Do you believe in magic? Just a two-hour bus ride away, the Philly Fringe is conjuring some choice effects. Like our own fringe, this celebration of miscellany also crams the town’s playhouses and public spaces with 200 shows, but it anchors these variable events with a scrupulously curated Live Arts Festival, which showcases a few international productions and the best of Philadelphia’s local crop—Pig Iron, New Paradise Laboratories, Lucidity Suitcase, etc.
Neither Geoff Sobelle nor Trey Lyford hail from the City of Brotherly Love. But they have worked there often enough (with Pig Iron and their own company, rainpan 43) to nearly qualify as native sons. Their previous shows—All Wear Bowlers, Amnesia Curiosa, and Machines, Machines, Machines…—have had little in common, save an efficient and distinct creation of a singular world and some splendid physical comedy.
These qualities materialize in their latest, The Elephant Room, an enchantingly goofy collaboration with Steve Cuiffo, an actor and prestidigitator who works with the Wooster Group. But if you trust the program, none of these men actually appear in the show. Instead, audiences confront the spectacle of three mediocre magicians—Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic, and Daryl Hannah—who seem to have teleported in from a down-market Reno casino circa 1986. You may detect some similarity to Sobelle, Cuiffo, and Lyford beneath the gruesome wigs and false teeth; perhaps that’s just another a illusion.
On a set resembling the sort of basement rec room that leads you to thoughts of Tecate and suicide, the trio work diverse tricks with varying competence. They conjure a beer, fry a couple of eggs, find an innovative way to make a milk moustache. Some of these routines are childishly simple, others implausibly impressive. (All are choreographed to the likes of George Michael, Aerosmith, and Prince.) But the skill level hardly matters. What makes the show so delicious is the fathoms-deep immersion in these characters.
Louie is slothful and sleazy, Dennis is uptight and self-satisfied, Daryl is pathetic, with a grin that should terrify all children and most houseplants. But each boasts an absurd, undeserved self-confidence that makes every aspect of the show—a dismal smoke effect, a sordid dance routine, a flirtatious conversation with the Dalai Lama, the propositioning of female audience members—strangely amazing.
Without rendering them the least bit noble, likeable, or attractive, Lyford, Sobelle, and Cuiffo force the audience to applaud these characters. Nor does the actors’ commitment to these personae end with the curtain call, but that’s a bit of sorcery I won’t reveal. Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, said “a magician is an actor playing the role of a magician.” In an evening of less than subtle sleights of hand and flubbed climaxes, that’s one trick these three have nailed.
A delight in illusions also illuminates The Devil and Mister Punch, a premiere from England’s Improbable Theatre, a company that makes gorgeous, adept, and sometimes rather precious theater. Here, they create a scrumptious miniature playhouse on the stage of the Christ Church Neighborhood House, with at least a dozen doors and windows through which people, puppets, and assorted limbs can emerge. They conspire to tell the story of Mister Punch, a British marionette anti-hero, who has spent the last 350 years beating his wife and baby and defying the forces of the law.
Improbable rounds up the Punch and Judy show’s typical characters and some less common ones, too, such as a talking dog, a marvelous crocodile, and a chorus of performing piglets. What directory Julian Crouch and his corps can conjure from a few bits of cardboard, cloth, and papier mache is a marvel. With these tools, the puppeteers create a 90-minute picaresque in which Mister Punch enjoys a glut of unsavory adventures. And Mister Punch isn’t the only one having a lark. The piece’s lead, creator Julian Crouch, clearly enjoys testing and exploding the limits of puppetry and theatrical representation.
But unlike Shockheaded Peter, another Improbable Theatre show that combined semi-Victorian settings and an unquenchable interest in violence, this play abandons narrative drive less than halfway through its running time and doesn’t recover it until much later. The trappings are gorgeous and the staging innovative, but a host of diffuse and disconnected scenes gnaw away at audience interest. (Even in the cramped and close-seated theater, walkouts persisted throughout.)
As he wields his slapstick, Mister Punch forever shouts his catchphrase, “That’s the way to do it!” But Crouch and company might want to find a way to do it differently.