Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Dreamed of Rats

Terence Cranendonk
"I Dreamed of Rats"

For the past several years, artists have been leaning on the boundaries of live performance by creating interactive or intimate theatrical events, plays where the audience either has a (sometimes very limited) choice in the manner in which they observe or engage with the performance, or are made part of the performance itself in some creative fashion.

One of the most recent, much-ballyhooed productions in 2011 has been the arrival in New York City of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, in which an entire hotel is the setting for a remake of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Emphasis is placed little on the text, and more on the mood and atmosphere. Audience members wear masks, watching as actors murder, party and have sex right in front of them -- and the audience is permitted to get as close to the action as they like (so long as they don’t touch anyone.) One review noted how audience members would pick up things to look at them, like discarded letters, or rummage through cabinets or cases, and discover something relevant everywhere they did.

Over ten years ago I heard of the Neo-Futurists staging their version of Crime and Punishment, where every participant (audience member?) was handed a portable cassette tape player -- like I said, over ten years ago -- and had to follow whatever instructions were given them through their headphones. Which room to walk to next, whether to act as accused or judge. Each audience member went in on their own, though they may find themselves in a room with another audience member, whom they most likely did not know, playing their part in that moment’s scenario.

Nick, Denny & I

Nick, my brother Denny and I joined the audience of Voice-In-Head at the Theatre Garage during the 2003 Minnesota Fringe which followed the same model only with absurdist results. We had minidisc players (things change) and were given instructions to carry out throughout the proceedings. My brother told a surprisingly funny joke, considering he is very bad at telling stories, and Nick apparently had two minutes to tell the audience anything he wanted, and chose to praise me and my overwhelming talent and general goodness, and that if everyone that night saw just one more show the the Minnesota Fringe, it had better be I Hate This, which was opening the next evening.

I didn’t hear any of this, my brother asked me later if that embarrassed me or if I was moved or anything because I had this frozen mask on my face the entire time Nick was lauding my glory. I had to admit that for the entire two minutes this was going on I was receiving complicated instructions about how it was soon necessary for me to leap up, swirl around the room and deliver the worst fake-Shakespearean monologue I could muster.

Even more recently, the concept of salon performances have swept the theater world. Not simply the type of play where actors perform for an audience of one (although that is also a big deal deal right now) but situations where an actor or small company holds a performance in their own home.

The first I became aware of such an idea was in the early 90s when I first learned of Wallace Shawn’s The Fever which he introduced to select audiences in an apartment near Seventh Avenue. Wow. That’s exclusive, I thought. I wonder who was there. Given the opportunity to experience such a thing, I would not pass it up. Strange that I never had the nerve to do it myself.

Because really, I feel there is an emotional leap required to attempt such a thing, even know that it has become en vogue. And it has to be artistically requisite. A solo performance, sure, but that seems arrogant in the extreme. I have thrown a party where you have to sit quietly while I talk about me for an hour. A narcissist’s wet dream.

Last year I attended a performance of Kirk Wood Bromley’s It Was a Set-Up … performed for an audience of 20 in his living/dining room in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It was an open, advertised performance, but only if you had a reservation would you receive the address. A play for three, a domestic drama, it was perfectly suited to the realist, well, real space and the confined proximity to the performers.

Yes, it took me twenty years to find and attend a salon performance.

A few weeks back my wife and received a Facebook invitation to Terence Cranendonk’s I Dreamed of Rats. Terry has been working on this piece for over fifteen years, a one-hour, solo adaptation of Gogol's The Inspector General. We attended last night, arriving just in time, at his lovely home in Akron, and joined an audience of eight for a startlingly good event. Terry has always been a member of the physical theater, and he is a joy to watch in performance. Surprise is humor, and his work consistently leaves me surprised and delighted.

And, as most nourishing artistic experiences do, last night’s event left me hungry, wondering what I will do next to fill it.

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