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Simpatico Theatre’s Red Bike, by prolific Obie Award-winning playwright Caridad Svich in a rolling world premiere, is essentially an 80-page poem. It’s incredibly tricky to stage, but Simpatico and director Sam Tower deliver a strong production.
Three in one
Red Bike offers a meditation on suburban capitalism through the eyes of “a child of 11 years of age and simultaneously their adult self.” If that sounds confusing, it is. In this coming-of-age drama, the lead character is making — and has already made — the discoveries meant to happen in Svich's narrative.
Our unnamed protagonist (played by Emily R. Johnson, Wilfredo "Freddy" Amill, and Torez Mosley) spends more time telling us what adults in their life say about how their town has changed than expressing feelings or ideas of their own. The result feels like a nostalgic adult pretending, for some reason, to be a child.
The larger problem is that growing up now and growing up several generations ago are not the same experience in terms of cultural critique. The constant refrain about condos replacing trees and forests comes straight from the 1980s and seems anachronistic with sightings of drones. The complaints about how “no one talks to each other anymore” feel pat and vague, and the “man who owns half of this town” is a cartoon villain, out to steal a kid’s bike and their dreams.
Slice of suburbia
However, none of these faults stop Sam Tower from pulling off a very watchable show. Tower works against the script's lack of specificity by creating a physical language without cliché that adds a deeper poetry to the work. Masterfully paced, Tower builds a shape into the story that moves dreamily but undeniably forward; appropriate because much of the play takes place during a slow-motion bike accident.
Petra Floyd’s design works with Tower’s active interpretation by catching us up in the middle of the accident. Impressionistic tire skids swirl around us and a leaning lamppost suspends us in the air. Small touches, such as a perfectly manicured patch of grass, locate us squarely in suburbia. Lighting (Angela Myers) creates a hot summer evening with streetlights bouncing off concrete.
Under Tower’s direction, the three young performers who play the speaker work seamlessly together, creating a kind of syncopated harmony with enough texture to hold interest. All three are compelling, charming and easy to watch. Emily R. Johnson, in particular, speaks poetry so naturally it feels like her own conversation, and it helps ground and specify the character.
Red Bike represents Allison Heishman’s first production as artistic director, and it’s clear that her passion for inclusion is more than just talk. The cast and crew are largely composed of women and people of color, and while it’s refreshing to flip through the program and see faces that reflect Philadelphia, the reward is in this thoughtful production.
What, When, Where
Red Bike. By Caridad Svich, Sam Tower directed. Simpatico Theatre Company. Saturday, June 6, 2018, through June 24, 2018, at the University of the Arts' Caplan Studio Theatre, Terra Hall, 16th floor, 211 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (609) 902-0923 or simpaticotheatre.org.
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