Immersive theater shows are metastasizing nationwide, and World War II has been American media’s favorite subject to revisit from May of 1945 through this summer’s Dunkirk. The Mad Lib of “immersive theater show about WWII” was inevitable. And it’s finally arrived, under the High Line.
Seeing You comes to us courtesy of Randy Weiner, who produces immersive theater’s reigning cash cow, the movement-driven Sleep No More; and Ryan Heffington, whose gestural, highly entertaining choreography has made him America’s leading commercial dancemaker. He’s the one who made Maddie Ziegler into Sia for multiple music videos and probably choreographed your favorite So You Think You Can Dance performances. It’s a natural pairing: Sleep No More and Heffington have for years been doing the Lord’s work of making dance more accessible and digestible, encouraging huge swaths of Americans to enjoy and appreciate an art form many still consider obscure.
The collaboration begins with twenty or so freeform minutes of expository tableaux set in Hoboken, where the town’s families are getting ready to say goodbye to their enlisted boys. The cast of fourteen, mostly young and all very nimble, are an array of archetypes: the worried mother, the eager soldier, the little sister. Some are one-dimensional tokens that serve to contrast with contemporary cultural mores: the race-baiting elder, the ostracized Japanese American, the interracial couple. Even so, Heffington’s choreography is freewheeling and playful, ably sketching individual personalities while foreshadowing the adulthood war is about to force upon the players.
As in Sleep No More, the audience is free to wander and observe; as in Sleep No More, spotlights suggest where to find the next performance; as in Sleep No More, characters will sometimes pull you into a corner for a cryptic personal interaction. But unlike in Sleep No More, there is a lot of talking, and it mostly kills the mood. (It’s difficult, though not impossible, to add talking to immersive theater — The Drowned Man, a 2013 show created by the company that originated Sleep No More, was dialogue-heavy but stayed buoyant and dreamlike.)
The set is compact and suggestive rather than transportive, but it reveals itself quickly as something of a marvel. Through clever, seamless use of rolling curtains, a modest warehouse ends up containing dozens of spaces that constantly fold in and expand on one another: As the audience watches one thing, lightning-fast stagehands assemble the next destination out of sight, finishing just in time for the actors to lead the crowd through to a new set. Hoboken becomes a nightclub, then an Army base, and later a battlefield, all the transitions executed without interrupting the action.
At times, the refusal of the space to stay put mirrors the unmooring of the characters as they cede their lives to war. But more often, the disparity between how fast an audience of a hundred can move through a cramped area and how aggressively the actors demand the pilgrimage results in a bovine sort of shuffling — less visceral combat evacuation and more airport security line.
At least, that’s how I felt being ushered into basic training, where actors put audience members through bizarre exercises and challenged us on our loyalty and values. And again, brought from that scene into a frantic set piece combining a blood drive with an excessively phallic nuclear warhead. Plot is abandoned in the chaos, and from the blood drive onward, Seeing You remains surreal, jumping between the psychedelic and the abstract. Heffington’s choreography is similarly inconsistent: In group dances, his style makes the show into a music video, which doesn’t quite gel with the period setting. It shines, though, in smaller pieces.
The loveliest is a series of duets that happen after the war has started but before anyone dies. Returning for the most part to the pairings set up in the exposition, the performers re-explore their relationships under changed situations. Lovers tumble across their beds, separated by continents. Soldiers transition from roughhousing to kissing. In a particularly poignant sequence, the show’s two women of color, Lauren Cox and Eriko Jimbo, perform a stunning dance on a rolling clothing rack, their twisting movements sometimes working in harmony, at other times rendering both the prop and their bodies inert. They are struggling, clearly, but toward or against what is not made apparent.
Moments like these, where the show stops lecturing to offer open space, are affecting — a beautiful demonstration of how nontraditional performances can bring new meaning to familiar stories. At its best, Seeing You lets us identify with the characters on our own terms, creating connections between past and present as they naturally arise. Refreshingly, it is never blindly patriotic, unlike so many stories about this war.
But like so many of those stories, it is ultimately patronizing, a morality play that repeatedly confronts the audience with clichéd demonstrations of racism, homophobia, and violence, without subverting or complicating any of them. This is the other thing mass culture loves about WWII: We get to feel better about ourselves for no longer being quite as overtly racist, homophobic, or warmongering. Like blind patriotism, that tendency is ripe for a dismantling, and immersive theater offers the tools to do it. Seeing You picks them up, but in the end, it won’t commit to tearing down any of WWII’s sacred walls.
The High Line
Starts at 450 West 14th Street
Through August 31