By Adam Scott Mazer; Directed by Philip Gates
Produced by AntiMatter Collective
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Standard Toykraft, 722 Metropolitan Ave, 3rd Floor, Brooklyn
by Weston Clay on 4.20.14
Elizabeth Bays, Marlowe Holden, Curry Whitmire, Courtney Fenwick,
and Christopher Norwood in The Tower. Photo by Eileen Meeny.
BOTTOM LINE: A strange and psychedelic retelling of the events of the Donner Party.
In a Tarot card reading, “the Tower” is a particularly intense card. It represents chaos, collapse, and total destruction. If a Tarot reader draws "the Tower," you’re advised to prepare yourself for rapid and tumultuous change, the breaking down of once-solid structures and, following all this, a time of purified rebuilding. It’s only appropriate, then, that this card is the namesake of AntiMatter Collective’s latest production, a creative reconstruction of the events of the Donner Party. If you need a refresher, they were the group of American pioneers who, after deciding to take a purported shortcut on their journey to California, ended up snowbound and eating each other in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846-47.
The story of the Donner Party is, obviously, horrifying, and Adam Scott Mazer’s play The Tower doesn’t leave out an exploration of the depths of suffering and psychological desperation that can turn a group of pretty normal American pioneers into violently shivering cannibals. But a realist play about the Donner Party would probably border on cannibalism-inducing tortuousness for the audience as well and, thankfully, The Tower ventures to put a spin on the tale -- namely, a psychedelic spin.
Take a moment to imagine yourself, freezing to near death in an unfamiliar setting of snowy mountains with seemingly no hope of survival. What happens to your mind? You go crazy of course! You hallucinate. You conjure up all kinds of desperate schemes to get out, only to somberly remember that death is likely imminent. What’s so smart about The Tower is that the psychedelia that the audience experiences can be read as a direct reference to the insanity that the characters experience and the crazy, outlandish numbers where, for instance, a bunch of hood-masked pioneers take the stage and cradle imaginary babies, wash imaginary laundry, and itch feverishly to the beat of electronic dance music, are both entertaining and evocative of the mentality of a starvation-crazed pioneer -- and, let's face it, a reminder that we’re in a loft space in Williamsburg and electronic beats are a standard side dish. (On a side note: if the correlation between starvation and craziness interests you, I recommend that you read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Crazy.)
Now, The Tower is low-budget theater and, being so, the elements of atmosphere provided (projections of snowy forests by Sam Kusnetz, lighting design by Alana Jacoby, sound effects by Will Fulton, effects by the queen of gore, Stephanie Cox-Williams) aren’t all-encompassing enough to take you all the way there (you’ll need to bring your imagination to really immerse yourself), but they do a darn good job trying. And, like a lot of low-budget theater post Sleep No More, The Tower is stageless, with the audience on the same plane as the action. This being the case, audience members have to move around quite a bit throughout the show in order to get nearer to, or move out of the way of, the action (but you’re invited to sit in those quiet moments where this is possible). I, personally, like this kind of show -- it’s fun for me to up the intimacy and unexpectedness of theater and, with my sleepy disposition, eliminate the possibility of dozing off -- but it’s certainly not for everyone.
The cast is great and multi-talented (there’s a line-dance number and some ballroom dancing and some lovely singing, as evidence). Elizabeth Bays was a standout for me as Virginia Reed. Bays delivered young “Ginny’s” bizarre but entertaining oscillations between innocence and adult curiosity with a wide-eyed seriousness, and her elementary understanding of the situation was the impetus for a lot of the play’s bigger, more philosophical moments.
The Tower is a great choice if you have an out of town guest, or a friend who hasn’t seen much theater, and you want to keep your tickets in the under $20 range. With its experimental nature, The Tower can help to open minds to the unexpected possibilities of theater, but won't push you into the dreaded “audience participation” realm.
It's not a perfectly realized show. An example: each "chapter" is named after a specific tarot card, but the tarot-card connection doesn't go any further than this, which makes it feel a bit contrived and unnecessary. Though a projection with the words "Chapter III: The Five of Pentacles" is a great mood-setter, the significance goes no further to the average audience member. But it's easy enough to overlook an underdeveloped theme when there's so much else going on. And who doesn’t want a little psychadelia with their history lesson, anyway?
(The Tower plays at Standard Toykraft, 722 Metropolitan Avenue, 3rd Floor, Brooklyn, through April 26, 2014. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays at 8PM. Tickets are $15 and at brownpapertickets.com or by calling 800.838.3006. For more information visit antimattercollective.org.)