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At Fringe, Cankerblossom a 2-D adventure

Cankerblossom. What's most remarkable about Pig Iron Theatre Company's first foray into the family theater market is its timing. This was the summer that 3-D entertainment burgeoned in popular culture. So along comes Pig Iron Theatre Company with Cankerblossom, its through-the-looking-glass visit to Flatworld, a 2-D land populated by the extraordinary cardboard puppetry of Beth Nixon (a "co-conspirator" of the West Philly theater company Puppet UpRising).

Cankerblossom. What's most remarkable about Pig Iron Theatre Company's first foray into the family theater market is its timing. This was the summer that 3-D entertainment burgeoned in popular culture. So along comes Pig Iron Theatre Company with Cankerblossom, its through-the-looking-glass visit to Flatworld, a 2-D land populated by the extraordinary cardboard puppetry of Beth Nixon (a "co-conspirator" of the West Philly theater company Puppet UpRising).

Though the production contains many elements of a classical quest, it also alludes to, in no particular order, Shake–speare, Homer, film director Hiyao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), the Beatles, Eugene Ionesco, the Residents, Maurice Sendak, and probably a whole lot more. But these references are Easter eggs in a grand treasure hunt that takes its audience to the bottom of the sea, a mountaintop, and everywhere in between (literally - much of the action occurs in a place called "the In-Between").

While the wonders of this production, whether animated, sung, performed or cut from the top of a pizza box, are many - and indeed wonderful - its story is simple: A couple drifting apart in the "round world" find themselves united in an effort to retrieve their lost baby. Okay, it's a bit more complicated than that, but the important thing to remember is that simplicity - remember the awesomeness of a refrigerator box? Pig Iron does! - sometimes offers the most complex rewards.

 -Wendy Rosenfield

Portmanteau. Five actors enter the room where we are gathered and, one by one, they set themselves up. A female civic organizer (Kristen Bailey) unfolds a music stand and hangs a plant on it. An industrial carpetbagger (Thomas Choinacky) at this unnamed place opens a board with gambling paraphernalia.

A Czech immigrant (John Jarboe) holes up under a makeshift tent. A vacationer (Jess Hurley) sits by her open valise. A documentarian (Mary Tuomanen) makes herself a photography station.

An hour later, by the end of Applied Mechanic's production called Portmanteau, we will have walked with them all as they talk, argue, threaten, or seek each other's help. Portmanteau unfolds while we mill about at will, finding its creases and twists. Each of the characters has an agenda. Those agendas link.

The subtitle of Portmanteau is "An Invasion Play," and the audience is as invasive as the characters in the situation that develops. In fact, Portmanteau has more the feel of watching a movie than a play, because we're within feet of the action watching close-ups, which sometimes in a minor way include us.

The text is from snippets of many well-known writers and by the talented ensemble. Rebecca Wright kept her direction sharply focused, so that the timing of conversations and the logistics involved in delivering them reveal the storyline, no matter where you roam or what you witness. Portmanteau is meaty and curious - and as close to a piece of installation art as theater gets.

   - Howard Shapiro

$15. 4 p.m. Monday at St. Stephens Church, 19 S. 10th St.; 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th St.; 10 p.m. Thursday at the basement at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St; 11:58 p.m. Saturday at the Wolf Building, 340 N. 12th Street.

The Madwoman of Chaillot. Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium does it again: a fine production of a rarely seen French classic. Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot is a sweet fantasia about joy conquering evil, the triumph of beauty and the spirit of love over greed and the ruthlessness.

Written in 1943, with obvious sources in the despair of Nazi-occupied Europe, the play is startlingly relevant to the world today. The plot revolves around the search for oil and the willingness of Big Business to destroy both nature and civilization when they find it.

Tina Brock, who directs this ambitious production (18 actors playing 30 characters on the tiny Walnut Studio 5 stage), also stars as the Countess, the madwoman of the title. Her performance captures the grand eccentricity of the role, and the urgency of the old and heartbroken not to let the young and hopeful miss their chance at happiness.

The cast is charming, even in the smallest roles, and the costumes are surprisingly lavish.
- Toby Zinman

Jester's Dead. I don't know why there weren't more people laughing out loud when I saw Jester's Dead, the New York-based company The Outfit's Top Gun/Shakespeare mashup. Maybe they haven't rented the movie recently. All I know is, it takes a certain amount of genius (or some other substance) to watch the unbelievably cheesy 1986 Tom Cruise vehicle/Naval Air Force propaganda film and find so much untapped potential.

