“[H]alf-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights”
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Mezzo Cammin“
As a history buff, I was put off by the inaugural Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, which celebrated Paris in the second decade of the twentieth century… with scant mention of the epochal event of that decade: a war which killed perhaps 5% of the Parisian population, came within 100 miles of the city, led to mass evacuation and unrest, and was closely followed by the most deadly flu epidemic of the century. The 1910s in Paris were no Belle Epoque.
This year’s PIFA theme—time travel—is equally open to inexcusable Bowdlerization*, but the 2013 festival features an inviting range of theatrical events, lectures, and performances on historical events both lamentable and laudable. For each Great Centennial Banana there is a piece on the liberation of a concentration camp. Here are some picks from the theater offerings. See pifa.org for more information and full event listings. March 28 to April 27.
ArkHIVE, Historical Society of Pennsylvania
With its potential to transport an audience, theater is ideally suited for historical exploration and interpretation. Among the many history-minded Philadelphia museums, the National Constitution Center has led the way in incorporating theatrical presentations into its programming. PIFA sees several other local institutions use drama to enliven their holdings. The highlight is ArkHIVE at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Performance artist Sebastienne Mundheim and White Box Theatre mine HSP’s extensive archives, using puppetry, dance, and some solid local performers (Lee Ann Etzold and Bethany Formica, among others) to consider the early memory of city founder William Penn. Performing from the table tops and bookshelves of the society’s reading room, ArkHIVE promises an engaging meld of theater and history. April 13 to 15, 2013, hsp.org.**
FutureFest, Luna Theater Company
For a festival which asks the question “What would you do with a time machine”, PIFA got a surprising dearth of future-minded responses. Luna Theater Company steps into this void with a presentation of six world premiere one acts. Ranging in settings from 2013 to 3064, the plays take a generally dark few of humanity’s future. Subterranean living, Mayan apocalypse, and nuclear fallout are just some of the science fiction settings. April 18 to 27. lunatheater.org
The Hand of Gaul, Inis Nua Theatre Company
Any consideration of Irish history is bound to be bittersweet. The latest tragedy in this nation’s turbulent history crested in 2009, when a creative handball-assisted goal helped eliminate the Republic from qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Thierry Henry’s heartbreaking act of cheating coincided with the shattering end of Ireland’s emerging “Celtic Tiger” economy. Inis Nua has made a mark on the Philadelphia theater scene by presenting modern plays from Ireland and Great Britain. Its production of The Hand of Gaul by Jared Michael Delaney takes a humorous look at this recent period from the point of view of a few dimwitted fans of the world’s most popular sport. April 9 to 28, 2013, inisnuatheatre.org
The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini, EgoPo Classic Theater
Star magician Harry Houdini spent his career defying death. It caught up to him in 1936, after he ignored doctor’s advice to perform a final magic show while suffering from acute appendicitus. Since relocating from New Orlean’s after Hurricane Katrina, EgoPo has graced local stages with interpretations of classic works. Making creative use of the Plays and Players mainstage, this ensemble-created work considers the magician’s life as part of the company’s Vaudeville-focused season. March 27 to April 7, 2013, egopo.org
Also check out: Applied Mechanics’ Napoleon-centered Vainglorious: The Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe after the Revolution and Azuka Theatre’s Everyone and I, a poetic look at Billie Holiday. Or other PIFA offerings, most of them look good: pifa.org.
*I’ve seen worse: I once sat through a lecture on German science from 1933-1945 which failed to mention World War II!
**DISCLOSURE: I had a contract with HSP in 2011 to edit and write for its publications. This gave me a great opportunity to explore the archives for a couple articles, most memorably on banker Jay Cooke and the financial panic of 1873 and Anna Blakiston Day and the early 20th-century Women’s League for Good Government.