“I feel like I’m in a 10-year-old’s acid trip,” a friend of mine whispered to me near the end of “Yum Yum: A 3-D Playhouse.”
Russell Goldman ’17 later confirmed that this is essentially what he was aiming for when he wrote and directed this hauntingly psychedelic performance. “I make these shows so I don’t have to do drugs,” he joked.
And when I say “performance,” it’s mainly for lack of a better word; “play” or “show” wouldn’t adequately describe the immersive, all-consuming experience of this piece.
Let’s start with, well, the beginning. As audience members lingered outside the theater and the aforementioned friend clung anxiously to my arm as she reminded me of her fear of clowns and horror movies, two people dashed into the room and started playing on the floor next to a stuffed parrot on a pedestal surrounded by colorful lights.
These individuals are actors playing a father and daughter. The mother soon appears and admonishes them for playing on the dirty floor, and after a brief argument and a little more play time, the father and daughter rise and leave the room.
Audience members then follow these two into a dark mirror maze, reminiscent of the horror-movie-themed funhouses at carnivals. Actors with faces painted white, one eye circled in red and the other blue, periodically pop out from nowhere, excitedly greeting audience members and ushering them inside. Viewers are handed 3-D glasses, whose red and blue lenses match the eyes of the ghost-like individuals greeting them.
It soon becomes clear that these little creatures are actually quite friendly; one eagerly offers the spectators mini cotton candy tufts, exclaiming, “We’re so glad you’re here!” They play friendly but spooky characters in the show as well, although as the story develops, their darker nature is revealed.
Finally, the mirror maze lets out into a dim room replete with a colorful set and a row of chairs, with space for observers to sit on the floor. And then the show begins, or, should I say, continues from the initial scene outside the theater. As the parents of the little girl, Yvette, yell at her with increasing intensity for being too childish, the background music crescendoes, and Yvette collapses as the stage goes dark, lights slowly reappearing as she finds herself in a sort of dreamscape.
She soon discovers that she is in a magical place called Yum Yum, and here she meets the ghost-like creatures: there’s Cotton, a cotton-candy vendor; Jack, who periodically springs, screaming, out of a life-sized jack-in-the-box; Pit, a musician who lives and strums his guitar in a ball pit, sometimes throwing out some angst-ridden musician jokes; Strings, who communicates primarily through puppets; and a nameless dancer who can control Yvette’s movements.
These characters are controlled by Erebos, the bird that lives outside Yvette’s window, who appears only as a shadow projected onto a screen. (This was an idea that Art Director Sofie Somoroff ’18 brought into the piece after seeing a play earlier in the year that used a similar concept.)
For a while, Yvette enjoys herself in this psychedelic Neverland; she’s good at the games they invite her to play, and they love the games she makes up. But soon, the more sinister side of this world—and of the play itself—begins to appear. It seems that Yvette may now be trapped here, and it becomes clear that the games and the endless supply of cotton candy may be concealing something deeper, something darker, about Yum Yum.
Yvette soon faces a choice: she can stay a “Yum Yum kid” and play games with her new ghost friends forever, or she can grow up, leaving the fantastical world behind and facing her parents and life at home. But the inhabitants of Yum Yum rely on trickery and deception to influence her decision; Strings, for example, manipulates giant stuffed puppets so it appears that her parents are cruelly admonishing her. The haunted quality of Yum Yum, as well as the ghosts’ efforts to keep her there, escalate, culminating in a final battle scene that includes Cotton and Yvette dueling with empty cotton candy cones.
It’s a work of absolute chaos, and at first glance the play is all over the place, a disorganized mess of loud disco music, garish colors, and creepy puppets. But it’s a very meticulously thought-out performance, each aspect fitting into a larger puzzle that illustrates the mind of a child on the brink of adolescence.
For Goldman, the experience is personal.
“I was a strange 10-year-old,” he recalls. “I played with ugly dolls and Beanie Babies until I was, like, 10 or 11…and I didn’t really figure out what the next step was and why everyone else wasn’t doing that, because I was really enjoying myself.”
Not only does Goldman replicate his 10-year-old mind in Yvette, but he also gives her something he feels he didn’t quite have.
“I wish someone had told me that I could start doing other things,” he explained. “Adolescence to me was really scary and terrifying.”
Besides his own childhood, Goldman drew on various stories that address maturity as inspiration. He cites all the versions of “Peter Pan,” “Coraline,” the Broadway show “Hand to God,” and “Inside Out” as works that majorly influenced the show, not to mention an actual 3-D mirror maze with a talking bird outside that he saw in Ontario.
While “Yum Yum” is Goldman’s brainchild, it was Somoroff who, as the art director, made his vision a reality. From the handmade costumes to the dizzying but coordinated color scheme to the intricate set, Somoroff made sure every single visual aspect lined up with Goldman’s goals and cohered with the messages of the story.
Despite the randomness of the piece, there’s an eerie feeling of control throughout. A key part of the plot is that Yvette is trapped in a world dominated by the bird Erebos, and his subjects also enact their own physical control; Strings often manipulates people’s movement as if they are his own puppets, and the nameless dancer gracefully traps and disorients Yvette in impressive choreography that actress Alexa de la Cruz ’17 came up with herself.
Not to mention that the audience itself is completely in the dark, disoriented after entering through a terrifying mirror maze.
“Everything is designed to reflect the insanity of this world, but also how controlled it was,” Somoroff said. “We had it on the stage and not in the house so we could control even the audience’s experience.”
Goldman echoed these sentiments.
“We wanted to remove them from Wesleyan, from Zelnick, from the ’92…and bring them into a place that they have never seen before,” he said.
If there’s anything that I can definitively say about “Yum Yum,” it’s that it’s something no one has ever seen before. Acid trip, psychadelic funhouse, creepy strobe-lit mirror maze, call it what you want. “Yum Yum” is an undeniably unique experience, and it’s both visually and mentally a dizzying and fascinating work of art.