‘Nice and Fresh’ brings up-close, curated theater experience to the Northwest

In the theater world, you don’t get fresher than setting the lighting and sound cues just 20 minutes before showtime.

 

In Josh McIlvain’s curated performing arts series, running in different locations throughout the city, the Chestnut Hill native hopes things turn out pretty nice, too.

It’s even called “Nice and Fresh.”

SmokeyScout Productions, founded in 2008 by McIlvain and his wife, Deborah Crocker, launched the eclectic assortment of pop-up performances (now in its second year) with the goal of bringing compelling new works and independent artists together for intimate premieres with local audiences.

The latest round offered four performances— two each on Friday and Saturday nights — at the Moving Arts of Mt. Airy space on Carpenter and Greene Streets.

Getting ready for curtain

On Friday afternoon, the space was a pop-up Christmas shop, and the artists, none of whom (including curator McIlvain) had seen each other’s planned performances, had a mere hour in which to take down the holiday store and ready the space with the bare bones of sounds, light, the skeleton of a set and seating for up to about 30 audience members.

Serving as curator, box office, stage manager and stage hand as the minutes ticked away to curtain time (a strong scent of evergreens the only clue to the space’s daytime use), McIlvain, in jeans and a t-shirt bearing the word “KALE,” had precious little time for press.

DIY theater

Anna Flynn-Meketon, a Mt. Airy resident, starred alongside writer/director John Rosenberg in his short play, “Aaliyah (rock the boat).”

Flynn-Meketon just graduated from Temple’s theater program last May, and since then, true to the “Nice and Fresh” vibe, has been “figuring out how this happens.”

Her varied student career included roles in Temple shows like “Urinetown” and “Macbeth,” where she played Lord Banquo (she says cross-gender casting seems to be a theme in her work so far). She’s volunteered at Acting Without Boundaries and interned at Norristown’s Theater Horizon.

She admires versatile artists like McIlvain who take a do-it-yourself approach to theater.

“The whole multi-terrain thing is what’s up right now,” she said of the local arts scene.

At 13 minutes to show-time, the audience began to arrive, but one of the night’s eight featured performers was still missing.

Everyone arrived in the nick of time.

A curated experience

“You’re just now realizing how much you overpaid for that row home in South Philadelphia,” McIlvain intoned in a recorded intro, welcoming patrons to the Northwest.

As for any audience members caught using their phones during the performance, “we’ll slice your head off and call it performance art.”

The show kicked off with “Aaliyah,” which Rosenberg’s wife Yael Wulfhart said was inspired by a real-life family incident at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. It’s a brief, compelling and foul-mouthed dialogue between a brother and sister on the consternations of religion.

Next were two performances from the Putty Dance Project, “A Hip and a Swing,” and “Emoticon,” live music-and-movement duets starring dancer Lauren Putty White and trombone player Brent White. The engaging choreography celebrated the slides and sounds of the trombone as much as its music.

At intermission, Ken and Ruth Feldman explained that though they’re Wilma Theater subscribers who catch many of the bigger-budget plays downtown, they’ve been fans of “Nice and Fresh” since its inception, when shows were mounted in Kensington.

“It’s great to have it in the neighborhood,” Ken said, since the couple lives just a few blocks away.

Next was “Get Up,” a short but high-flying and perilously acrobatic performance from circus arts duo Nick Gillette and Lauren Harries, both alums of the Pig Iron School. Gillette is a founding member of Almanac, a “dance theater circus troupe,” now in its second year.

Finishing off the show was SmokeyScout’s own “Joni and the Doorman.” Sarah Knittel and Ethan Lipkin starred as Joni, a rich young divorcee, and Paul, a sympathetic, fur-trimmed bear of a doorman with serious Mafia connections.

“What’s the best thing about being divorced at 28?” Joni asks, pounding on the door after imbibing two bottles of Cristal. “You’re like Cleopatra, but American and available.”

She and Paul debate the finer points of how to properly spend drug money, and the hazards of getting grandma too liquored up (hearing more about your origins than you ever wanted to know).

The scene has a predictable end for someone so drunk, but then the theatrical results, cunningly staged in a plastic wastebasket, splattered a little further than anyone expected.

The faithful Feldmans, ardent supports that they are, caught the brunt of it from their front and center seats in the tiny venue.

“That doesn’t happen in the downtown theaters,” Ken said.

“Nice and Fresh” is returning to the Northwest for shows on Jan. 30 and 31 at Germantown’s Philadelphia School of Circus Arts.

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