What they say it is:
Inside Eastern State Penitentiary, 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. This re-imaging on the company’s 2006 Philly Fringe hit features huge and loud singing steeped in union-style song, music made from found percussion—saws, vases, pots—and the lyrics of Joe Hill echoing down the prison cellblock. Prepare yourself for a journey of railcars, murder, sham trials, secrets taken to the grave, dreams, mystery women, and the war between unions and robber barons. In short: music, humor, great physicality, daydream, vilification of the underclass.
The description above led me to believe that Joe Hill could be one of the sleeper hits of the Fringe/Livearts (now “Fringearts”) festival. Clowns? Haunting refrains? Daydreams and union wars? I’m sold. As a regular attendee of the Live Arts experience, I tend to prefer surrealist theatrical experiences—last year’s Red Eye to Havre De Grace was my all-time favorite Fringe-related show, and I booked our tickets to Joe Hill with those sorts of experiences in mind.
It’s easiest to cover this show’s (extremely positive) strengths, so I’ll begin there. In a nutshell, the choice of venue, theater lighting, and general use of space were overwhelmingly well done. Eastern State Penitentiary is a well-known landmark to any Philadelphia resident, and most of us have toured it at least a few times with visiting parents, friends, or even during the (overrated but still entertaining) annual Halloween event, Terror Behind the Walls. This former prison facility (first opened in 1829) is an enormous maze of old crumbling cellblocks, eerie hallways (some stretching the length of a city block), shockingly undersized prisoner cells, and an overwhelming, pervasive sense of an earlier American era. Swim Pony Performing Arts deserves commendation for capitalizing on this building’s inherent strengths as legitimate Philadelphia aesthetic wonder.
The show is staged in an extremely long cellblock hallway, with the smallish ~50 person audience seated at one end, while the ‘stage’ itself stretches far off into the distance. I’m not kidding–the performing area encompasses (at least) half the length of a football field, with some show scenes occurring immediately before the audience, while others take place far off in the distance. Actors stroll in and out of the foreground, disappearing into dark shadows or hidden cell doorways. Whispers and strains of music echo off the walls, clever lighting arrangements create distinct regions of the stage, and the narrative space moves back and forth, from foreground to background and over again. This unique layout allows the show to happen in multiple spaces at once—oftentimes, actors would be continuing a scene in the far distance, while new activity begins in the space closest to the audience. Scene changes would take place while another area of the state was in full action, creating a seamless, nonstop sense of time-shifting and continuous narrative. Again, it’s impossible to overstate how well this venue lent itself to the artistic vision of Joe Hill. The prison itself is a major player in this piece, if not the most important factor.
However, I am less inclined to say entirely positive things about the play itself. Allow me to state that the actors were very competent in their roles. The singing, dancing, and general choreography of the show were practiced and generally enjoyable. Unfortunately, the show’s glaring flaw, for this viewer, was the generally incohesive, overstretched, and overwrought narrative. Joe Hill is a totemic figure due to his role in the American labor movement and union politics, but his official biography is mostly comprised of a few well-repeated facts. As a result, this show’s dreamy, surrealist interpretation tended to circle around the (relatively few) known facts in an overlong expansion that tested my patience at several points. I’m an enormous fan of interpretive theater and experimental forms of storytelling, but this show seeks to make enormous mountains out of a relatively short bit of life. Like a dream, the plot loops back on itself several times, folding time and space for interesting effect—but I often felt like “so I’ve seen this part before—let’s get on with the show”. Narrative progress is frequently interrupted with irrelevant comic relief (it’s an unavoidably heavy show, but dancing vaudeville clowns seemed out of place), the primary action happens at a snail’s pace, and with actors exchanging roles (Joe Hill is played by multiple figures), scenes are retold from different views and by new faces—but I couldn’t always understand exactly why these shifts were occurring.
