Com­ing up in Philly the­ater: The­atre Exile comes home to South Philadelphia

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Evan Jonigkeit will make a guest performance. (Photo courtesy of Theatre Exile)
Evan Jonigkeit will make a guest performance. (Photo courtesy of Theatre Exile)

Theatre Exile has lived up to its name the past two seasons. In May 2017, the venerable company moved out of its longtime home on South 13th Street, with the building slated for demolition and new construction. “We inquired about the space but were told we couldn’t afford it,” says Deborah Block, Theatre Exile’s producing artistic director.

And so began a journey that found the troupe — an essential part of Philadelphia’s artistic ecosystem since 1994 — in residence at the Latvian Society for 2017 and 2018, and beginning the current season at the Drake Theatre complex in Center City. They planned to spend the rest of the 2018-2019 season at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City. But thanks to Block’s intrepid thinking, Theatre Exile will soon head home to South Philly. The site at 1340 South 13th Street has been transformed into an apartment complex with ground-floor retail space — and Block convinced the developers that a theater could still fit into the blueprint.

“I told them that most of what we do could be done subterranean,” she says. “We would need a presence in the lobby, but aside from that, our performances could take place underground.” The investors listened, which resulted in a new artistic space for which Theatre Exile will hold a 20-year lease.

The theater will be flexible in terms of size, configuration, and use, according to Block. It will also be accessible, with five all-gender restrooms; an eight-person dressing room reconfigurable based on the makeup of each production’s cast; and an elevator for patrons with mobility issues. “We tried to be as thoughtful as we could about what the future might bring,” says Block.

The new space will open with a production of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree, running from February 14 through March 10. Because the piece requires no specific scenic or technical demands, Block thought it perfect to inaugurate the still-in-flux auditorium.

Joe Canuso, Theatre Exile’s founding artistic director, will be at the helm, and Exile veteran Pearce Bunting will star. “I really wanted Joe to be the first person to direct in the space,” says Block. “And Pearce has been such an important part of Exile’s history. We love working with him whenever we can.”

Deborah Block, Theatre Exile’s producing artistic director, has found a home for the company. (Photo courtesy of Theatre Exile)
Deborah Block, Theatre Exile’s producing artistic director, has found a home for the company. (Photo courtesy of Theatre Exile)

Crouch’s play works best when the audience knows as little as possible going in. In addition to Bunting — who will appear at all performances — each show features a second actor who has no knowledge of the script or concept before stepping onstage. Canuso and Dan O’Neil, Exile’s resident casting director, have assembled a murderers’ row of Philly talent to fill the guest-starring slot.

Brian Anthony Wilson appears at the first preview (February 14), with Grace Gonglewski taking the role on opening night (February 20). The closing performance, on March 10, features Julianna Zinkel. Other participants include Jennifer Childs (February 17), Dito van Reigersberg (February 22), Amanda Schoonover (March 4), Jennifer Kidwell (March 6), and Justin Jain (March 8).

In addition to local luminaries, Canuso and O’Neil recruited several boldface names from out of town. Zosia Mamet, best known for her work on HBO’s Girls, will play the February 23 performance, and Evan Jonigkeit (X-Men: Future Days Past) will appear on February 24. Maggie Siff, of Showtime’s Billions, drops in on March 2, and on March 9 her television husband, Paul Giamatti, plays the role. Unsurprisingly, Giamatti’s performance is already sold out.

For Jonigkeit and Siff, these performances represent a homecoming of sorts. Both actors began their careers in Philly theater, racking up significant appearances and Barrymore Award nominations before heading off to New York. Temple graduate Jonigkeit speaks fondly of his many years as a Philadelphia resident and looks forward to introducing Mamet, his real-life wife, to the local scene.

“I could go on all day about how much I love the Philly theater community,” Jonigkeit tells Broad Street Review. “Working here was better than any grad-school experience I could have imagined. My wife and I still love spending as much time in Philly as we can.”

Theatre Exile’s production of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree runs February 14 through March 10 at 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. Tickets ($10-40) and a complete schedule of guest actors can be found at theatreexile.org.

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