What's it about?
What I experienced:
Old New Year was recommended to me as a show I might enjoy, for no other reasons than the show's subject matter and the way it chose to convey it. The show was immersive in nature (think: an active audience, non-traditional seating, and very interactive cast members), which is something that I have come to seek out in my theatregoing, and it featured characters who were Russian Jews living in New York. As a Jew with Russian heritage who lives and has only ever lived in New York, I always appreciate seeing my culture represented in theatre.
I am a mix of different things. My father was born in Greece, and came to the States as a teenager. My mother, like her parents before her, was born and raised in New York. But my mother's grandparents, and my great grandparents, were from Germany on her father's side and Russia on her mother's side. This is the Jewish side of my family, and the side I identify with more easily than even my status as an American citizen, but I'm more of a New Yorker than all of my identities combined. It's complicated.
My semi-recent (a little over a year ago) trip to Israel made me feel more in touch with my Judaism than I ever remember feeling. I participated in my first Shabbat dinner and even had a Bat Mitzvah (yes, as a 21-year-old). It wasn't really religious to me, but it felt cultural more than anything else. I couldn't help but think of my ancestors, of my great grandmother Penina, coming to New York City from Russia as a young teenage girl, and eventually marrying my great grandfather, Jacob. They were observant Jews, and spoke Russian, Yiddish, and English. Jacob wore a yarmulke and a prayer shawl (in synagogue), and Penina maintained a kosher kitchen. They had shabbat dinner every Friday and regularly attended synagogue together. But when they had kids, a boy and a girl, several years apart (My great uncle Leo and my grandmother, Charlotte), things got more lax. Leo and Charlotte were not made to keep kosher outside of the home, and Leo wore no yarmulke or prayer shawl. The siblings each went on to marry other Jews, but they practiced the faith they were born into with far less enthusiasm than they had in their youth. Their only child, my mother, never kept kosher or attended synagogue. And she would be the first to marry outside the faith by marrying a Christian man from Iowa and then later divorcing him and marrying my father, a Greek Orthodox man. She and my father would have two children together. My bother, Damien, and I grew up as Jews, and it always seemed extremely cultural to me and maybe a teeny bit spiritual, but we certainly were far from devout. Today, I consider myself an atheist Jew, or about as close to an atheist as one can get. No matter my inability to subscribe to Judaism completely, my background still means something to me. It's not easy to put into words.
That's what I was looking for when I headed out to East Harlem to experience Old New Year. I wanted familiarity, meaning, a connection of some sort. The building I arrived at wasn't normally used as a theatre, or at least I got that distinct impression. It had no title, just an address: 345 E 104th St, New York, NY. I was surrounded by mainly middle aged women and a few couples, all of whom appeared to speak fluent Russian. I felt a little out of place. Language barriers can do that. I opened the door to see if we, the audience, could enter, and a woman spoke to me in Russian, only switching to English for my benefit after noticing my confused expression. There was still around 10 minutes before we would be allowed inside, and it was nippy out and slightly drizzling, so I was a little annoyed at not being provided shelter.
I had very high hopes once I finally crossed the threshold into the long, narrow, and dimly lit room before me. A little girl handed me a program and the woman next to her (her mother?) fastened a purple glow stick around my wrist. Around me were fragments of walls, window panes, and a lamp hanging upside down from the ceiling. There was a man sitting in a white lounge chair facing the way I had come. I assumed this was where the action was, and so I grabbed a seat as close to this mustachioed, seated gentleman as I could get. Behind him, there was a large screen onto which the audience was projected live. I spotted an iPhone attached to a tripod that was placed under the man's seat; It was clearly recording us.
The voice of a Russian man echoed out over the speaker system: "Welcome to the lab of happiness." He went on to describe how he and his lab could bring effortless happiness and I was skeptical, but nonetheless intrigued. The same message was played three more times, spread out over a period of several minutes, until there was any movement. Then a woman entered on roller-blades singing Mama Mia...
Multiple other people flitted through the two tiny pathways in a rush, speaking loudly and in different languages. I heard English, what I assumed was Russian, and...Spanish? Maybe. But the scene before me was chaos. And it never stopped being chaotic.
The entire 100 minutes (no intermission), the man with the mustache would grab the iPhone that was constantly projecting a live feed of whatever it recorded, and place it strategically throughout the space. It was hard to know where to look and I felt like I was getting whiplash from alternating between craning my neck to see what the actors were doing to my left and then looking at the projection of those same actors on my right. I eventually concluded that the screen gave me the best view, for the most part, but it felt weird, and almost taboo. Wasn't the whole point of theatre that it's supposed to be live? Yes, these people were performing live, but that didn't change the fact that I spent the majority of my time at the show looking at footage on a screen.
The only times I ever heard laughter from the audience were when one of the characters spoke in Russian, and not understanding a single word of Russian, these moments isolated me. The man with the mustache returned to give a speech on happiness and he said something along the lines of "We can choose it," which I 100% disagreed with, and then the cast ran all around instructing us to shed our bracelets, which I did without hesitation, profoundly perplexed. I had already sprung a leak in my bracelet at some point earlier in the show due to all of my uncomfortable fiddling.
I took an Uber home, because it was suddenly pouring and I just couldn't deal. On the drive, I tried to make sense of what I just saw, but I couldn't manage it.
Want to see it?
@ 345 E 104th St, New York, NY
thru May 13th
What did you experience?
Let PXP know in the comments below...