By Peculiar Works Project; Directed by Ralph Lewis
Off Off Broadway, Immersive Play
Ran through 6.30.19
by Emily Cordes on 7.1.19
Afterparty: The Rothko Studio. Photo by Dana Curran.
BOTTOM LINE: Set in a landmark Bowery building, Afterparty invites us to re-live events from its cultural history.
The building at New York’s 222 Bowery holds a storied past, its evolution a microcosm of the shifting cultural landscape surrounding it. Built in 1884 as the impoverished neighborhood’s first YMCA, in the late 1950s the building was repurposed as affordable artist lofts, and became home to a series of now-famous artists and creatives, including writers John Giorno and William H. Burroughs and abstract artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mark Rothko. Rothko’s studio on the building’s second floor holds special significance as the place in which he painted the 1957 “Seagram Murals,” a controversial commission for Manhattan’s elite Four Seasons hotel. Today, as the building’s current owner primes these now-vacant spots for commercial rental, multidisciplinary theatre group Peculiar Works Project takes us on a final trip through the building’s past with Afterparty: The Rothko Studio, an interactive homage to 222 Bowery and its former residents.
Known for their unconventional, historically-inspired plays, Peculiar Works Project structures Afterparty as a work of promenade theatre, a site-specific performance style in which audiences follow the story and its actors through the playing space. As guests congregate in the pre-show foyer, we are given name tags identifying us as our favorite artists, and invited to view an actual photography exhibition in the building’s ground-floor gallery space. Sporting a Mod-style shift and elaborate headdress, a young woman known as “The Muse” (Jenna Zhu) mingles with the crowd, pulling people aside for brief rundowns of the building’s history. She ushers us in small groups into a dimly-lit lounge area; there, in old-fashioned swimsuits, three dancers (Toby Billowitz, Aidan Feldman, and Despina Sophia Stamos) enact stylized depictions of the sports and recreational activities the building once housed. After some time, Michael (Glen Feinstein), a ‘50s-era artist, enters and invites us upstairs to join the residents for a party in Rothko’s studio, to celebrate John Giorno's (Nathan Keiller) recent art opening.
Following Michael and the Muse upstairs, we are treated to complementary champagne, performance pieces by the building’s artists, and gossip about Rothko and his contemporaries as we progress toward the famed studio. Inside, the vast room sets the stage for an interactive dinner party: based on their ticket levels, audience members are seated with the actors around two long tables or ushered into the balcony above. As dinner is served, short films screened, and speeches made, there’s a vague note of of discomfort: discussions of aesthetic theory and the cultural scene the artists inhabit come tinged with musings on ephemerality and recognition of the art world’s inescapable class dynamics. These issues come to a head when the conversation turns to the mixed blessing of Rothko's (Jason Howard) Seagram commission, prompting the artist himself to rail against the commercialization of art and the loss of integrity accompanying success. As Rothko’s turmoil disrupts the gathering, we see firsthand how such concerns shaped the building’s past and continue to guide its future.
By inviting us to reimagine a moment in 222 Bowery’s past, Peculiar Works makes a simple but profound statement about the ideals and realities governing our shared cultural experience. Placing the audience amidst the action generates the same blend of intimacy and distance through which we may view a work of art: those seated at the table are fully immersed in the world they create, while those in the balcony view the events from on high. While this setup can cause moments of lag time for those not directly engaged, it adds to the piece’s realism and underscores our dual roles as participants in and witnesses to our spaces’ history. Similarly, discussions of impermanence and “selling out” come tinged with the bittersweet knowledge of the piece’s temporal nature and the building’s fate. Peculiar Works’ staging, like any work of art, cannot fully embody or preserve that which inspired it; it can only re-imagine these events and offer us a fleeting, subjective glance into them. Yet it is this transience that gives the piece its impact, uniting us in a shared fantasy of the space’s former life. As echoes of the Muse’s songs return us to the scaffolded streets below, Afterparty leaves us with a poignant awareness of the city’s constant flux, and a deeper reverence for the stories it, and we, might contain.
(Afterparty: The Rothko Studio played at 222 Bowery, June 27-30, 2019. The running time was 65 minutes with no intermission. Performances were Thursday through Saturday at 7 and 8:30; Sunday at 5 and 6:30. Tickets were $25, $50, and $100. For more information visit peculiarworks.org.)
Afterparty: The Rothko Studio is by Peculiar Works Project, directed by Ralph Lewis. Story by S.M. Dale. Concept by Kim Depole and Catherine Porter. Adapted by Barry Rowell. Choreography by Rachel Cohen. Composer is Maria Dessena. Dramaturg is Barbara Yoshida. Lighting Design by David Castaneda. Projection Design by Jane Parisi. Costumes by Grace Martin. Production Stage Manager is Heather Olmstead.
The cast is Toby Billowitz, Aidan Feldman, Glen Feldstein, Jason Howard, Irina Kaplan, Nathan Keiller, Caiti Lattimer, Catherine Porter, Isabella Jane Schiller, Despina Sophia Stamos, and Jenna Zhu.