New Paradise Laboratories


by Lewis Whittington

May 29 - June 1, 2003 -- Arcadia Stage in the Arden Theater, Philadelphia

Inspired 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.

Characters 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 it.

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.

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