Immersive, verbatim & immersively verbatim

Caroline Wake: New York Performance

The Sound and the Fury, Elevator Repair Service, Public Theater, New York

The Sound and the Fury, Elevator Repair Service, Public Theater, New York

The Sound and the Fury, Elevator Repair Service, Public Theater, New York

It’s summer in New York and all the locals are elsewhere, leaving the tourists to ask each other for directions. Pickings are also slimmer than you might expect when it comes to performance. Nevertheless, I manage to catch three shows that encapsulate trends within contemporary performance: immersion, interaction, adaptation and verbatim.

Punchdrunk, Sleep No More

Sleep No More opened in London in 2003, Boston in 2009, and then New York in 2011. It’s UK company Punchdrunk’s signature production and has become a touchstone within contemporary debates about immersive, participatory and promenade performance. It takes place in three converted warehouses that have been renovated and renamed the McKittrick Hotel, a fictional venue that was—so the story goes—completed in 1939 just before the war broke out and had to be closed.

Whatever else you may think of Punchdrunk, they have mastered the art of anticipation. Like a secret club, there is a long line, a surly security guard, a stamp on the wrist and a cloakroom. You are invited to leave everything behind except, of course, your cash or credit card, which you’ll need to purchase drinks at the bar. We are slowly ushered into said bar, where a band plays, another line forms and preposterous gentlemen introduce themselves as Balthazar and call you darling. It’s all very mannered so far. A small group is called forward into an antechamber, given white masks and escorted into the elevator. The operator goes through the rules of the game before stopping at one floor and shoving a female patron out the door, leaving her startled friend to ride on alone. Eventually we disembark into a dark, wordless world, loosely based on that of Macbeth.

It helps to be familiar with the play, but even without it the performance would register at the level of atmosphere and affect. The set is both impossibly large (multiple floors, over 100 rooms in total) and incredibly detailed (drawers full of detritus and letters on desks, all of which you can rifle through). I think I am on the fifth floor but, disoriented, not entirely sure. There’s a room of empty hospital beds, another with empty baths: both are staffed by attendants in black masks. In a tiny office, a nurse in a starched cap carefully scissors words from a medical dictionary. The white masks create a mobile fourth-wall: no matter how close spectators stand, she does not acknowledge or interact with us; when she moves, we are expected to get out of her way, a domineering dynamic that recurs throughout the performance. I leave to get lost in a forest.

On other floors (I lose track of which), there are bars, taxidermists and detectives. I miss some of the “moneyshot” scenes that the publicity advertises but I do catch a large and spectacular waltz. Elsewhere the choreography is muscular and athletic, reminiscent of contact improvisation: the dancers throw themselves at each other as well as against the furniture and the wall. It’s a bit repetitive and two spectators start mocking it in a corner, imitating some of the moves. Not for long though, as they are set upon by the black masks almost immediately.

Despite its dramaturgy of anticipation, seduction and immersion, I am not fully won over by Sleep No More. It seems to produce in its spectators a sort of performance of mindless pursuit, following where everyone is going. Several times I am engulfed in, trampled by or witness to a mob of spectators sprinting through the corridors. Despite advertising itself as a choose-your-own adventure affair, Sleep No More is immersive but not interactive. Finally, I found the production too similar to the company’s recent take on Woyzeck, The Drowned Man (2014). The plays share some similarities, but the Punchdrunk retro 1930s aesthetic renders them more alike than they actually are.

Elevator Repair Service, The Sound and the Fury

The Scottish play provides an unexpected link between Sleep No More and The Sound and the Fury via the line “a tale told by an idiot.” First performed in 2008 (also Adelaide Festival, 2010), this is the second in a trilogy of literary adaptations from Elevator Repair Service, the first being Gatz (2004) and the third The Select (The Sun Also Rises) (2010). Whereas Gatz performs The Great Gatsby in its entirety, The Sound and the Fury focuses on the first section, April Seventh, 1928, also known as “Benjy’s Chapter.” Benjy would be probably categorised as differently abled these days, but in Faulkner’s novel, published in 1930, he is described as a man who’s been “three for 30 years.”

