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A Closer Look at...Philadelphia

J. Cooper Robb examines the history of Philly's theater community and comments on current productions.

Elvis O. Nolasco and Susan McKey in Tooth and Claw
photo © Paola Nogueras
Thirty years ago, there was no theater community in Philadelphia. Still struggling to recover from the disappearance of the Broadway tryout engagements that dominated local stages until the early 1960s, the city was virtually bereft of theater for a decade. But not anymore!

Beginning in 1973 with the appearance of the Wilma Theater, followed by the People's Light & Theatre Company and Philadelphia Theatre Company in 1974, non-profit theaters began to pop up throughout the region. Many companies have since come and gone but by the end of the 1980s, with the foundation of the Walnut Street Theatre in 1983 and the Arden Theatre Company and Interact Theatre Company in 1988, the movement had taken hold. In 1990 was formed the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, a service organization whose function as defined by its director, Jamie Haskins, is to "strengthen the Theater Community of Philadelphia by promoting positive awareness."

The Alliance's most visible tool for promoting awareness is the Barrymore Awards, which recognize excellence in area theater. Now in their 10th year, the awards have been more or less equally distributed among Philadelphia's non-profits, a point that confirms what Haskins sees as the defining aspect of Philadelphia theater: its diversity. Seth Rozin, artistic director of the Interact Theater Company, concurs with Haskins and feels that the absence of a single dominant non-profit theater organization in the city has helped to foster the emergence of an impressively varied number of companies.

The largest non-profit in the area is the Walnut Street Theatre. The nation's oldest continuously operating theater and the world's largest subscriber-based house (56,000 subscribers and counting), the Walnut is considered an entry point for many local theatergoers. But though its longtime producing artistic director Bernard Havard has steered the theater from the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1980s to an organization with three stages and an operating budget of over $12 million, the Walnut in no way dominates the local theater scene. Because its 1,098 seat main stage offers popular Broadway fare almost exclusively, it draws neither resources nor audiences from the area's other non-profits. A typical example of the shows seen at the Walnut is its current revival of the classic romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story, which bears little resemblance to the slate of offerings at the city's other non-profits. Efficient direction, capable acting, and handsome sets are the hallmarks of Walnut shows, and The Philadelphia Story is no exception. Paul Wonsek's scenic design is gorgeous; his vine-draped terrace in the second act is as much a work of art as a functional playing area. But, except for the performances of Ellen Tobie as family matriarch Margaret Lord and Alicia Roper as the practical magazine photographer Liz Imbrie, director Malcolm Black's production is never more than just pleasant.

The Arden Theatre Company is far more representative of the Philadelphia theater community than is the Walnut. Rising from humble beginnings, it has two stages and a phalanx of offices in its current home in Old City. Except for Shakespeare and Sondheim, the Arden's most fruitful relationship has been with local scribe Michael Hollinger; artistic director Terrence J. Nolen has directed five of the playwright's world premieres, including Tooth and Claw, which is on stage at the Arden through April 11 and will be seen in New York at the Ensemble Studio Theatre from April 5 through 25. A Barrymore winner for his play Red Herring, Hollinger is known primarily for such quick-witted comedies as Corruptible and An Empty Plate in the Café Du Grand Boeuf. But Tooth and Claw, set on the Galapagos Islands, is a drama focusing on a conflict between scientists at the Darwin Research Center and the native Ecuadorian fishermen who seek to harvest sea cucumbers from the islands' protected waters. The play concerns economic and ecological issues, "gringo" imperialism, diversity, and evolution, yet Hollinger's construction is so superb that the work never feels over-crowded. Still, while the production and performances are excellent, Claw is less than fully satisfying. The problem is that the play's primary conflict is an external one; that's fine for a comedy but, in drama, it's interior conflict that moves us. Hollinger's expertise is admirable but the end result is more stimulating intellectually than emotionally.

Elizabeth Hess and Greg Wood in Wintertime
photo © Jim Roese Photography
When Blanka and Jiri Zizka, co-artistic directors of the Wilma Theater, arrived in Philly in the early '70s, they brought with them a style of theater that was both artistically daring and philosophically complex. Perhaps best known for developing Dael Orlandersmith's Pulitzer Prize-nominated Yellowman, the Wilma is currently presenting Charles L. Mee's Wintertime. Set among the birch trees of Jerry Rojo's lovely set, director Jiri Zizka's production follows the Wilma's recipe of mixing local talent with out-of-town actors. It's beautifully lit and costumed by Jerrold R. Forsyth and Janus Stefanowicz, respectively, yet the presentation is unable to rise above the excesses in Mee's popular farce.

Out in the suburbs, the People's Light & Theatre Company has, over a period of 30 years, become the model of a successful non-profit. Spread out across a bucolic campus in Malvern, PA, People's Light's two stages, administrative offices, and scene shop are all state-of-the-art. Wildly popular among the well-heeled playgoers of the Main Line, artistic director Abigail Adams's theater is the only in the area to boast a resident company of actors. Its production of Suzan-Lori Parks's In the Blood captured 2003 Barrymore Awards for outstanding production of a play, lead actress (Roslyn Ruff), and director (Adams).

Philadelphia has become a leader in new play development; in addition to the Arden, the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Prince Music Theater, and Interact Theatre Company have been instrumental in making the city hospitable to new work. A member of the National New Play Network and the city's leading political theater, Interact offers a number of world premieres every season. This fall, it scored a big hit with Thomas Gibbons's Permanent Collection, which Seth Rozin says has already stirred interest among a number of other mid-sized theaters in the New Play Network.

The Prince Music Theater's specialty is daring new musicals and inventive adaptations of classics. Among its most significant achievements were its award-winning productions of Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins and Myths & Hymns, and the world premiere of Harold Prince's delightful 3hree. The theater's current offering is the world premiere of Cy Coleman's sensationally scored if inconsistently well structured The Great Ostrovsky. (Avery Corman wrote the uneven book.)

With the advent in 1997 of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe (until recently known collectively as the Philadelphia Fringe Festival), the alternative theater movement suddenly caught the attention of local audiences. Now counted among the top companies in the area, both the Pig Iron Theatre Company and Whit MacLaughlin's Obie-winning New Paradise Laboratories have used the Fringe festival as a springboard to national prominence.

Performers in Stupor, a production premiered in the
2000 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.
photo © Matt Saunders
It is not just the city's professional companies that have made the theater scene here one of America's most vibrant. Many graduates of the University of the Arts, Villanova University (whose productions are regularly on a par with the professional houses), and Temple University have become major players in the professional community, and the area's community theaters are a constant source of new talent. In addition, about 25-30 small non-Equity companies have been offering a number of thrilling if not always polished productions during the past several years.

Chief among them is Theater Catalyst, dedicated to providing technical resources and expertise to the city's young companies at the Adrienne's 2nd Stage. Among the companies that have benefited from the assistance of Theater Catalyst's producing director Joe Koroly is the Eternal Spiral Project (the city's only women's theater group, currently staging a bold revival of Strindberg's Miss Julie), the Eureka Theatre Company, and the Vagabond Acting Troupe, whose experimental adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream is now being performed in The Playground at the Adrienne.

Helping to make this surge in theater possible are the Delaware Valley's funding organizations, which have been an integral part of the community's growth. And, of course, much credit must also be given to the audiences that haven't so much flocked as stampeded to the city's theaters.


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