This was my first official experience of “immersive theatre,” although I had participated in “experiences” which were a big part of 1960’s experimental theatre. The physical space is intrinsic to the experience, so I’ll start with that. One floor of the building, divided into 4 separate playing areas, divided by black floor-length drops. All the “scenes” are somewhat audible from every space, so as an audience member, one can follow one’s ear, walking to stand, at whim, to watch whatever sound one is drawn to. Each space is its own universe: 1) a central ritualistic tent-like structure is the largest, by the side of which sit the conga and the bass for the live music; 2) a meditative studio whose proprietress is a mysteriously cat-like woman played with lovely, quiet intensity; 3)a rather brightly-lit reality-television kitchen space amongst the pots and pans of which hang two cat puppet-figures, and 4) the media-centric bachelor living room of Rocky, the cast’s soul male who is, perhaps appropriately, obsessed with i-phone technology. The text of the piece yields elements which contribute to the solution of a mystery, details of which I refrain from divulging. Suffice it to say that two of Josephine’s cats seem to have been killed, there are multiple romantic entanglements among the four performers, Rocky’s phone goes missing, and there are repercussions of all the events with a past-life backstory which requires a lot of attention to piece together. Piecing things together is part of the fun.
The performers are very committed; they maintain focus though we are nearly breathing down their necks. The text has potential interest and off-beat appeal but fails to establish a dramatic arc. The dispersive elements that go with “immersive theatre” seem to call for a non-dramatic aesthetic, so it fights against story-telling. I found the performers, though well-meaning, somewhat lacking in the intensity that would go a long way to mitigate the piece’s wandering-around quality. There are moments of interaction with the audience (of about 20 on my night): Rocky asks the audience to help him with his phone’s tech-games, and the cat-woman invites us to sit and meditate with her, however, most of the events/scenes are more to be witnessed than participated in. I was frustrated in wanting a more visceral sense of what samurai is and why it figures into the piece. It’s there in the plot, but it doesn’t fully inform the characters, other than that there are some ritualistic dance-movements sprinkled throughout.
By introducing a concrete narrative and then refusing to sculpt either text or performance to serve it, the piece falls somewhere indistinct between narrative and evocative, and that’s a failing. For a date night, it’s an easy way to spend an evening. Ultimately, it fails to rivet or to entrance, and riveting or entrancement are to be desired. For a theatre event, it’s of interest that there’s such a “new” theatre show in Harlem, but I hope their next work will have more of drama to it.
WE ARE SAMURAI, written by Daria Miyeko Marinelli and directed by Ria T. DiLullo, at the 133rd Street Arts Center (at the foot of Morningside Heights, that is, in the valley just east of St. Nicholas Avenue, near the B and C train stops at 135th street). You just go up the stairs to the left of the “storefront church” and you’re there. With actors Tess Avitabile, Karen Eilbacher, Rachel Lin, and Sean Devare. Presented by Marrow’s Edge. The tickets are $18. The link to access tickets is www.wearesamurai.brownpapertickets.com. Stage Manager: Sarah Haber; Sound Designer: Paula DeLillo; Lighting Designer: Matt Bellas; Costume Designer: Matsy Stinson; Technical Director: Jonathan Huggins; Set Consultant: Artem Kreimer; Puppet/Mobile Design: Andrew Murdock; Production Assistant: Michelle Snyder; Poster Design: Harrison Densmore. The performance plays September 26 through October 6, with remaining shows October 5 at 5 and 7:30pm and October 6 at 5 and 7:30pm.
Tess Avitabile as Josephine, Karen Eilbacher as Elias, Rachel Lin as Regan and
Sean Devare as Rocky