May 29 - June 1,
2003 -- Arcadia Stage in the Arden Theater, Philadelphia
by Francisco Goya's disturbing18th century etchings "Los Caprichos,"
Whit MacLaughlin's "Stupor" is simply enthralling movement theater
with the surreal power of a recurring dream. MacLaughlin has describes
it as an "expansion" of Goya's work and a movement meditation
rather than theater with dance elements or visa versa.
It was the hit of the 1999 Philadelphia Fringe Festival, maybe because
it so seamlessly fuses theater and dance, both arts heavily represented
at the Fringe. It is revived this year in an even tighter production
on the second-floor Arcadia Stage at the Arden Theatre. The work has
an exposed psychological underbelly that completely engages the senses
viscerally, like it's being punched through another dimension.
To describe some of the content might make it appear pretentious, but
that is only because there is so much bad art that that attempts to realize
such weighty content. Goya's harrowing terrain mocked the social mores
and superstitions of the late 17th century that MacLaughlin animates with
equally sardonic humor and relevance. The cast of actors who also happen
to move well -- Lee Ann Etzold, Rene Ligon Hartl, McKenna Kerrigan, Jeb
Kreager, Mary McCool, Aaron Mumaw, Sebastian Mundheim and Matt Saunders
-- are as electric as a seasoned troupe of dancers.
Under a roadhouse blues number, the cast moves from behind a scrim and
position themselves around a dank black set. It's hardwood surgical table,
hardback chairs, exposed light bulbs that modulate up and down, hurricane
fans and shadowy exists. The title "Stupor" suggests a transient
dulled or altered state of being and MacLaughlin's has a gallery of faces
with demonic smiles and lunacy in their eyes evoking desperate living.
This is not a freak show, but more an essay on humanism peaking in at
our hidden complex natures. It is scored by musical overlays of
blues and gospel, eerie sound effect, an occasional explosion and even
a Sinatra standard "Lonely Town." There are also gaps in the
score with everything but the fans giving a fuzzy background noise.
get fixated on things like orifices of the body, pealing their clothes
off and staging mock hangings (off of the lights). At one point Rene
Ligon Hartl enters in the ridiculous position of completely kneeled
on one foot (actually a yoga pose in motion), hoping and sucking on his
big toe. This prompts a forgotten visceral memory of doing the same
thing that most people share from infancy, used here in a comforting tableaux
of mock lunacy.
Phrases in pantomime adagio are contrasted by grotesque dance vignettes
such as slithering bodies in scary erotic poses or clamped in ugly contortions,
often lurching forward zombie-like in demi-pointe and bursting into agitated
slapstick. Mary McCool wields a pipe wrench and inserts it into Aaron
Mumaw's mouth pulls him by the tooth to the nether region under the stage.
Mumaw especially reminded on of an actor out of silent German films by
Fritz Lang, with crazed eyes and wiry hair, he often brilliantly phrased
his movements that recalled the plastique of that period.
And McKenna Kerrigan, mouth agape seems in gesture and looks transported
directly from Goya's etchings. The cast of actors in an essentially choreographed
work succeeds because interpretive movement is the key to their characters,
they can¹t communicate any other way.
One of the things about Stupor that is so remarkable is that it doesn¹t
have the feel of a heady "modern dance" or experimental theater
piece that can tax an audience's attention. This work takes hold, like
a bold symphony filling in blanks already in the head, from the start.
The first time I saw it I made the observation that its grotesque imagery
and macabre themes would not be for everybody, but as evidenced by the
extended reception at the Arden, I was wrong, because though it might
not be to everyone's taste, people know art in the making when they see
MacLaughlin was awarded a Pew Fellowship last year and just received an
Obie Award for lighting design for his show "The Fab 4 Reach the
Pearly Gates," which was another his at the Philly Fringe last year,
before it went to New York. He is unveiling two new works this year and
hints that "Stupor" will be done again.
Please join the discussion
in our forum.