Philadelphia Live Arts: FREEDOM CLUB
John Wilkes Booth is quite the man about town these days—or about the theater, and in two towns, really. Luigi Creatore’s An Error of the Moon, about John and his brother Edwin, plays through October 10 at the Beckett Theater in New York, directed by Kim Weild. Meanwhile, John and the unfortunate Abraham Lincoln are at the helm of FREEDOM CLUB, the result of a yearlong collaboration between Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories and the New York-based Riot Group, which plays in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival through Saturday.
The latter, written by Riot Group Artistic Director and playwright Adriano Shaplin, directed by New Paradise Artistic Director Whit MacLaughlin and performed by the actors of both ensembles, begins as a highly stylized, non-linear and epic dream of Booth’s 1865 assassination of Lincoln, on a nearly bare, black stage divided by a white line (recalling North and South). Having thus delved into the messy guts of an age-old American conflict—the self versus the collective—the play pauses for a giant, slow projection of the numbers 1865 through 2015, and whoops! We’re where we started, version 2.0. The play’s second half presents the unraveling of a 2015 radical feminist group in matching fatigues, in an echo of the themes, conflicts, and events of the first. Though the white line down the stage is no more, much is the same, if not even more complicated now—and history is poised to repeat itself.
The pairing is the thing: Just as FREEDOM CLUB’s two halves play off of each other, in their differences as much as in their similarities, so do the two companies in performance. New Paradise is known for the physical- and image-based nature of its work and process, while the feisty Riot Group is driven by Shaplin’s writing and a minimalist acting style (in almost all of its work, including FREEDOM CLUB, all of the actors face front the entire time; in early Riot Group work, the actors barely moved their bodies at all). But both are tightly-knit ensembles driven by experimental approaches, and both have been creating original work for over a decade—oh, and both seem to think John Wilkes Booth is a pretty cool character.
The collaboration is fruitful, for not only is a seamless new ensemble born—one possessing a unique, violent and total language, at once written, spoken, and played—but FREEDOM CLUB is political theater that avoids falling flat on its face. From the perspective of Jeremy M. Barker’s recent post on political theater, perhaps this can be attributed in part to the play’s lack of a precise moral argument, though biases and opinions are inevitably detectable. As epic theater, FREEDOM CLUB simply suspends us between stylized fragments of a known past and of an imagined future, giving us a chance to look around.
Besides, John Wilkes Booth is a pretty cool character.
More about FREEDOM CLUB and its creation process can be found at www.freedomclubtheshow.com, and performance dates and times (through Saturday, September 11) can be found here. The performers are Jeb Kreager, Drew Friedman, Stephanie Viola, Paul Schnabel, McKenna Kerrigan, Mary McCool and Adriano Shaplin. With lighting by Maria Shaplin, costumes by Rosemarie E. McKelvey, sound design by MacLaughlin and Shaplin, scenic design consulting by Matt Saunders and projection design by Jorge Cousineau.