‘Arms’ reaching too far; ‘Boulevard’ a smooth trip

Local Life April 25, 2013 2 Comments

by Clark Groome

The past week a great classic and a world premiere were the principal local theater offerings. Here are my thoughts on the two productions:

“Arms and the Man”

George Bernard Shaw’s great “Arms and the Man” tells about Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary soldier, also known as “The Chocolate Cream Soldier,” who falls in love with another soldier’s fiancée and generally raises havoc with the romantic and class distinctions that exist between and among the play’s richly varied characters.

“Arms and the Man” is the first half of the current Quintessence Theatre Group’s repertory offering and runs in alternating rep through May 26 with Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” which opens May 4.

Shaw’s rich and complex characters are the height of artifice. In Alexander Burns’ Quintessence production at Mt. Airy’s Sedgwick Theatre, that artifice is so overwrought that many of the actors for most of the production come across as not only shallow characters but as shallow actors.

It’s pretty obvious that the annoying nature of many of the performances is a directorial decision designed to capture the aforementioned artifice. All it does is diminish Shaw’s extraordinary language and dilute the play’s message.

While it’s hard to tell just who is doing what the director wants and who is in over his or her head, there were several convincing performances: Khris Davis’ Bluntschli, Sean Close’s servant Nicola, Mattie Hawkinson’s maid Louka and Ames Adamson’s Major Paul Petcalf.

Sonja Field’s performance as Raina Petcalf, the young lady engaged to one man and in love with Bluntschli, is the most egregiously over the top. It is when Shaw calls for her character to stop being so exaggerated that her talent comes through.

The end result is an overdone, actorish production that does have its appealing moments when some of Shaw’s great humor peeks through. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often enough to save the evening from being more of a trial than a treat.

For tickets and performance schedules, call 1-877-238-5596 or visit www.quintessencetheatre.org

“North of the Boulevard”

Since Bruce Graham made his playwriting debut with “Burkie” at the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays almost 20 years ago, he has become Philadelphia’s most prolific playwright. Over the years at least 18 of his plays have been produced locally, many in their first productions.

While each of his plays deals with different issues and situations they all have a distinctive voice, rooted in Philadelphia and sensitive to the sound, language and personality of our city.

His latest effort, “North of the Boulevard,” is receiving its world premiere production through May 19 at Theatre Exile, 13th and Reed Sts in South Philly.

Four friends are hanging out at Trip’s garage around Christmas, 2008. Trip (Scott Greer) runs his establishment generously, always helping his customers when they’re short of cash. The neighborhood where he has lived for years has changed. Racial tension has grown to the point where he would love to move “north of the Boulevard,” where the crime would be less and his son wouldn’t be beaten up by black kids just because he’s white.

Joining him in the garage are Zee (Bill Rahill), a rather nasty chap who has no friends other than Trip. His son Larry (Brian McCann), Trip’s best friend, and his family have had to move in with Lee. No one likes the arrangement. Also present is Bear (Lindsay Smiling), a black security guard who voted for McCain and Palin.

Circumstances change suddenly and drastically at the end of Act I (and I won’t reveal anything about it). In Act I there is an intense and heated discussion about the conflict between the possibility of a big payoff and what’s ultimately the right and moral thing to do.

The nature of the discussion isn’t surprising, but its cause is. In typical Graham fashion the play is at once funny and serious. The humor is as dark as any I’ve ever seen from Graham. Like so many of this fine playwright’s dramas, for all its quirks it ultimately works surprisingly well.

The Theatre Exile production’s cast is superb. Matt Pfeiffer is its able director. Best of all, “North of the Boulevard” makes you think, which is about the best thing any play can do.

For tickets call 215-218-4022 or visit www.theatreexile.org

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  • blj1065

    Mr. Groome had a radically different experience seeing “Arms” than I did…Everybody I saw it with was completely engaged, laughing, and thoroughly enjoying themselves. Yes, it is a story about artifice, and what happens when artifice falls away. I’m not sure Mr. Groome got the point…It seems that he just has a preference for naturalism and naturalistic acting – that wouldn’t work for this play.

  • Ames “Paul Petkoff” Adamson

    Petkoff. Not Petcalf. I don’t give a fig for a rotten review but at least read the program and get the names right. Jeesh.