Philadelphia theater through the eyes of J. Cooper Robb, Part 2: 2004

One of Philadelphia’s finest theater critics, J. Cooper Robb (1960–2019), unfortunately left us for good in June. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a moving and detailed obituary

After his death, I revisited his nearly two-decade collection of previews and reviews documenting theater in Philadelphia. Not only do they display his depth of knowledge and insight, but they detail the changing landscape of Philadelphia theater in the early years of this century. By tracing his year-by-year accounts, we see through his perceptive eyes how performance art in Philly was transforming.

Aware of the needs of his readers, Cooper liked to create individual headings for each of his reports from the theater front. As a thank you from the Philadelphia theater community, Phindie and Drama Around the Globe—with kind permission from the publishers of TheaterMania—are jointly presenting excerpts of J. Cooper Robb’s writing in chronological order. Click the link to read his reviews in their entirety. For background on J. Cooper Robb’s work, check out the introduction on his first set of reviews, 2002-2003.



March 22, 2004: A Closer Look at . . . Philadelphia theater history

Thirty years ago, there was no theater community in Philadelphia. Still struggling to recover from the disappearance of the Broadway tryout engagements that dominated local stages until the early 1960s, the city was virtually bereft of theater for a decade. But not anymore!

Beginning in 1973 with the appearance of the Wilma Theater, followed by the People’s Light & Theatre Company and Philadelphia Theatre Company in 1974, non-profit theaters began to pop up throughout the region. Many companies have since come and gone but by the end of the 1980s, with the foundation of the Walnut Street Theatre in 1983 and the Arden Theatre Company and Interact Theatre Company in 1988, the movement had taken hold. In 1990 was formed the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, a service organization whose function as defined by its director, Jamie Haskins, is to “strengthen the Theater Community of Philadelphia by promoting positive awareness.”

The Alliance’s most visible tool for promoting awareness is the Barrymore Awards, which recognize excellence in area theater. Now in their 10th year, the awards have been more or less equally distributed among Philadelphia’s non-profits [. . .] Seth Rozin, artistic director of the Interact Theater Company [. . .] feels that the absence of a single dominant non-profit theater organization in the city has helped to foster the emergence of an impressively varied number of companies.

The largest non-profit in the area is the Walnut Street Theatre. The nation’s oldest continuously operating theater and the world’s largest subscriber-based house (56,000 subscribers and counting), the Walnut is considered an entry point for many local theatergoers. But though its longtime producing artistic director Bernard Havard has steered the theater from the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1980s to an organization with three stages and an operating budget of over $12 million, the Walnut in no way dominates the local theater scene. Because its 1,098 seat main stage offers popular Broadway fare almost exclusively, it draws neither resources nor audiences from the area’s other non-profits. [. . .] Efficient direction, capable acting, and handsome sets are the hallmarks of Walnut shows, and The Philadelphia Story is no exception. [. . .]

The Arden Theatre Company is far more representative of the Philadelphia theater community than is the Walnut. Rising from humble beginnings, it has two stages and a phalanx of offices in its current home in Old City. Except for Shakespeare and Sondheim, the Arden’s most fruitful relationship has been with local scribe Michael Hollinger; artistic director Terrence J. Nolen has directed five of the playwright’s world premieres, [. . .]

When Blanka and Jiri Zizka, co-artistic directors of the Wilma Theater, arrived in Philly in the early ’70s, they brought with them a style of theater that was both artistically daring and philosophically complex. Perhaps best known for developing Dael Orlandersmith’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Yellowman, the Wilma is currently presenting Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime. [. . .] director Jiri Zizka’s production follows the Wilma’s recipe of mixing local talent with out-of-town actors. [. . .]

Out in the suburbs, the People’s Light & Theatre Company has, over a period of 30 years, become the model of a successful non-profit. Spread out across a bucolic campus in Malvern, PA, People’s Light’s two stages, administrative offices, and scene shop are all state-of-the-art. Wildly popular among the well-heeled playgoers of the Main Line, artistic director Abigail Adams’s theater is the only in the area to boast a resident company of actors. [. . .]

Philadelphia has become a leader in new play development; in addition to the Arden, the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Prince Music Theater, and Interact Theatre Company have been instrumental in making the city hospitable to new work. A member of the National New Play Network and the city’s leading political theater, Interact offers a number of world premieres every season. [. . .]

