Howard Sherman: I could tell you about this play, but then I’d have to kill you
I’m seeing Brian Dennehy in a play tonight. I know next to nothing about it. Apparently, neither does Brian.
The play in question is Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit, which began a once-a-week New York run earlier this month after a number of international productions. I’ve chosen to write about it before seeing it because that seems entirely consistent with the play’s promotion – as well as its direction to the actors who take it on – which is to say that one is supposed to go into it with no preparation and no preconceived notions.
Critics have been warned not to give away too much. Even skimming The New York Times review and finding the portion that talked about this moratorium started to say more than I cared to know about the play. I feared that a close reading would spoil things, perhaps in the way that a friend ruined the big surprise in the film The Crying Game for me simply by remarking on the strange absence of pronouns in a major review.
There’s something slightly perverse about a play that asks you to attend simply on faith and not to reveal its secrets, because most any arts marketer will tell you that word of mouth is essential for sales. WRRR gets past that by deploying stars in a small Off-Broadway house (Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg have already taken up the challenge). It would seem a premise that could sustain itself for some time playing only once a week for 200 people, especially in a city the size of New York, but the show is currently announced for a limited run.
Audiences have certainly been admonished in the past not to give away endings, perhaps most famously with The Mousetrap (I’ve never seen it, and I still don’t know who done it). Deathtrap relies on its twists and turns being a surprise, though the revival with Simon Russell Beale demonstrated that as social attitudes have changed, one of the play’s Act I stunners doesn’t have the impact it did 40 years ago.
Yet the idea of a show where you shouldn’t, or even can’t, talk about most what you’ve seen seems to be a very contrarian approach to finding an audience – though it seems to be working. While stars are the draw for WRRR, the mysterious You Me Bum Bum Train has only the enthusiastically cryptic praise of those who’ve managed to get in. I failed to do so in a dispiriting battle with the show’s website, so I’m one of the many who was denied the opportunity to see what would have apparently been one of the great theatrical experiences of my lifetime. That makes me wish I’d seen it all the more (and resentful of its online ticketing process).
While not as secretive about its content, Sleep No More manages to keep an air of mystery about it nonetheless. Having run for almost five years now in New York, it has never bought advertising, relying entirely on word of mouth. But just try describing it to anyone. Yes, it’s rooted in Macbeth and Rebecca, to name two primary touchpoints, but the physical experience of dashing up and down stairs and through multiple rooms at a show without dialogue means that few can sum it up, or have even seen the same show. When I saw it at the start of its run, my guest, familiar with Punchdrunk’s work, said it would be foolish to try to stay together throughout. When we met up at the end, she asked whether I had seen the naked goat head dance. I had not, but just that phrase remains tantalizing to this day.
During my time in marketing and PR, it was a dream that audiences would simply hear about a play, think it sounded interesting, and just buy a ticket, alleviating the need for advertising, media, promotions and the like. Of course, the reality was that people needed a great deal of cajoling to get them into the theatre and by and large, I would say that still holds true. But if the mysteries of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, The Mousetrap, You Me Bum Bum Train and Sleep No More teach us anything, it’s that audiences like to learn the answers to secrets – and keep them, happily in the know while others stand on the outside looking in. It may not be a new concept, but perhaps it deserves a new name, especially for shows where audiences are actively encouraged not to discuss them in any detail: unmarketing. Think about it. Then tell no one.
This week in US theatre
Openings are relatively few as the Easter weekend approaches. Things will gear up again next week and stay quite busy through the end of the month, especially on Broadway as the Tony awards eligibility deadline looms. But it’s worth taking note of the Humana Festival of New Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, now underway through April 10. Among the new works at this venerable festival making their debut are Cardboard Piano by Hansol Jung, Wellesley Girl by Brendan Pelsue, Residence by Laura Jacqmin, This Random World by Steven Dietz, Wondrous Strange by Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshnik, Jihae Park and Jen Silverman, and For Peter Pan On Her 70th Birthday from Sarah Ruhl.
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