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.
John Rosenberg nervously peels blue gaff tape off the floor of the Papermill Theater, but his gaze never strays from the action in front of him. On stage, Sebastian Cummings recites a crucial monologue in Rosenberg's latest play, Queen of All Weapons: The character has been pushed to the brink, feeling the blows of a crushing indignity.
Rosenberg's body convulses with each delicate transition in the text.
A moment later, a piece of tape flies through the air, hitting Cummings in the leg. The actor pauses briefly to look at the wad at his feet, but then launches into the remainder of his monologue with a new sense of purpose and fury.
The tactic was impulsive and crude — but effective. And that, you might say, is this writer/director's mantra in both theater and life: impulsive and crude — but, above all, effective.
Rosenberg's heroes, such as John Cassavetes and Charles Bukowski, turned crass impudence into sublime poetry (and fought tooth and nail to get their voices heard). It's a style Rosenberg emulated in San Francisco, where he co-founded Sleepwalkers Theatre, a Bay Area indie forerunner.
"There's a lack of pretension that drew me to John — both personally and in the writing," says Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, a Sleepwalkers co-founder. "He doesn't put on airs, even though he is a highly skilled writer. I think he wants to be perceived in the way he writes: uncomplicated and unadorned. Even in his marketing, his style is intentionally messy and unrefined."
But independent theater is a different game in Philly, where even the smallest companies often model themselves on regional theaters, put a greater emphasis on production values and strictly follow Equity rules (read: no throwing gaff tape at actors).
Philadelphia is a more conservative artistic community than San Francisco, but Rosenberg is hoping we're ready for a new, raw, from-the-gut independent voice.
"Self-producing just always made more sense to me," says Rosenberg, sitting on the edge of a chair just outside the rehearsal. "I don't think I could do it the other way: I mean, you're supposed to write scripts and send them out and hope somebody you've never met will produce your shit? Unless your shit's incredible, you just become a bitter dick."
Since landing in Philly a little over a year and a half ago, Rosenberg has been working at breakneck pace. A friend gave him space in an old paper mill near Kensington and Lehigh, and he has already converted the lower level into a 50-seat theater. He has also produced two of his own works in that time, designing the sets and lighting for both.
This month Rosenberg will find out just how ready Philly is for a different way of doing things. His Hella Fresh Theater Co. is presenting Queen of All Weapons at a time when nearly every other local company is dark for the summer.
Queen is jam-packed with the usual rhythms of Rosenberg's visceral, wry language. But it's also a departure from the personal tack in his other work. The play takes place in 1977 — set entirely in one apartment — as a pair of small-time drug dealers are confronted by a violent political extremist.
"I went to Berkeley, and I understood that it used to be this hotbed of radicalism. But it's not anymore," says Rosenberg. "I had friends who were hard-core activists — trying to keep it going. It always fascinated me how lonely those people were — these people who are so committed to solidarity. So I was interested in writing about what radicals went through directly after the revolution's heyday."
In Philadelphia theater, a lot of fuss is made over press releases; small companies spend countless hours developing über-slick one-sheets. The release for Queen of All Weapons looks a little unusual: It's a ransom note by the main character of the play — a somewhat mentally unstable German — typed on a sheet of loose-leaf paper. It ends like this:
Let the raging fires release your fucked slaves to the hell of which they can perform servantry for the victims of your illegal war in Indochina. And Jew atrocites in mnazi ocuppied israel.
Beneath it, Rosenberg scrawled the title of the show, dates and website in his chicken-scratch handwriting. (He omitted the address of the theater.)
Some editors and critics may have dismissed the release out of hand, but Rosenberg has already received more press in Philly than he did in San Francisco.
It was crude but effective — and, above all, inspired.
Queen of All Weapons runs through July 31, $10, Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St., 510-292-6403, queenofallweapons.com.
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