Best Theater Moments of 2017- Bonaly’s Take

We’re reflecting on our favorite moments, designs and performances from Philly Theater in 2017…

1. Hello! Sadness! at Fringe Arts.

Mary Tuomanen’s defiant and human insistence that she exists was the experience that gave us the strength to face the most horrifying reality of early 2017

2. Production design in Sans Everyting from Strange Attractor and Lighting Rod Special

The attention to detail and true originality in Masha Tsimring’s imagining of humanity as seen through the eyes of distant and future strangers was unforgettable, especially when paired with Brad Pouliot’s otherworldly sound design.

3. Corinna Burns in Inis Nua’s Swallow

The criminally underappreciated Corinna Burns broke our hearts with her honest, nuanced performance as Anna.

4. J. Hernandez in How to Use A Knife

In a play that we agreed was very problematic, J. Hernandez offered a multi layered performance as Carlos that transcended the material.

5. Thomas Choinacky in Peacable Kingdom from Orbiter 3

Thomas Choinacky’s native squirrel, under the direction of Rebecca Wright, was a subtle and understated performance that told the story of abusive relationships with compassion and dignity.

6. Running Numbers from Theater in the X

New playwright Cheyenne Barboza’s Running Numbers was well structured, thoughtful, reflective, funny and important. Theater in the X was right to get it in front of appreciative audiences under the skilled direction of Christina May. Niya Colbert killed it as Mouse in a performance that was hilarious and surprising.

7. Litany of names in AGAIN for the Bridge Festival

The listing of black victims of brutality to a hauntingly steady beat at the end of the Bridge PHL Festival was an unforgettable moment. Playwright TS Hawkins’ relentless reminders of the realities of black life are crucial, as are efforts like Bridge PHL to get the work produced.

8. Scape-ing at Kaleid Theater

Gabriela Sanchez, Pratima Agrawal, Vanessa Ogbuehi and Kaitlyn Pribulsky gave standout performances directed by Sarah Mitteldorf, and we look forward to seeking more from this WOC directed company.

9. Props and costume design for Orbiter 3’s The Brownings

Marie Chiment’s costumes set the scene and told the story, especially in conjunction with props by Emily Schuman- notably the historical couple’s pens (and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pockets!)

10. Representation Pushback to the Barrymores and Institutions

Our favorite theater moments of 2017 didn’t happen on stage. They happened in conversations on and offline. We started to really feel the momentum as women and POC in Philly theater demand representation, recognition and resources. The bravery of those who stood up, spoke up, opted out and pushed back was at the heart of this theater year.

 

*Note, Vanessa Ogbuehi was originally not included in the cast of Scaping. This was an oversight and we apologize. 

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Crimes of the Heart- Curio Theater Company

 

Linor

I’ve never heard of or seen this show before, and I don’t really have any connection to Curio.

Lola

I read the show once in undergrad and saw the movie once upon a time and those performances are super iconic. I really enjoy the folks at Curio and know a lot of people onstage, but I haven’t seen much there. I was excited to read about their efforts to pick shows that get more ladies in more good parts this season! That is an issue with this company that has been pointed out a number of times. 

 

Linor

Yeah, I agree, I think it’s great, and I’m also glad that that initiative didn’t lead them to the same commonly-produced plays by women, and that I was seeing a play by a woman I hadn’t heard a lot about.

 

The Take-Away

  • Enjoyable performances

  • Safe directing choices

  • Uneven design

  • Underdeveloped themes

 

Design

 

 

Linor

The only design element that really stuck out to me was the lighting – I actually was confused about time of day a couple times. The lighting didn’t seem to match the time of day the characters were mentioning. I kind of thought we were at a dusky evening the whole show, and so was alarmed whenever one of the characters would say “Good morning!”

 

Lola

There was that one sunset cue in Act II that was cool, but the whole design was so purple. I know the exact moment you’re talking about. Meg comes in “late at night” but late at night looked exactly like the lawyer walking in “early in the morning.” 

 

Linor

Yeah, those discrepancies took me out of the piece a little bit.

