Ketamine: The Musical was a three-night (August 17-19) extravaganza dedicated to the most popular horse tranquilizer of all time. Hosted at Brooklyn nightclub House of Yes, the sold-out play was directed by the venue's co-founder, Anya Sapozhnikova, with a cast of dancers, singers, acrobats, and actors from the club's staff, and musical direction by local artists David Kiss and Sir Kn8. On its Facebook event page, the play describes itself as "an immersive, participatory, psychoactive and dissociative spectacle." After experiencing it firsthand, I k-hole-heartedly agree. Ketamine: The Musical might not be a theatrical masterpiece, but it is quite likely the most fun (and self-aware) musical about drugs ever made.
Sapozhnikova told Brooklyn Paper that the play sprung from a joke she heard someone crack at Mysteryland where they remarked, "What is this? Ketamine, the musical?" She decided to do exactly that, and the idea proved to be a hit—all four shows quickly sold out within days of the musical's announcement, although the club told THUMP that another run of dates is planned for later in the year. When I found out I'd be attending on opening night, August 17, it felt like I was getting a dose of good karma after experiencing continual loss in the Hamilton lottery. However, my experience with ketamine is limited—I'm not a DJ, don't live in a barn, and after a friend once tried to suck on my big toe while deep in a k-hole, I've never been too keen on the popular anesthetic ever since. Thus, I brought my cousin along for the ride, and convinced her to experience the musical in another dimension—by doing bumps during the show.
Let me give you some background information on my cousin. We'll call her Rita to preserve her anonymity. Rita lived in the South for many years, grew up going to church every Sunday, and travels to Tanzania and Zimbabwe to do charity work. She's against killing insects, wants to change the world for the better, and will apologize simply for breathing. Even though she's more Mother Teresa than Lindsay Lohan, I've helped nurture the reckless side that lies beneath her good-girl facade—she's like Oprah but with a pierced nipple. At first, when I asked Rita if she was going to do ketamine at the show, she spluttered and said no. "Rita," I said sternly, "Remember that time you snorted and licked cocaine off of a stranger's penis in New Orleans?" That shut her up quickly, and she soon changed her mind. Her experience with ketamine had barely sniffed the surface, and she wanted to give it a go.
Arriving at House of Yes fifteen minutes early before the 8PM start time, Rita and I stopped at the bar in the lobby for a drink. Neither of us had been to this venue, so we took in our surroundings. House of Yes is beautifully decorated, with walls covered in hand-painted murals and artfully-arranged gemstones. A smell of patchouli and alcohol lingered heavily in the air. A table in the corner had finely-chopped lines of chocolate that you could snort for free. "Sooooooo Brooklyn," Rita exclaimed. We noticed people filing into the theater to be seated, so we grabbed our drinks and joined the eager herd.
As we sat down in the back of the room, we took in the creative decor around us, including an empty, vintage-looking bathtub on our right, white swinging hoops high above us, and colorful drapery that hung from the stage to the ceilings. A simmering house track by Danish producer Kenneth Bager (thank you, Shazam) played on a loop as people settled in. A sign saying "The Musical" against a background of white powder was projected on red curtains. As the lights dimmed, the audience cheered, and Rita furtively leaned forward in her chair to do her first bump of the night.
The spotlight shined on a lady in a tutu standing on top of a bar to our right while a massive bag of white powder hurled towards her from the opposite side of the room. One could only dream, I muttered to myself. The lady in a tutu ripped the giant bag open with a knife, letting the powder fly everywhere and onto people's heads. Next, dancers in all-white costumes plucked a tall, skinny man with long blond hair from the audience, blowing powder up his nose and pulling him on stage. It turned out that we were about to follow his journey on ketamine—from the time of ingestion all the way until he's nodding out in his bathtub with no recollection of how he got there.
I turned to Rita and she was locked in a trance; her eyes transfixed on the lights and music as beautiful, strong acrobats hung from the drapery and swings like Peruvian spider monkeys, using each others' bodies for strength. Out came a white, bookish, curly-haired guy who started rapping about the harrowing process of sending emails while stuck in a k-hole, sort of like the raver version of Weird Al Yankovic.
Performers in cotton candy-colored costumes started creepily dancing to a supernatural edit of "Pop Goes the Weasel." It felt like my childhood nightmares coming to life in an oddly satiating way. Throughout this mayhem, the blond main character stood at the corner of the stage, frequently sticking his hand into a Ziploc bag to insinuate he was ingesting drugs via his mouth and nostrils. Then, the curtains closed for an intermission as a male voice explained over the speakers, "you've reached your first k-hole of the night. Feel free to stand up, if you can."
