By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Bring on the mEEps. They live, well, a mEEp’s life, rising each morning in their forest of found-object playthings, testing the air with hand-puppet fingers, then flipping open the tops of their trunks or large cans to climb out and play as a group in whatever endeavors they choose. ‘Til bedtime.
There’s nothing in the theater like a delightful surprise, and these usually come in small chunks — a performance, a piece of unexpected stagecraft, a song or a riff of dialogue, and not generally an entire evening. Actor-playwright Ed Swidey’s The mEEp pROject, a world premiere from Simpatico Theatre Project that opened Friday night in the 5th-floor studio at Walnut Street Theater, is one of those rarities: a winner all the way, both his play and and the sweet, demanding 70-minute production it’s being given.
Aside from scant narration by a good-fairy type (Cindy Spitko), The mEEp pROject contains just one word of dialogue, spoken again and again through its entirety: “Meep!” There are punctuation marks, sort of: an “oh,” here, grunts there, weird vocal tones and some music on makeshift props. When you get down to it, though, Swidey’s back-and-forth consists of a single syllable.
But what word-play there is, with that stunningly limited vocabulary in the hands of the actors who play the four mEEps — Johnny Smith, Sarah Van Auken, Kenny Williams and Sara Yoko Howard. They give directions, invent games, comment and respond, deliver orations and ultimately save their world by their meeping, even in the face of growling bad guys called Others in the program but Somethings in the script (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen and Peter Andrew Danzig).
Their queen (Matteo Scammell) is a good-for-nothing dictator, and The mEEp pROject, if you were dead-set on infusing it with intensity, is a morality tale about the dangers and cracks in fascism, or a call to grass-roots protest. But now that I’ve gone there, I am fast retreating — this show started as innocent child’s play and that’s where it should live.
Swidey got the idea as a movement instructor at Delaware Theatre Company’s summer camp for kids, then went on to develop it in workshops with young actors who played as if they were children, taking on kiddie personalities and physical traits. In other words, they were able to move with abandon in a fully rehearsed way.
That’s what all the characters do here — role-playing that defines innocence, fun times and being alive, and requires an easy physicality that we pretty much lose when we become socialized.
The show is enormously complex in its creation and execution, directed by Allison Garrett and choreographed (constantly) by Heather Cole, with bubbly original music by John Greenbaum and a plastic wonderland set full of everyday stuff by Christopher Haig and Simpatico’s artistic director, Allen Radway.
The mEEp pROject marks Simpatico’s first three-show season; it’s supposed to be an additional “development piece” — an opportunity for playwrights to try out something not fully ready. Swidey surpassed the mandate. He and Simpatico’s creative team have brought it to the stage fully formed, and here’s yet another surprise: It’s all-ages experimental theater, equally charming for the three-year-olds on opening night as for a coot like, say, me.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
The mEEP pROject: Presented by Simpatico Theatre Project at the 5th-floor studio of Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. through Jan. 22. Tickets: $10-$15. Information: www.simpaticotheatre.org.