Crime and Punishment Raises Questions of Influence and Affinity at the Minnesota Fringe Festival

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Wearing my mask for Live Action Theatre's "Crime and Punishment" at the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Wearing my mask for Live Action Theatre’s “Crime and Punishment” at the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Live Action Set’s Crime and Punishment follows a format remarkably reminiscent of that in Sleep No More, an immersive theater experience in New York City co-produced by Emursive and Punchdrunk.  Though Crime and Punishment does not address the same themes as Sleep No More, it does appear to proceed along the same creative train of thought.

The first thing I noticed was the masks.

Throughout the performance, attendees were required to wear white, plastic masks. The masks could not be removed for any reason while the performance was taking place.

If you’ve attended Sleep No More, this might sound familiar.

Early arrivals were invited to sit, listen to the house band, and enjoy drinks at one of the small, circular tables arranged in the waiting area.

Again, if you’ve attended Sleep No More, perhaps you’ve heard this before.

According to the program, Crime and Punishment “had a multitude of inspirations. One in particular was Lawrence Weiner’s typographical piece at the Walker Art Center, Bits and Pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole.  I was surprised to see that Live Action Set did not mention Sleep No More as a source of inspiration. Is the company aware of this production? Is it aware of the striking resemblance that Crime and Punishment’s format bears to Sleep No More?

Emursive and Punchdrunk are by no means the only companies presenting groundbreaking immersive theater productions. Yet, that does not mean that their works’ calling card(s) are fair game for anyone who aims to contribute to this exciting and engaging form of theater.

Perhaps someday we will all put on white, plastic masks before we attend an immersive theater performance. But, until that now-stylized format becomes commonplace, using it without acknowledging from where it came is ethically problematic.

Donning my plastic mask, I followed the crowd down the steps to the basement of northeast Minneapolis’ Soap Factory, flanked by silent attendants gesturing toward the darkness below.

Over the next hour, I played voyeur to artistic director Noah Bremer’s carnivalesque interpretations of the murder, interrogation, drug use, prostitution, vivid sexual imagery, and animal abuse that fill the pages of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel.

While the set and costumes were visually striking, they bordered on ‘haunted house.’

My general sense was that the production needed to take up more time and space; the speed with which the story unfolded muddled its clarity and there weren’t enough places to explore nor sufficiently intriguing objects to uncover.

Card 1One brilliant aspect of this production came well after I had left the Soap Factory.

I attended Crime and Punishment with a companion.

At one point, a performer handed him a card with a phone number handwritten on it and instructed him to call the number “if he liked what he saw.” My companion held on to the card.

Later, while chatting about the performance, we remembered the card and, on a whim, called the number.

After ringing a few times, there was a clicking sound and we heard a recording of a woman’s voice reminding someone to pick up our sister and her fiancé at the train station. Unsure how to proceed, we left it at that.

The next day, someone sent a text message from that same phone number. Here’s what ensued:

Screen Shot 2014-08-10 at 8.41.58 PM

This method is a clever — though perhaps impractical — way to expand immersive theater practice beyond the venue.

Assuming that this  idea is one that they generated independently, I think that Live Action Set ought to work with structural concepts of their own rather than furtively borrowing others’.

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