This extraordinary performance confirms Punchdrunk’s reputation as one of the most exciting and boundary-breaking ensembles in contemporary theater. The already craggily atmospheric Victorian-era Battersea Arts Center has been completely transformed into a hyper-detailed theatrical playground in which audience members are invited to create their own experience by wandering through the building encountering multiple and overlapping stories, situations and environments. It’s totally disorienting at first but if one surrenders to the experience, the effect of “The Masque of the Red Death” is transformative.
As with Punchdrunk’s “Faust” last year (staged in a massive disused warehouse), auds are given long-nosed white masks, differentiating them from the unmasked, costumed performers and black-masked ushers. Beyond this, few instructions are given, and part of the production’s challenge and fun is figuring out and following (or not) its conventions.
Nine stories by Edgar Allen Poe — the titular tale, along with “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and others — are acted out around the building, but not in any predictable way.
Some are interpreted through Maxine Doyle’s excellent choreography (most of the performers are dancer-actors), while others are played relatively straight but require chasing actors up and down narrow staircases and through secret passageways.
Open one door and you discover a wordless dinner party transforming into an orgy; behind another, an agitated woman presents a horrified man with her father’s still-beating heart. At the top of the building, the Palais Royale bar provides respite: Here auds can remove their masks, have a drink, and watch a Victorian variety show whose acts are also inspired by Poe’s stories.
Only quibble is that most of the stories seem buried beneath the production’s business and atmosphere, but doubtless they will come through more clearly to those who know Poe’s work well.
The defining brilliance of the Punchdrunk approach is that every experience of the show is self-authored. There’s something captivating about being in the midst of a collective performance but yet knowing your experience is completely your own.
If the plotting might not be as strongly defined here as in the single narrative of “Faust,” Doyle and co-director Felix Barrett have raised their game in the delivery of one-on-one experiences: I doubt I will ever forget being locked in a room on my own (or so I thought) with a lissome actress who had whispered an invitation “to play a game” into my ear, nor the interactive mini-performance involving blindfolds and headsets created by Swedish artists Lundahl and Seitl, one of several commissioned vignettes folded into the overall performance.
The show is now virtually sold out through its scheduled closing in January, despite relatively (but understandably) high ticket prices for non-West End fare. Invitations will doubtless pour in from international festivals and venues to tap Punchdrunk’s magic; hopefully this young company will continue to maintain the attention to detail and creation of a thoroughly imagined environment that’s at the heart of their unique achievement.