There are many variations on “immersive theater,” running the gamut of “kind of sitting in the action and having an actor perch on your chair” (Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812) to “Oh no, there’s a crazy witch running at me, and I was trying to follow that nurse” (Sleep No More) to “I am definitely being inappropriately assaulted by a zombie” (various Halloween theatrics).
However you feel about personal space, and how familiar you want actors and other strangers to be with you, will determine your enjoyment threshold of such theater.
At Seeing You, which has just begun life under the High Line’s 14th Street entry and exit point in New York City’s Meatpacking District, prepare to be right in the middle of the dancing, speeches, shouting, singing, and fighting. You may be asked for blood. You may find a male soldier suddenly stripped to a pair of tighty whities, crying and distressed, lurching towards you.
The action takes place in a huge space on one, ground floor, level. It is the creation of Randy Weiner and choreographer Ryan Heffington; Weiner is a producer of Sleep No More and the creator of Queen of the Night, which featured, as the Daily Beast’s Nina Strochlic reported in 2014, “Chinese acrobats, wild dancers, and a Bacchanalian feast.” The multi-talented Heffington choreographed Sia’s “Chandelier,” among many other inventive delights.
In the atmospheric and tantalizingly staged Seeing You, it is the eve of war in Hoboken, New Jersey, and as you walk in you can see various spotlit dramatic tableaux: an official-looking lady fussing over papers on a desk, two sets of heterosexual couples having, variously, vexed conversations (about him leaving to go and fight in the war), and a little light passion. A Japanese woman, Grace (Eriko Jimbo) shouts desperately into a telephone. (The production could not supply a script or story breakdown, or answer my questions about various characters.)
Time feels suspended. This is both dreamworld and nightmare. Ghostly 1940s-music wafts through the venue, and a sense of menace and dislocation—how war is an aberration in every sense—is signaled by warpings in the music. The excellent performers—Lauren Cox, Aaron Dalla Villa, Christopher Grant, Alison Ingelstrom, Maija Knapp, Jodi McFadden, Zach McNally, Whitney Sprayberry, Jay Stuart—own whichever space they are in, happy and sad, tortured or wistful, pugnacious or scared; mid-movement they may suddenly collapse, or drop their heads, as if they are having a stroke or a heart attack.
You can choose your own experience in the opening minutes, until the moment you are shepherded to listen to Congressman Lloyd Russell (Ted Hannan), who asks the audience a deep and framing question about the morality of war. (Our answers return very directly to us at the end of the show.) Russell, anti-Japanese, wants to elicit as much ill-feeling as he can towards Grace.
We see a group of male soldiers messing around in a restroom, an unexpected sexual frisson suddenly present. The show is as much ballet and drama, and Desi Santiago’s design is stunning, just as it was with the costumes and masks he created for Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen exhibition that showed at the Met in New York and the V&A in London, and one of the best fashion exhibits of the last decade.
The structure of Seeing You is more fixed, and you are guided more deliberately through the action than the freewheeling Sleep No More, although you must still watch your feet as the characters careen around you, and your fellow attendees drift around you. World War II may be being fought around you, but expect the occasional “sorry” to be whispered as a foot is stepped on.
The night I saw it, people were nervous about being singled out, but there is no cruelty, and nothing too embarrassing. With an ingenious use of black plastic curtains, the audience is guided to unfolding scenes, while other scenes are set up, extremely quietly, out of sight.
You may end up at a blood drive (or training drill, your choice). At the blood drive, I was asked, non-intrusively, about my sex life and mental state. We held rubber tubes aloft as if it was a party canopy, and then another vista opened up with soldiers going through something frightful in a shower unit, who are suddenly stripped and screaming. Suddenly it felt like Saw. Blackboards showed complex mathematical formulae.
Prejudice is periodically leveled at Grace; a family prepares to say goodbye to a son; a dance-hall hosts a farewell to the young Hoboken men; a son says goodbye to his mother.
Then the characters are at war or experiencing it. Then we are at a morale-raising stage show, with scantily-clad showgirls and a whirling soldier in drag (Jesse Korvasky) which has its own undertow of gay desire and menace when Grace is near-assaulted. The war itself is evoked fleetingly. The choreography of the show, its costume and design, are more memorable than its speech and plot.
The production is many things: haunting, fun, and occasionally challenging as it touches on the morality of war, racism as a component of its cause and effect, and the traumatizing effects of it on its participants in battle and on the homefront; and its residue today, what war and demagoguery does to a society.
The lighting, design, direction, and actor/dancers are collectively wonderful to watch. The story, and lack of character detail, however, is a puzzle. At such close quarters, seeing their suffering is painful, and seeing their love uplifting, but we don’t know the characters well enough to really engage with such contrasting impacts.
Seeing You shouldn’t perhaps be seen as a piece of dramatic theater; it is, as its conception suggests, best viewed as a scene of interactive encounters, a piece of immersive theater in which your own experience and interpretation are key. It edges around big issues, but doesn’t dig into them.
To be in its world for an hour and a half is to give yourself over to the same painterly, lyrically-charged disturbances as David Lynch achieves in Twin Peaks. This carnival of evocative theater leaves the story—a little frustratingly for this attendee--up to you. You may find Seeing You both bewitching and baffling, but you will not be bored.
Seeing You is at 450 West 14th Street, NYC, through August 31. Book tickets here.