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A CurtainUp Review
Planetary Enzyme Blues
Part of the 2005 Live Arts Festival

Fun is the holy grail of youth, and now fun is dying. . . The end of the war was the end. . . of their fun --- Voice of the Woman in the Wilderness
Whit MacLaughlin pulls together collaborative theatre as stimulating as it is idiosyncratic. Because he realizes the work is a challenge to follow and the meaning is not readily accessible, his program note suggests that the audience "let it wash over you. . . Take a right-brain vacation."

This year's festival entry is advertised to be about Philadelphia in the 1960s with its progressive experimentation. It bears a resemblance to Rrose Salevy Takes a Lover in Philadelphia, which New Paradise Laboratories presented in the 2003 Fringe Festival. Both productions relate to Philadelphia and offer indefinite meanings. Planetary's personal vision and doubling of action reflects Rrose's expressiveness and mirrored images. These are parts one and two of a planned trilogy.

Important, stereotypical, elements of the 1960s in Philadelphia and elsewhere are incorporated; among them the constant shadow of Viet Nam, protest, dropping acid, marijuana, and a certain use of language, man. Yet these ingredients don't nail those days for this reviewer. The absence of the popular music that defined the times leaves a gaping hole.

While the choice to employ obscure music avoids easy clichés, the show pays a price. Students in Philadelphia in the late 60s, I can personally attest, lived to the continual accompaniment of that once utterly fresh music. In this context a little riff from White Rabbit or a few bars of the Doors might have conjured the essence of the era as Proust's taste of madeleine recaptured the lost past. Incorporating ideas from old utopian communes provides historical grounding but makes the work even less recognizable as the 60s.

Fascinating in its way, this production is best not thought of in the specific territory it claims. It recalls an actual instance of a group that aimed to levitate the Liberty Bell (a gag that the media took a little too seriously at the time), and the show does tie in Philadelphia street names and colleges, but it offsets these touchstones with odd music, disconnected action, cosmic haloed antenna, dolls, and a white tent that together lend the air of a retro new-age 60s in some other planetary system.

Among the production's strengths are well differentiated characters played by Aaron Mumaw, Jeb Kreager, McKenna Kerrigan, Lee Ann Etzold, Mary McCool, Matthew Saunders, and (voice of) Catharine K. Slusar. Highlights include the actors' nifty physical tricks, marvelous shadow play, and parallels between trap doors that are teamed in some mysterious way. There's a bit of humor --although nowhere near enough-- which includes brief, amusing commentary on representative movies and a wry comment on kids participating in protest street theater: "These are the children of good, hard-working Philadelphia parents."

The venue is a small, beautiful, empty, late-model (1919) cathedral. It allows site-specific integration of space and story; for instance, the stunning ceiling with its carved wooden angels in the architecture is lighted at apropos times. One site problem, however, is sound. The voice of the narrator is overly loud and bounces off stone walls which fuzzes and often renders the words incomprehensible. It's also hard at times to make out what is said within the performing space.

This work is intriguing but scattered, and even audiences on right brain vacations need to make some sense of events. But experimental theatre exists to take chances, and this show will do different things for different people. Although often inscrutable, New Paradise Laboratories' work is visual, inventive, and a valuable part of the pantheon of Philadelphia theatre.

Planetary Enzyme Blues
by New Paradise Laboratories
Directed by Whit MacLaughlin
Cast: Aaron Mumaw, Jeb Kreager, McKenna Kerrigan, Lee Ann Etzold ,Mary McCool, Matthew Saunders, Catharine K. Slusar
Environmental Design: Matthew Saunders
Lighting Design: Mark O'Maley
Sound Design: Whit MacLaughlin
Costume Design: Rosemarie Mckelvey
Live Arts Festival, Cathedral Performing Space, St. Andrew's Chapel 42nd and Spruce Sts. 08/30/05 to 09/17/05
Running time: 66 mins
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 09/01 performance
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