Read Part I of 28 Hours in London
And now, dear reader, we dip in to part II of my London adventure: The Drowned Man: a Hollywood Fable.
I’ve attended Sleep No More before (yes, 3 times) so I already knew I was a bit of a Punchdrunk groupie. I was obsessed. On trips back to New York I stopped by The Manderley even when I had no ticket to the show–it helps that I know one of the bartenders.
I went into the Drowned Man less blind than when I went into Sleep No More as it relates to knowing what to expect from Promenade Theater, but I was completely in the dark about the show’s narrative thread. I knew of the concepts and themes of Woyczek but I had never read nor seen the play performed. This lack of expectation for plot points really allowed me to wander from set to set, follow different actors, and watch big scenes take place without fearing that I was missing a major death scene or major plot point.
The setting of the play was the set of a 1960s fictional Hollywood production company (Temple Studio) at the decline of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The sound stages were set for movies being filmed and at least one was said to be wrapping that night, ending in a big wrap party that we were told we couldn’t miss. There was also the surrounding town with trailer homes, shanties, and a dive bar run by very attractive gentlemen dressed like classic 1960s cowboys in plaid shirts, cowboy hats and boots.
Like Sleep No More, I entered the play by elevator but our guide was a “Studio Aid,” someone who knew Temple Studios inside and out. He playfully, and creepily, hinted at plot lines, intrigues and bits of the tangled web of deceit that half of the characters were tied to. He would lean in and softly speak of events into patrons’ ears, catching the giggling gaggle of twenty somethings standing in front of my playing with their phones off guard. It was one effective way to snap an audience to attention.
I was ejected from the elevator by the Studio Aid into the outskirts of town, which, and here it differed greatly from SNM, the elevator plummeted us down below the main building. The whole sense of going subterranean immediately set me on edge and got my nerves trembling.
I don’t want to reveal too much, but the show was very David Lynch, and I mean this in the best sense.
One of the favorite set pieces involved a sort of gang initiation that was a hybrid of Lynch and Tarantino, with a little less blood. Half danced, half fought, and with so much flamboyance that it was impossible to look away as they took out the baseball bat.
What stuck with me most were my personal interactions with the cast during the play. Punchdrunk is known not only for the promenade and “choose your own adventure” qualities of their shows, but also for the one-on-one sessions that happen to a lucky few throughout the play itself. It took me three rips to Sleep No More before I experienced more than Banquo whispering in my ear to experience these but what I experienced at The Drowned Man was so much more intense, visceral, and involved.
It started with The Fool.
I walked onto one of the many sound stages, this one featuring a boat sinking into the floor and a mound of what could have been sand but looked more like dust. Sitting in a director’s chair was a man, dressed in grey scale sailor attire. He had a short, closely cut to the face beard and wore white face paint with red lips and a red dot painted on his nose. I followed him, sat down next to him at the makeup tables, picked up his photographs of long gone family members, then stood up, watching from the reflection in the mirror as he took deep breathes to collect himself before reapplying a fresh coat of white face paint, covering the old paint.
Then he looked up, straight into my eyes and smiled. He turned, first to the masked audience member to his left, then turned and looked at me. He moved the chair to his immediate right closer and gestured for me to sit down. As I took my seat he dipped his makeup brush in a pot of red paint and handed it to me, bringing his face closer for me to paint him. I painted his lips red, making him laugh softly as the brushed flicked across his lips. I finished his lips and he pointed to his nose. I leaned in, gently resting my pinky into his cheek to steady my hand as I painted a small circle on the tip of his nose. He looked up, smiled again, and took the brush from me when I finished, adding two small red circles just below his eyes.
He quickly turned to the makeup table, packed the paint into a small tin box, pushed it back, to rest below the mirror, then he hastely stood up and reached out for my hand.
I took it and we ran through corridors, my fellow masked audience members in hot pursuit, before we stopped at his actor’s trailer. He let go of my hand, fumbled with his keys until he found the right one. He threw open the door then put his arm around my shoulders and brought me inside with him before shutting and locking the door behind him.
He moved aside the curtain, making sure we weren’t followed though there were several audience members outside who were trying to see if they could peer in but the glass windows were frosted, we could only make out their shadows from the other side.
Without a word, or near even a sound, he brushed by me towards the trailer’s bed. He lunged forward, an overt almost actively clowning gesture, smoothed the top duvet cover then pulled the footstool from under the bed and gestured for me to take a seat on the bed. I sat as straight up as I could on the soft mattress. He looked into my eyes and gently removed my mask. I took a sharp breath in. He smiled with a hint of reassurance and recognition. He stood close to the bed, his legs hugging my left knee. He put my mask down and took my hand, massaging it lightly and started to tell me a story. It was a story of a little boy who was left alone in the world. The boy ventured to the sun and the moon looking for company but returned to earth alone and there he still remains.
