As I walk into the Embassy’s lobby for Fort Wayne Dance Collective’s production of “Star Crossed,” I am handed a white mask.
From my research, I know the show is going to be a modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that uses a “choose your own adventure” concept – a risqué form of theater that popped up in New York and toned down for a Fort Wayne demographic. The audience travels from room to room, dropping in on certain scenes. The masks help open up the audiences to interacting with the performers.
A majority of the audience who first walk into the reception decide to wear the white mask as a headpiece as they glance over the array of finger foods and lack of seating. Two teenage girls dressed in light, flouncy dresses far too thin to fight off the evening’s chill seem to have forgotten their lopsided masks as they take turns pinching off one sticky bun.
Samantha Smith and Brandy McGehee, both in their late 20s, stand at one of the cocktail tables. Smith’s biggest decision when it came to her attire was figuring out if she should wear her glasses in or outside the mask. The two said the idea of being part of the performance was something unknown to them in Fort Wayne – it sounded like something you would have to go out of town for.
“I like the idea of masks. A lot of people are afraid to interact just from a subconscious level. I think it helps with that,” McGhee said.
“Yeah, you’re so used to going to a play and sitting quietly for 2 1/2 hours,” Smith said.
And that’s the problem I think about as I try to position the mask under my glasses, too. I have sat in enough dark theaters to understand the theatrical concept of the “fourth wall” – that imaginary boundary where the audience observes the human condition at its best and its worst.
I even understand the concept of breaking that wall down – letting audiences peer behind the screen.
But what happens when you walk into a theater that refuses to believe its world of performance and your reality are separate entities?
Will audiences try to cling to that world where they don’t exist?
The resistance is noticeable at first. The looks of confusion appear as the Shakespearean dialogue is broken into fragments and each act runs over into the next act. Where is the spotlight? Where are all the seats?
The idea forces its audiences to experience a story they know and rethink it. It demands the audience perform for itself as much as the characters they came to see. The white mask that covers half of my face is the only thing that separates me from them.
The use of masks as a character often appears in Shakespeare’s work. A masterful writer of deception, he used masks to deceive other characters or possibly themselves. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare has him say to Ophelia, “God has given you one face and you make yourself another.”
As the performers swirl around the lobby, dancing to the Orange Opera’s groove of earthy rock and pop, they assign the audience to either side by tying the colored strips of fabric that signify “House” colors – blue represents the Montagues, orange represents the Capulets – on the wrists of every audience member.
More than one person tells me my orange dress makes me appear as though I could be performing for the Capulets. Using my own device of deception, I choose to be a Montague. My short improvisational performance is enough to force one Capulet to pause in mid-conversation and call out “Foe!”
Beth Kuebler-Wolf, who also made herself a Montague, stops a Capulet performer to pull the orange feather from his hat. Playfully teasing him, she forms an “L” with her thumb and forefinger, mouthing the word “Loser.” Unknowingly, she had created her own first act, carrying the same dramatic weight as the Capulet servant biting his thumb in the original story.
From the Embassy’s lobby to the basement, herds of audiences, grouped together by their allegiances to the Montagues or Capulets, are led through the narrow pathways and sharp turns.
I run into Tybalt, looking for the Montague who stole one soft kiss from his cousin, Juliet.
The hallway eventually morphs into the dressing rooms that sit behind the stage. Standing in the doorways, I see the chapel where the two lovers were wed and Juliet’s bedroom where her lady-in-waiting hides the evidence of their honeymoon. I pass by the home of the apothecary who sells Romeo his fateful vial of poison after the stabbing of his friend, Mercutio, and the subsequent murder of his enemy, Tybalt.
On bulletin boards, audiences leave interactive messages for Romeo and Juliet. One reads, “A forbidden love is better than no love at all.” Another says, “Montague? How about Monta-EWW?” While another simply states, “For a good time, call “867-5309.”
Then, the doors begin to slam, and the shrill screams of terror erupt as both families search frantically for Romeo and Juliet during the final stops on our path. The reverberating low and distant sounds of large drums seems to erupt from somewhere in the theater, but I can’t pinpoint it. It brings a sense of impending danger that makes me uncomfortable. Lady Montague comes rushing past me in her blue-sequin dress screaming for her son.
Her screams of “Nothing good will come of this!” send a chill through me. The dead bodies of Mercutio and Tybalt, two people marred by the warring families, lay in peace together in the final dressing room. I try to calculate how long it has been since I saw him earlier. The frenzied energy is overwhelming as we walk up the stairs to the main stage.
The distant drums are the Fort Wayne Taiko drummers on the second level of the theater as we are ushered to our seats.
There are those with sore feet, and those who are ready for dessert and coffee as we file in. However, in the final moments, I can feel the toll of being too close. As the “star-crossed” lovers interpret the overpowering and violent force of love through dance, I am so cognizant of their emotions, it feel as if I can hear them speaking from the script.
It makes me realize the leverage I hold in observing people from the dark comfort of my seat – laughing, crying or yawning with boredom at my own will. No matter what occurs in front of you, there’s safety in knowing, there’s a green exit sign behind you that leads you home.
This sort of theater steals your comfort zone away from you.