The wide stage is almost cinematic in ratio and the set almost symmetrical, recalling Wes Anderson’s planimetric shots [as in non-topographic maps. Eds]. The action is framed by two wide architraves: on the left are a drinks cabinet and faded settee, scene of the occasional snuggle and nap; on the right, there’s a kitchen table, scene of many a messy meal, a birthday and a few showdowns between Dilsey the maid/matriarch and the Compson children. The middle of the stage is left empty but for a faded rug; further upstage are two armchairs, an assortment of floor lamps and picture frames hanging on a green wall.

The performance proceeds as the chapter does, out of chronological order. In addition, the actors rotate through various characters, with the exception of Benjy who is mostly played by Susy Sokol. It’s not hard to follow who’s who, firstly because they almost always follow their dialogue with “Caddy said” or “Lester said,” as in the book and secondly, because they are always wearing a signature garment, eg whoever is playing Mother wears a voluminous white nightgown and sunglasses. These are not the only gestures towards theatricality: the naturalistic action is also interspersed with stylised movement, including choreography that looks like a line dance gone wrong. When the frantic activity subsides there are also moments of still grace, such as when the family gathers around Benjy to calm him. For the most part, he stays silent, watching the family or the fire, which is in fact an image of a fire on a glowing LCD.

The Sound and the Fury is beautiful, mind- and time-bending: parts of it seem to stretch for hours, while other moments fly by. For me it doesn’t reach the heights of Gatz, but this might have more to do with the timing of the productions more than anything else. I saw Gatz in the Sydney Opera House in 2009, just as our own jazz age had come crashing down in the financial crisis. While Australia suffered moderately compared to the rest of the world, there was still a sense that the party was over and the reckoning was to come. Faulkner is probably telling older truths, or more timeless ones about family, memory, inheritance and history, but on this particular evening they seem less urgent. Perhaps if I had seen it in 2008, I might feel differently.

Ilana Becker, Argument Sessions

From a verbatim reading of Faulkner’s prose to a verbatim reading of SCOTUS (the Supreme Court of the United States) transcripts. Created and directed by Ilana Becker, Argument Sessions is part immersive and part tribunal theatre. It’s immersive in the sense that both the audience and the actors are in a cabaret setting, with the actors revealing themselves one by one throughout the performance, usually when they interject to counter another character’s argument. It’s tribunal in the sense that it takes the transcripts of the Obergefell vs Hodges (2015) case and delivers all of the arguments for and against same-sex marriage in all of their complexity.

There are both theatrical and structural difficulties to this task, which Becker navigates with finesse. The theatrical problem lies in how to present the arguments of the court without lapsing into documentary theatre’s more predictable and naturalistic tendencies. The production resolves this problem not only via the cabaret setting but also through the unexpected use of song and the occasional moment of spectacle. The political problem lies in that familiar accusation of “preaching to the converted.” I doubt that many, if any, audience members need convincing, so why are we listening to this argument? Perhaps, like preaching, the performance is rehearsing the arguments of the non-believers, partly to understand them and partly to refute them; these refutations, in turn, reaffirm a faith that might be waning in the face of frustrating opposition.

That faith is rewarded just two weeks later on June 26: Argument Sessions was performed on 15 June, two months after the case had been heard by the court on 27 and 28 April but two weeks before it had delivered its judgement that, yes, the US Constitution does guarantee the fundamental right to marriage to same sex couples. Staged in the liminal moment between hearing and finding, Argument Sessions takes its place as the latest in a long line of artworks that prepared the ground for this huge legal and cultural decision.

Performances: Punchdrunk Productions, Sleep No More, The McKittrick Hotel, from 13 April; Elevator Repair Service, The Sound and the Fury, The Public Theater, 14 May-12 July; Ilana Becker, Argument Sessions, Ars Nova, New York, 15 June

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 24

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

15 August 2015