SHOW: The Ballad of Joe Hill http://www.livearts-fringe.org/festival/2013/the-ballad-of-joe-hill.cfm
GROUP: Swim Pony Performing Arts
ATTENDED: Sept. 6, 10 p.m., Eastern State Penitentiary
CLOSES: Sept. 15
BRIEF SELF-DESCRIPTION: “A lone woman sings a haunting refrain before kicking off a raucous vaudeville party with a ragtag band of clowns. With dark humor and the high-energy movement of early animation, they enact the story of Joe Hill, union leader, songwriter, and the defendant in a sensationalistic murder trial that ended with his execution.”
WE THINK: A vaulted cell block of Eastern State Penitentiary is an appropriate venue for a ghost story, and that’s what you get in The Ballad of Joe Hill. Swim Pony revives its 2006 exploration of the life and death of Hill, the turn-of-the-20th-century union leader and folk singer turned martyr whose spirit pervades this piece of proletarian theater. Hill’s story — little known, but here cast as legend — unfurls not chronologically, but according to a sort of dream logic, assembled from props, song, movement and scattered scraps of dialogue.
An energetic opening act by Michael Baker (of The Spinning Leaves) sets the scene, offering a necessary crash course in Hill’s forgotten oeuvre, such as “The Preacher and the Slave” which co-opts the melody of “Sweet By and By” for a critique of organized religion. Then, the curtain pulls back on Dawn Falato as Hill’s lover, Hilda Erickson, whose singing echoes hauntingly around the old cell block. No one performer plays Hill — after all, there’s a little Joe Hill in all of us working stiffs, right? Which is to say, the pro-worker message isn’t subtle.
Neither is the cast of union-worker “clowns.” Their hectic scrambling and early-Mickey-Mouse-style vocalizations are meant to recall early animation; while they occasionally get it right (for example, arranging themselves into a churning human locomotive engine), they’re more often grating and distracting. But it’s never boring. Director Adrienne Mackey makes full and effective use of the telescoping stage created by Eastern State’s hallway, sometimes setting scenes in the foreground and in the distance simultaneously. Hill’s strange and compelling life story at times makes for dark subject matter, but Mackey ensures its memorable.
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