A performance piece that tends to get a little too immersive
Author Sam Polcer Illustration Luci Gutiérrez
NEW YORK CITY – Despite Brooklyn’s glossy new image, it can still be a daunting place. Especially tonight, on a dark dead-end street abutting the Gowanus Canal, one of New York City’s most toxic bodies of water.
“You look stupid,” sneers a woman dressed like a crazy-haired demon, addressing a group of people wearing hooded robes. The group is ushered onto a waiting pontoon, which proceeds to drift along the sludgy waterway.
So begins “The Dreary Coast,” the latest performance piece by Brooklyn artist Jeff Stark, who is known for his unsanctioned, immersive theatrical productions, including “IRT: A Tragedy in Three Stations,” which was performed in the NYC subway system.
“The Dreary Coast” reimagines the Gowanus as the River Styx. Audience members, told they are being ferried to the afterlife, experience the play from the boat as it docks at various spots, encountering gods, demigods and even metal god Glenn Danzig, who performs a thrashy number for Hades, lord of the underworld.
The setting isn’t pleasant, but it’s not supposed to be. When a character describes hell as “a cesspool,” it doesn’t take a huge imaginative leap to see her point. After all, a drop of water from the Gowanus once tested positive for an STD, along with a bunch of carcinogens. Tellingly, graffiti on the side of a run-down waterfront warehouse reads “Send Help.”
Few have a more vivid sense of the set’s authenticity than designer Jason Engdahl, who, standing in for a cast member, once fell “face first, mouth agape” into the “oily, salty” canal. “As I got back on the boat, someone said, ‘Watch your step!’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why? I already fell in!’”