Thursday, April 24, 2014
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Gambling on Live Arts/Fringe Picks

Wendy Rosenfield on Philly Live Arts Fringe Festival Critic's Picks. Philadelphia theater, dance, arts

Gambling on Live Arts/Fringe Picks

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By Wendy Rosenfield

I don't really go to Atlantic City much, and haven't yet visited any of the Philadelphia area's casinos. But I can say this: whatever I've learned about the pleasures and pitfalls of taking a gamble, I learned at the Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival. 

Last night I saw the last of my Critic's Picks (minus one--missed Some Other Mettle due to a scheduling snafu), those as yet unseen works we were asked to recommend to the public right before the start of the fest. As in any gambling endeavor, it's best to assess the odds. You read the press release, peep the Kickstarter campaign, listen to the buzz, go with what you know about the company's history and performers, or their subject matter. 

Overall, I came out ahead. There were two misses, or near-misses (depends who you ask). Some Other Mettle received a blistering review from Howard Shapiro, and didn't fare much better with a few other people whose opinions I respect. Jeff Coon and Ben Dibble Must Die, reviewed by Jim Rutter, contained some fun original music, but after a while its cuteness wore out its welcome, with in-jokes (Alex Bechtel is some kind of crazy guru! Michael Doherty and Greg Nix love to wrestle one another!) that ultimately proved grating for a general adult audience, or at the very least, to this adult audience member.

The rest, I believe, were hits. 27 (reviewed by Howard Shapiro) brought New Paradise Laboratories back onto solid ground after a few years' foray into the cluttered internet ether, where their works lived half-online and half-onstage. It was good to have them back. Bang, which I've blogged about here, was my favorite of the picks. And Iminami, while not perfect, delivered exactly what I predicted in print: an insane science fiction melodrama with puppets, acrobats and a live band. 

But a successful Fringe isn't about getting what you expect. It's about getting the unexpected. Suffering through the horror stories is as much a part of the experience as uncovering a hidden gem or seeing a transcendent piece from one of your favorites. For me, the latter arrived in the form of Red Eye to Havre de Grace (reviewed by Howard Shapiro) which reached the highest levels of stagecraft, all while still maintaining its "Fringiness."

It's obvious why some of the more established Philly companies place the first show of their regular season in the Fringe. But while some of those shows are strong--PAC's The Creditors (reviewed by Toby Zinman) and Theatre Exile's The Edge of Our Bodies (reviewed by me) are two solid works I've seen--they're absent the experimentation that makes the Fringe worth the gamble. A sure thing's great, but there's a reason legends are born when a longshot wins the race.

Heading into week two, I've subbed in a few extras, bringing my grand Live Arts/Fringe show total to 14, not including the cabarets I'll catch/have already caught at the Festival Bar. Hopefully, there'll be a few more winners in the bunch.

Feel free to share horror stories and happy surprises here. And allow me to start you off: my personal Fringe nadir, 2008's The Lost Book of Miriam. Review here.

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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