Seems like every year, at least one Fringe musical explores - or maybe exploits - the trials of an aspiring singer who looks for fame and love against all odds.
Trite? You bet, but when it's good it connects. The Hoppers Hit the Road, about two singing brothers on a quest for the big time, is composed of a cast of Philadelphia improv actors who decided it would be fun to use a script. And it's good. If it can smooth out rough edges during this run, it will be better than that.
Hoppers is classic Fringe, done with joy and a sense that everyone, audience included, is a conspirator. Like some past Fringe faves, it's local, the story of two naive singing brothers raised by their grandma in Glenside. They set off to the big city to find fame and love after Granny kicks and wind up stranded in Cherry Hill, where a slew of misfits figure in the plot. Everyone's headed to Ocean City Music Pier; don't ask.
It's often funny, with lyrics that start off corny, then show an edge. ("Grandma! Your meatballs are to die for!" Then: "Grandma! Your chin hairs are an eyesore!")
The production - written, composed and directed by google-eyed Brandon Libby and hang-dog Michael Connor, who play the Hoppers - needs an editor. A 20-minute cut would keep the 90-minute-plus show chugging along. Wordplay becomes so gratuitous it deadens the action. Some scene changes feel like a new ketchup bottle; you want to pound the thing so it pours. Upside: The large cast - improv fans will know them - wrings freewheeling pleasure from the thing, even chained to a script.
This year, many of the same young artists, plus some new ones, are putting on a show about another mythical beast: the giant squid. This time, it's polished in every way, with involved lighting by Tim Sawicki, who also molded the group's writing into a funny, cohesive script; a perfect sound design by Adrienne Mackey, who also gave it a frenetic and smart staging in a Drexel theater-classroom, funky overhead projector effects; and a cast that couldn't be better.
The players are led by Robert DaPonte, who earnestly portrays a professor lecturing us about his pursuit of the giant killer squid. His crew of three adventurers comprises the overly manly Crenshaw (Dave Johnson, whose illustration of underwater battle techniques is a hoot), the Inuit K'Tut (Justin Jain, with a marvelous show of extra-sensory culture from the frozen north), and All-American Oliver (Bradley Wrenn, who gamely guides us through life in a goofy special-effects ocean). There's a woman on board, too - the otherworldly Anna, given a uniformly eerie portrayal by Leah Walton.
As they reenact their journey in a classroom lecture, it becomes very much like the real thing. The Giant Squid is innovative, packed with little surprises, fine-tuned, and wonderfully wacky. It ranks up there with two other pieces that take the form of classroom experiences - last season's The Happiness Lecture at Philadelphia Theatre Company, and this Live Arts/Fringe festival's The European Lesson, an international commission. It's being done at far less cost than those, and without support by major artistic presenters. And it sizzles.
- Howard Shapiro
The Maguffin. This show by New York-based Stone Soup Theatre Arts has a plot about a GOP operative who twists the gay-marriage issue to suit his own, and the party's, obscurely stated needs. It has too few laughs to be fun, too little insight to be a satire, and too many sitting elephants to be anything but shoddily cynical. It has a cast that, with a couple of exceptions, has trouble acting. It has occasional flat music and lyrics delivered mostly by people for whom singing is illusory. It has a running time of 60 minutes. The one thing it doesn't have is a producer who will cut it by an hour.
- Howard Shapiro
Greg Kennedy, Innovative Juggler. Greg Kennedy walks onstage and quickly juggles his way through a set of pins, rings and, finally, balls. After finishing with each, he tosses them into a trunk. "There," he says, "now that that's out of the way. . . . " After all, when you bill yourself as "Greg Kennedy, Innovative Juggler," you'd better have the skills to back it up.
Kennedy's an engineer by trade, and his performance explores geometry and physics in visually fascinating ways, but his simple effects are often as delightful as his trickier ones. In a move he has adapted from Michael Moschen, the juggler recipent of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," he spins two, then three, then four silver Zen meditation balls in his palms, and with each addition appears to have added another hand.
The ensuing hour sees Kennedy maneuver hanging pendulums, metal rods, wooden sticks, billiard table triangles, stainless-steel Ikea mixing bowls, and a large plastic cone with Kennedy and a half-dozen whirling white balls inside (a video of this trick was a YouTube sensation).
It would be great to see Kennedy incorporate more formally the percussive elements of his juggling (and ditch the Cirque du Soleil-style music) and add some creative lighting. Some bits are better rehearsed than others, but one thing's for sure: They're pretty darn innovative.
- Wendy Rosenfield
Waiting for the Ship From Delos: The Last Days of Socrates. Steve Hatzai creates a drama about the last month of Socrates' life by inventing a Socratic dialogue. And Iron Age Theatre has found a perfect venue for this intellectually satisfying play: a creamy, high-ceilinged room with Corinthian columns in the American Philosophical Society.
We start by watching the trial, in which Socrates (Bob Weick) displays not only his irrefutable logic but also his refusal to save his life at the cost of his principles. The house lights are up, and we are the citizens of Athens, just as we are the extended jury when we sit in front of the television watching a courtroom drama. (Imagine James Spader buttoning his toga as he makes one of his blindingly articulate and impassioned arguments on Boston Legal.) The issues are relevant enough: freedom of thought and civic responsibility.
Socrates will be, as we already know, condemned. Then comes the long wait for the cup of hemlock - the execution cannot take place until the ship returns from Delos. (With Beckettian theatricality, Hatzai makes us wait for a ship that will not return until after the play is over.)
Socrates continues his "crime" of teaching the youth of Athens. Lyntos (David Corenswet), the sweet, intelligent son of the warden who brings his food each morning, provides Socrates with his last student - and we are taught as well: "Maybe the questions are the answers."
What a pleasure to see a Fringe show that takes serious ideas seriously.
- Toby Zinman