A warning from (theater) history… (#Trumpwurst)

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#Trumpwurst. Image by Sara Figal

“…throughout history, how many great scenes have we not seen conducted on the stage of the world with – or, what is even worse, by – a Hanswurst? How often have the greatest men, men born to be the protective spirits of a throne and the benefactors of whole nations and eras, been forced to see all their wisdom and valor thwarted by some whimsical prank by a Hanswurst or by those people who, even if they do not wear his jacket and yellow hose, still embody his character? How often does the complication in both kinds of tragicomedy arise merely from some stupid, mischievous piece of work on Hanswurst’s part that spoils the plans of sensible people before they can suspect anything?”   — Christoph Martin Wieland,  The History of Agathon (1767) Vol 4: 5.

“Feeding the Dragon” at City Theatre

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“Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in a library…”

So begins Sharon Washington’s one-woman play Feeding the Dragon, an enchanting recollection of her formative years in the early 1970s when her family occupied an apartment on the top floor of the St. Agnes Branch of the New York Public Library, courtesy of her father’s job as the librarian’s 24/7 custodian.

Part memoir, part social history, Washington’s tale echoes the New York city childhood depicted in novels like E. L. Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. Like the protagonists in those novels, hers was a childhood marked by independence and a sense of security within a tight-knit neighborhood. And like the museum in Konigsburg’s tale, the library was Washington’s own personal playground after hours, its walled-in roof a safe place to hopscotch or learn to ride a bike, its grand staircase the perfect setting for staging plays with her best friend.

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Sharon Washington, photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

But Washington’s coming-of-age story plays out against the background of the civil rights movement, and she registers with acuity the social gymnastics she had to master as a minority scholarship student in a selective private school: “I perfected my code-switching skills on my own. Early, and fast.” Moreover, the adult Washington, looking back on the era, deftly illuminates aspects of her parents’ experience that her younger self had either been prevented from perceiving, or would have been unable to comprehend. So, for example, she recalls a road trip with her father to South Carolina when he had difficulty finding a gas station that would allow her to use the restroom. As a child she only understands that the toilet she has to use is disgustingly dirty, and she is puzzled by her dad’s haste to move on; it’s only in retrospect that she realizes her father was shielding her from the reality of the Jim Crow South.

The dragon of the title is both the coal-fired furnace in the library’s basement that her father must keep constantly stoked, and the alcoholism that shapes her childhood and rives her family. Like Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion, which played last season at City Theatre, Washington’s engrossing and moving play provokes rumination on how hard it is to know our parents, especially our fathers – and perhaps most of all for those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies.

Washington is a generous and engaging storyteller who slips in and out of the many characters she deploys in the service of her story with ease and conviction. Her performance is made even more spellbinding by the production elements incorporated under Maria Mileaf’s direction, in particular by Lindsay Jones’s sound design and Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting. Jones’s original music lifts the story into its fairy tale dimension with fantastical touches like strums of a harp at key moments of discovery, or a chorus of angels heralding young Sharon’s attempts to squeeze a diamond out of a piece of coal. Wrightson’s ingenious lighting design transforms the upstage wall of window panes as the mood and setting requires, using an array of colors to achieve such effects as the earth tones of a stained glass window, the cobalt of a midnight sky, and the deep red of the furnace’s fire. Wrightson also makes the bookshelves of Tony Ferrieri’s eloquent set glow, giving the entire space an ethereal luminescence befitting both the play’s fairy tale mood and the “king’s daughter” whose tale it is to tell.

“Night of the Living Dead N’At” at Bricolage Production Company

A horde of brainless villains have emerged out of nowhere, spreading fear and loathing as they savagely attack everything we hold dear in their quest to destroy Life As We Know It.

No, that’s not a description of the avid supporters of the candidate you’re voting against in ten days – accurate though that description may very well seem, no matter which side you’re on, judging from the internet comments sections I seem unable to tear myself from (Readers, do you have a remedy for this addiction, other than November 9?!?).

Rather, and almost as terrifyingly (!), it’s the premise for Carnegie Mellon alum George Romero’s 1968 classic horror film Night of the Living Dead (a film I may be one of the few people in Pittsburgh not to have ever seen (sorry, I’m not a horror film fan)). And that film, in turn, is the inspiration for Bricolage Production Company’s newest installation of Midnight Radio, a 1940s-stye live performance (and send-up) of radio drama.

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Adapted and directed by Tami Dixon, Night of the Living Dead N’At dubs live dialogue and sound effects onto scenes and stills from Romero’s film that are projected behind voice actors as they spoof the living, the undead, and the about-to-be-dead. Jason McCune, Sheila McKenna, Wali Jamal, and Sean Sears scurry from mic to mic as they create, for our “aural pleasure,” a multitude of characters, including an upper-class socialite (McKenna), a gruff sheriff (McCune), a squeaky-voiced lieutenant (Sears), and a take-charge man of action (Jamal). They also give life to the film’s mob of growling, snarling zombies, accompanied by a select group of patrons who are invited to join in the teeth-gnashing from a special “Zombie Porch.” In addition, the cast creates a dizzying array of sound effects with precision and flair, and a big part of the fun of Midnight Radio lies in seeing the inventive and low-tech ways Dixon and company create the illusion that you are hearing gunshots, fire, footsteps, wind…you name it, they can make it seem real.

Musical director Deana Muro and musical guests Cello Fury provide eerily suspenseful background music to the action, and Cello Fury also takes center stage during the interlude with their original brand of cello rock (if you’ve never heard this local trio of Simon Cummings, Ben Muñoz, and Nicole Myers, this is as good an opportunity as any to introduce yourself to their unique and exciting sound).

Thematically, Night of the Living Dead N’At offers a trenchant distillation of what many of us have been feeling during this crazy election year, playfully inviting us to project our “us” vs. “them” anxieties onto the film’s zombie apocalypse. It’s cathartic to see the world purged of existential threat in such an outrageously goofy way. But what’s truly soul-raising about both the Midnight Radio format and Bricolage’s overall approach to making theater is the way it counters that very divisiveness by building community out of strangers. I can think of no other theater, or theater experience, that can so consistently be counted on to make audience members feel like “part of the family,” that so easily and effortlessly breaks through the fourth wall and invites the audience “in,” and that so generously encourages us to join together in laughter and self recognition. That’s a truly welcome feeling in a Halloween season that feels so much scarier than usual.

“An Accident” at Off the Wall Productions (Carnegie Stage)

A moment of inattention – that’s all it has taken to catapult Libby (Amy Landis) and Anton (Ken Bolden) into the circumstances of Lydia Stryk’s 2010 play An Accident. Libby now lies paralyzed and comatose in a hospital bed; Anton keeps vigil, guilt-ridden and self-hating, by her side. When she finally wakes, the play traces the long, slow process of their mutual healing and reconciliation to the vagaries of existence.

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Ken Bolden and Amy Landis in AN ACCIDENT. Photo courtesy Off the Wall Productions.

There are a number of well-worn paths Stryk might have explored from this premise. For example, this could have been a play about characters finding spiritual solace or religious redemption; or a play about the legal wrangling that ensues over who is at fault for the accident; or a play about a woman waging an underdog fight against the corporate insurance industry. Instead, and thankfully, Stryk offers a more original exploration of the agony of recovery – both physical and psychological – from an unexpected and life-changing event. Based partly on her own experience recovering from a hit-and-run accident, Stryk’s play allows her to come to terms with her own emotional journey as well as stage a fictional confrontation with the person who hit her.

An Accident is a quiet and intense play, one that provokes discomfort more by dint of its focus on things we’d all rather not think too hard about (how awful would it be to suddenly have your life hijacked by an accident?) than by showy dramatic conflict. Landis makes Libby’s mental anguish and corporeal pain palpable, but she doesn’t indulge in a pity party – her dry and sardonic tone keeps the character appealing, and her emotional journey as she copes with what the accident has robbed her of rings genuine and authentic. Bolden’s Anton seems to suffer in some ways even more than Libby; his life, too, is irretrievably altered when he accidentally runs her over, and his sense of helplessness and despair at having been the source of such grievous harm is heartbreaking to witness and easy to commiserate with.

Director Linda Haston paces the eighty-minute play beautifully; while we don’t know for certain how much real time the action covers, it’s clear that the evolution of both Libby’s ability to function and Libby and Anton’s relationship are excruciatingly slow, painful, and rocky. The passage of time is indicated by the periodic arrival of a nurse (Hilary Caldwell), whose murmured ministrations seem aimed not only to give support to Libby, the character, but also to Landis, who must remain immobilized throughout a good portion of the action.

By play’s end, Libby is finally able to walk away, released from the suspension of time, and life, that her accident has precipitated; but it’s clear that neither she nor Anton will ever find full escape from what a split second of distraction has done to them both.

