I am always intrigued and nervous when being introduced to a new theatre company. It's like going on a blind date in the sense that I never know what I'm going to get. Am I in the right space? Do they seem like a company where the show starts at the standard 7:30pm or do they dare to be different at 8pm? The unexpected nature of newer companies with new plays can be quite an undertaking.
The Impostors Theatre Company was founded in 2016 with a mission, "to stage stories at the crossroads of retrospect and innovation, where the fantastic collides with the everyday". Their company name presents a different story in meaning to be something it's not or with the intention to deceive. Theatre can often be thought of as manipulative in its power and control over an audience. We may not like to talk about this aspect, but that darker side is present. I certainly felt these sensations of darkness and deception when watching Caged: An Allegory.
Written and directed by Impostors Theatre's very own artistic director, Stefan Roseen, Caged... surrounds four artists in various paths of their careers. All college acquaintances, three have been invited by their morbid, unsettling former classmate for an opening of his latest creation. But, not all is what it seems. This artistic unveiling quickly delves into horror thriller territory when it seems he has no intention of letting his colleagues leave--that is until the work is done.
Brandon Nelson plays the transparently terrifying "visionary" known as The Creator while his former classmates aka the Creatives are a cocky-eyed (emphasis on the cocky) hot shot (Megan Walter), the anxious, struggling wanderer (Cy Denman), and the eloquent, passionate humanitarian (Isaiah J. Williams). I appreciated seeing a variety of personalities with an inevitable clash with those who have found more success than others. In any class, there's always someone who makes their big break, is still trying to find their way, made their own path, and the one who thinks they're a genius when they're not. This camaraderie felt grounded and like any reunion you'd anticipate: awkward, and a bit lost.
The Creatives find their beats in forcing themselves to reconnect with one another for the sake of conversation. Although it's mentioned, we never really understand why they all decide to attend. They share a consensus that they never thought highly of The Creator as an artist, or even considered him a friend. The three of them aren't even close. The booze is locked away and with no hors d'oeuvres in sight, it seems easily like the old excuses that the invitation got lost in the mail or forgetting to RSVP could have been enforced. But I digress.
When The Creator makes his grand appearance, he's what you might expect. A slightly too forced smile, confident swagger, and a fashion that would seem gaudy if not for his "talent". You say artist, I say psychopath. Tomato, tomahto. Nelson embodies this role well, despite his character feeling like a caricature at times. Across the board, the Creatives play successfully alternating between foes and friends against Nelson's creative "genius". (Yes, I will keep using quotes in describing the Creator's "prowess" as we're about to let the shoe drop on exactly what he's "created".)
Around the first twenty minutes or so, a covered cage that consumes nearly the entire stage has been looming, with sounds of snarls and hisses underneath the surface. Walter's character expresses, "I think it wants blood", when she attempts to sneak a peek before the big reveal. The anticipation is palpating, and you're not sure whether you'll scream or laugh when the tarp is finally pulled back. In a large swoop, The Creator makes his dramatic debut of his piece, and with it all the expectations I had for this play disappeared. A magic trick followed by being punched in the gut, hard.
The Creation comes in the appearance of an imprisoned presenting woman, played by Stephanie Lewis, who as you could guess, is not too thrilled about this predicament. She is neither a woman or able to speak according to The Creator, and he has truly created new life. A fame hungry Frankenstein sits so high on his cloud of delusions he thinks he can test God, and beat them at their own game while he's at it. The others react in horror much like its audience, but slowly with the exception of Williams' character, begin to see The Creator's vision, and help in completing his piece.
Lewis plays the part remarkably, fully committed, equally terrifying and alluring. There's nothing to be said against her performance. However, I couldn't help but be taken out of the performance entirely when this big reveal left me extremely disappointed. Whether The Creation is in fact human or not (which is never fully clarified), they are still being played by a woman. If I wanted to see a play with a woman physically trapped in a cage while they are studied and dissected like they don't exist for around seventy minutes, I would have stayed home. Whether intended or not, the implications of this image reach far wider outside this story; and make a statement within its context that for the sake of debating art criticism and morality someone still has to play prisoner.
For better or worse, the four debate The Creation's gender. The Creator stands by his story that it isn't a she, but an "it". Walter's character feels its gender is as irrelevant as its name and would require time to be revealed. Williams' character doesn't give up on the idea that it is a woman The Creator kidnapped, destroyed, and has been torturing to pass off as his new work. Denman's character lands somewhere in the middle, only knowing it seemed like a "she" when he first saw it. In this discussion of gender, there is never any mention of transgender, or non-identifying personalities as possibilities. The theme of erasure runs rampant when The Creation cannot verbally express any opinions on this subject. They barely respond to a name (that also is put on them instead of chosen).
All conversations that follow the introduction of The Creation feel uncomfortable. In pointing out how they are slowly dehumanized by The Creator, and eventually all the Creatives, it doesn't make The Creation's entrapment justified. Or, when all the artists are revealed to be hypocritical in terms of their beliefs and wanting financial gain and fame over integrity. When you are doing the very thing you are trying to point out as wrong, this action in itself is exploitative. While there are meant to be metaphors as inferred by the play's title and amid the discussions of the Creatives and Creator, it's hard to excuse the literal when a trapped person is inches away from you. There's no getting past this issue when the entire play surrounds this "creation's" existence.
The portrayal of pain onstage can often be used to inflict empathy or a call to action in an audience. But it can also incite anger, sadness, and most significantly, trauma, even if it's not the intended reaction. While there are acceptable reasons to show moments of violence or depict a sensitive subject matter in theatre, it has to be done responsibly. And personally, to sit in a prolonged period of these difficult moments does more harm than help. Perhaps with the help of a screen between an audience and this work, it could be more digestible. There's no separation or ability to become numb here, whereas in film (especially with horror), longer moments of violence or discomfort can be accomplished.
My fears were fully founded when that cloak dropped, and the only true moment of relief I felt was when (SPOILERS AHEAD) The Creation does the unthinkable. They are in fact able to speak disproving The Creator, and while silent, have been studying to defeat their "maker". They escape their cage, pulling one of the Creatives to take their place inside, killing another along with the Creator, but letting Walter's character (the only female) go free. This is a choice that seems undeniably deliberate. This, along with the bleeding, large bandage surrounding The Creation's head, screamed out to me that the women in the end are freed as they should be, while the crowing men are left to perish.
While this violent yet triumphant end feels rewarding, the journey doesn't seem worthwhile. Through artistic tangents that can feel a bit too heady or pretentious, a captive as a prestigious art form, and an overall lack of clarity, Caged: An Allegory flutters and searches for meaning, but never truly soars. It feels trapped, waiting to be freed much like its subject.