Intimate ‘Etiquette’

“This is the stage.” As Person A boldly points her index finger down on the café table, I realize this show is unlike any I have ever known. Etiquette is a two-person performance written by Anthony Hampton and Silvia Mercuriali, who form the theater company Rotozaza. Serving as the audience and the actors, the two people involved listen to headphones that instruct them on what to say, do and imagine. Rotozaza calls this type of performance ‘autoteatro,’ so-named for the self-generating quality. Etiquette premiered in London in 2007, and was part of the New York City Under the Radar festival for alternative theater. After running last weekend at MASS MoCA, Etiquette will be available for anyone to sign up and be a part of the show at Tunnel City through this weekend.

One of the show’s greatest qualities is its spin on role-playing. As a participant, you are a performer reading lines, a member of the audience listening carefully, a director blocking scenes and a stage manager handling props. The ability to maintain these roles without conscious decisions, never knowing what your own next move will be, makes Etiquette an emotionally gratifying experience. Because decisions are made for you, you are forced to abandon self-doubt and second-guessing, and your self-consciousness inevitably fades away.

Participating in Etiquette is suggestive of being in a theater workshop because it is an exercise that demands your full attention. Acknowledging the reality of the situation – that you are obeying instructions from an arbitrary voice in headphones – would prevent the fullest enjoyment. Instead, you have to let yourself become absorbed in what you’re hearing.

Rotozaza aptly handles the inherent difficulties in achieving this absorption. In conventional theater, dimmed house-lights and an attentive audience allow complete focus on the fiction presented on stage. In a real café, the environment is less conducive. However, Etiquette does not require performers to dismiss their surroundings; it incorporates them. You’ll listen carefully as Tunnel City is transformed into a Parisian café. In addition to skillful manipulation of the environment, the piece makes use of props in unexpected ways. What resemble board game figures become the scenery for a haunting tale, as performers depict a story they’ve never heard.

These peculiarities make Etiquette especially intriguing because the show uses typical aspects of theater in a delightfully atypical way. Though it’s hard to call the work a “play,” it includes many components of conventional theater. There is a stage, performers, lines, cues, props and a script. And yet, performing in (or is it attending?) Etiquette is completely different from engaging in “shows” that we’re used to. At times I was confused, not knowing if a new story had begun or the plot had simply progressed. Parts were even scary, leaving me with that chilly sensation you’d get when hearing ghost stories during your childhood. A number of characters are introduced, all represented by the two performers and two inch-tall figures. Am I still the prostitute? I thought as I tried to follow the story-line. And yet, I was the one carrying out these roles.

The unfamiliar sensations continue beyond the clever ending of the piece. When the story was satisfactorily closed, I wasn’t ready to get up from my chair. Feeling like I had just woken up from a dream, I had to keep reminding myself what I had been doing, saying, and listening to. All your senses become confused when you’re presented with the real world after 30 minutes of an out-of-body experience. In addition to leaving you dazed and confused, Etiquette provides a physical memento as intriguing as the play itself . . . but you’ll have to discover that much yourself.

For reservations, e-mail mws1@williams.edu or call the’62 Center box office at ext. 2425. Tickets are free.