Ensemble energy sparks FringeArts

Fringe Festival: ‘99 Breakups’ and ‘Theorem’

5 minute read
“Theorem”: This performance takes balls. (Photo courtesy of fringearts.com)
“Theorem”: This performance takes balls. (Photo courtesy of fringearts.com)

Call the cops!

A street fight just broke out in front of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, right before one of the Fringe performances! No wait, on second thought, don’t call the cops. Wouldn’t you know? It’s part of the show.

Pig Iron Theatre Company is at it again, making mischief with another immersive, site-specific theater piece. This time, not only have they preempted the entire museum space in PAFA’s historic building, they’ve also moved out onto North Broad Street. Pairs of lovers are quarreling and hosing each other down with water before bewildered audience members who are waiting to get into the building. No doubt about it, their latest theatrical stunt already promises to top previous ones in invention and ingenuity.

99 Breakups, this year’s offering by this clever company, features an energetic ensemble of 20 actors who have taken over PAFA and are staging lovers’ spats under its massive paintings, in its venerable halls, up and down its stately staircases, on every available balcony, and in every nook and cranny.

As always with Pig Iron, the show starts before the show starts. You’re admitted into the building, treated to a brief rock concert, and then given a T-shirt, a toothbrush, a key chain, or a CD. These objects signify the group you’ll join for the next 90 minutes. Guides lead each of the four groups to spots in the museum where they’ll watch five different “breakup scenes” that are playing simultaneously in the museum’s public spaces.

One scene features a couple in bed under the erotic portrait titled Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (John Vanderlyn, 1814), in a gallery on the second floor. The couple’s attempt to have sex dissolves into endless talking, quarreling, and, eventually, parting.

The next gallery features a couple dancing an awkward, mechanized pas de deux, measuring and sizing each other up. This scene is played out before two modern paintings, one of a flower, one of a tree, both angular and sharp-edged. The leitmotif? Two lovers trying to form a relationship that doesn’t “fit,” either physically or emotionally.

Down the corridor we go to view a third breakup, performed in a freight elevator at the back of the building. The huge horizontal doors gape open to reveal two women, trapped in a combative ritual from which they can’t disengage.

Repetitive patterns

Our usher seats us on a flight of stairs to view the fourth, and most visually arresting, set of breakups, featuring a dramatic view of three floors of the building and a grand connecting staircase lit with towering globe fixtures. Two couples, one on the balcony above us and the other two floors below, perform parallel breakups wearing formal attire. (The leitmotif: one couple is a shadow of the other, signifying that there is a repetitive pattern in flawed relationships.)

The fifth breakup occurs in a claustrophobic office behind glass doors, where we see a group of people getting fired by their employer.

For the grand finale, the four groups of viewers are reunited in the central hall, where we watch this talented ensemble perform a dance recapitulating all the stages of a breakup. A narrator walks among the dancers, telling his own story: “I fell in love for the first time when I was 18 years old. We broke up when I was 20.” As he repeats his narrative, one by one the pairs of lovers leave. “You don’t know if it’s a love story or a breakup story till the end,” the narrator says, finally. And that’s it.

(An amusing footnote: While our group leader guides us through the building from scene to scene, he keeps telling us about his own personal breakup. At the end, he asks: “If you know a nice girl for me — preferably a teacher — give her my number.”)

Of all the site-specific productions I’ve seen by this resourceful, imaginative troupe, 99 Breakups (directed by Quinn Bauriedel, choreographed by Dayna Hanson) is the most successful in integrating form and content, space and theme. In the process of performing a play about breaking up relationships, they are also breaking up the audience into groups, breaking up a museum space, and breaking down the notion of conventional theatergoing. As a result, they’re treating us to a provocative, stimulating, and energizing theater experience.

Meanwhile, in Germantown

Up the river and over the hill into Germantown, another talented ensemble is dazzling us with a breathtaking show of acrobatic and juggling feats. Greg Kennedy’s Theorem features five jugglers and circus artists plus one talented musician, performing in the so-called Funicular Station, a small red brick building (c. 1914) that was once a livery stable. Within minutes, this amazing ensemble (an offshoot of Cirque du Soleil) transforms the empty space into a circus arena where miracles happen. White balls, rings, and pins fly through the air, tossed and juggled at dizzying velocity. Two women perform a breathtaking, gravity-defying trapeze act hanging from a single twisted rope. Others climb and balance on fragile geometric structures.

At one mesmerizing moment, Kennedy throws dozens of white balls into a huge plexiglass cone and leaves the stage. The balls continue to rotate, magically, like planets around the sun. It’s one of many arresting images that this talented troupe provides.

Watching Kennedy stand alone onstage at another point, juggling dozens of spheres with effortless assurance, I’m reminded of Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian man, at the epicenter of the universe. The sense of balance, well-being, and harmony that Theorem provides is a heartening one, especially in these unbalanced, uncertain times.

For a review of 99 Breakups by Ilene Raymond Rush, click here; for one by Alaina Mabaso, click here; for one by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

Pig Iron’s 99 Breakups, at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, through September 16; Greg Kennedy’s Theorem, at Funicular Station, 416 West Coulter Street, Germantown, through September 21; www.fringearts.com.

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