The Prince Music Theater’s specialty is daring new musicals and inventive adaptations of classics. Among its most significant achievements were its award-winning productions of Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins and Myths & Hymns, and the world premiere of Harold Prince’s delightful 3hree. [. . .]

Now counted among the top companies in the area, both the Pig Iron Theatre Company and Whit MacLaughlin’s Obie-winning New Paradise Laboratories have used the Fringe festival as a springboard to national prominence.

It is not just the city’s professional companies that have made the theater scene here one of America’s most vibrant. Many graduates of the University of the Arts, Villanova University (whose productions are regularly on a par with the professional houses), and Temple University have become major players in the professional community, and the area’s community theaters are a constant source of new talent. In addition, about 25-30 small non-Equity companies have been offering a number of thrilling if not always polished productions during the past several years. [. . .]

Helping to make this surge in theater possible are the Delaware Valley’s funding organizations, which have been an integral part of the community’s growth. And, of course, much credit must also be given to the audiences that haven’t so much flocked as stampeded to the city’s theaters.

September 01, 2004: Take the Plunge

Instead of competing against the Live Arts and Philly Fringe, the Lantern Theater Company is joining it by staging Un-American at the Philly Fringe [. . .] the play uses transcripts from the McCarthy hearings to examine the possible consequences of balancing security concerns with individual freedoms. Directed by Michael Brophy, the topical docu-drama features Barrymore Award nominees Frank X, Sally Mercer, and Paul Nolan. [. . .]

September 30, 2004: Political Stages

After a September full of light comedies, Philadelphia Area Theater turns a bit more serious in October with a large number of political plays gracing local stages. Carl Sternheim wrote, “The Underpants as a sociopolitical play intent on chastising what the author viewed as the hypocrisy of German bourgeois society in the early 1900s.” However, in Steve Martin’s witty adaptation, the sociopolitical commentary is buried beneath an avalanche of laughs. Featuring Kris Stone’s resourceful scenic design and a superb cast, director Aaron Posner’s rollicking production at the Arden Theatre Company in Old City is currently one of the ten most popular shows in the company’s 16-year history. It’s already been extended twice [. . .].

Originally staged by 1812 Productions in 2001 and now returning to open the troupe’s 2004-5 season, Jilline Ringle’s solo-play Mondo Mangia [. . .] (at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3) is a tender tribute to Ringle’s family. A charismatic storyteller with a commanding singing voice, Ringle is a powerhouse performer who is more than capable of carrying an entire production on her ample shoulders. [. . .]

A couple of out-of-town productions highlight the third week in October. Visiting from Ireland with their production of J.M. Synge’s classic The Playboy of the Western World is the legendary Abbey Theater. The touring production plays in West Philly at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center [. . .]. 

At the Merriam Theater on the Avenue of the Arts Whoopi Goldberg appears with a new production of her 1984 solo-show Whoopi. An intimate evening with one of theater’s most original entertainers, Whoopi launched the always-political comedienne’s career two decades ago. [. . .]

Stuart Flack’s Homeland Security [. . .] opens the new season at the Interact Theatre Company, which for years has had the reputation of being the city’s top political theater. [. . .]

October 31, 2004: Waitin’ for the Light to Shine

After a splendid 2003-04 campaign, the Mum Puppettheatre kicks off its new season with The Puppetmaster of Lodz [. . .] Gilles Ségal’s poignant play about a puppetmaster who escapes Auschwitz and hides in a small attic. Hearing that the war has ended, he mistakenly believes that the factual reports are a Nazi plot to lure Jews out into the open. Remaining in his hiding place as the years creep by, he tries to reclaim what he’s lost during the war—his wife, family, home and friend—by recreating them as puppets. Directed by Robert Smythe, talented young Barrymore Award winning actor Tobias Segal portrays the forlorn puppetmaster. The production features over 80 puppets, including a number that Segal constructs live during the performance. [. . .]

Presented by Baryshnikov Dance Foundation in association with the local organization Dance Affiliates, the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov arrives in town not in a sumptuous dance spectacle, but as a man who believes he is a car in Rebo Gabriadze’s new play Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and The Patient. Set on a stormy Christmas Eve in a small Soviet Georgian town in the 1950s, Forbidden Christmas is a poignant absurdist drama about loss, lunacy and self-discovery. A great example of a legendary performer who refuses to rest on his laurels, the acclaimed touring show’s brief run [. . .] is one of the season’s most anticipated events. [. . .]

