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2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘#CocktailPlays’ by Juniper Productions at Philadelphia Distilling

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For its inaugural offering in the Fringe, Juniper Productions, founded earlier this year, partners with Philadelphia Distilling for a themed site-specific presentation of four commissioned short plays, performed by three actors, in one hour. The quick-paced round of one-act #CocktailPlays, directed by Marcia Ferguson and produced by Sonya Aronowitz, considers stories and issues, from the personal to the political, of everyday life in contemporary America – all with an unexpected twist.

Ferguson makes fine use of the venue, embracing the context of the bar setting, employing unique blocking for each, and utilizing just a few telling props (designed by Chris Haddad) and effective lighting and sound (by Sarah Zerod) to support the narratives. The cast members – Tyler S. Elliott, Grayce Hoffman, and Taiwo Sokan – change into apropos costumes to distinguish their four separate characters, visually defining their personalities, occupations, and positions. It’s an efficient design, and it all works well in the non-traditional space.

Grace Hoffman, Taiwo Sokan, and Tyler S. Elliott . Photo by Marv Kaplan.

Grace Hoffman, Taiwo Sokan, and Tyler S. Elliott. Photo by Marv Kaplan.

In Mark J. Costello’s “What We Talk About” (which opens the show), a couple and a friend they haven’t seen for a while meet for drinks. They “gab and gab and gab and gab” about Omaha, a candy store, and other mundane nonsense until the pair is confronted with an unexpected sobering announcement from the now-single woman – something we don’t usually talk about, they don’t fully understand, and all blame on the alcohol. The staging, with the actors sitting on chairs parallel to the bar, cocktails in hand, and facing the audience – not each other – underscores their avoidance of substantive conversation and lack of a real connection. “Binders” by Alisha Adams lampoons the post-modern trend of amateur self-help seminars, while addressing the need to face the lies we tell and the risks we must take to achieve an authentic life. Does it work, or will we never be free from the binds of scamming ourselves and others? In a plot that’s ripped from today’s headlines, Bill D’Agostino’s “Disclosure” considers the ramifications of corporate cover-ups and employee whistle-blowing, with a suspenseful script that has the characters uttering half-finished sentences and leaving as much unsaid as spoken. And “Distill” by Josh A. Campbell sends out “A Rally Cry for the American People” to do what it really takes to “make America great again.” The highly conceptual piece – with pre-recorded voice-overs about the process of distillation, live sound effects created by the actors’ voices and breathing, and their impassioned performances as the archetypal characters struggling with the inequities of our socio-political system – evokes the expressive and powerful style of free-verse poetry.

In conjunction with #CocktailsPlays, the distillery’s shop and bar are open for an hour before and after the show, and its knowledgeable mixologist shakes and stirs up specially-crafted drinks inspired by the world-premiere offerings, using the top-shelf signature liquors that are made on the premises. So relax, enjoy a cocktail, and support Juniper’s mission of developing and presenting new work by Philadelphia playwrights. Cheers to that!

Running Time: 60 minutes, without intermission.

#CocktailPlays plays through Wednesday, September 20, 2017, at Juniper Productions, performing at Philadelphia Distilling – 25 East Allen Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.

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