First Look: Theater of the Mind is a science fair for adults

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Back in middle school, optical illusions captured the attention of even the most disinterested student during art class. Most memorable was the checkerboard illusion, in which identical shades of gray color the squares of the board, but appear to be different shades due to light and shadow. When the teacher moved a gray sheet between light and shadow, revealing that the squares were indeed the same color, it was as if my classmates were stoners wondering if a straw had a hole or two. The flow of “Wait, what?” and how?” was endless.

Such awesome and innocent moments fill David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar Theater of the mindwhich runs through mid-December in Denver. These moments also make the experience feel more like a walk through a college science fair than an experiential theater production.

Gaonkar and Byrne, better known as leader of the Talking Heads, originally planned to create a neuroscience-based art exhibit for a gallery, but after meeting with scientists in labs, they decided to create a theatrical experience focused on storytelling. Charlie Miller of off-centerthe Denver Center for the Performing Arts experimental program, approached the couple about bringing production to Denver before the pandemic hit. “It was a pretty easy sell due to Off-Center’s track record of delivering ambitious immersive projects,” Miller told us before the opening. But it took years for it to finally arrive.

The checkerboard illusion is actually the first twist you encounter after being prompted to select a name tag. Then, you and your group begin the show in a room dressed like a funeral home, where family photos and burning candles decorate various tables, and incense and cedar float throughout the space. Notes with everyone’s new names wait on stiff wooden chairs lined up in front of a coffin.

From this coffin comes your “guide”, a figure dressed in a seersucker shirt and a bow tie named David. While the guide is supposed to be Byrne, a white man, the cast includes both women and men of different races, playing to the general theme of how we identify mind with body with self. The guide takes you and your group through the various sets that make up David’s “memory palace”, where optical and tangible illusions are bent into the plot to expose how our senses and our memories are fallible. And they really hammer home the point that you can’t trust your senses. Although the science speaks for itself, the notion is clearly spelled out in almost every skit.

Click to enlarge

Enter David’s brain.

Matthew De Feo

After David informs us at the funeral home that he’s dead and we look back on his memories, we enter his brain – a bright pink oval room with stools arranged on the sides. Once we’re all seated, David turns off the lights and asks if any of us have been hallucinating.

“I have,” echoes a voice from my group. “During childbirth.”

“Oh, interesting. Tell us about it.”

“Well… During delivery, I hallucinated my husband’s head on my baby.”

A long pause. “Okay. Anyone else?”

“I used to see a man with a hat in the corner of my room every night when I fell asleep. Sometimes it was a comforting presence, but most of the time it was absolutely terrifying. “

Silence again.

“I went to a sweat lodge once and felt like I was melting into the ground!”

Welcome to Colorado, David.

David then told us to hold our palms six inches from our faces, and after flashing the light, slowly move our palms away. The flash has caused the shadow of your palm to solidify in your field of vision and you cannot see your hand move. Then he had us do the same thing with a mirror, with the same effect – except this time you were looking at a reflection of yourself. This led to another chorus of “wait, what?” and how?” and the general laughter and amazement.

Another common illusion occurs in the next room, which is set up like a nightclub where David used to DJ – and where he now looks more like Bill Nye. Here is where Theater of the mind really shows off its immersive chops: while many experiential productions boast of being immersive, they hardly engage all of your senses, especially taste. But that’s the meaning in the foreground in this scene, where you eat a miracle berry and then suck on a lemon, which tastes sweet due to the miraculous properties of the berry. Once again, I was more blown away by the shock of the other band members – after all, this is also an elementary school experience.

Identity becomes the subject in question as the experience continues. The stunning settings are perfectly set up to facilitate those Philosophy 101 experiences, which can sometimes be uncomfortable – like spending ten minutes in total darkness with complete strangers while discussing hallucinations.
A kitchen with giant cabinets puts you in the perspective of a toddler, and when David meets his younger self, they get into a banal philosophical debate about whether they really are the same person.

It may be the scientific quality of the subject, but Theater of the mind inspires childlike wonder. There’s a little thrill in witnessing these optical illusions again and dusting off the imaginative concepts they spark. You may not leave the production questioning reality, but you will be invigorated with a refreshed and clearer vision that all is not what you expect.

Theater of the mind is open until December 18 at York Street Yards, 3887 Steele Street. Tickets are $55 and up; Catch them here.

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