Café Play Review: At the Cornelia Street Café, Overhearing Fellow Diners and Inanimate Objects

Café Play is a site-specific work of theater that’s being held at four different times of day in the back dining room at the Cornelia Street Café, with different food choices depending on whether you attend for breakfast, lunch, tea or late-night snack (all frankly paltry, though I did like my crème brulee). Put together by the endlessly innovative theater company This Is Not A Theatre Company (who’ve previously offered a play in a swimming pool, another in a private apartment, and “pod plays” to listen to on the subway and the Staten Island ferry), the conceit of the show is that we the diners are overhearing the conversations of fellow diners, and waiters, and one unwanted intruder (“Please don’t step on me!”)

click on any photograph by Maria Baranova Suzuki to see it enlarged

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KPOP: Review, Photos, Video

KPOP, the wildly (and loudly) entertaining immersive theater piece offering the audience a tour of a Korean pop music factory, begins and ends with 15-minute concerts by the Korean boy group F8 and girl group Special K, dressed in Olympic-style jumpsuits or sexy black leather outfits, as well as the solo artist MwE, clad in sultry gowns.

What may be most impressive about their energetic performances, complete with synchronized gyrations beneath a disco ball or behind dramatically billowing stage smoke, is that everything about them – including all 23 songs they sing – was created, a la The Monkees, just for this show.

Click on any photograph by Ben Arons to see it enlarged and read the caption

KPOP is the result of a collaboration between three remarkable New York theater companies – Ars Nova, best-known for having developed the groundbreaking Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812; the Ma-Yi Theater Company, which for three decades has explored issues of identity and assimilation through original work by Asian-American artists; and The Woodshed Collective, a company whose explorations of the outer limits of site specific theater included an amazing show called Empire Travel Agency, a kind of on-the-town spy-murder mystery that took place in such venues as an abandoned building and a speeding car. The DNA from each of these combines in this novel creation, which takes over the entire new non-profit performance art complex A.R.T./New York Theatres to recreate the new American outpost of an ambitious Korean music label.

Full review at DC Theatre Scene

Ghost Light Review: Immersive Theater About Theater

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.

Ghost Light

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.

Seeing You Review: Immersive Theater About World War II and the Bomb


Near the end of “Seeing You,” a dance and theater piece about World War II written and co-directed by Randy Weiner (a producer of both Sleep No More  and Queen of the Night ), I learned first-hand the difference between this kind of immersive theater and a Broadway musical. Three star-spangled gals had just finished their rendition of the Andrew Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” as part of a USO show for the GIs, when one of the entertainers shot off a confetti cannon. In a Broadway musical, the confetti would have been shot above the orchestra seats, thus showering down on the theatergoers who had paid the most for their tickets. In “Seeing You,” it was shot straight at me, from just a few feet away. (It took hours to get rid of all the tiny gold and silver strips.)

This assault by confetti, I guess, counts as a uniquely personal experience, and thus fulfills Element 4 of the six essential elements in any good immersive theater. I should point out that I’m the only one who says good immersive theater requires six elements, a theory I developed after attending many such shows, and which I expressed in a couple of essays (Immersive Theater, Defined, and Rethinking Immersive Theater.) There are some indications that my theory still needs some work, but let’s apply the six elements to “Seeing You,” a show that may not be the top of the line in the genre, but that fans of immersive theater would surely find worthwhile.

  1. Immersive theater creates a physical environment that differs from a traditional theater. 

“Seeing You” takes over a huge warehouse-like space in a building that hugs the 14th Street entrance to the High Line, in the once-rough, now-chic Meatmarket District.

There is no seating. After we were given dog tags (mine was stamped with:”Heaven, Hell or Hoboken”), we were instructed to stay silent unless one of the 14 cast members speaks to us. Then we were let loose to move around for 90 minutes, at first individually on our own, visiting a choice of vignettes involving one or two characters, but as the show progressed, we were shepherded around as a group.

The closest to traditional theatrical experience were the brief, intermittent stage shows for the troops, and even then the troops had to stand.

  1. Immersive theater tends to stimulate all five senses—sight and sound, as with conventional theatre pieces, but also touch, and frequently taste, and even smell.

No food in this show, but definitely touch, and even, to a certain extent, smell – the smell of the smoke accompanying the atom bomb at the finale.

It’s worth noting that the underscoring for “Seeing You” was mostly gentle and tuneful, not the pounding rock and Cage-like repetition that accompanies many immersive theater. The title, after all, comes from the song of the period, “I’ll Be Seeing You (in all the old familiar places),” and there is a retro quality to the music and some of the dancing. The choreographer is co-director Ryan Heffington, who choreographed Sia’s “Chandelier” video, which has been viewed on Vimeo more than 1.6 billion times.


