- OnStage New York Columnist
“I always had a soft spot for the criminal” – says Carlo Damore, the artistic director of the Live in Theater, the immersive interactive theatrical experience currently operating from Arlene’ s Grocery on the lower east side. We meet for the interview two blocks down from the bar at the company’s home office, where I overlap with Carlo’s previous meeting.
While politely staring at the size 11 white patent-leather shoes laying in the corner, I catch the tail end of Carlo’s interview with a new transgender actress for the “Lombardi Case 1975” show, which I saw a week before. This murder mystery has been running for 8 straight years and is available for general audiences as well as corporate events and private parties.
The other shows in the current repertoire of Live in Theater are “Fierce and Deadly 1988” set amidst Drag Ball, “Ryan Case 1973” based on a real unsolved crime in the 70s, and “The Trial of Typhoid Mary”, where the audience not only investigates crimes, but also tries the main heroine. Misfits, the marginalized, and the “scum of society” are the main characters of Carlo’s stories, the reason for which lies deep in his childhood.
“I always had a soft spot for the criminal, mostly because I grew up with con artists and criminals”. The contrast between the loving atmosphere inside the family and the chaos of phone calls, police pounding on the door, changing identities and living under different names, was very confusing for a child. But for a grown up actor and theater director, this became a great asset.
When Carlo develops the characters for his New York history inspired shows, he doesn’t need to overcome the judgment and he doesn’t moralize. He always goes right to the heart. Maybe that’s why the characters that you encounter on the streets during the “Lombardi Case 1975” are so real and layered, as opposed to being just sets of clichés normally associated with certain professions or lifestyles.
Junkie Monica, drag queen Vinnie the Mouth, and buildings supervisor Emil are figure in the murder of Christina Lombardi. The Chief Miller, with the assistance of officer O’Donnell, quickly fills us, the new police recruits, in on the details of the investigation before sending us off to the streets to talk to the suspects and witnesses.
Our randomly assembled group is provided with a map of the area, with crosses on it marking the intersections where we are supposed to meet the characters. As the scenery of the lower eastside unfolds, each person on the street suddenly looks suspicious.
I was surprised by the energetic resistance, or apathy, that we encountered in some of the characters. We had to chase some of them, while others were so talkative yet flaky that it was impossible to ask our questions about their alibi and potential motives. Yes, they are obligated by the director to give us certain hints in order for the murder mystery to work, but we had to perform miraculous ingenuity, humor them, or frighten them to get this information.
“I literally say to my actors: “You can go anywhere”, - comments Carlo on his directing method for the interactive shows. “I expect you to go to peaks and valleys, I need you to change emotion on a dime”, he continues. Carlo coaches his cast to be real and to give in to the emotions triggered by the investigation by the police recruits, which causes the performance to be largely improvised. The energy given out by the actors and the momentum of their reaction is contagious, so even the shyest members of the group get sucked in.
The finesse of the line between the play and reality feels dangerous and exciting. It brought me back to the childhood memories of playing Cowboys and Indians. And the parallel seems appropriate, since Carlo calls the 70s in New York a “Wild West”. The only thing you are not allowed to do is to touch the actors, although Carlo remembers quite a few times when the audience members got overhyped and physical.
“We actually embrace the lack of control, we embrace the audience” - Carlo laughs at my concerns about people being too active. But in fact he practices a different form of control akin to “back leading” in dance. The strong rootedness in the character, combined with improvisation based on immediate reaction, helps the actors to create a negative space between themselves and the audience into which we are pulled. Sometimes it happens on a physical level, when the actor is trying to escape the circle of investigators and we have to chase them. But mostly it happens in the constantly expanding and contracting mental space between the actor and the viewer, alternating resistance and trust.
The story is created in this pulsating space, and the story is the most important element of the show to Carlo. He says, that from the primeval times “all that we need as humans is food, water, shelter and stories”. The unconventional, non-linier structure of the narrative, and the fact that both the storyteller and the listener have to work on it, makes it only more valuable. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I promise, there will be blood.
There also will be drinks, fun with your friends at Arlene’s Grocery, and bonding with people who you never met over your investigation. The “Lombardi Case 1975” is both a fun adventure and a heart breaking social drama, fueled by excellent acting and accompanied by the beautiful scenery of real New York streets.
Next time the “Lombardi, Case 1975” will be performed for the general public is on Saturday, April 22nd. To find out more about this show and the other interactive attractions, visit http://liveintheater.com/. All of the shows are available as corporate team building events and private parties.