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The eminent French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s (1842-1898) last work, A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, originated from tragedy: the many deaths in his life, including his mother’s when he was a young child. Its 20 pages contain 707 words in broken phrases, scattered as if randomly across the pages, and they can be read either on one page or across to the next page. Mallarmé died a year after its publication and it became a sensation. Scholars, critics, philosophers, and other poets try to decipher its meaning(s) to this day.
The poem, with its themes of accidents, chance, and fate, grabbed Whit MacLaughlin by his throat since he first read it in philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s book The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de Des, in 2012, not long after his own mother died. The study drew MacLaughlin to France more than once to meet Meillassoux.
Rethinking “a throw of the dice”
MacLaughlin, artistic director of New Paradise Laboratories, conceived, directed, and designed 23 original performance works for the company, and has garnered OBIE and Barrymore Awards. He’d acted in New York early in his career, but until now, never appeared on stage after establishing the company in Philadelphia in 1996. In 707 Hazardous Moves, premiering at the 2021 Fringe Festival, MacLaughlin becomes a storyteller demolished by personal tragedies and engulfed by a poem that seems to be his salvation.
He relates, in a cool, heartfelt monologue, how his mother died somewhat mysteriously and, among other matters, how he was he was shot in the leg in a failed robbery attempt in 2017, and later diagnosed with OCD partly as a result of the shooting and the subsequent trial of his assailant in 2019.
How to make any sense of all this? Get back into the theater. Rethink the meaning of “a throw of the dice,” referred to in MacLaughlin’s other works, notably his hit show 27, about rock stars who died at that age. The title of the new work continues his fascination with numbers—and the set includes a chalk board with dates written on it. Remaining seated in shadow as the audience shuffles into our seats, the artist looks like a schoolboy waiting in the hall for the principal.
“Teaching Assistants” Rohan Hejmadi and Cinco Plascensia sit in corners near the audience, counting his steps on iPads. At the lectern, MacLaughlin begins an account of his “psychosexual religious experience,” which he expressed as “bonerific glory” while serving as an altar boy and thinking of his first love. He moves on to the improbability of he and his wife having twin daughters in 2000.
Nothing left to chance
You notice Thom Weaver’s lighting, a dozen or so oblong fluorescents that suggest a schoolroom, a police station, or a hospital surgery.
Off to his side, a blackboard is chalked up with an Archimedean-looking spiral marked with dates important to the poem, and to him. A horizontal arrow pierces through it, pointing to NOW. He draws an infinity sign next to it and later runs a finger through the arrow’s shaft, breaking the timeline.
Composer Bhob Rainey’s plinking piano begins. Jo Vito Ramírez dances out to the lectern, rocking it with salsa steps. KC Chun joins him, eating the space over the framed stage. The lectern, overturned, is an instant coffin and each of them lay a flower on it. The coolest scene has all three line-dancing a version of “the Madison dance” from film director Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders).
707’s hazardous moves are deceptively minimalistic. Yet its brilliant references and connections to other artworks, its formalism, humor, and MacLaughlin’s modest demeanor reveal a work of complex emotional depth that leaves nothing to chance, leaving me breathless.
What, When, Where
707 Hazardous Moves. Written and directed by Whit MacLaughlin. Through September 18, 2021, at FringeArts, 140 North Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia. $35. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Proof of full Covid-19 vaccination, with ID, is required to attend. Masks must be worn for the duration of the performance.
FringeArts is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Additional information about accessibility services can be found on their website.
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