I felt my way around in the dark: fingertips trailing along fluid velvet walls, bare feet threading soundlessly on a ground of soft fur. The darkness was not oppressive -- instead, it was cool and soothing, an olfactory cocoon of scented leather and powdery musk. The only sounds were a distant crackling radio, the thump of my heartbeat, and the delicate huff of my breath.
A Halloween haunted house? Almost. On Sat., Oct. 25, I was one of the last of some 530 people to experience El Eco de la Sombra (The Echo of the Shadow) by Barcelona theater company Teatro de los Sentidos, or Theatre of the Senses. The resemblance to a haunted house is only distantly conceptual; El Eco is a 45-minute voyage, alone, in an elaborately constructed labyrinth (really a former Shadyside armory, now owned by the Ellis School). The participant experiences a series of performance tableaux and sensory inputs in an oneiric landscape. Even the idea is titillating: Tickets for El Eco sold out well before the first performance, and the show's 10 dates likely generated the most buzz of any production in the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts.
To enter El Eco is to leave behind a waking existence and enter a dream, where anything can happen. Like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, what might be entrancing for one person could be nightmarish for another. With a little imagination, the silhouettes of a rotating toy wheel cast on the ivory walls of an El Eco circus tent becomes either a fantastic playground or a menacing childhood memory; the intimate contact with actors may be tactilely delightful, disturbingly sexual or awkwardly transgressive. And while I could describe to you the minute detail of these shifting sequences, you couldn't know what to expect -- El Eco, different for each person, transcends expectations. An intimate universe of experience is found in each smell, each touch and each sound. Its revelations could be mythical, philosophical or personal.
For me, I was a child again, running free in Wonderland. Playfully, I chased my shadow, creating my own sensual fairy tale: I am rocking softly in a dream boat. I am visiting a dwarf in a little house. I am feeling the refreshing drip of cool water for the first time. I lost myself in El Eco's universe, intoxicated by a medley of exotic scents, enticing sensations and enchanting sights in every room.
Enrique Vargas, founder of Teatro de los Sentidos, has said that he seeks to escape the "tyranny of the eye." With El Eco, he has achieved wild success. The show seduced me with the pleasures of the sensory, and there is a strange freedom in letting go, at least momentarily, of dependence on the visual. For long afterward, my body recalled El Eco's sensory language in fleeting flashbacks: tingles of fingertips on my bare skin, the coarse caress of linen draped over my cheeks, and the lingering scents of sandalwood and spices.