The Elementary Spacetime Show

We sit facing a broken, hopeless teenager. "This is a list of all the ways that my life is no longer livable," she says, her emotion blanketed by monumental depression. "...This is a list of all the ways that I am ruined and lost and never coming back." And then she swallows a load of pills, and we're off -- into a netherworld she could not have anticipated. And into an extraordinary and brave new musical, "The Elementary Spacetime Show."

I can think of several reasons a musical about teenage suicide – an often funny one, no less – might not work. First off, the general concept. But César Alvarez had a weird and risky idea, and when he fleshed it out with his book, music and lyrics it became a riveting piece of storytelling and a masterpiece of finesse. There's nothing maudlin or mawkish about "The Elementary Spacetime Show. Ultimately, this show about suicide is a topsy-turvy look at existence from several angles, and an exploration of what gives life meaning.

That's what percolates, sometimes under the surface but frequently in plain view. Show me another musical in which Albert Camus and a person who's tried to kill herself argue about the right to suicide and the absurdities of living. And after that, try a lecture from a street-smart cool-dude Hamlet (Michael Adrian Burgos) on the state of being, or one about self-worth with a mosquito (Savannah Souza). The insect complains: "Ever hear anyone say, 'don't forget to invite the mosquitoes to my birthday party!'"

Alvarez is the creator of "Futurity," a show with lots of buzz that ran last year Off-Broadway. He's a hot young composer who's currently a visiting prof at University of the Arts, co-sponsor of "The Elementary Spacetime Show," which plays in the school's Arts Bank. FringeArts is the other sponsor of this highly developed world premiere.

Our Heroine – can we call her that? – is named Alameda and she's played with a convincing glassy look and troubled feel by Julia Louis. After Alameda swallows the pills, she falls into a deep stupor that places her in the middle of a bizarre TV-like quiz program called "The Elementary Spacetime Show." She cannot die until she wins eight challenges and if she gets through them, she'll be able to choose life or death all over again.

There's an emcee (the dynamic entertainer Salty Brine, his cheeks painted clown red and his high heels, dashing). There's a doctor-like coach (the elegant Electra Weston), an A-one onstage band and perhaps 20 teenagers as an audience. They're UArts students, dressed all in red in Tilly Grimes' fun-house costumes. They react as a chorus, serve as a choir and dance around in pleasant choreography by Sonya Tayeh and Ben Hobbs. Some play incidental roles.

Brooklyn-based director Andrew Neisler stages "The Elementary Spacetime Show" to move, constantly it seems – and smoothly, given the large number of people in the production. You feel as though you're directly a part of it. You consider the questions the characters pose, assess Alameda's answers, try to determine what she's thinking when she's challenged – at one point by Marlee Gordon, a performer who mirrors her precisely.

Alvarez has written some lovely, dreamy songs that balance the absurd sensibility of this show. I wish the sound design enhanced them, but you have to strain occasionally to make out Alvarez's smart lyrics. One character in the show, a preacher played comically by Andrew Farmer, seems out of place; we can't tell why he's there, and a hint in the script – that he's offering a possible funeral – remains only in the script. It's confounding, but not a matter of life and death. For that, see the show.

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"The Elementary Spacetime Show" runs through Sept. 24 at the Arts Bank, Broad and South Streets.

Switched!

The only people who can tell me what's going on in the different scenes of "Switched!" are probably the cast members. This mock Gilbert and Sullivan opera, also titled "The Insider and the Outsider," is a rag-tag production missing the basics (sufficient rehearsal, technical planning, maybe a director).

Worse, the show was impossible to hear at its Wednesday opening, even from the third row. I moved there within seconds of the opening scene because father back, the speakers in the Academy of the Fine Arts auditorium were overwhelmingly blaring the orchestration. The third row, it turns out, was no better. On stage, the live cast (15 people are credited) was unamplified. To the rear, the recorded orchestration of Sullivan's songs was only amplified. Forget the travails the characters may have in the plot -- for us in the middle, "Switched!" was an aural tug of war. We lost.

When the cast sang together toward the end of the second half, they stood at the front of the stage and yes, we could hear Kevin Stackhouse's lyrics. But when they sang to one another – and most of "Switched!" is in song – they really were singing only to one another and not to us. This is a big problem when the lyrics are built into the rapid-fire tempos of some of Sullivan's tunes.

The show's a take-off on G&S operettas and the plot parodies that of several sources, primarily the film "Trading Places." It's set partly in the Union League and involves the money-grubbing brothers Duke and Duke, their niece, their dirty-trickster associate, plus their condescending executive administrator who sells lots of pork-belly futures and the street huckster who tries to steal his briefcase.

There are schemes within schemes, I think, and the future of orange growers has something to do with it as does cheese, bacon and hands with no calluses. I'm not going to go on and on about the pitfalls of this amateurish misfire, because it plays for a good cause: The proceeds go to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts student funding.

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"Switched!" is presented by Tavern Productions and PAFA Performs, and runs through Sept. 23 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St.

The Chairs

Doesn't it get you down when you invite the entire community into your lighthouse and they all show up? And then the king appears, and you have to ignore everyone else and give him special treatment. Bummer.

Well, it was no problem for Eugène Ionesco -- that's what happens in his one-act play "The Chairs," among his most lauded works. It's weird and funny, a little sad, sometimes tedious and infused with social commentary. In the hands of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, it's also executed with brio.

This is the company's second go at "The Chairs." I never got to see the production at the Philly Fringe in 2009, to my regret. The run was a hit, with that rarest of happenings in the crowded Fringe – an extension.

The company's revival, in the fifth-floor playing space at Walnut Street Theatre, is once again staged by its artistic director, Tina Brock. She repeats her portrayal of Old Woman, whose 75-year marriage to Old Man has become a daily pattern of recounting the same old stories, praising while putting down, and living a twilight-zone reality. Bob Schmidt reprises his role as her Old Man spouse, and the two of them convince you that their characters really do understand the ridiculous, disjointed dialogue Ionesco provides. Thomas Dura is eerily fitted to the role of another character who comes along.

Lisi Stoessel, who did the set during the first go-round at Society Hill Playhouse's Red Room, redesigned it at the Walnut, and it's a handsome rounded lighthouse interior – that's where the geezers live – complete with mist wafting down in from the ceiling – er, ocean air. The costumes (Erica Hoelscher, Brian Strachan and Rufus Cottman) are fun, and so is Brock's sound design.

The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium's mission is to produce classic absurdist theater so of course, it's the city's go-to company for Ionesco. I would say the production makes sense of the playwright, but for Ionesco that may not be a compliment.

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"The Chairs," produced by The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, runs through Sept. 25 in Walnut Street Theatre's 5th-floor playing space, on Walnut Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets.

Click through for information about the Philly Fringe Festival, which runs through Sept. 24, although some shows like "The Chairs" run longer.