A new immersive play attempts to conjure the ghosts of the theater.
If there's something strange in your new play script, who ya gonna call? Certainly not a dramaturg if you're Third Rail Projects. The experiential theater company has a new immersive play called Ghost Light, set in the haunted recesses of the Claire Tow Theater in Lincoln Center. Or is it the Montgomery County Playhouse? Our tickets and programs say the latter, but the actors say the former (which is actually the correct answer). This discrepancy is never explained or even addressed in this confusing new work from writer-director-choreographers Zach Morris and Jennine Willett. Ghost Light is a site-specific play that seems like it would rather be anywhere else except the site for which it was specifically made.
Morris and Willett are the brains behind Then She Fell, Third Rail's long-running immersive play in Brooklyn. Based on Alice in Wonderland, that critically acclaimed show accepts no more than 15 audience members each performance, making it one of the most exclusive theatrical experiences in town.
Ghost Light plays to a much larger crowd at LCT3. In small groups, we are led on a backstage tour of the theater that takes us into the dressing rooms, the surrounding hallways, and the catwalk overlooking the stage (the Tow has a seriously impressive amount of ancillary space). On each stop, we encounter one or several ghosts, our first being a woman in a shimmering gold dress and bob haircut (Rebekah Morin) who asks us, "Are you from London?" She goes on to tell us about a ghost that haunts both the Drury Lane in London and New York's Broadhurst. By invoking such storied old theaters, she sets a high bar for the Tow, which has only been in existence since 2012. Still, we are told that this has suddenly become the most haunted theater in America. "Welcome to the Claire Tow," she tells us before slinking through a beige metal door.
For the next two hours, we encounter these ghosts up close: There's the Beckett actor delivering a knockoff Pirandello monologue (a very convincing Ryan Wuestewald), the latter-day Shakespeare (an enthusiastic Carlton Cyrus Ward) who leads us in a rehearsal of his derivative new play, and Sam (Josh Matthews), the janitor who gives us a crash course on how to maintain a theater full of ghouls.
Other scenes feature long sequences of Morris and Willett's generic contemporary dance, full of passionate lifts and lovelorn extensions. During one of these segments, I observed several audience members gazing out the windows overlooking Lincoln Square, where the action was apparently more thrilling.
Morris (who wrote the script) doesn't do any better with the spoken word: The actors bravely deliver monologues that range from cliché-riddled to completely incoherent. "They say that people only really die when no one remembers them anymore," an actor says as she hands us pieces of a set model. "What if two people remembered each other forever? Isn't that a lovely thought?" Such awkward non sequiturs make us understand why the creators of Sleep No More opted to keep their players mostly silent.
Unlike that popular immersive attraction, which allows its audience to roam freely on four floors, Ghost Light keeps us on a tight schedule. Our little packs are occasionally subdivided into smaller groups, based mostly on the order in which we enter a new room. Like in real life, we only really understand the consequences of our choice to push ahead or hold back after we've made it.
Morris and Willett's most impressive feat is the coordination of several overlapping scenes: We watch the actors frantically move through a hallway as a stage manager (Alberto Denis) calls 15, 10, and five minutes to places. We get to experience this scene from multiple angles as we move into the nearby dressing rooms, giving us a sense that the behind-the-scenes choreography is far more spectacular than what we in the audience are allowed to fully take in.
Unfortunately, we can never really escape the knowledge that we are in a 5-year-old theater, with its up-to-code building specs and antiseptic dressing rooms. Set designer Brett J. Banakis valiantly attempts to add a whiff of theatrical must using mismatched antique decor, but a Persian rug on cold, hard tile only serves to accentuate the floor's newness. Eric Southern's shadowy lighting creates a spectral aura backstage, but he is never able to account for the natural light streaming through the glass walls of the Tow's lobby. It's not that there couldn't be an immersive experience in the Claire Tow, but Ghost Light feels tailor-made for somewhere else entirely.