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Flash Review 1, 9-29: Eyes Wide Shut
Philly Fringe '01: Journette to the Center of Hef's Universe; Chaiken and Pig Iron Play 'Shut Eye'

By Andrew Simonet
Copyright 2001 Andrew Simonet

PHILADELPHIA -- "The inside of your body is an infernal secret."

Like Hugh Hefner, New Paradise Laboratories wants to lay bare and fondle this infernal secret. In "This Mansion is a Hole: Hugh Hefner Throws a Party at the Center of the Universe," performed September 1-15 at the Philadelphia Fringe festival, New Paradise's fearless and brilliant performers probed and fingered the cultural legacy of Playboy and the last century's obsession with "having more of the right kind of sex."

The performers of New Paradise are versatile and hard-hitting. Company members Lee Etzold, Rene Hartl, Jeb Kreager, Mary McCool, Aaron Mumaw, and Matt Saunders were joined by Thea Chaloner, McKenna Kerrigan, and Elizabeth Roberts. They speak, they move, they dance. With complex blends of acting and movement, they embody the wild and specific moments of director Whit McLaughlin's work. There is great ambition in both the creation and performance of a New Paradise piece: the performers are asked to physicalize a subtlety far beyond most dance and theater.

As the audience enters, Jeb Kreager stands atop a 20-foot ladder in the center of huge vaulting space, preening in a cummerbund and shorts. The set design includes two ladders, three huge floating weather balloons, two blue 15-foot inflatable swimming pools, a fake Christmas tree divided into three segments, nine electric fans pointed at the audience, three wrestling mats, five household floor lamps suspended upside down, a 10-foot copper ring of lights, a fireplace and mantle, and a seemingly endless stream of handwritten words covering the walls. Aaron Mumaw awkwardly and longingly ogles other performers in a delicious mix of shy lasciviousness and profound hope. This is exemplary New Paradise: he doesn't do much, and he doesn't say anything audible. Yet I am captivated by the way he has captured something in between the categories most performances inhabit.

Lee Etzold's Hefner monologue near the end of the piece shares this stunning in-between sort of beauty. She sits awkwardly in a bathrobe, speaking huskily into a microphone, a bit chastened, a bit weary, not at all glamorous. She embodies the post-coital ambiguity that inevitably follows Hef's compulsive party at the center of the universe.

Along the way, we are treated to a twisted group get-down in a circle of light, various mutations of wrestling and making it (both physical and verbal), obsessive humping of everything in sight, a wedding, a frightening tableau of the "eunuch" with stuffed animals around his face, and an assortment of elements emerging from the performers' crotches: red ribbons, gifts with red wrapping paper, stuffed animals, and Hefner's voice produced by groin-mounted speakers.

When a line from "Goldfinger" is sung, New Parasites (NPL's long-term fans) are reminded of "Gold Russian Finger Love," NPL's 1998 Fringe piece exploding the world of James Bond. NPL's continued excavations of baby boomer masculinity (see also "The Fab 4 Reach the Pearly Gates") are magical, difficult, and brave. The constantly shifting roles, situations, and levels of meaning are evocative, but they also make it harder for the work to gather power and momentum as it goes. And the episodic rhythm feels less like a journey than a series of journettes

The dance community here in Philadelphia has embraced NPL's work, I think in part because dancers have lower levels of Conventional Narrative Addiction. New Paradise work can be disorienting for those obsessed with knowing "what's going on in this part." But for dancers who grew up watching Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, and Koosil-Ja Hwang, the gradual and nonlinear accretion of physical meanings feels insightful, not evasive. This work is research. The results may be difficult or tentative, but I adore the questions. Wherever relevant, cogent bodily performance is going, groups like New Paradise Laboratories will lead us there.

Remaining closer to shore, but with rhythmic and narrative virtuosity, Pig Iron Theatre Company and Joseph Chaikin's "Shut Eye" (September 12-15 at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival) is a joyous, layered dream of sleeping and waking. The razor-sharp ensemble (Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Cassandra Friend, Suli Holum, Sarah Sanford, Geoff Sobelle, James Sugg, and Dito Van Reigersberg) careens expertly through intersecting stories, held in place by the elaborately brainy direction (Joseph Chaikin and Dan Rothenberg), the deft and hilarious text (Deborah Stein), and the perfectly placed, genre-hopping music (James Sugg).

