Philly Live Arts – Week One

Friday I headed down to Philly to see a few shows at the Live Arts festival. I’m feeling kinda lazy on this  Monday holiday, so forgive the lack of linkage. You’ll have to use a little more of your google-y skills.

First up was Sweet By-and-By, a collaboration between Pig Iron Theatre and Teater Slava. I had seen a very rough workshop version about a year and a half ago, so it was great to see the finished work. It is a solo show intertwining the story of legendary union organizer Joe Hill with letters home from a Swedish immigrant in the late 1800s/early 20th century. The show was an interesting blend of folk music concert, history lesson and performance art. I found it a little difficult to follow at times, but Daniel Rudholm is a very engaging performer and both stories – Joe Hill and the Swedish immigrant – were fascinating.  Accompanied by some great animation and a spare but beautiful set, the show was enjoyable and informative – go check it out.

After that I went up to the Ice Box Projects Space for Sebastienne Mundheim’s Sea of Birds. The opening of the show was really magical – a shadow play of birds in flight giving way to a sculpted garden underneath a canopy/dome of oblong fabric panels with projections and soundscape. The story was, loosely, about the narrator’s mother’s childhood in Latvia, about monsters under the bed, imagination and fantasy. I loved the stagecraft and the music – it was beautiful to watch and listen to and the performers were all great.  And while I liked the effect of the narration – the action was voiced over by Ms. Mundheim – I wasn’t crazy about the text. I just wanted the text to remain more abstract and elliptical, less tethered to “the real”, in keeping with the fanciful, elegant dreamlike presentational aesthetic. But that’s just me and I haven’t had a chance to talk to the artist or anyone else. Feel free to comment below.

Saturday afternoon I went to the Mutter Museum, which I had been meaning to visit for years. It was really fascinating – its a medical museum showing the history of pathology and medical curiousities. A very enlightening glimpse into the past and the history of the medical professions.

After a nap I headed over to the Last Drop Coffeehouse to do rotozaza’s etiquette which i somehow managed to miss when it was at Veselka in January. Since I was by myself I invited a random stranger to do the show with me, which added a fun layer of mystery to the proceedings. It was an interesting experiment in forced – and faux – intimacy. I wonder what Ant and Sylvia and the rest of the rotozaza crew are up to next? Looking forward to it.

Saturday night was my most anticipated event of the weekend – Jo Stromgren Kompani’s The European Lesson. I have seen three of his other pieces and LOVED them. He explores small group dynamics in enclosed spaces, creating fake languages inspired by specific places/cultures and blending movement with drama and an almost painterly compositional approach to staging. Inevitably each piece starts with a delicate balance of routine and agreed-upon behavioral conventions which breaks down into brutality and chaos over the course of the show.

At first I was resistant to the new piece. The European Lesson is The Live Arts Festival’s first international commission and for it they brought Stromgren to Philadelphia for a residency to build the new piece with local actors and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The show opens with an American, speaking in English, who is an “amateur anthropologist”. He has been touring the midwest with an actual European family – in this case Slovakians – and displaying them in local communities as a living example of “europaneity”. It is a pretty funny idea, but what I had always liked about Stromgren’s work was that it was so fanciful and surreal, it was grounded in the everyday but was just uncanny enough to be constantly surprising.

My resistance quickly gave way as I realized how Stromgren had managed to both incorporate an American aesthetic and slyly comment on it. Making a piece in America, about American relations with the rest of the world at the end of the Bush era, it had to start in English, it had to be anthropological to create a sense of otherness and distance. Stromgren gets under the skin, attacking notions of cultural authenticity as he digs into the brutality of small group interpersonal relationships. What starts out as hilarious soon becomes dark and disturbing, the Slovakian “family” is gradually revealed to be nothing of the sort – neither Slovakian nor a family – and the resentments, frustrations and conflicts come to the surface. The power dynamic shifts as the “Europeans” exert their autonomy from the Amateur Anthropologist. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is really amazing how Stromgren -and, I assume, the ensemble – make the transition feel surprising, gradual and not-at-all heavy-handed. When the Anthropologist finds himself bloodied and alone, sitting on a lawn chair and cracking open a can of Schlitz, it feels sad, not obvious. When one of the “Slovakians” comes up to the Anthropologist before leaving the stage and recites, in Norwegian, Nora’s last line from A Doll House (I think, I didn’t have any Norwegian speakers or Ibsen scholars with me at the time) it is haunting.*

And I definitely don’t want to give any more away, but the final tableau is beautiful, bittersweet and portentous.

This show is probably sold out, but if it isn’t – or if they add more performances – hie thee hither and get your ass down to Philly to check it out. It is yet another triumph from one of today’s important makers of contemporary theater. Oh and all the actors are FANTASTIC!

Kudos to Nick Stuccio and everyone at Live Arts, to the funders, actors and Norwegians for making this collaboration possible.

*Interesting footnote – rotozaza’s etiquette also uses extensive dialogue from Ibsen’s Doll House. Hmmm. Discuss.

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