Theater as Mysterious Rendezvous

An unorthodox `play' lures an audience of one on a surreal excursion through the byways of East London

THE instructions say to be at Neville Russell, a large accounting firm in East London, by 4:50 p.m. sharp. I'm to enter the building and say, ``I'm looking for you.'' Despite my entreaties to the woman on the telephone, the only additional detail she'll give me is to wear comfortable shoes and not carry anything heavy.

As I walk up to the building, the fa,cade is momentarily reassuring. Not quite believing that the words will mean anything, I hesitantly utter the cryptic phrase to the uniformed concierge.

``Oh, yes,'' he says, his face breaking into a knowing half-smile. ``Sit down over there.'' He nods toward an empty sofa by the window. On a nearby coffee table a selection of newspapers is neatly laid out.

A receptionist brimming with bonhomie comes over and asks me to fill in a questionnaire. Apart from the ones asking my name and address, I find myself reading each question several times to make sure that I'm not missing something: ``Are you now or have you ever been?'' ``Are you to end there?'' ``Does it help?''

I plow through the page as best I can, feeling as unsure of my answers as of what is being asked.

Have I slipped down Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole or stumbled into the Twilight Zone?

Neither.

I am experiencing ``You - the City,'' and to say this two-hour play - if it can be called that - is different would be putting it mildly. For the ticket price of $23, the intrepid theatergoer becomes a ``client,'' who is escorted to various points in East London by an actor or actors. The dozen or so experiences along the way include stopping inside a church, witnessing a play-within-a-play in someone's living room, and answering a strange telephone call in a take-out restaurant.

As my own adventure continues, a different woman, impeccably dressed in a business suit, arrives, shakes my hand, and introduces herself crisply. Then she beckons me to follow her down a thickly carpeted hall into an office.

Suddenly, before opening the door, she whirls around and looks me in the eye, her face only inches from mine, and says with great feeling, ``If I could tell you that you are alive.'' She then ushers me into a small conference room.

I am motioned to sit at one end of a highly polished table, while the woman confidently plants herself in a leather-bound chair at the other end. ``But I'm rushing you,'' she continues, with a tone of patronizing patience. ``Why you?'' this strange executive continues, with eyes widening. Without waiting for my reply, she says, ``The exclusive everything makes everything impossible.''

We are now staring at each other. Her words are in English, but there's no discernible logic to what she is saying. A smirk plays on her lips.

Written by Fiona Templeton - a Scottish-born poet, dramatist, director, and for a decade now a resident of New York - ``You - the City' was first performed for a sold-out season Off Broadway last summer. Ithas been reworked to launch this year's London International Festival of Theater. After London, the show is scheduled for The Hague, Netherlands; Glasgow; and, if current negotiations prove successful, a handful of other cities in Europe and America.

Repeating their performances 25 times a day at 10-minute intervals, each actor portrays a character that one might easily see during a stroll through the city, from Walkman-wired, punk teen-ager to hapless tramp. In ``conversation,'' apparent non sequiturs are piled endlessly on top of one another, with the words ``you'' or ``yourself'' popping up in virtually every phrase. Occasionally in the middle of a street, a character will break into song.

During my experience, passers-by appeared to notice nothing out of the ordinary. The only sign of reaction came from a real vagrant sitting in a doorway: When the actor-tramp and I walked past, the man looked up with a toothless, sheepish grin in seeming silent apology for the eccentric behavior of his ``colleague.''

In an interview later, playwright/director Templeton explained why she has chosen such an unusual theatrical style.

``I'm a poet,'' says the diminutive, red-haired writer, looking more like a schoolgirl than an avant-garde dramatist, in her unassuming skirt, blouse, and sweater. ``I am not a naturalistic writer. So I wouldn't write anything in a naturalistic way. In this case, the style is to get clients to be active; the piece is about that. It's also about you - and meeting different people. So some of the lines are as much about fiction that is going on as they are about the real thoughts you may have in meeting different people.

``The piece works, I think,'' she continues, speaking in a slight Scottish lilt tinged with a New York accent, ``because there is just enough naturalism with each character. If the dialogue was completely unreal, I think the [clients] would freak out. At the same time, people need that bit of artifice [the unnatural speech], or they would end up turning the encounters into a psychological dialogue.''

Ms. Templeton says her one request for the actors after the play's opening today will be to slow down. The English pace of doing things, she has been reminded by clients, is not as fast as in New York. ``The English want to reflect and don't just want back-chat,'' she observes, ``whereas Americans like word-play for the sake of it. But this isn't just word-play, in any case. There's a lot in this piece.''

And herein lies the project's major flaw. The very language she employs is too arcanely coded and too reminiscent of late 1960s-early 1970s trendily ``profound'' vaporings to be taken as seriously as Templeton would like it to be.

Yet ``You - the City'' is not unentertaining. One growing emphasis in theater these days is to make stage drama an ``experience'' quite different from straight realism, which is increasingly acknowledged to be the province of film and TV. Templeton's play is an exciting extension of the current trend to return English-speaking theater to the streets - where, after all, it first began in the Middle Ages. And having actors perform for a single person, in addition to not knowing where one will be for the next scene, does provide more than a bit of mystery: Art imitates life, while life gradually begins to disconcertingly imitate art.

Indeed, as East London and its inhabitants meld with the play, the city becomes a stage. For example, when riding in a taxi during part of the show, the ``taxi driver'' (Marcus D'Amico) did a U-turn, another vehicle emerged from nowhere to create a very real-looking near-collision. Then a ``policeman'' flagged down the cab driver and admonished him for his recklessness. The juxtaposition of fantasy and realism in such a stark form was highly effective - so much so, in fact, that I couldn't help wondering if this object-lesson in safety was the point of the play.

It was only later, when chatting with actor D'Amico, that I learned the ``policeman'' was the real thing and the near-accident totally unplanned.

All the world's a stage.

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