“The River” at Quantum Theatre

The central metaphor of Jez Butterworth’s The River is crystallized in a story told by its nameless male character (played by Andrew William Smith) about catching his very first sea trout at the age of seven. Narrating the story in the present tense, he describes hooking the fish – “my heart is beating in my cheeks, and my knees are thrumming like pneumatic drills” – reeling it in, picking it up and holding it in his hands, and then – suddenly, inexplicably, and without realizing what is happening – losing it. He is both devastated and thrilled: “I never, ever forgot that feeling.”

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Daina Michelle Griffith and Andrew William Smith, photo courtesy Quantum Theatre

It’s a feeling the man can’t describe in words, but he seems compelled to try to recapture it, and those attempts have shifted, in his adult life, from the realm of fishing to the realm of love. As the play opens, the man has brought his new girlfriend, played with humor and aplomb by the excellent Daina Michelle Griffith, to his isolated cabin by the river to share his passion for fly-fishing. He’s trying to reel her in, too, and throughout the first scene you can’t help but feel a tinge of menace in the air – perhaps it’s the setup (man alone with woman out in the deep dark woods), or the fact that he whips out an enormous hunting knife to get a splinter out of her finger?

But this play’s violence, if you can call it that, is of a much subtler sort. The first scene ends with the reading of a Ted Hughes poem – soliciting a grunt of disgust from the woman, for reasons left unexplained – and a blackout; in the next scene, the man is on the phone with the police, frantically reporting his girlfriend missing, when in she walks – except that the person who walks in the door is a different woman (played by Siovhan Christensen, in some of the best work I’ve seen her do). Is this a previous girlfriend, or one who came later? If this woman was an earlier catch, what happened to her? And if she’s a later conquest, what happened to Griffiths’ character?

The play’s ambiguous temporal structure heightens the vague sense of dread that gnaws at the edges of the action – similar moments of doubt, unease, and distrust crop up between the man and each of the women, and the pattern of repetition makes clear that the man’s need for the thrill of the chase has turned him into what most women would recognize as a charming but sociopathic liar and serial philanderer. He gives each woman his heart – both figuratively and literally – in the same moment telling each that she is the first and only to receive that gift, and directing her to the box under the bed where she will find the evidence that she is just one of many.

The play feels, mood-wise, more like it’s about a serial killer, a feeling underlined by the way Andrew William Smith’s very fine performance alternates between a solicitous sweetness and a creepy hyperintensity. That vaguely foreboding feeling is enhanced by K. Jenna Ferree’s atmospheric lighting design, which subtly shifts into an eerie gloam as the action proceeds.The off-kilter mystery of the play is also captured by Britton Mauk’s set, which appends a cozy and inviting rustic-modern cabin to the boathouse at the Aspinwall Riverfront Park. Glimpses of the Allegheny River can be seen through the cabin’s windows, while a water-filled channel in the floor of the set brings the river inside, creating an ever-present reminder of the central role the river played in the man’s psychic history. The mini-river also presents an awkward physical obstacle to the actors for much of the play, and although it is visually arresting, as a scenic metaphor it feels a little heavy-handed.

Director Adil Mansoor smartly resists the temptation to resolve the ambiguity of this play for his audience, trusting, for the most part, in the text (although towards the end of the play, he takes some interpretive license with his use of the mini-river that I felt put too much of a finger of sympathy for the man on the narrative scale). Overall, and to his credit, the production maintains a creepy edge of suspense that feels right for this play about a man angling, again and again, for what he’s lost before.

“Diary of a Madman” and “Poe’s Last Night” at the New Hazlett Theater

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What’s the difference between fantasy and madness?

That’s the larger question broached by the (perhaps serendipitous) pairing of one-man shows at the New Hazlett Theater, which explore the musings of Edgar Allen Poe in his last hours, on the one hand, and the ravings of the paranoid-schizophrenic subject of Gogol’s short story “Diary of a Madman,” on the other.

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David Crawford as Edgar Allen Poe.

