SALT LAKE CITY — “What have you lost in the last year?” I was asked this question by groundbreaking war correspondent Martha Gellhorn when I entered CytyByrd Cafe for the preview performance of SONDERimmersive’s theatre and dining experience, The Lost Generation. The question marked the beginning of an evening that both profoundly moved and delighted me. The food, drink, performance, big ideas, and the opportunity to experience it all in an intimate and communal eatery gave me an ideal relaunch into the world as a newly vaccinated person. As a life-long theatre lover, I have been surprised over the last year to find myself not missing watching plays, but rather the shared experience of theatre. I adore the ethereal community created in the small moments of catching another audience member’s eye during a great joke, the collective gasp at a plot twist, and even the chit-chat while waiting in line for the bathroom. I have missed the shared human experience of storytelling far more than the stories themselves. So I am grateful that my first post-pandemic review was a collaborative experience that has as much to do with who you sit by as the actors performing around you.
The title of the piece evokes the collective loss we have endured. We mourn our canceled trips and parties, and most especially our beloved friends and family gone too soon. We feel the displacement of lost rituals and the political division of our communities. We are in many ways a lost generation, but we are not the first generation to endure such losses. Martha Gellhorn, whose 60-year career took her to every major battlefront of the 20th century, is a perfect guide to provide perspective on our shared grief. Like our lives over the last year, nearly every aspect of this performance is framed by the pandemic. As such, even booking this performance will be unique. The first thing to do is gather a crew of 9 other people. I would recommend a mix of people you know well and people you want to know better, and especially people with whom you are longing to connect. Then, email Cytybird to determine a performance date that works for your group and let them know about the group’s COVID safety level. The performers and staff are fully vaccinated and will do what they can to ensure a safe experience for you.
Upon arrival, you will be interviewed by Martha, powerfully performed by Catherine Mortimer. Feel free to pick up a glass of rosé as you make your way into the gorgeous dining room to mingle with the other guests. You may be introduced to a young, rather dashing writer named Ernest Hemingway (Tyler Fox) who will charm with soulful questions. Explore the space more thoroughly and you may come across an old, extremely dedicated fisherman played by Kevin Giddens. Be sure to make friends with the helpful staff member, Amber Golden.
Revel in the beauty of the space, curated by proprietor and chef Liberty Valentine. (This restaurant space is located in the northeast corner of the historic City-County Building, and I am excited to visit again!) Consider how the four course meal of Cuban-inspired food and drinks are themselves characters in the storytelling. Indulge the senses as you partake and chat with the other guests around the large shared table. As dinner is served, Martha and Ernest’s passionate affair spins around you as told by their historic love letters. In parallel, Earnest brings his final masterwork, The Old Man and the Sea, to life with brutal results. With creator-director Graham Brown’s dance background, SONDERimmersive’s performances are always punctuated with powerfully choreographed movement sequences. This collaboration is their strongest offering yet.
When I heard the play was based on Hemingway’s life, I took a deep breath to prepare myself for another story of another literary great-white-man of the 20th century. I am happy to report that this play is not a hero’s tale. Each actor’s skills are on magnificent display, but I found Golden’s silent performance particularly arresting. The playbill lists her character as The Marlin, but she captures so much more.
As this show is an immersive performance, there are some invitations for audience interaction, which can be anxiety inducing for some folks; however, the production provides clear boundaries and keeps the requests totally optional. There is one interaction offered that left me uncomfortable. It impacts an actor’s body in ways that could be considered non-consensual. The invitation is powerful and is in line with the overall message of the show, but I hope the production team will keep careful attention on the physical and emotional impact of this element as the performance progresses. I am always pleased when a show can believably explore the range of human emotions. This performance is replete with desire, joy, absurdity, fear, and loss. As with life itself, there are intense moments of sensuality and violence, but also great beauty.
Following the performance and completion of the meal, the cast and production team joined the audience for casual chat. Over the course of the evening, I had become acquainted with the strangers around me and was surprised by the unexpected sense of ease and well-being that I had while we socialized. I had not realized how profoundly I have been missing this basic human experience for more than a year.
I have been wrestling in large and small ways with the daunting task of reentering the world safely. Each person is renegotiating the physical and social boundaries and considering what parts of, “the before world,” we wish to leave behind and what lessons from this season of loss we will carry into the “after.” My night with SONDERimmersive gave me a beautiful space and structured framework to ease my transition back into a socially connected world. It may sound grandiose to call this a spiritual experience, but like all meals and live performances, it contains all the needed ritual elements: immersion into a new physical and emotional space, communion with others, storytelling and time for self-reflection. With all its beauty and complexity, in the simple acts of sharing food and story, The Lost Generation captures everything I love and have missed about living in community.