by Ron Cohen · December 7, 2015
In a program note for its production of The Tower, AntiMatter Collective, a Brooklyn-based theater company, lays out its mission in grandly provocative terms. It’s dedicated, we’re told, to “the creation of unflinching new work that confronts the chasm between the transient and the permanent, the hysterical and the horrific, the squalid and the transcendent.”
I can’t say with certainty that The Tower, written by company co-founder Adam Scott Mazer and directed by Philip Gates, meets all of those aims. Those are pretty abstract goals, after all. But I can say that the show is an ambitious, sensational and consistently surprising piece of immersive theater. Subtitled “The Psychedelic Tragedy of the Donner Party,” it tells the story of a group of families who in 1846 set out from Missouri in a wagon train for California. Through a series of mishaps, they were stranded through a long winter by horrendous snowstorms in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Only some 48 souls out of the 87 members of the wagon train survived, and that survival for some of them, history and legend has it, came through eating of the dead.
At the show’s start, the audience gathers in a small room around an affable, somewhat jovial park ranger guide (Joe Petersen) for the Donner State Memorial Park. He fills us in on some historical factoids, as he leads us into the large playing space, surrounded by backdrops of foreboding forests and grim-looking skies. We have a choice of seating around various benches placed around this wilderness. (You’ll probably have to change positions at various times to accommodate the staging.)
Things start out with a bang, as one of the pioneers, William Eddy (Karsten Otto), on the hunt for food, shoots a bear. The animal itself is played at first by a projection and then transforms into a gigantic and truly scary puppet. And the tension and theatricality of the piece pretty much continue at the same relentlessly breathtaking pace for the next two intermission-less hours.
Mazer’s narrative splits its focus between a rescue party and those left behind at the camp called Donner Lake. It also makes forays into the future, the past and the fantastical, as it looks for metaphysical meaning and the historic significance in the misadventures of these unfortunate pioneers. The scenario consists of chapters, which bear titles suggestive of tarot cards, as does the play’s overall title.
It’s a heady, complex brew, but there are intimate passages that arrestingly portray the minutia of daily life under the harshest of conditions. Each and every member of the terrific ten-person cast -- garbed in Summer Lee Jack’s period-evoking costumes -- captures both the look and essence of hardy people unmoored by nature and their own inclinations. I really got caught up in their plight, their courage and their desperation, whether they were the young people (played by Elizabeth Bays and Curry Whitmire) left behind at camp under the watchful maternal eye of Mrs. Donner (Courtney Fenwick) or those struggling on the rescue attempt (Leah Walsh, Marlowe Holden, Craig Mungavin and Otto), accompanied by a native American guide (Rebecca Hirota).
Also crucial to the story is the sinister outsider figure of Lewis Kresberg (Rudi Utter), and the storytelling itself gets pretty graphic. The creative team, you should be warned, includes a “gore effects designer.” But there is also great video, lighting, scenic, sound and projection design (the projected snow falls almost endlessly and the wind keeps howling), all of it contributing to this powerful multi-layered exploration of a stomach-churning but still inspiring episode in American history.
Before the show I attended, the first preview, playwright Mazer and director Gates came out to the lobby to alert the audience that there might be some technical glitches yet to work out. But as far as I could tell, things went off without a hitch, splendidly so, in fact. My congratulations and admiration to you, Mazer and Gates, and your whole team. Please forgive me, though, that I didn’t feel like partaking of the hot dogs that were offered the audience during the Fourth of July picnic scene that closes the show.