"Did you come here together," a woman in a white lab coat asks, pointing between myself and Caroline North, who happens to be the Observer's copy editor, an arts reporter and my friend.
Yes, we answer.
"Does she like you more than you like her?" she asks me. I don't think so, I say. She repeats the question to Caroline. I can't read minds, she answers. The woman in the lab coat harrumphs and moves on to ask an older gentlemen how long he's been wearing glasses; he answers that it's been a long time, then gestures like he wants to kiss her.
They're separating us. We were handed nametags bearing a set of numbers and letters when we checked in. The woman and two similarly dressed men are writing down these numbers on clipboards, choosing individuals for their groups. Like an elementary kickball game, I am not chosen. Myself and TheaterJones critic, David Novinski look at each other. "We're leftovers," he says. "Not leftovers," another lab coat-wearing leader announces (Joshua Kumler, a familiar face from his Bar Politics show). "Come with me," he commands. We join a group of 10 people and weave our way into a room where two people dressed in red bathrobes (played by Hilly Holsonback and Bailee Rayle) claw at their clothes and at one another, begging us to touch them. Are they patients being taken care of? Or human rats in a never-ending experiment? Willing or unwilling? Trapped and guarded? Eroding or evolving? These are the questions flickering in my head the whole night, as I stumble through this science fiction fever dream.
Yep, the Dead White Zombies are back and DP92 might be their strangest show yet.
UTD professor and experimental theatermaker, Thomas Riccio, debuted his theater troupe in 2011 with a show titled blahblah at the Green Zone. It was the first introduction to his poetical scripts, as much phantasmagorical pondering on the human condition as plays. The site-specific, immersive settings, usually in West Dallas, turn each piece into a cinematic showdown, often making the experience more about witnessing something off-kilter and therefore exciting, than on the transformative value of the content. Riccio's interest in heady concepts like ritual and the metaphysical can come across as navel-gazing and pedantic at first glance.
In DP92, the actual story trickles through the action in fits and starts. There are the observers in the labcoats and the observed in bathrobes. We, the visitors, are somewhere in between. By means of entry, we are both under the watchful eye of the labcoats, and watchfully eyeing the bathrobes. The coats are in charge, controlling the robes with food and a kind of electoshock, but even the robes have a hierarchy. In the cafeteria, the next stop on our tour, we are introduced to the alpha robes (Abel Flores, Hannah Weir). They are the attractive, aggressive couple; snarling and snatching food from the more passive robes. And so, the story continues for a period, until we learn that a mollusk has entered the facility. Suddenly, everything is more heightened, more chaotic, and more sexual. It's meant to fall in the vein of a B-plot science fiction flick from the 1950's. But this campy goal doesn't manifest in a playful, self-aware send up. Instead, with a eerie aesthetic and sound design (complete with Riccio on the theramin) and a poetic, if a bit redundant, script DP92 waffles between poignancy and tediousness — a struggle Riccio often hands his audience.
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The reigning royalty of immersive theater remains Punchdrunk's Sleep No More in New York City. This mash-up of Macbeth and Rebecca is a dialogue free, self-guided tour through a four story warehouse transformed into numerous rooms, you enter by "checking in" to the McKittrick Hotel. Visitors wear masks and follow actors at random through the experience. There is a cemetery on one floor, an apothecary
on another, and so on. The actors dance past you, beckon you to follow them, and at one point even get naked. The narrative is non-linear but familiar, allowing your uneasiness to feel safe.The theater is a crime scene and you're the detective. It's exciting. Even as it flickers in my memory four years later, I remember the titillation of wandering the warehouse for the first time.
Once you've seen Sleep No More, it's impossible not to draw comparisons between it and anyone else attempting immersive theater. But what Riccio is doing is different. He's employing language. He's allowing you to see one another's faces. And he's not allowing you to explore the space on your own. At least, not really. Last year during Karaoke Motel, I wandered into a room where an actor was on break. We recognized each other from life outside the theater, and offered one another a flustered, apologetic face. I was sorry for expecting the experience to be happening behind every door at all times; the actor was sorry for reawakening my disbelief. A similar thing happened to me in DP92. I grew bored of the mollusk writhing around on the floor in one room, and heard commotion next door. I assumed the groups were different but what I found is the story was basically the same, except the room I'd wandered into was about two minutes behind the one I'd left. Like a television with a weaker signal on the same channel. I was disappointed to learn we were wandering through parallel narratives. I was hoping to confab with Caroline after the show and find the shows we'd attended were wildly different. But truthfully, I wanted to learn that I'd witnessed something better. That being one of the "leftovers" was somehow more interesting than being chosen.
If there's a common thread in the Zombies shows, it's in the way Riccio uses language and performance to remind us of the confusion, complications and frustrations implicit in humanity. In DP92, Riccio attempts to unite the origins of life — the mollusk — with the controlled chaos of modern humanity. But really, what he's reminding us is that we're all in this life together. We all come from the same place and return to it, as life folds in on itself over and over again.
Are we patients being taken care of? Or human rats in a never-ending experiment? Are we observers or the observed? Willing or unwilling? Trapped or guarded? Eroding or evolving? These are the questions flickering in my head as I stumbled out of the science fiction fever dream. Did we come here together? Yes, but in separate cars, I thought as I sped off into the night alone.