Category Archives: Theater

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Dear Friends,

Sadly, since mid-September I’ve been off the air on WRTI, 90. 1 FM, a part-time gig I was privileged to enjoy for precisely one decade. I thank you for your listening & reading support. This blog & its earlier version (NotesfromPhilly@wordpress) were begun to document the WRTI scripts when they were removed from the radio website in favor of podcasts only.

I’ve plans to expand the blog into a website so please stay tuned.  The hope is to use it to explore my passion for working with writers (and readers!) of all levels.

For the past two years,  I’ve been working with a few individuals as a writing coach in my home studio:  short-story, creative non-fiction, journalism, beginning poetry.  The process is reciprocally invigorating; it takes me back to my days as a piano and music appreciation teacher only now the lessons are literary.

My workshop in the very short essay: Delight! Writing the Pleasures, (based on the miniature reflections of J.B. Priestley) will be offered in January at the Muse House Center in Chestnut Hill; it is also expected at the South Philadelphia (Fuomo) Branch of the Free Library. I would love to see you here,  there or in my Alder Street Studio.

Finally,  I have embarked on Warren Wilson College’s low-residency MFA Program for Writers in Poetry. For me, a conservatory graduate, Warren Wilson is the Juilliard or Peabody of writing schools, a daunting challenge for the third act of this critic’s life.

Here’s to writing practice!

With cordial thanks, dear readers,


Red-Eye to Havre Grace: E.A.Poe at Live Arts Fest

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental + The Wilhelm Bros & Co. Direction and Stage Design: Thaddeus Phillips; Original Score: Wilhelm Bros. Live Arts Festival, Philadelphia, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Sept 7-16, 2012.

He thought he was going home to New York but Edgar Allen Poe was on the wrong train heading south: a conductor put him off in Baltimore where his death there days later still remains a mystery. Rather fitting for our genius of the ghost and detective genres and so much else. Red-Eye to Havre Grace by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental with the Wilhelm Bros. & Co. is the delight you hope for at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Hard to categorize this imaginative movement/theater/opera which puts a new spin on Poe’s last lecture tour, his daily obsessions. He was calmer at home than on the road, collaborators Thaddeus Phillips, Geoff Sobel and the Minneapolis- based Wilhelms, Jeremy and David, show in this literally non-stop journey through the writer/poet/critic/genius’s attempt to deal with his last work, “Eureka,” his urgent letters home to his mother- in- law/slash aunt “Muddy,” and the hauntings by his child-bride wife, Virginia whose acrobatic affections are delicious.  Red-Eye is poignant and funny and the music- and- movement theater aspects are thrilling. The cast climbs over- under- and- even through a series of doors that function as train compartments, tables, beds and more. Ranger Steve of Philly’s Spring Garden Poe House narrates this imaginary Poe tale. He’s played by the multi-gifted, Jeremy Wilhelm whose operatic voice bursts into Poe lyrics when he’s not playing a mean clarinet accompaniment  to Ean Sheeny as the human and convincing E. A. Poe. There are several surprise moments none so good as Sophie Bortolussi’s first appearance as the ghost wife, which I dare not spoil. Red-Eye to Havre Grace credits Teller for its illusions, and Poe’s death scene is a triumph. Wilhelms’s original score includes the group playing bowed piano:  so spooky George Crumb would approve. Red-Eye to Havre Grace ended Sunday but it should play again and again.

Cloudburst at Qfest, Philadelphia

Cloudburst, A film by Thom Fitzgerald, with Olympia Dukakis, Brenda Friker, Ryan Doucette…Philadelphia Qfest (7/13 & 7/15) Ritz East.

It’s a good look, Olympia Dukakis and that beat up hat. She’s  steadfast Stella, bad- mouth bull to Brenda Fricker as Dot, her plump, blind dove in Cloudburst, seen at the Philadelphia Qfest, whose features, shorts and documentaries  are worth looking into whether you’re GBLT or straight. Cloudburst won awards in mainstream festivals here and in Canada, where writer and director Thom  Fitzgerald shot it.  If you want to know what love looks like you can do worse than check out Stella and Dot, so perfect in their squabbling imperfections of three decades. Escaping Maine and a conniving granddaughter to make their union legal, the couple pick up young stud Prentiss (Ryan Doucette),  on this maverick  road movie. Fitzgerald’s film  began as a play.  Cloudburst  packed the Ritz East where the  Qfest features are shown.  Shouldn’t be missed when this hilarious and poignant feature returns. You’ll savor the ironies and the well-lit  scenes of Bangor, and Nova Scotia’s Economies, Upper & Lower. This is the hardscrabble Good Life at its end. This is  Fitzgerald on  the benes of being legally attached, Dukakis, at 80,  has whatever it takes. Did I mention the soundtrack’s K.D. Lang: Sweet.

