The Curiosity Experiment is a mixture of live action frights and fictional horrors. A group of actors fill a store, some portraying believably real characters such as Butlers, dinner party hosts and a travelling antiques salesman, others filling the audience’s ears and senses as the ghosts of a horrific murder mystery. The concept of Charles Doyle (Michael J Lawless), an antiques salesman, conducting an experiment on audience members standing in as dinner guests fit well into the festival’s unconventional foundation. Further the Ecclectica store’s merchandise and crimson red walls set up an effortless aesthetic that was enhanced by Nigel Munroe Wallis’ elegant costume design and the simplistic yet effective dining table laced with drinks, costume items and seats for the audience to congregate at. The production, however, was essentially an effective and engaging ghost story localised within a problematic and underdeveloped experiment.
From the moment the production begins there is an evident blurring of timelines and an overlapping of stories, myths and interactions. At the forefront is a Butler (Brad Phillips) who guides the audience members and steps in and out of the action to narrate or provide details he deems to be important. It seemed as though we began in the year 1965, then jumped back two years earlier to the “urban legend” of the Delemere family’s dinner party. As if the unsettling nature of the interactive performance set in another era wasn’t enough, we were then introduced to a travelling antiques salesman who conducted an experiment on the friends and family at the party, and therefore would use the current audience members to do so once again. All of these timelines and overlapping stories and plot lines were captivating, however they were executed in a way that caused initial confusion and required focus on catching up, instead of dedicating one’s attention to the action as it unfolded.
The antiques salesman himself was appropriately dressed, eccentrically spoken and adequately characterised, albeit a few awkwardly adlibbed phrases and stumbled line deliveries. Despite Lawless’ best efforts at a character with charisma, mannerisms and a physical disability, the script’s clunky nature was evidently unavoidable. His dialogue combined a pompous introduction of himself and his work that focused more on making the audience uncomfortable than informing them of the experiment to come. When the experiment was finally introduced it became clear that we were to put on our blindfolds and engage with a “story” of sorts that had something to do with the specific props that Mr. Doyle placed on the table. The audience would have benefited, however, from more information on how a few creepy dolls and a ring represented “every antique or curiosity which has been intimately associated with a human emotion” as the show’s description introduced. Further, an exploration of the specifics of what it was we were doing when we put on our blindfolds to be exposed to a very personal and detailed murder mystery told from the ghost herself. It was mentioned that we would enter a “dreamlike state” which was graspable, yet we were left to enter this state with a lot of confusion that was never resolved. The production should have left its audience in the dark solely through the use of blindfolds instead of extending it into the show’s general setup. Overall, further information around the specifics of the experiment was needed to truly engage with the work’s concept.
To make matters worse, Brad Phillips’ portrayal of the Butler, who was to be our guide through timelines, stories and character interactions, was inexcusably under rehearsed. His lines were delivered inconsistently, dancing from one accent to another in a single sentence, often stumbling in an uncomfortable introduction to the overall show. When Lawless and Phillips shared the stage, the two actors began to come into their characters and present a flow and chemistry in narration delivery. This section was a positive amongst otherwise regrettable casting where a Butler did little to help us through the loaded content and ambiguous concepts.
The “dreamlike state” and experiment experience itself however, was an excellent example of writer Nathan Thomas Shulz’s talent, actress Tahlia Jade’s strength and an effective immersive theatre experience. As the audience reluctantly put on their blindfold’s they were introduced to the powerful Ella (Jade) and her captivating story of murder, mystery and anguish. As Ella invited us into her story, her detailed perspective, and her personal motivations. Jade told her story with flair, vulnerability and a New York accent that was flawless. The ghost story combined monologue, interactions with other characters within the story, and audience interaction that created shivers up the spine and jumps at clever twists. The ghost story did come with a few small issues such as muffled deliveries from actors offstage, making it hard to follow the secondary characters at times. Jade’s performance, however, made these issues forgettable through her fierce delivery and hypnotic engagement with her audience.
The Curiosity Experiment is a mixed pot of strengths and weaknesses in concept, execution and performance. The production presents a powerful immersive ghost story and an ambiguous and underdeveloped experiment all housed within a dinner party from a Butler’s past. With so many concepts, story lines and character interactions an audience member can feel both engaged and lost (with or without a blindfold). This company shows potential and with further development and exploration, the production could be truly harrowing.
– Written by Rhumer Diball May 6th 2015
THE CURIOSITY EXPERIMENT PRESENTED BY ANYWHERE FESTIVAL.
THURS 5 – SAT 21st MAY 2016.
Originally Published for Anywhere Festival.