PIFA 2018 brings Taylor Mac, ‘Doggie Hamlet,’ and much more

Taylor Mac in 'A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.' (Image courtesy of the Kimmel Center.)

The Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA) returns this year, running May 31 through June 10. The fest is full of premieres with guaranteed wow factor, including more than 50 performances by world-class artists hailing from places including France, Egypt, South Korea, and Sweden.

Taylor Mac on the Avenue of the Arts

Headlining artist Taylor Mac, in association with Pomegranate Arts and along with more than 100 local performers (including burlesque, a choir, marching band, and knitters) offers a two-part incarnation of judy's* 24-hour-long event, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (a Pulitzer finalist), for its Philly debut. Watch a magnetic, bedazzled, and bedazzling preview here. Part I, running at the Merriam on Saturday, June 2 from 12pm to 12am, spans 1776-1896. Part II, running on the following Saturday in the same 12-hour slot, covers 1896 to the present.

The Kimmel explains that this marathon “performance art concert” follows 240 years of America’s “diverse and sometimes dysfunctional story” and has been hailed as a “Ring Cycle for the 21st century.”

Dogs, hay, ‘Hamlet’

The Philly premiere of Ann Carlson’s Doggie Hamlet promises to be another notable experience. Starring five human performers, three herding dogs, and a flock of sheep, this event on Belmont Plateau (with hay bales for seating) combines “dance, music, visual, and theatrical elements with aspects of competitive sheep herding trials.” It’ll run June 3-4. In his intro at the Kimmel, Wahl was quick to assure us it doesn’t have too much to do with Hamlet; it’s just based on something inspired by Hamlet.

That would be The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, an engrossing, tragic novel by David Wroblewski which reimagines the crimes of Elsinore in the Wisconsin countryside, where the royal family is a dynasty of dog-breeders and Ophelia a beautiful hound. The book doesn’t have anything to do with sheep herding, so I’m curious.

A few more dictator decades

There’s also the Philadelphia premiere of Bassem Youssef: The Joke is Mightier Than The Sword. Determinedly billed to Americans as “the Jon Stewart of the Middle East,” Youssef, a political satirist from Egypt, rose from YouTube to a TV show which became a sensation in the Arab world (topping 30 million viewers per week, far surpassing Daily Show ratings). He now lives in exile in the United States, after his commentary proved too hot for two successive Egyptian regimes.

Also a surgeon who found his second calling in political comedy, Youssef told Samantha Bee in 2017 that though Americans “have fancy ideas of resisting and revolting,” we need at least a couple more decades under a dictator before we know what resistance actually means.

Youssef’s show appears at Verizon Hall on June 6.

There’s lots more. Peruse the full lineup for yourself.

PIFA for all?

PIFA is putting Philly on the global arts map, but how open is PIFA to folks who might not ordinarily get to see a world-famous troupe? (Depending on your seats, the cost of one ticket to the full Taylor Mac show can top $600.)

“The street fair is the big one,” Wahl responded when I asked about accessibility. The culmination of the fest shuts down seven blocks of Broad Street on June 9 for a free cultural extravaganza expected to draw 150,000 people. He called the fair PIFA’s largest event, and the heart of the fest.  

Whether or not Bassem Youssef and Taylor Mac will commune with a range of Philadelphians — not just deep-pocketed patrons and out-of-towners — remains to be seen. But PIFA 2018 promises to be an artistic force for all who can join in. 

*Taylor Mac uses judy as judy's pronoun.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.