The future of the theater lies in immersive, site-specific work. The Peculiar Works Project gave us a terrific example of this recently, off-off-Broadway, called Afterparty: The Rothko Studio. It was presented at 22 Bowery. The address is important because the building has housed many artists’ studios - most notably that of Mark Rothko.
We’re an audience of about 25. We’re introduced to the space in the street-level galleries hung with work of contemporary artists, and another with sort of secular altars and a man lying under a small pyramid wearing headphones. We’re in classic New York Bohemia. Then we’re welcomed by an actress in a wild headpiece - I believe the program refers to her as “The Muse” - and ushered into the next room, where we’re entertained by dancers, starting with biomechanics and progressing to interpretive dance.
A host greets us: “Welcome to the Bunker. … This is John’s night. … We wanted to do something special to honor his first show!” Such is the conceit of the evening.
We’re ushered upstairs, past a woman on a swing and up a stairway where an actress reads text I didn’t recognize, to a large room where a woman sings from a balcony and some of the cast sing to the text of A Recipe for a Work of Art, which Rothko wrote in 1958: “There must be clear preoccupation with death…”
And then the pith of the show: we’re guests at a dinner, cold but tasty manicotti which we never get to finish. I was lucky enough to sit between the guest of honor, John, at the head of the table, and, on my other side, none other than Mark Rothko himself, played superbly by Jason Howard.
Besides we audience, there are other artists at table, the actors playing actual people or amalgams of actual people, and one playing an affected art teacher spewing art-speak. The actors are sometimes working with scripted text and sometimes improvising, talking to us as fellow guests. As the conversation develops, Rothko becomes increasingly annoyed with dilettantism, not to mention the food: “I tried to eat that overpriced, pretentious slop.” And much - perhaps all - of Mr. Howard’s scripted dialogue comes from the Mr. Rothko himself. He painted the Seagram murals here, and much of the character’s rant refers to them.
S.M. Dale is credited with the “story” of Afterparty, whatever that means, and it’s directed by Ralph Lewis. This is great work, theater that does what the electronic arts cannot: immerse us in a space, in an event. Let’s hope that the new generation of theater devisers emulate the creative Peculiar Works Project.