Thursday, November 26, 2015

Review: 27

27, by New Paradise Laboratories, conceived and directed by Whit MacLaughlin, at the Painted Bride Art Center, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield

Review: 27


By Wendy Rosenfield

for the Inquirer

The first time I saw New Paradise Laboratories' 27, back during its 2012 Fringe Fest premiere, I thought it was mostly form over function. This dance-theater meditation on purgatory and the "27 Club" - those rock icons who perished directly or indirectly by their own hands at age 27 - was pretty but inconsequential, elegantly wasted.

I'm not sure what has changed since. Me? The show? Or is it just that Plays and Players gave it a distance that the Painted Bride's scrappier stage does not? But this time around, it's gorgeous, heartbreaking, funny, and terrifying all at once.

The cast remains the same: Allison Caw as Janis Joplin, Julia Frey as Amy Winehouse, Kevin Meehan as Jim Morrison, Matteo Scammell as Kurt Cobain, Alec MacLaughlin as a guitar-playing '60s-era emcee, and Emilie Krause as a purgatorial newcomer, the victim of a car accident. Her arrival - wide-eyed, shoeless, stunned - and thwarted efforts at escape provide some of the show's most arresting visuals.

All four icons appear as they did in their final years (costumed by Tara Webb), with a gloriously bearded Morrison in Lizard King pants, Cobain disheveled in a cardigan, striped T-shirt, and tattered jeans, Winehouse sporting her messy beehive and winged eyeliner, Joplin all hair, sunglasses, and crazy smile. And yet, director Whit MacLaughlin somehow manages to suck the glamour from their deaths, and present the true tragedy of their loss.

Here, in the afterlife, they're confined in suspended animation to a smoky, dim party room with a window, door, some streamers, balloons, and in one corner, a big, bright star whose open center leads into the void. Matt Saunders' set and Thom Weaver's lighting combine to create a vision of - if not the scariest - certainly the most prosaic, sad place to spend eternity.

A welcoming committee for other 27s, these iconoclastic firestarters no longer have free will. Doomed to repeat a desperate series of movements, Meehan slinks and prances across the stage on tiptoe, a caricature of Morrison's serpentine concert moves, and in vestigial junkie behavior, Frey itches and picks at her skin. The quartet speak only in snippets of dialogue cut verbatim and context-free from old interviews or recordings.

MacLaughlin's fuzzed-out renditions of Nirvana's "Come as You Are," or the Doors' "Crystal Ship," along with the cast's explosive athletics, make for a hypnotic visit with martyred rock royalty, and asks us to imagine a more sobering vision of that great gig in the sky.

Additional performances: 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday at Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. Tickets: $20-$25. Information: 215-925-9914 or


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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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