. We like art, so we took him up on his invitation right away. Turns out there's a whole installation down there called Blue Grotto that was full of little signs and lights and found object sculptures and knickknacks, all with a blue color scheme. It was like entering a separate little world. It's very, very cool. Although it was also slightly creepy. The two of us were alone in a rather dark basement, having been invited there by a random old guy. What if he was a serial killer planning to turn us into part of the installation?

Luckily, he was not. Or maybe he was, but we left too quickly for him to prepare a deadly trap for us. In any case, soon afterwards we went back upstairs, paid the entrance fee for the dance, and picked up our programs. We were both disappointed (although poppy more than me, I suspect) when we learned from the program that Meredith had just choreographed the performance and wouldn't be dancing himself. A few minutes later we went inside to see the show.

The theater in the CEC is just a tiny black box kind of deal, with the audience seated on a few rows of bleachers across the long back wall and the padded dance floor immediately in front of them (some of the chairs up front were practically on the "stage"). In the center of the floor was a large (maybe 14'x14'x14'?) open cube made of metal pipes. On the side facing us were two half-curtains, one dark and one light, both transparent. The opposite side was the same but the colors were reversed. The other sides of the cube had only one light colored half-curtain each; where the dark curtain would have been was just an opening. The dancers - one man and one woman - entered from the side of the room. The woman stepped into the cube while the man remained outside. The woman performed a series of gestures while the man seemed to watch her out of the corner of his eye and attempted to mimic her. "No, that's not what I saw," she said. She performed the gestures again, slightly differently this time, as the man continued to mimic her. "That's what I saw," she said. Then the performance began in earnest.

Look Inside is an intense and powerful piece that seems to be about various conflicting dualities: dark and light, motion and stillness, man and woman, love and anger, interior and exterior, looking and being looked at versus seeing and being seen, touching and being touched versus feeling and being felt, the real and the performed, the present and the past. It's about voyeurism, memory, and art. The dancers sometimes embraced passionately, sometimes seemed to be fighting each other in slow motion. They would hold each other tightly, then seem to strike out at each other or push each other away. At other times they stopped moving entirely and simply sat or laid on the ground. Video of the dancers performing was often projected on the cube, sometimes while the dancers were resting, sometimes while they were still dancing. Sometimes the video was of them as they were moving at that moment; at one point it was a reversed recording of them doing a dance we hadn't seen before - later they did the same piece live. There was a particularly moving moment when the video being projected was of the man falling over and over, then suddenly the video of the man landing synced up with the man's live movements, as if the recording had fallen into the present. Sometimes one dancer would point at the other for long moments, as if accusingly, the finger also turning out into the audience. Sometimes the man would reach between the curtains of the cube to try to touch the woman inside, but she would retreat. There were a few really unnerving moments when the dancers walked right up to the audience and scanned us slowly with their eyes, staring right at us. The staging, and the dance as a whole, was powerfully transformed when the male dancer suddenly lifted up the entire cube and dragged it off to the side, slamming it back down to the ground again. Later the dancers transformed things again by picking up the cube and spinning it around so a corner of it was pointing at us, instead of a flat face. Another transformation had to do with the costuming; about halfway through the dancers, who had been wearing simple, all white costumes, left briefly and came back wearing the same costumes, but now in black.

I'll admit, sometimes when I'm watching dance, especially classical dance, I'll get bored and start to drift off. But this piece was so intense, fresh, contemporary, engaging, thought-provoking, and passionate, it had me riveted throughout. There's another performance tonight, and Meredith Rainey is going to make an announcement at a reception afterwards. poppy expects he'll be starting his own company. I hope that's true, and wish him all the best. He's an amazing talent.
Tagged (?): Art (Not), Dance (Not), On the Stage (Not)
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Tuesday, June 16, 2009 03:56 PM
On the Stage - Cinematic Titanic (The Alien Factor)
 by Fëanor