  1. The best of these immersive shows double as an art installation and hands-on museum.


This is not the case with “Seeing You.” There are no crowded desks to riffle through or cluttered bulletin boards, and only a few war-time posters on the wall. Set designer Desi Santiago’s approach is more minimal, focusing on mood, with the inestimable help of lighting designer Jamie Roderick. The vignettes are acted out in lit playing spaces surrounded by darkness and appointed with a table or a chair if anything at all. There are, however, a few vivid sets that pop up during climactic moments – including two in the photographs above: the red cross with the tubes descended from it represents a blood bank or nursing station. The backdrop of the barely clad young men is a blackboard that presumably is filled with plans for making the atom bomb.


  1. Immersive shows make individual audience members feel as if they have had a uniquely personal experience, that they are not just part of the crowd.


Long before the scene with the confetti blast, a nurse (Heather Lang) made me stick out my tongue, and then push down on her arms with my own, so that she could feel my “resistance.” (Resistance to being singled out was exactly what I was feeling.) Then, apparently satisfied that I was sufficiently healthy, she recruited me to stand in the middle of the entire group and catch all the large packets of blood being tossed my way, and flip them into a box held by another nurse.


  1. At the same time, there is always an aspect of an immersive show that emphasizes the social, through playful interaction or inexplicable tasks, often in small groups.


My interaction with the nurse was part of a group activity that engaged half of the theatergoers. While we were involved in the blood drive, the other half of the theatergoers had been drafted into basic training.


  1. For immersive theatre to work, in my view, a show has to have a story to tell—and it has to have respect for that story.


I had second thoughts about this element when I reviewed Inside the Wild Heart, an immersive piece about the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, which used her texts but didn’t really tell a story. This fit in with her writing, which is concerned with sensations, epiphanies, rather than conventional plots. I had thought that the success of Sleep No More and Then She Fell were in part because we knew the stories (Macbeth and Alice in Wonderland respectively) in advance, and so could follow what was happening no matter how mystical or mute the performers.

The broad outline of the story in “Seeing You” is clear enough: We are introduced to the anxious people of Hoboken, New Jersey, at the outset of World War II and then we follow them through the duration of the war until the decision to drop the atom bomb.   Some of the characters are recognizable throughout the piece, such as Grace (Eriko Jimbo), a Japanese-American artist who we learn is in a long-distance relationship with a GI (Aaron Dalla Villa) and who eventually experiences racial discrimination. Much of “Seeing You” though is a mosaic over time of isolated moments, most of them expressed primarily in dance, some memorably. There is a silent erotic dance, for example, between two soldiers (Jesse Kovarsky and Nicholas Ranauro.) A woman comes upon the scene, and one of the men sobs into her arms. Later, there is a shadow play showing men in combat, with some of these silhouettes turned into giants pinching off the heads of their adversaries, surreal and haunting.

There may be stretches of time during “Seeing You” that seem nothing more than a muddle, even for the most experienced theatergoer (my face-saving way of saying I got confused.)

But the beauty of immersive theater — from the point of view of its creators anyway — is that theatergoers have only themselves to blame for such lapses in clarity or momentum. If only I had followed a different character, or gotten into the other group, or had a greater understanding of modern dance

At one point, a Congressman (Ted Hannan) asks the assembled to write on a small slip of paper how many Japanese civilians would each of us be willing to sacrifice to save a million American lives? (That was reportedly the calculation that President Truman faced when he decided to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) It is the sort of moment not as easily accomplished in any other genre of theater. If there was no follow-through (we weren’t called on to state and defend our choices; there was no tally, etc.), it was still the kind of “audience participation” – involving not just our bodies but our minds – that holds great promise for the evolution of immersive theater.

Seeing You

450 West 14th Street

Created and directed by Randy Weiner and Ryan Heffington

Choreography by Ryan Heffington, production and costume design by Desi Santiago, lighting design by Jamie Roderick, sound design by Shannon Staton

Cast: Jesse Kovarsky, Heather Lang, Jodi McFadden, Zach McNally, Lauren Cox, Aaron Dalla Villa, Christopher Grant, Ted Hannan, Alison Ingelstrom, Eriko Jimbo, Maija Knapp, Nicholas Ranauro, Jay Stuart and Lauren Yalango-Grant

Running time: 90 minutes

Tickets: $55 to $100 General Admission

“Seeing You” is scheduled to run through August 31, 2017.

Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway: Review, Pics, Videos

An opera with an unwieldy title based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace seemed an unlikely crowd-pleaser, but I was thrilled when I saw it Off-Broadway, first at Ars Nova in 2012, and again in a circus tent in 2013. When they announced a Broadway run, however, I wondered how they could possibly pull it off.

They’ve done it! Now installed in the wondrously transformed Imperial Theater on Broadway, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is extraordinary, the freshest, most inviting show on Broadway this season. Great Comet is especially awesome in its stagecraft, as well as in its music, and in its performances. The large, exciting cast includes nearly two dozen who are making their Broadway debuts, including Denee Benton and Josh Groban as the titular characters….Director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien in particular deserve kudos for staging on Broadway something very close to the kind of immersive theater that’s lately been intriguing theatergoers all over the world – everywhere but Broadway, until now.

Full review on DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photographs by Chad Batka or Jonathan Mandell to see them enlarged.

Dust and Ashes


Sonya Alone

The Prologue

#FostFest: Ferguson-Inspired “Riot,” “Famous Deaths” of Whitney Houston and JFK, and Other Theater of the Future



Get out of my face, the cop in riot gear screams in my face.
He then pummels me to the ground. Actually, it’s my avatar that gets hits. I get a message: Because I was angry, I failed to mollify the officer, and so the game is over for me.
Was I angry? I hadn’t even realized. But the camera knew.
This is “Riot,” which its creators call an immersive video installation. It is one of several cutting edge exhibitions and installations this weekend at #FostFest, aka the Future of Storytelling Festival. Billed as “the world’s first immersive storytelling festival,” the shows  suggest what the future of theater might look like.

I was standing in front of a screen beneath a webcam that assessed my mood using facial recognition technology. If the webcam detected I was angry or fearful or agitated or anything but calm, I’d get pummeled out of the scenario.
“I was inspired by the Ferguson Riots” said Karen Palmer, the director.
“Riot” is being developed by the National Theater in the UK, in its recently launched Immersive Storytelling Studio. “This is very much new technology,’ said Mark Atkin, the producer of “Riot,” and a director at Crossover Labs. “We don’t know where it’s going.”
I stepped back in front of the screen, and tried to remain calm through one screen after another or provocation, making it through the three levels.


In “Famous Deaths,” the Dutch-based theater company Polymorf allows you to experience the deaths of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Whitney Houston — through sounds and smells alone. The creators stick you in a metal tank (crypt?) for four minutes, which is dark, but full of (in JFK’s case) the sounds of a crowd, or announcers….of gunshots. The smells are less easy to distinguish; they include gas, Joy (Jackie Kennedy’s eau de cologne), popcorn, cotton candy, coffee, sausage, a car.

Polymorf’s Marcel van Brakel acknowledges that sounds are easier than smells to identify, but smells “are connected to the oldest part of the brain. Smells work on an unconscious level.”



holocaust-survivorI ask Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter one question after another — where and when he was born; when did he first realize Jews were in trouble? Does he have any happy memories of the concentration camp? Gutter — or, more accurately, his image — answered each one as if I were speaking directly to him.
“We asked him around 2,000 questions,” explains Anne Marie Stein of the USC Shoah Foundation, which spearheads the project, entitled New Dimensions in Testimony, in coordination with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. They have created an algorithm that recognizes a spoken question and then quickly sorts through Gutter’s answers to find the most appropriate one. “Soon,” says Stein, “we’ll be able to display the survivor in three dimensions, to provide an experience that feels like a face-to-face encounter.”

It would be a stretch to label as “live theater” almost any of the exhibitions and installations on display in the “FOST playground” (actually a cavernous building) at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue.  Even Break A Leg,” presented by Emilie Joly (who is the daughter of an actor) and her colleagues, about an illusionist performing in front of a demanding audience, is in fact a Virtual Reality installation, in which you become the illusionist by donning goggles that create the stage and your audience. Most of the “shows” at the Future of Storytelling Festival are tech-heavy, involving screens.

futureofstorytellingcharlesmelcherDoes this mean that in the future, live theater will disappear?

“I don’t think it will disappear,” says Charles Melcher, the founder of FOSTFest. “I think there will be a mix of live theater and digital theater.

“In the past, all mass media was in one direction. Now it’s two ways. Now people want agency. Now people have a desire and expectation to be part of the story.”



Then She Fell Review: Alice in An Immersive Wonderland

ThenSheFellredqueenwhiterabbitThose looking to unlock the secret to the success of “Then She Fell,” the Third Rail Projects’ immersive take on Lewis Carroll and his writings now entering its fourth year, might start with the old-fashioned set of keys each member of the audience is given at the start of our adventure through this theatrical Wonderland.

