Nightmare Theatre

A gray-haired woman held on to her male companion as she emerged from Dream Theatre Saturday night, shaking from head to toe. Also escorting her was Anna Weiler Menekseoglu, a company member who directed a portion of the play and worked the box office that night. “We were with you; we were holding your hand the whole time,” Anna assured her with a warm smile, touching her shoulder. But the woman remained shaky as she continued west along 18th Street, crossing paths with the next crop of audience members, excitedly approaching.

The gray-haired woman had just played the lead role in Dream Theatre’s Halloween-inspired production, “Audience Annihilated: Women Only Train”–a powerful and surreal theatrical experience that’s part psychological thriller, part horror film, and part haunted house. The 15- to 20-minute show was performed five times a night for the ten nights leading up to Halloween, each cycle welcoming an audience of four people at maximum. One to three “observers” sat in seats as they would at any show, and one chosen audience member participated in the play itself. As a result, for the gray-haired woman, the show took on an element of virtual reality–she experienced the play from the perspective of the protagonist, a  kidnapped American student in a nightmarish and unidentified foreign country. “What scared me the most? Those weren’t just play-knives,” the woman said when I asked her. “Everything was real.”

A few years ago, Jeremy Menekseoglu, Dream Theatre’s artistic director, found inspiration in certain dark stories in movies and in the news–the world of Tanzanian prostitution depicted in the documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare,” accounts of kidnappings of American students abroad, and tales of women in danger on public transportation. He started to write a more traditional play, but did not like the result. “It began to read more like ‘Hostel’ than a play,” he says. A self-proclaimed haunted house junkie, Menekseoglu realized “almost by accident” that he could transform the stilted play into an effective hybrid inspired by his company’s mission–to “shatter the barrier between actor and audience”.

In addition to breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the crowd, many of Dream Theater’s original plays assign audience members peripheral roles, referring to them as they would to characters onstage. “What would happen if we took our philosophy and amped it up as far as we could go?” Menekseoglu recalls asking himself. What would happen, he wondered, if they gave an audience member “a character that is not a sub-character, but actually the lead role in the show”? “The play was designed for one person to see it,” he says, referring to the spectator/participant. “There’s a loneliness in it, a sense of freedom, that you don’t usually get from a play.”

The resulting show starts the moment you enter the lobby. The darkened room contains a crude wooden shelter framing an inscrutable, hunched figure in rags playing with a metal object that, in the eerie lighting, looks more like a weapon than a mere ticket puncher. Loud sounds of passing trains and strong winds mingle with the figure’s grunts and heavy breathing, producing an almost-silence and an almost-stillness that darkly foreshadow the ride to come. These moments before the play began were perhaps the scariest of the show.

That lobby is “the falling asleep phase,” says Menekseoglu. “And the play itself becomes the dream.” When the bedraggled figure finally speaks, he sets the scene: “Beautiful American girl,” he croons, “Where are you going, so late at night, all alone?”

The members of the observation gallery enter the theater and the lead steps onto the train. From there, things move quickly–Menekseoglu’s character has kidnapped the lead, mistaking her for a nurse, in the hopes that she’ll cure the diseased prostitute he is harboring, played by Mishelle Apalategui, a company member.

“We’ve gotten people in the lead role to physically and emotionally care for some of the characters,” says Apalategui, describing one lead who actually got on the floor and tried to help her. “We wanted to take the kitsch out of being scared. It’s easy to scare someone–make a scary noise, pull out some fake blood–but we can do that and make them feel at the same time. It’s about both adrenaline and emotion.” She crawls on the floor, crying out for help from the student, and even the gallery is repulsed, appalled, and moved.

All of a sudden, triumphant music blasted from the speakers: the lights came on, the blood turned to makeup, the sick girl smiled, and the woman playing the lead role, still gripping the bench tightly, was no longer alone. Menekseoglu wiped his forehead and reached out to her–“Take a bow!”