There's a moment in the Fringe Festival offering Hello Blackout!, which opens Friday and runs through Sept. 17 at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, when the theater is enveloped in total darkness.
Players and spectators alike are suddenly plunged into a heavy, inky blackness that's uninterrupted, unbroken, unremitting.
On stage, a handful of performers, who had been dancing an oddly comic shiver of a dance, continue to move, then run out.
Lasting nearly two minutes during a recent rehearsal, this event terrifies on a visceral level not many of us have ever experienced.
"Theater is about sensation," said Whit MacLaughlin, founder of New Paradise Laboratories in Fishtown, which developed Hello Blackout! for this year's Fringe.
Created – not written – during rehearsals by the entire group, Hello Blackout! takes us back to the moment before creation, before the big bang, before there was light, said MacLaughlin.
Instead of jabbering about the idea of creation – that moment when existence happened, when matter, space, and time came into being – Hello Blackout! tries to evoke it physically in each audience member.
And that, in essence, is what the comedy-drama is all about. It's about the coming into being of, um, being.
"It asks the big metaphysical questions," said MacLaughlin, who said the show is an example of a genre he calls horror-farce.
A perennial presence at Fringe – MacLaughlin and his collaborators have performed at the festival since 1998 – New Paradise is a movement-based theater company that eschews the traditional text-based plays most high school kids would recognize as theater.
The company's previous Fringe productions include the well-received O Monsters, set in a world where one can make physical changes to the world by manipulating numbers and verses of poetry. The current show is a companion piece to O Monsters, and a taped performance of the latter will screen after four performances of Hello Blackout!, on Sept. 9, 10, 16, and 17.
Hello Blackout! moves with the logic of myth, and it plunders many of the tropes familiar from creation and foundation myths, including those in the Hebrew Bible.
After the moment of creation, the players recognize the concepts of hierarchy and power by crowning a king.
A King Learlike figure with three combative daughters (O Monsters likewise featured three sisters), the ruler is eventually banished into the wilderness.
"Hello Blackout! has strong foundations in Shakespeare and Greek mythology, but it is invented in whole cloth out of a philosophical school called speculative realism," said MacLaughlin.
But there's nothing academic or dry about the show, said composer/sound designer Bhob Rainey, who has collaborated with New Paradise since 2012.
"It's primarily a visceral experience, one that is very sensual. And that's very different from language-based theater, where you are kind of tied to language and carried along by dialogue," said Rainey, who grew up in Hatfield.
Instead of language, New Paradise's productions are anchored in an integrated, multisensorial design through lighting, stage design, sound, and music.
"You should expect something that is an event on all planes, where the lights themselves are alive and integral, as is the sound," said Rainey.
And don't be surprised, said MacLaughlin, if you come out of the experience feeling a little dizzy, a bit off-center.
"We love to blow our own minds," he said, "and to blow the audience's mind."