Simply put, the play’s appeal was hindered by an attempt to do too many things at once, neglecting an audience’s need for succinct storytelling to balance the show’s strengths of creativity and imagination. An enigmatic female figure ties most of the play together—a representation of Mr. Hill’s unknown love interest, and his stated motive for the bullet wound that eventually condemned him—but unless the viewer is well-versed in Joe Hill’s life story, this woman’s role seems vaguely confusing and ultimately unexplained. She sings like a dream, but I never felt fully connected to her worried, wandering ethos. Additionally, although I appreciated the framing device of a modern folkie singer leading the audience through a few familiar union melodies, this actor needs more confidence and poise to truly own the role of a protest singer—though perhaps his delivery will improve as the show continues through multiple nights (we attended the first public staging of this piece). The shuffling, dancing clowns inserted between scenes were, well, funny….but after their 3rd appearance, I really began to feel like the show was just all over the map. I came here expecting a dramatic interpretation of Joe Hill’s life—what exactly do these scene-transitioning capering fools intend to represent . . . ?
Overall, the writer and director deserve heaps of credit for staging an ambitious, modernist take on Mr. Hill’s life. Joe Hill is a man who’s role in the labor movement deserves to be remembered and recognized. Rather than some plain biographical piece, The Ballad of Joe Hill invigorates the relative paucity of historical detail with the welcome sensibilities of contemporary theater. The staging and venue were top-notch, entirely worthy of the FringeArts reputation and quality. Unfortunately, I left this show feeling as though the lion’s share of their budget was probably spent on venue rental fees, while instead, some monies should have been set aside for tightening the show’s storyline. Too much of my 90 minutes with Joe Hill were spent wondering “so when are we going to see the next part of the story”, or “what exactly is this part of the show supposed to mean?” It’s never a good thing when a show makes you glance at your watch . . . but I can’t deny I was doing it as we stretched into the final scenes. A leaner, speedier version of this piece would please me more—it was very worthwhile at many parts, but some of the chaff should be edited out.
Oh The Ballad of Joe Hill.
I don’t want to write bad things about you, after all, Stephen King named his son after the infamous Mr. Hill . . . you just be awesome….. but I gleaned more information for Wikipedia than this play offered in its nonlinear and repetitious presentation. I really, really wanted to gloat about the Fringearts festival, and how I was out in the city attending amazing high art experiences . . . but alas, I left with confused feelings.
To begin with the show’s strongest points:
This venue kicks ass, the set design and lighting were fantastic, and the entire production features amazing, dramatic, and interesting use of a unique historic space. Thanks to this clever usage, the viewer can readily empathize with how Joe Hill may have felt during his time in a Utah prison.
The performers were also über talented. The singing was dramatic and beautiful, and after some opening-night nerves were overcome, the narrator was able to set a nice ambiance and pace to frame the evening. Costuming was suitable to the show’s time period, and interesting as well. Recurring symbols such as Joe Hill’s brown hat and red handkerchief were used to good effect throughout the show.
Perhaps, the fault somehow lies with me for my lack of gushing enthusiasm for this play? I typically like nonlinear writing, I usually enjoy a show with minimal dialogue IF songs are used effectively–as was the case in this particular production.
So, what is the issue? Well, the show’s primary plot felt a if it could have been condensed into a tighter format. This play is like the pretty girl at the bar who could be a smoking hot ten . . . but there is just something off, something that needs tightened up. The death of Joe Hill is presented a number of times throughout the production, but I was left wondering whether some of these repetitions could be cut or condensed while still preserving the same essence?
In addition, the play expected the audience to relate to the plight of workers and to automatically agree that we (the modern audience) are ‘just like’ Joe Hill and the other workers of America. Although I recognize there is still a vast opportunity for improvement for the working conditions and workers rights in America . . . paid vacation for everyone, reasonable healthcare, fair living wages, etc. . . I also recognize I, as a worker by Joe Hill’s definition, do have some protection by regulatory bodies (OSHA, FMLA, and many others). So, although some of Joe Hill’s worker themes maybe similar to the conditions we face today, the role of workers and bosses are not, to my knowledge, quite as dire as the abject disparities of the past.