Theater in the Around Rules(?)

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Orlando Furioso
Orlando Furioso

Why, oh why am I suddenly immersed in immersive theater, and what good is it doing me?

These days, immersive theater seems always to be with us. Like the poor. So much so that at my mentioning the current inundation of emailed press releases announcing these impending entries, one respected critic I know said, “When I see the word in an emailed release, I hit delete.”

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And he’d say something like that for what reason, you ask? Here’s part of the headline from the release for One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle: “An Immersive Theater Experience at Henri Shnuffle’s Apartment at The Loomstate/Rogan Showroom on Bond Street.” Here’s another headline from a release received around the same time: “Site-specific immersive 4CHAMBERS begins July 6 on Governors Island.”

A paragraph also from recent pickings: “The site-specific multi-disciplinary retelling of the creation of Gotham leads audiences on an epic adventure, uncovering the most compelling stories of the City’s 400-year history. MANNA-HATA uncovers the vibrant, compelling legacy of NYC and the tenacious New York character.” (That’s a lot of “compelling,” and is it, really? Maybe yes, maybe no.)

One more?: “The Civilians take their singular brand of creative investigation in a bold new direction with Be the Death of Me, an installation performance piece that offers the audience intimate encounters with matters of life and death in New York City.”

But how singular can it be? How singular can any of them be when what seems to be unfolding is not a significant fresh theater trend as it is the out-of-control acceleration of a bandwagon too many people with little imagination want to board for fear of missing out on they don’t know what?

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I’m not saying I’m totally against immersive theater-or interactive theater, as it’s also often labeled. (At least I don’t think I am; see lower down.) In 1987-I repeat, 1987-Tamara led ticket buyers on a merry chase through the Park Avenue Armory. Before that, I saw and was greatly fired up when in 1970 Orlando Furioso invaded the temporary Bubble Theatre in Bryant Park. Racing around while a large troupe of Italian performers brought Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem to titillating life on various scattered platforms couldn’t have been more fun.

And that was over 40 years ago. So don’t fall for anybody’s proclaiming that we’re in the midst of a thrilling new direction. I won’t exactly say this is the message Here Lies Love proponents are sending, although they’re certainly behaving that way. They seem genuinely taken (taken in?) by the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim concept-album-turned-musical, and who am I to question their enthusiasm?

I will say, however, that while being literally prodded by an orange-suited attendant strenuously pushing a platform, I suddenly realized the only thing separating this tuner from Evita-call it Evita in Manila-was the immersive element. Which perhaps was the only way the creators could differentiate it from its Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice predecessor.

Whatever you think of HLL, I split the rockin’ scene after 20 minutes. (So sue me.) Nevertheless, I screwed my courage to the sticking-post and immersed myself in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which I liked okay (not Dave Malloy’s score, however), and Murder Ballad, which I liked much better, possibly because I became immersed by hotties Caissie Levy and Will Swenson when, at different times, they climbed a few stairs to belt only an arm’s distance away from me.

Still, don’t get me started on Sleep No More, the long-running hit at McKittrick Hotel that’s supposedly an interactive, site-specific spin on Macbeth. Perhaps it is. At one point as I meandered through the rooms that are its immersive set-I wasn’t wearing the mask I’d been told to wear-I did notice stationery with “Glamis” printed on it. All the same, I fled that one after 45 minutes-and might have scuppered sooner if I’d had an easier time finding the exit.

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Okay, okay, I concede there’s something to be said for surround-sight-and-sound theater. John Lahr may have phrased it best in his 1970 Village Voice Orlando Furioso review: “We forget the essential nature of theater: that it is bodies existing in space. The space itself is a crucial faction in the equation of theater and is dramatic [his italics].”

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But while there’s something to be said for it, I’m not convinced today’s rampant immersers are out to say it. Therefore I’m not interested in keeping up with these theater Jones’ but am more concerned with why the phenomenon is besieging us now. I can’t say for certain. Who can? I suspect, though, that the abundance of these enterprises has something to do with the need for 360-degree stimulation that develops in a largely desensitized-through excessive sensory bombardment-age. Probably, immersive, site-specific, interactive theater is also an inevitable outgrowth of performance art.

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Having fielded those speculations, I need to say the very idea of immersive theater bites me in the rear for an even bigger reason. For me, the word itself has an unfortunate implication: Its constant use nowadays suggests that traditional fourth-wall theater isn’t immersive. That would be theater where the actors are up there emoting away and we’re all down here placidly facing them.

Aeschylus Immersive
Aeschylus Immersive

Hogwash. The entire point of theater is that the audience is immersed in the text and the context. Were Sophocles’s and Aeschylus’s and Euripides’s and Aristophanes’s audiences not immersed in what was transpiring before their eyes. Were William Shakespeare’s crowds, especially the groundlings, not immersed in, say, Henry V? (Incidentally, directors at today’s Globe do occasionally employ a few immersive tactics, knowing the Bard counted on rousing spectators through his jingoistic, iambic pentameter sentiments.)

Would the first-nighters at Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie maintain they weren’t immersed in Amanda Wingfield’s dilemmas? When Ethel Merman sang “Some People” or “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” or “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy, wasn’t that musical comedy immersion of the first order? Right now, when Cicely Tyson begins singing “Blessed Assurance” in the revival of Horton Foote’s Trip to Bountiful and audience members can’t, won’t and don’t stop from singing along, isn’t that immersive, interactive theater?

You bet it is. You bet all of it is. So what’s all the carrying on about immersive theater? Undoubtedly, it doesn’t amount to much, and eventually it, too, will pass.

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