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In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia’s favorite son, lists the 13 virtues that will lead to “moral perfection”—moderation, temperance, and cleanliness among them. Immoderate, intemperate, and frequently dirty, the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival wouldn’t fare well in Franklin’s estimation. Now in its 11th year, this celebration of innovative arts might occasion
moral turpitude. But a sampling of its theater offerings suggests it might also occasion a very pleasant weekend.
New York audiences could construe Live Arts as a larger Under the Radar or a low-rent Lincoln Center Fest. Running through September 15 in concert with the Philly Fringe, Live Arts treats Philadelphia audiences to some of the most playful and daring work available. Curator Nick Stuccio’s tastes seem to run toward both the somber and the ludic. He’s booked everything from Coco Fusco’s very serious piece about women in the military to Young Jean Lee’s uproarious, irreverent Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. Each day’s performances conclude with a late-night cabaret—its insalubrious location off Spring Garden Street (shattered glass, broken sidewalks, heavy on the vagrants) doesn’t deter a couple hundred performers, organizers, and audience members from gathering for indifferent nightclub acts, cheap booze, and lively conversation.
Many of the festival’s offerings— Lee’s play, the Wooster Group’s The Emperor Jones, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s No Dice—have been or will be seen in New York. Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz, a wondrous staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, has not and will not— at least any time soon. For years, ERS has lobbied the Fitzgerald estate for permission to perform the piece. The estate, which apparently still dreams of another Broadway adaptation, has barred the group from presenting the production in New York. Even a no-charge workshop at the Performing Garage in 2005 received a cease-and-desist order. Consequently, many New Yorkers peppered the Philly audience at one of the show’s seven-and-a-half-hour performances. Those hours include two brief intermissions, a longer dinner break, and absolutely every word of Fitzgerald’s novel—every aside, every descriptive passage, every “he said” and “she laughed.”
In a down-at-the-heels office, an idle employee, Scott Shepherd, picks up a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby and begins to read aloud to himself. At first his coworkers ignore him, but they gradually begin to take an interest in the text, speaking dialogue and contributing gestures. The scene doesn’t alter, yet office surroundings somehow dim. By a quiet sort of magic—and some clever sound design—the stacks of files and the business-casual outfits come to represent the glitter and pomp of Gatsby’s West Egg mansion and its begowned guests.
Cleverly, director John Collins never allows this illusion to triumph. The Great Gatsby is a novel of ambition, of desire. Like Fitzgerald, Collins doesn’t permit those ambitions to be achieved or those desires fulfilled. In a poignant passage describing Gatsby and Daisy out for an evening stroll, Fitzgerald writes, “He knew that when he kissed this girl and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of god. . . . Then he kissed her.” But Gatz doesn’t make Gatsby‘s mistake—it resists and delays that consummation, refusing to allow the stage action to ever entirely replace the novel Shepherd holds. Just when we might become carried away, might give ourselves over to the figures before us, a secretary enters with a stack of documents or a telephone rings. With a jolt we find ourselves transported back to the office, suddenly conscious that the tinsel and shimmer exist in our mind alone, that only a dreary workplace greets our eyes. Instead of giving us the comfort of a mimetic fantasy, ERS implicates us in a singularly imaginative act, not dissimilar to the one young Jimmy Gatz attempted when he remolded himself Jay Gatsby.
The novel’s Gatsby could never entirely inhabit his new role. Similarly, the actors merely sketch the characters or, as in the case of Susie Sokol’s Jordan Baker, play them defiantly against type. No actor quite looks his part. When Shepherd reads how the breeze tousled Gatsby’s hair, Shepherd and Jim Fletcher (the mostly bald man performing Gatsby) exchange an apologetic smile. We are always made aware of the gap between what we actually see and what we ought to, Gatz and Gatsby at once. It’s an extraordinary double vision, one we can’t help trying and failing to unite. The novel’s end describes a similar effort, how we all yearn for “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—” In the meantime, ERS presents a very fine afternoon and evening.
Another fine evening, though a far less affecting one, could be enjoyed courtesy of New Paradise Laboratories. In
Batch: An American Batchelor/ette Party Spectacle, director Whit MacLaughlin and writer Alice Tuan explore two of American culture’s most sybaritic customs—bachelor and bachelorette extravaganzas. Outfitted with prosthetic breasts and penises where necessary, the piece’s six actors play both bridal party and the groomsmen. These friends are determined to show the happy couple a very naughty time, complete with French strippers, obscene pizza deliveries, and diverse drinking games. Anarchic, louche, and playful, the production uses mood lighting, lightning costume changes, and live video to create a strange bacchanal. Though Tuan’s script defines the bachelor/bachelorette ritual as “a prenuptial celebration to create memories you may not care to remember,” Batch proves enjoyably memorable.
A more sober production is Flamingo/Winnebago—a sweet, slight piece by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, Thaddeus Phillips, and Le Chat Lunatique. It concerns a gas station owner’s cross-country odyssey and Phillips’s attempts to research his casino-managing granddad. What these narratives have to do with one another remains mysterious, but modish video projections and a live gypsy jazz band enliven their intertwining stories. Creator-director Phillips seems reluctant to pick a clear route. Though production notes suggest that the show will discuss “the excessive use of energy in the U.S., peak-oil theory, and the rapidly changing weather,” detour and digressions abound. Though gentle and humane, Flamingo/Winnebago meanders.
Neither gentle nor humane, Pig Iron’s Isabella is a deadly disappointment for a company that’s created many excellent productions—Hell Meets Henry Halfway and Shut Eye among them. Set in a morgue, Isabella concerns a medical examiner who reanimates corpses and puts them through the paces of Measure for Measure. A desire to revive the dead is quite understandable; the wish to have them then enact Shakespeare is more obscure. Certainly, the sight of five naked, bruised bodies lurching about the stage and massacring the Bard is a considerable provocation. But if one watched the audience instead of the stage action, one saw reactions veer from shock to outrage to amusement, but then land on ennui with an hour of play yet to go. Despite some passably interesting movement work, this morbid game of Barbies doesn’t sustain interest. At least Benjamin Franklin had some consoling words: “Do not fear mistakes,” he wrote. “You will know failure. Continue to reach out.” Perhaps Franklin should have added, “And next time, lose the zombies.”