Exploring a home that is not your own brings a voyeuristic thrill, a feeling that you are stepping into a private space. That excitement continues even after you’ve paid to get in, even if no one has lived there in decades. A rare perk of the pandemic – at least until people discovered a decent virtual background – was the opportunity to look into (and immediately assess) colleagues’ rooms.
Back when interiors weren’t that dangerous, I was a fiend for a historic trip home. Summer palaces, historical rooms at the Met, living history installations with basket-weaving instructions – yes, absolutely all of them. Last summer, during the darker days of the pandemic, I spent a few happy hours “visiting” Newports Cottages online.
More recently, digital theater has embraced this domestic act, offering virtual tours of imaginary and actual spaces in works such as Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s “A house tour of the infamous Porter family mansion with tour guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry … at home!”; Jared Mezzocchi’s “Somebody Else’s House”; and explosion theory “A cluster of 17 cases.” They may not offer the hassle of stepping through actual rooms – and sneaking the occasional fingering of the embroidered tablecloth – but the latter two offer the quivering pleasure of stepping into a room you clearly don’t belong in.
“A House Tour,” directed by Jason Eagan, began in 2016 in San Francisco as a personal event that took audiences from space to creatively rendered space. It was redesigned as an audio-only drama with a deluxe mailer. (Mailers are another benefit of the pandemic; sometimes they contain wine.) This contains two figurines that you can decorate with feathers and pipe cleaners – I put a dragoon on my kids for this part – and a number of torn packages.
Broadway actress Lilli Cooper provides the introduction, a flawless parody of a museum audio guide. Your voice informs us that the Porter Family Mansion has doors, windows, rooms and “some of the best collections in the world with lots of different things”. (The house is completely imaginary.) Danny Scheies Weston takes over. Scheie was also the star of the personal version, and his Weston has an odd and malicious energy to it. He’s excited to share the most scandalous details of life and sweaty love of Hubert and Clarissa Porter, the fictional one percent owners who built the mansion.
The monologue relies heavily on allusions and dirty puns. This conspicuousness extends to the participatory elements when Weston asks us to fold up a card and put it in our “underwear”. Let’s just say that even an obedient audience – I had, as instructed, squeezed the characters together in a sex simulation – has its limits. (Fortunately the children had already gone to bed.)
More frustrating than the indecency is how incompletely the creators reinterpreted this experience for home consumption. The house never really comes to mind and the items in the box, which are almost entirely irrelevant, don’t help. Plus, the sound runs for almost two hours, which is an awfully long time to sit at your computer with headphones on and stare at concupiscuous dolls. And the humor is more than youthful. I had hoped that “A House Tour” would create some kind of palace of remembrance, a mansion of the mind, but it just stays endless in the gutters.
“Someone Else’s House”, produced by Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, is a shorter, tighter and smarter piece of work overall. It was developed for an online audience and takes just under an hour to complete. It’s a chiseled piece of horror home allegedly based on a colonial New Hampshire house that was once the home of Mezzocchi’s parents and siblings. “This is not just a ghost story,” says Mezzocchi. “It’s real. It happened to my family.”
“Somebody else’s house” also has an accompanying box. This contains items related to the history of the house, such as a family tree and antique sketches and photographs. It also contains a candle that smells like decomposing vanilla for some reason.
Mezzocchi in a flannel shirt, woolen hat and quarantine beard is an appealing narrator. The story he tells from a place that becomes clear as the story progresses is extremely scary. (The short version: Maybe not buying a house with a former slaughterhouse in the basement?) The design is meticulous, the archive photos unsettling, the “Are they or not?”. Zoom disturbances are annoying. And if you’ve ever suspected that your furniture is trying to reach you, this is the digital work for you.
What is strange, however, is that Mezzocchi doesn’t fully trust the theatrical form. If you’ve seen his previous work like Russian Troll Farm: A Comedy at Work, you know he’s an absolute wizard when it comes to making online theater feel live. “Someone Else’s House” ends in a frightening digital coup-de-theater, but none of the multimedia effects are more sinister than the low-tech vision of Mezzocchi sitting in front of his laptop telling a story in a slowly darkening room.
And yet the scariest online house tour is possibly the short one offered by the experimental English theater Blast Theory, which produced a virtual version of its 2018 work “A Cluster of 17 Cases”. The piece was created when Blast Theory was artist in residence at the World Health Organization and examines the transmission of the SARS virus to 17 people on the 9th floor of the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong. The company built a full-scale model of the hotel from lightweight aluminum. An interactive website allows you to take the elevator and explore.
“Some people will be unharmed, others will die. It’s time to choose your room, ”says one narrator coolly. There are only three rooms to discover, plus trips back to the lobby to learn how many other people infected the room residents when they left the hotel and flown home. (As Covid-19 taught us, aerosolized particles are no joke.) The nerve-wracking experience lasts maybe 15 minutes. Like “Home” and “Somebody else’s house,” it is ultimately a cautionary story. For more than a year now, most of us have been told to stay indoors, but as these shows argue, indoors isn’t as safe either.
A home tour of the infamous Porter Family Mansion with tour guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry … at home
Somebody else’s house
Until July 3rd; geffenplayhouse.org.
A cluster of 17 cases