Sweet & Lucky, an offering from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Off-Center in collaboration with Third Rail Projects, is not a play, but an experience. The idea of theater as something that should change consciousness rather than being passively viewed isn’t new; it was big in the hallucinatory, convention-busting 1960s, when artists questioned the boundaries between theater and reality and contended that theater could be anything. For example, it could be a young woman spontaneously tossing a beach ball from aisle to aisle in the supermarket while, one by one, shoppers — a toddler in a stroller, a uniformed marine, a tired-looking woman pushing a loaded shopping cart — joined in the game. Or it could be a performer who simply invited you into his basement apartment and had you watch as he went about his life, drinking a beer, napping, watching television.
This production, directed by onetime Denver native Zach Morris, muddles the borders between life and art in much the same way. It’s designed to take you out of your everyday reality and deposit you in a shifting, dreamlike world where memories come and go and you occasionally find yourself doubting your own senses. But there are key differences. Those ’60s experiments were done on a shoestring, dependent on the bodies, voices and souls of those creating them. Sweet & Lucky is a huge and expensive undertaking, meticulously put together, a collaboration among artists in several disciplines — sound, lighting, sets, costumes and video in addition to acting and dance. For the production, a RiNo warehouse has been transformed into a series of discrete, specially built spaces, each containing all kinds of surprises, small and large. And where many of the grubby experimentalists of the ’60s worked on the edge of hostility and aimed to shock, the creators of Sweet & Lucky show the tenderest concern for their 72-member audience.
A row of glowing lanterns guides you from the parking lot to the front door, and the actors who lead you from one experience to the next (several scenes occur simultaneously, and different audience members may have differing experiences) are soft-spoken.
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The setting is an antiques shop where nothing is for sale. You’re encouraged to wander and explore before the performance begins, and during the performance, you discover several of the objects you examined earlier recurring and acquiring new life and meaning. There are paintings, a necklace, a horseshoe, a broken glass ornament, photographs — the kinds of things you might find exploring a grandparent’s attic.
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The action begins at a funeral, though we never quite know whose; the deceased may be metaphorical, very likely a ruined relationship. Each of us carries a black umbrella, and we’re invited to sing as water rains down on us. Other spaces include a bright kitchen, where we help put together a cookie recipe, ordering utensils and measuring ingredients — only this is an Alice in Wonderland procedure where no sooner have you finished the assigned job than the guide messes everything up, and one prepared ingredient, sprigs of rosemary, never gets used. Ah, yes: Rosemary is for remembrance. There are two house exteriors, each fronted by a beautiful tree, and in each place, an actress climbs the tree, dancing among the branches. Inside the houses, we encounter the same couple — but by the second house, their relationship has changed drastically. Later, there’s that tree again, and also the woman from the couple — but now she’s in a dazzling snowscape and seems to need comfort.
I always have trouble orienting myself in space, but I wasn’t the only audience member to lose nearly all sense of where I was during Sweet & Lucky, forgetting which space I had already visited and which was new. Somehow this made the transcendent moments — as when I found myself stepping out into emptiness while hundreds of stars shimmered beneath my feet — doubly wonderful and surprising.
Almost everything about the evening — the sights and sounds, even the smells — is beautifully put together. The text, however, could be stronger and more evocative. The scenes aren’t sequential, but they are scripted, and memory — deep, bright, dark, allusive, elusive — is a topic that most of us have thought about a lot. Language, too, is an art form, and can be made as specific as a broken ornament or a woman climbing a tree while still evoking the deepest and most ineffable musings. Still, this is a small complaint about a brave, original and lovely adventure.
Sweet & Lucky, presented by the DCPA Off-Center through June 25, 4120 Brighton Boulevard, #A20, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.