If that seems like a bleak metaphor for Clinton vs. Trump — or “Brexit,” or the failed Syrian cease-fire, or the surprise electoral defeat of the Colombian peace plan or any number of world political morasses — it well could be.
Credit Philip Greenberg for The New York Times
“The strange thing about this project is that the worse things are in the news, the better it is for us,” Mr. Reyes, 44, said early this week in Brooklyn, preparing for final run-throughs with a group of nearly 50 actors, under the direction of Meghan Finn, who will play all manner of ghouls — business executives, police officers, poll workers, drone pilots, overprescribing doctors — within the haunted house.
But Mr. Reyes added that the house’s half-dozen fright scenarios are less about the failures of political leaders and more about systems at work in the world economy — the military complex, the financial industry, the gun industry, the fast-food industry and Big Pharma, just to name some headliners — that have become so vast they seem to govern themselves, rendering political control almost ineffectual. And making satire a tall order.
For example, one room of “Doomocracy” (through Nov. 6, groups of a dozen will be led through the rooms at timed intervals beginning at 6 p.m.) is a cozy, profoundly creepy funeral home, presided over by an organ-playing undertaker who explains that the home specializes in coffins made in the shape of the processed-food item most loved by the deceased. A child-size coffin in the shape of a pink-frosted Twinkie dominated the room on a recent visit. And during a rehearsal in September, an actor tinkled the organ keys, intoning earnestly: “I’d like to think that in the afterlife, kids can taste their coffins and they’re happy,” enjoying “the milkshake coffin, the fried chicken coffin” and many other available flavors. Then he crooned: “Every kid wants a candy coffin.”
In the interest of avoiding spoilers (something a visual-arts reporter rarely has to worry about), some of the scenarios in the piece are probably best undescribed.
But it might give an idea of the range of topical phantasmagoria to say that one room involves cheerleaders singing about abortion. Another features a kind of Tupperware party for handguns. (“I think for a lot of liberal people who have never been around guns, it’s going to be a pretty tense situation,” Mr. Reyes said.)
There will be a classroom presided over by a racially shape-shifting computer avatar spouting corporate come-ons through a large computer screen — “I Googled ‘classroom of the future,’ and that’s pretty much what it looked like,” Mr. Reyes said — and a fake cocktail party hosted by a rich couple who are having their own spaceship built.
“They just have so much money that they’re into racing space rockets,” said Mr. Reyes, a compact, bespectacled man who comes off in person like a philosophy professor moonlighting as a late-night comedy host. “They asked Zaha Hadid to design their spaceship, but then she died, so of course they got Frank Gehry, who’s done most of their houses.”
Credit Philip Greenberg for The New York Times
Ms. Finn, who once directed a play that took place inside a New York City taxi and along the streets it traversed, said that compared even with those logistical challenges, Mr. Reyes’s project “is crazy, totally nuts — in the best possible way.”
The actors will have to repeat their parts, written by the playwright Paul Hufker — some of them highly emotional and physically demanding — 40 times over the course of a night. “When I enlisted people to be in this, I told them that it was going to be an act of political rigor,” Ms. Finn said. “It really is endurance performance.”
Katie Hollander, Creative Time’s executive director, said that the organization hadn’t planned earlier in the year to present a major fall piece. But when Mr. Reyes proposed a “political/satirical haunted house,” she said, “the idea stuck with us, and as the political climate became more and more terrifying to a certain extent, it just became more and more relevant, and we knew that the time this had to happen was now. So we jumped from the frying pan into the fire. It’s not a usual thing for us to do something of this complexity in such a short period of time.”
The Army Terminal, once the largest military supply base in the United States and now a center for light manufacturing, plays a starring role itself. Its towering main atrium, punctuated by concrete balconies once used for transfer of wartime supplies from train to ship, looks like a dystopian backdrop from “Brazil” or “Metropolis.” And the terminal’s after-hours emptiness will contribute, Mr. Reyes said, to a sense of isolation almost impossible to find in the city. “It’s really pretty freaky here at night.”
Especially against the backdrop of this election, Mr. Thompson said, the project made a kind of perverse sense in 2016, the centennial of the birth of the Dada art movement. “I think that’s the kind of moment we’re in,” he said. “It seems like a joke but the joke is really not funny at all.”
Mr. Reyes acknowledged that the piece would probably be received far differently were it presented in suburban Ohio or rural Tennessee; he knows he is preaching mostly to a choir of liberal art lovers who oppose many of the late-capitalist demons he holds up to ridicule. “But I still very much hope I can offend at least a few people,” he said. “And it’s going to be so intense that I think people are going to be shaken and pretty worn out after the hour they’re inside.”
Which might be worth something in itself. “This piece’s inner logic isn’t about hope, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve lost hope in art’s ability to help change things,” Mr. Reyes said. “I still think it’s crucial to keep a critical muscle that mocks the motivations of the system — to say, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and to say, ‘This is crazy.’”