You gotta have sympathy for prop manager Greer Duckworth’s boyfriend. When she takes him to see one of the plays she has arranged at the Walnut Street Theatre, she wants to know which prop is his favorite.
“I resist giving him clues,” she said. And if he doesn’t pick the right “favorite” (meaning, of course, her favorite), she’s diplomatic. “It’s always a matter of opinion.”
We’re going to help him out: When it comes to Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” Walnut’s upcoming production, pick the vase or the séance table.
Ghosts are involved and that means props must fly unaided. Furthermore, these ghosts tend to be clumsy, maybe deliberately so. That’s why, show after show after show, a vase flies into the air, drops onto the floor and is shattered into pieces.
Because Duckworth wants to keep the magic for the audience, she isn’t saying how the vase moves on its own. But she was willing to describe how Walnut handles the breakup (of the vase, not the couple).
“We didn’t want to break a vase every night,” Duckworth said. So, Natalie Reichman, Walnut’s head properties artisan, devised a solution.
The Walnut bought a 3-D printer which Reichman programmed to create the vase in nonbreakable pieces. Each piece includes a tiny 3-D printed pocket big enough to hold a magnet, allowing the “broken” pieces to snap back together after every show. Reichman was also the one who painted the vase a beautiful blue and white.
“We dropped it on the floor many times,” Duckworth said. “It was fun.”
Making sure all the props are located, ordered, and properly placed is a big job and Duckworth, soon on her way to grad school, has managed it all with an extensive, five-page spreadsheet. The first items are those that remain on stage the whole time —– for example, curtains on a window. She arranges the rest by order of appearance. There are columns for directors’ notes and for where the prop is in the procurement process (on order, delivered, installed).
“I take pleasure in being organized and having things run smoothly,” Duckworth said.
Other props of note in “Blithe Spirit”? The Victrola. The show’s antique record player starts on its own and the needle goes around, but the sound is piped in.
“We can’t rely on the actor” to place the needle on the right spot on the record every time, Duckworth said. “They have to remember their lines and their blocking. I don’t want to give them anything too complicated for them to use.”
Medium Madame Arcati, played by Walnut favorite Mary Martello, carries a crystal ball in her purse. But it would be unwieldy if her ball kept rolling around in her bag. The props team created a foam insert to hold her crystal ball in place.
As for the séance table, Duckworth is not saying much. “The table is what people should look for. I’m not going to give it away how it works. There’s some really fun stuff that happens with it as the ghost communicates with the other characters in the show. The whole plot develops from that séance.”
When it comes to props, “every show is a challenge in different ways,” she said. “Ghosts are always fun.”
May 31-July 3, Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Phila. 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org
There is plenty of buzz for Fairview at the Wilma Theater. Philly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Ijames, the theater’s lead artistic director for the 2021-22 season, will direct the play, itself a 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Jackie Sibblies Drury.
In Fairview, it’s the concept behind the play — who is observing and judging — thatmakes it interesting. As actor Brett Ashley Robinson explains, the play turns on the question: “What does it mean to be observed and what does it mean to be an observer?”
Obviously, in every play, the audience is the observer. But what if the audience-observers got to watch and listen to other observers who are not only observing, but commenting and judging? Would their comments and judgments equal ours? Another layer follows, but that will have to remain a surprise.
“I think this play is really revolutionary in the way it asks that question,” said Robinson, who stars as an older teenager in a Black family. “It’s fun. It’s beautiful. It’s complicated. It’s all the things that make a play really great.”
Fairview starts off as a sitcom about a Black family. But perspectives shift as the play progresses through the acts.
“This play illuminates what judgments we’re making about people who are just living their lives,” Robinson said. “We do that all the time. We are using history and our collective knowledge to make assumptions about what someone else’s lived experience is.
“This play is pushing back against the safety of being an observer.”
May 31-June 18, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Phila. 215-546-7824 or wilmatheater.org
‘Flyin’ West’ and ‘Camille’
In 1879, thousands of Black people from the South head west to Kansas, hoping to escape post-slavery racism and to become homesteaders. Flyin’ West at Quintessence Theatre Group tells the story of four Black female pioneers who stake their claim in the all-Black settlement of Nicodemus, Kansas. They face racism, sexism, and the constant threat of white land speculators, but remain determined to live “our lives as our own and no one else’s.” As Quintessence often does, it is twinning Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West with another play – with some of the same actors playing different roles in the other play, switching between shows over the course of the run.
The other play, Camille, by French writer Alexandre Dumas Fils, is set in Paris in the 1800s. There’s love, a courtesan, and a deadly disease threatening France. Dumas’ work inspired La Traviata and Moulin Rouge.
May 25-June 26, Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave., Phila. 215-487-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org
‘The Vibrator Play’
That buzzing sound? That’s the vibrator — the latest cure for women’s hysteria, according to the earnest doctor who invented it in the dawn of the age of electricity during the Victorian era.
Hmmm. Why is the doctor’s wife so curious? Mrs. Givings, a young mother, is listening on the other side of the door as her husband, Dr. Givings, a single-minded devotee of progress, implements his new cure.
Sarah Ruhl, winner of a MacArthur “Genius” grant, wrote In the Next Room, (or The Vibrator Play). It includes themes of motherhood, desire, and connection. Harriet Power directs at the Hedgerow Theatre.
Mothers and infants are specifically welcomed to the 2 p.m. relaxed “nurse out” performance on June 12.
June 1-19, Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Media. 610-565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org
Comedy in the ‘burbs
Funnies abound at Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center. On May 29, Uptown! presents Best of the Boston Comedy Festival at 8 p.m. On June 3 and July 29, the Uptown! promises Better Than Bacon: Improv Comedy at 7:30 p.m. Better than bacon? That is a high bar.
May 29, June 3, and July 29, Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center, 226 N. High St., West Chester. 610-356-2787 or uptownwestchester.org
Because COVID-19 mask and vaccination rules are changing so rapidly and vary by location, check your theater venue for protocols close to the performance date.