At the risk of sounding like a broken record: go see Dog and Pony's As Told by the Vivian Girls. As of right now, you only have three more chances. I saw it again last night and witnessed an entirely different show -- and one that was just as affecting.
The concept, for those uninitiated: Dog and Pony has put up a show not at but throughout Theatre on the Lake. Henry Darger's fantasy world of child slaves, the army that keeps them, and the creatures living without is recreated (along with Darger himself) in the space as a whole, with the audience left to their own devices to go where they please and follow who they please in what is being billed as a sort of 'choose your own adventure' theatrical experience.
What this translates to is a piece which, when approached with a game and enthusiastic mind, provides infinite returns. A piece in which it is not only impossible to see everything on one go through (or even two, as I can attest), but in which every audience member sees (in the most basic, physical sense of the word) an entirely different show with different character hierarchies, different emotional inlets, and, to be utterly reductive, different points of view. On top of that fact, the entire audience also wears simple paper cut-out little girl masks throughout the show -- which is so very much more effective than it might sound.
The only way I feel I can truly approach this is to begin with my first experience and slowly incorporate the second.
The audience last night was about three times the size of the audience I saw it with the week before. (The concept allows the show to basically play to mass capacity of the building, meaning no worries of selling out -- I heard tell that the audience topped 150 this past Wednesday.) This kicks a lot of ass for Dog and Pony, but is a little unfortunate for the show itself, as the more packed the space gets, the trickier it is to navigate in some of the smaller upstairs areas.
The audience present at the first showing was about ideal, probably in the 30-40 range. This allowed for both a true sense of discovery and at other moments a sense of audience community. Before the story is set into motion, there is a 15 minute "prologue", which is basically the performers keeping time to allow the audience to get their bearings within the space. The wonder starts immediately. As I was trying to get the lay of the land, I wandered up to a crow's nest/queen's box area overlooking the main space, I found who I would later discover to be Penrod (Jamie Abelson, in a breathtaking 180 from his force of nature work in Raven's columbinus) sitting all alone, weeping. I'm fairly certain I was the first person to come across him (I was quite proactive in my exploration), and I sat there watching him spell out 'ALL ALONE IN THE WORLD' from shreds of newspaper and weeping silently. And in those quiet moments, the beauty of the conceit fully sank its claws into me -- to the point where I'm actually getting a little teary-eyed just reliving the experience right now. There was the understanding that this, like so many other things in the theatre, had been and would continue to take place with or without me. And there was the beauty of the intimacy between just the two of us, me behind my mask as observer and he, completely and truly all alone in his world: audience immersion in a fourth wall setting is a strange thing, both unsettling and endearing in its voyeuristic nature. And then there was the thrill in knowing that, among these 30-40 people, I was the only one who would be able to witness the rest of the show and, eventually, leave the theatre that evening with a knowledge of these moments.
I left again before anyone else came, but by that point the game was on. I was connected to the story and to these characters and weaved in and out of scenes, stopping to take in the moment, picking up on snatches of information and realizing in turn that meant that somewhere else something I wanted to see was about to or already happening. Moments such as the realization that every character was accounted for except for Penrod (who for the rest of the show felt a little like my secret), leading me to head back to his queen's box to check up on him. Moments such as arriving at the queen's box and having Penrod nowhere to be found. The shock was instantaneous. This character -- the one I had discovered -- was somewhere in the building, and I didn't know where. At that moment, nothing was more important than finding Penrod back. I shot down the stairs and across the main (now empty) floor at almost a sprint, only to head to the second level and find him, and a good chunk of the audience, in the process of freeing the Vivian girls. And suddenly my secret was their secret instead.
By about a third of the way into the piece (and right around the first of two major battles on the main floor), I started to get a feel for the place and suddenly found myself, along with a couple of other anonymous masked individuals, preempting the action. If a couple of soldiers were going upstairs, I'd find myself hurrying to the less used spiral staircase to get there ahead of them; even more so if I knew there were Vivian girls already upstairs, to ensure I was there for the conflict. If I heard Penrod talking about how a couple of the girls had gone out to spy on the soldiers, I found myself scurrying off to find them with an uncertain urge that this is something I might want to see. There was a point last night when I saw my roommate sprint across the space -- it was the only moment I noticed him all night -- and a smile flashed across my face, because I knew it was working for him as much as it was for me and because I also really wanted to know who or what it was that he was so invested in. (It turned out to be a story thread that I didn't see either night, making me all the more jealous.)
And then there's the X-factor: Henry Darger (Greg Hardigan in another shining performance in a uniformly excellent cast). Darger spends much of the time in a small stand-alone mock-up of his apartment constructed to allow easy access viewing from all four sides. He narrates the action in the building, creating it on his typewriter as it takes place elsewhere. After a while he comes out spends some time in the space as well, operating on in a simultaneous but freestanding plane from the rest of the cast: not necessarily interacting with them, but working in unaware tangent as their actions emanate from his mind. Darger is also the character that lifts the show from brilliant immersive theatre to transcendental immersive theatre in one fell swoop at the climax of the show. It's the only moment aside from curtain that all of the characters are in one place at one time and it is the single best representation of the mind of the artist that I have ever had the privilege to see. Its unerring depth and spectrum of emotion had me sobbing openly behind my mask both times, and led to the following conversation after last night's show, which I think is about as succinct a representation of the show as one is likely to find.
Referring the scene in question, one of my friends said, "It was so...", followed by a slight pause, "...sad."
Her boyfriend responded, "Really? It made me feel kind of...", followed by a slight pause, "...warm and fuzzy."
And I knew not only that they were both right, but that they knew that they were both right.
And I knew that in those slight pauses lie everything in between -- an entire world of personal experience and association and history that led to that reaction on this one particular evening. A beautiful world unto its own, beautiful in its uniqueness, beautiful in that nobody else would ever truly experience life in exactly the same way.
And I knew that Henry Darger lived his life in those slight pauses. As Told by the Vivian Girls had simply laid it out for us; saying everything, but saying nothing. And that was all it needed to say.