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REACTION: Pig Iron + Teater Sláva bring Joe Hill to Philadelphia

Posted September 6th, 2008

There’s nothing quite so simple, nor so evocative, as a plain white envelope. Envelopes hold limitless potential as the humble keepers of information, photos, money, or in the case of the Live Arts show Sweet By-and-By, the ashes of famed union organizer Joe Hill. And even as musician/actor Daniel Rudholm presents Hill’s engaging story using music, multimedia, and acting, somehow your mind continues to circle back to the plain white envelopes that held the documents that recorded his tale.

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Set in the 1930s during the time of Seventh-Day Adventists, union gangs, and ever-diminishing pay checks, Sweet By-and-By is narrated through the vibrations of harmonica, concertina, banjo, and Rudholm’s own voice. Dressed in the clothes of a working man — baggy, 1930s-era overalls and a plain white tank — Rudholm takes audiences on a trip through the lives of Swedish immigrants, thwarted by the harsh conditions and scant pay found in American during this era. Narrated by the simple workman’s tunes written by Joe Hill, the show is humorous, ironic, and tragic at the same time, and Rudholm is a compelling narrator. Pig Iron Theatre Company’s Dan Rothenberg and Dito van Reigersberg worked with Rudholm to develop this one-man show, and the finished product has both the edgy flavor of a Pig Iron-conceived project, and the authenticity of Swedish-born Rudholm.

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And authenticity is perhaps the best-utilized tool in the show. In the past several years, multimedia has taken over the stages of dance and theater companies, sometimes to great effect, and sometimes to the detriment of artistic expression. Sweet By-and-By belongs in the former category, as scenes projected on the wall of envelopes serve to enhance a story that is already compelling, rather than to overwhelm us with additional moving objects. However, the burden of making the show work truly belongs to Rudholm himself, and to the simple narration he supplies through his music. The twang of the banjo, the wheeze of the concertina, and the wail of the harmonica are bewitching throwbacks to a time when entertainment often consisted of one man and his instrument. And Rudholm plays them well, sometimes using a self-recording microphone to layer sheets of music on top of on another, and sometimes playing the instrument live without recording or amplification. Either way, it is spell-binding, and the perfect accompaniment to a tale of hard work and hard luck.

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Sweet By-and-By is absolutely bewitching in its authenticity and simplicity, and we’d do well to take a lesson from the story of Joe Hill. Perhaps it even merits a letter home about it, sealed in one of those innocuous white envelopes.

–Lindsay Warner

Sweet By-and-By runs through the end of the Festival. Click here for showtimes and tickets.

Photos by Elizabeth Hershey.

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