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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Philadelphia Style Magazine; Marilyn Monroe, the Fringe Festival and Chick-Fil-A

CITY BEAT, September 2012

Thom Nickels

We were hoping there’d be a significant event in the city honoring the 50th anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe. The numerous little theaters here weren’t offering anything (for that we had to check out the Off-Off Broadway production of Siren’s Heart—Norma Jean and Marilyn in Purgatory—Norma Jean Sings Songs Marilyn Never Sang, a one-woman show starring Louisa Bradshaw). The Daily News printed a bio- acknowledgment of sorts, but there wasn’t much else. Still, the anniversary got us thinking about Monroe’s career and her descent into Lee Strasberg’s method acting nether world. Method acting was all the rage in the 1950s, about the time Monroe left Hollywood for New York (at the urging of playwright Arthur Miller) where she wound up learning how to become a “real actress” at Strasberg’s Actors Studio. Monroe had lots of student company-- Shelly Winters and Marlon Brando to name two—as well as pressure from Strasberg to see a psychoanalyst who would proscribe her barbiturates and tranquilizers. Referrals like this were Strasberg’s MO; it almost ruined Brando (who later confessed that his experience with the Actors Studio left him no better off than before). Thanks to the deleterious effects of method acting, Monroe would never do another successful film like The Seven Year Itch, but at least-- like those women in The Valley of the Dolls-- she had her pills. Was it really Lee Strasberg who killed the star? Or do we blame Miller, who urged her to move to New York in the first place? Of course, had Monroe survived perhaps she would have gotten caught up in that other mental barbiturate: Scientology.

Every month, the lobby of many Center City high rises becomes a boxing ring with Icon magazine vs. Philadelphia Style going at it neck and neck. While Icon rarely fails to disappoint in terms of copy, Philadelphia Style, with its mega photo spreads of celebrities and people who want to be celebrities, proves that if you get your picture taken often enough you can become a self-created star. While a pretty face can hardly be called a professional accomplishment, a TMZ-style plunging neckline topped with tanned cleavage does provide the right sizzle when the subject is the opening of a new steak house or an Old City virgin America launch party. Does Icon need to go to more parties and focus on professional party-goers? We might be tempted to take the plunge if we knew who these people were in the first place. We know regular photo-opers like Cole Hammels, Sharon Pinkenson, John DeBella, Sam Katz or Dawn Timmeney; but what about that larger gallery of anonymous faces with the uncanny ability to sniff out the location of every city party, both great and small? One good thing: At least all the PR posing gives Philly’s local amateur paparazzi something to do.

While we’ve certainly had our fill of Chick-fil-A, we did take a little stroll down to the Chick-fil-a outlet in the Gallery on Kiss-in equality day. We saw a few people in line for chicken and even noticed a special “free drink” table that management had set up. We looked far and wide for kisses—Eskimo nose rub kisses, cheek-to-cheek pecks or the full mouth French express kind—but found only an uptight-looking security guard by the waffle fry section who didn’t look like he was about to kiss anybody, but rather pounce (eyes wide shut) should those activist kisses morph into a riot. (The Gallery, traditionally, has never been on the cutting edge of anything, although its lavatory stalls provide the homeless with a motel-like shelter). Just being at the Gallery, however, seemed like the perfect opportunity to look for our favorite men’s cologne, Dior Homme at one of the kiosks near the food court. Dior Homme is not sold at Macy’s on Chestnut or anywhere else in Philly for that matter. (Macy’s colognes run the teenage gamut from Vintage Black to Le Male). When we didn’t find the cologne at the kiosks, at least one purveyor knew what we were talking about, and offered to order it. Now, that was worth a kiss.

Angels in America was big stuff when it burst upon the theater scene in 1990-91, with its story of a closeted Mormon married man and the self hating HIV-infected Roy Cohn. Last year, when the Wilma announced it was bringing Tony Kushner’s play to Philly, there was an audible gasp in the audience. “Really!?” people exclaimed. Many went on to say that Angels was a far cry from the Wilma’s penchant for obscure esoterica, and that they were happy the theater was finally letting in some “mainstream light.” But what a difference a year makes. At the conclusion of the interminably long Part I earlier this year we left the theater with an impression of the Wilma’s seats stuck to our dearieres; we also became nostalgic for traditional Wilma esoterica. (Blanka Zizka, please tell Mr. Kushner he’s no exception when it comes to editing or getting a dramaturge.) That’s why when we read that Angels, Part 2 will be staged at the Wilma this fall, we ran full tilt further down south Broad to see what Suzanne Roberts had up her sleeve,

The Philadelphia Fringe Festival started life as cornucopia of short bohemian productions, when the only aim seemed to be to out avant garde the avant garde. This was well before hipsters and others started stretching their ear lobes, wearing tribal Ethiopian rings, and sporting tattoos to prove their coolness. In today’s world, everyday life is pretty much of a Fringe Festival although the FF in general has much more polish now than it did then. We’re thinking especially of the Tina Brock directed Ivona: Princess of Burgundia by Witold Gombrowicz, an absurdist comedy about a medieval kingdom where appearance is everything. That’s why the princess in question has a hairdo that can only be described as architectural: it towers so high in the air that Ivona’s hairdresser must take a ladder to attend to the upper eaves, window casements, lintels, balusters and hidden patios among the sprayed hair follicles. Ivona runs through September at the Walnut Street Studio 5 and stars the Fishtown-based identical Dura twins, Tomas and Michael.

The Kelly Writers House at U of P is famous for packing in area intellectuals, the extreme opposite of a paparazzi photo op. Here the tanned plunging neckline attractions are writers like John Barth (who visited Kelly’s earlier this year), and Susan Sontag (now dead, but when she appeared at Kelly’s years ago it was a pleasure to bump into her while she cream cheesed a bagel). 2012 will be a triple TMZ explosion for KWH--- that’s three Virgin America Launch parties in one--- with the announcement of Kelly House Fellows John Ashberry, poet (February), and The New Yorker’s Janet Malcolm (March). Poets—unless your name is Maya Angelou or Sonia Sanchez-- rarely get any mention outside of Larry Robins’ Moonstone poetry circuit. But KWH is living proof that to be a poet in Philly you don’t have to be weird, dress up like Emily Dickinson, or even wear an opera cape while mumbling a defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
A recent headline in The Philadelphia Weekly read: Why Are So Many Philly Art Galleries Closing? Icon asked that question many months ago, and the answer is the same now as it was then: the economy. We found some of the online comments to the PW piece amusing, especially, “Oh, you want thousands of dollars for exhibiting a cat litter box full of poop in the middle of your gallery?” One thing we were glad to see was a shout out by Newman Galleries, the gallery that everybody seems to forget in the rush to idolize the hottest and latest art space in town. Newman Galleries is in fact the oldest gallery in the city, dating from 1865, the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Our old friends at Ven and Vaida on 3rd Street have reminded us that they are not closing, and that they have another winning photography exhibit (the photography of RA Freidman) this fall.