Friday, June 6, 2014

The Drowned Man

It's not that often I get really taken by surprise by theater. That isn't to say I don't enjoy most productions, but it takes something really unique to impress me now. I hate to sound pretentious, but I've seen quite a bit in my life.

So when Churches told me about a production last year, called Punchdrunk, that blew her mind, I was a little skeptical. When she started describing it to me, I just couldn't put the descriptions into a cohesive image: everyone wearing masks, you interact with the actors, all very different.

I didn't know what that meant.

I happened to be searching yPlan when it showed up on my lists - Punchdrunk: The Drowned Man. I read the description but it was also pretty meager:

Theater just got ripped a new one with this experience set in the golden age of film.

Now this is big. After a sell-out run in summer 2013, here's your chance to grab tix to one of the most extraordinary events in theater. We say theater, but if you've heard of Punchdrunk, you'll know it's not your usual sit 'n' nod affair. The fourth wall has been tossed aside for the company's latest theatrical adventure, where a roughed-up soldier is thrust into '60s Hollywood, fuming and ready to take his fury out on his lover.

Follow his murderous intentions as you don a mask and chase the characters around, in the process exploring several floors of a seemingly endless building, discovering hidden rooms and witnessing remarkable solo performances. Curious cats are encouraged...the more you explore, the more you'll see.

Okay, so there is a theme, and I got that. You're warned ahead of time to wear comfortable shoes and that you'll be wearing a mask (so please wear contacts if you wear glasses, etc).

I showed up at the theater (right outside Paddington Station, a convenient 5 minute walk from work for me) after getting a little tipsy at our resident photographer's upcoming nuptials celebration. We were saluting him before he leaves singledom.

So I was a little drunk by the time I walked over, the line for the will call not starting until around 7:15pm. I noticed immediately that I was the only person in line who was alone. Most people had come in groups of 2-4. This would be interesting.

First thing I noticed as soon as I got in was how much darker it was inside. Dimly lit, strange music, already starting the scene, the atmosphere. It was spooky. 1960's Hollywood glamour turned dingy. It was meant to be this way: it definitely set the sultry murderous mood.

We rode a short elevator to the bottom floor before being given white masks. Rules state that you're not allowed to speak or remove your mask until you hit the bar in Studio 3 - the end of the production. The masks were terrifyingly plain on their own:

We were then allowed to set off on our own. We were encouraged to do the journey alone.

Instantly the room was darker, barely lit. Loud rhythmic moody music floated over speakers unseen.

The entire thing was set to period - it was exactly what old Hollywood looked like. If you've ever been to the Tower of Terror in Disneyland's California Adventure theme park, this was exactly that. But not done in a family-way.

The detail was incredible.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. My thoughts as soon as I put on the mask was: I've made a mistake. I should have come with others.

Perhaps it was the mixture of being a little tipsy, being alone, and being in a dark place with loud music and no idea what is going to happen - I was genuinely scared. I had no expectations, no grounding point at which to say to myself, you'll be fine.

It took me another half an hour to feel comfortable enough to wander into rooms that did not have other people. Before that, I was following others around, using them as a constant to feel safe.

I eventually realized that there was no one waiting in the dark corners for me, to scare me. The actors were seamlessly integrated into the environment - you'd see them, suddenly, among you, maskless. They'd start into their scene as though you weren't there, as though you are a ghost merely observing the entire thing. Sometimes they had dialogue, other times they simply did choreographed dances, furthering the general storyline that there was much sex and sultriness, passion and violence. Lots of emotions.

It took me another half an hour to realize when an actor was going to be in the room with me. The lights would go on in certain rooms, the music growing louder and different. As more people came in you started to notice when large groups of people were chasing the actors to their next scenes.

Yes, the audience literally ran after actors. Following the storyline, seeing what could be gleaned. It occurred to me after awhile that there was no way I could see the entire thing, even if I tried my hardest. There were at least 8-10 actors that I saw, each with their own part and scenes, each switching anywhere between the four floors we were allowed to wander. The storyline only carrying on for that particular actor as they acted out their part. It following the theme but not necessarily a fluid storyline.

The entire thing was ingenious. Whenever actors needed or had a break between their scenes (which could go on for a long time...I'm not quite sure because I never followed one actor to more than a few rooms), they would run into a set and lock themselves in, not allowing observers to follow. Or they would simply vanish - I saw one actor, as part of his set, close the doors to a phone booth door, only to disappear after another actor opened it again. I checked out the booth myself - there was no trap door that I could detect. After the crowd became assured that there was nothing more to see that moment, they would disperse, and like us, the actors would don masks, walking among us until it was time to return to their next role. The only way I figured this out is sometimes I would see people in masks that seemed slightly out of place (if you were looking): period clothing that even the most fabulous of hipsters would not wear to a venue like this. Masked folk who were a little too interested in fooling around with the props and sets (I'm assuming these were stage assistants who put the set back in order for the next scene).

Eventually I got a little claustrophobic. It's not hard to imagine this, after wearing a full-face mask for over two hours and not being able to take it off. Staff members in black masks were posted near the walls of each major section, and anytime anyone took their mask off they would silently walk up to that person and wag their fingers or shake their heads: masks stay on.

So I tried to leave.

Unfortunately, as you all know, I have horrible navigation skills. And since we took an elevator down into the first scene instead of walking, I got quickly lost.

It is scary to be on your own, in a dark and loud place, wearing a mask among other masked people, and not being able to figure out your way back to reality.

I finally broke one of the rules by talking to a staff member in black.

I need to find the exit.
Oh but the final scene is almost coming.
Soon. But if you want to get out, it's up a floor and through Studio 3.
Okay, I guess I'll try and stay for the final scene.

I was a little worried I'd miss the last train to my home station that night. I could walk from Ealing Broadway but even though it was warm, I was feeling a little green around the gills from the drinks and then adrenaline from walking around in a spooky place.

I did follow a few of the actors for the next 15 minutes, waiting for them to have their final scenes and finally lead us to Studio 3.

It never happened. I started to feel claustrophobic again, a little panicked.

This time I made it to Studio 3 on my own. Back into a place where I could take the mask off and breathe again.

I rushed home after that; catching a train and then bus to get home.

To be honest I felt a little foolish, having been so scared. But that was the effect the production had on me. It was almost done too well in its atmosphere and uniqueness. Absolutely nothing like I had experienced before.

It was mind-blowing, just as Churches had said. I would heartily recommend it. I would also say it is not for the faint of heart.

Here are some photos that are taken from the internet about it, since I wasn't allowed to bring in my phone. This gives somewhat of the atmosphere and feeling:

It's nice to know you haven't seen everything yet. :)

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