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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