Third Rail Projects, the dazzling experimental and self-described “experiential” company that has created engaging site-specific theater in an old mental institution in Williamsburg (“Then She Fell,” about Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland) and an old warehouse in Bushwick (“The Grand Paradise,” about a tropical vacation), now sites “Ghost Light” in a unique location for an immersive work of theater – a theater at Lincoln Center.
“Ghost Light” takes us on a backstage tour of all available space at the Claire Tow Theater, the sleek 2012 addition on top of Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont that presents experimental work under the rubric LCT3. Exploring Claire Tow’s wings, backdrops, dressing rooms, catwalks, balconies and staircases is interesting enough, but Third Rail means to transport us backstage at the fictional Montgomery County Playhouse during a performance of “William Burns’ Exits and Entrances.” It is a witty title, since at several points during the two hours of “Ghost Light,” we are treated to the sight of the 16 performers rushing back and forth, on stage and off, putting on costumes on the fly or taking them off, in what feels like an authentic re-creation of backstage bustle. (Much of this we view through a carefully-placed mirror!)
There is a similar and even more amusing scene when we each are given props to hold – a sword, a plant, a basket of lobsters – and the performers come rushing in to snatch them from us, go “on stage,” and then hurriedly throw them back at us. It is one of the many times that the performers give the theatergoers small tasks. In one fun scene, as the actress on stage rides in a rowboat, we are assigned to make the waves go back and forth, the snow to fall, and the big yellow moon to swing into the air.
There is more to “Ghost Light” than an impressive feat of coordination and some unthreatening audience participation. The piece is named after the electric light that is customarily placed center stage when the theater is empty, officially for safety, but also to appease the theatrical ghosts. The show, in other words, takes its cues from the elaborate and oft-mystical theatrical lore that has been built up over the centuries.
And so we view from above (a balcony, catwalk, or staircase landing) the sort of wordless scenes that Third Rail does so well, vivid and eerie moments of movement – a sensual pas de deux on the seats of the auditorium that spills out onto the stage; a drunken theater party at the lobby bar, complete with jazz piano, partner swapping and plenty of booze; a self-destructive actress in the throes of apparent drug ecstasy and despair.
The performers speak in “Ghost Light” too. In her dressing room, a Grande Dame of the theater (Rebekah Morin) dressed in gold lame, hands me a script to read that has me complimenting the performance she has just completed (What a great solution for that often-awkward backstage visit after a show!) She reminisces while showing me an old scrapbook of past performances, while the three other theatergoers sitting in her dressing room look on in envy (at least, as I imagine it.) In the break room, an usher (Donna Ahmadi) dressed in an old-fashioned red uniform with gold epaulets, gossips as she puts together the program. She leaves and then a janitor (Josh Matthews) tells us how to punch in and what it’s like to work in a theater full of ghosts.
On stage, the elegant leading lady (Roxanne Kidd) declares “I lie for a living,” which an unseen voice directs her to repeat again and again, as the lights are adjusted; we are witnessing a tech rehearsal.
“I have this recurring monologue,” says Ryan Wuestewald, dressed like a stage hobo, complete with a big hole in one of his socks, as he delivers a monologue that he explains to us the playwright is still writing as he speaks; he was going to deliver a ready-made monologue, he says, but there were some problems with acquiring the rights.
The cleverness of this monologue suggested to me how much more “Ghost Light” could have taken advantage of the centuries’ worth of words that is as much (more?) a part of theatrical legacy as its ghosts.
Others have expressed disappointed that a show about the age-old rituals and personalities of the theater is being staged in a theater just five years old, with nary a crumbling nook or cranny in which the theatrical ghosts can reside. Still others may think it odd that a piece that ostensibly takes us backstage during a specific performance makes no effort to cohere into a discernible story, but is instead a random collection of moments and movement.
That didn’t bother me. As my understanding of immersive theater evolves, I realize it is not so much about presenting a story, nor even just about reproducing an environment. It is about evoking an atmosphere. Third Rail’s effective and engaging evocation of life in the theater is such a terrific idea that they could take it on the road. Imagine adapting “Ghost Light” for the Belasco, or Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, or the Paris Opera House, or the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona -or the real-life Montgomery County Playhouses that exist in every state in America.
Written by Zach Morris, created in collaboration with Third Rail Projects; Conceived, directed and choreographed by Zach Morris and Jennine Willet
Set design by Brett J. Banakis, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Eric Southern, composer and sound designer Sean Hagerty, composer Isaiah Singer
Cast: Donna Ahmadi, Cameron Michael Burns, Elizabeth Carena, Alberto Denis, Joshua Dutton-Reaver, Julia Kelly, Roxanne Kidd, Josh Matthews, Rebekah Morin, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara O’Con, Edward Rice, Jessy Smith, Niko Tsocanos, Carlton Cyrus Ward and Ryan Wuestewald
Running time: Two hours and ten minutes
Tickets: $30; $50 after July 17
Ghost Light production photographs by Julieta Cervantes. Click on any to see them enlarged.