PHILDELPHIA - When the American Theatre Critics Association met in Philadelphia during the month of April, there was plenty of food for thought and discussion revolving around some absorbing, ingenious plays.
One of my favorites was “He Who Get’s Slapped,” a play by Leonid Adreyev and loosely based on a 1929 movie about a wealthy man who decides to join the circus. The lead character, He, played by Ross Bechler, was totally riveting, with a maniacal laugh, a sweetly charming smile and an edge that kept the audience off balance. He is surrounded by intriguing characters, including a young girl, in love with an acrobat, but being pursued by a wealthy older man. Her father, the MC, wants her to marry him to help him out of his own debts. Other characters enter the fray, especially an attractive woman, played with sultry charm by Annette Kaplafka; a pair of pranksters, tooting their kazoo horns and others who make up the circus employees. It all takes place, more or less backstage, between the various circus acts. It was imaginative and fascinating, with perhaps a hint of Pirandello and life’s disillusionment. Director Damon Bonett brings a wealth of imagination and understanding to this strange, imaginative production.
Then we had “An Octoroon,” set in a southern plantation where a young woman admits to her would-be lover that she is one-eighth black. Black actors don white face to play plantation owners, while others serve as maids, injecting some contemporary language into this 1850s setting. An Indian chief is on hand as well, as this flamboyant production, written by Brandon Jacobs Jenkins and directed by Joanna Settle, travels across the centuries to bring us a constantly changing immersion in past and present. The ensemble cast brings it all vividly to life. The play originally opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in 1859. There were fears of riot even then, just three days after John Brown was hanged at Harper’s Ferry.
“The Nether,” which won the Primus award at the Humana Festival, was written by Jennifer Haley and directed by Seth Rozin. The Nether was a futuristic term for the internet, which featured avatars, creating scenes of conflict and love. The set was a study in contrasts, with a table and chairs in an interrogation room. But just behind it was a charming Victorian house with gardens. The past/future alternated in a dense tale of imagined lives and shifting personalities.
Another unforgettable experience was William Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece,” a one-man interpretation by Dan Hodge in the ballroom of the Courtyard Marriott Hotel. The actor’s spellbinding performance told the absorbing tale of a woman seduced and abandoned.
All this and more made for an outstanding time in the city, with the hotel located just across from Independence Hall. Philadelphia is less than two hours away and well worth a visit to its Avenue of the Arts, its museums and exciting vibe for new, refreshing theatre fare.