By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
An elephant could no doubt fit on the Kimmel Center’s rooftop Hamilton Gardens, and that atrium’s expanse well suits the carnivalesque staging of The Trial of Murderous Mary.
No real pachyderms appear in this clown and puppet parable about actual events that took place in Kingsport, Tennessee in 1916. Unfortunately, little that reminds of a circus or a tragedy occurs in this slow moving and unexciting 50-minute work created for the second Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
After five minutes spent unnecessarily (and unceremoniously) erecting a big top, Aaron Cromie’s Ringmaster introduces the circus talent. In too-brief interludes, Dave Johnson juggles, Sarah Gliko sings, Gwen Rooker clowns, and dancer Erin Carney contorts. Behind a scrim, Jered McLenigan’s shadow puppets show the cast taming toy horses and lions, pantomiming a tightrope walk or coralling elephants. Sarah Cogan’s lighting works here, but otherwise falters in evoking any spectacle.
This crew travels from town to town, their journey narrated through catchy, well-rendered original songs (penned by the ensemble), which the cast accompanies on kazoo, guitar, banjo and accordion. Bluegrass riffs, and one sly imitation of The Music Man’s opening number underscore a quintet of fantastic voices that harmonize exquisitely.
Once the circus arrives in Kingsport, the ensemble fills a variety of roles as townsfolk, a judge and sheriff. A few moments of humor peek through, mostly in clever name jokes. The once welcoming town turns hostile when Mary tramples an inexperienced handler.
Themes about animal cruelty and whether or not justice must satisfy the mob flash through like the shadow puppets: unrealized allusions to what a real script would offer. Cromie’s ringmaster provides the only character with any depth, yet his turn from moral family entertainer to profit-driven shill recieves little justification in the lackluster text.
I left wondering how five otherwise incredibly talented performers could produce such a stinker for the second iteration of what may be an unnecessary addition to the city’s arts scene. Well, maybe there was an elephant in the room after all.
The Trial of Murderous Mary. Presented through April 20 at The Hamilton Garden at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St. Tickets: $29. Information: 215-546-7432 or pifa.org