Newest plays in town: two home runs, one bunt single

Opinion June 7, 2013 0 Comments

by Clark Groome

Of the three shows I saw in the past few days two are about as good as theater can get. Arden’s “A Little Night Music” and the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s “Venus in Fur” are two of the best productions I’ve encountered this theater season. The third, the world premiere of “Barcelona” at People’s Light, has much going for it but ultimately comes up far short of the other two.

“A Little Night Music”

Stephen Sondheim’s score for “A Little Night Music” can best be described as “sumptuous.” The Arden Theatre Company’s production of the show can best be described as “gorgeous.” Those two elements make the Arden’s season-ending production, which runs through June 30, a truly memorable experience.

Hugh Wheeler’s book for “A Little Night Music,” inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” explores the romantic entanglements, desires and confusions of all its central characters.

The show is remembered musically for being written mostly in 3/4 or 6/8 time. It has a romantic feel that elegantly captures the emotions of its characters.

In the Arden production, director Terrence J. Nolen has assembled a terrific cast that includes superb performances from Grace Gonglewski’s Desiree Armfeldt, the central woman in the romances; Christopher Patrick Mullen and Ben Dibble as her suitors; and the wonderful Sally Mercer as Madame Armfeldt. The rest of the company is terrific as well, both dramatically and musically. (Gonglewski, a Mt. Airy resident, was profiled in a June 6 Local feature article.)

The handsome and evocative production is blessed with terrific designers: James Kronzer (sets), Thom Weaver (lighting), Rosemarie McKelvey (costumes), Jorge Cousineau (sound) and Nikki Cousineau (choreography).

Sondheim’s score — which includes “Liaisons,” “A Weekend in the Country,” “The Miller’s Son” and “Send in the Clowns,” perhaps his best known song — is beautifully sung by the cast and played by the orchestra, all under Eric Ebbenga’s direction.

The Arden’s “A Little Night Music” is a good example of theater at its best: a fine story with a great score performed by a superb cast in a production that is a feast for the eyes and ears.

For tickets, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org.

“Venus in Fur”

Clearly the Philadelphia theater season, thanks to the Philadelphia Theatre Company, has saved the best for last. PTC’s production of David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” is as good as theater gets.

An actress named Vanda (the extraordinary Jenni Putney) is late for an audition. She enters the audition space to try out for a play adapted from Sacher-Masoch’s novel “Venus in Furs.” The auditions are over for the day, and the only person left is Thomas (the brilliant Mark Alhadeff), the playwright.

Thomas wants to go home. He’s tired and, to quote the old song, the weather outside is frightful, teeming with rain amid violent thunder and lightning.

Vanda will have none of his excuses and ultimately convinces him — orders him would be a better description — to let her read for the part of the sado-masochistic female lead, oddly also named Vanda. He will read the male part.

As the audition unfolds the action in the play is intertwined with the action in the audition hall. Vanda, the actress, seems to know a lot about Thomas. The sexual attraction between the two is palpable but initially only in the new play. Then it gets difficult to tell what’s real and what’s fiction.

David Ives is a superb playwright, and this may be his most complex piece. It’s very funny, no question. It’s also very strange. The relationships between its two characters change and become increasingly mysterious as “Venus in Fur” unfolds during its 90 intermission-less minutes.

Whoever Vanda and Thomas are and whatever’s really going on is so compelling, so brilliantly and intelligently written that the time literally flies by. Director Kip Fagan’s direction gets the best from the two superb actors. We are blessed to have “Venus” in Philadelphia, if only through June 23.

For tickets, call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

“Barcelona”

Irene (Julianna Zinkel) is in Barcelona with friends for her bridesmaid shower. She’s falling-down drunk when she meets Manuel (Robert Montano), an attractive Spaniard who’s primarily out for a one-night stand. Or is he? Whatever, they end up at his apartment.

What we learn as Bess Wohl’s world premiere of “Barcelona” unfolds at People’s Light and Theatre (through June 23) is that both of these characters are not exactly what they seem.

For an intense and often funny 90 minutes the two talk. We learn a bit about Irene’s fiancé, Manuel’s family, the effect that the terrorists’ 2004 commuter train bombings in Madrid have had on him and how he feels about Americans. Ultimately the play makes some significant, if not particularly new or surprising, statements about America’s arrogance as personified by tourists like Irene. It’s all pretty melodramatic and predictable.

What makes the well-acted piece a disappointment is that for most of the time — until the very end, actually — neither of the characters is at all likeable. They’re funny, mysterious and complex, to be sure, but they’re not people I could care about or even like.

The People’s Light production, along with being well acted, is well directed by Jackson Gay and takes place on James F. Pyne Jr.’s nifty set.

For tickets call 610-644-3500 or visit www.peopleslight.org.

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