Before the Fringe: Summer Theater Review


Avid theatergoers and culture-hungry tourists got their fill of great productions in July and August, in what used to be Philadelphia summer theater hiatus, before the hectic pace of the Fringe Festival begins in September. 

Wendy Staton and Cathy Simpson faced off in Amy Chmielewski’s realistic costumes and Cory Palmer’s meticulously detailed set in New City Stage Company’s 'NIGHT MOTHER; photo by Russ Widdall.

New City Stage Company concluded its themed season on female suicide in July with ‘NIGHT MOTHER.  Told in real time, and uniquely presented with an African-American cast, the tragic tale exposed the final hour between a daughter determined to end her life and the mother who is unable to stop her.  Wendy Staton as the resolute young woman was disquietingly rational and organized as she prepared for her own demise, going about her chores in an alarmingly normal costume and homey set.  Cathy Simpson provided an intense, emotional counterpoint as the mother, forced to experience the psychological stages of disbelief, denial, anger, grief, and acceptance within the 80-minute production.  Both performances were gut-wrenching, sympathetic, and award-worthy, and effectively honored the company’s season of meaningful roles for women.

The zany HATCHETMAN, at People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern, took a farcical look at looming unemployment via the office of Putts–a golf magazine headed for corporate takeover–and the ensuing hysteria among its incompetent and libidinous staff.   Especially hilarious were Tom Teti as the absent-minded elder, Mary Elizabeth Scallen as the dominatrix boss, and Pete Pryor as the neurotic hack who laments, should he lose his job through downsizing, “I’m a writer . . . I’m basically unemployable!”  

Following a series of confused sexual encounters in the office closet, the disheveled Mary McCool, Pete Pryor, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Julia Stroup, and Tom Teti searched for clues about layoffs in People’s Light & Theatre Company’s HATCHETMAN; photo by Mark Garvin

Temple Repertory Theater launched its second summer season with a new translation of Molière’s 17th-century religious farce TARTUFFE, which cleverly retained the verse format of the original French text.  The use of modified white face make-up, audience interaction, and 21st-century props (box wine, cell phone, and blow-up doll) enhanced and contemporized the sacrilegious buffoonery.  Standouts in the outstanding ensemble were Rob Kahn as the eponymous pious fraud; David Ingram and Yvette Ganier as the hoodwinked Orgon and his mother; Kate Czajkowski as Orgon’s wife and the object of Tartuffe’s lust; and Genevieve Perrier as Dorine, the outspoken coquettish housemaid who shook her well-padded faux derrière with gusto.  TARTUFFEplayed in rotation at Temple’s Randall Theater with Sam Shepard’s equally praise-worthy Pulitzer Prize-winning BURIED CHILD.  The unsettling look into the dark secrets of a dysfunctional American family in the 1970s’ Midwest featured another superb performance by Rob Kahn as the emotionally handicapped son.  

Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company was back again with its seventh year of Free Theatre in the Parks.  This summer’s selection was Shakespeare’s RICHARD III.  Because of the challenge of staging the history play in noisy outdoor settings that changed nightly, director Dan Hodge decided to forego any attempt at subtle psychology in favor of “a loud, fast, fun, terrifying adventure” that resurrected the king’s many victims as white-faced zombies.  Christie Parker was regal as Queen Elizabeth, once again proving her incomparable mastery of Shakespeare.

Brian McCann, Joshua L. Browns, and Mary Tuomanen in Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company's Richard III; photo by Sarah Greenslade. Not pictured, but also of note in the cast, were Robert DaPonte, Mark Cairns, and Christie Parker.

Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s Classical Acting Academy, now in its third year of summer sessions, presents THE COMEDY OF ERRORS through August 21.  Free tickets are available on a first-come-first-served basis, starting three hours before each performance, at the PST box office, 2111 Sansom Street.  University of the Arts’ professor Rosemary Hay, who directed New City Stage Company’s ‘NIGHT MOTHER, takes on the duties here too, making it another show not to be missed this summer.  If you didn’t make it to the others, you still have time to catch this!

Theatre websites:

New City Stage Company –

People’s Light & Theatre Company –

Temple Repertory Theater –

Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company –

Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre –

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