It goes back, I suppose, to a fascination with haunted houses during Halloween or funhouses at seedy amusement parks, but the attraction for site-specific or interactive “theater,” with shows ranging from “The Trojan Women” (performed on the backlot set of “Gilligan’s Island” in Studio City) to “Alma” (set within every nook and cranny of downtown L.A.’s dilapidated Los Angeles Theatre) linger in my memory because they were such immersive events. While the specifics of the plays may vanish, the essence of the occasion glows for a long time afterwards.
To this special list one may add “Gallery Secrets,” a collaboration between Chalk Repertory Theatre and the Natural History Museum, which is taking place on weekends through Oct. 13. “Gallery Secrets” is actually four short plays of about 20 minutes each, all of them written by a different playwright, with a different director and a different cast. They also take place in different galleries, with the stories pertinent to the time period in which that gallery was constructed or renovated.
Predictably, the stories vary in quality, although all of them present dramatic situations. This is, after all, the Natural History Museum, where a lot of dead things are installed, and not the Comedy & Magic Club.
Audiences are divided into groups, and on the evening I attended there were three, with maybe 20 or 25 people in ours. This is a nice, manageable size, and the transition from one play to another is seamless. Maybe it’s not so seamless for the actors, who presumably have to do up to four performances, back to back to back to back, but for the rest of us it’s a pleasure.
The action spans 100 years, and here are the specifics with their one-sentence synopses courtesy of the theater: “A Vast Hoard,” by Tom Jacobson, set in the Rotunda, 1913: “On the eve of the museum’s opening, civic leader Harris Newmark attempts to take back the portraits of himself and his wife that he has donated to the museum’s director; “Skins and Bones,” by Ruth McKee, set in the African Mammal Hall, 1929: “Two young paleontologists, Hildegard Howard and Henry Anson Wilde, navigate an exhibit hall’s worth of misunderstandings to establish their real-life romance; “Under the Glass,” by Zakiyyah Alexander, set in the gem and Mineral Hall, 1978: “Marie struggles to understand why her husband, a retired Colonel, has taken such an interest in collecting specimens of gems and minerals; “Prom Season,” by Boni B. Alvarez, set in the Dinosaur Hall, 2013: “It’s Prom Night at the Natural History Museum, and a teenager and her boyfriend slip away to have sex, only to be discovered by a security guard who has seen this all before.”
Because the audience is not glued to a chair but literally following the actors, each person can be their own roving camera. This is especially true for “Under the Glass” and “Prom Season.” In the latter case, one can essentially get in the way of the action, because the characters take full advantage of the length of the gallery. We feel like invisible spectators, and there’s something voyeuristic about that.
Where one has the most opportunity to stroll about the action – if one is a bit daring or presumptuous, I suppose – is during “Under the Glass,” which takes place among the many and dimly lit glass vitrines. This play, directed by Jeff Wienckowski, gets my vote for best performance. Tony Amendola and Blaire Chandler are an aging couple, married for 30 years, and there’s a wistful sense of youth gone by that underlines this quiet, and even intimate work. There’s also a late-night lounge ballad that Chandler croons softly (no Blaire blares, thankfully) which only enhances the mood.
In at least one gallery, the African Mammal Hall specifically, the acoustics work against the actors, even though the backdrop is superb.
Overall, this is delightfully entertaining, being in a museum afterhours and escorted from one era to another. Whoever is responsible for bringing these pieces together deserves a round of applause.
Gallery Secrets is being performed at 7 p.m. this Friday and Sunday, plus Oct. 5 (Sat.), 6 (Sun.), 11 (Fri.) and 13 (Sun.), in the Natural History Museum, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets, $25 ($20 museum members); parking, $5. Call (323) 379-9583 or go to ChalkRep.com.