Intimacy Among Strangers
Walking into the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Ashley and I are welcomed into the absurd, upbeat, and welcoming art installation of a recently deceased unnamed artist. The style features bright colors and statement art pieces accenting the space, overall evoking the feel of a modern art museum. Throughout the evening, we will meet six of the most important people in his life -- or to whom he was the most important person -- and explore inequality within their relationships as well as within our own lives and the lives of the strangers assembled in the space with us. The show considers ideas around art and sacrificing everything while myopically pursuing its creation, which is admittedly a bit tricky to do through a work of art itself. In the instantaneous community creation between strangers, though, the show pulls no punches, creating a fascinating exploration of relationships -- both long term and fleeting.
Upon check-in, a charismatic, flippant docent (skillfully played by Brian Weir) chats up the group assembling in the space. Throughout the event, our docent acted as a fantastic host, moving us through the different interactions and pieces we would see throughout the night. As we sign in, assistants in brightly colored shirts ask us silly, binary questions to assign us colored tokens, conferring with one another if they’ve made the correct choice and occasionally adjusting a tangled mess of cords (art, probably) in the central space. The show begins, and we’re given a welcome speech emphasizing the randomness of the small groups we’re about to be placed into based on our tokens, before entering the space.
The initial sequence of the piece we enter into capably creates an easy sense of comfort between strangers being invited into personal conversations with members of the artists’ life. I loved the way this created an intimate space for sharing secrets between strangers with no strings attached, and frankly would go back again just for this portion. Stepping into each space, we enter each world for a few minutes, before being guided into the next installation space. Each scene had a relatively concise set-up of a core relationship each person had with the artist, and a central question that informed that relationship that they would pose to the audience. Some felt easier or more difficult to answer -- I struggled a bit to answer questions along the lines of “Have you ever been in a situation where…?”, while answering “Would you prefer this option or that option in a relationship?” or “What would you do in a situation where…?” came more easily. Regardless of my own uncertainty with some questions, though, I was always fascinated to hear what my group members would say. The ensemble of actors comfortingly helped facilitate these conversations and create connections between everyone in the room.
The format of this section of the show felt skillful in cutting immediately to answering deep questions. We were rarely required to speak directly to one another, since we were answering questions posed from the characters in the space. This, combined with the randomness of the groupings, created an immediate sense of trust and curiosity between groups. After this section concluded, our smaller groups combined to form a larger audience, communally viewing pieces as an audience or individually engaging with smaller pieces for the rest of the show. I felt a kinship with my group afterwards, though not a responsibility to engage with them, which I enjoyed for allowing to keep the intimate, anonymous space of the beginning of the piece in its own world.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed this first act of the show, I had some lingering curiosities about its structure. Since groups revolve through the six characters’ scenes, experiencing stories in different orders colored the overall picture. On the whole, I think that’s an exciting opportunity to create small differences in the experience. The specific order through which I viewed the piece, though, did feel like it worked through from most distant to closest relationships with the artist, and led to me discovering core facts of the piece (like the fact that the artist was deceased) a good couple scenes into the show. Ashley, on the other hand, started by meeting the artist’s family, and learned more about him from the start. I was also interested by the different ways in which the body was invited into the space, creating different power dynamics within groups and between groups and characters. Sitting on the floor, negotiating who got a single chair, or standing by a seated character all created slightly different spatial relationships and dynamics in the different rooms, which enhanced the experience in some rooms and felt neutral in others. So, neither of these things were necessarily a negative experience, but difficult to gauge if they were intentional parts of the show’s construction.
Once we left this first section of the piece, we had a brief entr’acte (which we had been assured would have no relevance on the piece itself). Then, conversations shifted more closely to focusing on the specifics of the characters and the way they’ve reflected on the artist after his death, as well as hypothetical responses he had to them. This section kept up absurd and speculative elements, allowing the artist to engage with his victims after death. Focusing on the artist himself and his uneven relationships with the assembled character raised questions one could apply to oneself, though the piece didn’t necessarily invite you to apply them as directly as it did for the previous section. The interactions within this piece were still enjoyable -- scripted scenes, privately consumed audio messages, and collectively viewed art pieces fleshed out the story of the artist and raised questions surrounding what it means to sacrifice others to create art or single-mindedly pursue that goal. The pieces in and of themselves were neat -- they provided sensory experiences or interactive writing in a way that created interactivity in the physical installations. However, after so viscerally connecting with characters and being invited to apply their experiences to our own lives, hearing from the artist himself and seeing his work felt relatively hollow. Since the harm he created in the lives of others was due to his artistic goals, nothing he could convey through art could amend the injuries.
These interesting thematic engagements surrounding art and sacrifice are obviously a product of going to the show and seeing the work, but I was still left with some questions surrounding exactly how fully the piece was meant to invite us to criticize this central artist versus sympathize with him, or feel he had some sort of point. It definitely felt in line with the story presented to criticize him. However, since the second half of the piece was largely listening to his work and seeing his art, it also gave a lot of space to his voice. The ending of the piece felt similarly a bit mixed, ending on words that affirmed the artists’ ethos before inviting us to stay in the space with snacks and drinks to discuss. A final bit of content came to us via email after the show, which added a bit more to the conversation though, again, still elevating the artists’ own voice. In combining these ideas about the artist himself with the first piece of the show, I’d left with the idea that a relationship’s longevity has little to no bearing on the positivity of its impact in your life -- momentary connections needn’t be trivial, and longstanding ones aren’t always rewarding.
For the uniqueness of its structure and interactivity, I would definitely recommend checking out this show. While there are aspects I’ve found difficult to engage the intentionality of, on the whole it left me with a lot to think about and I enjoyed myself throughout the entire time there. I’d also emphasize how much work the show does in creating and facilitating its interactions -- come ready to play, but know that there will be guides in creating the conversations.
-Sabrina Sonner, Latest Call Editor
Editor’s Notes: This review was written after receiving press tickets to see the show in July 2023. Super Duper runs until July 26th. More information including how to purchase tickets can be found on the Ghost Road Company’s website: https://ghostroad.org/super-duper/.