Arriving (fashionably?) late for a performance doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing: one can get much more than one bargained for. Such is the case when I walked into the lobby of New York Live Arts’ lovely venue in Chelsea last week, some five minutes behind schedule. Expletives are definitely running through my mind, as I observe that there are barely ten people mingling about. “Latecomers,” I think, hastily signing the release form that was handed to me, not reading a single word. As minutes roll by, I am too consumed by journalist guilt trips to think about requesting my press kit.

Yvonne Meier's The Shining
Yvonne Meier's The Shining

So, there it is. I am completely unprepared. I am fretting over “why are they not letting us in?” but really I should know better. Yvonne Meier, who conjured up this evening’s experience, had already done it all well before “site-specific” and “immersive” became the buzzwords of the 21st-century live-arts lexicon. As a matter of fact, The Shining was originally created in 1993.

Knowing all that, I should also know that I am in for a treat – or harassment, depending on how one looks at it – the minute a naked lady (Annie Iobst), who immediately introduces herself as “The Naked Lady”, busts her way into the lobby. As soon as she’s done singing “Tonight”, she hastily dispatches the small crowd from the lobby into a van and before we know it, we set off into the night, gliding along the slicked, rain-washed streets of Manhattan. The Naked Lady and her sidekick, Nurse Baby Asparagus K-Starr, seem very invested in making us feel comfortable in these tightly packed quarters: they sing, serve us hot tea (laced with whiskey), dance Flamenco (OK, it is the hand-puppet version of it, but still…) and work hard on conjuring up the spirit of the season with stories of holiday (mis)adventures and, well, menopause. Before I know it, the van is crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, and I acknowledge that I have by now fully surrendered to this madcap adventure. And yet, I can’t seem to suppress a sense of menace that’s bubbling underneath the surface. Just as the title of this work suggests, I feel like I’ve become a protagonist of a suspense movie – the atmosphere conjured up by our friendly kidnappers evokes a contemporary cinematic rendition of a Grimm fairy tale.

No sooner than we arrive at our final destination – a Brooklyn art space called The Invisible Dog – does The Shining fulfill its menacing premise full-force. We are pushed off the sidewalk, forced to relinquish our belongings and lined up the stairwell by the ever more Gorgon-like Naked Lady. One by one, the audience members are thrust through the door at the bottom of the stairwell and into an expanse of darkness and deafening noise. What happens next is difficult to describe and, in a way, demands to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated – though latter is probably not the right word for it either. This final segment of the performance is fully absorbing, intensely experiential and, I would suspect, terrifying to the majority of the spectators. The space is a vast sensory deprivation-slash-overload chamber, a maze of alternately claustrophobic and open spaces. One never quite knows what will happens next as this fairly short but highly effective sequence delivers its punches mostly in a pitch-black environment. As an audience member, it is rare to experience an utter lack of control, and indeed, I feel like I have to surrender to and trust the performers completely as they push me through tight corridors, blind me with flashlights, line me up against the wall and wrestle me down to the ground. It is difficult to resist The Shining’s assault on the senses, and the work burrows its way deep into one’s collective unconscious – as I try to recall the experience, a fast-forward of Bosnia, Rwanda, Dachau and Los Angeles riots is recalled. The power of this work lies in its ability to exhume from the mind’s recesses the horrors one has passively experienced through the media, and to thrust the disarmed spectators into the epicenter of such violence. Seduced by the deceptively entertaining journey to the unknown in the first part of this work, the spectator is utterly unprepared for the reversal of roles that occurs in its final section, where the passive bystander becomes the victim, to a profoundly unsettling effect.

The final segment of The Shining ends as abruptly as it begins: the work lights are turned on, and the choreographer herself unceremoniously announces that it is over. For the first time, I can see my fellow audience members inside this space, a warehouse filled with hundreds of huge cardboard boxes, many of them tossed about and demolished during the piece. The space after the performance mirrors the inside of one’s mind, which at this point feels littered with the detritus of slasher films and CNN footage one has consumed over the years. Any which way you turn it, it’s not a pretty picture. And I bet that’s exactly the way Meier intended it to be.