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The Masque Of The Red Death

March 25, 2008

Theatregoers attending the UK theatre company Punchdrunk's production of The Masque of the Red Death are all given white commedia-style masks with long beakish noses to wear when they enter Battersea Arts Center via a secluded door at the back of the south London performance venue. We're told upon entering by an actress in Victorian garb never to take the masks of except when in the "Palais Royale." The masks make Punchdrunk's adaptation of the famous Edgar Allan Poe short story the perfect show for anyone who wants to experience a piece of live theatre incognito. I imagine this might have been what attracted Jude Law the night I attended the show -- I saw his name on the press list when I went to pick up my tickets. Try as I might to identify the actor as I walked around the theatre that night, it was impossible to discern the identity of anyone in the spooky sea of beaks and filtered smoky light.

Masque is probably the hottest ticket in London right now. The run is sold out. People are hawking tickets on eBay for roughly $300 apiece. You'd think we were talking Madonna in concert, not a production in a suburban venue by an experimental theatre company. It's easy to understand why people are flocking to see the show. Although plenty of other companies like London's Shunt and The Bay Area's Antenna Theater Company have experimented with eliminating the standard relationship between a stage and audience through creating walkabout, immersive theatrical "experiences" rather than straight plays, I've never felt quite so disoriented and mesmerized by this kind of production as I did with Masque.

The company has transformed the Arts Center into a maze of winding passages and magic-box rooms with lavish, tactile decorations and hidden nooks. Shadowy sentinels guard doors and passageways as audience members wander around, investigating spaces and occasionally coming across actors performing various scenes from the story with physical aplomb. Audience members each create their own individual experience as they wander through. At one point, I stumbled into a room in which a real black cat was lounging by an open fireplace. I sat for a while on a high-backed, velvet chair in the semi-darkness and stroked it. A bit later, I found myself in a wine cellar where a strange, portly actor in dirty clothes made a black cat out of a napkin, creating the creature's eyes from two green cocktail olives. He beckoned me to stroke the fabric feline and then invited me to pluck out its eyes and eat them. I felt compelled to do this for some reason. It made me shudder.

Eventually I found my way to the so-called Palais Royale and was grateful to be able to remove my mask. I kept bashing the beak against things all night and it was pretty hard to breathe inside the thing, especially with the cold I'd picked up in London a couple of days before. The Palais Royale was set up like an old-time music hall. Actors milled about in Victorian outfits among the audience members, most of whom sat in booths or at tables dotted around the room. There was a bar selling absinthe, wine and beer, a live band and a burlesque show offering a tantalizing mixture of lurid dancing, music, hypnotism and mind-tricks. I stayed for a while, had a drink, exchanged some pleasantries with a couple dressed in a top hat and bustle and eventually donned my mask again and strode off to explore some more, refreshed.

If the show feels over-long and the gothic schtick a bit over-bearing after a while, Masque still makes for a magical night of immersive theatre. I learned a lot about my own behavioral patterns and reactions to feeling lost and disoriented. And I loved drawing vague and implausible connections between the different experiences I encountered along my journey.

What most fascinates me about the production is the skill with which the director and actors impose their wills upon us without us even realizing it. We start off feeling as if we have the freedom to explore without limits. But as the evening goes on, we become more and more aware that our paths are becoming narrower and being blocked. Doorways that had once been open are now firmly shut. Spaces in which were were once able to wander about at our leisure with perhaps just one or two other people lurking in the shadows suddenly seem full of "ghosts". The more I explored, the tighter and more compressed the action around me became. Before I knew what was happening to me, I was standing with the rest of the audience in a huge ballroom watching actors cavort in a mad revel. I had no idea how I got there. All I can say is that it was bewitching.

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