As NYC’s citizenry continues to stew in a pandemic soup, the more theatrically-minded remain starved for staged entertainment. Enter X the Experience, an “interactive cinema livestream” performance coming to audiences by way of their computer and smartphone.
Prior to receiving the link to watch the show, the production dutifully sent two emails and a text ensuring that the viewer’s audio/video configurations were sufficient and set up properly. Even after the link was received and launched, mesmerizing on-screen messages were looped numerous times to mood-setting music, suggesting ways to maximum viewing effectiveness.
As the “experience” begins, we are informed that the current world has suffered so greatly from human individuality, from an emphasis on the “I,” that a dominant new world order has been established, the “WE,” where all citizens are expected to put aside their individual selves in favor of a collective, unified existence that favors oneness and homogeneity and denounces uniqueness and diversity.
The audience is informed through the crisp, cold and sometimes condescendingly nasty voice of the “WE,” that two particular individuals, X Joey and X Joei, are in need of training to get them to put aside their self-importance and resistance to the “WE” and to assimilate. The viewer is privileged to be a trainee, and throughout the performance WhatsApp messages are sent to the viewer when X Joey and X Joei stray from the “WE” doctrine. One such message at the top of the show instructs the trainee to repeat the WE pledge: “I do not define myself by race, religion, gender, or sexuality. I define myself with my humanity. I exhale the constraints of cultural labels and inhale the freedom of being one with my fellow inhabitants of this earth. I commit to the advancement of a nation in which we all exist as one. In equity and true equality. I am not me. I AM NOT, I. I am WE. WE.”
Through the use of these real-time Whatsapp messages and lines delivered point-blank to the viewer by X Joey, X Joei, and the “WE,” X the Experience attempts to create an interactive theatrical experience between the production itself and each audience member. The success of this intention depends largely on the imagination of the viewer since the actors can’t really see or hear the audience members, nor can the audience members hear and see each other, and the Whatsapp messages don’t tolerate much more than a Y or N response. One non-boolean response from this viewer was replied to with a chastising “Nuance is of no value” and was otherwise not seriously entertained (nor could it truly be since so many messages had to be delivered to all the audience members). The interactive concept is, however, still adventurous and novel given the total absence of the in-person experience, and the production is commended for trying to give theater-goers a fourth wall-breaking experience in spite of the pandemic.
Cheech Manohar (Broadway’s Mean Girls, HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher) gives a genuine performance as X Joey. X Joey has never really conceded to the “WE” doctrine, and from the moment he begins his story his resentful, bitter and defiant individuality smolders beneath his attempts at indifference and humor. Any actor playing X Joey would be at a disadvantage because the character is rarely written to deviate from this disruptive, contemptuous emotional state, but Manohar works hard to keep the part interesting and succeeds.
The second rebellious subject in the play, X Joei, is written with more variety of character, and Kim Exum’s performance is provided an opportunity to truly shine in it. Exum vacillates earnestly between being at peace with the “WE” precepts and having a hard time with them; her turmoil is engaging, passionate and heartbreaking. The moment she lets go of her inner conflict (a moment poignantly emphasized by the placement of Matt Katz’s song “When It’s Dark,” beautifully sung by Meaghan Sands) is truly moving and freeing.
Audiences can have a hard time maintaining their attention on solo performances, where intra-character conflict is completely missing; however, Jason Veasey’s script makes some compelling intellectual arguments about an I vs. WE existence which help keep the mind busy. Director Aaron Salazar has orchestrated a complex blend of actors, voices, text messages and computer effects to try and keep the audience hooked into the production. The largest detractor to the production is its pace; there are vast windows of time between the actors’ appearances, filled with video effects and choreographed sequences, and it is during these gaps the audience can become lulled and disengaged.
The music by Manuel Pelayo, Giancarlo Bonfanti and Katz sets an eerie, futuristic tone that, combined with numerous dance and visual elements, presents X the Experience like a long MTV video with some thoughtful concepts acted out in between. X the Experience posits the interesting question as to whether human beings can ever truly give up their “personal provocative narrative” in favor of any greater good, and writer Veasey’s script successfully puts this notion forward, when the script is in progress. If you’ve got the time and especially the patience, check out X the Experience.
Poseidon Theatre Company’s X the Experience (through May 22, 2021)
An “interactive cinema livestream” experience
For tickets, visit https://www.xtheexperience.com/
Running time: 120 minutes with a five minute countdown in the middle, construed as an intermission