Saturday, September 10, 2011

Our Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe Weekend

At some point during our Labor Day weekend in Philadelphia, Catherine and I tried to remember when we first came to the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe. As best we can remember, it was in 2000 when the performance that blew us away was Mark Lord’s promenade performance through the Old City, Across. For me, that piece is indicative of all of our best experiences with this festival: it was epic, imaginative and remarkably daring. I haven’t loved everything I’ve ever seen here but I’ve never been completely disappointed, either, especially with the curated Live Arts events. And almost every festival has at least one production that particularly has inspired and invigorated me, artistically.

This year, all nine of the shows we saw are remarkably strong and several of them are absolutely fantastic. Four in particular are among the best work I’ve seen this year: Method Gun, Twelfth Night, Elephant Room and WHaLE OPTICS. All four productions feature outstanding performances and are imaginatively directed and designed. They are all challenging works: physically demanding of the actors and intellectually stimulating for the audience. With the exception of the Pig Iron show, they all employed modern technology to some degree but their most effective elements are actually fairly low- or old-tech: an overhead projector, the fly system of a theater, traditional sleight of hand, repurposing fabric to create the continent of Antarctica (complete with the Transantarctic mountain range). These productions that remind you of what live performance offers that television and film can't: the incredible energy and emotional impact of being present in the moment with artists at work. Of these, no piece embodies it better than the Rude Mechs' Method Gun (pictured, right): what might easily have been a simple satire about a theatrical guru transforms in the end into an astonishing illustration of the power of actors onstage and the potential danger into which they continually put themselves.

Other highlights this year:
• Mary Tuomanen and Genevieve Perrier, who give delightful (and vocally strong) performances in A Paper Garden. It's a charming, cleverly-constructed little production in a lovely garden. I especially admired their cross-gender casting choice—it's a tricky thing to make work and Ms. Tuomanen and director Aaron Cromie succeeded very well.
• James Sugg in Twelfth Night (pictured, left). Fantastic: I don't need to see anyone else play Sir Toby Belch for a long time. As far as I'm concerned, we can put this play on a shelf and leave it there a while.
• Rosie Langabeer's music for Twelfth Night: it creates the  perfect mood for Pig Iron's show. Plus, since she and her musicians perform it all live and take on several roles, they are a big part of the metatheatrical success of the production.
• David Disbrown and Christina Zani in Headlong Dance Theater's Red Rovers. It's a clever piece but uneven structurally: it works because both performers are engaging and do a great job with the occasionally unusual choreography.
• The pumping station space where Zon-Mai (pictured, right) is presented. The installation, videos and choreography in the piece are all excellent but it was hard to walk into that space and not imagine how it will look once it becomes the new festival headquarters.
• Brian Osborne's channeling of Carl Sagan in WHaLE OPTICS. Not an impersonation, really: just the distilling of the essence of him into his own character. Most memorable.
• Trey Lyford's carefully-crafted performance in Elephant Room. The whole piece is over the top from the beginning but it also has several exceptional moments where the three magicians demonstrate their skills as actors (and all three are very skilled). We're a little prejudiced, of course, but Catherine and I thought Trey's revelatory speech was absolutely beautiful.

By going the first weekend, there are shows that weren't playing yet that we would have liked to see. In particular, Improbable Theatre's The Devil and Mister Punch, New Paradise Laboratory's Extremely Public Displays of Privacy (although we have been seeing the preliminary parts of it on their website) and John Jasperse's Canyon (we have the option to see it at BAM, fortunately) and Play by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Shantala Shivalingappa. But that's always the problem with having only one weekend for this festival—you kind of have to be a resident of Philadelphia to really get everything it has to offer.

Photos (top to bottom): Kathi Kacinski (Method Gun), Jason Frank Rothenberg (Twelfth Night), Awatef Chengal (Zon-Mai).

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