Also check out:    Vito, the HBO documentary of activist Vito Russo (July 17) , Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years (July 18).  Sassy Pants, with Joel Haley Osment.  (July 20 & 22). Black Blues & Other Hues about blues sisters from the 1920s… (July 20) Qfest runs through July 23: Ritz at the East and Ritz at the Bourse.

Tulips in an odd key

Tulipomania: The Musical, Book, Music, Lyrics, by Michael Ogborn, Directed by Terence J. Nolen, At the Arden Theatre, May 30-July 1, 2012

Three Michaels have told the story of the tulip’s 17th century boom and bust. Two are non- fiction. Now comes  Michael Ogborn’s Tulipomania: The Musical, at the Arden.  It’s a crazy mixed- up piece of theater. On purpose, I’m sure.  Tulipomania, which borrows from the Mike Dash book and surely the Michael Pollan is a musical comedy and a morality play.  It’s the first musical the Arden ever commissioned. The Arden’s Terry Nolen is directing (as he did Ogborn’s Cafe Puttanesca).

Tulipomania begins in an Amsterdam hash bar where the owner tells strangers the story of the tulip craze. Jeff Coon has an appealing accent that passes for Dutch, and he’s always an appealing singer. His presence is affecting but the role – in fact the musical is overloaded with messageguilt, risk, redemption – like one of those greeting cards that cost too much.

As the tulip tale gets told the Americans in the bar double as the people whose lives were shattered by the Great Tulip Craze of 1636. It doesn’t really work. The set doesn’t change, the costumes are grunge – contemporary – and the music is so Broadway style generic.  It moves from “What have you got to lose?”  with it’s New Age feeling to a Gospel-rousing- audience clap along.

Tulipomania: The Musical tells more than shows.  The lyrics are often cliched.  The score is predictable. But Adam Kazemi’s band (sax, reeds, cello, bass, guitar, flute, keyboard) steps above the bohemian cafe does a good job .  If  generic Broadway musical pop makes you smile,  smile away.

Terry Nolan directs a fine ensemble who could do so much better if  Tulipomania itself were tighter.  Coon, always sings wells, mostly so does Ben Dibble, who plays a painter in both centuries.  Adam Heller plays  a dot-com crook in hiding with a mordant, comic vein.  Singing’s not his forte.  Alex Keiper and Joilet F. Harris do well as women on a business  conference but the roles aren’t very interesting.  Billy Bustamante enlivens Tulipomania as the dancing Waiter.

The Island

The Island, by Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, directed by Peter DeLaurier, The Lantern Theater Company, May 17-June 10, 2012, opening May 23, 2012, for WRTI, 90. 1 fm

Two prisoners. Two men shoveling and straining under immense weight.  Two prisoners during their down time rehearsing Sophocles. Doesn’t sound promising, does it?  But Athol Fugard and his collaborators John Kani and Winston Ntshona (pronounce: Chona) knew what they were about  in The Island at The Lantern now. The company which usually does well by the South African playwright outdoes itself in The Island.  Frank X, in the role of John, and U.R as the reluctant Winston, exceed their customary virtuosity. The Island refers to South Africa’s austere, windswept Robben Island, the site of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment.  Once Antigone,  Sophocles’ play within this play, was performed by Mandela, for other inmates. There are other inside references to the anti-apartheid movement, which Fugard created with his actor-collaborators Kani and Ntshona.

It takes awhile to figure out what Sophocles is doing in this South African prison but we get there and when we do it’s wonderful. The Island honors these men whose anti-apartheid principles have put them behind bars and whose lives are simply our lives in a different time and place. The Island is a tough and sad play and a very funny piece of theater. The way Frank X and U.R.  play off each other, lock horns, Greek theater will not be the same. U.R.’s riff on envy is magnificent. He envies his buddy Winston’s approaching freedom. Frank X’s conversation to the outside world:  replete with wonders.  Peter De Laurier’s direction shows the power of his own fine actor’s timing.  Janet Embree’s lighting heightens 90 powerful minutes of theater.   The Island  through June 10 at the Lantern.

