Intimate strangers find each other and themselves at ‘Queen of the Night’

-Tom Nite

The evening begins on the street in the bitter polar vortex in front of glass doors papered over like some construction site. Unsure, I open them to find a man in a plywood-blocked off lobby who says they are not ready yet and please wait outside, which I do, milling about with the well-dressed, restless crowd, feeling docile and a bit foolish.

Once inside I am introduced to Jesse, who locks blue eyes with me and takes me warmly by the hand, smiling, leading me through the plywood door, guiding me down dark, curved stairs surrounded by peeling paint and shabby remnants of 75-year-old elegance to a restored, magnificent, decadent, enormous room, lit darkly by theater lights, with a huge round stage extending into the middle of tables seating at least 200. Nightclub of my dreams. The bar is lined with drinks for the taking, people are crowded together mingling, some with friends, some with strangers. Average age? Old enough to be well heeled. Everyone is beautifully dressed.

Is Jesse an actress? She smiles, still holding my hand. For tonight, yes, she tells me. But in an intimate moment of sharing, she says she is really a painter of large colorful abstracts. She is gone.

Other reviewers somehow managed to maintain their observer objectivity during this over-the-top dinner theater-circus-interactive performance art event, which is about as close to a very upscale psychedelic rave as you can get this side of legal, but I confess that I did not.

The gala evening, both grand and intimate, is the brainchild of Randy Weiner, who produced “Sleep No More” and the venue “The Box.” He has brought together the magnificent Martha Graham dancer Katherine Crockett (as The Queen), Steve Cuiffo (as Sarastro), food artist Jennifer Rubell, fashion designer Thom Browne, choreographer Lorin Latarro, circus creator Shana Carroll and the ‘circus’ Les 7 Doigts De La Main among others too numerous to mention – all under the direction of one-on-one theater specialist Christine Jones – to create his latest exploration of immersive theater.

The show is a mashup of Mozart, dance, juggling, trapeze acts, acrobatics, whips, knife-throwing and food orgy, set to a riotous score, that tells the story of the queen’s daughter, Pamina„ for whom the queen has orchestrated this whole evening as a celebration and ritual for her coming of age, what Crockett calls, “the sacred transition from girl to womanhood. The initiation into her sexuality, with all the mystery, empowerment, responsibility and wisdom that embodies.”

The food is part of the show and presented in a theatrical manner to enhance the sense of this celebration feast. The basics: Unlimited drinks, all quite novel and good during the mingling hour, then unlimited wine at your table for the rest of the night. Theatrically presented entrees of whole pig, whole lobster and standing rib roast of beef, all oversized, brought out mid-show in a fantastic food parade on platters, in bird cages by butlers in jackets and shorts. Fabulous desserts, with a chocolate cake served by the bite to you by actors sitting on the stage as you are all dancing to a slow romantic dance, ends the evening.

As for the immersive aspect of the evening: Not everyone wants to let go of the comfortable distance between audience and artist. It can get personal, fast. But the cast is sensitive and caring and you will still have a fine time if you choose to be more observer than participant. You will still see a literally spectacular show.

However, if you really do step into the performance and open up to the experience, you will lose yourself in the mastery of artists creating a magical theater experience, very much influenced by performance artists like Marina Abramovic, that can take you to genuinely intimate places.

Says director Christine Jones of this type of theatrical event, “When the relationship between the actor and the audience member is distilled in this way they become equally invested and dependent on each other. I believe that this mutuality in the moment heightens the potential for dramatic work to both land and transcend.”

So nothing about the show, from before it begins, like the papered doors and plywood, is accidental. As you begin your night keep in mind, then, that in some way, even though the performance may be for a large audience, at certain moments each actor will be performing just for you.

For each audience member, then, the show will be different.

At the bar, I notice the tiny jewel on audience-member Linda’s cheek – “the sign of the queen” that shows she has had a private audience with a cast member in one of the small rooms hidden off the main ballroom.

The tall beauty in a gold miniskirt tells me, “A man named Bucknell led me through a couple of doors; we ended up in a freezer-type room and it was a little cold for that, but I thought what the heck.

“He pointed to one spot on his naked chest and told me it was a button that was stop and another spot was a button that was go and then he put his hands on my chest and so I pushed go and he brought his face closer and closer to mine until it was like two inches away – and I pushed stop and he moved back.

“We did that several times and then he smiled and said, ‘Linda, that’s good. You now know your limits,’ and he put the mark of the queen on me and then he led me out of the room and back to the bar and to here.”

After my moment with Linda, I grabbed a tall drink, which tasted like a see-through Bloody Mary, and moved through the crowd in which performers mingled freely with audience, as the queen, bathed with cool blue light in her full-helmeted-royal-robed regalia, stood at the edge of the stage to greet and be greeted by actors and audience who dared to join in.

The queen, Katherine Crockett, explains her interest in this “adventure,” and the influence of director Jones: “Her vision, her inspiration, her creativity and her generosity in encouraging and allowing me to discover my own insights and territory while constantly urging us all to leap into the unknown and embrace our fears, became more than just a process of creating a role, but a practice of approaching life, with openness of heart and spirit, and above all humanity. And I think this is what the whole piece ultimately is about, opening up, discarding that outer shell like the dress I finally take off at the end, revealing to us our vulnerability, humanness, passion and compassion.” 

Dinner food-trading is also part of the performance, helping to open up the barriers between strangers – each table gets one of the three meals: lobster, beef or pig. Everyone is encouraged to mingle and trade food and as the wine flows freely that is what happens, as cast member-servers mingle, sit and lie on tables and laps, perform and talk intimately with the audience.

I traded my wonderful lobster for some moist delicious pig with my neighbor, Sebastian from Sydney, I asked him if he, too, had a private experience.

“They did drag me off ,” he told me. ‘I was taken into a cellar room by myself and I was told to yell my feelings out. They said the queen likes it when a man lets himself go.”

“Did you?”

“I yelled out my emotions, what I was feeling, really did, and then there was the mark of the queen on my hand the next moment. This ‘Q’,” he said, holding up his hand to show me the mark at the crook of his thumb and index finger.

In my imagination, the queen “picked” Sebastian for this experience because she sensed a kindred spirit – back home he works with troubled youths. Troubled, like the character in the show who attempts to hang himself, Papageno, in despair. Says Crockett of the moment she comforts this character, “He tells me who has been mean to him and I listen and offer my understanding. He is like the lost, wild child who I take in. I think the Queen loves to bring the misfits, the outrageous ones, the lovers, the artists, those unique adventurers who don’t fit in anywhere else, under her wing. She accepts them, she understands.”

If you let yourself be taken in, then, and become immersed in Queen of the Night, it can become that kind of evening – in theater and even in your life. One of acceptance and understanding.

Reported by Tom Dworetzky

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