The Bushwick Starr has that distinct black box theatre smell; it’s paint, dust, and something else I can’t put my finger on. Old timey folk music crunches out of the speakers, welcoming the audience to their seats for the sold-out performance. The stage is sparsely set for the opening night of Philadelphia and Other Stories, a new show created by Bushwick super-duo (and self-proclaimed besties) Paul Rome and Roarke Menzies – a table that supports a lamp, a bottle of whiskey, and a sound system, four chairs, a guitar, a ukulele and a banjo.
The lights go down and the audience hushes to silence. Menzies walks out onto the stage, throwing us a small, awkward wave. Rome follows, carrying a menorah. They thank us for coming and say that they’ll be conducting a prayer lighting ceremony. It is the third evening of Chanukah. A recording of the traditional prayer begins to play as Rome lights the candles, his hands shaking as he presses the last one into its place on the menorah. The prayer ends and Rome carries the menorah over to the table on the stage. With the ritual complete, the two men exit and Philadelphia and Other Stories begins.
It’s hard to explain what Philadelphia and Other Stories is exactly. Actors read short fictional pieces, or monologues, written by Rome; meanwhile, a largely repetitive soundtrack, composed by Menzies, provides an anchor for the stories to float above, adding depth without distracting from the text. These monologues are inter-spliced with acoustic musical performances by singer-songwriter Katie Mullins and guitarist David Kammerer. Think: the Moth stories set to an original soundtrack slash intimate acoustic concert – and each piece, spoken or played or performed, relates to the idea of repetition.
Thematically, the backbones of the play are love and memory. Just as the earth swings around the sun and waves crash to shore, the human mind returns to places, times, and, of course, people it has known. Layers upon layers of memory connect all human experience, and the monologues of Philadelphia and Other Stories evoke memories of the characters’ pasts. Like an automaton (something that pops up as a subject in the first monologue), we as humans are destined to retell the same narratives, rewrite the same love poems, and sing the same songs. Yet, the more we linger on them, the further they fall from the original experiences.
And music plays a huge role in these memories. In one story about a one-night-stand turned road-trip buddy, the character, played by Roarke, describes how Paul Simon’s “Graceland” is tied closely to the memory driving to Philadelphia with a woman he barely knew and that woman saying that Paul Simon reminds her of listening to his music as a child with her parents. Later, a ukelele performance by Katie Mullins effectively recalls the nostalgia of a former love. She sings of her memories failing her; the memories exist, yet “none of them true.”
The highlight of the night comes in the form of a ridiculous and amazing monologue performed by Rome, in which the character recollects his experience with a pesky skin condition that becomes a source of shame and an all-consuming aspect of his life. He finds himself obsessively tracking its progress. The harder he tries to get rid of it, the more inflamed it becomes. All he wants to do is talk to a girl he keeps seeing in the neighborhood, but what might she think of his condition? The rash eventually goes away, and his body returns to its previous state. (Once again, theme of repetition here, folks.) Rome perfectly encapsulates what it feels like to be ashamed, and he somehow makes it really, really funny. If there’s one reason to see Philadelphia and Other Stories, it’s for this piece.
We ask ourselves, “What is a play, but a reenactment?” A performance is destined to be a memory of its original forms – of rehearsing the lines, of practicing the music, of edits and vetoes and decisions prior. Always returning and always lingering, yet never quite the same.
If you’re feeling nostalgic, then this well-rounded theatrical experience is for you. Get your tickets ASAP – there are only two nights left!
PHILADELPHIA AND OTHER STORIES by Paul Rome and Roarke Menzies
December 18, 2014-December 20, 2014 at 8:00 pm.
Created and produced by Paul Rome and Roarke Menzies, Philadelphia and Other Stories features text by Rome and music by Menzies, with additional songs by David Kammerer and Katie Mullins, respectively, and a performance by Katie Schottland. The production is directed by Mark Jaynes, with dramaturgy and production assistance by Rachel Levens.
Location: The Bushwick Starr is located at 207 Starr Street, Brooklyn, NY.
Tickets are $18.00 at www.thebushwickstarr.org.