Brian Sanders, founder and artistic director of JUNK, has had a busy quarantine. As the world reopens after more than a year of isolating and distancing, the adventurous and vaccinated can begin to enjoy their favorite artists’ creative fruits. The new performance from Brian Sanders’ JUNK, Dragonbutter Beta Trials (Dragonbutter), is the most ambitious, innovative, and unexpected art I have seen emerge from the pandemic to date.
Dragonbutter is an immersive, multisensory, interactive experience that takes place in multiple themed rooms in a warehouse at 2nd and Spring Garden streets. Though members of JUNK perform, it is not a performance to passively view. Rather, ticket holders participate, and each show has limited capacity. Dragonbutter inserts participants into a science-fiction video-game quest, one that involves familiar concepts and activities—such as a mad scientist and his unruly creations—as well as solving puzzles and fighting enemies. However, the premise, characters, and setting are entirely invented. The result is unique and impressively conceived.
Into the labs
Dragonbutter draws inspiration from pandemic video-game playing and the city’s gentrification, as well as from JUNK’s previous work with virtual reality, escape rooms, hoverboards, and labyrinths. The journey begins on the sidewalk outside the warehouse, where performers in white coveralls provide walkie-talkies that issue instructions. Participants then enter a decontamination chamber before proceeding into the fictional Deos Labs, where a Dr. Livingston conducted genetic experiments during the 1980s. Now slated for demolition to make way for luxury condos, the building is being cleaned out by Professor Doghter (pronounced “Doctor” and played by Kyle Yackoski) and his lab assistants Verga (Mauri Walton) and Eft (Jess Adams). These characters need the help of Dragonbutter participants to uncover the mysteries of Dr. Livingston’s work and rid the building of its results.
This mission begins with receiving equipment in the Deos Lab store, followed by entering a classroom to puzzle out mysteries of gene splicing, '80s fashion, and more. The journey gets increasingly funky and fun, from GMO material emerging through a sphincter in the wall to evidence of Dr. Livingston’s creations in various states of animation. A highlight is the hypnotic Chaos Room, where dramatic light, sound, and stage design induce a movement trance in Eft. Dancer/aerialist Adams’s strength, grace, and control are mesmerizing as she spins, swings, and hangs upside down. Desirée Hall gives a standout performance, first folding her body around a set of mechanically spinning wheels in the biomechanical activation chamber, then embodying Dr. Livingston’s creature in the final act. But all the performers, including Sanders as Barry Dingle, effectively play important roles in creating the environments, moods, scenes, and pacing necessary to effectively usher a random group of people through the maze of the space and the story.
Like none other
At times there is so much going on that it seems impossible to participate while appreciating the staging, acting, and physical performances. A few of the participants in my group took to the gaming aspect of Dragonbutter more than others. Not being a gamer, I rarely thought to engage with the show’s gamified and interactive components, like finding power-ups and hidden doors. Instead, my attention was drawn to Dragonbutter’s elaborate production elements and JUNK “Easter eggs” in the form of references to previous shows, including props and staging features from 2019’s 2nd Sanctuary and 2021’s A Modern-Day Carmen Fantasy. That is, until the show’s climax, when participants face off against the Dragonbutter imago. I lobbed gooey green balls as my compatriots fired Nerf and paintball guns, swept away in the action and the cathartic euphoria of collective victory. Dragonbutter is the kind of engrossing, shared experience we need right now as the world opens up and it becomes safer to enjoy live performances indoors.
JUNK is known for combining various types of movement with physical theater and other disciplines, seeming to take every opportunity to incorporate new ideas, disciplines, and creative partnerships. It is a company like none other in Philadelphia, and none of JUNK’s performances are like any of its previous shows. True to form, Dragonbutter blends the company’s familiar imaginative playfulness with science fiction, adventure, and a touch of bawdiness, as the show’s title suggests. Wear closed-toed shoes and use the rain poncho, gloves, and flashlight issued by the Deos Labs store, and get your ticket soon: July performances are almost sold out.
What, When, Where
Dragonbutter. By Brian Sanders’ JUNK. July 9 through 26 and September 2 through October 3, 2021, at 2nd and Spring Garden streets, Philadelphia. Briansandersjunk.com/dragonbutter.
Dragonbutter participants receive emailed “player instructions,” and each show is limited to 12 participants. Recommended for ages 13 and up.
Participation requires standing, walking, climbing stairs, hearing audio instructions, reading and writing, sitting at standard-sized student desks, using toy weapons, and moving through spaces that may not allow social distancing. Guests are not required to wear facemasks.