There's a reason they call it "experimental" theater: Because not all experiments are destined to succeed.
Buffalo's Torn Space Theater has always perched itself uncomfortably at the edge of the medium. And it is burnishing if not advancing its reputation for pushing theatrical boundaries with its latest production.
"Rhapsody," a collaboration between Torn Space and the virtual reality-enamored art collective Flatsitter, runs through Nov. 27 in the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle and Library on Fillmore Avenue. It takes audience members in pairs through a series of unsettling vignettes that unfold in small rooms or entirely within virtual reality headsets.
The production, directed by Torn Space co-founder Dan Shanahan, is based on the 1993 film "Three Colors: Blue," by Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski. It tells the story -- as much as a Torn Space show ever really "tells" a story -- about a woman whose family has died in a car crash and left her to cope with the aftermath.
The Torn Space aesthetic, which combines hints about a possible narrative with dramatically lit scenes seemingly pulled from childhood nightmares, is on display in this production. And it is an acquired taste.
It begins with an actor ushering you into a small room and directing you to sit in one of two chairs. You watch actor Bonnie Jean Taylor acts out a strange phone conversation in French while folding pairs of tiny socks and picking up a pile of toy dinosaurs. As she does this, the light outside the window flickers like a perpetual lightning storm.
Before you know it, you're whisked into another room where actor Becky Globus lies bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed. As you and your fellow audience member sit on opposite sides of the bed, she slowly rises, sits in the corner of the room and downs fistfuls of pills before disappearing, ghostlike, under a bed sheet.
Then comes the fun/terrifying part: the first of two virtual reality experiences, in which artist Kyle Marler fits each theatergoer with vibrating vest, an Oculus Rift VR headset and headphones. For the next five minutes, you're riding in a car through a kaleidoscopic tunnel and finally onto a bridge. As you turn your head to look into the back seat, you see a glowing fetus. Your fellow occupant is outlined in a "Matrix"-like network of lines and dots that you could read as a commentary on the fracturing of human consciousness in the digital age. Or not.
The journey continues through vignettes that bring theatergoers face to face with actors. These 5-minute glimpses into the mind of a grieving woman seem designed to be uncomfortable and to rearrange expectations about the boundaries between performers and observers.
The experience, which involves watching actor Dechen Dolkar have a sexual interaction with what appears to be a bag of laundry while staring into a projection of a nuclear sky, is not going to be for everyone. In the end, it seems more like a valiant first attempt to insert VR into the theatergoing experience than a fully realized artistic vision.
Even so, adventurous theatergoers should keep in mind that the journey takes only 40 minutes. And for those who have not yet experienced the recent strides that have been made in virtual reality, the feeling of disembodiment alone is probably worth the price of admission.
"Rhapsody," an experimental drama, runs through Nov. 27 in the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle and Library, 612 Fillmore Ave. Tickets are $15 to $25, with more information at 812-5733 or tornspacetheater.com.