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2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival Review: ‘Hello Blackout!’ by New Paradise Laboratories at The Drake

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The cast of Hello Blackout! spends a lot of time in the dark. In the opening moments of the show, lights slowly fade up and we faintly see five people staggered across the stage. They’re wearing black trench coats and black sleep masks. After a few seconds, the lights fade again, and after a brief musical interlude, we see these people again, in a different configuration. Then there’s another blackout, and more music. This happens repeatedly, with the actors changing position – and once even breakdancing – for ten to twenty minutes before we hear any spoken words.

Eventually a narrative of sorts appears, in which the Kissimmee family – the same family these actors played in the New Paradise Laboratories show O Monsters (which I missed last year) – explores life before, during and after the Big Bang. Early on, the actors spin and writhe in a void punctuated by occasional light and dressed in black; about halfway through the show, they switch to vintage finery, including a royal gown for the father and a tiara for the mother. (Tara Webb provides the costumes.) Throughout, the family members make cryptic, elliptical speeches and engage in tightly-controlled precision movement.

Kevin Meehan and Emilie Krause. Photo courtesy FringeArts.

Kevin Meehan and Emilie Krause. Photo courtesy FringeArts.

So… what does it all mean? Damned if I know. Parts of Hello Blackout! are quite funny, but most of it is frustratingly enigmatic, as if designed to confuse as much as to entertain. And even when the actors speak directly to the audience about the show’s philosophy, discussing concepts like probability and speculative materialism (which are defined in the show’s program), the notions usually come off as incoherent and unworthy of further examination. A lucid plot to back up those ideas would have helped a lot; without it, much of Hello Blackout! is simply strange for strangeness’ sake.

Still, the cast – Jeffrey Cousar and Kate Czajkowski as the combative parents, with Emilie Krause, Kevin Meehan and Matteo Scammell as their triplets – is up to every physical and verbal challenge that Director Whit MacLaughlin and the committee-written script can throw at them. (Czajkowski even does a marvelous magic trick.)

And the physical production of Hello Blackout! is always fascinating to watch. MacLaughlin’s staging is a well-oiled machine, and the work of Set Designer Matt Saunders and especially Lighting Designer Thom Weaver (who adds just the right amount of light, or absence of light, to every moment) is striking. There’s also haunting, disquieting music composed by Bhob Rainey and played by a five-member ensemble: violin, viola and cello swirl and scratch around an E note with quivery vibrato, while a string bass and a bass clarinet rumble below.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, without intermission.

Hello Blackout! plays through Sunday, September 17, 2017, and is presented by New Paradise Laboratories at The Proscenium Theatre at The Drake – 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.

Special screenings of New Paradise Laboratories’ O Monsters will be presented in the same space through Sunday, September 17. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.

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