Enter the Imaginarium is Bricolage’s newest immersive theater endeavor, and it’s a departure in certain ways from their previous forays into the genre. For one thing, although there’s a rich story woven into the experience, Enter the Imaginarium is less a performance than a hybrid between immersive theater and “escape room.”
“What’s an escape room?”, you may ask? Good question. I myself learned everything I know about escape rooms from one of the other participants, a self-professed escape room junkie, about five minutes before we entered the “Imaginarium.” They’re quite a thing nowadays, and apparently there are several in the Pittsburgh area. Most of them, she explained, involve being trapped in a room and having to puzzle your way out within a certain limited amount of time; in the more gruesome versions, the stakes might be raised by the presence of a zombie or other monstrous creature whose freedom to attack you is increased every few minutes you fail to effect your escape.
Thankfully, Enter the Imaginarium presents a kinder, gentler scenario, one that is more theatrically stimulating than it is horrifying. The creative team (Bricolage’s Jeffrey Carpenter & Tami Dixon, in collaboration with Jarrod DiGiorgi, Andrew Paul, Rod Schwartz, and ScareHouse’s Scott Simmons and Wayne Simmons) has taken over a former underage nightclub in Harmar, just behind Target; in that space they’ve built a series of intricately curated chambers chock full of strange, cultish objects that hide clues and keys and puzzle pieces you’re required to find, decode, gather, and reassemble in order to make your way out of the space (the rich scenic design is by Tony Ferrieri, with assistance from Hank Bullington). Teamwork is of the essence in working your way through the maze of rooms – the space is designed such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a person to navigate its puzzle-cum-scavenger-hunt alone. Hence part of the challenge – and pleasure – of participating in this immersive adventure lies in making common cause with complete strangers.
The “performance” here depends less on a cast of live performers (as in Bricolage’s previous immersive encounters) than on an elaborate scenic infrastructure and on disembodied voices that offer clues, guidance, encouragement, and mockery throughout the hour or so you’re caught in the room (sound design by Zach Beattie-Brown). I got the feeling from my veteran escape room co-participant that the time pressure usually makes participants feel nervous and anxious about getting out in time; I wouldn’t say that Enter the Imaginarium raised my blood pressure in such a way, but it did spark my curiosity and engage me, and the rest of the participants I entered and escaped with, in a lot of collective head-scratching, seeking, questioning, and deciphering. And where I suspect that most “escape rooms” would not reward a repeat visit (once you know how to solve the puzzle, there wouldn’t be any challenge in going back), because the story behind Enter the Imaginarium presents a mystery that is hard to solve while you’re also engaged in finding keys to locks and trying to remember what you saw in previous rooms, it very well might reward a return to crack the narrative as well.