Who would have believed that iniquity could be so thrilling and immensely cleansing?
“Seven Deadly Sins,” New York’s latest unholy outdoor experience, tests the limits of how far live theater can go in the midst of a global pandemic. Originally conceived by Michel Hausmann and wonderfully directed by Moisés Kaufman, the show, featuring the seven most important vices in a collection of short plays, has taken over the vacant storefronts of the Meatpacking District – and it’s a deliberate choice. Before bustling Manhattan was teeming with posh hotels, Michelin-starred restaurants, and high-end retail stores, kinksters and deviants filled the streets of the neighborhood, shameless and free. The area was once popular for the sex-laden BDSM, trans and gay nightlife that would make a devout Catholic pray for saving grace. Participants in “Seven Deadly Sins” only get a taste of the neighborhood’s alluring past.
Once spectators arrive at the pop-up ticket office, they are divided into three groups and shown to seats in the middle of a barricaded street to begin the iniquitous experience. The show begins in purgatory, a spiritual place of limbo between the gates of Heaven and the earthly. Mistress of Ceremonies Shuga Cain, draped in a dazzling silver papal tiara and a dress reminiscent of one of Rihanna’s Met Gala looks, comes out swinging a gold censer to cleanse the (outside) space of all negative energy. After all, we are a bunch of sinners waiting to hear our plight.
However, our emcee points out that each of the seven sins – envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, laziness, and anger – arose out of love. “Envy arises from the love of what others have, gluttony comes from the distorted love of food, lust from the greedy love of carnal pleasures …”, she recites. After provocatively stripping down in a burlesque-style bodysuit hidden under her dress, she syncs up for her life with Pistol Annies ‘”I Feel a Sin Comin’ On”, reminding us why she was a fan favorite on ” RuPaul’s Drag Race “. She then sends us back on our way.
Each of the Seven Sins inspires short plays from a diverse group of award-winning and nationally recognized playwrights: Ngozi Anyanwu (“Tell Me All You Know,” Gluttony), Thomas Bradshaw (“Tough,” Lazy ), MJ Kaufman (“Wild Pride”, pride), Moisés Kaufman (“Watch”, greed), Jeffery LaHoste (“Naples”, envy), Ming Peiffer (“Longhorn”, anger) and Bess Wohl (“Luxure”, lust). In continuous rotation, groups of up to 22 spectators are led by tour guides over an expanse of four blocks, with audience members listening through earphones assigned to both the guides on the street and the actors in the shop windows. . The actors perform each 10-minute play safely behind glass, keeping them safe from unmasked patrons but close enough to feel intimate.
With these seven pieces, no subject is forbidden and no part of the body is left sacred. Some stories are not for the faint hearted, and some will resonate with an intimate part of you. For me, Wohl’s “Lust” served as a piece of resistance in “Seven Deadly Sins”. The final piece in my evening’s rotation vocalizes the thoughts of an exotic dancer (Donna Carnow) as she performs in front of her attacker. The dancer never speaks visibly. Her perfectly choreographed movements are in tune with her deep thoughts (voiced by Cynthia Nixon) and her fluid body. The story of the dancer never falls into despair; instead, Carnow reveals genuine vulnerability and courage in a masterfully haunting performance. David Rockwell’s almost bare set design features a single silver dance pole, purple curtains that served as a backdrop, two full-length mirrors, and dollar bills strewn across the floor. I became so enthralled with the dancer’s performance that I almost forgot I was outside.
The problem with the open-air theater, of course, is that it’s open-air. While customers are outfitted with high-end Sony stereo headphones, they don’t completely silence the sounds of New York City: the occasional horn, burst of music, or a noisy onlooker. “Seven Deadly Sins” also runs, rain or shine, so participants had better pray that the weather would be dry.
But aside from the drawbacks, Seven Deadly Sins is an innovative and well-organized theatrical experience. The show pushes the boundaries of traditional performance and explores what can be done once live theater is resurrected.