I've enjoyed the many episodes of Cinematic Titanic I've downloaded, but whenever the guys took their show on tour, they never came anywhere near Philly - until now! When I saw they were hitting town in June, I made sure to get tickets as soon as they went on sale. The guys were at the Troc this past Friday and Saturday night, doing a different movie each night. Poppy and I saw them Friday night when they were doing a cheesy sci-fi film called The Alien Factor. We really weren't sure what kind of crowd would show up, or how early we'd need to get there. We decided to arrive about when the doors were supposed to open, but as we walked up we were surprised to find that there was already a line that ran all the way down the block and then curled back on itself! We jumped on the end and soon met a brother and sister who, like ourselves, were MST3K fans from way back. We had fun talking to them, and checking out the other people in line. It was a real mix of people - young folks probably in their late teens and early twenties, and plenty of other folks 20 or 30 or maybe even 40 years older. I was wearing my vintage MST3K shirt for the occasion (featuring a picture of Trace Beaulieu as Dr. Forester and the text "I'M EVIL!"), and a number of other people were wearing similar shirts. At one point someone carried a Tom Servo model through the crowd - that got applause and cheers. I was especially pleased that one woman had come dressed in an old school Gizmonic Institute jumpsuit. Poppy and our linemate even thought they saw local weatherman Dave Roberts in the back of the line, but we never confirmed that.

The Trocadero staff were surprisingly disorganized about getting everybody searched and getting their tickets scanned and getting them inside, but after some confusion we did finally enter the theater and grab some seats in the balcony. While we were waiting for the show to begin, an amusing pre-show slideshow was projected on the screen on stage, containing entertainingly odd vintage pre-show slides from old movie theaters mixed in with random trivia about Cinematic Titanic. Particularly interesting to me was the guide to pronouncing the names of the cast members. Turns out Mary Jo Pehl's last name is pronounced "peel," and Trace Beaulieu's last name is pronounced "bowl-you." Once the slides were done, a comedian and bit actor named David "Gruber" Allen (an old friend of the cast, and the man who coined the abbreviation "MST3K") got on stage and did some stand-up, as well as some musical bits, accompanied by J. Elvis Weinstein on guitar. TV's Frank also came up and did a song and some other stand-up bits. I was pleasantly surprised by all this (mostly quite funny) opening comedy material; I hadn't expected anything of the sort. After the opening stuff was over, Joel came out (to much applause and many cheers) and introduced everybody. Then they all took their places at either side of the screen and the movie started.

The Alien Factor is pleasantly awful in classic MST3K fashion. It's set in a small American town and opens with a stereotypical sci-fi/horror movie scene: a young couple are drinking and making out in a parked car in the middle of nowhere and are suddenly attacked by a monster which kills one of them and leaves the other in shock. Turns out an alien spacecraft has crashed nearby, freeing the three ferocious zoological specimens that were on board. Now said beasts are roaming the countryside, killing random rubes. The local police (all two of them) are stumped until a mysterious expert arrives in town to investigate a supposed meteor crash, and ends up helping hunt down and dispose of the alien monsters.

The acting is universally awful, natch. It looks like the production had three cars available for use and just had to dress them up as best they could to be whatever they needed them to be. At least that would explain why a two-door sedan with a flashing light on top is used as a cop car, and why a hatchback is used as an ambulance. Part way through the movie there's a pointless and sad musical interlude in a bar featuring a bunch of guys wearing ruffled shirts and playing generic classic rock (a local band who demanded to be put in the movie, perhaps?) while two girls dance listlessly in the corner, and another man sits eating nuts and drinking beer with single-minded speed and fierce determination. The nut-eater later goes home and stumbles around his house for long, painful minutes until finally clambering down into the basement, where, in a scene meant to be scary that's actually just hilarious, he turns on the light and reveals one of the alien monsters, which promptly tears him to bits. Later a woman reporter wanders the woods endlessly while nothing happens. The dramatic conclusion, which is meant to be sad and thought-provoking, features the hero and savior of the story (the mysterious expert who, it turns out, is really an alien, as well) being tragically killed. (Spoiler!)

