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At what point does theatre become liturgy? At what point do the actions we perform in play become real? These are among the most powerful questions asked by Serenade, a new Edgar Allan Poe-inspired piece of immersive dinner theatre now running at Caroll Place, a restaurant on Greenwich Village’s Bleecker Street.
In Serenade’s haunting first moments, we are led down a narrow corridor, blessed by white-clad women whispering the Ave Maria, entrusted with candles, purified with incense. In an adjacent room – ever so slightly out of our field of vision – disturbing images that challenge our trust in our safety. We have left linear time behind, our hosts tell us: now it is time to re-enter the real world, entering into a private dining area off the restaurant proper that seems to exist at once within the confines of Greenwich Village and beyond all concepts of space and time: where St. Barbara, Cleopatra Joan of Arc, Edgar Allan Poe’s Lenore, the goddess Péle, Medusa, and others all exist simultaneously, mingling with diners.
Then the evening begins. Through a series of songs, each woman tells her story; each story reveals tragedy. In this version, Cleopatra perished for love; Joan of Arc’s betrayal was made all the more poignant by her loss of faith. The songs vary. Many are hauntingly beautiful – Medusa’s recollection of her transformation into the snake-haired creature of myth is a particular highlight. Others, however – like Joan of Arc’s confession – feel a bit too far along on the pop spectrum, and risk shattering the delicate balance between reality and otherworldliness the introduction sets up so well. Presiding over them all is the folkloric, demonic (or was that just a nasty rumor?) Lilith, (Ava Lee Scott, who also wrote and directed the piece), first wife of Adam, played magnificently by Scott with a cocksure swagger and an accent reminiscent of a 40’s screen siren.
Scott created the role of Annabella in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More: a piece of theatre known in part for its “one on ones”: where actors select audience members for private scenes in hidden rooms. And Scott’s production takes the concept of the “one on one” to new and often thrilling levels. Throughout the evening, our lost historic spirits stop by to whisk us away for individual encounters – sometimes for a conversation, sometimes for a warning, sometimes to offer up trinkets. We, in turn, are asked to share our own stories: becoming as vulnerable as the characters before us.
At other moments, we are asked to participate in elements of “ceremony” – lighting a candle, screaming aloud with Lilith. Here, too, the power of participation takes on a collective, rather than individual cast; we all become responsible for the world of Serenade: and with it, the characters we have come to know.
These are the Serenade’s strongest moments: moments where Scott and her team test the limits of what it means to create and participate in ritual, to be complicit in the world with which we are presented.
Serenade is not perfect. The tension between performed/sung segments and individual encounters is never quite resolved – the two sometimes feel like parallel pieces, rather than an integrated whole. And the song lyrics and dialogue – particularly in the one-on-one encounters – can feel unnecessarily contemporary and overly simplistic: as if each monologue were tailored around a single, easily digestible message (Distilling Joan of Arc’s story to “have faith in yourself”, for example, seems a wasted opportunity for the creation of a more complex character.) On a line-by-line basis, much of the non-Poe “text” (such as it is) feels a bit unfinished. And the one-on-one encounters, though full of powerful potential, may need some time to grow into fluency: the actors ask an ambitious amount emotionally of their audience (I was encouraged to describe one of the darkest moments of my life) that necessitates, in turn, a degree of confidence in receiving it.
But the dynamic nature of Serenade leaves room for growth and exploration as the actors continue to develop their characters and stories beyond opening night. But, helmed by a strong director/creator and willing to push the boundaries of audience/actor interaction, Serenade has the potential to be a haunting piece of theatre.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.