At the end of his story his grip on my hand tightened with the tension that had been slowly building making the perfumed air more intoxicating.
He leaned in. He was about to whisper something into my ear but right as he breathed in something caught his eye and he looked frightened. I turned and saw that he found a bundle of yarn, with one end running under the sheets between me and the wall. He leaned in, followed it and saw it leading to the back door. He threw it open, took out a small flashlight and without looking back, grabbed my hand. I grabbed my mask with my free hand and ran with him into the darkness.
He closed the door behind up and as we walked down a slopped floor I could feel my nerves tighten, the only light source off in the distance and from his tiny flashlight, which was aimed at the floor following the red yarn trail. He pulled me close to him, pulled his arm up into a crook and twined it with mine, pressing my entire right side into his left. We walked in sync as if in some deranged three legged race. His breath started coming in rasps, as his nerves increased with my own. As we walked deeper and deeper into the basement the light in the distance grew. I started to panic.
I knew we were about to find something and it wouldn’t be very nice. The ambient noise was so slight but I sensed something that felt foreboding, some deep undertone only my nerves could perceive. As we walked I tilted my head up and around, trying to delay the inevitable. There was almost no light in the part of the room we left behind. I could make out the concrete ceiling, I couldn’t even guess how far below ground we were.
We slowly crept up on a large body of an animal lying on the ground. It was dead. The legs were splayed at an angle just slightly off and its tongue lolled out of it’s mouth. It was a large white mare and she was dead.
When we were up close to the mare I could feel my guide tremble, lose some of his balance and I crumbled with him. We didn’t fall to the ground, we leaned into one another as we took in the sight before us. As his flashlight scanned the body I heard an omninous voice sound through the basement.
“He will take you buy the hand into the darkness.”
It repeated, a voice I had heard earlier that night, directing others in scenes on the sound stages.
We back up together before he turned us back in the direction we came. My eyes had adjusted to the faint light of the room. I could make out more details in the concrete, noting the textured patterns on the ceiling, trying to take in every detail I could of the room, noting its enormity. The room must take up the entirety of the warehouse’s basement. I took a second and this is where the play and reality clashed clanged in my head and really started to warp.
How had I not encountered another audience member down here? Was this entire room only for me and a possible scant few others to discover via the fool? How and why did he choose me?
We got back to the doorway and he put my back to the wall, held my hands and said “everything is going to be alright, don’t be scared.” He squeezed my hands then took my mask from my right hand and placed it back over my face and opened the door. I didn’t even know if it was even the door we came through at the start of this journey. He gave me a knowing look then gently pushed me through the doorway, slamming it shut behind me.
Then came The Executive.
I can’t reveal much about this one without spoilers so I’ll be brief. What intrigued me and what happened between me and the Executive was intimate but on display. There were no private rooms until the end and he guided me, at first by gesture, then by hand, and by an arm over my shoulders through the entire tale end of the show.
He spoke to me as if I was the whole audience, thousands of people and a camera lens wrapped into one entity.
“You come into the darkness to find the light, right?”
” You expect everything, and I will give it to you. Love, hate, rage, destruction, death!”
He spoke these words to me and I could only look at him and follow along as he guided me from location to location.
We witnessed a murder, he handed me a rose, told me to throw it out towards the blood soaked killed. “BRAVO!” he yelled before guiding me to the final scene. “Wait here, I’ll be back for you.” I crouched down and took a seat on the stage’s steps, planted front row center.
After what I thought was curtain, I stayed in my spot, standing and looking around, wondering if he would actually come back for me as I saw my fellow audience members exit for the bar. The play was over.
But he came back for me. He smiled, took my hand and guided me along through the stream of spectators, past the bar and over to a door under a psychic’s advert. He closed the door and gestured for me to take a seat. There were tarot cards on the table and only 2 small lamps lit the room in dim mood lighting.
He sat on an ottoman in front of me and removed me mask and smiled. He placed it on the table by the cards, leaned in and whispered, “You were perfect,” then kissed me on the cheek.
He stood, and backed slowly towards the door, smiling the whole way. I saw him move through the door and start to close it. I picked up the Tarot cards, flipping through them and looked up. He was looking at me through the door. I stared back, and he quickly slammed it shut.
No single experience with a Punchdrunk play is ever the same. Take my words as you will, but this experience was mine and it still haunts me.
In its beauty, uniqueness, and intimacy.
Jax is a digital video and documentary producer living in the heartland. You can follow her highjinks @Jtoddles