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Philadelphia Spotlight: February 2006

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Valerie Harper in Golda's Balcony
This February features an exciting array of productions, ranging from important one-person shows to some gems from Philadelphia's smaller companies and young theater troupes.

TV star Valerie Harper inhabits the role of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in William Gibson's Golda's Balcony. The Emmy Award-winning actress portrays not only one of the 20th century's most fascinating women, but over 40 other characters as well. This is that rare play that is at once enlightening, entertaining, and educational. If you want to expose your teenager to a little history lesson while they are too busy being entertained to notice, this show might just be the ticket (February 7-12, Merriam Theater).

Another fascinating solo show that has made its way to Philadelphia is Heather Raffo's Nine Parts of Desire, which examines the perspective of the war in Iraq from the viewpoints of many different Iraqi and Iraqi-born women. While Raffo starred in New York, earning raves and awards, Broadway veteran Jacqueline Antarmarian has taken on the assignment for the Wilma Theatre's much-awaited production (February 1-March 12).

After a year's hiatus to get their finances in order, Freedom Theatre, the city's most acclaimed African-American theater company, is back with a three show season. Kicking things off is the local premiere of Daniel Beaty's acclaimed solo play Emergence-See, in which the author portrays 40 characters. The story concerns the appearance of a 400-year-old slave ship rising like a specter in front of the Statue of Liberty, and it explores issues ranging from ethnic identity to the commercialization and exploitation of America's slave trade (through February 19).

Italian author Alessandro Baricco's "jazz fable" Novecento is both enchanting and bewitching. Barrico's unusual story is told from the viewpoint of a trumpet player in a cruise ship band (portrayed by the reliable Frank X) who recalls the life of Novecento, an infant found perched on top of the ship's piano. The baby is adopted by an engine room worker, who for years manages to conceal the child from crew and passengers alike. Soon, the mysterious child becomes a member of the ship's band. But while he's never been ashore, Novecento nevertheless has the unique ability to describe in great detail places he has never seen. Lantern resident director Dugald MacArthur directs this strange examination of a man and the century in which he lived (St. Stephen's Theater, through February 26).

One of the city's most eclectic companies, the Azuka Theatre Collective, stages the world premiere of Canadian playwright Kris Elgstrand's The Boys. This dark comedy is the story of two brothers who return home for their father's funeral. One is intent on getting even with his family; the other wants nothing more than a figurine likeness of his dead mother. Mike Dees and Pete Pryor portray the two siblings at odds with both each other and their difficult stepmother, played by the wonderful Mary Martello (2nd Stage @ The Adrienne, February 1-19).

Nothing the inventive Pig Iron Theatre Company had previously done prepared audiences for Mission to Mercury, a frolicking and remarkably theatrical musical presentation of the songs of Queen that wowed the city in its 2000 workshop presentation. Now, it is back in an entirely reworked full production, directed by Dan Rothenberg. Neither a salute to Queen nor a satire of the band's campy persona, Mission instead showcases the song's lyrics, since they are played in spare arrangements on unusual instruments. If this version retains its joyous spontaneity and infectious devil-may-care attitude, this small musical has the capacity to charm audiences into a state of unbridled delight (Drexel University Mandell Theater, February 16-March 4).

Finally, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental's wildly inventive ¡El Conquistador! has its official world premiere at the Painted Bride Art Center. Thaddeus Phillips stars as a doorman in a large urban apartment building who dreams of becoming a Colombian soap opera star. The building's residents, who appear only on the doorman's video monitor (projected overhead), are an eccentric and often contentious group; and as their demands on the doorman become increasingly bizarre, the plot begins to resemble one of the outlandish tales favored by soaps around the world (February 16-18).

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