By D. A. Blackburn
The future of Neighborhood Resources, Inc. hangs in the balance. Having operated in a deficit for years, their community center and outreach programs are in jeopardy. But a “generous” offer on their real estate and an association with a larger social service organization may prove to be just the lifeline needed to move forward. An open community meeting has been scheduled to decide the organization’s fate. Your attendance and input are requested.
In a nutshell, this is the premise of the Matrix Theatre Company’s “Decide Tonight,” an innovative new production the company has pieced together directly from stories collected in the community.
Matrix calls the work “interactive theater,” but “Decide Tonight” could more accurately be described as a theatrical “immersion.”
The company has mounted the work as a community meeting, in which the cast and audience are thoroughly intermingled. The illusion has been, fortuitously, enhanced by an unexpected change of venue, from the downtown Boll YMCA to the company’s own black-box space in Southwest Detroit – a far more convincing setting, which feels more community center than theater. It cannot be overstated that this clever ploy makes for one of the most unique theatrical experiences of the season ; all involved, both audience and cast, are entangled in a scenario that is both engaging and entirely plausible.
That said, the script does have a fair share of short-comings. While the story is essentially sound, much of the work feels underdeveloped – leaving participants with unanswered questions about the future of Neighborhood Resources. And though the decisions at hand would certainly incite passionate responses in the real world, “Decide Tonight” often seems to lack a credible intensity.
Moreover, the production includes a number of break-out vignettes designed to establish characters and themes, which have a notably uneven quality. While some are potent, others seem nothing more than insignificant punctuation for the underlying story. These vignettes are the only parts of the work that feel like theater, and sadly, they destroy the illusion that gives “Decide Tonight” its charm.
But that said, the production does yield some fantastic performances. All of the actors are in character from the moment the doors open until the curtain call, and even in pre-show conversation, it’s hard to differentiate character from patron.
On opening night this proved particularly true with William Arrington, Dan Muldoon and Leonard Gross (character names withheld for illusion’s sake). Sydney Jones adds a heartwarming charm as the work’s purest moral compass, and Deborah Chenault-Green provides a gripping tension to the plot’s most significant twist.
While the work is not without flaw, it wins high marks for creativity and its dedicated performers. “Decide Tonight” is a far cry from the average evening of theater, and it is satisfying specifically because of its unconventional and inventive structure. The easily relatable script may leave a bit to be desired, but the cast (and patrons) have crafted a uniquely engaging production – with a true sense of community.
Friday-Sunday, through April 5. Matrix Theatre, 2730 Bagley St., Detroit. Tickets: $15. 313-967-0599 or http://www.matrixtheatre.org