I had a whale of a time for much of “The Indigo Room,” which is part of this year’s Under the Radar theater festival, and can certainly count as theater. But it is more than that – maybe too much more. “The Indigo Room” features a fun, hip American carnival, some beautiful Native American rituals, an icebreaking social experiment, serial swag handouts, and a disorienting art installation, as well as a long monologue by Timothy White Eagle, the show’s co-creator, performer, and production designer, whose stories sometimes bring us into uncharted waters, involving a whale — which is where, I’m sorry to say, I got lost.
Our participation began as a convoluted affair. As soon as we entered the lobby of La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart theater, we were handed a little paper packet of salt, a set of ear plugs, and a red disc – all of which were eventually put to use.
We put the disk through a contraption that selected a postcard with a symbol on it, which we then took with us to the second floor, outfitted like a carnival, and found the same symbol on one of the signs next to seven carnival games. My card’s illustration looked like a pair of lips, and I didn’t see any symbol that matched it, but when I passed by one of the friendly carnies — each of whom comes equipped with colorful costumes, painted faces and fake mustaches – she said that the card matched her game, which she called Barbie Bullseye. The aim was to throw the Barbie at the Velcro-outfitted bullseyes on the wall. (I eventually got one Barbie stuck by her head, but felt guilty about it.)
Once you finished the game to which you were assigned, you could play any or all of the rest. I also played Wheel of Fortune, in which a turn of the wheel and a flip of a coin determined which fortune I would be given on a card I could take home (Mine said: “Increasing the Love of Life is What Gets Us Through the Loss.”) I didn’t play the one with a man on a game board with his head sticking out, where you’re supposed to use a huge pair of tweezers to pick out his organs. “The game is called Operation,but I like to call it My Orifice Hours.” he told me, as a theatergoer carefully plucked out first the man’s toy penis then his hand.
The carnival lasted for a satisfying half hour. “The Indigo Room” went on for another ninety minutes. We were asked to find the one other person who had the same postcard we had. My card-mate was named Adam, who told me the illustration on our card was really of a whale, and I should have posed in the Whale Photo Booth (where you put your head through the hole above the body of a whale.) In any case, we walked together through what we were told was the inside of a whale (that was the art installation), and emerged on the other side, in the theater proper, where White Eagle greeted us.
Much of the rest of “The Indigo Room” was White Eagle’s monologue, punctuated by several rituals, which were visually striking and accompanied by stomps and chants. Some of these he asked us to engage in; most we just witnessed. The first ritual: We each opened up the packet of salt we were given and placed it in a jar of water passed around the theater, then put into a large glowing glass container in the middle.
Throughout, White Eagle told stories. Some were personal. He reminisced about his adoptive parents. He talked about a “lusty lover” making pasta (after which he asked us to picture the lustiest lover in our life, take a deep breath and hum.) Most of the stories were mythic. One or two he told involved twins getting swallowed by a whale. It was at this juncture — a confession — I drifted. I’ll take responsibility for this. But White Eagle’s voice was calming rather than engaging, the theater was dark, we were now largely passive auditors while we had been fully active participants, and neither his stories nor the disparate elements of the overall work seemed to me to have a point; I didn’t see what it all added up to.
It eventually became evident that I was wrong, at least about the stories. Although it took too long to become clear, they seemed to suggest a theme of loss, and living through it. This made me wonder whether everybody’s Wheel of Fortune card was the same as mine.
And maybe the reason for the carnival was to suggest some of the many playful ways one can increase the love of life to get us through the loss.
But what’s with all the whales? Bible students learn that the story of Jonah and the Whale is about repentance and forgiveness. White Eagle seems to be using this familiar story as a metaphor for surviving trauma. Or maybe he just likes whales. I certainly treasure the last trinket he gifted each of us – a small ceramic sculpture of a beautiful blue whale.
The Indigo Room is at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater through January 22, 2023