A compelling 'Ballad of Joe Hill'

Swim Pony Performing Arts presents "The Ballad of Joe Hill," a reimagining of their hit 2006 production about the union activist.
Swim Pony Performing Arts presents "The Ballad of Joe Hill," a reimagining of their hit 2006 production about the union activist. (JACQUES-JEAN TIZIOU / www.jjtiziou.net)
Posted: September 08, 2013

Quick: Sing out a folk song by union activist Joe Hill. Now hum the tune of the corporate jingle "Nationwide is on your side."

The ease of the second task reminds who won that long-standing feud.

As evidenced by Swim Pony Performing Arts' captivating The Ballad of Joe Hill, a reimagining of their hit 2006 production, it wasn't always so. Swedish immigrant Hill set his incendiary lyrics to church hymns or popular songs, reinterpreting the heroic Casey Jones, for instance, as the story of a scab worker getting his comeuppance. His perceived pernicious influence was so great it led Utah authorities to frame him for murder and execute him in 1915.

Swim Pony's production presents Hill's demise in a nonlinear vaudeville style that includes dance, song, pantomime, historical anecdote, and short scenes. Six actors portray Hill at various points during the 90-minute show; each one's uniquely charismatic singing voice fleshes him out as a railroaded everyman victim of injustice. The cast's compelling use of an atrium at Eastern State Penitentiary combines with Maria Shaplin's engrossing lighting to turn the prison into a tomb of memory.

Not everything works; a few anachronisms (like jazz standards) increase relevance while deepening perspective, but Steamboat Willie-style cartoonish antics that paint Hill as a noble troubadour among rabblerousers distract and diminish sympathy for his union cause.

Adrienne Mackey's direction and her and Bradley Wrenn's construction avoid drawing easy parallels with political prisoners today. Instead, the overall arc focuses on the alibi that would have secured Hill's freedom, revealed in a 2011 biography to be Hilda Erickson (Dawn Falato), 20, who simultaneously romanced Hill and his best friend, Otto.

According to Swim Pony's ballad, Hill protected Hilda's honor at the price of his martyrdom. But rather than enhancing the tragedy, here his courtroom silence only seems to illustrate the futility of his approach, throwing away what could have been productive years with misguided white-knighting.

But try writing memorable songs about that.

Through Sept. 15 at Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave. Tickets: $20 to $29. Information: 215-413-1318 or fringearts.com.

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