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Philadelphia Spotlight: January 2005

Starting on a Hat

Geoff Sobelle and Trey Leyford in all wear bowlers.
(Photo © J.J. Tiziou)
For the sheer number of shows, 2004 may well have been the most fertile year in Philadelphia theater history. And surveying the wide-range of productions opening this month, it appears that 2005 is poised to surpass its predecessor in the abundance of offerings. At last count there are at least a dozen professional productions scheduled to open in January, six of the more intriguing of which are described here.

Removing songs from their original context can diminish their appeal, but the 64 Disney tunes that constitute the new touring production of On the Record are all such classics, they should stand on their own quite nicely. Structured as a life-changing recording session involving a pop diva, a matinee idol, a young starlet, and a "new kid" on the block, the production, which runs January 5-16 at the Academy of Music, combines extravagant lighting design with musical numbers ranging from the beloved "When You Wish Upon A Star" to newer hits such as The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea."

The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe has influenced the local theater season in a host of unexpected ways, one of the most prevalent being the emergence of performer-created work like Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle's all wear bowlers. Taking its title from a stage direction in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, bowlers concerns two silent clowns trapped in a haunted movie house. A thoughtful new work that appears at Mum Puppettheatre January 7-February 6 as part of 1812 Productions' Independence Cabaret Series, the play seeks to understand the relationship between companionship and identity.

One of the city's most adventurous companies, Brat Productions has staged plays on street corners, in pool rooms, backrooms, and bars. This month they return to a tavern setting for their production of Eugene O'Brien's shaggy dog tale Eden. Running at Fergie's Pub January 8-29, the site of Brat's hugely successful productions of Conor McPherson's Rum and Vodka, St. Nicholas, and This Lime Tree Bower, O'Brien's play draws on Ireland's storytelling tradition. Structured as interwoven monologues, Eden concerns the longtime married couple Breda (Madi Distefano) and Billy (William Zielinski, who gave a scorching performance in the aforementioned Rum). Sexual relations have been on the wane between the two and while Breda hopes to reignite the passion, Billy is looking to get out. Distefano and Zielinski were once a couple so they should have plenty to draw on, and with white-hot director Tom Reing (Nocturne, The Dumb Waiter) helming the production, Eden looks like a good bet.

Many Philadelphians aren't aware that there are a number of excellent theater companies working in the nearby suburbs. Perhaps they'll get the idea when The People's Light & Theatre Company's superb production of Louis Sachar's Holes opens for a brief run at the Academy of Music January 19-23. Adapted by Sachar from his best selling novel, director David Bradley's production is an imaginative exploration of how our choices can have unexpected consequences.

In 1980, two generals were implicated in the murder of an American churchwoman in El Salvador. Inspired by the barbarous event, Lee Blessing crafted the dark comedy Whores. Delving into the mind of a fictitious South American general on trial for murdering four nuns, the Interact Theatre Company production, which runs January 14-February 13, boasts a prestigious cast of local talent. In addition to Paul Meshejian as the ruthless general who suffers from suspiciously convenient memory lapses, veteran performers Janis Dardaris and Grace Gonglewski join promising actresses Christie Parker and Erin Reilly as the four prostitutes who exist only in the furthest recesses of the general's demented mind.

The Syringa Tree may only have one role, but in essence it is very much a two-character play. A tale of two families and one extraordinarily diverse and volatile nation, for the Arden Theatre Company's production running January 20-March 13, Catherine Slusar will portray all of the play's 24 characters -- a huge acting challenge even for a performer of Slusar's abilities. But throughout she will be accompanied by the tangible presence of South Africa, which in Pamela Gien's wonderful script is recalled with considerable emotion and clarity.


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