More than a gimmicky name, the sobriquet “This Is Not A Theatre Company” reflects Erin B. Mee and Jessie Bear’s immersive-theater vision, which is realized with gusto in A Serious Banquet. Their new show/dinner party riffs lushly on a birthday party given by Pablo Picasso in his Paris studio for Henri Rousseau in 1908 and recounted by Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
The cast of A Serious Banquet welcomes audience members cum party guests gently but firmly into a studio decorated with an assortment of modernist works. The pièce de résistance is a live version of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, its composition reduced from five to three women, but those three represented by real actresses, stock-still initially but coming to life most entertainingly later on.
In the meanwhile the avant-garde crème de la crème of a century ago mingle with the guests, serve wine, solicit assistance with quotidian tasks like answering phones or fetching ice, ask our opinions about artistic matters, and so on. George Braques (Ryan Feyk) conversed with me at length regarding his conflicted feelings about his friend Picasso’s revolutionary Demoiselles. At dinner I ended up sitting next to one of the Demoiselles, whose personality and “conversation” reflected the primitivism of the painting.
Marie Laurencin (Kate Reilly) arrived falling-down drunk, Max Jacob (Vincent William Cooper) declaimed poems, Gertrude Stein (Ali Kennedy Scott) led word games, a silent Ida Rubinstein of the Ballet Russes (Sandra Maren Schneider) danced, and during dinner Picasso (Ashley Wren Collins) and Rousseau (Shawn Chua) exchanged literary toasts. The evening is as much a “happening” as a show, with scripted scenes spattered onto a canvas primed with audience-inspired improvisation. By its nature the show ensures that no two guests will have precisely the same experience.
Then again, isn’t that just as true at a traditional theatrical event where audience members are spectators only? Mais oui, This Is Not A Theatre Company is indeed a theater company, and one with a French twist. Mee, Bear & Co. plan a “podplay” on the Staten Island Ferry and something cryptically described as “a play inside your brain,” but also a Dada cabaret and “an immersion into the world of Magritte.” Sacre bleu!
A dessert note: Following a rather humble and safely vegetarian dinner, we were treated to memorable “cubist brownies” from The Treats Truck. A Serious Banquet runs through June 19, with 21+ performances at Judson Church by Washington Square and all-ages shows at New York Theatre Workshop in the East Village.