It might be that today’s young (and younger) theater crowd is just as familiar with immersive theater—sometimes called interactive and/or participatory and/or site specific—as older theater audiences are used to, say, the well-made play.
That may be why LCT3, where the slogan is “New Artist New Audiences,” in association with Third Rail Projects, which immerses itself in immersive theater, is opening Ghost Light at the Claire Tow.
To be site specific Ghost Light, which refers to the single bulb placed on an empty stage after a performance, isn’t just at the Claire Tow. It’s all over the Claire Tow. All but the final few minutes take place backstage, as conceived, directed and choreographed by Zach Morris and Jennine Willett and written by Morris in collaboration with the 16-strong company.
More specifically, it unfolds over approximately two intermissionless hours in many, if not all, of the backstage spaces. Patrons divided into groups that may subsequently be divided into smaller groups are led to the wings, to dressing rooms, to offices, to stairwells, to walkways, to at least one soundproofed cubicle. The touring is led by leading performers or backstage crew members and may include requests of those guided to perform backstage duties.
The intention is clear—or seems to be for much of the time. Morris and Willett want to acquaint ticket buyers (in some instances, subscribers) with what they don’t ordinarily see when they plunk themselves on a plush auditorium seat. Look there, someone’s executing a quick costume change.
It may be that older audiences—say those familiar with movies like All About Eve or Judy Garland’s I Could Go On Singing—already have a grasp of backstage life and why the Third Rail organizers think younger crowds will learn from being handed supposed scripts filled with crossed out lines that represent cut dialog.
That’s all well and good—and even amusing from time to time. But it doesn’t explain the interludes where some cast members break into song (Morris, sound and music designer Sean Hagerty and cast member Elizabeth Carena wrote “Eternal Song aka The Lonely Minstrel.”) or into tense dance routines. (These might remind some immersive theater fans of The McKittrick Hotel’s Sleep No More.)
Neither does any of this explain why groups spend time leaning over an upper stairwell railing to watch an actress writhe on steps a few floors below. Is she supposed to be a performer having a pre- or post-performance anxiety attack?
As groups shuffle around, maybe what they’re invited to witness is the production of a classic play in the grand style. (Are these the ghosts of Ghost Light?) Empire gowns (Montana Levi Blanco is the costumer) suggest one past. On the other hand, an actor dressed in Shakespeare get-up gives an acting class in something akin to the now outmoded Delsarte Method. Oddly, during his mash-up of Shakespeare speeches, he saws the air while delivering part of Hamlet’s warning to the players against sawing the air.
Often with immersive theater, a curious effect takes hold. Actors address audience members as if initiating a two-sided conversation, but somehow it’s assumed that audience members will not respond. Or perhaps sometimes they’re mean to. In any case, the result too frequently is that the silent audience members become awkwardly docile, as if they’re sheep corralled by strict shepherds. It’s not an flattering circumstance.
Because, as mentioned above, there may be a divide between theater lovers these days, the Lincoln Center folks are being extremely thoughtful about this production. Ticket holders are advised they will encounter “Standing Walking Climbing stairs Being in confined spaces Being separated from your party.” They’re also advised to wear comfortable shoes and asked to stow all personal items in lockers provided in the lobby. Chairs and wheelchairs are provided.
As spectators proceed through the backstage areas, they’re addressed on any number of subjects—such as a stagehand with ‘Sam” on his uniform stressing that that clocking in and out is mandatory—but there’s one piece of information never vouchsafed: the theater’s architect. It was the late theater-loving Hugh Hardy, heading a group. To some extent, Ghost Light is also a testament to him.
When Elie Wiesel died, a widespread worry affected thousands, if not millions: Is a time approaching when Holocaust memories will fade and vanish? The need to see that they don’t is even more pressing now that that major keeper of the frightening flame is gone—certainly to countermand the (growing?) number of Holocaust deniers.
What isn’t needed, however, is bad commemorative art. A prime example is Nicholas Tolkien’s Terezin, now presented by The Steinberg Theatre Group at the Peter Sharp Theatre.
The two-act play is a collection of hollow histrionics involving, most prominently, two young women, Violet (Sasha K. Gordon)) and Alexi (Natasa Petrovic), attempting to survive in the Terezin concentration camp, also known as Theresienstadt. When Violet disappears, Alexi, a violinist and the daughter of a murdered violinist, is put in the position of learning her friend’s whereabouts only after teaching menacing camp commander Karl Rahm (Michael Leigh Cook) to play.
Tolkien, the great-grandson of J. R. R. Tolkien, doesn’t fulfill his obvious good intentions, his shortfall not needing lengthy description here. Suffice it to say that his depiction of a representative of the Dutch Red Cross visiting the supposed model camp is carried out as if it’s a bizarre comedy sketch. His second-act opener is awkward poetry during which the phrase “breath that echoed” emerged.
Incidentally, the actors mime violin playing be stretching a length of gauze along their left arm and massaging the Christo-ed limb. Evidently, that’s meant to be visual poetry. It isn’t.
Tolkien directed, once again proving that very few playwrights are adept at directing their own works. Charlotte Sydwell choreographed. It’s often said that the Holocaust is impossible to dramatize. Terezin will give no one the opportunity to argue otherwise.