Interactive theater can be risky. At its worst, it can make audiences uncomfortable and give them the feeling that the interactive elements are just propping up an empty narrative. To be successful, the interaction should be an integral part of the play, not a special effect. What a relief it was, then, to experience Martina Potratz’s subtle storytelling in her new interactive play, In the Blue Hour.
This is “dinner theater” in the best sense of the term; the play is structured as a dinner party at which the audience members are guests. The central character is the terminally ill materfamilias Vanessa (played with perfect pitch by Kathryn Rossetter), who has invited us over for what seems to be her last party. Before we arrived, we were asked to submit an online questionnaire regarding things like long-standing friendships, childhood memories, and recent vacations. At the start of the show, we walked in the door to find Vanessa greeting us as if we were old friends, and throughout the evening our answers to the questionnaire were seamlessly worked into the party conversation.
The play was performed at La Maison d’Art in Harlem — usually an art gallery, but here converted into a dining room. It was a perfectly sized space for the production; about 15 people sat at the table, which allowed for a setting that was small enough to feel intimate and large enough to feel like a party.
As we ate dinner and the wine was poured, we got to know various figures from Vanessa’s life — both past and present — such as Anne (Rosie Sowa), her long-suffering friend and perhaps former lover; Robert (Spencer Scott Barros), her dear and loving husband; Emily (Brittany Bellizeare), her career-focused daughter from a previous relationship; and Theo (John Clarence Stewart), Emily’s needy, philandering father.
Some of these characters’ appearances are shrouded in ambiguity; are they all really at the party, or are we seeing them in Vanessa’s memory or imagination? Near the end, there is even a ghost (played with a comedic touch by Herbie Go). He confronts Vanessa with repressed elements of her past before ferrying her, it seems, to whatever lies beyond this life. Robert then encourages everyone to drink more wine, saying, “This is a party. It’s how Vanessa would have wanted it.” Right before our eyes, the setting has shifted from Vanessa’s last dinner party to her funeral; we wonder how we got there so quickly, just as we would after losing a friend.
The actors were very responsive in reading the room and maintained impeccably smooth transitions between the audience narratives and the main plot. Director Melissa Crespo deserves credit for helping the actors find solutions to facilitate these transitions. When making conversation with actors during the show, we were confronted with an awareness of how performative such chit-chat is in real life. There was a certain labor to playing along, which is always the case in daily interactions, especially when one is making the effort to keep up appearances in a situation that would call for sorrow. This effort required of the audience made it truly immersive. At one point we were asked to dance with the actors, and one of us asked Anne, “And how are you doing with all this?” She gave a realistically stiff-upper-lip answer: “It’s been so hard, especially since I found out it was terminal, but I’m just glad I could take this time to be here with her.” The conversation and its emotional stakes felt real.
The show modeled the gradually increasing comfort level of a real party; people were shy at first about talking to strangers, but by the end it all felt truly convivial, despite the inevitable sad turn in the plot. No one shuffled out when the story was over, but actually stayed to talk with their new friends. We had the sense of life going on after a loss. It was an enjoyable moment, but it was tinged with sadness because we were enacting what Vanessa had most dreaded: the fact that we would all continue to live and celebrate with each other, and that she wouldn’t be around to see it.
In the Blue Hour was a labor of love for playwright Martina Potratz (she even cooked all the food for the evening). The script has some beautifully poetic elements, including several quotes from Rainer Maria Rilke. The poetic material isn’t overdone or precious; like Rilke’s poetry, it skirts the edge of sentimentality without quite indulging in it. This touching, thoughtful show deserves to be seen again, and we hope to find it listed at another venue soon.
In the Blue Hour by Martina Potratz was performed at La Maison d’Art (259 W 132nd St, Harlem, Manhattan) June 14–17.