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Die Cast, a company founded last year by directors Thom Weaver and Brenna Geffers, brings Pre-Phyre: Say Goodnight to the SoLow Festival. Pre-Phyre is, appropriately, the prequel to Phyre, a full production to open this winter. The collaboratively created immersive theater production allows participants to interact with actors who offer personal stories.
Pre-Phyre asks us to imagine we have gathered to shelter from a catastrophe. Ulana’s, a mostly out-of-use club on Bainbridge Street, conjures that desperate scene beautifully. The multilevel building was a Stephen Starr restaurant before Ukrainian activist Ulana Mazurkevich purchased it and combined it with her popular club next door, creating a truly odd space with a mishmash of architectural and design styles. The remnants of the once-flourishing music venue and restaurant remain, and strange artifacts of its past are everywhere.
The audience gathered for a brief in-character orientation. Colleen Corcoran, as Svetlana, welcomed us to her club and invited us to remain as long as necessary. She encouraged us to get to know each other, and the audience fanned out to interact with the performers.
Expect the unexpected
Attending this sort of performance can be anxiety-inducing, especially for introverts, but Die Cast created an atmosphere where the reticent could comfortably choose not to interact and still enjoy the performance. Those who were more game engaged actors at different levels, from full-on conversation to passive listening.
Pre-Phyre showed Die Cast working to find its stride with audience interaction. Each of the eight main characters told their own story. Some shared a prepared monologue, others held a more freewheeling exchange. Anthony Crosby (Ashley) had a particularly clever approach, inviting participants to take an absurd Buzzfeed quiz with him, introducing his character gradually throughout the interaction.
Carlo Campbell (Pha Roe) — a whirl of ungovernable authenticity — allowed audience members to lead him far off his prescribed path, creating intriguing experiences in real time. His rapper character was interestingly impressionistic rather than narrative-driven. Having Svetlana at the bar established a place where audience members who felt lost could come and be redirected.
Interactions in Pre-Phyre were at their best when performers let audience members lead. They engaged as far as their audiences were willing, then gave memorized monologues when participants held back. Some performers appeared nervous about letting audience members ask questions (or answer them in unexpected ways).
Because care was taken to make a comfortable environment for conversing with characters, it was disappointing to be redirected to a character’s monologue. It was like calling a friend, hearing “Hello,” and then finding out it was the recorded answering message.
Testing the method
The biggest challenge in this style of devised storytelling will always be tying the characters' many threads together, and Die Cast half succeeded here. The show ended with a confrontation between two characters, settled by D (Robert DaPonte), who emerges as a cult figure and brings us all together in an unsettling moment of situational community.
The final scene worked so well tonally and brought up so many intriguing questions that it retroactively raised my expectations for the whole performance — and made me wish I’d had earlier hints of the nature of our situation.
Brenna Geffers is a rare person in Philly theater, a commercially successful director who continues to choose risk over comfort. Pre-Phyre demonstrates why her particular type of risk is so crucial to the growth of the art form. There’s nothing haphazard about the show. This is a calculated experiment in immersive theater, and as Geffers moved through the space, unobtrusively observing interactions, she looked like a dedicated researcher.
Geffers understands that the creation of immersive theater brims with obstacles. Audience members might be too passive and need to be brought along, or, they might be too aggressive and derail the show. Everyone gets information in a different order, at different times, and may not get some information at all, so staging a traditional narrative throughline is impossible.
Because it’s such a difficult task, it’s rarely done effectively. Die Cast avoided most of the pitfalls and came very close. The show stayed in the crucial space between bafflingly little information and so much that you’re bored. By the end, I was left wondering what’s next, which sounds exactly like a prequel’s job description.
What, When, Where
Pre-Phyre. By Die Cast, Brenna Geffers directed. June 15-16, 2018, at Ulana’s, 205 Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia. Solowfest.com.
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