Posts Tagged ‘theater’

Review: Southern Gothic from Windy City Playhouse

April 18th, 2019


Production photo; audience photography is not allowed
 

In Chicago I made a point to see Windy City Playhouse’s immersive theater play “Southern Gothic.”

It’s only my second experience seeing an immersive theater show, the first being Wonderland in San Francisco. This one is very different; the audience is expected to be a fly on the wall, sticking to the edges of the performance space.

The basic concept of immersive theater (or immersive experience) is still so new I’m not sure we have the right vocabulary to describe the different types of shows yet. The main commonality between them is there’s no clearly defined “proscenium,” or edge of the stage. Instead, audiences and actors share a common space.

Southern Gothic’s stage is custom built to reflect a suburban home in early 1960′s Georgia. The audience is instructed to stick to the walls, sitting only at benches along the perimeter with red cushions on them. Beverages can be purchased at a bar out on the home’s patio, though a couple small alcoholic beverages are served during the show and audiences are encouraged to pillage snacks served by actors off the tables.

Without going into spoilers the play concerns a house party among close white friends celebrating one of their birthdays. One of them is a shady politician, and another friend brings along a (gasp!) African American girlfriend.

It’s impossible to follow every story — and many unfold over the course of the evening — but you’re encouraged to pick one or more and dart from room to room to watch them play out.

The drama gets increasingly intense as the story continues. At one point while attempting to follow the action, I managed to slip on a particularly slick bench and spilled part of the drink I was holding at the time. I was about to alert a stagehand until I realized none of it landed on the floor — all of it wound up on my own face and shirt. Oops.

The clearances between the edge of the area where audiences are supposed to remain and the areas where the actors perform is a very thin one. For this reason the show is unfortunately inaccessible to wheelchair users.

Since there’s no way to see the entire story in one viewing it’s impossible for me to review the story itself, though I’ll say I enjoyed everything I was able to see — it was a full or nearly full house so there were moments where I didn’t have enough space to follow parts of the story I would have liked to follow up on.

What I can say for certain is the actors did an incredible job of performing while simultaneously ignoring and dodging the audience. Only in one moment did an actor accidentally look me in the eye, but they did not respond to my presence otherwise. The stagehands politely steered audience members out of the way of the actors on a few occasions where they might have crossed paths.

My only criticisms are mostly related to the stage itself. Mainly, I wish they’d gone for blocking it out based on the story rather than realism of the home. Certain story elements kept going back and forth between the kitchen and dining room but there was only one tiny passage for audience members between these two rooms which was shared by the actors. A second passage or perhaps a less realistic depiction of a home of the era with a wider passage would have served the story better.

There was one tiny anachronism that I doubt anyone else noticed; the telephone was plugged in via an RJ11 modular phone jack. This is an incredibly minor detail, but one that caught me off guard because the rest of the set looked so incredibly realistic. Every other detail like the appliances, stereo, wooden window frames (sans glass) and bathroom fixtures looked perfectly on point for the time period. I realize this is splitting hairs but it only stuck out at me because of the perfection of the other period details.

I don’t know if this is a popular opinion but I think traditional theater is a dying form of art. In film the camera can point wherever to highlight the action, whereas in traditional theater it’s fixed to the two dimensional plane in which audiences can move their eyes.

On the other hand with something like Southern Gothic the audience is free to move about the stage which affords them a form of agency to follow different stories during a single show. If I could I’d definitely see this play a second or even third time.
 

My recommendation: Southern Gothic is a solid play, though it also feels like a beta version of where theater could head to next. It’s not perfect but on a less cramped stage this could be the first in a new generation of great America immersive plays. It seems audiences agree as Southern Gothic already gained enough attention to be renewed.

Review: Wonderland from Epic Immersive

June 5th, 2018


 

This is the final month for an immersive theater show in San Francisco titled Wonderland. It’s a story based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. As the audience is sworn to secrecy and forbidden (wisely, I think) from taking photos, this will be a tight-lipped review. I’m not going to discuss details about the story or expose the secret location.

Let me start by stating that I’ve only been to one previous production that would qualify as “immersive theater,” so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But the basic rules on the ticketing website and the safety presentation before the show seemed pretty clear. Arrive sober, don’t attack the actors, and if you’re unclear or uncomfortable just say so — simple enough.

The audience went through in small groups, with the actors either drawing out or speeding up scenes to give everyone time to find their way through the dark “rabbit holes” of the space. This seemed to affect pacing in unexpected ways. My companion in our group later confessed she felt rushed at times and would have liked more time to explore.

I should point out here that this production is fairly linear. Unlike some immersive theater productions where you can stay in one spot the whole time if you wish, in Wonderland you’re ushered from one scene to the next.

The interactions between the actors and audience varied between scenes, as did the seriousness of the actors themselves. Some seemed content to chew scenery while others played their roles with more subtle humor. The only character played completely straight is Alice, which is sensible considering her story arch.

Aside from one unclear plot point near the end I found the story easy to follow and enjoyable. Perhaps the real standout star of the show is the venue itself. That said I’m biased as this particular place is one of my favorites in San Francisco — perhaps it will become one of yours as well.

Wonderland extends through the end of June 2018, you can purchase tickets here. If you go with someone else try to get tickets in the same “wave” so you won’t be split up.
 

My recommendation: If you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, I’d give it a qualified yes — as long as you meet the mobility requirements (some crawling is involved), have an interest in immersive theater, and can afford the ticket price it’s a fun and unique show. See it while you still have the chance!