PIFA REVIEWED: Vainglorious: The Epic Feats of Notable Persons in Europe After the Revolution
These huge arts festivals can be overwhelming — how to figure out what's worth seeing? CP's sending someone to nearly every event PIFA's putting on over the next month to help you decide, so check back with Critical Mass all month long for comprehensive, ongoing reviews.
GROUP: Applied Mechanics
ATTENDED: Sat., April 13, 7 p.m., Christ Church Neighborhood House
CLOSES: April 13
BRIEF SELF-DESCRIPTION: Factions clash and empires rise and fall…Twenty-six of the shiniest rising stars in the Philadelphia scene join forces to create a dazzling new depiction of a potent historical moment: the great sweep of the Napoleonic Empire in the wake of the French Revolution.
WE THINK: What’s history? Well it ain’t neat. Thus the dramaturges of Applied Mechanics arm you with a flow chart of events, divide the 26-person cast into teams (team Napoleon, team Germaine de Staël, etc.), zone a small gym and its two balconies into parts of the world, and turn you loose to roam, interact, even get some wine and linzertorte if you’re in the right place at the right time. But the play punishes you for your curiosity or fidelity: The more you walk around and see, the less you see. The less you walk around and see, the less you see.
What’s history? Symbols. Thus the tormented spirit of the age, Beethoven, lives in isolated anguish, hardly touching any of the other important personages until one of his concerts turns into a vision of him resentfully conducting Napoleon and Josephine’s coronation. Thus team Talleyrand is composed of five actors playing the same character, a division of self that is not Freudian but political. The Talleyrands appear everywhere, first serving Napoleon, then stripping him of medals and bicorne and finally carving his Europe into pieces.
What’s history? Word and deed. Thus physicality takes on as much import as the English and French dialogue, and battles become dances with snap bangs being thrown, sex is a panting, ass-slapping ritual, and invasions are air-pony Monty Python gallops. With the coordination of director/ringmaster Rebecca Wright and designer Maria Shaplin, such critical moments come to the fore without usurping the sprawl of the play.
What’s drama? The art of the showdown. And for one moment near the end, all the sound and fury of this perpetual motion machine stops, concentrates itself as if it were trying to engineer nothing but this instant all along, and we get Mary Tuomanen’s absorbing Napoleon – just seconds ago within my arm’s length on Elba, desolate and repeating “Josephine, Josephine, Josephine” – restored from exile and confronted by his old troops who are being exhorted to “fire!” The entire hall goes quiet and he utters a line which might as well stand in for the myth of celebrity from that time till now, “You know me.”
What’s history? A Vainglorious tragic-comedy, a flawed inspired play.
PREVIOUSLY IN PIFA: Gastronomy lessons from the Founding Fathers.