UMKC Undergrads Explore Theatre and the Soul in Fall Intensive
“Ticket holders sign in upstairs, suite 203.” A solitary sign directed patrons to the Aquarium, the second floor above the main stage of the Fishtank Theater – up dimly lit stairs, through a narrow hall, to arrive at a quiet studio lobby.
“Welcome to Heaven and Hell,” house manager Cydia White said as she handed programs to the curious audience members. “Once you enter the space, you take a vow of silence. After that, follow the narrator.”
Each performance allowed for only 10 people at a time, which provided the audience a deeply intimate experience with the actors and set. The cast put on four shows a night Oct. 1-3.
After the individuals crossed the threshold into the interactive theater experience, narrator Marica Davis entered from a door hidden in the back of the space.
A long, black velvet cape draped from her shoulders. She held a thick, leather bound book in her right hand. She stared at the audience for a moment then addressed them directly.
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things,” Davis began. “The moral life of man forms part of the subject matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.”
She continued with a full length analysis of art, its style and its purpose – a speech which was all too Oscar Wilde.
“It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors,” Davis said. “Come with me, I will be your guide. You must always follow what I say and where I go.”
With a flick of her wrist, the narrator commanded the audience to follow as she exited through a side door – down the dim stairway, out the door, to enter the Fishtank. Davis showed her followers into the black box, the main space of the theater, where they could choose to either sit or stand as they watched.
An empty frame hung from the ceiling. Garrett Wolf, a young man with a face of porcelain stood behind it – he was Dorian Gray, and this was his portrait. The remaining seven cast members surrounded him, each taking a turn of their own in the frame before exiting.
“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses,” Davis said, “just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”
With a flick of her wrist, the audience was summoned to Peregrine Honig’s studio, just beyond the lobby. A scene between Lord Henry (Tomas Escarpita) and Basil (Catherine Lentz) unfolded in the quaint art studio. The two argued about Henry meeting Dorian in person.
“Don’t take away from me the one person who gives to my art whatever charm it possesses,” Basil said. Henry ignored her plea. Exeunt Henry and Basil.
“This talk of souls. Of what use is a soul?” Davis asked. “I cannot see it, I may not touch it, I do not know it. What is it worth?”
Davis and her followers tip-toed back to the black box.
Under a pool of false moonlight, a fisherman (Joshua Woodall) repeatedly threw a net into an imaginary lake. A mermaid (Caiti Rowland) appeared behind him, singing a serene lullaby. She was wrapped in pale blue satin which shimmered with her every move. The two danced a tango of will and desire. By the end, the fisherman long forgot about his net.
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” Davis said. “Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”
The audience was then led down a long, narrow corridor and into the White Room, another Fishtank rehearsal space. It was lavishly decorated – antique mirrors covered three of the walls, white curtains and a chandelier dazzled from the ceiling, and Dorian’s portrait taunted upstage center.
Dorian, Basil and Henry bantered back and forth over the painting.
“At least you are like it in appearance,” Henry said to Dorian. “But it will never alter.”
Silence pierced the room. The guide shared a foreboding look with the audience. The trance was suddenly broken.
“If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture was to grow old,” Dorian said, “for that I would give everything. Yes, there is nothing in the the whole world I would not give. I would give my very soul.”
The door opened and impish laughter flooded in from the green room across the hall – the Opium Den. Exeunt Henry, Basil and Dorian.
“There were opium dens, where one could buy oblivion. Dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new,” Davis said. “I adore simple pleasures.”
The atmosphere of the production danced blithely between euphoria and madness. Once again, the audience found itself in the black box, almost as if by accident. Dorian was there, too.
The final scene of an opera had just ended. The angelic ingénue, Sybil Vane (Jeanette Delaney), took her bow. Rose petals cascaded from the sky and Dorian and Sybil danced a bewitching promenade – the dance exquisitely illustrated “falling in love.”
Exeunt Dorian and Sybil. Enter Fisherman and Mermaid, followed by four witches (Catherine Cannon, Kaylin Shultz, Catherine Lentz and Jeanette Delaney). The witches spun the fisherman through a storm of strength and seduction, and he ultimately gave up his soul to be with the mermaid.
“He may be soulless,” Davis said, “but he’s not heartless.”
Back in the White Room, Dorian gushed about his new love to Basil and Henry. He insisted they attend her next show because she was the most phenomenal actress ever to have lived. They went, the audience followed, and Sybil performed horribly. Afterward, Dorian chastised Sybil for embarrassing him.
“Dorian, before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real,” Sybil said. “You made me understand what love really is. Tonight, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played.”
For Dorian, the revelation was not mutual.
“How little you can know of love, if you say it mars your art,” Dorian said. “Without your art you are nothing. The world would have worshiped you, and you would have borne my name. What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face.”
Exeunt Dorian. Sybil stood center, shattered to the core. She repeatedly exclaimed “Don’t leave me!” It was as though she forgot how to move, how to breathe. Slowly, she climbed a secluded set of stairs in the back of the theater. There she remained, clinging desperately to the fabric of her white gown, face buried and cries muffled.
The audience was momentarily as paralyzed as she. Davis gave a second flick of her wrist, and the audience finally exited the space.
The closing minutes of the show were visceral and perplexing. The fisherman was left to mourn over the mermaid’s dead body, Dorian killed Basil and lost his soul to his own portrait.
“So with curious eyes and sick surmise we watched him day by day,” Davis said, “and wondered if each of us would end the self-same way.”
Davis escorted the audience back to the Aquarium where they began. She looked at the audience for a final moment then exited.
Director Heidi Van conceived a play which both explores and examines the relationship between art and the soul. The cast handled the content with an inspiring ease and understanding. They successfully transported audiences back in time and into an altered state of thought. This ingenious production was beautifully and eloquently macabre.
Right: Breakdown of the Fishtank during the production.