"The Car Plays" is not your typical theatrical experience.
Looking around before Sunday night's performance, there was no theater, cushioned seats or ushers in sight. Instead, attendees were met by a new kind of playing space: 15 cars parked on the Arts Plaza at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
Each car's interior served as the set for one of 15 plays in "The Car Plays," which was part of the center's first "Off Center Festival," an eclectic program of performing arts that ends on Saturday. Audiences for "The Car Plays" — which will wrap up its Costa Mesa run with performances at 5:30, 7 and 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday — buckled up and experienced the electrifying intimacy of modern art on wheels.
The 15 cars were divided into three rows, and audiences could attend three cycles of performances, designated as "Street," "Road" and "Avenue." Each cycle featured five cars and five individual plays, which were written and directed by different people and altogether lasted about 50 minutes to an hour.
The neighboring South Coast Repertory had commissioned three of the 15 plays for the "Off Center Festival": "Five and a Half Weeks," "Foolish Heart" and "Easy Listening."
Throughout the evening, a team of attentive carhops helped pairs of two find their seats from car to car, even providing umbrella cover when the weather turned sour and it started to drizzle.
But once you took your seat, the real one-of-a-kind experience began.
As the carhops shut the doors, the intimacy of the space became evident. The dynamic of this proximity was unlike that of any other stage show, because the audience was forced to be emotionally and physically engaged, as they were trapped inside the play itself.
And when the actors start going, you got a rush, you felt their emotions, frustrations, elation — even the weight of their bodies shaking the car and vibrations of their bellowing voices letting out screams and laughter. All at once, the increased proximity intensified all of the senses. The night lit up when a few scenes were accompanied by the pitter-patter of rain atop car roofs.
In "The Car Plays," audience members experienced some of the strongest human emotions — anger, love and passion — up close and personal. Performers could touch the passengers, but the passengers, of course, could not touch the actors.
However, the intimacy of the action could make this experience unappealing to select theatergoers — and I'm referring to the individual who shrinks and diverts their eyes when an audience volunteer is being chosen.
A suggestion for more reserved theatergoers: Take a friend along for moral support. But those who are adventurous and open to spontaneous surprise will surely be blown away.
Before attending "The Car Plays," I was familiar with the concept, and therefore apprehensive about the set-up and practical execution. While waiting in the loading zone, I wondered if the cars would move or start and, more importantly, how the audience would be seated. Generally, a car ride involves a lot of twisting around when talking to a passenger in the back seat. And, sometimes one seat may not have the full view that another may have.
I was pleasantly surprised by the spacious seating arrangements, which perfectly molded to the scene: two in the front, two in the back, one front and one back, etc. The seats were carefully positioned and the headrests were removed to increase visibility. However, the hardest configuration was leaning over to see two forbidden lovers getting steamy. No worries, the clothes stayed on.
Mind you, the show is for adult audiences. There were plenty of curse words, as well as sexual content and controversial topics including: infidelity, marriage and separation, murder, same sex relationships, euthanasia, and, of course, gas prices. But then again, the concept is organic and revolves around realism and true-to-life experiences.
The writing was immaculately tailored to the concept and relevant to the location of Costa Mesa. There were several Disneyland references, and local city names and streets were mentioned throughout the evening.
But best of all, the short plays were all accessible to the general public, and therefore provided a new wave of avante garde material that appealed to contemporary audiences.
Because the three cycles of plays featured pieces by different playwrights and directors, this allowed for a refreshing variety of performance material. Although the majority of the pieces were dramatic and thought-provoking, there were sprinkles of comedy that lightened the mood.
Each director and playwright innovatively worked with the space, allowing actors to use parts of the car — the trunk, ignition, glove box, horn, sunroof, inside lights, car doors. Better yet, the performers were not confined in the car itself and often moved in, out and around the vehicle. However, the cars were never started or driven, most likely due to safety and legal restrictions.
Onlookers were perfect spectators, flies on the wall — especially in the "Street" series, because the actors never broke the fourth wall and pretended the guests were not in the vehicle.
As flies on a wall, audience members witnessed a variety of situations, from first dates and kisses, to back seat infidelity, murder, raging arguments, and car trouble.
For example, in "PCH" by Trey Nichols, director Kim Glann staged a married couple's hilarious bickering over car trouble and Sprint versus Verizon coverage.
Most of the performers never pushed their acting over the top and remained realistic. After all, believability is one of the most crucial factors in this TV- and film-like setting.
The truth is, people still deal with their lives in the car. And, on the way home that evening, I looked out the window on the freeway and couldn't help but wonder what was going on in each of those cars, every vehicle representing its own little world.
HEATHER YOUMANS reviews arts events for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "The Car Plays"
When: Six shows remain through Friday and Saturday
Where: The Arts Plaza at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
More information: For tickets go to http://www.scfta.org, or call (714) 556-2787