In the world of immersive theater, Los Angeles experimental playwright-director Annie Lesser is a master miniaturist. Her intensely interactive, site-specific “experiences” explore a poetics of extreme intimacy, which achieves an uncanny exhilaration by literally placing a theatergoer in whisper-close proximity to an actor as an active character in dramatic narratives that investigate emotional catharsis and connection.
The experience can be profoundly unsettling. In last summer’s A(partment 8), which officially launched the ABC Project, Lesser’s ambitious, A-through-Z immersive play cycle, audience members found themselves cast in the role of murderer — and locked in a room with their dead lover — in a chilling tale of domestic violence that effectively transcended empathy and horror to produce something at once morally implicating and critically contemplative.
With B(arbershop), the B play of the 26-play cycle, Lesser returns to the battlefield of romantic love — and the intimacy of the one-on-one immersive drama — in a 25-minute meditation on the paradox of trust and deception that form the obverse sides of any love relationship. Set after hours at East Hollywood’s L.A. Native Barbershop, the play opens with an audience member entering through the rear entrance and catching barber’s assistant Junior (a flawless Mikie Beatty) in the act of urinating as he awaits the expected arrival of his never-seen girlfriend Christine.
That there is turmoil in the romance becomes quickly apparent as Junior wastes little time in taking advantage of the confessional nature of the barber-customer transaction by opening up to the stranger about his quandary: “I’m in love with a liar,” he says categorically. “Have you ever felt a pain like this?”
Junior then offers the visitor a drink before moving on to a chessboard at the front of the shop, where a TV plays a montage of the rose ceremonies that end each elimination round of the reality TV show The Bachelor. As he sets up the pieces for a game, and engages in a conversation on love and loss and whether the behavior of the other in a relationship can ever be strategically anticipated, the proceedings are interrupted by insistent knocking at the front door as a second audience member enters into the final 10 minutes of the performance, which culminates as a harrowingly improvised trust game.
The most surprising aspect of the piece is the extent to which volunteered confidences by the audience both drive and define the evening as Beatty underscores the vulnerability implicit in any love affair by nimbly drawing out the audience’s most personally revealing admissions — B(arbershop) is not for the faint of heart. It also probably means that the full impact of the show requires investing in the 25-minute ticket rather than the cameo offered by the far more passive and less satisfying ten-minute experience.
And if B(arbershop) is a step back from the precipice of the irrational violence that so charged A(partment 8) with its sense of audience-implicating danger, what continues to be exciting is seeing Lesser fearlessly experiment without the firewall of the physical and figurative distance between spectator and performer that mediates the traditional drama. Even when its fireworks prove less than incendiary, the ABC Project provokes an introspective self-awareness all too rare for the stage.