Sunday, August 30, 2015

Review: 'The Trial of Murderous Mary'

The talented cast of can't redeem a lackluster script and its undeveloped themes.

Review: ‘The Trial of Murderous Mary’

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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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."


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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