Trepidation is in the air. Crepuscular lighting and looming, gloomy sound envelop promenading audiences seeking mysterious stories played out in labyrinthine corridors, crannies and curated spaces over four vast floors of a disused building. The immersive “The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable” should wow newcomers to hit British experimental company Punchdrunk, whose “Sleep No More” has been playing downtown Gotham for more than two years. But anyone familiar with their idiosyncratic wares may be less than gripped. What once seemed thrillingly audacious is curdling into cliche.
Grand-scale design is one of the defining elements of a Punchdrunk show. This time, helmer-designer Felix Barrett and designers Livi Vaughan and Beatrice Minns have transformed a building into “Temple Studios,” a once thriving, now defunct piece of Hollywood producing real estate. Taken into the building in an industrial elevator, audiences are left free to wander and discover everything from dusty, minutely recreated offices, abandoned production departments and prop stores to the sets from a film set sometime in the 1940s or 1950s.
Dotted throughout the building, studio executives and workers, wannabe movie starlets and characters in the movie are picked out of darkness in settings as diverse as a murky trailer park with real trailers and trees to a screening room with a two-way film screen through which a suited executive gets pleasure from watching an actress audition topless.
Unlike “Sleep No More,” which refracted the fairly well-known story of “Macbeth” through Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” the film being made here is “inspired by Buchner’s fractured masterpiece “Woyzeck,” a work unlikely to be known to most audiences. Even though everyone is handed a slip of paper outlining the parallel male and female versions of the film being made, the lack of familiarity with the underlying story is just one of the evening’s problems.
Punchdrunk’s use of the word “fractured” isn’t accidental. With everyone on free-from walkabout there is nothing approaching narrative order and, for better and worse, audiences are left to piece together the scenario from the snippets they discover and witness, all of which are enacted in mime and dance.
Maxine Doyle’s choreography is athletic but oddly limited in its expression. All the characters seem either to stalk one another in slo-mo with great intent — the evening is almost devoid of humor — or hurl themselves against furniture and each other in highly eroticized partnerings. With so little differentiation of character, tension leaks away from even the most animated sequences. As a character flings himself desperately up and down a hillside of white sand, and afterwards is patiently washed by an audience member, you admire the execution while remaining largely unengaged in story.
The tone, for the most part, is dispiritingly unvaried. The soundscape creates overall eeriness and a vague sense of threat but everything feels as if it has the same emotional or dramatic weight in a mid-range that precludes fear, shock or exhilaration. The plot runs to murder but the cumulative intensity that would trigger it is missing. Even when everyone is corralled into the biggest space for the hoedown finale, the arresting final image lacks (pardon the pun) punch.
The company’s command of large-scale visuals makes this an installation to reckon with. The strongest feeling this invokes, however, is deja vu: Punchdrunk has produced another maze but the work is now less than amazing.