Saturday, July 12, 2014
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Review: 'The mEEp pROject'

Ed Swidey's new play in a Simpatico Theatre Project production is a complete surprise -- complex physical and experimental theater for audiences from about age three to the eldest among us. The play -- and the production -- are a delight. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'The mEEp pROject'

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, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
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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.

About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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