Review: In ‘Bottom of the Ocean,’ a Deep Dive Into the Soul

A spa day, a sound bath, a moving meditation and an initiation into strange and tentacled rites, “Bottom of the Ocean,” an immersive experience staged in a semifinished Brooklyn basement, ranks as the weirdest show in town right now, in a town that doesn’t lack for weird. How odd is it? Show me another work that hides baby octopuses (yes, OK, fake baby octopuses) in its communal bathroom.

“Bottom of the Ocean” is the third production, following “Houseworld” and “Whisperlodge,” from Andrew Hoepfner, who runs a newish company, called Houseworld Immersive, dedicated to participatory theater. I had missed the two earlier shows, but over the last month or so, a couple of friends had recommended “Bottom of the Ocean” and I had heard it mentioned in conversation. Booking a ticket began to feel a little like destiny. And there are worse Tuesday-night fates than being delivered to the basement door of a 19th-century church across the street from a smoke and vape shop. Knock at the appointed time and a small window will open. Speak the password and a man in elaborate robes will play a xylophone, welcoming you into new worlds.

Undersea motif: An installation of baby octopuses in a bathroom at “Bottom of the Ocean.”Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

I can’t really tell you what “Bottom of the Ocean” — which you can experience singly, doubly or in a group of five — is about. Probably I shouldn’t. Immersion depends on surprise, on not knowing what you will encounter around the next corner. More abstract than immersive hits like “Sleep No More” or “Then She Fell,” “Bottom of the Ocean” dilates, broadly, on themes of change, death and rebirth. There is often an undersea motif, though that evaporates in certain rooms.

The show borrows, ecumenically, from ancient rites (the Eleusinian Mysteries seem to be a particular point of inspiration) and New Age practices. It invents some rituals outright. At one point I may have worshiped a jellyfish.

Throughout, the performance insists on radical intimacy. During the preshow, you will be given a safe word that you can utter if touch is not your thing, though the touch provided is gentle and respectful and never delivered without consent. But not all intimacy is physical. The three actors (Hoepfner, Chia Kwa and Naja Newell on the night I attended) play characters, but you play only yourself. And in the course of the performance you will be asked to offer up your own regrets, desires and prayers.

I am unaccustomed to making disclosures like these to strangers. I barely make them to my therapist. So if you pride yourself on privacy and personal boundaries, the show may induce some very squirmy feelings. (Maybe that squirminess is appropriate for a show with so many cephalopods.) Those, like me, with lousy night vision, should proceed with caution. The stairs are steep. And those, again like me, who don’t love to sing in public — well, do your warm-ups.

Chia Kwa appears in a show that “privileges interiority and reflection over action, sending each participant on a private journey toward something like peace,” our critic writes.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

I have sometimes thought about the politics of immersive theater, what it means to prefer individual experience over communal joining. And I thought of it again a few times during “Bottom of the Ocean,” at least when I wasn’t thinking of the jellyfish or whether the fire burning on the salver was maybe a little high or how to locate the emergency exit in the dark. But the aims of “Bottom of the Ocean” are strictly apolitical. The show instead privileges interiority and reflection over action, sending each participant on a private journey toward something like peace.

Personally, the depths of my soul aren’t my favorite destination, but there is so much to enjoy along the way. Only two designers are credited — Laura Borys, who created the hallucinatory costumes, and the technical designer Howard Rigberg — but “Bottom of the Ocean” is a triumph of style and low-budget ingenuity, achieved through the simplest means: balloons, beans, wax, water. In the fewest square feet, it provides a sensory deluge. Each new room reveals a strange and distinctive environment.

If I sometimes found the closeness uncomfortable (the closeness and the singing), discomfort is the trade-off for two hours spent in what can feel like a lucid dream. At the end I emerged, from one sort of warm, wet dark into another. My aura, if I had one, was definitively cleansed.

Bottom of the Ocean
At Gymnopedie, Brooklyn; Running time: 2 hours.

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