Right around this time last year, word-of-mouth began to filter in from a ramshackle factory space in the far reaches of the downtown Arts District about a production by L.A.’s Wilderness stage company that had finally put Los Angeles on the immersive-theater map. Immersive theater is a performance hybrid that takes live drama off the stage and puts it in intimate, created environments where audiences rub elbows with performers to complete a theatrical spectacle.
But The Day Shall Declare It, the powerful, poetic tapestry of stylized movement, lavish production values and a script artfully collaged by creator-directors Annie Saunders and Sophie Bortolussi from Working, Studs Terkel’s 1972 oral-history classic, and early Tennessee Williams One-Acts, also seemed to close almost as soon as it opened. And the show quickly became legend as the year’s single best piece of theater — immersive or otherwise — that nobody saw.
Fortunately, Saunders (who also performs) and Bortolussi (who is the show’s choreographer) are back with a remount of their critical hit in its original Seventh Street space, with its original production team, and featuring a three-person ensemble drawn from last year’s staging and the show’s 2014 London premiere. The good news is that the experience has lost none of its gripping excitement, engaging mystery or atmospheric wonder.
Scenic designer Nina Caussa has again expertly transformed a rambling industrial space into a circa-1930s warren of starkly contrasting locales. The audience is free to wander through a decaying tenement railroad flat during the violent eruption of a marital Apache tug-of-war danced by Saunders and Chris Polick; or into furtive and sometimes fiercely passionate homoerotic assignations between Polick and Anthony Nikolchev that play out in the space’s dimly lit bar and business office; or in a bathroom with Nikolchev and Saunders during a hallucinatory nightmare of despair performed in part as a kind of high-wire act on the rim of a bathtub. With the poignant lyricism provided by Williams and Terkel, such scenes build as a kind of symphonic dance-meditation on the nature of work and how it reverberates to more fundamental aspects of being like love and self-respect.
In that sense, the real setting of the show is the Great Depression where the very lack of work makes everyday life and relationships for the characters of The Day Shall Declare It harrowingly tenuous. “I really feel work is gorgeous,” Saunders ironically affirms at one point. “It’s the only thing you can depend upon in life. You can’t depend on love. Oh, love is quite ephemeral. Work has a dignity you can count on.”
Or maybe not. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the piece is how the emotional peril and insecurity underscoring such pronouncements takes on an increasingly pointed political urgency. As the evening wears on and the almost embarrassing voyeuristic proximity of the performers is heightened by Bortolussi’s combative and often gravity-defying choreography, Iain Court’s shadowy lighting and — most impressively — by John Zalewski’s intricately layered sound-design score of processed vintage jazz and industrial noise, the experience begins to implicate the audience in a larger recognition that the work and social inequities of the 1930s are much, much nearer to the America of today.
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Saunders and Bortolussi have hardly pioneered immersive theater production in Los Angeles. But few before The Day Shall Declare It have matched the sophistication of its political critique so seamlessly with with the rigor, invention and soaring poetry of its physical performances. There isn’t a flat note or discordant lull in the 90-minute evening. And that achievement is what finally makes the experience the new gold standard for L.A. immersive theater.
Wilderness, 2051 E. Seventh St., downtown; through June 19. thisisthewilderness.com.