Review: Softly, the FringeArts building opens, with a fitting show

 From left, Geoff Sobelle, Steve Cuiffo and Trey Lyford in

From left, Geoff Sobelle, Steve Cuiffo and Trey Lyford in "Elephant Room," which opens the new theater at FringeArts, and the building itself. (Photo courtesy of Scott Suchman)

The new FringeArts building at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard, the first permanent home of the organization that runs the annual Philadelphia Fringe festival, opened to the public on Friday night — or at least part of it did. The newest theater in Philadelphia — a 240-seat black box, comfortable and with movie-theater-like cupholders at each seat —  had a soft opening. For the big-hoopla opening, we’ll have to wait until June when the rest of the building, with a restaurant and two-tiered outdoor space, is supposed to be completed.

For now, though, the theater is enough to allow FringeArts to present its edgy, experimental work through the year — answering a refrain among many Fringe-goers through the festival’s 16 seasons: “Why do we see this stuff only two weeks a year?” 

“This stuff” is actually becoming more and more mainstream, and also drawing younger audiences into the theater. For its opening, though, FringeArts producing director Nick Stucco does not shy from the bizarre. He presents a show that not only reflects the work FringeArts mentors, but defines it: “Elephant Room,” which I assure you will be the most outre magic show you’ve seen.  It was a hit last year in the Fringe festival here, which co-premiered it with Arena Stage in Washington. The show itself was commissioned by Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, and since its Philly opening has toured around the country, including Off-Broadway. 

How best to describe it? Imagine three classic lounge-lizards who perform magic. They would be Louie Magic (played by Steve Cuiffo, a magician who schooled the other two in illusion), Dennis Diamond (Pig Iron Theatre’s Geoff Sobelle) and  Daryl Hannah (Trey Lyford). They would not necessarily perform together, but each might be doing his own act on the stage while the others are each doing theirs — a sort of three-ring performance but on three different planets. Other times, they may be dancing their way to an illusion (David Neumann’s choreography) or doing strange things with eggs, Kool-Aid or a bottle of milk. 

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The illusions are great fun, but the real triumph of “Elephant Room” is the context in which it’s set: a custom-built universe for the three characters much like the Playhouse was to Pee Wee, and with entertainment in the form of illusion. (Sometimes, they’re the only ones who know they’re already into a trick.) The three men are to magic what, say, died-in-the-wool nerds are to digital technology — goofy, but also sly and fully-invested in a persona.

The whole thing, once you easily buy into it, is a hoot, with magic that’s funny in itself. “Elephant Room” isn’t really theater as we generally define it, nor is it the classic magic act. The inability to fit the show into a particular box is what makes it so deliciously removed from the commonplace — a high concept that feels like … a high. Just call it an event, a fitting way to launch a theater run by FringeArts. 

“Elephant Room” runs through Oct. 20 at FringeArts, Race Street and Columbus Boulevard. 215-413-1318 or


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