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In Review: Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Melissa Strong

The New York International Fringe Festival may have taken the year off, but Philadelphia offered ample programming during the 2017 Fringe Festival. Between September 7 and 24, more than one thousand dance, music, theater, comedy, spoken word, and interdisciplinary performances took place around the city. Two highlights include HOME, the world premiere of Geoff Sobelle’s exploration of what transforms space into a place, and Half Key Theatre Company’s production of Airswimming, a play written by Charlotte Jones in 1997.

HOME was one of the curated shows, a roster of productions selected by festival organizer FringeArts and featured in the festival catalog. Curated shows typically are staged in larger venues, with bigger budgets than the festival’s many independent shows. For example, HOME received funding from sources including the Wyncote Foundation, American Dance Institute, and the Venturous Theater Fund of the Tides Foundation. It was performed at Philadelphia’s Prince Theater, a stately venue near City Hall operated by the Philadelphia Film Society.

Creator Geoff Sobelle aptly characterizes HOME as a “visual physical spectacle” which asks audiences to consider what and where “home” is. Is it a place? A feeling? What makes a space into a home? HOME was performed without dialogue, with people on stage who portrayed family through their interactions with one another and the house, an actual structure, built on stage during the show. The feat of the construction and the show’s gorgeous, mystifying illusions alone would make HOME worth seeing. Yet it was the performers’ use of the space which imbued it with heart and feeling. The cast included people of different ages, races, and genders miming daily activities of humans in their homes — sitting at a table, entering and exiting the shower, brushing their teeth, rising in the morning, lying down at night — alone and together. At one point, the “family” on stage threw a party, and members of the audience were brought into their “home” to participate. The improvisation was necessarily messy yet worked perfectly, just like a real party with offstage family and friends in the homes we share with them.

Airswimming was an independent Fringe show, staged at an intimate black box in Center City’s Walnut Street Theatre. With a cast of two and seating in the round, Half Key Theatre’s production left nothing to mystery visually. However, Jones’ play and compelling performances from the cast provoked just as much thought and emotion as HOME. Airswimming is based on a true story of two women committed to a mental hospital in the 1920s — as women could have been then for smoking, wearing slacks, or getting pregnant outside of wedlock – and left there, forgotten, for 50 years.

The play explores how Dora (Michaela Shuchman) and Persephone (Michelle Johnson) cope with their circumstances and their fate. Just as HOME asked audiences what makes a home, Airswimming asked us to reflect upon what makes us human. The production’s all-female crew and direction by K. Elizabeth Stevens enhanced questions the play raises about the relationship between “female” and “human” through history and into the twenty-first century. Terrific performances from Shuchman and especially Johnson, who suddenly yet convincingly shuttled between hilarity and devastation, brought the full range of human experience to the stage.

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