“The Wandering,” which its creators bill as an immersive theatrical experience inspired by the music of the 19th century classical composer Franz Schubert – “part visual album, part queer drama, and part communal live experience” – is so hilariously complicated that it feels like a social science experiment, testing how much time and effort they can get an audience member to spend despite little hope of a commensurate reward.
But it is rewarding in one sense, especially for those of us who welcome the experimenting undertaken by the boldest of theatermakers in these most challenging of times. It offers ideas for both online and offline engagement that might enhance future works of theater that are more successful dramatically – which is to say, less earnest and less arty.
“The Wandering” is supposed to take place over four days. Ticket buyers are mailed a package, via United States Postal Service, that contains a series of folders, and a card with your personal user name and password. Each day, you use a computer to log onto the Wandering site, and watch a film of up to 12 minutes, then you open the folder for the day and follow its instructions.
The Day 1 folder included a ribbon, and a card with a lovely little essay by co-creative director Calista Small about how she went on a walk with her autistic brother on her 28th birthday. Another card with punched out slots (which you place atop the card with the essay) then instructs you to take a walk to a place you usually hurry by, tie the ribbon there, photograph it on your smart phone, and then text the photograph to a phone number, after which it will be uploaded to a photo gallery of everybody else’s ribbons on the Wandering website. Subsequent days feature similar tasks: putting together a mirrored mask, fiddling with augmented reality (that’s the most tech-impressive), and using a packet of face paint. Each involves an element of sharing, whether online or by mailing a postcard. These are all fun, reminding me of treasure hunts or summer camp arts and crafts, except this show is not really suitable for children – not because of its supposedly queer theme, but because of its narrative elusiveness.
I’m talking about the four films. The first complication is that you can’t just watch the films online; you have to navigate to them through an interface they call The Prism, a page presenting a slightly moving spherical shape overlaid with dotted lines against a backdrop of smoke or clouds. (There is an entire page full of instructional videos to help you figure out the Prism, as well as some of the other features — like how to put together the mirror mask.)
The films themselves are professionally put together technically (and there are some impressive animated interludes by Zach Bell) but are best appreciated as abstract vehicles for their scores. There are twelve Schubert songs over the course of “The Wandering,” performed by pianist Marika Yasuda and baritone Jeremy Weiss, who is the co-creative director with Calista Small of the show.
Weiss also portrays The Wanderer, a character supposedly inspired by Schubert, using an acting technique that apparently considers standing around with a vacant expression a sign of deep poignance. There is no dialogue in these films, and no plot that I could discern, just a series of encounters with wildly costumed characters (unnamed except in the cast list) The Crow (Daria Harper, whom we see dressed in black during the song Die Krähe, which is German for The Crow), The Doppelganger (Ethan Kirschbaum), Crystallography Denizen (Calista Small), Gardener Denizen (Josh Romero) and The Performer (Bambi Banks Couleé) Featured in the Day 3 film entitled “Double You (W),” Bambi Banks Couleé is a former contestant on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which is one of the two places in the films where the “queer” in the billing must come from, at least visually. There is also a moment in the Day 2 film, “Inside the Prism,” when the Wanderer briefly holds hands with (I think) the Gardener Denizen and then they apparently soar into the clouds.
Some musicologists have speculated that Schubert was attracted to men, but a quick stroll through Wikipedia suggests there are other aspects of his biography that could also fuel an interesting dramatic narrative.
Schubert created 1,500 compositions, including more than 600 songs, but performed his own works only once in his life, and died at the age of 31, historians believe from syphilis. Per his request, he was buried near Beethoven, for whom he had served as a pallbearer. It was only after his death that his work became part of the canon, championed by the other great 19th century composers such as Mendelssohn and Brahms.
The creative team has used none of this, which is their right. Their interest in Schubert seems to be solely in the music, not his biography. “The Wandering” would surely be a treat for fans of Schubert, especially since there’s a page on the website that presents an album of all 12 songs to listen to. I would guess that the songs chosen offer some of the homoerotic lyrics that historians cite as evidence of Schubert’s orientation, but I couldn’t make out what the lyrics were, and I couldn’t find the lyrics translated and transcribed on the website anywhere. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I suspect they lurk somewhere amid the sphere and dotted lines of The Prism. I’ll have to read the instructions and try again.