Lola

Damien Figueras is super talented and his sound helped set the mood at intermission and pre-show, but there wasn’t much else for him to do.

 

I was confused by Aetna Gallagher’s costumes. I didn’t feel time or place and, of the three women only Lenny’s felt like it fit with the character and time period. Babe’s outfits were especially confusing. 

Linor

They were so infantilizing! I know she’s supposed to be young but she felt creepily too young.

 

Lola

She’s 24. I think Gallagher’s intention was for her to look like a child who grew up too fast and was still trying to fit into her kid clothes…. but this solution was unflattering. The barrettes were a lot.

Linor

I could not see Doc’s face through his hair and mustache. It was incredibly distracting. Although I will say that the lawyer’s clothes were perfect for the period, and I enjoyed his suit with the bell bottom pants.

 

Lola

His too tight pants. He looked great.  I say it always: Paul Kuhn is the most underrated set designer in town. Period. This wasn’t his most inventive but it was sturdy and clean and clever. His attention to detail is amazing. In a kitchen sink drama, the sink worked!

 

 

Linor

Yes, that was something I deeply enjoyed. I agree that it was sturdy and clean, but as always with these kinds of dramas, I wonder what the balance is between realistic, feasible design and attention to dramaturgical detail. Obviously Kuhn can’t build a house in that space, but it felt like he tried to build as much of a house as he could, instead of making intentional choices about what parts of the set would bring us into the reality of the story, and what parts of the set the audience would have to fill in themselves. If you’re doing a realistic drama and don’t have the budget to build a realistic set, then it shouldn’t hover halfway between realism and suggestion. It ends up feeling uneven to me.

Lola

He built a house for The Birds. It was next level. But I see what you’re saying. For example it did feel like the stairway was an afterthought and the acting style didn’t match the abstraction. Symbolically I guess there were no doors because people can just walk in and out of the Magraff’s life, but that might also be a stretch.

 

Linor

Sure, and it’s not that I don’t love that potential symbolism, I just don’t love that parts of the set are symbolic and parts of it are very realistic.

 

Direction

 

Linor

Director Gay Carducci kept me engaged throughout the life of the piece. The only place that felt rocky to me was right at the beginning. I don’t know if Rachel Gluck (Lenny) wasn’t fully dropped in or if the moment hadn’t been given its full due in rehearsal, but I actually didn’t feel like I got a strong sense of place from the direction.

Lola

Gay Carducci is smart and I thought the direction was gentle and efficient. You could see a steady hand was in charge and I never felt like the play was going to get out of control, which in some ways is a shame. 

I felt the actors were overstaged. What was happening onstage felt very controlled, too controlled. Without a present sense of unraveling, this is just a story about some people who do some things and then it’s the end. I knew things were going to be okay from the start. 

Linor

Carducci built a really solid family – the sisters fought a lot but they love each other and will never leave each other. When I read a description of the show as “maladjusted family drama”, that doesn’t really seem to fit this production. I think that Carducci turned up the volume a LOT on this dynamic of cavalier-quirky idea of what it means to have had a family member who was mentally ill. She also made me believe that Meg had a part in the mother’s death. Her reactions were so strong every time someone mentioned it and she kept talking about their father’s white teeth. 

I think maybe it was signaling that Meg herself had struggled with mental illness, but it honestly seemed so over-earned at that point.

 

Lola

As opposed to what the script hints at, which is maybe that finding her mother was what propelled Meg into mental illness.

 

Why This Play Now?

 

Lola

The play doesn’t actually age too well. I’m sure it was shocking in its time, but it definitely feels dated. 

 

Linor

I think it could be relevant if the struggle with mental illness was at the center, rather than Babe’s redemption.  Babe really isn’t someone who feels like they’re under the thumb of mental illness. It could be a lot more subtle and questionable if the biggest question the production grappled with was not “what now?” but “is our family cursed?”

 

Lola

It’s about sensationalism a little bit, right? Babe is all over the headlines for getting back at a man who did her wrong.

