On a Friday in December, in a converted downtown warehouse space, Sarah Lyddan, a fiery, redheaded actress, faces the audience. She plays a scene to an unseen interlocutor somewhere beyond the improvised stage lighting. "I love you," she intones earnestly. Instantly, out in the house, 50 or so cups shoot up as the audience collectively takes a slug of beer or something stronger.
That phrase, along with four other actions, is listed on a large cue card at the side of the stage. When the line is repeated — another three consecutive times — the drinks are likewise thrice drained, albeit with less and less synchronized precision.
Welcome to TinyRhino, the Los Angeles spinoff of Brooklyn-based theater company UglyRhino Productions' three-years-running evening of themed playlets mixed with frat drinking game. The show has been performed in L.A. only twice, but on Jan. 16 it will go into monthly repertory with Retrograde, the group's mainstage play, which premiered in November and is being billed as "an immersive experience exploring modern intimacy."
In fact, intimacy is UglyRhino's watchword for the brand of immersive theater it has been pioneering. Rejecting the neatly packaged entertainments and the tidy linearities of the well-made play, UglyRhino engineers a broader, more socially engaged mix of theater, live bands, deejays and pre- and post-show partying offering what it calls "curated cocktails."
"It's just a lot of fun. It's really nice to share in the aftermath of what you've experienced," Lyddan enthuses amid a post-show press near the space's makeshift bar. "I'm talking to people I've never met before."
Tonight's festivities won't break up until 3 a.m. That alone sets the UglyRhino evening apart from a run-of-the-mill theater outing, where the usual practice is to take one's seat, clap politely at the curtain call and then make a beeline for the parking lot. It all happens in a cavernous, 2,200-square-foot brick studio on Santa Fe Avenue rather than in a traditional theater, lending it the frisson of a hip art event.
Company co-artistic director Cole Rosner, who lives in a corner loft at the warehouse, planted the UglyRhino flag in L.A. when she relocated here last year. She hosts other events in the space under her Play Collaborative Arts Venue banner.
She helped start the group in New York in 2010. "We didn't like the way it felt in New York black boxes, where you came in, you paid your ticket, you saw the show and then you left," she says. "Nobody really talked about it. It wasn't social — it wasn't that fun ... and, I don't know, we were annoyed by it. So we started looking for alternative versions."
That search culminated in a residency at Park Slope's Lyceum Bathhouse, which kicked off with a two-week "micro-season" featuring Harold Pinter's Celebration and Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros. The season also offered deejayed parties with performances from local bands. With subsequent micro-seasons, UglyRhino branched out into both the TinyRhino drinking game as well as company-devised shows that were more explicitly immersive.
It's the social interaction between cast and audience around the formal performances that ultimately defines any UglyRhino event. The company launched in L.A. last year with the immersive show Mindspin, an interactive "play party" about a fête that mixed audience, actors and alcohol in a downtown gallery space.
The newer Retrograde, conceived by Rosner, Jessica Lauren Richmond and Tanya Zoeller, uses an a cappella score and narrative time jumps to survey male-female gender roles in the 1950s, 1990s and near future. Its curated cocktails include Champagne for the pre-show mingle and more potent, themed concoctions served during the show.
"The '50s scene has a very fiery, manly-like whiskey character," explains Scott Monahan, who acts in the show as well as designing the drinks. "So we created a habanero peach bourbon that, you know, when you drink it, during this fighting and aggression [in the scene], you get that burn in your mouth and that fire. And in the '90s you have, like, Lemonhead drinks or Pop Rocks — like candy rave."
By the end of the evening, Rosner notes, the gathering invariably erupts into dancing. "People should just not be able to contain themselves. They've been stimulated or they're open or they're excited or they're having fun or they're flirting — whatever it is — and people are just dancing."
"And singing, and rapping," actor Christopher Adams-Cohen adds.
"And maybe other things," Monahan laughs.
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UglyRhino's Retrograde plays on Jan. 16, TinyRhino on Jan. 23, and both continue through 2015 in monthly repertory. For more information visit uglyrhino.com
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