Deb Miller’s Top Picks for FringeArts 2013

HUSH NOW SWEET HIGH HEELS AND OAK by Brian Sanders’ JUNK (Photo credit: Steve Belkowitz)

This year’s FringeArts Festival has a new name, but the same two categories as before. Performances receiving FringeArts’ funding are now called “Presented Fringe” (equivalent to the former Live Arts); all the rest are “Neighborhood Fringe” (previously called the Fringe Festival).

Swim Pony Performing Arts, THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL, 2006 (Photo credit: J-J Tiziou)

Presented Fringe:

Brian Sanders’ JUNK, HUSH NOW SWEET HIGH HEELS AND OAK – This year’s site-specific dance spectacle by one of the Fringe’s most popular mainstays presents an adult fairytale inspired by nursery rhymes and memories, in the castellar 23rd Street Armory. Along with the titular high heels and a gigantic dead oak tree (they’re aiming for a height of 25 feet), Sanders’ stellar troupe offers sweet treats of serenity and intensity around a sand dune and a bedroom. Live music accompanies the daring dancers and enhances the piece’s dreamlike mood of mystical playfulness.

William Bonnet in Y2D Productions/Chamäleon Productions’ LEO (Photo credit: Andy Phillipson)

Swim Pony Performing Arts, THE BALLAD OF JOE HILL – In this remount of its 2006 Fringe hit, Swim Pony updates its Vaudeville-inspired musical biography of the ill-fated labor activist/song writer with new research and revelations. Staged in historic Eastern State Penitentiary, directed by Adrienne Mackey, and re-enacted by a ragtag band of raucous clowns (Ross Beschler, Robert DaPonte, Dawn Falato, Justin Jain, Ed Miller, Dave Sweeny, and Bradley Wrenn), Joe Hill’s sensationalized story of immigration and unions, murder and execution, employs dark humor, silent-film-style movement, found percussion, and songs that will echo through the site’s eerie crumbling cellblocks.

Mary Tuomanen portrays Joan of Arc in ST. JOAN, BETRAYED, co-created with Aaron Cromie (Photo credit: Plate 3 Photography)

Y2D Productions/Chamäleon Productions, LEO – Circus arts merge with theater arts, chalk drawings morph into scenery, and a lone man’s confinement with a magical musical suitcase in a tiny rectangular room triggers his existentialist angst, lust for life, and quest for freedom. Combining gravity-defying optical illusions, live performance, and video projections, LEO blurs the boundaries between art and reality in a poetical world of levitation, acrobatics, and limitless possibilities. Based on an idea by Tobias Wegner of Germany, directed by Montreal’s Daniel Brière, and performed by Avignon-native William Bonnet, the astonishing, inventive show has dazzled audiences and critics around the world and won major awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it premiered in 2012.

Neighborhood Fringe:

Mackenzie Maula stars in EgoPo’s A DOLL’S HOUSE (Photo credit: Courtesy of M. Maula)

Aaron Cromie and Mary Tuomanen, ST. JOAN, BETRAYED – Could there be a more perfect role for Mary Tuomanen, a fearless performer known for taking on both male and female characters? Here she portrays the most famous real-life “breeches role” in history, Joan of Arc. Inspired by divine visions, the teenage warrior and martyr cut her hair, wore men’s clothing, and led the French to key victories in the Hundred Years’ War until Burgundian soldiers captured and sold her to the English. Supported by Aaron Cromie’s puppets, masks, and direction, the partners’ self-devised, self-produced work combines virtuoso storytelling, toy theater, and visionary iconography, with appearances by SS. Catherine, Michael, and Margaret, whose voices Joan purportedly heard.

Kirsten Quinn as Frieda and David Stanger as K in the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium’s THE CASTLE (Photo credit: Johanna Austin @ AustinArt)

Berserker Residents, THE TALKBACK – Three devoted thespians have agreed to hold a question-and-answer period following a performance of their latest clichéd American kitchen-sink drama. One problem: the audience isn’t seated in the theater till the play is almost over, and they have no idea what it was about or what to ask the cast. That doesn’t stop the zany trio of Justin Jain, Dave Johnson, and Bradley Wrenn from obliviously forging ahead with the madcap talkback and wreaking hilarious havoc on the viewers of this partly spontaneous interactive show, which will be different with every performance. If the Berserkers don’t leave you with tears of laughter rolling down your face, nobody can.

EgoPo Classic Theater, A DOLL’S HOUSE – Opening its 2013-14 Henrik Ibsen Festival, EgoPo presents a solo version of the 19th-century feminist classic, boldly reinvented by director Brenna Geffers and starring fourteen-year-old Barrymore-nominated actress Mackenzie Maula. The controversial three-act prose play, in which Ibsen questioned and criticized traditional gender-based roles in marriage and society, was considered scandalous when it debuted in Copenhagen in 1879, with his female protagonist abandoning her husband and children to find herself. EgoPo’s updated adaptation focuses on Nora as you’ve never seen her before–as a present-day girl, armed with an odd collection of toys, magazine clippings, and icons of pop culture, who role-plays the different characters to imagine her life as an adult. She will leave us wondering how far women have truly come since Ibsen’s time.

Keith Conallen, David Blatt, and Brian McCann appear in the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective’s THE SEA PLAYS (Photo credit: David Comdico)

Found Theater Company, THIS IS THE TWILIGHT KINGDOM – The culmination of this smart young troupe’s collective research into the big cosmological questions is an original experiment in “quantum theater” that transcends space and time as it explores the interplays between art and science and our Space-Age obsession with the far reaches of the universe. Featuring music, time travel, celestial bodies, and dark energy, Found’s seven-member ensemble of Temple University alumni, directed by co-founder Sean Lally, creates a state of being that lies somewhere between waking and dreaming, inner and outer space.

Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, THE CASTLE – Intrigue, dark comedy, and absurdity characterize the rarely-performed 2002 stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished German-language novel–which ends mid-sentence–about a land surveyor summoned by castle administrators for some curious, unspecified purpose. The outstanding David Stanger leads IRC’s cast of ridiculopathic regulars as the protagonist K, a stranger to the village, who faces countless obstacles and surreal situations as he persistently makes his journey on the long and winding road to the castle above. With costumes by Erica Hoelscher and set by Anna Kiraly, the artistic design will help transport viewers into Kafka’s disquieting, arduous, hilarious world of lowly peasant life and towering bureaucratic nonsense.

Baritone Chad Somers with Michael Leinhard on accordion, in a promotional photo for Philadelphia Opera Collective’s OPERA MACABRE: EDGAR ALLAN POE (Photo credit: Harish Pathak)

Matchbox Theatre Project, THE PLAYDATERS – Love is in the air—or, more accurately, in cyberspace, on stage, and off-script–as this unique “bromantic” comedy questions the nature of reality in two buddies’ contemporary approach to relationships. From funny to sarcastic to sophomoric to thought-provoking, young playwright Neil Haven employs revealing one-liners to expose his Gen-Y characters’ desires, desperation, and duplicity in dating. First offered at Plays and Players for Valentine’s Day 2012, the one-night show proved so popular that producer/director/actor Griffin Stanton-Ameisen is remounting it for the Fringe, with Sean Bradley, Dana Kreitz, and Clare O’Malley rounding out the cast.

Philadelphia Artists’ Collective, THE SEA PLAYS – Aboard the Tall Ship Gazela at Penn’s Landing, director Damon Bonetti captains the terrific team of Brian McCann, Adam Altman, John Lopes, David Blatt, Adam Rzepka, Mort Patterson, Keith Conallen, Eric Scotalati, Luke Moyer, and Brian Ratcliffe in two of Eugene O’Neill’s earliest and least-produced works (“Bound East for Cardiff” and “In the Zone”). Inspired by the playwright’s own youthful ocean voyages after his suspension from Princeton in 1907, the pair of one-act American-Realist shorts is set in the early months of World War I, as the crew of the fictional S.S. Glencairn face death, longing, and regret in the salty air and claustrophobic quarters of their tragic, solitary lives at sea. Please note: patrons must climb a short but steep companionway to access the performance venue.

Ed Swidey stars in The Renegade Company’s BATHTUB MOBY DICK (Photo credit: Cindy Spitko)

Philadelphia Opera Collective, OPERA MACABRE: EDGAR ALLAN POE – The mission of this impressive group of young vocal artists is to make American opera an intimate, visceral experience that is accessible to everyone. They fully succeeded in the 2012 Fringe with their clear and affecting production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s THE CONSUL, directed by Brenna Geffers. This year Geffers returns, as they co-create a world-premiere chamber opera based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe (“Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat”). With an intermezzo that features soprano Kirsten Kunkle singing the “Music of the Spheres” (inspired by a line from Poe’s memento-mori poem “The Conqueror Worm”), OPERA MACABRE is sure to capture all the “chilling suspense and lurid language” of the 19th-century-Gothic author.

Round Table Theatre Company’s COMPLETENESS is directed by Daniel O’Neil (Photo credit: Saltwater Studios)

The Renegade Company, BATHTUB MOBY DICK – Known for its deconstructionist multi-sensory takes on the classics, Renegade, in collaboration with Wildwood Soapworks and Medicine Womyn Mixology, tackles Herman Melville’s metaphorical novel about a man and the eponymous great white whale he battles. Conceived and directed by Founding Artistic Director Michael Durkin and starring Ed Swidey, this uniquely immersive experience, with themed cocktails and maritime scents, takes place in a bathroom (NB: the show contains nudity). As the troubled and delusional protagonist Robert reads from Melville’s book, he becomes convinced that he is Captain Ahab commanding the whaling ship Pequod and recreates passages from the story in his bathtub, as his delirium increases with the turn of each page. Renegade’s real challenge here is to find a bathtub large enough to contain Swidey’s considerable height and enormous talent.

Round Table Theatre Company, COMPLETENESS –Itamar Moses’ uber-intellectual comedy, in its Philadelphia premiere at the Fringe, analyzes two graduate students’ academic pursuits and evolving relationships, as they fall in and out of love with a classmate, a professor, and each other. Directed by Round Table co-founder Daniel O’Neil and featuring local emerging talents Sam Sherburne and Clare Mahoney, the play proves that there are as many variables and principles of uncertainty in life and romantic compatibility as there are in scientific experiments, and unlike molecular biology, the chemistry between two people cannot be controlled or defined by the logic of a computer algorithm.

Tribe of Fools’ ANTIHERO (Photo credit: Courtesy of Tribe of Fools)

Tribe of Fools, ANTIHERO – From a company specializing in fast-moving physical theater, this all-too-timely story satirizes America’s obsession with violence, vigilantes, and doing the wrong thing for the “right” reasons through one man’s mission to topple the Philadelphia Parking Authority with his fists. To parody the gratuitous violence of crime-fighter comic books and action-hero movies, the company has invented “acro-combat”–a new form of stage-fight choreography, which combines traditional stage combat with acrobatics, freerunning, and Parkour (a training discipline that employs fluid body motion while negotiating through an environment of obstacles), in a powerful post-modern urban style with a serious socio-political message.

Walk up and phone sales at the Festival Box Office, 120 N 3rd St., Philadelphia, will open on August 29. For online ticketing and a full listing of this year’s shows, visit

Previously published on Stage Magazine.

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