***SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS***
"...Made up of these three words that I must say to you. I just called to say I. <silence>."
Like a high voltage wire humming, the Lyric Hammermith's Secret Theatre Show 5 gives off a buzzing energy that builds to a crescendo of tension and anxiety. Or at least it did for me.
It's the kind of show where the theater experience will be highly individualized--I found myself tearing up as others were laughing. Clutching friends in laughter at times, and shaking with anxiety at others. I can see people walking out complaining that it is utter shit and others walking out thinking it's the best thing they've seen this year.
Although the piece is only about 70 minutes, it reminded me of certain durational works--such that the repetition, mirroring, endurance, and experience was most striking as a whole rather than analyzed in its individual parts. And that's a very good thing.
Devised by the company with dramaturg Joel Horwood(I Heart Peterborough) and directed by Sean Holmes (Morning), Secret Theatre: Show 5 is part of a series of works launched in September 2013. As the Lyric building undergoes some construction, a company of actors, writers, and designers have been putting on established and new works without telling anyone what the shows are: hence the “secret” in Secret Theatre. With affordable tickets (all tickets 15 pounds) and some shows taking place in a smaller rehearsal space and not the main auditorium, Secret Theatre has stirred up quite a lot of excitement.
It makes sense that this company which has done four shows together, can now embark on this devised adventure, which relies on camaraderie, co-dependence, intimacy, and support from the cast to get through each performance. Show 5 is scheduled to go to Edinburgh so this London run is something of a workshop.*
Titled A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts, the work is best seen as experimental performance. There is structure and an arc to the show, but check your need for a strict narrative at the door. A different leading player is chosen every evening (randomly from a hat by an audience member) and therefore it lends itself to multiple visits. We had Estonian actor Sergo Vares as the lead. When his name was picked, one in my party said, quite loudly, "YES! He's well fit." There may have also been a fist pump. And the director had a hearty laugh over her enthusiasm (frankly I find the director so intensely handsome he's hard to look at it). But it was an accurate assessment of the "Sergo situation."**
As the performers engage in the series of exercises--some endurance tests, physical feats, personal quizzes, emotional confessions, wrestling matches--you acutely feel the burden placed on the leading player. Often you feel his (or her) isolation or the extreme output that the work calls for. Notably this is a diverse acting company of all shapes and sizes and I imagine each actor when called up would make for a unique experience as each would have their own strengths and weaknesses in the gauntlet of impossible acts they undergo. There were moments that made me think of Austin-based performance troupe Rude Mechs and you know that's a huge compliment.
As an audience member, I found it was also a mental marathon of sorts. It started out quite simply and I spent a bit of time trying to get my bearings, and then all of a sudden certain vignettes struck me deeply. At times this was driven by empathy--watching Katherine Pearce have to put on Sergo's spandex leggings made me want to die over my own feelings of squeezing into a pair of Spanx--and at times out of sympathy--wanting to rescue the leading player from the nonstop onslaught. And this is not to say that at times the interactions are not funny, they are (watching Sergo fumble trying to put a girl's hair in a bun still makes me giggle). But the stealth emotion underlying the work was revealing. When Sergo began to sing I Just Called to Say I Love You, and then held back the "love" I was startled by how much anxiety it created for me. The unmet expectation, the absence of a complete sentiment, and his performance as he sang it unnerved me.
The show dealt with connection, powerlessness, withholding, and vulnerability in unexpected ways and there's something to be said for letting go of a narrative to just let the building blocks of dramatic connection come through loud and clear. Stripping away the work to its barest elements you could see how performance works.
This is a show that breathes life and dances down the street to the beat of its own drummer. An excellent kick-off for my week in London.
* There is apparently a press embargo because of this. However, the artists have been retweeting praise for the show so if you want a blackout you really should abide by your own rules. Since I paid for my ticket and I feel like this piece has a lot going for it I wanted to review it. Please note the final work in Edinburgh may be quite different from what I saw so you may want to take this review with whatever grain of salt it requires.
** As a writer for The Craptacular I would be remiss in failing to mention the fact that Sergo ended up in his underpants revealing much of the "situation" and he sports mesmerizing, hypnotic abs.