The basic story - of an alien who disguises himself as a human and comes to Earth to track down a fellow alien who's a killer - has been done more successfully in a number of other movies, but the one that I remember most fondly is The Hidden, starring Kyle MacLachlan as the alien cop. Joel and the gang didn't mention The Hidden, but did a great job tearing The Alien Factor to bits. They all had scripts they were following, but I sense at least some of their gags may have been ad libbed. Anyway, they were all clearly having fun, often laughing along with us at their own and each other's jokes. The humor was classic MST3K stuff, with a fun added twist: now that they're not on TV, they're free to curse! Also, unlike in their Cinematic Titanic DVDs, they didn't include any frame story about the Time Tube or the nanotated disc or any of that, and they didn't stop the film in the middle to do a comedy bit. It was just movie riffing straight through. Overall, it was a different experience seeing them live than it is seeing them recorded. There's something special about enjoying comedy with a live audience. There's a subtle interaction between performer and crowd that really adds to the experience. Plus, just being there with a bunch of other fans, and hearing them laugh along with me, was great.

Even though the tickets were crazy expensive (with Ticketmaster "convenience" charges added in, I ended up paying $99!!) I'm really glad we went. It was a very fun night.
Tagged (?): Cinematic Titanic (Not), Comedy (Not), Movies (Not), On the Stage (Not)
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Sunday, March 22, 2009 09:50 AM
On the Stage - William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead
 by Fëanor

As I mentioned in the previous post, I saw this show last night with a bunch of friends at the Plays & Players theater in Philly. It was pretty clever. It opened with a couple of women in period garb handing out big plastic sheets to the first three rows, warning them to be sure to cover up when zombies were on stage, to avoid being spattered with blood and gore! (When a play has a splash zone, you know it's going to be good.) After this a screen was set up and some very funny titles were projected onto it, advertising T-shirts and preparing us for what we were about to see. The screen was set back up before the start of the second act and this time the projections asked us some trivia questions about Shakespeare, and again advertised the T-shirts. These projected titles were arguably the funniest parts of the play. Very clever, witty, Monty Python-style humor with some very up-to-date pop culture references thrown in.

The play itself is set backstage at the Globe Theater when it was brand new, right after the first production of Henry V. Shakespeare's former star player, Will Kemp, shows up and they spar with each other a bit; Shakespeare is still fuming from the way Kemp betrayed him, his words, and the character he was playing: Falstaff. Shakespeare was so upset about it he killed off Falstaff and removed Kemp from the company. Later Sir Francis Bacon shows up with a play he's written called Falstaff in Love, apparently an early version of The Merry Wives of Windsor. He can't be known to have written the play, but if he commissions Shakespeare to put his own name on it and produce it, with Kemp returning to the role of Falstaff, he hopes he will gain the favor of the Queen. Shakespeare is loath to bring back Kemp and Falstaff for various reasons, but Bacon's money is good, and he feels backed into a corner.

But all of that becomes a bit less important when the Globe is besieged by the Afflicted: raging, mindless, undead cannibals who are clearly zombies. Shakespeare, Bacon, Kemp, and a number of the other players end up trapped in the Globe along with Queen Elizabeth, her guards and ladies in waiting, and Doctor John Dee. Dee is convinced he knows the reason for the contagion (an overbalance of the humors), and even believes that a vial of metaphysic in his house would cure it. Bacon is wholly against venturing out of the theater to acquire this unlikely cure, but Shakespeare and some of the others decide it's worth a shot. But only one of them is able to sneak out before Bacon shuts down the plan. All that's left to do after that is wait and hope and try to survive the onslaught.

The play is funny and smart, incorporating many lines from Shakespeare's plays into the dialogue, and managing to make the rest of the lines sound reasonably authentic. The fact that it's set backstage at a playhouse is very appropriate, as its focus is entirely on the theater: plays, their nature and longevity; playwrights and actors, how they interact, and who is the true author of a play (examined through the rocky relationship between Shakespeare and Kemp); and authenticity and authorship in general. There are some clever jokes about the controversy over who wrote Shakespeare's plays, via the subplot with Francis Bacon and Falstaff in Love.

