A is for...

Philly Fringe 2022: Humble Materials presents Jess Noel’s Scarlet Letter

3 minute read
On a purple backdrop, 5 dancers wearing suspenders move in unison, curving their upright bodies with arms over their heads.
Expressive choreography: ensemble members of ‘Scarlet Letter.’ (Photo by Jill Ivey.)

Physical theater collective Humble Materials asks “What do Georgia O’Keefe, Sylvia Plath, Marguerite Newburgh, and Alice Parker all have in common?” in its blurb for Scarlet Letter in the 2022 Fringe Guide. The answer, it seems, has to do with the reproductive system: O’Keefe famously painted flowers that looked like vulvas; Plath was a mother and also suffered a miscarriage; Newburgh, the first woman known to cast a ballot in a US election, was herself a mother; Parker was a midwife before she became a victim of the Salem witch trials. And after a brutally depressing year of decisions from the Supreme Court that stripped away our reproductive rights, the connection between these four women’s stories—woman to woman (or at least uterus to uterus) and blood to blood—elevates Scarlet Letter from art to social commentary.

A is for Airplane

Throughout Scarlet Letter, paper airplanes are directed toward the stage to give time-travelers Frankie (Amy Boehly) and Amanda (Amy Henderson) their next assignment: to travel through time and space, to a specific historical woman.

Much like the titular characters of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the duo is not merely visiting the past for the sake of visiting, but instead are bringing the historic figures aboard their time machine and along for the ride. However, Frankie and Amanda are delivering the women to what we hope is a safer fate than Bill and Ted’s San Dimas high school auditorium. And eventually their guests/recruits get in on the paper airplane action, conveying that they are willing participants in this travel.

A is for Arabesque

The choreography of Scarlet Letter (by Henderson, Carolyn Breyer, Jess Noel, and Chachi Perez) is expressive and beautifully executed by the cast. Dance numbers open every scene change, with the performer playing that setting’s historical figure helping to set the scene by bringing a box of accessories that evoke the specific time period.

The full cast (joining Boehly and Henderson onstage are Breyer, Noel, and Perez, as well as Yasmin Roberti and Lisa Vaccarelli) all perform the choreography with aplomb. And as delightful as the dancing in Scarlet Letter is, I was most excited that a production that centers women’s stories also celebrates their bodies, with performers of all shapes and sizes each taking their time in the spotlight and proving, yet again, that any body can be a dancer’s body, no matter what your childhood dance teachers said.

A is for Artistry

As its name suggests, Humble Materials stages “small-budget” performances. But a lot can be done with a projector, and for both the time-travel itself and for each destination in which the travelers land, immersive and effective hand-drawn backgrounds are projected on the upstage wall of the performance area. The Scarlet Letter program lists Kat Caro as the production designer, and whether she created the backgrounds or just sourced them, she deserves acknowledgement here for doing much to establish each scene on that aforementioned small budget.

A is for Aftermath

The historic figures collected along the journey are each facing some form of adversity and running to the future to escape it. But a final character (played by Perez) comes from the future in the final minutes of Scarlet Letter. I won’t spoil the production’s ending. But after the year we’ve been having, I think it’s pretty easy to figure out just which “a” the scarlet letter on each performer’s cheek refers to.

What, When, Where

Scarlet Letter. Written by Jess Noel, directed by Noel and Monica Flory. Choreographed by Noel, Carolyn Breyer, Amy Henderson, and Chachi Perez. $20. Through October 1, 2022, at Philly PACK, 233 Federal Street, Philadelphia. fringearts.com.

Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is required to attend, and masks must be work in the theater.


Philly PACK is a ground-level venue that can accommodate audience members who need accessible seating; we recommend reaching out to the producers to make arrangements for this in advance of the show.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation