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“You’re supposed to be wearing your sticker,” Randy Baker playfully admonishes arriving audience members as he bounds across the set to greet and seat the 30-odd folks gathered on the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s stage for the Rorschach Theatre’s debut production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Baker, the show’s producer, asks us to affix the numbered sticker-cum-tickets to our chests. In the play’s program, we read that Rorschach promises “to address universal issues in startling, unprecedented ways…with a dose of good-natured chaos.” Does that include audience participation?
In a manner of speaking, yes. The stickers, Baker explains, strive to “prepare the audience for something a little different.” Although the audience remains seated throughout, spectators should be advised to bring their raincoats. During scenes in an ocean liner’s grimy steam room, drunken coal stokers argue and flirt perilously with violence—inches from the audience. The angry, will-driven antihero, Yank, vaults to and from every corner of the stage like an ape exploring the limits of his cage. Andrew Price, the actor who plays Yank, rains grime-infused (it’s just makeup, folks) perspiration on wincing spectators. “It’s a shock when you’re sitting in the front row and Andrew sweats directly on you,” Baker explains. “People do get wet.”
Founded by four local theater folks disappointed with the Washington theater scene’s obedient—and, by their reckoning, bored—audiences, the company aims to reinvigorate the theatergoing experience. Baker, Theater J’s production manager by day, remarks that on D.C. stages, “the rules of [audience] engagement are not what I’d like them to be.” Rorschach wants to close up the respectful distance audiences are used to.
And of the name, “Rorschach”? According to founding member Jenny McConnell, stage manager for this production, the group likes the inkblot image: “Everyone sees what they want in it, and that’s a good metaphor for theater both in terms of the audience and as the creators manipulating the material.” For The Hairy Ape, at least, audiences would be challenged to find anything but discouragement in O’Neill’s sober material.
But the actors found a brighter side. Thanks to Baker’s Theater J connections, the group rehearsed in the JCC day-care center. While the room’s vivid colors and wooden building blocks couldn’t approximate the bowels of the ocean liner, actor Price says he relished “doing dark, dark work surrounded by kiddie toys.”—Jessica Dawson