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Flash Review 2, 9-15: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Staging Sex
Playful Polyperversity in (New) Paradise with 'Don Juan'

By Andrew Simonet
Copyright 2004 Andrew Simonet

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PHILADELPHIA -- "Get back in your hole!" Landis P. Elliott (Bill Zielinski) yells at his performers near the beginning of New Paradise Laboratories' "Don Juan in Nirvana" at the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe's National Building on Sunday, September 5. He introduces himself as the director of the piece we are about to watch, and leads us -- and NPL's heartbreakingly talented company members -- through a showing OR a rehearsal OR the collapse of Landis's staging of "Don Juan" OR the story of Landis's own decline and salvation OR the story of NPL director Whit MacLaughlin's conflicted passion for provoking his company into erotic public spectacle OR the story of an itinerant group of performers who can't stop beating each other up and beating each other off.

(Full Disclosure: NPL company member and set designer Matt Saunders designs sets for my company, Headlong Dance Theater. And lighting designer Mark O'Maley has designed a lot of Headlong's work.)

So Landis sends his troupe back into its upstage "hole," a glass-walled showroom converted into the dorm-like holding pen for the performers. And he hustles around the space, announcing scenes, ordering slow-motion video playback of moments of dramatic and orgasmic climax. And he tries NOT to drink the bottle of Johnny Walker Black stashed in a downstage suitcase. And he makes his performers fight. And fuck. And fight.

So how can you stage a fight? NPL's answers are well-done, if unsurprising, uses of stage combat. There are a lot of punches thrown upstage so we see the reaction of the punched, but not the distance between fist and cheek. There are judo flips onto the center stage wrestling mat (a staple in NPL's set repertoire). And biceps are smacked to create the sound of a face slap.

How can you stage sex? Here, NPL gets interesting. Mary McCool holds a newspaper in front of her crotch, and a thick mushroom of a prick is shadow-puppeted onto the newspaper. Matt Saunders's fingers do a delicious shadow dance up and onto the shroom-cock. And as Saunders climbs onto the seated McCool, he seems to anally mount the mushroom, delicately ass-riding a prong the size of trailer hitch. Landis cuts the scene short and gives the performers corrections, riding the prong himself with the proper technique.

So nasty. And yet somehow so sweet.

And here's where NPL's performers get you. They are so connected, so enmeshed in the theater company-cult-social experiment-rat maze that is NPL that their nasty beatings and nasty bonings feel cooperative, even loving. Director Whit MacLaughlin does seem to have more scathing insight into masculinity than femininity (a female theater critic stormed out of 'Don Juan' halfway into the performance), but he has shaped a company in which men and women are absurdly, inspiringly comfortable with each other's naughtiest bits and creepiest urges. Like a cult with a home season, the company lives for a few months in MacLauglin's latest Rules For Attaining/Destroying Paradise, then reports back what they have found. Rather than haughtily hurling the NC-17 material at the audience -- Deal with THIS, bourgeois viewer! -- NPL performers are working as hard as the watcher to integrate their shadow selves, therapeutically play-acting their bumping, grinding, and punching, "animated by the contradiction between an intense longing for and fear of freedom." (Wilhelm Reich) The generosity of the performers -- with each other and with the audience -- is an essential part of Great Leader MacLauglin's Plan, turning what in other hands might feel pretentious and oh-so-shocking into something human and, at its best, redemptive.

"Don Juan in Nirvana" is not, on the whole, NPL's best work. The immense amount of text and the resultant semi-linear structure leave less to the imagination, to the bodies. Balls-out physical momentum is sacrificed to scene-connecting direct address from Zielinski, whose final breakdown, heroically performed, feels unearned in the script. Period dress and period language rear Moliere's head throughout, creating some vivid imagery, but not a lot of impact. A couple of non-combat chorus movement sections gesture toward a poetic group physicality, but go no further. Two televisions showing surveillance-style video of the goings-on -- is it just me or has video come back with a vengeance? -- add little to the visual and physical world. In the end, the magical troupe of company members "confess" their story of meeting Landis in a group monologue, so even their mysterious origins are tied up neatly.

But the operatic spectacle, and the performers' hilarious and gruesome honesties, still thrill. Saunders's set is a magnificent blend of his design and the existing site. When not called by Landis to "perform," the company members live behind huge sliding glass doors upstage, reading on barracks-style cots, eating chips, 'screwing' doggy-style. A massive steel pyramid frame centers the onstage action, a perfect note of 70s mysticism for the sweatsuit-wearing, Wilhelm Reich-quoting Landis.

(More Disclosure: my mother and stepfather were both Reichian therapists, and I spent a lot of time watching TV with the sound turned up to cover the basement screams of patients accessing their orgone energy. So I have a soft spot for the moaning, questing community of "Don Juan in Nirvana.")

Mark O'Maley's lighting is, as ever, dynamic and original, a blend of found fixtures -- kitschy half-globe ceiling fixtures -- and theater lighting that lends visual and temporal clarity in a crowded space. And MacLaughlin's sound design strokes and menaces, seasoning "Don Juan's" cultural stew with recognizable sources like Nirvana (the band).

And the performers fight to win, and screw to completion. Jeb Kreager's bounding fop circling the space, shaking his staff like a maraca, and his operatic entrance in a corseted dress give us all permission to be lovelier, stranger. Mary McCool's deadpan elegance offers naughtiness without vanity, prurience stripped of narcissism. Aaron Mumaw runs upstage to exit, then SLAMS his head into the steel pyramid, a truly alarming bit of stagecraft that has the whole audience dialing 911 on their cell phones. Rene Hartl changes centuries and genders seamlessly, the exemplar of "Don Juan's" playful polyperversity. Newcomer Charlotte Ford -- more than holding her own on this all-star team -- tangles herself up sensuously in a swing, then soars back and forth, her skirt perfectly revealing then hiding her underthings. And Bill Zielinski, in the midst of intense stage combat, performs a hilarious -- and almost unacknowledged -- fake kickboxing dance with McKenna Kerrigan, two siblings pretending karate, showy and ridiculous.

Kerrigan herself is as riveting riding Kreager in a frantic screw session at the beginning of the piece as she is recounting being fingered for the first time. She whispers her fantasies and her own fingerings: "I name every single thing."


Imagine that.

Andrew Simonet is co-director, with Amy Smith and David Brick, of Philadelphia's Headlong Dance Theater. Founded in 1993, the company makes original dance theater work exploring such subjects as the physical and psychic state of panic ("The Story of a Panic"), pop fandom ("Britney's Inferno"), and the beauty of boring movement ("Swinginging"). The company performs regularly in Philadelphia at the LIve Arts Festival and the Wilma Theater's DanceBOOM Festival and in New York at Dance Theater Workshop, where it won a Bessie in 1999 for "ST*R W*RS and Other Stories." At the Parlor, the company's Philadelphia studio, it hosts Dance Theater Camp, a summer festival of training and collaboration for hybrid dance-movement-theater artists. Andrew lives in West Philadelphia with his lovely wife, Elizabeth, and their needy dog, Frances.


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