The keys literally open drawers and boxes and cupboards throughout the three-story former school building in Williamsburg meticulously made over to resemble a mental hospital (complete with stern-looking nurses in 19th century habits.) We are able to riffle through (facsimile) letters and postcards and photographs directly connected to Lewis Carroll’s work, his life, and his acquaintances, especially Alice Liddell, the young girl who was his muse for Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass.

The keys also work as a metaphor. Over the course of the two-hour running time of this elusive, dark and delightful show, each individual theatergoer feels put in charge of unlocking the mysteries not just of what’s in front of us, but also of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – pen name, Lewis Carroll.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged*

“Then She Fell,” which has been around since 2012 (originally taking place in the abandoned Greenpoint Hospital), plays to an audience of just 15 people per performance, and even then the mostly silent performers split us up early and often. Each individual theatergoer is ushered into one dark room after another, often alone or with just one or two other audience members. Unlike Sleep No More, there are no free range theatergoers. The often intricately detailed rooms into which each of us is shepherded – which are surely chosen at random, but brook no dissent – add up to an individual theatergoing experience. We encounter familiar characters in sometimes discombobulating environments, often but not always interacting with them. In one room – a chaotic haberdashery! — the Mad Hatter (Elizabeth Carena) made me try on some weird hats; in another, a character silently fed me a grape; in a third, another character played a card trick. There are some stunning set pieces. Two Alices (Marissa Neilson-Pincus and Tara O’Con on the night I saw the show) precisely reflect each other’s gestures facing one another through an elaborate mirror frame that has no mirror. A character I realized much later was the White Rabbit (Carlton Cyrus Ward) sat across from me painting white roses red, and silently gesturing for me to do the same. Near the end, a formally-suited young man (Andrew Broadus) – who I realized later was meant to be Lewis Carroll — dictated a message for me to write to Alice, then placed the message inside a bottle, and took me to a room where he put the bottle in the water that (I suddenly noticed) flooded much of the floor, where it bobbed along with other bottles placed there as if in the sea. (the “pool of tears” from Alice in Wonderland?)
For all the atmosphere of mystery, the show offers light bulb moments of great satisfaction. I had two in quick succession watching through a window as a performer in an adjoining room executed what seemed like a dance of the insane, but nevertheless one with great formality. When she put on a red ruffled collar I suddenly noticed her red dress: “Ah, the Red Queen!” (I confess I was slower to identify the characters than I should have been.) But that wasn’t all: On the wall near the window hung a letter reflecting the historical fact that Alice Liddell’s mother became uncomfortable with a grown man befriending her young daughter, and there was a break between the two families. The thought suddenly occurred to me: Maybe Carroll based the Red Queen not just on the game of chess, but on Alice’s mother.
There is no evidence this is what the creative team wanted me to conclude. There is plenty, however, to feed the historical speculation that Carroll had an unhealthy obsession with his young muse. This is not why “Then She Fell” is restricted to theatergoers 21 and over. All the tasty beverages served in medicinal vials are alcoholic – with the exception of the hot tea in delicate porcelain cups served at the tea party to which some of us are lucky enough to be invited.

*Some of the photographs without captions were taken of the production when it was at the Greenpoint Hospital site.

Then She Fell
“Kingsland Ward at St. Johns” 195 Maujer Street , Williamsburg, Brooklyn
by Third Rail Projects (Artistic Directors: Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, Jennine Willett)

Directed, designed, written and choreographed by
Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett

Created in collaboration with Elizabeth Carena, Alberto Denis, Stacie C. Fields, Rebekah Morin, Marissa Nielsen-Pincus, Tara O’Con, Zoë Schieber

Original music and sound design by Sean Hagerty, costume design by Karen Young, lighting design by Kryssy Wright,

Cast (vary per performance):Rachel I. Berman, Carly Berrett-Plagianakos, Lia Bonfilio, Andrew Broaddus, Giulia Carotenuto, Lindsey Dietz-Marchant, Caitlin Dutton, Zhauna Franks, Kim Fischer, Kelly Garone, Brighid Greene, Carolyn Hall, Julia Kelly, Madison Krekel, Mary Madsen, Justin Mock, Christina Robson, Kim Savarino, Alex M. Schell, Samuel Swanton, Shelby Terrell, Simon Thomas-Train, Madeline Wilcox

“Ward staff”: NJ Agwuna, Stephanie Armitage, Anna Aschliman, TJ Burleson, Cameron Michael Burns, Brittany Crowell, Jack Cummins, Dana Gal, Taylor Hollister, Kaitlin Marsh, Samara Seligsohn, Elisabeth Svenningsen
Running time: two hours
Tickets: $95 to $150 (depending on the night)