“Am I watching a movie or a piece of theater?” This was a common thought among those sitting in the audience at the Minetta Lane Theatre for Saturday night’s preview of the new rock opera “The Portal.” Modern theater like this off-Broadway premiere uses advanced multimedia as a way to enhance the overall theatrical experience, to mixed results.
Where a hand-painted backdrop once hung, a tarp now reflects projections of pre-recorded video footage. Live theater is a jewel that obtains its rawness only when the audience can witness the story unfolding by the work of the performers. With its heavy use of video in place of live performance, “The Portal” lacked this thrilling component. The show was a puzzle of fictional movie clips and live rock music left for the audience to piece together by themselves.
With audience interpretation not only encouraged but required, the show’s excess amount of spinning images, bright lights, monotone songs and apocalyptic costumes became overwhelming and distracting. Rather than fully grasping the message or the meaning behind this peculiar piece, audience members likely left the theater with more of a migraine than a deeper artistic awareness.
The bright images had more of an effect on one’s head than on their knowledge of the show. This complication comes from the fact that the use of multimedia in a stage setting only works if it acts as visual representation to propel the audience further into the world the actors are attempting to create. It does not succeed it if is used as the central element in the story. If the audience had wanted to see a pre-recorded movie, they would have logged into a Netflix account or bought a ticket at the local cinema.
There is a careful balance required when adding multimedia aspects to a stage performance. Some more modern directors have successfully walked this fine line without falling. Shows such as the 2016 premiere of “O’ EARTH” directed by Dustin Wills, The Public’s premiere of “Grounded” directed by Julie Taymor and the 2014 Broadway revival of “Les Miserables” directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell all use multimedia in live performance. However, the technology in these productions acts as a virtual reality that enriches the performance and transforms the theater into the world of the play in a simple, yet powerful way.
“The Portal” had a few effective moments. When the two oracular female dancers took the stage without the eccentric bongo player and the wild electric guitarist, their story of movement was clear in its juxtaposition of the series of off-putting images racing behind them.
By inviting the audience to come along for the ride into the portal, this show started off with promise, but once the stage was literally turned off, the audience was left in a bewildered state, misled by what the program had promised. People quickly turned their phones back on, gathered their coats and left the theater — that’s if they were one of the few who stayed for the entire performance.
“The Portal” is currently running at the Minetta Lane Theatre at 18 Minetta Ln.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Dec. 5 print edition. Email NAME at [email protected]