The evening begins with David Crawford’s Poe’s Last Night, in which Crawford portrays the poet as he attempts to escape from three mysterious assailants on what appears to be his last night of existence. Are these three men real, or just figments of his imagination? Crawford never answers the question, preferring instead to remain in the same realm of mystery in which Poe often dwelled as a storyteller and poet. Crawford’s absorbing monologue interweaves stories from Poe’s autobiography with excerpts from his poetry and prose, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” and – the evening at its most chilling – “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Crawford’s embodiment of Poe is quietly compelling, and his interpretations of Poe’s works are spellbinding – his rendition of “The Raven” may be one of the most spine-tingling I’ve ever heard. He reels his audience slowly into the heart of Poe’s anguish, and offers thought-provoking insight into the personal conflicts and resentments that may have provided the fuel for Poe’s stories of revenge and dread.

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Jon Hayden as Poprishchin

With Diary of a Madman, the eighty-minute piece that follows, Jon Hayden presents an oddly fitting parable for our present day. Poprishchin, the “hero” of Gogol’s story, is a frustrated lowly civil servant whose resentment of the myriad ways the system is rigged against him drives him to madness; he first begins to imagine that he can hear dogs converse and eventually fantasizes that he is the unrecognized King of Spain. Gaseous whiffs of current-day Trumpkinism bubble up, not only in the functionary’s seething anger toward the status quo, but also in the now-too-familiar passive-voice rhetorical manner by way of which he conjures “fact” out of thin air: “it is said that in England a fish put its head out of water and said a word or two in such an extraordinary language that learned men have been puzzling over them for three years, and have not succeeded in interpreting them yet. I also read in the paper of two cows who entered a shop and asked for a pound of tea.”

Hayden presents his protagonist’s descent into madness with energy and (pardon the pun) commitment. His is the more fully produced of the two monologues, and while the set offers a useful grounding in the world of the play, upstage banners that display the diary in full are a choice that ought to be reconsidered. Although the text itself is too distant to be read, the dates and relative lengths of each diary entry are easily legible, and it’s hard to resist looking ahead and thinking about how much distance there is to the end, instead of remaining immersed in the present moment of the action. Director Prodan Dimov may well have made this choice deliberately, to provoke temporal dissonance in his viewers as a way of mirroring his subject’s psychological breakdown, but I fear the real effect produced by this scenic choice is more like impatience than insanity. Given the genius of Gogol’s text, that’s a regrettable effect.

“The Fantasticks” at Pittsburgh Public Theater

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In May of 1960, when The Fantasticks first opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson gave it a mixed review, calling it a “dainty masque” and noting that the “uncomplicated orchestrations are captivating and the acting is charming” but that the “story is slight” and the play’s second act fails to “sustain the delightful tone of the first.” His conclusion: “Perhaps The Fantasticks is by nature the sort of thing that loses magic the longer it endures.”

Atkinson was talking about the length of the play, of course, and not the length of the run. Nevertheless, in one sense he could not have been more wrong: The Fantasticks went on to have the longest run of any musical ever – it played continually at the Sullivan Street Playhouse for 42 years, until January of 2002, with regular updates to the cast that included many actors who have gone on to become household names (among them: Jerry Orbach, F. Murray Abraham, Kristin Chenoweth, and Liza Minelli). The play’s appeal to audiences seems to have continued to mystify critics, however. In 1980 Times critic Alvin Klein confessed that he was resistant to its charms and mused that the reason for the play’s endurance might be its “combination of artifice and intimacy; a pseudosophisticated style for very sentimental and simple tastes.”

Director Ted Pappas has fond memories of listening to this show as a young boy and finding it a “gateway to a magic world.” I, too, recall seeing this show as a teenager, in the late 1970s, at a dinner theater in Detroit; my acting teacher played El Gallo, and I remember being captivated and delighted by the metatheatricality of the play and the way the cast brought the story to life with minimal props and set. It seemed, at the time, fresh and exciting.

Pappas’s reboot of the musical is very fine, but whether or not you’ll find The Fantasticks magical and delightful may very well depend on how susceptible you are to a trip down memory lane. The show’s presentational, theatrical style feels very much of its era, and without the novelty of style that the original brought to the stage over a half century ago, the musical’s liteness becomes all the more evident. Nevertheless, for audience members who seek a bit of droll entertainment, The Fantasticks offers a lovely opportunity to indulge in some sweet nostalgia.

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Josh Powell as El Gallo. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater #ThePublicPGH

The musical presents a little fairy tale, loosely based on Edmond Rostand’s play Les Romanesques (and bearing similarities to both Romeo and Juliet and the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play of Midsummer Night’s Dream). Two young lovers are separated by a wall that they think their fathers have built to keep them apart; but in actuality the dads, deploying Dr. Spock-methods of reverse-psychology, are pretending to be enemies in order to encourage their children to “rebel” against them and fall in love. The plan has so far worked, and the fathers seal the deal by contracting with a shady character named El Gallo (Josh Powell) to arrange an opportunity for the boy to heroically and romantically rescue the girl from (a staged) abduction.

