The Day Shall Declare It (REVIEW)

An intimate evolution of the immersive theatre DNA makes a temporary home in LA’s hottest neighborhood.

A rainy night makes Los Angeles’ Arts District feel like a place out of time. Characterless mid-century warehouses edge up next to their grander New Deal-era cousins, both clashing with the postmodern design of live work lofts. The last few months have been a turning point for the neighborhood, as the industrial grid around Mateo, 7th, and Santa Fe has become dotted by the city’s hippest cafes and restaurants. This is a place where Skid Row’s homeless still seek solitude while trust fund babies buy overpriced kale. The Arts District doesn’t just have character it is a character.

So it makes perfect sense that the most exciting immersive theater piece to hit LA so far has shacked up in a former industrial space steps from the most iconic part of the LA river. The show itself is a time machine, plunging the audience backwards into a working-class America that seems to have largely slipped away.

WILDERNESSThe Day Shall Declare It is an intimate evolution of the immersive DNA found in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More. It is an exemplar of this school of theatre, putting the audience into the world of the actors and more or less insisting that they keep up. This is not theatre for the faint of heart or the weary of sole.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Potter

The similarities to SNM make all the more sense when you know that co-director and choreographer Sophie Bortolussi has a long relationship with Punchdrunk. Bortolussi brings the kind of movement and dynamic use of space familiar to those who’ve seen the New York City stalwart, but her collaboration with WILDERNESS’ Annie Saunders brings in an element that is largely ignored in that show: language.

Not just any language. The glorious word craft of Tennessee Williams is melded with interviews from Studs Terkel’s New Journalism classic Working. Language isn’t deployed as dialogue so much as it is used as a choreographic element: the lyrical line which motivates Saunders and her two male co-stars’ motion.

If Williams and Terkel’s words are the lyrics, then this is an album about how love and work — and the duties bound to each — all pull each of us in different directions. It can be so easy, especially in a city full of storytellers who have sacrificed their instincts at the altar of successful formulas, to forget what real tension feels like. Here that tension is palpable in every moment.

All three performers-Nicholas Konow, Chris Polick and Saunders-make the athletic choreography look largely effortless. A feat made all the more impressive given that the audience is often mere inches away from the action.

Photo Credit: Anka Bogacz

That close intimacy is what creates the heightened tension. This is a kinetic work. At any given moment you might find yourself being gently pulled away from a wall by a performer, or all but diving out of the way as they make a dash across the space. If your idea of a great night at the theatre requires you being able to lean back into a comfy chair you might as well stay at home.

For those of us who’ve gotten the immersive bug, Wilderness’ production scratches the itch in places nothing else has reached. Not SNM, not even my beloved Then She Fell. It strikes a balance between the sandbox free-for-all/make your own narrative of the former and the guided tour mystery box of the later. The Day Shall Declare It is linear insofar as that there is one major path of narrative, but time’s arrow is used to fold themes back in on themselves revealing additional layers of meaning.

Almost the entire audience — there are short one-on-ones for a few members — bares witness to the same events. While other immersives that put the audience into the world with the characters are often solo experiences by design, here WILDERNESS embraces the ritual nature of theatre as a communal experience.

You might now pause in the reading and wonder how that makes this piece any different from a site-specific staging of a traditional play. This is where words fail: you’ve either felt the illusion of presence that a well staged immersive creates or you haven’t. It’s a little bit like sex: I can tell you about it, but unless you’ve experienced it you just can’t really know.

The design team’s work is beyond reproach, in fact the only faults I can find lie with my own initial approach towards the show. I became so wrapped up in the kinetics of the piece that I didn’t tune into the language right off the bat. I’m wishing I had…so I guess I just have to go back. Luckily there’s still a little time left for that.

The Day Shall Declare It Created by WILDERNESS. Directed by Sophie Bortolussi and Annie Saunders. Produced in LA by Los Angeles Performance Practice. Wednesdays-Fridays at 8:30PM, Saturdays & Sundays at 7:00PM through March 22nd. Imperial Art Studios 2051 East 7th Street, Los Angeles CA 90021.