There’s a theater performance going on in New York City called Sleep No More. It’s an unusual telling of the story of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which takes places throughout a five story building. There’s no stage and no seating. The audience puts on masks and can move through the building, following the performers and interacting with the set- they can rifle through desk drawers, even dig up something buried in a cemetery. (There’s no speaking; both the audience and performers remain silent.)
I bring it up because Sleep No More is one of those boundary-pushing creations that breaks some of the rules of theater… and comes closer to LARP. It’s not LARP, or at least, most people seem to agree it isn’t LARP. (I have yet to hear anyone argue that it is, though if you think otherwise, by all means, I’d love to hear your take on it.) But it comes closer to LARP than most theater because of the 360° set and element of interaction. Which is probably why it came up countless times during the first NELCO (New England LARP Conference). If we’re going to try to define LARP, what isn’t LARP comes into the conversation, as does where we draw the line between LARP and related activities, like Ren Faires, historical reenactment, battle games and theater.
I have yet to see it for myself, though I do plan to see it at some point, partly because everyone I know who has seen it enjoyed it, but also because I think the experience will add to my understanding of LARP and things that blur (or redefine) LARP’s boundaries.
So when I heard there was a show in the Boston area (specifically, Cambridge) that was inspired by Sleep No More, I made to sure to catch a performance. And I found out, when I got there, that a LARPer I know from Lost Eidolons was one of the performers!
The Bacchae tells the story of Dionysus, Greek god of wine and cheer, returning to Thebes to exact revenge for its lack of reverence for him.
It’s far closer to the traditional theater experience than I expected it to be. While it’s not quite a classic theater set-up- there are no rows of seats- the audience still stays in one room. A few sit around tables at the sides of the room, but most are standing around a dance floor, facing the stage. And there is no set dressing or props for the audience to interact with. Though they do hand out laurels to the audience to wear, to make us feel like we are part of the rituals. I’m sure this was inspired by the masks worn at Sleep No More, which helps the audience blend in with the show.
However, there is some interaction with the performers. Prior to the show’s opening, the actresses playing the bacchae come out onto the dance floor to dance wildly to the beat of the drum, and they encourage audience members to join them. A handful did. And during the performance, there are some similar scenes of revelry where the performers move among the audience and engage with us to make us feel like part of the celebration. Some of the directing, particularly with Dionysus, makes it seem as though when he addresses his loyal Maenads, the audience is included among them.
The plot is fairly simple. (I’m not terribly concerned with spoilers- one, it’s famous story, originally a play by Euripides, and two, the show is over.) The people of Thebes, the leader Pentheus in particular, have been denying the divinity of Dionysus, who lures the women of Thebes to his cult to become his Maenads in revenge. Pentheus tries to put a stop to this, and Dionysus tricks him into coming out among the Maenads, who slay Pentheus in their wild revelry.
The real appeal of the show is in the grandiosity of the performance. The atmosphere is quite successful, I think. The performers take great pleasure in chewing the scenery- striding about, speaking entirely in ringing declarations, every line as dramatic as possible. But it’s the Maenads who really sell the experience, I thought, wildly dancing among the audience, sometimes laughing, wailing, or whooping, encouraging us to shout “evoe!” (like an amen) with them. I was shoved once,and bumped into the person behind, but I didn’t mind. There was something very in-your-face about the experience, and it encouraged me to stamp my feet along with the performers.
While this wasn’t quite what I was expecting, I will say that The Bacchae did plant the idea in my head that the wild revels of a primeval spiritual ritual makes an excellent setting for a LARP. I suspect there are enough LARPers who would happily provide the drumming so others could dance. I imagine this running outside at night, out of the view of anything modern, around a real campfire… It could be extremely atmospheric, I think.