My Bit in the Grand Illusion: a writer wanders through the American Repertory Theatre's experiential theater.
We’d all arrived to the dream as willing spectators, and from that point forth our perceptions were made to be obstructed; our sense of what is to be obscured. It was the necessary series of doors being slammed shut before the door to the rabbit hole could be swung open on our behalf.
Never had I been so trusting in loaning out my senses to others, but each theatrical revelation perpetuated the next as the players, or facilitators, offered us, the participants, up more and more decadence. That narrowing tunnel opened up into a warm autumn gathering; a room brimming with murmurs of inquiry, orbs preventing soft light from escaping, fuzzy and shimmery things, and ice-cold spirits of one sort or another. And though all this seemed pretty straightforward I couldn’t help but feel like what was before me was a paper thin veil that could and would be shredded when the time came. The facilitators themselves spoke and gestured in a way that suggested that this part of the dream; everything in this immediate moment mattered as little as any segue-like daydream between book-ended nightmares and fantasies. So when we were asked to flash our playing cards, slip on our masks and throw our personas into a collection bucket as sacrificial matter, we immediately fell in line. We played our roles with the props were given as aggressive spectators knowing our facilitators were promising us something tilted and rare. There was so much behind that curtain.
Things the atmosphere had been spiked with:
As free as we thought we were; the agile but massive hand of the dream lead us by the smalls of our backs from inaudible scene, to dramatic happening, to the remaining residue of awful misdeeds past - the first of which was a large open space filled with a revolving forest and the air of importance. Not unlike faceless vultures longing for our lost ability to convey expression, we fell into place around those with living faces and feelings, scrapping for what we could get. And every scene from there on would resemble that one. Each lit and kiltered waltz existed with a perimeter of ghosts looking down and on. I started at how fluidly and faithfully I dropped my everyday role of voyeur and plunged into that of participant. This was accented when I was approached by a woman holding a muff on her outstretched arms. I immediately mimicked her pose, donned the fur cylinder as she slipped her head through the space between my limbs. She pivoted in place and returned to the light where those with faces rightfully reside.
We soon became greedy children for the faced ones and their lives, ravenous for information., How did we get into this dream and where we would end up?
From room to room and hall to hall I ran sifting through sensations. Pocketing eyes from the stunning taxidermy den (while the taxidermist sat there lining up his tools without a hint of awareness of my presence) and reading note after note left to be read by anyone but the person they were meant for. I found it odd that a note referenced a “Lost Umbrella room” when in my waking life we called it a lost-and-found or free rein. I rifled through an unattended suitcase of a lady with a face to find a collection of porcelain dolls all mocking me with their demeanors still intact. It’s funny that when you’re a ghost you feel the greatest call to be performative.
Half of the room where I became the haunting type was filled with sand while the other side was covered with soil speckled with feathers standing on their ends. I looked down on my fellow spectators as if they were part of the scenery. Suddenly abandoning all urgency, I stopped to smell every tea in a cupboard adjacent to the tearoom. I would arrive front and center for scenes marred by runny mascara, angular and acrobatic expression and a sensual felt so rich, I wanted to bury my face in it and inhale deeply enough to risk exfixiation - only further to ride the wave of crushed velvet macabre that had been laid out before me. I put my hand up to that of a woman who was dying of grief, our nerves only parted by glass. All that could be heard were those running footsteps and the traceless piping of music.
A dream has never been so sensory, and who knew a sense of dread would be so musical.
The climax jumped on our backs and propelled us onto a timelessly astral and sensual plain so gargantuan with desire and symbolism that it could only have a place in the unconscious. The moments were suddenly clipped, lapsed and stretched willie nillie so that time and seduction became all our playthings. Perhaps that’s why it was possible here for me to hold my breath for an entire 10 minutes while watching a wordless conversation that could only be described as the invert of the Last Supper. In an instant or maybe a year after we were running for our lives to get to wherever there was, realizing that the imagery and information we had gathered along the way was all coming back in forms bold enough for us to gorge on. I ran then stopped in the lost umbrella room. They were all aloft, ostensibly forming a ceiling of scattered and tufted floating devices. I wanted to live there but I felt that the hand was beckoning us all.
Items that flashed before my mind’s eye before I woke:
A dance floor
The hold of technology
Just as I felt myself waking I was lead, by the hand, back into the ambiguous speakeasy where we had commenced the tour. When I came to my reality was skewed. I couldn’t shake the sensation that I could manipulate all around me and go unseen. You always wish you could take things out of dreams with you into life: the power to fly, money, love… I was able to do just that. I certainly came out with things (a note, a glass eye, a pearl) but what’s more tangible and interesting was the impression I retained: that what is fantastical and otherworldly may be most often ethereal and out of our reach, but sometimes they’re smack in the middle of our existence waiting to be walked in on.
The American Repertory Theatre's Sleep No More runs through January 3, 2010.
All images are courtesy of the A.R.T. and Punchdrunk.