(From Left) Daniel McCoy, Cara Francis, Jill Beckman and Ricardo Gamboa in (un)afraid.
BOTTOM LINE: The Neo-Futurists' production of (un)afraid is unlike anything I've ever seen; a treat for Halloween enthusiasts who want to explore real life fears and be part of the show.
Walking into (un)afraid at the Living Theater is very similar experience to that of walking into a haunted house. Lead down a dark hallway by a guy who looks freshly dead, you enter a space that looks more like a graveyard then a theater, complete with a soundscape of creaking doors and rustling leaves. There aren't many chairs, so most audience members sit on the floor or risers with the warning that you will likely be moved during the show. Once the show begins, the audience is treated to a very interactive and creative theatrical experience that makes every person in the room rethink what there is to be afraid of. It might not be as obviously fear-inducing as a haunted house, but the scary images and thoughts with will stay with you for days.
Any night you choose to see (un)afraid will provide a completely original experience because the show is never performed the same way twice. Each night, the cast calls upon a guest spirit via Ouija board who decides which actor should perform which part of the show. Seriously. On the night I was there, Rod Serling (1924-1975), creator of the Twillight Zone, was the guest spirit and seemed to have a thing for actor Ricardo Gamboa. I was a little skeptical over how truthful the randomness of the Ouija board was, as my only experience with the Ouija was during the sleepovers of my youth when my cousin Jackie would TOTALLY move the Ouija. Totally. However, I was lucky enough to sit in at a talkback with the actors, and surprisingly they seemed to believe in the Ouija's power of choice, whether that power be their collective energy that guides it or the spirits themselves. Anyhoo, the Ouija determines the order in which the actors perform, and one by one they share with the audience what scares them in a storytelling fashion – there is no fourth wall in this show.
The four actors who appear in (un)afraid also wrote the show, so their stories are real and personal. Some of their fears are classics like clowns and cockroaches, and all of their stories explore the underlying factors that really make those things so scary. In between each segment there's usually some audience participation, and some surprise elements and tricks with the lighting make the atmosphere extra frightening.
In (un)afraid, there are as many heart-racing moments as thought-provoking ones, and that alone makes a gem for the off-off-Broadway stage. However, the remarkable part of (un)afraid is not the recognition of fears you are already aware of, but rather the fears you don't even realize you have.
This play forces you to expand your acceptance of what "scary" is, and Halloween is a great time to explore the concept. Halloween is a night where horror rules the streets, evil spirits confront the innocent, and the undead are lurking just out of sight..or at lease that's what movies tell us and maybe what we thought as kids. In reality, it's more like an occasion to dress as a "sexy" bumblebee and get drunk, induce sugar highs in children, and watch scary movies. Regardless, it's more or less about what we fear. But do we really fear zombies and vampires, possessed children and ghosts? Or is that a distraction so we don't have to confront all the things that we are truly afraid of, things that we can't do anything about like war, terrorism, cancer, oppression, unacceptance, oil spills, unhappiness, empty accomplishments, being alone and other real fears?
There are so many reasons to fear getting out of bed every morning, perhaps we stick a vampire in their place so we have a tangible figure to be uselessly afraid of as a means of distraction. (un)afraid talks about those fears, removes the red herrings and make the audience face them. The show is a testament to the only way to beat those fears: by getting out of bed and dealing with the things that scare you. Be (un)afraid, this play tells us, because the only way we'll get through this scary world, full of real life vampires, is if everyone makes their best effort and sticks together.
The New York Neo-Futurists have created an amazing show in (un)afraid. It is as original and personal as the four actors who perform in it. Even with it's improvised nature, the show strikes a perfect balance between keeping the audience engaged and guessing, and maintaining a polished performance. Afterward, you can't help but feel you had a brush with the real terrors of modern day life, and maybe you also learned that confronting these fears is a step towards controlling them. I did.
((un)afraid plays at the Living Theater, 21 Clinton Street between Houston and Stanton, through November 6, 2010. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30PM, and Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30PM and 10:30PM. There are additional performances on Monday, October 25th at 7:30PM, Wednesday, October 27th at 7:30PM, and Wednesday, November 3rd at 7:30PM. Tickets are $18, and there's a $12 student rush with a valid ID. Tickets are available at nynf.org, or by calling 212-352-3101.)