Play! and Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem. Challenging your notion of what theater is to get to “ahhh”

The audience creates the show in “Play!” The audience is the show in “Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem.”  Those are the uncomfortable ideas embedded in the two latest theater pieces, opening tonight and playing in repertory at Theaterlab, created by the five year old theater company that calls themselves This Is Not A Theatre Company, in apparent homage to the surrealist painter Rene Magritte (“This is not a pipe.“) But although they really are a theater company, TINATC’s  two new works may challenge your notion of what theater is.

“Play!” is a solo dance-theater piece performed by Jonathan Matthews on the subject of  playing — as in playing games, or playing with toys, or playing sports. In a dozen brief scenes that take up about half an hour, Matthews rants, lectures, quotes from studies and books, and at the same time moves his body in expert ways. Much of it feels reminiscent of the modern dancer in a black leotard spinning and spouting, who appeared regularly in the old comic strips by Jules Feiffer in the Village Voice.

“A healthy society should…” Matthews says, and then he straightens his slightly slouching body so that he looks taller. “A just society should…” — he balances on one leg. “An open society should…” — his chest puffs up and he sticks his arms out, presenting his heart to the world.

In one scene, he simply lists all the different categories of play (as determined by psychiatrist and play expert Stuart Brown), although some clearly overlap:

Spectator play

Ritual play

Object play

Rough and tumble play

Social play

Imaginative play

Purposeless play

and then riffs on how important purposeless play is.

As if to back up his belief, this first part of “Play!” is not what he considers the show. The show is the second half hour, in which the performer brings the audience on stage to do movement exercises, dance, slap around little beach balls, and drink wine or water — in other words, to play together. “Everything I do up to that point is just rhetorical preamble. The dancing at the end with the audience is the piece,” Matthews explained to me in my article on the two shows for TDF Stages, When’s the Last Time You Tasted, Touched or Played at a Show?

The point of “Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem” is to provide an experience for each individual theatergoer to enhance the senses that are normally neglected in a work of theater — taste, touch and scent — by asking us to eliminate one of the two senses on which most of us normally rely while attending a show — the sense of sight.

Each theatergoer is asked to don an eye mask, and then led to a table for eight scenes over some 45 minutes.  In one, the theatergoer is served rose tea, spritzed with rose perfume, and listens (both via a recording and a whisper from a company member) to verses from  the Robert Herrick poem that begins “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/Old Time is still a-flying.”

Chocolate, wine, feathers, Debussy and T.S. Eliot are all employed in a show that differs from other theater in the dark, such as the forthcoming I Can’t See, which its creators describe as an immersive horror experience.

“I’m not interested in scaring people. Our piece is restorative, gentle,” says Erin Mee, the company’s artistic director.  “It will be up to the audience to combine those sensory experiences and create the play. The protagonist is the audience.”

I sampled both theater pieces in rehearsal. I enjoyed both halves of “Play!” although I normally shy away from audience participation. “In both shows, there’s a hump to get over,” Matthews advised. “Once you are over that hump, you’re like…. ahhh… ideally.”

I got to ahhh in “Play!” — or maybe just “ah” — but not in “Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem.” I was too anxious to blindly seize the day, or more precisely the nighttime.

Play! is on stage at Theaterlab Thursdays to Sundays through September 29th. Tickets are $25.

Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem is on stage at Theaterlab Thursdays to Sundays through October 6, 2019.  Tickets are $30.

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Author: 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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