Act One ends on this happily-ever-after note; Act Two offers the cynical counterpoint to that romantic fantasy, showing the discontent and disillusionment that follow after two people precipitously fall in love. Now the lovers are sent on journeys that involve despair, desperation, and torture, only to finally reunite in the end – wiser, and more ready to take on the ups and downs of a relationship.

The Public’s production of the play is a solid one, with a cast that brings a bright and chipper energy to their performances. Daniel Krell and Gavan Pamer make a suitable pairing as the fathers, jovial and scheming without becoming overly cute. Josh Powell has a gorgeous baritone and a charismatic allure as the narrator/abductor, and Tony Bingham and Noble Shropshire suitably ham things up as the hired players who prod the lovers along on their journey to love and back again. As the two lovers, Mary Elizabeth Drake and Jamen Nanthakumar are sweetly winning, and Jason Shavers plays The Mute with dry irony. The cast is accompanied by a really excellent four-piece orchestra, comprised of Marissa Knaub Avon on harp, Justin Bendel on bass, and R. J. Heid on percussion, and led by Douglas Levine, who also plays the piano.

“Hand to God” at City Theatre

Robert Askins’ Hand to God ran for nearly a year on Broadway, and it’s easy to see why. Funny, irreverent, and downright raunchy, it delivers a riotous (and smugly satisfying) send up of flyover country and its pious hypocrisies.

The setting is a basement classroom in a church “somewhere in Texas where the country meets the city”; recently widowed Margery (Lisa Velten Smith) is running a puppetry workshop for a group of the congregation’s teens, which includes her son Jason (Nick LaMedica), his secret crush Jessica (Maggie Carr), and local troublemaker Timothy (Michael Greer). The puppets are intended to be used to create a show promoting Christian values, but Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, has taken on a life of its own, and starts diabolically expressing Jason’s deepest and darkest “id”-sprung thoughts and desires, wreaking havoc on Jason’s relationship to his mother and his community. Meanwhile, Margery is battling demons of her own: psychologically unmoored by the loss of her husband, she, too, gives in to the urgings of her id and violates social taboos, in ways that are both shocking and outrageously funny.

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L to R: Tim McGeever, Lisa Velten Smith, and Nick LaMedica. Photo by Justin Merriman.

Askins’ dialogue is sharp and cutting, and the interplay between Jason and his possessed hand is irresistibly funny. Nick LaMedica is a magician with the hand puppet, and the rapid-fire comedic interplay between Jason and Tyrone is sheer genius, not only on the level of dialogue, but also as physical comedy (Tyrone’s physicality – which relies on the manipulation of his arms by way of a couple of small sticks – gives a whole new meaning to the word “slapstick”). Carr is equally deft with a puppet, and the second act puppet coitus scene may well be the funniest bit of physical comedy I’ve seen all year (yes: puppet sex. Do you need another reason to see this show?).

Lisa Velten Smith pulls out the stops in her embodiment of Margery, a housewife with decades of bottled-up rage, frustration, and desire. A bit like Jason/Tyrone, she too finds herself possessed by demons in the course of the play, and at times her body takes over her mind to delicious comic effect – as, for example, in an unforgettable silent tantrum that sends her long limbs flying in all directions. Both mother and son reveal the psychological toll levied by social repression, especially repression of the religious variety.

Amusing as all these characters are, Askins doesn’t give us a lot of room to empathize with them; they seem more to be objects of our mockery than subjects we are invited to care about. The exception is Pastor Greg, who, as embodied by Tim McGeever, comes across as genuinely kind, honest, and moral; he’s a man who has flaws, for sure, but hypocrisy is not chief among them. Of the surprises this play offers, then, the most welcome may be that in Pastor Greg it generally eschews the stereotype of the janus-faced clergyman.

The play is extremely enjoyable, but overall the story feels unfocused and unresolved: what starts out as a gratifying condemnation of religious hypocrisy fizzles into an Oedipal drama in the end. As such, Hand to God is a little bit like having chocolate chip cookies for dinner – pleasurable, transgressive, and wickedly fun, but not a really fully satisfying meal.

“Enter the Imaginarium” from Bricolage Production Company & ScareHouse

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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.”

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“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.