There Are Two New Immersive Plays in L.A. One Is Magical, the Other ... Not So Much

Annie Saunders and Nicholas Konow in The Day Shall Declare It
Annie Saunders and Nicholas Konow in The Day Shall Declare It
Photo by Jonathan Potter

In the immersive theater piece The Day Shall Declare It, three actors play out various scenarios that start to look like a story but ultimately aren't. That's no problem, however.

The scenes walk the audience through at least five exotically decorated locales. Separated by partitions of stacked wooden boxes, there's a freestanding bathtub that becomes a character in an erotic dance, suspended blinds, bookcases, an era-authentic kitchen table and sink, a wire-mesh cage and linens draped hither and yon (set design by Nina Caussa). The scenarios add up to a kind of poem in motion, costumed by Stephanie Pegano (additional costume design from London by Clare Amos) in 1940s attire. The poem explores clashes between poverty and wealth, and between responsibility and desire — themes typical of mid-20th-century theater.

The troupe Wilderness debuted The Day Shall Declare It in London in January 2014, and this L.A. production is the U.S. premiere.

Meanwhile, Chalk Rep is presenting what it calls an immersive Uncle Vanya at Silver Lake's Neutra Institute Museum and Gallery, though Chekhov's study of frustrated love and wilted ambitions merely has the actors perform at times very close to the folding chairs where the audience sits more or less in the round. And that audience remaining stationary is what rubs up against the "what's around the corner?" curiosity evoked by the real deal of theatrical immersion.

A trending cousin of site-specific theater, immersive theater outfits an otherwise nontheater space for a performance piece and shuffles the audience from locale to locale, room to room, stage to stage. Sometimes they stand around while watching the actors in close proximity, and sometimes they become part of the action.

Immersive theater is obviously nothing new. For those with a not-too-distant local memory, this should evoke recollections of Tamara, a long-running hit at the American Legion Hall in Hollywood, and of The Manor, Theater Forty's perennial immersive plunge at Beverly Hills' Greystone Mansion, not to mention Moving Arts' Car Plays, which have audiences of two join actors in parked cars. The genre has been trending nationally ever since Britain's Punchdrunk staged its mega-hit Sleep No More in London, Boston and New York.

Chris Polick and Nicholas KonowEXPAND
Chris Polick and Nicholas Konow
Photo by Jonathan Potter

The Day Shall Declare It is the brainchild of co-directors Sophie Bortolussi and Annie Saunders — the former is the choreographer, the latter one of the three performers. It employs text from early writings of Tennessee Williams and Studs Terkel's Working, and it's gorgeous. "Jane" (Saunders) meets a suitor (Chris Polick) at the Paradise Dance Club. They're both dressed to kill. Next scene, in a typical Tennessee Williams scenario, they're in a cramped kitchen. She's accusing him of lunacy, of being a dreamer whom all his co-workers mock, and saying how she could have done better if she'd taken the "O'Connor offer" (of marriage) instead of his. He threatens to walk out and she panics. Imagine Williams as staged by Pina Bausch: He takes her and flings her majestically over his shoulder, and vice versa.

The actors tap the audience-voyeurs on the shoulder, sometimes taking them by the hand, and we drift into another scene, with the other guy (Nicholas Konow), O'Connor perhaps — it doesn't matter. What emerges is a blend of sexual repression, workplace frustration and nostalgia. That last item comes from a soundscape (by John Zalewski) that plays through various speakers throughout the room — tinny, scratchy echoes of 78 rpm records that bleed into subliminal, ominous pulses that bleed into a radio broadcast with indecipherable words. It takes you to a world both within and far beyond your own.

It's haunting, magical and beautifully crafted, something that must be experienced to be experienced.

Chalk Rep's Uncle Vanya (a new version by Libby Appel, based on Allison Horsley's original translation, and directed by Larissa Kokernot) recalls Louis Malle's 1994 film Vanya on 42nd Street, in that it's almost like a rehearsal of the play, dutifully rendered. Set in the museum environs, acts one and three unfold under fluorescent beams and floodlights. For acts two and four, the fluorescents are snapped off, creating a comparatively softer glow.

The costumes are contemporary and the acting style attempts to match it, and mostly succeeds — with the possible exception of some mumbling and melodramatizing. There's some multi­racial casting, which brings the play home to L.A. That's attempted in other ways, too: The characters refer to Russia, but Astrov's (Owiso Odera) map — which he uses to explain to Yelena (Hilary Ward) about ecological decimation — is labeled "Los Angeles."

The production has some lovely moments of tenderness and wit, particularly from Ward's languorous and droll Yelena, Andrew Borba's pent-up Vanya and the comedic counterpoint of Maz Siam's Waffles.

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Not sure what the contemporary art/design museum setting adds to this intelligent rendering of characters floundering and foundering at the end of their era. The museum is dedicated to "survival through design," a concept that bears scant relation to Uncle Vanya. The setting neither hinders nor helps Chekhov's homage to people past their time — it's more of a site-unspecific production. Still, the play's the thing, and it breathes.

The Day Shall Declare it (GO!) at Wilderness at Imperial Art Studios, 2051 E. Seventh St., dwntwn.; through March 22. thisisthewilderness.com.

Uncle Vanya at Chalk Rep at the Neutra Institute Museum and Gallery, 2379 Glendale Blvd., Silver Lake; through March 15. chalkrep.com.


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Neutra Institute Museum & Gallery

2379 Glendale Blvd.
Silver Lake, CA 90039

www.neutra.org

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