H. T. Darling’s Incredible Musaeum – We’re All Mad Here
A REVIEW BY PANDORA LOCKS
So, we’ve just finished tax season, and good riddance. I fucking hate taxes. I cannot, for the life of me, even with a fucking Masters Degree, do my taxes. I get stressed, I drink, I try again, get pissed, drink more, and the cycle repeats until I, defeated and dejected, head upstairs to bed and officially give up. There is that same benign, aching, simmering level of frustration in most of Submersive’s productions (stay with me). The team behind such shows as Plunge, Broken Bone Bathtub, and Mesmeric Revelations of Poe are good at dreaming up fantasy worlds where there is no fourth wall, hell, there’s no walls at all, which can be really super uncomfortable to the uninitiated. But the discovery and presentation of beautiful, multi-layered art inherent in these shows (I almost moved to the point of tears) is worth it, and hits the nail on the head EVERY GODDAMN TIME. H. T. Darling is no exception.
The evening begins at the Peale Museum with a small greeting by our host, Clayton (Josh Aterovis). Guests are instructed to choose a name tag that appeals to them. I, of course, immediately became an “Esq.” while friends and acquaintances choose apt pseudonyms for the evening’s adventure. I did have a moment of odd anonymity (seen Eyes Wide Shut? [Yes, and yikes. – TBO]) but I let it pass. The first floor houses a small collection of artifacts, a short video explaining the “New Galapagos” planet, and a gift shop. At 8:00, a bell rings and we hear the house rules (no touching, no photography, do not initiate contact with people in the museum, but feel free to interact once spoken to, etc.) Then we are escorted upstairs for the grand opening of the museum. H. T. (Sarah Olmstead Thomas) is quite a character, very charismatic. There are several lectures given by various curators, and guests are encouraged to mingle. There is also a mysterious third floor staircase but it is heavily guarded and not passable unless by invitation.
The idea here is that H. T. Darling is an explorer and this museum is his life’s work, bringing back artifacts from another planet, the New Galapagos. He has put together a grand gala complete with weaponry demonstrations and other unveilings and you are part of the elite crowd cordially invited to partake. The unease of meandering is lightened by interactions with a roaming cast. You are welcome to “choose your own adventure.” I suspect that you could attend several times and have completely different experiences at each. Because I am a glamorous rock star and shit, H. T. himself invited me into his private chambers to discuss a proposition of great magnitude. He winked at me throughout the night, sealing our covert deal. But for even the common theatergoer, there are various strange and wonderful encounters to be had.
Post intermission, the plot, such as it is, falls apart a bit. The materials given to me state that, “the upper floors will betray a mysterious alien influence.” So that’s what that was? I was thinking maybe I drank too much wine (is there such a thing?) prior to the show. Eh. The real shining star of this production, anyway, is the behind-the- scenes prep. Direction team Lisi Stoessel, Susan Stroupe and Glenn Ricci are incredibly fucking thoughtful on every aspect of this terribly immersive performance, world-building like champs. Dody DiSanto is listed in the program as the movement coach, and damn did they earn that title. The vignettes these explorers present, the movements of H. T. himself as a cocky, old-world explorer reeking of arrogance and charm, are remarkable. Also, extreme props to, well, the props. I did ask several members of the Submersive Team where they got all these wonderful toys. Ursula Marcum is listed as the props guru and her closets must be to die for! Most were “found” objects, but there is an entire museum set up in here! The shit was unreal, fucking unbelievable; their budget must be astronomical or else they know some people. I want to know those people. Send me a message, we’ll chat.
And the puppetry. Listen, I have seen some shows around town, and I feel like puppets are très en vogue right now, and, damn, is a lot of it forced and ill-played. That’s not the case here. Ursula Marcum and Jess Rassp, the puppet team, create the movements, the facial expressions, and just, HOLY SHIT. One of the “choices” I made was to view the human extinction re-enactment for the planet, and it was done in a shadow box with two eerily life-like puppets. And it was mesmerizing. I looked around the room and people were actually compelled to lean in closer. Last but certainly not least, is the fabrication and set dressing credited to several parties – Samantha Kuczynski, Alessandra Torres, Francisco Benavides, Ursula Marcum, Jess Rassp, and Alex Vernon – and this teamwork shows. There are entire walls, rooms, ceilings depicting the Overland and Underland of New Galapagos with flora and fauna and realistic AF (be careful, some move) items everywhere.
I was sworn on pain of death not to discuss too much the second half of the show, it would break my engagement with H. T. Darling. So, you will just have to go see this for yourself.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re looking for immersive, subversive, submersive (get it) theater, H.T. Darling is your ticket. This is a fantastically elaborate pastiche of sight and sound that extends the theater-going experience and honestly almost explodes it. If you think you’ve seen amazing things from Submersive before, you have, and this is the best yet. Wear sensible shoes (two hours of standing/walking) and be open to adventure. This experience is a roller coaster ride that will leave you gasping and then immediately getting back in line to do it again. You’ve heard it’s that good, and – it is.
Email Pandora Locks at firstname.lastname@example.org
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