[A Long Way From Home]
It’s one of the most audacious and head-spinningly ambitious theatrical endeavours ever mounted in New Zealand. Promising to transport us to 1984 and the notoriously hedonistic underground New York clubs (the last hold-outs from the disco era), audiences arrive in Henderson and enter, via a subway station portal, a NYC wonderland. You walk a block-long city street before you even get into the Pleasuredome club. In the opening number, Lucy Lawless makes a grand golden entrance riding a roman chariot and with a burst of flames. The audience are ready and primed for a great night.
No expense is spared – on opening night there is even a mounted NY cop on horseback out the front, patrolling the queue. And there are many opportunities for us to splurge too – on drinks, street vendor hot dogs, and Southern Maid donuts. The venue has capacity for 800 people each night. An entire industry of costumed actors, waitstaff and ushers have popped up in this industrial warehouse. This is a try-out before they go offshore to conquer the world of entertainment.
Unfortunately, for all there is to admire about the entrepreneurial chutzpah of this project, its ambitions remain fatally parochial when it comes to narrative coherency and playing with theatrical forms on a grand scale. The Pleasuredome team, led by producer Rob Tapert (who bought Xena, Hercules and Spartacus to NZ) and director Michael Hurst, promise “the most electrifying immersive theatrical experience New Zealand has ever seen.” But the content does not bring the thunder, nor is this even a properly immersive show.
In New Zealand, the term immersive is increasingly being flung around for any show that vaguely situates the audience within the world of the play. Internationally, as popularised by companies like Punchdrunk (whose Sleep No More is a New York fixture), contemporary immersive theatre is associated with audience roaming and involvement, with events happening around them and to them.
Our best example of the form is the Zombie apocalypse show The Generation of Z (whose producer, Charlie McDermott, is also one of the movers behind Pleasuredome). That show travelled to Edinburgh and London, though Aucklanders only got to see the prototype Apocalypse Z.
The New York street leading to the Pleasuredome gets us half-way there. Recycled from an Ash vs Evil Dead TV Set, it’s a pinch-yourself setting. Steam rises from the vents and there’s water on the roads. There’s a barber, a newsagent, and a laundromat. A Cinema, playing Beverly Hills Cop, also promises “Sex Ecstasy, Nympho Dreams, $1.99 Erotic Lust”. You can take a selfie for Instagram next to a taxi or sitting on a cop car with flashing red and blue lights. Uniformed cops patrol the streets and tell you off for loitering.
But on opening night the shop doors remain bolted and there’s little for the curious to actually explore. There are no secret encounters, or anything out here from the world of the play that actually informs the narrative or characters of the show itself. It’s an experiential frivolity that ends up being disconnected from the main event.
And inside the dome itself? There’s the biggest disco ball you’ve ever seen. A catwalk stage in the shape of a cross. Screen panels that display Tron-like cityscape graphics. There’s bleacher seating, some cabaret tables, and the standing mosh pit looks like the most fun place to be. It’s got the vibe of a scaled-down Spark Arena spectacular.
But this ain’t immersive theatre; it’s a show in a venue, albeit custom-built. The potential of the audience being patrons at the Pleasuredome is barely even exploited. It’s difficult to see what the appeal of this show would be if it was done without the theme park street (Tapert told Paperboy they wouldn’t build the street again), because the show itself is the weakest part of this whole concept.
Pleasuredome has a remarkable backstory. Writer Mark Beesley’s script had a number of potential other lives. At one point, it could have been a Xena episode, at another, it was being pursued as a telemovie or TV series. Now, finally, with additional input from writers Dan Musgrove and Gareth Williams, it’s a stage-show with a story that comes across like a Lucy Lawless slash-fanfic.
Lawless plays a lesbian club entertainer named Sappho (yes, really), who has a cocaine addiction. Over a 12-hour period she gets clean, falls back into the drugs, gets clean again, falls in love, and tries to save the club.
Stephen Lovatt plays Victor, a fat cat real estate tycoon and homophobic pantomime villain, who wants to redevelop the area. He performs a vaguely metal version of Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, which is in the wrong key and leaves him horribly exposed.
