It seems that if you were buried under many feet of volcanic ash, it would be a mystifying and horrific event. And that’s one reason why The Excavation, now being produced by Theater Ninjas, is such an absorbing, if almost indescribable, experience.
By exploring the burial and subsequent excavation of Pompeii, this original work of theater is actually an ambulatory encounter. The audience breaks into smaller groups and then reassembles, as various guides and Pompeian “experts” expound on the tragedy that befell that Italian city back when years had just two numbers.
It starts off with three different lectures that take place simultaneously and are repeated twice. In one, the female presenter is analyzing the erotic art of Pompeii while riffing on her personal relationship that just went south. Another lecturer offers nonsensical descriptions of non-artifacts from Pompeii, including a plastic water bottle.
But you don’t have time to see all three, a process of fragmentation that only accelerates until the final gathering around a floor map of the doomed city. This means that everyone encounters this play in a different way, visiting rooms and observing “scenes” that another audience member doesn’t.
Serious musings (about the meaning of life, the sudden permanence of death) mix helter-skelter with low comedy of all sorts (human statues with enlarged genitalia, a raucous puppet show, and a lab manned by two horny scientists).
Some of the broad humor is forced and a tad juvenile, and you may find yourself trapped in one room while you hear people laughing in another, wishing you were over there. But these moments don’t last long and there is always something else coming your way, literally around the next bend.
During the 90-minute piece, you cover quite a bit of territory on the second floor of this factory/loft building, sometimes pausing to sit or stand, depending on the material being presented. I could tell you all the things I witnessed, but then you might not ever see them.
Directed and devised by Ninja honcho Jeremy Paul, The Excavation is something you need to immerse yourself in, even if you won’t be quite sure what it was after it’s over. And in that way, I suppose, we can say it’s kind of like life itself.
Through April 23, produced by Theater Ninjas at the 78th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland, 216-245-3514