As the pandemic made most traditional live theater impossible, the new theater company SONDERimmersive stayed busy, experimenting with innovative ways to perform in-person productions. In Through Yonder Window, audiences stayed in their cars and watched a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, told through dance, with audio playing from car radios. The Lost Generation was a thoroughly original dinner theater performance—designed for “COVID bubbles” of families and friends—based on Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. Now, SONDER has revived a pre-COVID production, The Chocolatier (formerly Thank You Theobromine), that continues the company’s trademarks—immersive experiences that ditch the traditional stage, flexible interactions with the audience and performances that blur boundaries between dance and theatre.
The narrative of The Chocolatier—or, more accurately, the fragments of the narrative that I experienced—goes something like this. Grandpa Joe (Jack Foriska) is the M&M-addled patriarch/quasi-cult leader of a family of chocolatiers. His daughters The Hero (Emma Sargent) and The Divine (Danell Hathaway) have very different ideas about how to grow the family business. The Hero earnestly evangelizes about the health benefits of cacao, while The Divine is a deranged girlboss ruthlessly focused on business success. As The Hero focuses on her obsession with chocolate, her husband The Libra (Chris DelPorto) and son Sport (Kai Jones) bond with her husband’s friend The Altruist (Severin Sargent-Catterton), who just joined the family business. Meanwhile, The Divine secretly sleeps with The Rejector (Edison Corvera), The Hero’s bestie, who feels disillusioned with their work as a chocolatier.
While the basic premise is described via web page before The Chocolatier begins, audiences get little by way of explanation when they are guided into the space, in separate groups, by different members of the cast. Over the two hour runtime, both actors and audiences move freely throughout the studio. Simultaneously, there could be five or more different performances happening at once, mixing dialogue, modern dance and improvisation with audience members. (Be prepared for the cast to flirt with you, share some secrets or turn you into an accomplice.) While at certain key moments audiences gather in one place, most of the play is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure narrative, and no one person will leave with the exact same experience.
This new staging of The Chocolatier is in Lila Studio, a Sugar House yoga studio. The original production, which I didn’t see, was hosted in The Chocolate Conspiracy, an actual chocolate factory. I wish I could have seen the production in its original location, especially because SONDERimmersive is especially thoughtful about how their work interacts with physical space. Still, there are plenty of interesting things to explore in the current setup. The scenography, by Joseph Wheeler, is more New Age Gwyneth Paltrow than Willy Wonka, and every audience member gets a small bag with chocolate and cacao to nibble on before the show. (Themed bars from The Chocolate Conspiracy are also for sale.)
The Chocolatier is not designed for audiences to absorb every detail. While Through Yonder Window and The Lost Generation drew from existing source material, this production, an original story, does not have a familiar narrative for audiences to anchor themselves to. This makes The Chocolatier more difficult to classify, and maybe, for some audiences, more frustrating too. There are so many moving pieces that it takes some effort, and probably some recapping with friends after the show, to understand the plot, let alone any deeper meaning. Overall, this approach demands more of the audience, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t rewards for the effort. The choreography, from SONDERimmersive founder Graham Brown and the cast, is consistently fascinating to watch, and the company, particularly Sargent, brings raw emotional power to the abstract movement. Every member of the cast has the difficult job balancing character work, audience interaction and the narrative’s tangled threads, and their engaging performances are essential to the show’s successes.
If you go, here’s my recommendation: be willing to move around, bounce from room to room and interact with the actors one-on-one. The Chocolatier is designed to erode your comfort zone, and the show’s most unique, intimate experiences only happen when you step away from the crowd.
The Chocolatier is at Lila Studio through Oct. 31. For tickets and more information, visit their website. Catch up on all of our theater stories.