Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The IKEA Cycle: Tiny Domestic Dramas

Theater and Retail, Together At Last
IKEA, Renton, WA

This is the opening night of the new season of The IKEA Cycle, presented by Printer's Devil Theatre. The possibilities for staging scenes in a retail establishment are boundless, but what we're seeing here tonight seems clamped down by corporate restrictions. Though if I ran IKEA, I wouldn't want any artistic hooligans with their tattoos and theater degrees messing up my merchandise either.

Accompanying me tonight is my socialist friend Hank, who rails on the evils of large-format retail starting the moment he walks in the door. He has *never* bought *anything* at IKEA (save the ENTIRE SLEEPER SOFA he admits to later). We are both under the impression that you happen upon actors doing scenes in different parts of the store, so we start stalking people.

There are a number of young couples here to outfit their first apartments, quietly figuring out if this throw pillow will match that lampshade. It makes me a bit sad to realize that in a few years they'll be arguing over who gets what, but for now they seem happy and all growed up. One girl lobbies for a frying pan, "I want an excuse to OWN SOMETHING. It's the AMERICAN STANDARD." A few guys argue the merits of speaker systems while examining cabinetry. When we finally stumble upon an actual staged scene with actual actors, it's a jarring leap from the real scenes we've been tracking.

We settle on to some couches to watch what turns out to be Scene 3 of the six-scene loop. As we're whispering with each other about how you could turn this into a subtle play for product placement by having the characters ask each other about the furnishings (though maybe it already is product placement because you're showing people interacting with a living room set as if it's a home [Hank says that content doesn't matter anyway since no one is listening]), a guy leans back and hands us a schedule of the performances. Wait, there's a schedule? You know what time everything happens and what it's all about? That is not very guerilla.

The most interesting thing, of course, is to watch how customers discover, react, and either engage or do not engage in the performance. A few stop with a "hey, what's this? Hang on a second," but most size up the situation, inquire about whether it's being video taped, then surreptitiously hustle through the "set" to get on with their shopping. If these were comedic scenes with actors being hurled across furniture or breaking into dance numbers, the audience wouldn't treat it so cautiously. Then again, with the exception of the few of us only here to see the show, most folks are here to buy stuff and get the heck home. And also IKEA doesn't want them to break anything.

Hank believes that the only kind of theater possible in a sea of domestic products is one that oozes suburban cynicism. Have you ever watched someone complain bitterly about cynicism? It's fascinating. Hank wants these scenes to leave people feeling good, but then again the series is called Tiny Domestic DRAMAS, not Tiny Domestic Pleasantries. Some of the scenes are well done, and it's too bad that more people don't stop. But this is IKEA, we're in Renton, and our team just lost the Superbowl yesterday. A pratfall or two wouldn't kill anyone.

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