Reviews: Keeping time with PIFA

Time is the theme of this year’s Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts. The festival, with more than 50 shows and events in and around the Kimmel Center, asks audiences to consider specific moments in history and then mix them up, as if a time machine has rotated them randomly like so many discs in a CD player.

Inside the Kimmel Center, a walk-through installation that’s supposed to be a time machine is a big presence in the already imposing plaza, and time — or at least history — is what many of the presentations are about.

I took in two of the free shows in the opening days of PIFA, as the festival is called for its initials. Both shows are being staged in Kimmel’s plaza. The first was by a local group of young theater artists called Tribe of Fools, performing “Shut Your Worm Hole” mostly in the late afternoons. The weird title comes from a notion that there are little tears in the continuum of time and space called “wormholes” — take that to mean whatever you like — and these may be the entry points for time machines. Or not. There’s a lot of playing with science and fiction here.

“Shut Your Worm Hole” is a fantasy about someone who tries to commandeer the very first time machine, which is made by a scientist at Penn, and the adventures that ensue. The Tribe of Fools troupe collectively invents work and specializes in dynamic movement melded with often stylized acting. At the Philly Fringe Festival, they’ve twice produced surprise hits, dark horses that became hot tickets.

So it’s fun to see how they bring this piece together in its own saw-toothed time-space continuum: “Shut Your Worm Hole” is a five-part play in 15 or 20 minute episodes, a serial that unfolds day after day. Some days, toward the end of the festival, Tribe of Fools will present it in multi-part chunks. I saw the first part — fun and silly and well-done — and got a script to read the others. The whole piece seems to work, but you can’t really judge Tribe of Fools by a script because what’s on paper is only a part of their productions.

I also caught the free original musical that plays two times nightly in and on the lobby time-machine installation. It’s called “Flash of Time,” with a score by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk, and it runs about 20 minutes with clowning, people dressed as colonial soldiers, others in a sort of aluminum looking material, and still others carrying or working with huge animal puppets.

I know there’s a plot somewhere in this sung-through piece — something about ratcheting up a time machine and pushing a button to use it for evil purposes and, oh, who knows. If you’re looking for content, forget about it and look for pure spectacle instead.

Enjoy the life-sized puppets and highly amped voices (even though what they’re singing is gobbled up in the airy Kimmel Plaza), plus the swelling music you’d normally find in, say, Cirque du Soleil when people begin tossing each other around like Frisbees. 

Both shows are free and family friendly. For program times and more information go to pifa.org/plaza.

The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts runs through April 27. For a full PIFA schedule, go to pifa.org.

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