What starts off as a spirited dinner with four adult sisters – Charlie, Jane, Delia, and Wynette – sharing memories and laughs at their childhood home, quickly turns dark in Alexis Roblan’s Samuel, an audio-visual experience presented by The Tank. The immersive new work is structured in the format of a self-guided museum audio-tour through nine rooms/episodes over time, each approximately five to twelve minutes in length, exploring “an ever-shifting sense of reality.”
Offered both in person and online, the voice-acting and soundscape are delivered via audience members’ personal listening devices and earphones. And the spine-tingling contents come with a warning, or actually more than one: strobe-light effects are used in the venue, should you choose to go, rather than listen at home; and the topics of death, grief, alcoholism, child abuse, and murder are woven into the characters’ nightmarish reminiscences.
At first, the women’s confused recollections and conflicting accounts suggest the normal lapses of memory that come with age and temporal distance, the distinct perspectives and perceptions of each individual, and the teasing and joking with one another that siblings tend to do. It’s absurdly funny, and the lively verbal interactions are accompanied by an oddly invasive sit-com-style laugh track.
Then the dialogue becomes more disturbing and the laughter increasingly inappropriate, as their eerie stories and hints at the secrets of a dysfunctional family evoke the unsettling mood of a traumatic childhood and its lingering impact on the psyche, triggered by packing up their mother’s house.
“Memory is a hard thing to pin down,” notes Wynette. Conflicts arise as to whether the sweet potatoes were prepared the way their mom used to make them, whether she’s in the next room or dead, if one of the sisters was a piano prodigy, if the morbid tales about the family pets really happened, if Grandma actually poisoned their food, and if the eponymous Samuel was one their neighbors, their mother’s porcelain dolls, or their long lost brother – or if he ever even existed at all.
Directed by Dara Malina with the essential intrigue, perplexity, and unnerving sensibility, the enthralling story is told by a compelling cast – featuring the voices of Keilly McQuail as Charlie, Morgan McGuire as Jane, Lori Elizabeth Parquet as Delia, Amy Staats as Wynette, Carolyn Mignini as Mom, Lynnea Prunty as Jane’s young daughter Alice, and Jess M. Barbagallo as the mysterious Samuel – that fully embodies the quirky characters and their creepy reflections.
Their audio performances are enhanced by a menacing design, with ominous sound by Ray Archie, composition and interstitial vocals by Stephanie Singer, visual design by You-Shin Chen, macabre dollhouse installations by artists Yi-Hsuan (Ant) Ma and Yizhu (Nina) Pan, anxiety-inducing lighting by Kate McGee, and graphic and web design by Jonny Ag Design. The masterful production team includes B.J. Evans (creative producer) and Brittany Crowell (production management), with Ray Archie serving as audio production supervisor, Caroline Eng as recording engineer and dialogue editor, and Chris Adler of Mindtree Mastering as mastering engineer.
Are the events the sisters recall imaginative storytelling, drunken hallucinations, past-life regressions, the remnants of a lucid dream, the results of Satanic rituals, or the wild fantasies of unstable minds, assuming the lives of fictional personages seen in the movies or read about in novels? Or do they constitute the suppressed reality of painful truths resurfacing in a perplexing jumble of denial and acceptance? Like Roblan’s characters, we are left wondering.
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, without intermission.
Samuel plays through Saturday, August 14, at The Tank, 312 W 36th Street, 1st floor, NYC. In-person timed-entry access, in a pod of up to three people, is available for guests who can provide proof of Covid vaccination and wear masks for the full duration of the show. Entrance times are strictly enforced and there will be no late admittance or refunds. The online-only version can be experienced on demand from anywhere, at any time. For tickets, go online; a link, password, and instructions will be sent.
For a preview, you can watch the trailer here: