If there’s one thing producer-impresario Randy Weiner does right, it’s spectacle. The Box, his Lower-East-Side hardcore-burlesque venture, is among New York City’s most legendarily debauched nightlife excursions – to this day, one of my most otherwise licentious friends refuses to speak about what he saw there (there’s now a London Soho branch too). His backing of Punchdrunk’s interactive, immersive Sleep No More, is one of New York’s most astonishing success stories: a cult sensation with virtually no advertising that’s managed to expand beyond its theatrical roots to include a show-themed after-hours speakeasy, a full restaurant, and a rooftop bar. And Weiner’s most recent venture (with director Christine Jones, Queen of the Night, seems entirely predicated on the notion that spectacle – and spectacle alone – is what audiences want. Set in and around the (admittedly gorgeous) restored Diamond Horseshoe Club at the Paramount Hotel, this piece of quasi-interactive dinner theatre is among the most visually striking performances I’ve ever seen. Chandeliers, taxidermied leopards, beetle-shell inlay, and other carnival-style curiosa abound (credit to interior designer Meg Sharpe, creative director Giovanna Battaglia, and “set and scent” designer Douglas Little).
Unfortunately, spectacle is just about the only thing Queen of the Night has going for it. Ostensibly based on Mozart’s opera (a flimsy thread of the virginal Pamina’s initiation keeps the show from total anarchy), Queen of the Night feels less like a piece in its own right than like an attempt to replicate the phenomenal success of Sleep No More by people who have never been to the theatre. All the necessary immersive-theatre boxes have been ticked: inhumanly attractive, scantily-clad, omnisexually-inclined performers, check; boundary-pushing erotic encounters with audience members, check, individual audience members whisked away for the kind of mind-blowing experiences they’re sure to brag about on Facebook, check. But because every encounter and performance – from the acrobats to the jugglers – cranks up the energy to eleven, there’s little scope for any kind of emotional, let alone a narrative, arc.
Non-narrative, non-linear performance can work, certainly (and I’ve gone on record repeatedly with my love for the no-less immersive Sleep No More). But Queen of the Night doesn’t simply lack a unifying storyline. Worse, its lack of cohesion seems entirely predicated on bread-and-circuses-style cynicism. Its audience members – gorging ourselves on lobster and roast duck, gulping down cocktails – are invited to congratulate themselves, and one another, on being (presumably) rich enough, powerful enough, connected enough, well-informed enough to be in attendance at such a spectacle; the implicit message in each morsel of lobster or drizzle of champagne is that such aesthetic excess is to be understood as a kind of reward for being present: a message only intensified by the very obviously tiered seating; those willing to splash out $500+ a ticket are marked out with special amulets, and get to dine with the titular Queen herself.
The actors, acrobats, magicians and other performers, it must be said, do an outstanding job. They’re all outrageously talented – so much so that it becomes difficult to watch the increasingly outlandish physical demands placed upon them in the service of dazzling spectators. (One of the most compelling moments in the show came when one of the otherwise flawless acrobats missed a single trick: transforming his act from a purely virtuosic display into something imbued with real human stakes and significance). That said, even the floor show segments can feel seedy; there’s something inherently distasteful about choosing to show what seems to be Pamina’s sexual awakening through a dance sequence that more closely evokes rape, or about using a series of gay kisses as a “transgressive” finale to one particular sequence, as if homosexuality were as much a spectacle as fire-eating or astounding acrobatics.
That said, one strong scene, involving Dmitri Hatton as the hapless Papageno, manages to imbue the Diamond Horseshoe with some genuine character-based emotion, however briefly. That it was played in part for laughs – the audience egging on Papageno’s despair – was at once disheartening and unsurprising, though the setup hinted at a more clever, even subversive, relationship of show to viewer than was evident elsewhere.
It is perhaps idealistic – if not thoroughly anachronistic – to wish for art to have some moral or spiritual value. But experiencing Queen of the Night, I felt that I was watching a show that gleefully celebrated art-as-commerce: lavish spectacle, like the sumptuous food, as something for conspicuous consumption, rather cathartic experience. For all its glitter and glitz, Queen of the Night proves a surprisingly complacent encounter: not because of a lack of intensity in the performance itself, but because of an utter laziness to the possibilities of what art, let alone the people who make and experience it, can be.