And of course, there are also zombies! Sadly, the zombie fighting is clumsy and obviously fake, and the blood effects are not the greatest. Poppy and I both wanted a lot more blood and gore. Still, I wasn't expecting Hollywood blockbuster-level effects and fight choreography, and was willing to overlook a lot of the faults in this area.

Some spoilers: everyone dies at the end! Because of the historical connection, this surprised me a bit, but I guess I should have seen it coming. It's a story about zombies, after all. And anyway you can't help but enjoy the outrageous ending wherein the whole cast performs "Thriller," with dancing and lip-syncing and everything.

The play has moments of hilarity, brutal cold-bloodedness, romance, heroism, and self sacrifice. I'm not sure what the message is ultimately, but it's fun, smart, and thought-provoking, and we all had a good time.
Tagged (?): On the Stage (Not), Shakespeare (Not)
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Thursday, January 8, 2009 07:39 PM
(Last updated on Friday, January 9, 2009 09:19 AM)
On the Stage - The Musical Box, Trick of the Tail show
 by Fëanor

This past Saturday, I went to see The Musical Box at the Keswick in Glenside with my brother and his wife. (And it wasn't for the first time; you can read my review of their Lamb Lies Down on Broadway show here.)

The Musical Box is not a vintage Genesis cover band, it's a vintage Genesis recreation band. Even some of the people going to see them don't understand this distinction; I heard other audience members around us at the theater wondering what the band would play beforehand, wondering if they would take requests, and then commenting on the band's song selection afterwards. They were unaware that no "song selection" had taken place, and that requests were out of the question. What The Musical Box would play was already set in stone as soon as they selected the tour. That's because The Musical Box chooses a tour from Genesis' history and then recreates that tour in painstaking detail, playing not only an authentic set list, but also repeating authentic between-song banter, wearing authentic costumes and hairstyles, and using all authentic visuals and special effects (which in this case included various slides, videos, and laser and smoke effects). At no time do they ever break the illusion and admit that they are any band other than Genesis, or that they are anyone other than the members of Genesis. It's kind of eerie, but also kind of awesome, especially for fans of Genesis who never got to see the actual band during its heyday.

This whole band recreation thing seems to be becoming more popular; when we saw The Musical Box at the Keswick, there were posters all over the place for other such bands, recreating the Beatles and Bruce Springsteen and so on and so forth. My brother and I had ample time to peruse these posters while waiting in line for the bathroom. There are two things I don't like about the Keswick as a venue: it's way the hell out in the middle of nowhere, and the men's room is way too small for the size of the place. The latter problem was probably exacerbated by the type of crowd that The Musical Box tends to draw. The line for the men's room went across the entire upstairs, but there was no line at all for the ladies' room. This is of course the opposite of the natural order of things, and my brother pointed out that it probably wasn't because we had accidentally traveled to Bizarro World (which was my first assumption, naturally), but that there were a lot more men at the show than women. As I understand it, this is accurate to the makeup of a vintage Genesis audience, which I'm sure pleased the members of The Musical Box.

I've seen The Musical Box do a number of different Genesis tours, all of them from the era when Peter Gabriel was the lead singer of the band. But this time they'd chosen to do the first tour Genesis went out on after Pete left the band and Phil Collins became the lead singer. This was the tour for the album A Trick of the Tail, which is one of my favorite Genesis albums. Phil Collins doesn't like to drum and sing at the same time, so when they went on tour, they'd bring a tour drummer with them - on this tour it was the prog rock keystone performer Bill Bruford, a dude who played for pretty much every prog rock band of the '70s at one time or another. Although Bill did the drumming most of the time, occasionally Phil would wander back and jump on his own kit, playing alone, or doing a duet with Bill. This left The Musical Box with a bit of a dilemma. Their singer, the same guy who played Pete in the earlier tours, changed up his vocal style a bit so he sounded more like Phil than Pete (and even put on a wig and a fake beard so he looked like him), but he doesn't know how to play the drums. To solve this problem, they split the role of Phil between the singer and a drummer, who wore the same wig, beard, and costume. During the show, when singing Phil needed to become drumming Phil, he'd slip behind something on his way to the drum kit, and the drumming Phil would come out the other side. They'd switch back the same way. They did it so smoothly, I didn't even know what was going on until my brother pointed it out to me after the first number. They're really dedicated to preserving the illusion!