The Eternal Spiral Project is opening their season with Victoria’s Stewart’s examination of race, gender, and ethics, Live Girls. The play focuses on an African-American performance artist creating a docudrama and an adult film star who questions the role of docudramas in the creation of a female public image. The production [. . .] is led by Deborah Block, one of the city’s best–and least appreciated–directors. [. . .]

November 30, 2004: Let the Memory Live Again

Thank goodness for online shopping! With all the shows on tap in Philly this December, theatergoers may find it difficult to make time for a lot of holiday shopping at area stores. But instead of old chestnuts such as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the focus this year is on contemporary plays, many of which are either world or local premieres. [. . .]

Phillip Barry, a playwright who showed his knowledge of the area’s upper crust in The Philadelphia Story, likewise examines the world of high society and high finance in his popular screwball comedy Holiday [. . .]. Produced by the Bristol Riverside Theatre, Barry’s comedy satirizes the social constrictions of big business. [. . .]

Introducing contemporary British pantomime to local audiences, the People’s Light & Theatre Company is presenting Gary Smith’s Sleeping Beauty: A Comic in the British Style. Unlike the American form with its black-clad mimes, modern British pantomime, which often satirizes social issues, is typically staged as a classic fairy tale with a heavy dose of songs and vaudeville. The new adaptation by Kathryn Petersen and composer Vince di Mura has its world premiere at the company’s Malvern home [. . .].

The Arden Theatre Company [. . .] has a history of presenting top-flight children’s fare [. . .] Featuring powerful baritone Jeffrey Coon (Frog) and the city’s current musical theater sensation Ben Dibble (Toad), Frog and Toad is so consistently delightful that even adults without children should put this on their must-see list.

[. . .] Theatre Exile, one of Philadelphia’s most daring progressive theaters, opens their eighth season with D.L. Coburn’s classic 1978 Pulitzer Prize winner The Gin Game [. . .]. An alternative to the cheery holiday shows, Coburn’s two-hander explores the contentious relationship between an elderly man and woman in a retirement home. [. . .]

December 14, 2004: The Clean House

The Wilma Theater is not exactly known as a hot-spot for uplifting, life-affirming theater. Nor do co-artistic directors Jiri and Blanka Zizka typically turn the reins over to a guest director. However that is exactly what they have done with their production of Sarah Ruhl’s wonderful play The Clean House, led by director Daniel Fish. [. . .]

December 31, 2004: Starting on a Hat

For the sheer number of shows, 2004 may well have been the most fertile year in Philadelphia theater history. And surveying the wide-range of productions opening this month, it appears that 2005 is poised to surpass its predecessor in the abundance of offerings. At last count there are at least a dozen professional productions scheduled to open in January [. . .].

The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe has influenced the local theater season in a host of unexpected ways, one of the most prevalent being the emergence of performer-created work like Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle’s all wear bowlers. [. . .]

One of the city’s most adventurous companies, Brat Productions has staged plays on street corners, in pool rooms, backrooms, and bars. This month they return to a tavern setting for their production of Eugene O’Brien’s shaggy dog tale Eden. Running at Fergie’s Pub [. . .] (Madi Distefano) and (William Zielinski gave a scorching performance in Rum). Sexual relations have been on the wane between the two and while Breda hopes to reignite the passion, Billy is looking to get out. Distefano and Zielinski were once a couple so they should have plenty to draw on, and with white-hot director Tom Reing (Nocturne; The Dumb Waiter) helming the production, Eden looks like a good bet.

Many Philadelphians aren’t aware that there are a number of excellent theater companies working in the nearby suburbs. [. . .]

The Syringa Tree may only have one role, but in essence it is very much a two-character play. A tale of two families and one extraordinarily diverse and volatile nation, for the Arden Theatre Company’s production [. . .], Catherine Slusar will portray all of the play’s 24 characters–a huge acting challenge even for a performer of Slusar’s abilities. But throughout she will be accompanied by the tangible presence of South Africa, which in Pamela Gien’s wonderful script is recalled with considerable emotion and clarity.

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