Philly Fringe reviews: ‘The Ballad of Joe Hill,’ ‘Where (we) Live,’ and ‘The Object Lesson’

The Ballad of Joe Hill. You may have dreamt you saw Joe Hill last night, just like the ballad says – but you didn’t. Like so many mini-icons in our culture, the song is only a part of the story, or not the story at all.

Philadelphia’s Swim Pony Performing Arts makes this clear in a beautifully created and performed biographical show inside a cell-block corridor of Eastern State Penitentiary, which the cast uses as a playing area to fantastic effect.

Joe Hill was a Swedish immigrant with several names, like so many 19th-century immigrants trying on a new language; “Joe Hill” seems the end result of his name whittling. He was an itinerant laborer and a staunch trade unionist, at the turn of the last century when ardent unionists were often scorned, outright hated or worse. He was also a songwriter – his songs have lasted in our culture, especially in union culture, and several are performed in haunting and memorable ways in the show.

In Utah, Hill was arrested for shooting a grocery owner to death, but no one could actually place him at the scene. He declared his innocence even as a firing squad executed him in 1915, and recent evidence shows that a gunshot wound he had received on the day of the grocer’s murder was probably over a fight about a woman named Hilda, and had nothing to do with the grocer.

Hilda is played by Dawn Falato, who at one point sings a great version of the ballad written after his death and attributed to Alfred Hayes. Falato is a presence through the show, looking befuddled, or staring blankly, a witness to scene after scene depicting parts of Joe Hill’s life in ways that may be like vaudeville, or circus clowning, or in song or serious exposition. The rest of the cast members –Ross Beschler, Robert Daponte, Justin Jain, Ed Miller, David Sweeny and Bradley Wrenn – are equally superb; when they sing among themselves or with Falato, the music echoing through that historic, peeling prison is superb.

So are the scenes themselves, many of them prison scenes in a show conceived by Wrenn and Swim Pony artistic director Adrienne Mackey. We get the governor of Utah as a stand-up comic, the crowds hating Joe Hill as a live Punch-and-Judy show and so forth. I missed the first few minutes of “The Ballad of Joe Hill” – Fringe festival over-scheduling on my part – but the show needed no introduction for me. The quality and staging of its storytelling, and of Maria Shaplin’s spot-on lighting inside that prison corridor, grabbed me in an instant.

“The Ballad of Joe Hill” runs through Sept. 15 at Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave. For information on all FringeArts shows in the festival, including dates, times and venues, visit www.fringearts.com

Where (we) Live. The New York-based quartet called Sō Percussiono teams up with a visual artist, a choreographer, a violin maker and a brewmaster to present a show called “Where (we) Live,” which has very little to do with where we live. There’s some repetitive narration about a dwelling, plus visuals, but what the group is creating with an hour of percussion, keyboard, piano and guitar music — often electronically enhanced — is a sort of aural home.

Sometimes the musicians walk around in the aisles, as they would in their living rooms. To the rear of the stage, people are brewing and bottling beer. This is all a moderate form of eye candy, but it’s the cool and persuasive ear stuff that counts here. The group makes entrancing music – it’s percussion that sings. A riff using the sounds that light switches make is particularly clever and enjoyable but really, it’s set within an hour of consummate musicianship.

“Where (we) Live” runs through Sept. 14 at the Painted Bride Art Center, Vine Street between Second and Third Streets. For information on all FringeArts shows in the festival, including dates, times and venues, visit www.fringearts.com

The Object Lesson. If you love an event with no meaning, no relevance and no central core, then you’re in for a real treat at theater artist Geoff Sobelle’s “The Object Lesson.” This world premiere at the Fringe Festival is a – what? – exhibition? Experience? Exploration? If so, what are we to experience or explore as Sobelle moves through a roomful of packing boxes – you sit on or around them – to pull out discarded everyday objects and toss them about?

Some of it is entertaining, mildly. Sobelle has constructed a story of sorts, at one point, and tells a different tale at another. In the worst part, he leaves the audience to explore on its own, and who really wants to? It’s old junk they’re looking at – an empty wallet, glasses, old opened letters and unwanted stuff relegated somewhere out of sight. (Alas, until now.) His scenery is pulled from these boxes, too – an old chair, a gramophone, some lights, a phone.

Sobelle, a member of Pig Iron Theatre Company, is a versatile actor, gifted in the extremes of physical performance. And he’s best here when he’s walking over tables and onto boxes to find things, or using his movement talents to make dinner in the oddest fashion. Anyone who’s seen Sobelle knows he’s game for the avant garde. But even though he ends his piece with a magic packing box – it’s the equivalent of a circus car that 20 clowns pour out of – whatever magic there may have been in anticipating his performance has by that time vanished.

“The Object Lesson” runs through Sept. 21 at the theater space in Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, off Market and Second Streets. For information on all FringeArts shows in the festival, including dates, times and venues, visit www.fringearts.com

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