But once you see it, man, it's so obvious! Cruise's character, Maverick, is like Hamlet, or Prince Hal, or something. He must defend his late father's tarnished honor among death, love, and countless opportunities for stage combat. Also, there's the serendipitous turning of fortune's wheel, which allows a line such as King Lear's "You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me" to serve as a natural segue into Berlin's truly awful song (and the film's consistently obtrusive lovemaking theme) "Take My Breath Away."

Philly puppeteer Aaron Cromie makes an appearance, via shadow-puppet jet fighters designed with Chris Bresky - who does first-rate double duty as Goose, Maverick's doomed co-pilot. Suzana Berger's direction straddles the line between straightforward and silly, most clearly in Brian Lee Huynh's chin-thrusting performance as Maverick. By the time Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are called onto the flight deck, it's clear this is the gimmick that keeps on giving.

   - Wendy Rosenfield

FLASH! People who might otherwise be jaded about South Street's reliable Saturday-night buzz stopped in their tracks over the weekend, when the student group Shadow Company, part of an arts education non-profit, took over some of the southern South Street sidewalk between Seventh and Eighth.

They are presenting the student-written Flash! in different public areas during the Fringe. On South Street, strollers walked past them with wide eyes, while an audience of about 45 crammed the curbside and the space between parked cars to watch the half hour of litanies, dances and pieces that 10 young performers present as a group.

Some passers-by pulled out cellphones to record the moment. Others froze until they discerned this was a happening, not a sales pitch or an imbroglio. Cars and motorcycles passed by, their dashboard music drowning out the kids here and there. The motor roar of the SEPTA 40 bus, stopped momentarily at a red light, overpowered everything.

Through it all, the teenagers kept going with grace, talking about what Philadelphia means to someone growing up, and about fears, or feeling "broken, lost, misunderstood and forgotten."

That makes Flash! - a reference to the flash mobs of Internet-tipped teens that turned violent on city streets here several times this year - sound lugubrious or whiny. It's not. It's a nice mix of poetry, singing and dancing. The choreography's simple but fun, the cues between pieces could be much tighter, and the show is sung with mixed success. No matter; it's enjoyable watching these kids, who appear to share the artistic ardor of their older, more experienced Fringe counterparts.

   -Howard Shapiro

The Tell-Tale Heart. The Nevermore Theater Project set itself a simple task: Tell Edgar Allan Poe's brief, dark tale about an old man, his murder, and the signal his corpse sends from beneath the floorboards, and tell it well. Director Domenick Scudera and actor John Zak assist the telling by siting the performance at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, home of the Mutter Museum, which, with its jarred fetuses and syphilitic plaster casts, is one of the creepiest spots, well, anywhere.

The show isn't in the museum, but it's across the hall - close enough for me, anyway. In a room hung with chandeliers and doctors' portraits, Zak, strait-jacketed and agitated, carefully modulates his speech, which often barely rises above a whisper. It's a jarring experience for those who know him best as a comic actor, particularly in his long-time work with the Comedy–Sportz improv company. But it's no less enjoyable.

Could Scudera have done a bit more with the room's lighting, employing more darkness, or a lantern, or something that would aid Zak in recreating his character's late-night observations? Sure. Still, suffice it to say that though we are all very familiar with the story, my entire family jumped out of our chairs at the proper moment. Mission accomplished: simple and well-told.

   - Wendy Rosenfield

Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act

Back in the bad old days of South Africa's apartheid, this Athol Fugard play was strong and brave, a denunciation of all the laws that would prohibit interracial theater, not to mention interracial love affairs. But this is here and now; we are not in South Africa, nor is a black/white love affair a crime, nor are we shocked by interracial couples. And we're no longer shocked by nudity onstage.

So why revive a play about a white librarian and a black school principle whose romance begins when he comes to borrow books he has no legal access to? One obvious relevance to the here and now, is that Statements is not only about race issues, but also about the ways government intrudes into private life as the police assume entitlement to surveillance, suspicion and arrest.

But the director, Janet Bressler, seems to understand nothing of this, nor does she seems to know anything about Fugard, South Africa's most famous playwright, other than that he wrote a novel (Tsotsi) that became a second-rate movie.

Of the three actors onstage, only one can act; Brandon Sloan gives a creditable performance, shifting from intellectual pride to obsequious fear. Ruchama Bilenky as the librarian delivers her lines as though she's reading them; no vocal emotion, no facial gestures, no nothing. The detective who arrests them, who should be really loathesome and frightening, smirks and pronounces library "liberry."

A theatrical embarrassment and a waste of both Fugard's play and your Fringe time.

   - Toby Zinman