Linor

That is what I liked about watching this piece now is that we’re centering some very real issues in women’s lives – abuse, mainly, but that mostly there was this underlying (if underplayed) theme of mental health. I honestly wish so badly that the production had taken that more seriously, because the “am I crazy?” question is so universal and still feels very relevant.

 

Performances

Linor

Babe (Tessa Kuhn) stayed in the safe zone for the entire show.

Lola

I did not understand who Tessa Kuhn’s Babe was. Maybe it’s because, like you said, she played it safe, but I just was confused.

 

Linor

I had trouble understanding Rachel Gluck’s choices at first, but she quickly became my favorite sister because of that nuance.

Lola

Rachel Gluck was connected and grounded and her accent was the most consistent, which is important in talky plays when accents go in and out. Meg (Colleen Hughes) was also good, but I was distracted by the fact that she’s clearly not a smoker.

Linor

Yeah. Definitely a small thing to criticize, but I agree with you, it took me out of the story. Another example where the show was performing itself, rather than living in its truth. Colleen Hughes is very funny – watching her and Rachel Gluck battle it out sister-style made me laugh so hard. Very reminiscent of my own family, especially when the fight is interrupted because company has arrived. A universally frustrating and awkward moment.

Chase Byrd, who played the lawyer, was a joy to watch.

 

Lola

Truly a joy. 

 

Linor

I just wanted to watch him listen to everyone. You can tell a truly gifted actor by how they listen.

 

 

Accountability

 

Lola

I saw the three sisters as representations of Depression (Lenny), Mania (Meg) and Bipolar Disorder (Babe). I wonder if  that was Beth Henley’s intention. I think it’s important to see more stories about mental health on stage, and this would have been very unusual in its time, especially with the focus on women.

 

Linor

There is just the vaguest skimming towards dealing with race in this show.  It felt very 1980s – we’ll talk about it but we won’t necessarily talk about. The black kid who Babe sleeps with – in the show it’s painted as a consensual, blooming relationship, but he’s 15. Babe is 24 when she sleeps with him! Nearly 10 years older than him. It felt like there was a space there that was explored, but it’s more an issue in the script than anything Curio could have done something about.

I do feel like there could have been some urgency in that relationship…because the performance is so safe, we couldn’t feel what a big deal it actually would have been. Here you have a white character in Mississippi in the 70s who’s shot her abusive white husband because he caught her having sex with an underage teenage black boy. And Babe is adamant that she does NOT want this boy implicated or in trouble at all – she really likes him. But because Kuhn’s performance – or maybe the direction – kept it so rosy, I never felt the weight of this issue.

The play is very comfortably white and not very interested in playing with that. I think my larger point is that there were a few ways in which the direction could have made this play actually really pointed and uncomfortable, but it was mostly just cozy and funny. I enjoyed myself, but maybe I shouldn’t have so much!  

Lola

I think you hit the nail on the head. Or shot the husband in the stomach. Whichever grim turn of phrase you prefer.

The Brownings- Orbiter 3

In Our Pockets

Christine

I’ve worked with Charlotte Northeast before and I am a really big fan of her work. I was a little flustered coming into the show, because I was running late. I knew almost nothing about the historical Brownings. How about you?

Elias 

I worked directly on this production and am close friends with a number of the Orbiters. This past week I’d also been sleeping poorly and, on the day, was in a rush from staying late at work, and I also felt a bit crowded in the seating there. I also know almost nothing about the historic Brownings.
The Take-Away 

  • Great performances, very funny, fast-paced script

  • Strong, character-bolstering props and costume design

  • Sensitive and smart exploration of a complex subject and relationship

 

Design

Christine

Design-wise, I was most struck by the costumes by Marie Chiment. I sometimes sort of tune out period costumes–because I don’t really have a great sense of fashion history I have a harder time reading character from clothes I’m unfamiliar with. But I thought that the costumes for each character told us a lot about them. Especially Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s bright plaid.

Elias

Yes, I agree. I’m not sure I’m familiar with Chiment’s designs; I think this is the first one of hers I’ve seen. The pattern choice on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dress really helped tell the story, as did Robert Browning’s more-conservative three-piece suit. The whole look of all three characters appeared very well-thought-out, in addition to flattering the actors.

