Fringe Festival 2015

Fringe Review: Fifty Days at Iliam

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

A bold new piece exploring the Trojan War as told through the paintings of Cy Twombly.

Fringe Review: Fifty Days at Iliam

Fifty Days at Iliam

GENRE: Abstract/Movement Theater

GROUP: Hannah Van Sciver

ATTENDED: Sept 4, 8 p.m., Asian Arts Initiative

CLOSES: Sept 5

BRIEF SELF-DESCRIPTION: Fifty Days at Iliam is a bold new piece exploring the Trojan War as told through the paintings of Cy Twombly. Featuring a dynamic ensemble led by Hannah Van Sciver and direction by William Steinberger, it is an unflinching look at the role of the artist in the final days of a decade-long slaughter.

WE THINK: This is Hannah Van Sciver's affectionate, beautifully affecting love letter to some of her favorite artworks, Cy Twombly's eponymous Trojan War paintings, whose room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art she describes as her "quiet place": a trusted source, for her, of relaxation, liberation and inspiration. Somehow – even as someone who's never been big on Twombly – that highly personal, specific, emotional experience of his work comes across here loud and clear, in a piece that is, fittingly, itself quite Twomblyan: largely abstract, gestural and minimalist, a collation of myriad simple, even amateurish forms, juxtaposed together, with limited text, against a smudged white background.

What narrative exists is fragmentary, almost elliptical – scenes sketched from Twombly's life (notably, his relationship with Robert Rauschenburg) and from the legendary heroes and warriors who inspired his work – and frequently presented through succinct, poetic evocation rather than naturalistic depiction. Handfuls of olives are tossed in from all sides... and suddenly, we're in Greece! A mythological battle becomes a Saturday Night Fever dance showdown. (The production is notable for its unimaginably tasteful deployment of several done-to-death disco chestnuts.)

But even these episodes exist less to further a plot per se than to offer a loose framework and jumping-off-point for the richly impressionistic, highly ensemble-driven whole: a forty-minute performance-poem woven from dance, movement, a surprising amount of music (simple, incantatory, sung and played with a richly resonant purity – notably, only two of the six ensemble members are described in their program bios as musicians of any stripe), plus the white stage-floor, costumes, and minimalist set of billowing sheets that also serve as de facto canvases for the dramatic free-flow of pigment and chalk (and olives.)

Van Sciver calls herself as classically trained theater-maker with, prior to a workshop she took with Pig Iron this past winter, very little devised theater experience. This is her deep, daring plunge into that world, and what she, along with her impressively versatile ensemble, design team and director William Steinberger, have accomplished here feels a rare confluence of unfiltered, beginners-mind, intuitive creation with mature, rigorous performance technique. It recalls nothing so much as the wide-open, risk-taking spirit of Pig Iron's early days.

We're only a few days into the festival, but this is easily my favorite thing I've seen so far.

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