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‘Sanctuary’ sets a high bar for festival

Chicken. For those of us who've always wondered just what they do for diversion in those confining submarines, theater artist Charlotte Ford offers a possibility: They spend their days one-upping each other, which organically leads to games of chicken.

Sanctuary. Monks sporting multicolored mohawks dance with fire, walk on water, and perform aerial acrobatics in the wildly imaginative, Cirque du Soleil-ish Sanctuary, performed by Brian Sanders' company, JUNK.

Using found objects, some built into Alex Gartelmann's sets, others assembled on the spot, the 10 dancers vault over each other onto tables, perform highly gymnastic duets in shadow, and slip-slide through a long trough of water. Sara McCorriston's costumes include flowing white robes that allows three dancers to perform a sort of rhythmic gymnastics routine with poles and fabric.

The show, set to '80s tunes, has a shock factor, as dancers run in and out of confessionals; sway with religious fervor on an apparatus that serves both as both choral risers - with rays of Terry Smith's lighting shot through - and a carnival-like ride; and baptize each other before performing a sensual dance.

It's 45 minutes of nonstop, exhilarating, wondering-what's-next action that often had dancers swinging from the rafters on twirling straps or balancing on hanging metal cubes.

Friday's opening-night performance was dotted with small balance errors and problems with the sets. But it set the bar very high for Live Arts/Fringe shows yet to come.

See it!

   - Ellen Dunkel

Chicken. For those of us who've always wondered just what they do for diversion in those confining submarines, theater artist Charlotte Ford offers a possibility: They spend their days one-upping each other, which organically leads to games of chicken.

And so she offers - on a confined stage with a goofy mixture of '50s-style furnishings; geegaws and radios and gauges; underwatery blue-lit walls (Thom Weaver's lighting ) and thumping and whirring (James Sugg's sound) - the interior of a submarine, plus three characters with their own strange interiors.

Chicken is fun and often absurdly funny, laced with little plot surprises and tension that gives it a buzz, as if it's about to explode any second. It's also gross, in a strangely scintillating way; I'm not sharing any plot detail, because it would spoil the 70-minute ride. But think squid play. Pee jokes. Sexual angst.

Theater artist Geoff Sobelle, Ford's significant other in real life, directs this ship as if it appeared mysteriously from another planet's sea, bearing aliens who mirror the worst in us - especially our fears. In reality, they are Ford as the captain, Mikaal Sulaiman as her communications manager and Jay Dunn as the engineer. Or maybe they are aliens. Now I'm not sure.

   - Howard Shapiro

$25-$30. 7 and 11 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday, 4 p.m. Monday. Live Arts Studio, 919 N. Fifth St.

Freedom Club. In theory at least, the collaboration between Philadelphia's New Paradise Laboratories and New York's Riot Group is a seamless match. NPL, known for its sexy, stylish ruminations on culture and ritual, often suffers from a too-heavy reliance on that style over substance. By all accounts, the Riot Group is the opposite - text-based, overtly political and presentational. For Freedom Club's first act, an electrified diorama that pits skirt-chasing, fists-and-firearms-wielding John Wilkes Booth (former NPL company member Jeb Kreager, reminding us once again, how to own a Philly stage) against depressed, repressed Abraham Lincoln, that partnership lives up to its promise.

Whit MacLaughlin's directorial hand is all over this half, coaxing its gorgeously costumed (by Rosemarie McKelvey) and lit (by Maria Shaplin) tableaux vivants toward their final arresting image: a violent silhouette that would do artist Kara Walker proud. Adriano Shaplin's script is sharp, funny (Booth, paraphrasing Billy Idol, fumes, "Where is the rebel yell that cries 'More, more, more?'") and abstract enough to foster a genuine curiosity about where Civil War-era extremism will connect with Act Two's leap into the future.

Unfortunately, the future, c. 2015, sags under the smugness of Shaplin's tale of inverted extremism in which hapless left-wing activists arm themselves with illegal abortifacients and cower under feminist control.

With a uniformly top-shelf cast and just enough gunpowder to keep its muddled plot popping, the production disappoints mostly because its potential is so promising.

- Wendy Rosenfield

Canuso squares her filmy cube with media artist Lars Jans' installation (in which, during the day, you can make your own performance by reservation). Jan's technical and artistic wizardry perfectly follows an indeterminacy principle mirroring Canuso's deliberately indeterminate choreography. His live projections transfer Canuso and actor/dancer Dito van Reigersberg into quadruple takes on the enclosure's "walls." Wherever you are sitting (or walking - it's encourages) Reigersberg's image might loom vertically, like a cinematic Rorschach, from one corner while Canuso's odalisque-like body floats around the sides.

Mike Kiley's multi-channel surround-sound design and often repetitive original music is moodily effective throughout, especially when it reaches hurricane force crescendo.

Canuso and Reigersberg evoke a couple's steamy evening of petulant ennui and intimate playfulness in the old days before technology and air conditioning. A phonograph sits in one corner, a birdcage stuffed with airmail letters in another. Canuso's dancing is dreamy, living- room noodling. The couple clings to the old, while their yearning psyches levitate to the newest.

First Love.

Describing eviction from his childhood home by those who once loved him: "To pass on to less melancholy matters ... [beat] On my father's death ...." On women's intuitive powers, "[They] smell a rigid phallus from 10 miles away [beat] and wonder, 'How did he spot me from there?'"

Balanced by a yarn-spinning rhythm that evokes another Irish Conor - McPherson, whose work the company also performs - Lovett transmits the inconvenient "disturbance" of human connection (being with Lulu is a torment, without her, misery) blandly, pleasantly. He's ambling inexorably toward the Endgame, but at least there's comfort in transience. Of course, an audience is yet another inconvenient human complication, and Lovett ingeniously plays with this idea ("The mistake one makes is talking to them"). But there's no mistake about this: Beckett's pain is Lovett's audience's gain.

The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Whoever decided Ego Po Classic Theater should perform Peter Weiss' rich, Brechtian work at the Rotunda in University City was wrong - the place is fine for dance, but its vaulted masonry ceiling sucks in, chews up and spits out sound.

And arranging the audience in a wide arc of benches? People sitting toward each end, on the sidelines, may as well wear earplugs; the songs and words roll up to the dome and bounce back, indecipherable. I was one of those people.

But, hey, it's not always just about us: The cast members, a terrific bunch who play musical instruments while singing and acting, deserve better, as does the work itself - a recreation of a play by the philosopher/deviant (whatever that meant then or now) Marquis de Sade (the excellent David Blatt), who was allowed to stage plays at France's Charenton Asylum, where he was a forced resident in the early 1800s.

Brenna Geffers' direction of this story about the French Reign of Terror yields a beautiful, sweeping staging. It's easy to see why the peeling, down-at-the-heels Rotunda seemed plausible; we feel like we're in a crumbling European instution, before air conditioning, alas.

After intermission, I sat poking from a portico mid-audience, to hear more clearly the revolutionay writer-philosopher Marat in Steve Wright's stirring portrayal. Charlotte Corday is compelling as the woman who murders him and Jered McLenigan is a standout narrator (uncannily like Broadway star Michael Cerveris in looks, voice and poise). Theatre Exile's Joe Canuso acts here, as the asylum bureaucrat who harrumphs to keep the inmates in line.

Ego Po could have built more risers to confine the audience to the middle, directly in front of the action. If you go, peek in first to see whether those mid-seats are all taken before you agree to a sort of asylum of your own.

   -Howard Shapiro