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2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘Strange Tenants’ by Sam Tower + Ensemble at Power Plant Productions

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Evincing the seminal inspiration of Fringe mainstays Pig Iron Theatre Company and New Paradise Laboratories, Strange Tenants is the latest original work developed in Sam Tower + Ensemble’s characteristic method and experimental style. A mash-up of ensemble-devised neo-expressionist movement, a script that parodies the mid-20th-century genre of film noir, and a critical feminist eye on the depiction of life as a woman in the 1950s, the self-described “dance theater psycho thriller” features a cast of six women, directed by the company’s eponymous female founder (rectifying for our times what didn’t happen much in the old days).

Merri Rashoyan, Tess Kunik, Nia Benjamin, and Bi Jean Ngo. Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

Merri Rashoyan, Tess Kunik, Nia Benjamin, and Bi Jean Ngo. Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

Playwright Jeremy Gable and the team of performers/devisors (Merri Rashoyan, Nia Benjamin, Bi Jean Ngo, Tess Kunik, Katie Croyle, and Eliana Fabiyi) create a mood that shifts from menacing to farcical to absurd, with surreal flashbacks and voice-overs that offer clues to the plot’s mystery, an amusing send-up of the clichéd lingo and mannered style of old movies (Rashoyan’s deadpan is hilarious), and disjointed segments of the physical manifestations of the memories, thoughts, and emotions that inhabit the protagonists’ minds – the “strange tenants” of the title. Benjamin and Kunik are also given the opportunity to showcase their powerful voices in two strong solo segments of song (Connie Francis’s 1958 single “Fallin’” and Patsy Cline’s 1957 hit “Walkin’ After Midnight”).

Sound designer Alec MacLaughlin punctuates the action with a loud and jarring cacophony of disturbing noises, and lighting by Alyssandra Docherty is appropriately eerie and evocative. Kevin Meehan cleverly fashions the fictional locale, using suspended cords to delineate the frame of the makeshift house, dried-up plant stalks to suggest the fields that border the lake outside, and vintage props to establish the date. Period-style costumes by Tower, with fitted dresses and copious layers of undergarments, effectively capture the feminine look and structured feel of the era.

Strange Tenants is what Sam Tower + Ensemble and the Philadelphia Fringe are all about – a post-modern break from traditional classic theater, utilizing the creative trends of today.

Nia Benjamin with Tess Kunik (seated). Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

Nia Benjamin with Tess Kunik (seated). Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, without intermission.

Strange Tenants plays through Sunday, September 17, 2017, at Sam Tower + Ensemble, performing at Power Plant Productions – 233 North Bread Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.

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