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Theatre in Review: The Tenant (Woodshed Collective/West Park Presbyterian Church)

Photo: Emily Fishbaine

If you've seen Sleep No More, and still haven't had enough of theatre as an interactive themed experience, you might want to give The Tenant a whirl. Even if you didn't really care for that overly arty deconstruction of Macbeth, you might-emphasis on "might"-find it more to your liking. The company known as Woodshed Collective, having previously taken over a decommissioned steamship in the Hudson River and McCarren Pool, now invades West Park Presbyterian Church, a gloriously crumbling Romanesque Revival pile on the Upper West Side, in order to present this psychological thriller about displacement.

The script, the product of no fewer than six authors and a dramaturg, is taken from a novel by Roland Topor, Le Locataire, published in 1964, which was also the source for a flop Roman Polanski film in 1976. In all versions, Trelkovsky, a rather nondescript man of Polish extraction, moves into a Parisian apartment formerly occupied by a woman who jumped out of one of its windows. The atmosphere in the building is squalid, squabbling, and xenophobic, and Trelkovsky succumbs to it, slipping into paranoia as he becomes convinced that the occupants are trying to do away with him. (It's not surprising that Polanski, who directed Rosemary's Baby, that masterpiece of elusive terror, should be attracted to The Tenant; the setups are not dissimilar.)

In this production, the audience starts out en masse in the church's basement for a funny-creepy opener in which Trelkovsky visits the suicidal woman's hospital room, where he meets the building's irritable concierge. (The scene ends with the kind of shock moment you find frequently in horror films and almost never in the theatre.) After that, you're on your own, running up and down three flights of stairs, dropping in on various locations and characters, even heading into the church's sanctuary, its balcony turned into a movie theatre where hushed conversations are held as the trailer is screened for Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin Féminin. Apparently, certain scenes are meant to be seen by all, but, essentially, you're constructing your own version of events as you go; many rooms have televisions broadcasting footage of Trelkovsky and others, presumably in an effort to keep everyone up to speed on what's going on.

In terms of mood, The Tenant can't be beat; the company has conspired to build a multilevel petit bourgeois hell in which men prey on women, marriages fray from sheer irritation, and, in even the simplest transaction, naked hostility is never far from the surface. In a bar, located in the basement, one of the patrons constantly heckles the female proprietor. In a large open café, a couple of louts and their girlfriends make inane conversation about the Rolling Stones. (On Mick Jagger: "He's like a fucking, like he, like, his body is like an animal. Like stringy. Like it's all, his veins are all stringy and thin and shit.") The landlord, M. Zy, and his wife analyze their new tenant's background in the first of many vaguely racist discussions of what Trelkovsky's "Slavic" background means. A social evening in another apartment turns into a sustained exercise in sexual humiliation and ends with a gun being produced. Every last sordid emotion is realized with unnerving effectiveness by a uniformly skilled cast - all the more so, given the way they have to negotiate the constantly shifting crowds around them.

The directors, Teddy Bergman and Stephen Brackett, are aided immeasurably by their design team. The production designer, Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, taking advantage of the church's peeling walls, aroma of mold, and general air of decay, has, through the use of carefully chosen furnishings, created a series of spaces so evocative that you feel like you've wandered onto the set of a mid-'60s Godard film. (One error: Mr. Coffee machines didn't exist in those days.) Evansohn also gives a surreal twist to the large-scale café setting-which is placed in an expansive, double-height room-covering the walls with window frames in a macabre allusion to the deaths at the story's core. Using for the most part a combination of practical units and existing lighting abetted by birdies and other tiny pieces of gear, Carl Faber's lighting creates just the right atmosphere for each space. His handling of the café area -- punctuating the space with sudden bursts of harsh white light during the fear-filled climax -- is especially alarming. Jessica Pabst's costumes feel true to both the narrative's time and place, a notably impressive achievement given the wide range of characters she has to dress. Brandon Wolcott's sound design adds to the atmosphere of dread. The video work, by Central Servicers (consisting of Alex Koch, Kate Freer, Josh Higgason, and David Tennent), ranging from work -- ranging from introductory credits projected on a hospital room curtain to film excerpts in the "cinema" to film-like dramatic and chase sequences broadcast on various television screens -- make a ubiquitous, but never intrusive, presence. If anyone gave an award for production management, The Tenant would be a leading contender, for the efficient husbanding of all these elements -- and the actors as they move from scene to scene -- is very, very impressive.

The Tenant is never dull and, thanks to the cast and crew, I'll take it over Sleep No More any day -- but it's still not really a satisfying dramatic experience, thanks to a narrative structure that proves thoroughly elusive. Time and again, I tarried in a room, hoping that a conversation would take on dramatic fire and meaning, only to see it continue its wandering ways. The company was smart to choose a story that is founded more on atmosphere and allusiveness, but, for all the running around I did, I felt that I spent the evening on the fringe of the story, listening to the supporting characters unburden themselves, often at length, on matters that weren't really germane to the central story. It may be that I didn't choose well in moving from room to room, scene to scene - but, then again, that's the risk you take when you attend The Tenant.

Still, The Tenant is free, and, on its own terms, it's a remarkable achievement. It's also a golden opportunity to get a look at the work of some young people who will definitely be heard from again. If this sort of theatre is your thing, then The Tenant will be catnip. If it isn't, or you're simply curious, it may still be worth a look, because this is about as good as this genre gets.--David Barbour

(26 August 2011)

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