A ROOM WITHOUT WALLS
Wild Onion Theatre Company
at Green Street Cafe and No Exit Cafe
The cast of Wild Onion's A Room Without Walls have to be some of the bravest performers in the city. Their production takes place not in the relatively controlled environment of a traditional theater but in the highly unpredictable environment of a cafe. And not a "pretend" cafe either--an empty room set up with tables and chairs. Both Green Street and No Exit are real, open-for-business places--and their customers may suddenly find themselves audience members, roles that they may not want to accept.
Luckily for the actors, on the night I attended a Green Street performance the customers were more than happy to play along. (On the other hand, a recent performance at No Exit featured two men who refused to stop talking throughout their chess game, as one of the actresses informed me.) Joining into the seancelike fantasy created by A Room Without Walls was for me mostly a delightful and effortless experience, due in large part to this intelligent and skillful production. Unlike most audience-participation theater, in this show Wild Onion takes great care to invite its audience along on a journey rather than coerce them. These artists respect their audience; throughout the evening, you know you're in safe hands.
A Room Without Walls, written by Mark J. Dalton, begins with a woman in cheesy gypsy attire (Marsha Estell) suddenly announcing "I found it! . . . And it's been right here all along." She sits at a table littered with curious objects unidentifiable save for a black top hat. She then asks what we're all staring at, and realizing that we think she's part of the show, she asks, "What if I thought you were the show?" Then she gestures at some guy sitting at a table and bursts into applause.
This opening moment not only clearly articulates one of the central themes of the piece--the tenuous and fluid relationship between the observer and the observed--but charms us because it's the audience member and not the actress who gets the laugh. The guy at the table plays his moment brilliantly by doing nothing. The fortune-teller, on the other hand, suddenly looks ridiculous; she has attempted to deny that she's part of the show by making a grand theatrical gesture.
Clearly there is something phony about this woman--or more accurately, there are many things phony about her. Yet this phoniness is clearly a deliberate choice on the actress's part and therefore "real." Estell exploits this tension adroitly. Her fortune-teller is such an incompetent con that she becomes delightful; and because we can't believe she thinks she's fooling anybody, she's funny. All that she seems capable of is reporting the obvious as if it had some mystical meaning. For instance, drawing numbers out of her top hat to find a subject from the audience, she intones, "I am sensing . . . I am sensing a piece of paper . . . with a number on it."
Her self-deprecating style puts the audience at ease; we are clearly here to play, not to take ourselves seriously. When she does bring people out of the audience to read their futures, they seem to genuinely enjoy the experience. (Before bringing the first person out, she asks whether anyone present does not want to be called, giving those people who are uncomfortable in front of a crowd the opportunity to remain safely out of sight.) The advice she gives is wonderfully useless. After handing a woman a Guatemalan trouble doll, she tells her to "remember to forget" the doll, and then "you'll be better at arithmetic." In all of these scenes, Estell tends to keep the focus on the audience member--who in effect delivers the scene's unintentional punch lines. The audience member is generously given a better part than the actress.
The evening begins to change as we gradually realize that some people picked from the audience are in fact cast members and that they're delivering actual as well as improvised lines. As the distinctions between performers and observers become more and more blurred, the situation becomes increasingly uncertain and unpredictable. The real wild card is actor Phil Gibbs, whose portrayal of a self-conscious, cranky audience member is so unbelievably perfect that he had me fooled for quite a while.
Once the actors are brought forth, they engage in prepared scenes with the fortune-teller. Purportedly these scenes rely on images culled from the future life of some actual audience member. The most successful of these begins when a man (Hugh Callaly) sitting at a table in the back of the room "accidentally" smashes his glass on the floor. He then wanders around the room carrying on a long and almost nonsensical argument with the fortune-teller about their inability to understand each other. Yet as they wander they deliver their lines not to each other but directly into the faces of other people scattered around the room.
This powerful scene again challenges our assumptions about the audience/performer dichotomy, but in an unexpected and unsettling way: Am I part of this scene or not? What am I supposed to do? Some of the later scenes, on the other hand, seem purely "theatrical": in what may be a flash-forward, an old man talks to an old lady on a park bench, for example. Though playwright Dalton infuses these scenes with a delicate poetic sensibility, they leave the audience, which has been engaged in various ways, unaccounted for. It's as if, at some points during the game, the actors have just taken the ball and decided to play by themselves.
The last quarter of the piece left me feeling stranded: cast members dressed in black hooded robes and carrying burning incense select audience members to engage in a ritual of reincarnation. While the idea is touching--why not be reincarnated every day?--the enactment of the ritual seems overwrought and doesn't give audience members much freedom to react as they see fit. Whereas in the first half of the piece the audience members are allowed to respond genuinely, in this section they're cast in the roles of Mystical Initiates. The honesty and sense of humor of the fortune-teller's scenes disappear; we're not sure whether we're expected to accept this hokey ritual at face value or not.
This hour-long show left my mind spinning nonetheless. The talented cast (Jeannine Wisnosky is the fourth member) under Sandra Bykowski's briskly paced direction challenges many of our assumptions about performance while at the same time providing an entertaining evening. In a neat bit of irony, the fortune-teller's fake seance casts a real spell over us.