Does the performance start and end with the lifting and falling of the red curtain? Could a story be told without the stage presentation? Sam Schreiber's "Curtain Call" excites and incites the loyal theater-goer with the toying mystery of a hunt for interpretation. Dominique McLean's artwork reminds us that while the beauty and genius of performers can seem tangible, it is ultimately based on the flare ups of those in control of the picture.
by Sam schreiber
Tickets for Lucid as the Snow went on sale at midnight, January 1st, 2019, following eighteen months of viral promotion. Director and playwright Armando Levinson’s previous three productions had left much of the theatrical world befuddled and a touch resentful, but the casting of Tony Award-winning playwright Audra McDonald proved more than enough to bait the hook.
Jumpy footage of early rehearsals, tastefully leached into a variety of torrents and social media, suggested Lucid as the Snow would be a vivaciously performed, if cryptically structured, clash of theatrical titans. And if $9,500 a seat was enough to give even the most dedicated theatregoers pause, a cross-section of the affluent, the curious, and the boorishly fashionable had swollen to downright Hamiltonian proportions by late December.
Lucid as the Snow’s one-night West End engagement was scheduled exactly one year after tickets went on sale. The fact that the play would usher in the new decade was lost on no one. Included in the price of seating were generously discounted stays at a handful of London’s finer hotels, food vouchers redeemable at the Ceviche Soho, the Abbeville, and the Cornish Tiger, as well as surprisingly reasonable first-class tickets into Heathrow on United Jet Blue.
The tickets themselves were works of art. Smooth glass rectangles several centimeters thick, obsidian black and embossed in what appeared to be random succession of mostly phonetic letters and numbers, though there was a smattering Cyrillic characters as well. As the theatregoers would soon realize, each tickets’ lettering was unique, though certain patterns and motifs did recur. Theories were proposed on the subject. Most related to the plot of Lucid as the Snow and, as such, would all too quickly prove to be quite beside the point.
Hours before the 8pm curtain, ticketholders presented their glossy black tokens and lined up outside the Giulgud Theatre in Soho along a lavender carpet behind matching velvet ropes. To their delight, ushers dressed in dapper vests and violet shirtsleeves paraded outside the ropes offering trays of amuse bouche and flutes of champagne. Previously unheard tracks from an unreleased FC Kahuna album played over concealed speakers, calling to mind levity of decades past.
Armando Levinson, the ticketholders agreed, toasting the man over beluga caviar and flights of vodka. The future of theatre, the future of art, a shining beacon for the newly roaring twenties. Only a few noticed when 8pm came and went.
The Giulgud’s house manager apologized, insisting that the production was running behind schedule and welcoming the ticketholders to eat and drink their fill. When half past nine arrived and the refreshments ran dry, tempers began to flare. It wasn’t until nearly midnight that ticketholders pushed past the ushers and forced open the doors to the theatre.
Reports vary from this point onward, but most agree that the muffled shouts of the cast reciting unintelligible lines and the groan of scenery scraping along a wooden proscenium were both audible. But to the ticketholders’ growing outrage, each and every door to the house was barred from the inside. Before anyone could think to circle back and cut them off, the cast and crew of Lucid as the Snow made their escape through the Giulgud’s back alley.
Refunds were demanded, but to no avail. The holding company responsible for the production of Lucid as the Snow folded, its board of directors scattered to the wind. The money collected from the ticketholders, $9.36 million in total, slipped through various escrow accounts like sand. With the exception of MacDonald, whose one-woman off-Broadway show Sorry Not Sorry would go on to win major awards at both Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel in 2023, none of Lucid as the Snow’s cast or crew would work again for some time. Armando Levinson disappeared from public life altogether, presumably to spend what was left of the money he’d defrauded. A deflating conclusion for nearly everyone involved. Or so it seemed.
Exactly one year after Lucid as the Snow opened at the Giulgud, each and every ticketholder received handwritten letters in the mail, some forwarded from previous addresses, from one A. Levinson. An apology, some guessed before slicing open the envelopes. A plea for forgiveness. Perhaps some sort of explanation. A few were so naïve as to hope for at least a portion of their lost money.
But the letter contained nothing of the sort. Instead, inked with delicate penmanship, was a lengthy substitution cipher spread out across four and a half pages. In addition to letters and numerals, the cipher also offered phonetic substitutions for the Dhze, the Schwa, the Yer, and the Ge Upturn. Some ticketholders pieced it together faster than others, but word quickly spread that the cipher decoded the previously inexplicable lettering embossed into Lucid as the Snow’s glass tickets.
No one ticket contained a complete message, as each alphanumerically distinct. But as the ticketholders began to compare and combine their decoded glass tickets –those that hadn’t been smashed to pieces in frustration a year earlier– Levinson’s intentions became clear.
A recording of Lucid as the Snow, the letter revealed, had in fact been filmed one year earlier in the West End, committed to digital memory, and uploaded to thousands of pen drives. The pen drives, a few tickets revealed, had been carefully placed in safe deposit boxes in banks and post offices in New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Berlin. The original script and production notes, several tickets implied, had been ceremonially burned in the pit fires of Centralia, Pennsylvania.
It wasn’t until May of 2020 that a particularly well-to-do ticketholder admitted her ticket held an additional tidbit from the mind of Armando Levinson. A spreadsheet with the addresses and box numbers of every existing copy of Lucid as the Snow lurked somewhere in the mildewy corners of the internet’s dark web, and would be surrendered willingly to anyone who knew where to find it.
A treasure hunt, the ticketholders –who by this point had formed a sad little tribe of moderately dispossessed elite– all agreed. A few made attempts to deduce the location of the spreadsheet, while others questioned its very existence. Still others asserted that the document, once found, would contain nothing but more misdirection and heartbreak.
Another year would go by before a second letter appeared at the ticketholders’ doorsteps containing a second, more complicated cipher. Through a spectacular feat of cryptographic genius, Levinson had managed to squirrel away a second message into the tickets. This one warned that in an undisclosed location sat a pair of twelve-sided die, to be rolled on a weekly basis by a person under the private employ of a trust established by Levinson himself, paid in full and in perpetuity. Should certain numerical combinations occur, the message went on to threaten, a certain number of lines would be deleted from the spreadsheet. Should one particular combination come to pass, the entire document would be deleted, leaving the secret of Lucid as the Snow’s location lost forever.
A handful of exceptionally dedicated men and women took the message to heart and began reviewing everything they knew of Levinson himself to shake loose additional clues to the spreadsheet’s location, desperate to beat the clock. Most paid the second cipher no mind, though its very existence put a few mathematicians on the trail of some marginally groundbreaking insights into practical encryption.
Additional letters from Levinson arrived with still more ciphers, though of increasingly diminishing coherence. A few of the original ticketholders continued to read Levinson’s correspondence. Most were all too happy to sell or donate their tickets to private collectors and institutes of higher learning and be done with it.
One final letter was delivered in 2029 revealing nothing more than the address of a small flat in Kensington. Ticketholders, doctoral candidates, and eventually the police arrived to find Levinson’s body, put to rest with a cocktail of surgically rated sedatives some time earlier that month. The flat itself was filled with both classical and obscure tomes on cryptography, the collected works of a few notable German playwrights, canned food, and little else.
Several forgeries of Levinson’s ciphers drifted through the public sphere over the next few years. All were dismissed out of hand, by none more disdainfully than the original ticketholders. Amateur attempts at notoriety, they scoffed, that no one could or should take seriously.