Top 10 picks, plus more at Philly Fringe/Live Arts

By Debra Miller

The 2010 Festival line-up is staggering, with nearly 1,200 performances of approximately 200 shows, ranging from theater and comedy to dance, music, and the visual arts.

Lucinda Childs’ Dance, (with music by Philip Glass and film by Sol LeWitt).  Photo by Sally Cohn.

In a league of its own, and superseding any list of top picks, is Lucinda Childs’ Dance, with music by Philip Glass and film by the late Sol LeWitt.  It’s uplifting that these universally respected avant-garde giants of the 20th century, whose Minimalist/Conceptual work was misunderstood and criticized in its early years, would acknowledge their experimental roots and bring a reprise of their interdisciplinary collaboration to the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival.  The two surviving members of this dream team will be on hand for a pre-show discussion on Sept. 10; this is your chance to converse with living legends.

Along with Dance, my top 10 Best Bets for 2010 are:
•    EgoPo, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (Fringe)
•    Theatre Exile, Iron (Fringe)
•    Luna Theater, Thom Pain (based on nothing) (Fringe)
•    Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, ¡El Conquistador! (Live Arts)
•    Jérôme Bel, Cédric Andrieux (Live Arts)
•    Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Romeo and Juliet (Live Arts)
•    Nevermore Theater Project, The Tell-Tale Heart (Fringe)
•    Hyphen-Nation Arts, The Jane Goodall:  Experience (Fringe)
•    Plays and Players, Hear Again Radio Project (Fringe)
•    Madhouse Theater Company, Dysfictional Circumstances (Fringe)

Ensemble in EgoPo’s Marat/Sade. Photo by Joshua Wallace.

The top three productions are by a trio of the most consistently excellent, compelling theater companies in Philadelphia.

Following its stirring adaptation of Beckett’s Company last year, EgoPo will kick off its “Theater of Cruelty” season at the Fringe with Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade.  Brenna Geffers directs a roster of all-stars, including Ross Beschler, Steven Wright, David Blatt, and Theatre Exile’s Joe Canuso, in the controversial and unrelentingly sadistic play-within-a-play, staged in the aftermath of the French Revolution.


Catharine Slusar in Theatre Exile’s Iron. Photo by Robert Hakalski.

Theatre Exile, too, returns to the Festival after a five-year hiatus, with Philly Fringe co-founder Deborah Block (co-artistic director at Exile) directing award-winning actresses Catharine Slusar and Kim Carson in Iron.  Set in a woman’s prison, Iron tells the story of a mother and daughter struggling to come to terms with each other, and with themselves, 15 years after a brutal murder.

Poster for Luna’s Thom Pain (based on nothing). Photo by Scott Fowler.

And Gregory Scott Campbell directs another of Luna Theater’s characteristically quirky shows, Thom Pain–a haunting anecdotal monologue by New York playwright Will Eno, which won the Fringe First Award in Edinburgh.  With their accomplished casts, directors, and design teams, these disturbing dramas promise to be the most professional of the Festival, while still exhibiting the cutting-edge intensity for which the companies, and the Fringe, are known.

Thaddeus Phillips in Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental’s ¡EL CONQUISTADOR! Photo by Evan Kafka.

My next three picks are part of the Live Arts Festival, distinguished from the Philly Fringe by selection process.  The Philly Fringe is unfiltered; both new and established artists can present their work without an invitation or preliminary judging.  Live Arts features renowned contemporary performing artists from the U.S. and around the world, who have been invited to the Festival by producing director Nick Stuccio.

Thaddeus Phillips’ Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental was selected to present its innovative fusion of live theater and film, ¡El Conquistador!  Combining the daydreams of an impoverished underdog with the popular phenomenon of telenovelas (Latin American soap operas), the performance (presented in Spanish, with English supertitles) makes reference to such classic sources as Hamlet and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Cédric Andrieux in Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux. Photo by Jaime Roque de la Cruz.

Also noteworthy in Live Arts is Cédric Andrieux, a behind-the-scenes autobiography of the eponymous French dancer, in collaboration with choreographer Jérôme Bel.  I can’t help but think of Avedon’s famous photos of Nureyev’s feet, evincing the torturous training that results in a work of beauty on stage.

Robert M. Johanson and Anne Gridley in Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo & Juliet.  Photo by Peter Nirgini.

And the New York based Nature Theater of Oklahoma presents an amusing retelling of Romeo and Juliet, synthesized from telephone interviews with everyday people who were asked to give an account of the story in their own words.  Their embellishments, inaccuracies, and reinventions include scenes and characters that were never part of Shakespeare’s original.

John Zak in Nevermore Theater Project’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Photo by Domenick Scudera.

Nevermore Theater Project offers another time-honored classic in the Fringe, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.  This one is a faithful word-for-word staging of the dark short story, starring Barrymore recipient John Zak as Poe’s man on the brink of insanity, and performed at the appropriately creepy Mütter Museum (admission to the museum’s collections is not included).

Marcel Williams Foster in Hyphen-Nation Arts’ The Jane Goodall: Experience.  Photo by Libby Cady.

Three more Fringe events round out my Top 10 list, all promising to be both unique and entertaining.

Hyphen-Nation Arts’ The Jane Goodall:  Experience features Marcel Williams Foster as the renowned anthropologist, in a performance/lecture/tribute to the 50th anniversary of her pioneering research in Tanzania.  Now working in the world of dance and theater, Foster trained at Goodall’s Institute, and incorporates years of research, a profound love of apes, and a virtuoso shift between humans and primates in his self-described “peculiar drag parody.”

Ryan Walter, Lauren Basler, and David Stanger in Plays and Players’ Hear Again Radio Project.  Photo by Alistair E. May.

More traditional is Plays and Players’ Hear Again Radio Project, comprising vintage radio dramas from the 1940s, performed live with authentic costumes, sound effects, music, and commercials.

Colleen Corcoran in Madhouse Theater Company’s Dysfictional Circumstances.  Photo by John Stanton.

Last but not least is Madhouse Theater Company’s Dysfictional Circumstances, a twisted dark comedy about Nazi propagandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, which just won the Audience Choice Award for New Work in the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s Spark Showcase.

Beth Nixon and Alex Torra in Cankerblossom by Pig Iron Theatre Company. Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg.

If you love inane Jerry Lewis movies circa 1960, and find over-sized glasses, crossed eyes, protruding teeth, and grating voices hilarious, you probably number among the masses that can’t seem to get enough of Pig Iron Theatre Company.  In light of the success of last year’s Welcome to Yuba City (both in the Live Arts Festival and with the Barrymore Awards), I would be remiss if I didn’t remind fans to get their tickets early, because this year’s offerings by Pig Iron (Cankerblossom) and Charlotte Ford (Chicken) are sure to sell out fast.

Charlotte Ford in Chicken. Photo by Jay Dunn.

Also among the annual favorites is Brian Sanders’ JUNK, this year performing Sanctuary (which comes with a warning that the production may contain nudity).  Described as “a dance of intense movement, ritual, and mistaken assumptions about the past,” and using a 14 x 120’ wall as the stage, the perfectly toned gravity-defying dancers will undoubtedly wow Live Arts audiences again in 2010.

Sanctuary by Brian Sanders’ JUNK. Photo by Steve Belkowitz.

The 14th annual Philly Festival runs September 3-18.  If you’re truly living on the fringe, it’s not likely you’ll be able to see much of it, so choose your shows wisely (tickets & info here).  At a pricey $325/person ($650/couple), the “all-access pass” gives access to all shows, not access for all people.