Kicking off this year’s PROTOTYPE festival, Michael Joseph McQuilken’s The Infinite Hotel is puzzle theatre, and I mean that on a few levels.
The narrative follows a disparate set of characters who seem to be on random trajectories. They’re all disconnected, but eventually the threads will be drawn together. If all the ends are not tied neatly, they’re at least fashioned with loose knots that allow room for movement and growth. McQuilken’s characters don’t stop after death – a personal tragedy only means they’re now available to roam freely, visiting (haunting?) the other characters and facilitating the final interconnectedness. The crucial details are wisely withheld until the last possible second, lending his puzzle a level of mystery that is lacking in similar narratives. It’s also somewhat frustrating for the first hour because it isn’t clear where anyone is going or what they mean to each other. Ultimately, though, the reward is worth the head-scratching.
The physical production takes live staging, video, and audio mixing together in an effort to demonstrate how “[t]ech may bring us closer in certain regards, but it’s all too common now to feel pulled apart from our fellow travelers,” as McQuilken writes in a program note. The staging often extends out and away from where the camera is pointed. The vast mise-en-scene encompasses the entire Irondale Arts Center and the audience stands or sits within it. The video feed is only shown on a series of TV screens mounted above the audience, something you can choose to look at or ignore. Some people chose to only watch the feed or its physical filming, but the full breadth of McQuilken’s direction could only be experienced by vacillating between the two. The audience, in headphones, hears a live mix of the singers, musicians, and an intricate soundscape with a nuance unavailable from more traditional overhead speakers. It’s an effective device, because there is an immersion in the sound and an immediacy to the voices that brings the audience into the narrative.
The puzzle has a stunning number of pieces, and a corresponding amount of crew members, musicians, and actors all working tirelessly to assemble it. The Infinite Hotel’s sequences that most successfully unite the various transmedia resources of the production center on Jib, first a subway performer, then a rock star, then a drug-numbed shell. Played by Leah Siegel of the band Firehouse (who provide some of the original songs), Jib’s performances are electric. The lyrics are often layered with sardonic wit and pop culture references and Siegel’s voice and presence have the kind of straight-to-the-soul aim that are key to a great song. The videography and mixing of these performances have a documentary feel, like recovered footage from Jib’s early days. Her transformation into the superstar is believable, even with the large leaps forward that purposely disrupt McQuilken’s plot.
There is a mind-boggling amount of thought and planning on display in The Infinite Hotel. There’s also a lot of hard work prominently visible: in the balcony above the performers, several people huddled around an assortment of computer screens, monitoring and adjusting constantly. The scope is almost too much to take in on a first viewing. Like most immersive theatre experiences, it takes a while to adjust to the proceedings. By the time The Infinite Hotel hits its groove, like me, you may be wondering what you missed while you were trying to figure everything out. It’s probably best to just surrender and let the puzzle solve itself. It will.