Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: Life and Times, Episode 1

Life and Times, Episode 1, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, directed by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, with original music by Robert M. Johanson, with Kristen Worrall, Carly Bodnar, Julia Frey and others, at the Wilma Theater.

Review: Life and Times, Episode 1


By Wendy Rosenfield
For the Inquirer

Your response to Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, Episode 1, will depend on your response to the hipster aesthetic. If you’re on board with the idea that everyone is special in his/her own way, that no life detail is too inconsequential or private to languish in obscurity, that an unremarkable white, suburban, upper-middle-class childhood deserves the bittersweet, stylized treatment of an experimental staged-musical version of a Wes Anderson film, you’ll love it. I’m pretty sure every African American in the audience, plus a half-dozen others, left before intermission at Tuesday's opening. I loved it. Go ahead and judge. 

This is Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s third Fringe appearance here, and this time they bring together several trends: the marathon (see Mike Daisey, Lucy Thurber for present examples), and musical documentary theater (see The Civilians). The show’s script, a verbatim operatic re-enactment of a 16-hour telephone interview between Pavol Liska and Kristin Worrall, the company’s 34-year-old sound designer, relishes each “Um” and “ah.” Sometimes a single performer uses them as punctuation, other times, they receive a full-cast chorus. Here, the means of communication is almost as important as its content. 

And there’s such triumphant beauty in the way directors Liska and Kelly Copper and composer Robert M. Johanson match the staccato rhythms of a human being collecting her thoughts, or the flood of memories that burst forth in a glorious wave. Episode 1 recounts Worrall’s life from birth to age eight (her story totals five episodes, each performed in a style that reflects its increasingly mature content), and the simplicity of those years is reflected in simple choreography, with knees bouncing, or arms waving in unison, and upbeat keyboard-and-flute tunes that could be lost entries from an elementary school production of Really Rosie.

While the whole endeavor might sound hopelessly indulgent, it’s not. I mean, it is, but these things take time, and it’s remarkable to watch the discrete recollections of Worrall’s earliest years -- the way her grandmother drank tea from fine china, but her mother used mugs; the placement of a preschool Play-Doh station -- dissolve into a wider view of the world and the realization that other people’s families work differently and not always so well. 

This ensemble goes for broke in such a heartfelt manner, with burly, bearded men and feisty grown women wide-eyed and singing for hours, it’s not just an affirmation that every life matters, but also that Kristen Worrall’s life, small and simple, matters. They made it matter to me. That’s a beautiful message, and it’s worth as many hours as it takes.

Playing at: Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Episode 2, Sept. 11, 7 p.m.; Episodes 3 and 4, Sept. 12, 7 p.m.; Episodes 4.5 and 5, Sept. 13, 7 p.m.; Episodes 1-5 marathon, Sept. 14, 1:30 p.m. Tickets: $10 to $65. Information: 215-413-1318 or

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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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