As gaming and virtual reality become ever more ingrained into popular culture, it’s about time that some creative minds brought it into the world of theater. In the interactive escape drama Happy Hour, Spooky Action Theater and Goethe-Institut bring immersive, gamified action to Washington and ask audiences “What would happen if the game characters were real people?”
Happy Hour is an original creation of German theater collective machina eX, known for blending live theater with gaming principles to create highly interactive art. Immediately upon entering the basement theater, the audience is greeted with complimentary drinks by a friendly bartender before seating at communal tables. The audience learns from the mysterious host, played by Matthew Marcus, that they will compete to help their trapped avatar, seen and heard only through TV monitors and headphones. It’s jarring and a bit exhilarating to hold the fate of a real person in one’s hands, even if only in a theatrical context.
Our team quickly got to know our avatar, played by Robert Bowen Smith with wide eyed innocence and alarm. With every command issued through coded object and action cards, Smith would react with a combination of gamified obedience and real-world skepticism. Much like Neo in the “Matrix” film series, Smith seemed constantly torn between dutifully following a pre-set path and waking from his trance to realize the outside forces controlling his every move. It was fascinating to watch him wrestle with the morality and logic of each decision handed down by disembodied voices in some far off command center.
The collaboration with a team of strangers is key to Happy Hour’s excitement and allure. Our team started off hesitant, unsure of giving commands or suggesting novel solutions. Eventually, we bonded as we solved challenges and mastered the logic of each room puzzle. But as the challenge factor increased room by room and the clock ticked closer to zero, our freshly minted teamwork gave way to small power struggles and even arguments between close friends at the table. The wealth of highly educated people in the room seemed to heighten the tension, as everyone became convinced of their superior logic.
Despite a humble exterior, the game technology – managed by Gordon Nimmo Smith and Charles Cobb – is surprisingly sophisticated. Each action and object card is coded like a magnetic hotel key, with a game base linked to a computer program. Whenever we inserted two cards into the base and hit the ominous red button, a computer voice would instantly relay a command like “USE DOOR” to our actor avatar. When teamwork was at its best, this worked like a charm. But as the time ticked down and the other team started to pull ahead, we sent Smith into hilarious loops of needlessly dragging heavy objects, splashing water on the floor, and tugging on locked doorknobs.
Closes June 12, 2016
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If too many cooks spoil the soup, the same can be said of our team of aggressive problem solvers and our near-victory. As each of us tried to assert our plans over the escalating challenges, our dialogue broke down into good natured shouting and indiscriminately inserting cards and pushing buttons. With the end in sight, directors Yves Regenass and Gillian Drake threw a final, dangerous curveball that created a real “Prisoner’s Dilemma”. For a minute, our table felt like the Pentagon war room during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I won’t reveal the twist, but suffice it to say that we failed the final moral test badly.
Happy Hour may be the most elaborate theater production I’ve seen in a long time. Every element, from the game controls and video system, to the challenge rooms, to the naturalistic, responsive acting, works in concert to create the illusion of total power over the actors’ lives. The team dynamic pulls people out of their shells in unpredictable and entertaining ways. In the end, the play flips the normal dynamics of theater on their head, turning the characters’ journeys into referenda on the audience itself.
If this is the future of theater, it’s a bright one.
Happy Hour . By machina eX . Co-directors: Yves Regenass and Gillian Drake . Cast: Carolyn Kashner as Bartender; Matthew Marcus as Host; Robert Bowen Smith as Player B; Stephanie Tomiko as Player A . Scenic Designer: Kim Sammis . Technology Director and Lighting Designer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Costume Design: Lynn Sharp Spears . Sound Designer: Matias Prince . US Adaptation: Jan Philip Steimel & Lasse Marburg . Stage Manager: Becky Reed . Technical Director/Software Operator: Charles Cobb . Prop Designer: Becky Mezzanotte; Oliver Ann Hinson; and Elizabeth Long . Software Operator: Justin Herman . Audio/Visual Operator: Natalie Kinsaul . Deck Crew: Patrick Derrickson . Original Production: machina eX and Gessnerallee Zurich . Produced by Spooky Action Theater and Goethe-Institut Washington . Reviewed by Ben Demers.