A supposedly theater thing I’d probably do again
Published: May 4, 2011
Presented by Copycat Theatre May 6 and 7 from 8 p.m.-midnight and May 8 from 1-3 p.m.
It’s not every theater experience where you find yourself watching the production with a birdcage on your head. And yet, 20 minutes—15? 30? who knows—into Copycat Theatre’s Rooms Play Friday night, one of the performers came up to me and, very politely, placed an ordinary parakeet’s home over my skull, and I tried not crack jokes about knowing why the caged—well, you know. And this moment felt entirely normal in what had unfolded thus far. I had already been renamed “Goat.” I had already been on my hands and knees crawling on a floor covered with rice. I had already Renton-minnowed myself through into a Twombly-like puddle sculpture of a toilet. I had already failed to communicate with a number of people in possibly made-up languages I didn’t recognize. I had already been told to put my iPhone away. I had already crouched under stuffed animal-like spikes as a man in a safari-ish hat told me things that didn’t make any sense at all. I had already tried—and failed—to remove strips of ribbon glued (stapled? nailed?) to the floor and settled on tacking a red diamond to a doorjamb. And now I stood watching one of my fellow audience members lie on a table and get kinda/sorta covered by this pod-person-like thingamajig that was lowered from the ceiling—with a birdcage on my head.
Just to state the obvious, Rooms Play isn’t your ordinary theater production. The herculean collaboration of Copycat Theatre (Person Ablach, Hoesy Corona, Pilar Diaz, Monica Mirabile, and Sam Shea) and more than 50 other artists (see “The Quest,” Stage, April 27, 2011), the 2011 Rooms Play unveiled during last weekend’s Transmodern Festival is as much interactive game as theatrical production. Audience members go through in groups—mine had four—at staggered intervals to wind through the 14 rooms tightly packed into the Whole Gallery at the H&H Building before a young man in a suit guides you down three flights of stairs and out the front doors and passes you on to a woman in a dress, who walks you two blocks to the Howard Street entrance of the Current Gallery, where the adventure continues for another eight rooms. Set to “depart” at 11:36 p.m., my group left a little after midnight and the entire journey took a little more than a hour. Everybody’s experience follows the same path but might involve different particulars. It’s the only reason this “review” is written in the first person: I can only accurately convey the Rooms Play as performed for myself and three others.
And I have to confess that I wondered if I had cheated a little bit. Having spoken with a few Copycat Theatre members, I knew coming in that Rooms Play was going to address the experience of immigration and alienation. I knew that Rooms Play was a fusion of the narrative notion of the monomyth with various ideas, themes, processes, and experiences of immigrating to America and the social and cultural alienation that comes with that. I knew that the 14 rooms in the Whole Gallery would be a little more gently confrontational and that come Current Gallery it would be all hugs and happy faces and touchy-feelyness. I knew this before I even filled out the disclaimer form—which primarily warns about flashing lights, tight spaces, and crawling around, in addition to some more obtuse questions (I seem to recall a multiple choice space for gender and the options being a series of lines or something like that). I knew the overarching thematic concerns of the piece. And I’m not entirely sure I would have gleaned those concerns experiencing the production had I not known them before I entered.
Being familiar with that aim, however, gave the first few rooms an experiential cohesion. You begin by entering a room where a woman playing Peter Pan and her partner calibrate your brain and senses for what’s about to happen. Of the Whole Gallery rooms, this is one of the least claustrophobic. Peter Pan occasionally turns on a solitary light bulb she holds in her hands to light her face dramatically, as the pair introduces you to Rooms Play’s magical realm and prepares you for your journey. You get asked a question—we were asked what we had to eat that day—that they turn into a chant. It’s playful and more than a little melodramatically silly, but it does its job: It lets you know that everything that comes after is going to be some different kind of weird.
