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Features NYC Features Published 1 October 2014

The Comfort of Strangers

Karaoke bars and open-air bedrooms: Nicole Serratore experiences some of New York's recent site specific productions.
Nicole Serratore

Dead Behind These Eyes

I sat up, got out of bed, and put my shoes on. For a moment, I felt like I owed something to the woman I had just shared a bed with. I had experienced Argentinean artist Fernando Rubio’s one-on-one site specific theater piece Everything by my side staged in seven beds on Pier 45. I had spent 15 minutes lying in a bed, staring into the eyes of an actress as she spoke to me and I responded (as instructed) with silence. It was strange to walk away from this intensely intimate piece without clapping or even acknowledging the actress who had just performed for me…with me…to me. Not all site specific theater has this kind of intimacy but the shows I experienced this month did and both asked for a certain level of audience bravery and interaction.

“Site specific” is a slippery term and as soon as you come up with a definition you can probably just as quickly undermine your own definition. But site specific shows typically take place outside the traditional four walls of a theater and the location or place of the staging informs the form or themes of the show. For example, Three Legged-Dog’s Play/Date (reviewed here), about dating in New York City, takes place in Fat Baby, a Lower East Side bar. Woodshed Collective’s Empire Travel Agency is a site specific piece where audiences book different theatrical “trips” taking place all over New York City.

Theater is, increasingly, happening all around us. One night I found myself in a basement karaoke parlor with a rotating set of disco balls on the ceiling and some ratty ottomans in the middle of the floor, not to sing, not to drink, but to experience a “karaoke play” called Dead Behind These Eyes by Sister Sylvester (in a co-production with Abrons Arts Center), which took place at Sing Sing Karaoke in the East Village. When Katy Perry’s Firework started on a karaoke machine, we all sang along. We knew what to do in this space. But when the three person cast, Brandt Adams, Daniel Kublick, and Lori E. Parquet, started reciting segments of John Osborne’s vitriolic play Look Back in Anger at us (and not at each other) we were less sure.

In Dead Behind These Eyes, audience involvement was encouraged and expected. With an audience of twelve (more timid than maybe the work called for) we muddled through, the cast peppering us with Buzzfeed quiz questions, confrontational John Osborne quotes, and a poorly sung hit by Toni Braxton. I found myself shouting out answers to crossword puzzle questions posed to us and I recited lines from Look Back in Anger off of a karaoke screen. A few times, I was faced with the penetrating stare of Brandt Adams as he shouted and seethed. I tried to meet his gaze with the same level of intensity but I was only brave for so long.

There’s not a lot of theater these days that really confronts the audience in that manner. The braver the audience, the better it would work, otherwise the risk is that it’s battering rather than engaging. But if you could take it, it was pulse racing. As the characters called out, “Why don’t we have a little game,” “Let’s pretend. We’re human beings,” it felt like despite all the theatricality the point of Dead Behind These Eyes was to get us to just face each other, look into someone’s eyes, and feel something.

Using images of social protest, American iconography, and controversial topics such as the Vietnam War and the recent confrontations in Ferguson, Mississippi, the play tried to tie the songs, images, and Look Back in Anger vignettes to the political. The Osborne voices untethered from the misogyny or class disputes of the original play allowed the pure claustrophobia of the human conflict he wrote about to build in this small karaoke space and his impotent rage took on new meaning when juxtaposed against the political imagery.

After the intermission, where the audience was left, un-chaperoned, to sing some favorite karaoke tracks elicited from the pre-show banter, the cast then returned dressed as a squirrel, bear, and a mouse. At this point, I admit to losing the thread. But it came back together for me when the squirrel and the mouse sat down to read only the subjects and verbs in the song Take Me to the River as it played on the karaoke machine. When those words were extracted, the song became a series of desperate pleas: Take Me, Wash Me, Hold Me, Love Me. I wished there had been a greater integration between the karaoke and the text throughout the show, but in that moment I found convergence—the human connection they were striving for was achieved.

After the dungeon darkness of Dead Behind These Eyes, Everything by my side was an exposing piece taking place in the bright light of day. Presented by PS122 and the French Institute Alliance Française as part of the Crossing the Line Festival, Fernando Rubio staged the work (performed in Spanish or English) with seven actresses dressed in white on seven white beds outside on Pier 45 for all passersby to see. Individual audience members climbed into each bed in a synchronized fashion for a 15-minute session.

Fernando Rubio's Everything by my side, New York

Fernando Rubio’s Everything by my side. Photos by Maria Baranova.

Despite the very public location, the script and experience was intensely personal. Once you started staring into the eyes of the actress the real world largely drifted away (save a very noisy ferry boat—the risk in site specific theater is that the unexpected in the environment can either enhance or detract from the theater). Rubio’s script created a hypnotic dream narrative which allowed each audience member to insert themselves into it. Delivered with a cadence that mimicked the lapping water around us, it involved a series of vignettes that begin with the phrase, “There is a moment in time….” From there your experience was gauged by your openness to the messages. A segment on a moment in time when “everything changed” caught me off guard and I got choked up with emotion. For my session, I shared a bed with actress Jessica Weinstein who stroked my arm and played with my hair as she spoke. In some ways holding her warm and joyful gaze was harder than facing the confronting gaze in Dead Behind These Eyes for me.

After my session ended I watched the next audience assemble and go to their beds. Each audience member removed their shoes and lay down next to the actresses as instructed. All, except one man who refused to lie down. He sat up, uncomfortable, staring out and away from the actress, with his back towards her. He never made eye contact with her.

Audience interaction is not for everyone but it served these intimate shows well. Dead Behind These Eyes wanted the audience to talk back and Everything by my side called for silence but both required openness to the challenging ideas and forms being used. It was an adventure only to be had if you were willing to lock eyes with a performer in a karaoke parlor or a bed and clearly not everyone is keen on such a journey. But for me it was a good reminder that site specific theater can be  worthwhile even if it sometimes requires me to travel outside my own comfort zone.

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