Dallas — With DP92, Thomas Riccio’s Dead White Zombies have taken over The Icehouse in the uber-hip urban play-pretend Trinity Groves district under the shadow of the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. But that cobwebbed noodle bridge proves that juxtaposing elements doesn’t necessarily gel them together.
To get the beauty of the bridge, you have to be on it. The same is true for DP92. There may come a time when Thomas Riccio’s Dead White Zombies create a piece that isn’t unique, but not yet. They remain a singular experience in this city. In that sense, this review is superfluous. You had to be there.
And when you are, it’ll be different, anyway.
The immersive event begins the moment visitors arrive. Given badges to replace their names, they wait under angular lights and a cacophonous sci-fi video montage. In the cramped corner of the texture cornucopia that was once an actual icehouse, a sense of uneasy expectation passes around the room either as worried glances or uncomfortable giggles and small talk.
As rich as the pre-show anticipation was the creators could have left it there and called it an exercise in tantalization, but grand theories of experimental performance give way to old habits and three lab-coated scientists enter with clipboards and leading questions. Ilknur Ozgur seems most in control as an enquiring mind. Later, her chemistry with Brad Hennigan and Joshua Kumler will help cover for weaker dramatic moments resulting from the requirements of crowd control.
The text settles the whole event into a predictable sci-fi adventure story reducing the participants to simply audience members no matter how much they are grouped, grasped or groped. It’s less than a haunted house, but more than a murder mystery dinner theater. In any case, the experience will require something more than the usual even bordering on demanding for some. In fact, if you can’t deal with close quarters, climbing stairs and few fire exits, this isn’t the show for you.
Rooms of scrim-like mesh house vignettes of subjects in bathrobes who are the subject of the scientists’ study. In the group that I was in, the subjects were a traumatized Baylee Rayle and a limber Hilly Holsenback. The improvisational feel of these scenes leaves ideas overlapping with edges exposed at odd angles. It’s a world that favors physical performers like Ms. Holsenback.
Eventually the audience is shuffled into a common area with haunting monosyllabic aria underscoring (Stephanie Oustalet and Rebecca McDonald) accompanied by live theremin (Riccio). Here the hierarchy of subjects is displayed (Abel Flores, the alpha, naturally) before re-dividing the audience for new vignettes and venues.
Words and textures float by in a constant undulation of varying importance. In fact, the show might work on a more expressive level if it was in a foreign language or gibberish altogether. It’s not until one subject (Alia Tavakolian) seems to have escaped that the show shifts into a real urgency. Some sort of break from the norm has happened. A sort of revolution or evolution (or devolution, really) has begun. The scientists try their best to react and resist the mollusk mind (Alexandra Werle in a bizarre unitard), but eventually Darwin will win out. Survival turns out to be quite communal in the end. There’s chanting and tentacles and wafting fabric.
If this sounds like a big mess, it is.
There’s method to the madness, though. Riccio seems to be breaking barriers that separate traditional performance spheres in fear of what would happen if he didn’t break them. You see, musicians make minutes more bearable by spreading speech into song and dancers make movement an event to be witnessed by bargaining with gravity. If the conquering of time and space is conceded to these disciplines, theater will remain a corral of the less superhuman artists endeavoring only to eclipse their closest level of experience searching subjects of daily drudgery for the keys of their escape.
The compulsive creativity that covers every surface of the space flows directly from director Riccio and installation designer Robert Reedy with Dale Seeds as a design consultant. Alison Levy is credited under “media” and Dax Norman “animations.” Filling any gaps is an ever-present sound environment by Scot Gresham-Lancaster with Wes Fergusen assisting. The total package looks like it took an army of which Lori McCarty is responsible as managing director.
The evening doesn’t come without quibbles. The mix of performing forms sometimes adds unfulfilled expectations to the ledger. Instead of multiplying their benefits, their weaknesses mount. As unconventional as it is, at its heart it relies on a connection between performer and audience.
If the performers can’t fill it, the whole thing runs the risk of being a papier-mâché masterpiece. No matter how cunning the decoupage, it remains pretty light.
Because it’s hollow.