Under the brown fog of a winter dawn
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
-T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”
I’m being led down the cracked streets of Hollywood by a brightly dressed woman with a megaphone. She’s giving me a list of rules. A lot of rules. Apparently, I’m about to become a brand-new resident of Unreal City, and I need to be prepared before I take my first steps into my new home.
Before I begin, though, she tells us we’re entering a futuristic, apocalyptic landscape, a place bereft of trust and individuality, where feelings are forbidden and dangerous. In an effort to protect what’s left of “civilized” culture, The Rose Queen has tamped down a revolution of those who, like me, don’t want to walk numb through their lives. But there’s a new resistance bubbling underneath the darkened city, and maybe, just maybe, we can help bring it back into the light.
2cents Theatre Group’s Unreal City, which premiered at this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, takes audience members on a long and twisted journey through a sort of augmented-reality version of Los Angeles; using the familiar landscape as a backdrop for a post-modern world designed and directed by perhaps one of the finest works of poetry ever-written, T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” It’s ambitious, it’s well-timed, it’s beautiful in parts and, despite its best efforts, unavoidably flawed in others. Yet it never wavers from its intention: to make the text of “The Wasteland” come physically alive.
There’s a line in Eliot’s famous “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” that ends with the line “Til’ human voices wake us and we drown.” It’s one of his most quoted lines, even making an appearance in Unreal City, and it says something interesting about the framework of the play itself: The idea of “human voices,” using the actual voice of an actor, in real time, to perform Eliot’s words to an audience, is what really works about Unreal City. It’s a way of adding a human element to what’s historically been Eliot’s words on a page; hearing “The Wasteland” spoken to you allows the poems themes to resonate more fully within its audience. Furthermore, the ambition of not only tackling such difficult prose, but transitioning audience members from character to character as they each continuously quote the source material, is commendable.
And yet, despite the impressive undertaking of the show itself, the audience experience is not a perfect one. Some story tracks led to intimate encounters in alleyways and whimsically decorated tents, and some to confusing stairwells and overheated rooms; this leads to a lack of consistency in the narrative we were meant to follow, as laid out in a fifteen minute info dump by our megaphone-carrying guide at the start of the play, that becomes difficult to follow at best, and completely obscured at worst.
Within the aforementioned vast set of guidelines laid out was the insistence that we, as the audience, had a unique sense of autonomy; we could choose an initial guide to follow, converse with “citizens” of Unreal City as we chose, and explore as we wished. To be fair, I later encountered several audience members who abandoned a track and stumbled into another but, at least in my experience, the point at which it was possible to do so was either unclear or non-existent. Perhaps this is one of the downfalls of spreading the piece out over Los Angeles in this way; as you chase after one narrator it becomes nearly impossible to seek out, let alone follow another.
As far as the plot is concerned, I venture to say that Unreal City did itself a disservice by framing one in the first place. The audience is led to believe that they are undertaking a mission to join in the rebellion against the Rose Queen, that we are to seek out the loyal citizens of Unreal City and join them in the fight to overthrow her reign and restore emotion to the masses. That plot, such as it were, becomes muddied and lost in the frenetic presentation of the narrative. In the final moments of the play, I found myself unsure of what I was meant to do, requiring a nudge from a performer to understand what came next and despite the assistance, was still not clear as to how our actions led to the completion of the story.
Unreal City, despite its many flaws, is a beautiful idea. It’s a conceptual, artistic piece that will still appeal in many ways to poetry and theatre fans alike. 2Cents Theatre Group has gathered a group of dedicated actors that demonstrate great control and understanding of Eliot’s work; no one appeared to merely recite lines, they dialogued with the prose. Any failure to connect that Unreal City suffers from is due to the play attempting to be far too many things at once. Eliot was a complex poet; layering his complexity within an equally complex theatrical structure that spreads across several city blocks is an attempted triumph of execution that is bound to encounter some shortcomings. To quote “The Wasteland” again:
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting
Unreal City is the start of what, with the right execution, can be a new artistic future for immersive theatre. Our eyes are turned up towards the light ahead, towards productions like this one that attempt to break the “rules” of the medium. All that’s left to do is wait for the next wave to come.