Posted by: strugglesome | September 10, 2010

Let My People Go!: Slavery, Sexism and Sophisms in New Paradise Laboratories/The Riot Group’s Freedom Club

It may be hard to play sexy in Civil-War era hoop skirts and waistcoats, but the cast of New Paradise Laboratories/The Riot Group’s Freedom Club is doing their best to sell it. To be fair, though, they only have to do so for about 35 minutes, because this play takes place both in 1865 (those of you who had a passing grade in Junior year US History will remember that this was the final year of the Civil War) and in 2015, which, luckily for the actors, seems to have a less-binding dress code. But while the costumes and setting of this piece might shift over it’s course, the style itself remains steadfast, insofar as the collaborative efforts of two separate and frankly divergent theater companies can, that is.

New Paradise Laboratories is a Philadelphia based theater company that prides itself on it’s collaborative creative process with pieces such as Prom and Don Juan in Nirvana. Their last Live Arts Festival offering was the technologically savvy behemoth Fatebook: Avoiding Catastrophe One Party At A Time, an experiment in projection, deception, and social networking (I know, it kind of sounds like your college experience, doesn’t it?), and their work has the sense of being the product of a host of writers and voices. The Riot Group, on the other hand, is a New York based company whose pieces like Hearts of Man, Switch Tryptic and Hell Meets Henry Halfway (a collaboration with Pig Iron Theater Company) all bear the marks of playwright, performer and co-founder Adriano Shaplin’s distinctively vicious turns of phrase (think David Mamet but with talent). Of the Riot Group works I have been lucky enough to see, all of them were categorized by heady themes, direct audience address, and the fiery talents of Stephanie Viola, a Riot Group founder and performer. So I couldn’t help but be interested in observing the fruits of this joint effort by these two very different very distinct theater groups, and I have to say, they seem to have gone together like, as the British say, a house on fire. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, mind you.

Part one of the 80 minute piece takes place in 1865 in the months, weeks, hours and minutes leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (the versatile and oddly endearing Drew Friedman, The Riot Group) by John Wilkes Booth (the charismatic and compelling Jeb Kreager, New Paradise Laboratories). While Viola plays Mary Todd Lincoln (an amusing contrast to Friedman’s height, Viola is like a sprightly doll seated on his lap and demanding the White House be spiritually cleansed, and this is based on a true story, so I’m assuming Mary Todd was actually into the occult) the rest of the cast takes on various roles over the course of the first half of the play.  Paul Schnabel (Riot Group) and Shaplin himself are both sporting thick New York accents for some reasons, which gives the atmosphere a touch of a Gangs of New York theme, and both Mary McCool and McKenna Kerrigan (both New Paradise Laboratories) shine in their various positions (that’s intentionally sexual, by the way, don’t bring the little ones, this piece does for Civil War Washington D.C. what The Tudors does for pre-Elizabethan England).

Crowded together in a stage made intentionally cramped (I’m assuming) by thick white lines delineating a square divided in two, the actors move like pieces in a sliding tile puzzle, or a chess match, tip-toeing and forming Victorian Portrait tableau (lovingly illuminated by Maria Shaplin’s lighting design) around the two poles of Freedom Club‘s globe, one one side John Wilkes Booth, and on the other side Abraham Lincoln. And, like Othello’s Iago or Paradise Lost‘s Satan, Booth is the anti-hero of this piece, or at the very least, he’s the character we hear the most, and the only character who leaves the confines of the delineated space during the first half of the play, sitting in the audience, strolling the sides of the stage, gun in hand, like Sondheim’s Assassins, but on speed.  Declaiming like an orator, Kreager isn’t the most sympathetic of anti-heroes, but thanks to Shaplin’s dialogue he’s at least well spoken. Effortlessly throwing out phrases like “Who was Shakespeare but a queer puppeteer counterfeiting characters in a play” that would have felled a lesser actor, Kreager’s Booth is practically overflowing with intense theatrical bile, refusing to bend to what he deems “a grand emasculation of the South” by the capitalist cut throat Lincoln and his allies. Lincoln on the other hand has no such victory, he is broken, defeated even as the North itself has achieved victory, and no amount of hand jobs (the gifts of his obedient wife, and a detail that recalls Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love, especially given the fact that Lincoln calls Mary Todd Mother…) can console him for what he calls “the rape of the South”. And while ostensibly Booth is about to kill Lincoln because he’s a white supremacist in a pre-Klan United States, it really doesn’t read that way, but seems to be rather an ego battle, an issue of personalities, not principles.  But then again, maybe that’s what it really was.

Once this portion of the play reaches it’s inevitable conclusion (Sic Semper Tyrannis, etc…), the audience finds itself sitting in the dark watching numbers tick by, a weak attempt at representing the passage of time, frankly, until we arrive in the not so distant future of 2015, where the battle isn’t for slavery but for abortion rights. The cast has thrown aside their gorgeously made Victorian gear (courtesy of costume designer Rosemarie E. McKelvey) for pink spotted cameo in various incarnations, and has transformed into a group of pro-Choice radicals arguing about revolution from the depths of their Virgina-based compound. Apparently at this point President Obama has been assassinated, our president is a female, and abortion centers all over the USA are being shut down, and everyone has suddenly realized that women are the new black, and not in a fun fashion way either. Arguments about action, commitment, ideology and those pesky human relationships abound, and as the cast stands in a line, talking to each other but staring straight at the audience, it sort of feels like A Chorus Line with more anger and less glitter. And while the second half is all telling with no showing, and certainly less fun then I thought the future would be, it does raise one interesting questions, and that is, are women who get pregnant and decide to keep their child automatically NOT pro-choice? When did pro-choice automatically become abortion only in everyone’s eyes? It may not be 2015 yet, but it’s still an interesting question.

One of the goals of collaborative work is to create a seamless whole from disparate parts (though, frankly, that’s one of the goals of theater in general, isn’t it?), and interesting as it is Freedom Club doesn’t quite achieve. It’s an intriguing rumination on the nature of freedom and history and human action, but it feels fractured at points, clearly the work of multiple authors and the product of two different methodologies of making art, and while the points of joining feel the most clean and compelling, the moments of disunity are opaque, unsettling and they don’t ring true.  I guess that”s history for you, though, it always looks different depending on where you are standing.

New Paradise Laboratories/The Riot Group’s Freedom Club is running until tomorrow, Saturday September 11th. Pick up tickets here.

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