"Coma patients are so unpredictable."

So says a doctor halfway through "Shut Eye." At the opening, Geoff Sobelle lies in a coma, his sister (Sarah Sanford) keeping a lonely vigil by his hospital bed until her co-worker calls needing some paperwork immediately. And we're off. These two kinds of time continue to collide throughout the piece. A team of executives prepare to treat the coma patient as a new product release, mixing medical jargon with corporate metaphors. The patient himself wakes up to give his own rapid-fire spin on the boardroom game plan. A exhausted workaholic falls asleep in the salad prepared by her slacker boyfriend. An insomniac searches for a mythical sleep clinic, stumbling instead into the corporate offices of a pillow company. The collisions and counter thrusts of futile, instrumental attention and open-ended, bodily awareness are clever, physical, and funny.

But the real brilliance of the piece is not its subject matter but its form. Characters constantly shift, disappear, and reemerge, often by way of hospital screens that glide on and off the space, allowing one performer to replace another seamlessly. The work is flawlessly paced, blossoming brashly into spectacle before collapsing gracefully back to quiescence. So many performances that try to layer multiple stories together end up only pointing to the lack of overall cohesion. "Shut Eye" creates a world so bewildering yet so beguiling that there is no tension between the stories and their twisted unfolding. It is thrilling, not frustrating, when an established scene is transgressed and demolished by characters from another scene. "Shut Eye" dances deliciously past the Conventional Narrative Addiction, sweeping the audience up with its impeccable rhythm and generous performers.

And these performers are so damned good. Geoff Sobelle bounces from his salesman's pitch to a masterful bit of physical comedy -- driving while drinking coffee, talking on his cell phone, putting in his contacts, reading, and more -- to a dreamy, muscular duet on a ladder with stunning mover Sarah Sanford. Sugg captivates as a relentless CEO and a mischievous minstrel, eminently believable and likable when he bursts into song. When overworked Suli Holum asks her boyfriend "Do you mind if I sit on the floor?" with one of those isn't-this-just-crazy expressions on her face, I nearly peed myself with delight. Cassandra Friend consistently injects life into her wandering insomniac character, transforming what could have been just a joke into a full story line. Dito van Reigersberg unleashes his always withering voice and his perfectly timed, physical sense of comedy. Though they have various strengths, all members of the company are singers, actors, movers, and all-around charmers, pulling us into the four-dimensional web of storytelling.

"Shut Eye" is less weighty than many past Pig Iron productions. That frees the company up to be truly funny, virtuosic, and communicative. But a part of me longs for the weight I found in PI's "Anodyne," "The Tragedy of Joan of Arc," and "Poet in New York." And much of "Shut Eye" rests on known characters and established performance modes: the uptight executives, the big Broadway number, the hospital room scene, the cheesy jazz dance. And this stuff works. But I know they are capable of profound subtleties as performers and creators, and I would love to see that poetic beauty merge with the clever splendor of "Shut Eye."

"Shut Eye" is a joy. It is truly unpretentious and absorbing. If you care about narrative complexity and rhythm, go see it at Princeton University (Oct. 5-6) or in Warsaw, Poland (Oct. 11-14).

A final note on the Philadelphia Fringe Festival: the Fringe hosted the first-ever Rockys, Philadelphia's new dance and performance awards. A great time was had by all at the Fringe cabaret and bar. Paule Turner, Duchess, and Paul Struck hosted, many companies performed, and ten Rockys were given out. Here's how it works: this year's ten winners each give an award next year to anything or anyone they want to recognize as excellent: a dance, a choreographer, a dancer, a designer, etc. This Whisper Down the Lane structure makes it personal and positive. No competition, no committees, no winners vs. losers, just ten community members singling out someone they want to recognize. We luv youse all.

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