His daughter, Lilith (Ashleigh Taylor who has a powerhouse vocal belt), suspects her fiancé Remy (James Gordon) has been unfaithful and been visiting Sappho in the club, but he’s just been trying to get Victor’s deal through. The naïve Lilith goes to the Pleasuredome, and via a performance of ‘I’m Every Woman’ by Lawless, is tempted into the decadent world of Sappho and the club.
Story threads are half-heartedly pursued then dropped, such as Lilith’s dalliance with drugs. Pleasuredome succumbs to the worst excesses of the jukebox musical, where a song is placed in exchange for logical character motivations.
Lawless has spoken about the timely nature of the show with LGBTIQ+ rights being walked back in some parts of the world. But this message does not get through in the show itself. We are presented with easy coming-outs, and anything queer gets a cheer. The effect is to wash the audience with virtuousness as to how tolerant and enlightened we all are now. We do not get a sense of the real stakes of the AIDS panic of the 80s.
The most egregious moment in the show is the attempted tribute to those who fell to HIV/AIDS. While names of the victims scroll past on the screens (Roy Cohn among them), the cast joyfully perform ‘Let the Music Play’. Yes, everything’s better after a song, even the AIDs epidemic. Whatever good might have been motivating it, this one was tonally off.
When I was in New York this year (the real one), I caught the Museum of Sex’s exhibition of Bill Bernstein’s photographs of New York’s disco clubs during the late 70s (including Studio 54, Le Clique, and the Paradise Garage). Bernstein’s images, featuring plenty of flesh, captured theatrical and transgressive bodies. The Museum explains, “The unique context of these clubs allowed for unprecedented interaction between groups — straights danced with gays, whites with blacks and Latinos, young with old, and rich with poor. By publicly embracing alternate and previously hidden identities, these pioneers created revolutionary boundary-crossing communities of possibility and joy, paving the way for a future culture of inclusivity.”
For all the potential stories that could come out of this setting, Pleasuredome’s fairytale of New York is a weirdly safe and sanitised sexploitation.
The good bits? The choreography and costumes are captivating. Michael Hurst’s trademark ability to build a spectacular number, which he displayed (with the help of much better material) in his productions of Cabaret and Chicago, is in full force. The voguing drag queens, led by James Luck, add some much-needed energy to the second half. There’s a glut of talent on stage, including Moses Mackay and Vince Harder. There is some great repurposing of 80s hits, among them Lawless’ dramatic duet with a giant screen version of herself in the Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’, or her seduction of Lilith to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’.
Pleasuredome has cult potential. Beesley namechecks The Rocky Horror Show in the programme, which is an obvious touch point. Perhaps Pleasuredome could work as a parody, or with more of an ironic sense of self-awareness. But in its current form it is witless and humourless. And it’s long, oh so long. They’ve tried to shoehorn in far too many songs (and the audio mix needs fine-tuning). At the climax of the show you even have to sit through the entire opening number a second time, followed by an ending which breaks any remaining credulity that you might have been desperately holding onto. Pleasuredome? This is an endurance dome of dubious pleasures.
I must acknowledge the standing ovation at the end of opening night. Many will be willing to give over to the fantasy during its season.
But what fantasy is Pleasuredome selling exactly? A consequence-free party world, where if you live authentically, out and proud, and believe in the power of love, all will be well. A subculture that is commoditised and sold back to 80s cos-players decades later.
There’s also something of the taste of the overseas experience here, a reanimation of the long colonial hangover that life happens out there, not here in New Zealand.
Pleasuredome gives us cardboard cut-out characters and a façade of queer culture. The team throw copious amounts of spectacle and liquor at us to do all they can to cover up the narrative hole at the centre of it all.
It remains to be seen if Pleasuredome will be able to turn itself into the knockout it still has the potential to be and head to its targeted overseas destinations. If nothing else, Aucklanders will be talking about this show for years to come. “Remember the dome?” they’ll say. “That happened.”
Pleasuredome plays until 5th November.