Philly’s New Rocky is a Girl 

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Attending Van Cougar’s world premiere production at the Bushwick Starr of Rocky Philly (through October 3), a very unsentimental riff on the first movie about the Italian-American boxer, I was initially disappointed. It was clear from the start that we wouldn’t be getting a slack jawed Stallone impersonator, but it was soon apparent that the crux of this production would lie specifically in the dialogue and the issues raised by the movie, and not the movie itself. With the exception of a few small quibbles about length and not being able to breathe for a good portion of the play, I'd like to thank Van Cougar for taking me back to my lost youth.

Having grown up ten minutes outside of Philly and spent quite a bit of time there as a teenager, its no small wonder that the Rocky movies (at least the first 2) have a special place in my heart and provoke a strong nostalgic twitch. There was always something warming about the feel-good underdog story of the blue collar Italian guy who grew up where we did (sort of) and experienced the same challenges that we did (not really, but it was cool to pretend) who makes it to the top.

The movie made you feel like everything would be ok, and if that little nobody Rocky could go the 15 rounds, then maybe you could too, in life. But was that it? Did this feeling stem just from the fact that Rocky went from nobody to somebody with only raw eggs and a gray sweat suit? Or does it stem from a broader conversation about the nature of family and support, as well as the soul of the city of Philadelphia itself, a conversation specific to that city? Rocky Philly, and its premiere at the Bushwick Starr–a black box theater originally created to house the productions of Fovea Floods Theater company in 2001 that expanded to showcase many different groups in 2004–might be as close to the answer as we are apt to get, without consulting the Italian Stallion himself.

Rocky Philly is the brainchild of the oral story-telling and -collecting exploration project Van Cougar, headed up Mark Sitko and Paul Alexander and founded in 2007. Van Cougar's primary goal is to explore the art of oral storytelling by collecting stories from various places, which is how they eventually came up with the idea that would become Rock Philly. The resulting premise is very simple: Record original stories (about anything at all) from Philly natives and then overlay them with re-enacted scenes from the movie Rocky. It's like mixing together a cup of Instant New Theater: The possibilities are endless! Like you could totally overlay stories from real North Jersians with scenes from Garden State and hilarity would ensue… Alright, so maybe not endless, but the implications and logistics of this endeavor, as well as the question of whether or not it works, are a much more complicated matter entirely.

click to enlarge Rocky Philly at the Bushwick Starr

I was immediately struck with feelings of recognition as the play opened and the characters’ movements and interactions copied the motions of the corresponding scenes within the movie exactly. I felt as though I was back in front of the television watching Rocky for the hundredth time. The blocking, turns of the head, subtle motions of the hands in the film had been meticulously studied and transcribed to the stage at the Starr. But there were also crucial differences: Rocky was being played by a female, the very capable and very scrappy Rebecca Lingafelter (in fact all the film’s gender roles are reversed in the play) and instead of punching through the sparse dialogue of the film, Adrian, played flawlessly by Bushwick Starr Managing Director Noel Allain, was giving Rocky driving directions from the heart of Manayunk to South Street. Initially I was enthralled and laughed out loud at the characteristic Philadelphia-isms such as the terrors of the Skuykill Expressway and growing up in commune-like row homes, but I soon realized that if one wasn't intimately familiar with the film, or had a cursory knowledge of Philadelphia, then many of the play's jokes and comedic turns might be missed, especially with the rapid-fire scene changes and tonal shifts.

The play runs for 90 minutes with no intermission (stock up on beer beforehand) and the actors are moving the whole time, quickly; they were visibly sweaty and fatigued by the end, much like Rocky by the 15th round. They jog from place to place on the medium-sized stage to make the changes happen and my heart started to beat a little faster just watching them. I gave up trying to keep real-time notes as we were whisked from Rocky's apartment to the slaughterhouse and back in the space of 2 or 3 minutes. It wasn't until Mick's (Marty Brown) slow walk up Rocky's apartment building steps that the audience was given a chance to breathe, and this was a good three quarters of the way through the play.

If the dialogue in the vignettes within the play was of the semi-mundane, contrived and pointless Resevoir Dog variety I might not have faulted the choppy scene switching and just immersed myself in the fun of the fast paced production. Because it definitely is fun to watch and the smile never left my face–listening to Adrian talk about her first foray into lesbian experimentation while Rocky looked on earnestly, hanging on her every word, had the audience in stitches. But the dialogue has been culled verbatim from real people and is important for that very reason. The true stories touch on everything and anything that a Philadelphia native–and American for that matter–might want to talk about and were recorded on the street, almost at random, with speakers not knowing why they were being interviewed.

click to enlarge Rocky Philly at the Bushwick Starr

Because it was important enough for them to tell their stories, it’s only right that we take them seriously. Issues of race spring up constantly, both because the Apollo Creed character was black (and played by a white female, Erin McCarson, here) and Rocky is a stereotypically macho Italian-American, which results in some interviewees’ comically vitriolic and hateful language. I can’t decide if New Yorkers might react so strongly to the same issues, but I suspect this is a Philadelphia-specific response. There is a passion in Philadelphia, an anger almost, that has grown out of disparities between classes and racial groups extenuated as jobs disappeared right around the time Rocky was made, which has evolved into a very particular civic identity that makes these stories uniquely Philadelphian.

Other issues touched upon, in no particular order and with none taking precedent over the others were civil and gay rights, homosexual desire and experimentation, gender politics, Iraq, "good old Philadelphia violence" and breaking through the fourth wall. It was almost too much: There was never enough time to process any of it at great length before the next topic was breached. This fact, coupled with occasional dialogue taken directly from the film (like Adrian's outburst at Paulie, played by Julia Sirna-Frest, about their relationship done verbatim to the film) made me want to slow it all down or read a transcript to make some kind of linear sense of it all.

After an obligatory closing reenactment of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps scene with Rocky climbing atop a refrigerator while the cast sang the theme song and the film’s credits rolled on a vintage television downstage, I decided that although Rocky Philly may have tried to do too much with its 90 minutes, the play succeeded in as much as it was honest about its subject. (Meanwhile, after an hour the gimmick of projecting the film over the play seemed tired and might have stopped there.)

I realized that all of the issues haphazardly mashed together in the play were touched upon in the film as well–not much more subtly–and a few simple conversations with the natives of the city was all it took to highlight those issues for examination. Perhaps that’s why Rocky reminds me of Thanksgiving and was played in epic marathons during the holiday: because there was something for everybody watching to relate to and make them thankful for what they had, even if it wasn't all they wanted or needed. Rocky Philly’s juxtaposition of real life Philadelphians and the Philadelphians of Rocky provoked those feelings of plenitude as forcefully as a punch to the gut.

(photo credit: Sue Kessler)

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