By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
The title of Applied Mechanics' astonishingly theatrical show is Vainglorious. The subtitle is "The Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe After the Revolution." Said notable persons include, among others: Napoleon, Josephine, Beethoven, Mme de Stael, and Talleyrand. So you might want to brush up your 19th-century history. Or not -- just go and let the show carry you through 20 years of vainglory. (Besides, there's a crib sheet on the back of the program.) Regardless: If you're interested in experimental theatre, don't miss this one.
We enter a vast room, and wander, bemused (everyone's got an odd little smile on), among figures dressed in period costumes, caught, apparently, in mid-gesture. They seem to be statues, but their eyes blink. Eventually the actors (there are 26) will come to life, mostly through movement and murmured lines, some in French, and our collective smile will turn to intense focus, eyebrows shooting up occasionally.
Audience members are free to pursue whatever story catches their interest: Josephine (John Jarboe) and Napoleon (Mary Tuomanen); the Emperor's commandeering the sexual favors of the Duchess of Parma (Kate Black-Regan). Or maybe you want to watch Beethoven (Thomas Choinacky who has totally Romantic hair) compose symphonies, give piano lessons, discover he is going deaf. Tallyrand ( the riveting Kristen Bailey) concocts Europe-shaking politics, while Germaine de Stael (Jessica Hurley) creates the literary salon. Characters are composed of a team of five or six accomplished actors, and then the teams morph into armies on horseback.
Rebecca Wright directs this high-precision "movement opera" where many things happen at once (as they do in history). You suddenly see Napoleon exiled to the room's high balcony, and if you blink you'll miss the palindrome on the banner ("Able was I ere I saw Elba"). The guillotine is created by a balletic entrechat, and the cast thrillingly transforms into a silent orchestra frantically conducted by Beethoven.
The costumes (designed by Katherine Fritz and Maria Shaplin) are superb, and the sound design (Maria Shaplin and Teamn Beethoven) eventually becomes a little folkloric song as all the legendary characters run off, history melts away into the past, and we're left on the bare stage of the present. And all this in an hour.
Applied Mechanics at Christ Church Neighborhood House, near 2nd and Market Sts. Through April 13. Tickets $15. Information: 215-546-7432 or PIFA.org.