If you mention the Donner Party to most Americans, you’ll probably be met with a wrinkled nose, uncomfortable fidgeting or a look of vague revulsion. Whether or not they remember the details: they’ll remember the cannibalism. It’s undeniable that this tragic tale of snowbound pioneers, who resorted to eating each other to survive the vicious winter of 1846-47, is permanently etched onto the collective memory. And no wonder. It’s the American Dream gone horribly wrong. The familiar narrative of Oregon Trail, except instead of hunting squirrels to keep death at bay, these folks hunted each other.
If you find yourself curiously drawn to the tragedy of this low point in American history (isn’t that all of us?), The Tower, presented by AntiMatter Collective at Standard Toykraft (722 Metropolitan Ave. in Williamsburg) and running until April 26th, is for you.
A self-described “psychedelic journey into the history and mythology of the Donner Party”, The Tower is a play with elements of art happening about it. It merges historical narrative with the occasional surreal dance party and disquieting projections to create a unique retelling of the historical event. Using metaphors borrowed from tarot cards (the Tower card symbolizes chaos, collapse and destruction), the tragic tale unfolds in chapters that don’t adhere to a linear timeline – but it works. This is in thanks particularly to the lack of Fourth Wall, as the audience is led by a modern-day park ranger on a tour of the events, which unfold around them in haunting, jagged spurts.
The mix of period clothes, toe-tapping soundtrack and hallucinatory imagery have a lingering effect that will make you want to read up on the ill-fated history of these forlorn pioneers, while simultaneously offering fodder for your Spotify playlist. It’s this juxtaposition of old and new that makes it so captivating. The venue, with its air of an abandoned warehouse, adds to the unsettling feeling that permeates and keeps the audience hanging on the performance’s every word.
It’s an experience. It’s unsettling, hard to explain and sometimes terrifying (especially when the white-masked dance breaks). But it’s worth it. There’s beef jerky and free whiskey and it promises to be a night that won’t leave you alone.
Twisted Talk: How do you feel about seeing The Tower? Have you seen any other shows about the Donner party? Discuss below!