Thankfully, they're also really dedicated to the music. Any random Genesis set is going to be loaded with tons of really long, really complex songs, and the Trick of the Tail show is no exception. But The Musical Box was nearly flawless, nailing every song. "Cinema Show," "Firth of Fifth," "Supper's Ready," and "Los Endos" were particularly fantastic. Their Tony even played the piano intro to "Firth of Fifth," which is a piece of music so difficult that the real Tony usually skipped it during this tour. The drum duet on "Los Endos" was another amazing feat of virtuosity. Really the only time they fell flat was during "Entangled," which is a delicate song with vocals pitched a bit out of the lead singer's range. He was clearly struggling to hit the notes and it was a little tough to listen to. But other than that, they were just thrilling, and they garnered multiple, and well-deserved, standing ovations. It helped a great deal that the sound at the Keswick is so excellent. It's very rare that you go to a show and everything is mixed just right, such that you can hear every instrument and even pick out all the lyrics. But the Keswick was able to deliver this.

Another interesting element of the performance was the special effects. I enjoyed the old school combination of smoke machines and laser. It's simple, but cool. Although I imagine "Steve Hackett" wasn't all that pleased with the smoke machines, as he was sitting right next to one and got a good faceful of the stuff every time it was on.

This show was a wonderful experience, and I'll definitely keep an eye on The Musical Box to see which tour they plan on doing next.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention something. There's a song called "Carpet Crawlers" from the album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway that they played during this show. The album is a very strange coming-of-age concept album about a young man having an odyssey through a weird alien world and ultimately finding himself there. While the band is playing "Carpet Crawlers" on this tour, a video is projected on a screen behind them depicting what the song describes: a bunch of people in weird costumes (well, okay, the song doesn't mention weird costumes; they added that for the video) crawling along a hallway toward a spiral staircase that leads up into light. I thought it would be great if some dedicated fans started the tradition of crawling down the aisle from the back of the theater toward the stage during this song, hopefully wearing weird costumes while they did so. Sure, they'd probably end up getting covered in beer, bits of food, and other even more unsavory things, and they'd probably be kicked and tripped over. But it'd still be awesome.
Tagged (?): Genesis (Not), Music (Not), On the Stage (Not), The Musical Box (Not)
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Sunday, March 30, 2008 05:08 PM
On the Stage - Pericles
 by Fëanor

