My wife and I wandered into a unqiue theatre experience while in New Orleans. One of my favorite things about the city is how it’s always changing; just this constant flux of people, restaurants, entertainment and weather. You never quite know what is here. A moveable feast, indeed.
The Stranger Disease and was billed to be about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic that struck the city taking over 20,000 souls. It was billed as an immersive theatre experience set throughout a courtyard in the 1788 Dumaine Street residence, Madame John’s Legacy. Rest assured, there were many comments between us about the potential lack of seating and concern over impromptu interpretive dance performances (only further encouraged when we arrived to learn that the play was done in cycles…calling forth the Dude’s landlord’s Marty dance cycles in The Big Lebowski). But our fears turned out to be unfounded and the play was a truly deep and disquieting experience.
You were given a choice to either stay in one place such as a basement hat shop, bedroom in the upstairs of the house or out in the courtyard. Alternatively, you could follow one of the actors around to see how their individual story developed. While I’m sure there are deeper academic roots to this theatre process, it was reminiscent of a video game open-sandbox style adventure that allowed you to choose what to focus on throughout the night. You could spend time watching the hat maker agonize over writing a letter alone in the basement, another characters praying for salvation from the plague, or someone folding the laundry or engaged in a heated argument. It created this sense of anxiety that you were always missing something or only getting part of the information you needed to understand what was happening. Which, in the end, was exactly what the characters were feeling as they started to come to realize the coming yellow jack plague, quarantine and hard choices they had to make about leaving loved ones or staying in the city. Kind of a brilliant design.
There was also something in it that reminded me of The State of Siegeby Camus. Maybe it was the chaos of pending disease or perhaps the way both plays break down the traditional audience/ performer barrier. For me, both evoked these unsettled feelings around our current political climate, the role of incomplete information, authoritarian rule and the fear of a lurking apocalyptic event (albeit nuclear war rather than yellow jack). I found The Stranger Disease equally moving and disturbing.
As is a mark for any good play the true goodness of the performance and writing snuck up on me after some reflection. It took me days to process and the layers and quality of the performance and the larger messages. It is running until April 22, 2018, if you happen to be in the city. Don’t miss it.
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