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Queen of the Night: High-Priced Circus, Dinner and Faux Porn in Paramount’s Basement

QoTN3About two hours into “Queen of the Night” — the high-priced combination faux-S&M show, circus and dinner that has been nominated improbably for a 2015 Drama Desk Award as Unique Theatrical Experience — the sexy young performers in eye-liner and skimpy Alice in Wonderland outfits arrived at our table with white buckets for the customers to throw in the used cutlery from our finished meal. Immediately afterward, we put our metal plates piled with chicken carcasses into huge white bins carried by sexy young bus boys wearing motorcycle helmets.

“This must be the interactive part of the show,” my companion said.

I laughed. But it was actually a sad comment. If you read what people wrote about “Queen of the Night” after it began way back on December 31, 2013, the performers would single out individual members of the audience and lead them into dark corners for nuzzling, or stroking with a feather, or uttering sweet nothings like “you smell like desire,” or light wrapping with a rope, or at least pasting a rhinestone teardrop on their face. But so far neither of us had been nuzzled or stroked or smelled or wrapped or even pasted.

Had the show gotten tamer, or were we just singled out not to be singled out?

I was sure it was the latter. I’ll admit I may have been giving off a hostile vibe. I had my reasons. “Queen of the Night” is marketed as “a decadent fusion of theater, cuisine, circus, and nightlife that welcomes guests into a wholly interactive entertainment experience.” But the only thing I found truly decadent about it were the ticket prices — as high as $475, no lower than $140 – and the modern caste system that it suggests. The show is taking place in the basement of the Paramount Hotel, in the same space that theater impresario Billy Rose opened in 1938 – in the midst of the Great Depression – as the Diamond Horseshoe, featuring vaudeville acts and showgirls. The newly renovated space, which had been empty since 1951, was given the same name, and to my mind carries some of the same baggage. Most of the 33 members of the cast of “Queen of the Night” are called butlers.

Then there is its claim to being “theater” that is “wholly interactive.” I’ve admitted to being less than personally avid about shows with aggressive audience participation. In addition, though, the show’s description may give some people the impression that it is in the same league as such innovative “immersive” theater pieces as Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Here Lies Love, and Sleep No More — especially since “Queen of the Night” is directed by award-winning theater artist Christine Jones, who was the set designer for Spring Awakening and American Idiot. It is a stretch to call “Queen of the Night” a work of theater at all. All of the immersive shows (many based on classical literature) have characters, a plot, dialogue, emotions, a theme – a point. “Queen of the Night” has a pose. The promotional material pitches the show as “a dark debutante ball thrown by The Marchesa for her daughter Pamina.” But it’s unlikely that many in attendance, seeing Katherine Crockett as the Marchesa standing still for hours on stage dressed in an elegant white Halloween costume, pick up on even this vaguest of premises.

Calling something an “entertainment experience” should be the tip-off to how oddly generic and calculated this mishmash that pretends to be cutting-edge. The show feels no more original than a self-consciously “edgy” fashion shoot set in a nightclub.

I realize the only reason I was invited to “Queen of the Night” now, 15 months after its official opening, is because I am a member of the Drama Desk, and they want my vote. They aren’t getting it. I’m voting for Baba Brinkman’s The Rap Guide to Religion, which is both unique and theatrical, and has something important and interesting to say.

Still, “Queen of the Night” can work as a splendid night out for some people – best suited, perhaps, for a group of (flush) friends to celebrate a birthday.

For all the promise of darkness, the elaborate attention to visual details is a bright spot, from the dead leopard crowned in jewels to the hand motif – hands cover not just the light fixtures, but ride up and down the Marchesa’s gown, which, like all the costumes, is designed by Thom Browne.

Its running time of two hours and 45 minutes is divided more or less into three parts. The first half hour is mingling, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and the audience seduction/pseudo-Weimar Republic goings-on, accompanied by percussion-heavy piped-in music. (The musical bombardment continues throughout.) Then there is the circus by Les 7 Doigts de la main, the Montreal-based company of acrobats that have given us such spectacles as Pippin and Traces. Their gymnastics are unquestionably impressive. There were also a couple of magic tricks thrown in. Then there is the meal, aka “food performance created by Jennifer Rubell.” The menu at the opening nights last year was suckling pigs, smoked short ribs, and lobster. The night we attended, the choices were lamb, chicken and salmon. If your table got chicken (as ours did) but you wanted the lamb, you were encouraged to “bargain” with another table. I stuck with the chicken, which was succulent and served on spits as if we were at a Ye Olde Medieval Faire.

After the meal, which was good but really heavy, the acrobatics resumed, even more spectacular than before the meal, but I somehow had had my fill. “Shouldn’t they wait at least a half hour after eating?” Then there was some lovely and contortionist dancing that was apparently an effort to tie up the plot with the Marchesa, and we were encouraged to dance on the stage, where a sexy butler spoon fed me chocolate hazelnut cake, while coddling my head – interactive at last.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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