Greta McAnany

Greta McAnany

Michael Leoni’s Elevator Is a Moving Experience

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Elevator, produced by Michelle Kaufer and Schoen Smith for An 11:11 Experiment, plays Thurs. and Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 3 & 7 pm; until Aug. 22. Tickets: $20. Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 323.960.7787 or plays411.com/elevator

When you step into an elevator full of people, it’s probably the closest you come to a group of complete strangers during your entire day. There is an inherent awkward, strained atmosphere rife with judgment and discomfort. But luckily this claustrophobic ride usually lasts only 30-45 seconds and then the steel mouth of the elevator releases you back into the open air where you can reclaim your personal bubble of space.

Or so you think.

In An 11:11 Experiment’s production of Elevator at the Hudson Guild Theatre, writer and director Michael Leoni explores the individual and group human reaction to an extended elevator ride. The story was first depicted in a screenplay by Leoni; then he submitted the idea to this year’s Hollywood Fringe Festival.

<br />Michael Leoni
Michael Leoni

“I pitched the idea and they were like, ya we will take you we have one spot left, so I just rewrote it into a play in a week,” says Leoni. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to work because the process was so quick but it did and it has been my one project where I have tried to put no pressure on myself and just let it flow.”

The play begins with seven individuals gathering in the lobby waiting for an elevator.  When they first step into the elevator each represents a distinct societal stereotype. From the Hot Girl to the Maintenance Man to the Female CEO, each person is preemptively labeled and already “figured out” in the first five minutes of the play. But after hours of their midair captivity, each character’s façade crumbles as the four walls of the elevator bring out their buried truths.

Along with their personal catharsizes, each character discovers an unexpected bond behind the closed doors of the elevator that at times can seem almost too good (and convenient) to be true but begs the audience to consider the question, “What would happen if everyone just told the truth?” Through these suspiciously lucky and coincidental connections, Leoni suggests our capacity to connect and help one another is grossly underused.

And what better place to force this potential for connection than in an elevator?

Leoni’s own personal experience of being stuck in one was the catalyst for Elevator. “I was stuck in an elevator for two minutes and I was with some friends. One of my girl friends who was a virgin leaned over to me and joked, ‘I am not dying till I have sex.’ And this got me thinking, I have always thought the concept of what people think about others is really interesting and then adding the element of the elevator just heightened and challenged this idea.”

Especially in a city like Los Angeles, pegged for its stereotypical Hollywood people, Leoni’s range of characters represented all parts of himself and were identifiable to audience members. “The really cool thing about this piece is that it spans so many ages. There are people 12 to 85 who walk in and see this show and can really get something out of it, and that’s so cool.”

With an experience so simple and ordinary there is the perk of applicability to people’s lives but there is also a danger of being too common and dull. Leoni avoided dull altogether with his ingenious and metaphoric set (designed by David Goldstein) and cinematic staging.

The set appears deceptively basic upon first glance, wooden panels outlining the structure of an elevator box with a couple of interior lights, hanging chains and a black and white checkered floor. However, as the cast begins their trapped tenure, anxious and terrified, this box is quickly transformed into a prison with the chains, dark wood and dark walls shackling them inside the elevator and, symbolically, inside themselves.

During the lighter moments of solidarity and bonding (involving everything from sharing a joint, a sing along session and even lending someone tupperware to pee in), all of a sudden the elevator is overwhelmingly spacious. The frame of the box itself is small; however, the large gaps in the walls and ceiling reveal the intrinsic open nature of the elevator that was masked by lighting and the characters’ own insecurities. As the characters open up to one another, remarkably the elevator expands before your eyes.

Along with the uniquely transformative set, Leoni uses clever cinematic tools to show the passage of time in the elevator. “I like to give a film-like feel to theatre because it is what I would wanna see,” says Leoni.

<br />Alex Rogers, William Stanford Davis and Karlee Rigby
Alex Rogers, William Stanford Davis and Karlee Rigby

With frequent musical interludes (original music composed by Mario Marchetti), complemented by flashing lights and actors moving at a supersonic speed, the audience felt as if they were watching the show in fast forward. At other times, he complemented music with a simple fade to black to suggest that moment in time is over and another one, sometime later, is about to begin.

Leoni says his style is what he believes younger people like himself are interested in and can relate to. “I like it to be quick; something different is always happening.”

These small nuanced choices gave movement to the epic journey within a box and gave the audience breathing room in what could have been a very stifling setting.

Despite his unique directorial style, Leoni’s flair as a writer and passion for social change is the trademark of this piece. “I decided a while ago I had to write my own stuff and direct it if I wanted to make something happen.”

An East Coast native, he started directing in Boston, then relocated to New York. The goal of his work is to get people to think as much when they leave as he did creating the art. “Art is through and through and I always want to create something that gives people a different view after leaving the show. I want them to really think differently.”

The reality of Elevator and its simplicity may not make it the most dazzling theatrical spectacle in LA theatre but it will touch something basic and common to everyone. “Every show we do has some sort of social message and Elevator really challenges you to think about how you look at others and judge them. It’s one of our most basic human instincts and we really need to look at that.”

Feature image by David Goldstein.

Article by Greta McAnany.

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