Columnist Max McCormack says the city’s theaters will surprise and delight audiences this season.
Philadelphia’s theater community can be as lively as the city itself. It can be exhausting or thrilling, but audiences can always come back for more. After spending a semester in London, I’ve returned to find that Philly’s theaters are still boldly changing the way its people look at life, music and relationships.
There are hundreds of theater companies and venues in the greater Philadelphia area, with more productions than ever before. Putting on any show – whether it’s a one-man show or a full-scale musical – is no easy task. Organizing a show can take months of labor before a single audience member enters the theater. But the work pays off – when a new show hits the city, theater-savvy Philadelphians take note.
In the next few months, new plays will invade the Avenue of the Arts and bring audiences something brave, something original and hopefully, something quality. Theatre Exile, the self-described “dependably unpredictable” company, will present the world-premiere production of Any Given Monday by Bruce Graham.
The play follows Lenny, who’s having a rough day. According to the production notes, “his wife left him for a jerk who builds Wal-Marts, his two least favorite football teams are playing on the TV, and his college-aged daughter, Sarah, is having a crisis of faith.” Audiences of Any Given Monday will see this average Joe fight his way through deciding who he wants to be and who he needs to stand up to along the way.
Graham’s plays are relatable. The Philadelphia Inquirer may have said it best: “[Graham is] considered to be this town’s people-pleasing David Mamet, builder of stories that suck you in and make you want to stay.”
Plus, Theatre Exile’s productions are usually must-sees, so I’d be surprised if this one weren’t. Any Given Monday runs Feb. 4 to Feb. 28 at the Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St. For tickets and additional information, visit theatreexile.org.
The Walnut Street Theater, which bills itself as the oldest running theater in the nation, has a history of creating fun, relevant productions, and this season – its 201st – should be no different. Opening today, The Eclectic Society will add to the list of premiere productions staged at the Walnut Street Theater, including A Streetcar Named Desire and Audrey Heburn’s Gigi.
The Eclectic Society follows a group of young men at a university during the 1960s. In a world of homecoming games and fraternity initiations, the play follows these men as they come of age and make big decisions that will follow them forever. Written by Eric Conger and directed by Ed Herendeen, the play runs through March 7 at the Walnut Street Theater, 825 Walnut St. Tickets are available through the theater’s Web site, walnutstreettheatre.org.
Of course, Philadelphia is also known for its adaptations of the classics. One of my favorites was the Lantern Theatre Company’s 2008-2009 production of Hamlet. Never has a classic moved me in such a profound way. On Jan. 22, Brat Productions will mount a 24-hour marathon production of The Bald Soprano. Under the direction of Madi Distefano, a Temple grad, Eugene Ionesco’s absurd 55-minute play, which tells the story of a British couple entertaining another couple over tea, will be looped into an all-day theatrical experience.
“It’s about how boring and monotonous it is to be married,” actress Jess Conda said. After performing the piece in 2007, Conda said she is excited to be back with Brat Productions.
“Brat makes experiences beyond just sitting in a seat,” she said, describing the show as “nuts” – which is exactly how it sounds. With the same actors revolving roles throughout the day, there will be a party in the lobby and audience members will be invited to leave and attend the show throughout the day.
“It’s one of those theater experiences that you’ll never have again,” Conda said. The 24-hour marathon of The Bald Soprano will play at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St. Visit www.bratproductions.org for tickets.
For those who don’t feel like making the trek downtown, great theater is only blocks away. Season after season, Temple Theaters delivers a mix of classic musical theatre and groundbreaking new works. This semester, Temple will present two shows – one classic and the other new. The first is a new adaptation of Divine Words, directed by Felipe Vegarra. Vegarra directed Something With Wings at the Philadelphia Live Arts Fringe Festival. His shows are so cutting edge, they’re practically falling off. Divine Words will open at Randall Theater Feb. 9.
Also at Temple, Matthew Wright will direct the hit musical Rent. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical by Jonathan Larson follows seven young adults living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side as they struggle with love, loss and the AIDS epidemic. While vastly different, both shows seem to echo a youthful approach.
Philadelphia’s theater world is not Broadway – I don’t think it wants to be – and that’s what’s great about it. If you want a Disney theme park of a musical, hop on the Chinatown bus. If it’s true originality you’re after, I say hop on the Broad Street Line, or wander down to the Tomlinson Theater and head, as they say in Rent, “to the stage.”
Max McCormack can be reached at email@example.com.