They shuffle you into a smaller room where a woman painted in black-and-white stripes sits behind a computer(ish) thing and renames everybody. A guy in white body paint bugs out his eyes and, perhaps, tries to make you uncomfortable by invading your personal space. He passes you into a very tight space where you crouch down with the guy in the safari-ish hat, who asks you to get and stay very quiet and tries to tell you things. From there you crawl into a room where a man and a woman ask you why you haven’t done certain things around the house and then make you dive into the toilet bowl.
These opening four rooms deliver various riffs on the immigrant experience: the process of entering some new place and being renamed for whatever reason, the stealthy crossing of a border under cover of night by an experienced guide who may not speak your language, the disorienting humility of working as domestics for people once you get to this new country who ask things of you you may never have considered doing where you came from. These rooms made perfect sense, knowing the back story. And I have no clue if I would have read them as such had I not known
Thing is, it almost doesn’t matter. Rooms Play’s ingenious wild-card is that it doesn’t really require narrative continuity. By making the audience physically move through time and place, Rooms Play’s throughline is built into its very process: You start one place and end someplace else, and the story is your interpretation of whatever happens in between. And like film editing, it works because the brain is willing to search for meaningful connections between any moments that occur in a serial form.
That format is why one genuinely weird scene happening right after another genuinely weird scene thing all feels of a piece despite it coming from a hivemind of so many artist cooks. In one room, a young woman sits peeling and cutting apples; the space is a mess of discarded skin, cores, and slices, and she, somewhat forlornly, takes your hand and asks why you didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t understand her. In another room, a gaggle of young women dressed as if auditioning for a bordello scene pass you small cups of liquid to drink—in my case an actual shot of booze—and overwhelm you with talk. The room is mounted on a rotating stage, and you feel the floor move until you’re asked to leave, when you wind through a narrow passageway and enter a small door and end up right back in the room with the women; it’s an effectively discombobulating moment. And in one of the first 14 rooms’ more poetic moments, you and your audience members/fellow travelers sit in a confessional-like booth suspended from the ceiling. It’s mounted on a railing and you slowly move around a short arc, as if on an Epcot ride. In front of you, a story plays out in shadow puppets cast on a white sheet, informing you of what you need to know, such as to beware of spiders. And, rest assured, you will encounter one; fortunately, you can become immune to spiders by feeling up a psychedelic wall.
Before you leave the Whole Gallery space you enter a dark room where two people in HAZMAT-like suits—one with a screen informing you to relax—go over you with a wand that seems to take readings to make sure you’re OK to leave or something. It’s a fitting end to the first 14 rooms’ sensory assault, and signals Rooms Play’s turn to its happier place.
The Current Gallery’s portion of the program might as well be called Romper Rooms Play. Here, you lie on the ground and pretend to nap for a spell. A group of women in a room full of balloons encourage you to toss them around, hold hands in a circle, take deep breaths. Melissa Webb’s room smells like fresh-baked cakes and you cut out animal-shaped cookies in pastel-colored dough and have your height measured against a wall. In the next room Theresa Columbus is so very, very, very happy to see you and wants you to tell her a story about something that happened to you. Yes, these portions of Rooms Play’s big idea are the flip side to those that happened in the Whole Gallery, but they’re also very much defined by the personalities of the people who created them. Columbus could be running at you screaming absolute terror while wearing a hockey goalie’s mask and brandishing a blood-soaked chainsaw over her head and you would have zero doubt in your mind that the worst thing that was about to happen to you is being hugged with extreme giddiness.
Rooms Play’s final room is an improvised beach, with a pail and shovel and a young woman there to let you know you can do whatever you need to do before you “transition” back to reality. (By this point, I really wanted to transition to a realm where I could find a men’s room.) As a singular experience, Rooms Play is more than a little magical. Over the course of an hour or so, I have to confess, I had a most excellent adventure. I had moved bags from one place to another when asked. I had tried to comfort a spider who seemed to be a tad neurotic. I had seen a lot of young artists nearly naked I’d prefer not to have seen nearly naked. It’s fun and memorable and probably a little different for everybody who goes through it. And what, exactly, the whole experience might mean remains profoundly abstruse.
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