“The experience starts when you purchase your tickets. You are in the experience now. As we only take 10 people every half hour we rely on time to keep the flow. Arriving early or late at the secret location can disrupt levelworks readiness. Look out for the special e-mail that you will receive tomorrow. It will give you all the important information you'll need, including your five basic survival tips. We look forward to serving you in your Refitnessing needs.”
“Refitnessing needs”? “Survival tips”? “Levelworks readiness”? As you see, this is either some pompous cult scam or a parody thereof. Fortunately, unless I’m missing some deeper level of iConsciousness (another word they like), it's the latter, an elaborate, more than life-sized travesty of a consciousness raising-mental therapy-goofball experience, with all its pseudo seriousness.
It’s fun, a very entertaining hour and a half wherein a large company of 20-some actors, with technical support to match, create an imaginative playground, or, if you prefer, rabbit hole. It's backed by a dozen writers-directors, who’ve worked for a year. The producer is Bricolage, using in-kind donations from much of the Pittsburgh arts community, to create what they call an “immersive urban adventure.”
That label will do as well as any other. After meeting your contact on a designated Downtown street corner, you enter down a back alley and are processed by an attractive, no-nonsense functionary. You fill out a form, sort of. You meet a file clerk straight out of Lewis Carroll. I remember an eccentric elevator operator. If you listen carefully, you’ll realize nothing makes much sense, but maybe you aren’t listening well enough.
Somewhere in there you’re separated from whomever you entered with and proceed from one room to another and floor to floor, taking a solo path created by the numbers you’re given, conducted with crisp efficiency from this one-on-one experience to that -- sensual, irrational, lightly physical, titillating, funny, confusing and more.
Everywhere you go, the attendants speak to you with unnerving familiarity. I was chastised for trying to take notes. They’re good.
It’s something like a dream. It’s also reminiscent of the wonderful Teatro de los Sentidos from Barcelona, brought here four years ago by the International Festival of Firsts. They sent us through a dusty bookshop into a cross between some not-so-Grimm middle European fairy tale and sensory therapy. “Strata” is somewhat cheerier than that, more American, with more pseudo-efficient bustle and a touch of “Brave New World.”
Eventually you climb a long glowing staircase (I thought I was being reborn) and emerge – surprise! – into a lounge, to share a drink (on the house) and mingle with other survivors and, if you’re lucky, some of the operatives, looking now not quite so commanding or glamorous, just friendly.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
But I can’t wait to go back and I hope the unseen powers that chart each course will give me an interesting variant and maybe also a few of those I encountered before – say, the file clerk and the master sergeant on the basketball court. And what about the girl with the golden hair? -- I didn’t hear a word she said the first time through.
Did I emerge refitnessed? Was my iConsciousness polished? You’ll have to ask those who’ve noticed that extra bounce in my step . . . .
-- Chris Rawson