Now available for export: Philadelphia theater artistry

 Ean Sheehy and Alessanda L. Larson in the New York Theatre Workshop production of 'Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,' which was first produced  by Philadelphia FringeArts before its current Off-Broadway appearance. (Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin)

Ean Sheehy and Alessanda L. Larson in the New York Theatre Workshop production of 'Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,' which was first produced by Philadelphia FringeArts before its current Off-Broadway appearance. (Photo courtesy of Johanna Austin)

How can a theater company have a national impact on the art as a whole? By finding a way to export its hometown talent.

Live theater is essentially a local notion — stage companies make their reputations in their own cities and with local audiences. Many actors, historically a wandering bunch in the United States, continue to take work wherever it comes, but for stagecraft artists like set designers and often even directors and playwrights, the city where they live is the city where their work is shown.

So how can a theater company or a city have a national impact on the art as a whole? By finding a way to export its hometown talent. Philadelphia, where the theater community has blossomed and come into its own, is having an increasing national impact.

FringeArts — the operator of the annual late-summer Philadelphia Fringe Festival — has been making its mark Off Broadway, along with Philadelphia-based theater artists. A few months ago, Pig Iron Theatre Company had a critically successful Off-Broadway run of a play it developed under the auspices of FringeArts in the 2011 festival: a frenetic and fresh look at William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” which Fringe Arts also presented at its new theater in December, before the New York transfer.

Now another show that FringeArts produced with Thaddeus Phillips’ Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental is playing Off-Broadway. It’s “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace,” directed by Phillips and created by him and several others in a process that began here 18 years ago. It opened Off-Broadway as a presentation of New York Theatre Workshop on Wednesday evening.

It’s not just exported productions that count for national impact, it’s also plays. The highly respected Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia has announced five new or relatively new plays for its annual summer repertory. Three of the five are by Philadelphia-based playwrights.

“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace”

The beautifully staged and inventive “Red-Eye” is an account, mostly from Edgar Allan Poe’s own writings, of the strange and fuzzy last days of his life. Brilliant, broke and thoroughly confused, Poe gave a lecture to the Philadelphia Literary Society during those days in 1849, then proceeded to ride a series of trains, at one point going the wrong way in an attempt to get to his aunt to New York. He ended up in Baltimore, where he was found dead.

“Red-Eye,” which has both the feel and look of being thoroughly researched, conflates those last days into a haunting, striking and sometimes purely entertaining piece of theater. Several versions of the work were presented under different titles beginning in the mid-’90s. When the play premiered as “Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” in the 2005 Fringe Festival, it was repetitious but powerful and had lots of promise. It was featured in the 2012 Fringe, far more evolved and smooth – a mood piece as well as a story.

The haunting original score that accompanies the show is by Jeremy and David Wilhelm, who played it live on stage in Philly in 2012 and continue to do so (Jeremy also performs roles) Off-Broadway. Ean Sheehy continues in the role of Poe — an intense and meticulous portrayal, fascinating to watch.

The show is a piece of intricate movement theater as much as declamation and its choreographer, Sophie Bortolussi, portrayed the ghost of Poe’s dead wife in the Philadelphia version in 2012. Off Broadway, the role is played with an eerie beauty by Alessandra L. Larson, who chases and ensnares Poe repeatedly.

The show’s major prop is a door that serves as both the inside and outside portal to several places, as well as a platform, a hiding place, and a way to get from one dreamy delusion to another. A final scene has Poe prone and atop a piano, while the other three players reach inside to play the piano strings with bow strings — it’s indelible. A mirror from above reflects Poe as well as the bowing action, which creates long, stirring notes. I’ve seen this ending many times in “Red-Eye’s” different versions, and it never loses its soul-stirring grand effect.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival

In Shepherdstown, W. Va., near Harper’s Ferry and Antietam, the main street is alive every summer with theatergoers dining, strolling and shopping between shows of the Contemporary American Theater Festival. It’s held on stages at Shepherd University, where its leader, Ed Herendeen, guides many new or recently new shows to higher visibility.

It’s simple coincidence, Herendeen told me, that three of the five plays he’s chosen to produce this summer come from playwrights living and working in Philadelphia. (I saw him a few weeks ago at another notable annual event, the Humana Festival of new plays in Louisville.) “It just worked out that way,” he said.

The plays and their writers are:

“One Night,” by Charles Fuller, who wrote “A Soldier’s Play,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982. (He later adapted it to become the film “A Soldier’s Story.”) “One Night” was first produced Off Broadway last year, and involves two U.S. veterans who’ve returned from Iraq and arrive at a dumpy motel, trying to hide and begin new lives. The play examines war trauma, plus sexual abuse in the armed forces.
“Uncanny Valley,” by Thomas Gibbons, whose work is premiered by InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, where he’s playwright-in-residence. Gibbons’ plays include “Permanent Collection,” which refers to recent Barnes Foundation history in general ways and has been performed around the country. “Uncanny Valley” is produced by the festival, InterAct and San Diego Repertory Theatre, and considers the work of a neuroscientist and an artificial being. The play tackles issues involving ethics and mortality.
“North of the Boulevard,” by Bruce Graham, the prolific and versatile playwright whose works have been produced around the country and overseas. “North of the Boulevard” premiered last spring in a production by Philadelphia’s Theatre Exile. It’s set in a Philly auto repair shop where the working-class hangers-on face everyday life in a declining neighborhood and fall into an opportunity that raises moral questions. The festival produced Grahams’ “Coyote on a Fence” in 1999.

 

“Red-Eye to Havre de Grace” runs through June 1 at New York Theatre Workshop,” 79 E. Fourth St. in New York’s East Village. 212-279-4200 or www.nytw.org.

 

The Contemporary American Theater festival runs from July 6 through August 3 at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va. 1-800-999-2283 or http://catf.org.

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