'Ketamine: The Musical' is—and isn't—exactly what it sounds like


A K-hole grows in Brooklyn, and a group of local artists are using their work to dive right in.

Ketamine: The Musical is a loosely narrative performance piece that explores the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of ketamine, the military-grade painkiller-turned-recreational club drug du jour found clumped in the crevices of house keys nightlife-wide. The production opened to a packed audience at Bushwick dance space and performance venue House of Yes on Wednesday, Aug. 17, where it will continue its sold-out run through Friday night. While the name of the show is certainly attention-grabbing, producer and House of Yes co-founder Anya Sapozhnikova told me that the spectacle aims to go beyond pure shock value.

“Ketamine has kind of become this almost unavoidable background to the scene that we’re in right now,” Sapozhnikova said over the phone last week. “I don’t want to say that ketamine defines the nightlife here, but people do it in the same way that people did LSD in the ’60s and cocaine at Studio 54. I mean, we’re so in the thick of it. You create art based on what’s relevant around you, what you’re living and breathing—not that we’re literally breathing ketamine, of course.”

Recreational use of ketamine, an analgesic and sedative originally created for use by military doctors circa the Vietnam War, is nothing new. Any former teenage weirdo who grew up fetishizing New York’s club kid scene of the ’80s and ’90s is well aware of the Schedule III controlled substance’s dissociative properties and decades-long history on the dance floor. (Thump has a very thorough Q&A with a doctor slash “club drug” researcher if you want to learn more about ketamine’s medicinal properties and recreational appeal.)

But while ketamine will likely become a little less illicit in the near future—CNN reports that the Food and Drug Administration has fast-tracked trials of the drug for approval as an official means for treating patients with depression and suicidal tendencies, in addition to its ongoing legal use as an anesthetic—the various psychedelic tableaux painted by the House of Yes crew are definitely not FDA-approved.

Ketamine: The Musical is barely a musical, at least in the strictest sense of the word. Despite its title, the production features very little dialogue and even fewer lyrically driven musical numbers. Producer and House of Yes co-founder Anya Sapozhnikova told me that the title, and really the show itself, was inspired by a comment she overheard at Mysteryland USA earlier this year. She and her group of performers were up late, giggling on a fire escape. A festivalgoer walked by and, seeing them, asked, “What is this, Ketamine: The Musical?!” They loved the name so much, she said, that they decided to make it real.

The production is split into three acts, each of which draws upon a vast array of physical performance media, ranging from acrobatics and aerialism to puppetry, song, and dance. Through these vignettes courses a vaguely linear narrative about one man’s descent into a K-hole and his eventual re-emergence after learning of the acronym “YLALO.” The show posits that the mantra, which stands for “You Live At Least Once,” offers an alternative path to Drake’s “You Only Live Once” and M.I.A.’s “You Always Live Again.” But maybe that’s just the ketamine talking.

While the more high-flying circus acts are impressive all on their own, the gravity-defying feats are more than just stunts. The tension brought forth by a trapeze artist nearly dropping to the ground before flipping back up to the bar dangling overhead evokes the sense of weighty weightlessness K brings on surprisingly well, and a knife-wielding clown popping kids’ balloons is as apt a visual representation of a late-night comedown as I’ve ever seen.

The production includes a number of tongue-in-cheek sight gags, like a giant Ziploc baggie of white powder floating over the audience before dropping into the hands of a white-wigged pixie, who promptly pops it, releasing a cloud of white dust. But producer and House of Yes co-founder Anya Sapozhnikova told me that the intention behind Ketamine: The Musical was not to encourage or glorify recreational drug use. In fact, she said, the answer to that question is kind of neither here nor there. People are already doing ketamine, so why not create a “positive environment” that acknowledges this fact of nightlife as more than just an open secret?

“My personal crusade isn’t destigmatizing drug use,” Sapozhnikova said. “It’s destigmatizing all sorts of shame. I don’t think Ketamine: The Musical is going to encourage drug use necessarily. I mean, maybe it will, but I think people going to parties where drugs are available and people feeling lonely and isolated are what encourage drug use. Our show is a fun, creative experience, and maybe it will create a space for people seeking help to begin to feel comfortable talking about that.”

Bad at filling out bios seeks same.

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