I saw Surrender last night, a new show by International Wow Company. I had heard good things about it, of all places, on 2600's Off the Hook hacker radio show/podcast, and decided to check it out.

The show is advertised as "A simulated war deployment experience in three acts". The website explains:

Here's what happens. When you arrive at the theater we issue you a standard military uniform. ACT 1: You train in basic combat techniques with Jason Christopher Hartley: a crash course in rifle handling, room clearing and engaging the enemy. ACT 2: You are deployed: you enter a multi-room installation to put your military training to the test. ACT 3: You fly home to experience a soldier's reintegration into society. International WOW Company's whirlwind hallucination of homecoming directed by Josh Fox.

I hate getting yelled at and I've never been much good at blindly taking orders, so I payed an extra $5 to be an "observer". One of the first things they yell at the participants is "your recruiter lied to you", so I kept waiting for us to be thrown into the fray somehow but, fortunately, we weren't.

The first part was pretty interesting to watch, especially from a sort of Stanley Milgram perspective, to see how people embraced the training, and how they reacted. I swear it seemed like more than half the participants were off-duty actors (in the end, it is downtown NYC theatre), and I only saw one woman bail out. The rest seemed very serious as they trained to clear a room:

I thought the (on-duty) actors did a tremendous job, never breaking character from the time you come in the door, and really effectively working the participants. Ironically, the only one who even acknowledged our observer group was Hartley, the real soldier, who asked if we had any questions. He seems like a pretty interesting guy: was brought up Mormon, ended up here in NYC, joined the National Guard, got in trouble while deployed for publishing a blog, and eventually wrote a book, Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq that got him been profiled on Fresh Air and on Gothamist. He was so good that I actually didn't realize it was him--I thought it was an actor playing his role--or I certainly would have had some questions.

At the end of the training, which took probably an hour and a half, they started in on excercises. Since it was pitched as a training exercise, it was believable that the set was not particularly realistic, and observers could watch from the outside:

At this point, I was regretting not being a participant, and the end of this segment was "intermission", where the cast and participants put their guns down and mingled around as if they were in Kuwait on their way home. This was fascinating to watch, especially to see the bonding (facilitated by the actors, of course) the participants experienced even after having run around with plastic guns for an hour. The creative team handled the transition onto the "plane" very well, but, sadly, this is where the whole show took a turn for the worse. 

This last segment represented the soldiers' "return home", and the script and the acting here was excellent. Unfortunately, though, the actors broke character here to participate in the "whirlwind hallucinations" that were done so heavy-handedly that they completely ruined the otherwise excellent show for me. For example, talented actors did one whole scene, I guess representing a soldier's descent into insanity, in furry costumes. And I mean furry like a big tiger, blue shark, etc. (they should have spent the money they blew on those costumes on a better sound system). I've done a ton of shows myself where a scene like this would be totally appropriate and maybe even powerful, but here it was just painful to watch, which was tragic because the scenes, although a bit cliche, were actually pretty compelling. In my experience, references to horrific past events are far more effectively done quietly and subtly, and with good lighting and sound. Here, instead, we're just loudly bludgeoned over the head (and nose--they actually grilled beef onstage in a scene that really needed the magical help of someone like Teller), and the result wasn't horrific, or even troubling: it was just distracting, and frankly, embarrassing to watch. I would have left if the stage wasn't between me and the door.

The shows I love the most have a very weak fourth wall, or none at all, and one of the reasons that I went to see this show was that I had heard on Off the Hook that the creators were playing around with the audience/performer line, enabled by some clever usage of technology: selected participants who had completed the training and "died" or were "wounded" were called to the stage and acted out scenes with a hand held mic with their lines tele-prompted to them on a monitor. This is a very clever idea, and some of the participants did surprisingly good jobs, and these could have been powerful scenes, if not ruined, once again, by the over-the-top treatment. For example, a male participant was called to the stage and was reading his lines while facing the audience, while a topless woman appears behind him. In any other show, this could have been a powerful or even hilharious moment, since the audience member is put in an uncomfortable position but doesn't yet know it. In fact, the audience started laughing, as did the participant when he discovered what was happening. But, sadly, this just led to another awkward moment where the laughter was completely inappropriate, since the scene was about the returning soldier's relationship problems with the woman. And this led, of course, the obligatory Abu Ghraib re-enactment, with more gratuitous nudity.

And so, sadly, I can't recommend seeing this show, but I'm glad I saw it because I'm always interested in the use of technology to enable interaction with audiences (I kind of wrote a book about it), and I'm also fascinated by what audiences are willing to do, and how much they often want to be "on stage", whether at a magic show or a "simulated war deployment." And the creators' clever usage of tele-prompting random audience members is a great idea that will surely be used to better effect in the future. To me, it's a great example of how a very simple technology can leverage audience interaction, giving great results even without a rare genius like David Shiner onstage.