Sunday, July 5, 2015

Live Arts review: '27'

Fantasic physical performances are the major attraction of New Paradise Laboratories' "27" at the Live Arts/Philly Fringe. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Live Arts review: '27'

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The cast of "27," all laid out: From left, Alec MacLaughlin, Allison Caw, Kevin Meehan, Julia Frey, Matteo Scammell, Emilie Krause. Photo by Matt Saunders.

The new production from New Paradise Laboratories, called 27, begins and ends in huge shots of haze expelled onto the stage. And it's pretty much haze all through, even without the industrial-strength mist maker.

But then, 27 is about death and some sort of purgatory -- and although things aren't quite as gruesome as they are in the middle part of Dante's The Divine Comedy, when souls are stuck in an endless world of waiting, it's just as unsettling. The show takes its title from the deaths of singers Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse, who all died at age 27.

There's not much to do when you're a dead spirit still full of youth, and 75 minutes of it surely makes that point inside a set of bare walls, a lighted star with a huge hole in it, windows that lead the dead back into the room as they are pushed by a storm always brewing in the great beyond (a cool stage effect). There's a lot of flotsam around the room.  Some of it is in the form of the six actors, who don't stay still for long. To musical background provided by one of them, guitarist Alec MacLaughlin. they have their own movements, which they perform again and again.

Their smacks on tables and leaps onto walls, plodding walks and crawls and sudden wildness are the reasons to see 27, which has a plot concerning a newcomer to death but is mostly form with little content. New Paradise's artistic director, Whit MacLaughlin, is an innovator in multi-media theater, but here he depends on good old sound, light and a sort of aching physicality to get across the feeling of premature death and wasted opportunity.

Or at least that's what I think he's doing. For me, MacLaughlin -- who operates at high levels in two opposing theatrical worlds, children's theater and far-out experimentation -- is at his best in the avant garde when he has a clear subject; Prom was his eloquent take on that high-school ritual, and if Batch, about the last night before a guy's marriage, were playing again I'd stop writing this and run to see it.  

But 27 is more ethereal and harder to access. It's also beautiful physical theater -- the lithe and lurching Matteo Scammell, Julia Frey, Allison Caw, Kevin Meehan and Emilie Krause give performances of such exertion, it almost hurts to watch them. Still, like the spirits of the dead they portray, no matter where they go or how they go there, in the end they are only running in place.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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27: $23-28. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Place. 75 minutes.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."


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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