Jane Von Bergen’s Theater Beat column reports news and notes from the theater scene in and around Philadelphia.
Ouch. Actor Ben Dibble moves around the stage on his knees throughout his entire performance as half-pint tyrant Lord Farquaad in Shrek The Musical at the Walnut Street Theatre. “I spend about 30 minutes total on my knees in each show, spread over five different scenes,” writes Dibble. “I sing two songs — including a huge song and dance — and I do the dance on my knees! I am wearing a large harness that straps around both legs with large rubber cups for my knees and little feet sticking off the front. I have several capes that cover my lower legs and feet so I can scoot around but look like I am walking on those tiny feet. I get some physical therapy every week to attend to my sore knees, hip flexors, and shoulders, and try to get as much sleep as possible.” Shrek closes Jan. 5.
You can choose among five productions of A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens classic about Ebenezer Scrooge, a man reborn. At Media’s Hedgerow Theatre (through Dec. 24), a half-hour of caroling precedes the show. In Center City, Lantern Theater Company’s version is a one-man tour-de-force adapted and performed by one-man-show master Anthony Lawton (through Dec. 29). Puppets, props, physicality, and an all-female(!) cast are involved at the Delaware Theatre Co. (through Dec. 30) in Wilmington. Singing and Christmas crafts are part of the experience at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center (through Dec. 29). Walnut Street Theatre’s production focuses on children with morning shows (through Dec. 22). Why is this story so popular? “A Christmas Carol is, at its base level, a story about redemption — that no matter how far any of us have fallen into a path of selfishness, that there is always hope to regain our humanity,” writes Jared Reed, producing artistic director at Hedgerow. “It’s an absolutely universal story, and it has ghosts!”
When Theatre Exile decided to stage On the Exhale, about a mother coping with gun violence, it sought out the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia (AVP) to provide support, advice, and context to the cast, crew, and audience. “If we’re going to do gutsy plays, we have to take that responsibility seriously and we needed to find ways to support our audiences. Having professional staff on hand made sense,” said Deborah Block, producing artistic director. On Dec. 18, AVP will offer a postshow discussion to allow theatergoers to gain a deeper understanding of grief and trauma. On the Exhale closes Dec. 22.
Long story short: They came, they loved it, they stayed — and now they’re really staying.
That’s because Amy and Ken Kaissar, a theatrical couple who started their collaboration in college and still finish each other’s sentences, will be the new coproducing directors of the Bristol Riverside Theatre, part of a national generational shift in regional theater leadership. In May, they will take on top leadership roles held by Founding Director Susan D. Atkinson and Artistic Director Keith Baker.
But let’s rewind to 2009. That’s when Amy, a director, got tapped as Bristol Riverside’s first managing director. She and Ken, a playwright, moved from New York to Yardley. Even after Amy left her Bristol Riverside post in 2014, she and Ken stayed involved, both with Bristol and with the theater in various roles.
“Part of what is so exciting is this is us, this is where we live, and this is where we’ve invested our lives,” said Amy, who has served and is serving on the Bucks County Arts and Culture Council, the Bucks County Commissioner’s Economic Development Committee, and the Bristol Borough Strategic and Economic Development Committee, as well as the Bristol Riverside Theatre’s board. The theater employs about two dozen and has an annual budget of $2.5 million.
“Bristol Riverside Theater has been an absolute key to Bristol Borough,” Amy said, noting that in 1986, when Atkinson started her venture, the theater “was an X-rated movie theater and the town had a very different reputation. Susan was part of this unbelievable renaissance in Bristol. Now it’s a fabulous destination. The restaurants are packed, the wharf is busy, and the theater is the center of the cultural life.”
Up through Dec. 22 is American Christmas Songbook, with Baker, the Bristol Riverside Theatre Concert Band, and other entertainers performing favorite songs of the season. King Lear opens Jan. 28.
In an absolute coincidence, Baker and Atkinson are taking their final bow with A Leg Up, a farce written by Ken and directed by Amy. “It was all a happy accident,” Ken said.
This round of InterAct Core Playwrights’ two-year incubator program closed last weekend with readings of “hatched” works by local playwrights David Jacobi (French Pig), LM Feldman (Daniel and Paloma), Jarrett McCreary (Apocalypse Dating Play), and Haygen-Brice Walker’s throuple, throuple, throuple; or the threesome. The playwrights spent two years developing their work at InterAct. Works by many past InterAct Core participants have been produced by theaters here and nationwide. Incubating next will be Briyana Clarel, Val Dunn, Stephanie Kyung Sun Walters, and Paige Zube.