We are being watched as we do the watching

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Walking into Christiane Jatahy's play The Walking Forest at REDCAT feels, at first, more like going to a hip gallery opening than a play.

As you descend the stairs into REDCAT, you're ushered onto the stage. The space is illuminated by four projection screens the size of a garage door and they are playing documentary videos with subtitles. Surrounded by the darkness of the theater you see groups of audience members huddled around each of the screens, listening to voices speaking in foreign languages.

Towards the back of the space, you notice a long black bar. Standing behind it, two nattily dressed bartenders hand out wine and water. Spanning the entire back wall is what appears to be a long mirror reflecting the folks at the bar, the audience, the space. You’re surrounded by and can't help but notice the audience, the bodies, the faces.

On the videos, you read in subtitle something about Syria there, corruption in Brazil here, something about an African refugee named Rio on that screen - you get the feeling you're surrounded by refugees. You start wondering what's going to happen.

You've been told in the lobby that the piece is interactive. Roughly a third of the audience is offered a pair of headphones and told the director would speak through them.

Now, in the space, you begin to notice people with these headphones on. There's a sense of those with privileged information and those without, or even a sense of surveillance as if those headphones might lead to something else. Odd things start happening. A man is summoned to the bar and told to touch a black purse. A woman trips by one of the screens, people motion to help, she smiles awkwardly. A raw fish is placed on the bar. A woman reaches inside and pulls out bloody teeth. It's all wonderfully strange.

Then the woman who stumbled appears on all the video screens dripping wet. Something's happening. You notice out of the corner of your eye that that mirror behind the bar is a two way mirror and suddenly, the woman who stumbled, that same woman you saw on the video, she's naked -- walking slowly, dripping, beautifully lit.

The lights change. She's gone. The screens that were playing the videos, they begin to move to form one short, wide screen that spans the whole space. Suddenly, you're watching a film of this audience you're standing with. That moment with the purse at the bar, audience members you recognize. You've been watched, recorded. And now you're seeing a film remarkably created in the short time you've been in the space: it's beautiful and eerie in the same instant.

Now that woman who tripped, that woman you saw nude, is telling haunting tales of children mining for cobalt, and a Syrian child refugee. She's standing in front of us, no video, and telling us about MacBeth, a king who went mad and the only thing that could stop him was a walking forest, enough people rising up, moving together to confront power.

That’s the play.

I'm not sure I can tell you what everything in this piece of theater meant - but that closing message was terribly clear and hauntingly powerful. We are being watched as we do the watching. Our actions are noticed. Make of that what you will but rarely has a piece of theater captured more of the zeitgeist without descending into narrow dogma.

My only complaint about Christiane Jatahy's powerful piece? It was in Los Angeles for just one weekend. Work this good deserves broader audience support.

The Walking Forest played downtown at REDCAT this last weekend. It's one of four shows that REDCAT is presenting this spring called "Urgent Voices, a series confronting timely issues facing the country and the world in 2017." The last piece in the series, The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn, opens in May.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Photo courtesy of Christiane Jatahy