When actors address audiences directly, they’re said to breach the stage’s “fourth wall.” In The Mortality Machine, it’s the audience that does the breaching, penetrating all parts of the playing space and performing assigned roles side-by-side with the professionals. In this two-hour drama—site-specific, immersive, and improvisatory—part of the mystery for the playgoer is who else has bought a ticket and who’s being paid to act.
To be fair, there’s far more intrigue than that in this complicated drama. Presented by Sinking Creek Creations, The Mortality Machine is a thriller about grieving families investigating the disappearance of five people who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The missing persons had been subjects of an experiment conducted by a since discredited physician, Dr. Kevin Schumacher, in a basement laboratory far east on Canal Street, where the performance takes place.
In addition to the disappearance of the ALS patients, the wild and woolly backstory of The Mortality Machine includes the fictional Schumacher’s suicide (which also supposedly occurred in the Canal Street venue). Just prior to killing himself, Schumacher placed a call to the New York City Police Department. The experiment, he confessed to the cops, violated various laws and regulations. Though he wouldn’t disclose the whereabouts of the vanished participants (or their remains), he described them to the police as “explorers,” suggesting that the experiment had to do with more than ALS.
After Schumacher’s death, relatives of the missing persons sued the doctor’s estate. That suit has recently been settled. As part of the settlement, the plaintiffs, their near relations, and certain friends are entitled to visit and inspect Schumacher’s laboratory, which has been sealed since commencement of the legal action. The Mortality Machine depicts that visit.
The producers of this idiosyncratic attraction describe The Mortality Machine as an exercise in “multiple immersive storytelling techniques.” That’s a highfalutin way of saying that, for the audience, it’s a live-action role-playing game (frequently referred to by theater folk as LARP). But, according to materials available to playgoers in advance, the creators are aiming for something more ambitious than mere game-playing. “We’ve worked hard to give you every opportunity for a transformative experience,” they tell prospective patrons. “Be vulnerable,” they urge. “Let the events that occur move you. And most of all, make this story your own.”
Upon arrival, each playgoer is taken aside by a member of the production staff and given a badge with the identity of a particular character. The badge sets forth the basic information needed to dive into the drama and help determine the story’s direction.
Audience members portray people whose relatives or friends are among the disappeared. Before permitting the new arrival to enter the venue, the staff member addresses a few orienting details (some related to #MeToo perils) and directs the patron to assume his or her role immediately and to stay in character from that moment on.
While the play doesn’t have a formal script, the creative team has dreamed up vivid characters, complex dynamics among the characters, and alternate scenarios that will play out in accordance with audience choices. Ryan Hart is credited as creator of “words”; Lara Marcin is responsible for “dance” (this piece includes a good deal of dancing, with audience members encouraged to join at certain points). Tommy Honton, Orli Nativ, Yvonne Chang, and Jae Lee are identified as designers, with the precise division of labor among them unspecified.
After initial mingling in a tiny anteroom, the assembled parties are admitted to the laboratory’s main chamber, which contains lockers, filing cabinets, supply closets, and an ancient-looking hospital bed with a lot of equipment around it. The play’s participants, divided into groups according to what missing person they’re connected to, are encouraged to wander, examine, forage, and snoop. Information becomes available through a variety of means, including video material on laptops and screens and the intervention of various people, including a homeless man and a newspaper reporter. As the play’s title suggests, Schumacher aimed to cross the boundary between life and death, so it’s not a spoiler to mention that, at a crucial point in the proceedings, the authors invite the audience to take an imaginative step across that line in order to rendezvous with the missing characters. That’s when The Morality Machine becomes fanciful and really interesting.
At the performance under review, the basement venue was occupied almost entirely by youthful, good-looking people, any or all of whom could have been recent drama school graduates. Everyone appeared to approach the enterprise with the conviction and unmitigated earnestness of Method actors. In that situation, the question of who’s a thespian and who’s a paying customer may eclipse the conundrum that’s dearest to the authors’ hearts.
The Mortality Machine runs through Feb. 24 at Wildrence (the basement space at 59 Canal St., between Allen and Orchard). Performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. No one under 18 permitted. For information and tickets, visit themortalitymachine.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.