There was a moment near the beginning of "Strata," Bricolage Theater's immersive theater production, when I was worried. I had been led alongside my "levelworks partner" into a dark office filled with mounds of unfiled paper and a squeaky hunched-over woman who wanted to know the capital of Paraguay.
My partner surprised the woman by answering correctly. I was stumped. Soon the woman -- named Freddy, like every other agent in the sterile dreamscape -- produced a large file that she said contained my worrisome history. I would have to leave.
As she escorted me out toward the maze of "refitnessing" rooms I'd visit along the rest of my journey, she whispered a word of caution in my ear: "Not every door should be opened."
Her words, like much of the "Strata" experience, seemed designed to mess with my head. This time, they worked. Her whisper threw me back on the doors I had opened on my way to the secret Downtown performance space that evening and gave me pause as I considered the doors that might lie ahead. I was pulled into the sort of fantastical world that one craves out of theater, this one made richer and more intimate by its demand that I supply part of the story.
But most of the remaining doors failed to excite that same nervous curiosity and left me craving a performance coherent or responsive enough to keep me in the fantasy world "Strata" aimed to build. "Strata" startled and occasionally provoked but rarely coalesced into a drama with enough urgency to pull its audience more than halfheartedly into its bizarre universe of treatments and tests.
The three-story space, where a small group of participants traveled mostly individually through interactive scenes, paid homage to a culture of commodified self-improvement. In one room, a gym teacher barked callous orders at a group of subservient exercisers. In another, a doctor interrogated me about symptoms of an unnamed condition. Elsewhere, a man claiming to be perfect pedaled endlessly on an exercise cycle and noise-cancelling headphones delivered wisdom on the virtues of unattached self-awareness.
Tests administered early in the two-hour experience put participants in touch with their supposed deficits. Mock diagnoses delivered throughout the performance perpetuated that feeling. But the actors mostly failed to create an experience as responsive to audience feedback as it purported to be. Preshow surveys instructing participants not to look at birds and asking for their theme songs never reappeared during the performance.
When I described my jumping jacks to the gym teacher as "lackluster," she poked fun at me for using an "SAT word." At the end of the session, she sent me to a peep show (mature audiences only) because she said I needed to work out my mind as well as my body. If "Strata" was trying to craft a story, I was missing the connections.
Of course, that may have been the point. In the world of "Strata," our obsession with self-discovery is played out amid a grab bag of self-help products. What they advertise is not consciousness, but "iConsciousness." "Strata" pokes fun at the culture of sponsored self-help while raising the possibility that fragmentation -- and performance -- can be part of the answer.
The scenes that energized and transported the audience were those in which performers reached out a hand -- as a delicate actress did in a final, dark room -- and left participants with the choice of whether to take it. But in the absence of that urgency, "Strata" left participants grasping for a purpose the show didn't seem prepared to define.
Benjamin Mueller: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-4903