The anthropologist who comes before you is fully accredited. Or maybe not. He brings with him real European specimens. Or are they? And with all this comes a lesson in how Europeans think. Or does it?
The European Lesson is the first international commission for the Live Arts part of the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe, which invites artists to perform, and sponsors them. Jo Strømgren, a Norwegian director/choreographer, developed and presents the play with five Philadelphia performers, all excellent, at the Fringe's new festival bar and performance space on Fairmount Avenue.
In Europe, Strømgren is equally at home making ballets and creating daring theater. He's given the middle of this piece a moving, meticulously staged small dance, plus many funny moments as the academically garrulous anthropologist (Jeb Kreager) shows a family of Slovakians at work and everyday life (Aaron Cromie, Sarah Sanford, John Zak and Catharine Slusar, all beleaguered and perfectly pale).
With a hand-clicker, he starts and stops their action, translates their dramatic Slovak (in real life, gibberish) and robustly misinterprets their histrionic situations.
The show's a high-level sketch comedy that becomes a play within a play. The story line is fun, even as it grows serious at the very end - and stomps on scads of stuff: academe, anthropology, European life, American interpretation, male competition, female survival and the style of another Norwegian theater artist, Henrik Ibsen.
With the audience seated on the Mandell Theater stage, Everyone's eight dancers in T-shirts and jeans invite our gaze and meet it. They show us what humans do, physicalizing states of longing, pleasure, grace, and clunkiness. They wrestle and rut, and reveal patterns of thought in the two searing sections of text that bookend the piece.
Everyone plays out through a series of highly contrasting sections. The dancers coalesce into a workmanlike ensemble, speaking and moving as one. Then, careening off as individuals, they bump and lift each other in ecstatic encounters. In a quadrille with mandala-like geometries, irony cuts the elegance as whirling turns alternate with thudding falls.
Michelle Boulé's concluding monologue is indelible, sputtered with increasing urgency as the others, paired off, recede from the stage - "I have to tell you this thing . . . This may be my only chance." Everyone portrays everyone with tenderness, embracing what's awkward and glorious, both. - Lisa Kraus
Sea of Birds. If that old showbiz bromide about always leaving 'em wanting more applies to performance art, then Sebastienne Mundheim's Sea of Birds is a success. The dialogue combines her mother's tale of youth as a refugee in wartime Latvia with Mundheim's own childhood escapes, via her imagination.
Her design is a visual enticement: Long branches provide the structure for a translucent paper tent that opens in extended strips, inviting the audience in. Three scrolls hang from its ceiling as projection screens; four performers act as both dancers and puppetteers. The images are almost solely black and white, as though we are watching a faded memory or its negative burn. James Sugg links these ghostly elements with a yearning but grounded score.
Yet all these pieces, lovely though they may be, don't add up to a satisfying whole. Elements such as the disembodied click of three SS soldiers' bootheels in unison, or the volumes spoken in a detail - Mundheim's mother's Latvian telephone number was "2" - give the enterprise a peep-show feel. There's a depth in the material that is still tantalizingly and frustratingly out of reach. I don't often leave a show wishing for a second act, but to do justice to the work's content, 40 sparse minutes just isn't enough. - Wendy Rosenfield
Car. Most children are filled with a sense of wonder, believing anything might happen in the most ordinary situations. Adults, not so much. But three other people and I returned to that magical world Friday night when we stepped on the elevator at a parking deck at 40th and Walnut, armed with just a map and minimal directions: Go up to the fifth floor. Turn right, turn left, look for the silver Jetta and get in.
For 40 minutes, we were enveloped in the dreamlike land of Kate Watson-Wallace's Car, in which a two cars and a garage are the theater, the dashboard provides the soundtrack, and fences, concrete barriers and pillars double as scenery. Those people wandering around? Most are in the show, and might do anything - jump in the trunk, crawl in the window, pop out the sunroof or get behind the wheel. Video is projected on the car and garage walls in imaginative ways.
Car is the second part of Watson-Wallace's "American Spaces" dance trilogy. (The first piece, House, premiered in a West Philly rowhouse at the 2006 festival.) So much happened that I'd like to see it again - but with just four audience members at a time, the rest of the run is sold out. - Ellen Dunkel
Etiquette. England's Rotozaza wants to show us that all the world's a stage and every conversation a performance. Etiquette requires two people, who become both actors and audience. The theater is a corner table at the Last Drop Coffeehouse, equipped with headphones, glasses of water and a few little props. The voices in your ears tell you what to say and do. Person A presumably is male, though it doesn't really matter; person B is female. People in the café or beyond the window may glance at you, but nobody stares since there's nothing to stare at; nothing is embarrassing or distressing (unless listening to some really bad actors performing Nora and Torvald in A Doll's House embarrasses or distresses you).
In 25 minutes, you run through scenarios, some with little toy figures on the table, some aloud as you speak, to your partner, the lines you're being fed. Sometimes the directions are hard to hear, especially with Last Drop's music cranked up high, but generally it's an odd, amusing and engaging experience.
Whether it convinces you that all conversations across a café table are performances is something to ponder afterward. If it were all dialogue and not so much busywork, that effect might be more convincing. - Toby Zinman
Flushdance. A Fringe Festival without a trapeze is like a hug without a squeeze. In Brian Sanders/JUNK's past Fringe masterpieces, there was usually at least one. For this send-up of the 1983 film Flashdance, he has repurposed the Drake Theater as the film's bar, Mawby's. Though Sanders' inventiveness couldn't raise the low fly space for his high-flying artists, he did devise a few good substitutes - poles and scaffolding launchdancers off the floor when they aren't cartwheeling or somersaulting in midair..
Three gorgeous women and three impossibly buff men perpetrate Sanders' gleefully raunchy, gymnastically adept and utterly madcap vision of the disco era. A low-flying heart serves the melancholy Sinead O'Neil as a foil through which to twist and writhe; Angelica Cassimiro dances a pas de deux with a dummy clad, like her, in head-to-foot white. William Robinson and DuJuan Smart vogue as ChippenDales. In another dance, Michelle Duvall joins the other women, all bumping and grinding hilariously in floppy male apparatus.
The section that inspired this show - first seen at the Rockie awards a few years back - is full of toilet humor and mostly danced on one. To the song "What a Feeling," Steve Vaughn finds comic relief if not the real deal. In all it was flush with flashy, dirty dancing. Quick, get the Tidy-Bowl! - Merilyn Jackson
Sweet By-and-By. Pig Iron Theatre Company and Teater Slava of Sweden unite in this show supposedly about unions, Joe Hill - a Swedish immigrant who became a legendary labor organizer - and another Swedish immigrant who (if I understood the only-semi-coherent narrative correctly) is the great-grandfather of Daniel Rudholm, the show's sole performer. He sings (not very well), plays various instruments, and narrates (and only when he speaks Swedish is his voice projected and fully audible).
Wandering around through atheism and prayer, Seventh Day Adventists, heaven and hell, with hard times being blamed on God rather than social inequity, the plot never does tell us why this guy (who leaves his six children and wife pregnant with a seventh) can't get work in Sweden. The story and songs of Joe Hill seem merely an excuse to relate this odd family history, illustrated with crudely simple projections and a variety of props that are set on fire.
I've been a fan of Pig Iron for years, applying a slew of adjectives to describe their imaginative, highly disciplined and surprising shows. Never before has "boring" been the adjective of choice. - Toby Zinman