‘Psychic Self Defense’ Swallows Your Mind With Curtains And Contraptions
3:17 PM EDT on September 15, 2023
The most expensive immersive theater in the world is happening in Disney’s latest Star Wars attractions. The most popular seems to be Rise Of The Resistance, which as far as I can tell is the closest you can get to being in the actual scenes of those movies without colonizing Mark Hamill’s body. But the only one I’ve ever been on, from when I was a kid, is the since-closed Star Tours, which with some moving seats and a projector screen turned you into a sidetracked tourist guided through chaos by C-3PO and R2-D2.
I thought about Star Tours last night while I was at Here—the downtown theater space with the most Abbott & Costello-ass name. Psychic Self Defense, a show that’s running at Here through the end of the month, turned out to be a little like a classic Disney ride, if that ride had approximately the budget of a public high school’s art department, and that art department was run by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
The line for the show starts in the Here lobby but sends theater-goers in small groups outside and next door, where I was welcomed by a macabre creature in an all-black mesh costume. This silent figure led myself and a few others through the depths of the theater, which was tricked out with surreal decor whose theme constantly changed as we kept walking. Then we were shown our seats for the actual show in a big sloped rectangle, with a railing at the front dividing us from the stage. I’d seen shows, um, Here before, but this disorienting experience rendered the space unrecognizable. The immersiveness of the path just to get to the actual attraction had a Disney park’s commitment to escapism, and the organization of the space once we got there was unmistakably designed like an old-school motion simulator that would attempt to transport this crowd to another galaxy.
This paragraph would be a good spot to summarize the plot, but there isn’t one. In this sub-one hour experience crafted by Normandy Sherwood, there are two identifiable humans, at least at the beginning, who each get like one spoken line. They’re exploring the dimensions of the inner mind, maybe? But what this show lacks in conversation it makes up for with ingenious contraptions. Psychic Self Defense is like a dream ballet, feeling its way through mid-20th century sci-fi aesthetics while asking the viewer to fill in the logic. We meet more of those black-mesh guys, a big tongue, some little woven jellyfish, and buoyant Christmas-tree like figures along the way, who move and rearrange the stage as alternatingly dissonant and pleasant music plays.
There’s plenty of crafty innovations to see on the other side of the railing, but the star of the show is the curtains. Psychic Self Defense has so many curtains. However many curtains you just imagined when you read that sentence, triple it. And they’re constantly moving to change the scenery, join the action, or even to make you chuckle. Here isn’t a very big space, but the trick of showing you only a little of it, and then revealing the rest at times when the curtains allow, has the effect of making the show’s scope feel huge.
A giddy energy runs through the whole production, and perhaps you’ll feel your brain, when freed from the need to follow any plot, starting to operate on Sherwood’s terms. I personally would recommend going sober, unless you feel you’re mentally strong enough to sit still in a crowd through waves of creepy imagery and profuse stimulation. Even entering normal will require a period of adjustment when you’re back out on a quiet street. But that advice is not meant as a warning to scare you off. This is ultimately a welcoming show with a low barrier to entry.
Psychic Self Defense isn’t quite a magic trick. You can see, at least one time on purpose, a number of seams where the work behind the show is as prominent as the show itself. And that sort of scrappy, make-do mentality leads me to wonder how it might have looked with more, or even unlimited, resources. Maybe there’d be more screens, or holograms, or animatronics, or a revolving stage, or 4-D style smells, or subwoofers in the seats, or any other tech you can think of. The structure of the show would certainly welcome any additional ideas without straining itself. But as it is, whatever it cost, it’s a remarkable little piece of imagination and a tribute to the timeless creative powers inherent in just hands and fabric. The power of theater is almost always connected to the emotional heft of its storytelling, but sometimes, it can just pick you up and place you in a new world without any of those conventions. Psychic Self Defense is a reminder that the immersiveness of a show is not always proportional to its technology or budget. It just has to make you feel different.