The Drowned Man

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable

10/27/13 (Sun), London

It’s hard to know what to call The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, another National production from a group called Punchdrunk. It was described to me as interactive theater, but neither of those words seems quite right. The production is staged, if that’s the word, not within a proscenium but throughout several rooms on two floors of a warehouse that has been transformed into Temple Studios, a Los Angeles film studio in the 1960s. There is a separate one-hour story taking place on each floor: basically, a jealous male studio worker kills his unfaithful lover after catching her with a handsome cowboy (downstairs), and a jealous female studio worker kills her unfaithful lover after catching him with a sexy actress (upstairs). The various characters in each story – actors, workers, bartenders, random folks – act out their scenes simultaneously all over the place, and it is up to the audience to follow the characters around in order to piece the story together. The main actors aren’t even identified; they only become clear as we follow along. Each story is replayed three times to give us a chance to catch something we might have missed. If you look at the drag queen doing his act, for example, you miss the cowboy slipping his card to the young female inviting her to a rendezvous, and if you then follow the cowboy as he wanders away (presumably to the rendezvous point), you miss the interaction between the female and her unsuspecting lover. Various characters meet other various other characters, then go their separate ways, leaving us wondering which way to go. It’s impossible to know who to follow the first time or just what’s going on, and with little or no dialogue, the clues had to be sussed out from the myriad activity taking place all around us. I basically followed the crowd, which sometimes meant running furiously as we chased the actors from room to distant room.

I had a 5:30p ticket, meaning I missed the first 30 minutes of the show’s first go-round. Audience members are given Venetian-type masks as we enter the premises so as to distinguish cast members from other viewers, and are asked to stay quiet. With our masks on tight, we enter an elevator guided by a purposely (I hope) unfunny and would-be creepy host. Half the people were shunted off at one floor before the doors abruptly closed, and the rest of us were taken to the next floor up. We walked into a huge, musty area of abandoned movie trailers in an impressively sinister setting, leading to a bar in the center and various rooms surrounding, all of which are amazingly detailed: the trailers have half-written letters, personal effects and casting sheets, a funeral parlor has lights still burning for the recently departed, a store is stuffed with cans and boxes with period labels, an office has filing cabinets and intriguing notes that are (possibly) about the show’s characters. Obviously not everything is relevant, but that’s for us to figure out, like a huge game of Myst. They certainly didn’t stint on the set and props.

I stuck with the upper-floor story since that was hard enough. The musical sequence being filmed was cute, so I watched that twice. I was also trying to figure why the cowboy suddenly appeared naked on the set, an action he repeated, more understandably, in a bathtub (where he received an important-looking letter). Needless to say, he attracted a large following. I was way too distracted by the overall experience to put together a coherent story, and realized after looking at the program, sold after the show, that I didn’t even understand what I thought I understood. But it really didn’t matter. The concept was pretty daring, ensuring that each viewer creates his own show depending on who he follows in which order and how he interprets the many little clues lying around the set. At the very end, they manage to herd the entire audience into a vast area on the lower floor, where the show winds to a conclusion with the murder of the man by the woman out in a field. I was surprised when the cast members took their bows, since that’s the first time this felt like normal theater.

The show was interesting as an experience and definitely worth seeing once. More than that will depend on the viewer’s tolerance for this sort of thing, though it probably does take another showing to figure it all out. It’s not really for me, but I would recommend it for non-theatergoers, especially younger ones, or people looking for something a little different. That’s especially true if they’re not native speakers – there’s almost no dialogue, and once you’ve got the general story down, it’s mainly a matter of following the action. I imagine I’ll end up at the similar Punchdrunk production in New York (based evidently on Macbeth) at some point if I’m with Japanese friends. But I’d say it’s a bit of a been-there-done-that event. And I’ve been there.

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