A match made in Kensington

Hella Fresh Theater presents John Rosenberg’s ‘Cana of Galilee’

3 minute read
‘Mamma Mia’ it ain’t. (Image courtesy of Hella Fresh theater.)
‘Mamma Mia’ it ain’t. (Image courtesy of Hella Fresh theater.)

How do you even begin to describe Cana of Galilee, the latest do-it-yourself production from John Rosenberg’s Kensington-based Hella Fresh Theater? I feel I should defer to the playwright.

“A grieving sister attends wedding parties in the occupied territories and in Woodland Hills, California,” a program note tells us. “A navy pilot solves a puzzle with no letters, winning a trip to Israel. Double booked, a prince of Los Angeles casts his fate.”

In other words, don’t expect Mamma Mia.

Grungy, fringy, classical

But if you’ve found your way to this inventive company in the past — it recently returned to Philadelphia after several years in California — you likely already know to anticipate the unusual. More than perhaps any other local playwright, Rosenberg pushes the boundaries of narrative drama, serving up a mix of absurdism, mumblecore, and old-fashioned theatricality on a deliciously intimate scale. Cana of Galilee is Hella Fresh’s third production in the span of six months, after last fall’s The Low Cost Mules and And Then One Feels Great Anxiety, and we should be grateful for this energized output.

Rosenberg’s offerings work so well because his conception of grungy, fringy storytelling doesn’t reject out of hand the building blocks of classical playmaking. Instead, he infuses his situations with simmering drama and bawdy comedy that disarm an audience, allowing him to land one surprising gut punch after another. Throughout the two extended scenes that comprise Cana of Galilee, I often found myself unsure of what lay ahead but ready to give myself over to the experience.

Facing loss

That experience includes watching the characters, who sound comically oversized in that earlier blurb, emerge as fully fleshed-out human beings. Bereaved Emily (Emily Dale White, moving and natural) clings to magical thinking as a coping mechanism. The wedding that frames the play is that of her late sister’s partner (Douglas Williams, well-known locally as a playwright himself), and she knows attending the ceremony acknowledges the death once and for all.

Watch her face as Laura (Laura Sukonick, who turns uptalk into an art form), Doug’s sister, poses a question Emily doesn’t want to consider: “Are you ready for people to ask how you’re doing?” Sukonick smartly throws the line away, but White’s face communicates a world of unspoken, and unprocessed, anguish.

Watch, too, as tension mounts between Emily and Jenna (Jenna Kuerzi), the naval-pilot fiancée. She’s the one who won the Israel trip on Wheel of Fortune. It turns out Pat Sajak’s a peach.

A touch too much protestation accompanies Emily’s blessing of the union — she says she’s happy to be there, but White’s eyes tell a different story. We gradually learn that Jenna also lost a sibling, and in a flicker, the awkwardly overstated repartee develops into genuine rapport.

A play without pretension

Rosenberg manages to execute these tonal shifts with admirable precision. One moment, Laura laughs off Jenna’s flight suit: “I fucking love that my family is so freaked out by your uniform.” A moment later, Jenna gives heartfelt voice to the act of watching her brother die. Kuerzi — a skilled comic performer, with enough charisma to fill a space ten times the size of the tiny Papermill Theater — splendidly restrains her natural magnetism and leans into the tender moment.

The 70-minute play’s second scene, between Emily and Doug, aims for the elliptical but currently feels unfinished, especially in light of the first scene’s richness. Still, Rosenberg supplies a knowing kinship between the pair, which White and Williams fill with a sense of shared history. Although Williams shouldn’t consider quitting his day job just yet, he brings a winning lack of self-consciousness to his professional acting debut.

The production, too, lacks any pretension. Music plays from an iPhone. Actors enter from the audience. Lights are strung throughout the space, controlled by dimmer switches rather than cues. Among performer bios and acknowledgements, the program includes a recipe for zucchini soup, which sounds delicious.

Don’t come to Cana of Galilee expecting anything fancy — but lovers of simple, honest theater will find it a marriage made in heaven.

What, When, Where

Cana of Galilee. Written and directed by John Rosenberg. Hella Fresh Theater. Through February 10, 2019, at the Papermill, 2825 Ormes Street, Philadelphia. (480) 341-9557 or hellafreshtheater.com.

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