The play’s not the thing

Philly Fringe 2019: Hella Fresh Theater presents John Rosenberg’s Autopia’

3 minute read
Are you experiencing the art? Or experiencing yourself experiencing the art? (Photo by Molly McShane.)
Are you experiencing the art? Or experiencing yourself experiencing the art? (Photo by Molly McShane.)

Is the lived experience of human beings the ultimate source of all meaning and value? Phenomenology, defined by the field of literary criticism as a theory of experience, says yes. Artistic events trigger memories, and those memories color your experience in real time, rendering it phenomenological. Let’s get meta: we’re never just sensing the event itself, but rather ourselves experiencing the event. You won’t often encounter artistic experiences riding on this philosophical principle. But Hella Fresh Theater’s Fringe production of Autopia, running through September 22 at Papermill Artist Space in Kensington, is one of those rarities.

What happened (not that it matters)

Although I am usually loath to describe the events of a play for fear of impinging on the audience experience, I will do so here because I don’t believe any of it matters. To wit: Leigh Derrick, (played with great compassion by Lura Sukonick) enters Los Angeles County Museum of Art, discovers Angelo Porko (snappily essayed by playwright John Rosenberg) viewing the exhibit, and begins to repeat “Are you smart?” with mounting intensity. He ignores her, and she becomes increasingly verbally and physically demonstrative, ending with a full-blown emotional meltdown. He then turns to her and explains that he is deaf in one ear, and heard nothing, immediately altering our assumptions regarding the protagonist / antagonist relationship. We later discover that he is not deaf in one ear, but ignored her as a response to a slight at a Hamburger Hamlet—one she does not remember. Deaf or hearing, slights real or imagined, this is simply misdirection by a talented theatrical magician.

Well-made plays need not apply

When I say that none of this matters, I don’t mean that the work is of low quality, but rather that the playwright rejects the concept of the well-made play. Instead of privileging content, Rosenberg is a formalist, here employing two classic stratagems. The first is the notion of two people that were once close and have since fallen out of touch. The second is what the author Hakim Bey referred to as a temporary autonomous zone, an open space in which anything could happen at any time. This play could be about former college roommates who meet in an airport, or estranged family members who run into each other in the park, and it would be essentially the same. There are theatrical breadcrumbs, such as the fact that Leigh’s husband works on The Ropers and a cut rope is part of the (beautifully conceived and executed by Osiris Zuniga) art exhibit where the characters meet, but choosing to imbue these facts with meaning returns us to the realm of pure phenomenology.

In conversation after the show, the playwright said, “I don’t like to explain things. It is rude.” In that statement, I hear another. Difficulty equals value. That’s why this play is important. Rosenberg is telling us that it is not the content of a conversation, but the commitment to have that conversation. It’s not the details of a lie, but the acceptance of self-abnegation that admitting the lie entails. It’s not the languaged world, but the act and actant that should assume puissance in your life. Or maybe all of this is simply my phenomenological projection. In either case, I urge you to go, open yourself to the experience, and see what you discover.

What, When, Where

Autopia. Written and directed by John Rosenberg. Directed by John Rosenberg. Through September 22, 2019 at Papermill Artist Space. 2825 Ormes Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or

Although Papermill Artist Space itself is wheelchair-accessible, its sidewalks are broken up on both sides of the street, there is very little street parking, and the nearest parking lot is more than a mile away.

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