People around us just do the best they can, don’t they?
Annie Lesser’s ABC Project is more than just an ambitious undertaking; it’s one of the most refreshing, creative, and innovative approaches to immersive theatre to date. D(istillery,) the fourth installment, is no exception. While not as “interactive” as previous ABC pieces, D(istillery) makes excellent use of a site-specific story to make a powerful statement about relationships and self-destruction; what results is a moving realization of pain that is uniquely experienced by each audience member. Lesser’s words are a booming heart, a palm thumping against the chest, a spirit rattling against a ribcage. It burns going down.
Unlike the themes of shock and loss of A(partment) 8, the exploration of control and power in B(arbershop), or the secretive whimsy of C(ovell), D(istillery) is a self-contained discourse on the very human feeling of being trapped within one’s own mistakes. Like an exhalation after a stiff drink, Annie Lesser’s words breathe fire. D(istillery) is an exploration of what remains when you crawl back from regret.
Lesser’s words are deftly performed by ABC regulars Lena Valentine, Shayne Eastin, and Orion Mikael Schwalm in a truncated space at Stark Spirits micro distillery in Pasadena. We are ostensibly taken on a “tour” of this facility by the performers, but the piece is far less about the whiskey making process than about the emotional journey of suffering. “Wash, ferment, distill” becomes “stew in, dwell on, embrace within.” The actors clutch at the audience, whispering in their ears; they shake and cower and force their words into our ears. Their exceptional skill allows them function as literal spirits, giving voice to what, for many, cannot be coherently spoken.
One of the most successful aspects of this production is how open it is to interpretation by individual audience members. In the guise of this distillery tour, one may find themselves reminded of a difficult relationship with a parent, a rejection from a lover, an addiction they can’t escape from, perhaps all three. Personally, this read as a naked discourse on an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, which, at its lowest, becomes your only friend and will call you irresistibly back to it at the slightest affront. ”I love you more than anyone else. Come back to me”, the drink whispers. It forces itself on you. It sears hot in your throat yet leaves you cold. D(istillery) is a lesson in wanting, in self-crushing love, in drowning under one’s own faults.
As with previous ABC Project pieces, D(istillery) lingers with its audience; you discover new morsels within the language as you swish it around your memory, like the taste of a strong whiskey; the flavors speak to you. Lesser and her brilliant cast have an uncanny ability to draw out specific, yet disparate emotions from participants. D(istillery) is like a vast cabinet stocked with human spirits; to interpret your own specific message from it as an audience member, all you have to do is pick your poison.