Christine

Also noticed late in the show that EBB’s dress had pockets, which is always much appreciated. I really enjoyed the way piano music was used to move us between vignettes through the show. It also gave Robert Schumann’s asides to the audience a really different feel than the rest of the show.

Elias

I was initially concerned that Schumann’s role was going to be relegated to just that introductory interstitial the whole time, but I was gladly proven wrong. Chris Sannino’s sound designing of this script element worked really well for me.

Christine

I thought that the set felt a little busy–I understood that the messiness was a part of these characters’ lives together, but I sometimes found it distracting.

Elias

Yeah, I saw it as a clear metaphor of two forces in opposition to each other trying to occupy the same space, so in that regard it succeeded. I’ve seen several of Apollo Mark Weaver’s set designs, and I’m generally impressed with them as well as appreciative of the range of designs he’s done. I did sit in the front row, so from my more limited perspective (it was a very crowded space, both on set and in the house) I might not have gotten as much an eyeful of the distracting elements of it.

Christine

That’s possible. From a perspective further back in the audience, I really appreciated the way the interior room set just blended right into the exposed brick of the wall behind. It actually felt much more open to me (despite the crowdedness of the audience) because of that. But there was a lot to draw my eye.

Elias

The exposed architecture of the actual space did distract me a bit from my front-row perspective.  I’m not sure I bought the need/decision for exposing the whole room.

Christine

From a storytelling perspective, for a play is an anachronistic take of these historical poets, it felt like a way of blurring the boundary between where the characters are and where we are.

Elias

The lighting design felt fairly traditional for me in a lot of ways. Jerry Forsyth did make use of some moving LED light fixtures that sometimes distracted with colored light on actors’ faces. It was sometimes too unnaturally blue-white, but in other instances it blended in well. However, from my past experience with those lights, I know they’re primarily used for live music performances or social dance parties instead of as static, refocusable washes in a theatrical sense. I liked the use of lighting through the wireframe windows in the set as effect as opposed to natural lighting; they helped heighten some dramatic moments.

Christine

The end of the show also featured a lovely fire glow on the actors’ faces. Before we move on, I do want to shout out Emily Schuman’s props. They were very fun. The metronome in particular cracked me up.

Elias

 I kind of seriously fell in love with the pens for the Brownings. I think Emily Schuman is  an amazing props designer, and I’m glad to see more and more companies picking her up for work.

I think that the show could have used an intimacy choreographer, which is a thing I only just learned about a few months ago. The romantic/sexual movements with the Brownings didn’t play very well for me. It looked kind of forced, or at least not smooth or supportive of the story.

Honestly, the only reason I even know about intimacy choreography is because one of my friends travelled to a workshop to learn about it. I hope it comes to Philly in a big way.

Direction 

Christine

I thought the show was really, really well paced. And that the very different tempos and energies of the three performers were balanced well, too. The script is really funny and almost every joke landed really nicely. That speaks to the work of the actors, but also to the skill of Harriet Power.

Elias

Very much agree. I particularly enjoyed the direction in the scene where Robert Browning starts off dancing. It was a really good choice in how that vignette moved and fit in the rest of the show.

Christine

Oh! Yes. Me too. I also loved the scene when Robert Browning reads a very long poem–it was almost cinematic the way Power managed to show the passing of a very long time in just a simple moment.

Elias

Yes! That was a great moment of collaboration with script, acting, and design, which had to be handled by a very deft directorial hand.

Christine

It seemed like there was a lot of synchronicity among the artists making this piece–the director and actors and playwright seemed to be really clearly interpreting each other’s work.

Script
Elias 

As with all of Orbiter 3’s plays, Sam Henderson’s script is a world premiere. I know he’d been working on the script for a number of years, with readings also directed by Harriet Power. I have a copy of the script but haven’t read it all the way through yet, which allowed me to be surprised by the show itself.

