New Paradise Laboratories’ experimental theater production Extremely Public Displays of Privacy is innovative but somewhat taxing. Running online, on the streets of Philadelphia and in the lower depths of a top-secret Center City location, the show occurs in three distinctly different but connected acts.
All three installments in this strange and sometimes tedious adventure concern the relationship between Fess Elliot (Annie Enneking) and Beatrix Luff (embodied by Brittany Freece and given voice by Mary Tuomanen). Fess is 41 and married. She once had a music career but abandoned it when she stormed off stage during a concert in 1991. Beatrix is half Fess’ age, born the same year when Fess last performed her music in public. The two met online, which is where we meet them both in the show’s virtual first act.
Experienced entirely online through various websites as well as Twitter and Facebook, Act I does little to peak our interest for the journey that lies ahead. Located at extremely publicdisplays.com, much of the show’s site is devoted to music videos depicting Fess at various stages of her life. The videos are basically home movies with a soundtrack of her songs, and reveal little about Fess other than her love of music. Beatrix is even more mysterious. What we know about her is gleaned primarily through her website, mynightwithyou.com. A seductress with a penchant for one-night stands (with men), Beatrix’s vaguely creepy site is dominated by images of death, including a quote from Richard Thompson that reads, “Let me ride on the wall of death one more time.” The most revealing section of Act I is a phone call between the two in which Beatrix gives Fess a number of assignments to complete before Beatrix will agree to meet in a face-to-face encounter.
It is these assignments that give form to Act II, in which Fess engages in a series of public displays staged in and around Rittenhouse Square. Via a free podcast, we can walk with Fess along her route as she follows instructions issued by the domineering Beatrix. Each of the seven video vignettes features Fess exposing herself in some manner. In one she swims in the fountain at Rittenhouse Square and in another disrobes completely in a side alley. “Exposure looks great on you,” Beatrix tells Fess as she scrambles to find something to cover her naked flesh. The voyeuristic experience is more curious than interesting and some audience members may begin to wonder if following the women’s relationship is worth all the effort.
The final act takes us fully into the physical world where we finally meet Fess face-to-face. She’s handcuffed herself to a desk and the walls are covered in sheet metal. “I would have bolted otherwise,” Fess confides as she unlocks the handcuffs. She is there to play her songs for us. During the course of 70 minutes she also takes a bath, cuts a lemon and passes photos of her family among the small audience. Enneking has a terrific voice and while the folk-rock tunes are surprisingly good, our face-to-face encounter with Fess provides few answers. Is Beatrix romantically interested in Fess or just toying with her? There are suggestions that Beatrix may not even be real, but rather an expression of Fess’ unspoken desire to abandon her marriage and embrace her uninhibited, artistic self. Whatever Beatrix is or is not, she has unlocked Fess’ long dormant artistic side, and Enneking performs the songs with the passion of a woman rediscovering lost love.
Co-created by Freece and NPL artistic director Whit MacLaughlin (who directs the production), Extremely Public Displays is too cryptic for its own good. Jorge Cousineau’s video, sound and production design is impressive, but we never relate to the characters and the work fails to engage us on a visceral level. As an experimental work, however, the show raises interesting questions about identity, the future of theater and the nature of relationships in the virtual and physical world.
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