In the mobile black box of Theatre for One, there is only one audience member for each of the seven rotating plays. The four-by-eight space is sparsely staged, with a built-in red velvet seat on one side and a folding chair for the performer on the other, and a wall that opens and closes between, revealing the viewer and actor to each other.
I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am, the current cycle of performances in the mobile theater, presented by Arts Brookfield, opened this week at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place in Battery Park City. Through June 6 the performances are traveling around Manhattan, with a stop at Zuccotti Park and Midtown’s Grace Building Plaza. All of the plays are free, you just have to line up and be prepared for one of the most personal theater experiences of your life.
Theatre for One evolved from an initial prototype created in 2003, the vision of artistic director Christine Jones, better known as a set designer for Broadway shows like Spring Awakening and American Idiot. The current tiny four-by-eight theater built by LOT-EK is a sort of cross between a peep show and a confessional box. Every experience is unique, and you don’t know what you are going to get when you are closed inside the box. It could be comedy, tragedy, a love story, or a self-aware monologue on the awkwardness of such a confined space.
The newly commissioned pieces include some high-profile playwrights like Craig Lucas, nominated for a Tony for his American in Paris libretto, and Lynn Nottage who received a Pulitzer for Drama in 2009 for Ruined. Each play is only about five to seven minutes, and the three I saw varied from comedic to tragic. In Zayd Dohrn’s “Love Song,” directed by Jenny Koons, actor Kevin Mambo looked into my eyes and told the story of a teenage crush that drove his character to learn the guitar, the story accompanied by Mambo’s music, strummed beneath the lights of the red room. The next play, “Lizzy,” directed and written by Josè Rivera, was performed by Marisol Miranda as if I were a friend with her at lunch, the ambient noise of a restaurant filtering through the speakers as she told me about the devastating terminal illness of her mother. Finally Will Eno’s “Late Days in the Era of Good Feelings,” directed by Brian Mertes and performed by Erin Gann, brooded on the awkwardness of our shared situation and riffed a bit on the absurdities New York theater can take with its unexpected spaces, with Gann apologizing: “I thought we were going to be in a bank vault.”
A warning to introverts, all the plays involved intense amounts of eye contact, the lighting giving the actors’ pupils a starry light, although physically neither of us crossed the dividing line between audience and stage. I’ve been to my fair share of offbeat theater experiences, including, um, Sleep No More over 20 times, almost each of those involving some moment with an actor behind a closed door where briefly the performance is exclusively for a sole person. However, Theatre for One gives its power by not immersing us in the world of a narrative: you’re immediately stepping out of chaotic New York into this small space where your attention is only on this person, with no transporting set or fellow audience members to ease your role. It’s intimidating to suddenly be as much in the spotlight as the actor, but rewarding in offering a moment to really engage with a story and a stranger.
Theatre for One: I’m Not the Stranger You Think I Am continues at the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place (230 Vesey Street, Battery Park City, Manhattan) through May 24. It is then at Zuccotti Park (Broadway and Liberty Street, Financial District, Manhattan) May 27 to 31, and Grace Building Plaza (1114 Avenue of the Americas, Midtown, Manhattan).