nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 1, 2005
bluemouth, inc., a theatre troupe from Toronto, Canada, are making their New York debut in lenz at Ye Olde Carlton Arms Hotel. If you care about challenging, boundary-stretching theatre, then go see this show.
Or, much more accurately: go have this experience. lenz, billed as a tale of mental illness and murder, is more happening than play, and it requires complete immersion on the part of the audience. This starts with the spectacularly funky place where they've decided to house this event, a hotel I didn't even know was there though it's just a few minutes' walk from my apartment: Ye Olde Cartlton Arms is a five-story walkup decorated to the teeth with mod art (rooms, stairwells, common areas—everyplace), and bluemouth has rented two rooms on the fifth floor and another on the third (plus they make use of a lot of the third floor's hallways, nooks, and crannies) to create an environmental adventure unlike anything I've ever partaken of in my years of theatregoing. (You can call it a series of linked site-specific performance installations if you like jargon; I'd rather call it a cool alternate reality.)
Before lenz begins, audience members are asked to draw a key from a big round bowl. On the key are the three room numbers where the show takes place, but in different orders: you will proceed from room to room to room in the sequence you've randomly selected. The effect of this is that the chronology of lenz varies from participant to participant, and also—perhaps more significantly—that you don't stay with the same group of people as you move through the show's three segments. So already the safety and comfort of linear narrative and friendly bodies have been stripped away.
In 9D, where I started my journey, is a woman named Iris. She is singing John Denver's "Country Roads" when we enter; after she finishes her song, she launches into a monologue about her family, including her parents, whose studied middle-brow values seem to get under her skin, and especially her brother, Jacob Lenz, who has become something of an embarrassment to the parents and is the source of considerable obsession and, perhaps, pain for Iris. She tells us that Jacob confessed to a murder that was committed before he was born; that he was last seen by their parents naked in the Lincoln Center fountain; and that he lives on the streets, homeless and, apparently, insane.
9D is the one destination in lenz that feels something like traditional theatre. Iris, played with deceptive charm and poise by Sabrina Reeves, is aware of her audience and there's a clear "stage" area segregated in her small hotel room; we can tell that she's "performing" for us, though it's not entirely clear why, and sometimes she pulls away, distracted. It's at once reassuring and disorienting, if that's possible.
From there, I went to 14B, where, in pitch blackness, we get to witness the rantings of Jacob Lenz. Stephen O'Connell inhabits this character and makes him extraordinary to witness. Jacob talks pretty much nonstop, sometimes under his breath and sometimes not saying words that make any sense; he also, at first, is writing with the same kind of obsessive fervor (or is it rapture?). He is, clearly, mad; and he is, spectacularly, unaware that he's being observed, though he lights himself ingeniously with flashlights worked by hand (and sometimes by foot; there's even, at one point, a light strapped around his head, like a miner's hat). There was one moment when his face was no more than three inches away from my own—a moment, as it turned out, of extreme anguish that, so closely, intimately, nakedly witnessed, was palpably painful to experience.
For me, lenz concluded in 1D, where the audience is shown a film (projected downward from the ceiling). Each participant is given a pair of headphones to wear during the film, through which we hear the remarkably lifelike soundscape created by Richard Windeyer for this room (I looked up more than once to check to see if what I was hearing was "real" or not). Sounds come at us from all sides, and the headphones make the experience strangely and startlingly lonely. I won't tell you what happens in the film, except that it ties together some (though not all) of the loose ends of Jacob Lenz's story.
lenz is, finally, not so much about this thing or that thing; it is, unapologetically, about itself: about a group of strangers' immersion in an alien world for 80 minutes or so, and then sorting out their individual experiences for (in my case anyway) hours and hours afterward. It is exceedingly well-crafted and well-executed; cannily designed; and an enormous amount of involving, thought-provoking, dangerous fun. If my schedule and bluemouth's permitted it, I would do lenz again and, perhaps, again after that. Anyone in search of something visceral and affecting in theatre would do well to take in lenz at least once.
And I will certainly be waiting—very eagerly!—for the next visit from bluemouth to our fair city.