True story of racism during WWII

Posted: September 04, 2008

Court-Martial at Fort Devens. Jeffrey Sweet's play is based on an interesting episode, and as issues of race and sex boil over on the front burner, it's certainly resonant this election year.

A unit of African American World War II WAACS, trained as medical technicians at a Massachusetts Army hospital, end up instead mopping floors, thanks to the racist, sexist colonel in charge. The women choose to be court-martialed rather than humiliated - and they get their wish.

It's a true story that floated under the historical radar all these years, though the women had no less a champion for their cause than Eleanor Roosevelt. Unfortunately, this University of the Arts Fringe entry feels very much like a student production, and isn't helped by Sweet's didactic writing.

Did Sweet think the audience still needed convincing? Is that why, halfway through, the show becomes a courtroom drama? And why does a preacher we've never seen before pop in to summarize everything that's just been summarized for us in the courtroom? Even worse, why does director Gene Terruso force Kate Raines to adopt a ridiculous warble when portraying Mrs. Roosevelt?

Despite the appearances of Johnnie Hobbs Jr. and Tom McCarthy, despite the workmanlike efforts of its young, capable cast, both the script and production fail to do their subject justice.    - Wendy Rosenfield


$20. 8 tonight and tomorrow night; 2 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday. At Skyline Performance Arts Center, 211 S. Broad St., 16th floor.

How to Write a Magic Show in One Week or Less. Sleight-of-hand here, card tricks there and overall illusion mark the first show in Center City's newest theater - Brasso's Magic Theater, a sweet, brick-walled space at the east end of Callowhill Street that holds about 70 people and used to house a poultry sales operation before it was made over. (Is this a case of magic itself? Poof! Mum, the theater devoted to puppetry, disappeared this summer. Poof! Now we have one devoted to magic.)

Two fine young magicians, Randy Shine and Francis Menotti, are saddled with a cardboard script for their hour-long show - but when they get the magic going, they're excellent. They start off with coins and sponges (clown noses, really) that come out of nowhere, then move on to more complicated tricks. By the end, they've gotten to mentalism - they tell you what word an audience member chooses, and better than that.

Now, about that script: The plot has the two men developing the magic show they, in fact, are presenting to us. There's plenty of nah, this trick's no good! or nah, I hate that illusion!

This theater vérité would work if Shine and Menotti were to develop it more fully and deliver it with less hesitation. As it is, the script becomes tiresome and gets in the way of their solid magicianship.

And, please, could someone work the iPod off-stage so that Menotti doesn't have to search for background tracks? Even if they're supposed to be informally rehearsing, it doesn't make the action any more ... magical.

   - Howard Shapiro


$15. 7 tonight and Saturday night, Wednesday, Thursday, next Friday and Sept. 13. At Grasso's Magic Theater, 103 Callowhill St.

Herschel the Handless. Oy, gevalt. How do you say fuggedaboudit in Yiddish?

This two-act (two too many) play by Matt Oaks is about a Jewish immigrant and his friend Moses, a black Jew who is given to singing, "Go schlep it up the mountain . . ." and a woman named Yelena who may be British or Russian or Jewish or a ghost or a goat or an actress or possessed by a dybbuk or something that involves accents.

The first act is about family misfortunes: Each character says to another character, Sit down, I'm going to tell you a story even more terrible than the story you just told me. They do and he does. In Act 2, a hunchback shows up (a hunchback??) and gives Herschel, who is by now semi-handless (don't ask), acting lessons. The Cardboard Box Collective is the company responsible.    - Toby Zinman


$15. 8 p.m. today, Tuesday through Friday and Sept. 13; 3 p.m. Sept. 13. At Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival Theatre, 2111 Sansom St.

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