People retreated to the bar for more cocktails. Meanwhile, a raffle was held for two people to enjoy the remainder of the show from the aforementioned bathtub, which was now filled with bubbles and water. A woman and her boyfriend won, so they excitedly stripped down to their birthday suits, got into the tub, and were greeted with fresh glasses of bubbly.
A few minutes later, the lights faded, drawing our attention back to the stage. Two people dressed as life-sized tongues began caressing each other to the sounds of hypnotic tribal rhythms. The tongues quickly became overtly sexual in nature, mimicking sexual poses and licking each other all over to the delight of the cheering crowd. Rita started maniacally laughing at this erotic performance art. "I'm a little horny now," she jokingly whispered in my ear.
After the tongues stepped offstage, the man whose eyes we're experiencing the trip in came back with another man, both of them holding a colossal box of Special K cereal and a gallon of milk—a reference that flew over a few heads at first. The men awkwardly sat and ate the cereal in a scene that stretched a bit too long, before the protagonist poured out a line of white powder and snorted it, only to be shooed off stage to the sound of a beating heart. The sound of thumping shook the room, quickly shifting the vibe from comedic to eerie.
The curly-haired rapper then took a seat in a couch to deliver a quick lesson on ketamine, explaining its chemical effects on the brain and how difficult it is to have sex while in a k-hole. Later, in one of the best-received scenes in the play, the same actor explored the more philosophical, psychedelic aspects of ketamine. "Anybody ever hear of YOLO?" he shouted into his microphone, explaining that it means You Only Live Once. Then, he theorized that none of us really knows what happens after death; unable to rule out reincarnation, the safest bet is that we all live at least once: "YOLALO." In unison, we chanted, "YOLALO!"
The play took a darker turn when the main character entered a living room that was rapidly closing in on him. The light fixtures, the couches, the painting hanging over him—everything started spinning around in circles. The perils of ketamine were being showcased, including suffocation, claustrophobia, and anxiety. The change in energy was palpable—we went from laughing to tense in the matter of seconds.
This anxious moment was followed by our second and final intermission of the night. Rita was stone cold sober now. "Was your ketamine bad? Did you not do enough of it?" I asked. Rita said doing any more k would be "unholy," so she decided against it. I think she just didn't want to spiral out in the middle of a musical surrounded by strangers. Meanwhile, the couple in the bathtub got out, dried themselves off, and returned back to their seats to a round of applause.
As we reached the final act, the curtains pulled apart and revealed two extraordinary women hanging from a flying trapeze. Without missing a beat, their bodies flowed with each other in ways only explainable through telepathic communication. Under her breath, Rita mustered up an "I could do that." I'm here to tell you that she can't.
Out of nowhere, a woman dressed as a fairy appeared behind us, startling the entire back row. She began navigating her way through the chairs and blowing white powder out from her hand. Women holding keys quickly surrounded us as the main character looked around, confused. His acting and mannerisms accurately portrayed the ugly stares and delayed movement of people I've seen on ketamine before. Meanwhile, a naked woman sitting on a podium with her legs spread open started cackling as streams of glitter tumbled out of her vagina, insinuating that coins were cascading from it. (I'm still confused by the meaning behind this.)
The woman disappeared behind a drape, and the intro to Gesaffelstein's "Control Movement" started to play, paired with flickering strobe lights. Performers entered the stage in all-black attire, bumping into each other and appearing directionless. A projection behind them said "After after after hours," signaling to the crowd that this scene was happening at 3 PM in the midst of a bender. The actors formed a line, the Gesaffelstein song cut out, and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" took over. The ketamine zombies broke out into the infamous dance routine to the audience's delight as fiery sparklers exploded around them.
Finally, things turned even more macabre. The main character gets sprayed in black paint by the ketamine zombies, and enters the bathtub at the end of his trip—literally stewing in his gook and unwanted thoughts. A woman sitting above the tub starts playing a Tibetan singing bowl while singing operatically—her voice is beautiful but hinted at the uneasiness we were all feeling.
In the last scene, performers gathered on stage as water fell from above, drenching them and sprinkling into the audience. The cast was drenched and basking in the joy of their first show going as perfectly as planned. Everyone in the audience stood up and started to dance as they thanked us for coming, offering hugs and spraying us with more water. Despite the dark, anxious mood of the last few scenes, the play ended on an affirmative note.
Prior to seeing Ketamine: The Musical, I thought it would be a serious, moralistic affair about the dangers of an increasingly popular drug in the rave scene. Instead, the play pleasantly surprised me in its ability to poke fun at the absurdity of the ketamine experience—and the various effects it has on the people who indulge—in a way that feels entertaining and truthful, rather than condescending. Even though we were literally watching a play about ketamine, it was evident that many hours of hard work went into bringing this endeavor to fruition, and the palpable camaraderie of the cast and crew spilled into the audience, making the whole experience feel like a family affair. It's safe to say the powdered ceiling has been shattered.
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