I crouch behind a wooden door, peeking past a frantic, frightened and frustrated poet toward the room beyond. I see a figure out of a nightmare: a woman screeching a discordant melody on a violin. The poet turns and whispers that the figure must be Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. As if she hears him, the woman snaps her neck to look right at us. All we can see is a distorted mask before she dashes away into the darkness.
Was this figure actually there? Or have we somehow become caught up in a web of delusion or hallucination brought on by our presence at a Victorian Age gathering? This is the central question of The Green Waltz, an experience that ran during the weekend of July 26th, 2019, at the Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles. The premise for this experience was one that might have been common for Victorian residents of the city but was somewhat unusual for a modern audience. Those who bought tickets were designated as “judges” for a Victorian flower contest – a weighty task in an era in which flowers were used as a way to send messages from one person to another. Those messages could say anything from love to sex to anger to desire, all while maintaining the appropriate ‘decorum’ that Victorians wanted to externally present.
The audience is expected and treated as honored guests by the hosts of the floral competition, George and Tillie Stanway. But it doesn’t take long at all for things to fall apart. Two siblings breach the grounds, one the previously mentioned poet Harold Moran and his actor sister, Minnie. Although they are expected, their entrance – bursting through a door from outside and claiming that the main doors were under repair – practically screams that things are already going amiss. That feeling grows ever more concerning as the rest of the party is introduced. We meet the drunken young man Sinjin Bennett; the young woman Charity Perkins, who faints as soon as the party begins; and the overtly-pious Alma Deeson, who decrees that everything happening is sinful, but seems equally ready to perform rituals to ‘help’ the matter. With a group of characters so full of secrets and levels to reveal, it only makes sense that we are immediately surprised by a knock at the door that seems to have come from no one, no one at all. Perhaps the supernatural has arrived in earnest.
It’s an interesting set-up for a show that divides the audience up by the flowers they are supposed to judge, and has those groups follow characters into smaller scenes. Perhaps some of the groups actually got to deal with examining the flowers, but I did not. Instead, I found myself isolated with two other ‘judges’ and the poet as he expressed first joy that he was going to have a patron for his art, and then dismay that turned to paranoia as he realized that he might be merely an excuse for his sister to have an affair with another member at the party. With increasing anger and fear, he dragged us through the house looking for his sister, her lover or the violin he swore he could hear from the Muse. And then, just as I thought he must be mad, we came across her. So, was I able to trust my own eyes at that point? Or could I, too, have simply become paranoid?
I must commend the actors in The Green Waltz across the board. Josh Winkler and Kassie Winkler portrayed the hosts of the flower festival with grace and charm, and appeared as completely above-board as they turned out not to be. Jacob Miller’s portrayal of drunken doctor Sinjin was nasty to the edge of becoming a villain without ever crossing over – a hard line to find. Misha Reeves Bybee was absolutely fantastic as Minnie, capturing a character that was almost Mary Poppins-like in nature, if Mary Poppins were able to act perfectly innocent about her dark affair and unable to act when it came to the disdain she felt for her brother. Although I got to see far less of Kylee Thurman’s Charity and Sheer Aviram’s Alma, everything they did had a real grounding to it – even as they were asked to say some of the more unbelievable lines and portray impressive physical moments. And Andrew Frank’s paranoia was so overwhelmingly potent I was almost ready to believe that I truly was hallucinating the appearance of the Muse after having been assaulted so strongly by his fears.
There is a great power that can be given to an audience member in an immersive show by giving them evidence to both sides of a question and then letting them leave the show with the question still circling in their minds. The Green Waltz, however, goes to great pains in its final scenes to answer the question in a way that leaves no doubt as to the other option being possible. To their credit, the way they answered the question was interesting and well designed in its approach. In fact, their answer was so full of actual detail about the Victorian Age that I was deeply impressed. But I did leave the experience disappointed that the question had been answered so definitively. It left me with no option to debate the matter with the friends who had come with me. It closed the door to the question that had been so well brought forth before that moment. Ultimately, it diminished the power that the show had created so well.
On a more minor note, I did find myself somewhat unclear on what level of interaction we, the audience, were supposed to be able to have with The Green Waltz and the characters within it. Early on, they were speaking to us and asking direct questions, which would normally lead me to believe we were expected to interact a serious amount. But as soon as one of the audience members did so in the smaller scene, it felt like his interactions were getting in the way of a determined storyline and script that the actor was trying to follow. The difference between early and later scenes was confusing enough that I found myself being less interactive because I was afraid to overstep a boundary. While it didn’t diminish the parts of the show that I enjoyed, it did influence how I responded within it.
Overall, The Green Waltz has a great deal to recommend should it ever get remounted. I heard from other audience members about some of the other tracks and it sounds like they’ve made each of them interesting and unique. There is some fine acting happening within the show. And the appearance of Melpomene was startling enough to stand as one of my favorite scenes in immersive theater so far this year. Hopefully, if they do remount the show, they will tighten up any confusion about interaction level and contemplate whether there is a way to leave the central theme of the story a little less fully answered. After all, the debate as to if the supernatural things many of us have experienced were real is almost never answered one way or the other in actuality. Why should immersive theater be any different?
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