A glorious look at the 19th century

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the notable 19th-century characters the audience gets to know in Applied Mechanics' "Vainglorious."
Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the notable 19th-century characters the audience gets to know in Applied Mechanics' "Vainglorious."
Posted: April 11, 2013

The title of Applied Mechanics' astonishingly theatrical show is Vainglorious. The subtitle is The Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe After the Revolution. Said notable persons include: Beethoven, Napoleon, Josephine, Mme de Staël, and Talleyrand. So you might want to brush up on your 19th-century history. Or not - just go and let the show carry you through 20 years of vainglory. (Besides, there's a crib sheet on the back of the program.) Regardless: If you're interested in experimental theater, don't miss this one.

We enter a vast room, and wander, bemused (everyone's got an odd little smile on), among figures dressed in period costumes, caught, apparently in mid-gesture. They seem to be statues, but they blink. Eventually the actors (there are 26) come to life, mostly through movement and murmured lines (some in French), and our collective smile turns to intense focus, eyebrows shooting up occasionally.

Audience members are free to pursue whatever story catches their interest: Josephine (John Jarboe) and Napoleon (Mary Tuomanen); the emperor's commandeering the sexual favors of the duchess of Parma (Kate Black-Regan). Or maybe you want to watch Beethoven (Thomas Choinacky, who has totally Romantic hair) compose symphonies, give piano lessons, discover he is going deaf. Talleyrand (the riveting Kristen Bailey) concocts Europe-shaking politics, while Germaine de Staël (Jessica Hurley) creates the literary salon. Characters are composed of a team of five or six accomplished actors. Then the teams become armies and horses.

Rebecca Wright directs this high-precision "movement opera," in which many things happen at once (as they do in history). You suddenly see Napoleon exiled to the room's high balcony, and if you blink you'll miss the palindrome on the banner ("Able was I ere I saw Elba"). The guillotine is created by a balletic entrechat, and the cast thrillingly transforms itself into a silent orchestra frantically conducted by Beethoven.

The costumes, designed by Katherine Fritz and Maria Shaplin, are superb, and the sound design (Maria Shaplin and Team Beethoven) eventually becomes a folkloric song as all the legendary characters run off, history melts into the past, and we're left on the bare stage of the present. And all this in an hour.


Vainglorious

Presented by Applied Mechanics at Christ Church Neighborhood House, near Second and Market Streets. Through Saturday.

Tickets: $15. Information: 215-546-7432; www.PIFA.org.


Follow Toby Zinman on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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