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.