By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

Whit MacLaughlin's new show, O Monsters: first draft, is dazzling. Puzzling, but dazzling. Utilizing the talents of four remarkable actors, he seems to have undertaken nothing less than a theatrical  meditation on the mysterious and dangerous universe human beings inhabit.  Bhob Rainey  composed a hair-raising sound design and also partnered in the show's conception.

Devised theater is a play without a playwright. The cast and director develop a show around a topic or an idea, and then the collaborative improvised result is fixed for the rest of the run. This is a growing trend in the theatre world, with understandably varying results. New Paradise Laboratories, under MacLaughlin's artistic direction, has been the local pioneer in this kind of theater-making.

The "idea" they worked on was described to me in this way:

"Drawing from sources as varied as derivatives trading, probability equations, chance, mutation, weird fiction, robotics, and sports, O Monsters keeps NPL's tradition of radically experimental performance alive…. Bhob Rainey uses aleatoric processes informed by computer signals to create the signature soundscape."

This vocabulary-challenging missive was accompanied by photos of people in their underwear with plastic bags on their heads standing in the woods.

But in the event, watching O Monsters turns out to be far more accessible that that sounds, teasing us with funny devices (green bouncy-balls fall from the ceiling) and terrifying devices ( bubble-wrapping mother) and weird devices (a robotic spider delivers a banana). Some of the effects are astounding: a wall moves, revealing the next door restaurant; a black curtain opens to reveal the world outside the theater's huge windows at the corner of Race and Columbus Blvd.  The creators of these startling effects are: Maria Shaplin (lighting), Matt Saunders (set ) and Alice Crosby (props).

Kate Czajokowski plays Moth (short for Mother?); her face is touchingly expressive—tolerant, amused, angry—as she regards her children and speaks to an empty chair, their father, whom she "misses terribly." Emilie Krause, Kevin Meehan and Matteo Scammell portray her triplets who are fearful, naughty, and hungry, dangerous.  The actors' physical presence and their precision timing are remarkable.

The family of monsters has a ritual game: wooden tiles with words printed on them fall from above, and Moth chooses them at random and tries to make meaning.  And then I realized that was exactly what we were doing, too, and so meaning begins to emerge.

It is the execution of these elusive ideas that most impresses. Joyce Carol Oates once said, "How else can we speak of the unspeakable, except through the prism of technique."  Plenty of technique here.


New Paradise Laboratories at FringeArts,  140 N. Columbus Blvd. at Race St. Through April 30. Tickets $15-29.  Information: FringeArts.com or 215-413-1318.