Forking paths in Submersive Productions' "Incredible Musaeum"

On a July evening in 1822, more than a thousand people gathered in Baltimore's Peale Museum to see a rare cactus bloom. They crowded around the foot-long bud as it opened, straining to glimpse its "many yellow filaments, forming a deep funnel-shaped cavity." Those who couldn't get close enough complained, leading the museum to promise "better arrangements for viewing the internal part" the next night. Examining the secret, fleshy interior of an exotic plant was among many "rational amusements" that the Peale Museum offered to a curious 19th-century public. By the light of newly-invented gas lamps, you could see prodigious animals, freakish humans, or creatures that blurred the line between the two.

The Peale, America's first purpose-built museum, was a fashionable destination that set out to shape the young republic's civic culture, instilling citizens with a love of science, exploration, and discovery. But whenever I set foot in the now-dilapidated building, I wonder about that cactus, a tropical life form dislocated in time and space, forced to blossom in a hothouse on an alien shore.

On the third floor of the Peale on a recent Wednesday night, a swirling cosmic vortex looms overhead as Francisco Benavides pivots and jerks his body in unearthly motions. He's alternately drawn in and repelled. The vortex is just a digital projection, so it's up to Benavides to decide how he feels about it. Susan Stroupe, part of the Submersive Productions directorial team, consults from the sidelines, surrounded by puppets and power tools. "Maybe it's more like a magnetic pull, and you're not resisting," she suggests.

Baltimore's Submersive Productions creates experimental, site-specific theater driven by audience participation. Their 2015 show, "The Mesmeric Revelations of Edgar Allan Poe!," used the historic Enoch Pratt House to explore the lives of the women connected to the cryptic writer, and they've gained a following with subsequent projects, but none of them compare with the scale of their current undertaking. Submersive picked up the keys to the 10,000 square foot Peale Museum in December; the team of directors, actors, and artists have spent the months since transforming the space and devising interwoven storylines for a sprawling play with a name to match: "H.T. Darling's Incredible Musaeum presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Acquisitions from the Perisphere."

Today, Benavides, Stroupe, and puppeteer Jessica Rassp are sketching out choreography for one strand of the tale. Benavides plays the groundskeeper of the "Incredible Musaeum," an imaginary institution overlaid on the site of the historic Peale. Like actual museum proprietor Rembrandt Peale, the fictional H.T. Darling has assembled a collection of curiosities that he will unveil to the public during the play's run. However, Darling's specimens come from an alien planet that no one else has seen, and not all of them are safely contained in formaldehyde.

While museum-goers have long been trained to stare at objects behind glass, Submersive co-director Glenn Ricci says that "objects in [Darling's] collection will be literally pushing back." We squeeze behind a row of cabinets into a crawl space where hidden puppeteers can activate the displays. Other entities portrayed by actors, like a "humanoid specimen," raise historically-loaded questions about what gives an audience the right to gaze at something alien.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas steps into Theodore Roosevelt drag to play H.T. Darling, a grandiose, pith-helmeted paragon of the "teddy-bear patriarchy." Ricci explains that casting a woman in the role of "intrepid and ruthless explorer" was intended to complicate that trope, but gender play is only the beginning of the gap between appearance and reality as the character's claims become ever-more suspect.

Darling's expedition to the planet of New Galapagos evokes Charles Darwin's revelatory voyage to the Galapagos Islands, where he began to sketch the theory of evolution that shattered the religious and scientific orthodoxy of his era. But Darwin's chronological theory might not apply on a planet where time jumps, reverses, and loops back unpredictably.

Not surprisingly, Benavides' character is chronically "confused about his position in time and space." If the groundskeeper feels dislocated, he serves as a proxy for the audience as they range through the museum's cluttered galleries. The challenge for Submersive's directors is to convey essential elements of the story as visitors pursue their own lines of inquiry. Ricci acknowledges that "there's a lot of consumer anxiety with immersive theater. People are trying to figure out the rules, they want to do it right . . . but also there's the fear of missing out" if they don't explore every dark corner.

"Everyone's experience is correct," Ricci assures. But it's clear that the team puts obsessive work into planting clues and sequencing events so that visitors have some hope of picking up the plot threads. Ricci says they're developing "common language, gestures, sounds…in case someone misses a big scene, we need another way to communicate what's happening."

The process of devising involves many sticky notes assembled and rearranged over many months, with the entire cast contributing. The sticky notes take on a familiar bushy form: "We were inspired by Ernst Haeckel's tree of the organization of nature," says artistic director Ursula Marcum. While working on a museum studies degree, Marcum absorbed the scholarly case for how 19th-century natural history museums ordered the world and disciplined their audiences. Marcum found that "corralling all this information as you're devising has an interesting resemblance to the problems of museums. That idea of placing order on a disorderly world . . . gets subverted."

Actor Trustina Sabah works on another step of the devising process in a brightly-lit side gallery where a huge cone of layered tulle hangs from the ceiling. Screened by the tulle, she sits in one of the Peale Museum's 1930s office chairs and writes in a composition book. In addition to weaving together their respective plot strands, each actor drafts stories and dialog to use in spontaneous interactions. Sabah relishes the uncertainty. Though she's performed in many scripted plays since finishing an MFA in experimental theater at Towson, this is her "first full devised show" that returns to the methods she studied in school, a sort of fold in her artistic timeline.