Christine

 I liked the script a lot overall. As I mentioned above, I found it very funny, with humor on multiple levels. I found the view of romantic love and marriage that the play explores to be pretty challenging and honestly a little upsetting.

Elias

 It’s a very, very disarmingly funny script. And then it delves directly into issues of co-dependency and mental illness and hit me squarely in the middle of all my feelings.

Christine

 I had a really similar experience. I think that one of the things that makes the play special for me is that I expected a version of it that was just the competition and bantering between the two Brownings. But it was much more than that.

Elias

 And I think it was a very honest and vulnerable telling of the story of such relationships. Those themes really resonated with me.

Christine

 I found the vignette structure really effective for this story, because, with all that we see of the Brownings relationship, I found myself thinking about the totality of their lives together outside of what we see of them. The snippets painted a picture without kind of overwhelming us with the intensity of their lives together.

Elias

 Usually when scenes are written as short as they are in The Brownings, it doesn’t work well. Henderson was able to make each scene so well self-contained in his vignette structure that also linked together smoothly and thoroughly.

Christine

The last thing I want to bring up here is the characterization of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I have a particular distaste for stories about tortured male genius writers and I thought that EBB was a fascinating inversion of that trope’s characteristics. It also really refreshing to watch a story where the female character is acknowledged as obviously creatively superior to her husband.

Elias

 Yeah, that was great. And it carefully walked the line of the “crazy woman” trope that could be damaging. I’m still rolling that around in my mind as to whether the script succeeded in critiquing it, though.

Christine

 I hear that. I felt that it mostly did for me. Mostly because the male characters in the show, though they are critical of EBB and sometimes even a little cruel to her, are never dismissive of her. I think women are often given the “crazy” label to disempower them, but that doesn’t seem to be a a box that EBB gets put in.

Elias

 Yeah, I agree with that. And it paints a fuller, more human picture of mental illness than just an exploitation of it for dramatic effect.

Performances

Christine 

As I mentioned above, I am a big Charlotte Northeast fan; she brings so much weird humor and boldness to everything she does. This role had a huge emotional range for her character and I thought she navigated it really beautifully.

Elias

Charlotte Northeast is always a powerful presence on stage. I was similarly captivated by her ability to command the range of the role, in all her small and big gestures. I also found David Ingram’s Robert Browning to be nuanced and compelling. And I loved James Ijames’s turn at Robert Schumann: so charming and introverted and excited and excitable.

Christine 

Agreed. James Ijames made me laugh with the simplest things–repeating the word “Cool,” widening his eyes, headshakes. 

Elias

A really great cast.

Accountability:

Christine

As you brought up above, I think this play presents a really complex view of mental illness. I found its treatment of traditional gender roles really interesting as well.

Elias

 Yeah, we don’t often see responsible representation of mental illness on stage. I don’t know if the play was specifically for people with lifetime mental illness, but I think it could be.

Christine

Agreed. It felt like there was a lot in there for people who have not had experience with mental illness as well, but for people with that experience I imagine it was probably a deeper and different experience.

Race was directly addressed in one scene of the show, and I’m not sure I found that scene totally clear or satisfying.

Elias

I also had questions about that scene. Were they lampshading us? “Look at Robert Browning telling a racist joke, isn’t it bad that he’s doing such a racist thing?” But you still get to make that joke at us, even if it is truncated by Robert Schumann. How necessary was that scene in the end?

Christine

 Yeah, it felt like it was only dipping its toe into this idea that didn’t really appear in the rest of the play. On the one hand, I respect that the play made some attempt to address the whiteness of the Brownings–I think that, too often, whiteness just gets to be an unquestioned default state in theatre–but on the other, I don’t know that it was addressed in a way that fit into the rest of the piece or included a clear perspective.

Elias

 Fair points. It did seem odd to bring it up without going more deeply into the issue, but that would’ve either made the play another 20 minutes longer or a different play.

Christine

 Agreed. Overall though, I thought this was a play that really knew its audience. It felt particularly directed towards artists–speaking to their particular fears and struggles.

Elias

 Yes, I think that it very much was effective in that.