The other day, poppy and I went to see a preview performance of Pericles at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival. Neither of us had read the play before, and we didn't even know much about it except that it was rarely performed. Thankfully the program filled us in a bit more on the plot and history of the play. It's one of Shakespeare's later works and is considered a romance, rather than a history, tragedy, or comedy. Most scholars seem to agree that it was not written wholly by Shakespeare; the first two acts - which are considered inferior in quality - are attributed to someone else. The story is set in and around ancient Phoenicia, and its major concern is the life of a prince of that land: Pericles. It opens with Pericles showing up at Antioch to try to solve a riddle. If he does so successfully, he will win the hand of the beautiful daughter of the King; if he fails, he will be executed. He discovers the solution to the riddle immediately, but that solution reveals that the King is having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Disgusted, and justly afraid of what will happen to him if he says the answer aloud, he flees. He ends up in the city of Tarsus, which is beset by famine, and makes friends of the noble Cleon and his wife Dionyza by handing out food. He sets to sea again and is shipwrecked. Only he and his armor survive the wreck, and both wash up on the shores of Pentapolis. He puts the armor on and joins in a tourney to win the hand of another King's daughter, Thaisa. This time there's no incest or riddles, so Pericles gets married and gets his new wife pregnant and everything finally seems to be going his way. Then he gets a message saying he'd better return to Tyre in Phoenicia immediately if he wants to keep ruling there, so he grabs his wife and goes. A storm overtakes them at sea and his wife seems to die in childbirth. He embalms her in a casket and puts her overboard. The casket washes up on shore and Thaisa is brought back to life by a local healer. Believing Pericles and her daughter to be dead, Thaisa becomes a priestess at a temple of Diana. Pericles, meanwhile, leaves his daughter (named Marina) in the care of his old friends Cleon and Dionyza in Tarsus and heads home to Tyre. But Dionyza comes to hate Marina for overshadowing her own daughter in talent and beauty, and so sends an assassin to kill the girl. During the murder attempt, pirates arrive and kidnap the girl, only to sell her into prostitution. Marina keeps her virginity by talking every man who comes to her into taking up a life of virtue. She's ruining the brothel as a prostitute, so they rent her out as a tutor for young ladies instead.

Pericles shows up in Tarsus looking for Marina and is told by Cleon and Dionyza that she is dead. He resolves never to speak again, and goes wandering on the sea. To cheer him, a local governor sends Marina to him, and she and Pericles, after exchanging their sad stories, realize they are father and daughter. Then Diana appears to Perciles in a dream and tells him to seek out her temple. There he finds and is reunited with his wife, and there's a big group hug, and all the nasty people who are left die, and all the good people get married and live happily ever after.

It's a rather odd story, and it's told in a rather odd way. Shakespeare originally wrote it to be narrated by John Gower, the poet and contemporary of Chaucer who was the author of the story on which the play is based. In this production, Gower is replaced by an old-fashioned Greek chorus, all done up in robes and masks. Which is actually a nice touch. The problem in this case is not with the production, but - if I may be so bold - with the source material. No matter how you handle them, the narrative sections are just not really very good. There are way too many of them, and they seem to have been used as a clumsy way of filling in large gaps left in the story. In one or two cases, rather important plot events are handled via narration, instead of actually being acted out on the stage in the normal fashion.

Some of the story in general also feels a bit clumsy. In the opening section, the King of Antioch's riddle is actually not very hard, and its solution incriminates him. Which seems like poor planning. He kills those who get the riddle wrong, but when he realizes that Pericles has solved it, he resolves to kill him, as well. So... why does he bother even having a riddle at all? Why doesn't he just kill anybody who shows up wanting to marry his daughter, if that's what he's going to do anyway?

There isn't a lot of comedy in this play, but pretty much all of it comes out of the brothel scenes, and involves jokes about sexual slavery, prostitution, rape, and physical abuse. None of which is considered very funny anymore. These sequences are therefore less amusing than they are offensive and disturbing.

Pericles is also a melodrama, which is a genre I generally despise. Most of its major events take place thanks to chance or fate; most of the villains die at the hands of the Gods. To a modern mind, that feels like cheating. And the scene near the end during which Pericles finally meets his grown daughter and slowly realizes who she is, is dragged out to the point of being ridiculous and even faintly annoying.

All of which is just to say, this is a flawed play. A fact on which most scholars seem to agree. But that's not the only reason why the performance we saw wasn't very good. The production's staging, lighting, and costuming were actually generally quite creative and well done. As I've said before, I particularly liked the Greek chorus and their masks. But the director had chosen to have all of the narration sung, and to include a lot of other singing in the play besides, and it was painfully clear that none of the cast are professional singers. Also, the man playing Pericles is simply not right for the part. I've seen him used well in Philly Shakespeare Festival performances in the past - in the central role of The Taming of the Shrew - but he just doesn't have the chops to take on the rather complex role of the troubled Prince of Tyre. His performance even occasionally elicited unintentional laughter. I myself could hardly hold back some giggles when he came on stage in the latter part of the play wearing a ridiculously fake beard and moustache, which he then had to continuously press back onto his lip as it slowly began to peel off.

