THE BIG "first" for the local run of Cirque du Soleil's "Totem," which opened yesterday and runs through June 30, is that it is housed in a specially erected tent on the Camden waterfront. Heretofore, whenever the celebrated Montreal-based company has presented its groundbreaking blend of you-gotta-see-'em-to-believe-'em specialty acts (aerialists, acrobats, contortionists etc.) and psychedelic staging in this area, it has always been on the west side of the Delaware River.
But "Totem" boasts another "first." Never before has a production seen in the Philly area boasted a Philly resident.
Greg Kennedy, of Germantown, is one of the featured artists in "Totem." Kennedy does a manipulation act while portraying a scientist in a laboratory (his assistant is played by a monkey!).
A North Jersey native who graduated from Conestoga High School on the Main Line (his family moved there when he was a teenager), Kennedy earned an engineering degree from Drexel University and had ostensibly carved out a career in that field. But his childhood love of juggling never faded and, in 1997, he took a six-month leave of absence from his job in New York to give juggling a shot.
"I kind of overstayed that six months a little bit," he said, with a sly grin on his face. "I've been [juggling] ever since."
Fairly early on, Kennedy, whose wife, Shana, runs the 500-student Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, near their Germantown home, decided he wasn't content to merely toss objects in the air.
"I started using engineering principals to create new forms of juggling," he explained, during a recent interview at Center City's Palomar Hotel. "Instead of throwing and catching an object, I would roll that object, or bounce that object, on different sculptures I created.
"It got a little more complex from there. I started working with sculptures that were kinetic that I could manipulate."
His groundbreaking approach to the ancient art of juggling won him the International Jugglers Association Championship in 1996. That, in turn, cemented his desire to give up engineering for a career in show business.
Kennedy kicked around for 10 years, earning a living in casinos, on cruise ships and other similar venues. About four years ago, the Cirque du Soleil folks came calling, and ultimately hired him for "Totem," which has been touring the world since 2010. He still marvels at the company's way of doing business.
"They spent more then I spent on my house on the infrastructure ," he said. "They have this giant video production going on behind me with these green laboratory bubbles. And I come on stage with a monkey and a lab coat with my sample boxes. I have two musicians behind me playing these musical instruments that they've created out of laboratory equipment - beakers filled with liquid.
"There are balls spinning 20 feet above the stage. Only Cirque du Soleil can do that. It's not about budget. It's about mindset, and not letting budget get in the way."
But when you consider that just last fall, Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) - a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, no less - proclaimed Darwin's teachings to be "lies from the pits of hell," then the play being staged through June 9 at Bristol Riverside Theatre has plenty of currency.
Thankfully, the cast and crew of this production are up to the task, conjuring a compelling, often moving program.
Although "Inherit the Wind" has a sizeable cast that fills BRT's stage, any version boils down to the work of the two actors portraying the opposing attorneys, Henry Drummond (based on legal titan Clarence Darrow, who, incidentally, is no relation to this correspondent) and Matthew Harrison Brady, the theatrical representation of Williams Jennings Bryan, one of America's most formidable political and moral leaders between the Civil War and the Great Depression.
As the famously agnostic Drummond, Keith Baker is appropriately steely and gravitas-filled. Michael McCarty, who plays Brady, brings to his character the right tones of imperiousness and implacable certitude bordering on a sense of infallibility.
The supporting players - including Joe Guzman, as Baltimore columnist and professional cynic E.K. Hornbeck (based on H.L. Mencken), are uniformly solid, with Liz Filios turning in a heartbreaking performance as Rachel Brown, a young woman caught between her teacher-boyfriend making evolution part of his curriculum and her minister father's religious zealotry.
The result is a fine evening of drama wrapped around a still-emotional subject.