Amy Smith in Hotel Pool(Photo © Steve Belkowitz)
Amy Smith in Hotel Pool
(Photo © Steve Belkowitz)
After an unusually slow summer, Philadelphia-area theater is back in a big way with literally hundreds of shows on tap for September. The vast majority of those productions are taking part in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe (previously known collectively as the Philadelphia Fringe Festival), which with over 200 productions at more than 100 venues, has emerged in its eighth year as the city's premier performing arts event.

Among the Live Arts Festival's 67 acts are six spotlight shows, including a pair of world premieres from Philadelphia companies: Headlong Dance Theater's Hotel Pool (which takes place in a deserted hotel swimming pool) and Don Juan in Nirvana, a surprisingly text-driven effort from the OBIE Award-winning physical theater company New Paradise Laboratories. Both productions run the length of the 16-day festival (September 3-18). Other notable local artists premiering new work at the Live Arts Festival include choreographer Brian Sander's muscular site-specific work AdShock; imaginative performance artist Thaddeus Phillips' look at Latin American soap operas ¡El Conquistador!; and Hell Meets Henry Halfway, a collaboration between the popular Pig Iron Theatre Company and writer Adriano Shaplin of the San Francisco based Riot Group.

Running simultaneously with Live Arts is the even larger Philly Fringe (which unlike the juried Live Arts is an open-admission event). With nearly 150 shows there is something for everyone, including the commedia dell'arte-styled The Commedia Princess and the Pea from the Valley Forge Children's Theatre; Hang Tough Martina, an exploration of racial identity from playwright Audrey Pernell; and Lunatics, Lovers and Poets' City of Champions: A Philadelphia Football Fantasia, which examines the antics of the city's roguish pigskin fanatics.

Instead of competing against the Live Arts and Philly Fringe, the Lantern Theater Company is joining it by staging Un-American at the Philly Fringe Sept 3-Oct 3. Penned by the new Infinite Monkey Writers' Collective (playwrights Justin Coffin, Amy Gorbey and Caryn Hunt), the play uses transcripts from the McCarthy hearings to examine the possible consequences of balancing security concerns with individual freedoms. Directed by Michael Brophy, the topical docu-drama features Barrymore Award nominees Frank X, Sally Mercer, and Paul Nolan.

An alternative to the progressive theater at the festivals can be found at the Walnut Street Theatre, which is following up their record-breaking production of Annie last season with the musical's sequel Annie Warbucks (September 7-October 24). Featuring Patrick Quinn as Daddy Warbucks, the role of Annie will be split between youngsters Andie Belkoff and Christiana Anbri and notorious scene-stealer John Charles Kelly returns to reprise his role as the kind-hearted FDR.

The Arden Theatre Company, which scored a huge box office success a few seasons back with Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, opens its 2004-05 season with Martin's satire The Underpants (September 9-October 31). The play revolves around an unassuming housewife who suddenly becomes an overnight celebrity when she loses her underwear in public. Starring local thespians Jeff Coon, Scott Greer, and Jennifer Childs, Martin's comedy exposes society's hypocrisies while examining such issues as fidelity and hidden desire.

Jed Feur and Boyd Graham's musical The Big Bang (September 10-October 10) makes its area premiere at Act II Playhouse. The story of two dreamers' intent on staging the world's most expensive musical, Bang's preposterousness is reflected in its' songs, which range from the showstopper "Free Food and Frontal Nudity" to the Eva Braun torch song "Loving Him." The musical comedy would seem the perfect vehicle for performers Ben Dibble and Tony Braithwaite who team to portray the entrepreneurial duo.