theater in brooklyn heights

versailleS 2016

Immersive, non-musical theater is a gamble, but so is most theater for lots of people: if you haven't heard of a show, it might be a waste of time. If you have heard of it, the cost is probably steep enough that you might have difficulty enjoying it, even if you do get a ticket. So when it comes to actors walking between, talking to, otherwise engage with and even touching you and your plus one, Sleep No More remains the only performance of its kind to make inroads with members of the general public. 

Versailles 2016, a revival of last year's Versailles 2015, is something altogether different. Shows of this kind are first and foremost about place, and the good ones convince you that the location was necessary to the performance. Staged in a beautiful Brooklyn Heights townhouse, the show's early dialogue sets the scene -- the neighborhood is quickly established as a place where the relatively wealthy once lived, before it gradually became poor, and then middle-class. Now, property values are once again, as they say, through the roof.

But the roof and third floor of this particular home are off-limits to visitors. Some of the most fun I had came before I knew that, in the minutes after I arrived but before the the audience was separated into passive groups, when it still seemed possible that everyone standing around awkwardly mingling in the living room was the show itself, was the magic. Unlike Sleep No More, there are no Instagram-friendly masks here and so no easy delineation between actors and audience. I ate too much from the plastic bowls of pretzels, an odd counterpoint to the home's otherwise elegant interior, and spoke with an older woman who revealed to me that this was her home. I complimented her on how wonderful it was. She replied that they are "very, very, very, very lucky." This sounded ominous, I thought. Perhaps the show was a murder mystery. Another woman, with an over-sized name tag pinned to her shirt, introduced herself and told me she had just finished an arts-and-crafts class around the corner, only further confirming my suspicions. What other characters might be floating around, just waiting to share clues to a riddle I could only guess at the outlines of?

As it turns out, there was no riddle. Instead, the mingling mass of audience was divided and led into different rooms and the show began, proceeding room by room as each scene finished. Without giving too much away, the Versailles script is a set of loosely-related riffs on relative luxury. Different rooms offer new characters grappling in different ways with the show's nearly titular question: how do we live with the knowledge that many of us exist in conditions more splendid than even royalty of centuries past? 

The answer was about what you would expect. It is baffling: the wealth we're surrounded by, the options available to us, and the guilt we can't help but feel for clearly not being deserving of it all. But every scene was too long by half. Maybe that's just as well for a play about excess. The actors, only a few feet away at their farthest, often spoke as loudly as they would on stage, so it felt less like I was privy to something unexpected and more like I had walked in on wealthy friends rehearsing for a play at home. It's probably too generous to imagine that feeling was intended, was meant to signal that in our confused state of luxury, we can only ever engage with each other through play-acting, through broadcast, as though before an audience or a camera. 

There was only one moment when I felt truly marinated in the environment, which I suppose is the great hope of performances like this one. It was in the bathroom, which was, for my group, the last room before the whole audience re-congregated on the first floor. The half-dozen of us stood for an eternal fifteen minutes watching a small, barefoot man in black-tie dress wordlessly stomp, shimmy, and balance on and over all parts of the tub, tinny music from a shower radio cuing his more dramatic movements. It was something you could only come up with if there was nothing more to do. When everything's available but nothing's enough, maybe the only answer we can come up with is to swear off moderation altogether. He was, in all the right ways, too much.

Versailles 2016, from This Is Not A Theatre Company, is returning for two final performances: Friday, October 21st and Saturday, October 29th.