Philadelphia Live Arts: The Mixed-Bag Shows

New Paradise Labs’ “27”. Photo by Matt Saunders

Time’s getting away from me, and after more than two weeks I’m finally getting around to reviewing the shows I caught at Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. It was my first visit to the city of Brotherly Love, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I caught three shows; here are reviews of two that, while quite strong in many ways, could have been more.

New Paradise Laboratories 27 works really well for the first twenty minutes or so. From out of a cloud of fog-machine haze, the lights come up on some place halfway between a green room birthday party gone wrong and an arena rock stage show. Arranged about the space are four iconic members of the so-call 27 Club: Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and Janis Joplin. Off to one side, their guitarist–who would be Jimi Hendrix if he were black, I suppose (he does a bit of “Hey Joe” at one point)–is standing with a Fender Jaguar strapped on.

For the long opening sequence, the four rock stars seem to exist in a liminal state. As the cacophonous live score explodes (“Come As You Are” deconstructed into a sampled and layered one-man rock performance), the four awake from a daze-like state to repeat, over and over again, the poses and antics we know them for. They don’t seem quite human, but rather spectral versions of themselves, not simply because we know them to be dead, but because they seem to only exist as a ghost of their own media spectacle. And that’s quite compelling. I admit, the idea of a show about the 27 Club only had me half interested going in, but the first section won me over.

The problem is that for all the pregnancy of what we’re given, and the idea that somehow this show will grapple with the provocative issue of spectacle and identity, after this sequence, the show takes an extremely literal twist. A door to stage left blows open and a maelstrom casts in…some woman (Emilie Krause). After her initial, bewildered encounter, we learn in one of the only extended pieces of text placed in these icons’ mouths that they are somehow obligated to spend perpetuity chilling out in a rock ‘n’ roll themed purgatory, to help the others who die too young to pass on. From there, the show quickly shuffles through this poor woman’s purging of her earthly ties. She died in a random car accident the morning after sleeping with the first man she’d had since leaving her long-time college boyfriend, who showed up drunk to interrupt the romantic affair. Our 27-Clubbers speak through her mic’d vagina (libidinal symbolism?) and then she achieves cathartic release from her earthly ties through singing “Piece of My Heart.” Salvation through karaoke.

It’s not that it was bad, per se. I enjoyed the piece, though I’ll admit it felt quite rushed. I couldn’t follow whatever sort of emotional transformation Krause’s character went through–she really just purged through a monologue and seemed to go on. Nor do I quite get what the piece ultimately says about these 27 Clubbers. At the end, they seem to try to pass on with Krause’s character, but then are blown back in by the maelstrom as soon as they leave. I’d suppose it’s some statement of how the intensity of their short lives prevents them from ultimately giving up their hold on the world. But they’re also never really people–they remain limited to a sort phantasmagorical semblance of their public personas, with no real effort given to making them seem human. They’re cardboard cut-outs, in other words–fictional characters from music videos and concert films, which leaves me not quite clear on why, reduced to such a mediatized form, these characters would want to pass on. They literally only exist as an image of the person that was.

The unfortunate thing is that the performances are just so damn good. True, Kevin Meehan doesn’t have Morrison’s raw, animal magnetism (who does?), Allison Caw doesn’t try to ape Joplin’s pipes (who has ’em?), and Julia Frey only really hits one side of Winehouse’s complex persona. But given such larger-than-life characters to inhabit, it’s a matter of minor complaint. And Matteo Scammell, I have to admit, is another case entirely: From the drawling speech to the slouching posture, he simply nails Cobain. Then there’s Alec MacLaughlin, director Whit MacLaughlin’s Austin-based nephew. If the other performers weren’t so good, he would have completely stolen the show.

My biggest complaint, really, is that the show just doesn’t live up to its own potential. MacLaughlin has found a way to make what should be well-trod material interesting, and found a fantastic cast to realize it. Hopefully with a little more time at the drawing board it turn out as strong as it should be.

Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental‘s Red-Eye to Havre de Grace is a slightly different case. This is such a well-liked and indeed technically accomplished piece of theater that I encourage readers to simply check out someone else’s review for a more positive perspective, and permit me to dispense with being even-handed about the entire thing and simply record my impression.

Despite strong performances and a lovely (if imitative of Nineties European art theater) production, Lucidity Suitcase’s piece was ultimately shallow and vapid. It made for good entertainment, it’s true, but if I were going to be presumptuous about it, I’d say that Red-Eye suggests a company with a lot of theatrical talent but nothing whatsoever to say through their practice. I’m not that presumptuous, though, and this being my first experience of their work, I’ll admit that I’m intrigued enough to put them on the list to watch. The sheer amount of talent they displayed suggests that with a better subject (or maybe just one they’re more engaged with) they could deliver a wallop of a show.

A collaboration with the Wilhelm Bros., Red-Eye is a part-operatic exploration of Edgar Allan Poe’s last days, when after an ill-fated speaking tour touting his final volume of panglossian philosophy, he wound up in an asylum, made a bad train connection, and was found raving mad-drunk in a gutter, dying in a hospital a couple days later. Basically a three-hander plus a musician, the show’s as imaginative a piece of theater as I guess you could want. There’s plenty of brilliant tricks and artsy stage magic, along with quite strong performances, “The Raven” scene standing out. From Ean Sheeny’s performance to the fantastic perspective shift they pull, flipping audience perspective 180 degrees, it’s plenty marvelous. It’s also the best the show has to offer, and it’s only halfway through.

Otherwise the show is just glib. I guess I could charitably agree with assessments that call it “well researched.” It is in the sense that company does their best to frame the big unknown questions about Poe within a detailed recounting of the known facts of his last few days. But having framed the questions, the script reverts to vulgar biographism. Drawing heavily from Poe’s own writings for the imagery, the piece gives us Poe as haunted by the memory of his beloved cousin-wife Virginia Clemm, who died in 1847 (two years before Poe), leaving him heartbroken and, in the classic telling, contributing to his rapid, alcohol-fueled decline.

Not only does such a choice make me wish that more bio-storytellers appreciated that biographism robs art (and Poe was a remarkable artist, we shouldn’t forget) of much of its fascination and power by offering unsubstantiated second-hand accounts as definitive interpretations, but from this point Lucidity Suitcase winds up indulging any number of other tired cliches. Artist as troubled, sensitive soul? Check. No way he’s just a drunk. Women? They give you them in all three archetypes: Mother (absent), wife (dead), and whore (who does a fantastic flamenco dance on stilts). And Clemm, the dead love? Of course she’s nothing but a voiceless sylph puckishly wrecking Poe’s life. The show offers you an interpretation of basically Poe’s entire oeuvre that presumptuously reduces it to elements of his life, but it was just too much, I guess, to put words in Clemm’s mouth. Instead, she’s just a phantasm of the male imagination. It’s not even the misogyny of the choice that bugs me, it’s just that it’s so naive. Everyone’s loved and lost, I assume; who only remembers the one they lost (or just got away, let’s not limit it to death here) as just a thing? It configures male love as nothing but lust for a pretty waif, and that’s just plain tiresome.

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