In the vein of Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel on West 27th Street (which I have not seen), The Tenant is site-specific theatre. The location becomes a part of the piece itself.
The West-Park Church parish house is where the majority of the action takes place. It's turned into a run-down boarding house. It’s hard to tell what was part of the original building and what was built for this production specifically. There are a couple of tiny rooms that were obviously created just for this production, one used to represent a wig shop.
The building itself is in particularly poor condition to begin with. There are portions of the hardwood floor that are splintering, no sign of finish on any of the visible boards. Paint peels from the walls. At one point there is a box marked on the floor in white tape, pointing out a potential accident, the floor-boards have buckled.
This is the perfect setting for this play. It recreates a low-end boarding house where a young woman has just killed herself by throwing herself out the window of her apartment. A young man by the name of Trokolvsky, naturally and comfortably played by Michael Crane takes up residency in the dead girls room. He is eventually driven mad by his myriad neighbors in the boarding house.
The script has been written by six new and upcoming playwrights, Bekah Brunstetter, Sarah Burgess, Paul Cohen, Dylan Dawson, Steven Levenson, and Tommy Smith. Each of the writers has taken on separate character lines.
Everyone starts out by being corralled into the basement where there are church pews lining the walls of the room. There is a back room with a bar where you can purchase a drink. One corner of the room is cordoned off with a curtain. Projected on the curtain are subtitles in French and in English. The messages mix the usual pro-forma curtain speech. “There is no photography or recording of any kind.” It’s followed by “such apostasy is dangerous and illegal,” giving the message it’s own stinging rebuke. It continues with “talking is not necessary or appropriate.” Direct and to the point (you almost wish more theatres would put it like that.) There are some unique portions of the curtain speech, “please do not start the relationship with the actors.” After the first scene in the basement, you disperse and follow the cast around and step into their world. You are free to follow any character you wish.
There is never any kind of interaction between audience members and the cast (until the very end when they point you in the direction you are supposed to move). It’s as if they are looking through you and you aren’t there. That doesn’t mean you don’t get close though. At one point I caught myself between two actors screaming at one-another, one actor actually spraying spittle all over my face. Now that’s what I call “experiential theatre.”
This theatre experience will differ wildly depending upon which character(s) you choose to follow. There is the deranged concierge of the building, the insane old woman and her crippled daughter who you can always hear clumping up and down the five flights. There is the desperate detergent salesman, and other characters whose character line I didn’t follow. Herein lies the problem with The Tenant.
If you look at the script, there are scenes they call “irises.” During these scenes the audience is brought together to experience the delivery of key elements of the story-line. Sometimes this is accomplished by causing a stir and drawing attention and other times via video that appears in almost all the rooms (modern television equipment put into old television components). I don’t feel that this worked particularly well as I felt I had missed important details in the plot line. I got the impression that the original girl’s death was not a suicide and that there was foul play involved. I think this because I saw one character pass me with blood on her hands. But I would have to go back to see it again and follow different characters in the play to learn this.
PLOT SPOILER: The ending involves the audience being drawn into the large sanctuary where the final scene plays out. The scene shows Trelkovsky throwing himself out the window of the same room, blackout.
The video design by Kate Freer, Josh Higgason, Alex Koch and Dave Tennet is startling in how well it is executed. Certain scenes have a film-noir feel to them. The music by Duncan Shiek and David van Tieghem is brilliantly put together and enhances the spooky surroundings appropriately. I was amazed at how both the sound and the music was customized by room and scene, just so intricate.
I would like to see The Tenant again. Despite the loose threads, I really enjoyed myself and found the entire experience riveting, particularly being that close to actors. May I make a suggestion though, if you are going to go, go with a few friends. Do not eat before you go to the theatre. As you leave the basement after the first scene in the show, you should all split up and each follow a different character or set of characters. After the show, go have dinner or meet up down in the bar in the parish house basement for cocktails to discuss. You will be putting together the pieces like a game of Clue.
The Tenant is playing at the West-Park Presbyterian Church on 86th Street and Amsterdam through September 17, 2011. The production is free to the public. As you leave there is a collection being taken for those wishing to make a donation. For more information go tohttp://www.woodshedcollective.com/