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John Kelly in The Paradise Project
(Photo: James Hamilton)
John Kelly is nothing if not ambitious. This talented avant-garde performer writes, designs, directs, and stars in his latest production, The Paradise Project. Described as "the first installment of a new work," the piece has an unfinished feel to it that makes it difficult to review. Though there are numerous moments within the performance that are graceful and moving, there are nearly as many moments that seem awkward and incomplete.

The story revolves around an unnamed artist played by Kelly. He has a major gallery exhibition coming up but seems unable to focus on his work. He routinely avoids the curator's calls, as well as those of a friend played by Kelli O'Hara. Nevertheless, O'Hara's character (also unnamed) succeeds in getting the artist to come with her to a showing of the classic 1945 French film Children of Paradise. The artist is enraptured by the film, and the remainder of the performance details his growing obsession and identification with the character of Baptiste, a mime who specializes in the role of Pierrot -- a commedia dell'arte stock character representing the ever hopeful but always disappointed lover.

Dialogue is perhaps Kelly's main weakness. The scene in the movie theater between him and O'Hara seems overburdened with expository information; while providing information about the film that is crucial to understanding the rest of the performance, it comes across as clumsy and awkward. The sequence involving Kelly and the movie house's usher (Walter Hudson) is more successful as it is peppered with humor and a surreal reverb effect that clues the audience into the artist's distorted frame of mind after seeing the film.

One of the most delightful sections of The Paradise Project is a re-enactment of one of the mime sequences from Children of Paradise. Kelly, while not as adept a mime as Jean-Louis Barrault (the great French actor who originated the role of Baptiste), is nevertheless convincing. Movement-wise, Kelly only disappoints in his pratfalls. (Considering that he suffered a major neck injury last spring, fracturing two of his vertebrae, this shortcoming is forgivable.)

(Photo: John Dugdale)
Following the mime sequence, the performance turns into a musical. This is not as jarring as it might seem, because it is obviously a dream/fantasy sequence. The music -- composed by Michael Torke, with lyrics by Mark Campell -- is serviceable if not particularly inspired. Six songs are included: The first four are character numbers, each tailored to one of the central roles in the film. Natalie (O'Hara, in fine voice) sings a plaintive tune about how her beloved Baptiste does not see her. Next comes a peppy, musical comedy number performed by the vain actor Frederick (Hudson), who enters on roller skates and sings about how he loves himself; unfortunately, Hudson can't hit the notes and is painfully off-key by the end of the song.

The third number belongs to Garance (Wendy Hill), Baptiste's object of affection, who sings a song inspired by one of the film's iconic moments: Garance, having just been escorted to her room by Baptiste, tells the troubled mime that love can be so simple; he, however, insists on holding out until she loves him the way he loves her. The final character song is sung by Kelly as Baptiste, and the performer's sublime countertenor evokes an ethereal mood that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking.

The final two songs narrate the action at the end of the film. A duet between Garance and Baptiste captures the pair's conflicted feelings after a night of passion and segués directly into the last song of the evening, which occurs when Natalie walks in on the two of them at a tender moment. Despite the plot summary of the film given earlier in the performance piece, prior knowledge of Children of Paradise is almost compulsory for full enjoyment of all this.

In many respects, the show might be more effective as a straightforward musical adaptation of the film. The framing device of the frustrated artist does not quite work because we never find out enough about him. How has he arrived at this point in his career? Why does he feel stuck? What, specifically, is it about the film that calls to him? It's obvious that the artist figure is a stand-in for Kelly himself, and yet the performance never gets personal enough to allow the audience into his world. Further character development could significantly improve the piece, which has much potential. Let's hope Kelly fulfills that potential in future installments of The Paradise Project.

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