At the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts in leafy West Mount Airy last week, a lot of people were doing a lot of things I wouldn't do — tightrope walking and hanging from aerial silks, to name two.
Amid all the craziness, the physical theater troupe known as Tribe of Fools was rehearsing Fly Eagles Fly for its forthcoming run at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. The show's theme is what some consider the high point of human existence so far: Super Bowl LII.
"Take that, Tom Brady!" cries actor Taiwo Sokan. "Loooooser!"
A lot is at stake in the show, opening Thursday at the Drake. As co-director Terry Brennan puts it, the focus is on "who gets to be a fan" — what does fandom mean? How does it affect people's lives?
Fly Eagles Fly lies — or tumbles — at the intersection of scripted theater (in this case, by the talented Caitlin Weigel), improv, and circus arts (the world of clowning, tumbling, and acrobatics).
It's also "devised theater," meaning stage works created by the performing ensemble collaboratively, a Tribe of Fools specialty since its inception in 2003. Like all Fools shows, it taps into one of the oldest theater traditions of all — one of gestures, movements, and facial expressions.
Superfans and bandwagon types
Weigel's script gives us a spread of attitudes toward fandom.
The show is set in an office where Bruce, a superfan, looks down on all others. Gwen, a newbie, "gets into football because she's in H.R. and is looking for ways to bring people together," Brennan says. We have Lara, who is anti-football; and Copy Mike, who is a fan but more laid-back.
And then there's Alex the Intern: "All she wants is a full-time job," Brennan says, "and she reports people and tries to get folks into trouble, looking to get their job if she can."
The performance involves an impressive human pyramid — one of the reasons to rehearse at a facility outfitted with tumbling mats — and there's a star turn by a hoagie. We also meet Evil Imaginary Tom Brady.
The Tribe moves sinuously, with that body awareness you see in the best physical theater. In Fly Eagles Fly, the pace spikes suddenly, with bursts of comic violence, and there is a risky flinging about of oneself and others — all for the sake of the story and its meaning. It's broad humor, but with subtleties.
"Before I did this show," says Sokan (who plays newbie Gwen), "I never knew the extremes people would go to to be fans of a particular team." She's from New Jersey and ordinarily roots for the Giants … keep the boos down, thanks. "But as the season went on, I got into the Eagles, and by the time of the Super Bowl, I became a superfan and got Eagles fever."
Janice Rowland plays anti-NFL Lara. "She's concerned with the concussion issue," Rowland says, "the health dangers to the athletes, the traumatic health issues later in life, plus the taking of the knee at the national anthem, and the rampant spousal abuse among players, and the way it doesn't seem to matter."
Superfan Bruce must hate that, I say.
"He doesn't like it much," says Rowland.
A global view of Philly fandom
The person getting thrown around the most at practice is Alex the Intern, played by Jacinta Yelland.
The actor moved here from Australia in August 2017. "Honestly, I was not a fan," she says, "but then the football season began. People are sports-mad in Australia, too, but I'd never seen fandom like this. Fantasy football? What?"
She wasn't even going to watch the Super Bowl. "But then I thought, 'Everybody is going to be so happy if they win,' and I started feeling guilty, so I started streaming it. And when they won, I thought, 'This is going to make the city so proud, they're going to be so happy tomorrow.' "
Tribe of Fools is on a roll. School Play, Brennan's brilliant one-man show, has been a big word-of-mouth hit wherever it has gone — in performances at St. Peter's School and the Jersey Fringe, for instance. And Fishtown – A Hipster Noir, the Tribe's outing at last year's Fringe, was one of the smash hits of the festival. Weigel was the writer of that clever script, which captured the feel of both 1940s and '50s noir movies and of Fishtown's hipster rep.
Judging from what I saw at the School of Circus Arts, the Tribe will fly high as eagles. A climactic lunchroom battle rages to get a hoagie away from Alex the Intern. Now frenetic, now slow-motion, the ensemble throw her around this way and that.
It all culminates in a strip-sack mimicking Brandon Graham's momentous turning point in the Super Bowl. Need I say it's very funny? It's very funny.
Sure, what they're doing is crazy. But so is what we do for the sake of our teams.
From the Circus Arts campus, the Tribe moves next to the Drake to practice with set designer Peter Smith's "hardcore design," as Brennan puts it. Props will be involved. "Getting to do the show in the set," codirector Joseph Ahmed says, "changes everything. The show is 16 or 17 now, but it'll go to college soon."