Love and loss in a powerful 'Iron'

Troy Dwyer and Holly Cate in Samuel Beckett's "Eh Joe," one of three one-act plays from Parade Ground Unit at Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3.
Troy Dwyer and Holly Cate in Samuel Beckett's "Eh Joe," one of three one-act plays from Parade Ground Unit at Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3.
Posted: September 13, 2010

Iron. Theatre Exile's first show in its new South Philly venue, Studio X, is a powerful drama by Scottish playwright Rona Munro. The increasingly remarkable Catharine Slusar (our Meryl Streep of accents) stars as Fay, imprisoned for life for the murder of her husband.

Fifteen years have passed since the trial when her daughter, Josie (Kim Carson), now 25, suddenly appears on visiting day. The play proceeds through their visits, occasionally interrupted by two guards (Michael Hagan and Caitlin Antram) whose characters are intriguing but underdeveloped.

The center of the play is passionate love - Fay's for her husband and her gorgeous, endearing memories of their love affair. It's also about maternal love and the grueling deprivation of 15 years without her daughter.

Josie is beautiful and successful, and unfulfilled; she has no memory of anything before she was 11 years old, and she comes to see her mother to find out about her and her father and, ultimately, herself. The evocations of her childhood (what color was the wall above the kitchen stove?) are as aching and wondrous as Fay's imaginings of a vicarious night out - dancing, drinking, having fun.

Despite many possibilities for cheesy, clich├ęd explanations of what happened that fateful day, Iron avoids them all, leaving us staring at the complexities of memory, the unfixable damage of life in prison, and the searing need to love intensely.

Deborah Block's direction makes good use of the cruel tile-and-cinderblock strip that is both prison and stage. There's a lot of neck-craning necessary since the audience sits along each side, but it's worth it. - Toby Zinman

$15-$40. 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 9 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday. Post-festival performances through Oct. 10. Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St.

Judith/Dresses/Joe. A new group called Parade Ground Unit tackles three short, disparate one-acts by notable writers, and the melding makes for a bizarre 80 minutes that sticks with you. I'm still mulling the nuanced performances by Holly Cate and Troy Dwyer, and the direction of James Peck (the three are the company's co-founders).

In Samuel Beckett's Eh Joe, written for TV in 1966, a man sits on a bed and contemplates his demons as a former lover haunts him in a severe, emotionless berating. The play is a character study of the man, through his face, and the woman can appear as an offstage voice, but Peck effectively has Cate delivering her psychic destruction visibly, to one side of the playing area. It dilutes the focus but not completely - we still see the man onstage and in a larger image flashed live on a screen behind him.

Counting Her Dresses is Gertrude Stein's 1922 quickie about women and their exterior lives, I suppose; it consists mostly of banal banter as a man shows a woman - in this version - more than 20 dresses. It's also a director's playground, for Stein's script gives no staging guidance. Peck moves the action back and forth, as if it were on a conveyor that keeps switching directions. Stein's conceit - if you don't know it, the play seems harder to comprehend than it actually is - is that almost every line is written as its own act.

Bertolt Brecht's 1937 The Jewish Wife, about a German Jewish woman who angrily leaves her Christian husband in the oncoming Nazi storm - partly for his own safety - is a vignette from Brecht's Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, and the most accessible of the three one-acts. It's richly performed by Dwyer and Cate, a redhead with a dynamic, commanding voice and stare. This combo of plays is Parade Ground Unit's inauguration, a solid, avant-garde-plus production. - Howard Shapiro

$15. 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3.

Japan House/Philadelphia. Ordinarily Shofosu, the Japanese house in Fairmount Park, stands empty. Leah Stein and Roko Kawai along with Tokyo-based collaborators Hideo Arai and Mika Kimula have animated the exquisite house and its gardens, moving audience, dancers, and musicians through its tatami-floored rooms and wide-planked verandas.

Structured as a loop of scenes that the audience tours in separate groups, Japan House/Philadelphia skillfully uses the house's architectural features. Columns are for perching or leaning on, a deck for hiding under. A dancer in red nestles into a green hillock, a quiet procession of performers in white wafts into the tall pines at the far edge of the koi pond, hands cast momentary shadows on a sliding shoji screen.

Compelling performances include that of Arai, who brings drama to each gesture. With intensity and attack, he dives into inventive improvisational choices. Stein and Kawai show sly wit and generous playfulness in their interactions. Toshi Makihara, the percussionist who is Stein and Kawai's longtime collaborator does a virtuosic turn "playing" the boards of Shofosu's widest veranda.

Program notes describe the work as exploring personal and cultural histories. Japan House/Philadelphia hints at lives lived in such a house without spelling out clear narratives. It remains in the realm of poetry - an ineffable accumulation of many small moments of gravity and beauty. - Lisa Kraus

No further performances.

Lunch Lady Tarot. On the fringe of the Fringe comes a faux tarot card reader, all for laughs, named Lunch Lady because she carries a sandwich. Plus, she sandwiches in one-liners and umpteen flighty diversions during her collective tarot reading of the audience on the upper floor of Fairmount's long-popular London Grill, an excellent place to end up at one of Lunch Lady's late shows because the Fringe bar, at Delaware Avenue this year, is fine for dancing but a bust for talk.

Lunch Lady, in a black leopard print outfit, accented by a bright red blouse and Capri pants when I saw her Saturday night, tells you in her deep South Philly accent about West Side Story, the psychic nature of Las Vegas, the way a horse race really works, and the 15 percent of you that is actually you.

In real life, she is actress Bella Weil Saltzer, and this is the first piece she has written, produced by Fairmount-based Red Square Theatre. Saltzer plays through this little goof convincingly enough for some people to wonder if that's her real-life accent, or maybe even persona. Her sidekick is Adam Rzepka, who plays a lover/dummy/straight man. If you do not chuckle at least a few times, you are not in a Fringe mood. But if you dive for a Valium once Lunch Lady takes off, you are Fringed-out. - Howard Shapiro

$5. 7 p.m. Thursday; 7 and 8:30 p.m. Friday; and 10 p.m. Saturday. Upstairs at the London Grill, 2301 Fairmount Ave.

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