Auto Da Fe
By Masataka Matsuda; Directed by Josh Fox
Off-Off-Broadway, Play; Runs through 1.24.10
Venue: Barauch Performing Arts Space, 24th Street at Lexington Avenue
by Julie Feltman on 1/16/10
BOTTOM LINE: If you can't appreciate conceptual, avant-garde theater, then Auto Da Fe is not for you. But if you are willing to suspend your expectations of storytelling, and follow the play like you would track a dream, this play will move you.
Walking into Auto Da Fe at the Barauch Performing Arts Space is like going to a haunted house. Everyone waits in the lobby until exactly 8 o'clock, at which time the ushers open the doors and take audience members in small groups to seat them. When it comes time for my group to step in, we're greeted by billowing smoke, high pitched screams, indistinguishable voices, ladders, tarps, flowing sheets, and a cast of 28 frantically running and jumping all over the stage. It's really cool. It's really confusing. I don't completely understand what's going on. These feeling don't change for me throughout the rest of the play.
I'm not going to gloss it up for you, this play is abstract and confusing, but not in an un-enjoyable way. Here's more or less what I got out of it. At some point in the future, a soldier named Odysseus A comes to his homeland after years of fighting, but the place is now unrecognizable and filled with identical townspeople who only understand sex and violence. The story digresses like a collective dream – memories from the ensemble recalling before, during, and after a bomb hit. The memories and history somewhat reflect the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which is what Japanese writer Masatake Matsuda was clearly inspired by, and based his script on (more or less).
I don't mean to be so vague, but it is vague. While watching it I kept trying to understand how one scene relates to the other, what the characters were trying to say, even just what the point was, but there aren't clear answers. At times that was frustrating. I'm used to American linear storytelling, clear and strong and somewhat predictable. Auto Da Fe moves like a dream would move; it unabashedly jumps from memory to memory, and focuses on mundane details that only seem important when you are dreaming. And once I let go of trying to figure "it" out, and just watched what was happening right in front of me, it was awesome. Auto Da Fe is emotional and unusual. Small scenes talking about clay cats left on empty windowsills leave you with an impression of war, violence, sadness, and faith without ever mentioning those words. It flung my emotions all over the place; one moment I felt ill, then unusually elated, then awkward. The intimate setting allows the actors make eye contact with the audience members, which changes they way each person watching it feels about the play. It's cool if you're into that kinda stuff. If you're more of a Thoroughly Modern Millie person… um… not for you.
The highlight of the show for me was the sound design by Julian Mesri. If you are a design junkie, go see this show simply for his brilliant and emotional sound scape. You also have to give this ensemble some serious props. Their movement and the story they're telling is so emotionally erratic and physical, it must be exhausting.
Overall, Auto Da Fe is dreamlike in every sense; obscure, obtuse, focuses on unusual details and unapologetically jumps from scene to scene. It's important to know what you're walking into to appreciate it, because I spent the first hour trying to wrap my head around a plot which didn't exist, which was frustratingly pointless. For the theatergoer who just wants to be told a story and not think too hard, this is maybe not your play. Totally understandable, cause it's not always my thing either. But if you want to see something totally different and daring compared to the rest of the theater scene in New York, go see Auto Da Fe.
(Auto De Fe plays at Baurach Preforming Arts Space, 24th Street and Lexington, through January 24th. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm. Additional performance on January 19th at 8pm. Tickets are $15. For tickets call 646.312.4085 online at ovationtix.com.)