By Erin B. Mee
Produced by This Is Not A Theatre Company
Off Off Broadway, Experimental Theatre
Runs through 10.6.19
Theaterlab, 357 West 36th Street
by Asya Gorovits on 9.22.19
Audience members in Theatre In The Dark: Carpe Diem. Photo courtesy of This Is Not a Theatre Company.
BOTTOM LINE: This Is Not A Theatre Company performs in your mouth and your nose.
Theatre In The Dark: Carpe Diem is exactly what the title says: it happens in complete darkness. You can’t see anything. If you came to see Play!, which runs in repertoire with Theatre In The Dark, you wouldn’t even know that it happens in the same space. After checking belongings and washing hands, audience members are given a sleeping mask. Blindfolded, they are led...somewhere...in chains of four, hands on the shoulders of the person in front. This is a lot of trust that is asked for by a stranger, but thanks to Mee’s mom-like demeanor ("wash your hands before the meal") and thorough safety instructions (there are substitutes if you are allergic or have a specific diet) everybody warms up to the affair quickly.
The show consists of a half dozen thoroughly curated “scenes.” Through speakers somewhere in the space, we hear sketches by Jessie Bear, Anonymous, TS Eliot, and Proust, each accompanied by things we can touch, smell, and taste. A gentle touch on the shoulder or a whisper in one’s ear informs us that it is time for a new treat. On the velvet table cloth, my hand finds a piece of food or a small plastic cup with liquid. As instructed by the subtitle, I savor the moment and enjoy the sudden unveiling of poetry, not only in my ears but also in my nose and mouth. A truly mind-blowing experience!
For a medium that traditionally relies heavily on visuals, depriving an audience member of their sight is a fascinating concept for a sighted person. Dining without seeing proposes that our sense of taste is heightened by the darkness. These tastings then “narrate” through the experience. An existential dialogue between a vase and a bottle is followed by an invitation to choreograph a dance of the chocolate. I find a piece of chocolate in front of me and roll it around on my tongue, trying to match my movement to the music. I feel a feather touch my neck for a brief moment; another tickling sensation comes as somebody whispers close to my ear. The evening consists of several unconnected vignettes, which might not seem like coherent storytelling. But surrendering the narrative puts the “spectator” in the dark, allowing for a new kind of theatre, one with its own strange and beautiful logic.
This Is Not A Theatre Company is known for site-specific shows. But this time they outdid themselves by bringing the performance to the audience’s mouths. Sure, other theatre productions feed the audience: the recent revival of Sweeney Todd, Network (for those who paid), Midsummer: A Banquet to name a few. But rather than merely enhancing the experience, the food here becomes the focus of one’s inner journey, an equal artistic means. There is also the use of smell: different scents are sprayed during different scenes, to accompany the storytelling.
Conceptually elaborate and effortlessly executed, Theatre In The Dark is a successful innovative experiment. The only thing I wish were different: the speed with which the scenes follow each other—I could barely keep up. I enjoyed the few brief moments without verbal narrative—if only there were more. Given the heightened use of the other senses, there is the temptation, if not the time, to linger, savoring each little crystal of sugar on the tongue, and sniffing that strange yet familiar scent until it thins off to the point where you can no longer grab it on your next inhale.
It is a little disappointing to take off the mask at the end and discover the mundane scene: a bare room, plastic tables covered with black velvet, six strangers looking confused. It’s like when somebody explains a magic trick: the satisfaction in knowing the "how" is then followed by disappointment. Not everything should be brought to light when the mysterious might be anything.
(Theatre In The Dark: Carpe Diem plays at Theaterlab, 357 West 36th Street, through October 6, 2019. The running time is 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 9; and Sundays at 7. Tickets are $30 ($25 for students with valid student ID). Discounted tickets are available for those who see both Play! and Theatre in The Dark: Carpe Diem on the same night. For tickets and more information visit thisisnotatheatrecompany.com.)
Theatre in The Dark: Carpe Diem is conceived and created by Erin B. Mee. Text by Jessie Bear, Anonymous, TS Eliot, and Proust.