October 19 – 31st, 2012
When the press release for Gretchen’s Nightmare hit my Inbox boasting that the production was an interactive performance where, “audience members will become part of the action, traveling through a unique experience that blends performing arts with an exciting and frightening participatory adventure”, I was immediately in. I love interactive performance experiences. And I liked being creeped out. It sounded like a fantastic idea. What I didn’t know then however, was that the idea was going to be a flawed one that often got in the way of what could have been a more successful experience.
Based on Goethe’s famous legend of Faust Part 1, (A story in which Faust, a highly successful but unsatisfied scholar makes a deal with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge, worldly pleasures and the love of a pious girl called Gretchen), Gretchen’s Nightmare created and staged by Javier Vilalta, takes place in the Lantern Community Church. Actually more correctly, the performances take over the Church staging scenes in different areas of the building with audience members (6 at a time only) escorted around to find the action. But first upon entering the church, we are asked to sit in a darkened vestibule lit only by flameless tea lights. Here we are given the instructions for the performance (no talking being the big one), asked to read six descriptions of how we deal with our own nightmares and pick the one that most resonates with us. We are then each given a piece of different coloured cloth corresponding to our answer that we are told we must wear prominently displayed throughout the performance. So far so good as I was intensely intrigued to see how the choice of nightmare coping and cloth colour would play out during the performance and affect each one of us differently. Spoiler alert – the answer was it didn’t and not at all. But as I soon learned, disappointment and missed opportunities would become a constant in the production.
From this point on we were escorted up and down various tea light-lit darkened hallways, staircases and other twists and turns by eerily hooded or masked actors who led us to each scene in the performance narrative. A narrative that to my mind was flawed right from the beginning and therefore continually disappointing as the performance progressed.
We are told in the first scene by a wonderfully performed Mephistopheles (Devon Dubnyk) that we are to be the Faust character in this performance. That we are in fact manifestations of Faust’s evilness that not only made the pact with the devil, but ultimately destroyed the innocent girl Gretchen and left her caught in a nightmare she cannot escape. Putting aside that there will be audience members who I’m sure will not be fully versed in the Faust myth and will therefore not follow along with this first scene, the quick making of the audience as Faust and expecting us to feel guilt or shame for his crimes fell flat for me. As did the taunting throughout the play of “look what you’ve done” shouted at us by the various performers. I would have much rather been witness to Faust’s crimes in this performance than be forced into a role that felt false and therefore decidedly un-creepy or scary as advertised. So it was with this early disappointment that I embarked on the rest of the performance journey through a series of six main scenes performed by a dozen or so performers that served to immerse us in the Faust myth.
While each scene involves a different piece of the story, there are similar threads and motifs in each segment. Some work very well, others were potential not realised and certain ideas didn’t’ work at all for me.
The Mephistopheles character than opens the performance, resurfaces throughout the experience as a kind of narrator/guide figure. In each instance, the character and the performances were deeply impressive and provided the kind of eerie feeling I expected. In addition to Dubnyk’s tun as Mephistopheles, Kristin Eveleigh does a fantastic turn as a black caped and masked devil figure in what I thought was the only truly moving and disturbing scene of the evening involving an enchanted garden. Similarly, Patrick Quinn does a nice job with his devil character in an otherwise unimpressive let-down of a final scene.
Less successful were any of the scenes involving Gretchen as a speaking character due to a series of weak actresses, the poorly choreographed and performed dance/movement segments and a number of narratives that were either simply boring or laugh-worthy. No matter how wonderfully designed these scenes were with their darkness and shadows and smoke and suspended eyeless- baby doll heads (yeah, you read that right) and fantastically eerie face masks created by Mexican visual artist Jose Rafael Flores, the design simply could not make up for the fact that the substance just wasn’t there.
As the final scene concluded and we were sent out into the cold night to ponder what we had just experienced, the overwhelming feeling I had was that Gretchen’s Nightmare was more a series of missed opportunities than a coherent performance. The bones of a terrifically interesting and unnerving experience are there. But for me, the nightmare was that it wasn’t realized.
For the guys and the girls – If you have never attended an interactive performance and are curious what it’s like, this may appeal to you. There are some very cool elements to the production despite its defects. And with Halloween coming up, you may be more receptive to the genre than at other times. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Ha! Forget it. Move along. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Interactive performances, when well done, can be some of the best theater experiences ever. This isn’t one of them. SKIP IT