Caleb Hammond’s ‘The Irresistible’ at Immersive Gallery
If you take the L train to the Bedford Avenue stop, head north on Bedford and stay on the west side of the street, between 9th and 10th street you’ll pass by an industrial-looking building with a hard-to-make-out door numbered 132. Let’s say you happen to stop in front of this door on a Friday or Saturday evening in this month of April during the evening hours and venture inside. There you will encounter a small desk behind which a ticketing expert will sell you a ticket (or cross your name off the reservation list), at which point you will officially be experiencing The Irresistible, an immersive theatrical experience that has been concocted by the director Caleb Hammond and offers up all manner of strange and familiar, including an all-female punk band playing in the corner, a bar, and at least six live camera feeds projecting on multiple surfaces throughout the space.
The use of the term familiar in this setting is perhaps subjective, depending on your familiarity with Henrik Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’ and Euriprides’ ‘The Bacchae’ – so, here follows a brief summary of both for future reference. Hedda Gabler, which premiered in 1891 in Germany, follows the trajectory of a not-so-young-anymore woman named Hedda who is unhappily married to George Tesman, author and academic. She’s unhappy because she really wants to be loved by a fellow named Eilert, who is a more brilliant writer than her husband (and therefore a threat to him) in addition to being a recovering alcoholic, and who is unfortunately (for Hedda) already involved with another woman named Thea. Over the course of the play, Hedda encourages Eilert to accompany her husband George to a party where Eilert falls rather spectacularly off the wagon and ends up losing the manuscript to his next work (described as a masterpiece), which George finds and brings home. Hedda then encourages Eilert to commit suicide and gives him a pistol. When the news arrives that Eilert is dead, George and Thea (Eilert’s current lover) begin to reconstruct his novel from existing notes, and Hedda learns from a family friend that a) Eilert’s death was probably an accident instead of suicide, and b) that the friend knows that Hedda gave him the gun that was used in his death and plans to use this information to his advantage. After receiving this information, Hedda goes into the next room and shoots herself in the head.
Got that? Good. Moving on. So, The Bacchae is a play that opened in Greece about 2,296 years earlier (in 405 BC if Wikipedia is to be trusted) and concerns itself with the God Dionysus and his vengeance upon the city of Thebes in response to their lack of faith in his godliness. Essentially, Dionysus shows up and puts a spell on a bunch of women (referred to as the Maenads) who then go up onto the mountain top to do interesting things like rip animals apart and dance naked. Dionysus, appearing in human form, is then arrested by Pentheus (the king of Thebes) and bound in chains. Being a God, he escapes and convinced Pentheus that he should dress up as a female Maenad and spy on the women prior to launching an attack against them. All goes as planned until Dionysus reveals Pentheus’ identity to the Maenads, which results in a rather gruesome death at the hands of Agave, who (as it turns out!) is the mother of Pentheus. She walks around with his decapitated head for awhile, thinking it is the head of a mountain lion until the madness wears off and she realizes what she has done.
The Irresistible takes on both of these classic plays by staging them simultaneously in multiple spaces and giving the audience free range to wander from room to room, picking and choosing which play to watch at any given time. The plays don’t totally overlap and generally each narrative is contained within its own room – so, it’s possible to gather most of both stories by walking rather quickly from one room to the next and back again, depending on what the action dictates. The cameras are always on and are live-projecting various imagery onto screens that hang either in front of or behind the action, allowing you to always be aware of what is happening in the other space as well as up on the mountaintop (i.e., an unseen but audibly present upstairs area where nude dancers cavort and their manipulated images are often projected on top of and around the other projected imagery).
The strangeness and complexity of the piece is generated through the experience of (trying to) take in both narratives at the same time – certain moments begin to double and accumulate as a result, while others clash in a stark contrast of style and content. Despite its status as elder play, The Bacchae is performed here in a more contemporary style (although mostly sticking with the heightened text) and Hedda retains a starchy and staunch representational feel. It’s a bit like channel surfing if the only two channels were PBS and Comedy Central (that is, if Comedy Central did Greek tragedy). What starts out as a rather disorienting experience begins to coalesce once each play reaches its approximate mid-point. The party in Hedda wherein Eilert loses the draft of his new masterpiece corresponds to the preparations of Pentheus to ‘join in the revelry’ and spy on the Maenads. There is a conga-line that joins the team of performers at one point. More and more often, George or Hedda storm off through the crowd to dance alone as the Greek tragedy continues to unfurl in the next room. The strong symbolic themes of The Bacchae (Jealousy! Parties! Death by head injury!) begin to invade and reconstruct our viewing of Hedda Gabler in ways both mysterious and subversive.
Questions emerge – what would this experience be like had the audience member had no familiarity with either play? Is the world reliant on our recognition of a thing (as origin) versus our reconstruction of a thing (as immersive collage)? To what degree does the ambiguity of allowing the audience to wander largely without guidance through this event help or hinder a greater understanding of the two plays, either collectively or individually? Questions of course do not require answers, and what lingered for me long after the event was the sense of being slowly and unnervingly seduced (as perhaps Pentheus was) by the environment of the whole thing; the projected images of the barely discernable naked dancing bodies that I could hear but not clearly make out moving about somewhere above me while the punk band played on in the other room and Dionysus ordered another drink at the bar.