Bitter Homes and Gardens Review (Bearded Ladies, July 2015)

John Jarboe, Mary Tuomanen, and Kristen Bailey in Bitter Homes and Gardens

John Jarboe, Mary Tuomanen, and Kristen Bailey in Bitter Homes and Gardens

By nature, I’m more contrarian than agrarian. I’d almost always choose indoors over out, and I spend many of my happiest hours in darkened rooms. (Hey, I’m a theater critic – what did you expect?)

Yet, last weekend, I found myself – shock, horror! – outside in the daylight, sitting in a Philadelphia Horticultural Society pop up garden at 9th and Wharton, and watching Bitter Homes and Gardens, the Bearded Ladies’ cabaret tribute to vegetation. What’s more – I had the best time!

I must quibble with the title, though. There’s almost no “home” (at least in the “house” sense) in the show, and even less “bitter”ness. The subtitle, a botanical hoe-down, comes closer to capturing it. The general mood is celebratory, with a parade of plants (all played delightfully by talented human actor-singer-dancers) telling us about themselves.

Presiding over Bitter Homes and serving as an emcee is Jebediah, a farmer and advocate for genetic modification. As played by the wonderful Mary Tuomanen, Jeb is superficially folksy but an iron-willed control freak (think Mike Huckabee crossed with an ear of corn – now that’s my kind of genetic engineering!) Jeb would have all the participants advocating a GMO lifestyle, but it’s not so easy – it turns out that vegetables, not unlike cats, will do whatever the hell they want.

This charmingly casual piece, directed by Sally Ollove, makes use of several Bearded Ladies’ signatures. One is fabulously whimsical costumes (by Rebecca Kanach). Another is a dynamite cast who sing as well as they act (aided here by a great band, Professor Plum and The Constant Gardeners, led by Heath Allen, who also wrote some of the music). Bitter Homes also uses some familiar music (from Joni Mitchell to Rimsky-Korsakov), fitted here with new, satiric lyrics.

In fact, as I watched, I was reminded of The Simpsons. That show, too, does some of its best work in gentle but sly parodies of community presentations – local pageants, high school assemblies, etc.

Whatever you end up thinking of, you owe it to yourselves to see Bitter Homes, which by the way is more than family friendly – it’s downright adorable. Check the website for more information – the show is on an irregular schedule, and it soon it will move to another PHS garden (this one on South Street).

But I’m glad I caught it when and where I did – It seems so fitting that, wedged between Pat’s and Geno’s, two of Philadelphia’s most famous temples of carnivorous consumerism, we find this tiny, beguiling plea for vegetation.


Through July 19, various locations, dates and times. www.beardedladiescabaret.com

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