Every museum needs a gift shop, otherwise known as a revenue stream, and the Musaeum is no exception. As their motley inventory arrives in a downstairs room lined with cabinets, actors Martha Robichaud and Emily Hall, who share the role of shop-keeper, haggle with co-director Lisi Stoessel over a chintz lampshade. Its value skyrockets as their stories about it become more fantastic—it was smuggled out of the Tzar's Winter Palace, and would have to be purchased on an installment plan. When asked if the objects are actually for sale, Ricci explained that the actors are authorized to sell certain items for the right price. Shameless hucksterism is in the DNA of American museums—consider P.T. Barnum's New York galleries, where visitors could not only buy forged and real artifacts, but could also sell stuff to the proprietor (Rembrandt Peale offered the same deal to Baltimoreans, and even provided an on-site taxidermist for fresh specimens). The Musaeum's "gift shop" staff revels in the absurdity of their priceless lampshade.

"At least to us it's really funny," remarks Stroupe. "There are moments of real, genuine comedy. It's not as serious as a lot of the experimental theater I've seen."

Upstairs, as Benavides waltzes with Rassp's marionette in front of the swirling digital vortex, they block the projection with gargantuan shadows. Ricci tells them that he intends to hang the projector from a ceiling mount, but it's too late.

"You have all these plans," he muses. "The projector will be eight feet in the air, just for now it's on the floor. And actors start improvising a dance using shadows on the projection, and now it has to stay on the floor." This seems like an exercise in the kind of responsiveness that the actors promise their audience, and again the present folds into a future opening night.

"So much of the show is about our relationship to time," says Marcum as she takes me on a tour of the Peale's original plaster ornaments hidden behind 1990s drop ceiling and drywall. Feathers or ferns sprout from the four corners of a vault that I've stood under on multiple occasions without looking up. "We're thinking a lot about appetite and extinction. Part of appetite is that it never ends, it's cyclical."

While characters loop or jump through time, they also negotiate the threat of extinction as a "definite end": The nature of a play is that the curtain eventually falls and the actors take a bow. The show itself repeats every night, but never in the same way.

Submersive asks for a new set of behaviors and values from their audience, which is broader than the crowd that flocked to Copycat Theatre's Rooms Play in Baltimore in 2011. That piece was an early harbinger of the trend for immersive theater currently riding high in New York, but not many companies here have adopted the time-consuming and expensive form. It's experimental in its commitment to thoroughly obliterating the fourth wall, and then making sure that something still happens after that. But part of the appeal comes from a certain resemblance to role-playing murder mystery parties, tapping into a popular desire not just to be part of the show, but to discover and shape what the show is. Immersive theater recently completed the margins-to-mainstream transition, with a Broadway musical, as well as numerous other popular productions, claiming that label. Given this growing buzz, and the ensuing debates about what counts as "immersion," one hopes to see the form used in a purposeful way.

In the case of "Musaeum," the historic building and the immersive format actually embody a notion of theater as natural science. It takes multiple observers and multiple iterations to gather data about an unknown phenomenon; different telescopes take different pictures of the same stars. Yet the scientific urge to capture and fix a definite reality is also the object of critique. In the play, as in any search for knowledge, there is no neat solution or clear-cut method; curiosity is the prime mover. Submersive asks the audience to negotiate uncertainties, investigate a new world, question appearances, and synthesize what they learn.

After the original Peale Museum operation went bust, the building became Baltimore's City Hall, and then one of its first African-American high schools. The empty building is inscribed with the ghostly pathways of people climbing up and down the twisting central staircase; Marcum says that she senses them in the worn stair slats and banisters. But bringing the building back to life doesn't mean putting it back in order. For Stroupe, the only organizing principle is "openness to things we don't fully understand. Unlike with old-style museums, that paternalistic or imperialistic way of delivering a closed narrative. For us the unknown is okay."

The crowd gathered at the Peale Museum for the flowering of the cactus triangularis lived in a period of constant flux. They'd witnessed the Jeffersonian revolution of 1800, the invasion of Washington during the War of 1812, and a wave of religious revivalism so fierce that it left "burned-over districts" in its wake. The forward rush of events drew people out into the streets to protest or riot, to snatch up the newspaper, to behold a wonder that they'd never seen before and might never see again. There's a sense of vertigo that comes from living in uncertainty, a paralyzing explosion of possibilities. Americans tend to willfully forget how we got from the past to the present, capitulating to nostalgia, and the path forward becomes unimaginable.

Artists seem to find hopeful portals in the Peale; Abigail DeVille's 2015 installation commissioned by The Contemporary used conceptual wormholes to slice through the building and across centuries of political resistance. Submersive's Musaeum is built on similarly bendy space-time phenomena. If visitors answer the ringing telephone in the lobby, it may connect them to someone standing on the same site, but in a future far beyond the time of the play.

In this latest period of national upheaval, we seem to be searching, in jest and in earnest, in art and in politics, for openings into other realities. Picking up the mystery phone or peering into a cactus might connect us to a wiser, more certain version of ourselves lost in an eddy of time.

"H.T. Darling's Incredible Musaeum Presents: The Treasures of New Galapagos, Astonishing Aquisitions from the Perisphere" runs Thursdays through Sundays from March 30 to April 30. For more information, visit submersiveproductions.com.

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