There were other slip-ups of this sort throughout the play as various cast members forgot their lines or dropped parts of their costumes. Of course, this was a preview performance by a local company, so I was willing to give them a bit of leeway. But ultimately it's just not a very good play. I think it might be possible to put on a decent production of Pericles, but it would be very hard. And this wasn't it.
Tagged (?): On the Stage (Not), Shakespeare (Not), Theater (Not)
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Thursday, February 7, 2008 01:00 PM
On the Stage: Wittenberg
 by Fëanor

A few nights ago poppy and I caught a performance of the play Wittenberg in its world premiere run at the Arden Theatre in Philly. Playwright David Davalos based the play's concept on the fact that its three central characters - Shakespeare's Hamlet, Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, and the historical Martin Luther - had all been in Wittenberg at one point or another. But he takes things a step further and imagines what would have happened if they'd actually all been there at the same time, with Faustus and Luther as professors and Hamlet as their student. We meet all the characters just before their most famous exploits - Faustus has yet to make his deal with the devil, Luther has yet to write his 95 Theses, and Hamlet's father has yet to be murdered. But already Faustus is seeking knowledge with a dangerous hunger; already Luther is plagued by doubts about the Church, the Pope, and the practice of Indulgences; and already Hamlet is troubled by indecision, and by nightmares and visions about his mother and father. Hamlet seeks respite from Faustus and Luther, but only finds himself more confused, as Faustus recommends drugs and the freedom that comes with doubting everything, while Luther recommends giving his life over to the certainty of faith. Meanwhile, a love affair, the last secret work of Copernicus, and a Papal bull give Faustus and Luther their own crises to deal with.

All of which sounds very heavy and intellectual - and indeed I was afraid going in that the play would be pretentious, melodramatic, and dull. Instead, it's actually incredibly brilliant, very fast-paced, and extremely funny. The play is absolutely loaded from top to bottom with wit and wordplay. I will even do it the supreme compliment of comparing it to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which it resembles in both concept and execution. Although Davalos sticks to Shakespearean blank verse for most of Hamlet's dialogue, Faustus and Martin speak in a very modern tongue, and many clever and funny contemporary pop culture references have been worked into the script throughout. Faustus even has a regular gig down at the local bar - the Bung Hole - where he sings songs like The Who's "The Seeker" and accompanies himself on guitar.

All of the acting is quite good, but Scott Greer as the dynamic, sarcastic Faustus and Greg Wood as the smart, deep-feeling Luther deserve special commendation; they're just wonderful. Greer might want to practice his guitar-playing a bit more, but otherwise he's perfect. We get to watch a couple of lectures by both characters, and while the idea of watching a school room lecture doesn't sound appealing, both men are such good speakers, with such well-written speeches, that those sequences are some of the true highlights of the play. Another highlight is Hamlet's tennis match. Shawn Fagan's performance as Hamlet is probably one of the play's few weak points, but it's certainly not terrible, and he's particularly loose and funny in this very physical but also very witty sequence.

I should also mention that, although the play is almost entirely about men and their thoughts and philosophies, Kate Udall does an impressive job playing every single one of the handful of female parts in the play. Her characterization of Faustus' ex-nun lover is particularly good, and the sequence featuring that character is very real and moving.

Really, the play pushes all my buttons. It prominently features the character and story of Hamlet; it's postmodern; it's got tons of wordplay; it's all about philosophies and ideas; and it's even got a couple of songs in it that I really like. There was almost no way I could not like it. But it certainly helps that it's extremely well written, very thoughtful and wise, very funny, and very moving. It's running through March 16th, and if you get a chance, definitely get out to see it (especially if you're Peccable; this thing was practically written for you, man. Also, he really plays the guitar).
Tagged (?): On the Stage (Not), Theater (Not)
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