In Almanac Dance Circus Theatre’s ‘The Fleecing,’ the audience plays along

Fred Brown and Martha Stuckey in Almanac Dance Circus Theatre's

Fred Brown and Martha Stuckey in Almanac Dance Circus Theatre's "The Fleecing." (Robin Stamey)

Strange things are happening at a rambling mansion in Mount Airy. The third Bumblefish has either died or disappeared in two years. Or maybe it was the second in three years, I can’t remember. But trust me, something bad has been happening to the Bumblefish and that’s where you come in.

When you enter the mansion, and a performance of “The Fleecing,” you’ll learn that you and the rest of the audience — maybe 20 people at a given performance — are acolytes in the Order of Mammon, which busies itself by celebrating money. The order’s many devotees (the actors) have welcomed you because their divine leader — known always as Bumblefish — has suffered some sort of cataclysmic fate. It’s your responsibility to help select a new Bumblefish from among these devotees.

No easy task, this. Every acolyte is given a pouch of uranium — well, stones really, but let’s not be too literal. You roam into small rooms in the mansion’s first floor and basement, where the devotees are dressed in mystical costumes and offer different “durations, audience-interactive performances … transmogrifications and prognostications” and stuff like that, according to the show’s winking promotional material.

And how do you judge these transmogrifications? That’s where the uranium comes in. You pay what you think each little performance is worth. Two pieces of uranium are better than one, and so forth. At the end, some devotee will be determined to have the heaviest pot of uranium — and to be the next Bumblefish.

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“The Fleecing” comes from Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, and is directed by Ben Grinberg, a member of the physical performance collective. I’ve seen them several times — two years ago, in a beautiful and inventive hit at the Philly Fringe — but never in an audience-participation show, let alone one with such super-Fringy overtones.

It’s amusing, and it mostly works. You wander through these little bits of dance, conversation, yelling, role-playing, and more in three themed phases: Mourning, Purification and, as the naming of the new Bumblefish approaches, Ecstasy. I’m not sure I found many differences among the little performances for each theme and at times during the evening, I was one of several people who saw whatever was offered and stood around doing nothing. And when I saw the show on opening night last week, it was rough around the edges, possibly from being under-rehearsed and not precisely thought-out. But there’s a payoff — the Bumblefish contest ends in a pretty funny way. If you play along in “The Fleecing” by leaving your inhibitions at the mansion door, chances are you’ll have a good time.

I don’t want to give away too much about what’s available room to room. I will say that the best ones I witnessed came from the Master of Scales (Dave Gillies), who had me and others walking on low-to-the-floor balance beams; the Fingaz of Mystique (Karen Smith), making beguiling sounds with sticks as she hits a round electronic instrument called a Hang; and the Indigo Trancendentalist (Jimmy Grzelak), who offered an aural and visual procedure he calls echocerulean dental therapy. The friendly yet strange guides through the evening are the Most Righteous and Honorable Viscount of the Gong (Fred Brown), who wears an extreme version of a Shriners hat, and Melinda the Adjudicant (Martha Stuckey).

By now, you probably get the picture. It’s a goof on cults, and given that the Order of Mammon is supposed to keep people believing in the power of money — here, the rocks representing uranium — “The Fleecing” does little to illuminate that theme. It’s certainly no social critique, as its creators maintain. For that sort of thing, you’re in the wrong mansion.

“The Fleecing,” produced by Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, runs through Feb. 17 at a Mount Airy address near Greene and Upsal Streets that is revealed only after you buy your tickets. The show is a part of Philly Theatre Week, which runs through the show’s run. Discount tickets may be available here

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