David Anthony Fox David Anthony Fox has been a theater critic for City Paper since 1999. By day, he runs academic programs and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and in his copious free time, he writes and lectures on various topics in the arts. He also blogs on theater and culture at recliningstandards.org.
The German Society's beautiful, ghostly library is the perfect venue for EgoPo Classic Theater's production of Hell. From the start, we're immersed in a setting that reminds us of the huge scale of this project, an adaptation of Henri Barbusse's cause-célèbre 1908 novel about a man whose discovery of a peephole in his hotel room leads him on a voyeuristic quest for sexual and emotional release. The amazing thing here is that this ambitious play so often succeeds. Director Lane Savadove's Hell is flawed — but more important, it's brave, often astonishing, and demands to be seen.
Savadove's literary bent is well-known in the theater community. Still, it's a happy surprise to see just how fully he and co-adaptor Ross Beschler have achieved the significant feat of bringing a complex book to the stage. While preserving much of Barbusse's narrative, they also create a theatrical world that never feels page-bound, and find a voice that is at once contemporary and appropriate for the period.
Yet intriguing as Savadove and Bechler's script is, it's the visual world that really haunts us. This is a staging full of startling surprises and beautiful pictures, all of them rooted in Barbusse's dreamlike world. Many of the images — and the lives they depict — are still vivid, days after seeing them.
Not everything works. The first act is stronger than the second (as the story becomes more concrete, some of the edginess gets lost), and although most of the production values — design as well as performances, including Beschler in the principal role of the Man — are strong, they aren't always quite equal to the sophisticated conception. But mostly, this is a telling and sometimes triumphant showcase for one of Philadelphia's most imaginative young theater companies.
Through May 15, $30, EgoPo Classic Theater at the German Society, 611 Spring Garden St., 800-595-4849, egopo.org.
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