A grim retelling of an old Aesop fable.
As the audience is quickly ushered into the Ruby Room at Complex Theaters, Stanley is already on stage. He’s disheveled and minding his own business, waving plastic bags in the air, oblivious to the group of people now watching him. Once this wordless task is competed, he ties the bags off, one by one and places them in his shelter. The rest of the stage is empty with only a tarp shelter, a cityscape and moon phases projected on the back wall.
I’m always interested in retellings of the old fable The Ant and The Grasshopper, who knew the cold season was coming and worked diligently until that winter did arrive. Is Stanley The Ant, preparing for winter?
He repeats his labor, ignorant to the audience’s company.
Being ambitious, I take a seat in the front row. I’m not put off by the weirdness; instead, I’m engaged. I focus on the man’s rhythmic swaying. (I’m not ashamed to admit this. My mind drifted to Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’, you know the lyric: Do you ever feel like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind...) Stanley enjoys this so much, he seems at peace-I want to let him continue his good work. Bag after bag is tied off and saved, but no good thing lasts.
The show starts and young business professionals disrupt Stanley’s meditation. They ask the nearby homeless man for directions. With this interaction, the downfall begins. No one is ready for the descent into madness that is Dead Air from H&H Design Experience.
Buckle your seat belt.
Stanley faces the audience, but doesn’t address us, he talks to this unseen, silent presence and reiterates why he’s here: “The air is dying!” he exclaims. It was a delusion that followed his brother, an engineer, followed his mother who believed him, and now it’s continuing to follow through him. His current goa is simple, he collects air. In bags. In tubes. In whatever containers that work. He doesn’t want money. He doesn’t want notoriety. He just wants air.
We are the Grasshopper and he just desperately wants you to breathe deep.
Most if not all of this, is monologue. Within the first five minutes, I had too many questions that were explained only by blind faith: “It will happen. It’s going to happen! The air is dying!” But how? Why? Consisting of mostly Nitrogen, largely Oxygen, bits of carbon dioxide, helium and water vaper, what IN the air is dying? I learn forward in my seat. I want to know.
There is zero science. However, science exists in this universe; Stanley’s brother is an engineer, so I guess we’re just not privy to it?
We don’t know and currently, may never know. Although, bothered by this glaring mystery, they attempt to fill the void in other ways. What we do know is this: His mother had created many, many specialized air filtration systems to keep it clean, out of fear. Eventually, they built a financial empire. Still, Stanley chooses homelessness and his righteously crazy mission. The cleanliness of the air seems inconsequential.
He just needs all of it.
Okay. Hey. One man’s life’s work is another man’s grocery list.
Now the loaded question was asked: What if he’s wrong and what if he’s right? The audience gets to consider a few options: is he mentally ill, or a neglected prophet? Could this man be the next Noah and the flood is coming? Or is he abandoned by his loved ones, obsessed and sick to the point of destitution?
It’s a notion I felt myself really responding to. The idea that the mentally ill can be soothsayers is a vast complicated concept. In fact, it’s one of my favorite tropes. Here if Dead Air could have walked this line better, the show in its entirety would have been better. Instead of trusting the audience to believe in Stanley, immediately, we are robbed of this discussion. The story moves forward and the answer is definitive: the world is dying. Terribly.
The emergency sirens wail and people begin to die. Stanley is sealed away from us in his magic air chamber masquerading as a homeless shelter. He slips on a gas mask and the stage goes dark, leaving only a yellow light to flicker within his contraption.
Despite the unsupported narrative, Dead Air did one thing wonderfully: I want to know more about this world. I want to know more about this catastrophe. I want to understand the science to make it more concrete. This alternate reality is stimulating because the threat felt almost real.
An additional problem was this was billed as an immersive experience but was not. In attending, I had my expectations tailored to what this show was advertised as: immersive theater. It lacked any familiar interaction elements and the actors merely talked at, or even above, the audience. The entire show was limited by a standard proscenium. It was in a traditional, fifty seat theater and the only spaced utilized was the stage. This was a performance, not an engagement or an interactive experience.
Maybe somewhere, it had originally meant to be an immersive experience, but this final product was not. If this project moves forward, maybe the end goal will be an adventure the audience can interact with, a journey they can influence. There are plenty of questions to ask like: Will the audience solve the problem? Can the problem be solved? Should it? Who lives here now? What is this new post-apocalyptic world?
However, through all the noise and the death, Jonathan Nation shines as Stanley; fully committing to his role. Wholeheartedly, Nation takes this character’s emotional plight and shares it with the audience. As Stanley continues to collect air, Nation’s unkempt face pleads with the sightless force, “It’s going to happen.” No one took him seriously, extinction is imminent. The winter arrived. His powerlessness is its own presence on the stage.
But finally, even Nation’s commitment to the part is not enough for me. Without engaging me in either the how or immersing me in the experience, Dead Air is a deflated experience.
Tickets for Dead Air are available through the Fringe Festival’s official website. For even more Fringe Festival recommendations, check out Haunting’s interviews with the creators of upcoming 2017 Fringe shows like Narcissus and Echo and Dark Arts, reviews of shows like The Rise and Fall of Dracula, Normal, Fire & Light, and Easy Targets or a full listing of notable experiences on our events page.