Theater Review: CAGES (Woolf and the Wondershow, DTLA)

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by Marc Wheeler on December 22, 2021

in Theater-Los Angeles


In late September, the long-delayed Tony Awards proudly announced: “Broadway’s Back!” Yet even before Christmas, theaters from The Great White Way to L.A. have canceled performances — even closed shows early — due to an upward surge of Omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant. This, of course, falls on the heels of theaters nationwide shuttering altogether mid-pandemic, and the ill-fated Zoom Plays (may they rest in peace) that tried, and failed, to fill their void online. Theater’s dead. And so are movie theaters, concert halls, and … okay, maybe I’m being hyperbolic. But let’s face it: since early 2020 our world has changed, and art forms (amidst external and internal pressures) are being forced to do the same. With major films going straight to streaming and TV now rivaling them in quality, it’s going to take something special to get our (masked, vaxxed) selves out of the house to sit snuggly amongst strangers.

Enter, Cages.

The wonderchild of directors CJ Baran and Benjamin Romans (both: book/music/lyrics) and fellow director David Richardson (book), Cages premiered in the fall of 2019, right before the world fell apart. After six months of sold-out shows, it was forced to close due to local COVID restrictions. But now, like COVID or Broadway … “It’s Back!” While I didn’t see its initial run, I can’t help but feel luckier to have seen it right before 2022, given all that we’ve collectively been through since 2020. More importantly — and “sorry, not sorry” to those stopgap Zoom Plays — I’m thrilled to enter the new year convinced that I’ve seen:The Future of Theater.

Walking up to the venue — a refurbished warehouse in Downtown L.A.’s Arts District — I notice something strange: fashionistas and hipsters lined-up to see … a musical?! Even for an event limited to those 21-and-older, the crowd is noticeably youthful. You know, the type of crowd theaters say they want to regularly bring in but never actually do? Yeah, those people. Theatermakers, take note: they’re here, with their equally fabulous friends. Why, you ask?

Well, Cages is a full-on experience, and an eerie one at that. It starts the minute we’re invited, one by one, into its dark, dystopian world by a steampunk-styled mute (wardrobe by Mildred Von) about an hour before the show. (Arrive early.) Intimate rooms are decked out for exploration, including a high-end lobby bar serving up emotions: literally. (I enjoy “Anger,” a whisky-inspired cocktail; my friend, the “Sadness” of gin.) When the show is about to begin, we’re escorted down a prison hall into the theater. The space is dark and crammed, and there’s an anticipatory, unnerving chill in the air. With a bang, it starts, plummeting us into darkness.

Soon we bear witness to the colorless world of Anhedonia, a futuristic existence where emotions are forbidden and citizens’ hearts are locked in cages. The penalty for love and other such crimes is death. It’s here we meet Woolf (CJ Baran) who discovers a vibrant inner life through music, then the beautiful Madeline (Allison Harvard; voiced by Frida Sundemo; danced by Mackenzie Stith) who serves as his love interest and muse. You can imagine the fate that awaits them.

If you noticed three separate actors credited for three distinct aspects of “Madeline,” you realize this isn’t your typical musical. Indeed, Cages is a bold, hybrid artform. Combining live theater, music, and transformative visual technology, it jolts the senses and awakens us to what’s possible with live entertainment. With its hyperrealistic use of scrims and holographic projections, we’re not always certain of what, or whom, we’re looking at — if we’re looking at anyone at all. In many ways, Cages is like watching a film — one with seamlessly integrated flesh-and-blood actors.

Stylistically, the work is an amalgamation of George Orwell’s 1984, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Throw in some Hugo and Hunchback, silent films and graphic novels, and a Lynchian cherry on top. In terms of the music — played from an immersive, state-of-the-art sound system — it’s refreshing and catchy. Unlike typical musicals, its songs are in the vein of emo-goth, electro-pop. (Oklahoma! this is not.) Warning: If you’re triggered by over-stimulation, perhaps this rock concert-loud odyssey isn’t for you; for those who welcome such hyper-immersion … dive into its fantasy.

While Cages’ strengths far outweigh its flaws, I’d be remiss to not mention the element most lacking: story. Yes, it’s beautifully fable-like, but it’s worn thin when stretched over two hours with intermission. To be fair, such simplicity does play into Cages’ dystopian conceit. In a world where emotions are forbidden, a character’s first experience with them is going to be that of a child or beginner, for they simply don’t know any better. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the book can’t deliver such nuanced complexity to us in other ways. But truth be told, there was so much going on at any moment to keep me riveted. If the creators want to step up their game, however, the book is the first place to look.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is certain and anything can change the rules. I really feel that’s what I’m witnessing with Cages. It’s a perfect illustration of art imitating life: the isolation we’ve all felt these past two years, even for our own safety, is not unlike that of the citizens of Anhedonia. It also manages to reinvent theater at a time when viruses are wreaking havoc on the art form — both externally with COVID-19, and internally with an aggressive strain of political correctness. Perhaps, however, theater’s “identity crisis” of late has less to do with myopic “identity politics” and more to do with identifying what it will take to bring in the masses.

That’s what Cages does well. With theatrical innovation, it reimagines the art of storytelling with Frankensteinian technology, uniting us in our common humanity. And it’s packing in audiences, big time. Try as I might to explain it (though I’ve purposefully left out spoilers), you’ve simply got to experience it for yourself. In terms of live entertainment — be it concerts, film, and theater — this is the game-changer we didn’t know we needed. I don’t know what lies ahead for Woolf and the Wondershow (or what COVID has in store for any of us: get tickets while you can), but I’m already anticipating two things: one, the next venture of these visionaries; and two, what they’ll inspire in others. For with Cages, the door’s been unlocked: the future of theater is here.

Woolf and the Wondershow
1926 E. 7th Place, Downtown Los Angeles
Fri & Sat at 7 | open run | 21+ only
for tickets and dates, visit CAGES

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