New Paradise: Engaged to the Bride?

Whit MacLaughlin (right), New Paradise's founder, directs Matteo Scammell and others in a scene from "27," a 2013 FringeArts show that's being restaged at the Painted Bride. "We're reinventing ourselves and bringing greater depth to where we're going," MacLaughlin says.
Whit MacLaughlin (right), New Paradise's founder, directs Matteo Scammell and others in a scene from "27," a 2013 FringeArts show that's being restaged at the Painted Bride. "We're reinventing ourselves and bringing greater depth to where we're going," MacLaughlin says. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 28, 2014

Barely a minute into the interview, and already Whit MacLaughlin is talking about feeling old.

"I barely notice my age" - he's 60 - "except when I have to execute some really awesome move, and it isn't quite there like it used to be," says the director/conceptualist behind the protean theatrical enterprise called New Paradise Laboratories.

With New Paradise's restless, amorphous brand of multimedia movement theater as his calling card, MacLaughlin hardly seems old. "All things I find meaningful are linked to age," he says. "Plus, I'm fortunate to spend almost zero time with people my own age."

His zealously experimental work radiates that. When New Paradise arrived in Philly in 1998, it began offering such existentially kitsch events as the 007-themed Gold Russian Finger Love (1998) and Beatles-based The Fab 4 Reach the Pearly Gates (2000). Soundscapes were rich with samples and atonal guitars. The scripts' language was spare and sophomoric. Movements were silly and salacious. Storylines rumbled with youth-quake vibrations. No matter what the Lab did or does, whether with veteran cofounders (brand-name theater designers Jorge Cousineau and Matt Saunders; thespians Jeb Kreager, Lee Etzold, Mary McCool) or newer members (Julia Frey, Sam Tower, Kevin Meehan), it's theater's ultimate hipster holiday.

There are signs, though, that New Paradise is preparing to gracefully age beyond its teens. This week it is restaging 2013's FringeArts show 27 (about such dead-at-27 rockers as Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, and Winehouse), even as it prepares its FringeArts 2014 showcase The Adults ("our magnum opus"), which mixes casts from each era of the company.

So what's new? Both those productions, along with September's remounting of MacLaughlin's large-scale teen-theater project PAPAYA, are happening at Old City's Painted Bride Art Center, indicating that a relationship is being built and that the Lab could be settling down.

"We're reinventing ourselves and bringing greater depth to where we're going," says MacLaughlin.

Take 27 and its die-young-and-leave-a-pretty-corpse theme. "We had forward trajectory as a company," MacLaughlin says on why they're remounting it. "We had the urge. We're exploring this new relationship with the Bride. We felt there was more to be said, and figured let's temper it." This 27 is fast, dirty, and fully realized for newer members whom he finds "beguilingly fearless."

"After two years of working within NPL, Whit's method isn't foreign," says Kevin Meehan, 27's Jim Morrison-like icon. "We try to make what we do more difficult in order to make it more dynamic."

As for Meehan's rethinking of the Lizard King, he's become more three-dimensional emotionally. "I've let go of his 'cool' to let in more of his love."

Letting in the love describes part of the mix-and-mingling of past and present ensembles that is The Adults.

There weren't specific dates when cofounders faded out and newbies faded in. Original members got other gigs. MacLaughlin found distractions. When he welcomed fresh faces, the first incarnation would come to the second incarnation's shows and be amazed at what a Lab production was.

"Suddenly there's this doppelganger," says MacLaughlin about the subject of The Adults: moving forward as artists, with Chekhov ("but don't go looking for Anton within this work"), Eric Fischl's wild figurative paintings, and Alan Weisman's apocalyptic book The World Without Us inspiring some of the sparsest dialogue and worst behavior (including a particularly juicy ménage a quatre) in company history.

The Adults takes place during one weekend, with three cohabiting couples shifting through different ages. "Time is a big sky for the cast to roam around in," MacLaughlin says. "People revert, move forward, yet there are tender emotions in how this thing unfolds."

Ask him how the renewed company differs from the original and he recalls how the first Lab was completely new. "They were new to professional acting, I was new to Philly. We figured it out as we went. The newer crew, however, had their legs as professionals before NPL." The old cast moves forward while the new crew retrofits itself.

"NPL has been a defining part of the founding members' training and careers," says Julia Frey. "The newer members are just beginning to see how their roles shape their existing careers."

Reconnecting with New Paradise's origins dovetails nicely with getting back to Old City and nuzzling up to the Painted Bride. Nothing's signed in blood yet; MacLaughlin says each institution is feeling the other out.

"Pre-Fringe, the Bride had a long-standing tradition for being the Philadelphia place for advanced performance art. There's pedigree there," he says.

Is Old City set to relive its glory days now that New Paradise is at the Bride on Vine Street and the FringeArts Pump House and festival hub is a few blocks away on Columbus Boulevard? Longtime Fringe fans will recall that the early festivals were exclusively in Old City, where attendees could dash from one venue to another to catch as many shows as possible.

"I think that spirit is very much part of this year's festival," MacLaughlin says. "Having the Fringe hub in Old City and NPL flying from the Bride's rooftop should be fun."


THEATER

27

Presented by New Paradise Laboratories at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 and 11 p.m. Friday, and 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St.

Tickets: $20-$25. Information: 215-925-9914 or www.paintedbride.org.

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