From blueberries to folk music, August is festival month. The Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival is a festival with a mission: to provide women actors, playwrights, directors, designers and educators with opportunities to practice their craft.
This second annual festival, sponsored by Villanova University, University of the Arts and Ripples in the Pond Productions, offered a variety of shows, from scripts still in development to polished productions to comedy cabarets to workshops headlined by local notables (Michael Hollinger, Jacqueline Goldfinger and Alex Keiper).
The workshops offered guidance on how to get your work produced, how actors explore character, and the demands of solo performance. There should be an additional workshop on how to publicize your festival: despite their handsomely printed programs and professionally organized ticketing and t-shirts, the Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival’s audiences were painfully small.
For a festival whose feminist slogan is “Take a risk. Change the story,” much of what I saw seemed to be the same old story.
Three new works, one standout
Simone, a devised work directed by Amanda Coffin and featuring Kristin Miller, Kasey Phillips, and Elise D’Avella, is about Simone de Beauvoir, whose The Second Sex, is a foundational feminist work. The debate between a French woman (the young Simone) and an American woman (anonymous/us?) centers on whether marriage and motherhood oppress women. I’m not sure which wave we’re up to (third? fourth?), but feminism has progressed way past this argument, here represented by the dichotomy of the female (sewing, represented by a pin cushion) and the male (a pipe). They use all the performance clichés: stylized dance movement, adults pretending to be children frolicking in the schoolyard, etc.
Sure as a Star by Courtney Boches and directed by Megan Diehl, is about a famous but rapidly deteriorating Emmy-winning actor (Krissy Fraelich) who plans her comeback with a Broadway revival of Gypsy. Her young and very pretty intern (Sophia Barrett) soon becomes her friend and then her daughter-surrogate; Baby to Fraelich’s Mama Rose. There are lots of jokey allusions to rerun television shows; implausible plot points pile up, and we are asked to sympathize with dreadful deeds and inexplicable events just because we sympathize with the sanctity of the maternal urge. Oh, please.
The most impressive of the pieces I saw was Buzzfeed, Donald Trump, and Dead Black Kids written by Haygen Brice Walker and directed by Elaina Di Monaco. This is that rare play that says what needs to be said without any editorializing and does it in a riveting 15 minutes.
Two high school girls (Iman Aaliyah and Jenna Kuerzi, both in subtle, pitch-perfect performances) sit on a sofa with a school project looming. Their litany of “I hate…” ranges from geometry to slavery, from Donald Trump to guns to the cafeteria French fries, and then segues into another litany of “The worst…” When one girl compliments the other with, “You’re the whitest black girl I know,” the temperature in the room suddenly drops and the conversation rides off the rails.
If Walker adds several more of these tiny gems to “Buzzfeed…,” he would provide us with a terrific evening in the theatre. And that’s exactly what a festival of new work should offer: Stuff to look forward to.
What, When, Where
Philadelphia Women's Theatre Festival. Various playwrights and directors. Through August 7, 2016 at Caplan Studio Theater, 16th floor of Terra Hall, 211 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. phillywomenstheatrefest.org.