Il Postino comes East

Il Postino, Music & Libretto by Daniel Catan, (East Coast Premiere) conducted by Andrew Kurtz, directed by Leland Kimball, Center City Opera, Prince Theater, May 17, 19, 20, 2012. 

If you saw Massimo Troisi in Il Postino (directed by Michael Radford), you’ll miss his gaunt, eloquent face, as you watch Il Postino, the opera. Recall that Troisi, the actor and writer who was that postman,  died only hours after the film he championed was done. He was 41. Mexican composer Daniel Catan went to great lengths to buy the movie rights from Troisi’s heirs for his chamber version – only to die at 62 not long after Il Postino was finished for LA Opera.  Is the story cursed? It’s a beautiful fiction – about Pablo Neruda in exile and his friendship with an Italian mailman. Center City Opera gave the last of  Il Postino’s three performances at the Prince Theater Sunday afternoon.

As the postman, Jorge Garza lacks Troisi’s halting presence but his  apple- cheeked naivete and agile, soaring tenor more than compensate.  Hugo Vera as  Neruda,  sang as if he were emulating a young Placido Domingo, for whom the role was written (but in 2010). With more charisma than poetry perhaps but Vera’s voice is strong and he uses it well.  The opera feels longer than the languorous, wondrous, film. It would have helped if maestro Andrew Kurtz had picked up his pace. Musical passion heats up in the third act, where on Sunday the singers were fully invested in their characters.  Sopranos Jennifer Hoffman and Jennifer Braun play Neruda’s and the postman Mario’s respective beloveds. As Beatrice Russo, Braun sang a kaleidoscope of emotions; the color of her sorrow was intense. She and Garza (of the soaring hopes) were finely matched.

Buck Ross’s scene design should win an award – gorgeous color projections of the sky and sea. The computer dominated projections are efficient, persuasive. Catan’s music is neo-romantic. It’s got syrup but is more often accomplished, lush.  Center City Opera’s pit orchestra,   Symphony in C,  was reduced to twenty- some members so the full romanticism was missing. Sunday there were struggles in the brass, but woodwinds performed splendidly. Il Postino’s  sung in Spanish, which here sometimes sounded Italian. More operas in Spanish are planned.

Boston Marriage in Philly

Boston Marriage
by David Mamet, 1812 Productions, at Plays & Players,  May 2-20, 2012, Review of May 2 opening for WRTI, 90.1 fm.

Expectations are high with anything Jennifer Childs or Grace Gonglewski  touches. And I hate to dampen them. But Boston Marriage, David Mamet’s “woman play”   – which Childs is directing for 1812 Productions – is fun but not as riveting as hoped. Mamet sounds like he’s trying to out- stop Tom Stoppard.   It’s such a high-falutin cultural shoot- out.  Victorian drawing rooms don’t exactly suit the master of mean and dirty man talk – though Boston Marriage, written 12 years ago – securely winds its way around a lot of smartly comic and sentimental foolery.  Anna and Claire, Bostonians  of a certain age, are anxious about their diminished relations and dwindling bank accounts.   Suzanne O’Donnell as Anna, the elder, has taken a male ‘protector,’ aka married lover, just as Claire ( Gonglewski) discovers she loves a young girl.  But wait, these otherwise Liberated, Discreet Ladies are flinging insults at each other. They’re also abusing Anna’s immigrant maid.

Mamet insults are not only mean they’re very funny.  As Catherine, the Scots serving girl, Caroline Dooner is terrific. The brogue, the stumbles, the scrunched face.  (I look forward to seeing her again. ) O’Donnell’s Anna is a marvelous flighty character given to histrionics.  Mamet’s lines bloom, explode,  droop:  O’Donnell handles the sentimental effusions well.  But she’s prone to facial and other gestures oddly similar to director Childs’ (her longtime friend),  whose comedy is well- known here.

Gonglewski brings classic timing and wit to the more tempered character of Claire but the part doesn’t quite fit this exceptional artist.  It’s easy to believe Claire’s fallen for the girl;  harder to sense past or present chemistry with Anna.

Eye and ear candy are provided by Boston Marriage’s  chintz  set, and Scarlatti-esque sound design by James Sugg.