Hella Fresh Theater is back! John Rosenberg returns to Kensington with The Low Cost Mules, a new 75-minute one-act play.
The playwright, director, actor, and do-it-yourself producer moved to California in 2014 after four years of mounting his intriguing dark comedies with little fanfare. Now he's back, reviving the 40-seat space he created in the Papermill, a Kensington warehouse repurposed for the arts. Like most Hella Fresh shows, it only runs on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Realism at a price
Rosenberg sets The Low Cost Mules in a dingy Kensington, California, basement. The stage looks like a theater space in transition: a messy open area including ladders, painting equipment, and a large puppet.
The lighting, however, is pure basement: naked bulbs cast dim shadows from the high ceiling, no stage instruments used. It never changes, so watching becomes a strain. It's a reminder of how much typical theater creatively enhances reality to deliver a story.
Movers and odd-job men Don (Wyatt Michael) and Mule (Rosenberg) pack stuff into large plastic bags. Hungry, tired, and hung over, they bicker about how to seal the bags, play a question game called "Pressure," and dissect a failed joke. Their laid-back style feels real, as does Don's all-too-typical use of "like" in seemingly every other word.
Rosenberg's dialogue is high-context, meaning the characters don't provide exposition about who they are, who they work for, where they are, or where they're going. This naturalistic approach forces us to lean in, catching clues as they trickle through as if we're really eavesdropping. This, like the lighting, is both admirable and taxing.
Story finally arrives
The Low Cost Mules doesn't press forward with urgency, but a story emerges. Halfway through, Ariel (Laura Sukonick) enters. The boys must explain themselves to this stranger (and vice versa), so we learn more.
Layers of intrigue develop as Wyatt and Ariel test one another. She asks, "Are you using running as a code word for strangling people in dark places?" It's a sensible question. Ariel's also just more interesting than those tired guys, musing about the "words inside words."
She asks, "What's inside mold?" and answers herself: "The word old."
A business deal develops which, in Hella Fresh tradition, doesn't answer all our questions or guide us to a tidy resolution. Nevertheless, The Low Cost Mules is fascinating and unusual and performed with veracity.
Hella Fresh will premiere Rosenberg's And Then One Feels Great Anxiety, starring Jenna Keurzi and Harry Watermeier, in November. In that production, it’s 1987 and the star of a Starlight Express touring company defects to East Germany. I'll be there.
What, When, Where
The Low Cost Mules. Written and directed by John Rosenberg. Hella Fresh Theater. Through October 28, 2018, at the Papermill, 2825 Ormes Street, Philadelphia. (480) 341-9557 or hellafreshtheater.com.