Theater in the Dark: Carpe Diem

Theater in the Dark: Carpe Diem is one of those creative, cutting edge theater productions that New York is so good at nurturing. It’s conceived and directed by Erin B. Mee and produced by her company This is not a Theatre Company at the TheaterLab space, off-off-Broadway. 

For this show, audience members are blindfolded and then led into the theater, which, we learn later, is a large room with tables and chairs by them, as if for dinner. As we sit, we’re led through experience a series of olfactory, gustatory, aural and sometimes tactile experiences, in ten “scenes”. In each scene, something to eat or drink is placed in our hands.

Here’s the outline:

Scene Name: Drink
Smell: Jasmine 
Taste: Green Tea

Scene  Name: Gather Ye Rosebuds
Smell: Rose Petals 
Taste: Turkish Delight

Scene Name: Dance of Chocolate
Smell: Vanilla 
Taste: Chocolate

Scene Name: Bottle-Vase
Smell: Lavender 
Taste: Wine

Scene Name: Do I Dare?
Smell: Perfume 
Taste: Prosecco and Pear Juice

Scene Name: Tree 
Smell: Dirt 
Taste: Sage

Scene Name: Sympathy 
Smell: Grass 
Taste: Ginger

Scene Name: Ripe Time
Smell: Rose Perfume 
Taste: Mandarin Orange

Scene Name: I Love You
Smell: Lavender 
Taste: Tomato Juice

Scene Name: Ocean 
Smell: Ocean 
Taste: Salt

In addition, we hear either recorded voice or music in each scene - Prufrock; To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, from which the production derives its name); whimsical, almost nonsensical dialogue; a whisper in our ear. And sometimes we feel the light sensation of something touching us, like a feather.

Ms. Mee relates the production to the Indian concept of rasa - translated as “flavor”, “essence” or “extract”, and applied to the performing arts. When the show was presented in India, Ms. Mee told the Indian Express that it “literalize the notion of rasa.” She explained that just as different combinations of food elicit different tastes, so do they produce different combinations of emotions. In this show, she expands on this idea to include sound and touch.

This concept is refreshing and interesting. It could be exciting if it were more developed. It’s fascinating to the theater professional, but Ms. Mee’s concept is so academic that it leaves the general audience behind. For one thing, the swift succession of scenes lacks gravity. Each scene - each taste - needs to be framed in time; we need literally to cleanse our palate, like at a wine tasting. What’s more, the meaning of the experience needs to be more explicit and the scenes need to progress in a way that we can comprehend. We’re given the outline above only after the show, and even then the scene names mean nothing to us. We’ve enjoyed this delicate, meditative experience, but we have no idea if it means anything.

Is this theater? It certainly stretches the definition of theater to mean something it hasn’t meant before. But if not us - who?

The show’s best moment, though, creates a lovely metaphysical metaphor: the lights are turned on while we’re still blindfolded so that we know that there’s light but we can’t see anything.

These articles clarify Ms. Mee’s ideas:

I expect that Ms. Mee and This is not a Theatre Company will make the conceit behind Theatre in the Dark: Carpe Diem more accessible, and I’ll be sure to “see” it then.

Steve Capra
October 2019

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