Immersive theatre has been around for a while now and productions pop up all across the country. That key word “immersive” tells an audience that they will be immersed in a story, entering a world of interaction with the performers, in places definitely not proscenium theatres, black box theatres, theatres-in-the-round or any other kind of standard venues, where audiences can be told to sit back, relax and enjoy the show. I have always disliked that kind of preshow announcement. I would much prefer to hear, “Sit up and pay attention!” A fine engrossing show will always have me leaning in, elbows on knees.
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, presented by Rogue Artists Ensemble in association with East West Players, is staged in a six-story, Mid-City warehouse, the location of which is not disclosed until a ticket is purchased. Because of the often-tight quarters in which the experience unfolds, audiences are limited to twelve members, with multiple performances offered on a given evening. It is the conceit of the performance that each audience member has been sought out and summoned to the site to help in finding the owner who has gone missing somewhere in the building and may have in fact entered into a twilight existence flitting in and out between conventional reality and the spirit world.
Upon entering the building, audiences are greeted by an amiable crew of warehouse employees very concerned about their missing boss. Before they know it, the audience has become players in the drama, improvising with the greeters in any way they choose. I chatted a long time with “Gina” who responded to every question and showed me objects that related to her boss, a woman of Japanese ancestry. Soon the lights were flickering, and strange, truly eerie sounds creaked and croaked and whistled. We were ushered into the boss’s office, which was a chaos of items mostly related to forms of Japanese culture that were often kind of freaky and more than a bit unsettling. The project is definitely hands-on for an audience. When the lights failed in the office, we were enjoined to find flashlights in the desk drawers. And a little later, a couple of audience members are selected and given cotton bags that are to hold whatever objects may be handed to or discovered by audience members.
All of the above is basically a curtain raiser for what is to follow. A mighty, industrial elevator slowly descends at the back of the office and the audience is ushered in by three mysterious kimono-clad figures whose heads are obscured by basket-like hats with impenetrable veils that conceal their faces. The elevator ascends and we are off to the races.
What follows are scenes and snippets of “kaidan,” defined as referring to Japanese ghost or horror stories, all of which refer in some way to the missing female warehouse owner. The audience can become directly part of the action. As a man of the theatre, I loved the improvisation and was not shy to give and take with the willing performers. In one scene, a man with kabuki-like face paint relates a story of a marriage gone horribly wrong. The scene walls are created out of cardboard with roughly cut holes through which the audience could observe the action. The woman who guided us into the tight venue entered the scene through a large cardboard flap door of at floor level. At a momentary lull in the action, as the man paused to make tea, I got on my hands and knees, lifted the cardboard flap and poked my head in, at which point the man with kabuki paint invited me in, and when I was hesitant, he insisted. So in I went and we improvised a bit before the scene ended and the audience and I all followed a guide though an opening in the wall and on to the next thing. This is well and truly immersive, interactive theatre of the highest caliber.
The production makes cunning use of a plethora of techniques. A scene projected on a screen looks like a blend of bunraku puppet theatre and two-dimensional shadow puppetry. Later an enormous, scary puppet looms large above a diminutive audience kneeling or sitting on the floor. There is a scene of modern horror involving filmmaking, commercialization and a convertible automobile that is Felliniesque, bringing to mind the short film Toby Dammit, Federico Fellini’s contribution to the 1968 film that also featured films by Luis Malle, and Roger Vadim.
The interaction of this seventy-minute magnum opus produces an urgent intimacy between players and audience that sweeps to a stunning climax. Kudos to the cast: Kamran Abbassian, Yiouli Archontaki, Tyler Bremmer, Tom Dang, Lara Thomas Ducey, Julia Fae, Eric Fagundes, Julia Garcia Combs, McCristol Harris, Heidi Hilliker, Steve Jun, Tane Kawasaki, Joleen Kim, Amir Levi, Thomas Isao Morinaka, Jasmine Orpilla, Ricky Pak, Robert Paterno, Sarah Kay Peters, Jonathan Reich, Anthony Rutowicz, Devin Sidell, Miles Taber, Randi Tahara, Paul Turbiak, Kiki Yeung, and Reggie Yip.
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, written by Lisa Dring and Chelsea Sutton with Rogue Artists Ensemble and directed by Sean T. Cawelti, is a major production boasting a top notch creative team that includes Adrien Prévost (Music Composer); Keith Mitchell and Dillon Nelson (Scenic Designers); Karyn Lawrence (Lighting Designer); Lori Meeker (Costume Designer); Matthew Hill (Video Designer); Steve Swift and Gilly Moon (Sound Designers); Glenn Michael Baker (Props Designer); and Sean T. Cawelti, Jack Pullman and Brian White (Puppet and Mask Designers).
Advisory note from the production: Mature themes, adult language and theatrical violence; not recommended for audience members who are not comfortable with walking, ducking, navigating small spaces, standing for periods of time, sitting on the floor, loud noises, moments of complete darkness or being alone.
Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin runs through November 19 on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with up to six performance times per evening every 20 minutes beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets can be obtained at 213-596-9468 or www.rogueartists.org/.