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Rebecca reviews 'The A-is-for-Abortion Play,' and 'Underground Episodes' 

It was sort of a bummer that only about a dozen people attended the first staging of "The A-is-for-Abortion Play" at the TheatreROCS venue, which can hold an audience of 700. The meager attendance might be explained by Fringe-goers wanting to spend their Saturday afternoon on more uplifting productions, but the show's subject is an ever-important one -- and this point was hammered home a few times in the course of the story.

The play, by Brooklyn-based writer Cassandra Hume, debuted at NYC Fringe in 2013. Using their clear, strong voices, five women perform 15 characters, including several women telling their abortion stories, a clinic counselor, and a politician using slippery rhetoric in her fight to overturn Roe v. Wade. It's estimated that one in three women have had or will have an abortion -- you know more of us than you might think. Yet, though the service is currently legal (if not easily accessible in some states), it isn't something we openly discuss widely on a personal level. The stigma remains, even among some who are pro-choice. That big "A" can feel like a scarlet letter.

"I thought I was alone. Then recently, I opened my mouth, and I was SO not alone," one character gushes near the beginning of the play. The characters take turns telling bits of historic or personal anecdotes -- disclosing their lives up to the point of pregnancy, how they came to their decision, their varied experiences of the different procedures, and the fallout, where there was any. They delve into the pressures from without and within; they explore the fact that even in the absence of moral qualms about it, a woman may be overwhelmed with confusing feelings of both profound relief and profound grief in the aftermath. The decision is different for each of us, as is the way each life progresses onward.

In its effort to address the endless facets of abortion, the play offers laughter and silliness, sobering truths, and fury. We need these stories and others like it, for the candid discussions they might engender.

"The A-is-for-Abortion Play" will be performed again Saturday, September 24, at TheatreROCS Stage: Main Stage. 12:30 p.m. $15. Appropriate for ages 18 and older. Playwright Cassandra Hume will join the talk-back following this performance.

I stayed put at TheatreROCS for the next show, eagerly awaiting "Underground Episodes," by Philadelphia's Run Boy Run Productions. The show, which merges poetry and some very powerful acting, won the 2016 Ithaca Fringe Festival Audience Pick Award. The show is composed of vignettes of individuals from all walks, whose stories briefly come alive as they come and go from each other's lives by way of the subway.

Each and every actor was earnest and believable, and gave a captivating performance of multiple characters, from a pair of disrespectful, so-called "ratchet" young women, to a desperately raving homeless junkie, to a married couple ramping up to discuss an overwhelming secret. During each performance, the peripheral people avert their eyes, or watch and subtly react, as you might in a real subway. Or they interact with each speaker, scoffing, lecturing, or trying to assist.

One of the most emotionally jarring episodes had a man rise once all others had left the stage, and panic-rant about having just been expelled from school. Yes, he punched another student, but through his fearful ramble, sprinkled with the insinuation of his pathways dead-ending before his eyes, we learn how he came to that point. The decision to have him standing utterly alone in his panic only added to the pathos of the scene.

My heart beat rapidly along with a mother's blind terror as she begged other passengers to look at a photo of her missing daughter, and told the story of striving and failing to shield her child from the lure of older men. I found myself nodding my head, jaw clenched, as three vignettes about the crushing tragedy of wars sold to us, and warmongers selling us out, blended into one.

But there were also moments of sweetness, including a patient daughter listening over and over to her elderly mother's memories of having once been a great dancer.

The costuming was perfect, and each spoken word element was wrenchingly good. The acting was phenomenal, and watching certain players dissolve from one role into a drastically different one was beyond impressive. I found myself seriously wishing this modern Shakespearean group was local. Executive producer Allen Clark: bring your company back soon.

Unfortunately, that's the end of the "Underground Episodes" run during this Fringe. But you can keep track of Run Boy Run Production at facebook.com/runboyrunprod.

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