Lionshare Breaks The Cardinal Rule Of Successful Immersive Theater

John Cates in Lionshare at Dinolion
John Cates in Lionshare at Dinolion Photo by Jeromy Barber

When it comes to successful immersive theater, (stageless shows that plunge audiences within the performance itself), there is one cardinal rule. The show may be weird, or hard to follow along with at times or even downright silly in places, but the one thing it cannot be is boring. After all, the whole point of immersive theater is to intrigue the audience through a level of personal involvement not possible in passive bum-in-seat traditional productions.

Lionshare, the new immersive show from Dinolion (written and directed by Jeromy Barber, James Templeton and Traci Lavois Thiebaud), not only breaks this rule, but in the process manages to disregard a number of other fundamental concepts that shouldn’t be ignored when attempting this type of art form. Think audience comfort, show navigation tools, some kind of narrative sense and appropriate length.

It’s usually at this point in a review that storyline gets quickly discussed. What is this show about? When it comes to Lionshare, it’s easy to make this description as short a possible – it’s about a new Houston rideshare program called Lionshare. Or it’s about a dead cat. Or it’s about resurrections and robots. Or it’s about none of that — we’ve given up trying to figure it out.

Snippets of plot get played out during the show in quick skit-like moments by the 20 some odd cast members. In true immersive form, it’s up to us to find and watch the performers and glean some kind of narrative thread. Problem is, when we do find them, they barely keep our interest. We wander round and round the space (a huge warehouse-like hanger with a split level second story and several carved out rooms) hoping that maybe a scene or character will captivate us, only to either be utterly baffled (what does a flaky therapist have to do with any of this?) or provide some meaning (an evening gown-wearing vampy lip syncher looks terrific, but what of it?) or just completely disinterested (A scientist tinkering with his new robot, a girl with a rotting dead cat, a homeless guy wandering, a filmmaker etc.) To be clear, none of this lies on the shoulders of  actors who try valiantly to bring some kind of life to the onion paper translucent roles they've been charged with

If we tire of the meaningless/tedious non-story, we can go and sit in one of the many Lionshare branded rideshare cars parked in the space. The rides, including a school bus and a smattering of Art Cars, are tricked out with interior music/dialogue recordings that frankly are just as obscure or nonsensical as the rest of the action. In one car we’re asked to write down what we’re sorry for and place it in the glove box – a traditional immersive move, and probably the only time we actually feel like we’re in any way connected to or part of this show.

"Hey, I hear they have scenes in an offsite location," says one of my fellow audience members, flouting the no talking rule. Upon arrival, we're given black surgical masks to remind us to keep quiet and experience with our senses only. But by this point, we've been wandering around the space for well over an hour and were desperate for anything new and, hopefully, engaging. So off we trod two blocks over, where, sure enough, another scene was happening or rather just ending – but from what little we saw, it was a scene with much the same impact as all the others. Only then did we realize that cars with drivers in character were available to take us over. Why not tell is this at the start of the show when we’re given all our instructions? It’s one thing to let audiences discover on their own in immersive shows, but at least point us in the right direction if it enhances our experience.

Regardless of missing the ride and most of the scene, it was a relief to be outside, and not just for a break in the action, but to escape from the gallons and gallons of special effect smoke being pumped into the warehouse setting. Understandably they were going for a moody feel, (shadowy lighting with blue/purple hues) but some rooms were so dense with smoke that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, let alone whatever scene was going on in there. Not to mention the echoes of coughing and burning eyes that many of us experienced as a result.

If there’s one bright spot in Lionshare, it comes from the original music written by Merel van Dijk and Anthony Barilla (last heard from in the Houston theater scene for their work on Catastrophic Theatre’s Small Ball). Sometimes ballad-like, often with twinges of techno and always atmospheric, Barilla and Van Dijk’s music peppers the entire Lionshare experience. A roving pianist accompanies scenes, recorded music plays in parked cars, occasionally characters break into song and most pleasingly, a foursome of angel-voiced Muses (including Allie Villines, who wowed us this season in Horse Head's We're Gonna Die) wander through the space, giving flight to some truly beautiful musical moments.

And some unintentionally funny ones. When the muses sing the looping refrain of, ‘It will all be over soon”, we can’t help but think, OMG, yes, please! When on earth does this thing end?

An hour and a half from the moment we walked in the door, Lionshare finally comes to a conclusion as all the characters gather together in ceremony. Finally, we get some kind of common thread, albeit a frustrating one for its thinness. This is why we endured boredom and smoke and confusion for 90 minutes, we think? Sure, you all looked really cool and there was some interesting stuff in your place, but why all this effort if you aren’t even going to give us anything other than atmosphere, vagueness and way too many dropped threats to mention?

Houston gets so little out of the box theater that it’s painful to have to poo poo Lionshare. It’s obvious a tremendous amount of work has gone into this show. But work for whom? The overwhelming feeling we're left with is that this is an artistic exercise that pleases the creators to no end, but never really considers how to translate that into something an audience will enjoy as well. And that, perhaps, is the greatest immersive show sin of all.

Lionshare continues through February 3 at an undisclosed Midtown location. For information, visit $50-$75.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman