Posted by: strugglesome | September 11, 2012

Not Fade Away: New Paradise Laboratories’ 27

Since the first time the first person heard the myth of Orpheus, music and mythology have been eternally intertwined. I couldn’t tell you how, or why, but music is an art that goes beyond logic and straight to the gut, and we treat its heroes and stars like gods, because how else would you treat people who introduce us to accension? Who take us to the heavens and dare us to touch the stars? Who infiltrate our hearts and minds and give them a beat? We are never so aware of our own heartbeat as we are when we feel it moving along to music. And so it’s no wonder that we deify our greatest musicians, especially those who die young, running hot in a blaze of glory. We mourn the music they will never make, and we celebrate what they were able to create within their lives. They died young with a bang, and they never had to fade away. Their ends are tragic, sure, but aren’t they also a relief? We never had to see our heroes fail, our gods fall from grace, they live on in eternal perfection forever, the titans who never suffer.

The 27 club is a rather fanciful concept that someway, somehow, all the musicians who died at the tender age of 27, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janice Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and many other lesser known folks, are all in heaven, or purgatory or limbo, all together, hanging out, making music, and being phenomenal. It’s a lovely fantasy. It’s a desperately romantic image. And it’s the subject matter of New Paradise Laboratories latest creation, 27, conceived, created and directed by Whit MacLaughlin.

In this abstracted kaleidoscopic rumination on the subject of remarkable people and death, the lights slowly rise on an afterlife of musicians long past rigor mortis. Stiff and lethargic, they linger with unseeing eyes, stiff and static and tied to their physical locations, periodically doused with bursts of fog. Their movements are scored by guitar riffs and chords, courtesy of composer and performer Alec MacLaughlin, which comes as a relief, because the action on stage is so incomprehensible to the audience and so clear to the performers that the music is the only thing that invites us into this work. Cobain (Matteo Scammell) seems to active the movement sequence, with repeats several times, and Winehouse (Julia Frey), Hendrix (or is he Morrison?) (Kevin Meehan) and Joplin (Allison Caw) jerk and twist, chasing each other and collapsing, then resetting and starting it again. This is interspersed with brief moments of text from each actor, a drunk Winehouse sobbing, a charismatic Joplin preaching her gospel, a dry and wry Cobain too cool for cool, each one a relief in the sea of so much incomprehension and visual sensation.

Having established what’s going on in this space, the event of the story is then, finally, possible, and so into this wild world of wunderkinds is tossed a normal person, a scared young woman who clearly has just died, Riley (Emilie Krause). Riley is unremarkable, except under these circumstances, where she is the only non-rock-god in the room. And while the motley crew is at first thrilled to welcome anyone artist into the mix, it becomes abundantly clear to everyone that Riley doesn’t belong here. So after they steal her underwear and make her eat inedible food, they send her on her merry way into the great beyond. And then they go back to, well, doing what it is they do in that room at the end of the universe, dancing to the music and reliving their glory. But not before Krause has the chance to shoot around the stage like a bullet and deliver a heartbreakingly sweet monologue explaining how she lived and how she died. Somehow it’s the only true thing said in a room full of imitation.

And that’s the show. No tension, no conflict, minimal event, just the passage of time after death, a small incident measured up against the eternity of the afterlife. The before is just the same as the after. Which of course is something we know well in modern drama, we have grown accustomed to stories in which nothing changes, and knowing, as the audience, that we are changed by this lack of change. But when that fails to happen, then we realize we have been excluded completely from the work. And while this piece works to give us windows into its world, it doesn’t actually allow us to enter, to be a part of the experience, and despite the cast’s fantastic physical work and comprehensive design, with sets by Matt Saunders, excellent and innovative lighting by Thom Weaver and solid costumes by Tara Webb, we find ourselves lost in crowd of sensations with no tools with which to evaluate them.

An issue devised work often faces is that it is so clear to its performers and often completely incomprehensible to its audience. Because of its long maturation process and intensive development, it can exclude its audience who haven’t been working with this company in the rehearsal room, and don’t know any of the rules. So if you don’t give your audience any rules, any road maps to follow or framing devices to grant perspective, well, you do them a disservice. You rob them of the opportunity for comprehension in an art form where clarity is half the battle. It is clear that the group of performers on this stage fully inhabit this world, they know it well, they get its laws, they understand it’s geography. And Krause, Caw and Scammell somehow find ways to attempt to bring the audience into this world, Krause having the easiest task because we are her character, the outsider looking in, the normal person in a room of stars. But so much of this piece feels as if the audience is inconsequential. And none of us want to feel inconsequential, even if we aren’t demi-gods of rock and roll.

MacLaughlin’s vision of the 27 club is an interesting one, however. Instead of a happy world of love and drugs and music, he’s given us an after-after-after party, with drooping decorations and stale air, and we see these troubled stars as what they must have been, sad and lonely people doomed to repeat their own patterns. It’s more of a true vision of what a real 27 Club would be, it’s troubling but it’s also eminently logical. As the story comes to a close, just where it started, we are relieved for Riley, sent off into an unknown afterlife. After all, anything has to be better than staying there.

New Paradise Laboratories production of 27 runs from now until the 16th of September. Tickets are available here.

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