If you are a dedicated theatre-goer, it’s likely that you’ve encountered an immersive theatre experience – the kind where, instead of sitting passively in front of a proscenium, you wander from place to place, as in the dream like Sleep No More, in which various mini-performances take place simultaneously in multiple rooms of an abandoned warehouse masquerading as an old hotel.
But you’ve probably never encountered an immersive experience quite as absorbing or as well-suited to the form as Windy City Playhouse’s Southern Gothic, now playing in a second run at its new South Loop venue in Chicago.
The problem with many immersive plays is that there’s no organic reason why the play is split into separate rooms, or spills out into the street, or whatever. It’s just a cool and surreal experience, and nothing more; surrealism, in its laziest manifestations, can be little else than an excuse to eschew the hard work of making dramatic sense.
But the hyper-realistic Southern Gothic, which concerns a fractious and boozy birthday party in Ashford, Georgia in 1961, is different. Directed by David H. Bell, written by Leslie Liautaud and co-created by Carl Menninger and Amy Rubenstein, the entire performance takes place in and around a three-dimensional, painstakingly detailed recreation of a typical home of that region and era, complete with Perry Como LPs on the turntable and a can of Spam in the kitchen. At the beginning of the play, the audience enters through the front door of this home (ingeniously designed by Scott Davis) and thereafter finds itself in the midst of the chaotic cocktail party that ensues.
To be sure, the audience doesn’t actually participate in the action of the play other than pretending to be silent guests; instead, the non-performers are directed to stand against the home’s walls or sit on window benches to give the actors room to move around, and the actors, in turn, glide past the audience members as if they were ghosts.
But this is a perfect contrivance for a play about a cocktail party; everyone but the most gregarious of us has probably had the experience of attending a party where you didn’t know anyone but instead, feeling more or less invisible, engaged in the pleasantly prurient activity of eavesdropping on various interesting conversations.
Such is the case with Southern Gothic, where the actors drift into various rooms of the house, just as in a real cocktail party, to engage in hushed conversations, angry melees and everything else that tends to happen when there’s too much alcohol and not enough food to absorb it (the play’s action begins with the news that a catering truck filled with meat pies intended for the party has crashed and scattered its contents on the highway.) The way it actually plays out is thrilling; you see these very committed actors speaking literally inches away from your face, and you admire not only their focus, but the production team’s vision; here, for once, is a play that put the audience in the center of the drama for an organic reason – to allow us to see, and slip behind, the façade that these somewhat pathetic characters have spent their lives propping up in the Southern Potemkin village in which they live.
Southern Gothic’s story concerns an obnoxious and self-absorbed woman, Suzanne (Amy Malcom), whose 40th birthday is being celebrated by a group of long-time friends – if “celebrated” is the right word for the thinly veiled insults, indiscretions and humiliations that ensue. (Suzanne is the kind of woman who says to her “dear” friend, unprompted, “you better run upstairs – I think you forgot to put your girdle on”; she says far worse later.) It’s a classic theatrical set-up; in Liautaud’s version of the relatively prosperous South of the early 60s, pretense and keeping up appearances is all that matters, until all of the ersatz glamour and sophistication is blown to smithereens by too much ethyl alcohol and a few ill-chosen remarks. Her husband is a principled attorney, which is fine with Suzanne until those principles interfere with her ambitions and social status. To be fair, it should be noted that her husband’s principles don’t extend to not humiliating his wife in public.
Joining the festivities are the hostess, Ellie Coutier (in an admirably focused performance by Sarah Grant), her too-nice husband Beau Coutier (played sympathetically by Michael McKeogh) and two other couples who – without giving away too much of the plot – are all entangled with each other in ways they have regretted and will have more reason to regret when the party’s final bits of food and bottles of beer are swept up. Matters of sexual and racial politics are also touched upon without very much of the anachronistic retroactive moral preening that too often creeps into contemporary plays. All of these conflicts and convergences are handled with great care and thrilling attention to detail, even in tiny moments, as when we see (if we happen to be in the kitchen at the right moment) Ellie check out her hair in the reflection from the aluminum door on the front of a 60s-style bread box in the kitchen.
Of the other guests, the most important is a Senator’s daughter named Lauren Lyon, played superbly by Erin Barlow as a fragile alcoholic, a traumatized and tremulous bundle of nerves with, as it turns out, hidden reserves of strength. If the play seems overwhelming at first – every room of the house contains simultaneous scenes with overlapping dialogue, and while the audience is free to stroll from room to room, it seems daunting at first to keep track of it all – it isn’t a bad idea to keep your eyes and ears on Lauren whenever possible and wherever in the house she happens to be.
Even if you choose to observe the entire play from only the dining room, all of the disparate conversations eventually coalesce into a clear conclusion that’s at once surprising and satisfying. You’ll leave the play feeling as if you’ve gotten away with something you never could in the real world – not only having listened in on the fleeting wisps of gossip one hears at parties, but having witnessed how it all turns out.
Truthfully, if Liautaud’s three-dimensional script were flattened into a traditional two-dimensional, proscenium-bound play, it would come across as rather conventional, as the self-conscious title would seem to suggest. Though never contrived or self-parodying, at times the script gives off a faint magnolia fragrance of conventional Southern melodrama. Nonetheless, the incredibly challenging task of coordinating the simultaneous scenes in a way that’s not confusing, coupled with the intricate and beautifully realized production, confirms Windy City Playhouse’s reputation as one of the most exciting young theatre companies in Chicago.
More information at the Windycityplayhouse website