On a rainy Friday evening, I walked into the lobby of a Manhattan apartment and was cheerfully checked against “the list” of guests to be admitted to the party. Once upstairs, I was handed blue, disposable booties to protect the floor from my wet shoes, ushered through the door, and then immediately plied with hors d’oeuvres. Finding a cozy corner in the swanky living room, I took on my usual party role of awkard-but-occasionally-clever-wall-flower. I chatted with well-dressed men and bubbly women, people-watching as introductions were made and the living room’s population grew to a small crowd.
Why am I describing a party I attended last Friday? Because this party was, in fact, an immersive theatre performance presented by This Is Not A Theatre Company. Many of the so-called guests were, in fact, members of the company who very convincingly cast doubt as to whether or not they were just there to see the show. Versailles 2015 is a meditation upon privilege, with scenes playing out in the close confines of a small kitchen, bedroom, bathroom–not to mention the specially commissioned dance performance created and performed by Jonathan Matthews within the confines of a bathtub.
Yes, you read that correctly.
Dressed in black slacks and a button-down, a knit vest thrown on top, Matthews moved with characteristic wackiness and sure technique, though the latter was explicity demonstrated only rarely. This seemed to be less a response to the challenges created by the potentially hazardous space and more a decision to look outside of any classical lexicon for material to fit the themes of the evening. Much like the actors’ monologues and dialogue that I encountered later in the evening, there is something exceptionally self-indulgent yet accusatory in the performance.
As I entered the cramped bathroom with three other party-goers, door shut firmly behind us, Matthews was already moving to the rap music blaring through a shower-safe speaker. His song choices, it should be noted, are eclectic in the extreme, firmly placing the work in the age of the playlist. The bathtub was decorated with rubber ducks, and Matthews found ever more inventive ways to arrange and rearrange them, once playacting a conversation between a pair, another time going nose to nose with one on the faucet. Here was perhaps where his musicality was most fascinating, maintaining an internal rhythm that would unexpectedly come perfectly into sync with the driving bass before slipping away once more.
A sudden grand plié in second, back to the viewers standing but two feet away, interrupted this manic redistribution. This moment of comparative calm gave the viewer a moment to breathe, as well as appreciate Matthews’ exceptional physical control as he steadily rose to relevé on beautifully arched feet before dropping his heels and crashing back into the beat.
Rubber ducks were not the only site-specific element utilized. Matthews swung himself in and out of the tub using a portable speaker, while at other times treating the handrail as his inanimate partner. At one memorable moment he throws his weight wholly off-center, relying on the handrail to keep him on his feet as he executes a devéloppé side and articulates through a flexed foot. At other points he twists himself around so much that his own grip on the handrail leads him into a chokehold created by his own arm.
When viewed as the centerpiece of Versailles 2015, Matthews’ work serves as the visual touchstone for the evening. A snippet of dialogue in the living room about the luxury of having a desk job and exercising in one’s free time immediately brought to mind Matthews’ insertion of a handful of yoga poses, playfully intense, throughout his bathtub dance. In a clever bit of staging, a character monologuing into the mirror the merits of her own vapidity as she carefully reapplies her makeup; this brought to mind Matthews’ purposeful ignorance of his reflection in the midst of an undeniably self-reverential piece of dance.
I hesitate to say much more about the performance as a whole, as part of the delight of the evening was, for me, the element of not being entirely sure what I had gotten myself into, but I will say this much: Versailles 2015 made me think. It blurred the lines between audience and performer, ignored entirely the idea of a fourth wall, and managed to fit in some wonderfully crafted dialogue without (for the most part) losing its connection to reality. And, of course, it gave me a chance to see Jonathan Matthews, with all of the thoughtful wackiness and deliberately unstudied technique that I am coming to view as his signature, dance in a bathtub.
No, I won’t be getting over that bit any time soon.
Photos by June Xie. Courtesy This Is Not A Theatre Company.