REVIEW | Play’s the Thing in Baby Horse’s New Theatrical Experiment

Here’s how a typical night at the theater goes: you find your seat, you browse the playbill, read the actors’ previous stage credits, take in the set. The house lights go down, stage lights come up. The play begins. You sit back and watch for a couple of hours. On a good night, you’re entertained, you’re amused, you’re moved, you’re terrified by the story the actors tell on stage, and you carry that story with you home, or on to wherever the night takes you. 

Louisville’s Baby Horse Theatre Group isn’t interested typical nights at the theater. 

The experimental theatre troupe launched its Louisville presence in 2012 with “Biography of Physical Sensation,” a performance that told the story of one young woman’s life through the senses. The performers directed audience members’ interactions with those sensory objects and experiences. At the most intense level, the interactions could be embarrassing or uncomfortable – the point was to present a direct engagement with the story. Since then, Baby Horse shows have used the audience as an integral part of the theatrical presentation, just as vital to the performance as the actors on stage. 

Or not on stage, as is the case with their new show, “The Exquisite Corpse and Other Party Games,” which opened Friday at The Bard’s Town.  On one level, it’s exactly as it sounds – the audience plays party games for two hours, led by the irrepressible artistic directors Jon Becraft and Kelli Fitzgibbon and their energetic games assistants. 

During the extended seating period, audience members are invited one-by-one to the wings of the stage to contribute to a group drawing – the Exquisite Corpse – which is unveiled at the end of the show. One person draws a picture that spans the width of the page, and with only the bottom part visible, the next person adds to the piece of art. The result is a metaphor of sorts for the evening – together, each person’s individual contribution, which will be unique to that evening’s performance – creates the art.

The games are charming and mostly guileless – they seem to be sourced from a children’s party manual circa 1910, from “Smack the Rat” (one person drops a rubber rat down a cardboard tube, player tries to whack it with a plastic bat when it comes out the other end) to “The Medusa” (take turns picking up a paper lunch sack using only your mouth, but every time it’s picked up, that part of the bag is trimmed off – it’s an exercise for the very limber). Others are more thoughtful – in “Thoughts of the Day,” Becraft went around the audience and asked deeper questions about life, love, fears and hopes. We were asked to answer off the cuff, and the spontaneity presented some intriguing moments. Other games asked for harder revelations, too. 

So, it’s a fun evening – c’mon, how often do you actually get to play at a play? – but how is it theatre? Well, you have actors playing the roles of games masters. You have audience members playing the roles of party guests. Don’t let the casual, un-scripted vibe throw you – Baby Horse isn’t just fooling around with this production. What I carried away with me to my next destination were tough questions about the nature of theatre and art and entertainment – how does a narrative experience change when not only is there no script, but there’s no boundary between performer and audience? How would the evening have been different with a different audience? If I had been less willing to contort myself to pick up a paper bag in front of a room of strangers, or not had to answer to the room whether I would prefer to die happy alone or unhappy but surrounded by loved ones? 

I’ve just finished reading thirty newish scripts by acclaimed and exciting American playwrights. Theatre is a literary endeavor, and the writer and the script are certainly vital to the discipline. But theatre is also about liveness, whether that means interpreting a script on stage or shepherding an evening of improvisational participation. As a group, Friday’s audience trended young and performative, and so there was a palpable element of putting on a show for one another at play even among the audience. But wouldn’t a more reticent group also end up performing, in some way or another, at the hand of the games? 

At the end of the night, most theatre-makers will say that they want their audiences to engage directly with the production, but few actually make a tangible level of interaction mandatory for the experience. Baby Horse shows ask us to grapple with our own comfort levels – do we want or need to remain on an emotional or intellectual level of engagement, or are we willing to actually smack the rat ourselves? Or fall over trying? What should a play demand from its audience, and what should we be willing to give? 

There are two performances remaining of “The Exquisite Corpse and Other Party Games,” Saturday and Sunday at The Bard’s Town (1801 Bardstown Rd.). 

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