A journey through memory

Experiential theater comes to Denver in ‘Sweet & Lucky’

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Lia Bonfilio and Ryan Wuestewald perform under the Spring tree.
Adams Visual Communications

Walking into Sweet & Lucky is like walking into a life-sized living diorama — as if the glass at a museum is removed and the visitors are invited to play with animated exhibits. The creators of the play categorize it as interactive theater or experiential performance. It’s not a new movement, but a growing one.

Zach Morris, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects, calls it “world making” — a collaborative effort to take theater off the stage to envelop the audience in all of its physicality — creating a sensory experience between reality and illusion.

“You know those museum exhibits where you get a little window into a totally foreign world? Well, they have always fascinated me,” Morris says. “There is something about them, in terms of being able to create a dream state or a playground for grown-ups. I want you to be able to step into one of those dioramas, to have it surround you on all sides and engage with you in all senses.”

Through a collaboration between Denver Center for the Performing Arts Off-Center and New York-based Third Rail Projects, Sweet & Lucky comes to a warehouse in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood through June 25.

The play is built in a previously vacant 16,000-foot warehouse, a massive and expensive undertaking subsidized through sponsorships and even a Kickstarter campaign. The space is parceled into dozens of rooms forming a maze through which the audience is guided with mind-boggling synchronization as the action of the play is both cued by and relies on the crowd’s participation.

Traditionally, theater depends on the idea of the fourth wall, the separation between the audience and the action on the stage. The audience is called to suspend disbelief, to set aside the fiction of performance and partake in a real experience as it unfolds before them. In Sweet & Lucky viewers are no longer passive, they are inside the set, inside the action and a part of the show.

The set design, art and lighting in Sweet & Lucky create a space that hosts a drama which almost negates the need for a story. But the play does have a narrative, just not a linear one. Instead, Sweet & Lucky is a swirling composition of notions of remembrance — the things we choose to remember and the things we choose to forget.

Colby Foss sits in a room filled with mementos of life and love.
Colby Foss sits in a room filled with mementos of life and love. Adams Visual Communications

Each room holds one memory in a larger story, and actors recreate the memory through each of the five senses — smells, sounds, objects, visuals and even tastes are combined with an artisanal particularity that is almost poetic. This is true to the form of memory itself — an experience that is fragmented, imperfect, tactile and dreamlike.

As the audience transitions from viewer to participant, Sweet & Lucky pushes theater to the limits, bringing the creators to consider new questions of the form, perhaps most fundamentally: How do you invite the audience to suspend disbelief so they can enter into the narrative without the fourth wall? Morris says this depends on passing that threshold, a line that, once crossed, cannot be regressed.

“It isn’t just about creating a window into a world anymore, but a doorway through which the audience can pass through as it happens around them,” Morris says. “To be able to look through drawers and find letters or photographs, to be mere centimeters away from a performer or to find themselves in the midst of a scene that is already going on.”

Importantly, the threshold is immediately acknowledged and breached. Within moments of the play’s beginning, audience members find themselves standing in a room, holding umbrellas as rain cascades from the warehouse’s “sky.” The air is damp, drops of water hit the skin and the sound of rain on umbrellas muffles a eulogy. This is the only part of the performance where the actors stand on a stage above the audience, lending them a crucial sense of authority from the outset. There is no other option but to admit the experience of being at a funeral in the rain.

In painting there is something called trompe-l’œil — French for “deceive the eye” — a technique that uses imagery to trick the eye into believing that depicted objects are real and three dimensional. Sweet & Lucky is the theater equivalent, as the audience leaves the show having explored themes and stories of memory by actually creating memory. Days later, one can recall the sound of the rain, the heat of a candle and the smell of lavender and rosemary that drift through the air of the performance space.

“It has been true for time immemorial that art not only reflects culture, but it also adapts to whatever cultural moment we find ourselves in,” Morris says. “Over the course of [my] career, it has not only been about reimagining content, but also reimagining context. Not just what are we making that the audience is seeing, but how are they seeing it?”

It is telling to observe the experiences of other audience members as they interacted with the performance. Couples, inspired by the scenes depicting young love, held each other’s hands and stole glimpses into each other’s eyes. During one scene, an older man became teary eyed while he leaned on a pier and watched naked lovers swim and flirt. His tears broke to laughter as they splashed and played.

No one spoke to one another, but there was a softness in the way everyone related. The universal power of memory brought tender moments to the surface and the vulnerability was shared and palpable.

There is perhaps no better way to explore the human experience of memory than through experiential theater and Sweet & Lucky is an expert execution. As the performance closes, the audience walks back into the real world. Slowly, life returns and the audience balances living in this moment and recounting moments from before — spinning memories out of experience because it’s all we can do to make sense of life as it passes.

On the Bill: Sweet & Lucky. 4120 Brighton Blvd., Suite A20, Denver, 303-893-4100. Through Aug. 7.