On a recent afternoon at 3 Dollar Bill in East Williamsburg, a group of performers brainstormed ways to involve the audience in their upcoming site-specific show. “Play Truth or Dare with them?” suggested one. “Make them react to specific musical and verbal cues?” echoed another. “Play trivia: drunk people love trivia!” interjected a third.
They had just finished rehearsing the anthem-like song “Amethyst & Diamond,” a high-octane group number in Oscar at the Crown.
The immersive musical is set in an overwhelmingly fascist future where all the “others” (non-whites, non-heteronormatives) have been exiled. “We imagine that all these others found this bunker and fashioned it into a nightclub fantasy, where they survive thanks to their love of performance, worshipping the show The OC and The Real Housewives,” creator Mark Mauriello told Bedford + Bowery after rehearsal. Oscar Wilde comes into play as the bunker dwellers are trying to stage a play about the Victorian dandy. “We have the belief that, through the performance of the show, we’re alive and surviving,” he continued. But their philosophy of we are free, we’re fabulous is challenged as soon as a newcomer ventures into the bunker the way Belle first enters the Beast’s castle.
Oscar at The Crown is the first full-length original production by The Neon Coven, a young and growing collective making theatrical performances focused on “otherness” with “high-octane music with a lot of screaming” and “theater in non-traditional spaces.” A previous production took place in an abandoned burger joint on Smith Street. Alongside Mauriello, the other founding members of The Neon Coven are composer/lyricist/choreographer Andrew Barret Cox and director Shira Milikowski. The three founders usually wear pentagram necklaces; besides symbolizing the five elements, it’s a symbol for witchcraft that resonates with them as creators, “a coven of like-minded people sharing goals of being free of being themselves.”
The production, which has been four or five years in the making in different iterations— a first version was actually Mauriello’s senior thesis at Harvard in 2015—is an enthusiastic tribute to pop icons of the early 2000s and pop culture and pop iconography as a whole. There’s a hymn-like song dedicated to the character of Julie Cooper in The OC. And Oscar Wilde is perceived as the one who got our attitude towards pop icons started.
“It was the late 1800s, and he was playing with all of that—using personas and craft,” said Mauriello. “He would have been great on Twitter, and his reality show would have been the best one.” In particular, Mauriello is fascinated with the dynamics of the rise and fall of pop stars such as Britney Spears, Lady Diana, and even Jesus. “It’s a grotesque fascination, with lifting someone up to tear them down,” he said.
For the majority of his creative career, Mauriello had been coveting a space such as the back room of 3 Dollar Bill, in his words “a room, reminiscent of [notorious Berlin nightclub] Berghain, metallic, concrete,” which delightfully contrasts with the costumes worn by the characters, a mix of pirate boots, early ‘00s sparkle and anime-forward cutouts.
The music is an endearing blend of influences such as jpop, kpop, and 70s and 90s disco. The songs we got to see performed during rehearsal have high ear-worm, dance and sing-along potential, courtesy of composer and lyricist Andrew Barret Cox. “I wanted to incorporate a bunch of different time periods in my songs: I am randomly inspired by 90s, 80s, 70s in my music,” Cox told Bedford + Bowery. “A lot of that stuff was high-energy and positive music, and I think that’s why it resonates and resonated at that time.”
True to the title, Cox scattered Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms and quotes throughout the song lyrics. “Amethyst & Diamond,” for example, has “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying,” uttered the way Lady Gaga said “it does not matter if you are him or H.I.M” in “Born This Way.”
Oscar at the Crown joins the ranks of productions such as K-Pop and Cleopatra, immersive shows that forgo the psychosexual tension of, say, Sleep no More or Then She Fell in favor of a good time for the sake of a good time. This was also dictated by the location. “If you’re doing something in a nightclub, it has to belong in a nightclub,” said Mauriello. “People are drawn to this genre because they’re looking for communal experiences,” he said, reminiscing about Greek theater festivals, which had a strong communal and ritualistic component where people, in addition to actually watching the comedies and tragedies, actually drank and prayed. “It’s returning to that: let’s dance, let’s get up, let’s be part of something together.”
And should you not want to participate in the immersive experience, the creators are fine with you just dancing to their tunes.
Oscar at The Crown opens on January 18 at Three Dollar Bill. Tickets available here.