The Cruel and the Cool: Two Plays, Two Reviews

By Nicole Finkbiner and J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Sep. 12, 2012

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Living out loud: Applied Mechanics' "Some Other Mettle."

Some Other Mettle

Various dates and times. Through Sept 18. $15. Jolie Laide, 224 N. Juniper St. jolielaide.com

From the moment you enter Jolie Laide Gallery for Some Other Mettle, Applied Mechanics’ remarkable young performers take you captive, dragging you deep below the soil into their elaborate and equally bizarre post-apocalyptic world. And for the next 75 minutes, you are left speechless as you watch them drag their sweaty, half-naked bodies across the floor, contort and convulse their paint-covered limbs and expel beastly growls from the pit of their stomachs.

The cast’s commitment to their characters is almost unworldly. Add the clever costumes, props and set design, and you have an experience so intensely visceral that you still feel haunted by it several hours later.

In Applied Mechanics’ usual “choose your own adventure” narrative structure, the show utilizes the entire multi-room gallery space, giving audience members the option to follow certain characters and slowly piece together different storylines. Obviously, this is an exciting way to experience live theater. There’s just one very big problem: This time, there’s doesn’t appear to be much of a story for you to piece together.

At the very beginning, Some Other Mettle’s audience is given a quick intro to the peculiar plot and although largely convoluted, you take a way a few key phrases and run with them. But as you eagerly chase after the characters, no logical progression of events ever seems to emerge. In fact, the interaction between the five lost souls eventually become a blur. Much of this is due to the communication barrier. One minute the cast would be speaking in tongues or riddles, and the next they’d be making loud animal noises. You were lucky to catch the few bits of dialogue in clear English.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with making the audience work or leaving them to form their own conclusions. Nor is there anything wrong with making them uncomfortable. But to suck the audience into this world ready to suspend their disbelief only to make them feel alienated? Well, that just seems a little cruel. (Nicole Finkbiner)

 

27

Through Sept. 16. $18-$35. Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey St. 215.413.1318. livearts-fringe.org

New Paradise Laboratories, one of the city’s most successful experimental theater companies, returns to the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival with its bewildering but often captivating production of 27. After experimenting recently with theater that exists in both the virtual and natural worlds, 27 returns NPL to its roots, focusing on two subjects that have often been featured in the work of artistic director Whit MacLaughlin: death and rock n’ roll.

Created by MacLaughlin in collaboration with company members, the play gets its inspiration from the eerie straggle of rock stars who have perished at the tender age of 27, a group that includes Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and, most recently, Amy Winehouse. The six actors in the cast don’t bear uncanny resemblances to the performers they portray. Kevin Meehan certainly isn’t a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Morrison, the Doors’ charismatic front man; the same is true for Cobain’s Matteo Scammell, Julie Frey (Winehouse) or Allison Caw (Joplin). Still, there are hints regarding the characters’ identities, mostly from the bits of songs that are sung, mumbled or strummed on electric guitar by a character identified in the program only as Guitar (Alec MacLaughlin). There’s no sense of joy, however, in any of them; whether it’s Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” 27’s renditions have none of the vigor of the original recordings, but rather a strange, perhaps appropriate lifelessness.

The characters in 27 are not nearly as curious as the play’s setting. Described vaguely as a “new encampment,” there is a “Happy Birthday” banner strung across a wall, with balloons, an overstuffed couch, a table, pillows and a small hibachi. The space’s most notable feature is a large “star hole,” an opening in the rear wall surrounded by the sort of flashing neon lights that might decorate a third-rate Vegas motel. Yet despite the room’s festive, bohemian appearance and the inhabitants’ penchant for drinking beams of light from large, glowing plastic party cups, there is no sense of merriment whatsoever. Instead, it feels more like a waiting room, a stop-over intended to move passengers from one place to the next. The characters occupy much of their time intently sitting or standing in odd mannequin-like poses. When they move, they often do so forcefully, in manic bursts of energy, and there is a zombie-like quality to their repetitive physical routines. Each has a signature unique to each character, but they all share a sense of futility.

The primary clue as to their exact whereabouts comes with the surprising and noisy arrival of a visitor. In one of 27’s excellent special effects, hurricane force winds shake a side wall violently, and the room is filled with the sound of a roaring locomotive. Suddenly, a woman (Emilie Krause) is hurled into the room through a window. She struggles against the gale to return from where she came, but it’s useless. Frightened and confused, the others view her carefully. Despite her obvious fear, we welcome her presence, which gives us a brief respite from the tedium of the others’ activities and provides us with precious clues about their location. She tells a gripping story of being involved in a fatal car accident, and Morrison tells her, in a slightly comforting tone, “We’re here to help you pass through.” But his odd comment— “I’d rather be cool than dead”—suggests the group has collective remorse about the way their lives ended.

Often disturbing and darkly humorous, 27 lacks the playfulness and cheery decadence of the NPL’s earlier works, but is the company’s most muscular, physical and visually compelling work in years. (Thom Weaver’s penetrating lighting design, in particular, is enormously effective.) The production is never dull, but also isn’t dramatically satisfying. And considering the work’s bleak depiction of the afterlife, we’re left with the impression that for these troubled but brilliant musicians, death does not provide a sense of eternal peace. (J. Cooper Robb)

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1. Icculus said... on Sep 14, 2012 at 12:27PM

“Hey Coop, a few factual errors: it was Come As You Are, not Smells Like Teen Spirit. And Morrison never said he'd rather be dead than cool: that was Cobain. In real life, and in the afterlife of 27.

I really disagree heartily with your comments about the music: really? No joy? None of the vigor? Alec MacLaughlin's virtuosic playing seemed to me to channel the joy, anger and violent inhibition of the 27, turning the songs into a lamentation, a swirling, screaming, growled, guttural dirge that triumphantly wrestled with it's own infiniteness. The music was not meant to (nor could it ever be) an exact replication of the actual songs- the same goes for the performers. (Their resemblance was plenty to understand the suggestion. I can't believe you critiqued that.) To me, they (performers and music alike) all seemed to be representations, ghostly imprints of what was… and a thrashing scream against what could've been.”

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