Operation: Immersive Theater, Bushwick-Style

Welcome agent,” an actor in dark glasses says as I enter Studio 45, over on Troutman Street. “You’ll need this.” They handed me a postcard with a QR code and a promise to ‘enter the simulation,’ before leading me through to a dim, red-lit room where a different actor, wearing Groucho Marx glasses, is tinkering away at a robot named “Beep” while actors clad in black pace the room collecting audience submissions for the question: what message would you broadcast to the world?

The show is “Operation: Destroy Beff Jezos,” something that director Owen O’Leary told me is a “sci-fi comedy parody, choose your own adventure thriller musical,” about “ragtag rebels on their way to destroy an evil robot overlord, there are aliens, incels and robots in wigs.” The title refers to the name of the Amazon billionaire, though his name and his company are rarely mentioned throughout the show. 

Instead, Ebie Prideaux, wearing green eye shadow and red lipstick, introduces herself as “Beep,” now a friendly robot. She promises to guide us through a series of smartphone prompts that determine the pace of O’Leary’s story.  In an era where most theaters frown on looking at your phone, “Operation: Destroy Beff Jezos” takes a decisively different opposite approach. 

On our phones, we voted on which songs the actors would dance to: reggae, country or dubstep. We voted dubstep and then erupted into laughter when a trio of actors, Jacob Lamb, Ellie Creedon and Lais de Souza, all had to tap dance to it. Later, when the group were surrounded by actors playing enemy agents, the audience had to choose who they thought could save the day. The night I went, we voted for a geeky character named Gadget. Beep, however, said this was the wrong choice and told us all the characters all died. Then, she told us we could choose again.

Throughout the night, we competed in different mini games on our phones; the winner got to perform a “power-up,” a gaming reference that involved letting someone else lead a collective dance party, where the show stopped and everyone had to get up and dance to “I Love It” by Icona Pop.

“It’s a revolutionary piece of theater that’s being born in our very neighborhood,” said O’Leary, who promises that tickets to this would really let people be on “the ground floor of a new kind of theater.”

The plot itself follows the hijinks of a sexy renegade named Lizarra, played by Julie Sandler, the aforementioned Gadget (Joshua Kukafka) and a British robot named Scrum, played by Makena McElroy. The trio sing and dance their way through “Earth II,” a fictional dystopian world dominated by mindless media consumption and some kind of government mandated reality show. Thorughout, the group sing songs like “My Son Who’s a Robot,” a funny and sentimental song about Gadget and Scrum’s relationship. The group’s journey culminates with a stand off with the titular Beff Jezos, played by Jacob Lamb, where he’s joined by an “incel” named Greg, played by Clarice Reiner and who has been tracking the group’s every move. 

O’Leary says this idea took him four years to put together, starting as a passion project he took up during the pandemic. As a songwriter, he’s composed music for off-Broadway productions of “The Raven” and “Puss in Boots,” both put on at a small black box theater in midtown. O’Leary says the idea for a fantasy world where people are controlled by the media came to him after watching ten full seasons of America’s Next Top Model during the height of the lockdown. Finally, some workshops and table reads later, he’s taken this idea from his backyard to a small blackbox theater on Troutman street. 

At its heart, the musical is drenched in camp, something that stretches to costumes and set design, all upcycled from Facebook marketplace. At one point, the group fights a giant singing squid. At another, “Beep” strips down to her wire pasties while singing a manic ballad called “Motherborg Says I’ll Be a Star One Day.” Woven into every scene, it appears, is a deeper message about excessive media consumption and the idea that if you have a mind and a body, you have power.

When the final song concludes, Beep holds up a laptop showing an Amazon subscription renewal screen and asks us if we would like to continue our subscription with the e-retail giant. Though Amazon is rarely mentioned throughout O’Leary’s play, as we’re made to believe that “Earth II” is a fantasy world, this final question seemingly plucks us from Earth II and back to Earth I. 

“We need to be less passive in decision making,” O’Leary tells me. “It’s much less ‘don’t order from Amazon,’ and more just make sure you’re choosing to do it.”

What a thought provoking idea. It’s zany, it could be Rocky Horror‘s alien cousin. I left with a tune stuck in my head and even more existential questions to ponder on the walk home.

“Operation: Destroy Beff Jezos” is currently performing every Thursday at 8pm through the end of July, at Studio 45 at 213 Troutman Street. Tickets run for $30.75 and can be bought here

Photos taken by Molly Healy for Bushwick Daily.

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