Phillyist 2009

Joyce’s PLAF Diary for Wednesday, September 16

Performance: Emma’s Parlour (Martina Plag/Laureen Griffin/Leah Walton)
Howard Zinn is most well known for his passionate political writing, not his plays. So when I heard he’d written one about Emma Goldman, the renowned anarchist—and that it was being performed at the Fringe—I was intrigued. In collaboration with artist Laureen Griffin, Martina Plag and Leah Walton have put a lush, sensual decoration in the peformance parlour. Using silk-screen printed chairs, old-time props, and a setup much like your grandmother’s living room (if your grandmother was a fierce feminist), the principles have created a visual feast. Griffin, creator of the Gender Portraiture Project, works with her subjects to explore issues of gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality, and the carefully curated portraits that adorn the walls are vibrant and arresting. They offer a thoughtful counterpoint to the center stage puppet theatre, which includes the smallest details on paper dolls and painted backdrops finely and exquisitely rendered.

During the play itself, Plag and Walton’s quirky, interpretive spin takes the audience on a curious romp, with a few surprises. Two pops of a cap gun had the audience jumping in their seats, and words literally unscroll from Emma’s mouth on occasion during her speeches. Symbolism abounds (a birdcage does double duty as a jail). The actors transition smoothly between their puppet manipulation and more traditional acting roles. Emma’s story is a powerful and timely one—she spoke about issues of love, war, patriotism, democracy, and freedom of speech while wrestling with the tension between pleasure and duty that comes with being an activist—and the visuals compelling, so it seems unfortunate that the play itself, for all its outward beauty and clever ideas, falls a little short of its grand vision. The script seems more of a historical recounting of Emma’s life, and we only receive flashing glimpses of the woman behind the rhetoric. A meandering second half only adds to the disconnect.

I found myself agreeing with Goldman’s thoughts that “there has to be a little beauty in the midst of struggle,” and in that regard, the play designers have conceptualized her ideas quite proudly. I just wish the play’s words had matched the visual power of their performance space.
Festival Rating: Go for the art, stay for the play.

by Joyce Homan

for original article go to Phillyist