I hit a travel jackpot earlier this month on a trip to Philadelphia.
I flew there for my annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association. Seventy critics and their guests saw six plays in as many days – heaven for a drama critic.
It was the same week as four other events: Villanova won the NCAA Basketball Championship; the City of Brotherly Love put on a huge parade to honor the athletes; the Philly Marathon proceeded despite a snowstorm; and an International Festival of the Arts launched events at Penn’s Landing.
In these tense times, it was exhilarating to be in a big, American city amid friendly crowds. The cupcakes in Reading Market had blue-and-white frosting for Villanova’s win.
I’ve belonged to ATCA for about 20 years. Every spring, critics from all over the country go to a different city to see what regional theater companies are doing. In addition to plays, we have panel discussions on such things as digital theater, color-blind casting or identity and gender issues in contemporary drama. ATCA’s new play awards are announced as well as our next conference – San Francisco.
In Philly, we saw two realistic dramas. August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” is part of the late playwright’s cycle about African-American life in the 20th century. “Sex with Strangers” by Laura Eason, is a new play with subtexts about gender, generational differences and modern communication. Both productions received clear, linear productions but felt frozen by a style that more and more seems like its time has passed.
At Walnut Street Theatre, the oldest continuously operating theater in the country, we saw “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a new musical that creates a free-wheeling backstory for Peter Pan. It’s fast, funny and full of surprises. And it’s a money-maker for the theater. Now in its 207th season, the Walnut has built an astonishing subscriber base of 50,000 people.
Two edgy new plays took two very different forms. At InterAct Theatre, “The Nether” by Jennifer Haley, which won the ATCA Primus Award in 2014, looked realistic, but it was set in the future and examined the implications of pornography on the Internet. “At the Wilma Theatre, “An Octoroon” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, an ATCA-Steinberg new-play award winner, played on a deceptively bare stage. It reinterpreted a 19th-century melodrama by applying updated techniques from Theatre of the Absurd.
Playwright Jacobs-Jenkins used direct address, interlaced dialogue, sudden musical interruptions from an onstage band and projections. “An Octoroon” also called for the creative use of makeup – black, white and red-face applied in front of the audience to underscore the racism and clichés of American melodrama.
The style and the highly imaginative staging brought to mind Fort Lewis College’s production of “The Trojan Women: A Love Story.” Written by another avant garde American playwright, Charles Mee, his modern reinterpretation of ancient works was challenging and of our time. We may live in a small Western town, but our theater professionals at FLC, in Merely Players and at the Durango Arts Center, continue to present a mix of conventional and contemporary works – just like a big city.
Our ATCA conference ended with a spectacular solo show by actor Dan Hodge. In 90 minutes, he introduced and performed Shakespeare’s epic poem, “The Rape of Lucrece.” Enacting all the roles, Hodge drove home a story about sexual obsession and consequences of rape.
Philadelphia has an extraordinarily live arts scene. So do we.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.