Against my better judgment, I played bingo last week. I went to see Bingo! the Show, an interactive theatrical comedy that made its North American debut October 18 at the 7th House in Pontiac. A few hours before the performance, mild curiosity, which had originally brought me to this new experience, progressively turned into anxiety; then a slight sense of dread set in.
For one: I don’t like games. And a game such as bingo turns monotony into a contest based on (my bad) luck. And two: Bingo! the Show requires audience participation. And I don’t like the idea of being cued to perform like a court jester.
According to international reviews, Bingo! the Show has been a smashing hit since its premiere in Amsterdam a few years ago. The plot is a framework for each character’s outrageous portrayal. Set within a small community’s “Church of the Chosen Few,” the action concerns a slightly crooked Rev. Mario Grappa, who needs cash to pay off a slumlord from whom he rents the church space. So the congregation holds a bingo bonanza to raise funds fast, and this sordid group of religious eccentrics goes to extreme lengths to raise the money. We (audience members mixed in with indiscreet actors and actresses) are the pithy, naive folks who have come to play bingo and win money.
Upon entering the “Church of the Chosen Few,” I met two characters and enjoyed learning a lesson: Interactive theater always has you guessing who’s real and who’s really acting. It’s easy to deduce who the actors are, but it’s tougher to figure out exactly how deep each actor’s scam goes. In the instance of a flamboyant male personage, my friends and I had to ask each other: Was the actor gay or was his character supposed to be a flaming homosexual?
Instinctively, one-on-one human communication inspires trust. I wasn’t acting — and when real people looked in my eyes, talked to me and worked with me in conversation, it was hard to believe that even “personality” could be a cover. Luckily, I had brought two friends who knew how to have fun: One of them is the type of guy who makes every social situation feel like interactive theater. He worked well messing with one performer, a girl who was typecast as a feisty, intolerant drunk.
When the bingo game began, the actors fed on bold audience members such as my friend. Energy sparked in the eyes of the actors at the possibility of reaching a transcendental improv moment. While my friend caused trouble for the play, I was focused on playing bingo to win some real cash. But the plot got in the way and unfolded as the bingo balls were announced.
Through eavesdropped conversations in the phony crowd and ridiculous moments of united cast debacle, the story revealed some crooked characters and some real oddballs. One of the best characters was the temperamental Bingo Lady who sat at our table wearing a puffy-painted T-shirt and an aluminum foil cap. She also came to win, and I respected that.
I was also impressed by a few actors’ candidly ironic moments, which could be caught on the sly. I overheard a young man of Bingo! the Show discreetly complimenting a fellow character on her fabulous shoes — as if he didn’t even know that audience members had listened in. He was amusing himself and making the most of his role. But subtle instances aside, some of the prearranged comedic moments seemed extremely contrived. The humor was over-the-top and encouraged me to perform a bit myself — by smiling to relieve the unfunny tension.
Unfortunately, a religious prophet took a liking to my timid attitude. Noticing I was uncomfortable in the spotlight, he performed a special dance for me during an interlude of bingo playing. I imagined the actors in rehearsal … the director probably informed the cast to pick on one member of the audience. Although I remained silent in the face of several rhythmic pelvic thrusts, it just so happened that the best drama came from my usually shy friend: With a stern gesture, she motioned “that’s enough” to the prophet.
Bizarre circumstances are inevitable in interactive theater. And I can’t blame the cast for theatrical shortcomings in Bingo! the Show. Even after we had played what seemed like a 10th game of bingo, I was almost sad to leave. We don’t see strange, deluded folks like Bingo Lady often enough in our real world of social order, and they definitely add spice to life.
But I certainly wasn’t sad to stop playing bunk bingo games or to stop caring about whatever happened at the “Church of the Chosen Few.” My cheeks hurt from smiling just to please everyone, and I longed for a pitch-black theater with the spotlight cued where it should be: focusing on the sweat waiting to drip from the actor’s forehead.Rebecca Mazzei is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]