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Las Vegas performers take ‘ambient entertainment’ to another level

Updated September 25, 2020 - 1:58 pm

Their marriage is crumbling into an ugly pile of grievances.

Terry and J obviously loved each other at one point — they might still — but it’s tough to see a healthy way back from the emotions that come spilling out when they finally confront their unhappiness.

It’s a messy, uncomfortable display as they vent, rage and — “Car!”

“We play by street hockey rules,” actress Natalie Senecal jokes as headlights engulf her and actor Mike Vargovich. They pause and step back toward the stage door in the alley behind Majestic Repertory Theatre to make way for the oncoming vehicle.

The confused driver stares at the duo through the passenger side window, then at the dozen or so masked onlookers along the opposite fence, before slowly continuing on her journey, now with a story to tell.

Welcome to a night of theater in the Arts District, COVID-style.

Adapting to confusing rules

“Technically, this is a pop-up retail experience with ambient entertainment,” explains director Troy Heard, Majestic’s founder and a local theater institution.

Live, ticketed shows still aren’t allowed under Nevada’s coronavirus safety protocols, even after a video of Gov. Steve Sisolak listening to a singer and three-piece band while dining out in early August went viral. Sisolak insisted there was no prohibition against ambient entertainment, leading to confusion and angst among local performers.

That’s why the run-through in the alley isn’t for a play — although what Senecal and Vargovich are performing, Adam Szymkowicz’s “The Parking Lot,” was intended as such. It’s for what’s being billed as “a socially distant ambiance performance” that just happens to take place at 7 and 8:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through Oct. 11. That’s when customers, and maybe some friends or family members with whom they’ve been quarantining, will arrive at a location they’ll be made aware of 24 hours in advance to pick up a limited-edition Majestic air freshener.

Once they arrive, a masked Heard will hand out one air freshener per car — for the special price of $50 — and, should those customers choose to park and remain safely inside their vehicles, they can take in a performance uninterrupted by traffic. The audio will be fed through each car’s stereo, so its occupants could, in theory, adjust the volume to make it easier to carry on a conversation.

It’s a lot to go through for an event that requires attendees to remain in their cars throughout, especially considering the Las Vegas Drive-In, and its restrooms, have been open for moviegoers since May 9.

The fact that the run-through was preparing for such an elaborate act of stealthiness just 24 hours after Las Vegans were allowed to file into bars, without masks while they were eating or drinking, to watch the Raiders on TV and scream — an activity that expels more droplets than simply talking — was lost on no one.

Designed with safety in mind

Heard has a history with playwright Szymkowicz. “Clown Bar,” his noirish take on the seedier side of the circus performers, made its Majestic debut in 2017, and the world premiere of “Clown Bar 2” was scheduled there in May.

Once it became evident that the lockdown was going to linger, Heard says Szymkowicz approached him with an idea for a script designed for socially distanced performances by two actors who already were a couple.

“The Parking Lot” came together alarmingly fast, Heard says. After a Zoom reading of the first draft, Szymkowicz delivered the second and final draft, and the show — err, “ambient entertainment” — was a go.

Heard admits the romantic comedy isn’t the sort of thing fans would expect to see from Majestic, which has produced such memorable evenings as “The Manson Family: An Opera” and the immersive holiday horrors of “Krampus.” Still, he says, “The Parking Lot’s” setting and staging make it appropriately “punk rock.”

As Terry and J revisit scenes from their relationship while tallying its pros and cons to see if it’s worth salvaging, Heard sees “The Parking Lot” as a metaphor — both for the couple and for 2020 as a whole.

“We’re all just kind of stalled,” he says. “We’re looking for direction. ‘Where do we go? What’s next?’ ”

Struggling to survive

There may not be much of a “next” for Majestic Repertory Theatre.

“The Parking Lot” follows in the spirit of “Majestic Drive-Thru Theatre,” a curbside retail experience launched in May in which various performers — maybe a clown, perhaps a burlesque artist — delivered a mask and T-shirt to a customer’s car.

Evenings when actors can ply their craft, even in such nontraditional ways, have been few and far between during the pandemic.

“I hope that I can provide a little bit of respite from the (excrement) of the world for an hour,” Senecal says of her role. “If I can do that, then I’m doing my job the best I can, because it’s rough out there right now.”

Vargovich, whom she’s dated for years, has been keeping busy inside Majestic, rehearsing scenes and exploring parts of his trade he normally wouldn’t have time to hone. It wasn’t until run-throughs began that he registered just how long most of the community had been deprived of live theater. “That’s when you realize like, ‘Oh, wow. This is a totally different thing now.’ ”

Each session of “The Parking Lot” is limited to 10 cars to ensure no more than 50 people, including Heard and the actors, are gathered.

“Ten cars, 50 bucks, that’s $500. That’s a percentage of what we bring in from a sold-out performance here,” Heard says of his theater, which has become a haven where kids from various high schools can hang out and learn from — and be inspired by — professionals. “That’s not enough to keep the doors open. But it’s something, and it keeps awareness (high).”

Heard, a member of the Producers Alliance of Southern Nevada that’s attempting to lobby Sisolak for relief, sees “The Parking Lot” as nothing less than a fight for survival. Without some major changes, he’ll have to shutter Majestic Repertory Theatre at year’s end.

“If we’re not going to get any assistance from the government to take care of our landlord and our utilities, we’ve gotta fold,” he says. “Either let us produce safe events that are on par if not better than going out to a restaurant or going out to a bar, or give us assistance.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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