Philly Fringe reviews: ‘Life and Times’ and ‘Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak’

 The dancers of Brian Sanders' troupe, JUNK, performing

The dancers of Brian Sanders' troupe, JUNK, performing "Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak." (Photo courtesy of Kevin Monko.)

Life and Times. The folks at the Nature Theater of Oklahoma asked a woman they knew to tell them her life’s story – every detail from her earliest memory. She did. The series of interviews expanded into a musical, a project that took about a decade to complete.

 

 

In all, the theater troupe has 16 hours of interviews. They wrote a score, used the interviews as a libretto, and broke down this life –unexceptional but real – into five episodes, totaling more than 12 hours of performance. If you want to see all five, with a barbeque at the Wilma Theater thrown in, you can do so on September 14. Until then, you can pick and choose episodes, each of which is said to be a complete show of its own.

I went to Episode One at the Wilma on Tuesday night, a 195-minute look at the earliest part of the woman’s life, through her words. I mean every word. The troupe, which has performed in the Fringe before and does groundbreaking and often sizzling work, sing precisely what she told them, to the accompaniment of their musicians.

So you get these little tales – an embarrassing moment in grade school, a reminisence of playlets done with the siblings, a visit to Dad’s work; the subject has done exactly what the troupe asked of her. Here’s a taste: “I was like – ooo – my sister drew that. And I was like, um.” Or “Um – ha! And… ah. Anyway, sooo, what was I talking about?” That last one was funny, because of the way it was performed in song.

Many people in the audience loved this, and found the real-life patter to be either amusing or revealing or, well, I’m not sure. I very much admire the skilled troupe’s stamina and ambition – and their performance, too. But the concept wore itself down after about 40 minutes, and the well-composed music that rendered the woman’s words as though they were made for song began to sound the same. Given that “Life and Times” is done in chunks, I decided to chunk a piece myself, and left after about two hours, at intermission. The cast had gotten up to second grade in this life story. I went home and looked for a really good, incisive memoir to read.

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“Life and Times” runs through Sept. 14 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.  For information on all FringeArts shows in the festival, including dates, times and venues, visit www.fringearts.com

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Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak. The question arises: Must Brian Sanders, the popular artistic chief of the brazen locally-based dance group JUNK — a Fringe festival regular — be choreographing differently, now that he’s had a hip replacement? If his current Philly Fringe festival production is an indication, the answer is clearly, no.

Indeed, “Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak” is more demanding of its six dancers — five male (Teddy Fatscher, Billy Robinson, Tommy Schimmel, Connor Senning and Miles Yeung) and one female (Laura Jenkins) — than anything I’ve seen him choreograph recently. 

To a lilting score of “Lullaby and Goodnight,” “Hush, Little Baby” and other kids’ songs, arranged and recorded by Sanders’ sister Stephanie, the dancers take to a dreamy stage of mattresses where they play and climb massive sheets hung from rafters at the 23d Street Armory, off Market Street. Eventually, they climb a tall tree oak tree, a convincing piece of scenery built for the show and at one point beautifully lit in green designs from within (Jay Madera’s lighting).

Some dangle dangerously by one foot from short ropes suspended from the rafters. Others swing from rope to rope. Three of them walk or run on high steel heels. They are all buff and gorgeous and dance with a raw physicality on a stage overlain with sand, enjoying the possibilities around them. 

I’m not a dance critic, but I’m writing about Sanders’ show because, like his other work, it’s highly theatrical and full of ideas. When, at the end of “Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak,” the troupe bounds in from the sides of their primal, sandy world, flipping through the air within inches of one another then rolling across the sand and beginning all over, it’s perfect symmetry and spectacle. The dancers become the crests of waves crashing in front of you, as if summer is alive again.

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“Hush Now Sweet High Heels and Oak” runs through Sept. 15 at the 23d Street Armory, between Market and Chestnut Streets on 23d Street. For information on all FringeArts shows in the festival, including dates, times and venues, visit www.fringearts.com

 

 

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